Mea Culpa

Someone contacted me to tell me they didn’t like much of what  I had to say on this site. Too negative, most of the time – depressing, regardless of the subject matter,  and obsessively repetitive in particular on the subject of religion, and disrespectful of people of faith regardless of whether they represented a completely harmless strain of beliefs or not. Then, most perplexing, my references to “the larger context” … what in the world does that mean, if not someone seriously confused about what their own life means to them? Thank you …

Well, the best I can do to address this critique is to say, first of all,  mea culpa, in particular when it comes to being negative, depressing and repetitive regarding the subject matter I like to write about.

As I stated up front – in so many words – I’m writing this primarily for myself in the attempt to figure out what the world is all about beyond the twists and turns that life can throw your way, and beyond the  typical humdrum of daily tasks that – while not necessarily meaningless in themselves –  tend to obscure the larger existential questions, and so by extension what life might mean to everyone else.

I know that sounds rather presumptuous, but given that each of us is just one of many – and, when it comes down to it, not all that different from each other when it comes to what we bring to the table to take on the challenges of everyday life. That is to say, how different can we be in our overall approach to life, when as members of one species we are primarily driven by our shared biology and our DNA, and the differences between us are no more than varieties on a theme, i.e., they are differences of degree, and not of kind. Beyond that, they are the circumstances of our birth such as the place and social-economic environment that we grow up in that help shape us into the individuals that we are today.  That this will leave each of us as distinct and unique individuals with needs and desires and expectations from life possibly as different between two people as day and night is undoubtedly true, yet at the same time the differences again are a matter of degree, and not of kind.

And if I can shed some light on the meaning and purpose of life for myself by sharing my thoughts about it, perhaps this might help someone else to start thinking about it, and add some definition or context or value to their outlook on life in a world that, in my humble opinion,  is going down the wrong path in terms of pursuing the best possible future for our species.  This is not say that I think the human race is going to hell in a handcart, although there are many among us who are doing their best to make this happen.

About being overly negative :  Who can begin to enumerate the number and variety of social  economic, health and environmental issues ranging from poverty to homelessness to starvation across the globe? Just this week the NY Times in an article titled The U.S. Can No Longer Hide From Its Deep Poverty Problem showed a tally of those living on $4 a day or less in selected developed countries, and it included 5.3 million people living in the US.  I don’t necessarily want to pick on the US, but with the highest GDP in the world you wonder how this can even be the case when a country is deemed the wealthiest country in the world.

Beyond that there is the disturbing statistic that half of the world’s wealth belongs to the top 1%, while the top 10% of adults hold 85%, and the bottom 90% hold the remaining 15% of the world’s total wealth.  If you believe that these discrepancies  are simply a function of some folks working harder and smarter than others, and reaping the benefit of it, then bless you, but you may have to learn something about how some people, organizations and certain governments operate in order to produce the incredible wealth that they have accumulated.

So against these things  – and with the brazen assumption that there is a lot more going on in the world than meets the eye –  I am introducing “the larger context”,  which, I postulate, is the true intent behind the world, and the reason for it being there in the first place,  including our very own presence in it, and something I hope we will  be able to get a glimpse of once we look  beyond the infantile gobbledygook of religious dogma  of whatever flavor and the unsupported and hence gaseous notion that someone else is in charge of our world.

Why do I think there is ” a larger context” or  “true intent” to life that we are currently not aware of?  Only because we are the offspring of the greater cosmos, and as such contain its “DNA” within every particle of our being.  As a result, what motivates it likely motivates us, either directly or indirectly,  and then at  a level where we would be capable of initiating some course of inspired action commensurate with the evolutionary achievement that we currently represent, although at the moment one might be hard pressed to think much of that,  given the aforementioned sorrowful status of the world today, and that would include the questionable quality of  leadership of some of the most powerful nations in the world at the moment..

But it is without question that our evolutionary path shows that the cosmos is on a mission, and to date we  appear to be that mission; it is just that we don’t yet know what that mission is about. But it would be unreasonable to think that this is a multi-billion year mission of self-destruction, given the kludge that we are currently making of it, although I hate to think that we are  doomed to end up that way because we haven’t evolved enough in the gray matter department to be able to take care of it.

And so my hope is that  gaining even an inkling of  understanding of the world’s greater mission might eventually enable us to abandon the current seemingly runaway path of self-destruction and allow us to rise to the occasion and take ownership of our destiny, to determine as best we can what our role should be in this fantastic cosmic adventure that we have only  just woken up in.  Evolution is providing us with some pointers here, but we need to be able to understand a lot more of what has moved us along its path before we can start making more  sense of it.

In the end, much of this is about not being able to see the forest for the trees, or, for that matter,  the universe for the stars, when, usually, the whole is larger than the sum of its parts; we’re just not seeing it at the moment, and my greatest fear is that we might never be able to too.

I know, all of this sounds astonishingly naive, if not desperately so, and maybe I should have thrown in little Kant or Hegel  to provide a seemingly more erudite account of what I am trying to express here. (I must admit both Hegel and I share a fondness for the poet Friedrich Hölderlin, but I digress.) Or maybe injected something more currently in vogue, e.g., a dash of Derrida, but as he seems to have invented his own language there isn’t much I can relate to in his universe other than seeing the familiar shadow of Heidegger there, e.g. along such lines as “standing in the clearing of Being,” as “being open for the openness of Being”, und so weiter.

But feel free to contact me if you have  more profound thoughts on these matters than what I am able to deliver here, provided your account, brand of metaphysics  or eschatology does not include any aliens, angels or demons,  or any other mythical  beings that are in principal not able to be accounted for – at least not by observation, logic or reason – and neither should it include  virgins expecting around Christmas,  nor ancient tribal rituals requiring a human sacrifice or  genital mutilation in order to connect to your concept of the Almighty, or celibacy for that matter.  Indeed, how stupifyingly  naive can one get!

And when it comes to religion – it is one thing to have beliefs about the origin and destination of the world as individuals – but thinking of such periods as the Dark Ages and the Inquisition I’m letting history speak for itself right up to today when it comes to deciding whether our species has benefited from organized religion (as claimed by Teflon Tony Blair) , either as theocracies, in cahoots with national governments over the centuries or as stand-alone paternalistic institutions such as ruled by a papal throne.  The fact remains that religious beliefs cannot be substantiated – and while in principle they maybe nonsensical and hence harmless beliefs– it is precisely the unsubstantiated and irrational nature of these beliefs that allows them to be used as an excuse to control or otherwise abuse people, including killing them. When you think you have the creator and eternity on your side – all your actions are justified; you cannot be wrong!  Until we shake off the influence of these nonsensical beliefs, our species will continue to be murdered for them.

God is Dead

Written in 1882,  Nietzsche’s brilliant and provocative parable The Madman is even more relevant today,  when the continuing erosion of religious authority so accurately forecasted by Nietzsche’s  “God is Dead” pronouncement has lead to a growing vacuum in the moral and ethical  framework of Western society as evidenced by a  corresponding decline in spirituality in how we approach the challenges of modern life, and in particular each other.

Of course, not all of society’s woes can be laid at the door of a decline in religion, but if the church was good for anything,  it was often the critical glue that bound communities together towards a sense of common purpose – including reaching beyond  individual  self-interests and promoting empathy and compassion for the less fortunate among us to ensure the wholeness of society.

That these values are far less present now  I can only point to the increasing marginalization of individuals at the bottom end of the economic scale, when  even in the wealthiest of communities many are falling by the wayside in the race to ever greater material wealth. You only have to look around you and see  the  vast number of homeless people that dwell in the city’s inner core in just about all the major population centres in North America, seeking handouts, looking for food and shelter. People of all ages, men, women, so many young people, evidence of failing relationships, families and their communities falling apart as they try and fail to keep up with the runaway train of mindless consumerism as expressed in the  Western dream of being able to acquire ever more goods and services as the definitive proof of having achieved  success in life.

The demise of religion and its mythologies has meant that (at least in the West) we have lost our way – i.e., we are no longer the children of a god of sorts – with the promise of heaven if we behave and do as we are told.  Instead, we need to be setting our own course now, as morally and metaphysically confused as we are, and for the moment seemingly quite unable to accept that we are the masters of our own fate, and that means that no one will save us from ourselves

And so yes, here we are – and at a time in history once characterized by Martin Heidegger as being “too late for Gods, and too early for Being”.  Where do we go from here?  This is what life is all about.

The Madman

Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly, “I seek God I seek God!” As many of those who do not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter. Why, did he get lost? said one. Did he lose his way like a child? said another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? or emigrated? Thus they yelled an laughed. The madman jumped in their midst and pierced them with his glances.

“Whither is God” he cried. “I shall tell you. We have killed him – you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how have we done this? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What did we do when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving now? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, side-ward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night and more night coming on all the time? Must not lanterns be lit in the morning? Do we not hear anything yet of the noise of the grave-diggers who are burying God? Do we not smell anything yet of God decomposition? Gods too decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we, the murderers of all murderers, comfort ourselves? What was holiest and most powerful of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives. Who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed to great for us? Must no we ourselves become gods simply to seem worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever will be born after us – for the sake of this deed he will be part of higher history than all history hitherto.”

Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners; and they too were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern to the ground, and it broke and went out. “I come too early”, he said then; “my time has not come yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering – it has not yet reached the ears of man. Lightning and thunder require time, the light of the stars require time, deeds require time even after they are done, before they can be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than the most distant stars – and yet they have done it themselves.”

It has been related further that on the same day the madman entered divers churches and there sang his requiem aeternam deo. Led out and called to account, he is said to have replied each time, “What are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?”

The Future is Ours, and Ours Alone

Given what we think we know about the age of the universe, we have only just arrived at our current level of sentiency and became a species capable of reflective thought and reason. With it, surely, came the obligation to make something of ourselves beyond just being another animal, i.e., survive for the sake of surviving, although being perhaps much better at it than any species that came before.

But for many this “being better at it” appears to have been limited to some stupefying exercise in “eat, drink and be merry”, and that at great cost to themselves, their fellow human beings, and the planet that spawned them.  We might be the last species on earth that will go extinct, but by God, we’ll make sure every other species will be extinct before us. If you don’t know what I am talking about, you should look around you, as well, clearly, you need to get out more.

And better hurry, because the great barren expanse of Mars is waiting for you, just as soon as  Elon Musk has been able to charge up enough batteries to shoot you there in a tin can, as this is apparently where our future lies as the acolytes of modern consumerism. It will be the first interplanetary step after we’re done with the earth to conquer the universe in our quest to spread the gospel of the holy trinity of modern consumerism among the stars:  unlimited exploitation of people and resources,  compulsive  acquisition of goods and services,  and the mindless accumulation of waste.

Alternatively – and yes, there is always an alternative, in particular to just being  stupid – we could use our collective brain-trust to decide what kinds of unique human activities might truly benefit us as a species, and act accordingly. Imagine a world-wide society  built on mutual trust and respect, featuring such things as a sustainable waste-free economy, free education, healthcare, equal opportunity, the pursuit of arts and sciences, and free from famine, disease and crime. In other words, not much we are familiar with today, but something worth pursuing, wouldn’t you think?

As such the future is ours, and ours alone – to do with as we should – and ideally reflective of the tremendous potential that must necessarily lie within us.  I say “necessarily” because we are the descendants of an incredible cosmic spectacle that is represented within every particle of our being. Clearly, this is the larger context we should be living our lives in – as little as we are able to grasp of it at the moment-  and I have referred to a number of times in previous posts, already ad nauseam no doubt.

And while it seems near impossible to quantify the mostly mundane activities of our daily lives in such terms – and especially  the not so mundane, and that would include most if not all of human kind’s murderous past and all of our present self-destructive activities – it is nevertheless the implicit promise of our cosmic origins that will continue to urge us along this uncertain path towards a future we cannot yet begin to imagine what that might look like. Well, at least not until we develop the insight and intellectual wherewithal that will allow us to conceive the instantiation and reality of it.

However – and as much as I hate to admit this – my biggest fear is that this kind of future is in fact not available to us.  That is to say, very much like the man from the country in Kafka’s parable Before the Law seeking access to the Law –  we will just have the promise of being able to access it, and so will spend our entire lives with the assumption that  this this future, this promise,  will come true.  This because we may not have moved up far enough on the evolutionary spectrum to be able to handle it, and so don’t have the gray matter and intellectual machinery to even begin to conceptualize it, or see ourselves in the gestalt of it (Ask me why I think this, but before you do: again, look around you … )

And as the next higher life form  follows from the one that preceded it, so might we be superseded. It may well be  Artificial Intelligence  that will take over from us, leaving us in a supporting role, enabling them to move ahead. And as they do, we will not even be aware of it … it is just that we will not know any better.

The Substance of the World

Baruch Spinoza was a Dutch philosopher of Portuguese-Jewish extraction who lived from 1632-1677. He is one my favorite philosophers, and the reason I quote him from time to time is because much of what he says I would agree with, at least in principle. It gives me some comfort to know I might not be entirely out to lunch when developing a particular line of thought that seems consistent with what he had in mind when he wrote about the same subject matter almost five centuries ago.

This has to do with the concept of God, and the notion of a supreme, all powerful being purported to be  the creator of the world; the biblical God of the Old Testament. I struggled with this concept a lot as it never made sense to me from the earliest days that I started thinking about these sort of things. And believe me, that was from a very early age, having been brought up in a strict Calvinistic household that would always go to church  on a Sunday, and sometimes twice, once in the morning and once in the afternoon.

When Spinoza talks about God, it is not in the anthropomorphic sense of a God as usually portrayed by the Christian-Judaeo or Muslim varieties of religion, i.e., very much like a person – a kind of father figure – with human-like emotions who seems to take a personal interest in what the creatures he created here on earth are up to, and in the process suggesting  a personality featuring some of the worst “petty” human traits I can think of, such as being  narrow minded, vain, jealous, as well as vengeful! If you are familiar with the Old Testament, you will know exactly what I am talking about.

In particular, this is how the God of the Christian-Judaeo Old Testament comes across: high maintenance (!)  And as such we could well fault him for being an overbearing, possessive megalomaniac who refuses to own up to the fact that he should take full responsibility for the murder and mayhem that has taken place down here as a result of his desperately fallible human creation.  But I digress…

Spinoza strongly rejected the notion of a providential God – the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, in complete control of all things; he claims that the Law was neither literally given by God nor any longer binding on Jews. (Not surprisingly, this conception of God got him thrown out of the Amsterdam orthodox Jewish community for good when they excommunicated him in 1656.)

Instead, Spinoza holds that God is the one and only unique and indivisible substance that the universe is made of. There are no other substances. The view is a bit more complex than that, and involves perceiving this substance through a variety of distinct attributes – such as Thought and Extension – but not its basic premise.

This view suits me fine, to the point that, if God is everything, and everything is God, why even use the name “God”, as this renders the concept of a distinct metaphysical entity – the great creator –  logically empty (i.e., meaningless) since it doesn’t signify anything over and above the totality of the cosmos, and ends up being just another label for it.

Accepting this also restores our raison d’être to an intrinsic property of the cosmos, together with the seemingly limitless energy and creativity that brought us about.   As well,  there is the implication that we originated  from the inside out, from whatever place within our cosmic ancestry that life came from and is the source of our evolutionary history that brought our species about.

In Pursuit of a Greater Good

It is difficult not to get seriously depressed by the kind of news you get today, such as reports about the absolute savagery in the ongoing civil war in Syria by survivors of a deadly attack in Khan Sheikhoun describing chemical bombs being dropped from planes, while directly contradicting the government’s version of events. But then, on occasion, you can find something at the opposite end of the spectrum that will lift your spirit and bolster your faith in people once again because it shows an astonishing degree of enlightenment in thought and action, even so since it was expressed as early as 2000 BC by the ancient Zoroaster faith in a hymn from the Farvardin Yasht:

We worship this earth, we worship those heavens: we worship those good things which stand between the earth and the heavens and that are worthy of sacrifice and prayer, and are to be worshiped by the faithful man. We worship the souls of the wild beasts and the tame. We worship the souls of the holy men and women, born at any time, whose consciences struggle, or will struggle, or have struggled, for the good.

While “worship” or “faithful” or “holy” or “sacrifice” and “prayer” are typical terms as applied by the formalized, totalitarian religions as a means to keep the great unwashed under their thumb,  they can stand perfectly on their own without reference to a 3rd party – an imaginary deity of sorts,  i.e., God – by applying them to the way in which we pursue the truth about ourselves.

That is, we pursue these truths faithfully, for their own sake, and without coercion from anyone, and to the benefit of all mankind. And what we will find is the good inherent in all of us, and it is this truth that is “holy” and should be “worshiped” in the sense that we will put this above everything else that we treasure about life in the world.

By “sacrifice” we might well have to be less selfish than usual on occasion, in order to put the greater good ahead of ourselves. And by “prayer” we need to do nothing more than express the hope and belief in ourselves that we are here for the right reasons, which is to realize the common good in ourselves as we rise to our full potential as human beings.

I can’t claim to have any special insight here, but it seems to me that, first of all, it makes sense to pursue the things that benefit us most as a species, and not look at sacrificing some individuals to the betterment of others as a means to advance the human race as a whole. This has to be a fundamental truth about ourselves, but sadly, the sum of human history to date shows primarily the exploitation and slaughter of the many to benefit the few. And if this proves anything all, it is that the formalized religions have been absolutely no help at all to the betterment of humanity, and in fact can be seen as the instigators – and in many cases the perpetrators – of much of the murder and mayhem that has befallen the many people of this earth for reasons that make no sense at all.

And so, yes, we can get there without religious totalitarianism, or the need to be murdered or murder for them, and especially without the Islamic religion in its most virulent and primitive form,  and which uses its ancient tribal laws – known as Shariah law – in an inhumane and brutal manner in order to keep its adherents in line. Clearly, life has no value there, when it is so easily denigrated or even dispensed with in order to prevent dissent.  I’m referring to caning people in public, hacking off hands and stoning people to death  … Barbaric acts that have no place in a society that values the sanctity of life.  I guess that happens in communities where folks are absolutely not allowed to think for themselves and must accept some ancient doctrines “on faith”, or else ….

Of course, all this coercion in the name of a ‘higher” authority has nothing to do with achieving some mystical purpose or aspiration involving a god, creation or eternity, or whatever else a religion might be about. In the end this is all about the few having the means to control the many in everyday life, and where women and girls are devalued to the level of cattle, to be used and abused at will because it is their duty to comply. How much more morally and ethically backward – or primitive –  can you get?  Clearly, no effort towards the greater good is happening here.

The World as Form and Function

Reality is created by observers in the universe  – John Archibald Wheeler, Theoretical Physicist (1911-2008)

Today I am revisiting the views held by Schopenhauer in The World as Will and Idea (1818), and his rejection of naïve realism, or what has been called scientific materialism, that the things we observe in the world are what they appear to be, absolutely, and forever, and not in anyway a function of human perception and experience in the sense that they can be modified based on our understanding of things.

This view would suggest a possible distinction between how things are independently from human observation versus how they are perceived by us once they have been observed and their information has been processed by our perceptual and conceptual processes.

Now while there may be a logical gap between the world and the world observed, it could be argued that it is in fact a useless  distinction,  given that we have no other means of accessing it in an ontological sense.  And so the question remains: is it in fact a meaningful exercise to even refer to it as a matter of some significance? To all intents and purposes, if we never refer to it again, what would be lost in our discussions about the nature of the world?

To deal with this alleged problem, Kant introduced the “thing-in-itself”, or “ding ansich” in German – to suggest that the true nature of  the world is fundamentally unknowable as we can only grasp the nature of things indirectly through perceiving them as objects in relation to ourselves – how we have experienced them.  I respectfully suggest that Mr. Kant is out to lunch here, in the sense that is is contradictory to say that something is fundamentally unknowable as to make such an assertion implies some knowledge about  it. In other words, the distinction serves no useful purpose.

Moving on,  it is one thing to experience the world through one’s senses – it is another thing to experience it logically, e.g., to experience such things as cause and effect, time, space and the various ways in which objects relate to us and each other. If these relationships are permanent features of the physical universe, it wouldn’t matter in what form you encountered them in your experiences, your conclusions about them would be same. But in the end, it would be less important what the world looks like versus what can be abstracted from it simply from interacting with it. And this would lead me to say that the nature of the world is about function (a method that relates an objective to its instantiation) –  and not form (the manifestation of matter and energy), the latter being  incidental to the process, and a means to an end in terms of being the medium that allows the function to be enabled or expressed.

This is an important view for me and consistent with my argument that we should perhaps be less preoccupied with determining the origin, age and size and makeup of the material  universe, by poking into the furthest and oldest region of the universe, looking for clues of sorts and so on  – and, instead, look more closely at what the logical or functional nature of the various cosmic events appear to be about,  such as the manifestation of a directional and seemingly intrinsic teleological process leading to ever higher degrees of material complexity and organization – evolution – and where this particular process would seem to want to take us to.  As such, the cosmos appears to be a  work in progress, and that is at least some concrete information we have about the nature of the world as we have encountered it.

The Scourge of Mankind

One wonders how the mind can get so screwed up that you would be willing to kill a fellow human being just because they don’t share your religious beliefs. But for any student of European history it is not too difficult to be reminded of such acts of barbarism being committed in the name of deity of sorts, when murder was on the repertoire in order to advance the interests of the Roman Catholic Church in Europe during the Dark or Early Middle Ages

Lest we forget, by slaughtering the infidel unwilling to convert to their version of Islam, the Muslim Jihadis of today appear to have taken a page from the late great King Charlemagne – or Charles the Great – the king of the Franks, who became the first emperor in Western Europe since the collapse of the Western Roman Empire and is sometimes referred to as the founder of modern Europe.

During his campaign to establish an empire in full support of the Church, he felt compelled to Christianize newly conquered people upon penalty of death, which lead to such events as the massacre of 4,500 captive rebel Saxons in October of 782 in what is now known as Verden in Lower Saxony, Germany. The unfortunate Saxons had rebelled against King Charles’ invasion and his subsequent attempts to Christianize them from their native Germanic paganism.

And that massacre pales in comparison with the events almost 500 years later, in 1209, in the town of Béziers in the Languedoc region.  When the Roman Catholic Church established the Inquisition, it was set up initially to wipe out the Cathar movement in southern France where it had taken hold in opposition to the hitherto dominant Roman Catholic religion. Apparently, there were a lot of Cathars living in the town of Béziers, to the point that it was seen to be a Cathar stronghold, and on July 22nd, 1209, under leadership of the Abbot of Citeaux the town was attacked, ransacked, and completely burned to the ground, the majority of its population of 20,000 people killed, including many women and children. That this would have included many thousands of Roman Catholic adherents who were also living in Béziers didn’t seem to matter. When questioned about this, the Cistercian abbot-commander of the Catholic crusaders, is on record of having said that: “Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eis. (Kill them all, the Lord will recognize His own).

Now all this happened a long time ago, and while today the Christian faith is far more benign,  the justification for this kind of slaughter remains an intrinsic part of the foundation of the Christian faith: the bible, for in Deuteronomy XIII.12-16, the faithful are instructed as follows:

If thou shalt hear say in one of these cities …, Let us go and serve other Gods …; then shalt thou surely smite the inhabitants of that city with the edge of the sword, destroying it utterly and all that is therein. … And thou shalt burn with fire the city and all the spoil thereof every whit for the Lord thy God. … And it shall be a heap forever; and it shall not be built again.

And so we are here today, 800 years after the slaughter in Béziers – and yes, it was rebuilt again! –  and in the 21st century, and as can be evidenced from recent events in the Middle East, innocent people continue to be slaughtered in the name of some god or prophet or another. One might claim that this kind of action has nothing to do with the religious beliefs themselves – and that they are misused when wielded as weapons of murder and destruction. No – it is precisely the unsubstantiated and irrational nature of these beliefs that allows them to be used in this manner. When you think you have the creator and eternity on your side – all your actions are justified; you cannot be wrong!  Until we shake off the influence of these dangerous nonsensical beliefs, our species will continue to be murdered for them.

This leads me to say that to believe in the existence of a god or other kinds of super-natural beings is terrible affliction and a seemingly endless source of human tragedy. Because – while in principle these are nonsensical and hence harmless beliefs– it is at the same time the sickly smell of centuries of savagery and senseless slaughter of thousands  of people in the name of such beliefs – and primarily in the competition between such beliefs.  And when you read up on human history and listen to the news today, this shall be revealed and made abundantly clear: “Religion is the Scourge of Mankind”.

The Limits of Our World

Given that there are limitations to what we can achieve with our bodies in a physical sense – e.g., how high we can jump, or how fast we can run – it seems reasonable to think there are also limits to what we can achieve with our minds in an intellectual sense, in that these limits are determined by the unique physiology of the human brain and its ability to offer up the required level of conceptualization.

We might be comparing apples with oranges here, but the intent is to merely illustrate the fact there will likely be an upper limit to the extent that one is able to grasp a concept and run with it, so that no matter how clever one is, there are going to be limitations to our ability to think about the world and our place in it.

The ability to organize and conceptualize the data of our sensory experiences into the reality of the everyday world we must live in is critical to our ability to survive and thrive in it. And that isn’t necessarily a uniquely human ability – and likely exists to some extent within other creatures in the world depending on their level of sentiency.

But only in humans is this capacity developed to the point that it can be articulated in terms of shared ideas, and be the subject of continuing discussion and analysis. Now that we can do this and chimps – our nearest cousins in the animal kingdom – cannot, is not just a function of the ability to use one’s brain more effectively, but also the fact that the human cerebral cortex, the brain’s most highly evolved region, is three times larger in humans than in chimps. The latter simply don’t have the hardware for this – to put this in very simple terms.

And so it might be necessary for our species to receive substantial increase in the grey matter department before we (or the species that supersedes us)  will be able to reach the next level of understanding that will allow us to grasp our place in the world more completely, as currently we don’t seem to have much of  a clue!

I’m presenting this in the context of our ability to understand those aspects of the world that would have to be larger than us, in the sense that they have gone into the making of us – and underpin the evolutionary push that brought us about. All of this on the assumption that the evolution of matter is an intrinsic, goal oriented process, and in the end not some random activity without necessarily excluding randomness as a means to an end if that would bring about the desired effect, with the understanding there is such an objective.

But insofar as we are able to look back to see how we did come about in an evolutionary sense – and attempt to deduce some underlying principles from this – we can’t look back quite far enough to see what started it all because we can’t conceptualize an earlier world that doesn’t have any humans in it yet without begging the question.

That is to say – we cannot undo what we have added to the world due to our own presence in it, and see it independently from ourselves. In Schopenhauer’s words, in the end it is always a human eye that looks at the world, and a human brain that must interpret the information. As such, we will always see the world from the inside out, as opposed to from the outside in. It would follow that there is no objective knowledge of the world, because all knowledge we have of it is a function of how we encountered the world from the very moment we were able to interact with it and hence always judged from the subject’s point of view.

This also means  we are no innocent bystanders with respect to being able to account for the spectacle of the world as we are experiencing it; we are necessarily implicated in its very creation when these experiences give rise to our descriptions of it. At the same time, our capacity to account for it in an intellectual or logical sense is necessarily limited by the creature we are today, and subject to the conceptual processing machinery in the grey matter department.

To summarize, it would appear that – not only an we not reach beyond our grasp physically  – neither can we do so intellectually when it comes to understanding the world we see around us in terms that are able to account for our own presence in it – as that would reach beyond the fact of our own creation as human beings, a fact that is given to us without recourse to justification.

Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world. (Arthur Schopenhauer)

Spiritual Beliefs

Existential writers such as Søren Kierkegaard claimed that proof of God cannot be the outcome of a logical argument, such that God’s existence can never be a public or objective truth. Belief in God, consequently, must always be a private matter, entirely subjective and a function of the individual accepting such truths for themselves as a matter of faith. Hence attempting to prove the existence of a God via such means as the Argument from Design would not fly in Mr. Kierkegaard’s neighborhood.

However, the way I see it is that the way most people accept the existence of a God is along the lines of believing seemingly something far less profound, e.g., believing Paris is in France; although you may have never been there, you accept this to be a true fact about the world. It fits in with what you have been told about Paris from the time you heard it first mentioned, from what you heard at school or from what you have read about it.  As such, the truth of such a belief and many similar ones like it is a function of coherence with other beliefs that seem to support it, giving you no reason to examine it critically or ever doubt it for that matter.

I’m willing to concede however that – when people say they believe in God – they might be expressing more than just something that they have always accepted as true, such as a belief of the “Paris is in France” variety. What may be referred to as “spiritual beliefs” are the results of having a sense or an awareness that one is part of something larger and more profound than oneself while being unable to cite the specific reason for believing this to be a true belief about themselves and the world.

Beliefs of that nature may have some intrinsic credibility based on the phenomenological nature of our everyday experiences, when one is led to expect a greater context for them beyond the immediacy of the present moment and whatever else one might bring to bear on them. It is within this expectation or awareness that one might ascribe to the possibility of a deity existing, especially when one is told from day one that there is such a thing as an all-powerful being named God, the culmination of religious brainwashing at the hands of some authoritarian religious institution.

Given this line of reasoning, you could say that the belief in God merely fills the void in one’s belief system that resulted from sensing the larger whole of one’s existence without being able to articulate exactly what that is. That the myth of God could be an answer in all its stupefying simplicity as to how to account for the larger world at the experiential or phenomenological level says a lot about the spectacular gullibility of our species. As well, it goes a long way towards explaining the willful manipulation of people by religious institutions over the centuries, to no other end than being able to control them, use them or – if they threatened their vacuous authority – by killing them.

Religion

The suggestion that the human race is lost and absolutely hapless when it comes to understanding their place in the world has been expressed many times. In the mid  1600’s the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza wrote that people find themselves with needs and desires without understanding the reasons why they want and act as they do.  Lacking this knowledge about themselves and their place in the world creates the illusion that they can do as they please, and which is a source of much grief in the world when they act against their own interest because they simply don’t know any better.

And when it comes to that, I’m sure we will all agree that more than a little guidance is required to prevent the human race from finding new ways to harm itself.  As even primitive ape colonies appear to have hierarchies and moral codes to govern their members interaction,  it was likely in the interest of self-preservation that our ancestors came up with the idea to legitimize their tribal laws and institutions by invoking authorization from a higher source, e.g., a deity of sorts. This could be (at one time)  the sun-god Ra, the King of all Gods and mortals, or further varieties on that theme, unseen yet almighty entities with a supposed interest to keep us on the straight and narrow, and that we better do as we’re told, or else there would be hell to pay! And heaven would be our reward …

Enter religion – and until the eventual uncoupling of Church and State –  the self-proclaimed owners of whatever moral framework was seen as being necessary for a society to function with some degree of success towards a tenable future.  I know I have simplified this premise greatly, but it merely introduces the idea that religion is  about placing the seat of moral authority off-planet and hence beyond the ability to scrutinize it, question it or challenge it.

Of course, the problem was that not everyone one had the same idea about this, and so religious conflict was born. While this notion of  all-powerful metaphysical  beings helped to stabilize our species at the individual tribal level for certain periods of time,  it also appears to have been one of the main reasons for people to slaughter each other in order to establish the primacy of their particular brand of religious beliefs.

Regarding the latter, it is the nature of religious beliefs to be unsubstantiated, and examining them is like peeling an onion: after stripping layer after layer there is absolutely nothing at their core. Although some folks simply claim that they “know” that such beliefs are absolutely true – e.g., that a God exists – we can do little but take their word for it as they are unable to clarify what they mean by this assumption. This is at the core of every religious edifice – rationality has no place here – and as Nietzsche put it once  “Faith means not wanting to know the truth”.

Without a doubt religion has confused a lot of people into various stages of existential despair, the inevitable outcome of trying to believe in something that is entirely without substance regardless of what spiritual or ontological argument one wishes to root for it.  The attempt to make the leap of faith required in order to embrace some variety of eschatological mythology at the core of existence leaves one stranded at the dark abyss of irrationally because all reason must be abandoned beforehand.

Religion has no future, only a deadly present and a deadly past – it is the poisonous worm that, in the abandonment of reason, burrows itself deeply into the minds of those who find comfort in the kinds of beliefs that appear to let them off the hook for having to take any kind of responsibility for the moral character of our species, as this will have been decided “elsewhere”.  This reminds me of a line from a poem by Nietzsche’s favourite poet Holderlin which,  loosely translated from German, goes something like this: “While here on earth we mortals toil, elsewhere a God decides …”

Truly, in today’s language, God is vaporware, and at most an unsubstantiated rumour. But while the belief in imaginary entities might be deemed a juvenile condition by any other name, collectively our species should have grown out of this by now, and in the process have prepared the intellect to be immune from similar afflictions. This as we attempt to extract ourselves from the quagmire of religious superstition into a more enlightened future free from the self-denial featured by such beliefs. Hopefully we will then want to embrace the idea that we are accountable for our all our actions to ourselves only, and not to some entirely imaginary third party.