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Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Reality and Religion (a follow-up to earlier posts on Objective/Subjective Reality)

This post is a response to Bob McCue's comments to my earlier blog entry on "Objective and Subjective Reality". Scroll down after going to

http://www.goertzel.org/blog/2005/07/objective-versus-subjective-reality.html

to read his comments.

Bob is a former Mormon and has written extensively and elegantly about his reasons for leaving the faith:

http://mccue.cc/bob/spirituality.htm

He read my blog on objective/subjective reality and my essay on "social/computational/probabilist" philosophy of science

http://www.goertzel.org/dynapsyc/2004/PhilosophyOfScience_v2.htm

and then posed some questions regarding the probabilistic justification of religious beliefs.

Bob: The questions you raise are deep and fascinating ones and unfortunately I don't have time right now to write a reply that does them justice.

However, I can't resist saying a few things ;-)

I was never religious but my ex-wife was and, although this led to numerous unpleasant arguments between us, it also led me to gain some degree of appreciation (OK, not all that much!) for the religious perspective. For her (as a Zen Buddhist) it was never about objective truth at all, it was always about subjective experience -- her own and that of the others in her sangha (religious group). If probability theory was relevant, it was in the context of evaluations like

Probability ( my own spiritual/emotional state is good GIVEN THAT I carry out these religious practices)

>

Probability ( my own spiritual/emotional state is good GIVEN THAT I don't carry out these religious practices)

The evaluation criterion was internal/subjective not external/objective. The actual beliefs of the religion were only evaluated in regard to their subjective effects on the believer's internal well-being. This fits in with a Nietzschean perspective in which "An organism believes what it needs to believe in order to survive", if you replace "survive" with "maximize internal satisfaction" (which ultimately approximately reduces to Nietzsche's "survival" if one takes an evolutionary view in which we have evolved to, on average, be satisfied by things correlated with our genomes' survival).

I am not sure what this has to do with religions like Mormonism though. I think my ex got interested in Zen (in her mid-20's) partly because I had talked to her about it years before that, when as a teenager I had found Huang Po's Zen writings (on exiting the world of thought and ideas and entering the world of pure truth/nothingness) really radical and fascinating. Zen is not very typical of religions and it's questionable whether it really belongs in the "religion" category -- it's a borderline case. It specifically teaches that the external, "objective" world is illusory and urges you to fully, viscerally and spiritually understand this world's construction via the mind. Thus in a Zen perspective the empirical validation or refutation of hypotheses (so critical to science) is not central, because it takes place within a sphere that is a priori considered illusory and deceptive. Because of this Zen tends not to make statements that contradict scientific law; rather it brushes the whole domain of science aside as being descriptive of an illusory reality.

I guess that Mormonism is different in that it makes hypotheses that directly contradict scientific observation (e.g. do Mormons hold the Earth was created 6000 years ago?). But still, I suspect the basic psychological dynamics is not that different. People believe in a religion because this belief helps them fulfill their own goals of personal, social or spiritual satisfaction. Religious people may also (to varying extents) have a goal of recognizing valid patterns in the observed world; but people can have multiple goals, and apparently for religious people the goal of achieving personal/social/spiritual satisfaction thru religion overwhelms the goal of recognizing valid patterns in the observed world. I find nothing very mysterious in this.

Bob: You ask about belief in Kundalini Yoga (another obsession of my ex-wife, as it happens.) I guess that the KY system helps people to improve their own internal states and in that case people may be wise to adopt it, in some cases... even though from a scientific view the beliefs it contains are a tricky mix of sense and nonsense.

However, it seems pretty clear to me that religious beliefs, though they may sometimes optimally serve the individual organism (via leading to various forms of satisfaction), are counterproductive on the species level.

As a scientific optimist and transhumanist I believe that the path to maximum satisfaction for humans as a whole DOES involve science -- both for things like medical care, air conditioning and books and music, and for things like creating AI's to help us and creating nanotech and gene therapy solutions for extending our lives indefinitely.

There's a reason that Buddhism teaches "all existence involves suffering." It's true, of course -- but it was even more true in ancient India than now. There was a lot more starvation and disease and general discomfort in life back then, which is why a suffering-focused religion like Buddhism was able to spread so widely. The "suffering is everywhere" line wouldn't sell so well in modern America or Western Europe, because although suffering still IS everywhere, it's not as extreme and not as major a component of most people's lives. Which is due, essentially, to science. (I am acutely aware that in many parts of the world suffering is a larger part of peoples' lives, but, this does not detract from the point I am making.)

Since religious belief systems detract from accurate observation of patterns in reality, they detract from science and thus from the path with the apparently maximal capacity to lead humanity toward overall satisfaction, even though they may in fact deliver maximal personal satisfaction to some people (depending on their personal psychology).

However, one may argue that some people will never be able to contribute to science anyway (due to low intelligence or other factors), so that if they hold religious beliefs and don't use them to influence the minds of science-and-technology-useful people, their beliefs are doing no harm to others but may be increasing their own satisfaction. Thus, for some people to be religious may be a good thing in terms of maximizing the average current and long term satisfaction of humanity.

There is also a risk issue here. Since religion detracts from science and technology, it maintains humans in a state where they are unlikely to annihilate the whole species, though they may kill each other in more modest numbers. Science gives us more power for positive transformation and also more power for terrible destruction. The maximum satisfaction achievable thru science is higher than thru religion (due to the potential of science to lead to various forms of massively positive transhumanism), but the odds of destruction are higher too. And we really have no way of knowing what the EXPECTED outcome of the sci-tech path is -- the probabilities of transcension versus destruction.

[As I wrote the prior paragraph I realized that no Zen practitioner would agree with me that science has the power to lead to greater satisfaction than religion. Semantics of "satisfaction" aside they would argue that "enlightenment" is the greatest quest and requires no technology anyway. But even if you buy this (which I don't, fully: I think Zen enlightenment is an interesting state of mind but with plusses and minuses compared to other ones, and I suspect that the transhuman future will contain other states of mind that are even more deep and fascinating), it seems to be the case that only a tiny fraction of humans have achieved or ever will achieve this exalted state. Transhumanist technology would seem to hold the possibility of letting any sentient being choose their own state of mind freely, subject only to constraints regarding minimizing harm to others. We can all be enlightened after the Singularity -- if we want to be! -- but we may well find more appealing ways to spend our eternity of time!! -- ]

OK, I drifted a fair way from Mormonism there, back to my usual obsessions these days. But hopefully it was a moderately interesting trajectory.

For a more interesting discussion of Mormonism, check out the South Park episode "All About Mormons." It was actually quite educational for me.

3 comments:

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Patrick Dugan said...

Hmmm, that last commentator makes a good point I struggle to build off of.

As for Zen, there is a major school of Zen which holds "enlightenment" to be a myth and pursueing it to be a illusory quest. Maybe when you appreciate the non-existence of enlightenment you become enlightened... sounds like the usual recursive dictum one finds in Zen, god/nothing bless it.

Uday said...

You're wrong mate - ancient India was a very prosperous place indeed. The "physical suffering", etc. started only in medieval and modern times, esp. after various Islamic invaders and the British plundered and looted the country's resources. Gautam Buddha's reference to suffering was more of an intellectual, existential-angst kind of suffering.