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Of Opiates and Imaginary Numbers
Religion may be what Marx claimed, but it's a lot of other things as well.
Don't underestimate the importance of "Whatever gets you through the day." Some days -- some seemingly interminable successions of days -- are pretty overwhelming for an animal with a lifespan of only a few decades and very little power over his or her environment.
If that animal also possesses what we define as "sentience," the unlucky creature not only knows he or she is going to die, but that there is absolutely nothing one can do about it.
We need a lot of emotional help, and religion is the most universally accepted answer. The fact that we make it all up is irrelevant.
In the mathematics of the calculus, one of the most important concepts is the square root of minus-one, designated as i. Mathematicians use this tool like chemists use a catalyst. They add it into the brew when they need it, then take it back out. It's part of the process, not of the product.
Now, by the rules of simple arithmetic, a minus number cannot have a square root, because a minus number cannot result from the squaring process. A squared number is a number multiplied by itself. The square root of 1 is 1 or minus-1. The reason you can get 1 from minus-1 times minus-1 is that any minus times minus gets you a plus; automatically. The square root of minus-one would have to be minus-1 times plus-1. But minus-one and plus-one are not the same number. They can't be factors of the same square.
So i is not only imaginary, it's a pretty sophisticated invention. It took several dozens of generations of mathematicians to perfect it, and Professors Liebnitz and Newton only adapted it to their invention of the Calculus (independently, no less!) because they were deadended from key theoretical progress without it.
A good deal of the tangible "real world" since their time would simply not have happened without this shadowy, paradoxical mathematical concept, flitting in and out of formulae for everything from highway bridges to rocket science.
Just because something isn't "real" doesn't mean its results aren't.
The big question then becomes, "Does religion still work if you know it's a shuck?"
Probably not. The well-known placebo effect in medicine depends on the patient believing he is actually being dosed with some effective medication.
Well, actually, it can result from the patient thinking he might be getting the right pill. It's a pretty strong effect, marshalling all the body's resources into an organized program dedicated to "getting better."
But if the patient was convinced the whole thing was a fake, key elements of his organism would not kick in and join the effort.
So religion's positive effects are probably denied the non-believer or the serious doubter. (I.E., The spectrum of agnostics. Atheists are true believers; they just believe in Something Else.)
But wait! There are more than two possibilities!
The spin-doctors for conventional religion try to convince you that it's an all-or-nothing proposition. Either you believe, or you don't.
It's the old "last day of the Special" sales pitch. If you don't buy into this now, during this lifetime, you'll spend Eternity in Hell.
Back away a bit and look at it. "Either/or" is a linguistic concept; a two-dimensional one. The universe has at least four dimensions that we can readily see and in which we operate daily.
We can't control time/change, and we couldn't even elect to stay in the same three-dimensional place, if we wished to.
We are all passengers on an impossibly convoluted timeline careening through the Universe. We are un-retraceable miles from where we were a few moments ago, propelled by inexorable spins and orbits, only a few of which we are even aware of.
From the perspective of a theoretical fixed point, our path - if it could be plotted - would probably look something like a large plate of spaghetti flung across the room; stretching from birth to death.
There's not a hell of a lot of "either/or" in that.
A religion you think is fake won't help you, but how about one you know is a construct?
That is, if you are aware that metaphysics is all in your head, are you totally precluded from using your own brand of metaphysics to deal with the world?
Think about it.
Mathematicians - rational aesthetes, all; they talk about the beauty of concepts and the elegance of solutions - are perfectly aware that i does not exist. Yet it is a fundamental part of what they do.
They are no more bothered by this than they are troubled by the knowledge that the (somewhat more ancient) concept of zero is equally paradoxical.
We all grew up with zero. It's been around for two or three thousand years. We use it every day. We take it for granted. But it simply doesn't exist!
Nothing?! Nothing is nothing! Nothing is nothing!
It ain't there. It ain't here, either. It ain't anywhere.
It didn't suddenly become something just because somebody invented a symbol for it. But it would be pretty hard to run the modern world without it.
Let's take the mind-bending a step further. 1, 2, 3, .... and so on; they really don't exist either. They are not as radical concepts as zero and i, because they can represent tangible objects or easily graspable ideas. They aren't fully paradoxical.
But they have no reality except as transitory electrochemical impulses in our individual central nervous systems.
On the other hand, since for each of us the entire universe is constructed of those fleeting impulses, they have at least as much reality as a wrench or a book or a computer terminal.
Tools; to get things done.
Like Rational Religion.