13 August 2011

God By Practice: Swing and a Miss

[Originally published 5 December 2009]
Some, like religious historian Karen Armstrong (author of The Case for God), have argued that while you can’t prove God, you can come to understand the necessity of God “by practise.” I find this kind of argument quite specious.
One example I’ve heard to explain this God-by-practise thing, is dancing: you can’t learn to dance by reading a book. To learn to dance one must actually practise. Similarly, the argument goes, you can’t know God except by living an appropriate life to gain the right mindset and experience set to reach a certain kind enlightenment.
I disagree.

Bad Analogy

First of all, this argument is essentially a proof by analogy. There’s two problems here. First, proof by analogy is an inductive argument. Inductive logic is a foundation of science, so we could say this is a kind of scientific proof of God. But you can’t prove God without being yourself God.  Second, inductive arguments only work until a single counter-example is found.  I and all the other atheists and anti-theists in the world are the counter-examples. So this analogy thing rather sucks big time.

The Matrix Beats God

Here’s another problem. We must currently learn a lot by doing – not just dancing, but doctoring, lawyering, engineering and lots of other things. But just because we don’t know how else to learn yet doesn’t mean we won’t figure out how to do it eventually. That is, given how our knowledge and our technology has been advancing, I have no doubt that we will eventually understand enough about the brain and the mind to discover new ways of learning that might involve neither book learning nor practise.
Here’s a thought experiment. Imagine that we could capture all the sensory input and output of a person learning something. This is not impossible – it’s just impossible now. Given the speed with which technology and knowledge is increasing, it’s entirely possible that we’ll be able to do this within less than a century. (Ray Kurtzweil suggests that, based on our history, this should be possible in less than 50 years.). Now imagine feeding all that sensory input into another person, blocking his own sensory inputs for the duration of the transfer. The recipient would essentially experience exactly what the donor had experienced.  (Yeah, I know this sounds like The Matrix.  Just work with me.)
Would the recipient have learnt the same thing as the donor? I would say that he very likely would have. And if we can compress the speed at which that neural throughput were provided, we might be able to radically shorten the amount of time needed by the recipient to learn. Note that we’re not talking about the actual structure of synaptic connection here – we’re only talking about sensory input and output.  The sensory data would form different neural connections in the recipient than it did in the donor.  So the results will vary – by how much, I don’t think anyone can say.  Yet.
There would be some other differences between the donor’s learning and the recipient’s learning because experience mixes with memory and extant skills. You couldn’t teach a six year old child to perform brain surgery in this way, unless you could feed the child every necessary experience to fill the gap between starting grade 1 and finishing medical school. There would also be differences between individuals otherwise equally qualified for such a transfer. The donor’s reactions to inputs would be based on the donor’s personal experiences, which would be different from those of the recipient.
So, when that day comes, the God-by-practice argument will fall apart because either (a) we will have a defined, robust, and science-based method to know God – essentially a proof of God – which is by definition impossible, or (b) God will be the only thing that we can only know by practise. In any case, the analogical argument will be disproved.
Of course this is a highly speculative and hypothetical argument, and therefore weak. There are other arguments.

Skill Isn’t Knowledge

Learning by doing creates a skill, not knowledge. Practise trains the brain to control itself and the body automatically. We don’t have to resort to something as complicated as dancing to understand this. Riding a bicycle is a perfect example. Learning to ride a bike trains the brain to automatically perform a series of quite complex actions. If someone were to ride a bike and at the same time try to be consciously aware of everything they had to do to stay upright, they’d fall right off.  Try it, if you don’t believe me.
Once you know how to ride a bike, your conscious mind handles only the very highest levels of command and control. Your un- and sub-conscious brain translates those high-level commands into the myriad tiny actions that your body must carry out to ride the bike.
The same thing applies to dancing. The dancer is consciously aware not of all the individual movements he or she does, but rather only of the general, overall, holistic sense. The dancer thinks in terms of expressions and the body turns those expressions into movement. Their training has internalized the translation of those high-level commands into movement. Indeed, this kind of kinaesthetic ability is often considered to be a kind of intelligence.
The skills learnt this way don’t have to be physical. Engineering also involves skills, except they’re mental skills. I know many engineers that can eyeball a structure, machine, or system, and understand or diagnose it without consciously using any of knowledge that they learnt in engineering school.
I knew a senior engineer once who could consistently “guess” when very complex physical parts would break during tests. This is a skill that he developed through years of practise based on “book knowledge” he learnt in school. He didn’t actually do all the scary math in his head; rather, he focused on the problem and let it take over his brain, which then pulled years of experience and learning together unconsciously, only the result of which got sent “up” to the conscious mind.
I’ve done the same sort thing on various occasions. I once diagnosed the reason for the mechanical failure of a wine bottle tote, as well as conceived of three different ways to redesign the tote to remove the flaw, with nothing more than a visual inspection of the failed part.  I didn’t need any math or physics – not consciously anyways. Those who’d asked me about the problem were quite astonished, but there was no reason for their surprise.  Anyone with a reasonable background in engineering would have been able to do the same thing. All I’d done was internalized the physics so that simply seeing the problem was enough to trigger all the memories I needed.
What’s happening here is that neural pathways are being created and reinforced during learning. This is pretty well understood science. Once properly established, these pathways act as computer programs of a sort.  Trigger the program with a simple command, and a whole series of very complex activities can result.
This also ties well into evolution. The learning organism can extend its ability to survive and reproduce. Organisms that learn faster and better than others will survive longer and reproduce more. Natural selection takes care of the rest.

God as Lifestyle?

Now let’s go back to God. To understand God, according to this argument, we need to practise doing things that will let us operate at a higher level, so that the individual actions become automatic and we can then see the “bigger picture,” the holistic view of the dancer, the physical intuition of the engineer.
What are these activities that we should practise? To achieve bike-riding, we must ride a bike. To achieve dancing, we must dance. To achieve being an engineer, we must engineer. To understand God, we must… what? Live a clean and healthy life? Show love and compassion to others?  Abstain from sex? Pray every day? Many of the rules for achieving religious enlightenment are the same regardless of the religion. The details vary, but generally they’re all the same: deny natural urges to achieve something greater. If the basic process is the same, why are there so many different versions of God? So many alternatives – especially when each makes the claim that they represent the One True God – that it really is hard to think that they all mean the same supreme entity.
Still, advocates of this view will generally name a number of practises that help us reach that moment of knowing God: living in silence (not literally, but figuratively), showing true compassion, self-reflection (usually manifested by separating oneself from the rest of the world, living in stillness, and generally things meant to achieve sensory deprivation), and so on. The problem here is that if one considers this some kind of recipe for finding God, then there should not be any alternatives. Yet, there are. There are many people who actually do live this way (Buddhist monks, for instance) but do not achieve an understanding of God, at least not any Western version of God as described in typical Western scripture. Then there’s people like me: I tell the truth, I’m honourable, kind, and compassionate.  Of course, I make mistakes, but I always try to learn from them.  I’m very satisfied that I have steadily improved myself, yet in all that time I’ve only grown more and more convinced that beliefs in God are not only wrong but also dangerous.  Even if you exclude people like me, you still have to allow for basically a different God for each person – it’s the only way to accommodate the variety of alternatives that arise from the basic recipe to “find” Him.
This would be fine, except that it totally undermines all the scriptures themselves. The scriptures are the foundation of religion and of the tradition of monotheism. Without them, both religion and God go right out the window.  So: a lifestyle recipe for God must allow for many different Gods based on individual experience.  But that undermines scripture, which is our primary source material.  Another reason God-by-practise doesn’t make sense.
People like Karen Armstrong also talk of the sheer idiocy of trying to use language to describe God. Since God is entirely beyond our comprehension, she would say, it stands to reason that that we cannot possibly describe Him with paltry human language. This is where we get the notion of God in the silences and in the spaces between other things. But by writing about God in the silences and spaces, Armstrong is falling prey to what she herself terms idiotic.  So while language is being used to argue for God, the argument claims that language is inappropriate. How wonderfully self-defeating.
Even worse, it has become evident in the last few decades that language is entirely fundamental to human development. While it is not sufficient, it certainly is necessary.  That is, it is likely that if it weren’t for language, we might have never evolved enough to wonder whether God exists.
It makes me laugh how easily these religious proselytizers will depend on reason only when it suits them. There is logic in the argument that human language cannot capture God, yet they dismiss logic when it ends up showing how silly the notion of God is to begin with. And logic is, by definition, an all or nothing deal – you can’t just use it when it’s convenient – so their selective use of logic is in fact illogical. This too undermines their argument.

The Logos of Mythos

Armstrong also talks about how we have forgotten to think in non-scientific ways; that thinking in non-scientific ways can help us find God; that scripture is meant to be allegorical and not literal. But who determines the interpretation of the allegory? Generally, this task falls on the shoulders of people who defend institutions that have done at least as much harm as good – like the Catholic Church. That doesn’t make sense because it has become evident that these people are not particularly well qualified for this work, as even the most cursory examination of any Church’s history and current practises reveals. Sure, we all agree that we must not confound God with the institutions that proselytize on His behalf. But without arbitration of the interpretation of scripture, there can be no consensus. So everyone can have his or her own personal God again. So then He must be everything to everyone, everywhere and always.  Notice we have just described God, which is impossible. Again, we have nonsense.
Let’s go back to thinking non-scientifically. The argument here is that the ancients (e.g. Aristotle and his pals) knew the difference between mythos and logos, whereas today we have lost that distinction. Mythos aligns with religion; logos aligns with science.  Armstrong suggests that mythos just gives us hints on how handle situations with which logos cannot help, and that we have become far too dependent on logos, and that we needn’t treat mythos with same need for robustness and reliability as we do logos because mythos serves an entirely different purpose.
(Let’s also set aside completely that it seems no one remembers the popularization of notions of mythos, logos, eros, and thanatos by distinguished scientists like Sigmund Freud.  The establishment of these four oppositional, but psychologically equal perspectives is distinctly a 20th Century thing, and not something necessarily going as far back as some people think.  Just browse this Google search if you want to find out more about that.)
What Armstrong doesn’t mention is that mythos – Greek or otherwise – preceded logos, and that the development of logos caught on because it delivered certain characteristics that people crave: predictability, repeatability, and accuracy.  These are not features of mythos in any culture.  Once logos was developed, it immediately started pressing against the boundaries of mythos.  Logos eventually became science (and logic).

Where Do Believers Spent Their Vacation?  In Denial.

The notion of knowing more than what science can explain is very popular among God-believers. It is a common feature of many of the pro-God arguments I’ve noted above. But this too is flawed.
An example of this used by Armstrong and her ilk is the emotional experiences of people diagnosed with serious disease like cancer. Science can explain, they say, what the disease is, how it develops, and in “some” cases cure it; but science cannot explain the heavy emotional and personal burden of cancer’s victims.
This is nonsense in at least three ways. First, science is responsible for addressing many cancers, not just “some.” It’s disappointing how subtle (and in my opinion, insidious) the remarks of religious zealots can be.
Second, medicine (which is a practise, by the way, something one learns by doing) is more than science. And medicine is responsible not only for curing disease, but also preventing it. If science dealt only with cures, mortality would be much, much higher than it is.  In mythos, one would prevent disease by prayer, or by sacrificing a goat, or some silliness like that.  It’s because of logos that we have learnt not only how to cure disease, but also how to not get sick in the first place.  If religious organizations truly believed in the allegorical nature of mythos, they would come out against the religion-based practises of certain groups (e.g. children not allowed to received blood transfusions because of the religious believes of the child’s parents).  Instead, these religious organizations are far too silent on matters like this.  I think it’s because it serves their anti-science agenda to not get in the way of ignorant people who think God can cure leukemia.
Third – and this is the big one – instinct and evolution go a long way to explaining the emotional burdens associated with disease. One point I tried to make when I wrote about euthanasia was that knowing of our impending death is a huge blow to our sense of self. We are only conscious of things when we are, well, conscious. Our cognitive models of the universe have our selves as permanent fixtures in them. Most of us have never even tried to imagine the world without us. Indeed, I don’t even think it’s possible for one to fully comprehend a universe without oneself in it: we simply have no experiences to which we can relate such a state. Being confronted, then, with that very reality must be shattering, not for any metaphysical or spiritual reason, but just for the sheer impossibility of it. It is science that has given us the understanding of the brain and mind (incomplete though that understanding currently is) that let’s us conceive of such a predicament, and understand the mechanisms that make it so difficult for individuals to process.  I mean, how many times as an adult have you ever experienced something for which you were utterly and totally unprepared, something totally new and without comparison, something utterly unknown?  This cannot possibly be an easy thing.
And then there’s our instinct of survival. We go through life assuming our lives will continue. Most of us wouldn’t want to know when we are to die exactly because it destroys the illusion of permanence that the survival instinct bestows on us. Death might have been a little easier back in prehistoric times, when we were almost always mere seconds from death by sabre-toothed tiger or poison insect or starvation or hypothermia or any number of other obstacles that confront our survival.  Living constantly with that risk – and seeing its effects regularly on others – would help us get used to it.  These days, when we can pretty much count on a much safer environment (at least in the developed world), the opportunities to confront our own mortality are nearly non-existent. It’s no wonder so many of us freak out when we learn our death is not only inevitable but also fast approaching.
We also evolved to fear the unknown, because the unknown implies risk.  In our prehistoric past, our existence was far more precarious than it is today.  Those who did not fear the unknown tended to end badly and early.  Too much fear of the unknown, on the other hand, would prevent us from taking actions necessary to ensure our own survival.  Natural selection again took care of the rest.  And what is more unknown to us than death?
We are also social animals – evolution has made us that way for very good reason: there’s safety in numbers. We thus feel an intrinsic connection to others and sympathetic to both their happiness and sorrow. We remember the loss our own parents and so we feel tortured that our children will themselves feel that loss when we die.  The transference and association of our own tendencies explains why disease brings on such strong emotion.  Again, it is science that has given us this capacity to frame the emotional burden, and in fact provides quite excellent explanations of why they exist.
One might counter with the assertion that this still doesn’t relieve the emotional burden. And so we can find solace in notions of afterlife and of some supreme Father or Mother figure that will protect and love us after death claims us.
This is denial, pure and simple. It’s just a replacement of this physical life with another, ethereal life that is, conveniently, entirely beyond the reach of our human senses, so that there’s no way to prove (and more importantly, disprove) its existence. It has all the markers of goodness: peace, love, joy, security, and so on. These are all the things that satisfy our instinct for survival. It consoles us by making death into something else. Indeed, the afterlife is consistently portrayed as so much better than this physical existence that some people commit suicide just to get on with it.
And yet we have absolutely no credible evidence of the existence of the afterlife. This includes scripture, of course, since even scripture must be interpreted.

Find God: Deny Nature?

Another mortal flaw in the God-by-practise hypothesis is that the kind of ritualistic lifestyle advocated to reach religious enlightenment is based on the deprivation of the human body and mind of conventional and natural inputs.  Let me stress this: the urges that most religions advocate must be suppressed, are also the most natural urges we have as human beings.  If God made the universe, then why should we deny deriving pleasure from enjoying His creations?
If the only way to find God is to silence the impact of reality, then how can He be so magnificent.  I mean, if He were really all he’s cracked up to be, couldn’t he not help but shine through in everything?
The kind of deprivations were talking about here is a well documented cause of hallucination; I consider this kind of behaviour to be a form of self-abuse.  Considering how inconsistent religious phenomena are, and how consistent science has been at explaining how the mind acts when deprived of input, I am perfectly content to play the odds and say that religious experiences are just one of the many tricks our minds can play on us when we abuse our bodies.
Also, drugs can cause religious experiences, for quite well understood reasons. If at least some religious experiences have essentially biochemical foundations, then how do we know that all such experiences aren’t based in simple biology?

It Really Is Us Versus Them

And there’s the rub. In every single case where a robust body of scientific knowledge has confronted an oppositional religious tenet, belief, or dogma, science has won. Indeed, I see the history of science as a constant pushing aside of religious dogma.  Just because we don’t understand something now doesn’t mean we won’t figure it out some time in the future.  And based on the past successes of science against religion – and yes, it is a case of one against the other – I’ll comfortably bet on science continuing its winning streak.
It’s the rational thing to do.

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