Archive for November, 2009

Hard and Soft Serve

Posted in Faith and Science on November 29, 2009 by RWZero

“Why do Legitimate Academics get Sucked into these Debates?”

I must admit my terrible bias against the soft sciences. I find the experiments, and the conclusions that follow from them, alarmingly insufficient at times. I have often felt that for every piece of hard evidence produced by the soft sciences, there are one thousand unfounded opinions.

My biases could be cured, perhaps, if people would stop conflating the hard sciences and the soft sciences. Soft science does not produce the same kind of truth that hard science does. It is hard science that is intended to establish facts—statements of truth that can be verified by replicable experiments. Hard science does not provide philosophical interpretations of these truths. Hard science does not “say” anything, even though the scientists are in the habit of saying a great many things. While I find this troubling, it does not trouble me nearly as much as the converse.

The soft sciences do, in fact, “say” things. If they were not permitted to say anything, they would not exist. The things that these soft sciences say, however, are rarely the same type of things that hard science discovers. On this point, I have no reservations about my bias: purveyors of soft science who speak of their conclusions as “science,” in the hard sense of the word, have equals only in conniving politicians. Their conclusions are not facts, they are opinions about facts, which themselves are not nearly so interesting (and not always derived from hard science).

Small leaps must be made in order for us to make conclusions at all, and I grant that we must always, to some extent, interpret the facts. What I cannot personally grant, however, is the license to cross chasms under false pretenses.

Carl Sagan reportedly said “An atheist has to know a lot more than I know.” It would appear that a great many people know a great deal more than him—remarkably, they have accomplished this while utterly bypassing the body of knowledge that he was familiar with.

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Symmetry

Posted in Evangelism, Faith Experience on November 22, 2009 by RWZero

If We Were Just Two People

It is astounding to think that our fellow humans think, feel, hope, dream, pine and suffer. It is not something we can easily internalize, however familiar we are with it—in my own experience, only I do these things.

We spend a great deal of time trying to differentiate ourselves from one another. In many ways, we cannot help but perceive ourselves as unique. The opinions we hold on the subjects of purpose, meaning, life and death are no exception to this rule, and they divide us in ways that few others can. Yet even in a room where people have come together precisely because of their beliefs on these matters, the revelation often strikes me—that all of us are essentially the same.

A few words are often enough. I have to go. My stomach hurts. We can talk about our differences all day, but at the curtain call, this charade will stop because I need to sleep now.

The knowledge that other people are truly alive is the window to compassion. It is the foundation of the golden rule. For all the attention this concept gets from religion, however, not all aspects of it are easily reconciled. To those who cannot fathom it, I am unable to describe the method by which one believes in a God who treats some of us differently than others. I do not know how I sustain the behaviours that distinguish me from others, if I am so much like them. How can I go on believing that actions or beliefs have the power to make me any more, or less, like everyone else? How can I imagine that, in the content of my actions, I might raise myself above a single living person? An obvious answer has not occurred to me, save for one possibility: that the only differences that mean anything are the ones that emerge from inherently similar sources.

It means something for me to act differently than you, because I know that you, being so similar to me, have the potential to act as I do. Differences borne out of inherent dissimilarity are attributed the alien nature of the foreign thing. Differences between you and me are within the realm of what we are permitted to discuss. They are fair game.

I have often felt cognitive dissonance when spending time with people who I fancy myself different from in my principles or my actions. But I should not feel this way, because I should never have expected anything else. Our common humanity does not render our disparate interpretations of the truth meaningless—in fact, the former is the only thing that gives value to the latter.

One day, sitting at a table where religion had more than once been the topic of conversation, I had a gem of truth said to me: “If we were just two people talking about this, it would be different.” Presumably, it would be different than this feeling—as if an envoy from one species were conducting a diplomatic meeting with that of another. I opened my mouth to say “we are,” but the words just never came out.

These are not my ideas; these are not my deeds. It is not I who will be right; it is not you who will be wrong. These are the great and immovable things of the world, and I run my fingers along them like an awestruck child in the finest museum.

The Thorns on the Stem of Universalism

Posted in The Facts and Ideas on November 15, 2009 by RWZero

Temptations of the Heart and Soul

People give up on hell long before they give up on heaven, and they give up on almost everything before they give up on happiness in the afterlife. Somehow, our life experience inclines us to believe that the mind survives the death of the body. This same life experience, however, inclines us to believe that our loved ones don’t suffer after death. As such, there is a widespread pop spirituality that professes belief in love, happiness, and the promise of all these things eternally.

I have been unable to accept the possibility of a benign spiritual realm in which all people experience eternal happiness. I have been unable to accept the Oprah Winfrey Interpretation—I would sooner be an atheist. But for a number of reasons, I have found that I cannot be an atheist.

My reasoning is quite simple. If only good things can happen to human beings after death, why are bad things happening to human beings now? Perhaps more importantly, why are most of these bad things being done by other human beings? When observing this, I conclude one of two things: either there is a God who permits certain humans to suffer while others do not, or there is no God. In the former case, one might imagine that this God might even things out. The one thing I do not conclude is that there is a God who will take every last one of us to a comfortable bed and breakfast after death.

If God has only benign things in store for everyone, he is not the God we read about in most religious traditions. Who is this God? Where did you find out about him? What’s the point? While Christianity leaves many unanswered questions, it nonetheless makes itself clear. If believing Christianity is wishful thinking, pop spirituality is unbridled fantasy by comparison.

There are near-death experiences that serve as evidence for new age spirituality, and if anything, they increase my suspicion. Jesus often makes an appearance, but he’s nothing like the Jesus we read about. If he’s divine, you figure he could have made sure at least one copy of the real story was preserved. Furthermore, spiritual creatures in these experiences often tell their listeners that they should follow whatever religion brings them closer to God. Fancy that—it’s as if these religions didn’t have any differences whatsoever, or have very different conceptions of the truth. It’s as if the powers that be, who can speak to us through vivid near death experiences, would not tell anyone what’s going on, but rather prefer us to believe any one of a number of false religions. If I had a near-death experience and spoke with spiritual beings, I would choose a belief system that actually accounted for what happened to me.

Believing in an ambiguous spiritual realm in which everyone is taken to paradise, and in which the purpose of everything is honey and butterflies, is undoubtedly the easiest thing to do—unless you start to think about it, in which case it is the hardest thing to do. It isn’t that I would be terribly upset if this were true. It sounds very nice, and I’d eventually accept that I was wrong about everything. Dare I say, I’d almost like to believe it.

But I just can’t.

Natural Community

Posted in Evangelism, Faith Experience on November 8, 2009 by RWZero

Puzzle Pieces as they Fit

We all share human needs. If I may be so bold, our greatest needs are not physical, but precisely, inescapably that—human.

Within the church, much is made of man’s spiritual needs. Yet everything that we consider spiritual is expressed through human interaction, and nothing else affects us so viscerally. The joy offered by lifeless objects can never exceed the joy experienced with, or through, others. The threat of pain from nature can never exceed the threat of pain from others.

My interactions with people from all walks of life—however wide or narrow one may judge them to be—have led me to a conclusion that I can only express as a personal experience. My conclusion is that there are few places on earth more conducive to the formation of friendship, community and real human relationship, than the church.

If I had not been raised in the church, I would have never imagined what goes on inside. Indeed, a great deal of what goes on in Sunday morning church is unrelated to what’s really going on (although that’s another story in its own right). To all appearances, people file in and out of dusty buildings on a Sunday, and then they go home and live like everyone else. I couldn’t have suspected that the types of relationships that come out of those buildings—some of them—are unlike any I have ever seen in my life.

I’ve never felt the need to collect all the anecdotes and write them down in one place. They’re in my journal, they’re in my memories, and they’re in the memories of those who were there. The church brings people together who would otherwise never have been in the same place, at the same time. It transcends barriers of age, race, and personality that few other milieus can even attempt to overcome. Together, these people end up playing basketball, singing (in many cases, learning to sing), making side-splitting jokes, and causing a whole lot of unconventional scenes in unconventional places, confusing innocent bystanders so thoroughly that they would never guess the truth.

The so-called memetic critique of Christianity tells us not to be surprised that it is widespread. Such a religion is likely to reproduce copies of itself, since it contains instructions to pass itself on, and it offers things that people have trouble finding in other places. But I don’t have a problem with this, because it’s barely a critique at all. Why should we characterize the natural community of the church as ulterior motivation for religious belief? If the church offered cash incentives to newcomers, that would be one thing. But natural community is hopelessly intertwined with the beliefs of the church—if we find it there, it is not simply an explanation of why people “actually” go to church, as if it were guaranteed to arise in any crowd of people believing any number of things! No, it is evidence (at least some of the time) that what they believe is working.

Good ideas are widespread because they’re good ideas, and equally likely to survive in the minds of those who hear them. The real critique lies in the implication that, in the case of Christianity, the reasons for its prevalence are completely unrelated to the reasons people are expected to believe it. This may be true—but then again, maybe it’s precisely the type of evidence that some people are looking for.

The public does not generally perceive the Christian church in the way that I describe it. However, public perceptions are the product of a relatively narrow collection of sound bytes and newspaper clippings. I’ve found few traces of the fabled church that the public believes in. While the façade may be there, some prodding with a sounding pole reveals that the people within are not governed by these appearances. Some of the church’s problems are very real, and I wouldn’t dream of denying that. But those problems—the alleged intolerance, hypocrisy, and so forth—are more like subplots and overtones. They do exist, but (ironically) primarily in the form of memes, rather than in the form of people. The effect is generated on a macroscopic scale because of the accumulating contributions from individual people, none of whom are aware of the true effect that they are producing. All this is beside the point, however. What matters is that in at least some of these places, amazing things happen. People belong, in ways that they would never have otherwise belonged.

Observers go sour when something works that they feel ought not to work. As a result, religion has often been called a crutch for the weak-minded. Such insight! Could they fail to see that medication is a crutch for the weak-bodied, cars are crutches for the weak-legged, and love letters are a crutch for the weak-hearted? I have never seen a broken man walk without his crutches in order that he might better heal.

When the cold analysis is over, it remains that even if I renounced everything I ever believed, I wouldn’t want to leave the church. They wouldn’t kick me out, and unlike a cult, they wouldn’t make me stay. And that plays a small part in what I believe in the first place.

Why I Believe in God

Posted in Faith and Science, The Facts and Ideas on November 1, 2009 by RWZero

It is often said that we cannot reason our way to God, because he requires a leap of faith from us. I believe this applies strongly to Christianity, but less so to a belief in God. There are many reasons why I believe in God, where by God, I refer to a being that is responsible for everything that exists, possessing some form of consciousness.

By believing that there is a God, I subscribe to the belief that others “should” believe similarly. However, I do not claim to have the reasons that others may ask for; I have only my own, of which a portion can be put to words.

Instinct

My first instinct is to believe that God exists. All doubt and skepticism follows thereafter.

The Conventional Arguments

The major arguments concerning the existence of God have been carefully catalogued and endlessly debated. I see no reason to repeat them in my own words. The potency of an argument, per se, is not diminished by the number of minds who have pondered it. I find the conventional arguments—the moral argument, the cosmological argument, and so forth—more sound than their counterpoints.

The remaining reasons are those which I have either failed to recognize as conventional, or which I consider sufficiently distinct in my own mind to warrant expression in my own words.

The Separation of Essences

We have not yet unraveled the nature of the universe, but we do know that it is composed of extremely small particles, or even vibrating strings. These building blocks of reality, suspended in space, behave in strange and absurd ways. With increasing complexity at every scale, they produce the universe that we experience—an experience so far removed from its physical nature that one must entertain the possibility that this experience was intended. I should highlight the subtlety that constitutes my point; I recognize that it could be argued that our experience of the universe is apparently fascinating simply because we are a product of it. What I mean to draw attention to is the distance between the fundamental nature of reality, and the reality that we experience. There is indeed a yawning gap between the experiences that make up our lives, and the mechanisms that make them possible. Furthermore, science indicates that if the building blocks of the universe are not all identical, they are certainly far more similar to each other than the variety of experiences available to us in daily life.

The pixels on a digital display are quite simple, projecting red, green and blue. That thousands of them are capable of displaying a coherent image, however, leaves little doubt as to their purpose. The pixel’s very function is to produce the image; its individual properties are unimportant, except inasmuch as they achieve this.

Consider the universe, which can be accessed only through a mind. A mind is the most basic thing that exists which, in turn, can allow us to speak about existence. Yet minds do not exist, so far as we know, in places where the individual properties of particles are similar in form to what is experienced by the mind. The manner in which such a simple foundation has spiraled upwards into things infinitely more complex—things such as love, life, and happiness—is unfathomable. Our lives are redolent of intent; they appear as things that should not exist if natural law did not have them in mind.

Consciousness

In the midst of a universe filled with nebulae and star dust, something exists that is wholly distinct from matter: consciousness. There is no explanation for consciousness, and we are no closer to one than we ever have been in the past. There is no mechanistic reason why there should be an experience underlying some forms of physical matter, rather than others. Even more intriguing, it simply must be a discrete phenomenon: it is absurd to speak of half a consciousness, however confused or dull its experience may be. There will never be a true scientific account of consciousness, because no matter how many correlations are established between phenomena, something so fundamental—the existence of an experience, where one could just as easily lack—cannot be explained mechanistically by outside observers. The only other puzzle that can claim this special status is the existence of the universe itself.

Still more confusing is the fact that I am able to speak about this phenomenon, indicating that some aspect of the secret must exist physically, within my brain. This is indeed strange, and it may be the reason that some materialist philosophers effectively suggest that we, as conscious minds, do not even exist. But upon what ground can we stand, in making such a statement? If we are going to deny this, we had best give up thinking about anything, while we still have a chance.

Atheists may ask what consciousness has to do with God. Some have suggested that the connection is a false one, as if it is based only upon the idea that God (like consciousness) is mysterious. This is a straw man, as the connection is far more profound than that. It would seem that at the beginning of the universe, there was no consciousness–only matter. Furthermore, it seems natural that matter should beget matter, and if we are able to trace matter back to the beginning of all things, we may be satisfied upon reaching the limits of scientific inquiry. However, how shall consciousness—the subjective experience of a sentient entity, and wholly distinct from matter—arise from matter, if no consciousness preceded it?

It is true that we may be at a loss to explain what happens at the end of a causal chain. We may not know how something can have “always been there,” or why. We do know, however, that like begets like. It stands to reason that sentience begets sentience. I cannot accept that we, limited as we are, should represent the highest order of sentience, which is the highest order of all things, in that it contains everything else—that the true antecedent of sentience could be nothing more than physical matter, which itself owes the thingness of its very existence to the perception of a sentient mind.

Reliance upon Appearances

Reality extends beyond the borders of sanity. This much is true. What we regard as sanity relies upon a highly constrained and narrow-minded way of thinking. If ever we allow our thoughts to roam freely, we are set adrift in a world where nothing is comfortable, and nothing has continuity or coherence. This is very troubling. I have no choice but to accept that there is an indefinite number of interpretations that we may give to reality, and that sanity is only a small subspace of the grand realm of thought.

Sanity, however, is not arbitrary. It is reality, cast in the light that is most natural. Where infinitely many interpretations are permissible, I choose the strongly implied one. I choose the interpretation wherein the universe is, in reality, what it most appears to be. This interpretation gives rise to the idea of God, because God is intimately connected to how things appear to be (if he were not, we would not need subtle or complex explanations to explain him away). Only a third party, such as God, can give objective value to the non-physical ideas that naturally appear real to us. Most people would agree with this, for the modern riposte is to suggest that things are not as they appear—that we see a spiritual realm where there is, in fact, nothing.

Yet it is not sensible to deconstruct and demythologize our experience to the point that we must embrace insanity. In order to successfully deconstruct the universe, we would need to deconstruct the presumptions that we have used to deconstruct it in the first place. Science is founded upon appearances, not upon science itself, and the statement that all true knowledge is scientific knowledge is not scientific. If it were shown that everything in my life were “merely” the sum of a great many stochastic nothings, I may lose my sanity. But then, I would only be losing my sanity because I had internalized the gravity of such concepts as “merely,” which are (merely) the same appearances that I hold dear.

Inevitable Dualities

It would appear that you cannot have anything—not even a piece of crumbly, apple pie—without a separation between what is, and what is not. In the beginning, it is said that there was a division between matter and antimatter. Though we see very little of the antimatter, we are convinced that it’s out there, surrounded as we are by its doppelgänger.

We notice that everything for which we have invented a word can be defined by its opposite, or by its absence. As such, it seems that if the entire universe were bereft of meaning (and I will borrow the words from Lewis, here) we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark.

Everything that we know to exist, then, exists only because we recognize its absence, or opposite. How can we suggest that God does not exist because the world contains evil, or because the world is too meaningless? If there were no evil, we would not know of good, and we would not know that we had been spared of evil. If nothing were meaningless, we could not know meaning. On the contrary, meaninglessness allows us to experience meaning, and suggests—as nothing else could—that meaning exists.

Additionally, when we find a separation in the world between some thing and its opposite, we may interpret this as God having intentionally conveyed this knowledge upon us. Not only is it possible to distinguish between something called “good” and “evil,” but we are privy to such distinction, as not all living things are. In and of itself, this is not evidence that God exists, but it is consistent with the assumption that he does. It is hard to imagine why God would introduce evil into the world, but it is less difficult to imagine why the dualities we experience were worth splitting open for us.

Waking Life

We know the difference between dreaming and waking because waking feels more real than dreaming. We can imagine our dreams from the waking world, but we cannot similarly imagine the waking world from our dreams.

The moments that feel most real to me—the moments when my mind is sharp, and my experience seems to have sense and depth—are also the moments when I am most aware of those human experiences that we associate with God.

The Two-Way Mirror

A personal experience of mine (though it hardly qualifies as convincing evidence), is the feeling that my mind is a two-way mirror. It has always seemed to me that someone must listen to my thoughts. I do not know why I feel this way, and even if it is true, I do not know how this truth evidences itself. Perhaps it is because I would find it strange if I could experience a quale without having it stamped and verified by an outside observer. There is no demonstrable proof that there are not infinite sets of interlocking qualia that correspond, harmoniously, with my actions and perceptions. Without an observer in here, where I am, who is there to agree that I experience what I do, rather than some other thing?

The Unexplained

I am averse to the word “supernatural,” as I would prefer to call anything that exists “natural.” If there is a God, and if there are events that defy conventional explanations, we would nonetheless expect some form of mechanism behind them, making them no less natural to us than television would be to the ancients.

In any case, it seems clear that all across the world, there are unexplained incidents that we might call supernatural. Most of them can be debunked, but many resist simple explanations. I have heard innumerable first, second, and third-hand accounts of things that cannot be explained away without resorting to hand-waving of the highest order. The things I would need to assume, in order to explain away all such events by conventional science, are far more fantastical than the simple assumption that something exists beyond our present understanding. Furthermore, it stands to reason that this “something” involves some form of intelligence, or consciousness. I say this because it does not make sense that a firestorm of terribly unlikely events should conspire to create the illusion of a single intentional one. Many unexplained phenomena take place within specific contexts, having specific meanings to those who witness them. It may suffice to connect these phenomena to the human brain, but not to a collection of errant subatomic particles.

I will either be convinced that an incident has a conventional explanation, or I will take it as evidence of God’s existence. I will not take anything as evidence of a strange and unregulated spiritual reality, because I cannot accept a spiritual reality that is arbitrary. If souls are reincarnated, who decides their fate? Who made these souls? What happens to ghosts after they finish their unfinished business? Many of the oft-reported supernatural incidents lack an overarching structure, and I can only assume that they are shadows of something having structure, if I am convinced that any of them have occurred at all.

The Necessarily Existing Thing

I am uncertain if the following is only a re-framing of the ontological argument, but I will proceed with it nonetheless.

When we consider what exists, we consider that its nonexistence is a real possibility. There are many things that we can dream up, yet they do not exist. Why, then, does this particular world exist? We cannot draw upon natural law to explain this, because natural law is only the observation that things continue to exist, following from one another in somewhat predictable patterns. If the universe were to go out of existence in the next moment, we would be at a loss for an explanation. Thus, since not all things exist, there must be something special about the things that do, which gives them their being. It follows that something, wherever it may be, exists absolutely necessarily.

While it is impossible to determine why something should have this quality of necessity, it seems quite arbitrary to suppose that the universe itself might possess this. Why, of all the universes one can imagine, should this one have special treatment? Similarly, we cannot imagine how our minds should have such necessity, for there is evidence of our nonexistence prior to birth. The thing we seek is the thing that, if removed from any of our imagined worlds, would cause them to crumble. The only thing that could possess such a quality, and always have possessed it, is a thing that we would do best to call God. It is the thing that is most closely approximated by our minds upon the mention of the word God. It is the singular thing that contains within itself all the qualities of the things that arise naturally within the universe, and all the reasons for their arising.

Accepting this, however, provides only a vague picture of a largely unknown God that even weak atheism may be comfortable with.

Beauty and Intuition

I am not much for seeking relics of God’s existence in the sand. I do not overturn rocks, looking for his signature, and I do not hope that science will discover something so thoroughly odd that it simply must be ascribed to God, as opposed to the plain old universe we live in. I recognize that there is no universe to compare with our own, in order that we might discuss how strongly our universe implies the existence of a God. Sometimes, however, I will entertain a little of the thinking that sparks such thoughts.

One may say that flowers are only beautiful because we have evolved in such a way as to find them beautiful. I am not certain it’s so simple. Though I cannot prove it, I believe we are able to reach beyond our moorings and make statements about the true beauty of things. There are many objects of beauty that we were never exposed to until technology, exploration or abstraction granted us permission. We do not stand in awe of all these things solely because of their intrinsic similarity to flowers or rainbows, which we have been exposed to since the beginning. In fact, there is no compelling reason why we should have developed a true appreciation for flowers, rainbows or beauty at all—if there were, however, we would still be forced to recognize that the appreciation extends beyond a mere affinity, and into the realm of higher thought. Such thoughts of beauty cannot be divorced from our ability to think higher thoughts in general, which have produced all the conclusions we have ever made. Therefore, it is not so difficult to believe that the beauty is actually there. And, as beauty is useless without a beholder, it is not so difficult for me to believe that God is responsible for it, unappreciated as it was until now.