The practicality of religion:
Before anything I think that religion is simply a key part of our cultural control system/s, and, as I believe, it is usually formed and developed on the basis of what is necessary or considered necessary for the day, for the objective of social cohesion (if not social exploitation as well).
I believe that the key reason why Christianity has been so successful (in terms of both expansion and durability) is simply because it is practical. Its teachings are generally very healthy for human intercourse and operation, and it does not ask (or justify) people to do seriously silly or destructive things. Irrespective of ultimate truths, be what they may, I think Christianity is a very good religion.
However, I also think that Christianity, as it stands today, is notably outdated. It seems to me to have neglected concerns associated with the rights of other life forms (by suggesting that they are not even conscious i.e. no soul), and has also neglected concerns associated with the natural environment (effectively suggesting that the earth is little more than a training or testing ground for a future non-earth heaven).
This Christian position is understandable for 2000 years ago, when a refusal to eat meat could have too easily meant serious malnutrition or even starvation, and when the human impact on the environment was an entirely moot concern. However, times have changed. We do not need to relate to animals like they are plants anymore, and we do indeed need to think very carefully about the human impact on the environment. We are also at an age where we must consider active population-control. An updated religion should incorporate these dynamics.
I think that a modified Christian religion also based on reincarnation is a good idea. Reincarnation suggests that we must collectively reap what we sew, and that would facilitate a better focus on the wellbeing of earth and its inhabitants. Facilitating the idea of the "law of karma" might be a good idea too, as it suggests that we will one day have to answer to the abuse we project onto others. As long as our societies are still highly neurotic, as they are, a "spiritual deterrent" is probably a good idea.
Though religion fills a gap in peoples psychological dependencies, it also tends to exploit that gap. In turn, I do not believe it to be good practice to institutionalise religion, especially not into a hierarchical structure. A good religion should be built on a constitutional document (like some kind of bible) and should be supported by independent study groups. There is no need to establish priests and power structures, of which support positions which can be too easily abused.
I do not believe in religion as a truthful representation of reality, but I do believe in it as a social system. As long as people need religion and will in part run their lives with it, we might as well work with it, if possible, and make sure it is a reasonable and socially effective system.
The believability of religion:
My personal position is agnostic, because I accept that I do not and realistically cannot know of any exotic truth beyond what I can personally see and experience. And even then I can not validate my personal experience as anything but that - was it ultimately a dream? Who knows. However, I do believe that reincarnation is the least crazy religious idea because, at the end of the day, it only suggests a repetition of a death-to-life process which has already been demonstrated to occur. Before I came alive, I was effectively dead - that was the physical status. So, if I can come to life once, then why not again? Again, I would only be repeating a process that has already been demonstrated to occur.
What it all boils down to, I believe, is the fact that we cannot understand consciousness (how it could ever possibly exist), and that we cannot understand existence at all. The most reasonable truth in an exclusively mechanistic reality is that nothing should exist at all. Everything that exists has to come from something, so nothing should exist at all because nothing could possibly give birth to itself from nothing. Yet, as we know, existence does exist. My point is that ultimate reality goes qualitatively beyond what the human brain can even begin to understand, and that is a truth I can humble myself to. I do not make a religion out of the mechanistic reality itself - to me, that is simply unrealistic.
What I am trying to say is that science hasn't killed "God" yet, and it probably never could. The ultimate unknowns are still unknown, and probably always will be for as far as we can see. So, if people want to form wild spiritual theories, as they will and do, then we are not necessarily in a position to disprove them as wrong. Reality may indeed go far beyond Newtonian physics, and be vastly greater that what we can even begin to understand or acknowledge.
SPIRIT OR NEURONS?
A logical test for the idea of a mechanical soul:
Scientists often refuse to believe that a consciousness at least could be super-mechanical, because they believe that position is unscientific. I would like to clarify my perspective of where science stands, and where it stands in relation to this particular issue.
Ultimately science is just logic, mechanics and reason, and a respectable refusal to confuse theory with fact (though many scientists do that anyway). At its heart science is just physical mechanics. Mechanics is the most fundamental dimension of all science - everything that we can understand boils down to mechanics.
Scientists who believe that the consciousness could not be super-mechanical are therefore taking the affirmative position that the consciousness is a mechanical phenomenon. So, I will look at the consciousness from the fundamental position of pure mechanics, to see how it scientifically stacks up.
The following are the reasons why I believe it stacks up poorly, and to a point where I believe that the consciousness cannot comprehensibly be defined in mechanics.
The brain has no effective complexity to support a conscious experience:
The consciousness is an immediate experiential phenomenon. Though the brain is complex structurally, it has no immediate complexity operationally.
This means that if you took a snapshot in time with an insanely high-speed camera, looking at the function of the brain, then what you will see is that in any given immediate point in time it has virtually no functional complexity. You would see billions of atoms and molecules standing beside each other like redundant "lifeless" pipes waiting to used, with only a few electrons and chemicals in immediate process. Hence, because a consciousness is an immediate-experiential phenomena, the brain has no effective complexity to support it because in no immediate point of time does the brain represent a complex process. Its complexity is purely developmental through time - a complex journey, no truly complex point.
To better clarify this point: Imagine drawing a large complex picture made up of thousands of small inter-connected parts. The image that you develop is "dead", but the single simple component that you are drawing halfway through its construction is "alive" in terms of moving process. Again the brain is the same - as it "draws" its neurological calculations there is no substantial complexity (of process) at any given point of time.
To summarise: The brain is nothing more than a mass of subatomic particles positioned beside each other, periodically colliding. The brain is not really a directly connected system - it’s a mass of isolated components that periodically interact. Even if complexity could support a conscious state (in itself, an absolutely foundationless claim), the brain still has no complexity in consciousness-supporting terms.
If the world we live in is entirely mechanical (meaning scientific, in the traditional sense) then evolution must be the exclusively correct theory as to how life and consciousness came to be. Because it is only through the process of evolution that life could possibly come to be in an entirely mechanistic reality.
So let’s presume that the world is in fact entirely mechanical. This leaves us with a new question: What on earth is consciousness doing there? Because through evolution nothing comes to be if it was not once required for survival, and if the world is in fact a purely mechanical phenomenon then the consciousness should not exist - because it just doesn’t need to.
To elaborate; if the executive function of the brain (which is the consciousness's operational role) is entirely mechanical, then there is absolutely no need for it to experience itself -- the brain can exercise the executive function "automatically" without any conscious experience at all. So if the consciousness really is just atomic particles hitting each other in a pre-designed/destined pattern (and to stress, that's all it can be in a 100% mechanistic world), then a conscious reaction to that process has absolutely no adaptive and therefore evolutionary relevance.
In turn, the very existence of consciousness stands as a fundamental contradiction to the mechanistic theory.
Over a complete lifetime the human body physically reincarnates itself several times. The atoms that make up your body when you die are not the ones you were born with - hence, materialistically you are a different person.
So does this mean that if you took a DNA recording of your body, killed yourself, and then got someone to rebuild you (from the recording) with different atoms and molecules that you would come alive again? There is in fact no difference between that scenario and what happens naturally. And if you used that same recording to build another person (identical twin) would that person be you too? - obviously not, but if our personal consciousness can be reduced to a digital recording, as our ability to physically reincarnate ourselves suggests, then it should be.
This analogy is another unsolvable challenge to the idea that consciousness is made up of physical matter.
If the consciousness is in fact the brain itself, then is it a different consciousness when the "alive" brain is made up of different sets of firing neurons? Is it a different person when a different set of neurons are in operation? As we know it isn’t; it’s the same person experiencing a different part of the brain. But if the consciousness is indeed made up of physical matter, then it should be an entirely new consciousness because in physical-operation terms, it is in fact an entirely different brain every time a different set of neurons is in operation.
The fact that the consciousness can and does physically relocate within the brain suggests that it is ultimately separate to it.
I have thought about the consciousness from the position of a scientist - not someone who has experienced a "religious revelation". And from the scientific position I conclude that consciousness cannot be defined in mechanics. The mechanical-consciousness idea suffers from fundamental contradictions. It just does not and as I see it cannot add-up.
In turn I believe that scientists who claim that the consciousness is made up physical matter (as we know it) are making an unscientific claim. Because it is from the scientific position that that idea contradicts itself.
The truth is, I believe, that science can’t explain everything because not everything can be explained in mechanics. Why some scientists can’t accept this I don’t know - to me it’s only reality.
The cheerful side to my argument is obvious. Because the consciousness cannot be defined in physics, the physical death cannot define the conscious death. I'm not saying that we don't consciously die when we physically die, but that the conscious death is not verifiable when we physically die and therefore it is an unknown as to whether or not we do or do not ultimately die.
We know that the sensorium is not conscious itself, but merely delivers information to the brain of which is at least closer to the seat of consciousness. So the sensorium doesn’t "see" in itself -- it is the brain that "sees", but the brain does so through the sensorium. But then how do we know that the brain itself sees? How do we know that it is not the consciousness (whatever that ultimately is) that sees through the brain, whereas the brain, like the sensorium, only sends the messages?
The reality is we can never know - we can never prove that the brain is the consciousness itself, even if it is. Identifying neurological processes that correlate to specific conscious experiences only proves the correlation - not that the neurons are conscious themselves.
So can we prove that the consciousness is super-mechanical? We could, but only if the consciousness stores information and then re-represents that information onto another physical body, where we can know that the line of communication could only have been achieved super-mechanically. Or, we could prove it by verifying that the consciousness has some kind of mind-over-matter effect. The consciousness, if super-mechanical, would have to have some kind of ‘mind-over-matter’ effect because that is the only way a super-mechanical consciousness could actively integrate with the mechanical brain.
I have not seen or heard of any substantial evidence to support that the consciousness is super-physical. Does/could that evidence exist? Who knows.
So the mechanical-consciousness idea can never actually be proven, whereas the super-mechanical idea ultimately could be; that is, if it were in fact to be true, and if the consciousness did in fact possess properties that could lead to its verification as a super-mechanical entity. Of course this does not, in itself, mean that any one position is right or wrong. I'm just trying to clarify where I think we're at with this question from a scientific position.
EVOLUTION VERSUS INTELLIGENT DESIGN:
The Evolution versus intelligent design debate would be better described as the Evolution versus "beyond human comprehension" debate, because there is no tangible evidence for the existence of an intelligent God-like creator, even if a God of some kind exists.
In my opinion, the evidence for the reality of evolution-theory being evolution-fact is overwhelming to a point where I feel sure that Darwinian evolution is at least a part of how life as we know it has come to be. The question, for me, is whether or not Darwinian evolution is the exclusive dynamic as to how life has come about. The following are my reflections on the idea:
In engineering design we see evolution and intelligent design working together in product development. Evolution provides refinement, where basic variables on an already established component are modified to reach a natural optimum with respect to its essential variables, such as size and proportion. In engineering, evolution can occur on a somewhat trial-and error basis. But the thing with evolution in engineering is that it can't jump - it can only merge. Hence, intelligent design is necessary when you want to change a variable into something else, where the old component cannot merge into the new one. Intelligent design is particularly necessary when you need to develop multiple integrated-components simultaneously. For example, if you want to move from a gas-powered to battery-powered car, then to achieve a competitive advantage you must not only change the drive unit, you must also, simultaneously, redesign many other components to integrate with the new system as well. Only intelligent design can achieve total-system modifications, at least in a reasonable amount of time.
This engineering principle also exists in nature, and this is where I find evolution theory to have a challenge. Before a water-based human, for example, can evolve webbed feet and have those feet operate more as an advantage than a liability (allowing the change to be reinforced), they must also simultaneously evolve complimentary systems (maybe hundreds) to make the webbed feet specimen superior. To expect this to happen via the raw dynamics of chaotic mutation and natural selection becomes hard to visualise. Modelling it in my minds eye, it must take an unthinkable amount of time - not 3 billion, but more like trillions upon trillions of years. Think also of the other things that are going against the evolutionary process. Even when the miracle of a greater net advantaged mutation occurs, it can only reinforce itself per-generation. In the human animal, that's no faster than about a 15-year cycle. And then the advantage has to not terminate itself via the constant bad luck of life of which may kill it off before its slight superiority can even be demonstrated. For example, a slightly webbed-feet human might get killed early from a weak heart, another warring tribe or unusually bad weather, or be found unattractive to a mate etc. Hence, in response to common bad luck, evolution would have to wait another thousand or more years for the first stage of a tiny advantageous change to even begin to occur.
The problem with "raw" evolution is that it stands as an terribly crude system which still, as it seems, leads to formidably complex and technically brilliant creations. But maybe the process of evolution has evolved in itself, creating a kind of methodological in-built intelligent design, to speed up the process? Who knows, but I would argue that a function like that could still only be crude, because it must still possess a human-like level of intelligence, at least to have a dramatic effect.
So that, I think, is the main argument to challenge evolution with respect to the idea of Darwinian evolution being the sole reality of how life has come to be. When you try to model the time involved to produce a human, it becomes extremely difficult to imagine how it could occur with just random mutation and natural selection.
A more minor argument relates to this question: What is the most simple physical form that can achieve sustained reproduction and also progressive mutation? That form, be what it may, is where evolutionary life must begin - hence, it must fall into place by pure hap-hazard chance. As a mechanistic system, the chances of a still hugely complex structure (which it ultimately must be) just falling into place is insanely small, but then this is still easier to accept because there is a lot of opportunity for a reproductive system to fall into place as well, considering the vastness of the universe's atomic volume and the vastness of time.
Maybe evolution is indeed the exclusive truth of the development of life. However, I do not think it's unreasonable to consider that truth only a theory due the reality of chance. Again, it's hard to imagine how life could evolve in anything less than an eternity, and a few billion years is far from that.
To me, the idea that evolution could be more like a growth (maybe an inter-generational genetic growth in response to some kind of higher-level design...or as I tend to put it, some kind of "invisible hand") is no more far-out than the idea that a universe could ever exist at all; or that a universe, considering the infinite material-existential possibilities, could happen to exist in a form that can support organised, self-evolving biological machines in the first place.
Our science has rightfully belittled hundres of traditional religious myths, but it can hardly claim to have replaced--or be capable of replacing--our ultimate absolute ignorance relating to the foundations of life and existence.
My personal "spiritual" position:
My personal spritual position is very simple. My attitude is that earth is my post, this is where I was born, and this earth with its life is the concrete reality that I care about and represent. If there are greater existential realities beyond earth, including beyond the physical dimensions, then so be it. This is not my personal concern and nor does it need to be.
To me, this is the most healthy and substantial spiritual position that I can take. Any other esoteric or religious preoccupation is for myself a worthless waste of time.
The value of humanity and its role on earth:
Humans have recieved a bad rap for quite some time, largely suggesting that we are nasty parasites of this earth, arguably better off dead due to our potentially catastrophic impact on the environment of which may never be repaired, not even in a 100 million years. This, as I see it, relates to the threat of massive radioactive contamination, which I consider to indeed be a real and profound threat. How safe is a nuclear reactor when/if it becomes a strategic target in the next major war? How many uncontained Chernobyl's can our planet withstand?
However, we are also an animal that has the power to protect this earth from natural catostrophic events that would otherwise lead to mass or even absolute extinctions, and an animal that can environmentally develop and regulate this earth to ensure permanently stable and copious life, at least until the day that the sun finally blows up. We also have the ability to expand life out from the limits of this planet. These objectives, if hopefully actualised, make us the most important animal on earth. We have the ability to make earth-based life last for a virtual if not actual eternity - hardly a parasite.
However, we obviously need to clean things up a bit. Though we have power in our numbers, infrastructure and technology, we also suffer from misplaced leadership and problematic mass neurosis; and those two things--power and immaturity--are a dangerous combination. We need to clean up our systems, and ourselves, and then we can get on with the real job of scientific and social progress (not progress as defined by the power to satisfy irrational material needs) and likewise celebrate humanity in its rightful status as by far the most important animal on earth, for the long-term security and advancement of life.
Note: When I describe humans as 'the most important' animal, I do not mean that in the arrogant sense that we have greater intrinsic value than other life. I mean it in the sense of functional value in that we have the capacity to give so much to the prosperity of life in general.
Some people seem to have the belief that the ultimate value attributed to life should be attributed to its productive power. They seem to have the idea that life, or human life at least, can or should be valued in terms of its power to produce. But that philosophy comes with an obvious question: Power for what? Productivity for what? Obviously the ultimate value must be life itself, life for its own sake, because nothing that we can understand has value unless it has value to the service of life: for life's preservation, wellbeing and propogation.
This is why, to me, it is so completely wrong to have the outlook that any people should be treated or looked upon as though they are worthless, regardless of their possible lack of empowerment or maybe productive impotence. To do as such is an insult to the value of life, and in turn an insult to the value of anything. If you can interpret any individual as a "uselss eater" then you might as well interpret all individuals--or all 'beings' even--as useless eaters. Because again, the value of power or production is zero unless, ultimately, it has value to life for its own sake. Life is the only ultimate value, and nothing has value unless it has value to life.
Also to say, some people seem to have the belief that the value of life lies in its evolutionary status or its capacity to evolve. But again the question is: "evolution for what"? Evolution is an adaptive measure that allows life to prosper in varied conditions. Life for its own sake is still the ultimate value, regardless of what evolutionary direction its conditions induce it to take. Evolution, like power and productive capacity, are still only servants to life.
Worshiping power like it defines the value of life is a lunatics religion. Not only because it sets the stage for the justification of inhumanity (as we are all too familiar from the Nazi regime, and others), but also because it makes no logical sense at all.
If there is one thing that I think everyone should be it is what I call a "functional atheist". What I mean by this is that we should ultimately act as though there is no God, at least with respect to our actions and/or inactions of which affect others and our environment.
Even if there is some kind of moral* God out there, we should still act as though he/she/it is away on leave, so that in turn us humble mortals should at least see ourselves as the "acting managers" of our world. Anything less can lead to what I call an "all-I-have-to-do-is-follow-the-10-commandments-and-Jesus-will-clean-up-the-mess" mentality, which is dangerous and irresponsible.
We have no right to substitute reason with faith when making decisions that have far-reaching consequences. Faith by definition is, sorry, ultimately just wishful thinking, and again we have no right to make serious decisions based only on what we *want* to believe. Functional atheism must rule.
*Would we want to mindlessly obey an evil God, for even if he were all-powerful? It's funny but the difference between right and wrong must ultimately be determined by man - otherwise we're just power-worshippers!
Scientists are agnostics - Materialists are atheists:
The issue is a bit semantical, but I think I made an error in previously describing science as being about materialism. It isn't. It's about evidence.
For a scientist to believe that there is no god or afterlife or "spirit dimension" etc, they need evidence to support this assertion, otherwise it just goes back to the 'unknown bin' and in turn they retain an agnostic position. Science is about what you do and don't know - not what you do and don't believe.
So what evidence do we have to support the idea that existence begins and ends with what we can materially register, directly and indirectly, through our senses? We have no evidence at all. We have no idea if our bodies are "avatars", or if the fibre of existence is in part composed of that which we cannot directly measure or register. Hence, the scientist is forced to be agnostic.
Materialism by contrast is a position of faith. Faith in the idea that the material world is the only composition of our reality. This is what atheism is about - it is not a scientific position.
I have long been suspicious that materialism has basically hijacked the name of science for the purpose of beating up (other) religions. The atheists want to say "We are the truth!" with their pretence of representing the scientific position. Atheists want to use evidence (or the pretence of evidence) to close the door on religious thought.
Also, atheism might be about closing the door on scientific investigations into the esoteric. If esoteric = intangible, which is the atheistic position, then scientific investigation simply won't go there.
Note: It's interesting that Richard Dawkins' admitted that maybe we should all be strictly agnostic because we can't ultimately know if there is some kind of god or not. But then he associated the belief in a god with the idea of a teapot orbiting the sun; i.e. incredibly unlikely but we still can't rule out that it might be there.
However, this teapot analogy is a false association because we have no way of measuring or developing any kind of perspective on the likelihood of there being some kind of god or 'other' outside or in addition to the material domain as we know it. We have nothing to tell us what those chances are or could be. So again, only the agnostic position is tangible for the scientist.