Religion: the Next Version
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Mark F. Sharlow

Fri, 06 Nov 2009

The Crossroads of Logic and Poetry: Toward a Rational Version of Religion

At the beginning of this blog, in a post called "The Guts of Religion," I pointed out three ideas that are basic to a religious outlook:

  • The universe is meaningful.
  • There is a supreme spiritual reality or supreme being of some sort.
  • We are not just our bodies.

In later posts I examined each of these ideas.

In the post called "Introducing a New Version of God," I showed that the existence of a supreme spiritual reality, or supreme being if you prefer those words, is consistent with science and with rational thought. I gave a link to a document titled God: the Next Version, in which I proposed a rational model of such a being. A supreme being or reality of this kind can exist even if there is nothing supernatural. You don't need to have any faith to conclude that this being exists. All you need is a certain understanding of existence and of values.

This supreme spiritual reality is different from the humanlike God concept taught by many religions. However, this "new" version of God is more than a pantheistic name for the physical universe. The supreme being proposed here is not a humanoid god, but it also is not just the sum of all physical objects. This supreme being has mindlike features that make it more like a "someone" than a mere "something." This being also lies at the root of all real values. We can learn about this being by contemplating values like goodness and beauty.

In the posts titled "The New Face of Spirit: Part One" and "The New Face of Spirit: Part Two," I pointed out two ways in which a person transcends the matter of the body. In the first of these posts I showed that the mind and self are more than just the brain, even if these are features of the brain as science suggests they are. In the second post I argued that the human organism is more than just the matter that makes it up - not because of any supernatural add-ons, but because of a general logical fact about material objects and their parts. (I did not address the question of the afterlife in those posts. I did that later on my other blog.)

In the post titled "The Meaning and Beauty of the Universe," I argued that it is more rational to think of the meaning in life as objectively real instead of as merely imaginary or illusory. The universe is a truly meaningful place, regardless of any differences in people's personal feelings about meaning. Also, the universe is a place in which real beauty exists. Beauty is not just in our imaginations; it is an objectively real feature of the world. Among other consequences, the objective reality of beauty implies that the arts can reveal genuine truths about the world.

All three of the religious ideas described in the first post have rational support. We got this result without ever relying on faith. The basic truths of religion are rationally credible. You can accept these basic truths without accepting anything on faith and without believing in anything supernatural. These basic spiritual truths are philosophical rather than scientific, but all of them are compatible with scientific fact and theory. These three spiritual truths can be true in a purely natural universe because they refer, not just to physical objects, but to certain properties and relationships that exist within the natural world.

The ideas I have presented here form a philosophical viewpoint that is both rational and spiritual. Is this viewpoint really religious? Some atheists and theologians might claim that this view is not religious because it does not involve faith or the supernatural. We could just as well label this view "spiritual but not religious." Those who are sensitive to the evils done in the name of religion might prefer to avoid the term "religious" altogether. However, we should remember that religion, no matter how idiotic people sometimes make it, contains a core of sensible spiritual ideas. Thoughtful believers can (and usually do) separate these sensible ideas from all the nonsense that fanatics proclaim in the name of religion. In addition to these true ideas, there are other religious beliefs that are false or questionable if understood simplistically, but true if given a more liberal interpretation. (For examples, see God: the Next Version.) To acknowledge the basic underlying truth of religion, I will continue using the term "religious" for the spiritual viewpoint developed here - though simply calling it "spiritual" might be less controversial.

Compared to familiar forms of religion, this rational approach might seem too dry and intellectual. Does our new viewpoint strip religion of its emotional value? It does not. The new version of religion is not only rational, but also keenly poetical. In God: the Next Version I pointed out that we can know the supreme reality through experiences of transcendent beauty. These incandescent experiences, often inspired by nature or by human love, can lead to awareness of the supreme spiritual reality. Such experiences can reveal the supreme reality to us whether or not we realize that they do. Indeed, the poetically inspired observer who experiences nature or a beloved person as somehow divine may be noticing an authentic fact. Despite the visionary character of these experiences, there is nothing supernatural or antirational about them. (If you find the last two sentences hard to believe, read God: the Next Version carefully.) This type of religion is not short on emotional value! It is a philosophy for poets and scientists alike.

When I started this blog, I planned to present an alternative approach to religion - an approach based on reason instead of faith. Now I have finished that task. The fact that such an approach is possible shows that religion, in and by itself, is not the enemy of reason. Religious sects can be quite antirational; some of them have made a mess of human history. However, this does not change the fact that some of the fundamental ideas of religion are rational.

The specific approach to rational religion presented here might not be the last word or the only possible approach. However, the fact that we can formulate such an approach at all shows that we should not discard all religion as irrational. The dogmatic religions of today contain many errors, but the essence of religion is compatible with reason.

Given the bloody history of many religions, it is clear that the human race needs to be more thoughtful in its attempts to answer the ultimate questions. However, if we abandoned religion entirely (as many noisy atheist authors tell us to do), we would be throwing out the baby with the bathwater. The human race cannot afford to lose the essential truths behind religion. These truths are important because they support the view that the human individual matters. They point out that human nature has a spiritual side, and that this spiritual side is related to a supreme spiritual reality. The essential truths of religion remind us that a person is more than just a disposable lump of chemicals or an insignificant speck of matter in the universe. That is an important fact to remember in these times of genocide and oppression, when persons often are treated as mere material things. "Scientific" materialism (which actually is not scientific) is much like religious fanaticism; both of these ideologies deny the significance of the person. A truly religious outlook supports the importance and dignity of the person. The modern authors who attack all religion are undermining human dignity. Even if those authors consider themselves humanists, their message is profoundly antihuman.

The right answer to religion's mistakes is not the rejection of religion, but the quest for a rational religious philosophy. We need to cleanse religion of its errors instead of giving up on the human spirit.

This post completes what I wanted to say in this blog. Although I can't absolutely rule out the possibility that I will write more here, I plan to do my future religious blogging on my main blog, The Unfinishable Scroll. I've already written a lot about religion on that blog. If you want more detail on the topics discussed here, The Unfinishable Scroll would be a good place to start your search.

posted at: 01:46 | path: /general | persistent link to this entry

Thu, 05 Nov 2009

The Meaning and Beauty of the Universe

In my first post to this blog I pointed out three ideas basic to a religious outlook. In later posts (here, here and here) I discussed and evaluated two of these ideas. In this post I will turn to the third idea: the view that existence is meaningful.

People often find that their lives, and the events happening in their lives, have meaning. I'm not talking about the kind of "meaning" that words or pictures have when they refer to something or convey a message. I'm talking about a completely different kind of "meaning" - the kind that people might have in mind when they say "a meaningful experience" or "a meaningful relationship." With this kind of meaning, to be meaningful is to matter - to be significant. We feel that some events, deeds and situations matter, for better or for worse. What is more, people normally feel that this meaning is real and not just imaginary. We feel that there are things that don't just matter in our opinion; instead, some things really do matter. People often disagree over the details of meaning; different individuals can have different insights about what is meaningful and to what degree. However, these differences of detail do not change the fact that people perceive meaning - just as the differences in what people see and hear in the physical world do not change the fact that people perceive a physical world. Despite all the differences of detail, the awareness of meaning is a universal human experience. Meaning is a property, or at least an apparent property, of things and events in the world.

The universal human insight that some features of life are meaningful disagrees with the so-called "scientific" view that people, and other things in the universe, are meaningless hunks of matter. This so-called scientific view isn't the least bit scientific. Science can't disprove the reality of meaning, because science can't make any judgments of meaning at all. When skeptics call the denial of meaning scientific, they are practicing pseudoscience. However, the very existence of this skeptical view leads us to an important set of questions. Is the meaning we find in our world real? Is this important property of the world merely an illusion of our minds, or is it at least sometimes a real feature of the world?

To begin answering this question I will quote from my ebook Poetry's Secret Truth. The following two excerpts from the book are about subjective feelings and beauty as recorded in poetry. However, we can apply these same ideas to the perception of meaning in life - another supposedly "subjective" experience.

An advance warning about these quotes: When I mention modern physics in these excerpts, I am not claiming that physics says anything about beauty or the value of poetry. I am only mentioning physics to set up a useful analogy about beauty and subjective experience. I give this warning because self-appointed skeptics are likely to pounce on these excerpts and write something like "Sharlow thinks poetry is based on the theory of relativity ha ha ha ha ha." I do not think this. Any skeptic who claims that I do is being careless, dishonest, or both.

Now for the two excerpts. (Note: The term "subjective fact" here refers to a fact that is purely about how things seem. I deal with subjective facts in detail in one of my other books.)



[from Poetry's Secret Truth, pp. 2-3:]


The subjective facts that poetry can evoke are inner facts of sensation, feeling, and perception. These facts can encompass a wide spectrum of contents, ranging from familiar emotions (happiness, longing, concern) and sensations (colors, sounds, scents), to content of a far subtler and more enigmatic sort. These subtler contents include such things as the elusive, almost indescribable sensations that fill one's awareness when one encounters a flowering apple tree in spring.

Anyone who has fully and deeply experienced an apple tree in full flower in a rolling, rustling spring meadow will know what I mean by this.

Anyone who has become fully aware of the mysterious looming of the clouds in the hours before rain, or of the charged, green freshness after the rain, or of the almost audible silence of some warm summer afternoons, will know whereof I speak.



[from Poetry's Secret Truth, pp. 6-7:]


Another, related, philosophical problem is the question of whether the subjective facts can be said to be facts about the external world at all. Think about the flowering apple tree again. Don't the subjective facts evoked by the tree come from processes in the observer's mind or brain, instead of from anything in the apple tree? My answer to this question is twofold. First, the existence of subjective facts does indeed depend upon the state and presence of the observer. Second, the subjective facts are not just features of the observer's mind or brain. They are real features of the observer plus the object being observed. The whole system, observer plus object (in other words, you plus apple tree), is the source or seat of the subjective fact. The experience is an experience of the object, not only an experience in the observer.

Subjective facts are not "only in the mind." They are characteristics of the observer-object couple. They are relative, but only in the same way that certain measurable features of the physical world are relative. According to modern physics, the size and mass of an object depend upon the state of the observer (specifically, the observer's state of motion) as well as upon properties of the object in itself. But this relativity of size and mass does not mean that an object's size and mass are unreal or are "all in the mind." Subjective facts, like facts of size and mass, are simply relative to the state of the observer. However, in the case of subjective facts, it is the observer's state of mind, not state of motion, which matters. In spite of their dependence on the observer's mental state, the subjective facts about the apple tree are every bit as real - or as unreal - as the tree's size or mass.

This relativity of subjective facts also encompasses what happens when people experience very different things during encounters with the same object. A particular scene may seem happy to one person, sad to another - perhaps due to the observers' past experiences, mental associations, and the like. This only means that the subjective facts depend on the state of the observer as well as upon the state of the object. It does not mean that the subjective facts are unreal.

One can think of the many possible subjective appearances of an object as possibilities inherent in the object* - all of them equally real features of the object, or perhaps of the world. Some possibilities may be more crucial, or more important to our understanding, than others. Yet all of the possibilities are there, and all of them are parts of reality. (Philosophers belonging to the school of thought called phenomenology have argued that we should take into account the multiple possible ways of perceiving things. What I am proposing is different, with a different range of possibilities, and involves something more - an additional element or factor.)


[end of excerpts from Poetry's Secret Truth]



What does all this amount to? It suggests that our subjective experiences of the world, such as experiences of beauty and of the felt qualities of nature, reveal genuine objective facts. Which objective facts? Facts about the whole, or couple, made up of the experiencing observer and the object of the experience.

Think of it this way. The beauty of an apple tree on a spring day might seem to be merely "in the eye of the beholder." Not everyone who observes the tree will experience this beauty; those who do experience it will not all experience it in the same way. However, when you observe the tree at a particular moment, the fact that you find the tree beautiful in that particular moment is an objective fact. It is a fact that science cannot dismiss.

When other observers encounter the tree, they might experience the beauty of the tree in other ways. Some might not even experience the beauty at all. However, the fact that the tree seems just this way to a particular observer at a particular moment is an objective fact.

The beauty of the tree, and other "subjective" properties of the tree, can just as well be called objective properties of the tree. These properties depend on the state of the observer, but this does not mean that these properties are imaginary or are only "in the eye of the beholder." To explain this distinction, I have used an analogy from the special theory of relativity in physics. Now I am going to expand on this analogy. Needless to say, relativity theory is not a theory about beauty or aesthetic properties. However, relativity theory provides some excellent examples of properties that are real but that still depend on the state of the observer.

According to the special theory of relativity, certain measured properties of an object, like length and mass, have different values for different observers. These properties depend on the way the observer is moving relative to the object. An object's measured length and mass are observer-dependent properties of the object. They depend on the observer's state. However, these properties are objectively real; they are not illusions and are not only in the mind. Clearly, an object's mass and size are not only "in the eye of the beholder"! These are real physical properties - but unlike some other properties, they depend on the state of the observer. Relativity theory makes it clear that objects can have properties that are real, yet observer-dependent. There is nothing illogical about this. The length and mass of an object depend on the state of motion of the observer; that state of motion is only one part of the overall physical state of the observer.

Stepping outside theoretical physics for a moment and into the world of art, we find that the beauty of an object is a property that depends on the state of the observer's brain. This dependence on the observer's state is what leads people to claim that beauty is only subjective or "in the eye of the beholder." However, the state of an observer's brain is objectively real. The neural state of an observer, like the observer's state of motion, is part of the observer's overall physical state. An observer's brain state is a real part of the state of that observer. So why do we say that beauty is only subjective while we call mass and length objective? All of these properties depend on the physical state of the observer. Why do we call mass and length "objective" even though they depend on the observer's physical state, while we call beauty "subjective" or even "unreal" just because it depends on the observer's physical state? There is no good reason for this difference in treatment. Of course, someone might try to escape this conclusion by assuming that the observer's brain state is not really part of the state of the observer. However, this assumption doesn't make much sense, no matter what views one holds on the nature of mind.

If we think of the beauty of an object as a function of the observer-object couple (the whole composed of object plus observer), we find that beauty is an objective property of this couple. If Harry finds the Mona Lisa beautiful at a particular time, then it is a fact that Harry finds the Mona Lisa beautiful at that particular time. Someone might want to argue about whether the Mona Lisa really is beautiful, but it still is a fact that the Mona Lisa seemed beautiful to Harry at that moment. The fact that the painting seemed that way to Harry is simply true. It is a fact that depends on the state of Harry's brain, but still it is true - regardless of whether we want to consider Harry's judgment right, wrong, or purely subjective.

Perceptions of beauty cannot be mere illusions of the mind. Even if our minds create these perceptions, the perceptions still reflect facts about the real world. Thus, experiences of beauty reveal real truths about the world. The first truth we discover this way is the fact that there really is some beauty in the world. This is a fact even though beauty is an observer-dependent property.

If two observers have incompatible feelings about what is beautiful, both observers can be right. The difference is simply a matter of state dependence.

For those who are interested, I explored this line of argument in an ebook (now freely available) called The Unfinishable Book. Download this ebook and read Talk 12, titled "Art, Imagination and Truth."

The argument I have presented here is about beauty, not meaning. However, it is easy to make the same argument about meaning instead of beauty. If you modify the argument this way, you end up with a rational argument for the objective reality of meaning. Meaning, like beauty, is an observer-dependent property. (Indeed, meaning is intimately related to beauty; experiences of great beauty are prime examples of meaningful experiences.) If you perceive meaning in the world, then that meaning really exists in the world - even if an observer in a different mental state would perceive the meaning differently. Meaning can be understood as an observer-dependent property of physical objects, events and situations, and as a function of the observer-object couple. Despite these dependencies, meaning is objectively real.

The meaning in life really exists. It is real, but it is perceived differently by observers in different mental states. If two observers disagree about whether something is meaningful, this doesn't imply that the meaning is unreal. It simply illustrates the fact that meaning is observer-dependent. Just as with beauty, it is possible to have partial and incomplete perceptions of meaning - but meaning itself is real.

Now we have rational support for the third basic idea of religion: the existence of real meaning in the world. If we find meaning in the universe, then there really is meaning in the universe. Even if meaning is "in the eye of the beholder," it still is part of objective reality. The universe is a truly meaningful place.





* The asterisk in the second Poetry's Secret Truth excerpt pointed to an endnote in the ebook. The note said: "The possibilities I have in mind here may include, but are not restricted to, the imaginative possibilities noted by Kilby (pp. 57-59)." The reference is to Clyde S. Kilby, Poetry and Life (reprint ed.; Plainview, NY: Books for Libraries Press, 1975).

posted at: 00:06 | path: /meaning | persistent link to this entry

Mon, 27 Apr 2009

Introducing a New Version of God

One of the most basic teachings of religion is the idea that there is a supreme spiritual reality of some sort. Some religions depict this supreme reality as a person and call it God. Others think of it in impersonal ways, using concepts like Tao, Brahman or the Void. Either way, religions usually portray the supreme reality as spiritual instead of as merely physical. This can mean that the supreme reality is purely spiritual, or that it is physical but also spiritual, or that it is the common ground of matter and spirit.

These religious ideas of the supreme reality are different from the nonreligious view of matter as the ultimate reality. Even a committed atheist can believe there is an ultimate reality if this reality is just matter itself. The supreme being or reality known to religious thought is not like this. It is not merely matter, but has mental or spiritual aspects. Some religions depict it as impersonal, but even if it is not a person it is more like a "someone" than a mere "something." What is more, the supreme being is thought to play an important role in our spiritual and moral lives. In most religions with a personal God, the supreme being creates the laws that govern human morality. In most religions without a personal God, the quest to understand the supreme reality brings enlightenment and wisdom. According to some religious teachings, the effort to create a better world brings us closer, in some sense, to the supreme being.

Is there a supreme being? The question is not simple. Despite what some atheists have claimed, the existence of a supreme being is not a question that science alone can settle. Some ideas of the supreme being may be scientifically testable, but others are not. Two random examples that come to mind are the God concepts of the philosophers G. H. Howison and Charles Hartshorne. Both views of God are scientifically untestable, but both depict a real God who is not just matter. Philosophy, and not science, is the right subject for studying these other ideas of God.

Do you have to abandon reason to think there is a supreme being? No. Philosophers have developed several alternative ideas of God based on reason instead of faith. (Again, Howison and Hartshorne come to mind as examples, but there are many others: Hegel, Aristotle, Leibniz, and so forth.) These ideas of God may be right or wrong, but at least they are attempts to think rationally about God. You can think rationally about God - and if you do, you don't have to stop believing in God, though your ideas about what God is like may change.

As a starting point for studying God rationally, I'm going to introduce you to an idea of God that is both rational and poetic. According to this idea, God is more than just matter, and God lies at the root of all goodness and beauty in the universe. However, this idea of God contains absolutely nothing that disagrees with science! This idea can be true even if everything in the universe came about through purely natural causes. This idea of the supreme being cannot disagree with evolution, with scientific theories of the origin of the universe, or with anything else that science may discover.

To find out about this alternative idea of God, click here to read a PDF ebook titled God: the Next Version.

posted at: 20:43 | path: /God | persistent link to this entry

Thu, 19 Mar 2009

The New Face of Spirit: Part Two

In Part One of this post I explored a basic idea of religion: that we are more than just our bodies. This idea is true because we have abstract selves that are not the same as our material brains. However, we also differ from the matter of our bodies in another way. We differ from the matter of our bodies because all physical objects differ from their parts.

To explain what I mean by this mysterious statement, I'll explore some facts about diamonds. (What do diamonds have to do with the human spirit? Read on.)

Think about a diamond. According to science, a diamond is composed of carbon atoms arranged in a certain orderly way. A diamond is made of carbon atoms; it has no substance besides the substance of its carbon atoms.

Now ask yourself: Is a diamond really just carbon atoms?

The obvious answer to this question is "yes." After all, a diamond is made of carbon atoms. Take away the carbon atoms and - poof! - there's no diamond left. It seems as if there's nothing to the diamond but carbon atoms.

It seems that way - but is it true?

It isn't easy to find a good answer to this question. To find the answer, we have to think carefully about the relationship between the diamond and the atoms that make it up.

Is the diamond the same thing as any one of its atoms? Obviously not - because the diamond isn't just a single atom.

Is the diamond the same thing as all of its atoms together? This option seems much more reasonable, but still it isn't quite right. If the diamond were somehow identical to all of its atoms, then one thing would be the same thing as many things. If you take this idea literally, it doesn't make much sense: how can one single diamond really be the same as many different atoms? (This is one aspect of the traditional philosophical problem of "the one and the many.") Of course, the diamond will be the same as all of its atoms together if we take this to mean that the diamond is the same as the whole composed of all the atoms. But that isn't an answer. It's just a different way of saying what we already know: that the diamond is made of the atoms.

So can the diamond really be its carbon atoms? The best answer is: Not exactly. The diamond is not identical to the atoms that make it up. The diamond is an object that comes into being when the atoms are placed in the proper arrangement. It's perfectly true that the diamond is composed of these atoms and of nothing else. It's also true that the diamond is the whole made up of the atoms, and that the diamond has no substance besides that of the atoms. However, if we want to say that the diamond is the atoms, we must stop ourselves - for we are saying something that isn't quite true. The diamond is made up of its atoms, but it is not just its atoms. It is a whole of which the atoms are parts - but still, it is something a bit different from the atoms.

If you start with a zillion carbon atoms and then build a diamond, you are starting with a zillion things and ending up with a zillion and one things.[1] You are creating a new thing, even though no new matter is created!

There is nothing mysterious about what I just said. I'm not claiming that the diamond has some mysterious, ghostly thing in it besides its atoms. The diamond is just a whole composed of atoms, with no added parts - natural or supernatural! But in spite of this, the diamond is not just its atoms. There are the atoms. There is the diamond. There is the relationship between diamond and atoms (the diamond is a whole composed of the atoms). But the diamond is not identically the same as the atoms. If you took some loose carbon atoms and built a diamond, you would be creating a new thing - an extra thing that wasn't one of the things you started with. The extra thing is just the diamond itself. The amount of matter would remain exactly the same - but a new object would come to exist.

So what's the point of all this talk about diamonds? What do diamonds have to do with the human spirit?

The point is not just about diamonds. The point is that all material objects work the same way as the diamond. Material objects are not identical to the matter that makes them up. They are made of matter, but it would be a mistake to say that they are just matter. There is something to them besides the matter that makes them up. This "something" is not ghostly or mysterious. The "extra something" is just the fact of the existence of the complete material object - an existence that is not the same as the mere existence of the matter that makes up the object!

Like the diamond, your body is more than the matter that makes it up. Your body - including your brain - has an existence that goes beyond the mere existence of atoms and subatomic particles. This difference of existence is not magic, but is a subtle difference rooted in the logic of whole and part. It is not a property of humans alone, or even of living things alone. All physical objects have this difference. However, for humans the differences between the atoms and the whole system are much more dramatic than for diamonds. The human body has properties that would be unthinkable in the atoms - properties such as self-movement and thinking. Philosophers call these features "emergent properties." Their presence is a sign that your brain is more than the chemical elements that make it up.

There is a school of thought called "holism" that says the whole is more than the sum of the parts. The idea I am presenting here may sound like holism, but it isn't the same. You can believe what I am saying here whether or not you are a holist. Holism, in its common forms, says that the properties of the whole can't be explained in terms of the parts. I'm only claiming that the whole is not the same as the parts. Holists and non-holists alike are welcome to consider this view.

You are not just matter. Even your body - a material object - is not just matter. We live in a world in which wholes are a bit different from their parts. Your brain is no exception!

In Part One of this post I said that you have an abstract self that is not the same as your brain or your body. Now it turns out that your brain and body are not just the matter that make them up. This is a second way in which you are not just matter. Not only are you more than matter, but even your body is more than matter. Once again, there is nothing supernatural about this.

The human mind is more than just matter. Even the human body is more than just matter. You are more than just matter - and you don't have to believe in the supernatural to be that way!

If you want to read more about the ideas in this post, read my ebook God, Son of Quark. There I present detailed arguments about the differences between objects and their parts. (I've presented the ideas informally in this post; the book gives the rigorous arguments and the philosophical details.) The book also contains references to the work of many philosophers who did things related to this idea. If you're curious about all this, read the book. It has an interesting cover too.




[1]  The view of whole and part that I suggested here is essentially the same as what Donald L. M. Baxter called "the Non-Identity view" of whole and part. See Baxter's article "Identity in the Loose and Popular Sense" (Mind, vol. 97 (1988), pp. 575-582).


Links updated after posting

posted at: 22:27 | path: /soul | persistent link to this entry

Thu, 05 Mar 2009

The New Face of Spirit: Part One

One of the most basic ideas of religion is that we are not just our bodies. According to most religious teachings, a human being is not just a physical body, but also has a soul or spirit. The soul or spirit is supposed to be an intangible part of us - a nonphysical "something or other" that makes us more than just hunks of matter or bags of chemicals.

Religions have many different ideas about the soul. Many religions teach that the soul is immortal. According to most Western denominations, the soul is a spiritual entity that inhabits the body. Buddhism offers a different view: that there is no permanent soul, but a person's mental processes (or some aspects of them) can start up again in a new body. Some liberal forms of religious thought hold that the soul is not immortal, but that we still are more than our bodies during this life.

All of these beliefs have a common denominator: we are more than our bodies. The soul, whether immortal or not, is what makes us different from the complex chemical and physical system that is the human body.

Are we really more than our bodies? Science would seem to say no. Scientific findings suggest that the mind and personality depend completely on the brain. Scientists have not found any need for a supernatural soul in their picture of the mind. Science seems to say that we are only hunks of matter.

But has science really debunked the soul? A little thought will show that the answer is no! Science has not proven that we are just our bodies. Instead, science has rejected one particular idea about the soul: that the soul is a supernatural, ghostlike entity that controls the brain and the body. This is not the same as disproving the soul. There are other ideas of the soul that are even better than the ghostly idea. Science cannot disprove these other ideas!

We are more than our bodies in at least two ways. I will discuss one of these ways in this post. I'll leave the other way for a future post.

Here is the first way in which we differ from the matter of our bodies: Human beings contain abstract objects as well as matter.

What are abstract objects? Are they supernatural or ghostly? No! Abstract objects are perfectly natural - but they can be spiritual also.

The following quote from my article "God: the Next Version" explains what abstract objects are.

[From "God: the Next Version"]

Our daily experience shows that there are other kinds of "items" besides concrete material objects. We live in a material world, yet not everything around us is a material thing. Material things are not just vague, featureless things. Instead, all material things have properties, or (as I will call them here) qualities.

What are some examples of qualities? All red objects have the quality of redness. All triangular objects have the quality of being triangular (which we also could call the quality of triangularity). All hard things have the quality of hardness. All liquids have the quality of liquidity.

Redness, triangularity, hardness, and liquidity are examples of qualities. They are not things - they are the qualities of things. There are red things in the world - but there also is a quality, redness, that these things have in common.

Qualities are examples of abstract objects. They are not things, but are found in things. Usually they are features of things. The mind can pick them out by examining many similar things and recognizing something in common. [...]

Other examples of abstract objects are relations. These are features that connect together more than one thing. For example, one mountain may be taller than another. The relation of being taller than connects together two physical things. Being taller than is not just a quality that one thing can have. It is a relation that can connect two things. A more familiar example of a relation is friendship. This is a relation that holds between any two people who are friends of each other.

For still other examples of abstract objects, we can look at patterns. The posts in a wooden fence form a definite, repeating pattern. Once your mind has recognized this pattern, you can notice it in fences anywhere. If you do digital photography, you probably know about the "Moiré patterns" that appear in some photos. These are patterns made of straight or curved bars of dark and light. A computer program also is a pattern - a pattern of bits of information, which can be found in any processor that is running the program.

Patterns, qualities, and relations are important to our reasoning and our experience. We find patterns, qualities, and relationships in the world around us. We did not invent them; they really are there. Yet these items do not "exist" in the same way that a physical object exists. They are not things at all. They are abstract objects.

At this point, you may be asking an important question: Do abstract objects really exist? Philosophers have been asking this question for thousands of years. They have developed several possible answers: that abstract objects really exist, that they don't really exist, that only some kinds of them exist, and so forth. Despite its popularity, I think this question is a fooler! The answer depends on whether "exist" means "exist in the same way that material things exist." Abstract objects are not things - they do not exist the same way that things exist. However, they are true components of reality. Things really do have properties. People really do form relationships. Patterns really do show up - sometimes in the most surprising places. The problem isn't that these items don't exist, but that they don't exist as things. A property, relation or pattern is not a thing. It's just a property, a relation, or a pattern - nothing more. But that can be a lot!

Here are two quotes, from my earlier work, about the reality of abstract objects. (One of these is from a blog post named "Spirit without the Supernatural" that first appeared on my other blog, The Unfinishable Scroll.)

[From "God: the Next Version"]

Philosophers have long debated whether abstract objects are truly real. I think this question is somewhat confused. Instead of worrying about this question, we should just accept that our world contains physical objects, patterns, qualities, and relations, and stop fretting about which of these objects "really" exists. Patterns, qualities and relations do not "exist" in the same way in which sticks and stones "exist" - yet clearly a Moiré pattern in a photograph really is there. We should not try to deny that this pattern is real, even though it is "only" a pattern and not a physical object. The photographer who denies that a conspicuous Moiré pattern is there may end up losing a customer! And it seems rather silly to claim that a computer program is unreal.

[From "Spirit without the Supernatural"]

I think this question depends on confusion about the meaning of the word "exist." If someone asks whether properties exist, I'll answer the question with another question: What do you mean by "exist"?

If you think "exist" means "be a physical object," then the answer is no - properties don't exist, because they are not physical objects.

But if you think "exist" means "be something" (be any kind of item at all), then properties do exist.

I've written a philosophical paper on this subject, where I went into more detail and covered some points that I've skipped over here. The main lesson of that paper: We can safely assume that properties exist. [...]

To insist that properties don't exist is to cut off the idea of existence arbitrarily - to limit existence artificially to concrete, individual objects like physical objects. If existence includes everything found in the universe, instead of just concrete physical objects, then properties exist. They exist as properties instead of as physical objects - but that's just another way to be real.

So we find that there are abstract objects in the world - properties, relations, patterns, and more. So much for the belief that only material objects are real! Even if every thing is made of matter, the universe still contains abstract objects as well as things. We live in a natural universe - but not in a universe made only of lumps of matter. There is nothing supernatural about all this. (A Moiré pattern is not supernatural, and neither is the hardness of a diamond!)

Now, where does spirit come in? Here is a further quote from "Spirit without the Supernatural":

[From "Spirit without the Supernatural"]

What does all this have to do with spirit?

If properties are real, then spirit doesn't have to be a substance or stuff. Instead, it can be a property!

Instead of being an invisible substance, spirit might be a property of physical objects. As a property, it would be every bit as real as the redness of a sunset, or the hexagonal shape of a snowflake, or the brilliance and transparency of a diamond.

If spirit is a property, then the human brain could indeed have a soul. Science suggests that your personality or self is a property of your brain. If so, then that property might be your soul. [...]

Skeptics try to debunk the soul by claiming that the self is "only" a property of the brain. The skeptics had better watch out! They are making a serious mistake!

The skeptics begin with the idea (suggested by science) that the self or personality is a property of the brain. From this, they argue that the soul is nothing - that there is no soul.

But wait a minute!

The skeptics say the self is a property of the brain. However, we have found that a property is not just nothing. In its own way, a property is quite real!

If the self is a property, then the self has a real existence of its own - just as real as if it had been a real ghostly substance. By saying that the self is only a property of the brain, the skeptics are admitting that the self is real. Worse yet for them, they are admitting that the self has a type of existence that goes beyond the existence of physical objects!

The skeptics might not realize they are admitting all this. However, if properties are real in any way at all, then this is where their "skepticism" leads.

Without realizing it, the skeptics have painted themselves into a corner, and admitted that people have souls of a sort!

Granted, these souls are a little different from what most religions teach. They are properties, not ghostly supernatural objects. But the important point is that they are real.

Once we admit that properties are real, then the skeptical view that the self is a property of the brain becomes almost the same as the religious belief that people have souls distinct from their bodies. The property of the brain that we call the self is an entity different from the matter of the brain - just as the yellowness of the sun is different from the sun itself.

So it appears that the skeptics and the believers are not as far apart as they seem.

This is the first way in which we differ from the matter of our bodies. (I'll deal with the second way in a future post.) We differ from the matter of our bodies because we contain abstract selves - properties of our brains - as well as matter.

This idea that the soul or spirit is an abstract object is not new. It's been around for quite a while. (For references to some previous versions of this idea, see the references in "Spirit without the Supernatural" and also this paper.) The idea that the self or soul is nothing but a property of the brain, or perhaps a pattern of information (or both), will be nothing new for those who have done some reading about the brain. The important point, which most so-called skeptics overlook, is that these features of the brain have an existence of their own. They are real in their own way. To claim that they do not exist is to confuse different kinds of existence. If the soul or spirit is a feature of the brain, then people really do have souls or spirits - because the feature is an abstract object, and is not to be confused with the brain that has it.

The soul is not just the brain. We are not just our bodies. And you don't have to believe in anything supernatural to recognize this fact.

Can an abstract soul of this kind be immortal? I'll deal with that question in a later post, if I dare...



(Links in post slightly updated 10/18/2010.)

posted at: 20:55 | path: /soul | persistent link to this entry

Mon, 02 Mar 2009

The Guts of Religion

There has been a lot of discussion over the years about whether science and religion are compatible. Atheists often claim that science and religion are incompatible, and that everyone should give up religion. Fundamentalist religious believers typically are much like the atheists - they think science and religion don't mix. However, they want to give up part or all of science (especially evolution) instead of religion. Liberal religious thinkers often think science and religion are compatible - that you can hold some religious beliefs and still believe everything that science has discovered.

I am going to argue that the most important ideas of religion are fully compatible with science. You can believe in the most important ideas of religion, and also believe in science. There is no conflict at all between the basic ideas of religion and our scientific knowledge of the world. What is more, it's possible to build a system of spiritual belief based on reason instead of dogmatic faith.

Before getting started, I should clarify what I mean by "religion." I won't try to define "religion" precisely. I'll just say that religion is not the same as dogmatic belief or as membership in a religious sect. These are not religion, but are only particular forms of religion. There can be other forms.

Three ideas are basic to a truly religious attitude.

The first idea is that the universe is meaningful. There are things that really matter and that really have value. By "value" I don't just mean moral values, like goodness. I also mean the value of beauty in all its forms - like the beauty of nature. These values are real. They are not just illusions of the mind. They are not just reactions and preferences of ours. At least some values are objectively real. Some happenings really are good. Some things really are beautiful. Some things really matter. It's not just that we think they matter - it's that they really do matter.

The second basic idea of religion is that there is a supreme being or supreme reality of some sort. There are many different ideas about this supreme reality. The idea of God taught in Christian churches is not the only possible idea of a supreme being or reality. Different religions and philosophies teach different ideas about this topic. Some Eastern religions have ideas of an ultimate root of things quite different from the usual Western ideas of God. But the important point is that there is a supreme being or reality of some kind. This is not just the source of all things (as matter might be for an atheist), but a being, entity, or reality that is of supreme significance for our spiritual and ethical lives.

The third basic idea of religion is that we are not just our bodies. A human being is not just matter, but is something more than that. A human being is something capable of having rights, dignity and worth. This implies that a human being must be the kind of thing that can have rights, dignity and worth - which means not just a simple blob of matter, but something more. Different religions and philosophies have different ideas about what this "something more" is. Many religions teach that there is a soul inhabiting the body. The soul is supposed to be sort of an invisible, ghostly thing that lives in the body. Other religions have a more subtle idea of the soul. Buddhism, for example, traditionally teaches that there is no permanent soul, but that personal identity or consciousness can pass from an earlier body to a later one. According to this belief, the "something more" is not a supernatural soul, but an ongoing process that extends beyond our present bodies. No matter how we think of the "something more," the important point is that there is something more to us than the matter of our bodies. A human being is more than just a lump of matter - and because of that, a human being can have spiritual qualities that no mere heap of chemicals can possess. (By mentioning human beings here, I am not ruling out similar beliefs about other organisms.)

These are the three most important ideas of religion: that existence is meaningful, that there is a supreme reality, and that we are more than our bodies.

posted at: 16:57 | path: /general | persistent link to this entry

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