It seems that so much is dependent upon what we believe. This seems like such an obvious thing to say. And yet it’s an utter rabbit hole – down which there is an astonishing level of complexity.
Years ago, I used to watch Monkey, a Buddhism inspired series based on the 16th-century Chinese novel Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en. Each show started off with the gentle assertion “With our thoughts we create the world.” We can adapt that to say, “With our beliefs we create the world.”
I have been following US politics (Trump essentially) for a few years now. This is less to do with politics than it has to do with belief. Watching the election denying MAGA drama evolve is to be witness to an astonishing instance of how belief can bring a culture to the brink of crisis. I won’t explore that here. I want to observe only that the nexus between psychological well-being, degrees of rational knowledge and political and religious belief is powerful. Political and religious beliefs go hand in hand – each expressing degrees of material or spiritual power or confidence. Out of this mix also comes a moral dimension.
I am listening to Reality is Not What It Seems by Carlo Rovelli. It’s an elegant little book that introduces the reader to quantum science in a gentle manner. Rovelli demonstrates how scepticism has enabled science to progress in profound ways over the past few centuries.
We misuse the word sceptical. At its heart is an intellectual modesty – a sense of uncertainty that says “I know that what I know is not certain. “ I was cleaning up my phone’s notes today and came across a remark from Amy Edmondson to the effect that humility blends curiosity and empathy. It is interesting how many professional sceptics lack humility.
There is a body of self-proclaimed skeptics who are not doubters, but deniers. They tend to be materialists who ‘doubt’ (read deny) anything beyond the material. I see real scepticism as modest and gentle. It’s a state of sensible uncertainty. It’s what we find in our finest mystics and scientists.
The denying sceptics are sure they are right about other people being wrong. In that they are like true believers who share that spirit of certainty.
Belief and its accompanying faith are expressions of certainty – “I am right and I am confident I am.” For me this was no more clearly demonstrated in the Christians who declared God had spoken to them to assure them that Trump would be restored to the White House. To date that hasn’t happened, necessitating consideration of two propositions – God was wrong and I was wrong about what God said.
When my mother was near death with bowel cancer the church community my parents were associated with was confident God had told it my mother would be cured. She wasn’t, she died. But that church community and my stepfather did not find cause to doubt. Instead, they reaffirmed their sense of certainty.
Now and then I watch atheists on YouTube who have quit their church because they moved from certainty to doubt and then often into denial. It may be a necessary transition that is reactive and healing for a time. Some become real sceptics.
My brother, who left the family faith community before our mother’s death became such a sceptic – informed, intelligent, modest, and gentle.
Scepticism and Quantum science
There’s a good place for certainty in our mundane world. It reliably expresses itself in ways that are predictable and stable. When I get home (I am writing this on my iPhone at my favourite local part on a glorious autumnal morning) my house will be substantially as I left it. I am confident it will not have changed into a boat.
The boundary between certainty and doubt – confidence and modesty/humility is what we must identify and navigate.
I can be confident that the creature I am looking at is a dog. I can be less confident that it will behave beyond its inherent doggishness – contingent factors like its life experience will modify behaviour. I may be reasonably confident that all chairs will behave the same way. I’d likely be wrong [some break when sat upon], but it’s a reasonable error. But I can’t reasonably assume all dogs will behave the same way – beyond what makes them a dog.
We take that sense of uncertainty into an array of activities- driving, swimming at the beach, meeting and relating with other people. Our interaction at our certainty/doubt boundary can impact our safety, well-being, or prosperity.
Certainty and God
These ideas don’t go together in a healthy way. We may allow that certainty that God exists is reasonable depending on what we mean by the term, but certainty about God’s nature is simply not possible. Some centuries ago, deep thinkers in Judaism, Christianity and Islam concurred on the observation that God is beyond imagination or comprehension. In Rovelli’s terms the creator of a reality that contains a 100 billion galaxies, each with a 100 billion stars cannot be comprehensible to us.
The God of contemporary Christian fundamentalists is, in essence, a fiction – precisely because it is claimed to be knowable. It cannot be other than imaginary. Believers cannot know whether what they believe to be their God is the real thing. It’s an irrational belief rendered unfalsifiable by faith and certainty.
The gods and goddesses of the Greeks were considered capricious agents who bestowed favours and adversity upon humans in random or chaotic ways. These divines might be knowable, but they were also definable as members of a hierarchy. As tools for thinking about our existential condition they provided a more ‘realistic’ picture than a supreme God whose impact upon believers is random, capricious, and unable to be empirically assessed. Worse, he is often wrong or ineffectual.
Here I am not asserting there is no spiritual intervention in human life – just not at the scale fundamentalists assert. Claiming the supreme creator of all is a personal friend may be comforting but the persistent failure to produce experiential evidence must eventually become dispiriting. This precipitates a certainty/doubt boundary crisis that can trigger a retreat into fantasy.
I have no reason to doubt that gods exist. But that position is based upon an assumption that they do not usually intervene in human affairs at any level that makes such an intervention evident. Prayers to them may or may not be futile, since they are under no obligation to do what is asked of them. Indeed the history of petitioning aid from the divine suggests that is not a rewarding strategy.
Roman Catholics understand this, which is why they seek help from saints and the Virgin Mother. Their humanity may make them more amenable to a human plea – if it is their power. And even so such pleas are often in vain.
The Christian God is as capricious as the Greek gods in that he ignores his followers and benefits unbelievers. Nothing is a more compelling illustration of this than the criteria for sainthood – 2 instances of prayers fulfilled (miracles) with no accounting of those gone unanswered. There could have been 10,000 prayers uttered in futility. Now ‘miraculous’ events do happen. They are bestowed on believers and unbelievers, and upon the upright and the sinner. But there’s a difference between individuals being helped by their own local friendly spirits and the seemingly random and capricious machinations of the supreme creator.
Misattribution of cause is common among monotheists. By collapsing the complex ecology of the metaphysical into a mere handful of [frequently fictional] agents the actual agents are ignored, dismissed, or denied. The certainty of monotheism rules out inquiry, experimentation, and a reliance on empiricism in favour of dogma and faith.
I rule out chance here because I am yet to be convinced that non-ordinary or ‘miraculous’ events randomly occur. It could be so – it’s just not part of my theoretical model.
Chance is at the foundation of quantum reality – but is it deep complexity rather than really random? We cannot know. It looks like chance rather than deep complexity. That’s all we can say.
Evidence of “God’s hand” as a metaphor is an ample selective fantasy – but non-existent in a literal sense.
Again, I am not asserting no intervention from the spiritual dimensions – only such is not from God in any direct sense. Evidence of intervention (i.e. not chance) abounds as reportage. We cannot say it is not ordained at an infinitely higher order of intentionality than a local authority. But equally, we cannot say it is with any foundation. We are left with uncertainty.
This leads to the interesting issue of misattribution of cause. If one is fixed on a single metaphysical cause of all non-ordinary events the author must be God. But a more subtle interpretation may allow a more humble cause – just a local relationship with more immediate spirits.
This is what happens when you take dogmatic napalm to a delicate metaphysical ecology. Our consciousness becomes numb to the abundant life of spirit – hammered as it is between the stupefying impact of monotheism [only one] and atheistic materialism [none].
Certainty and the need for denial
Capricious gods don’t lend themselves to certainty. They aren’t empirically testable, therefore. From a human perspective they become a discourse model – a means of thinking about the human experience. That doesn’t make the gods not real – just not provable. This can trigger a larger discussion to be had elsewhere.
The trouble with certainty and a failure of a god to perform as desired or claimed is that there are only two responses to persistent failure – abandon the god [as many who have become atheists have done] or perform a mind block that doubles down on belief and the assertion of certainty [as happens with ‘true believers’ when their god does deliver].
This denial of empiricism is what my brother call thought stopping – usually a well-worn but irrational assertion that affirms the god’s reality despite no evidence. It works like a mantra to stop thinking. It’s also a common device in cults.
It is accompanied by isolation from challenging ideas. It is not confined to believers as atheists and materialists do the same thing – avoiding and denigrating people who disagree with their stance. Sometimes this is just sensible if the other party is incapable of engaging in reasoned discussion.
But making enemies of people who disagree with you becomes necessary only when you feel the need to be protected from influences that might challenge your certainty.
Denial and isolation are the products of certainty. One might also say that this applies to hubris and conceit.
This is the problem of certain belief – it rules out all other than the predetermined answer. It takes the fluidity of pre-rational awareness and turns it into concrete – fixed and prone to error. It shuts down inquiry and creates a separate fantasy world of imagined and assumed truth.
Even in the history of science our propensity for certain belief cannot be escaped. Khun’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions affirms this. Despite the bluster of materialistic scientists, scientific progress is not unflawed. It errs with the conceits of certainty from time to time, but, because it is founded on doubt and empiricism, it eventually evolves.
Religions evolve also, but even more slowly because certainty and faith are not conducive to change – or reality.
Our animistic ancestors were driven by inquiry and empiricism. The dynamics of reality were such that rigidity and fantasy were guarantees of lives ending quickly.
Rovelli says reality is, in essence, a cloud of data points that resolve in certain circumstances into what we experience. This is the illusion of Buddhism – nothing is intrinsically what we experience even though what we experience is very real to us. It is behind the saying “With our minds we create the world.”
The Christian God is a hybrid tribal god and member of a polytheistic pantheon. Like all concepts of the divine it is a means of articulating shared as well as individual existential experience in a relational sense. But this is of value only when it is a humble and fearless engagement.
I think we struggle to interpret ancient texts on gods because we have only our mentality as a means of engaging with and interpreting what we read. The gods of old were part of what we might call a pre-rational way of knowing, born of animistic roots. Our approach to thinking has become more abstract and less relational. It had allowed significant evolution while also leaving huge gaps – as is evidenced by the perilous situation our superior thinking had gotten us into.
Christianity has not allowed itself to evolve its knowledge to embrace contemporary rational scientific understandings. This is paradoxical in one sense – the Christian core is values-based and insight driven. As such it should be highly adaptive to evolving knowledge. The other element – the Old Testament tribal god side is a cultural narrative that really does not apply to the contemporary world. It offered certainty to a people in an uncertain world. We need certainty – but of what kind? God’s are not a good source.
So, if the cultural narrative is of paramount concern – identity, community, history – certainty becomes crucial for authority and community structure.
As a result, fundamentalist religion resists change, resists contemporary knowledge and forces a distinction between the community of the faithful and others – whether other religious or non-believers.
The moral principles of foundational Christian thought have seeped into our culture as moral values but without creed or dogma. They are not God caused, and at best, all religion can do is communicate them according to its form.
Despite appearances I am not unsympathetic to religions. Many adhere to a faith tradition while being open to inquiry. Early modern European scientists were religious, sometimes deeply so. Atheism and materialism were thoroughly understandable responses to religious dogma – but so was a more reflective and mystical approach. In fact, the fundamental distinction is not reason versus faith but doubt versus certainty – regardless of the area of focus. Newton’s interest in the mystical and metaphysical did not impede his scientific inquiry. That reality was denied by ‘science’ until relatively recently – dismissed as an embarrassing eccentricity. It reminds us that being rational does not mean you are flexible. Devotees of science can be dogmatic and locked in certainty too.
Human reality spans the physical and the metaphysical. We are not animals having spiritual experiences but spirits having ‘animal’ experiences. We function in both domains. Our spiritual consciousness experiences physical reality via our physical bodies. Our being in this world is via organic sensory and instinctive experiences. It is a world in which some certainties exist and exert essential influence upon our wellbeing.
Contra the materialist assertion that consciousness is generated by the brain [a understandable misunderstanding] it is at least heavily moderated by both brain and heart. This argument is generally pretty pointless without empirical evidence of human consciousness independent of the body. Such evidence is abundant, but not available to dogmatic denial and rigid certainty that the metaphysical is a fiction.
Here we see a similarity between devotees of science and religion who adopt an assertion of confident dogmatism.
Belief in advance of empirical and experiential confirmation is universally necessary. Faith in what we are taught is necessary, for without it we can learn nothing. Even those who are sceptics from birth must still accept knowledge on authority until they can test its merits.
Imagine there is a spectrum with pure scepticism [doubt] at one pole and pure certainty [belief] at the other. We all dwell somewhere within the range of the two extremes. No point on the spectrum is inherently virtuous – but many will be contextually so.
I recently finished Peter Frankopan’s The Earth Transformed. It’s an extraordinary survey of human interaction with our planet’s primary expression of natural energies – weather – whether part of natural cycles, the consequence of volcanic activity or celestial activity. And, of course, the impact of human activity. All these factors interact.
Frankopan is an historian, so human activity is his primary focus. Human judgement blends belief and knowledge – and it is astonishing how often belief trumps knowledge. Our destiny depends on how we engage with our environment – physical and metaphysical – the material and the spiritual.
Our ancestors developed an intelligent and sensitive means to engage with the human relationship with the reality that holds it. Before the evolution of abstract thought their awareness was framed by a relational sense of reality, expressed in what we now call animistic terms – something we have denigrated and misunderstood in the cloud of hubris generated by intellectual pride.
With our minds we create the world. With our beliefs we create the conditions for good or wise choices, the conditions that foster generosity of spirit or that magnify the mean grasp of selfishness. These beliefs can turn a god into an ineffectual blowhard whispering into the ears of the deluded and the predatory. They can distort the sublime message of a transformational teacher into a confused divisive fantasy. Rather than uniting they divide, rather than foster inclusion they foster alienation. Rather than the gentle modesty of doubt they stimulate self-defensive pride of certainty.
We all live on that spectrum that has a certainty/uncertainty boundary. We err on the side of certainty as a rule. That’s fine. It’s a feature not a bug. Mostly it serves us well, but when that certainty is violated, we are faced with the choice of changing or resisting. And we so often resist when we should change.
But some things are ill-suited to certainty. The gods especially so. They represent the very large forces in our lives. They are not a source of certainty at a personal level. It is perilous to imagine they are.
We have lost any useful perspective that can help us engage with ideas of the divine in the context of contemporary knowledge. Leading edge scientific insight renders the crasser ideas of materialism impotent and useless for any purpose beyond egotism. Far from delivering certainty we are confronted with a dizzying array of novel insights that can seem more like metaphysics than science.
Our ancestors employed psycho-physical disciplines to explore existential questions – the meaning of life and all that jazz. These days bona fide mystics and scientists are chasing the same mystery using different language and methods. But we must remember that they have never been opponents, and are frequently allies.
The model of belief that blights our culture is a reactive change-resistant one crafted by two parties for their own purposes – and they are inimical to ours. The science v religion drama is concocted by theists and atheists as part of a bad faith performance we must not be tempted to treat as meaningful.
Over the past 1500 odd years certainty has been valourised at the level of popular awareness. Doubt has been characterised as weakness. There is little doubt that religion is no longer required [if it ever was] for moral values to be developed and esteemed. Indeed, in the USA, conservatives with strong religious convictions seem more disposed toward immoral conduct and predation upon the vulnerable than those they oppose. The celebration of Donald Trump as a new messiah makes that painfully evident.
If we see our reality as simple, certainty can be attractive. But if we understand it as complex, doubt is an essential tool for engaging with it. Certainty creates illusions. Doubt dissolves them.
It was the Belgian priest, Georges Lemaître, who developed the Big Bang Theory, proving Einstein wrong. Einstein was certain in his opposition Lemaître’s theory. And yet a religious man, who would offend the materialist scientist, and Professor for Public Understanding of Science [1995 – 2008], Richard Dawkins, demonstrated that he held doubt in gentle hands. Dawkins has expressed the view that you can’t do good science if you are religious.
For different reasons Einstein and Dawkins, two singular names in science, chose certainty over doubt, despite their much-vaunted intellects. They remind us that its not about how smart we are, but whether we have the humility to be uncertain, to doubt, and to be open the soft voice of the divine.