Monday, 9 March 2015

Would You Believe It? Part 2

Since the last entry on this subject and the subsequent discussion, I have continued to ponder on the nature of beliefs; particularly my own. Why do I adhere to them? How come I didn't decide that reality was otherwise? Can I justify them in the light of the evidence we have at our disposal in the modern world? This page is necessarily introspective: it has to be because I can't answer the above questions for anyone else. But it might, hopefully, have some resonance with whoever should happen by and read it. There will be no revelations or conclusions but it might put a few things in perspective.

Well, what do I believe?

Firstly, we humans have a tendency to categorise: to box and label. We invent "isms" and then apply one or more of those ism's to our beliefs. So, I generally say that I'm an idealist - I believe that the fundamental reality is mind and that the world is made manifest from mind stuff: thoughts or ideas, hence idealism. But that does not mean that I have studied philosophical idealism or that I can name all the idealist philosophers from Plato onwards. It is a box with a label. There are many labels and much argument arises from the definitions attached to them. Should my beliefs be restricted to the strict definition of the term, "idealist"? Well, I'd have to say no on the basis that I cannot say what that strict definition is. The label is, for me, a best-fit. 

So someone might approach me and ask, "You say that you are an idealist but do you believe in God?" When faced with that question I have no option but to answer with another question: "what is your definition of God?" And there's the rub. To an idealist such as Bishop Berkeley (sometimes referred to as the "Father of Idealism"), the source of all ideas is God. But some idealist schools of Buddhism maintain that "all is mind" yet without reference to a deity. I suspect that Berkeley's God and the Buddhist's "mind" are philosophically equivalent. And if not for Berkeley and the Buddhists, then they are indeed equivalent for me.

So, for me, God/mind is all there is. There is nothing other: it is infinite and therefore not subject to time and space. All experience occurs within. Physical reality is a manifestation of ideas: a particular framework within which experience of a certain quality can take place. That framework is defined by time and space along with what we call the laws of physics. It is an elaborate, elegant and massively complex mental construct. Think of the Matrix movies and you'll get a clue of the framework I'm attempting to describe. 

What about religion?

First let me say that I do not consider myself to be religious. I don't hold to any religious dogma, I have grave doubts about religious texts such as the Bible and I find the concept of worship utterly unnecessary. There are concepts of God in religion that I cannot entertain yet I will never dismiss the importance of the mythology of religion. Mythology is full of important and useful metaphors which wiser souls will always take seriously.

Religions of all hues tend to be dualistic (one could argue that Buddhism doesn't count as a religion because it is non-theistic: it doesn't have a deity). Dualism maintains that, fundamentally, there are two kinds of "stuff": mind (for religion, read: spiritual) stuff and matter (physical) stuff. Mind is non-physical and expressed as thoughts and ideas - perhaps also love. Matter can be measured: it has physical properties such as weight, energy, odour, electrical charge, etc. In general, dualists attribute mind to God, humans and, perhaps, some animals. God is assumed to exist apart from His creation. 

Therefore, are we to believe that God decided, at some point, to fashion a universe ex nihilo - out of nothing? Or did the material necessary for dualism (mind AND matter, remember) already exist along with God? Come to think of it, is God himself dualistic? Apparently not according to the Catholic Encyclopedia:

"Christianity rejected all forms of a dual origin of the world which erected matter, or evil, or any other principle into a second eternal being coexistent with God, and it taught the monistic origin of the universe from one, infinite, self-existing spiritual Being who freely created all things."

Some theists are, like Berkeley, idealists. Oxford don, Prof. Keith Ward is a Christian philosopher and idealist. Here is a short (20 min) video explaining his metaphysics:

There are many scientists who have a religious faith. I find that surprising and difficult to understand if that faith is in the literal interpretations of religious texts such as the bible. Take Francis Collins, for example.  Here is a famous and influential geneticist, a critic of Intelligent Design and a friend of the late Christopher Hitchens - an arch-atheist. Collins justifies his faith in Jesus as follows:

"For me, that leap came in my 27th year, after a search to learn more about God's character led me to the person of Jesus Christ. Here was a person with remarkably strong historical evidence of his life, who made astounding statements about loving your neighbor, and whose claims about being God's son seemed to demand a decision about whether he was deluded or the real thing. After resisting for nearly two years, I found it impossible to go on living in such a state of uncertainty, and I became a follower of Jesus."
Now, from my reading, there seems to be remarkably little historical evidence of Jesus' life. Most of it comes from the Gospels and a little from Josephus, a Jewish-Roman historian writing shortly after the time of Jesus. For someone who demands reliable evidence for a living, doesn't it seem odd for him to accept the Gospels on so little evidence? I can understand a scientist seeing God's work in nature but cannot grasp the unquestioning way they accept the scriptures. 

My take on atheism.

Atheists appear to love applying several descriptive labels to their non-belief. It can be just as bewildering to determine the tenets of atheist thinking as it is to follow all the threads of religious divergence. You might like to take a side-track to the Humanist website for a more thorough explanation. There you will find out about Atheists, Humanists, Freethinkers, Sceptics, Secularists and more.

They don't list materialism on that web page but atheists will insist that atheism does not require materialism. Yet it might be difficult to find a materialist who is not an atheist. One thing that atheists or materialists will be almost guaranteed to agree on is the rejection of the "supernatural". The assumption here is that nature (the natural) is fundamentally material, i.e. made of physical stuff: atoms, molecules, forces and fields. While Relativity and Quantum Physics might reduce all matter to energy, we are still in the realm of the physical. No spirit stuff here, we are told.

"Supernatural" is quite a loaded term. It is used by atheists in a pejorative sense to mean the same as "superstition". Bible stories of miracles, virgin birth and healing are considered superstitions. Ghosts, telepathy, clairvoyance and spirit communications are also superstitions. Atheists seem hard-pressed to speak of these subjects without the obligatory sneer. 

The scientific method, developed and honed to an effective and productive tool ever since the enlightenment, has done so with the unquestioned assumption of materialism. The fact that it has produced such reliable results and technological progress is seen as justification for that assumption. If God were involved, they say, we would have seen evidence of His handiwork. But, they will affirm, every time God was proposed as a explanation, science eventually showed there was a naturalistic mechanism which did the job without the need for divine intervention. 

Discuss these subjects, even with a reasonable and fairly open-minded atheist, and you will inevitably receive the following challenge: "Show me what non-materialism has added to science - where are the non-materialist cancer cures or space probes?" I've even asked myself those questions. 

My answer to myself is threefold:

1. There is a category confusion in the question. Drugs and space probes are physical technologies and in the domain of the physical sciences. The nature of spirit or mind belongs in philosophy or metaphysics. The scientific method is not concerned with metaphysics. Should we expect the tools of physics be used to determine the nature of the non-physical?

2. Quantum Mechanics - the most successful scientific theory of all time - has been shown to require a conscious observer. This is hotly disputed but many of the most respected scientists in the field have said something similar. I'll add links below.

3. Despite the unsuitability of scientific equipment and methods to investigate metaphysical phenomena, there are areas of human experience which can be subject to experimentation and research. Parapsychology has long been attracting a few highly curious and qualified scientists and evidence has been collected and verified to exceptional standards. This is so despite denials and dismissals from the mainstream. Again, I'll add links later.

Scientific paradigms change. Until the late 19th century, the paradigm was based upon Newtonian mechanics. This was a mechanistic worldview of a clockwork universe. It explained much of the observed universe and, for many purposes, is still relevant today. Yet Relativity and Quantum Mechanics forced science to adopt a new paradigm and perhaps it is again time for science to expand its horizons.

I am trying to show here why I, personally, don't have an atheistic or materialist worldview. I rejected religion at an early age because I felt I was being fed stories which didn't make sense when I thought them through. I later rejected atheism for many of the same reasons. In the end, they both lack a clear vision of the bigger picture. They both make assumptions that can't be justified. Religion with its dualism and personal, judgemental and all-too-human-like God. Atheism with its assumption of materialism, of randomness and coincidence. Science is a wonderful tool but it is not an oracle. Beware of promissory materialism: the promise that things like consciousness and the origin of life, while something of a mystery right now, will soon be found to have purely physical causes. I doubt that.

In my next entry, I'll try to provide the evidence I hinted at above. Links and videos to back up the statements I have made here. I hope someone will find it all interesting and I hope I have not offended anyone. 

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