Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Great Cosmic Parking Lot

Los Angeles Times, 10/4/77
OK, people.  It's late at night and I bet there are typos here, but I do want to get this post out, even if it's in rough form.  Let me know where you find inconsistencies and I'll work on them.  I know I'm missing citations and all that, but this is really more like a first draft of where I want to go with discussing my views on these things. 

I got a very interesting comment on one of my blog entries and wanted to make sure that I addressed it within a reasonable amount of time, but the topic of religion is so vast and requires so much context that I think I'm going to have to address it by iterations before linking those discussions with my experiences with mental illness.

Comment on Why Get Out of Bed:  I am fascinated by your claim "If Jesus were real, then you would be willing to get out of bed." I would love to hear more from you about what would constitute Empirical data for the existence of a higher power.

Well, I just spent a bunch of time writing what I have below and here I see that I didn't actually answer the question, I tried to explain what I do believe and there that comes from.  As far as evidence, that's hard.  Since I don't believe in a soul, I maintain that all of our data about the outside world comes to us via our senses and is processed in the brain.  Those sensations can all be recreated by the brain itself (as in dreams or hallucinations) or by direct electrical stimulation of the brain.  Therefore I suppose any "evidence" could be suspect since you'd never really know if the experience were coming from the outside world.  But then that's true of everything now.  How do we know we're really here at all, right?  Letting that lie, Science would demand evidence that can be replicated in repeated experiments following the same methodology by any person with the required equipment.  As they say, extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.  I suppose we'd need a repeatable demonstration, just the kind as is rejected by various scriptures (as in do not test God).  I am not familiar enough with non-Judeo-Christian beliefs to speak to their conceptualizations of a higher power.  But my understanding is that faith requires belief without proof.  Science requires repeatable proof and even then what is established is accepted only until disproved.

Now I know that, per Christian scripture, Thomas said he would not believe until he probed Jesus' wounds himself.  Jesus appeared and he was able to do so and then he believed.  Jesus still loved him!  He did say how much better for those who didn't need proof, but I'm OK with that.  I figure, if Thomas still needed to see it, and he knew Jesus, how could God really give me a hard time for wanting something like that for myself given it's been 2000+  years and how many translations of events originally described by someone who lived 100+ years after the events occurred?  If you want to get into the veracity of scripture, check out Misquoting Jesus.  Of course, even if this happened, it might turn out that really, I was having a psychotic break and my reality is not the reality shared by the rest of the universe.  That's where science comes in with its repeatable experiments.  Great, so we are able to see Jesus come down from the sky or whatever over and over again and heal the sick and part the waters when asked by many different people and all under reasonably controlled experimental conditions and it's in the newspapers and the world is changed forever, right?  And I could STILL be psychotic.

So the question is, do I care?  I think, if I experienced the above, it's be good enough for me.  It's kind of like in The Life of Pi, choose the best story.   I wouldn't be worrying too much if I were psychotic, especially after the repeated demonstrations under strictly controlled conditions and with the real Guy there to give satisfactory explanations to everyone on the nature of Himself and the universe and we'd get that uniform theory of everything in physics and everything would make sense... especially if He'd debunk this whole original sin thing as a bunch of hooey.  And people might say, don't you care that you didn't believe before and how much better it is for those who did?  And I'd say, what good is an unexamined faith?  Yeah, go as a little child and all that, but we're not little children and it's been a freakin' long time without any reliable, documentable, repeatable contact, except for a precious few individuals (who might have been psychotic).  Why make it so difficult?  Just come here and tell us what's what and we sinners will be genuinely sorry for whatever we've done wrong, because who wouldn't want to please God with him standing right there in front of you clearly demonstrating what's what, right?  So if that means that when I die and heaven is like a cosmic U2 concert and I don't get a ticket, and that is hell, I'll be out in the DDD section of the parking lot sitting on my car and being ecstatically happy that there is a concert at all.  That there is a concert is really the point, isn't it?  Not where you sit?

So I guess that's what it would take.

If you need some procrastination fodder and care what it is that I really do believe about life and the universe and everything and are willing to slog through a really rough draft of it, that's below.


What I meant by "If Jesus were real" was that if he were incarnate on the earth within a reachable distance, it would be totally worth getting out of bed to witness this or have the opportunity to see him or even communicate with him as a historical figure, regardless of the truth or not of his relation to an almighty god.  How cool would it be just to ask him what the deal was with the God-thing and have him really give you an answer that was not written 100+ years after his death by someone who probably never met him and then translated and re-translated by scores of others who may or may not have had an agenda to push and the temptation to tweak, I mean, interpret the words of the prior translation?

As far as the authorship and veracity of the Bible goes, it's been pretty well established (citation needed) that Jesus of Nazareth was an actual human alive around 2000 years ago (again, I know I could be more specific, but I'm just trying to get started here and this isn't really my area of expertise).  Who actually wrote the scriptures and whether or not all the things attributed to him really happened has been debated by many more learned than I.  Of course, the New Testament of the Bible is the most well known depiction of the life events of the man.  Scholars debate how much of the Bible's content is likely to have actually occurred as stated.  I am not talking of faith here, but rather of substantiated historical record.  A very interesting discussion of this can be found in Misquoting Jesus.

As far as whether or not I believe in the Judeo-Christian god of the Bible and Torah, being the same god of Muhammad and the Koran as is described in these tomes and is generally accepted by practitioners of these faiths, the answer is that I would like to, but no, currently I do not.

I believe in what has been substantiated by science in that our experiences of this life are all mediated by our senses, electro-chemical signals coursing from specialized receptor cells of taste, touch, sight, hearing, and smell up to the great living computer of our brain, where the signals are received and interpreted.  Neurosurgeons are able to stimulate certain areas in the brain to reproduce experiences of sensory input that subjects experience as equivalent to experiences received through their senses.  One of these sensations is described as a feeling of "presence" as if you are not alone, often described as a spiritual experience (citation needed) which is accompanied by a characteristic form of brainwaves not seen in other experiences.  The experience of spirituality is based in the electro-chemical activity of the brain, not in the perception of events by a soul.  I do not believe in the soul as a separate entity, though you could use such language to describe the nature of consciousness.  Perhaps naming consciousness itself (what exactly is it? need more citations) as the soul might be a way of satisfying the need to believe in such a thing, but as such it would wink out with the end of consciousness as it could not be continued without the living computer that makes it possible. 

I do feel (and again I know I need to substantiate this with citations and quotes, which I am confident I can do, just not tonight) that the predisposition to believe in a deity(ies) is an adaptive trait, a function of the brain that has increased fecundity of those who carry the instructions for constructing the mechanism that makes that trait possible in the brain.  Individuals with spiritual beliefs probably received many benefits that allowed them directly or their kin to raise more children to pass on the trait, so that it eventually became a neural characteristic of the species.  Perhaps there was some runaway sexual selection as in the peacock's tail if spiritual ability was correlated with status at some point before recorded history.  I am also aware of a theory that this may have originally come about due to the practical advantage of believing that events are caused by entities.  For example, the individual that believes the twig-snap in the woods was caused by a predator more likely survived attempted predation than the individual that did not.  Thus that mechanism would be favored until we became capable of assigning causality to events such as weather, sickness, success, failure, etc.  Those with spiritual belief systems have been shown (citations needed) to have lower stress, better health, etc.

Now the question is, do individuals experience a sense of connection with a higher power or feeling that the true nature of reality is satisfied by spiritual experiences and practices because of the neuro-chemical fallout of the ability to manufacture that feeling of "presence" by the brain?  Or is the brain being stimulated by some real Entity we cannot detect?  We can detect so many forms of matter now, down to things at the quantum level like quarks and neutrinos, etc.  Is this entity not made of matter?  Could be.  The whole search for the Higgs boson is about finding what gives matter mass, and that will be really interesting.  Maybe God has no mass?  There are many dimensions predicted by models of physics (need my husband to clarify for me) and maybe the gods' realm is one of them.

Given the scale of the universe on the micro and macro level (something we comprehend mainly in the language of mathematics and not at the gut level) and of time, I agree with Carl Sagan that the likelihood of the existence of such beings and the probability that they would pay special attention to our species to be ridiculously remote (find citation in The Varieties of Scientific Experience).  Most people really have no idea of the actual scale of things.  For example, I saw the atom described as having a nucleus the size of a marble and that the electrons would be like tiny points orbiting the marble at a distance of some miles (cite).  Given that there would be THAT much space in an atom makes the whole concept of the density of a neutron star much more understandable to me. (google and give density citation).  Conversely, check out the scale of just our solar system.  Scale models have been done that just blow my mind where the sun is like a big ball and you have to drive to various points in a town to get to the planets that turn out to be so incredibly tiny, like a peppercorn or less.  The SPACE involved in relation to the SIZE of the matter is just so much more that I'd bet most people really understand.

My husband believes we humans have the capacity to fully understand the universe, just that we're not there yet.  I don't know.  In my mind, I would not be surprised if the true nature of the universe were something that we just physically are not equipped to be able to conceive with the brains that we have.  Kind of the same way that I know my dog is never going to understand calculus.  It's just NOT going to happen.  He is limited by the biology of his brain.  In the same way, it seems possible to me that we might be limited by the capacity of our brains to truly conceive of the reality of the universe in all of its dimensions.  This bothers my husband.  I'm OK with it.  This is where I place the gods too.

I heard someone quoted as saying, as an atheist, that, "I just believe in one fewer god than you do."  This was striking to me because I was brought up with how obvious it was that the gods of the ancient Sumerians and Greeks and Romans and Aztec, etc. were just their way of explaining the universe that they didn't understand, while Christianity was really true.  I believe that the current religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have brought this construct of explaining the unknown to the present and as such have been refined to the point of being undisprovable to the faithful.  After all, they are based on faith, which is believing in something that you cannot prove or necessarily totally understand.  So to maintain your belief you need simply refuse to believe differently.  Indeed, to claim to understand the mind of God would be heretical, no?

Some would say science IS my religion.  After all, I haven't done all these experiments by myself so I am accepting the written word of others, just as with the Bible, as truthfully telling me what happened.  I suppose.  But in theory I could do the experiments and if I got a different answer it would make news and rework the whole understanding of a field (assuming I'm not psychotic).  But we are not to tempt God.  We are not to say, I won't believe in X miracle unless I can get God to make it happen again if I restage the circumstances.

So that's were I am tonight.  This all needs tightening up and better examples and citations but the short of my beliefs are:
  1. Spiritual experiences are electrochemical interactions of nerves in the brain creating the feeling of Presence in the consciousness of the human either self-stimulating the area somehow or having that stimulation be fostered by external stimulation through the senses or by direct stimulation of the brain.  It's all in the brain.  There is no soul, only consciousness.
  2. The existence of the universe is, for me, adequately, though admittedly incompletely explained by science.  I have no problem with evolution, physics, or chemistry as they stand.  Yes, they are "theories." So is gravity.  As such, they can still be reworked if we learn new stuff, and that's OK.  Complete understanding may come, or it may not be possible given the biological limitations of our brains.  My dog is not going to be doing calculus any time soon.
  3. The ability to have spiritual experiences is adaptive for our species and the ability to do so gave enough benefits to become a universal predisposition for the species.  When the twig snaps, we think someone did it.  That doesn't mean someone did it, but it sure helps you get away from predators and feeling that you can exert control over things people can't control gives benefits to individuals in their health and performance and to societies in controlling behavior.
  4. The micro and macro scale of the universe make it highly unlikely that an all-knowing entity that speaks our language, can read our thoughts and has a plan for our species/planet's existence and cares about our eating habits and sexual practices and our individual lives is in charge of everything, created the universe, and set us up to sin so He could save us so we could worship him is just too complicated (and, to me, ridiculous) to be a valid explanation for everything. See Occam's razor. 
This all being said, please know that if I could believe in a religion, I would.  I miss the comfort it gives.  I miss the best imaginary friend in the universe.  When I lost my faith it was as if someone died.  I mourned it.  I do not think the faithful are stupid or below me or anything like that.  I'd join them if I could, but I just can't get there.  And if that means I'm going to hell, I guess I am.  So if you pass me in the cosmic parking lot on the way to the Concert, give me a wave.  I'll be the one holding up a lighter.  


  1. I haven't yet read the whole thing, but I wanted to point out something you might like from your first paragraph after the break.

    You wrote, "As they say, extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof."

    I thought you would like to know that the "they" in "they say" was your hero Saint Carl Sagan and the quote is actually "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."

    The word evidence is more apropos since science doesn't really deal in proof so much as it deals in really good approximations to reality. As "they" say, proofs are for mathematicians and lawyers.

    1. Thanks, Dan. That's one of the corrections I'll make.

  2. Okay, done reading.

    Hey! It doesn't bother me that much that we may not be biologically capable of really understanding the universe. I'm just optimistic that we will get pretty close, since we've done such a good job over the past few hundred years. Especially considering modern humans have been around for something like 100,000 years. We're just getting started. We may need to build better brains for ourselves to achieve a more complete understanding, but we're already working on that.

  3. Thank you for writing this response to my question. I appreciate your bravery in exposing a core belief for the whole world to see (and criticize). You have given me a great deal to consider. I like your concert analogy; maybe someday we can find our way to the "will-call" window and find that front row tickets with back-stage passes are waiting for us.