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I contend that belief in the existence of God, stripped of its trappings, is a conceptual choice (an argument made at greater length in my essay A Dialogue on Religion, Dogma, Imagination, and Conceptualization), and that we are better served by focusing in on the pernicious element of religion people are truly reacting to –dogmatism– than on more bluntly attacking religion itself. Dogmatism can be found without religion as well as within, and rational humanism can be found within religion as well as without. We should focus in on that which truly is pernicious, and “live and let live” in regard to those conceptual choices that are not.

But isn’t it simply irrational to believe in God, dogmatism aside? No, it isn’t, at least not some conceptualization of God that is stripped of its more dogmatic elements. The universe is a truly sublime and wonderful thing, and seeking a concept which captures that may serve our consciousness and our humanity more than it hinders them.

Consciousness clearly is some part of the fabric of reality, because we experience it and we are some part of the fabric of reality. The energy-matter composition of the universe contains within it the capacity to manifest itself as “consciousness,” at least when configured in certain ways (e.g, the human form). In other words, the capacity for consciousness is inherent in the fabric of reality, for if it weren’t, consciousness could not exist in any configuration of that fabric.

In the mechanical, unconscious physical paradigm of reality, consciousness is created from a universe devoid of it as an incidental by-product of a random, mindless process. But the universe clearly isn’t devoid of its potential, because if it were devoid of its potential, that incidental by-product could not come into existence. Exploring what the existence of that potential, what the fact that consciousness is some part of the physical universe (whether isolated to human minds or found in some more broadly distributed form), implies, opens up the possibility of a less mechanistic, more organic paradigm of physical reality.

Since consciousness can only be experienced subjectively, and either imputed or not imputed externally, we are left to guess as to what extent some form of it (perhaps quite distinct from what we experience as human consciousness) is woven into the fabric of other aspects of reality. Throughout our history, our view on this has varied in many ways, from animism (seeing inanimate objects as being imbued with consciousness) to a more mechanical conceptualization of objective reality. In fact, our history, the history of our own consciousness, involves not just a de-animation of our surroundings, but also a rediscovery of unexpected intelligence beyond our own. Racist notions of differential intelligence are now reviled as historical follies, and we continually find that other mammals (from dolphins to dogs) are more intelligent than we had previously believed them to be. What was once perceived to be a more exclusive quality (“consciousness”) is proving to be ever less exclusive.

Our consciousness, which, by virtue of its existence, is proof that consciousness is somehow a part of the fabric of reality, was produced by a process which both preceded it and closely resembles it. Evolution, a process of trial and error involving large numbers and long periods of time, creates the appearance of intentional, highly sophisticated strategies for reproductive success. It creates the appearance of consciousness. In fact, evolutionary biologists and ecologists routinely use the language and mathematics of intentionality (microeconomics and game theory) to describe the phenomena they are studying.

Just as our technologies and social institutions, the products of our own consciousness, closely resemble the anatomical technologies and ecological “social institutions” that define the biosphere, our consciousness itself resembles the process that produced it. Why would we assume, as an a priori position, that the phenomenon that preceded and created us just coincidentally and insignificantly resembles us so closely in that essential way (of being “conscious”), rather than consider the possibility that we, a by-product of it, resemble it in some significant way?

Consciousness is a function of the confluence of two basic forces of nature: Energy and Information. When a complex dynamical system creates a perpetual counter-entropic eddy, absorbing a massive influx of energy and organizing information with it, we see some manifestation of what might be called, in the broad sense, “consciousness.” But since energy and information is what the coherent, systemic universe is comprised of, might it not be reasonable to say that, in diffuse form, that thread of the fabric of nature we experience as “consciousness” is woven throughout that coherent, systemic universe?

Our scientific paradigms have in fact been shifting away from a mechanical conceptualization and toward a more “living system” conceptualization. Complex dynamical systems analysis (“Chaos Theory”) has made clear that the characteristics of living systems are far more widespread throughout the inanimate world than we had previously realized. Increasingly, as physicist Fritjov Capra noted in “The Web of Life,” the dominant physical paradigm is organic rather than mechanical.

Physics has led us to a paradigm of a Cosmic Symphony of one dimensional vibrating strings and loops which generate all other material existence. It’s a mindbogglingly wonderful and extraordinary reality in which we find ourselves, and seeking ways to more fully embrace and celebrate that wondrous complexity and subtlety that so exceeds our normal range of conceptualizations, and so exceeds our comprehension, may be as natural a demand on our minds as naming the other things we encounter in our experience of life.

Taken in its entirety, a comprehensive understanding of our universe and our place in it suggests more continuity and less discontinuity between what we subjectively experience ourselves to be, and what the universe around us is. That quality that we identify in ourselves as “consciousness,” which we have come to consider something unique to us, in much the same way that dominant races considered it unique to them, and humans as the dominant species consider it unique to them, may be one manifestation of something more ubiquitous, more an inherent part of nature, than our mechanistic paradigm acknowledged. Even our scientific understandings of nature are moving us in that direction.

But is this what people are referring to when they use the word “God”? Isn’t “God” an entity, intentionally and capriciously acting, not just some diffuse, academic “consciousness” woven through the fabric of Nature? While it is probably the case that most people within the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition conceptualize God as more physically and psychologically anthropomorphic (despite the doctrinal injunctions in those traditions not to), there is something abstractly anthropomorphic about recognizing an element of consciousness to the universe. Does that single connection on such an essential level have enough similarity to traditional conceptualizations of “God” to warrant use of the word to describe it? I don’t know. But I would suggest that the world doesn’t require some imposition of an answer to that question; let each answer it as they please, especially since doing so reduces rather than increases the depth and breadth of the chasms that divide us.

There is currently no word (that I know of) for the proto-consciousness of the universe described above. Doesn’t it warrant a word? And isn’t it related to the concept of God, of a cosmic consciousness guiding events? Isn’t the concept of God potentially the product of a primitive insight that has become buried in noise, a recognition that this incredibly wonderful, complex reality of which we are a part, of which we are a manifestation, is something greater than rather than lesser than what we ourselves are? And are the metaphors and mythologies that have grown up around that concept simply how the human mind organizes and conceptualizes complex and subtle aspects of Nature?

So, while dogmatic thinking is pernicious, and religions certainly are frequently bastions of dogmatic thinking, the concept of god itself is not necessarily to blame; dogmatism is found in political ideologies as well as in religions, and there are religious people who have not been dogmatic, and who have used their religiosity to great effect. So rather than making religion the issue, let’s make dogmatism the issue. Rather than arguing about the existence or non-existence of something that can be conceptualized into or out of existence, why not focus on creating bridges between different conceptualizations of reality, bridges that reduce the dogmatism of everyone who ventures onto them, and increases the mutual understanding among them. There could be no better tribute to God, and no better way to cultivate more rational humanism in the world.

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