Monday, November 26, 2012

Reflections: Atheism & Agnosticism

Last week's blog article was on the subject of meditation and atheism. In that article I suggested that even an atheist can practice meditation because meditation is an art and science and it presupposes no religious belief or affiliation. It is internal to one's own consciousness, using self-awareness as a tool for exploring consciousness wherein consciousness is gradually stripped of "objects" of mentation. (Indeed, Patanjali, the great exponent of meditation -- his book of aphorisms being the "Yoga Sutras" -- describes the process of meditation as the gradual dissolving of all mental image making and their concomitant reactions. Surely something anyone can attempt.)

It mildly surprises me to see the intensity with which some atheists proclaim not only their lack of belief in God (fair enough) but their insistence that "God doesn't exist." Richard Dawkins is one of the more visible scientists claiming to debunk religious belief. None of that is new. What amuses me is that these more vehement atheists sound as fundamentalist as the fundamentalists, each insisting on something that in all events cannot be proved through reason or the senses.

I might say that to me it seems "reasonable" that the vast wonders of the creation hint at the existence of a very powerful and intentional consciousness but I certainly can't prove it. No more, however, can our scientists say anything more than that they cannot "find" God in their explorations, calculations, or experiments. The most they can say is they "see" no evidence for God's existence. That doesn't, however, disprove God's existence. It's merely a shrug.

I've long preferred the more honest agnostics: those who say that they haven't "found" God so how can they possibly say that God exists, or not?

It is the simplest thing in the world to scientifically demonstrate that we humans see what we want to see, hear what we think we are supposed to be hearing and so on. Tests upon eyewitnesses show conclusively that not everyone "sees" the same facts.

A person sensitive to color can choose and decorate a room with exquisite success such that most others can only but admire but would be nonplussed to replicate. Visionaries in every key field of human activity see things that few others can see. We can easily demonstrate that expectations influence outcomes, even in the efficacy of allopathic drugs.Sensory sensitivity is even more highly developed in some animals than in humankind. The wave lengths of various radiations are unseen by human eyes or unfelt by the human body even as they pass through us conveying telephone conversations or television images. We see objects as  separate but cannot see their underlying unity on the level of electro-magnetic forces or quantum physics.

So, yes, there is much in what we know or at least accept as real that could hint at realities far beyond currently accepted knowledge.

Consider the process of creativity. No, I don't mean of Beethoven or Bach. Consider how ideas "enter your mind." Granted, let's say you have a problem to solve and it is important to you. You ponder it. At some point you relax and let it go. And, as studies have shown us, then, voila! The answer appears in your head! It's not unlike a computer command to the hard disk in search of a word or a file or a program. Sometimes it's a little slow but then, voila, the answer appears.

However, unlike the hard disk where the answer to your query already exists for having been put there, a creative idea isn't merely (or at least not necessarily) something cobbled together from pre-existing data or past experience. Many people will no doubt agree that in some cases a new idea seems to have appeared literally from nowhere because so completely unique to our past experience or current expectations. If important ideas in the arts and sciences can appear from "nowhere," well, what does that tell you? Where did those ideas come from? Some of them have changed the course of history.

Studies of creative people will frequently show that such people develop the habit of expecting solutions and meeting them halfway, so to speak. Like Google, "feeling lucky?" There is a sense with such creative people that answers "lurk" as it were in a realm just beyond our sight but which, with practice, we can learn to access. It seems as if such people have a relationship to this unseen world of solutions. Suffice to say the world of human experiences is filled with a wide range of spectacularly unexplained psychic phenomenon.

It's really a matter of taste, you see. Perhaps you are inclined, for reasons of your own, to dismiss the concept of God. It simply doesn't please you; you find it irritating and uninteresting; irrelevant, that is to say, to what is important to you in your life. Well, then, why didn't you just say so!

Others pray to God constantly and attest to God's intercession in their lives. Some people are romantic and sentimental; others, hard-headed and pragmatic. These differences in temperaments may incline one to reject God and another to seek Him, but the question of His existence supercedes them both. Just because people used to believe the world was flat didn't make it so.

This distinction between "what I like" and "what is" is all too often ignored even by otherwise intelligent people. Sadly, few people distinguish between their opinion and the truth. I think Democrats are better than Republicans so of course Democrats are better! (So much for logic!) The simple fact that my inclination and temperament are in the direction that supports the Democratic platform is, as I have said, a matter of taste. Others may believe in the importance of law and order, and preservation of long-standing values.

The proper inquiry of science is how things work. The proper inquiry of religionists is why, for what purpose? There may be areas of overlap of common ground but each has its own field of exploration. I fail to understand why they don't leave each alone and in peace!

Science can never prove, e.g., that the universe has always existed. They might not be able to conclusively find a starting point and presumably the end point hasn't been reached, but how far back do you search before you decide "it's turtles all the way!" (Meaning: there is no beginning!) That might be your conclusion but it is not thereby conclusive! How and who measures infinity? And, even if you did, what impact would it have on the existence of God, who, by all accounts, is also eternal, with no beginning and end? How do you know that we, like the movie The Matrix, aren't but a dream of the Creator? Can you prove that? Or, disprove it?

No saint, moreover, can define God so as to contain Him. No religion, no dogma, no rite or ritual can claim monopoly of His favor. How can that which is Infinite and which has made all things be remotely defined except in the most vague ways: omniscient, omnipresent, infinite, infinitessimal, personal or impersonal. That hasn't stopped 99.9% of religionists from doing exactly that: defining God in ways that please themselves and make their religion the "top dog." But in this they reveal their ignorance as much as those chest pounding scientists who declare that "God is dead."

I say, therefore, that we should simply agree to disagree. I believe in God because it seems "obvious" to me that this vast and complex universe (including my inner universe of thought and feeling) couldn't possibly be devoid of goodness, purpose, and consciousness. But, I can't prove it, and even less so, to you, if you, by contrast, are a hard-nosed self-defined scoffer! I say, well, let's talk about the weather instead.

There is another line of inquiry that is slowly developing on the planet and I call it the "happiness" proof. Gradually, studies are showing that people with faith in God tend to be happier. Now a scoffer's going to have a field day with this, but, for the sake of a good discussion, what if it were actually true? The scoffer will quote Karl Marx's quip about "religion being the opiate of the people" while the religionist will cry "Aha--proof!" But in this case who is the one being pragmatic? The religionist or the scoffer?

This line of inquiry is similar to the observation that the natural development of human consciousness from infancy to adulthood includes an ever expanding sphere of interest and sympathies. Oh, well, of course not with everyone, but in the archetypal sense that we progress from the self-involved infant, the tantrum throwing toddler, and the emotional child to the teen who interests in the world around him, to the young adult who marries, has children, takes on responsibilities (civic, community and familial). We see the fatherly patriarch or matriarch of a clan, a community, or a nation overseeing with benign and wise interest the affairs of his or her "children." In this (admittedly) fanciful world, we view this as well adjusted and as happy a life as we can envision. (Only a dedicated narcissist would maintain through life a commitment to selfish self-indulgence as the summum bonum of life. By the end of life, measure his cup of happiness and see for yourself.)

What if, for example, we could demonstrate that those who include the welfare of others with their own tend to be happier and even more successful? We have the all but universally accepted "Golden Rule" that is suggestive of the truth that our happiness is related to an expansion of self-interest to an enlightened self-interest.

Thus it might be supposed that by this rule of thumb (expanding self-interest) the greatest happiness is achieved when we embrace all life as our own, perhaps even to Infinity (if that were possible). How, then will the Darwin-driven scoffer factor in human happiness? Do not we admire those who give their lives to defend or protect others? To call human love the product of dancing hormones racing to be first to perpetuate themselves may be an acceptable mechanical model (if only because it is causally self-evident) but few human beings would leave it at that. Why is it the testimony of our own race is so airily dismissed by those pretending to be objective in the pursuit of truth?

Well, as I said in the beginning, I can't prove to you that God exists but I am not alone in saying I am happier to make God a part of my life, not just in thought but in deed.


Nayaswami Hriman

P.S. I have purposely left out the testimony of saints and sages of east and west and in every century for presumably to the logician their lives fall outside the scope of their admitted interest. In truth, however, it is only because such people of "science" decide a priori that saints must be discarded. That is as unobjective and as biased discarding of available facts as anything in religion is capable of. Sigh.