Thoughts on God and Reality

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.

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I haven't yet had spiritual

I haven't yet had spiritual experiences as such. I have however recently made a concerted effort to stop taking the world around me for granted. To quote Carl Sagan: "we are a way for the cosmos to know itself." I firmly believe that the best way to do that is through science. If you haven't watched any of the symphony of science videos on youtube or Carl Sagan's Cosmos which is on Hulu I can't think of anything I would recommend more strongly.

I don't believe in good, evil, right or wrong as objective standards. I feel that we all have preferences and where the overwhelming majority has a preference in common it sometimes makes sense to make rules on that basis.

In regards to your comments on many ideas originating in religion. I'm not quite as sure of that. I allow that it is possible. However, I believe that some moral principles are innate within every human and indeed to various degrees in other species as well. I believe that religion is built in part on that framework.

Insofar as religion is focused on that part of its underlying psychological patterns I think it tends to be a force for good in the world. Religion turns more sinister when it focuses on the ingroup vs outgroup duality that is also near its core. Please, don't get me wrong, many other human constructs are built on ingroup vs outgroup dualities, and they are just as vulnerable to that sinister turn. When we stop seeing the people we disagree with as essentially like us, we lose the constraints that keep us from doing them tremendous harm. I personally feel it is deeply sad when this happens.

I cannot personally conceive of having preferences which would lead me to the actions ascribed to the god depicted in the Christian Bible. As a result, I don't find it credible. I understand this is a rather biased and perhaps arrogant way of looking at the Bible but I thought I would share my perspective.

are you contradicting yourself Quantum?

You begin by saying that you don't believe in good evil right and wrong, but you do believe that some moral principles are innate. I must not have caught the full drift of that because this seems like contradiction. i have not watched symphony of science but the title sounds cool.
as to my own spiritual experiences the closest I have gotten is hearing and feeling a music which is beyond me. It is a charge within my soul that I have had a few times. Once you have it you want to do as much as you can to have it again but you cannot create it yourself, you can only live according to what you think is right.
There is a term which Lewis coined "the law of undulation" where human beings are continually coming to peaks and trofts. This describes most christian lives well. I continually pray and strive to be at the peak but joy is living rightly in the troft.

Culture from religion

It takes studying history to know it, but MOST of our culture exists because of religion.

1. The novel -- grew out of Protestant practices of writing journals, seeing how God was active in their human life in hindsight. Protestant writers made this process fictional by writing books like Pilgrim's Progress and Robinson Crusoe, helping to develop the modern novel.

2. Theatre -- Shakespeare's day was made possible by the preceding era, where travelling players enacted Morality Plays and dramatized parts of the Bible for festivals, before developing original works.

3. Science -- many famous scientists were either sponsored by the church, priests or monks. Gregor Mendel, father of genetics, was in a monastery experimenting on peas. Galileo was acquainted with the pope, and Descartes was as much a theologian as a scientist and mathematician. Newton and Darwin both studied religion.

Artists were sponsored by the church (Michelangelo and the Sistine chapel, anyone?) all the time, how many paintings are there of the Madonna and Child during the Renaissance?

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