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


  1. Dear Cousin,

    maybe it is the Bible’s fault that people put the consideration whether God is existent or not into the form that God is either existent as a creator or he is not existent at all. The Bible begins with the creation; that is why we take creation as the entrance port into every thought about God.

    Nevertheless, there are other entrances, further back in the Bible, and they all lead to a more complex and also a more personal form of thinking and talking about God. I have troubles to describe them but in a way they are all “spiritual”, all inspired by a spirit coming into your own spirit and into your imagination and convincing you about something Godly that transcends reality but can be experienced within yourself.

    We modern people are skeptical about transcendental thinking but we all know about it. It comes to us when we are overwhelmed by a sudden feeling, a burst of love that longs for eternity, a shot of warm compassion that breaks the stone walls of our routine-weary hearts, an understanding of principles, moral, scientific and others, that also give us a taste of what “eternity” could be.

    Take the comfort we get from a walk under a warm summer sky! We know that the universe is an endless space of absolute coldness, but we sometimes feel quite the contrary: a cozy and well acquainted room to which people have looked up as long as there were people on earth and found consolation and peace.

    My favorite writer John Updike once wrote down, as a young man, in a period full of doubts and skepticism:

    1.If God does not exist, this world is a horror show.
    2.This world is not a horror show.
    3.Therefore God does exist.

    As long as there is Beauty, as long as there is Love, as long as there is Warmth between people, as long there is God.

    I apologize for not answering your immediate questions. But I hope to get you to a new point to start out from. We are a walking species that is why we are all starters, even when we are old.

    With a big hug
    Your Cousin C.

  2. Dear Cousin,

    we did a kind of circular walk. Your reflection how to gain access to "god - feeling" by spiritual revelation brings us back to the subject of my first letter "what is reality?" that was triggered by your question “how Ukko could be certain "what reality is about"”. Thus let's us halt that scrawl.

    Spiritual revelation is a trait of (your) mind, important for your values and perception of the world. Nevertheless it is "virtual" and as such distinct from “reality”. I like very much how clearly you describe that; starting of saying “I have troubles to describe....”. For me being “able to describe” would be a very critical feature of what is reality about. You continue saying “a spirit coming into your own spirit and into your imagination and convincing you about something Godly that transcends reality but can be experienced within yourself.” Thus you capture the functioning of a mental process in our inner, “virtual” world.

    All human beings have experiences like “spiritual perceptions” and other “flash like mental insights” of the kind that you describe. The ability to generate these “flashes” are important traits of our brain (mind). Possibly developing these "flashes" was very valuable for our survival along our evolutionary path. That may be an other subject for exchange, however it is not subject of these lines [1].

    Admittedly, I'm a bit appalled by the quote from John Updike; not by the quote itself, but what could be derived from it. Likely John Updike made this statement in the early fifties, thus shortly after the second world war, Korea war in full swing etc.; and nuclear arms race had started with real threat for mutual mass destruction. That certainly was a time of (their) horrors.

    Before coming to explain why I'm appalled, I cannot hinder the temptation to point out that its starting statement “If God does not exist, this world is a horror show” is flawed, if you take it literally. Namely in that concept, “no god” would mean “no creation” and thus nothing what could manifest itself as horror or recognizing horror; so logically: “no god”, “no creation”, “no horror show”.

    Putting the above aside; why is appalling to assume that humans need god so that this world is not a horror show?

    I think that we can assume that John Updike's statement refers to (our) human societies and not the ample world “before humans” in which and for which ethical considerations and moral appreciations are no subject. Although having said that, we have to keep in view that part of the attitudes, which we consider ethical or non-ethical, are found among primates; including warmongering among chimpanzee groups!

    I feel it revolting to state that you (and I), our relatives, our fellow human beings need a god to render this world a lesser horror show. That is what I read from the quote. To put it simple – should I assume, that you behave in a more ethical manner because “your god” reminds you to do so? I would consider that as insulting you.

    As a teenager I found in my parents' bookcase a mince book, which I still have in my bookshelf: "Weisheit des Lächenden Lebens" written by Lin Yutang [2]. A section of the book, which is critical regarding religious believes could be summarized as: Should you be good person, because you are threatened with hell or rewarded with heaven? Or should you be a good human being on your own thinking? I like to take firmly that latter side.

    with Ukko's best wishes and big bear-hug,
    your Cousin

    [1] I just started reading a fascinating book about the mental and thus side of the evolution of our species; “The social conquest of the earth” by Edward O. Wilson

    [2] Lin Yutang (October 10, 1895 – March 26, 1976) was a Chinese writer and inventor. His informal but polished style in both Chinese and English made him one of the most influential writers of his generation, and his compilations and translations of classic Chinese texts into English were best-sellers in the West.