Alien Lizards Ate My Princess

The Universe doesn’t make sense. Some things happen for no particular reason. Nobody’s in charge.

Call that my personal resolution of the basic philosophy of existence. People often assert that Life, or the Universe, or something else that takes their fancy “must be for a reason”. Or a Purpose. Or a Great Plan. And my response to that is “why must it?”

I take a biological point of view. Humans are social animals; and clever and successful ones. These two factors have driven (and been driven by) the evolution of two ways of understanding the world. In the latter case, we became successful by learning causality. Even very smart animals can’t understand cause and effect the way we do, but we are very adept at linking up patterns of how one thing can lead to another.

On the social front, we have what biologists call a “theory of mind”: we know that other people have thoughts, knowledge and desires but that they may be different from our own. Interestingly, humans under the age of about three or four seem to lack a theory of mind, and can’t solve problems that, say, involve knowing that someone else is mistaken about something.

But the average human grows up with these two very highly-tuned abilities: the skill to pick out patterns of cause and effect; and the ability to understand other beings’ intentionality. It’s the “highly-tuned” bit that can cause problems, because we can be led to see patterns that don’t really exist, or infer conscious purpose that isn’t there.

And therefore: God. An answer that works for every question that our primitive ancestors posed. “Why did the mudslide wash away our village?” God did it. (Cause and effect.) “Why?” Because we offended Him. (Intentionality.)

And my alternative answer “Because shit happens” is too unpalatable for many people to accept only because it grates against human instincts. I suppose it’s also not a very useful answer, until you reach my Zen-like serenity of not needing an answer to “why?”.

Some people have an even more highly-developed need for reasons, and they become subject to conspiracy theories. I find it a fascinating subject area, as an example of the pathology of thinking, and I’ve spent many a happy hour on the Internet, finding out some of the more peculiar things that people believe. It seems to me that the root of such beliefs is always the need for things to “make sense”. For example, the idea that Princess Diana died in a car accident because the drunken chauffeur was trying to outrun paparazzi is unsatisfying to some. It seems arbitrary and purposeless. Most of us can deal with that, but a few need a better story that “makes sense”.

In fact, when I think about it, is there really any fundamental difference between conspiracy theories and religions? They both provide frameworks of cause and effect and intentionality to explain the world. And “true believers” are adept at twisting logic, ignoring evidence and following confirmation bias. David Icke believes that two-metre, blood-drinking, shape-shifting reptilian humanoids are the force behind a worldwide conspiracy. The Archbishop of Canterbury thinks a deity speaks to him inside his head. Who’s crazier?

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