01 July 2011

Do you believe in zero?

If you believe in zero, then what proof do have of it's existence? How seriously would you take someone who claimed that, given a lack of proof, zero must not exist and that those who continue to use it are suffering from the “zero delusion.” Or that believers in zero must be under a spell that should be broken because of how prolifically it was used in the systematic oppression of minorities of all kinds throughout most of recorded history especially by the Nazis and other genocidal maniacs.

Personally, I do not believe in the literal existence of zero. Zero is a concept we humans developed through our imaginative capacities to logically deal with gaps in our understanding. I am happy to use the concept, in spite of it's immoral use by others, because zero is an indispensable placeholder that signifies an absence of information. It is indispensable because it allows me to imply that information is absent and still proceed with extremely useful mental processes that require some form of information.

God is the same kind of concept. If you go back to the beginning of this piece and substitute the word 'god' for the word 'zero' in those first two paragraphs then nothing logically changes, though, of course, the connotations do.

Consider that Albert Einstien, when he wanted to concentrate his mental capabilities on the physical forces that comprised his expertise, had to ignore other forces in the world, such as political forces, in order to gain productive insights. There are always an unknown number of forces at work in reality at all times and it is perfectly reasonable to suppose that we can, like Albert Einstein may have done, productively encapsulate the forces we do not want to consider at one moment in a placeholder concept signified by the term 'god.'

Given this understanding of the concept, then the question of belief does not properly apply and questions of existence are also non-starters. Zero is not a faith proposition, and I suggest to you, that god is not a faith proposition either. God is a concept we created as a necessary placeholder for our ignorance of the fullness of reality. Use of the term, by definition, admits of ignorance. Therefore, invocation of god when considering causal forces necessarily implies an unwillingness to probe further into the actual causes of the phenomena under consideration. Invoking god in the course of a causal conversation is a resignation that the forces are unknown and/or unknowable.

This is where politics steps in. When power is cultivated upon ignorance, then those who wield that power have a vested interest in maintaining the ignorance upon which their power is based. And the denial of god is also a political move. Denial of god is the arrogant claim that reality is entirely known, or at least knowable. There is no basis for this claim other than speculation based on establishing or expanding a position of power for those who claim special access to knowing reality. Claims of special access to either god or reality are necessarily born of arrogance and/or maneuvering for power.

The point-by-point sketch of an argument that follows was started with the intent of curing allergies to the word 'god' and it's many synonyms. When all positions that invoke god (by that term or a synonym) are automatically considered to be dangerously delusional (ala Richard Dawkins book title), or at least foolishly mistaken, then there is a clear lack of mutual respect. I suspect that this ironically self-righteous position unnecessarily alienates too many people with perfectly reasonable views.

If the argument could be accepted as a reasonable view on both sides of the chasm centered on the use of the term 'god' then perhaps more inclusive and productive public dialogue on the nature and valid applications of religious thought and practice can happen. If we can agree on the specific form of ignorance asserted in this argument, then labeling positions that use the term 'god' as delusions, mistakes, or spells to be broken is fundamentally disrespectful and inappropriate in civil dialogue.

Even if agreement cannot be reached then those who accept this argument should still be able to circumscribe the role of causal belief within the doctrinal dimension of religious life, then deal with all the other aspects of the doctrinal dimension plus the other six dimensions of religion (mythic, social, ritual, experiential, ethical and material) as issues separate from the use of the term 'god,' and it's synonyms. My hope is that preventing allergic reactions to the word 'god' in this way would encourage more respectful public dialogue.

The argument is built on materialist assumptions, so some people may not be comfortable with its premises. But, if this argument is true, then using the term 'god,' or one of it's many synonyms, is effectively an admission of a specific form of causal ignorance that should, in principle, be acceptable to everyone who is honestly interested in respectful public dialogue to address abuses of science, religion, and our planet.

Sketching The Argument
  1. All human symbolic communication is mediated by some form of mapping, even if the realms mapped have no basis in reality.
    1. The only complete map of anything is the thing itself.
    2. No practical map can ever be complete.
    3. Practical maps serve a purpose and the map can be either adequate or inadequate to the purpose.

  2. Animals, including humans, construct biologically encoded maps of reality.
    1. Biologically encoded maps must be incomplete since they are inherently required to be a practical guide to the preservation of the individual animal and/or it's genes.
    2. The biologically encoded maps within humans are capable of representing a lack of information, as is the case with the concept of zero.
    3. In some instances, like zero, humans accomplish the feat of cognitively handling a lack of information by creating a placeholder that enables the system to act as if there is information when there is not, in fact.

  3. When individual humans who are highly responsive to the contingencies in their environment (thus they are both sane and reasonably intelligent) contemplate the complexities of reality they conclude that some of the forces at work are beyond their knowledge.
    1. Given the conclusion of their ignorance of some of the forces that influence their reality, many humans will assign a placeholder, like the term 'god' and it's synonyms, to some sub-set of the forces that influence their reality in order to sustain productive cognitive mapping of a different sub-set of influences that may be within their grasp. (For instance, Albert Einstein, in his role as a physicist, had to ignore some forces acting in the world, like psychological or social/political forces, in order to work productively on his technical understanding of the physical forces that were his primary interest.)
    2. Placeholders for a systematic lack of information beyond the individual level may be necessary for human cognitive maps to be adequate for the purpose of developing accurate cultural maps of reality.

  4. Humans tend to assign human or human-like traits to entities that appear to have the properties of a) independent movement, b) the ability to respond to environmental contingencies, and c) exert substantial influence on the environment.
    1. Given that the placeholder 'god' and its synonyms are by definition representations of complex but unknown forces that may exert substantial influences over the course of human lives, many humans would naturally assign them human or human-like traits.
    2. The assigned characteristics of the placeholder 'god' and its synonyms should reflect a logical combination of the possible aspects of human vs non-human traits and material vs. “immaterial” influences. Like so:

Logical categories for concepts of god and it's synonyms.*
(e.g. animals & tsunamis)
(e.g. minds & magnetism)

* Inspired by Rev. Bruce Bode's sermon series “Four Faiths in the Modern World” which was based on Rev. Fred Campbell's religious education curriculum “Religious Integrity for Everyone: Functional Theology for Secular Society.”


I conclude that god is real since there are clearly forces at work in reality that I don't understand. Those forces include both material forces such as animals, volcanoes and tsunamis and “immaterial” forces such as other minds and electromagnetism. I also conclude that god is correctly conceived in multiple logically-incompatible ways (which includes a diversity of terminology) due to the cognitive structures that are necessary for dealing with a lack of information and the tendency of human animals to assign traits to certain kinds of phenomena.

Logically and morally I assert that all conceptions of god that admit to our underlying ignorance of forces that influence our lives are appropriate, and conversely conceptions of god that deny our inherent underlying ignorance are inappropriate. Inappropriate uses are likely embedded in situations of power inequalities that are advantageous to some individual or group that benefits from the assertion of exclusive access to certain, or complete, knowledge. Further, this political caution regarding the assertion of exclusive access to certain, or complete, knowledge applies equally to denials of god.
Post a Comment