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This is a central tenet of the Rational Religion. It does not refer to a belief in god or any other metaphysical entity with human-like intelligence and/or purpose.
It means only that most of our points of contact with our environment, other than those which are strictly physical (breathing, keeping our balance while walking; avoiding high falls and sudden fatal decelerations at the bottom; eating lunch, etc.) are all more or less "imaginary."
Our atoms and molecules must interact with an external physical universe, critical parts of which we take inside of our physical bodies in order simply to stay alive.
Our concepts - our mental pictures - of where we are and what we are doing here are all the result of the interaction of our central nervous system with the readout of our sense organs, arbitrated by our endocrine system and our general state of health. That is only "real" as it happens to coincide with the state of our constituent atoms in relation to the rest of the environment.
Given this "Metaphysical Interface," frequent reality checks are in order, to make sure our personal readouts have not strayed too far from objective actuality.
However, in the construction of Self, we have to start, somewhere.
The establishment of a First Premise is not extraordinarily difficult: all it takes is some elemental logic and a little imagination. The plethora of First Premises in the lore and literature of the world's metaphysical belief systems testifies to that.
A good First Premise is a little harder to come by, since it implies a concept which cannot easily be revealed to be untrue; or perhaps just more elementary than elemental.
Unfortunately even the best First Premises will be revealed - upon deeper introspection - to be supported largely by circular logic.
"In the beginning, God..."
Well, that's pretty elemental. It's also pretty huge. In most interpretations, that sentence fragment means that an all-powerful creative intelligence existed before anything else did.
Among several things wrong with that idea is the problem we have explaining what this creator was made of, what she/he used as the raw materials of the Universe, the engineering techniques involved, and why he/she/it bothered.
I know. Any Believer over the age of 10 can answer those questions without breaking a theological sweat. This is not the first time they have come up and a lot of extremely bright people have been working on the answers for millennia.
"I know that God, as I conceive of God, exists because the Universe could not possibly have been created by any entity except the God I conceive of."
This is called, "thinking within the box."
A non-believer, stationed outside the box, can easily identify the statement as elliptical and self-defining. It may indeed be "true," but it is demonstrably so ONLY for the person making the statement.
Nevertheless, that person can proceed to construct from it a rich and elaborate belief system which will satisfy all his spiritual and temporal needs; or, more likely, to accept and believe in a system which has already been mapped out for him.
Renee Descartes, with a couple of millennia of heavy-duty philosophy to draw upon, was a good deal more modest in developing his first premise.
"I think, therefore I exist."
He started by realizing that he couldn't prove anything to anybody but himself; and all he could prove to himself was that, by the process of using his conscious cognitive equipment, he indeed had conscious cognitive equipment. (If he did not, you see, he wouldn't be thinking, at all.)
Now this is just about as circular as the previous statement about the existence of God, but it does have that nice little added validation at the end.
All one has to do to shoot down the first statement ("I know that God...etc.") is to say, "That's ridiculous!" And mean it.
Although from the viewpoint of the Believer, "That's ridiculous!" doesn't even deserve consideration, from the viewpoint of the speaker it exempts the speaker from having to deal intellectually with either the Believer or the belief, henceforth, forever.
One can't get rid of Descartes quite that easily. By personalizing his best proof of his existence, he places an implied and identical burden upon anyone who follows his intellectual lead only far enough to understand his assertion. You can't say Descartes is ridiculous, you see, without evaluating his statement and formulating a response.
Voila! You're thinking, and you exist, too!
Of course, Descartes then went on to construct a whole conceptual universe based upon that hard-to-deny first premise; and thereby hangs another burden of proof.
Which leads us to the second difficulty of First Premises; after we have come up with one which does not seem reducible to absurdity, how can we reason from it to the existence of the rest of our Universe?
It ain't easy, even for Descartes. And it inevitably involves a lot of leaps of faith.
The task is to keep them in as logical order as possible, so they follow, sensibly.
If the Rational Religionist begins with the proposition that the human race exists, that means we have to ignore or simply take on faith all the elements and history of the Universe which are outside of that "fact."
We can do this by specifying that, except for those Universal Principles which are directly involved in the race's existence - and therefore self-evident as existing, also - all the rest of it is irrelevant.
We don't have to deal with an entire cosmology, you see, whether it includes a creative intelligence or a BIG BANG or even a gradual process of self-organization from an original chaos (because maybe structure represents some iron First Law which doesn't need a Cause).
Like Descartes, we can begin with a much smaller and more manageable concept which seems to be manifest.
There is presently a human race, together with a host of near and distant kin, all of whom can be demonstrated to be quite closely "related." There is a lot of evidence that this life of which we are a part has been around for some time; and since a part of life, for every living thing, seems to be the inevitability of the end of its individual existence, it - and beginning at some more recent point, we - seem to have been reproducing all that while.
The mechanisms and techniques of reproduction are within the past hundred years or so understood down to the molecular level. We humans are the product of about 30,000 (at last count) replicating molecules of deoxyribonucleic acid.
Therefore we are a gene pool.
We can then begin to puzzle out the implications of that, including the responsibilities it places upon each of us as members of the pool.
Up to now we are on pretty solid logical and experimental ground.
But when I imply that responsible behavior toward our gene pool includes moral and ethical behavior towards other members of the pool I have made a huge conceptual leap of faith which I can support with nothing but analogy and anecdotal reference.
After all, if the race has evolved over these many millennia into the rather ignorant, careless, selfish, vindictive and casually destructive creature that we are...where is the first bit of evidence that morality and ethics have anything but negative survival value?
While you and I are being moral and ethical, all those other guys are hustling on by us, intent on getting ahead of us in the competition for all the Good Stuff.
Well, and admittedly anecdotally, all the human beings we know about from history and archaeology and personal observation, seem inclined to organize themselves into groups. Whether the groups arise "naturally" from a reproductive family unit, from less obvious affinities such as friendship, or from a common need for food, shelter and protection from other creatures (human and non-human), we are a species which forms societies.
This does not follow inevitably from the fact that we are a gene pool. Many gene pools in the web of life, some of them among our closer relatives, are not social creatures at all. Orangutans seem only to associate with one another when it is unavoidable; for the process of creating and raising offspring to the age of independence, with the male contribution to the cause ceasing after conception.
Except for mothers with young children, Orangs seem to exist best by themselves, spaced rather widely in their natal jungles; a fact which in a modern context of exploitive lumbering and unrestrained human land use does not bode well for their continued survival. (Science is always evolving. Early in 2004 it now appears that Orangutans are not quite as solitary as previous studies would indicate. Although they do space themselves widely in their habitat, and do not seem to interact much, still they maintain enough “culture” that related “groups” seem to do many things differently from other “groups.” That means that they are probably paying much greater attention to their parents and offspring than they appear to --- and much as chimpanzees and humans do. They just avoid most of the frantic group dynamics that the rest of us apes are beset with.)
Even among human beings there are individuals who do not seem to need, or desire much from others of our kind. Except as they occasionally indulge in their reproductive imperative, and Orang-like withdraw into their solitude leaving somebody else to look after their offspring, they often don't have much effect on the gene pool at all. But still they are part of it, and whether they accept it or not, bear some responsibility towards it, especially if they do deign to reproduce.
In any case, whether we participate in society or not, it is incumbent upon us as members of a society-dwelling gene pool, if we do not actively promote the welfare of the gene pool, at least not to impede it.
This means that our behavior should be "socially responsible."
Now, thankfully, this is legitimately open to wide interpretation. "Thankfully," because there are always a lot of people in any society who think it is their business to define "social responsibility" for everybody. It never occurs to these innate meddlers and busybodies that part of their social responsibility could conceivably be to mind their own goddam business.
But there are guidelines which all of us should be aware of and, absent the interference of the "responsibility police," should undertake to meet, or live up to.
We call these social responsibilities "ethics," and the rules for implementing them, "morals," or "manners." And although they are a lot of work, and not just necessarily convenient or even pleasant for us to discharge, individually, they do tend to contribute to at least short-term species survival.
These actions may be as dramatic and profound as dying in a war in defense of one's homeland or as mundane and inconsequential as being polite to a salesperson to avoid making her day a little less depressing, regardless of how she seems inclined to treat you.