Those of Faith and the Faithless: How We Make DecisionsTwo events happened recently that made me more aware of the importance of considering how we make decisions. Notice that I did not say “make decisions,” but rather “considering how we make decisions.” In formal life, we might use logic and decision theory to make business and living decisions. But for things that are of critical importance to us, we often deliberately reject logic.

One of the two critical events that prompted this piece is the death of my brother early this morning. That is not as sad as you might think. He had advanced MS and had been failing for some time. He knew it was time to go, and he was in a comfortable situation surrounded by family and loved ones. Any death close to you catches your attention. His wife wrote that he had been “peacefully reunited with the loved ones who preceded him.” Such a simple sentence, yet it encapsulated a whole philosophy and religious belief.

The other event was a two-hour special by Barbara Walters on Heaven. My wife had taped it and, totally by coincidence, we watched it on the night when my brother was slipping away. For two hours the show explored not just the concept of Heaven and how it has changed over the years, but the underlying assumptions about physical brains and souls. The topics ranged from Buddhism to the Judeo-Christian beliefs. She interviewed a jailed Islamic terrorist and compared his views with those of more orthodox beliefs. Atheists were also well-represented.

The show was extremely well-produced, but left me asking a lot of questions. These were not about the validity of a supernatural Heaven and Hell or even reincarnation. What I did question is how do people decide what to believe in the absence of rock-solid physical evidence? Do we have evidence of the separate existence of a soul independent of the 172 pounds of meat and bones that constitutes my physical self? People who have been clinically dead and revived give surprisingly consistent reports of their experiences that seem to be consistent with transition to a heavenly existence and then returning. Not so fast, the researchers say; normal oxygen starvation consistent with a brain shutting down can be shown to produce the same perceived phenomena. It is purely physical.

“But I believe,” some say, “because I know it is true.” Not so fast, the researchers say; we have identified and isolated part of the DNA which controls a feeling of spirituality. It is a physical thing, and has nothing to do with supernatural beings. Besides, when you think about how the human race evolved (No questions about evolution, please), selection for a gene that predisposes following a group mentality has obvious benefits.

The fact is that most of us make decisions about our place in the universe that are not based on hard logic. Even extreme secular humanists who try to accept only the things shown by scientific inquiry often have feelings akin to those of devout followers of organized religion.

As long as the decisions people make are consistent with relatively harmonious relations with the community at large, we tend to make allowances. Christians, Jews, Moslems, atheists, Hindus, and many other groups can, and do, live in relative harmony in spite of radically different beliefs based on teachings that are mutually contradictory. In fact, some belief systems can easily be shown to be self-contradictory, but intelligent people follow them.

So I am back to the original question: How do we make decisions?

My sister-in-law has no doubt whatsoever that souls exist and that our personality will survive earthly death. Like many modern people, I think she tends to equate Hell with torment of the living, not the dead. We make our own Hell on Earth. This is totally different from the concept most Christians had even a generation ago, and one does not have to look far today to find a “Hell and Brimstone” preacher who believes in a literal place of damnation where souls are perpetually tormented. My brother agreed with her in life. We do not know if he still does.

So why do some of us decide to lead our lives in accordance with religious assumptions? My own separation from a strict Protestant Mid-western Christianity came as a child when we studied the New Testament in Bible school and we came to Doubting Thomas. I decided he was a hero — a proto-scientific observer — and could not fathom why anyone would expect humans to put aside questioning, which is our greatest gift. My opinion was not valued in Bible school. The “Leap of Faith” was not for me. Do I not have the right genes?

This series is about decision making, and often we discuss artificial situations that have analogies in real life. The classic Prisoner’s Dilemma is a typical one. But maybe for fear of alienating readers, I tend to avoid the serious decisions we all make involving how to lead our lives in a meaningful way. This includes such things as where did we come from and where will we go.

Last year we had lunch with a couple of friends. The wife had been very sick and was clinically dead for some time, but had been revived and eventually recovered. By the time of our lunch, her situation had worsened again. She did not have long to live and knew it. She looked across the table and asked, “Where was I when I was dead?” That is a serious question. No jokes or levity, please. Recognizing my responsibility, I looked her in the eye and said she was in the same place where she had been when Caesar and Cleopatra walked the Earth. She looked at me for a long time and nodded, not in agreement, but in agreement that we cannot know in advance. We have to make the transition. Perhaps at this moment she is laughing about it with my brother. That would be nice.