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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 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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