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(The following is an exchange that took place on another blog. I have omitted some other interjections by other participants.)
IP: If you can give me demonstrable proof that can be duplicated in a lab that there is a god, I will concede the point; until then you are talking about an imaginary invisible sky fairy. Key point being something imaginary. I can imagine unicorns pooping rainbows while being ridden by mermaids and leprechauns, that doesn’t make it real.

SH: The real problem here is that people think “reality” in general is something hard and fast, when it is something more complex and fluid than what we hold in our mind, where it is reduced to conceptualizations with which we can work. The more abstract the concept, the more tenuous its representation of reality, but that doesn’t make the concept useless or meaningless. Those who reject it because it seems literally preposterous are making a mistake very similar to those who accept it as literal truth.

IP: Then for you the concept of schizophrenia doesn’t work, because schizophrenia is based on the idea that their reality doesn’t match our reality.

SH: You’re sort of right. We live in a shared reality, intersubjectively produced over the ages, with an imperfect but real connection to “objective” reality. Those whose individual realities diverge too dramatically from that intersubjective reality are considered insane, a condition that can be the result of anything from an unusually creative and insightful mind, to an internal cognitive landscape that has trouble articulating with our shared cognitive landscape. The latter condition leads to real problems, both for the individual and for society, but the reduction of it to a simple pathology, one pole in a dichotomy defined by the absence or presence of a mental illness, is one of those concepts of ours that tracks reality very imperfectly, and in many ways dysfunctionally. Our current overreliance on psychotropic drugs, based on a largely fabricated history of “rebalancing chemical imbalances in the brain,” is one consequence of that divergence between our popular (and professionally dominant) conceptualization, and the ever-elusive reality.

IP: Actually I think that the outdated need to rely on a concept from the Neolithic Era, ie god, is a mental illness. People needed a god to explain things like how the sun rose and set. Science has explained how that has happened. The need, then, for a god is outdated and simplistic. If I do x, then my imaginary god will give me y. It seems silly to me.

SH: Let’s look at some of the factors that generated that “outdated” concept that has existed throughout human history, all around the world, in virtually every culture in every time and place.

1) We live in a world and universe that is mindbogglingly complex, and are gradually realizing that a biological rather than physical paradigm best captures that complexity. The science of chaos, of complexity, is the science of non-linear living systems, and applies to many systems that we have normally conceptualized as non-living.

2) Consciousness is one of the elements of that universe. In the modern tradition of human exceptionalism, we atheists have come to see human consciousness as just a happenstance product of random forces, and yet, we see echoes of it all around us, in evolution (which looks remarkably like a conscious and purposeful progression, the one which, coincidentally, produced something that resembled it: Human consciousness). There’s nothing stupid or absurd about conceptualizing the universe in terms of consciousness (not human consciousness, but something more diffuse and fundamental) rather than in terms of mechanics. In fact, that seems to be the direction in which logic and evidence lead.

3) Our minds are fundamentally metaphorical in nature. Even mathematics, that least poetic of conceptual languages, is essentially a set of metaphors disciplined into a complex system of logical thought. To metaphorically conceptualize this living universe, this complexity and subtlety of which we are a part, this coherence which transcends our capacity for comprehension, in the forms of gods and spirits and supernatural forces, is no less “off the mark” than to claim that we live in a dead, mechanical universe. Both are imperfect conceptualizations of an almost infinitely complex and subtle reality.

4) The real problem, on both sides of this equation, is not understanding the nature of our conceptualizations, and of our relationship to reality. We never hold within our minds an exact representation of a precise and unambiguous reality, but rather reduce a complex and incomprehensible reality to dimensions and forms we can grasp. World mythology has produced marvelous packages of complex and subtle thought with which to track that complex and subtle reality. Understanding that our error is in taking our conceptualizations literally rather than in embracing this or that imperfect conceptualization would be the cure to the problem you perceive.

5) In my opinion, someone who only understands a river in terms of hydrodynamics and the hydrological cycle and not at all in terms of singing spirits dancing their way from mountain springs to frothing seas, has a less complete understanding than someone who triangulates a bit more, and understands a river in various ways, through various modalities.

6) Concepts of god and gods and supernatural forces can enrich our understanding of our world, of nature, of ourselves, or they can form reified false idols that divide us and blind us to the complexities and subtleties of the world around us and within us. It is not the concepts that are at fault when the latter occurs, but rather how we use them and how we relate to them.

IP: In all of your 6 points you didn’t address the simple premise that the concept of god was started in our Neolithic past. All people had a Neolithic past so the fact that people came up with a god to explain natural phenomena is not unusual. People also lived in caves in the Neolithic era. Why should we hold on to a concept that doesn’t work and is divisive. Religion has killed more people than any other force on this planet, no god, no religion. The world would be much safer and peaceful without god.

SH: Lots of concepts began in our Neolithic past, including the concepts of red, orange, yellow, blue, green, etc., and the concepts of up and down, forward and backward, probably love and hatred, right and wrong, joy and sorrow, and many others of enduring value. Whether such concepts retain their utility has nothing to do with when they originated.

Personally, I do agree that we could do better than to cling to Neolithic conceptualizations of god, and even to the very non-Neolithic developments of those original conceptualizations, that have led through the Mesopotamian religions, to the Judeo-Christian-Islamic monotheisms with all of their trappings (and through other cultural pathways to Buddhism, Taoism, various polytheisms, and a variety of tribal religions).

But it is not some conceptualization of god that is divisive; rather it is the illusion of exhaustive absolutes that the world and universe can be reduced to, such as whether there is or isn’t a god, and, if so, which particular version is the one true one.

Some things are relatively amenable to such reductionism, and those things tend to fall within the mathematical and observable ranges of phenomena. Not all phenomena, nor all subjects of human contemplation, fall within those ranges, and so not all are so reducible.

There are two ways of formulating your final statement, taking into account the reality of differing perspectives and conceptualizations: 1) “The world would be much safer and more peaceful if everyone accepted my one absolute truth as THE one absolute truth,” and 2) “The world would be much safer and more peaceful if everyone accepted the variable reducibility of reality, and accepted complexity, uncertainty, and ambiguity as fundamental aspects of reality beyond which we may not be capable of further reduction.”

“Everyone should just accept the absolute truth that there is no god” belongs to the first category, and is essentially the same as “everyone should just accept the absolute truth that there is only one god, and it is the one described by my religion.”

Clearly, there is no easy cure to our divisiveness, because even the suggestion that we adhere to less literal, more flexible, more subtle and accommodating conceptualizations of reality is divisive, in that all of those who strongly adhere to some absolute dogma or another will fight tooth and nail against any such suggestion!

Or, to put it more simply, the world would be a much safer and more peaceful place without dogmatic certainty, particularly dogmatic certainty regarding what are essentially metaphorical conceptualizations of reality, including the dogmatic certainty of atheism.

You think that it is an absolute and irrefutable fact that there is no god. My dad was a devout atheist, who shared your perspective completely. But his religion was as divisive as anyone else’s.

The irony is, of course, that even my own devout epistemological (rather than ontological) relativism is divisive, in much the same way, because any position vigorously held implies and inevitably generates (if one doesn’t already exist) an antithesis which is also vigorously held.

But, just to be clear, I think that your certainty that there is no god is as arbitrary as anyone else’s that there is a god. We atheists think of our consciousness as unique in the universe, or as some kind of anomaly in an otherwise unconscious mechanical universe.

But observation throws this into doubt: Clearly, what we experience as human consciousness is on a continuum with what other forms of life experience. When we see a spider scurry away to save itself, it looks a lot like a small, scared little creature acting like a miniature version of a human being. We know that it isn’t, but this resemblance isn’t quite completely arbitrary either; it is a product of the same dynamic which produced human beings (the one in which genes in competition with one another cluster together and produce vehicles for their relative reproductive success), and the resemblance is due to being a product of that process following a logic inherent to being such a product.

And what is so fundamentally different between an individual organism and an ecosystem, or a human society? The latter is a diffuse version of the former, with packets of information transmitted across generations forming into systemic, coherent, enduring wholes. Just because we subjectively experience our own consciousness doesn’t mean that something similar in essence isn’t a basic part of the fabric of reality. And the more we explore the underlying nature of that reality, the more support we discover for that conceptualization, scientifically and mathematically.

So why wouldn’t we conceptualize that wondrous, sublime, infinitely complex global, universal “consciousness,” that is the coherence and systemicness of the universe, in ways that are accessible to our imaginations? I disagree with you about the net value of religion: The world would have been greatly impoverished without world mythology, its brilliant stories, its framings of reality in rich and colorful ways.

It’s no coincidence that the ancient society that had the richest mythology also had the richest natural philosophy: Both are aspects of the same human imagination, working with the same materials, in much the same ways. We would not very likely have our wonderful florescence of scientific knowledge without a concomitant florescence of religious wonder.

Not only ancient Greece, but also modern Europe, were characterized by these two working in tandem. The modern European era was born with the Renaissance, which was an aesthetic rediscovery of classical forms, and the Reformation, which was a reinvigoration of religious energy. The Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment followed on their heels.

Religion isn’t the enemy: Dogma is. Believing in god isn’t the enemy; believing in a rigid reality which neatly reduces to our conceptualizations of it on all dimensions is. What would “save” us isn’t an end to religious thought, but a beginning to a deeper and more subtle and more open sense of wonder that takes that thought a step further, and synthesizes it with our scientific and philosophical and mathematical thought. Our future hope isn’t in contracting our minds and imaginations to fit within one preferred package, but expanding them to flow among ultimately compatible channels, exploring the wonder of a world far beyond our wildest imagination, and the potential of human consciousness more fully liberated and mobilized.

IP: I am more comfortable with confucianism and buddhism because there is no god, it is a philosophy more than a dogmatic set of beliefs.

On [this blog] there is someone who believes that the earth is 6k years old, because that is what his preacher told him. The enforced and celebrated ignorance of modern religion and dogmas are antithetical to intelligent and rational discussions….

SH: Beliefs range from more to less subtle, more or less well tracking an almost infinitely complex reality. You scoff at monotheists who scoff at polytheists who scoff at animists. Science was largely born from monotheism (just as monotheism was from polytheism, and polytheism was from animism), the latter having reduced the arbitrariness of Creation from a chaos of competing gods and spirits to a coherent single systemic whole and thus making it more amenable to systematic investigation.

Some aspects of some religions are incompatible with science, asserting as matters of faith (ie, beliefs insulated from evidence and skepticism) issues of causation and systemic dynamics that are, in fact, better understood through scientific methodology than religious narratives. Some aspects of religions occupy completely separate realms, going where science can’t really go because science doesn’t address all questions (particularly questions of value or judgment). And then there are realms to which both apply, but in different ways (such as the celebration of wonder and awe at the incredible complexity and subtlety of the world and universe we live in).

It’s fine to advocate for more rather than less subtlety, and to critique those who fail to continue to strive to do so. It’s folly to believe that you have found the end point of that journey, and to scoff at others for having failed to find the one absolute truth of which you are aware and they are not.

IP: Does your god care what food you eat?

SH: Psycholinguist Stephen Pinker, in How The Mind Works, posited that religious dietary restrictions evolved as a means of preventing members of more economically marginal societies from defecting to richer neighboring societies by making their food less attractive. So, for instance, in the case of Jewish dietary restrictions, shell fish would be found in neighboring coastal societies but not among the Hebrew desert nomads themselves, and pork would be found among (wealthier) sedentary populations rather than (poorer) nomadic ones.

The point isn’t that many religious ideas and proscriptions can’t be better understood as products of human history and psychology than as products of a divine mandate, but rather that different modalities of thought can coexist, and, where they reinforce rather than obstruct their respective competencies, can be useful and productive rather than dysfunctional and destructive.

Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Desmond Tutu were all highly religious men, who used their religious convictions in service to their charismatic leadership and their missions of social justice and universal goodwill. The Civil Rights Movement in America benefited enormously from the social organizational capital of the southern black church infrastructure, without which that movement might never have happened, and certainly would have had to have happened with far less capacity for grass roots organizing than it in fact had at its disposal.

The goal of peace and human welfare is not best served by insisting that one’s own conceptual tyranny prevail over all others, whether it is the conceptual tyranny of a dogma that contains literal gods or one that does not (e.g., Marxism, Libertarianism, Dogmatic Atheism, etc.). Conceptual false idols don’t have to be supernatural to be socially destructive.

The goal of peace and human welfare is best served by recognizing that we have a plethora of conceptual modalities at our disposal, and that those modalities have varying uses and competencies, that they can be articulated in ways which reinforce rather than undermine one another, and that doing so provides us with more rather than less insight.

The fact that the opposite also occurs, that the incompetencies of each modality assert themselves at the expense of the competencies of the others, is something to strive to transcend, whether it is religious assertions about how faith is more reliable for ascertaining the validity of factual and causal information than is scientific methodology, or pseudo-scientific assertions that science “disproves” something which is a conceptual rather than factual matter.

One of the big obstacles to making this leap is the misconception that the products of our imagination are distinct from “reality,” and that reality is understood by some means other than our imagination. In truth, our imagination is our portal onto reality, our means of tracking it with our minds. Some of the modalities we use are good for some purposes, and may be more attractive to some people; while others are good for other purposes and may be more attractive to other people. But the notion that some of these modalities of human imagination are “right” and some are “wrong” is an unfortunately unimaginative position to take!

SH: (In response to another poster insisting that the burden is on IP to prove that God doesn’t exist, since no one in the conversation asserted that he/she/it does.) It’s a meaningless question. This is what people don’t get about the whole “do you believe in god” thing: It’s like asking “do you believe in charpadarka, a color that humans can’t perceive that occupies the spectrum of light frequencies from about 900-920 THz.”

Well, if you choose to call that range of the spectrum of light not visible to the human eye a “color,” and then name the color “charpadarka,” then you believe in it. If you choose not to call that range of the spectrum of light not visible to the human eye a “color,” and refuse to name it, then you don’t believe in “charpadarka.”

The objective reality is what it is. It can be conceptualized in multiple ways. It makes no sense to argue about whether one or another conceptualization is “true” or not.

(No one can) prove that “God” doesn’t exist, and no one . . . can prove that “God” does exist, because “God” is a concept, just like everything else we hold in our minds to represent reality. It is not an argument over an empirically verifiable or refutable assertion, or about an empirically and analytically more or less supportable theory or paradigm; it is an argument over semantics and conceptualization, and therefore a meaningless and absurd argument to have.

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  • 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 anthropomorphic, 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 tribute to rational humanism.

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