The following is an article by Cedric Stratton from March 2008 Issue 186 Noesis - The Journal of the Mega Society. the Mega Society is a high IQ society open to people who have scored at the one-in-a-million level on a test of general intelligence credibly claimed to be able to discriminate at that level.
Do you believe in God/Supreme Being/Uncaused Cause?
No, I do not believe in a supreme being. My rationale is entrenched in chaos theory. By carefully observing and analyzing the random interactions of large numbers of moving things, we can discern within the apparent chaos many ordered zones persisting for finite, measurable, periods.
Logical extension implies that an infinite universe, in time, will display every degree of order within that chaos, albeit surrounded by an overwhelming mass of material in disarray.
Given the magnitude of time, space, and circumstance, the geneses of galaxies, stars, planets and life do not require intervention by a superior being. I suspect that people studying the infinite variety afforded by the Mandelbrot set, or similar fractal systems, likely incline towards this, or a similar, point of view. With the infinite, all things are possible hence the spacetime infinity is sufficient unto itself.
Over geological time spans there are eras where an order exists with a few materials remaining stable for long periods. Again, over cosmic time, the current geological group of substances may have several forms; one stable set of substances changes to other stable substances, while others resist changes. Some of the unchanged persist; some of the new persist.
Human lives, on the scale of geologic and cosmic time are not even a blip on the radar of events. 100,000 years of humanoids in an estimated 10,000,000,000 years of existence of the Milky Way galaxy come to a trifling 0.0001%. The presence of ordered zones in a chaotic system imply that pockets of order come and go within the infinity of time and
space, and we (humans, the biosphere, the whole planet) happen to be in one at present.
If he exists, does he care about us?
This is moot, given my answer to the first part. If a being exists who ‘made us in his image’ then, regarding the time when dinosaurs were dominant, before humanoids even existed, I ask ‘in whose image were the dinosaurs made?’ Then again, at some time in the future when humans no longer walk the earth (or any other place), and a new prevailing life form replaces the human domain, in whose image would they be made—in the image of the same god, or a different one? If the same god, he has ceased to care about us; if a different god, the original was not immortal, invisible, etc.
Put differently, why should a being with the ability to exist in all places at once, make all things, do all things (according to one popular concept of god), pause along the way to care for each and every individual creature? When earth changes in a way to render human life impossible, and other life forms have their opportunity for a moment in the sun, the view of a caring god implies that the god must therefore have ceased to care for humans, in favor of the latest viable species.
2. Is life as we know it, the BEALLENDALL?
I have no problem with saying ‘yes’ to that one.
Do we just decompose body and spirit at death?
Undoubtedly. Again, I have no problem with ‘yes’ to that one either.
What happens to our consciousness/spirit/soul when we die?
I already sense an answer to this one – this time by answering a converse question: ‘where was our consciousness/spirit/soul before we were born (or conceived, according to one's view of when life begins)?’ My view is that we have already experienced the ‘hereafter’in its alter ego, the ‘herebefore’. Our recollection of it is zero, despite Shirley MacLaine’s claims. It seems logical that any consciousness/spirit/soul we had in the ‘beforelife’ should revert to the same form in the ‘afterlife’.
Why should its past form be different than the future form? Materially, our individual lives, during the organizing and reorganizing matter from nonliving to living and back again, are way stations in the matter of which we are made. Our bones will become the differently organized mineral calcium phosphate, our protein will be reshared with other life forms, and our blood salts will merge with sea salt. Body and soul are one.
My view of the living spirit/soul hinges on the notion that life goes inexorably onwards and upwards. Of the two choices, one granting ‘advantage’ and prolonged life (order), and the other, ‘disadvantage’ and curtailed life (early return to disorder), the path to ‘advantage’ bestows representational rights in following generations. ‘Choice’ seems to follow more closely the gift of self locomotion.
Plants, not having that gift, thrive where they may. They change within their lives only by adaptation, and in their progeny, by mutation. But motile organisms making good choices will survive, when similar ones making bad choices will not survive, hastening change. Self propelled organisms share this ‘choosing’ ability, which I judge is the seat of consciousness.
The humblest motile organism I know of that exhibits ‘choice’ is a tiny oceanic organism. Perhaps many species do this, but one example is all we need to make the point. This organism ‘dances’ using minute flagellae around its body, and the dance varies according to the wavelength of the light in which it is bathed. The two kinds of dance are described as the ‘blue’ dance and the ‘red’ dance.
It is zooplanktonic, and feeds on bluegreen algae floating in the ocean, almost at the surface. Wind action drives the algae into ‘windrows’, long lines at the sea’s surface, to become plantfood for this small herbivore. The algae use part of the light shining on them to sustain growth, and the light below them is changed accordingly. When the flagellate creature is amid the algae it feeds on, it ‘sees’ the remaining color, which lacks blue/green components, appearing reddish, and performs a vertical oscillating dance. As long as it is feeding the dance places it at different vertical stations within the windrow.
When the same flagellate is out in the open between windrows, it ‘sees’ a different color with more blue in the light spectrum, because the algae is not there to absorb the blue/green light component. Then the organism dances laterally, side to side. Sooner or later the dance brings it to a new windrow, and the pattern reverts to vertical oscillation, maintaining its position to benefit from the ‘choice’ so made.
If organisms follow no pattern, they suffer a feeding disadvantage. ‘Choice’ propelled the evolution of this organism towards more efficient versions of the original. I hope nobody out there reading this contends that evolution is ‘only a theory’.
I see ‘consciousness’ in more complex organisms (i.e., the higher animals), as an enormously multifaceted complex of many such ‘choices’, some more important than others. The more important ‘choices’ override the less important.
Some choices are conscious, some are embedded in the nervous system, but they still represent a ‘choice’—like when you instinctively withdraw the hand from a hot surface. Breathing is unconscious, but drinking is a conscious choice—we can have water or wine now—or we may choose to wait a little longer until the tea has brewed. When the body dies, choices no longer have consequences, so there is no further need for the spirit/soul. I contend the soul is not eternal, and is not recycled. I utterly discount Shirley MacLaine’s claims to previous lives. Because she is famous and has money, most people forget that she made it by playing very convincing ‘let’s pretend’ at the highest professional levels.
3. Granted a historic Christ, what do you believe about him?
Various authorities inform us that there were numerous Christs, the biblical one and many pretenders, which included a few genuine, earnest emulators.
My answers refer to the biblical one, scourged and crucified by the Romans, in the event instigated by local civic leaders in Jerusalem in Judaea.
He was the subject of many idealized life stories, of which just four were chosen for that great piece of literature, The Bible. These stories stretch credulity far beyond breaking. Walking on water? Turning water into wine? Rising from the dead? Who are we kidding? If the ‘wine’ miracle happened, were the usual laws of matter fleetingly revoked? Material laws yield to none, even temporarily.
How did it happen? Perhaps Jesus read the character of a rascally steward who stashed away the good stuff for his own later use, and when confronted by Jesus, he was obliged to fetch it back out. Doubting Thomas? Never happened. Jesus was either dead and did not reappear to the apostles, or he was not dead and appeared as an injured self who recovered—certainly not resurrected after having been dead.
Did anyone read Stephen King’s Pet Sematary?
However, from the several accounts of Christ’s life (all different, often in major details), one can tease out a core of the man’s reality. Undoubtedly he was a man with great charisma, deep love and concern for his fellow men, especially the downtrodden; sensitivity to social injustice; a compelling orator; wellversed in Mosaic law; and he held a deepseated disdain for the pomp and hypocrisy of the ‘powersthatbe’— the Pharisees and scribes, the moneylenders, the rich men, the rulers, all filled with their own importance, and most of them on the take.
He was the object of their deadly conspiracy because his charisma and popular following threatened their social order, and their position in it—similar to the way many southern whites felt threatened by Martin Luther King, Jr. during the early days of my residence within these shores. Were a Jesus Christ born today, I believe he would hold precisely the same attitudes and values as the original Christ, with minor modifications to suit the present day context.
I already described my view of the gospels—how the extant Greek and Roman god stories described many deities (and demons, too) with miraculous powers, among others, the ability to procreate with humans to produce demigods, and so on. The gospel makers wrote of Jesus’ goodness, love, forgiveness and tolerance as best they could, but I think they were tempted in the end to beef up his godliness by including miracles, so as to compare better with the other god literatures—curiously, the exact temptation that Christ was recorded as having resisted. So—no biblical style miracles. I do believe in miracles, but of chance or the inner spirit.
Common sense says miracles never overturn the laws of physics, chemistry and mathematics. . . . Having said that, comparing the Christian gospels with Roman and Greek god writings, I find the gospel stories commendably far more rational and sober, and the better for it—but they still overtax credulity. There are two views, maybe more, of the resurrection.
Either people saw another man with similar love and kindness towards his fellows, and metaphorically said‘he is the Christ’, in the same the way people seeing me for the first time as an adult, say ‘goodness me, it is Stanley (my dad’s name) all over again!’ Or it is a wishful account of what should have been, were justice served—an attempt to
reverse time, as if to deny Christ’s tragic last day—even after Christ showed a guilty adulteress a mercy, that he, an innocent, was denied. In that era women were stoned for adultery, and babies slaughtered on a seer’s prediction. That should not have been, but it was. Was he God, man, or both?
From various readings on how the brain works, I gather that there is a basic human need for a ‘higher being’. This need has been met many times in many cultures, so that basically ‘man made God in his own image’—not the other way round.
The god concept may be used for purposes noble or evil but is a human artifact. Most who follow a god do so for noble purposes, to gain inner strength and will, to better accept the adversities of life, and to help improve the lots of those less fortunate. To me, with no god necessary for life to exist, and no evidence of a physically real god, the one Christ was undoubtedly a man, a very extraordinary man, but still—a man.
In other writings I have suggested that there might be some benefit for believers if Jesus were seen as a man purely and simply. ‘Jesus as god’ offers no hope for the ordinary person to adopt Jesus’ loving and forgiving attitudes, and might cause one to complain ‘why bother? I am just a man, he was a god.’
But ‘Jesus as human’ permits a more optimistic attitude—‘If Jesus can, then I can too.
Although I am sure he was not a god, I can accept reference to him as ‘god’ metaphorically. This, by the way, is one reason why I attend a Lutheran church regularly.
Although I am an atheist, I feel Christian in everything except the theological component. I regard the communion rite as a reenactment of the poignant events and remarks surrounding Jesus’ last hours, at a time when he surely was aware of the nature and extent of the authorities’ conspiracy against him, and probably also realized the certainty that he would die because of it. If it takes a communion rite to remind people to behave with love and decency towards each other, I am happy with it, but I do not feel I need that reminder.
While the rest of the congregation partakes of the ritual at the altar rail, I commune alone in the choir stalls, singing vocal soli of one or other of the lovely pieces written especially for communion—pure theatre on my part, but church members often say that it stirs them.
4. What do you see as the purpose(s) in our lives.
Does there have to be a purpose? I always question, and in the questioning mode a word I frequently use is ‘why’? Why do we need a purpose? What happens if we simply ‘get on with it’? In seeking answers I try to disassociate by looking beyond the human species. It seems to help me focus objectively on the logic, by removing the subjectivity involved because of my status as a human. Thus I imagine, say, an anthill, and being uninvolved, I can answer in a more objective way ‘what do ants suppose is their purpose in life?’ The answer I keep reaching (outside the ecological ‘balanceofnature’concept) is: individual ants have no
purpose, they just ARE.
In the material scheme of things our lives, our world, our solar system, our galaxy, and our universe, are all driven by thermodynamics. Objects exposed to energy, no matter the type or origin, respond by intercepting it or allowing it to pass. Intercepted energy begets change. The change is neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad’ in character, since ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are purely human constructs, and wholly subjective.
Absorption of energy always causes low energy substances to assume a higher energy. The change may be fleeting (briefly heated); or durable (they become other stable substances); or durable decomposition substances (the gaseous parts disperse, and the material is no more the same thing); the energy may be reemitted soon afterwards with reversion to the original state; or long afterwards by another agency’s intervention; or remain ‘locked’ in the higher energy state, as in gases formed by decomposition. Thus sunlight changes carbon dioxide and water into green plants, glucose, cellulose, and oxygen, and a gamut of other materials in the
Glucose and oxygen are high energy substances, and of them we say that the plant producing them has stored the energy from the sun. We can release that energy metabolically to perform biological work, or we can release it chemically to do mechanical work—for instance, by burning the wood to drive a steam engine.
While we still have much to learn about the details of our cosmos, nothing out there suggests we will ever have to change the basic laws governing energy and matter, although we may make modifications as new conditions impose boundaries for existing laws. For example, I see us discovering laws to apply under different conditions than at the earth’s surface, e.g., in the intense gravitational field near a ‘black hole’, but never actually overturning Newton’s laws of motion. To me, life processes, geologic processes, cosmic processes, all are just thermodynamics
Our role in the universe is a small feature of the energy balance as it passes from source to receptor—each receptor being source to the next receptor in line, and so on.
To me it all comes together as an elegant whole—nothing
wasted, only changed. Furthermore, no matter how slow it seems on our timescale, the changes are quite fast enough on the geological or cosmic scale.
5. The problem of evil in the world/tragedies caused by nature and man—how do
you explain it?
Again I ask—‘do we need explanations?’ When I taught oceanography, I used a small book by Willard Bascom, Waves and Beaches, to describe wave motions and their effects. Bascom was an engineer, who went everywhere, did everything.
He illustrated his chapter on tsunamis with a photograph of the harbor at Honolulu taken by a photographer from a safe vantage point several hundred feet above the impending danger, seconds before a several hundredfoot wave crashed into the docking basin. This towering wave commanded the entire picture, but in the picture was one small corner of one wharf not yet inundated, but in a few seconds it would be. On the wharf was the lone figure of a longshoreman trapped by circumstance or carelessness, frantically trying to flee—to where?—there was nowhere for him to go—a ‘chance’ of location.
In the same occupation in New York, Liverpool, or Marseilles, his life might have offered different, better, chances. The caption went something like—‘to the left center of the picture an unlucky longshoreman tries to escape the impending disaster’. His unfortunate end was a mere matter of chance. I suppose we could call this the quantum of tragedy—one man losing his life before his time in a vain fight against nature (in this case). It could just as well have been in a vain fight against the spiteful caprices of mankind in one of our many wars.
If we multiply this one death by a hundred, a thousand, a million, is it any more of a tragedy? I do not consider it so.
The degree of tragedy for each individual death, in the eyes of those survivors closest to the deceased, is precisely the same in every case. The only difference in the cases lies in the number scale we use to measure things. The ending of life occurs to all of us, some sooner, some later.
I think most people tend to agree that the defining feature of ‘tragedy’ is an untimely or needless death, snatched away from life into oblivion from the midst of a healthy, productive, joyous life. But is it more of a tragedy when 270 people are killed in one airline disaster rather than one driver dying in a car accident—or less, when 30,000 people annually die separate deaths in motor accidents? The scale may be different, but the individual intensity and experience is the same.
Humans are privileged to an extent found nowhere else in nature. Humans jealously count, and account for, each and every human life, documenting it from beginning to end—or we try to, anyway. But in the rest of nature, a different system operates. A typical small female bird lives ten years, and nests at least once a year after her first year. Here in the southeastern United States, many nest in both spring and fall. They typically lay up to eight eggs each mating season. If undisturbed, perhaps eighty percent will hatch. If the nestlings mature, in one year, they are capable of doing the same thing. One successful adult female bird could theoretically generate billions of offspring in her lifetime. But with mortality and predation being what they are, most adult females are lucky if, during a whole life, more than a few offspring survive.
In the African veldt gnus are prey for lions, the Tommies (Thompson’s gazelles) are prey for almost all the lesser predators. When each one dies, life goes on. The animals culled by predation are most usually the sick, the old, or the young who cannot keep up, or those lacking sufficient experience to do what is needed to continue the competition. But through it all, although more young die than survive, many young do survive to maturity, promising continuity. I think the human penchant for documentation of every human life is what drives the supposition that a god would show the same concern for details of every life—from humans to the fallen sparrow, the lilies of the field, and so on.
In my opinion, individual survival is just a matter of chance, often helped by the actions of an aggressively watchful parent. Extending simple chance from the animal kingdom to the human realm, I see no reason to step outside the laws of chance (in some cases chance alone, in others chance coupled with poor life choices). One person comes down with a fatal disease and dies young, while a neighbor exposed to the same conditions does not.
One with a heritable weakness of the lungs chooses to smoke, while his son chooses not to (my dad and I). One person traveling to the same office, over the same highway, for the same daily mileage as his peers, is killed in a car accident, while hundreds of his colleagues traveling the same roads live their entire lives with no such deadly mischance. Sad to see, when it happens, devastating for the immediate family, but mere chance nonetheless.
There is better authority than mine to say that god has no hand in survival, if chance is a sufficient explanation. According to philosopher theologian William of Ockham, (Ockham’s Razor), the best explanation for an observed phenomenon is the simplest—meaning: do not impute complexity beyond the minimum that accounts for what you see. If, later, some new aspect of the phenomenon appears, one is not
necessarily back at square one. A modification or addition to the original explanation, or defining boundary conditions, is often all that is needed.
Aside: Most creation theorists say that the theory of evolution is ‘only a theory’, and has been ‘disproved’ so many times it cannot be true. They ignore mountains of evidence supporting evolution, not the least of which is the accelerated selective evolution of food crops and farm animals within the short span of human history.
The theory of evolution has not been ‘disproved’, just modified bitbybit to accommodate details unknown in Darwin’s time. Just as changing the value of ‘pi’ as we learn better how to find it more accurately does not disprove its value—so changes in Darwin’s theory do not deny the original, just add richness of detail. Its basis has never been changed or seriously challenged, yet creationists keep trying to replace it by a different theory that has no supporting evidence and cannot be tested. They threaten a return to the scientific stone age, as they try to claim
authority that they want, but do not deserve.
Not one reputable scientist backs creationist theory over Darwin’s theory. However, creation theorists are often able to buy opinions of even PhD biologists who will write papers to support any theory, if only it brings them grant money—a
degrading outcome of the ‘publish or perish’ policy. The US public education system has become the laughing stock of the scientific world by putting creation theory (with its absence of valid supporting data), in science curricula, on the same footing as Darwin’s basic hypothesis (with its wealth of testable supporting
Back to the main drift: god is an unnecessarily complex explanation for what goes on around us whereas, in contrast, chance is simple, elegant, and sufficient. That, plus there already exists a mathematically sound basis for most observations about ‘chance’, that permit predictions, not of individual outcomes, but of overall outcomes—a sort of quantum theory of living objects.
Incidentally, Ockham was a major instrument in showing that the writings and sermons of Pope John XXII contained serious errors of logic, amounting to heresy. That pope was eventually dethroned, but the surrounding controversy led to Ockham’s excommunication—like he cared, when it was over. He devoted the rest of his life to deep aspects of logic. That Pope was the reason why it took so long for another to come along and adopt John XXIII as his papal moniker.
I regard as my philosophical progenitors, Kant, Hegel, Huxley (Julian, not Thomas, his father, nor Aldous, his brother), and Russell, to name a few. I have not read all
of their works, just enough to recognize that we are all on the same map traveling the same roads. I was privileged to hear Julian Huxley and Bertrand Russell once a week for a long period of time when they ran the BBC panel program The Brains Trust with discussions of such topics as this, a seminal experience.
I feel most kinship with Bertrand Russell. You might say he was my intellectual progenitor, especially since he was alive, well and extremely intellectually productive during my lifetime.
I cannot consider myself his intellectual equal, although had I been born with a golden spoon in my mouth, who knows? After all, he was Viscount Russell of Amberley, the third Earl Russell of Kingston, with a brilliant mind to boot, and I was not most of those things, perhaps not any.
However, he and I share a passion for mathematics, beautiful women, a heretical degree of skepticism, and a reliance on the evidence of the senses, extended as possible by tools to measure and detect things for which our given senses are inadequate, all coupled with logic used to the best of our ability.