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Quote for the Day – Feynman on Religion: “The stage is too big for the drama.”

“It doesn’t seem to me that this fantastically marvelous universe, this tremendous range of time and space and different kinds of animals, and all the different planets, and all these atoms with all their motions, and so on, all this complicated thing can merely be a stage so that God can watch human beings struggle for good and evil—which is the view that religion has. The stage is too big for the drama.”

~Richard Feynman, quoted in Genius, by James Gleick

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Russell and Knowledge: Implications for the Ontological Argument

In his article “Knowledge by acquaintance and knowledge by description”, Bertrand Russell explores how we can know something about an object even if we lack direct acquaintance with that object. For example, it seems that I can know that the biggest crater on the moon exists without ever being acquainted with that particular crater. In this case, I know something about the crater (that it exists), without being acquainted with that crater in any way. Thus grounds the fundamental distinction between knowledge by acquaintance and knowledge by description. In the case of the largest moon crater, we can have definite and certain knowledge of it (that it exists), without knowing in the slightest anything like where it is located, or how deep it is. Knowledge by acquaintance is a matter of the subject having a “direct cognitive relation” with that object. On Russell’s view, we are not acquainted with physical objects themselves, nor are we acquainted with other people’s minds. Instead, Russell claims that, when it comes to particular things, we are for the most part directly acquainted with sense-data. Although Russell thinks that the most common object to be acquainted with is a sense-datum, he also thinks that we can be acquainted with universals, such as “yellow”, which he calls a “concept”. Russell thus thinks that we are acquainted with two basic types of objects: particulars and universals. The basic particulars which we are acquainted with are sense-data, and the universals we are acquainted with are various kinds of abstract concepts such as “roundness”. In addition to knowledge by acquaintance, Russell thinks there is also knowledge by description. For Russell, a description is generally any phrase such as “the so-and-so” e.g. “the biggest crater on the moon”. And accordingly, we can have knowledge by description of an object without being directly acquainted with that object insofar as we can have knowledge that there exists the biggest crater on the moon without being directly acquainted with it, or know anything about its particular details.

An important corollary of Russell’s theory is that any description of a particular must, ultimately, be cashed out in terms of acquaintance with sense-data. The fact that I know “The biggest moon crater is 13km deep” has to be cashed out in terms of a sense-datum that I have been acquainted with, be that a sense-datum of reading about the moon crater on a website, or the sense-datum of talking to my astronaut friend who visited the moon. And likewise, the knowledge by acquaintance of the biggest crater by the astronaut has to be cashed out in terms of his acquaintance with the sense-data of his exploration of the crater, or the sense-data of his looking through a telescope. In the case of particulars then, Russell is committed to a strong reductionism whereby any knowledge by description of a particular can, in principle, be reduced to knowledge of sense-data. We thus come to what Russell calls a fundamental epistemological principle: “Every proposition which we can understand must be composed wholly of constituents with which we are acquainted” (p. 117). For Russell then, all knowledge of the moon crater as a particular thing (e.g. the fact that it is 13km deep), no matter how abstract, must rest on original first-person acquaintance with the sense-data of the moon. Of course, prior to us being acquainted with the largest moon crater such that we know it is 13km deep, we could have had only some knowledge by description of it, namely, “The biggest crater on the moon exists somewhere, but we’re not sure where yet”.

The epistemological implications of this principle run deep, for it seems like Russell would want to apply it to cases where people claim to have descriptive knowledge of entities that, in principle, no one could have ever been directly acquainted with e.g. God. If we asked what it means to understand the proposition “God exists”, a theist persuaded by the ontological argument might say it requires an understanding of the phrase “an absolutely perfect being exists”, for that is the conclusion of the argument it tries to establish (on the premise that a perfect being is most perfect, and existence is a perfection). But if we were to accept Russell’s epistemological principle, we would need to be acquainted with the concepts of absoluteness and perfection in order to properly understand the proposition “God exists”, for it seems reasonably agreed that theists are not basing their description of God on sense-data of God, except for perhaps schizophrenics. Does Russell’s theory of knowledge prevent us from being acquainted with universals like “perfection”? It’s hard for me to reconstruct what Russell’s actual view is on this question, for we would need to know more about Russell’s views on how we learn about universals. He does say, however, that in regard to learning the universal concept of “yellow”, that “Not only are we aware of particular yellows, but if we have seen a sufficient number of yellows and have sufficient intelligence, we are aware of the universal yellow” (p. 111).

If the case of yellow is analogous with the case of perfection, then it seems we would have to have been acquainted with a sufficient number of perfect beings in order to understand the concept of “perfection”. However, it is highly debatable as to whether anyone has ever been acquainted with a perfect being in his or her lifetime. Thus, if the ontological argument seeks to establish the existence of a perfect being, and such an argument requires the prior acquaintance with the concept of perfection in order to understand the conclusion, and it is only possible to learn about perfection through acquaintance with perfect beings, then the ontological argument cannot actually establish what it seeks to establish (namely, that a perfect being exists). In other words, because we must be acquainted with the concept of perfection in order to know what a “perfect being” is (as per Russell’s principle), and Russell’s principle seemingly indicates that we can only learn about such a concept through acquaintance with perfect beings, then the ontological argument cannot possibly go through because it requires that we know in advance what it sets out to prove, namely, that there exists a perfect being through which we learned about the concept of perfection. But since it seems plausible to suppose that we have no direct acquaintance with perfect beings as finite creatures, then we cannot learn about the concept of perfection in the way theists require, and thus we do not really understand (and thus know) the phrase “a perfect being exists”. That is, if we can not understand that phrase without being acquainted with a perfect being, and the only reason we would have for thinking a perfect being exists is the ontological argument, then it is plain that the argument does not work, for it assumes that one has a prior acquaintance with perfection. But as we have seen, the possibility of having an acquaintance with perfection is what it sets out to prove! One would have to show that you can learn about the concept of perfection without ever being acquainted with perfect beings. This might be possible, but if it were so, then it would be of no help to the theist using the ontological argument, for any supposed jump from having a conception of a perfect being to there actually being a perfect being wouldn’t necessarily follow if we establish that we can learn about perfection without there actually being any perfect beings.

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The Authority of the Bicameral Mind

Recounted by Julian Jaynes,

One sunny afternoon not long ago, a man was lying back in a deck chair on the beach at Coney Island. Suddenly, he heard a voice so loud and clear that he looked about at his companions, certain that they too must have heard the voice. When they acted as if nothing had happened, he began to feel strange and moved his chair away from them. And then

…suddenly, clearer, deeper, and even louder than before, the deep voice came at me again, right in my ear this time, and getting me tight and shivery inside “Larry Jayson, I told you before you weren’t any good. Why are you sitting here making believe you are as good as anyone else when you’re not? Whom are you fooling?”

The deep voice was so loud and so clear, everyone must have heard it. He got up and walked slowly away, down the stairs of the boardwalk to the stretch of sand below. He waited to see if the voice came back. It did, its words pounding in this time, not the way you hear any words, but deeper,

….as though all parts of me had become ears, with my fingers hearing the words, and my legs, and my head too. “You’re no good,” the voice said slowly, in the same deep tones. “You’ve never been any good or use on earth. There is the ocean. You might as well drown yourself. Just walk in, and keep walking.” As soon as the voice was through, I knew by its cold command, I had to obey it.

The patient walking the pounded sands of Coney Island heard his pounding voice as clearly as Achilles heard Thetis along the misted shores of the Aegean. And even as Agamemmon “had to obey” the “cold command” of Zeus, or Paul the command of Jesus before Damascus, so Mr. Jayson waded into the Atlantic Ocean to drown. Against the will of his voices, he was saved by lifeguards and brought to Bellevue Hospital, where he recovered to write of this bicameral experience.

Who in the history of literature does Mr. Jayson’s hallucinated voice remind you of? The booming, fatherly voice, the absolute moral judgement, the “You should fear and obey me” attitude? Atheists and skeptics often ridicule religious people for being weak-minded in light of rational evidence that gods and demigods do not “really” exist. But clearly, Mr. Jayson did not have a choice in obeying his god. It was not a matter of choosing to believe; it was simply about giving in to the command of the dominant authority. Giving in to authority and letting the patriarchal male dominate through admonitory verbal judgement is fundamental to human behavior. It’s how social relations were governed for hundreds of thousands of years (and to this day remains a powerful tool for mass social control as indicated by hypnotism, meteoric dictators, and religious sermons).

Is it any surprise then that the phenomenon of religion is pervasive enough to warrant speculation about “god genes”? It was the internalization of admonitory judgement through schizoid hallucinatory control mechanisms that catalyzed the unique human phenomenon of ancestor worship. As the ancestors became surrounded in myth and lore, they were internally constructed and experienced as the first gods and demigods. The god complex, grounded by the right hemisphere’s synthetic problem solving skills, dictated commands in time of stress and crutch decision making. It was our alliance with the gods that made our amazingly rapid cultural evolution possible. But as society grew more complex, the social control mechanism of bicamerality grew weak in comparison with the control mechanisms of written language (Hammurabi’s code, the Torah, etc.), bureaucracy, and the priest class. As the gods’ power and influence faded, humans resorted to sortilege, divination, prayer, and oracles to get in contact with what was once so direct: the will of the gods.

And as great civilizations crumbled under their own weight and scattered in response to cataclysmic events, a new self-control mechanism was selected for on the basis of a fundamentally plastic neocortex: consciousness. Linguistic constructs such as the “I/Me/Mine” complex allowed for the generation of a psychological distance between our physical behavior and the autobiographical self or “narrative center” that holds our folk psychological stories in place. The psychological space catalyzed the development of what’s now called “working memory”, “executive function”, “thought-control”, “introspection”, “short term memory”, etc. It was this ability for metacognitive control that gave rise to self-regulating concept-schemas like individual responsibility, agency, freewill, and having a “soul” or “mind”.

Right now Micah Allen and I are co-writing a article on google wave for Frontier‘s special topic issue on consciousness and neuroplasticity. Here is our extended abstract:

Recent research has demonstrated that throughout development the brain exhibits a natural ability to change in response to experience at both structural and functional levels. This plasticity is expressed through both the formation of new neurons (e.g. Maguire et al 2001) and the redeployment of functional connectivity (e.g. Torrerio, 2010). Although plasticity is also found in lower animals, research suggests that it is prefrontal connectivity between regions that differentiates humans from apes (Schoenemann, 2005). Furthermore, the prefrontal cortex, particularly the default mode network (DMN), retains this plasticity well into early adulthood (Gogtay et al, 2004; Raichle, 2001). Social-cognitive functions then, are not stable in preadolescence, and we argue that it is this unstable connectivity that enables the development and utilization of narrative consciousness.

Accordingly, we argue that the high-level cognitive operations typical of human behavior crucially depend upon our ability to evaluate and synthesize experience through narrative scaffolds. Such narrative practice depends upon the plasticity of social cognitive brain mechanisms and can be seen as a recently evolved capacity dependent on tool use (Tylen et al, 2009) and language (Jaynes, 1976). We suggest that it is precisely these culture-centric functional connectivity mechanisms that underlie conscious human narratizing within an “interiorized” workspace or “global theater” (Baars, 1997). Moreover, it has become apparent that exposure to narrative practice in childhood has a special impact on cognitive development (Hutto, 2008). We will argue that these findings provide support for the narrative or social-constructivist approach to consciousness (Jaynes, 1976; Dennett, 1986, 1991). It is our view that a proper consideration of the brain’s phylogenetic and ontogenetic plasticity alleviates any skeptical worries (Block, 1995) about the conceptual coherence or empirical plausibility of consciousness as a social construct.

To further support our argument we review recent evidence that demonstrates highly plastic brains learn to narratize in childhood from exposure to discourse with others. This protoemphathetic interactivity (Gallagher, 2005; Protevi, 2009) can be seen as the nonconscious cognitive scaffolding upon which the special attitude of self-reflection is constructed, giving rise to consciously sensible (i.e. introspectable) qualities. Furthermore, we will argue that recent research on cognitive scaffolding (Clark, 2003, 2008), internal speech (Morin, 2005), narrative practice (Menary, 2008), and childhood development (Reddy, 2009; Blakemore, 2009) provides ample support for the claim that consciousness proper is a social-linguistic construction learnt in childhood. Last, we review the role of plasticity in default brain networks for narrative and minimal consciousness.

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Atheism and Faith

[Note: This is the first post I’ve written for this blog in many months due to a lack of philosophical creativity and post-worthy ideas. Now that the fall semester has started and I’ve begun to read philosophy again, I will try and update this blog semi-regularly, but don’t hold your breath if I don’t.]

I am taking a class this semester called “faith and reason” and we are exploring the relationship between truth, rationality, and faith. The first book we read for the class was Christian existentialist-theologian-philosopher Paul Tillich’s The Dynamics of Faith. In this work, Tillich provides an existentialist definition of faith that I believe is compatible with atheism. How is this possible? Allow me to elucidate on Tillich’s refreshing idea.

Tillich essentially defines faith as an “ultimate concern with the infinite[or unconditional. I prefer “infinite.”]”. Thus, if you are an atheist you can still have “faith” granted that you are ultimately concerned with something that is not finite. What does this seemingly mystic definition mean? Surely, it is too abstract and mystical to be of any relevance to a scientifically oriented atheist such as myself (that, granted, has many philosophical leanings) What does Tillich mean here?

First of all, in order to understand what Tillich means by faith, it is important to understand what he doesn’t mean. He doesn’t equate faith with a cognitive belief structure or propositional knowledge-based faith, such as “I believe in God because I have faith that God exists.” This is not true faith for Tillich because only the cognitive aspect of the human being is concerned in such a faith. As an existentialist, this is unacceptable because “ultimate concern” deals with the total personality and not just a limited aspect of the human being, namely theoretical and reflective cognition.

Utilizing Heideggerian terminology, I think ultimate concern can be conceptualized in terms of ontological comportment by a Dasein. That is to say, as ontologically oriented creatures, human beings comport themselves towards that which defines their being, which is their own individual existence. I am a life to live. Such a conception of humanity differs from the Cartesian tradition’s emphasis on self-consciousness and mental gymnastics, instead focusing on how we are engaged with the world in our own personal lives. Furthermore, we care about our lives: our being is an issue for us and in this sense, Tillich seems to be echoing Heidegger in his insistence that the most critical aspect of our total personality is our ultimate concern with the infinite.

So what is the infinite if not some metaphysically abstract mumbojumbo? Well, ultimately its a metaphor so take it as you will, but I think its useful to view the infinite in terms of the reductionist/holist debate. I see the infinite as that which can’t be reduced to the finite, i.e. the infinite is wrapped up in that which can only be captured in holistic vocabulary. Such as what? Well, for one, our ontological being, which is social in nature, can’t be reduced to the physical motions of matter which supports our constitution, but rather, resides in an existential matrix that is spread out ontologically amongst a community of involved and engaged language users. It is this matrix which provides the significance missing in crudely naturalistic conceptions of the human world.

So, the infinite, is transcendent in that it goes above and beyond the concrete realm holistically, but nevertheless, remains grounded in the physicality of reality. It is this conception of infinite that I think is useful for the atheist in coming to terms with Tillich’s existentialist theology.

So how does an atheist utilize Tillich’s definitions to provide existential perspective to his life? Well, for starters, one can appreciate that mostly everyone is ultimately concerned with something, whether that something is a child, their work, or a nation/idea/etc. However, for Tillich, all these concerns are idolatrous in that they aren’t concerned with the infinite. How does Tillich get around this? Well, as a Christian he is concerned with the religious symbolism of God as an unconditional infinite Ground of Being. While I can make this work in my own mind, I fear that in our day and age, such terminology will never be socially useful because it would be annoying to try and explain in existentialist terms what you mean by “ultimate ground of being” everytime you mention that you have faith in God. So what should a good philosopher-atheist do? Take the Heideggerian path: situate your ultimate concern in terms of what you are already concerned with as an ontological being: your own being, your own life and how you live it, engaged and embodied in the world.

[To be continued]

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Ruminations on realization

Buddha

Western interpretations of Eastern philosophy have used many different terms to refer to the enlightenment process. Such terms include liberation, awakening, realization, etc. In this post I want to briefly speculate on what it could possibly mean to have such an enlightenment.

My speculation runs as follows: I can predict my own intentional actions with a substantial amount more precision than almost everything in the environment. Early on in the developmental process for modern humans, social drives will reinforce the use of cognitive capacities to predict egocentric intentional actions(changes) over the changes of the environment, as predicted by evolutionary theory. Upon realization(liberation, enlightenment, etc) the weight of priority changes, allowing the body-mind system to spend equal if not disproportionate amounts of time “predicting” the world around them.

This is a fundamental psychical change which will be manifested in real brain terms, with the primary impact upon the inhibitory and excitatory circuits of the frontal, executive system.

Because of the shift of intentional prediction towards the environment, phenomenal effects of godhood(or Buddhahood) will likely be present. It is crucial that this feeling of godhood is realized within a non-Western context, otherwise it can easily lead to the grandiose delusions typical of schizophrenia. I believe that the proper context is a Brahman-esque interpretation of God.

Thus, enlightenment could be said to be the realization that you are Brahman, or at least a relative aspect of Brahman. This realization that your Self is God implicitly includes the conception that everyone else in the world is also God. Thus, upon liberation, one realizes his/her Godlike nature and simultaneously realizes that such ideas are essentially meaningless because if you are God, then everyone else is as well. This doesn’t diminish the impact of the initial realization, but the relative context alleviates the probability of the grandiose schizoid behaviors typical of young Western adolescents realizing they are the next Messiah. In other words, the knowledge of such a Godhead transcends the dualistic nature of our egotistic minds.

It is this contextual knowledge that allows one to live the “watercourse way” of the Tao and simultaneously be of this world in such a way as to impart the fruits of compassion and loving-kindness. Cognitive capacities devoted to processing egocentric reference frameworks slowly give way to more allocentric ones. Again, this is where the feeling of god/Buddha-hood stems from, because your intentional prediction faculties are more devoted to predicting what is going on outside the boundary of your skin. The implicit relativities of self/other, inside/outside, etc would either gradually or immediately drop out of perceptual awareness, depending on the nature of the realization.

More ruminations on what it means to be liberated

Upon “transcendence”, who would be left to be liberated? Upon realization, is there any logical medium left for there to be a realization? Who enjoys the fruits the enlightenment, after enlightenment? If I understand the Buddhist concept of non-self correctly, then I have not understood it, because there would be no “I” left to understand after realization.

What do I mean by this? I conclude that one “achieves” enlightenment upon realization of how empty such concepts are to begin with. Again, it is the necessary properties of language and minds that force this confusing paradox upon us. One should probably not struggle too much trying to understand what enlightenment means and to what degree the brain is actually “changed” or “different” when one could instead spend time listening to a sound, smelling a smell, or feeling a feeling. In the words of Alan Watts, this is it.

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