Ultimate meaning


Introduction Default hypothesis Selfish genes Groups Religion Ultimate meaning Background of author Why does it matter?

If religious belief is an innate feature generated by the human brain and one that has evolved because it confers selective advantage, rather than being directly attributable to the activities of a supernatural external entity, then does that mean that God doesn’t exist?


“Yes, I know what you are doing when you practise your religion, but what you are doing is pointless as what you are worshipping has no basis in reality.”


There are many instances of our successful relationship with things that have absolutely no material existence.  Things which we believe in and which provide us with value as a consequence.  Numbers, such as 10, have no concrete existence and yet we have no problem with them as they work for us.  They exist to us as they represent truth about the universe in which we live.  They correspond with what we observe.  They are reliable, eternal and universal.  We do not need to be taken to see proof of the existence of ‘ten’ or any other number.  


God is not a number.  Numbers are mental constructs, modelling devices that we use in order to manage some aspects of our lives.  More than that mathematics, based on sets of rules, has enabled us to extend the value given by the simple numbers that we use for counting into a modelling system that enables us to describe and manipulate everything from our shopping bill to that elusive moment just after the Big-Bang.


Now I dare say that the current mathematics that describe the Big-Bang may well prove to be primitive and inept.  Rutherford’s model for the atom was an improvement on the plum pudding model, Bohr’s description of the atom improved on this.  None of them have proven to be perfect.  However, given the evidence available from the technology at those times, these were the best ideas that could be produced to account for what matter was made of.  We do not now accuse Rutherford of delusions - he was doing his best given what he knew.


Now, what evidence do we have for God?  


(Douglas Adam’s puddle view of God?  The puddle found that the hole in which it lay was so perfect for its shape that it believed that it was created specially for it.  The puddle, fixed in its belief, then fails to notice that the sun is drying it up.)


Science, as exemplified by the story of the atom, doesn’t lock onto one theory and then defend it to the death.  Or at least its not supposed to!  Well, of course, sometimes it does, because science is done by humans.  Scientists accept that science is only as good as the last hypothesis - and maybe not even that.  


Science, religion and mathematics meet common ground as modelling systems created by human brains.  


Religious models are the best models that human brains can construct to describe those aspects of our existence that are not so easily sliced up or counted either because we don’t have the technology or because we are not looking in the right place.


Many of the religious models have been dropped as science has progressed.  God, for some, has been forced to retreat into the gaps.  We know where the Sun is, we know what DNA does and we understand a good deal about evolution.  We don’t need to invoke God to manage crop fertility or the return of spring.  However, knowing the mechanisms that causes events is one thing, calling those who gave their best shot at handling these ‘deluded’ is quite another.


There was truth in the models - even if they did not perfectly represent the physical reality.  There was also truth in the process of communal worship.  


I would like to suggest that, by most commonly accepted definitions, nothing that we say or do can make any difference to God.  The only thing that changes is how we imagine and relate to God.  


This is where the tangle in our heads really starts. I use the word tangle as it best represents the conflict between the essential requirement for fidelity in belief and the scepticism that comes from the evidence provided by the intellect.


Belief in God is generally tied up with a belief in laws, justice, social codes of morality and a drive to protect the image of God, be it graven or otherwise.  


Belief is also emotional, it is a deep form of love and one that is not easily shaken by intellectual arguments.


It is therefore difficult for a believer to start looking at their belief and their god in different way.  This point is well illustrated by the Catholic Church’s reaction to Galileo Galilei’s views on heliocentrism.


By the same token it is hard for an atheist to start to see what the point of a god is and so to start to engage with the argument that there is a point to religion.  Perhaps this is especially true where the atheism has become adopted religiously!  It becomes emotionally difficult to see the situation objectively.  I would make the case that religion is not the force for evil that atheists such as Richard Dawkins suggest.  While there are undoubtedly problems arising from conflicting religious beliefs I think that Dawkins fails to take account of where we would be without religions.  


So, if we are machines, if our brains are modelling devices created by DNA to create more DNA, and we are sufficiently intelligent to realise this, then must we remain DNA slaves locked into an inevitably finite series of wars over relatively banal things like resources and territory?


Updated: 8/1/2010