Saturday, May 26, 2007

Do You Believe in God?

I got asked this question recently by somebody after a long time. This made me realize two things. First, the trivial one of the two realizations was that the fact that it has been a long time since I got asked this question is indicative of the other fact that I have not had discussions or conversations with anyone who is not a scientist of some form, and hence have kind of forgotten what that is like. The second more interesting realization was that asking if I believe in god is like asking me if I believe in the washing machine! And I want to take this post to explain to you why this is the case.

Now, every reader has to agree with me that the second question is ridiculous. Why is that? Because I can touch and see the washing machine? No, that is not what I mean. May be a washing machine is not that good an example, may be I should have chosen Energy or some other concept like that to illustrate what I want to say. What I mean is that the washing machine is an invention made to fulfill a need, namely to use a power source other than human muscles to clean clothes. In this sense god is an invention we made to fulfill another one of our needs, and a basic one at that, the need to understand.

Let me explain further. Human beings like all other organisms have needs, food, oxygen, water etc. But in addition, we have another need, that need is the need to understand. Now, suppose I lived at the times of early man. All I had for observing the world around me was my five senses. So, the length and time scales of natural phenomena I had access to were limited by that. And then I saw plants grow into trees and bear flowers and fruits and die. I watched the sun rise and set everyday and watched the stars at night and could not see them if I looked for them when the sun was around. I saw other humans die and become inanimate suddenly. I saw people get sick and did not know why as I was not able to correlate it with anything that had happened before they fell sick. Under these circumstances, I would definitely have invented god. I could explain everything that I observe using one simple concept, namely god is doing it. That is how god came into being.

Then, as people got more understanding of what was happening, for example, when they realized that the objects in the sky must be moving in circular paths relative to earth, they said such things as angels with wings (like the birds they observed here on earth) pushed the heavenly bodies so that they moved in circles and other such subdivisions and auxiliary stories branching out from the concept of god emerged. Then, they wanted to divide observed phenomena into two groups. The first group consisted of those things that were good for humans. The second was those that were detrimental for humans. The second class of phenomena they decided should be propelled and caused by a different unifying entity. This became Satan, or Asuras or whatever the local word was for it. And in this subdivision of phenomena, they included the emotions they themselves felt. If you were jealous, that is not good for the group dynamic and hence you were advised to pray to god to overcome this “temptation of satan” or whatever jargon was fashionable at the time.

So, what about now, in today’s world? First of all, our knowledge of all things is exponentially larger. Not only can we see on all scales (scanning tunneling microscopy and atomic force microscopy now give you subatomic resolution to see things and cosmological observations let you see way in the past, into the very early universe), we have been thinking collectively as a species for long enough that most of the observed phenomena is tied into neat theories with only a few basic assumptions and these assumptions are way simpler than postulating an all powerful entity that did everything. And there is a change in attitude as well. We still don’t know many things. For example, we don’t know how to cure Alzheimer’s or even a simple viral infection. But, we don’t decide that we should all spend time praying. We pay taxes so that the people who know about such things can find out more and hence figure out how to beat these illnesses and thereby make sure that even though we will probably die of these diseases, perhaps our grand children won’t. We have come to understand the power of knowledge and are willing to trust it in some regions of our existence.

But there is one region, where in spite of all the progress made, we cannot put our trust in our knowledge yet. And that is our mind. For all the lip service we may pay to the biochemistry of the brain and the value of Freudian theory of psychoanalysis, we still cannot accept the apparent “fact” that we are but autocatalytic chemical reactions, albeit very complicated ones, but still just a chemical reaction and everything else must follow from there. I mean, even I am a little reluctant to admit that my consciousness is just chemistry and could eventually be controlled as such. So, we still need god to complete the picture we have of the world around us.

PS: These thoughts are about god, not religion and those are two very different things.

PS2: Apologies to anyone that came looking for a new post last week and did not find one. I was traveling…may be I’ll tell you about my adventures in New Mexico subsequently

13 comments:

arvind said...

Oversimplifies things, but good point.

CuriousCat said...

Yes, you are right. But simplification goes hand in hand with clarity don't you think?

tangled said...

Reminds me of the things Pratchett says...

CuriousCat said...

Sorry! But I am a relative ignoramus and have read only one of the early discworld books...what does he say?

tangled said...

Among many, many other such fantastic quotes, he says, "Most witches don't believe in gods. They know that the gods exist, of course. They even deal with them occasionally. But they don't believe in them. They know them too well. It would be like believing in the postman."
:)

CuriousCat said...

Fantastic!! Really Fantastic!!

pippala leaf said...

The "God" factor, in my opinion, originated from questions such as: "Why this universe?" "Who am I?" "Why I am here?” In this sense God is a search for answers. I am, more or less, convinced that science cannot answer those questions because of the fact that the answer lies beyond natural science. Science is all about experience through the five senses (including mind). The questions like “What came before the Big Bang?” are outside the realm of science. Therefore, in my opinion, no point in searching answers for the "God factor" within the realm of science.

Like you said, I am also reluctant to admit that my consciousness is just chemistry. Science claims consciousness is completely a natural biological product. This conclusion came from observing the brain activity under various experiments. I would rather say they just analyzed the symptoms. They never answered how and why. Science probably can never resolve it's secret. "Pure consciousness" or "awareness absolute" lies beyond the five senses and is not an observable phenomenon using the current scientific methods.

CuriousCat said...

Pippala: I understand better now where you are coming from. Let me just say one thing. Think about it. The questions you mention "Why this universe?" "Why am I here?" are arising in our mind because we cannot accept determinism and the reason we cannot accept determinism is that we appear to have a "choice" in everything...that is our free will. And if there has always been such an element of choice (and we cannot visualize the scenario when there is no choice, because we don't understand it), then the universe as it is today is an "accident" of such choices...
This is the reason we have these "existential angst" thoughts you mention, our lack of understanding of the origin, purpose and limitations of our free will.

Ok, long reply and I don't think I am being very clear. But thank you for talking to me on this. Helps me think.

Anonymous said...

why are religion and god two very different things? can you explain more, my stupid mind doesn't understand very well.

CuriousCat said...

Dear Anonymous

The distinction is perhaps subtle. “God” is just the concept that there exists a unifying supernatural force over and above all things natural. But “religion” is a lot more. It is a way of life where you attribute a character to this god by saying he loves you or will punish you or whatever and use this as a tool to make people do the right things, “moral things”. So, in this sense religion is the use of the concept of god to enforce morality in the society. It is a means to keep order and conformity in some sense. Does this make sense? I will try and think about it some more and figure a way to say it clearly if it does not. Tell me.

Anonymous said...

Hmm, thanks. Its getting clearer to me now. So, religion is stupid because it is coming out of a concept like god which exists only in our thinking minds. Because, if we want order and conformity in the society, we could do it without using such a concept as god isn't it?

CuriousCat said...

Dear Anonymous: Well, not quite. You see, the concept of morality is against our "nature" in a manner of speaking. Evolution per se is "survival of the mightiest" But morality essentially is associated with the concept of "one for all and all for one" and hence even though it is the right thing in some sense, is not "natural" to us till we make it natural through practice and hence familiarity. But, for the people who do not think, it is easier to think in terms of punishable offence and in some sense religion is necessary for enforcing moral order. But may be eventually, we can do away with religion all together and just realize that morality is a necessity for the human race to survive. But we are a long way from that, is n't it?

CuriousCat said...

PS to anonymous: Thank you for engaging me in this dialogue. It helps me think and put thoughts to words that are otherwise hard to do.