Sunday, 27 May 2012

Letter to my cousin - what to make of "God the creator"

Karkun Ukko
My dear Cousin, who's name is program, you suggested recently to make live and thinking simple: at the beginning of time all matters start with God.

However, why shall I believe that “god the creator” is needed to fill a void before existence of our universe? Interesting slip of tongue, with a logical contradiction build in: "void before existence of our universe". I will come to that later - our language can be dubious - here it gives the message that the universe exists in time-space frame, so that notions of "void" and "before" make sense.

My cousin, you understand this “god the creator” as being eternal and omnipotent. Fair, that is a view shared by many human beings. Apparently for many of us it seems imperceivable to take the view that  the universe is eternal and evolving from Big Band to Big Crunch.  However that's not so curious neither considering the strangeness of "Big Bang Physics" [*] and their remoteness from our regular experiences. Thus, let us not bother about physics of the Big Bang, but  let us to set off the argument asking what is the difference between both concepts the “eternal god the creator” and the “eternal universe”? far as we can look back - cosmic microwave background
There are many differences between both concepts, but there is no difference regarding the specific notion “eternal". Saying "it is eternal" gives an answer to one of the old, basic concerns of humans, namely “from where do we come”? So we may take the view that we came alive as part of the eternal universe. Or we may take the view that the eternal god created the universe and us within.  Introducing “god the creator” increases complexity of view - one more instance to handle – to get the same answer, namely we are emerging out of something that is eternal.  So why not keeping things simple and settle for a philosophy or religion that consider an “eternal universe” instead an “eternal God that created the universe”? What do we, humans, gain from being attached to the concept “God the creator”?

At first view; possibly many of us perceived it as awkward to share the same universe with the God in which they believe? Sharing the universe seems to violate somewhat the "natural hierarchy". Nevertheless this “shared coexistence” exists somehow in pantheism.  Admitted too; “simplicity of a notion” is not an approach of many, although “Occam's razor” as such an approach is called, is used by many critical thinkers - before, during and after Occam's live in the late Middle Age (William of Ockham (c. 1285–1349)). Thus if  “simplicity of a notion” is not a criteria to make a choice, then other causes have to be found why so many like the concept of  “God the creator”.

Isis and Horus - Egyptian gods
First comes to my mind when considering the above, that the notion “God the creator” enshrines a very simple concept. It propose simply a omni-potent agent to take care of anything that I do not understand. Therefore, if I know little, if I feel insecure, or if I have many questions to which I do not know an answer, then referring to “God the creator” is comforting. Being subject to an omni-potent agent, which I can keep friendly by behaving rightly, sound familiar for may "wordily" settings and thus fits our state of mind easily and,the notion “God the creator” is just a straight extrapolation of  many things that we experience.

Second  comes to my mind, and possibly it is quite relevant, that the notion “God the creator” leads to a very powerful concept. God-believe gives purpose to the believer, because the believer perceives being created to achieve predefined goals. This is appealing to us, because giving purpose to acts and deeds is a very deeply routed human trait. Thus gaining trust that our own existence has purpose is comforting for us. Purpose-bound action reflects a very basic features of our mind, which evolved coupled to both the evolution of self-consciousness and the evolution of our ability to plan acts and deeds that shall secure our survival. As purpose comes, in mind, naturally with values supporting these purposes, consequently conventions and rules adopted by humans are easily understood as projected from god instead of being man-made. And that feature is very much the core of the function of religion - projecting  common conventions and rules to foster cooperation among humans.

Third comes to my mind, that the notion “God the creator” provides not only purpose to all humans but also provides certain believers with the additional option to feel empowered to guide and lead. Believing in their empowerment and somehow been followed by fellow-believers these individuals can act as charismatic leaders  – please consider as examples shamans, apostle or priests.  Thus the notion “God the creator” leads too to leadership and governance, which is an important element for cooperation between humans. An additional consequence, possibly also part of the evolutionary advantages of the evolution of charismatic leadership, is that charismatic leaders get an option to access better the resources of the group that they lead.

Thus,  the concept “God the creator” lays foundation to some important functions of the human mind and consequently to actions in society.  Some interesting further observations can be made in junction to the notions of god that can be derived from the concept "God the creator".

San people preparing a hunt
As “God the omni-potent” takes care of my uncertainties and believing in this fosters a state of mind of increased confidence in achieving my plans. Possibly unhappily for the believer, this view of god is very much the "god of the gap". Not really god-like that god fills the knowledge gap. Consequently increasing knowledge and decreasing  uncertainties reduces motivation of be believer to underwrite to that particular notion of god. Historically we witnessed that development during the last centuries after science and research emerged in modern societies. Not surprising neither is that fundamentalist believes often come together with hostility towards science and research. A desperate attempt to keep the knowledge gap open, and thus to maintain the advantage of increased self-confidence because   “God the omni-potent” takes care of me.

As “God source of purpose” gives purpose to me and my fellow-human beings it creates a state of mind of comfort and confidence in my goals or, more relevant, confidence in common goals.  Thus this notion of god increases group confidence in achieving common plans. This is an advantage in an evolutionary and historical context. Consequently  the likelihood to achieving common plans is enhanced compared to humans that do not have that common tweak to their minds. Thus adopting the concept of  “God source of purpose” enhanced  cooperation among humans, in particular for bigger groups involving many members that do not know each other personally. Favouring purpose-bound state of mind seems to be a concept easily accepted by our mind. That preferential state of mind likely evolved with us because it helped survival of better cooperating groups. Better cooperation enhances the access to scare resources that are needed to secure reproduction and thus survival of the group, species.

As “God source of purpose” furthers some charismatic individuals to consider that the purpose of their individual acts aligns with purpose set by god a particular social function emerges among fellow-believers - enforced cooperation. Thus, it can be said that Charismatic believers being righteous, in the sense being aligned with god's purpose, gain access to “God source of power”. Combing their charisma with common believe in purpose they can enforce far-range collaboration; in first instance of the fellow-believers by coordinating peer-pressure transmitted through networks in the group; and in second instance by coordinating vast group action against non-believers, basically  to compete for resources. The enforcement of collaboration may take the form that “worldly” power is projected or that cooperation  is coerced by calling on common insight of the fellow-believers. History is full of examples for the power-projecting by charismatic individuals. In most cases by charismatic religious believers, but there are other examples too of  charismatic individuals using the same cognitive mechanisms of  peer-pressure and power projection but referring to political notions. History illustrates also copiously how  charismatic individuals (and their disciple) get enhanced access to resources of the group.  Favouring charismatic leaders - today we call these "superstars" - seems to be a concept easily accepted by our mind. That easily assumed state of mind likely evolved with us as species because it helped to enforce better cooperation in large groups. Better cooperation enhances the access to scare resources that are needed to secure reproduction and thus survival of the group, the species.

African savannah
So my cousin in view of the considerations developed above, I could share the notion that "at the beginning of time all matters start with God". However that metaphor takes reflects on an evolutionary process in which believing in "god the creator" is at the root of mind-processes that facilitate development of cooperation in groups, even if that cooperation has a cost for many individuals higher then the direct benefits. Fostering cooperation was beneficial for the survival of our species, even if the cost of believes for some individuals were prohibitive (e.g. refer to martyrs for an extreme case) and cost for the societies were high. These mind-process are part of our very basic mental wiring and thus they are easily activated and difficult to overcome [1]. They can be overcome as far as the concept "god the creator" is replaced by more secular understanding. That process of replacement  is historically young, some centuries only, and the struggle for spreading more secular understanding in our societies will be long. It may never end as purpose-based reasoning is so deeply rooted in our mind as it evolved since early human species left African savannah. It is difficult for us, as our species evolved, to accept that we live in a purpose-free universe and have to set autonomously the purposes of our acts, deeds and lives. 

with Ukko's best wishes,
your Cousin

[*] Big Bang Physics is not what many like to favour compared to believes in “God the creator”. Although Big Bang Physics is the best available description of how our universe evolves – at the beginning jointly emerge space, time, energy, matter and the laws particular to our universe describing their respective interplay. Thus the notion “before the Big Bang” does not makes sense, neither “what set of the Big Bang” if we seek an evolution. Our particular “space, time, energy, matter and the laws to describing their interplay” emerges by the Big Bang. Thus we are bound in this frame; notions like "outside" or "before" bear a useful meaning only inside the universe.  

[1] for related reading:  Born believers, Justin L. Barret, New Scientist 39, 17th March 2012; Religion, Economy, and Cooperation, Ilkka Pyysiäinen (ed.), De Gruyter 2010

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Letter to my Cousin - my virtual inner world

My dear cousin,  

you asked "our inner worlds, real in the end"? Let's resume:

My inner world is real but outside reality. Reality is simply my outer world, namely: Reality is an outer world in opposition to my inner, imagined or virtual world of thoughts, memories or feelings. Reality, the outer world is mutable through me, it is world in which I can reproduce ideas that I draw from my inner world. It is independent of me as individual and my culture. It is acquired by methods that are independent of my believe, culture and lifestyle, and the applicability of my understanding of reality is independent from me as a user.” (1)

"Interesting concept, but your concept of "reality" suffers from the fact that it eradicates from it the world of feelings, and even culture. That goes against experience of life. A more appropriate definition of "reality" should include the ponder-able difficult, the imprecise, the unpredictable and the irrational. Otherwise your world would be without taste or fun, and possibly a world without respect for the other.” (2)

"Well, if we add feelings, ideas and other "content" of our inner world together with the systems that support our information processing, into the notion of "reality", then there are so many realities as there are intelligent beings (e.g. Humans if we take an anthropocentric view). That does not seem helpful to survive.. We should describe this inner worlds of us in a different manner, just to incorporate appropriately the ponder-able difficult, fuzzy and unpredictable." (3)

Admittedly, my dear cousin,

Karkun Ukko
I make a choice in applying that (1) notion of “reality”. Admitted too, other notions of reality (2) are more “en vouge”; humans are discussing “meta-physic” since ages and make and made different choices. I make that particular choice, because I think, in my inner world, that it matters. It matters I think, because is helps to understand, to act, and to respect. And I value, in my inner world, the capability to understand, to act, and to respect.

Let's step back. We "humans are intuitive dualists in the sense that we feel our self to be owner of the body, but we are not the same as our bodies" [1]. Thoughts, feelings, ideas are real, somehow, but how? Thoughts, feelings, ideas are part of our self-contentiousness that too is part of our inner world (3).  

Practice and cooperation is the key to understand the choice that I favor. The interaction between our inner world and our outer world, thus what I like to name “reality”, may be functional or dysfunctional depending on the outcome of actions - outcome as it is occurring in the outer world. However, whether an interaction is perceived by a person as functional or dysfunctional depends on the actor's or observer's “view”. Thus it is relative. Being functional or dysfunctional is a value statement “operated” in the respective inner world, when the outcome of an action is assessed.

Value statements are not innocent and they are genuine to the inner world. Value statements matter if cooperation between actors, thus common practice is relevant. Thus understanding of reality, and in the end “understanding what is reality” matters to the degree that cooperation and common practice is needed. Cooperation and common practice among humans is needed to live together and to reproduce. This imperative of cooperation and common practice makes it necessary for humans to have a common view on reality; at least for the specific group of humans that has to cooperate at a certain time and space.  

Venus von Willersdorf in different context
Conceptually, such a group has the options to forge the same inner world (in all its members) or to limit cooperation to individuals having very similar inner world. Then their action would be common. However, for that closed group (of “believers” having a similar inner world) remains the issue how the outer world reacts to its actions. Notwithstanding side-effects, as long as this reaction (of the outer world) does not jeopardize the ability of that group to reproduce, and this in the plain biological sense of the notion as well as in the cultural sense of the notion, their live could go on. Matters getting complex if one closed group is impossible to set up; what is a feature of the world in which we live; the emerging global vilage.  

Thus it seems to be more practical, than “forge the same inner world”, to take the most simple option, namely: "Reality" is the outer world in opposition to our inner, imagined or virtual world of thoughts, memories or feelings; and to respect the differences of inner worlds as individual traits. 

We all have the necessary experiences to take this option: We know that our body is a system that supports processing of information captured by our senses. We know that our senses are different, limited and not of same quality for all individuals. We know that our body in turns the received information into feelings, ideas etc. thus into our rich inner world. Thus we should modernize our notions and take feelings, ideas as “content” of inner world.

In context of information technology the word “content” is used to distinguish the “inner world of ideas, messages...” from the physical systems (computer) that processes the information that in turn is representing the content. Does this make “content” without taste and fun? Does this make "content" to a part of reality? No!  Does "content" has impact? Yes!

Cave paintings Altamira
Intelligent beings, e.g. humans debating what is reality since ancient times. Our Mediterranean-centric culture traces that discussion back for some thousand years. Research indicates that human beings handle symbolic content since late paleolithic times. Firm evidence shows that humans of the homo sapience species, first in Africa, as well as late Neanderthals were capable to handle a sort of symbolic representations that underpins language, art and religion. Thus they had an “inner world”.

Its speculative how much older is this human trait. Possibly it was a key evolutionary advantage that our body evolved a system, namely brain and nerves, which process information about the "reality" in an inner, virtual world of its own dynamic. That world has a fantastic flexibility, which may deliver a wide range of feelings, concepts and ideas and our body provides the means to express them. We can test these feelings, concepts and ideas in cooperative manner with other intelligent beings. We talk, act and shape objects; thus we modulate reality. Our fellow human beings are subject to these actions, process the information that their senses capture about these actions, processes further this information in their inner worlds, and react. And culture emerges through cooperation.  

Thus, my dear cousin, I make a choice in applying this notion of “reality” (1). I make that particular choice, because I think, in my inner world, that it matters (2). It matters because is helps to understand, to act, and to respect. So that the common global village can be a nice place for us (3).

with Ukko's best wishes,
your Cousin

[1] quoted by Ilkka Pyyisäinen, Marc Hauser (2009) "The origins of religion: evolved adaptation or by-product" (Http:.// from Bloom, P. (2004) "Descartes Baby: How the Science of Child Development Explains What Makes us Human"

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Letter to my cousin, whose name may be program

Karhun Ukko
Dear Christian, 

you asked, how Ukko could be certain "what reality is about"?

A debate "what reality is about" means to go philosophical. Setting of, one would like to recall that our memory does not provide for a clear distinction between a remembered vision, imagination, delusion or remembered events or experiences. Everyone can experience this, and that experience is important to gain insight "what could be reality”. 

Our fuzzy inner world of thoughts, feelings and memories is "blurred" and memories of experienced reality and fantasy is getting mixed up, all time. In passing; that “blurring” is at the root of our freedom of choice, but that's another debate.

Our fuzzy, inner world of thoughts, feelings and memories is a powerful "virtual world" in which we link concepts, thoughts, feelings and memories and so on. Our body - nervous system, brain... - that plays this "virtual world" is related to processing concepts, thoughts, feelings and memories just as a computer (software and hardware) is related to playing the game, running the controller, or processing the image. The notion "reality" does not comprise these inner "virtual world” but comprises our body and the processes occurring in it. That I call a first aspect of reality: it is an external world, which stands in opposition to our inner “virtual world”.

Prehistorical skydisk - Nebra (Germany) 
This opposition, or segregation of virtual “inner world” and real “outer world” comprises however that I, as person, can modify the "outer world" by means of actions undertaken by my body. I undertake these actions because of concepts, thoughts, feelings and memories stemming from my "inner world", a strong and vigorous driver. That I call a second aspect of reality: I can modify it to represent something that I draw from my "inner world".

The "inner world" of ideas is very diverse, a diversity which is probably unlimited. We name "fantasy" or “dreams” these concepts or ideas that can not be represented in the "outer world". The processes in our body that happen to represent a concept are closely connected with the concept itself. The processes are part of the reality, the idea is not. According to Descartes, "Cogito ergo sum", I think therefore I am, and not: "the idea is".

From Terry Gilliam's 1988 movie
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen;  John Neville & Eric Idle
build a hot air balloon made from women's lingerie
How can I now recognize this outer, changeable world, which also includes my body and thus to some extent is happening “in me"? I would like to mention three other aspects that help to distinguish between something that is "part of reality" from something that is "not part of reality".

Initially it may seem paradoxical;, even though “reality” is a part of our individual experience, it can only be determined in segregation from these individual experience. However this paradox is commonplace, as an example shows. Only the degree differs to which we accept it depending on our respective culture. In our western, rational culture nowadays most exclude from reality the experiences made in a dream when they sleep; some other cultures see this very different. A dream may be  remembered after waking up. However, the matters experienced in the dream is - in our culture - not part of the things, which are existing. In our culture a dream is not considered being part of reality, the process of dreaming however. Reality is the part of individual experiences, but having a content that is independent of the respective person and that can be understood by everyone, because to acquire (this experience) you are not bound by your individual beliefs, culture and lifestyle. That I call a third aspect of reality: it is independent from the individual and its respective culture. 

Understanding of reality is determined by activities that can be named as "to observe" or "to examine" and that are confirmed by "practising". Understanding of reality can only be won if methods of observation and methods of investigation are used that are accessible to all people - or worded stricter: to all intelligent life forms. Identifying reality requires that people of any belief, culture, lifestyle - as far opposed they may be - will be lead to similar insights, when they use the same observation / analysis methods. That I call a fourth aspect of reality: knowledge of reality is acquired by using methods that are independent of beliefs, cultures and lifestyles.

Understanding of reality is tested by applying the insights gained previously through observation and examination, thus to practice it. Things are modified, influenced or their behaviour is predicted, etc.; the practice being the same depending on the insight but not depending on the individual applying it. That I call a fifth aspect of reality: the applicability of the insight in reality is independent of the user.

In summary, Christian, I see five important aspects that help to determine what is "reality" and what it is not, namely:

Reality is an outer world in opposition to our inner, imagined or virtual world of thoughts, memories or feelings. It is a world mutable through us, it is world in which we can reproduce ideas that we draw from our inner worlds. It is independent of us as individuals and our cultures. It is acquired by methods that are independent of beliefs, cultures and lifestyles. And the applicability of the understanding of reality is independent of us as a user.

Magellanic Clouds,Milky Way above the Patagonian Andes
This is enough for me to have certainty, "this is reality." A thought  of caution arises when considering that we have witnessed only a limited set of  beliefs, cultures and lifestyles or of methods of observation and methods of investigation. So we may have some kept some spurious insights, but then Occam's razor [1] and test of insight through practice: "does it function", "can we built it", "can we forecast it" provides for sufficient firm ground, thus reality.

Using these considerations regarding "what is reality" and making a few additional considerations it can be shown that the notion "God" belongs to our own virtual "inner world" only, and God is not part of reality. Further-on, the current notions of God can be be shown to have a common internal contradiction, namely that it can be refuted by "reductio ad absurdum." This is not a negative proof of God, but practising the philosophical thinking of Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein [2]. For everyday use, this is sufficient to be an atheist, as a divine intervention can be ruled out in reality and as reality.

To use a mental concept of God in a (my) virtual inner world, is unaffected by the above. It just taking advantage of the freedom of our inner virtual world; being certain about the utility of the concept is possible too, and firmly convinced of its / His being likewise. Why should I do so; may be because I like this as motivation or it calms  feelings or fears? It too remains a residual risk for the atheist to face as part of reality that a person that agitates or attacks you, motivated by its notion of God and the related excitement. Let it be; take it just as Goethe's "Prometheus" [3]:

Bedecke deinen Himmel, Zeus, ...
Mußt mir meine Erde / Doch lassen steh'n,
Und meine Hütte, / Die du nicht gebaut,
Und meinen Herd, / Um dessen Glut
Du mich beneidest...

...Wähntest du etwa, / Ich sollte das Leben hassen,
In Wüsten fliehn, / Weil nicht alle Knabenmorgen-Blütenträume reiften?
Hier sitz' ich, forme Menschen / Nach meinem Bilde,
Ein Geschlecht, das mir gleich sei, / Zu leiden, weinen,
Genießen und zu freuen sich, / Und dein nicht zu achten,
Wie ich!

with Ukko's best wishes,
your Cousin

[1] from Wikipedia:  The principle is often summarized as "other things being equal, a simpler explanation is better than a more complex one. Bertrand Russell offers a particular version of Occam's Razor: "Whenever possible, substitute constructions out of known entities for inferences to unknown entities." Occam's razor is attributed to the 14th-century English logician, theologian and Franciscan friar Father William of Ockham (d'Okham), although the principle was known earlier. Ptolemy stated "We consider it a good principle to explain the phenomena by the simplest hypothesis possible". To quote Isaac Newton, "We are to admit no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances. Therefore, to the same natural effects we must, so far as possible, assign the same causes."

[2]  born 26 April 1889 in Vienna, † 29 April 1951 in Cambridge; see: "Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus" (1921)

[3]   Goethe's "Prometheus":