Paul P. Mealing

Check out my book, ELVENE. Available as e-book and as paperback (print on demand, POD). 2 Reviews: here. Also this promotional Q&A on-line.

Wednesday, 29 August 2007

God, theism, atheism

This is a letter I wrote to Phillip Adams in April 2005 - I don't think he would mind me posting it as it's not really a critique of anything he's written. It covers my views on a subject that often polarises people, and has a history of extreme violence (see my posting on Evil).

The essays I refer to herein may be the subject of a future blog or blogs.

Dear Mr. Adams,

I admit that I don’t always read your column but I was intrigued by your dissertation on life after death, and it prompted me to send you a couple of essays I wrote last year. I’ve believed ever since my adolescence, in complete opposition to my education, that a belief in God is perhaps the least important issue in living one’s life. Nothing I have experienced or read since has changed that point of view, but I give equal respect to theists and atheists preferring to judge them according to their actions, their attitudes and their words, as I hope they would judge me.

My philosophy has always had to allow for atheists, because, as your own article points out, they probably have the most uncluttered approach to death. I recently (the same day) read an editorial in American Scientist, and to quote out of context: ‘Whether there is an afterlife or not, we must live as if this is all there is. Our lives, our families, our friends... (and how we treat others) are more meaningful.. Rather than meaningless forms before an eternal tomorrow, these entities have value in the here-and-now...’

This captures my own philosophy pretty well because I argue interminably that it’s our interaction with our fellow humans that really matters rather than a belief in God, even though I do believe in God, albeit an unorthodox concept of one.

I am one of those heretics of my time that believes in a transcendental purpose but I don’t claim to be able to explain it or even claim that it is the ‘truth’. But what I do believe is that such a transcendental purpose is achieved in the way one lives one’s life rather than what one believes, so those who believe in nothing are arguably at an advantage because they are not prejudiced by preconceived ideas.

At the risk of sounding self-righteous, I don’t expect people to believe in God if they’ve never experienced it, and I know that for some reason, not everyone does. If I lived in another time I would have been a shaman because I have experienced some strange things that the modern world and the scientific community (that I admire) claim are illusions, and they may be right. But our only experience of God is in our minds and therefore I agree with Augustine that God, or a relationship with God, is an internal journey, which has more in common with Buddhism (and even Sufism) than Christianity. But if you read my accompanying essays, you will see that I see God as the projection of the ideal self and therefore is unique for every person.

As an addendum to this post, I would like to comment on the polarity that seems inevitable to a discussion on this subject. Some well known atheists (I don't include Adams), have a fundamentalist zeal about their atheism, which I suspect they see as a necessary response to religious fundamentalism; Dawkins and Dennett are amongst the best known. They exhibit an intellectual superiority towards theists in the same way that some theists exhibit a moral superiority towards atheists. It is my position that both these positions are as false as each other.

See also my later posting on Religion.

Saturday, 25 August 2007

The Meaning of Life

This is a submission I made to the magazine, Philosophy Now, in response to their 'Question of the month' last February. The entries had a strict word limit, which I incorporated exactly.

This blog has similar themes to my very first posting on Self, unsurprisingly, as the meaning of life is a purely subjective concept. One can also see a similar perspective to Victor Frankl's philosophy (Man's Search for Meaning and The Unconscious God). I think it's fair to say that we came to similar conclusions via different paths. When I read Frankl over 20 years ago, I couldn't have written this treatise; it's only in hindsight that I can see the connection.

For each and every one of us there exists an internal and external world. Some argue that only the external world can be discussed with any definition, and besides, the internal world is completely dependent on the external world, even to the extent that we think. This is because we all think in a language, and, for all of us, our language was gained from the external world. If we took this at face value then it could be argued that the internal world is irrelevant. However, this ignores the undeniable sense, we all have, that the internal world is the Self, and therefore has a significance that belies this simple analysis. There is another argument put forward by some evolutionary psychologists that the only reason we have a self is so we wouldn’t become automatons. This leads to the plausible hypothesis that nature doesn’t really require us to have a sense of self at all; it’s sole purpose, from a biological perspective, is that it provides an effective conscious compulsion for us to survive and propagate our genes.

But both these arguments suffer from an examination of the internal and external world as if they are independent entities. They ignore the interaction that we all experience, and how, through our responses to the external world over a lifetime, we develop and grow into complex psychological beings. No one passes through life without experiencing pain or emotional hardship at some level. The Buddha, according to legend, lived a sheltered and unscarred life until he went outside his palace walls and witnessed poverty, illness and death for the first time. The allegorical and truly insightful aspect of this story, is not the four noble truths that apparently arose from his observations, but that pain and suffering at some level are unavoidable for each of us.

We all yearn for stories, both fictional and biographical, that deal with the overcoming of adversity; it’s universal. Wisdom does not come from an extensive education, nor does it come from high achievements. Wisdom comes from dealing with all the adversities and misfortunes that fate throws in our path. Ultimately, it is how we respond and deal with life’s misfortunes that leads us to becoming someone we are happy to be or someone we inwardly despise. Adversity is the universal means through which we all gain wisdom and self-knowledge, and that is the meaning of life.

This subject is also touched upon in a later posting: Does the Universe have a Purpose? (Oct.07)

Intelligent Design

Evolution is nature’s design methodology, so replacing evolution with something else called 'design' is a non sequitur if it includes evolution and is meaningless if it doesn’t.

What does one mean by intelligent design? Its proponents say it’s the only explanation for the inherent complexity one sees in evolution. In fact, there are 3 possible interpretations of intelligent design; all of them inconsequential to science.

Firstly, the official interpretation, given above, effectively says there are aspects of evolution we don’t understand, therefore we can only explain it by invoking a ‘Designer’, otherwise known as God. But any lack of understanding of evolution, is a clear result of our ignorance rather than a need to invoke Divine intervention. History shows that many of the gaps in our knowledge in the past were successfully uncovered in that past’s future. What’s more, history would suggest that there will always be gaps in our knowledge, so we should not be alarmed, nor afraid, to admit our ignorance of nature’s mysteries in the present, of which there are countless many. One of my favourite aphorisms is that only future generations can tell us how ignorant the current generation is. We always think, or claim, to know more than we do.

The second interpretation is that we acknowledge evolutionary design as hugely successful, albeit imperfect, and that it was designed from the outset by God. Another way of looking at this, is that we acknowledge evolution as nature’s design methodology, and the only remaining argument is whether it’s blind or teleological. From a theological perspective, it can be argued to be part of God’s plan. But from a scientific perspective, bringing God into the picture explains nothing (see below). And this is why I always contend that science and religion are separate: they can’t answer each other’s questions.

The third interpretation is that intelligent design is really a case of ‘wedge politics’: to introduce ‘creationism’ into American schools. Creationism is another argument altogether, which replaces evolution with a fairy tale scenario of spontaneous creation. Not only is this completely, and obviously, unscientific, but all evidence suggests that the universe is a dynamic entity that has never stopped creating. In other words, in nature, creation is a continuous process.

In reference to the last paragraph, I would like to provide a further commentary based on an ABC radio interview I heard online in 2006.

I would like to add an insight provided by Margaret Wertheim (author of Pythagoras’s Trousers and The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace) in an interview on ABC Radio National (Australia). Wertheim made the pertinent point that both ID and ‘Creationism’ are the result of wedge politics to overcome the American Constitution’s requirement that religious teachings can’t be taught in State Schools. Therefore ‘believers’ attempt to introduce religion as science as an explicit Trojan horse. Her implied point is that, if the Constitution allowed religion to be discussed in State schools, the strategy and the controversy wouldn’t exist.

This view is concordant with a quote in New Scientist, 9 September 2006, p.13 by Joseph Fessio, provost of Ave Maria University in Florida: ‘There’s a controversy in the United States because there is a lack of awareness of a thing called philosophy.’ This has been an argument I have used against proponents of ID ever since it raised its head. If people want to discuss this issue in an educational forum then it should be in a philosophy class, not a science class. People engage in this debate without being aware that they are discussing philosophy and not science. (See my March 08 posting, What is Philosophy?)

A belief in God neither hinders nor supports science, unless you're a fundamentalist. Bringing God into science to explain natural phenomena is a 'science-stopper'. You've stopped doing science, because you are effectively saying: I don't understand this, so I will invoke God and stop any further scientific investigation.

On the other side of the same coin, you cannot use science to prove or disprove the existence of God (though Richard Dawkins argues otherwise). There is no physical evidence of God; the only evidence is what people feel and experience internally, so it's outside the realms of science which studies natural phenomena only. (See my later posting on Religion.)

See also my postings on Evolution and Does the Universe have a Purpose?

For a more detailed argument on this same topic, see my later posting in Nov.07: Is evolution fact? Is creationism myth?

On the question of 'complexity' and its role in describing life, Paul Davies provides an excellent exposition in his book, The Origin of Life.

Evolution

This is a letter I wrote to New Scientist recently, triggered by an article on 'Evolutionary design flaws' by Claire Ainsworth and Michael Le Page. It's not a critique of their article so much as a response.

I need to admit that I consider New Scientist the best periodical on the planet. The other reference is to Paul Davies, whom, along with John Gribbin, are probably the best science writers I have read. Having said that, I would vote Roger Penrose's The Emperor's New Mind, The Best science book for mine. Not only is it the best exposition on physics, without equations, one can read, Penrose's philosophical perspective on mathematics is very close to mine, as is Davies' (refer The Mind of God). See my blog posting: Is mathematics invented or discovered?

Reference: New Scientist, 11 August 2007, pp36-9

What’s amazing about evolution is not the design flaws, but that, as a process, it can design so well at all. Nature’s designs, the result of an interaction of genes, environment and biochemistry can design the most amazing attributes, that not just provide survival, but outperform most of human inventions – take the human brain or the liver. I once saw a BBC documentary on testing the diving performance of peregrine falcons and it is designed to within the absolute limits of what is physically possible.

Evolution has no purpose, yet its strangest creation of all is imagination. It has evolved a species that can imagine a purpose where no purpose apparently exists. Einstein once said that the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible. The universe eventually created the means to comprehend itself. Evolution evolved a species that could eventually examine and decipher evolution. What sort of paradox is that?

I can’t help but find some agreement with Paul Davies’ thesis that he explores in The Goldilocks Enigma: 'it’s like the universe saw us coming' (quoting Freeman Dyson).

For those who are sceptical, be aware that evolution is used as a design methodology in industrial applications as well, using computer programmes that combine the 'most successful' of design 'offspring' in an iterative process.

This blog posting led me to write a companion blog on Intelligent Design. See also my later posting: Does the Universe have a Purpose?

In a later posting I provide a detailed argument on this entire subject: Is evolution fact? Is creationism myth?

Wednesday, 22 August 2007

Self

This is merely a starting point, but it seems to be a starting point for many of my philosophical discussions. For each and every one of us there is an inner and outer world - it is the interaction of these 2 aspects of our experience that determines the self.

If one takes language as an example: we all think in a language, and without it, we would find it extremely difficult, probably impossible, to conceptualise, compare, manipulate and develop abstract ideas. This is such an internal and fundamental process that we tend to forget that we all gained our language from our external world. My point is that we underestimate the dependence of the self on the external world.

This also extends to relationships, because without our interaction with others the self would be sterile, unreflective and probably unexamined. So the self is not something that we can consider in isolation of our external world because it has an extension into that world which both receives and transmits information, energy, emotion and our very soul.

What do I mean by soul? My own interpretation is that it is an evolving process, tempered and moulded by life that we can learn to be comfortable with or we can learn to inwardly dislike. The latter experience can create depression, hatred and a perverse outlook on the world. I speak from experience, so this is part of my journey.

For further elaboration on this, refer my post on The Meaning of Life.