Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Origin of Life and the Universe

I am halfway through watching this debate between Richard Dawkins, the famous evolutionary biologist, and John Lennox, a christian mathematician. Inevitably, Dawkins was led to explain how anything as complex as a god would need something at least as complex to explain it (an entirely possible hypothesis which I'll get into elsewhere).

Lennox then said something like, "So, you're asking 'If God created the Universe, then what created God?' ... Well, then I can ask you, 'If the universe created us, the what created the universe?'"

Now, to some, this might seem like a respectable point. "Yeah, Dawkins! That's your own logic right there. What created the universe?" but Lennox's problem here is, like a typical believer, he is assuming that for something to exist, it must necessarily have been conceived of and created, and so, to escape his own logical trap, he describes the "Ultimate Origin" as an infinitely complex and ineffable creator god (while at the same claiming to have a personal relationship with it!) that has always existed.

Then he goes ahead and puts Dawkins "ultimate origin" (the extremely simple universe at the first picosecond of its existence) in the same category (an outside factor capable of creating, even though it itself is the 'creation' being talked about).

I've been trying to think of an analogy to show the ludicrousness of this and it has been difficult but suddenly fractals came to mind. If you google fractals, you will see imagery of astounding beauty and complexity. And even the simplest can look like they were human-designed artwork (of course, I'm not talking about fractal art, which is obviously designed) and yet are generated from what are relatively very simple formulae. Now imagine the complexity of all the different fractals possible as all the possible states of complexity of matter in the universe (one example of which is us humans).

And imagine the formulae behind them as the principles and forces of physics and chemistry. The formulae themselves are composed of mathematical concepts such as variables, constant, exponents, etc... Things that simply are, independent of whether human minds have thought of them or not.

So Lennox asking "If the universe created us, who created the universe?" is like asking "If formulae create fractals, what creates formulae?"

Now before you say "Aha! Human minds create formulae!" and somehow equate the human mind with a god mind, read the question again. "formulae create fractals..." Do formulae create fractals? No, of course not. "Formulae" are not creating anything. They just are. Whether human minds conceive of them is not relevant. A fractal and the formulae that generate it exists abstractly, with the need to be conceived of by human minds, just as we humans and the universe we've been generated from exist without the need to be conceived of by some other higher order, complex being/mind.

So the answer to his question:
The universe did not create us. We came about naturally through a process we've dubbed 'evolution', which we do not yet fully understand (less and less the further back in time we go). The fact that we understand as much as we do about it is already very impressive, considering the timescale.

And what "created the universe?" ... Nothing. We understand very little of the origins of the universe (the Big Bang Theory is still in its infancy) but this desire of ours to have a creator is something caused by our, though marvelous, ultimately limited still-evolving brains because of
our very own nature as creators.

Friday, February 8, 2013

God and Breakfast

This used to be a question I liked to ask my christian friends back in my school days...

"Does God know what you're going to have for breakfast tomorrow morning?"

The answer most gave was "Yes, of course he does."

I followed with ".. and next week, on Thursday. Does He know what you'll have for breakfast then?"

"Yes, of course. God is all-knowing."

"So, what about 10 years from now... Besides your breakfast choices, does God know what career you'll be in? What your clothing style will be? Your exact thoughts, as they're running through your head, at this exact time, ten years from now?"
"Err... Yes. Of course. It's God. God permeates time and space. He knows all."

"Ok, right. So then God also knows what your state of mind will be at the exact moment before your death, correct?"


"So, assumably, God already knows, and has always known, whether you'll be going to heaven or hell...?"

"Err... yes..."

"And so he knows, and has known even since before he created anybody, the fate of all his mortal creations?"

You see where this goes? It's a logical trap designed to show how, either human beings don't have and have never had free will (because if a god already knows what's going to happen, and has always known, then everything is predetermined, as this is a god we're talking about), or, the god does not "permeate all time" and doesn't know the future.

My own solution to this when I was a christian was thinking of God as omniscient yes, but only in this present moment. Because I'd already figured that time was not linear in the way we have evolved to think... So to me, saying "God permeates time" was the same thing as saying "God can draw a square circle" ... It just doesn't make sense.

Of course, just how much of the future God could predict, him being God and all, was up for debate. And that leads to other problems like how much could a god be surprised by a mortal or other influence (a theme Frank Herbert really goes into in his "God Emporer of Dune" (book 4 in the Dune series)).

Now, of course, I contemplate the mysteries of time, fate, and free will completely free of the superfluous idea of a god.

I like this little trick because it's an easy way to get believers thinking about things. If they can surpass the "I must not doubt - Faith! Faith! Have faith!" hole, then they could possibly start thinking about the nature of this god they believe in... And if they're lucky, such thoughts could lead to seeing how a truly omnipotent, omniscient being would not be able to have the desire to create mortal worshippers, or any desire at all, nor even an emotion as human as loneliness to inspire such a desire.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Confirmation Bias

So, straight to it then: Confirmation bias is this little trick our minds play on us... A psychological "safety" mechanism used to help us feel safer in a world we don't wholly understand. It's a nasty trick, more subtle than I at first realised but not entirely indomitable. At least, I think I've managed to keep it under control, most of the time. But before I get to that, let me explain how it works.

As you grow from a child to an adult, you try make sense of the world. Along the way, you reach conclusions with varying degrees of importance in your life (from simple, arbitrary realisations to greater, enlightening epiphanies) through which you develop a unique set of paradigms which you (naturally) feel comfortable with and use to interpret your experiences within the world in order to understand it further.

Essentially, confirmation bias helps you preserve your hard-earned paradigms. Your brain tends to filter out stimuli that don't agree with the ideas you've become comfortable with, and inversely, latch onto any small piece of data that helps to reinforce those ideas. The mechanism takes various forms, from the more obvious, like only reading books that only tell you what you want to hear, to the more subtle, where even your subconscious little decisions made as you're talking to someone, or even as you day-dream while going to work on the bus, are affected.

The above examples I chose specifically because they are examples of confirmation bias that I've readily noticed in myself in the past, which I now actively try to redress. It's tricky, though. Let's take the books example... Yes, I've always chosen books that will probably confirm for me what I'm already tending to believe, or that help immerse me deeper into that paradigm. I remember when I called myself Pagan, I read the historical fiction novel "The Mists of Avalon" by Marion Zimmer Bradley, and ate up any new-age nonsense I could find in the library. And why not, right? That was my interest at the time. The study of "the Old Ways" renewed (of course, without the brutality/cruelty of certain ancient rituals because we are so much more "enlightened" now).

Anyway, there are two things to be noted here: The more obvious - I only read "that kind of thing" and the more subtle - My brain, a remarkable masterpiece of evolution, processed all that and made complete sense of it. It took only a few basic assumptions on my part, assumptions about the nature of reality that had no validity beyond that I liked them, for me to then construct a diverse "understanding" of the way the universe works through the ideas and extrapolations of other people who think in the same way.

Many of you at this point are probably thinking, "Yes, but, isn't this natural? Don't we all choose books (or other media) that we like? Should I then go and choose books that I don't like?" and my reply to this is, whether you like the books or not shouldn't be the issue. If you are truly interested in getting the truth of a matter, whether it be the nature of reality or the best method of growing bonsai trees, you should be reading a variety of authors/opinions, most especially opposing ones.This is what I'm trying to do now.

And then there are the more subtle examples I mentioned. Our own thought processes as we daydream on a bus or talk to a friend...; in either case (whether we're having ideas suggested to us by another person or having them generated by our perception of the world as we move along in it), we subconsciously discard pieces of information that don't agree with our established paradigm(s)... (In much the same way as happens when we read an article or book...) The question is, how can we deal with this?

Well, the only thing one can do is to pay attention. It's a mindset that takes practice. Don't just blab out the first thing that comes to your head and question the sources of your information before you accept anything as "fact".

I've found that being truly objective and reaching unbiased conclusions is really difficult (most of the time, you don't detect your own bias!) and at first, keeping a third-eye on your own thoughts is tiring, but for anyone who's interested in the truth, it's absolutely necessary to try. Keep vigilant. Trust your own mind only as far as you can throw it =P

Monday, February 4, 2013

(My) Reality

Upon originally writing this page in my little scrapbook, I felt pretty comfortable with the term "Ignostic". It's a term that doesn't have such strong preconceptual connotations to it as does "atheist", so it gets people curious. They look it up on Wikipedia and only the truly interested read further than the first few sentences.

But after watching this video with Sam Harris, I changed the name of this blog from "Amateur Insights of an Ignostic Mammal" to "Amateur Insights of a Reasoning Mammal" because... Well, watch the video =) (Essentially, my "theological position" may be ignostic/atheist/non-cognitivist, just like my "racial position" is non-racist, but I don't go around calling myself a non-racist, do I?). So I'm simply going to ignore all these terms now and try to express my views in as simple terms as I can manage.

'Thing is, we humans are special. Not "divinely" special in any "God's favourite creation" kind of way, or any such nonsense, but special because we're the only species on earth to have evolved a brain complex enough to develop self-awareness and self-study. It may be that we are the only beings in existence to have done this. Amazing, right? And that's just it. Amazing, but only appreciable as amazing by us because of the very fact. It's this sense of self-consciousness that I imagine first fooled our ancestors into imagining gods. Many lonely nights staring into the tribal fire, and some particularly inspired and existentially anxious old tribal medicine man suddenly came up with the idea. All the mysterious forces of nature that seemed to come from somewhere  or be caused by someone, which ruled every aspect of their lives, combined with this new sense of "We are here... so, where did we come from?" ... One cannot really blame them for the birth of the idea of gods.

Eras later, we are here still, and how! We've taken over the planet. We're the irrefutable masters of the Earth. But the question remains, where did we come from? And finally we're starting to admit to ourselves that we've never really known, nor really know for sure even now. Gloriously, we're beginning to find real answers to the question, as much as so many don't like them. "Stardust". Elements. We're made up of the same stuff as trees and worms, diamonds and polar bears. To me, now, evolution just seems so obvious. But okay, wait... I'll write more about evolution and our origins elsewhere. 

Essentially, to me, all the things people "believe in", from the oddest small-town cult to the world's most common religions of Islam and Christianity, are fantasy. It's actually becoming harder and harder for me to remember how I ever made sense of the world in that way. Now, I see all religions and associated Gods as psychological crutches needed by most in order to feel safe in a universe they don't understand and in an indifferent world that they perceive as unjust or even cruel. And their minds cannot accept, because they cannot conceive of, the idea of non-existence.

Then, there is this wave of "new-age" ideas concerning universal energy, "love" as some kind of physical force, etc, and the beliefs developed through such thinking; like karma and reincarnation, auras and "ki", "The Secret" (as though thought alone influences anything besides the thinker), homeopathy, etc

Whatever combinations of these form one's new view of life, they're still not much better than religion. Well, alright, they are much better than religion, practically speaking... They're so much less dogmatically demanding.

Yet still, when it comes to it, these are still beliefs people adopt for almost no better reason than the desire to believe them. They simply need to have some worked out order in the universe in their minds, that they can make "sense" of, for their own peace of mind.

I'm not questioning the advantages of living these "ways of life". The psychological benefits of the studying and living the way of Zen Buddhism are plenty, I'm sure, and most new-age nature-worshiper types probably do feel more content in life than, say, your average over-worked secularist.

I'm questioning the irrational beliefs themselves, that people find necessary to believe in order to be so content. Let's take even the mildest, mostly harmless pantheist statement "God is Love" or "God is Nature". What do these even mean?? (Please know that I was very new-agey once and explanations like "God is love, nature, your divine self. Look within you, and you'll understand" are tricks I myself used to employ. They make as much sense to me now as they should have back then: None at all.)

Why not "Nature is nature!" or even "Nature is a complex system of various living organisms working interconnectedly, in seeming harmony, and so fragile in that if only one small link in any given ecosystem is removed, the whole thing could be destroyed." ... Why not just that? Why not wonder at and revere something's true nature, without superfluous (and often meaningless) embellishments?

That's my stance. No superfluous embellishments! I'm all for playing with ideas... And even running with them for awhile if you've thought about them long and hard and found them to be good. But always be prepared to change them. Convictions should be treated with wariness (because absolute truth is a rare and precious thing). They will inevitably develop as one goes along in life so then they need to be soundly defendable. Be meticulously vigilant with your thoughts, and as honest with yourself as possible. (See my "Confirmation Bias" post).

This has all lead me to being much more critical and cynical than I used to be but as I tend to be overly idealistic, I see the change as a good thing. Thinking scientifically may "take the magic out of things" but this is not necessarily true. I still love letting my imagination go wild, and getting lost in fantasy... I've just learnt how to not mix it up with reality. And besides, the more I discover about the nature of reality, the more magical it seems to me than anything merely made-up. And that in a purely scientific sense, the bounds of magic and beauty are limitless if one goes further and expresses/explains reality artistically/metaphorically, as only the human mind can. The generation and appreciation of the sort of atmospheric emulsion of science and art that is possible because of our evolved brains has got to be evolution's ultimate masterpiece, and it's a great pity how many of these brains use so little of their potential.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Across the Universe...

Here will follow an account of the development of my spiritual self, from childhood to now, and though I'm going to try to keep it brief, forgive me if my memories run away with me.

I don't really remember the first time I heard mention of God or Jesus. Having grown up in South Africa, I must have sung hymns in my first year of school, but I really have no specific memory of the first time. I do remember, at around 6 or 7 years, our family standing in a circle while my father prayed. I liked how we didn't need to close our eyes like we had to do in school. It felt like we had a more "special" connection with God. Hmmm... Now that my memory is being jogged, I remember in pre-primary school singing something that ended with "... thank you, God, for everything!"

Yeah... I think the general idea I had of God was of being thankful. Grateful that I had parents and friends and sunshine and pets, grateful to God for providing me with all these things. 

And of reverence... The church part of things... A few vague memories of long, glossy wooden benches and a priest in front talking and talking and talking about nothing I could understand while I had to keep quiet. I remember sleeping in my mother's lap, and my brother's and I annoying her with our restlessness.

But we moved around a lot in my first years of school so I had my schools, friends and paradigms changed up a lot, for which I am forever grateful. I believe all the moving around gave me a certain adaptability that has been really useful in my life.

Even so, God and Christianity were commonly encountered. My first recollection of questioning "it all" was at around 8. I remember, clearly, being by myself in our front garden in a town called Hoedspruit. I liked playing by myself as much as with my brothers, and on this occasion, I don't know why but, I spoke to God. I said (or thought?) something like, "C'mon... We're alone now... Nobody's looking... Just make that rock move. Make it move and I'll forevermore know that you are really there." The rock, of course, stayed where it was. And though I later learnt that to "test" God in that way was wrong, his reluctance to simply move a stupid rock did not increase my confidence in him.

Still, I had nothing against God and so went on believing with a shrug of my shoulders. I probably gave the matter more thought than most kids my age but I was 8, care-free and I had mud balls to make.

The next milestone came when I was about 10. I had been given R1 (South African Rand) to spend at the school tuck shop but forgot about it at first break while I played on the field. At second break, I remembered it with excitement only to find an empty pocket. Stricken, (One SAR could buy quite a few fireballs in those days), instead of going home after school, I spent over an hour pacing the entire field looking for it. I finally gave up but as I was leaving, I stopped a few steps off the field and prayed. Please! I begged. Help me find it.

1997 One Rand Coin
And what happened? I walked back onto the field and, after 10 or so paces, there it was, shining in the sunlight. I could hardly believe it. I thanked God with joy... A joy not only for having found my R1, but also with happiness in now being certain that God really did exist.

This single event sustained my belief in God (and Jesus, by association) for at least 4-5 years. But these were also the years in which my curiosity about space and the universe started. I remember copying visual representations of the Big Bang Theory from a library book, and trying to understand how the four forces work (Gravity, the Strong and Weak Nuclear forces, and the electro-magnetic force). And how clever I felt when, in my first year of high school, my science teacher praised me for already knowing the basics of protons, neutrons and electrons. 

But in fact, it wasn't just space and atoms, it was anything my young mind could sink its teeth into. Our town library really wasn't bad, and I absorbed anything that engaged my interest. I loved the idea of astrology and numerology... I started reading sci-fi and fantasy... And it was a special day when I found Richard Bach's "One" and "Illusions". Slowly but surely, I was introduced to more and more paradigms and incorporated them effortlessly into my worldview as only a young teenager can.

There are certain events that stand out in my memory that should help illustrate this process in which I, at times, was a true believer, and at others, a tenacious skeptic. Here are a few of them:

I've mentioned the library books about the universe and atoms, etc. So, yeah, science took an early hold. Yet for so long, I held onto belief. I wanted to believe. (Most peoples' problem). I remember feeling particularly righteous once when my mother showed me a 1-page text she'd gotten off the 'net. Something that ridiculed believers in some terribly truthful way. At least I think so. I read it but I don't remember a word. All I remember is the disheartened look on my mother's face and her tone of voice as she said something like "It's things like this that really make me wonder..." After reading it, I simply stated that it doesn't bother me one bit. It is obviously designed by the devil, via the hand of some unsuspecting soul, to lead us into doubtful turmoil. Ignore it, I said. My mother slowly showed relief, said how proud she was of me, and I went away beaming inside. How insidious the devil is, and how easily I cast him aside with the strength of my faith. I was about 13.

Something else, related, happened a year or two earlier. I had stolen something from our kitchen cupboards and my father caught me. I remember him explaining to me that whenever I wanted to do something naughty, that that was the devil whispering in my ear. This didn't reduce my misbehaviour but it did increase how guilty I felt whenever I knew I had been naughty. More importantly, though, it started a little mind-game in my head which ended up being instrumental in the eventual demise of my belief in Christianity. In short, the mind-game was me trying to figure out whether it was God "telling" me to do something or only the devil tricking me into thinking that it was God, and in the end I came to realise that it was really only me arguing with myself.

So many memories are coming back to me now as I write, all crucial events that lead me out of the Christian dogma fed to me by the schools I attended... I think it's best if I try list them very briefly and maybe elaborate on the later in different posts.
Okay so here goes:

  • "The Matrix" movie
  • Looking at someone across the street, imagining I were them, looking at me...
  • Trying to hold the universe in my mind... With the Earth as only one of millions of planets and us humans as only another of thousands of species having evolved on Earth.
  • Books! Dune by Frank Herbert - The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams - One, Illusions and Jonathan Livingstone Seagull by Richard Bach - The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran - The Lord of the Rings by Tolkien - Otherland by Tad Williams - Siddhartha by Herman Hesse - Sophie's World by Jostein Gaarder
  • The question "Does God know what you're going to have for breakfast tomorrow morning?" (which leads to a free-will dilemma)
  • Trying to imagine not existing (not only me, but all of humanity). (.. and not as a third-point-view seeing a world empty of humans, but as a 0-point-view... non-existence... Try it, go on, just try it...)

So! After years of this sort of thing... Introspection and asking questions and the like, I finally came to a milestone of truth at around 15 or 16. I remember it clearly. I was talking to my friend Francois, stating how ridiculous it actually was to believe that we were all "born in sin", and even more that we need to be saved by a guy who had lived 2000 years ago. He stopped at some point and asked me "So... You're not really a Christian then, are you?" And that got me. As much as I had rebelled, argued and questioned, I had at that point not yet officially branded myself an unbeliever. My next "No... I'm not." was kinda surreal... I felt that I had crossed a certain threshold and remember feeling exhilarated.

From this followed a long period of a type of agnosticism, even though I only heard of the term "agnostic" from my aunt Veda almost a year later. (so reclusive was life in Bredasdorp). Shortly afterwards, I got internet access for the first time, and then the fun really started. Aahhh man, I thought myself so clever! I loved the word "agnostic" (because at the time, I thought of atheists as just another brand of believers: believing that a god doesn't exist). "How can you know? You don't! Everyone is agnostic!" I said. My philosophy was that one had to first become okay with uncertainty, and then could play with ideas within that uncertainty. (..still not a bad philosophy).

It was through this "playing with ideas" thing that I joined a "spiritual community" after school. (I stayed there for an entire two weeks before running back to mother's =P). My thinking veered into the new-agey spiritualist trap, "All is One", "God is Love", "God is Energy" (the capital letters were important) and all that. Had I read "The Secret", I probably would have loved it. And upon moving in with a pagan family in Cape Town, I decided to call myself pagan too. Follower of the Old Ways. A Deeper Respect for Life. The Mother Goddess. The Egyptian pantheon was my favourite, thanks to Tad Williams' "Otherland". But, in my defense, I never really believed in 'gods' or the Goddess as anything sentient. My Goddess was a pantheistic "mother nature" sort of god, and the other "gods" were "thought constructs"...; different aspects of her, like different facets of the same crystal. At the time, I believed reality could be influenced by thought alone, which was what prayer was for me... "Projecting" my will into the universe, etc.

Anyway... After this Bohemian lifestyle in Cape Town, I was living with my mother when I met my first girlfriend. Life took a drastic turn. My "spiritual side" fell away a bit as my "emotional development side" kicked in. It was my first real relationship, so I went about learning and maturing in a way that most people deal with in their early-mid teens (I was 21). I also had to start thinking more practically... I was a man now, after all, and in a serious relationship (it lasted 3 and a half years). So I went off and started working. Spiritually, I went into a sort of limbo... Many ideas floating in and out of my mind, while I tried to get my life in order. Whether I succeeded (or even have succeeded yet) is up for debate.

I let my heart lead me and I'm now writing from Brazil, where I've been for almost three years (I turned 28 recently). It was my heart indeed that lead me here but it also happened to be a great "practical life" choice. The details of my journey here are interesting but this post is not for that story.

So, until around March 2012, I was in that "spiritual limbo" state, and possibly would have stayed that way had it not been for my brother, Bradly. I had watched him, horrified, be slowly transformed into a Christian and got more and more annoyed by how that could have happened. Bradly is intelligent... Not only intelligent, but insightful. I just couldn't understand it.

So he and I swapped a few messages on Facebook, and he promised me he would write me something explaining all that had happened. I'll link to this as soon as he actually write it (with his permission, of course. Else I'll summarise it in a post.)

In the mean time though, I got back into thinking about things. Truth. Origins. The nature of reality. All of it. Only this time, I had matured a bit... Lived a little... So I read and thought and wrote, and have now refined the way I see the universe and have never felt better about it.

And how is that? Read on here.