Saturday, April 8, 2017

God, I and the Universe

I see a broken mirror at an unsure time in Brooklyn. The early hours of the morning leave the streets quiet. I am walking with good energy next to me, and a whole lot of conversation that means little to me logically — for opinion appeals to my heart. My friend speaks of god, and inner peace, and my mind is screaming, ’this makes no sense.’ My heart says, yes. This fits like puzzle pieces.

In the beginning, maybe there is silence within. Usually, thoughts create thought processes, which build the scaffolding for a story, which creates a feeling. Beyond this, there is a gut-reaction phase, an ability to intuitively grab what the mind puzzles to understand. But I wish to understand. What happens when I am religious? Is my thought-process in complete submission to superstition? Am I moving sideways to my thinking? Am I shutting down my mind working on blunt ‘faith’?

Is God necessary for morals? I see no statistical difference between atheists and religious believers in making moral judgments. Robb Willer argues, when feeling compassionate, Atheists and Agnostics may actually be more inclined to help their fellow citizens than more religious people. Besides, religious people don't derive their morals from scripture, or if they do, they choose the nice bits and reject the nasty. Their personal judgment of what is relevant from the bible is very much at play. Many Old Testament passages we would now describe as immoral. Richard Dawkins writes: ‘the very idea that we get a moral compass from religion is horrible. Not only should we not get our moral compass from religion, as a matter of fact we don’t. We shouldn’t, because if you actually look at the bible or the Koran, and get your moral compass from there, it’s horrible – stoning people to death, stoning people for breaking the Sabbath.’ ‘You don't need religion to have morals. If you can't determine right from wrong then you lack empathy, not religion.’

Maybe religious ideology exacerbates the world’s problems? Taboos against marrying out, the labeling of children in terms of their religious beliefs (before they even know what they believe), and damaging emotional blackmail, such as threats of Eternal Damnation, and whatever other undefined ideas they can conjure up, leave a person wondering if there is even any space for god inside these archaic structures. I wonder: is religion actively perverting morality? Only religious faith is a strong enough force to motivate utter madness —from holy wars to countless terrorist attacks. The current war against terrorism is a tragic consequence of religious idealists who have an unquestioning faith. Unquestioning faith is not a path to peace, but a pathway to war.

As for the logical reasoning, there is an argument for the existence of god that goes as follows: when I see a complex object such as a watch, I know it has been designed. Therefore, when I see a complex object such as a tiger, I should infer that it has been designed. This act of comparing two objects and drawing similar conclusions based on similarities (while ignoring important differences) is a prime example of a false analogy. The point of the analogy of the watch is that a watch implies a watchmaker, and that the world is like a watch, in that the world implies a world-maker. There are many flaws to this analogy (the world isn't even remotely comparable to a watch, for example), and in fact, Scottish philosopher David Hume pretty much demolished this argument, called the teleological argument, before Paley was even born in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. The watchmaker analogy has evolved to include the notion of "irreducible complexity," a term coined by the prominent Intelligent Design proponent Michael Behe. So now instead of having the mere presence of a watch imply a watchmaker, we are to conclude that the watch is far too complicated to have been created by natural processes, and that therefore the watch must have been designed by an intelligent agent. Thus life, like the watch, is too complicated to have arisen by natural causes. But if the watch looks designed compared to its surroundings, the only logical conclusion we could draw is that its surroundings are not designed. (If we were unable to differentiate the watch from its natural surroundings, then we would deem it to be a natural object no different from a rock or a tree.) If we say that life is designed, again, with what are we making the comparison? Suppose we say that the entire universe is designed. Well, we don't have another universe to compare ours to. We only have experience with one universe, and unless we have the opportunity to examine other universes (which we have not done as of yet), we cannot say with any degree of certainty that our universe is designed for lack of comparison.

Other shaky arguments include that it is impossible to fake a mass revelation (it is), and the cosmological argument of First Cause. The First Cause Argument is popular, and asks what came before The Big Bang i.e. what happened before time, which means something like what was color like before color? The basic premise of the argument is that something caused or continuously causes the Universe to exist, and this First Cause is what we call God. However, ‘any god capable of intelligently designing something as complex as DNA…must have been at least as complex and organized as the machine itself - far more so if we suppose him additionally capable of such advanced functions as listening to prayers and forgiving sins. To explain the origin of the DNA/protein machine by invoking a supernatural Designer is to explain precisely nothing, for it leaves unexplained the origin of the Designer. You have to say something like "God was always there", and if you allow yourself that kind of lazy way out, you might as well just say "DNA was always there", or "Life was always there", and be done with it.’ (Richard Dawkins).

Science has effectively replaced religion in terms of understanding the natural world. Apologists have tried to find God in the realm of physics too, attempting to attribute the big bang to a supernatural origin. Unfortunately for them the data strongly indicates to us that no such miracle occurred to kick-start our universe into being. Some scientists place the formation of the singularity inside a cycle called the big bounce in which our expanding universe will eventually collapse back in on itself in an event called the big crunch. A singularity once more, the universe will then expand in another big bang. This process would be eternal and, as such, every big bang and big crunch the universe ever experiences would be nothing but a rebirth into another phase of existence.

Stephen Hawking wrote in 1988, "In the case of a universe that is approximately uniform in space, one can show that the negative gravitational energy exactly cancels the positive energy represented by the matter. So the total energy of the universe is zero." Apologists will then most likely posit the question 'Why is there something rather than nothing?’

Any attempt to answer the question has to be clear about the definition of “nothing.” It is not enough to describe a mechanism in which a baby universe might spark into being through a quantum fluctuation and then undergo expansion and inflation and increasing complexity until finally we wind up with galaxies and planets and dolphins shooting up out of a pool to grab a fish from the trainer. In that scenario your “nothing” still has qualities that give rise to something. It’s not a true nothing. My version of zero has no superscripts. And if you can tell me there’s a Multiverse from which our universe bubbled forth, you’ve merely moved the fundamental problem of existence back onto a broader platform. This also covers the god explanation. If god is the ultimate cause of the universe I’ll want to know why God exists. The obvious answer is: He just does. He is. He’s what Holt calls the Supreme Brute Fact. He explains himself. And so on. A secular version of that, one that doesn’t require a supreme Creator, is how I approach the something-nothing question.

Seems to me that “nothing,” for all its simplicity and symmetry and lack of arbitrariness, is nonetheless an entirely imaginary state, or condition, and we can say with confidence that it has never existed. “Nothing” is dreamed up in the world of something, in the brains of philosophers etc. on a little blue planet orbiting an ordinary yellow star in a certain spiral galaxy. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that nothing could not in theory “exist,” but seems to me that it hasn’t. We live in the something universe, either in our tidy little Big Bang universe or in a Big Bang bubble within the Multiverse, and no amount of deletion of the elements and forces of this universe would ever get us to a condition of absolutely nothing.

The idea of nothing has bugged people for centuries, especially in the Western world. We have a saying in Latin, Ex nihilo nihil fit, which means, "out of nothing comes nothing." It has occurred to me that this is a fallacy of tremendous proportions. It lies at the root of all our common sense, not only in the West, but in many parts of the East as well. It manifests in a kind of terror of nothing, a put-down on nothing, and a put-down on everything associated with nothing, such as sleep, passivity, rest, and even the feminine principles. But to me nothing — the negative, the empty — is exceedingly powerful. I would say, on the contrary, you can't have something without nothing. Image nothing but space, going on and on, with nothing in it forever. But there you are imagining it, and you are something in it. The whole idea of there being only space, and nothing else at all is not only inconceivable but perfectly meaningless, because we always know what we mean by contrast.’ (Alan Watts).

So, then, why is there something rather than nothing? Or rather, is there everything? Obviously there remain huge cosmological questions, and we’d all like to know what happened before the Big Bang, but I’m fairly persuaded by the Hawking notion that time itself begins at the Big Bang and there’s no “before.” There’s no boundary. The universe is finite but unbounded, like the 2-D surface of a sphere.

Next, is when people resort to using the word god interchangeably, saying that scientists replace the word god with the word energy, and so on. However, the laws of nature are not the laws of God. Rather than have a reverence for existence as we understand it to be as science has revealed it to be.

If there is no ‘nothing’ maybe we have everything, I wonder. Naturalistic pantheism paraphrases and reinterprets our current understanding to ascribe nature with a higher meaning. Something that does not exist, except in peoples imaginations — as of yet.

Next, comes the question of psychic phenomena. If you strip away the fallacy of most of it, you are left with a nagging something: people seeing spirits, reading minds and auras, telling the future, or the past. But to define this we must first define the self. And ‘I find that the sensation of myself as an ego inside a bag of skin is really hallucination. What we really are is, first of all, the whole of our body. And although our bodies are bounded with skin, and we can differentiate between outside and inside, they cannot exist except in a certain kind of natural environment. Obviously a body requires air, and the air must be within a certain temperature range. The body also requires certain kinds of nutrition. So in order to occur the body must be on a mild and nutritive planet with just enough oxygen in the atmosphere spinning regularly around in a harmonious and rhythmical way near a certain kind of warm star. That arrangement is just as essential to the existence of my body as my heart, my lungs, and my brain. So to describe myself in a scientific way, I must also describe my surroundings, which is a clumsy way getting around to the realization that you are the entire universe. However we do not normally feel that way because we have constructed in thought an abstract idea of our self.’ (Alan Watts). From there, we can surmise that altered states in consciousness can bring about altered states of perception. And sometimes these perceptions will include the breakdown of prescribed frames of mind, and an introduction of psychic phenomena.

In Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass, the White Queen tells Alice that in her land, "memory works both ways." Not only can the Queen remember things from the past, but she also remembers "things that happened the week after next." Alice attempts to argue with the Queen, stating "I'm sure mine only works one way...I can't remember things before they happen." The Queen replies, "It's a poor sort of memory that only works backwards.”

People I’ve met, and those I’ve read about, who claim that psychic abilities (such as telepathy, clairvoyance or telekinesis) or paranormal phenomena (such as ghostly apparitions) do not exist because there is no scientific basis or proof for such things, do so out of sheer ignorance. Both the British and the American Societies for Psychical Research, established in the late 1800s, have tons of research data pointing to the existence of psychic and paranormal phenomena. Psychic skills are totally real. We are all wired to do it. The problem with 'natural' psychics is that they do not know the exact and precise method, which the subconscious mind communicates with conscious awareness.

But the truth is that these effects are actually pretty consistent with modern physics' take on time and space. For example, Einstein believed that the mere act of observing something here could affect something there, a phenomenon he called "spooky action at a distance.” (Quantum Entanglement). Similarly, modern quantum physics has demonstrated that light particles seem to know what lies ahead of them and will adjust their behavior accordingly, even though the future event hasn't occurred yet. For example, in the classic "double slit experiment," physicists discovered that light particles respond differently when they are observed. But in 1999, researchers pushed this experiment to the limits by asking, "what if the observation occurred after the light particles were deployed?” Surprisingly, they found the particles acted the same way, as if they knew they were going to be observed in the future even though it hadn't happened yet.

Such trippy time-effects seem to contradict common sense and trying to make sense of them may give the average person a headache. “Quantum Mechanics is completely counter-intuitive and outside our everyday experience, but physicists have kind of gotten used to it.” (Chiao). So although humans perceive time as linear, it doesn't necessarily mean it is so. If we suspend our beliefs about time and accept that the brain is capable of reaching into the future, the next question becomes "how does it do this?" Just because the effect seems "supernatural" doesn't necessarily mean the cause is.

Lastly, we have spiritual experiences. The concept of seeing God, of seeing angels, of seeing Jesus, or whomever. Seeing things within the mind is imagination, and the expression of these visions can result in beautiful works of art: writing, paintings, religious text etc. As J.K. Rowling famously wrote: “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” The experience of someone who is having a spiritual experience is profoundly ‘real’. But this in no way makes it true to shared reality, much in the way that someone can hallucinate an experience, to the extent that they can taste and smell and see the experience, without ever having had the experience. “What is real? How do you define real? If you're talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then real is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.” (The Matrix, 1999). The things we imagine are ‘real’ within our heads. But then again, so is life.

Waking up like lucid dreamers, fantasy and reality become a matter of converting ideas into form. Humanity takes an early retirement. Physics continues. Computers replace us and we evolve further. We go home, we stare the most powerful creator we have witnessed in the mirror.

‘Have you been I all along?’ We think aloud.

 Rachel Landes