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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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As I have discussed in A Dialogue on Religion, Dogma, Imagination, and Conceptualization and Do Deities Defecate? (among other essays), what people conceptualize as “god” may well be as legitimate an object of conceptualization as “infinity,” “eternity,” and “love.” It may well be as legitimate an object of conceptualization as “consciousness,” which, indeed, it is closely related to.

As humans, we know that we subjectively experience the existence of human “consciousness.” We have minds, which, by and large, are the expression of the functioning of our physical brains, in interaction with one another and our environment. We normally conceptualize this consciousness to be an individual-level phenomenon, each of us having our own, the connection among them being tendrils of communication among separate nodes of consciousness.

But this individual-level conceptualization becomes suspect on closer examination. We think in languages, using concepts, drawing on stories and narratives and sciences and philosophies that we did not individually invent. We wield metaphors and analogies and a wealth of material that preceded our own individual consciousness, with only a very slight individuation of that cognitive material on the margins identifying our own consciousness as unique, as differentiated from the collective consciousness from which it was born and in which it is embedded. (See, for instance, The Fractal Geometry of Social Change, for a vivid description of this collective consciousness.)

So human consciousness, in a sense, is not so much individual as collective, a shared process in which our individual participation provides the robustness and creativity, but in which our collective participation defines the scope and substance. But it is still strictly “human,” right?

Few who have ever had a beloved pet would be in complete agreement with that assessment. Our family dog Buttercup is clearly somewhat “conscious,” aware of our love for her and of hers for us, communicating her desire to play, to go out, to be petted, with ease and determination. She is excited at the prospect of walking to school with my daughter, where she knows she will get to run in the park on the way, and receive affection from the other children upon arrival. She has both human and dog friends that she recognizes and greets and communicates with on a rudimentary level. She clearly possesses some degree of what humans call “consciousness.”

To explore that “lesser degree” of consciousness so clearly evident in large mammals, it’s useful to switch from the cultural (consciousness as a function of language and symbolic communication) to the biological (consciousness as an expression of genetic codes). The human mind, as an artifact of the human brain –which is an anatomical product of an evolutionary process of genetic reproduction, mutation, and competition for reproductive success– is clearly not absolutely unique. Like the individual in a society on the cognitive level, the human mind is the individuation of a biological and genetic theme. We see similarities to it among other large mammals, and even among very different animals, in some ways: when an insect scurries away from danger, the scurrying LOOKS a whole lot like fear, even if it isn’t. But maybe the resemblance isn’t completely irrelevant after all.

What distinguishes humans from all other creatures on Earth (with the possible exception of some large sea mammals) is cognitively complex symbolic communication (i.e., “language,” though the qualifier “cognitively complex” is necessary, due to the complex languages of many other creatures, such as bees, whose intricate dances indicate where the nectar is to be found). And, indeed, it is that cognitively complex language which has created the echo of genetic evolution particular to the anthrosphere: Human History (and the cultural/political/economic/cognitive evolution that defines it).

But that cognitively complex language is the product of a very slight genetic variation. We are genetically barely distinguishable from other large apes, more closely related to Chimpanzees than Chimpanzees are to Gorillas or Orangutans. So while language gives our biologically-based consciousness a particularly robust expression, it does not remove it in essence very far from our nearest biological relatives. They, too, have a nearly equal quantity of the individual-level stuff of consciousness, but merely lack the complex tendrils of communication that launch that consciousness into the societal level of development and expression.

What we see by looking at consciousness both through the lens of a cultural and human historical context, and the lens of a genetic and natural historical context, is that it is neither a particularly individual level phenomenon, nor an exclusively human phenomenon. It is, rather, something that is “out there” in the fabric of nature, finding different degrees and forms of expression in different contexts.

Neither is it any coincidence that these two lenses are both “evolutionary” lenses, one the lens of biological/genetic evolution and its products, and the other cultural/memetic evolution and its products. “Consciousness” as we know it, both in terms of the expression of the functioning of the human brain (a product of biological evolution), and in terms of the expression of the cognitive material accumulated and refined through communication among human brains (a product of cultural evolution), is an expression of evolutionary processes.

What is the exact nature of the connection between “evolution” and “consciousness”? Here’s one surprising suggestion: Both can be defined as the purposeful refinement of behavior and form in response to experience. Evolution is a process driven by the lathe of trial and error, in which the forms and behaviors (those genes in general) of living organisms are refined over time in response to relative reproductive success, preserving those that are most reproductively successful. Human consciousness is a process driven by the lathe of human experience and communication, in which those forms and behaviors (those cognitions in general) that are most copied by others are the ones that are preserved.

In fact, biologists routinely use the language and mathematics of economics to describe evolutionary and ecological phenomena. They refer to “strategies,” and employ the microeconomic tool of analysis known as “game theory” to analyze the evolution of competing biological strategies. Biologists are quick to emphasize that this is a metaphor, that there was no conscious intent behind the evolution of competing reproductive strategies, that they just “resemble” intentional human strategic action, that they just resemble “consciousness.”

But might this not be a bit anthrocentric of us? I am not disputing the recognition that biological evolution is not the intentional product of a centralized mind in the same way that human strategic behavior is (though, as I indicated above, even human strategic behavior, when involving any organization of human beings, has a decentralized element to it as well). But I am bringing into question the sharp conceptual differentiation between a process that we recognize as consciousness because we subjectively experience it, and the process that produced it that appears to be remarkably similar in form.

Might it not make more sense to conceptualize human consciousness, which is the product of evolutionary processes that envelope it and preceded it, as similar to those processes, rather than conceptualizing those preceding and enveloping processes as being similar to human consciousness? If it were not for the fact that we are human beings, subjectively aware of our own consciousness, wouldn’t it be more rational to give priority to the biological and historical progenitor of our consciousness than to its by-product (i.e., human consciousness)?

This conceptual journey began with the human individual, and panned out to identify consciousness as a function of the human collective, and then panned out futher to identify consciousness as a function of the evolutionary ecology of the planet Earth. Can we continue panning out, to see these all as nested levels of a coherent aspect of nature, that is woven into the fabric of the cosmos, and that finds different kinds of expression at different levels of manifestation?

Fritjov Capra, UC-Berkeley Physicist and author of The Tao of Physics, wrote more recently in The Web of Life, that a biological paradigm was replacing a physical one as the fundamental paradigm of Nature. The reason for this, posits Capra, is that the emerging science of complex dynamical systems (best known as “Chaos Theory”) is discovering that the kinds of processes most commonly associated with organic processes, with life, are far more widespread, far more fundamental, far more woven into the fabric of Nature, than we had previously realized. The universe and its subsystems are, in many ways, more like a vast living thing with living things nested within it, than like a dead mechanical device comprised of nested levels of mechanical components.

Even physics itself, moving toward String Theory, a mathematical model of “The Cosmic Symphony,” seems to be increasingly compatible with this view.

If it is more an organic than mechanical universe; if human consciousness can be recognized as a direct “echo” of preceding and enveloping natural processes; and if we step back in yet another way and recognize that the mere existence of human consciousness demonstrates that Nature is somehow inherently capable of producing such a phenomenon, that matter and energy can be arranged in such a way as to become “conscious,” and if we contemplate the mind-bogglingly subtle and complex coherence of the universe and its myriad subsystems, is it such a leap to conceptualize the universe itself as a conscious entity, the fabric of Nature being, in a sense, “consciousness”?

Isn’t it that primal wisdom, that neolithic recognition, that has found expression in the form of God and gods? The error is not in the conceptualization, in the use of the metaphor and the exploration of reality that it facilitates, but rather in our conceptualization of conceptualization itself. We can’t seem to make the move from recognizing that what we hold in our minds and what those thoughts refer to are never identical, that we are always reducing, simplifying reality into forms we can grasp and work with, that reality itself is always more subtle and complex than our conceptualizations of it.

We seem to have fallen into two distinct patterns of error: The religious one, in which the world and universe is conceptualized as intentionally ruled by an anthropomorphic God that thinks and acts suspiciously similar to how a human being thinks and acts; and the atheistic one, in which the world and universe is conceptualized as a dead machine in which random chance produced the otherwise unremarkable isolated phenomenon of human consciousness.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the ancient civilization that was most remarkable for the florescence of rational thought and subtle and insightful natural philosophies was also most remarkable for the incomparably robust and rich mythology that it produced. The ancient Greeks demonstrated that when we are most prolific and innovative in the generation of the products of the human imagination, we are most prolific and innovative in the generation of the products of human reason as well. The two are more intimately related than we sometimes realize.

So, while I believe that literary gods serve us better than literal ones, I also believe that investing in the processes of consciousness serves us better than entrenching ourselves in its ephemeral products (see, e.g., Scholarship v. Ideology, Ideology v. Methodology and An Argument for Reason and Humility). The error is not that our literal gods need to be replaced with an equally off-the-mark recognition of their literal absence, but rather that we need to refine our entire relationship to reality, understanding that our conceptualizations are just that: Conceptualizations. Our own consciousness best articulates with the consciousness of which we are a part when it does so most flexibly, most humbly, and most imaginatively. The gods beckon us to know them better by knowing less and contemplating more.

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The issue of improved public discourse is, ultimately, the most important of all political issues, for it is in the final analysis the means by which reason and justice prevail over irrationality and bigotry, within each of us as well as throughout society. Discourse is challenged along many dimensions: civility, robustness, depth, subtlety, inclusiveness, rationality, factual accuracy, scope, precision, and quantity of information mobilized and assimilated. How kind is it? How productive is it? How well-informed is it? All of these are relevant dimensions to be constantly improved upon.

Discourse takes many forms. As I wrote recently, perhaps one of its most useful and probing forms is satire (Tragically Comical American Political Discourse). Humor can be revealing, as well as enjoyable, and is often most provocative of deep insights of all discursive forms. From Gulliver’s Travels (in which Jonathan Swift gave us the term “yahoos”) to Slaughterhouse Five and Catch 22, and beyond, satire often hits the nail right on the head, and leaves us with a smile on our faces while doing so. That’s as good as it gets.

But discourse fights against many dysfunctional structural inhibitors and disinhibitors. Those with the largest audiences are often either incentivized to censor themselves or to inflame uninformed passions. Those who depend on endearing the many and offending as few as possible must avoid taboo topics and controversial positions as much as they are able to, while those who depend on appealing to and cultivating a loyal following must do just the opposite, and pander to their target market (whether sincerely or insincerely), reinforcing and helping to insulate prejudices and unreasoning passions. This bifurcates the most loudly broadcast voices into those that are sterilized by political and strategic considerations, and those that are contaminated by demagoguery.

Cognitive Scientist George Lakoff argued in his book The Political Mind that we need a new Enlightenment, one which does not try to advance the cause of Reason simply by recourse to rational arguments, but one which embraces new insights into how our minds work, and seeks to advance the cause of Reason along the avenues carved out by those insights (recognizing the roles of frames and narratives, of primary and complex metaphors, and working with them in advocacy of Reason and Empathy). But the old Enlightenment still holds its lessons, some of which we should continue to learn from.

The Economist recently published a review of Philipp Blom’s book (to be released in March): “Wicked Company: Freethinkers and Friendship in Pre-Revolutionary Paris” (http://www.economist.com/node/17358838). The theme of the book is those Enlightenment philosophes who convened in salons to discuss all matters, some of whom refuted the existence of God, despite the dangers of doing so. It was not, overall, a more courageous time than our own, and it was not a time when more people were willing to question the existence of God (Biologist Richard Dawkins, for instance, is one of many famous modern atheists, while Blom critiques some famous philosophes for their own failures to publicly entertain non-religious perspectives). But it is instructive that those committed to reason were discussing over two hundred years ago a reasonable but historically persecuted point of view that is little more tolerated today than it was then.

For the record, I am not saying that I consider atheism to be the final word on the subject (I don’t; I consider the truth to be far subtler, and far less dismissive of the sublime aspects of reality that concepts of divinity address). I am saying that atheism’s continued absence from most spheres of public discourse, along with the absence of subtler but equally unconventional views (e.g., pantheism, Taoist/Buddhist non-anthropomorphic mysticism, etc.), and the continued hold over public discourse and public cognition that the generally reductionist, absolutist, and somewhat superstitious bias of insitutionalized religions continues to command, are evidence of a public discourse unhealthily constrained by cognitive, social, and institutional forces that hinder rather than facilitate a robust and comprehensive public dialogue.

In other words, we continue to put informal “Inquisitions” between ourselves and the pursuit of truth. Galileo, who was basically accurate on every topic he addressed, and certainly more accurate than the Church, was subjected to torture by the Inquisition until he recanted his assertion that Copernicus was right, and the Earth revolved around the sun, rather than vice versa. And my own career as a teacher ended when I faced my own Inquisition for having compared cultural to genetic diffusion and innovation in a World Geography class (though I remain convinced that it was one of the best lesson plans my students had ever been exposed to).

Religion isn’t the only topic around which informal barriers to discourse are thrown up, nor do such barriers need to be society-wide to contribute to the constriction and impoverishment of public discourse. Some current trends in political discourse are contributing to further constriction, though in a more balkanized manner. Those with strong ideological views listen to and talk with those of similar views, and avoid those of conflicting views, sometimes quite explicitly (one left-wing ideologue, in a post on SquareState, said he was interested in reasonable criticisms, defined as things unlike what I say, which are too incompatible with his worldview to count as “reasonable”). The “confirmation bias” already making cross-fertilization of differing views difficult, is reinforced by the ability now to get news from, and engage in discourse with, those who already agree with us, making it that much easier to filter out contradictory evidence and analysis. Instead of a society-wide constriction of public discourse, we have a balkanized constriction, in which occasional debates across ideological borders quickly degenerate into angry mutual denouncements and insults.

A sociologist named Mark Granovetter wrote a paper in the 1970’s or 1980’s called “The Strength of Weak Ties,” in which he discussed the value of those network connections that form bridges between social (and ideological) islands. He was writing in a different era (strange as it may seem that so much has changed in so short a time), but captured a truth that transcends the form that our social coalescences take. We still need “weak ties,” bridges across social, cultural, and ideological chasms. We still need some threads of authentic social interaction, authentic dialogue, among as well as within our ideological enclaves.

There should be no taboos, particularly no taboos regarding modes of thought that do not preach hatred or antagonism of any kind. There should be no privileging of fixed ideologies. We need to work as a people toward promoting a society-wide public discourse that does not presuppose the conclusions, neither on the left nor the right nor in any other location of our complex ideological space. We need to continue to cultivate a commitment to reason, to analysis, to reliance on carefully acquired and verifiable information. No political challenge is more important, no advance more beneficial to our long-term collective welfare than advances in our ability to participate in a robust and unconstrained public discourse, with reason, humility, and goodwill as our guiding lights.

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