Tuesday, December 06, 2011

On the Evolution Debate

Theistic evolution is a view held by many liberal theologians, and even some not so liberal. It accepts evolution while finding it unnecessary to assume it to be a substitute for a Supreme Intelligence operating at the cosmically comprehensive level. However, it seems most assume that somehow God exists apart from evolution and the laws of nature and so had at some distant time in the past the task of "designing" natural law. Rather than God's "designing" natural laws that evolve complexity and life through the self-organizing traits of natural structure, and since information theory rightly makes no distinction between lawfulness and intelligence, why not view lawfulness itself as intelligence? The laws we infer from natural structure and its behaviors then become practical approximations of certain aspects of a Supreme Intelligence at the axiomatic root of existence. 

In modern theoretical models, even the distinction between natural law and what it governs has already virtually disappeared and looks to be doing so completely in the limit as time marches indefinitely on and our models become increasingly general-case and correspondingly comprehensive in the scope of their explanatory power. Explanatory power always flows from the global, abstract, and general to the local, concrete and specific and never the reverse, as demonstrated in a simple algebraic equation, not to mention complex theoretical models. The most revered sages in the history of many cultures at vastly different times have declared that the nature of reality is not accessible via the senses. This is just a corollary to the intrinsically local and special-case nature of sensory perception and conceptual constructs based on it. It is only the contextual matrix of consciousness that gives meaning to data, allowing its unification in our theoretical models as these evolve in the minds of our greatest geniuses across centuries. The more comprehensively applicable in a practical sense our models become, the more they show us very directly that the true nature of reality is indeed counterintuitive in terms of our local, special-case sensory perception and conception.

It is self-evident that evolution is comprehensively recursive, since energy flow within the cosmos is dictated by its structure and all structural change is a result of energy flow within it.  From this perspective, abstract law interacting recursively with itself becomes a compelling definition of consciousness as self-referent intelligence. Our consciousness is the most abstract, general-case aspect of our experience. It is not accessible to the senses, but remains essential to all of them. These are traits in common with axioms as in principle unprovable but essential as forming the roots of any rational system. At the cosmically comprehensive level, our self-awareness could conceivably represent the Cosmic Counterpart of our own consciousness as locally reflected in the evolutionary products of this Supreme and Conscious Intelligence Whom some of us deem to call God. We could view this as a scientific formulation of the scriptural declaration that we are created in the image of God.

I see the whole Creationist, Intelligent Design, "Scientific" Atheism points of view as arising from the Cartesian spirit/matter dualism, or its supposedly now secular and therefore "acceptable" corollaries, the subjective/objective and lawfulness/intelligence dualisms. This obligates us to "explain" consciousness in terms of matter or matter in terms of consciousness from any of these perspectives. For me, Occam's Razor demands we assume no dualism. Scientific empiricism rightly places experience as primary and reason as a tool evolved for conceptually unifying empirical data gathered via our experience. Reason, to be at all useful, must depart from experience as its foundation, that is, for its fundamental roots in experientially derived premises and axioms, and successfully return to experience with their rational implications and resulting practical implementations.

Ultimate questions are therefore axiomatic and unprovable by definition, which absolutely does NOT imply that they are inaccessible to experience, especially when we consider that axioms are generally derived from experimental evidence, which is in turn a specific category within conscious experience. If we admit that we cannot in principle ever know anything that lies outside conscious experience, even if that experience is reading what others have discovered, then we only have conscious experience. This experience includes our ability or inability to relate its internal elements coherently and apply them successfully in practical life. 

Objectivity is just a label differentiating reliable, apparently independent elements of experience from more ephemeral, less reliable, or more inconsistent elements of conscious experience. However, this implies no absolute dualism. Occam's Razor requires theoretical economy and therefore the elimination of any dualism not essential to explanatory power. Instead, it permits us to see life as a cosmically unified whole with consciousness at its axiomatic foundation, the limit-case and absolutely general-case abstraction of cosmic lawfulness referring recursively to itself to generate all locally apparent, special-case phenomena available to the senses. We become local points within a holographic cosmos. We locally reflect this Source, this unified, cosmic, ultimately general-case lawfulness/intelligence in our own awareness.

Death to our materialistic view, that is, the special-case illusion of a strictly local identity in space-time supported by an exclusive identification with our bodies, implies our resurrection to newness of life in a unified appreciation of reality as our purified awareness spontaneously comprehends itself as a local reflection of its Source, its Cosmically Comprehensive Antecedent. To think of God literally as some physical or astral being whom we will someday meet at some so far undisclosed location called Heaven is a very provincial reinterpretation of the profound truth embedded in such metaphor. This is the religious equivalent of the secular, "scientific" fundamentalism of those who are atheists or agnostic because they never caught "god" hiding behind a tree. Such "believers"and "unbelievers" are just two peas at opposite ends of the same fundamentalist pod.

To my mind, this fundamentalism, this obsession with and elevation of the material details on the surface of life to "fundamental" status, is the great enemy of true spiritual understanding. It is explicit materialism on the part of atheistic scientists and implicit materialism on the part of their religious counterparts, who can only falsely conceive of spirituality in terms of literal, physical people, things, events, and moral laws and their corresponding belief systems. Is it not possible the mere belief systems have very little to do with genuine spirituality? 

Moral laws are too often unsupported by genuine spiritual growth, naturally resulting in a lack of real integrity in the motivations of their would-be adherents. They ignore true fundamentals like the Golden Rule, if not in their neighborhoods, at least internationally, while they kill each other over petty, superficial points of theology or completely different religions. Is it really OK to kill innocent Iraqis or Pakistanis and call it collateral damage, while drones aimed at the same enemies in our own neighborhoods would be unthinkable? Finding our dead brother in the ruins of a neighbor's house because he went to borrow sugar just as a drone took out a U.S.-based terrorist cell is not acceptable here, but it's OK way over there? What happened to the Golden Rule common to all the major world religions? We can and must do better.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

I recently responded to a comment on an article reporting the newly successful transplantation of a computer-designed gene into the cell of a bacterium to create a successfully self-reproducing organism with a human-designed genome. The comment indicated that the writer feels this success puts the existence of God into question. My response follows:

Why is the assumption of any lawfulness in cosmic evolution, including everything from the beginning 13.7 billion years ago up to human level intelligence in organisms anywhere in the cosmos, any different from intelligence? Information theory makes no distinction between lawful function and intelligence. Do you? If so, why?

Further, the distinction between natural law and what it operates upon has been disappearing historically in our most successful theoretical models and seems to be approaching zero in the limit. We're pretty much there already for all practical purposes. In addition, explanatory power clearly proceeds from the global, abstract, and general to the local, concrete, and specific as illustrated by any simple algebraic equation.

Strictly local constructs are intrinsically special-case, as opposed to more comprehensive and general models. Our concepts of reality are reflexively conditioned by the mental constructs derived from intrinsically local, special-case sensory input, and are therefore comprehensively invalid at the scale of the cosmos. All our comprehensively successful theoretical models clearly demonstrate this. This is the fundamental difference between classical and modern theoretical models.

So since natural law operates recursively and comprehensively in referring exclusively to itself to generate continuous evolution in the structure of its manifestations everywhere locally, why is such abstract, self-referent lawfulness not equivalent to conscious intelligence at the cosmic scale of the hierarchy? And why arbitrarily confine conscious intelligence to such a narrow range of experience as ours within the vast hierarchy from quantum events to a unified cosmos simply because it is so obviously and conveniently observable in us?

Also, why would such a cosmic evolutionary process not eventually have as a natural consequence a local reflection of its own axiomatic nature as self-referent (recursively operating) intelligence? Such a Supreme and Conscious Intelligence at the root of existence is axiomatic in this perspective, and so relieves us of any need for proof, since axioms are by definition not provable. In fact, it is inevitable that any rational system have axiomatic assumptions at its roots, so requiring such proof is irrational.

This perspective doesn't require the violation of any law of conservation, does not have to invent non-explanations such as "emergent properties" or other assumptions that have no status as axioms and so become inelegant, rational dead ends, nor does it have to deny the experience of any cognitive outliers within the scope of our historical awareness we have socially classified as great sages. We don't have to buy all the superficial cultural trappings of any religious scriptures or mythology to subscribe to this perspective. It is far more defensible than the meta-scientific philosophy of irrational denial that seems to dominate in the current scientific community.

Tuesday, July 23, 2002

I recently received a long epistle at my work email address from a fundamentalist Muslim trying to correct misperceptions of them as all terrorists, etc., but also trying to tell me I was eternally doomed if I did not convert to Islam.

It was likely a total waste of time in terms of any effect on him, but it was valuable for me to write the response below, since it challenged and crystallized my thinking and means of expression. It also addresses pressing questions I've received from some of those who have trouble rationalizing their religious needs and understandings in this modern world. I have since edited the letter and added further appropriate thoughts as they have occurred to me.

I don’t like this use of the word “fundamentalist”, which, in my opinion, should mean those who base their views on fundamental principles, which is a good thing. However, it has now come to apply to those who take even the most superficial, and anything but fundamental, aspects of their faith as literal and absolute. Because this meaning has become the standard interpretation of the term, I will nevertheless respect this modern usage.

----Reply to Original Message Follows----

Subject: Re: Islam, God's message to you, Isn't it time you take it seriously???

Hello, Mohammad. I was raised a fundamentalist Christian, but am no longer fundamentalist in my outlook. Truth is the only thing I ultimately value. Every fundamentalist in every religion will tell you he/she has the truth of God (or Allah, as you say in your language). I am extremely familiar with this mentality, since my father and grandfather were both pastors and I have many relatives who think my search for truth has led me astray, and that I am therefore "lost".

My spiritual orientation is inclusive, rather than exclusive. Fundamentalists are always exclusive. I call them "good clubs". "We're on track and everyone else is missing the boat!" Well, I agree that truth is not arbitrary, nor is it simply "relative". Water doesn't boil at 32 F and freeze at 212 F. No matter how strongly someone of that opinion believes it does, that opinion will never build a working steam engine. So on that point I'm sure you, other fundamentalists, and I agree.

The difficulty lies in the very nature of spiritual truth. Sacred scripture has no choice but to use the language of humankind with its gross, materialistic vocabulary and concepts. It uses this language in creative ways to point to spiritual truths that cannot ultimately be expressed in words, but must be directly experienced. Some people fail totally to understand that God's glorious truths are not and never can be adequately understood through literal interpretations of sacred scripture written in the language of material creation.

God's truth can ultimately be revealed to us ONLY through direct inner experience, and God's revelations of Himself in human beings are by their very nature self-evident once we experience them. Scripture can point the way, but cannot of itself provide true spiritual understanding. The Christian scriptures themselves tell us this, that true spiritual understanding is the "living word", and is "written on the heart". I do NOT refer here to emotional experience! One may have an emotional reaction to a true spiritual experience, but that no more characterizes the nature of the experience itself than a laugh tells us about the joke that provoked it.

All the sacred scriptures of the world's major religions directly declare or imply in one way or another that God bears witness to Himself from within in our own hearts. God's glorious truth can never be bound up in any book of paper and ink. It cannot be adequately expressed in human language. Books can only point the seeker in a direction that will lead him/her to a direct, personal experience of divine truth.

I call the literal-minded search for meaning in scripture a newscopy mindset with headlines like "God Creates Frog Today!" Absurd isn't it? So why stay stuck there? It is a kind of hell on earth. It is the worst kind of "spiritual" materialism, and it’s usually fear-based, meaning, “If I don’t cling to this particular belief system, I might suffer eternal damnation,” or some similar idea. Its deepest conception of "truth" is on surface, material values, that is, physically literal-minded, like whether or not John went to the grocery store yesterday, but inappropriately applied to the truths of God, thereby sadly profaning them.

Sites written by such people abound on the Web. I find such minds frequently incapable of abstraction of any sort. They honestly believe that things are simply the way they look on the surface. They use “common sense” arguments that naïvely assume superficial sensorial appearances are “reality” and everything else is some kind of sophist’s manipulation designed to mislead, and they often treat God and spirit as if they were physically local entities (even though God is not hiding just around the corner, which is NOT to say that physically local humans cannot become aware of Him and commune with Him).

As an obvious example to the contrary, the most fundamental and universal experience, that is, common to all of us not in a coma, is our own awareness. Awareness is abstract in the extreme as an intellectual concept, yet as a personal experience it is absolutely universal and quite concrete, even if we have a bit of trouble putting it into words. It is awareness and only awareness that is common to all our experiences. Without it we don’t experience anything.

This is the nature of anything that unifies. It is always the most global or non-localizable, least specific component of our understanding, yet it is the most concrete, simple, and obvious of our experiences when appreciated directly. We may not have an explicit awareness of, or know why we recognize the general complex of posture and movement in a friend at a distance. Yet these things clearly reflect for us that particular personality, and we know. It is concretely our experience that it is that person and no other.

So literal-minded, “common sense” negations of the more global, universal aspects of our experience ignore this fundamentally important aspect of our perception and experience. Such negations are common to both modern “scientific” materialism and religious fundamentalism. I regard them both as false religions.

The "scientific" materialists arrogantly assume we are, as relatively miniscule subcomponents of the universe that fostered our evolution, nevertheless a uniquely intelligent, aware epiphenomenon of matter and energy structured in just the right way by mere accident. They assume that matter and energy are primary and the appropriate complexity of their structures the causal factors underlying awareness. They tacitly, blindly ignore the intelligence implicit in the natural laws that designed and drove their own evolution. Such ignorance denies the most fundamental tenets upon which communications and information theory are based.

In short, they negate out of hand as absurd any possibility of intelligence or awareness operating in the grand system of which they are ironically such tiny subcomponents. We would think their own intelligence and awareness should serve in principle to give the lie to this sadly, ridiculously arrogant negation. Instead this awareness and intelligence remains abysmally short-circuited in the appreciation of what should be their own obvious implications concerning the awareness and intelligence implicit in larger, more complex systems and ultimately the Whole of which they are but a tiny end product. They are like precocious but arrogant babies absurdly, impudently denying their dependence on their parents.

Their futile efforts to explain awareness work backwards from local to global, from concrete to abstract. They ignore the clear implication of their own science and mathematics that explanatory power moves from the general, the global and abstract to the specific, local and concrete. They believe in the law of conservation of energy and matter, but unwittingly subscribe to magic in the assumption of awareness suddenly manifesting from energy and matter at some arbitrary threshold of somehow perfectly appropriate structural complexity, or more absurdly, concoct amazing behaviorist arguments designed to deny their own awareness as some kind of illusion. Let’s leave it to them to resolve the riddle as to who or what is the victim of this illusion and what sense the term “illusion” makes divorced of awareness!

On the other hand, "spiritual" materialists buy, lock, stock and barrel, the "scientific" materialists’ argument that evolution implies no God, no intelligence, no awareness inherent in the operation of nature or its laws. Buying into these short-circuited, atheistic arguments consequently forces them to concoct the absurdly off-base “scientific” and “scriptural” arguments collectively designated “creationism”.

Spiritual truth completely transcends the level of understanding common to both of these modern, materialistic religions, and can never be approximated by it even crudely. I abhor the "scientific" materialism of our day, but this kind of fundamentalist "spiritual" materialism is just the reactionary side of the same sad ignorance.

I revere the scriptures of my religion, the Christian bible, in that they, like the great scriptures from other cultures around the world, including Islam, point to the eternal truth of God's witness to Himself within us. I do not mind that the chronology of our Judeo-Christian bible implies a world created only about 7,000 years ago even though the light from the other side of our own galaxy started toward us about 50,000 years ago and that from our closest galactic neighbor, Andromeda, about 5 million years ago. And these are just in the immediate galactic neighborhood!

The eternal truths toward which these scriptures point are not dependent on the provincial perspective and limited, culturally conditioned language of the ancient cultures that transmitted to us God's revelations to them through those scriptures. I do not doubt the validity of His revelations of Himself through them simply because of the superficial trappings of their culture and the language through which they had no choice but to express them.

This does not detract in the least from the eternally glorious power of His revelations to us, but we miss it all if we lose ourselves in the literal interpretation of the surface, restricting our sense of truth to mundane things and events rather than the timeless truths they incarnate and act out for us. (For example, what do we think "Christ was crucified even before the foundation of the world" means, and many other “mystical” statements, not all of which the “authorities” were able to excise from canonical scripture?) We miss the mark totally if, in the "bargain", we confine the "spiritual" currency of our understanding to blind faith in religious authorities and/or authoritative institutions of historically questionable and often merely politically expedient origins, no more trustworthy than those represented by the seeming zealots who crucified Christ or oversaw the Inquisition.

Blind trust of sinners in religious authority for perpetual mercy and forgiveness was a very politically expedient commodity for the Roman authorities wishing to establish control over a far-flung empire. History records their cruelty in extorting it as they eliminated the gnostics as "heretics". Even the gnostic belief in the institutional cultivation of true growth toward knowing God, tailored to its various stages, a personal knowledge ultimately independent of their authority, was not the theology of choice for reasons blatantly obvious to all but the blind modern adherents to their obsolete political requirements.

Most serious biblical scholars not already beholden to some particular, provincial theological perspective now believe that Christ was a gnostic. This is certainly supported by His behavior, many of His sayings, and His clear isolation and persecution by established religious authority as recounted even within canonical scipture. This is doubly reinforced if we take recourse also to the writings in the Nag Hammadi scriptures and Dead Sea Scrolls, which archeological finds are associated directly with the gnostic communities that existed during the first few centuries of the church, and who saved these from the book burnings ordered by those in power in the church. How many so-called Christians today have the slightest clue that what they view as canonical scriptures were "purged" and "selected" (read that "edited") in an atmosphere of the most bitter infighting among a group of Roman Catholic bishops as late as 367 A.D!?

Although the protestant reformation rejected the institutional authority implemented through the church by the Roman Empire under Constantine, it ironically replaced it as ultimate authority with the same canonical scriptures selected by that authority even if they narrowed them a bit. The protestant churches also inherited the “blind faith” tradition and applied it to narrow, superficial interpretations of scripture, perpetuating the Roman tradition of rejecting the gnostics' belief in direct, experiential knowledge of and union with God as heretical. ("Heretical" derives from a Greek word meaning "thinking other than the way I do".) This is in spite of the multiple passages remaining within canonical scripture that unequivocally support such direct knowledge. The result has been the creation of huge religious enigmas for many thoughtful people and sadly, often rejection of all spirituality.

However, even after subjection to politically motivated chopping and editing, our canonical Christian scriptures do not describe faith as blind trust, but on the contrary, as the "SUBSTANCE of things hoped for, the EVIDENCE of things unseen". This is quite a different matter. "Unseen" does not even imply "unknown", much less "outside the realm of experience". Both scriptural context and the Greek terms that are translated as faith, as well as specific scriptural statements regarding their meaning, clearly communicate to us that true faith in this spiritual sense is not synonymous with the often misguided trust we place in others from our side.

Scripture tells us unequivocally that this kind of spiritual faith is not born of us, but is “granted” by the “grace of God”. It is the faith that is born of spiritual knowing; the faith of those who have had the very "substantial" experience, the self-evident cognition or better, recognition, of that which is "unseen". We have only to make the choice of opening ourselves to receive it and become its stewards.

Scripture also states we are made “in the image of God” and Christ declared that “the kingdom of heaven is within you”. So it follows clearly that God has structured within us the potential for recognizing His image in us. Faith as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen” implies not a blind faith in even scripturally based external authority, but something much more SUBSTANTIAL, and obviously not in a material sense: an act of His grace available to all of us, re-enlivening the image of Himself that He has structured within, thereby granting every one of us the glorious possibility of at first resonating, re-connecting, and then reuniting with Him.

THIS faith then is a substantial, totally appropriate, well-earned, perfectly-placed trust granted us through direct experiential knowledge of God in the same non-material sense as that which directly appreciates our own awareness even though we can’t see or touch it! This is how we can know and understand the deep truth embedded in the scriptures as it resonates with our own personal EXPERIENCE of God.

Absent this experience, the scriptures become abstract and confusing, vulnerable to every sort of misinterpretation. With valid, personal spiritual experience, we immediately recognize their essential truth, even allowing for biased translations, or worse, perhaps distortions of scripture as it has been passed down, not to mention the limitations cited earlier, imposed by provincial cultural perspectives and the fundamental inadequacy of human language to fully communicate spiritual truth.

The essential issue underlying materialism of every ilk is the failure to understand as real anything unseen or not perceived via the senses. In this modern scientific age the irony of this persistent naiveté is all the greater, since most of what we now understand of material structure is locally imperceptible in terms of material or energetic objects, just as our own awareness is.

It is precisely this focus on the superficial, materialistic aspects of reality, whether "scientific" or "spiritual", that constitutes the GREAT LIE that entraps most of humanity. The insidious intelligence underlying and perpetuating this lie is labeled Satan in Judeo-Christian scripture. “Spiritual” materialism is just the flip side of the same coin on which “scientific” materialism with its modern atheistic bias is inscribed.

This lie embraces and deceives even those souls who profess great religious zeal as they remain stuck in the ugly quagmire of materialism, blinded my mere surface values. This is a blindness for which the other blindness, unquestioning faith in external authority, cannot ever be the cure, whether it is placed in ecclesiastical institutions or words inked on paper absent the inner illumination of God's "living word" that is "written on our hearts". Whether in the narrow, superficial, literal-minded interpretation of scripture or the sterile materialism of one's everyday life, this delusion is just as false. It is Satan's subtlest, most comprehensive and universally successful lie.

Yours in true spiritual growth,