Thursday, August 16, 2007

Do we make decisions based on reason or emotion?

My best description of how reason and emotion work within me is an image of an ever-widening spiral:

outward spiral, passing through reason and emotionAs the spiral widens, my sense of 'certainty' increases.

Accessing feelings can be very difficult, perhaps because we've learnt over many years to suppress them. Often feelings are best accessed indirectly, through symbols (or 'resonant sensations'). This is why religious paraphernalia (such as candles, incense, music etc.) can sometimes be helpful.

We can find peace with God only when we are 'broken'. Again, although I didn't say it in the meeting, I've been thinking about this some more. I imagine myself going for a job interview at God Inc.:

God: So, what strengths can you bring to the company?
Me: Absolutely none, I'm afraid.
God: That's what I hoped you'd say.

Are all religions essentially the same?

A friend once surprised me by saying that she no longer identified herself as a 'Christian'. She still prayed, she said, but no longer held the belief that there was only "one path to God". This got me thinking... despite the appeal of such inclusivism, is this really a more enlightened approach to religion? And on what basis can Christianity claim to be true, to be a religion worth following?

"Every religion emphasizes human improvement, love, respect for others, sharing other people's suffering. On these lines every religion had more or less the same viewpoint and the same goal." This statement, attributed to the Dalai Lama, would probably find broad support in contemporary society. If everyone would just recognise that all religions are essentially the same, the argument goes, there would be no need for sectarian violence and hatred. It is certainly an appealing proposition. Saying to someone else, "My religion is right, but yours is wrong" seems akin to saying, "My culture and my way of life are better than yours." But are they the same thing? Language, culture, ethics and religion are so intertwined in everyday life that we may be tempted to regard them as inseparable. The Dalai Lama quote referred to one aspect of religion, one that is central to Buddhism: namely how we should live (including our attitudes). But religion is generally more than just a user-guide to life.

So, before we examine the question, "Are all religions equally valid?" we need to know just what it is that religions 'do'.

All religions claim to have answers to certain kinds of questions, or at least to provide insight into them. Almost by definition, such questions have no scientifically verifiable answers. 1

Although there are many such questions, they seem to group themselves into the following three areas:

  1. What is the nature of existence? Including: "How did the universe (and we) come to be?" and "Do I have a soul (or mind), or am I just matter?"
  2. Is there life after death? If so, what form does it take? And is there anything I can do to affect the kind of afterlife I will have - i.e. to make it enjoyable?
  3. Is there a universal moral code? (Or, at least one for all of those in my 'society'?) If so, on what - if anything - is it based: internal factors (e.g. survival of the species, the greatest happiness for the greatest number) or external factors (e.g. to please God, to be more like God)?

So, let us return to the task of comparing religions. It seems there are, at most, four basic options:

  1. Only one religion is right; all others are wrong
  2. One religion has the truest and most complete set of answers; other religions differ in how close they come to the complete truth 2
  3. All religions are 'right', or equally valid; no religion is superior to any other (in terms of answering questions that have no scientifically verifiable answers)
  4. All religions are equally meaningless, because such questions are fundamentally unanswerable (otherwise known as agnosticism)

It may seem that I have omitted one option: "All religions are equally wrong, because nothings exists apart from matter" (otherwise known as atheism). However, atheism is actually a specific form of A (dogmatic exclusivism).

So, what would happen if C ("all religions are equally valid") were correct? Consider two religions that answer the same question (such as, "Is there one supreme being who created everything?") in two contradictory ways ("yes" and "no"). Regardless of the question, regardless of whether an answer to it could ever be proved or disproved, the statement "X is true and X is false" must always be false (because it is fundamentally false).

Imagine I have flipped a coin in a locked room and you are outside that room. You could either say:

  • "I believe it is Heads", or
  • "I believe it is Tails", or
  • "I don't know whether it is Heads or Tails", or
  • "I don't care whether it is Heads or Tails"

... but it would be absurd and meaningless to say, "I believe it is Heads and it is Tails." 3

Those who claim to believe C ("all religions are equally valid") are really adhering to D ("all religions are meaningless": agnosticism), because their real answer to a specific question (e.g. "Does God exist?") is not "I don't know", but rather "I don't care." Option D supposes that it is possible to not make a decision of belief, whereas the most we can do is postpone a final decision. In the meantime, we are in effect saying, "Until more evidence comes to light, I will act as though such-and-such were true." This is our 'default' position.

There is a principle in science, known as "Occam's Razor". In its simplest form, this principle states that one should make no more assumptions than needed. In other words, when you have two competing theories, which make exactly the same predictions, the one that is simpler is the best to follow. So, given that there is quite compelling evidence that the universe has not existed forever, which of the following is the simpler explanation for how it came to be?

  1. It was created by a supreme being ("God").
  2. It came into existence spontaneously.

Although the first seems to be a 'black box' theory - passing the burden of explanation onto a statement that defies further examination - the second is not much better. It says, in effect, "That's just the way things are." Yet many scientists - even if they do not state it explicitly - operate as though this were a 'given'. This is their 'meta-assumption': their assumption about which is the best assumption.

But, does it really matter? After all, it is often said that following a religion, regardless of its specific doctrines or principles, can be worthwhile, because of what it offers the believer, such as peace of mind and a sense of purpose in life. This is even presented by many believers as the primary motivation for their faith. But, if such benefits were built on nothing more than a delusion, it would be like someone taking a poisonous drug because it makes them happy right now. But if God is really God, and grace is real, my present "peace of mind", or lack of it, is surely a side issue. The real issue is: "In which direction shall I point my life?" or "To what, or whom, shall I pledge my allegiance?"


  1. Of course some religions - or the fundamentalist varieties of some religions - claim to have answers to other kinds of questions as well, even if they come into direct conflict with scientific evidence. But that is not our concern here.
  2. We could divide options A and B further, according to whether or not we believe that we know which is the 'right' religion.
  3. Actually, quantum physics says that, at a sub-atomic level, such contradictions do take place: e.g. a photon can be said to have travelled along two distinct paths simultaneously. However these do not occur at the 'macroscopic' level (molecules, drops of water, human beings, planets, galaxies, and beyond).

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Support for the existence of God

CS Lewis, in The Problem of Pain, chapter 1, put forward the idea that the existence of God was supported by certain human phenomena, including the sense of the numinous and universal morality. Here is an abridged retelling of his argument:

"If God were good, he would want to make his creatures perfectly happy.
And if God were almighty, he would be able to do whatever he wanted.
Therefore, God lacks either goodness ... or he lacks power ... or he lacks both."

This, in a nutshell, is the problem of suffering. Notice that it starts with God and the character of God. In other words, if I were an atheist - or only believed in an impersonal "life-force" type of god - suffering wouldn't be a problem, at least not philosophically.

Imagine asking an atheist "Why don't you believe in God?" and getting a reply like this:

"Look at the universe. The vast majority of it is virtually empty space. The stars, planets and other objects which move in this space are so few, and so small in comparison with the space itself, that, even if we knew that every planet was full of perfectly happy creatures, it would still be hard to believe that life and happiness were more than just a by-product of whatever made the universe.

"As yet, there is no evidence of life existing on any planet other than Earth. And Earth itself existed without life for millions of years and will probably exist for millions more after life has left it. And what is life like - while it lasts? It's arranged in such a way that all forms of it can only live by preying on one another. In the lower forms, this process only involves death, but in the higher forms, there is a quality called 'consciousness' that allows it to be accompanied by pain. The creatures cause pain by being born, and live by inflicting pain, and in pain they mostly die. In the most complex of all the creatures - human beings - still another quality appears, which we call 'reason'. This enables them to anticipate their own pain (which means that pain is preceded with acute mental suffering) and to anticipate their own death, even though they long for permanence. Reason also allows human beings, by building clever machines, to inflict a lot more pain than they otherwise could have on each another, and on other creatures, an ability they have exploited to the full. In fact, the history of human beings is mostly a record of crime, war, disease and terror, with just enough happiness intermingled to give them, while it lasts, a fear of losing it and, when it's lost, the poignant misery of remembering it.

"Every now and then humans improve their condition a little and what we call 'civilisation' appears. But all civilisations pass away and, even while they remain, they inflict peculiar sufferings of their own. No-one would dispute that this is true of our own, western civilisation; our civilisation will probably also pass away like all its predecessors. But, even if it doesn't, what then? The human race is doomed. All stories will come to nothing; all human life will turn out to have just been a transitory and senseless contortion on the idiotic face of matter.

"If you ask me to believe that this is the work of a kind and all-powerful spirit, I'd say that all the evidence points in the opposite direction. Either there is no spirit behind the universe, or else there's a spirit indifferent to good and evil, or else an evil spirit."

If the universe is that bad, or even half as bad as that, how on earth did human beings ever come to attribute it to the activity of a wise and good Creator? Perhaps people are foolish, but surely not that foolish. Thinking about the universe, as revealed by experience, and as described by our hypothetical atheist, can never have been the cause of religion; religion must have come from a different source, and held onto despite this experience.

In all developed religion we find two strands or elements, and in Christianity one more. The first of these is what is known as the experience of the Numinous. To explain what I mean by that, imagine that you were alone in a room and you were told "There is a tiger in the next room", what would you feel? Fear?

Now imagine you were told "There is a ghost in the next room", and you believed it, what would you feel? Fear, again? Yes, but it would be a different kind of fear. It wouldn't be based on the knowledge of danger, because after all you're not really afraid of what a ghost might do to you, but just because it's a ghost. It's "uncanny", rather than dangerous, and we can call the special kind of fear it produces, "dread".

So far, so good. Now imagine being told, "There's a mighty spirit in the room", and you believed it. Now your feelings would be even less like the mere fear of danger. You'd feel wonder, and a kind of shrinking - a sense of inadequacy to cope with such a visitor, as though you needed to surrender, prostrate, before it. We could describe this feeling as "awe" and the thing, or person, which excites it as "the Numinous".

Now, there's no doubt that humans, from a very long time ago, began to believe that the universe was haunted by spirits. We can't say that these spirits were always regarded with numinous awe. There could have been a time when people regarded these spirits just as dangerous, and felt towards them just as they felt about tigers. What we can say, however, is that the numinous experience exists now and that we can trace it back a long, long way.

The earliest people almost certainly believed in things which would excite this feeling in us if we believed in them, so it's likely that numinous awe is as old as humanity itself. But we needn't be too concerned about dates. The important thing is that, somehow or other, it has come into existence, is widespread, and has managed to survive the growth of knowledge and of civilisation.

Now this awe is not the result of an inference from the visible universe. You can't argue from mere danger to the uncanny, still less to the fully Numinous. You might say it seems very natural that early people, being surrounded by real dangers - and therefore frightened - should invent the uncanny and the Numinous. In a sense it is, but why? Does it seem natural because you share human nature with your remote ancestors, and you can imagine yourself reacting to danger, and solitude, in the same way? This reaction is certainly "natural" in the sense of being in tune with human nature. But it's not in the least "natural" in the sense that the idea of the uncanny or the Numinous is somehow contained in the idea of the dangerous. After all, how could being aware of danger, or the risk of injury and death, give the slightest inkling of ghostly dread or numinous awe to anyone who didn't already understand them? You see, when someone goes from physical fear to dread and awe, they make a sheer jump.

Most attempts to explain the Numinous actually presuppose it - as though it were in fact already explained, like when anthropologists say it comes from fear of the dead, without explaining why dead people (certainly the least dangerous kind of people!) should have attracted this peculiar feeling in the first place. No, dread and awe are in a different dimension to physical fear. They are like an interpretation of the universe, or maybe an impression of it. No factual description of any human environment could include the uncanny or the Numinous or even hint at them. It would be like trying to explain what we mean by 'beauty' to a creature with no aesthetic sense. There'd be no point listing the qualities of a beautiful object; that's not where the beauty resides. In the same way, the Numinous can't be found directly in physical world.

In fact, there seem to be only two views we can hold about numinous awe: Either it's just a twist of the human mind, corresponding to nothing objective and serving no biological purpose (yet, strangely, showing no tendency to disappear from the human mind, especially in poets, philosophers and saints). Or else, it's a direct experience of the supernatural, in which case it should really be called "revelation".

It's time to make an important distinction: The Numinous is not the same as the Good (in a moral sense), and someone overwhelmed by awe is likely, if left to themselves, to think that what they're in awe of, is "beyond good and evil". This brings us to the second strand or element in religion: Everyone, throughout history and today, acknowledges some kind of morality. In other words, when someone thinks about certain proposed actions, they experience something which can either be expressed by the words "I should" or "I shouldn't". This experience is like awe in one way, because you can't deduce it logically from the environment or your physical experiences. You can shuffle "I want to..." and "I am forced to..." and "It would be a good idea if I..." and "I dare not..." as long as you like without getting out of them the slightest hint of "should" or "shouldn't".

Morality, like numinous awe, is a sheer jump; it goes beyond anything that can be "given" in the facts of experience. And it has one characteristic that's too remarkable to be ignored, and that is this: Moral codes may differ from culture to culture - although fundamentally not nearly as much as is often claimed - but they all agree in one thing: they prescribe behaviour that even their adherents fail to practise. In other words, all people stand condemned, not by an external moral code, but by their own, and therefore all people are conscious of guilt.

So, the second element in religion is the consciousness, not just of a moral law, but of a moral law that is at the same time approved and yet disobeyed. This consciousness is not an inference from the facts of experience; if we didn't bring it to our experience, we wouldn't be able to find it there. It's either an illusion that can't be explained, or else - again - revelation.

The moral experience and the numinous experience are so far from being the same that they can exist for quite long periods of time without making any contact. In many forms of Paganism, the worship of the gods and the ethical discussions of the philosophers had very little to do with each other. A particular stage in religious development occurs when people bring these two stands together: when the numinous power they feel awe towards, is made the guardian of the morality they feel obliged to keep. Once again, this can seem very "natural" to us. What could be more natural than for an ancient man, say, haunted by awe and by guilt, to think that the power that awes him is the authority that condemns his guilt? And indeed it is natural to humanity. But it's not at all obvious. The actual behaviour of the universe that the Numinous seems to haunt, is nothing like the behaviour that morality demands of us. After all, the universe seems wasteful, ruthless and unjust; but morality expects exactly the opposite qualities of us.

Well, how did the Numinous and morality come together in religion? Is it a kind of wish fulfilment? Hardly. After all, whose wishes does it fulfil? Why would anyone want the Law, whose authority is already unsupportable, armed with the incalculable claims of the Numinous? Of all the jumps that humanity has taken in its religious history, this is definitely the most surprising. It is not unnatural that many sections of the human race refused it; non-moral religion and non-religious morality existed, and still exist.

A third strand, or element in religion is an event in history. There was a man, a Jew, who claimed to be, or to be the son of, or to be "one with", the Something who is both the numinous haunter of the universe and the giver of the moral law. This claim is so shocking - a paradox, or even a horror, which we can easily be lulled into taking too lightly - that only three views of this man are possible. Either he was a raving lunatic, or he was a dangerous liar, or else he was, and is, exactly who he said he was. There's no fourth way. If the evidence shows that the first two possibilities are unacceptable, you must agree with the last. And if you do that, everything else that is claimed by Christians becomes credible: that this man was killed, and yet was brought to life again, that his death and resurrection - in some way that we can never really comprehend - has brought about a real change to our relationship with this "awesome" and "righteous" God, a change in our favour.

If we ask whether the universe as we see it looks like the work of a wise and good Creator or like the outcome of chance, indifference, or malevolence, we are leaving out from the very start all the relevant factors in the religious problem. Christianity is not the conclusion of some philosophical debate on the origins of the universe; it's a catastrophic, historical event following the long spiritual preparation of humanity that I have already described. It's not a system into which we have to fit the awkward fact of suffering; it is, itself, one of the awkward facts which have to be fitted into any system we make. In a way, it creates, rather than solves, the problem of suffering. Because, as I said at the beginning, suffering wouldn't be a problem unless, side by side with our daily experience of a world full of suffering, we had received what we believe to be a good assurance that ultimate reality is righteous and loving.

There's nothing that forces us to accept this assurance. Humanity may rebel at any and every stage of religious development. This might be against human nature, but not against logic. You can close their eyes against the Numinous - if you are prepared to part company with half the great poets and prophets, with your own childhood, and with the richness and depth of uninhibited experience. You could think of the moral law as an illusion, and so cut yourself off from the common ground of humanity. You could refuse to identify the Numinous with the righteous, and end up worshipping your own sexuality ... or the dead ... or the life-force ... or the future. But the cost is great.

And when we come to the last step of all, the historical Incarnation, the assurance - that ultimate reality is righteous and loving - is strongest of all. The story of God becoming human in Jesus Christ is strangely like many myths which have haunted religion from the very beginning; and yet in a significant way, it is not like them. It's not something we could have invented for ourselves. It doesn't have the suspiciously easy clarity of Pantheism ("everything is God") or of Newtonian physics ("to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction"). Instead, it has the seemingly arbitrary and strange character which modern science tells us we must put up with in this willful universe - where energy is made up of little parcels of a quantity no one could predict, where speed is not unlimited and where subatomic particles are described by probabilities, not certainties. So, if any message were to reach us from the core of reality, what kind of message should we expect to find? I think we should expect just that unexpectedness, that dramatic willfulness that we find in the Christian faith. It has the master touch - the rough, strong taste of reality, not made by us, or, indeed, for us, but hitting us in the face.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

What does it mean to say something exists?

What does it mean to say something exists? If, for example, it could be shown that an alternate universe could exist, that has no possibility for contact with any other universe (including ours), in which there are no sentient beings, in what way could it be said to "exist"?