On heart failure and the perception of God

What we are pleased to call illusion may be for the psyche an extremely important life-factor, something as indispensable as oxygen for the body—a psychic actuality of overwhelming significance.

Carl G. Jung, Practice of Psychotherapy

Heart failure is the final consequence of heart disease. It basically represents the inability of the heart to contract or to relax efficiently, in order to pump blood around the body. Heart failure is not a disease, it is a syndrome. Like every syndrome, heart failure is defined by signs and symptoms. These symptoms, especially in the case of heart failure caused by defects in relaxation of the cardiac muscle, are not always related to each other or to the same illness. Some of them don’t even have their origin in the heart. They just happen to occur at the same time in the same individual. One symptom may be related to hypertension, another to diabetes or to sleep apnoea. But when they present themselves together, clinicians diagnose the collective symptoms as heart failure.

Like a constellation. When we look at the sky at night, we see stars that appear to be together and form some kind of shape (with a generous amount of imagination). The stars are not necessarily close to each another in space, they just appear so from our point of view. Some people believe that being born under the auspices of a particular constellation determines the individual’s fate and personality.

The definition of heart failure always seemed to me vague and inaccurate, until I understood that heart failure is a medical reality and, above all, it is a treatable reality precisely based on those symptoms, even if the aetiology is unclear. This made me think of the perception of God. There is no empirical evidence of the existence of God, meaning that one can not do an experiment to demonstrate Its existence. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, of course, and so we can not prove or disprove the existence of God using our senses or logic. Among scientists it is common to hear that someone does not believe in God because there is no physical (empirical) proof of Its existence. For some reason, scientists find it less difficult to believe in extra-terrestrial life, which has also never been proven (or disproven). They can accept that something exists which they don’t yet know, but they would not accept the possibility of God (any god). To me, atheism is just another religion, based on beliefs and faith like every other religion, not on empirical facts. If we were to choose a belief based only on what we can perceive with our senses or understand with our rational minds, if we were to limit ourselves in such a way, then the only reasonable option would be agnosticism. A sort of “I don’t know, maybe there is maybe there isn’t”. Most honest. Or, like a wise and not so old friend of mine once told me, “I choose not to believe”. I find that honest too. He has no empirical evidence one way or another and so he makes a choice.

When I was thinking about heart failure as a medical reality, it occurred to me that God should be accepted, at the very least, as a psychological reality. A reality that has an effect on millions of human beings. Not only on those who believe in God’s existence, but also on some of those who negate it. How could we deny the existence of a reality that has an effect on an individual? Please understand that it is not my intention here to argue in favour or against the existence of God as an absolute truth, the point I’m trying to make is that, at the very minimum, God exists as a psychological reality.

One of the main contributions of Carl Jung to psychology, and to philosophy (to me both are indivisible, since one conditions the other), is the collective unconscious and its archetypes. Regardless of what God means for each of us, we are all born with an archetypical idea of what a god is. It’s not a concise idea, it is almost an intuitive concept. We may believe in the existence of a god or not (and for the record I do believe in the existence of a god), but we all have a general understanding of what a god is. The archetype of God is real, regardless of whether we then believe in God or not. And beyond that, for all individuals who believe in the existence of God, and for some who do not, the idea of God, of the existence of God, has a tangible effect on their behaviour, on their lives and, by extension, on the world that surrounds them. Even from a purely pragmatic point of view, how could we deny the existence of a reality that produces a specific, almost measurable, effect?

Far from my intention to start an argument about the existence of God and please forgive me if I insulted anybody with my approach to such a sensitive matter. The point I’m trying to make is that God does exist, at the very minimum as a psychological reality. Each of us has then to decide or rather find what truth we believe in. We all follow our own unique path, make our own choices, but the archetype of God is psychologically imprinted in all of us from the start.

The other day I was thinking that if I admit a psychological reality as real, any psychological reality, then I would have to revisit my beliefs about the zodiac. If someone is born under the influence of, say, Gemini, one would show this and that trait in their personality. Personally, I find this hard to believe. But… if someone truly believes that the zodiac sign does have an influence on their personality and reads about it and starts finding specific traits in themselves that confirm what they read (while disregarding other traits that do not confirm it), if this attitude reinforces their behaviour in that direction… could we not argue that the zodiac sign under which they were born has, in the end, shaped their personality? The fact that they believed in it, has it not had a specific effect on their lives, on their behaviour?

Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?

J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

I’m not trying to compare the existence of God to the influence of the zodiac signs, one can never be too careful, what I’m trying to argue is that psychological realities have effects on our conscious lives and are as real as heart failure. I guess it would be much easier to limit our definition of reality to that confined to the outer world. Everything we can perceive with our senses or conclude with our rational minds is “real” and everything else is unreal, fantasy, an illusion. This is the world we live in, the world of extreme rationalism, of one-sidedness, which has turn reason into yet another religion. This dichotomic view is simple, easy to understand, comfortable. Everything in the outer world is real, everything in the inner world isn’t. Right. But of course, reality won’t wash away just because we deny it. And as we introverts know only too well, the inner world is as real as the outer world, if not more. We can lock it up, down there in the basement and never look at it again. But it won’t disappear. It will wait and wait and wait… until it doesn’t. If we don’t attend it, it will come back one day, claiming the space that belongs to it by nature. Inner life is an inherent part of the human being. It can not be neglected. It can not be denied. It will not let us forget it. It is very real. We may delude ourselves thinking that we have “killed God”, but we can’t. We can make robots who don’t believe in God, who are not programmed to have an inner life. But we can’t make it disappear in us. It is an essential part of ourselves. We might as well stop, turn inside and have a long look at our inner selves.

I was thinking yesterday that if you say something that sounds crazy, illogical, people will try to defend from you, as you become a potential threat to the rule of Reason. That is… unless you sing it. If you sing something illogical, even crazy, you’re an artist.