The Perennial Philosophy by Aldous Huxley (the chapter I’m on) talks about love of God, devotion to God, et cetera as a commonality across all religions. What is the underlying truth? What is “God”? Proposition: it doesn’t matter. Or alternatively, God is always the unknowable. So God may be solely a creation of our minds, but loving, submitting or being devoted to some principle which accesses a particular way of thinking brings about a greater nobility of thought or freedom from anxiety and a certain way of being in the world.
Logical arguments for God fall short. They are unconvincing or self-referential. They generally take the form of “if God doesn’t exist then <something scary>.” Well, maybe <something scary> is true. Maybe there is no “purpose” (a man-made concept) to existence. Maybe consciousness ends when we die, or is only an illusion, no matter how real it seems. Maybe bad people are not punished somehow. Wishful thinking and a draw towards comforting ideas proves nothing, but all logical arguments for God seem to eventually reduce to these; meanwhile science adequately explains morality or points in the direction of adequate explanations where it doesn’t yet.
Arguments that faith is what we should aspire to because of a recognition that there can be no proof fall short. Faith (at least by today’s definition, it seems to me) is not enough. It may be a force which gives comfort, feeds curiosity, connected with belief (e.g., it is fundamental in that I believe or have faith that what people around me have experienced and communicate contains truth), and which encourages me towards further inquiry, but by itself it seems like a mechanism or vehicle rather than a truth.
The ignorant reject what they see, not what they think. The wise reject what they think, not what they see.
Only perception, an experience of “knowing,” is worth something to me in approaching some truth, here. In other words, faith may bring about a feeling, even a feeling of certainty in some, which they no doubt aspire to (and which I think is an unsatisfactory endpoint), but what can I perceive?
[ First of all, I will say that it must be possible to perceive something in this area, whether or not that something is “real.” We can talk about real-ness later. But the commonalities across the world’s religious cultures and especially commonalities among experiences related to us by individuals across the diversity of their beliefs points to something significant, even if we eventually conclude that it’s an accidental “feature” of the mind. I should be able to have the same sorts of feelings and perceptions that most other human beings can have. ]
I vaguely “perceive” God filtered according to the limits of my logical understanding. Inner vision, emotion, logic, and so on are never enough to perceive what God is, but these senses/abilities try. I propositionally understand God these days as the “computer” which runs our “simulated” universe. The nature of this computer cannot be apprehended in this universe because it is outside of the universe and therefore probably abstract to anything we consider real or of this universe. But still, my imagination tries, because there is no other way of understanding. I visualize brilliant-white interwoven valves, like transistors, going off into the distance across an endless landscape. This is the “computer” which is running absolutely everything. It disappears into the horizon in every direction, and my brain grasps towards the concept of infinity by trying to hold on to more and more of the area covered by these interwoven valves.
[ But this is all just a model. And as such, how much truth does it contain? It is a proposition, pointing at something, but what? So we continue. ]
[ I have been influenced a great deal by certain Science Fiction novels. In particular, Permutation City and the chapter entitled Wang’s Carpets (which was originally published as a short story) in the novel Diaspora, both by Greg Egan. I read these many years ago, but oddly I’m reading articles in the news about experiments being designed now in an attempt to test whether our universe is a simulation. So the idea is entering into scientific and even popular consciousness somewhat. Thank movies like “The Matrix.”]
I believe that every person who has an experience of the nature of God will have that experience presented by relationships with known real things and, in order to be comprehensible, as objects, concepts and attributes connected with things which can be sensed or felt. The brain by its nature tries to make what it experiences comprehensible. This happens in every culture, and so we have many, many contradictory representations of God. Lower-case gods are still a representation of the system they are in (upper-case God, eventually, no matter how much or little thought is given to that ultimate context). [So I’ll call polytheistic systems holders of a tiered model.] These understandings are all simultaneously true and not true. They are true in that they reflect an understanding of reality, and they are not true in that they are simply symbols, which are devoid of meaning when they cannot point the way. They represent a grasping towards truth, but not truth itself.
[ After spending some time on Erowid reading about people’s psychedelic-mediated spiritual experiences (a source for what could be a modern-day Perennial Philosophy), I posit that normally the brain holds onto and presents to consciousness only what is comprehensible; the brain does some amount of thinking which is not comprehensible and which, if it cannot be made comprehensible, is discarded; the “mystical experience” may be an extension into consciousness of that which has not yet been made or in fact cannot be made comprehensible. However, we need to divide “mystical experience” into two categories: (1) Things which are simply incomprehensible to logical understanding, and (2) Things which are spiritual, are “of God”, or present a profound yet inexpressible understanding of reality. I’m talking about (2), here. ]
Now, the big question is still, what is being perceived? Is it something outside of ourselves, or something within? Why would our brains have the apparatus for giving us what we call spiritual feelings, thoughts and perceptions (“incomprehensibleness” poking into consciousness notwithstanding)? There is a scientific explanation you may have heard: God is an evolved principle within complex social societies necessary to promote order and obedience to that which servers the greater good of the tribe. But I didn’t consider this a sufficient explanation. Why not? After all, it seems a convincing argument for some scientists. E.g., Michael Shermer expounded this argument at the beginning of a debate, for the proposition “science refutes God.” The explanation seemed reasonable to me a while back, but from all that I’ve read, now feels inadequate due to its simplicity.
The basic case is this: you have the opportunity to benefit by taking some action which helps your own self, but which harms the rest of your tribe slightly. Nobody is looking; nobody will ever know; you won’t be caught. To prevent such selfish actions (which eventually harm the individual), “God” evolved as a principle implemented by brain circuitry which prevents these situations from harming the collective good, by individuals taking advantage of them. Fear of “God” keeps us in line and serving the common good, even when we individually are harmed. We will even die for noble causes greater than ourselves. [Although reason can arrive at similar conclusions, it doesn’t seem fast or powerful enough. Reason’s certainly not been enough to prevent us from collectively harming our environment.]
Now that I write it and think about it more, however, the argument becomes more powerful, because evaluating “individual benefit” versus “common good” may not be so simple for the brain; it is a complex task. So this leads eventually to the evolution of mental circuitry to think “as God would,” to think as if without the Self as a vaunted object of primary concern. Each individual must therefore carry this brain circuitry, and its invocation carries with it a particular emotion: feelings of selflessness, of subsumption into something far larger than oneself. Taken further, due to the self-contemplative construction of the brain (another topic), this circuit would also be able to create thoughts about the model itself which it is using in its evaluation, so as to refine it. That model (used in a search to find parameters within which to evaluate the model) it builds up is one of nature, of the universe. The recursive model continually strives towards apprehending some “ultimate reality” because the model itself is concerned with collective survival of <something>, be that the tribe, or something larger than the tribe; the recursive model works on refining the model by creating universal understanding within which the model itself works. In fact, it makes sense that this circuitry in ever-farther-reaching and had evolved to consider something greater than simply other people in the immediate tribe. Think back to how people lived in the past, in times of scarcity, farming or gathering what they could, hunting animals and trying to predict their patterns and behaviors, trying to grasp how their own treatment of their land and surrounding animals and resources led to particular reactions and therefore their group’s survival chances. The drive to live in these social groups must have created intense pressure to become good at such modeling. So from here we get the tendency of this brain circuitry to think about life and its environment, extending the sphere of its model (via the recursive model) to include everything that it’s “told” and believes to be true about existence. We ourselves hear about the universe and our deductions about it which science, highly sharpened as our tool, is gaining, and integrate this into our sphere of understanding. For us, our “God circuitry” now must include everything we believe, because it is concerned with understanding the context of everything that is. Think about how conceptions of God changed through time, and across cultures. [E.g., why did the geocentric model die such a messy death?]
It does feel plausible, then, given more thinking about evolution, that God could exist solely as a function of the human mind, that what we are perceiving via spiritual experience is what is “in here” rather than anything that is “out there.” Not to simplify or give up any sense of wonder, it likely exists “in here” as a result of vast meaningfulness in the complexity that is “out there.” That there is something to comprehend (a pattern of matter and energy, to things, not something actually of a non-physical nature) combined with the brain’s searching for understanding this life’s context, gives rise to thought processes which are quite different from those we are familiar with in the everyday. The attempted comprehension feels spiritual, but in this model God does not exist as some kind of intelligent being or force except as by the internally created symbols we place below the “all” in our model.
[ As for the truth or untruth of this model, it clearly contains aspects of both; our task is to separate them as best we can. On the one hand it is plausible; on the other hand it does nothing to tell us what this, the universe, all that is, is “in” or is. To say that spiritual experience is merely a kind of thinking/understanding or language of some part of the mind still doesn’t feel like it’s enough when laid alongside all that I’ve read, yet at the same time we seem to have no tools for resolving this one way or another. ]
It also makes sense that the “language” of this brain circuitry has certain features:
- It is not afraid of individual death; it is hardly concerned with this individual’s (my own) death except relative to its understanding of how this individual is part of the whole. Therefore with respect to my death it generates no emotion of fear but rather one of [profound] understanding within the big picture; a feeling of peace because my death does not, truly, matter to the universal model (“all that is”) that this brain module generates.
- It is concerned with understanding the pattern of life and the universal meaning that this brings. Therefore it generates no emotion of self-worth, because the Self has no worth to the pattern, whereas relative to even the tribe or the world (and certainly the universe) one death loses no hard-fought knowledge in the grander sense, that sense being that in which “knowledge” is what is propagated via DNA and the other machinery by which life persists through eons and eons of time. (The ego will fight this conclusion or will pull back or cling to reality; it is the advocate for the Self, for this body, for this tiny bit of thinking and knowledge contained in it.) Because this module evolved for a certain purpose, under certain conditions and scope of perception of reality, its language does not even contain the “vocabulary” to communicate a feeling of worry as if from the universe’s point of view. Instead, it communicates its understanding of the pattern as that which is life, and the rest of the brain constructs various real-world analogues for understand this, which we incorrectly think of or perceive as being real. For example, life does persist after individual death: the pattern, the DNA (almost all of it) we have in common with each other, and so on, the universe, which is what this model is concerned with, is what stably persists. However, the rest of the brain misinterprets this and becomes convinced that this consciousness (what it, what the ego, is concerned with as being “life”) persists. From this we get inner perceptions that translate to absolutely-real-seeming visions of Heaven and Hell, reincarnation, and so on.
I set out in this post to explore the idea that our infrequent perceptions of God [because logic tells us nothing, and faith is simply a form of positive mindset and curiosity, a vehicle, but which also confirms for us nothing about absolute truth] come from a reality that is a combination of ourselves (the way we understand and envision what we have perceived in the so-called spiritual experience) and some ultimate reality (what we are perceiving, which is beyond any mental model we can make). I started with the assumption that we are actually perceiving something out there, which due to my computer-science background I had envisioned as a near-infinite field of “transistors” that implement or instantiate the universe, and wanted to express that at least one particular scientific argument I had heard for why we think we perceive God, being that it was a useful trait selected for and refined by evolution, felt inadequate to explain the sheer depth, complexity, and compelling-ness of all I have read about mystical (direct) experiences, ego death, near-death-experiences, and so on. That is, science seems overly dismissive of “God,” whatever “God” is. Instead, I arrived at the proposition that evolution does explain this particular yet strange-relative-to-everyday-life feature of our minds not only in the sense that we evolved to perceive something out there, but that the thing we perceive is not God in the direct sense (some intelligent being or force) or in the sense that any model we create of what God is, is true, but that this is simply another way of thinking where normal consciousness doesn’t, usually, dwell. It’s metaphoric. Call it “cosmic consciousness” if you will, but in the sense that your mind has a module which thinks cosmically, generates no fear of death, considers your worth as an individual as being infinitesmally small (if/when it considers it at all), and which seeks to grasp the flow of patterns of things, among them life, which it also can view not as individual agents but as the grand flow of the pattern itself as it persists and changes over time. From this perspective we are much like atoms relative to the ripples in water, or ripples in water relative to the flow of the river (as it empties into the gene pool…) Each ripple comes and goes, but ripples do not cease to exist; nor are we the water, as the term “cosmic consciousness,” as if there is one consciousness divided, wants us to think. That’s just a model. Scale up “complexity” in every possible feature but we are no different. Yet, a part of our minds wants to apprehend the flow, as best it can, and thus we have spiritual or cosmic consciousness— not as something that is out there, but as something that is wholly in here, a way of thinking, understanding, and being motivated.
I also want to explore the possibility in another post that this is not the case, that we are actually perceiving something out there, or a feature of something out there, which is not accessible to the ordinary senses, and is not merely “the pattern” or features of “the pattern.”