Imagine that the motor car as we know it had never been invented – suppose we’d developed electrical technology long before the internal combustion engine.
Now suppose someone came up to you and proposed the following: “I want you to go and sit in the back of that metal box and lock yourself in. Under your seat is a bomb made from twelve gallons of liquid petroleum. Petroleum is extremely explosive and there’s ample there to turn you into cinders. A bit of static electricity from wearing synthetic clothes is more than enough to ignite it, but for your comfort and convenience we’ve also routed it close to a very hot pipe and carry it via easily chafed tubes to the front, where we deliberately expose it to 15,000 volts of electric sparks. Ok? How do you feel about that?”
From that perspective the motor car doesn’t seem nearly so benign or reasonable, does it? In these days of consumer protection, can you seriously imagine such a thing being made legal? And yet we not only accept it as normal but we casually pack our children inside one and hurtle at closing speeds of 120mph, a few inches from some random stranger doing the same thing.
But it’s just what you do, isn’t it?
Belief in gods is just like this, as far as I can see. It was once the only explanation we had, and it seemed eminently reasonable at the time.
We humans were faced with, and perhaps uniquely able to examine, all sorts of major scientific puzzles about the world around us: How did it come to be? How did such complexity arise? Why am I able to speculate on all this in a way that a rock doesn’t seem able to do? What’s it all for? Why am I somewhat like other creatures and yet apparently so different? Why is it all so damn painful?
These were excellent questions, and led to a series of excellent answers. Like all scientific theories, these proposed answers have been subjected to challenges and gradually adjusted in the light of new information. First it wasn’t at all obvious that trees and maybe even rivers don’t have a first-person experience of life in the way that we do, so animism was an early scientific theory that sought to explain growth and movement and purpose in terms of some animating influence, and hence the theory of spirits was born.
Later, analogies with the contemporaneous development of social order in humans led to the notion that events in the non-human world were also orchestrated by intelligences. The apparently erratic and cruel nature of life’s events was perhaps best explained in terms of power struggles and the emotional personalities of invisible beings – a pretty good reflection of what humanity was itself going through at the time. An extremely elaborate and sophisticated set of sub-theories were developed within this paradigm and such polytheism worked very well for thousands of years.
Eventually, some quite logical inferences brought a group of researchers to the conclusion that such a society of gods must have a leader, and that their particular favorite god was the best candidate. This theory worked so well (although not for very scientific reasons) that it eventually led to the theory that all these other gods weren’t really gods at all – just angels, or devils, or false gods that should be denied. Moreover, since the whole of existence must surely have had a single-point beginning, it was clearly this deity, the All-Father, who created it. Nothing so complex could conceivably have created itself, so this made a lot of sense. Just like Newtonian Mechanics before Einstein came along, a massive body of literature was developed around it and the theory looked pretty secure.
I’m grossly over-simplifying this progression of scientific theories, I know. I simply can’t do them justice in a few paragraphs and I have a specific point to get on to. But I hope you can accept that animism, to theism, to monotheism is a rational, thoughtful, scholarly progression of explanations of the world and our place in it, drawn from careful observations and then refined, both gradually and via distinct paradigm shifts, through the use of logical challenges to the predictions it made. Apart from the difficulty of performing actual experiments on such matters until recently, this process of philosophical enquiry is essentially science. Religion is science. Or at least it was until it started insisting upon blind faith.
At every stage in the process, some people refused to go along with the flow. Either they didn’t believe the new evidence, they didn’t hear about it at all, or they had too much invested in the previous paradigm. There are still animists. There are still polytheists. Even amongst a single line of monotheists there are three distinct schools of thought, each focused around a particular moment in the history of its development – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It’s hard to let go of a conceptual framework that has infiltrated one’s entire life.
You may have noticed that I’ve missed out a stage in this progression of philosophical ideas. Beginning around five hundred years ago, a series of observations that were entirely consistent in spirit to all the others that led to them began to cast serious doubt on some of the basic tenets. That, too, is far too big a tale for a paragraph, but whilst Bronze-age people had developed a highly sophisticated understanding of the motions of planets that seemed to confirm the need for divine control, medieval scholars were able to show that this complex set of requirements became massively simpler and more mechanical if we let go of the notion that our planet is at the center of the universe. Such an hypothesis was very persuasive but it called into question some deeply held assumptions about the existing theory, which by this time was rather heavily built upon the notion that humans (or at least some tribes of humans) were special, and all this complex theological machinery really required us to play center-stage. It didn’t go down well. (Apparently nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.)
Much, much more has happened since then. The new theory of planetary motion led to a rapidly growing understanding of how a wide variety of things that we’d formerly assumed could only happen if an intelligence caused them to happen, can actually be better explained in terms of quite simple regularities, which we call physical laws. The accumulating evidence about the age of the Earth and how its rocks have formed failed to square with some assumptions in the older cosmology about how it had been created. And in the 19th Century a couple of very methodical and painstaking studies seriously began to erode the assumption that the world is too complex to have arisen without someone to create it. This was a bit of a shock, but it did at least help us to deal with some very longstanding philosophical difficulties with the existing theory, such as “if the complexity of the universe can only be explained by intelligent design, the same argument must apply to the even more complex designer, so who or what created him?”
To cut a very long story short, a massive, MASSIVE amount of evidence has accumulated in the past five hundred years that required another paradigm shift in our cosmology. The explanations we had before – of spirits, of warring otherworldy beings, of an all-creating all-father – no longer fit the facts. These changes were at first incremental and capable of being absorbed by modifications to the existing theory, but eventually a Kuhnian paradigm shift became necessary to account for what is now known. Like all honest science, the theory had to be abandoned and replaced.
But like all other paradigm shifts in the history of our collective attempt to understand our world, not everyone feels in a position to let go of the old world view. The same reasons apply now as ever: some are ignorant of these new developments; some understand them but genuinely don’t believe them (although this time I think that’s a very small minority, if anyone at all); and some have too much invested in the old ways to change.
Unfortunately, some of this latter group are determined to pull the wool over people’s eyes and deny this accumulated evidence, either for personal gain or to protect their own insecurities. Others are somehow able to engage in doublethink and believe two mutually contradictory ideas at the same time. But the majority, I suggest, are simply too used to it to see the problem.
We think nothing of sitting our children on top of a bomb and driving them to school, because that’s what we’ve always done. The technology arose in rougher times, when such things didn’t seem so unreasonable. But I submit that, if the idea were proposed for the very first time today, we’d find it utterly ludicrous. We’d say it was a monstrous suggestion that would lead to thousands of deaths every year. And we’d be right.
I further suggest that, if history had been different and we hadn’t passed through these (at the time entirely reasonable) stages in our scientific explanation of the world, and someone came up to you today and suggested for the very first time that the universe was put together by an alien intelligence, that there was a heaven and a hell, that you were born sinful and doomed to hell unless you could convince this deity that you believed in him, and all the rest, you’d be rather more likely to believe that it makes sense to sit on a bomb and throw sparks at it.
By the way, should any of you wonder why I write posts about religion in a blog about artificial life, there is a reason: My work is about answering the very same questions that led to these stages in our religious/scientific development. Many of the things that in prior theories required supernatural agency – souls, consciousness, a vital spark, are nowadays amenable to examination. By trying to create life in the laboratory, especially somewhat abstract forms of life, as opposed to fairly slavish copies (see, for instance, Craig Venter’s lab’s work), I hope to gain more insight into what it means to be living, conscious, spiritual entities. I’m just continuing the work started by our stone age ancestors.
Discuss. I know you will 🙂