In an earlier post I defined belief as "a last resort to turn to when the currently known facts and the best available explanations of them don't answer your questions and you must have an answer on which to base your decisions. Beliefs should be avoided at all costs, much better to admit that we don't yet know and just continue searching. But the world being what it is, there are many decisions that must be guided, at least in part, by nothing more substantial than belief."
So you might expect that I don't believe much. But as I said, the world being what it is, there are many decisions to be made and we don't always know enough to base those decisions on knowledge. So one has no choice but to formulate a belief, based on little more than a gut feeling -- intuition if you will. There is actually quite a bit to be said for intuition in the many cases where there is not a better way of knowing.
It's time that I 'fessed up and shared some of those beliefs with you. The first half of this post was available on this blog, not as a post but as the separate page "What do I believe" for some time before being posted here. But I've added quite a lot of new material in the second half.
To put a name to it, I am a monistic materialist (or materialistic monist, same thing). This means I believe there is only one thing, and that is the material universe that we see around us and that we are part of. That's where the materialistic part comes from. It does not, by the way, mean that I am a materialist in the sense of "he who dies with the most toys, wins." Far from it. But more on that later.
The "monistic" part is important too -- there really is only that one thing and everything is part of it. The many "dualisms" that people believe in are serious errors in thought, with big and nasty consequences. Here are a few of them:
1) That there is a god separate from and outside of the material universe, who is its creator. This unnecessarily complicates one's thinking. If the universe had to be created by someone, then so did god, and whoever created god and so on in an infinite regress that gets harder and harder to believe. Stop at just one hard thing to believe: that the universe simply is. Furthermore the idea that the world was "designed", that the way things are is "meant to be", is a fallacy. The way things are is a combination of natural law and chance. When applied to life, we call this evolution. But something very similar has been going with the inanimate part of the universe as well. And it is very important not to start making value judgements about how things are. Because there is no creator and no "intention", one way is not inherently superior over another.
2) That mankind is a special part of nature, created to have dominion over it. This is the source of much of our current abuse of the environment. I would say we are a part of nature, with no special status or role, and actually totally dependent on nature -- it feeds, waters and clothes us and provides for us to continue breathing. When I was younger I thought that we would someday have the technology to overcome this dependence, but now it's looking pretty unlikely.
3) That there is a material universe and a separate mystical or supernatural one. Nope, there is only one universe – the material one. Our brains, however, can generate many experiences internally which seem "real" in some sense, but are not in fact experiences of any sort of external world. Having an active internal life is a necessary consequence of being able to think, but a great many people have made the mistake of thinking that their internal experiences are putting them in touch with another, perhaps higher, level of reality. Such experiences can be brought on in their most powerful form by using psychoactive chemicals of various sorts and can leave the most skeptical user convinced that they are real in a very concrete sense. Prayer, meditation, fasting, oxygen deprivation and rhythmic activities like chanting, drumming and dancing can also be used to cultivate mystical experiences. The important thing to realize is that the only thing you are getting in contact with through these practices is the inside of your own head. That in itself can be useful, but only if kept in the right perspective.
4) That our soul is a separate thing from our bodies with an independent existence that is eternal. Rather, I would say our consciousness is essentially a computing process running on the biological computer between our ears. As long as that "meatware" is running, our consciousness (or spirit or soul) exists as an emergent property of that process. It is not separate from our brain and can perceive and act on the material world only through our bodies. When the meatware stops running, the soul ceases to exist.
After hearing all of the above, it will surprise many conventionally religious people that an "atheist" like me is big on spirituality. Though what I mean by spirituality, since it doesn't include the supernatural, may be a little different from what you'd expect. Over the last few hundred years, science has displaced religion in providing our understanding of how more and more things work. For those who accept science, the realm of spirituality has shrunk and shrunk to almost nothing. Even our consciousness is understood as just a property of the computing processes going on in our brain. All that is left to the religious is some sort of supernatural essence whose existence is not even falsifiable – I would say it is simply imaginary. But I would also say that it is time to expand our understanding of the soul back to include what it properly should. Here I'll borrow an idea from Plato, via John Michael Greer (who gave it some modern twists) and add a few more of my own. Liken the soul to a chariot, which has three active parts. The driver is your mind or intellect, which is in charge of two unruly horses. One is your body with all it physical sensations and appetites -- pain, thirst, hunger, the sex drive and so forth. The other is the world outside your skin, which you are part of and which influences you in many ways. Since we are a species which naturally lives in groups this very much includes the obligations, influences and pressures from the people around us, but it also includes the rest of nature. If it sounds like I am saying that our souls are made up of our minds, our bodies and the surrounding universe, that is exactly right. We are part of nature and it is part of us. Everything is connected together, and I do not mean in some mystical, supernatural sense, but in straightforward chains of physical cause and effect.
We must learn to use the mind to control and balance both internal desires and external pressures -- not just to rein them in, but also to give them their heads when appropriate. All without letting the intellect itself get out of control. This endeavour is what spirituality is all about.
But our souls don't come with either an operating or a maintenance manual, so this is quite a challenge. Especially since so much of the supposed wisdom on this subject is complete bunk. How can it be that so much of the world's sacred knowledge is actually nonsense? That is a question that deserves an answer, and I think I have one.
Remember that for most of mankind's history you came to know things by accepting what older and wiser people told you. Only since classical times (a couple of thousand years) have ideas been required to be internally consistent. Only since the enlightenment (a couple of hundred years) has the practice of checking our ideas against reality been seen as a necessity. And even now there are still a great many people who aren't anywhere near that rigorous in their thinking. Of course, there are some pretty big advantages to accepting traditional knowledge. Much of our success as a species comes from not having to rely solely on inherited instinct, being able benefit from what previous generations have learned and to pass what we have learned on to future generations.
But there are also some disadvantages to this, the foremost being that those older and wiser people are in a position to seriously take advantage of you, especially if you've been brought up to blindly accept rather than question and test what you are being told. Religion has traditionally held a monopoly on spiritual guidance. The leaders of your religion may have the best interests of you and your soul at heart, or maybe that's a secondary concern for a large and complex organization whose chief goal is to maintain and extend its position of power in society, which is based on its having power over you.
If our spiritual guidance is not to come from religion, then where? There certainly no lack of spiritual guidance out there, the trick is to sift the good bits from the chaff. I believe in using my intellect to do this, and this means striving to master and use the best thinking tools available. This starts with logic, critical thinking, the scientific method and skepticism. A skeptical attitude is extremely useful, and constitutes the basis of true spirituality in my opinion.
As with any tool, it is important to be aware of the limitations of these methods. Mechanistic, reductionist science does a fine job of dividing natural phenomena into manageable bits and then describing and predicting their behaviour. But when it comes to understanding how these bits fit together into systems and predicting the behaviour of those systems, our current methods have limitations. It's worth discussing this a bit more, since so much of our Western worldview is based on it.
Take celestial mechanics, which applies the principles of physics to predict the motion of celestial bodies such as stars, planets and moons. 150 years ago this was viewed as one area in which mechanistic science ruled supreme and it did much to advance the idea of a clockwork universe. The idea was that if we know the current state of a system and the physical laws that govern it, we could predict its future behaviour. But we were kidding ourselves. Even now we haven't solved the three body problem in celestial mechanics. That is, predicting the movements of three masses in each others' gravitational fields. For two bodies we have a clean, precise mathematical solution. But for three or more, a true solution has thus far eluded us. Given time and sufficient computing power, we can use "numerical methods" to come up with reasonable accurate approximations in most situations. But as systems grow more complex this becomes more difficult. Some of the moons of Saturn move in "chaotic" orbits. In this sense, chaos refers to the behaviour of a system where small differences in initial conditions yield widely diverging outcomes. This renders long-term prediction impossible in general because you'd have to determine those initial conditions with infinite accuracy in order to know where the system is going. This happens even though these systems are deterministic, meaning that their future behavior is fully determined by their initial conditions, with no random elements involved. In other words, the deterministic nature of these systems does not make them predictable. This happens in some pretty simple systems. Most of the really interesting systems such as weather, organisms and ecologies are interconnected, complex and non-linear which makes them very difficult even to describe, much less predict. This should bring us up short whenever we talk about controlling or “fixing” those kind of systems. Our continued survival on this planet is utterly dependent on the continued functioning of such systems and while they can stand a little bit of tinkering, they don't respond well to the sort of wholesale exploitation that has been going on recently.
So analytical thought, using present day tools, has limitations. Maybe someday we'll develop better tools (it's happened before), or we'll learn to cope better in an uncertain universe – that's where my efforts are focused. I'm not saying that logical thinking is useless, far from it. Or that we should give up on critical thought and wildly accept any sort of bizarre notion. Just that we shouldn't get overly cocky about what we can understand and control. But analytical thought is not the only thing our intellects are good at – creative thought is also important, and without it life is sterile and meaningless. We should occupy ourselves not just with sorting through existing ideas, but also with generating new ideas which can then be sorted. There are tools for this kind of thought as well, and it is worth studying up on them.
Beyond that, there is much more to life than just thinking. The intellect may steer the chariot, but our motivations, the things that get us up in the morning and keeps us carrying on with life, come primarily from our physical desires and the connections we have with the world around us and the other living beings in it. Curiosity and creativity are just about the only intellectual motivations. Other than that, if you think that you are doing something for logical reasons, you're probably kidding yourself. Look a little deeper and you'll find that your real motivation is a physical desire, or more likely, a connection that you feel to another living thing or things, usually but not always, another human being. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, often it is a very good thing, but if you aren't even aware of it, then you certainly won't be able to decide whether it really is a good thing or not. You'll just be along for the ride.
This brings me to the issue of free will. Current research on the workings of the human mind leads us to believe that free will may be an illusion. You decide to move you hand, but in fact the nerve impulse telling your hand to move left your brain a fraction of a second before you experienced making that decision. It appears that your consciousness is building a narrative of what's going on in your head after the fact, that the ability to make a decision is an illusion, or maybe a reflection of something going on at a much deeper level, of which we aren't directly conscious. This places all the traditional thinking on morality on very shaky ground. But regardless of the underlying reality, we do have the experience of being able to make choices and even deciding not to choose is in itself a choice. So best to proceed as if you have free will and choose to do the right thing. But wait a minute, I just chucked out millenia of wisdom on what the right thing might be. What do I use to guide my decisions?
The thing to do is to think about consequences. If you do, or don't do, something, what will the result be? Of course, many people are very good at taking the first step in this direction. If we do such and such, then the result will be what we planned and all will be well. But actions don't usually have just that one intended result, but other unintended results as well, and beyond that the world tends to react to what we have done, and in ways we never expected. Be aware of this, plan for it, but try not to be paralyzed by it, either.
When dealing with other human beings, two principles can be appled: benevolence and universality. Do no harm and when possible, actually help. This applies not just to people in your own "in group" but to all others, as well.
I think that this should probably be extended to the rest of nature. But one must be aware that benevolence may take different forms when applied to nature than to humans. Specifically, I am thinking here of the circle of life, and the fact that we as omnivores are part of that circle, naturally causing death so that we can eat and then dying in our own turn and returning to the soil.
Of course, what I believe is a work in progress, and I don't mean to tell other people how to live. In fact, I don't believe that I should. So it is almost time to stop, but just to stir things up a bit, I thought I'd share with you my thoughts on some of the current standard controversial issues. Let me preface this by saying that I don't believe in "inalienable rights", but there definitely are privileges that a society should attempt to guarantee its members if it is to be successful. So I'll use the term "right" below, but that's what I really mean.
GLBT(That's gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender for those who haven't been following this one too closely.) This is the latest civil rights issue, not that racism has been eliminated or feminism achieved its goals, either. But I'm against racism, in favor of feminism (or more properly humanism), and definitely in favour of GLBT rights. Love is rare enough and I wouldn't outlaw it in any form it might take. The Wiccans have a couple of good sayings about this: 1) “any act of love is an act of worship of the goddess”, and 2) “and it hurt no one, do as you will.” Good advice, though the second part is a lot more restrictive than it might appear at first glance. Unfortunately, the patriarchal religions have used sex and love as a way of controlling people, restricting them to heterosexual marriage sanctioned by the church, on pain of eternal damnation. Talk about using “spiritual guidance” as a way of manipulating people.
Abortion. What this is really about is a choice between murder and slavery. Yes, abortion is clearly the murder of an unborn child. But forcing a woman to carry that child if she does not wish to do so is clearly slavery. As is so often the case, we must choose the lesser of two evils. For me, the lesser evil is to murder an unborn child who exists mainly in potential. Enslaving women is a much more serious evil. Unfortunately, it is one that we (even women) have become accustomed to.
Capital punishment. Seems to me taking irreversible action on limited information is a bad idea. The real world is a messy place and very rarely do we know all the circumstances surrounding a crime. I'd always rather let one guilty man go free rather than execute one innocent man. And why not address the root causes for crime for a change?
Gun control. Technology is designed by people, deliberately, with an aim in mind. It is NOT neutral. In the case of guns, that aim is to kill. This is not an unintended consequence — it is the very heart of their being. It is fairly hard to imagine what else one might do with a gun (use it as a club, perhaps?), and most shots fired during history have been fired at other people. We use a lot of euphemisms in connection with guns. We say “put” down suffering animals, or “control” pests, but we mean kill them. We talk about “hunting”, but we mean killing wildlife, perhaps for food that we need to live, but more likely for sport, trophies and some very high priced luxury meat. We say we need a gun for safety, but what we mean is to kill anyone who we perceive to be threatening us. It’s all killing, all death. Some of these deaths can be justified, others not so much… But gun control is a done deal in most countries except the US, where guns are readily available and the public is very much inclined to use them. Seems to be a feeling there that violence is the solution to your problems (though obviously, not everyone in the United States fits that stereotype). To someone from Canada, this is a bizarre situation without an immediately obvious solution. But making it harder to get guns has got to do some good.
War. War between states is all about building and maintaining empires. Or opposing empires, if you are on the other side. While war doesn't benefit people, it certainly can benefit the states who use to maintain and expand their empires. Accordingly they do their best to convince us that there are good reasons for going to war. Don't be fooled.
All this talk about controversial issues reminds me of what I call The "Not Two" Thing. This is related, I suppose, to those erroneous dualisms I mentioned back at the start of this post – sort of. Basically, whenever you hear someone presenting an issue as consisting of two opposing sides, alarm bells should go off in your head. Pick one side or the other and you have already been manipulated in taking sides and accepting a simplified version of things. The odds are that someone benefits from this, but probably not you. This binary thinking is a form of laziness and whenever you find yourself falling into the old binary groove, try a little harder to see that in one sense there are many sides to the issue, many possible solutions. And in another sense, there is only one thing – one universe, one planet we're living on, one human race and that the supposed opposing sides may actually have common interests. Many or one, but not two.
I said earlier that our soul comes without either an operating or a maintenance manual. So far we've been talking about operations, but maintenance is also important. Occasionally it is important to give the intellect a rest, exercise the body and enjoy some contact with nature. So go take a walk in the bush, it will be good for you. Or a walk in the park, if that is the best you can do.