Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Religion of Nature and the Nature of Religion

The other day I was looking at the "History of Pornography" series and came upon "Fanny Hill" as the first pornographic novel in the Age of Enlightenment. As it turned out, the author John Cleland was an avid deist. This led me into the deist ideas of a creator God that didn't intervene in nature after 'His' creation. Deists were a rationalist movement in the Age of Enlightenment in the seventeenth century that rejected the superstitious nature of miracles, the literal interpretation of religious scripture, Jesus' divine nature and the Trinity, in favour of a notion of deity that was grounded in rational exploration of God in the form of a creator that left nature to run its course unimpeded, once the creation had been set in motion. Despite this, many deists were regarded by their traditional Christian counterparts as irreligious, even though they tacitly believed in God.

Deism was a unique product of the rise of scientific rationality at a time when the presumption of God as a de facto creator of the universe was still almost universal. However two things eclipsed deism as a product of the hopeful Age of Enlightenment. Firstly it depended on a creator deity setting in motion a mechanistic Newtonian universe. This attitude successively gave way to more intellectually precise notions of scientific naturalism that nature itself is necessary and sufficient to describe life and the evolution of the universe. Secondly, the deist belief in the existence of a true source religion uncontaminated by subsequent fallacies spawned by a controlling priesthood and free of the distortions of revealed scripture and superstitious and miraculous confabulation proved to be an illusion. Instead it was found that religions worldwide displayed strong elements of irrational superstition and fear of the unknown, attributed to a miraculous deity,  deities or spirit beings. The rational basis of religion on which the deist premise depended was thus undermined.

Ironically, in the 21st century, it is as if the clock has moved both forwards and backwards at the same time. We see an even sharper division between scientifically and humanistically-minded people on the one hand coming to their own intellectually astute conclusions about the universe, many of whom have very high ethical standards for life and on the other hand increasingly literalist religious believers who discard rationality, good judgment and adequate safeguards for trust in beliefs, to embrace slavish religious imperatives often containing violent attitudes of a collectively psychopathic nature.

In Western society apologists for religion will note that there are good Christian communities that bring about a sense of social conscience and belonging, but Christian assumptions are also at the expense of a sense of ultimate confidence in our goodness of  nature depending on salvation to cure all from the sins of selfish expedience. However in the Muslim world, fundamentalistic attitudes have become ascendent in both Sunni and Shiite followings, leading to a literal interpretation of the scripture and law taking Islam back to the three generations of Muhammad in the seventh century and asserting that we are all to be slaves of God under punishment of death for apostasy, justifying psychopathic violence against Sufis, Amadhis, Yazidis, followers of other religions and democratic society alike.

Our ideas of god as a potential cosmocrater, or cosmic creator of the universe changed irreversibly in the twentieth century with the discovery of dynamical chaos, quantum reality and relativity. No longer is the universe seen as a divine Newtonian clockwork. The Pope recently stated that acceptance of evolution need not be inconsistent with creation, effectively conceding to nature the incontestable evidence of evolutionary change, while assigning to God the technical loophole of the 'big bang'. The difficulty with this idea is that the creator God is left with little meaningful relationship with the universe today. Although the finer details of the cosmic origin are still being researched, we know the universe began in a state of high symmetry and low informational content, in which principles of complex symmetry and symmetry-breaking are key, and that the subsequent processes leading to life on Earth have been complex unstable interactions, bringing both chaotic unpredictability and quantum uncertainty into play in the formation of galaxies and solar systems and subsequently, biogenesis and the evolution of life into conscious organisms. So the conditions at the cosmic origin no longer play out in a Laplacian determinism, which a creator God could induce to bring our personal lives, crises and moral tests omnipotently into being.

Once the laws of nature have adopted the symmetry-broken form we see in the standard model of particle physics, the evolutionary complexification of life becomes a product of the hierarchical interaction of the four forces of nature, to form the fractal architecture of molecular matter, resulting in natural interactions leading to biogenesis, life and evolution, including the opposing influences of mutual selection effects shaped by environmental interactions and stochastic mutational changes brought about ultimately by quantum uncertainty.

The only way a deity could continue to intervene in this evolutionary process would be to play dice with the universe, as Einstein denied, by casting the lot in each individual quantum encounter, which remains unpredictable under the probability interpretation of quantum mechanics. But here we find every statistical measure of quantum uncertainty and quantum entanglement conforms ultimately to the probability interpretation, with no evidence of divine intervention upsetting the odds. In the world of our experience misfortune and ill-health strike naturally with blind justice. There is no evidence for divine intervention to punish the criminals and uphold the virtuous. Indeed it would make no sense in a natural world that must needs contain predators and herbivores, just as it contains plants and animals.

Rather than imposing our naive ideas of creation onto the universe, we are better served by developing our understanding of existence from how we actually find the universe and nature to be in the world around us, without overlaying over the facts with preconceived notions based on naive attitudes of fixed belief and undiscerning superstitious faith in a divine power.

Central to the dilemma of existence is the nature of life, death and mortality. Understanding the natural condition of mortally reproducing life brings us much closer to gaining the depth and breadth of insight we need to be able to become a meaningful part of the universe and to come to terms with our own existential condition. Since we are mortal biological organisms there is no point in selfish aims which ultimately lead nowhere. We will gain ultimate satisfaction only by giving our all to the benefit of life and its immortal continuity.

This ultimately delivers on the moral issues posed both by Buddhism (enlightenment from grasping egotistical desires) and monotheism (leading a virtuous sinless life in the eyes of God). Furthermore, we learn that morality is a local process that is a functional part of a vital society, increasing intra-social cooperation to aid social vitality and inter-social dominance, but the universe is in no way a moral dictatorship - a cosmic stage for God to give humanity a moral test of judgment and faith in religion under pain of eternal damnation. We also learn that sin is not all bad and virtue is not all good - natural change involves both defection and cooperation mediated through astute tests of trust, in a climate of strategic dissimulation - Machiavellian intelligence - which gives us the complexity and diverse diplomatic survival niches of human society, accompanied by degrees of both altruistic punishment and discerning forgiveness.

When it comes to the meaning of life, we need to realize that, although we are mortal, sexuality provides the ultimate immortal altruistic antidote to individual mortality. Sexuality transcends parthenogenesis, inducing an almost endless source of variety through genetic recombination. While we are individually mortal, we are part of the immortal enchanted web of life, generating new forms of conscious being through sexual reproduction, in which our own genetic identity provides an equal half share along with that of our sexual partner.

We also need to learn from nature about our original virtue. The evolution of emotional responsiveness in mammals has enabled the formation of societies whose mutual altruism extends far beyond narrow kinship boundaries. Although we are capable of selfish expedience, jealousy, anger and even violent hatred, we are also capable of sexual, familial, comradely and selfless love and empathy for others in plight and feel most at home in a climate of belonging, in which we are a part of a mutual fabric of caring support - an evolutionary endowment of being small bands of people surviving together in the wilderness.

Some of the finest attributes of caring and sensitivity to others, as well as creative art, music and family life, come from the astute processes of sexual courtship, particularly those of women astutely choosing good partners to father their children, given the huge investment of the human female in pregnancy, birth, lactation and early child-rearing. Thus, rather than being lustful sinners to the core, we are a palette of emotions, which in the balance, provide evidence of our original virtue, which has sustained us into compassionate existence in the world of tooth and claw.

Beyond the narrow confines of sexual reproduction and parenting, to fulfill our place in the sacred web, while we are here, we also need to cherish and replenish the Earth in its natural diversity, because, although individual incarnation is mortal, the passage of the generations of life is perennially immortal, so long as the Earth shall live and be hospitable to life. We also gain fulfillment in life by playing our part in the pursuit of understanding, social caring, and creative expression of our cultures so that society and the world becomes, at least in some small way, a better place, through our presence in it. All of these provide the essential meaning of life as a creative process.

The key learning point is that sexuality is the generator of all complex life and absolutely necessary for us to come into the world as incarnate sentient beings. We trade off mortality for life's complexity and abundance. Without recombinational meiosis we could never have become complex multi-celled organisms. Sex is thus sacred and sacrosanct in the passage of the generations. While God is an uncertain proposition, sex is our certain foundation, and the key to our becoming and belonging.

Sexual incarnation might seem to be an endless round of menial animalistic reproduction, but it is far more than this. It has an intrinsic psychic dimension, because each conscious being is a novel evolutionary manifestation of the processes which invoke sentient consciousness - the ultimate mystery of existence. At the same time we are collectively evolving into a state of deepening awareness of life the universe and everything when we step back form the pressures of trying to feed ourselves to survive and the distractions of internecine inter-social and inter-religious strife. This coming to an inner knowledge of the world may be the key to the cosmic destiny of the universe - Gnosis or 'knowing'.

We can seek spiritual fulfillment in a variety of ways, many of which are quite direct, from meditation to psychedelic reverie. These avenues frequently lead to full-blown mystical experiences of a religiously formative nature. We can learn from these experiences, and they form the sang raal of spiritual experience from which all the major religious traditions have been borne. We therefore have a conscious avenue to explore the ultimate mysteries of existence and need to deal with these with the same spirit of open mindedness that is the hallmark of scientific discovery.

Ultimately we come to the cosmic question. What is the ultimate meaning and purpose of life, if, although it is in principle immortal, it will nevertheless ultimately be extinguished by the solar system being consumed by the Sun, or the eventual universal heat death or big crunch. There are two types of answer to this question.

One explanation lies in the universality of cosmic consciousness - the idea that all conscious beings are a manifestation of the cosmic mind, bundled up in a constrained form in each mortal biological being. Clearly the biota, with their complex brains, are the one place where we know complex intelligent conscious life can become manifest, but our experience of the world comes entirely and directly through our subjective consciousness, so it also appears to have an existential status as fundamental as the universe. Existential reality thus appears to be a complementarity between subjective consciousness and the objective physical world, just as wave and particle aspects are in physics. The brain processes supporting subjective consciousness appear to be highly unstable whole brain states attuned to be arbitrarily sensitive to changing circumstances in the world around us. The brain appears to use edge-of chaos dynamics and may also use quantum entanglement among brain wave excitations in these uncertain states, enabling our subjective conscious experience of free-will  to influence the fate of the universe around us through our actions.  There may even be forms of entanglement over space-time between the conscious experiences of disparate sentient beings similar to the forms of entanglement that we have discovered in quantum phenomena. Hidden quantum entanglement within an eternal universe at large has also been proposed to explain the nature of elapsing time that is key to the changing events around us in real time.

The other explanation lies the eternal relativistic conception, that life, in addition to being a perennially immortal passage of the generations in elapsing time, once it has come to climax is eternally present in space-time, which is itself eternal, extending from cosmological alpha to omega, so the fact that conscious life has come into being in the universe during some epoch mid-way through its evolution gives life its eternal 'meaning' and 'purpose' in a universe becoming conscious of itself. Religious believers may thus seek the eternal in an 'afterlife' because we sense that, in the completion of the universe, all we have done and will ever do is imprinted and encapsulated in this eternal nature of existence. The never-ending nature of heavenly bliss is basically a vision of this eternal unchanging reality.

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