Was just reading an article on a recent neuroscience study of religious people. Mormons. They measured brain activity, during religious behaviors. What they found that it lit up the reward center, much like being in love or popping oxycodones. Something about ventral striatums and caudate nuclei.
As it got me thinking about the role of reward processing in belief, I eventually got around to thinking, well yeah. Duh. Of course it's rewarding. It makes people "happy." Why else would they believe such nonsense? It's highly motivated reasoning. The larger question for me, is why it doesn't work on everyone. It's easy to dismantle religious belief, when it does nothing for us, anyhow. Some may be in between, where they see the appeal, but not so much that they lose all capacity for reason. A spectrum, I'm sure, but somewhere in there, a variable that generally pulls people in one of two opposing directions.
For me, well, I tried. Judaism, Buddhism, Jainism, Taosim, from Dzogchen to Kabbalah.. I just couldn't get into any of it. Some good ideas, some terrible ideas, lots of brilliantly creative art and music - but on an emotional level, attempting to practice any of it? Totally fucking pointless.
Why do we do anything? It's simple cause and effect. The reward system is how evolution goads us into surviving in a reality that is, otherwise, totally fucking pointless. That's not a judgment, but a fact, hard to face as it may be, when you've got the reward centers of your brain lighting up for all sorts of reasons, telling you otherwise. In complex and indirect ways reward processing could play a fundamental role in manufacturing any sense of purpose we have in life, and the patterns we develop to make something of it.
Asking what's the point of it all might seem little more than a cliche of depression, on it's face, a senseless question. I could name all sorts of things of nearly indisputable value, much of which depends on humans giving a damn. Yet, that's not the point.
It really describes a feeling. Another thing neuroscientists have discovered is that a whole lot of the time, people take action - and then - formulate a rationale for it. We naturally underestimate the significance of what's going on beneath the surface, how we feel often being our most substantial clue. We might say get over it, shrug it off, do what you need to do - but, by then, it's too late. We're doing or we're not doing, and the mind is just babbling about it, after the fact.
Understanding the self doesn't have a purpose, other than more broadly wanting to understand our situation. It's another fundamental of the human experience, I think, to want to understand what we're dealing with, so as to best survive it.
From everything I've read, it seems maybe my understanding of the reward system is a little different. I think it may play a much more substantial role in our lives than widely believed. It could be what makes depression so crippling, and religion so inspiring. Or it could be a developmental outcome of depression, particularly during childhood. The system only comes together if a child learns that life is worth living.