|Submitted by G.S. Williams on Sat, 11/26/2011 - 08:12|
I've posted a few sermons from the times I've guest-preached, and one of them got an interesting discussion going with a commenter named Quantum Flux -- QF basically asked how I came to know what I think I know about God.
My answers so far haven't been very helpful because the question seemed pretty broad and then QF narrowed it down to "is your belief in the existence of god a falsifiable hypothesis and how would you test it // how have you already tested it if it is?"
In this form, the question is sort of more logic and science-based, and specific. I think it's a good starting point for discussion, anyway, and religion is a topic that fascinates me. If it interests you too, this might be fun. If it bores you, then skip this blog post, unless you just want to see my thoughts in general.
First of all "belief" is an interesting word. It usually implies assuming something exists that you haven't experienced. For example, children "believe" in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy because they've heard stories about them and see evidence of their actions (presents and money replacing teeth). However, they've never actully seen the people they believe in.
For some, belief in a deity is similar -- no one has seen God, Allah, Kali or Thor walking around lately, so we only have stories and circumstantial evidence. That starts to look like Santa Claus after awhile, if you're going on belief, the assumption that something you've never seen actually exists.
I don't assume things like that. I arrange ideas in my head according to my experience and basically give them a weight for probability and reliability. For example, I have 100% confidence that I have a wife because I wake up beside her each day, and she introduces herself that way, and I was at our wedding... There's a lot of evidence on a constant basis. Scientists tell me that we have cells and DNA because they've studied it under fancy microscopes and done tests, and I find this reasonably safe to trust because I can study the physics of light that make microscopes possible, build one, then investigate these cells for myself. I give that about a 99% reliable weight (I'll talk about the one percent in a minute).
However, in the vein of Descartes and the Matrix, you cannot be certain that anything you experience is reality. Senses can be fooled, memory is unreliable, evidence can be tampered with, and life can be simulated. In the Buddhist and Hindu sense, the world is an illusion so therefore it's not to be trusted. From a scientific perspective, everything is made of light where energy became particles after the Big Bang singularity event -- which means that reality can take different forms, it's not a static absolute place. Things change all the time in physics, chemistry and biology.
I handle this ambiguity thusly: first, I own my experience. I'm me, and my experiences are all I've had, so I trust that they're real for me. I don't know if they apply to other people, but it's my life and it's what I have to work with. If I'm inside a computer simulation like the Matrix, well, I can't do much about that. But I can make choices within the illusion about me as a person, and that's what counts to me. So whether a person is pixels or real, I would still hold a door for them, or use my manners.
Since I own my experience, it's up to me to be as well-informed about the world I inhabit as possible. I study science, history, sociology, psychology, literature, religion, math, and everything else I can get my hands on.
Because I work hard at obtaining knowledge, and weigh the validity of data, I'm very much a "believe it when I see it" person. If someone says they'll do something, I wait and see if they follow through. If someone follows up words with actions, I begin to count them as reliable. People who don't follow through start to lose status, because there's no way to know when they will be trustworthy.
Why is any of that relevant to my belief in God? I suppose I want to establish my thought process as an individual. I never went to church aside from occasions like weddings or to visit someone until I was 16. Before that I was a very logical, scientific child. My favourite characters were Sherlock Holmes and Spock and Superman, all of whom are big on being rational.
Beside this stubborn, practical, logical streak there was always also a dreamer, who got lost in stories and imagination. So I grew up with as strong an appreciation for fantasy and art as I did for logic and science. The creative and the organized, the natural and the creations of the human mind. In high school one of my teachers applied the word "dichotomy" to me, because I could hold two ideas or passions at a time despite them being somewhat contradictory. I think now that it always depended on the context.
So, from my earliest childhood, I had this imaginative sense of purpose. That life had meaning and I was somehow important. I think this grew out of my early appreciation for reading: at a very young age, I realized that stories were not just entertainment, but often had morals. The moral of a story was a lesson for the reader, and because I was reading, that meant it was a message for me.
Moments in life suddenly had moral weight, and my decisions could reflect character. Sharing, hitting, smiling and swearing all had meaning and implications. What type of person did I want to be? How did my actions reflect that purpose?
When I was in high school I had the opportunity to hang out with our student council after helping out with fundraising. They took me to a leadership conference and then got me to join their homeroom, and soon I was helping out on all the dance committees and doing skits. Some of them were church-goers and got me to come to their youth group and evening services.
Basically, what it boiled down to was their character. They did right actions, and displayed good character. Church was an environment that fostered and enhanced and encouraged those behaviours. The more I read and studied the more I learned how much religion had influenced writers, artists and even scientists, so that culture essentially became a vehicle for propagating spiritual beliefs. Our culture has lost touch with these origins, but they're still there as seeds. Sometimes they're in twisted forms, but it can all be traced back to the original root.
So, on the analytical level, church was a place for me to greater develop my own sense of right character, and "God" was a word for the Platonic ideal of the unifying essence of the universe, communicating light, love, and life. Whether Christian, Buddhist or Hindu, they were human cultural expressions of the same ideas, and differed because of geography and history and language, but remained in essence the same.
What I didn't count on was having actual spiritual experiences, most of which are found in the Rewind of NMAI. My understanding of psychology, neurology and meditation indicates that prayer states are similar to hypnosis and trances, all of which promote certain wave patterns in brain activity. These could be considered psychosomatic expressions of internal states and desires, and I'm aware of that. However, enough of them are other-directed or outside my body enough to suggest that perhaps there's more than just me involved.
I bounce back and forth between a rational, scientific model of thinking and a spiritual one. First there's the "I'm the universe and the universe is me because all the atoms in me are from the same Big Bang as everything else, so I have a duty to myself in the universe to work for the highest good." Then there's the spiritual "the universe is singing and sometimes I think I hear it" thought process, and sometimes they're inseparable. I can't prove that my spiritual experiences really happen, but if you're honest with yourself, you have no proof of the last conversation you had with whatever person you had it with. Even if you video-taped it, there's technology to fake that stuff.
Reality is ambiguous, a cloud of probabilities. I think that cloud is aware and alive and part of us as much as we're a part of it, and I call that "God" because it saves time.