This is a short sketch of my thoughts, trusting the reader’s common sense with filling in the gaps.
I think it best to start with the issue of God, if only because this has dominated Man’s view of the world and reality like no other idea has. And because the vast majority of humanity subscribes to this idea. What follows is a quick summary of my thoughts on God. My “The Case for Agnosticism” essay goes into much greater depth. The common thread that binds the ideas of God different people hold is that God is something outside human experience and conception. Thus, by definition, the idea of God is unfalsifiable. If an idea is unfalsifiable then it is outside science. Hence science cannot address the idea of God. God is a belief, and is not predicated on reason. My view? Agnostic. By definition, the existence of a God or a “Godlike” entity cannot be proved or disproved. Hence it cannot be known. However such an existence cannot be discounted either. Here’s something Donald Rumsfeld said:
“Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”
Hence there are four classes into which all things fall. Known knowns, known unknowns, unknown knowns, and unknown unknowns. If you are a psychology student, you may have studied the Johari window, and you should be familiar with this concept. God is a unknown unknown. So we can never prove it or disprove it. Hence I am agnostic. I am also an apathetic agnostic. That means that given God exists, this “God” does not itself effect the world or change anything about it.
Why then do people believe in God? The general argument is that the idea of God is explained by evolutionary social biology and the role it plays in the human psyche. Think of the time when mankind had just asserted it’s dominance over other species, maybe a few tens of thousand years ago. Now groups of humans were beginning to compete with each other for resources. The groups which won were those which had a greater degree of cohesiveness and an attachment on the part of the group members to the idea of a group. And religions have the greatest ability to pull members of a society together into a gestalt? I admire religion for it’s ability to make people conform. Not only that, make people want to conform and make them really believe that they should, they ought to conform. In this sense religion can a force for good, because it tends to encourage people to leave peaceably, to “live and let live”. However religion is also dogmatic, and can cause a distrust of those not from one’s religion.
So God affects society in the form of religion. God as the idea affects society at the level of the individual. If you believe in God you believe that you always have someone watching out for you. It gives you hope. Hope is a very powerful emotion. Further, God provides the feeling of having a constant companion who will always listen to you. In these ways God fills what would otherwise have been a gaping hole in the human psyche. The idea of God is essentially tailor made to improve our quality of life.
I’ll now make the transition from God to instincts. Instincts are far from perfect, very far indeed, but they provide an extremely useful way of dealing with situations. They do not require thought or reason, but come about instantly. They tend to be strong, so an instinct will almost always be acted upon. Assuming that early humans were still developing reason, instinct was used instead to navigate situations. Think of instinct as a sort of “first approximation” to the ideal way to respond to a situation. Instincts are distinct from emotions. Emotions are what give our lives meaning and purpose, happiness and joy, sadness and pathos and indeed the entire gamut of emotions are derived from instinct. I am not talking about a physical basis for emotions but simply reasoning out why we developed them.
Reason is attributed to the development of the prefrontal cortex, unique to us among species. Unfortunately the results of reason are often in direct contradiction to what our instincts tell us. This goes back to instincts being a “first approximation” and sometimes a bad one. In my opinion, the entire field of ethics arises from this pitting of instinct against reason. We expect human being to be “reasonable”. However, if everyone was actually reasonable, no one would ever disagree. Human beings have always been irrational, and for the foreseeable future, will continue to be irrational. If you don’t believe me, simply as yourself why you’re reading this article. Your ultimate answer is emotional. Perhaps you were curious or you wanted to know.
The desire to be in a group, “to belong”, is one of the strongest instincts we have. It is behind so many of our behaviours, literally, because being in a group confers such a massive advantage. This is behind gangs, religion, alumni associations and so on. Another huge human impulse is to be loved and accepted. You know that a healthy childhood requires a lot of love, care and attention from the parents and family, and the lack of such care and attention can, probably will, result in psychological issues that manifest themselves later. I feel if most sat down and thought about the real reasons for their feelings, especially the negatives ones, they would realise that those feelings stem from the desire to be a group, to have an identity and to belong. That is what people so often define themselves by a antipathy towards something else, and in doing so form their identity.
I feel our instincts are only so useful. It helps to recognise them, recognise the behaviours they give rise to and discard those behaviours. Or more philosophically, know yourself.
Understanding psychology and sociology provides a starting point for understanding the world. Now, what can you say about the world. You could follow Descartes and say, “I know, therefore I am.” That sounds like a tautology (“I am therefore I am”) but what he’s getting at is the best you can do is say that “something” is out there, something that is thinking these thoughts, essentially your consciousness. But you can’t say these words in front of you are real for sure. One can always make up some argument to invalidate that. For example your brain could be hooked up to a computer à la “The Matrix”. To take that a step further, there is no difference between being inside and outside the matrix. Which makes the discussion moot. Going back to what you can know, in epistemology, i.e. the study of knowledge, there is an idea called “justified true belief”. It means that if you believe something, and you have a very good reason to believe that something, then you have justified true belief and that belief is knowledge. However this is clearly wrong, because you can truly believe something but you can be wrong thanks to something that does not fall in your knowledge. Hence there is no true knowledge, only belief. You may argue that 2+2=4 is knowledge. That is wrong. 2+2=4 is not knowledge because you’ve defined it that way, therefore is has to be. For example, I could define $*!=#. Then suppose I write down these symbols in that order and say I “know” that dollar asterisk exclamation mark equals hash.
How can we know then? We try to find the simplest explanations that explain experiments. We hold those explanations till we can find a better explanation. That’s a quick description of the scientific method, and it gives us a way of understanding reality.
We now have a grasp on reality. What do you do with that? You could, very clichéd, but you could try to figure out the meaning of life? An expanded account of my views on Meaning and Purpose is here. What does Meaning even mean? Think of everything that human conception and experience encompasses. Let all of this be contained in some sort of “sphere”. Everything that our consciousness can comprehend is within that sphere. Now, if there was some sort of purpose that would retain its validity outside this sphere, then that would be a real meaning, a real purpose. Unfortunately, by that definition, it seems very hard for us to judge what a real purpose is. How do you check if something is valid outside your conception. Pretty much impossible. One more thing to bear in mind regarding reality, is that an explanation of reality might be outside our conception. In fact I’m inclined to feel this is the case. For example there is no way your neighbourhood cockroach can understand quantum mechanics. You could try showing it the double slit experiment but I doubt anything would come of it. The same way, a true understanding of reality could be outside our grasp. We may not be sufficiently evolved enough to be able to understand this world. This is a counterargument against the argument against God. That argument goes, we cannot understand this world. Thus there is something “beyond”. That something is God. However, just because we cannot understand and cannot explain our world, does not mean our world cannot be explained or understood. “Deus ex Machina”. From the meaning that term has, we can glean something of the purpose the idea of God serves.
As far as the purpose of life goes, I think I’d be some sort of existentialist. Maybe a transcendentalist pragmatist? You can argue that life has meaning. We are born, we do some stuff, and we die. After we die nothing matters. Thankfully we’re irrational and emotions. Our emotions infuse life with meaning. We seek out pleasure, or perhaps eudaimonia. By reading this, you seek out intellectual fulfilment and pleasure. When you meet a friend, you seek out the pleasure of company. When you help someone, you do it because they will help you in turn and you will benefit. When you donate to an organisation, you do it because that organisation promotes a vision you agree with, or maybe you’ll save tax and people will have a higher opinion of you.
The question of ‘Determinism’ comes up often in moral arguments. That is, how can you punish someone for a wrong act if they were predestined to do that? The answer is that you are predestined to punish them. In other words, determinism has no effect. It solves the problem it creates.
Returning to the question of God, a argument for t is science’s inability to answer the question of the functioning of the human brain and further consciousness. They are two separate things. The functioning of the brain is essentially putting neurons together. Consciousness is thought, feelings, emotions which cannot be found in the firing of neurons. Consciousness cannot be explained yet, which is “God of the Gaps” argument. Admittedly, while science cannot explain consciousness, there will be some sort of basis, but not in my opinion a very good one, to believe in something supernatural. This is because science has steadily been able to explain more and more phenomena. For example, it has been 100 years since we knew that nuclei existed. Now we fit what, a million?, transistors into the dot at the end of this sentence. I believe science explain consciousness. Remember though, that because something hasn’t been explained, does not mean it cannot be explained. And just because something cannot be explained by us, does not mean it does not have an explanation. (Sorry about those double negatives. You should read the “Confusing Multiple Negatives” entry in Hitchhiker’s Guide if you think this is bad.)
Where does all this leave us? How should we live our daily lives? I like secular humanism. I believe for my life to progress, everyone else’s life has to progress too. Good education, with a basic background given to everyone in science, philosophy, psychology and sociology is a good start. These subjects are things everyone should be aware of.
To sum – existentialism, emotions, reason over instinct, reductionism and secular humanism. Above all, pragmatism.