Monthly Archives: January 2014

Of Physical Laws and Fictional Characters

Metaphysical constructs are real— just ask any computer programmer. A great deal of our infrastructure and commerce today depends on metaphysical constructs which function to handle massive amounts of data. Biological computers that we are, we also depend on metaphysical constructs to function in the world.

Stories & Soliloquies

This is the final installment of a series on the tie between language and metaphysics, mathematics, and magic.

Most people are pretty clear that the laws of physics are real, and that fictional characters are not. But I’m not so sure the distinction is as easy as that.

When people, even people who are students of philosophy, hear the word “metaphysics”, they typically think of ghosts, gods, and souls. This list isn’t wrong, exactly, but it is terribly limited. Using this list as their guide, people reject metaphysics as anti-empirical, and affirm without a trace of irony that “reason” tells them to reject anything not empirically validated. But there’s a lot more to metaphysics than the supernatural – reason itself is a metaphysical construct, a grammar for thinking that has no physical form. Ideas and concepts are metaphysical. Descriptive categories are metaphysical. Mathematical abstraction is metaphysical.

In order to…

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Apply science to gods, not gods to science

What scientific idea is ready for retirement?  “The Atheism Prerequisite” says Douglas Rushkoff.

Wait, huh?

We don’t need to credit an all-seeing God with the creation of life and matter to suspect that something wonderfully strange is going on in the dimension we call reality. Most of us living in it feel invested with a sense of purpose. Whether this directionality is a genuine, pre-existing condition of the universe, an illusion perpetrated by DNA, or something that will one day emerge from social interaction, has yet to be determined. At the very least, this means our experience and expectations of life can no longer be dismissed as impediments to proper observation and analysis.

Ah yes, the feeling that there is indeed “something up” in all of this. I’m familiar with that, the feeling of being caught up in the gears of fate as it were. Many people get those sorts of feelings, and most people also have the ability to separate the dizzying sense of purpose from empirical analysis. In fact, the sense that one is “on to something” is not always misleading in STEM-related contexts. Scientists, engineers, programmers, and mathematicians all develop intuition for how to approach and solve problems, and sometimes their intuitive senses can pave the ways to superior solutions and new discoveries.

But science’s unearned commitment to materialism has led us into convoluted assumptions about the origins of space-time, in which time itself simply must be accepted as a byproduct of the big bang, and consciousness (if it even exists) as a byproduct of matter. Such narratives follow information on its continuing evolution toward complexity, the singularity, and robot consciousness—a saga no less apocalyptic than the most literal interpretations of Biblical prophecy.

First, has Rushkoff read Revelation? Robot consciousness is not the same thing as heavenly beings with seven heads or fifty eyes and whatever else goes on in that book.

Second, serious scientists wouldn’t put forth any assumptions about the “origins of space time” with the Scientific Seal of Approval. The big bang, if I’m not mistaken, is figured to be the beginning of this universe, and some funky things happened to space-time around the big bang event. Scientists seem fairly confident in that, but why space-time exists in the first place is presently far beyond our grasp.

And finally, materialism is a likely explanation for all manner of phenomena which we observe.  Even if any given scientist is not fully committed to a 100% materialistic existence, they would be foolish to discredit the idea that our experiences are mostly the product of material happenings, especially if they ever find theirself in need of psychiatric medication.

It’s entirely more rational—and less steeped in storybook logic—to work with the possibility that time predates matter, and that consciousness is less the consequence of a physical, cause-and-effect reality than a precursor.

I don’t know what he means by the idea that “time predates matter”, or where he might be going with that thought. However, the idea of consciousness being a precursor to the physical universe is understandable, because after all, would this universe even exist in any meaningful sense, or any sense at all, were it not for us? That is truly a question for the ages.

The problem with the consciousness-first hypothesis in a scientific context is that we have no method to test it, at least not presently. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t an important point to ponder, even if only for a while, but it’s just not on the table for scientific discussion.

And here we have the conclusion to this particular musing:

By starting with Godlessness as a foundational principle of scientific reasoning, we make ourselves unnecessarily resistant to the novelty of human consciousness, its potential continuity over time, and the possibility that it has purpose.

Atheism is not a foundation for scientific reasoning; agnosticism is, and that’s the way it should be. As for the continuity of human consciousness over time, and the possibility that human consciousness has purpose, how could we possibly go about testing for such things presently?

And, furthermore, why tie any of this in with monotheism?  Because that is the most prevalent variety of theism today?  That seems like a rather far-fetched conclusion to all of this.

People who attempt to mix gods and science usually try to find ways to apply God to science rather than applying science to gods.  What Rushkoff seemed to be trying to do was to build a new foundation for science, by which science could test new sets of hypotheses based on the idea that God is at the center of all of this, because consciousness might be at the center of all of this and consciousness ≈ God. The problem is that we can’t actually scientifically test any of the hypotheses which he proposed. When people apply God to science, the result doesn’t look like science; it looks like a great deal of assumption.

What about the other way around?  What happens when we apply science to gods?

I’m not actually up on the latest hypotheses concerning the capacity of our brains to create the experiences of gods and the various sensations and thoughts surrounding divine.  When I first got into atheism I learned of hypotheses that our tendencies toward gods may actually be the result of our “wiring”— of neurons and chemicals. Such hypotheses are testable to a certain extent, if willing subjects can allow for empirical measurements of their brain activity when they meditate on their gods. I’ll bet that there is a fair bit consistency in the ways which activities like prayer and “holy book” reading affect the brain from person to person.

We can also look at population data regarding theistic activity throughout history to get a sense of the various ways in which we may be wired to approach, perceive, react to, experience, conceptualize, and commune with gods. There are a great deal of similarities in this kind of population data, more than can be explained by cultural conditioning alone. That’s not any argument in favor of objective divinity, it’s merely a suggestion that our proverbial wiring probably predisposes us to such behaviors when we get the brain-signals of divinity.

(The brain-signals of divinity? Band name going once! going twice…)

And, yes, divinities have changed throughout the ages, divinities look different across cultures, and our responses to differing divinities, not surprisingly, differ! Still, the nature of divinities is just one more variable to analyze, and if different kinds of divinities provoke different responses there are statistically significant patterns to those responses. I’m pretty damn sure of that.

The point is that we can learn a lot about the natures of gods by looking at people, because while we cannot look for objective or material divinities in the world, we can look at the effects that gods have on people. Through such research we may be able to zero in on what makes our god-senses tick, and how we may actually be able to best utilize our tendencies in this vein.

And because the only scientifically sound position to take with regard to objective divinity is agnosticism, we’re still free to hold elaborate personal understanding about the natures of gods, if we want to— if it’s at all helpful or healthy for us, so long as we don’t stamp such understanding with the Scientific Seal of Approval. That’s where personal gnosis comes in: when Rushkoff ties consciousness in with God he could be saying that, because consciousness seems so magical it only makes sense to attribute it to God. Maybe that is his personal gnosis, and if that is the case then that is fine.

Beyond the distinctions “theist”, “atheist”, and “agnostic”

I received a comment about the four-way distinction between agnostic theists, gnostic atheists, and so on, and I thought my reply to that comment would be a good way to illustrate why it’s so difficult to cleanly categorize people on messy people issues like divinity.

Here is the comment, from William:

I’ve heard of the four way distinction between agnostic atheist, agnostic theist, gnostic atheist, and gnostic theist before, and I think it’s legitimate. However, there is another legitimate way of distinguishing between these positions.

It’s based on the distinction between affirming a claim, suspending judgment about a claim, and denying a claim. Affirming a claim means you believe it, although not necessarily that you believe it with certainty. Suspending judgment about a claim means that you don’t believe either that the claim is true or that the claim is false; you’re neutral with respect to it. Denying a claim means you hold the positive belief that the claim is false, although you might not believe that it is false with certainty. If we apply this distinction to the claim that God exists, we get the alternatives of affirming that God exists (theism), suspending judgment about whether or not God exists (agnosticism), and denying that God exists (atheism).

I think both of these sets of distinctions are in wide use and have roughly equal utility, so I don’t see any way of reasonably demanding that someone who uses one set of distinctions use the other set..

While I understand that that both sets of distinctions are in wide use, I don’t think that they have equal utility, and I certainly don’t think either set is optimal! Here’s why:

People are going to use a set of distinctions that they feel comfortable with, and aren’t going to change unless they feel compelled to do so. Circumstance—what exists in the world—is the best way to determine what distinctions to use. People should be compelled to change the distinctions they use when their circumstances suggest that the change would be wise. When distinctions don’t accurately or satisfactorily describe what exists, or when a new set of distinctions would describe what exists in a way which is more accurate and useful, then it would behoove people to adopt the new set of distinctions. But, that sometimes causes controversy…

A good example of a controversial distinction is the word “cisgender” to distinguish a person as being non-transgender. People who are not transgender, but also not entirely cisgender—like genderfluid people—don’t like the word “cisgender” as the go-to distinction. By default, their non-transgender status labels them as cisgender, and they find that label offensive because they’re not comfortable being confined to a singular gender.

The impetus to create a new set of distinctions—”cisgender” and “transgender” plus potential others, like “pangender”—arises out of the circumstance in which people don’t fit neatly into the old distinctions. The right set of distinctions, in this case, is determined by its ability to describe people in a way that accurately identifies them and makes them feel comfortable.

Distinctions for describing how people perceive or relate to the divine are no less confounding, but like sexual identity those distinctions should be made based on actual perceptions and beliefs. I think the most helpful concept to come out of the four-way distinction was the idea of agnostic theism, which has come to be understood as the combination of having gods and not asserting their absolute or physical natures. It’s helpful because people have been using the phrase to mean, “I have some ideas or inclinations about this whole god thing, but I’m not making claims about the nature of the universe,” and that’s an increasingly popular stance.  (Not everyone who uses the term “agnostic theist” uses it in that way, though, which is a sign that even that four-way distinction is lacking and confusing.)

The problem with the three-way distinction is that people don’t fit neatly into it. Theism is generally accepted to be “believing in god”, agnosticism is generally accepted as “not knowing anything about god”, and yeah atheism is “denial of god”. But then you have people like me who shun belief, who don’t assume anything without evidence, and also experience gods. I can’t call myself “agnostic” because I have knowledge of gods— personal knowledge, or personal gnosis. And, despite the fact that I experience gods, I avoided calling myself a theist for the longest time because I didn’t want to give people the impression that I “believed in God” sans evidence.

It was through talking to someone else who ran up against the same problem that the word “polygnostic” was born. They mentioned that they remained agnostic despite the fact that they experienced gods and had personal gnosis, and also noted the contradictory nature of their statement. So I chimed in and said, “Time to make a new word!”

People like us polygnostic types, and agnostic theists who have inclinations toward gods but are happy to remain on the agnostic fence, need words or terms to identify ourselves. Insisting on the three-way dichotomy negates who we are. Maybe someone affirms their experiences of the divine, but doesn’t affirm those experiences to have absolute or universal significance. Maybe someone suspends judgment about absolute and material divinity, but can’t suspend judgment about the gods they experience or are drawn to understand.  If either of these are the case, then the three-way distinction causes them to have to identify as theist-asterisk or agnostic-asterisk, which gets uncomfortable and confusing.

Additionally, for people who don’t have personal experiences of divinity but trust that others do, there needs to be a term for the view that divinity is a messy people issue rather than something that emanates from an objective or measurable source that, say, created the universe 6000 years ago.

Temples for inclusive worship

Traditionally, every village and urban neighborhood has a temple. The temple grounds will be the only public space in the community. There is no clergy; the temple is administered by a neighborhood or village committee. Here is where public meetings will be held, where public entertainment—nominally for the deities housed there—will take place, where older people hang out, where children play, where local people gather in the evening to play musical instruments or chess, and where grain may be dried at harvest time. The temple building will theoretically focus on one or a few deities, but anyone is free to contribute an image, and over time, the temple will be crowded with a multitude of images. All will be worshipped.

—Jordan Paper, The Deities Are Many, on Chinese temples

Before reading about Chinese temples in Paper’s book, I was pondering creating a virtual public temple in which people could anonymously post images of their divinities, or anything related to their divinities. I’ve not gone ahead with the idea because I’m aware that anonymous posting on the Internet would not be conducive to the kind of environment I’m hoping to create, though I’m still brainstorming ways to create such a virtual space.

Discovering that there already are such public temples, to which people can contribute likenesses of their own divinities, was astonishing and heartening. Creating and tending such spaces may not be something that is beyond people on the whole.

I did have to wonder whether such temples would be supported by the public at all, given that people—at least in the West—usually imagine temples to be dedicated to one or a few predetermined divinities. The idea of such a temple, in which anyone can post a likeness of any divinity they happen to perceive, might seem troublesome even to members of interfaith communities. After all, “What if someone posts an image of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?” While it’s very unlikely that the TMNT would be discovered in a traditional Chinese temple, the question should be asked: if someone wanted to post a picture of a superhero or video game character in an inclusive temple, because they perceive the divine in that character, why would that be so wrong? I can hypothesize some reasons for why people may perceive such an action to be improper.

For one thing, it would be a reminder that one need not go through the routes of any major religion to commune with the divine. Even for people who accept that there is no one right, or correct, religion, I think there is often some unnecessary attachment to the idea that religions can offer a better take on spirituality or divinity that one’s own perceptions.

Perhaps in connection with the above point, a lot of people have attachments to presumed appearances of the divine, and I don’t know about the entire variety of those presumptions, but I can imagine that cartoon characters aren’t exactly prevalent among them.  When people create temples with the aim of creating a universal worship space, they still create such spaces with their own perceptions of “everyone’s gods” or “a divinity for everyone” in mind, and they often don’t like to stray from their own visions.

I think there’s also a spiritual fear of tainting an environment with non-sacred images, and in doing so perhaps making the environment less conducive to the divine presences. If people want places conducive to certain divinities then they can make those places themselves, but that does not mean that there cannot or should not be public temples which are entirely inclusive, even to cartoon character divinities and their devotees.

Conflicts over non-traditional divinities aside, a public space in which people can appreciate the full spectrum of divinities recognized by people all over the world, as well as the wildly diverse methods of divine communion, would be helpful and illuminating to many people who are shut out by popular and ignorant convictions about the absolute nature of the divine. It would additionally be helpful and illuminating to the people who have such convictions, if they could come to understand that their convictions are unfounded and that they do people harm by professing them.

Such a space would offer a place to explore the very real phenomenon of divine communion, and yet it could be predominantly secular by remaining silent on the nature of divinity itself. An inclusive temple’s facilities could offer such opportunities for exploration, as well as seminars covering historical and anthropological angles of spirituality, in which information would be offered without any ecclesiastical endorsement.

Then, the temple’s sanctuary, with a variety of images, artifacts, and personal statements—confessions (regarding the natures of one’s own divinities, not confessions of sins)—placed by people who worship there, would be a place for connection, and appreciation for the wide variety of extant divinities. It would allow people to see how their contemporaries truly commune with the divine, and in doing so perhaps inspire others to acknowledge their own gods. For me personally, when I was very young, it would have been very moving to find an image of Rydia alongside other divinities, because I could have recognized early on that there would have been nothing wrong with considering her to be a god, or seeking her assistance instead of turning to gods—at the urging of established religions—who felt thoroughly alien to me. I wonder if others would be able to find their way in the world better with the help of other peoples’ gods, thanks to something they would find in such a temple.

Because of the importance of divinities to so many people, and the deeply personal nature of relationships with the divine, I understand very well that it will be difficult to organize and maintain such a space so that it would be beneficial to all who would utilize it. In a virtual space such organization might be easier than in a physical space; however given that physical spaces similar to these imagined inclusive temples do exist, it may be possible to learn from them and simply alter their structures somewhat to create an even more optimally inclusive space.

Beyond inclusivity, though, such a temple would ultimately be a source for understanding, of oneself, of everyone’s divinities, and hopefully of the most important elements which underlie the confounding religions of the world. In seeing the real natures of the gods people have warred over for ages, through the creative efforts of our fellow people, perhaps everyone could finally begin to appreciate the realness, the immensity, and the importance of the multitude of divinities while simultaneously shedding the petty societal baggage which has long been paired with the concept of the divine.

And, the occasional picture of Darkwing Duck on an altar may actually go a long way toward strengthening such understanding.

A fifth option

Image

Cartoon by Pablo Stanley.  Taken from http://www.stanleycolors.com/2013/07/atheism-vs-theism-vs-agnosticism…

Here are some things that agnostic theists, and gnostic atheists might say, so…

What does the polygnostic say?

Well, I’m possibly the only one of my kind at present, so I’ll just speak for me here:

I say that I know gods exist; I interact with them daily.  In fact, I’ve had divine presences in my life from the time I was very young, when I found them in the stories of my childhood, video games in particular.  Before I knew they were gods—before I knew that they were allowed to be considered gods, in the midst of religious monopolies on the divine and atheistic theophobia—I meditated on them, and prayed to them. I worshipped them in my own way. Sometimes they took physical forms, as elements of the natural world like mountains or gusts of wind, and when they did I would treat them like my closest friends. I would lean on them, when they offered me their shoulders, and I would dance with them.  Sometimes they even acted in the natural world, and I came to attribute certain physical occurrences to their involvement.

When I discovered that I was allowed to call these gods what they were to me, and they were indeed gods, I did so gratefully.  It was a relief to be able to treat them as I’d wanted for so long to treat them.  I’ve called them gods ever since, worshipped them, prayed to them, and found my way with their help.  I’ve also discovered that my perceptions of gods, and my interactions with my gods, are not all that unique or strange in the grand scheme of world religions and historical divinities, and that people have been having experiences akin to mine for millennia.

I know that gods exist, but I also know that I cannot present my gods for scientific evaluation.  I know that not everybody experiences the same gods as me.  Even when I perceive them to act in a way which changes the physical landscape, I know that I cannot insist that others agree with me in attributing events to their wills.  I know that I cannot and should not ever do that, because even while I have personal gnosis—my own vivid experiences and understanding of divinities—I’m simultaneously an agnostic in that I cannot even begin to be certain about whether my experiences indicate any objective or physical divinity.

Personal gnosis and agnosticism exist simultaneously for me.  I can be both certain about the existence of my gods and uncertain about all of the reasons I perceive them, and because I respect the indispensable advancements which have only been made thanks to scientific evaluation of the natural world I will defer to science to determine the mechanisms by which the physical world works.

However, I will continue to develop my personal gnosis in a way which helps me to find fulfillment through my divinities, fulfillment which only they may be able to provide.  I will continue to seek them and delve into them, even while I must remain uncertain as to their absolute natures.