Philosophy, Religion, science  Comments Off on Supernatural
Jul 302016


I ended my last post by promising to talk about what is natural and what is supernatural. To start I should look at the general terms “nature” and “natural” because they get used in many different ways. What does it mean, for example, when a product is listed as containing “all natural” ingredients? Anthropologists could weigh in here. Claude Lévi-Strauss, for example, built a whole career on arguing that humans the world over distinguish between what is natural and what is cultural because humans ARE, in fact, part of nature, but don’t want to accept the fact. So . . . humans general say that what is “natural” is non-human, and what is “cultural” is human – or words to that effect. It’s a bit simplistic but gets to the root of the issue. Humans do everything possible to alter the world they live in to put their stamp on it saying “THIS BIT IS NOT NATURAL.” The essence of human intervention is the imposition of deliberate order that is recognizable and labeled – in some way or other – “not part of nature.” So, for example, humans cook their food and plan meals at certain times, rather than just grabbing something and eating it raw when they feel like it. Gorging when you feel like it leaves you open to being called a “pig” (i.e. not human). I know, I know, it’s all too simplistic – I’m trying to make a point quickly.

In English we use the word “artificial” to distinguish between things humans produce and things that nature produces. So honey is a natural sweetener, but aspartame is an artificial one. What’s the difference? Not as much as you might think. Humans manufacture aspartame from raw ingredients, and bees manufacture honey from raw ingredients. The main difference is that bees are not human. Bees build hives, have communities, communicate, and so forth, and all of that is natural, whereas humans build apartment complexes, live in towns, and whatnot, and somehow it’s not the same as what bees (or ants) do. Humans are pathological about separating themselves from nature. Ask a person who their favorite mammal is, and chances are they won’t say their mother. Humans are mammals, but we skirt around that fact. Large swathes of the U.S. population want to deny human evolution because the idea that we are part of the animal kingdom is abhorrent to them.

In the long run, however, there is a larger issue. Whether you accept or reject the conclusions of science, nature is the province of science, and what constitutes nature is the key issue here. Science takes as its purview everything in the universe that can be perceived, measured, and tested. Mostly that means tangible, concrete stuff ranging from sub-atomic particles to galaxies, but can take under its umbrella the intangible such as dreams and thoughts as long as they are handled in a certain way. The fringes of science can get a bit murky. My subject – anthropology – comes under a fair amount of criticism from the “hard” sciences, for example, because it doesn’t do enough in the way of measuring, theorizing, and predicting to suit “real” scientists. It’s all right. I’m fairly thick skinned about such criticism. But there’s something else going on. A lot of social scientists hide behind the notion that the social sciences are too complex to be made properly “scientific.” There are too many variables and they are difficult, if not outright impossible, to control for. When social scientists do study human behavior under controlled conditions, as in experimental psychology, the results are often extremely contentious. This is largely because human behavior is inherently complex – vastly more so than the movement of sub-atomic particles (which is quite complex enough). Isolating the variables in human behavior is next to impossible. But there’s more to it than that. Some people – myself included – believe that there are aspects of the world that are outside the realm of science completely and cannot be examined using the same tools. For the sake of simplicity I’ll use the term “supernatural,” that is, “outside [super] nature.”

This point gets us into difficult territory. A lot of people who call themselves “atheists” just flat out deny the existence of the supernatural. My suspicion is that their denial comes primarily from not having thought about the matter enough. Many descriptions of God are pretty dopey, but you don’t have to reject the notion of God completely just because common descriptions are infantile. A lot of people do though.

It’s also quite common to simply ignore things you don’t understand, or that don’t fit your worldview. It’s well known in neuropsychology that people can quite literally fail to see things that they believe should not exist. Our sensory mechanisms are strongly controlled by the ways our brains work. For example, there ought to be a blank spot in our vision caused by the insensitive area of the retina where the optic nerve and blood vessels attach (the blind spot), but there isn’t. Our brains just compensate for the gap in our retinas by filling in what’s missing. Our brains do a lot of “filling in” which we mostly don’t notice. This makes the idea of “seeing is believing” a bit fuzzy at best. Actually it knocks it flat on its face. “You see what you want to see” is a lot closer.

All right, science believes in independent observation and verification to get around this kind of observer bias. That’s all well and good, but it has its limits. Certainly if you get odd (i.e. unexpected) results from an experiment you do it again, or, better yet, you get someone else to do it again to check your results. If anomalies keep showing up, they get put into the “don’t know” file until a better scientific theory comes along which explains them. Maybe. What if some of these “anomalies” cannot be explained because they exist outside the realm of science – that is, they are not part of the natural world? The hard-boiled atheist/realist won’t buy that line of reasoning. For that person, if science cannot prove the existence of something, it does not exist. That’s a pretty weak stance. Can science prove the existence of beauty? How far is science along in probing its mysteries? Or those of love?

Of course you can say that love and beauty don’t really exist, they are just words – socially constructed categories that humans invented. For things that don’t really exist we sure use the words an awful lot. Rotsa ruck explaining to an artist that beauty does not exist. Just because we cannot define or measure something directly does not mean that it does not exist. Nor can we assert that just because only some people perceive something, it does not exist. That’s obvious nonsense. It’s difficult for us to perceive things our brains are not already wired for, so it’s perfectly possible for things to exist that the majority ignore. The dilemma comes down to a matter of who you want to believe. Paul says that he spoke to dozens of people who saw the resurrected Jesus. Did they really see him, or were they deluded? There’s no chance to check now, of course, but we can look at analogous events.

I dealt with this problem a little when I spoke about miracles: Lots of people have witnessed strange things that cannot be explained. Do we believe them? Sometimes people report it raining meat or fish, for example. Most people on hearing of such an event try to conjure up a natural explanation (even though it’s a bit odd). But some things just don’t admit of a natural explanation beyond arguing that the observers are delusional.

Let me propose an hypothesis. What if angels exist but they are not natural; they are supernatural? Furthermore, what if angels cannot be perceived by people who do not believe in them (i.e. not part of their worldview)? By the same token, they cannot be detected by physical means such as cameras. What then? There is no scientific test for the existence of angels under such circumstances. Do they exist or not? Going back to my last post – does God exist? There is no scientific proof one way or the other. An atheist is relying as much on faith as a believer.

I believe in God, not because there is proof, but because an awful lot of people in different places and at different times have had experiences that overlap with one another, and overlap with my experience and my thinking. I can entertain the idea that we are all delusional, and that nothing exists outside of the natural, scientific world. But at the very least that’s an awfully dull way to live.

To be continued . . .





 Philosophy, Religion, Spirituality  Comments Off on God
Jul 222016


The subject title “God” is slightly misleading because I’m not going to ramble on too long about what God is. The simple answer is that I don’t know and I am not willing to fake it with a fog of words. Rather, I want to talk about the ways in which different traditions have depicted God and what I do and don’t like about these depictions. I will get to definitions at the end, though.

To begin, I’d describe myself as a weak monotheist. I’m not a polytheist in the classical Greek tradition, for example. The stories are certainly entertaining and occasionally embody bits of wisdom. The poetry about them can reach majestic heights also. But their grip on reality is pretty slight. Sorry folks – Venus and Cupid don’t exist. However, while the existence of multiple deities making up whole families or even cultures seems silly to me, the idea that there is more than one “thing” in the universe that is beyond or outside of our current naturalistic ways of thinking does not. This brings me to the Bible and a couple of preliminary points.

At various points in the Bible, primarily the Hebrew part, there is mention of various supernatural beings – angels, demons, spirits, and so forth. The book of Job opens with a court scene attended by God, the sons of God, and the Satan. Who are all these beings? Who are the sons of God? Are they angels? Scholars spend a lot of their time on such matters. What are angels anyway? The word “angel” comes from Greek and generally means “messenger.” The Hebrew word “mal’akh” can be used in much the same way, and is often translated as “angel.” In the older languages such messengers can be human or supernatural, but in English “angel” generally refers to a divine being who acts in some capacity as intermediary between God and humans.

Here’s the thing. Why does God need messengers at all? God is supposed to be all powerful, omnipresent, etc. etc. – so if you’ve got something to tell me, just say it. Leave the messengers at home. Here we come smack up against the problem with sacred stories. Unless you checked in your intelligence at the door when you start reading these stories, you have to see that their images of God mirror the cultural and political realities of the writers. People who lived in vast powerful empires, depicted God as an emperor on a cosmic scale. Emperors have messengers, so God must have them too. You can’t fault the authors for this; they were using the materials they had at hand. But we don’t have to accept the stories at face value. A lot of people do, however, and therein lies a huge problem.

Our religious beliefs can easily be swayed by our upbringing. The stories are narrow enough as it is, but our teachers can easily make them narrower for us. My Presbyterian background was run-of-the-mill mundane when it comes to talking about God. Prayers, sermons, and Sunday School classes were all well intentioned, I am sure, but God came off looking like cosmic super-dad. Oxford, where I studied theology, was not much better – just a bit smarter, and we really didn’t talk about God directly, only about what theologians historically had thought. Actually, in the second term of my first year we came close when we analyzed the main Christian creeds, chiefly the Apostles’ Creed. At the time I largely blew off this study because it was heavily Anglican and my upbringing as a non-conformist had turned me against creeds in general. So the question, “What does ‘I believe in God’ mean?” Fell on deaf ears. By my second year I had rejected Christianity entirely, and so spent the years until my finals learning stuff by rote without thinking about it. I did learn that early Church Fathers battled about whether God was immanent or transcendent – that is, is God all pervasive in the world, or above it all looking on? I learned about Gnostics and Arians and Manicheans with their various philosophies of the divine, the Trinity, the Christological problem (how can Jesus be fully human and fully divine?), and a host of other debates that I learned about for exams but otherwise tucked away.

It’s hard to break free of beliefs about God that are rooted in childhood. Most people either accept them as is, or reject them and call themselves atheists. I find that flavor of “atheism” absurd but I come across it all the time. Richard Dawkins could be the poster boy. He rejects the notion of God outright without bothering to investigate what God might be. He assumes that the common descriptions that he hears about God is all there is to the story. What incredible closed mindedness.

I don’t buy the common descriptions of God either. Most of the Biblical images are ludicrous, and clearly come from cultures whose beliefs were outmoded centuries ago. Who in their right mind thinks that the sky is a giant transparent dome with water above it, and windows in it that God opens when he wants it to rain? It’s complete nonsense, yet that’s what Genesis says. It fits what the writers believed. Without question you can throw out rafts of stuff in the Bible about God, yet in doing so you do not have to reject the notion that God exists. You have to rethink your notion of what God is.

So what is God? I told you – I don’t know. I’m pretty sure of what God is not – not male or female for starters (which is why I assiduously avoid pronouns); not an old guy in the sky sitting on a throne and making things work; not my friend in any conventional sense; not human in any respect. Somehow we have to break free of our limited vision, but how? I’d say that a good starting point is the cross-cultural study of religion. It’s not that I think that Buddhism or Jainism or Hinduism or whatever has a better view of God; they have a different one. Maybe when you put all the visions together you can build a better picture.

Imagine you have put an elephant in a dark room and you have assembled a group of people from different cultures speaking different languages, none of whom have ever encountered elephants or heard anything about them. You let them each in to the room one at time for a brief moment, or for some of them you allow only a glimpse through a narrow window. Then you ask them to write down or draw what they experienced. What do you expect you’d get out of the exercise? Certainly not a clear and consistent picture of what an elephant is. You’d be an idiot to trust one person alone, building a whole narrative from one person who got to touch a foot for 5 seconds and hear some heavy breathing. Even if you put all the stories and pictures together you’re still not going to come up with something very accurate.

That’s just an elephant in a room. It’s physical and related to other animals that we know even if we don’t know about elephants. Now think about the problems that physicists have describing everyday sub-atomic particles such as electrons or photons, never mind the really weird ones like the Higgs boson. We can detect them because they leave traces when we do certain things, but we certainly can’t see them. Yet we know they exist.

Now let’s turn to God. God, by definition, is not natural, so now we’re not talking about elephants or electrons. We’re talking about something beyond the bounds of physical description. Furthermore, unlike elephants and electrons, we’ve got nothing to compare God to – all powerful, ever present, all knowing and whatnot. On the face of it that definition is good reason to assert that such an entity does not exist. I agree: it’s not a useful characterization. The infinite is a useful “quantity” in pure mathematics, but it’s highly debatable that such a quantity can or could exist in the physical world. The universe is certainly big, but far from infinite. How then can anyone assert that God has infinite qualities? It makes no sense. That may lead us to a solution (of sorts).

In the case of God the terms “all knowing” “infinite” etc. are just metaphors. They are using natural terms to describe the supernatural and so are obviously going to fail. That then leads to the allied questions, “what is natural?” and “what is supernatural?”


Stay tuned . . .

To Be

 Philosophy  Comments Off on To Be
Jul 142016


“To be or not to be” is certainly one of the best known, and least understood, quotes in the English language. It has its many parodies too. At the end of my first year of high school in South Australia all the students were selected for one of several streams: 2A (smart kids bound for university), 2B (trade skills for boys), 2C (commercial skills for girls), 2D (the rest). For a week or so there was some tension at the school because the selection of your stream determined your future. To ease the tension some boys went round chanting “2B or not 2B.” Very funny. Hamlet’s dilemma is much more deathless. He’s using “to be” in its meaning of “to exist.” He’s asking, should I exist or not? In other words, should I kill myself? After that question he maunders on for a while without reaching a conclusion. I suppose that’s the poet’s (and philosopher’s) prerogative. My goal is a trifle simpler: I want to look at the verb “to be” and then circle back around to thinking about existence.

The verb “to be” was never much of a puzzle to me until I started learning languages other than English. French showed me that the irregularities of the verb were not confined to English. Its irregularities in English are certainly startling – never mind “am” “are” “is,” what about “art” “wert” “wast” etc.? Not a problem. French has much the same oddities, but mostly follows similar rules. Then you get to Spanish and things get murkier. Spanish has two verbs “to be” – ser and estar. To decide which one to use in any particular case you have to decide whether you are dealing with a permanent essence or a temporary state. So . . . “soy [ser] profesor” means “I am a teacher” and that state is permanent even though at the moment I am shaving. If I say “estoy [estar] enfermo” it means I am sick right now, but expect to get better. If, instead, I say “soy enfermo” it means that I am chronically sick.

All told there are 105 inflections of “to be” in Spanish with enormous subtlety of meaning. Compare this with Chinese where “to be” [是] has only one inflection and it is often omitted. To link nouns you use it — 他是个老师 (He IS a teacher), but to link a noun and an adjective you omit it 他病了(He sick). Some languages such as Hebrew, Indonesian, and Arabic rarely use the verb, and when they do it has complex meanings. In the famous passage in Exodus 3:14 in which God gives his name as אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה (ehyeh asher ehyeh), the verb ehyeh is commonly translated as “I am that I am” but could just as easily be “I shall be what I shall be” or “I shall be what I am” or “I will become what I choose to become” and so forth. All these meanings and more are latent in the Hebrew.

As I was tramping the Alps in Slovenia and Austria last week I was pondering all this stuff because I have studied French, Spanish, Hebrew, Chinese, and Indonesian, and sometimes I find it useful to get lost in my abstract thoughts as I try to negotiate (i.e. ignore) physical challenges. Furthermore, I’ve struggled for the past 6 months with Italian because I live in Mantua, but at that moment I was trying to cope with Slovene and German in simple, but necessary, transactions on a day-to-day basis.

When you have to use languages for more than simple expressions or questions, you quickly realize that word-for-word translations don’t get you very far. Sure, going from English to French or Italian can work fairly well in this regard as long as your thoughts are not complicated, but English to Chinese or Arabic barely makes it out of the starting gate if you just translate words. Nine times out of ten you end up with nonsense. The more I tramped the mountains with sore feet, the more I thought about “to be” and existence in general. The old Whorfian hypothesis came to mind – do people who speak different languages think differently? Most importantly, does your use of the verb “to be” color the way you think about the nature of existence?

There’s no simple answer to those questions, and I won’t trouble you with my endless ponderings. Instead I’ll return to Hamlet, because that’s where I got to eventually. Hamlet is at a crossroads. He’s asking the foundational question – should I just kill myself and get the pain over with or should I fight on? Does my life matter? Can I make a difference? We’ve probably all asked those questions of ourselves from time to time. The answers are potentially infinite. For me the question came down to “What is a life?” What happens to the whole kaleidoscope of my thoughts, dreams, memories, and actions when I am gone?

In the grand scheme of things the answer is trivial. I am a tiny speck in time and space within a gigantic universe, billions of light years across and billions of years old. I am nothing by comparison. But I am important to ME. Of course that’s classic ego-centrism. I understand. It fuels an impulse in me to say “I AM HERE. I MATTER.” That’s probably why I write.