Getting to Know Us: a defense of neuro-philosophy
Copyright 2011, John Manimas Medeiros
Philosopher, know thyself!We are commanded, or it is strongly suggested, by someone who for me is currently "anonymous" because I do not remember a name. But, I could invent a name, selected from my memory of philosophical philosophers, or, I could "look it up," which means review the written or stored records to find who has been given credit, if anyone, for this wise saying. I might even discover a record of when this wise saying was first said, or at least first recorded to have been said. Have you noticed anything here? Anything curious or suggestive? Look back at certain key phrases: "I could invent a name," "I do not remember," "look it up" (meaning research, review, check the records - records are memories written down).
What do we know and how do we know? How do we know something, anything? is the initial and ever guiding question or issue behind that field or arena of human thought that we call "philosophy." Originally interpreted as meaning "love of knowledge," it does not really mean the love of knowledge as an object to receive our love, although that is probably common to most or all philosophers. What it really means is love of the perception that we do know something, and the most intense love for the question or discussion of how knowledge exists. What is knowledge? How does it come about? Where does it reside? Is it tangible or intangible? Is intelligence comprised only of memories? If intelligence is only memories, then knowledge also would have to be only memories, because knowledge is practically synonymous with "intelligence." To be intelligent means to know. We cannot consider someone to be intelligent if they are attempting to do something and do not know how to do it. And, could we say, legitimately, that they have forgotten how to do it -- they do not remember -- but they still "know" how to do it? I think not. If a person forgets how to tie a particular knot, or how to solve a particular puzzle, then the reality that they do not remember it is equivalent to the reality that they do not know it. This particular truism is complicated by the fact that we often treat memories like they are toys piled up in a child's closet, and it is part of our experience that toys get lost or misplaced, temporarily. Therefore, we regard the reality of "I do not remember" as being different from "I do not know," which is like saying that "I cannot find my rubber ducky" is different from saying "I do not have a rubber ducky." The concept of a memory lost or misplaced, that can be found with effort, or luck, or both, while still possessing that memory, somewhere in our messy and cluttered "brain closet" is perfectly analogous to a rubber ducky still being possessed, but temporarily lost or misplaced, but retrievable. This causes us to believe that it is possible to "know" something while being temporarily unable to "remember" it. But, in reality, if we have permanently lost a memory, we have permanently lost the knowledge embodied it that memory. This reality is more analogous to brain damage rather than to a child's toy being hidden in a closet full of toys, old and new toys, expensive and cheap toys, toys long neglected, toys that are important but not given a proper place of importance because the conglomeration of toys, or memories, is not perfectly organized, or, is just too much for the child's mind to keep track of. It is there, I know, and I will find it when I want it.
When one has brain damage, and memories are lost, it is thoroughly documented that the loss of certain memories is the loss of certain knowledge. Some people forget the set of skills they had before the brain damage. Others forget the names, identities and characteristics, including facial image, of the persons with whom they were previously most intimate - spouse, children, parents, friends. Others forget certain fundamental skills - how to write, read, drive a nail with a hammer. All of this scientific experience and study suggests to us, very strongly, that the relationship between memory and knowledge is profound. We are not absolutely certain, but we do consider it possible that memory and knowledge are essentially equivalent. We cannot know something if we forget it. We cannot remember something and pretend that we do not know it. If you remember that you once had a love affair with a person who later committed murder, you still know it, even though you might deny it, lie that is, when asked if you knew that person. Not only do you know that person, you know that you know that person, and yet you invent a lie, for a reason, to protect yourself from having to offer an explanation or tell the painful story of your having once been in love with a murderer.
And so now we are getting somewhere in performing the task of "getting to know us," because we have acknowledged two things that we can do with memories, we can lose them, and we can invent them. We can not only revise our memories to suit our emotional needs, we can revise them in order to explain to ourselves who we are, and what kind of person we are. More about this later. We also know that memories are very closely related to knowledge, practically equivalent. This means that what we remember is what we know, and what we forget, or revise or erase, is what we do not know. This is extremely important material, because we use not only our internal memories, the organic memories in our own brains, but also external memories: public records, books, stories, history, art, scientific theories, beliefs, and personal preferences, as our record, meaning "knowledge," of who we are, what the universe is, and how everything operates in the real world. Thus, I am faced, as you also are faced, with the evidence that what we know can be comprised in part of memories that have been revised, or even invented, for some personal or societal purpose, and we might even use our memories to obstruct the formation of other memories that we do not like. This could be in fact a suitable explanation for authoritarianism or fixed doctrines. For reasons of convenience, laziness, fear, or self-image, we can close doors to lock away ideas that knock but we have decided we will not allow them in our house, or will not allow them to enter into our brain closet full of old and new memory toys, important treasured memories and memories that are torn and tattered but we just like so much we cannot get ourselves to throw them away. And all this, already a formidable set of concepts to deal with, is just the beginning of us getting to know ourselves. All this arises out of a simple desire on my part to know who I am and what I am. I am just a little boy with a closet full of memories, or knowledge, and what I want to know is me, just me. And I have clearly and with full and genuine sincerity discovered that I can know myself only to the extent that I know everything else. It seems that in order to know who and what I am, I have to understand a closet-full of knowledge as big as the universe itself, so that I can understand how the universe came into being, and as a result I was born and live and I want to know who and what I am. Why is that? How does this toy called "knowledge" work?
We, the human species, have amassed a great closet full of knowledge, and memories, and one might well ask (I ask) how can we move forward. That is, now that we have a really big collection of knowledge, facts, theories, and technologies, how can we learn even more about the real universe and how it works? I have an answer to that question, and I want to explain my answer. My answer is also the plan for how I can get to know myself better, being a philosopher who wants to know himself, know who and what he is. Here is the answer: In order to really obtain more reliable knowledge about how the real universe works, we have to stop studying the external universe and focus more diligently on how the knower knows; we have to focus our study on the human brain and how the brain, the knower of all our knowledge and recorder of all our memories, functions. There are good reasons for this theory of mine, which I will give a name. Let's call my thesis "neuro-philosophy." Neuro-philosophy is the argument, or thesis, that we cannot advance further in human knowledge until we develop a much deeper knowledge of how we know things. And, in order to do that, we have to study the knower in order to discover how it knows things. This is really a profoundly political viewpoint, because it says that we will not learn more about the universe by continuing to do what we have been doing for more than five hundred years, by continuing to conduct concrete, physical experiments upon the external universe. Stated differently, I am saying that we will not improve our knowledge of the stars, or dogs, or metals, or atoms, or economics, or anything else by studying the stars or dogs or metals or atoms or economics, but instead we have to learn more about how we know and what "knowledge" is in our brains before we can actually know more about anything else that is outside our brains. This is neuro-philosophy, and it will be advanced by neuro-biology and neuro-chemistry and neuro-electronics.
My Defense of Neuro-philosophy:
My defense of neuro-philosophy is based upon two parts of my personal, long history of learning about these things, about learning itself, how we learn, how we do not learn, and how we categorize knowledge. The first part is my personal knowledge arising from a liberal arts college education, graduate studies in the field of education, then a career in social work and from ongoing training in college-level workshops as well as self-directed study in brain development, personality development, psychology, sociology, family dynamics, emotional and mental pathologies, brain chemistry (psychotropic drugs) and just plain living. The second part arises from courses in math, chemistry, physics and biology and self-directed study that led me to question some very entrenched physical theories, such as the big bang theory, what is meant by "we cannot square the circle," and theories about the origin of life, natural selection and evolution, and the persistent conflict between science and religion. This life-long contemplation of the conflict between science and religion, and the challenge of reconciliation of science and religion, are well represented in "Chapter Three: The Origins of the Universe," in The Language of God, by Francis S. Collins (Free Press, 2006). I am using this chapter, and my hand-written notes in it, to write my explanation of why we cannot learn more about the universe by studying the universe. We have to study the learner before we can learn more about those things that are outside of the learner -- the child's brain closet that is chock full and overflowing with old and new memory toys. Clean your room! It's time to get rid of some things!
One very important reminder before I launch into my great defense of neuro-philosophy. We include in our memories categories of knowledge. For example, how to fix your bicycle when the brakes are not working well, is a category of knowledge. We have lots of reasons to believe that this type of knowledge, how to fix the brakes on your bicycle, is stored in a category, or a place. This would be called a "bus address" if we were talking about a computer memory, or a digital location, or whatever, a place. We also have lots of reasons to believe that the place or category for our "fixing bicycles" memories is not the same place or category for "how much my mother loves me" or "God" or "the origins of the universe" or "the chemical process that causes blood to coagulate." We are quite certain that our memories are organized, or are supposed to be organized. We also know that our brains include some fantastic cross-referencing equipment. That is why we can discover, sometimes quite suddenly, while fixing our bicycle, the memory of that first beautiful, gleaming big grown-up bicycle given to us for our ninth birthday, by our mother, which is a permanent memory of how much our mother loves us. We also might sense a relationship between our bicycle and God, because when we rode that bicycle, at age ten, further from home than ever before on a sunny summer day, and went to the lake and saw the teenagers swimming and playing and sunning themselves in their bathing suits, we felt a powerful sense of freedom, of joy, of exaltation in the beauty of the green world and how there must be a wonderful God who created all this. It just does not seem possible that this entire universe came into being all by itself. There must have been some being or mysterious divine power that created all this. So, even though how to fix a bicycle and our mother's love and God seem at first to be entirely different categories of knowledge, and of memories, our brains include some memorable connection among them. Our brain might also jump to the coagulation of blood, which we saw with our own eyes when we once fell off the bike while riding, got a painful scrape, and rode home anxiously to treat it so that it would stop burning and not get infected. The cross-referencing of our knowledge-memories is astounding. This is why we write poetry and invent metaphors, because things that seem at first to be entirely different things are related, are similar, in our brains. Our brains see patterns: tree, roots, blood vessels, river delta, paint dripping, and on and on. And one big category of memory knowledge is called "religion" and another is called "science." And we are supposed to use religion to help us make important personal decisions. And we are supposed to use rational science to help us make most or all of our decisions. And these two big categories are often viewed as being in an endless conflict or "war." How could this be? How could my single brain, or yours, develop two separate sets of knowledge that fight one another? What could be the purpose of that? Why does this happen? How does this happen? What does it mean? How does it help me to know myself? I will explore this perplexing reality, just as I explored the expanding universe when I rode away from home on my bicycle.
Genetic Heritage and Early Childhood Development:
One of the most powerful learning experiences for every social worker is the intricate and challenging relationship between genetic heritage and early childhood experience as the causes of personality and character development. It was John Locke (1632-1704) remembered primarily for his contributions to political science and arguments in defense of democracy and the "social contract", who famously argued that every human child is born with a "clean slate" (tabula rasa in Latin) upon which the individual person's character traits are later "written" by the experiences and choices in that being's individual life path. It is interesting to note that John Locke, included among the Enlightenment philosophers (also a physician) was born about the same time that Galileo was ostracized by the Church astronomers for saying that the Sun was the center of the universe - which soon got demoted to the solar system, a handful of pebbles in a much larger universe. The "clean slate" that Locke referred to was a metaphor familiar to most people at the time, because children learning to write would have a small slate chalkboard on which to write with chalk, so that they could easily erase with a cloth and then write again. Starting with a clean slate suggested that the character of a person was "blank" at birth, and came about afterward as a result of experience and learning. The metaphor is still good, but the reality is more complex because we have learned since Locke's time that the genetic heritage of every person means the slate is not clean or "blank" at birth. Much of the human traits of the individual person are present from the beginning in the genes, but not everything. Genes are currently described as the potentials for development, but allowing for a wide range of different types of learning and personality development from all types of experience. The old saying, "As the twig [sapling] is bent, so grows the tree," is closer to the reality.
What every social worker must understand in order to do their work is that early childhood experience, beginning with day one, is the life experience and the world to which the human brain must adapt and does adapt. If the child is not loved, that child's brain adapts to a world without love. If the child is not fed, that brain learns that the world is comprised of scarcity and deprivation, the pain of hunger and the absence or unreliability of external caretakers. As the infant grows, it learns language and the meaning of non-verbal signals in human communication; tone and body movements tell the child what is happening and what to expect next. If the adults who are in the position of caretaker, especially the primary caretaker, lies or deceives or hides the truth, the child learns that this kind of communication is "normal." If the infant lives in a world that is physically harsh, where the child is frequently struck by an adult hand, or a belt or a stick, and punished by loud and violent language, the child learns that the world is hostile and threatening, often uncomfortable. Other people, especially people with power, are not safe, not warm, not loving. The world is an enemy that needs to be watched closely (hyper vigilance) and controlled (instigating, controlling behavior) and anticipated (readiness for conflict and combat). On and on this process can be described and explained. The child who develops in a harsh and violent environment, or who soon learns that he or she is exploited and used by adults with power, adapts to that world. This is the primary lesson of personality development and brain development. With reference to John Locke's "clean slate" what is true about the human brain is that it is amazingly adaptable. That is one of our greatest strengths. Our behavior patterns are less controlled by fixed instincts when compared to other animals. We learn how to behave from the very moment that we are expelled from our mother's body into the external world. We learn "what the world is like" and how to live in the world that we know. Think how different the world is when the "normal" experience of a child includes what most of us consider to be normal: warmth and love, cuddling, soft words and soft blankets, regular feeding whenever we feel hunger, safety, concern and protection throughout the earliest years, excitement and encouragement for every effort we make to talk or crawl or walk or poop or eat or write or count. On and on this process goes, as the normal relationship between mother (or other primary caretaker) protects and nurtures the development of the child into an accomplished human person, a member of a social group, one who learns, accepts love, gives love, and becomes an integrated member of society. We can see how varied the writing can be on that "clean slate" after the newborn child goes through the "school" of the world in which they live. That is why we are all alike in many important ways, but also individually different. The "culture" in which we grow as children also gives us our "cultural" heritage, habits, customs, and characteristics.
One of the things that a social worker learns is that we do not have certainty in our science as to exactly which character traits are actually inherited through the genetic process and which are developed early in life. However, we have learned that there can be and there are many personality traits, important personality traits such as honesty and defensiveness and affection that can be learned but be so deeply imprinted as to appear to be genetic or fixed personality traits. When identifying foster parents or prospective adoptive parents, we social workers were often perplexed and terrified when the prospective caretakers said such things as "the child has no conscience" or "she has no moral training" or "does not believe in God." Some well-meaning adults have a simplistic view of how the human being works. Either one chooses to be moral or one chooses to be immoral. A child is either a good child or a bad child. When an adult who wants to take care of a damaged child, often because they are motivated to meet their own need to be a caretaker or be in control of a child, it is sometimes a monumental or impossible task to have them learn how the child became the person they are, and persuade that simplistic caretaker that the child does not lie because they choose to be bad, but because lying regularly was a necessary and perfectly functional adaptation to the dangerous world in which they lived from birth through the age when society intervened.
Some people may be surprised to learn that in fact some young children who were visibly raised in what appeared to be a family setting have "Attachment Disorder" and behave somewhat like a feral (wild) child. By "feral" or wild we do not mean necessarily chaotic and animal-like, growling and eating with bare hands or having dirty, matted hair. What we mean is that the child does not receive affection or give it back. The child with a clear case of Attachment Disorder acts like he or she has no desire to be physically or emotionally close to any human adult. Acts like he or she has only physical needs and does not desire or thrive on any emotional exchange with another. This behavior is similar to and may be related to autism, but in the case of Attachment Disorder the science tells us that there is little or no genetic explanation. Attachment Disorder, this odd and rare behavior where a child appears to have no need for attachment to an adult caretaker, is deemed to be caused entirely by the child's experience after birth and not genetic causes. This condition is attributed to severe neglect and a profoundly distant or dysfunctional primary caretaker. This disorder was found to be more common in children who were placed in large, hospital-like orphanages in countries lacking the financial resources to provide better care for abandoned babies. The point that we are focused on here is that there are personality traits and character traits that are a result of one's earliest childhood experience and are not genetically determined. However, such deeply imprinted learned behavioral traits can appear to be determined. This reality makes the care of children damaged by early and severe neglect and abuse a formidable challenge. Those foster and adoptive parents whose unbounded love is combined with a good understanding of how this kind of "abnormal" development occurs, are the most precious people in any society. They give more than any others while being satisfied with the most meager and intangible of rewards. My supervisor once said to me, "What these children need is someone who is going to visit them when they are in prison." She was serious, and she was right. We do not like stereotypes and we do not like to label people as though their fate and future is fixed, but many foster children, adopted or not, are not going to be Cinderella or any other kind of wonderful and magical success story. The measure of success might be that they have someone who cares enough to visit them in prison. That could mean they will be in prison only once, and that is a great success compared to those who go back many times, or whose extreme detachment from social integration leads to a capital crime and a sentence of execution.
Why this elaborate and grim visit to the world of genetics and personality development? Because an obviously important element of personality development is whether or not one believes in God. Also, since study of the human mind, the social sciences, psychology, sociology, anthropology, neurology, brain development, all suggest so strongly that we have a genetic heritage but our brains adapt to the world that we experience, we can see, if we have our mind's eyes open, that what one's religious beliefs are can also be caused in large part by our life experience. Is believing in God a genetic trait? This is not far fetched. Many have pointed to the argument that religion and religious loyalties promote cohesion of the human community, and a cohesive community looks like a survival trait for the human species. So, both atheists and theists who use science as a guide can argue that believing in God, or a God, could actually be a survival trait that is commonly found in the human personality because of a gene. Over time, meaning ancient and pre-historic times, those human groups who were held together by religious beliefs were more likely to survive and reproduce. That would make religious beliefs a survival trait, a trait perpetuated by natural selection. I recall that a friend, Jack Darton, once made the observation that whenever any group of humans attempted to live together in an "intentional community" like the Amish or Shakers, such planned communities usually succeeded if the members were bound together by common religious convictions. If the religious glue was absent, the individuals would not cohere, did not persevere in their efforts to overcome the tensions and problems that arise in a communal living arrangement, and they soon dissolved. So we have both micro (neurological) and macro (communalism) evidence that supports a conclusion that religious convictions might actually have a genetic cause. Or, if there is no genetic cause, then our religious convictions are entirely caused by our early childhood experience, which we all commonly know as an anti-democratic practice called "indoctrination." So here is the crucial question I have been leading up to all along: "Is belief in God caused by early childhood indoctrination?" This is a very common and powerful argument of atheists and humanists and all of those who take exception to the influence of religion in the world. The opposition to religion is not opposition to morality or social justice, it is opposition to violence attributed to religion and intellectual oppression and authoritarianism attributed to religion. In other words, the most common opposition to religious belief that is both sincere and severe arises from a strong conviction that religion is produced and maintained by early childhood indoctrination, and could not be maintained in an environment of real freedom. Therefore, in our understanding of what religion is and why people have religious beliefs, we have to first consider what has been described here: the intense and unresolved weight of "nature versus nurture," meaning we do not have certainty as to whether religious beliefs are caused by genes or only by early childhood experience: indoctrination.
Learning, Memories, and History:
When we are given a test in our social studies class, we are asked questions about history.
The teacher wants to see what we know about history. What have we learned about the history of our country, or about the ancient world, such as ancient Greece or Rome or China. We do not get the highest grade on our test if we "forget" dates, or the names of important persons in history, or what they did. So, our grade on this test of what we "know" is determined in large part by what we "remember." This means what we remember about events that occurred centuries before we existed. How can one remember something that one did not witness? What does it mean to "remember history?" It is a strange concept when you think about it. If a group of friends talk about an incident that occurred two years ago at a beach party, and you were not there, they will not say to you "Do you remember?" You are not expected to remember an incident that occurred when and where you were not present. But, somehow we are all expected to remember that Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence and Julius Caesar was killed by members of the Roman Senate. And, some time long ago lost in history, called "pre-history" some guy -- probably a girl -- invented the wheel. I suspect the wheel was invented by a female because the pre-historic males were brutish hunters and the women had to carry everything. Or, who in their right mind really believes that we know or can know what happened thousands of years ago, or all the way back to fifteen billion years ago when the universe was born with a Big Bang? What a ridiculous concept, that you or I or anyone could remember the beginning of the universe! But, don't be foolish you say. No one is expected to remember the Big Bang, we are just expected to know about it! Well, so you see now I hope, that is just the problem and that is why I spent so much time talking about knowledge and how maybe knowledge is actually the equivalent of memory, or is at least ninety percent memory. How could anyone "know about" the Big Bang if they forget about the Big Bang? Or, if they fall on their head and their memory of the Big Bang is erased? What I am saying here, and I really mean it, is that when we see ourselves as "knowing" that Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence and "knowing" that Julius Caesar was killed by members of the Roman Senate, what we are doing is we are remembering something that we did not witness! We remember it because we were taught it, at an early age. We believe that Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence and Julius Caesar was killed by members of the Roman Senate because these are historical records written down and preserved and passed on from generation to generation. We believe things that we did not witness and could never retrieve or reconstruct from the kind of memories that are formed by direct experience. And, when we do retrieve and recite these beliefs, either orally or on paper, we are said to "know" history. To believe is to know. Is that right? Is it true that to believe is to know? I would have to say that this is not correct. This is why we have these two distinctly separate words, and most people would argue strongly that to believe something IS NOT the same thing as to know something. Now lets take the jump to religious belief. If I say that I believe God created the universe, is this something that I know? If not, why not? If I am credited with knowing history because I believe that Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence and Julius Caesar was killed by members of the Roman Senate, why can't we go back a little further in time and say that I know the history of the universe so well I know when and how it was created, by God? If I can remember (know) so many historical events, many in the very distant past where neither I nor anyone alive today existed, why can't I remember (know) the birth of the universe -- when it was created by God. This would make God an historical figure, similar to Thomas Jefferson and Julius Caesar, all people I know about even though I never met them, because I was taught about them. AHA! … because I was taught about them! That's it, I know about history because I was taught about it. Does that mean that the reason I know about God is because I was taught -- indoctrinated -- at an early age. So, now I can get a good grade on my history of God test. I show that I remember events that I never witnessed, including even the invention of the universe, and therefore I am a good student and I get a good grade in "history." Do you hate this line of thought? Or do you find it interesting? Look just a little further, please.
Remember all that I have said here earlier about the relationship between memory and knowledge? Remember what I said about how deeply imprinted character traits can be caused after birth and not by genes? Remember that there are many who argue that we have religious beliefs because such beliefs are a real survival trait that enabled human communities to survive and reproduce themselves? All this taken together suggests that we do not have certainty as to whether religious beliefs are caused by genetic heritage or by early childhood indoctrination. However, I want to discuss this reality in a manner that is different from what is usually discussed. The usual discussion is around the question as to whether or not Jesus was God, or is there a Creator God or not a Creator God. I believe these are not the most helpful questions. They have been re-hashed for centuries and still have not taken us to any meaningful resolution to the conflict between science and religion, or between "belief" and "non-belief." I believe that because of an extreme desire for intellectual independence I have pursued other questions that I have not heard others asking. Here, let me state my unique point of view in two paragraphs.
First, my definition of religion is an intellectual definition. I feel that my definition of religion is the most scientific definition of religion: Your religion is the set of answers to the cosmic or teleological questions that you arrive at using every possible source of information that is available to you. (What is the meaning of life? Who are we? What are we? What is death? Is there a God? Do we live again after death? Do we have a soul or any other entity that lives forever?)
Second, the question that is most interesting to me, which I again believe is a much more scientifically proper question than the old and exhausted "Was Jesus God?" and "Is there a Creator God?" is: "What does the Gospel messsage really say, and is it credible?"
You see, when we perpetually ask "Was Jesus God?" what we are doing, whether or not we are always conscious of the process, is we are attempting to defend or discredit the meaning of the message by focusing on the identify of the sender. This is not good science. If it is true that there is a law of gravity, it does not matter whether we receive this information from a college professor or a four-year-old child. This is why I like to say that I am guided by a profound scientific principle: The truth is the same no matter whence it came. We do not discredit the teachings of Socrates or Archimedes, or the Buddha or Thomas Jefferson or Isaac Newton or Albert Einstein because they are not God. Therefore, I say that in order to scientifically evaluate the Gospel message we have to forget about (set aside) whether Jesus was God and whether there is a Creator God, and focus instead on what meaning the Gospel parables really convey to us. Also, in order to see and hear the Gospel message with our own minds, and in order to receive the Gospel message accurately, we have to REMOVE THE MOST BASIC ELEMENT OF CHILDHOOD INDOCTRINATION THAT PRECEDES EVEN THE IDENTITY OF JESUS AND GOD, WHICH IS THE PRESUMPTION OR PRESUPPOSITION THAT THE GOSPEL MESSAGE IS ABOUT MORALITY OR MORAL LAWS. It could be instead, good old fashioned useful, scientifically factual, INFORMATION that we need to know.
So, you probably thought I was going to ask you to question the existence of God or debate the identify of Jesus. But that is wrong. I do not care whether you believe that Jesus was God or if you believe in a Creator God. That is entirely your personal (personality) choice. What I want you to do is set aside the unquestioned principle that the Gospel message is about morality, either the morality of God or the morality of Jesus or the morality of some ancient group, or the morality of anyone. I want you to look at the Gospel message using the two principles and the five questions, like I did, consider this a scientific experiment to see if you get the same results. But, before I let you go to do that, I have something more to say about teleology and how teleology is the only problem in terms of the perceived conflict between science and religion and how scientific teleology (the Big Bang, etc.) is essentially the same as religious teleology -- it is neither better documented nor more certain than the teleology that we call "religion." Religious people use science to answer the teleological questions, and scientific people use "beliefs" and "theories" to answer the teleological questions. The conflicts between religion and science, when carefully considered, are like the rumors of Mark Twain's death -- highly exaggerated.
Memories as Inventions:
One more piece of scientific information, again from the world of social work and law. Human memory is not reliable, at least most attorneys and judges hate the idea that a person might be convicted of a serious crime because one or two people "remember" seeing him, or her, do it. A witness can remember seeing a person in a red jacket when the person they saw does not even have a red jacket and never wore one. Even persons accused of child sexual abuse have been defended by the argument that the alleged perpetrator is the victim of "false memories." Psychologists have argued for a very long time that when we have unpleasant or traumatic memories we revise them. We "justify ourselves" by inventing positive and acceptable motives to explain the behaviors that make us appear to be selfish or mean-spirited. These self-descriptions become our memories of who we are and what kind of a person we are. When one studies the history of psychology one can be surprised that modern psychological science was started by philosophers and hypnotists. Early on, hypnotism was called Mesmerism, named after the famous practitioner Dr. Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815). Early efforts to promote scientific study of the human mind were ridiculed and discredited by physical scientists. The psychologists were lumped together with fortune tellers and séances, efforts to contact the dead and access esoteric knowledge or memories of past lives through hypnotic trance. The real beginning of a respectable psychological science began with measurements of the human senses (Ernst Weber, Wilhelm Wundt, William James) -- for developing a deeper understanding of how our sensory experience is the maker of our perceptions, thoughts, beliefs, knowledge. Throughout the history of modern psychology, the matter of memory is key. Psychoanalysis is the examination of memories. The self-examined life, the only life worth living according to Socrates, is a lifetime of examining memories. One might be wise, therefore, to consider how one's religion is an examination of one's sensory experience AND one's memories -- the set of answers to the cosmic or teleological questions that you arrive at using every possible source of information that is available to you.
So… the discussion thus far strongly supports the conclusion that "religion" and "religious beliefs" are placed in a special category in our brain closet of memories and knowledge. It is as though we are expected to rely upon society for the right information, the authority to tell us what to believe about the real, physical universe. That means we are not expected to freely contemplate and choose for ourselves what we believe is true about how an internal combustion engine works, or why water boils, or why fire generates smoke, light and heat, or whether or not humans can breathe under water. All of these things and millions more are in a category of scientific fact, being in touch with reality. However, being in touch with reality does not bind us up completely by telling us what we must believe, or "know" about everything, even though we are expected to believe many things that society (our parents and the authorities) teaches us about history.
Just to give a few examples of areas where we are given some freedom to choose, we know that when we are writing or speaking we are advised that we have some freedom to choose our words, to use what we feel are the best words to say what we wish to say. We also know that not all of the details of history are required to be believed by law. There are different interpretations of human history, and different interpretations of the motives and actions of persons who acted out major roles in the evolution of human history. For example, we are all expected to believe, or "know" that Thomas Jefferson played the major role in writing the Declaration of Independence, and that Isaac Newton discovered the "universal law of gravitational attraction" at about the same time that this same "law of nature" was discovered by Gotfried Leibniz (1600s). But we are allowed to have different opinions as to whether Thomas Jefferson was a hypocrite because he "owned" slaves. I could take that position, but I read a carefully researched book about Thomas Jefferson entitled The Hemingses of Monticello by Annette Gordon-Reed, and that book amended my opinion, meaning my memory of or knowledge of, Thomas Jefferson, because the book describes how Thomas Jefferson treated his slaves like employees, and encouraged them to learn skills including reading and writing and mechanical skills. When he had a sexual relationship with Sally Hemings, he was in fact doing something that European men, and Jewish and Christian men, had done for many centuries, he was in fact acting as though he was married to his deceased wife's sister. Sally Hemings was the half-sister of his deceased wife. This type of confusion of relationships occurred constantly in the plantation slave society, because whenever a male slave owner fathered the child of a slave woman, that child was legally designated a slave, and the status of the father had no legal effect. That meant that many slaves were the half-brothers and half-sisters of the legally recognized children of their older masters. When those half-siblings grew to adulthood, the master was the half-sibling of the slave that he or she "owned." Therefore, this important detail and many others described in this beautifully written and informative book causes me to conclude that Thomas Jefferson, in my opinion, did all that he could to combat the dark side of slavery during his lifetime and within the constraints and circumstances of the society of his times. This is an opinion regarding the reality of history and an historical personality. I am allowed to have such an opinion, even though others may have another opinion. My societal "permission" to maintain my opinion is probably enhanced by the fact that I have a bachelor's degree in political science. In any case, this is one example -- all that is needed -- of how there are areas of knowledge where we have societal permission to have an individual opinion. This is most widely recognized in the field of "art" as well as in the areas of history and personal sexual practices. So what does this have to do with religion?
I have outlined how "knowledge" is practically equivalent to "memory" and one's knowledge of history is really inherited from previous generations, and is like having a memory of something that one never witnessed. Historical knowledge is more like having a record of a record rather than having a memory of an event. And yet we often talk about history and the meaning of historical events as though they are as fixed and determined by natural, physical laws as a flood or an earthquake. Concepts of how our society has been formed, the past events that created our nation, how and why large groups of people behaved a certain way, are all described as though they are just as real as the time you dropped an anvil on your big toe. History, civil law, criminal law, government, all allow for opinions, but they are still encompassed in a category of knowledge that includes a great deal of required beliefs or fixed knowledge. For example, in the United States of America one is not approved to have the opinion that no one has a right to vote, or that all women should be subservient to a man. These are areas where history, law, government and society are influenced by one's moral or religious beliefs. Now we are on the shores of the great, roiling sea of religion. And religion appears to be in a special category by itself. Religion allows one the broadest freedom as to what to believe, so long as one's beliefs do not amount to illegal actions. We could list many examples of religious opinions or beliefs, but what really matters here is how this special category of religion relates to the previous discussion of knowledge and memory. If we are free to choose our religious beliefs, are we choosing to "remember" our religion or to "know" our religion? If there is a body of doctrine that is designated as the strictly-defined belief system of a particular religion, that means that if we took a test on that system of beliefs, we could get a "grade" in how well we "know" the doctrines of that religion. But, that would not be a test of whether we actually believe those doctrines, nor evidence that the doctrines were true or false. Just a test of whether one knows the set of doctrines, regardless of why one cares to know them. But that is "knowing" a religion like "knowing" history or remembering what was the significant behavior of a person who lived in the past -- according to some records. Religion is something more.
Religion is one's moral beliefs and one's answers to the teleological questions, such as what is the meaning of life and what occurs after death of the body. But still, we have said that both beliefs and knowledge are memories, and that viewpoint tells us that any religious belief, even if we feel that it is knowledge, is a form of memory, a record in our brains. If this is the case, then religion is really not as special and different or separate from other beliefs. Religion also is comprised of memories of morals, principles, concepts, explanations of who we are and what we are and what we must do and must not do. Why then are these memories so powerful that they are deemed to have caused us to have killed one another in huge numbers and for long periods of time, for many centuries? Religion is so perplexing because no one expects me to try to kill you if you do not know how to sail a boat, but history tells us that someone might kill you because you do not believe in their God. Why is that "memory" or "belief" of a type of God so much more powerful than any other type of record in the brain? Is it stored in a different part of the brain? Is it raw emotion rather than reason? Is it even deeper than raw emotion, a kind of reflexive process in the limbic region of the brain? Now let me turn to some ideas discussed by Francis Collins in his book (mainly chapter three) The Language of God.
The title of Chapter Three of The Language of God is "The Origins of the Universe." It is good for me to remind myself, and every reader, that what we are contemplating here is a scientist's offering an explanation and discussion of how the universe, the real natural world, began, or how it came into being long ago before it became what we "know" today. This occurrence is interesting in itself because one could well argue that ideas about the origins of the universe -- how it came into being or how it was "created" -- are religious ideas and not science. There is good reason to categorize "the origin of the universe" as religion, because there really is no sound and satisfactory way for us to detect what occurred from 15 to 13 billion years ago. Some scientists claim to detect a faint form of energy or "background radiation" throughout the visible or detectable universe, and they interpret that detection as conclusive evidence that there was a unique explosion or "Big Bang" in the cosmically distant past that caused the evolution of all of the stars and galaxies -- all that we see or detect with our instruments. It is also important to keep in mind that the evidence detected is not detected by our natural organic senses, but by instruments that detect things we do not detect with our physical senses. All of this discussion is not about whether I believe in the Big Bang, it is about physicists and astro-physicist presenting themselves to society as the valid authority to tell us the initial and most important event in the history of us. In other words, if my goal or our goal was, as I said in the beginning, to know myself (as all philosophers desire), then it is obviously pertinent for us to know "the origin of the universe." If the universe does have an origin, than one must know or understand that origin, attach meaning to it, in order to understand what it means to be a human being, on Earth, in this universe. There are a few extremely important concepts to consider here that establish the density of the problematic nature of the relationship between science and religion:
1) If the universe has an origin, then that origin -- or cause -- is something that existed before the universe. If the universe already exists, then the existing universe cannot be its own origin. Logically, if the universe is the origin of the universe, then it has no "origin" or pre-existent cause.
2) When one discusses the origins of the universe, whether priest, scientist, religionist or lettuce picker, one is discussing an event in history, the history of us. It may be farther back in the past then we usually think about as history, but it is history, and it is not the history of science. It is the history of life.
3) One could be tested on one's knowledge of the Big Bang theory. Do you know what it means? When was it first conceived? What is the scientific evidence that is used to support this theory? What are the reasonable objections to it, if any? How does it relate to the "creationist" belief that the universe was created or invented by God, where the Creator God is like a person?
4) If the origin of the universe is history, then does all of the previous discussion of knowledge and memory, and history apply to it? What this question means is does believing in the Big Bang mean believing in "science" or does it mean believing an interpretation of history? Does it mean that one "knows" the beginning of the universe, and that one therefore "remembers" the history of the universe, just like one remembers that Andrew Jackson was once the President of the United States? How can you or I "remember" the beginning of the universe? There is an explanation: we do not really remember the beginning of the universe, we remember a verbal explanation or record of the beginning of the universe. Is it real? It is a memory. A memory is real; it is a real memory. But a memory of an event is not the event. Remember, we can remember as real an event (he wore a red jacket) that is not real or that never occurred outside of our memory.
5) Belief in the "Big Bang" is a belief, and therefore it is a religious belief. Is this true? If this is true, then we need to consider whether our current society is one in which we rely upon scientists to provide us with religious guidance and religious beliefs. I believe this is the case. The religion of modern American society is "Science."
6) The universe needs to have an origin. Or does it?
In Medieval society, people relied upon the Church for factual information about how the universe works. Today, we rely upon scientists for factual information about how the universe works. But we still hold on to the concept of a separate, spiritual or moral universe that is different from the natural or "scientific" universe. That is why Francis Collins says that even if one believes in the Big Bang, we can still believe that God created the universe. The Big Bang would then not be the creator of the universe, but would be only the method used by the Creator to create.
Collins, p. 57: "An effort to understand the origins and workings of the cosmos has characterized nearly all religions throughout history, whether in the overt worship of a sun god, the ascription of spiritual significance to phenomena such as eclipses, or simply a sense of awe at the wonders of the heavens."
But we also have a sense of awe at the wonders of the Earth, and what is on it and beneath its surface, especially the wonders beneath the surface of the great oceans of salty water. What Collins has touched upon here is a fundamental objection to religious belief that has been made by atheists and philosophers since human memory, and that is that when one attempts to study religions objectively, as a field of scientific inquiry, one invariably discovers that most if not all religious beliefs arise out of what we observe but do not understand, or out of "mystery," out of events for which we do not formulate a satisfactory scientific explanation. This pattern of behavior is perfectly consistent with how our brain copes with trauma or sudden or startling events, confusing perceptions, incomplete stories, or any observation with information missing. We fill in the blanks. This is what we do with our memories that are "vague" or hazy whenever any need arises to clear them up. We invent the memories or information using our vast store of memories, knowledge and principles. It is always just like the common metaphor about "finding the missing piece to the puzzle." If we feel the need, whether casual or urgent or of the greatest importance, whatever information we do not have about an event that is needed to make it logical or complete, we create it and fill in the empty space. One example is like when you have been given verbal directions and you take a left turn that another person does not understand. They ask, "Why did you turn left?" You respond, "I don't know, I thought he said to turn left here." So, your brain in that moment reinforces your memory that you were told to turn left at that point. The information is hazy, incomplete, and our brains have a "completer" function that makes things complete because we like completeness. What this means is that it is perfectly legitimate to argue that this is what we are doing when we believe in an origin for the universe or when we add a "God" to serve as the Creator of the universe -- we are completing our own personal history and species history by filling in spaces that are not established by more concrete and conclusive evidence. This is why a belief in God has to be defended when another person challenges such a belief, because it is a "fill-in" and it is not like a meteor. Anyone can question the existence of a meteor if they have not seen one fall from the sky and then find it and pick it up, but most people accept the existence of meteors because some people have seen them fall from the sky and have picked one up. Because I am one person who has never picked up a meteor from the ground, I am among the many human beings who believes in meteors because they are a "record of a record" or a memory of other people that I choose to accept as valid enough to add to my own memories, or "knowledge." One could argue then, that for anyone who believes in God, the source of their beliefs, or faith, is a combination of their own thought and what they have heard from others whom they trust, just like my trust in those others who say they have seen and touched a real meteor. Still, belief in a Creator God is strongly similar to our instinctive or reflexive brain habit of filling in the empty spaces in any story or observed event.
Therefore, a profoundly valid question, but almost comical question, is whether a belief in God belongs in a discussion of history or in a discussion of religion and science. A statement about the origins of the universe can come from a religionist or a scientist, yet either one is a statement about our history, about who and what we are. So then, should we be talking to a historian? Does an historian tell us that the beginning of the causal chain that leads to us is the creation of the universe? Are we in the history department, or the biology department, or the science department, or the religion department? I personally believe that no matter how passionately we feel we are talking about religion, or about the sacred principles of the scientific method, we are in the history department. This is the business of history. This is us meeting ourselves again for the first time.
A Scientist Has Religious Beliefs:
Collins discusses the Big Bang theory authoritatively, how it developed problems, has been challenged and saved or elaborated in response to objections, basically a kind of history of the Big Bang theory. Then he asks "What Came Before the Big Bang?" And he gives his own personal response (p. 67):
First Collins cites Robert Jastrow, from Jastrow's book God and the Astronomers: "The details differ, but the essential elements and the astronomical and biblical accounts of Genesis are the same; the chain of events leading to man commenced suddenly and sharply at a definite moment in time, in a flash of light and energy."
"I have to agree. [Collins agrees with Jastrow.] The Big Bang cries out for a divine explanation. It forces the conclusion that nature had a defined beginning. I cannot see how nature could have created itself. Only a supernatural force that is outside of space and time could have done that."
Here we witness a scientist with religious faith. His way of filling in the missing puzzle piece is "a divine explanation." Because Collins is a scientist, does that make his belief in God more valid, more "scientific?" Not for me. I do not see his leap of faith as more meaningful or more convincing than the faith of an uneducated jungle boy shooting a monkey out of a tree with a bow and arrow.
Collins goes on to discuss what occurred since the Big Bang, essentially the evolution of celestial bodies, life, and quantum mechanics, including the "anthropic principle." Basically, Collins argues, as do many others, that the universe is far too complex and improbable than could have occurred by accident or by purely natural causes. Collins also explains himself by making the observation of the Heisenberg Principle -- that we cannot detect both the position and momentum of a particle simultaneously -- suggesting that we cannot use determined cause and effect to explain the evolution of the particle universe. But Collins does invent an explanation (a religious belief) that is satisfactory to himself. This is what we all do. We each invent or adopt an explanation that we find satisfactory, but none of the explanations of the origins of the universe can satisfy the demands of the scientific method. The keystone of the scientific method is repeatable experiment. In order to prove that the Big Bang created the universe, we would have to repeat that experimental procedure.
Although we cannot know what came before the Big Bang, Collins states that it could be the Creator God. Not necessarily an anthropomorphic God, but some form of divine power that makes the Big Bang compatible with Christian revelation. The anthropic principle tells us that although the universe often appears to scientists to be improbable, it also tells us that whatever exists in the universe has to be consistent with our evolution, because we are here, and therefore consistent with whatever rules of probability or cause and effect that apply. It is a common practice to discredit any argument that our evolution is improbable on the simple grounds that what we know to exist has to be consistent with the history of the universe, regardless of whether it appears to us to be complex or improbable. No matter how one brings together science and philosophy, or science and religion, my position is that any view of the origin of the universe has to be a piece of undetectable history and therefore an invention. I call these "explanation inventions." We can know the age of a tree because the tree rings are a record, but we cannot detect a record of what occurred before any Big Bang. I question what is deemed to be the record of the Big Bang itself, as do many scientists. We make observations that serve to explain or justify our existence. We have to believe that our life has meaning and purpose. This is a survival trait. People whose sense of meaning and purpose diminishes to zero commit suicide.
The Skill of Having a Religion:
The skill that we use to formulate our religious beliefs is practically the same as the skill of a fiction author who creates characters and their motivations, and out of their actions we discover a story. Life is a story. Religion is a story. We enjoy the stories of the Greek gods, so much like people with human emotions and human flaws. We prefer, apparently, our gods to be more superhuman, to have powers and qualities that raise them far above the limitations of a human being. Either way, we invent our gods because our brains long for completion of the story of life, the story of who and what we are. As a child I was taught that God created us in His image. Many years later, a dear and intelligent and respected friend said to me, "We create God in our image." Our drive to know who and what we are is so powerful, so overwhelming, one could argue that if there is no God then we will create one. Then we will be satisfied. Or will we? We do at times talk as though we are not satisfied with our supernatural God, who does things that cause us pain. So what are we, who both create a God and then dislike His behavior? We look much like those ancient Greeks who told stories of Zeus and Hera, Hercules and Persephone, lovers and warriors, gods who were vain and jealous, angry and bumbling, who made horrible mistakes and who brought about the complex and surprising configuration of the real world, done here below, where we sometimes have control, but often have none. The psychologists tells us that we invent explanations for our own behavior in an effort to be at peace with who we are. Then it is consistent with psychological science -- science -- that we would each seek and find the explanation of who and what we are that looks like truth to us, or that feels like truth to us. All we have to do in order to succeed is use our religious beliefs to serve ourselves and our own story, and not make them into a hammer to bang upon our neighbor's head. The most important bang is not the Big Bang, but the little bang of violence we make when we impose on others with our evangelistic impulses. Religion is good when taken as one's own chosen diet of truth. It can be safely shared with courtesy and mutual respect. Religion is bad when it is used like a weapon, like a meal prepared in a state of bitterness and anger and when one's only purpose is to force another person to swallow it.
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