Tuesday, 28 August 2007

God is Dead

God is dead. This is the popularly misunderstood proclamation made by Nietzsche. Does Nietzsche really mean that a transcendent entity that created the universe and continues to take an interest in the daily lives of human beings is now pushing up the daisies in some cosmic graveyard? No. What Nietzsche does mean is that the idea of a God who does these things is dead. He means that the traditional concept of God as a disembodied mind in the sky is no longer valid. The progress of science and civilisation will no longer permit such an entity, he insists.

And for this, I thank him. However, it leaves us with an interesting conundrum. Suppose that not only is this God dead, but that it was never really alive in the first place. If the disembodied mind in the sky never really existed in the first place, then we must wonder what God actually is.

The short and simple Christian answer is that God is love. This doesn't mean that God is a being that does only loving things. Rather, this kind of statement is similar to the one that says, “Rover is a dog.” That is, the first thing is defined by the second thing. The second thing is the essence of the first thing. To get a grasp of what God is, you must first get a grasp of what love is.

I will intentionally repeat myself here. Love is not the meaningless word that we use for various other things we are too lazy to mention. Love is not in the sense that I love (enjoy) ice cream. It is not love in the sense that I love (am infatuated by) a new romance. It is not love in the sense that I love (feel good about) doing good things. Rather, it is love in the sense that it is a verb for which the lover is only the agent, and in no way the recipient. It is love in the sense that the one doing the loving forgets about the self and takes action for the sake of the other. It is somewhat synonymous with self-sacrifice, charity and altruism.

Understand that this is love, and now re-read the short answer: God is love. The act of love itself is the essence of God. The act of self-sacrifice for the sake of the other is the essence of God. This is a mode of being that transcends the physical while firmly planted in a physical universe. God is transcendent in that love cannot be grasped, but God is physical in that love is only real when it is enacted in time and space.

This idea is not at the edges of Christian philosophy, awaiting a compatibility test with Biblical texts. Rather, it is near and dear to the heart of the Christian writings. God, a transcendent entity, was manifest in the life of a person called Jesus and is now manifest in the group of people who follow Jesus. The difference between this and Judeo-Christianity is the rejection of the implicit metaphysics of Judaism and classical theism. The metaphysics of the universe that must be consistent with the physics of contemporary research insists that a transcendent God cannot interact (exist) unless the transcendent essence of God is an action.

So what is God? God is love, enacted in our midst through selflessness, altruism and charity.

Monday, 20 August 2007

The Void Inside

Everyone uses “I” every day. This self-reference is an odd construct. It derives from an awareness of experiences, both past and present. It is the word that points to an object deep inside the mind, some kind of central reference point from which all decisions flow and towards which all experiences are directed. And yet, despite the overwhelming sense of truth that accompanies the use of the word, it appears to be little more than an illusory concept.

The experience of having a self at all seems so fundamental to human existence that the more typical question is not whether the “I” is an actual entity, but is a question that asks for details about the “I” that is “obviously” there. We go on voyages of self-discovery. We give up something in order to find ourselves. We spend small fortunes talking with psychologists so that we can understand this “I” to which we have become attached.

But really, this idea that there is a substance or an object somewhere inside the mind is something of a trick that we play on ourselves. As experience after experience saturates our minds, the brain is forced to deal with multiple experiences placed next to each other. The memory of one next to the memory of another – a stream of experiences – creates a history in the brain. It is the capacity of the human brain to store memories that gives us a sense of time, of continued existence. The same brain has recorded various experiences and recalls them, not as specific instances, but as a general recollection until one gets the focus.

Even in our knowledge of each other we deceive ourselves just the same. A man may know a great many things about his wife, through experiences with her, through stories told by her friends, through photographs in the family album, and yet the moment he walks out of the room there is something about her that he does not know because he has not experienced it through any medium. He can never have a complete mental picture of her. However, based on his experience of her he will create in his mind a mental representation of her. Each new experience will add to the mental representation that he has. It will never be complete, but it will always be current.

The same is true of self-knowledge. Although the depth and breadth of self-experience is greater than other-experience, there will always be gaps. Various states of semi-consciousness or unconsciousness will cloud it. Forgetfulness or amnesia will distort it. The mental representation of ourselves is gained only through the experiences that we have had with ourselves. Detailed they might be, but they are not a discovery of an object hidden deep inside the mind. They are merely a series of experiences, one after the other, each adding to the mental representation of the self by being stored in (and always-already accessed from) the memory.

In the middle of it all is not an object, but a void. By looking at the experiences that surround it we imply that there is something there that ties it all together, and yet there is ultimately nothing there but a void around which all the experiences are located. It is not an empty space waiting to be filled – just an illusion created by a series of experiences.

Friday, 17 August 2007

The Unnecessary God

One of the claims made consistently by theologians and philosophers over the centuries is that God is a necessary being. That is, for any kind of universe that you can imagine, God must exist (or have being... your choice). There is no possible universe that you or I can imagine that does not have God somewhere - whether inside the universe or outside the universe. At least, that's the fairly consistent claim.

Now, these claims often conjure images in our minds of the activities of God that might make God necessary. The big one is creation. Lots of people believe that God created the cosmos and that without God there would be no cosmos at all. Ultimately, it sounds as though one cannot believe that God is real if one ascribes to theories about evolution, or theories about the creation of the universe as the consequence of our theories about quantum mechanics.

But is that the extent of the necessary aspect of God? I think that if this is the only reason that God is necessary, then we have done a poor job of representing God. The debates over the mechanisms of creation will go on for a little longer yet without much effect on our ordinary lives. What we have at the moment are people who posit that God is a necessary part of the process because we don't have any other way to explain it. This is a weak argument. For a long time we didn't have any other way to explain how people got sick, and then we discovered viruses and bacteria. For a long time we didn't have any other way to explain how the weather worked and now we have meteorology. God is not merely the mortar that fills in between the bricks of discovery.

I put it to you that God is not necessary at all. The universe could probably have come into existence without help from beyond. The weather certainly doesn't need God behind the curtain, exhaling in order to get a good gale going. No, I think that we need to think about God as unnecessary.

One of the great Christian claims is that God is love (and by love I mean the kind of love that is unconditional and self-sacrificing, not the kind that we use to describe how amazing is ice-cream, or even the kind of love we experience we we are in love with a romantic partner) . And what is love? Love is not required to keep the species in existence. In fact, we could continue to exist if we were united by fear. Look at Hussein's Iraq, for example. People could start the day with the reasonable assumption that they could buy food for their bellies, and fuel for their cars. They could reasonably expect to go to work and then come home. They could walk the streets at night to visit a neighbour. Of course, they weren't allowed to express anti-Hussein sentiments or any pro-western ideas, but the society continue nonetheless. There was no need for love there, just fear.

Some have claimed that fear is what unites the people of America together also, but this is not my argument. You'll have to watch Bowling for Columbine for that one.

My point is that a successful propagation of humanity does not require love. The successful continued existence of the universe does not require love either. The love that is the Christian distinctive is not necessary for the universe and if the Christian claim is also that God is love, then neither is God necessary for the universe.

However, that does not mean that God is not possible. Nor does it mean that God is not real. We are faced with the brute scientific fact that our existence does not necessarily depend on God to kick off the process, nor to keep it going. However, we are most certainly faced with the ongoing challenge that God calls us, not to avoid some kind of fiery damnation, but to positively affect the lives of people around us. We do not need love in the world for it to continue, but we are called to do it.

You don't have to love anyone. But you can, and if you do, you'll be doing something that is not only unnecessary, but utterly, utterly sacred at the same time.

Monday, 13 August 2007

Explaining Subjective Experience

DISCLAIMER: You may have deduced by now that I'm doing some post-grad theological studies in the field of philosophy. From time to time I will turn some of my idle thoughts into a stream of words and post it here. That means that these thoughts are by no means complete. It is a stepping stone on the way across the pond.

Part of any good theory of consciousness, says David Chalmers, is a satisfactory explanation of experience. It is insufficient to let the theory stop with an explanation of how we convert sensory information into memories, or how we maintain ongoing storage of those memories, or how we retrieve those memories. Chalmers insists that we can imagine systems that do all these functions and yet do not have subjective experience. In fact, I dare say that the average desktop computer with a permanently recording video camera would be capable of these functions and yet not claim to have subjective experience. It's no surprise that Chalmers thinks this; before he started his work in philosophy, he was a computer scientist and will (like any of us) bring his past experiences with him wherever he goes. If anything, this is a good reason why people should change careers at least once.

The claim is an interesting one, however. Anyone who has watched Ghost in the Shell would find this argument familiar. After all, the massive collection and interaction of data on the (future version of the) internet is what gives rise to the Puppet Master AI. Nonetheless, there is still a step that can be made to close the gap between an explanation of how the brain manages memories and the phenomenon of experience.

We know that the brain's activities largely revolve around memories. A new sensory stimulus is received (a word, perhaps) and is translated into a meaning that is held in one part of the memory. The activity of the brain that stirs in response to the stimulus also stirs an associated memory. This simultaneous stirring of memories allows the brain to recall two memories at the same time. It is a kind of global access to all memories. Each memory, however, provides an interpretive locus for other memories. One “fact” helps define the next “fact” so to speak.

At this point, we need to depart from analytic philosophy and go to psychoanalytic philosophy. Psychoanalysis tells us that the self is formed through interpellation into a symbolic order, when a single sensory experience is connected with a meaning. It is often modelled by the entry of the child into language. From the first word onwards, every other word gains meaning until eventually an entire symbolic order is created and the person (the subject) is formed.

Let me bridge the gap here – the gap between analytic philosophy and continental philosophy. If a signifier (a word, an action, whatever) creates a memory, and it is the collection of all these signifiers and their meanings/signifieds that forms the subject, then do we not have a mechanism by which neurobiology can account for the creation of a self?

Furthermore, it is the self that permits subjective experience. The self is necessary for there to be an “I” that can have an experience. “I” cannot have an experience if there is no “I” to begin with. Therefore, the self must be formed so that experience can happen. The self is formed through the creation of a symbolic order (sounds, sights, smells... all stored as memories in the brain... all attached to meanings).

I would wager that Chalmers' objection to this will be that I have done nothing other than explain how the self is formed. On the contrary, I think that this is a reasonable space in which to think about how the brain allows experience, rather than just sensory processing “in the dark.”

Monday, 6 August 2007

There's a Schism in the Ism

There's a schism in the ism
And a hate in the fate.
Get a tissue for lord Vishnu
Kick 'em out. All hail the State!

So shoot blasters at the Rastas
And set dogs on idealogues.
Don't get squeamish for the Amish
Our world leaders would be gods.

Rating zero, these wannabe heroes
Playing "Carry On Pantheon"
"Crush the people; make them sheeple!
As we fight for Babylon."

Friday, 3 August 2007

The Real

For a marvelous photo that all you Lacanians will immediately understand, look at this work on DeviantArt. It's called The Agony of Eden.

The Agony of Eden by ~absence-is-steel on deviantART

The Supremacy of Physics

Very early in the classic work of David Armstrong (A Materialist Theory of Mind) comes the expression, "the supremacy of physics." That is to say, Armstrong believes that all mental processes can be reduced to chemical processes which in turn can be reduced to processes described by physics. As my first-year physics tutors claimed: everything is physics, even chemistry is just dirty physics.

For Armstrong, descriptions by physics are the irreducible descriptions. We cannot split the universe into blocks smaller than those described by physics. Neither can we split human consciousness into anything more fundamental that that which can be described by physics. He does not say that this is the only valid way to describe it. After all, human consciousness can be discussed in terms of awareness, knowledge or thought. Human existence clearly includes emotions, social relations and physiology. However, all of these things, according to Armstrong, are merely layers built on top of fundamental descriptions from physics.

My undergraduate degree was in engineering, so this settles well with me. The irony is that at the time of studying for engineering, I was a fundamentalist pentecostal. Now that I'm studying theology, I'm a card-carrying Marxist. Figure that out for yourself.

But I digress. Armstrong's train of thought is a reasonable one in this age of knowledge and scientism. Unless something can be proven with some sort of scientific method, the contemporary Western mind will not accept it as anything truthful. It would be an opinion piece, or a religious text, and so on. Is truth only verified by physics? Not if you think that truth and fact are different things. Physics can verify a lot and as any serious physicist will tell you, there are still a great many questions yet to be answered by physics.

The gap between current knowledge of physics and a Grand Unified Theory of Everything is not, however, the limits of space for religion and God. It might be that the language we use for philosophy/theology is capable of describing things that occupy that gap better than physics can, but they should not form a dichotomy. There is no boundary between physics and philosophy/theology. The two should be treated as different layers of language used to describe the same cosmos. Philosophy/theology has nothing to fear from physics, and physics has nothing in philosophy/theology to attack. Ultimately, the two schools pursue the same thing: knowledge of the cosmos and a language with which to describe it.