Sunday, 7 March 2010

Where do atheists come from? … and where are they going?

Our regular everyday explanatory processes work by explaining one thing in terms of another. It is not hard to see why such a method does not work when it comes to be applied to Everything (Everything as opposed to some one thing inside of Everything). There certainly is no good reason for expecting our everyday explanatory processes to work in that realm; clearly it is a realm of a different order. It is the set of everything, as opposed to an item within the set of everything. With regard to the closed system of things within the universe, the only set that the set of everything belongs to is itself. And this self-reflexiveness is bound to cause trouble. Like one of those cards that says "The statement on the other side of this card is true" and on the other side it says "The statement on the other side of this card is false".

This article is not primarily about the question of what statements like "God exists" could mean or do mean to the people who utter them - however interesting that question may be. Rather it is an article about the question of what correlation exists between people who say things like "God exists", and other socio-educational factors.

However if we were to consider such a question, my proposal would be to consider whether people who say things like "God exists" are meaning an to refer to an entity which resides Within "our universe" (perhaps even an entity which is co-extensive with our universe – ie. "god simply IS our universe") or one which resides Outside our universe in some way.

Whilst I would imagine that most people who say such things probably would not want to let themselves be subjected to this question, I would propose that it is a question which sheds some light on the chasm that lies between people who happily say things like "I believe in God" and those who happily call themselves Atheists (if they avail themselves to being pushed into calling themselves anything).

The moment by moment seeming to exist that our universe presents us with is from one perspective a moment by moment miracle, in and of itself.
The mere presence of the universe is in and of itself already miraculous, without any additional occurrence being needed on top of that to raise that up to level of miracle status.
Of course the apparent persistence of this miracle, as a consequence of the miracle’s design, tends towards being taken for granted.
We could say "the miracle that is our universe is, by its very nature, designed to be taken for granted".
In any case it is not clear what, if the universe did all of a sudden go out of existence, would be the meaning of that.
There would after all be nowhere for that absence of the existing universe to register itself (at least not anywhere that those of us inside our universe have or could have any knowledge of).
If the universe was not "here", then neither would we be here, being alarmed by its absence.
(Incidentally, I think the same insight can be usefully applied to ourselves with regard to being dead.)
We could speculate that possibly from a perspective outside our universe (outside of our space and time), "our universe" could be being stopped and started, turned on and then turned off again, brought into existence and then out of existence again, without us sentient beings within it being any-the-wiser.
However, from our perspective "inside our universe" we certainly could never know about this.
The status of statements about how our universe may or may not look from the perspective of being outside it, is at the very least slightly dubious.
Statements of this kind cannot be candidates for "truth" of the same kind that statements made by us inside our universe speaking from the perspective of being inside it.
They could possibly be candidates for "truth" of a different kind, but it would be a category mistake to mix these two kinds of statements together.

It is this insight that leads me to wonder regarding to the location of "god", as referred to by people who like to say things like "God exists".
I wonder whether such people are talking about an entity which exists INSIDE our universe, or an entity which exists OUTSIDE it.
Or is it an entity which exists BOTH inside and outside?
Or is it an entity whose existence depends on a paradox of both existing and not existing both inside and outside.

"Completeness", "wholeness", "perfection" (and if thought of in the sense of these words, even the words "Everything" and "Nothing") can be thought of as ideas to which the comparative term "more" does not apply. I hope Lars Næsbye Christensen doesn’t mind me quoting the question he asked on Facebook: "Is nothingness any less deserving of explanation than something?"

Possibly it is a mistake to try to explain either of these ("everything" and "nothing")… I mean it is a mistake to try to apply the regular thought process / structure of Explanation to either of these ideas: nothing and everything. After all explanation as it is standardly applied is a process whereby we explain some entity (call it A) in terms of another entity (call it B). If the entity we are trying to explain is "everything" there is no other entity available to explain it in terms of (I mean there is nothing outside of everything, nothing other than everything that everything could be put into an explanative relationship with). No doubt this could be expressed more elegantly in the terms of set theory, but I leave that as an exercise for the reader.

Equally if there is Nothing and only Nothing, there isn’t anything available to explain Nothing in terms of either.

We may start to see that the explanative process that we use for example to explain rainbows in terms of the sun and the rain and light, that explanative process that works so well for so much of human endeavour, simply does not belong in the realm of everything and nothing. We can see the process of explanation as like a habit that we have learnt to use over and over, to such an extent that we have come to expect it to work everywhere. However when we enter the realm of Everything / Nothing, our standard process of explanation simply has no meaning, no bearing and no application. It simply has no practical relevance or relationship with that realm. It is simply a mistaken application of an old habit. Like a rugby player must learn not to pick up the football and run with it when he comes to play football for the first time, so we must learn not to try to apply our usual procedure of explanation to the realm of Everything / Nothing.

So if this is the case, if we should not even bother to try to explain Everything / Nothing, how else should we put ourselves into a useful relationship with it – given that explanation serves no useful purpose with it?

Atheism/taoism/dudeism/whateverism or even "belief in god" (whatever that might mean) is a reasonable approximation to the truth for people who don't have much interest in the subject, but for those of us who are interested, I don't think any of these are ultimately satisfying. How far any of us want to go down the path of enquiry into the mystery of being is good question to ask ourselves and each other.

Atheism and "belief in god" (whatever that might mean) are fairly similar positions. Both positions hold us back from experiencing the mystery of being in all its mysteriousness. Both of these positions allow us to avoid confronting the void, the emptiness, the unknown and unknowable.

Atheism/taoism/budhism/dudeism/whateverism and equally adhering to beliefs in a mythic god such as christianity/judaism/islam are all similar positional-type relationships with the eternal.
This insight presents us with the opportunity to put ourselves into a direct relationship with everything.
A relationship that is not mediated by doctrine or position or belief of any kind.

I mean something like common and garden explanations explain something inside the universe in terms of something else inside the universe. This methodology is not equiped or designed so as to be able to explain the universe itself. In the case of the universe itself, there is no "something else". I think we can see this is the case both by definition and empirically.

I think in a way this helps us to understand the origin of the word "god". The word "god" allows us h-beings to fill in the other side of the equation when applying our standard explanatory methodology.

What happened here is analogous to what mathematicians did when they came up against a need to be able to write down the square root of minus one. Mathematicians amongst us will be able to tell you that a minus number multiplied by a minus number is a positive number. And a positive number multiplied by a positive number is also a positive number. So at first thought you would be forgiven for concluding that there is NO number which when multiplied by itself could ever give the result minus one. Squares of numbers are always positive. However this did not stop mathematicians. Instead of saying "it just can’t be done" they simply invented a new kind of number having the required property, and called it "i", such that i multipled by i by definition equals minus one. And therefore the square root of minus one is "i". They invented this kind of number so as to not have to turn back when they reached an otherwise dead end.

In a way we could think of the word "god" in a similar way.

As far as anyone of us know (or probably could know), there is no "something else" that can be used to explain the presence or the existence of the universe.
And at this point we can go at least two ways.
We can invent something (lets call it god) and say that the something else is "god".
Or we can start to wonder if our whole explanatory methodology simply does not apply when it comes to realm of everything/nothing.
The explanatory methodology was after all developed very much in the world of the every day and common place.
There is no very good reason for expecting that it should be valid if we take it and apply it to the completely different realm – the realm of "everything / nothing".

Ecstatic union lies on the other side of our unwillingness to confront the void in all its voidness.