Cultural Evolution, and God

Religious institutions have always been in a state of evolution. They will continue to be so, and in the long run, contemporary theism-atheism debates will come to be seen as an argument over semantics.

Once upon a time I used to describe myself as an agnostic. Then, during a two-year, round-the-world adventure I took it upon myself to read the Abrahamic scriptures.

The driver, ironically, was a hard-core atheist friend (this bloke) who delights in describing himself as a ‘spiritual nihilist’. He had read the Bible at university and that fact always lent weight to his criticisms (specifically: his derision) of it. For the sake of one-upmanship I decided to cover both the Bible and the Qur’an.

Anyone considering a similar undertaking should be warned: the core canon of Abrahamic scripture is not for the fainthearted. In the end, getting through the whole Bible took the unexpected intervention of a 12-day stay in a Croatian infection hospital, and was accomplished while attached to an intravenous drip.

After that experience, building up enough enthusiasm to tackle the Qur’an (an easier read, it turned out) required a further hospitalisation, a hernia operation, and a period at a loose end in Sydney’s bohemian quarter.

The conclusion I drew was that – assuming one is over the, now surely archaic, notion of an all-powerful human with a beard controlling the universe – the terms atheist, agnostic and theist are basically redundant. In my view, contemporary debates regarding all three positions will ultimately come to be seen as an argument over semantics (or, possibly, a gigantic red herring).


What do you mean by ‘God’?

Atheism, agnosticism and theism are standpoints concerning the noun ‘God’. In my experience, when you ask people what they mean by ‘God’ (which is not a defined term in Abrahamic scripture) their answer basically constitutes a reduction to a noun such as ‘force’, ‘power’ or ‘being’.

To us humans, thinking about an idea like ‘God’ in terms of an idea like ‘being’ comes naturally. Our mythology and art have always been full of non-human beings, such as dragons, aliens, conscious computers and fairies. We therefore effortlessly grasp the notion – one of the reasons we fail to ask basic questions about it. Because, of course, no computer which could reasonably be regarded as conscious has yet been built, no one has ever met an actual alien, and dragons and fairies are figments of our imagination.

In fact, the only non-imaginary, non-human examples of a ‘being’ we have ever encountered are Earth’s other animals, and yet we routinely overlook what a specific phenomenon life on Earth (and the behaviour we characterise as ‘intelligence’ it sometimes exhibits) is. If one is talking about a ‘being’ in that sense, you are exclusively talking about a set of creatures from a specific tree of life, on a specific planet, who came into being via the same process of Darwinian evolution. Assuming one isn’t talking about one of those when one says ‘God’ (and I’ve never heard anyone make that case), what is one talking about? I’ve yet to hear a coherent answer.


Some argue that it’s legitimate to postulate a non-human ‘being’ (intelligence’, ‘entity’, whatever), then debate its existence. But this is akin to saying ‘God is a thing which shares one feature of advanced animal brains, and is also omnipotent and omniscient’. That is simply to project oneself onto the universe, then argue about whether it’s essentially like you or not.

The deeper origin for this cosmic anthropomorphic confusion is that, because humans don’t have anything radically different against which to compare their world views (only those of other humans), we have no idea how arbitrary our basic cognitive architecture for thinking about the universe is. This encourages the creation of boxes which we then, collectively and resolutely, think inside – such as getting carried away arguing about the noun ‘God’, without being clear what it denotes.

This analysis is intended as a criticism of the atheist position just as much as the theist one. In testing these thoughts (by asking people what they mean by ‘God’) I asked far more atheists what they don’t believe in than theists what they do. Bearing in mind the above reasoning, what atheists ‘don’t’ believe in (when pressed) is an all-powerful human who controls the universe (which, bar fringe radicals, isn’t really what the theists are talking about).

So in my view, cut to their core, atheism-theism debates are about the semantics of the noun ‘God’, unless one is prepared to be more specific about what one means by the word. Allow me to give that a go.


Coherent definitions of the divine

Here is what I regard as the only intellectually coherent definition of the word God: God = the Universe.

Here is the definition of religion which leads from that: the conceptual architecture which has grown up in human societies in order to provide a framework for thinking about their place within, and relationship to, the Universe.

I’m not proposing a redefinition of these things, rather saying that this is what was always going on, even if humanity, has, in general, been too caught up in it’s own socially constructed mind games to recognise the fact.

Below I’ll set out why I regard ‘God’ as a useful synonym for the Universe, why such a definition is neither sterile nor emotionally unsatisfying and why it arguably provides empirical justification for the moral philosophy which lies at religion’s heart. First, I’ll set out my view as to how debates concerning the ‘existence of God’ got to where they are.


The evolution of religion

Humanity and human culture are intrinsically dynamic. Taking the long view, so are our religious systems – continually evolving along with the communities for which they act as frameworks for understanding (even if the adherents of said systems don’t necessarily see it that way). The religious systems in use during any particular period of history grew out of those which came before.

With the Abrahamic family of religions those interrelationships are unambiguous. Islam self-consciously regards itself as part of a tradition that includes Judaism and Christianity. Jesus (whatever else he may have been) was definitely Jewish, while Judaism grew out of even earlier Egyptian and Mesopotamian systems.

As part of that evolution (and I go into more detail in my book), the monotheistic idea of ‘God’ was conceptualised into broadly it’s current form in the Bronze-Age agrarian societies of the Middle East (when it was not unreasonable to assert that a big human in the sky created the world). While this looks cosmologically naïve with 3,000 years of hindsight, at the time they were simply using the most parsimonious language available to describe their impressions of the huge, mysterious, beautiful and frightening Universe in which they lived.

Millennia later, when the systematic investigation of the Universe through science started to reveal its nature in more concrete terms, it was inevitably not in harmony with the specifics of the language first used to summarise it.

The extant religious systems are more properly the contemporary expression of a constantly changing inheritance of ‘spiritual’ thinking which stretches right back into prehistory. We don’t know how long humans have pondered such matters, but presumably for at least as long as they’ve been behaviourally modern (about 60,000 years). There’s absolutely no reason to expect that process of religious evolution to stop now.

Blue Mosque


A God for the third millennium

With God defined as a synonym for the Universe, much of the confused metaphysical speculation accompanying theological discussion becomes redundant, as do arguments over whether to believe in ‘Him’. Meanwhile, the critical philosophy, practice and ‘meaning’ religion gives life (to the religiously minded) continue to hold true.

Anyone who thinks defining God as the Universe robs the term of emotional depth hasn’t been concentrating on the wonders being unveiled by the scientific project. As our empirical understanding of physical reality broadens and deepens, the whole thing looks more and more like a great flowering of (non-supernatural) miracles.

These include: the extraordinary sequence of events constituting cosmic evolution; the unfolding of the physics hydrogen and helium atoms into the labyrinthine wonders of full-blown chemistry; the astonishing three-billion-year process of parallel biological evolution of interdependent life forms on Earth building up a planet-spanning ecosphere; and the pattern within a pattern that is human cultural evolution – open-ended, apparently unlimited and becoming more interesting with each passing century. And it is saturated with meaning.

It is a remarkable and unexpected thing (as Robert Wright has pointed out in Nonzero, his review of cultural evolution) that the more closely we examine the drift of biological evolution and human history, the more there seems to be ‘a point to it all’.

Darwinian evolution, while blind in its mechanics, has driven a relentlessly more complicated and involved ecosphere, particularly over the past 600 million years. When looked at over such long timescales, many features of life seem to be not so much random developments as inevitable elaborations, given the evolutionary drivers imposed by physical reality. Eyes, for example, evolved at least 10 separate times.

The same appears true for many of the evolved features which – when finally combined in a single species – made humans so distinctive. For example: non-trivial language, grasping forearms, a complex social life and great intelligence. Believing humans were inevitable (let alone central to creation) is absurd anthropomorphism, but if humans hadn’t come along to question their relationship to the Universe, construct frameworks for relating to it and briefly wonder if it was built for them, eventually some other species would have.

In cultural evolution, the more the long-term flow of human history is deconstructed, the more intrinsically progressive it looks (particularly since the invention of agriculture). History may have recurring themes, and lots of ups and downs, but in the profoundest sense it is linear, not circular (compare the twenty-first century world with that of the Sumerians). As the evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker set out in The Better Angels of our Nature, as recent millennia have rolled by, slavery, violence and autocratic rule have decreased while equal rights and representative government have increased. There has, and continues to be, tangible moral progress.

Attempts to crowbar these wondrous discoveries into a pre-scientific cosmology are to introduce a semantic befuddlement that will only hinder one’s ability to see the world for what it is. The Universe is the Universe. If, by some fantastical twist of metaphysics, it ultimately turns out that the underlying patterns of the Universe can be meaningfully abstracted to ‘a thing which shares one feature of advanced animal brains and is also omnipotent and omniscient’ we’ll eventually pin it down.


Even morality appears to have tangible cosmic underpinnings. Our moral sense may be evolved, but as our understanding of socio-biology deepens it appears that the moral laws the traditional religions, at their best, espouse (including the golden rule: “do unto others”) have deep roots in game theory. That is: they reflect something about the nature of reality that was not socially constructed so much as ‘discovered’ in the same way as mathematical rules.

Doing the right thing doesn’t just feel good because you’re evolved that way. You are evolved that way because it makes you act in harmony with the best-practice group dynamics of social animals – best practice that is ultimately derivable to the laws of physics.

At the launch of my book, someone asked if reducing the Universe to naturalistic terms robbed life of meaning. To my mind, if being an organic part of an immensely rich and complex cosmic flux (that’s infinite, should cutting-edge theoretical cosmology turn out to be correct), in which everything you do with your life will echo until the end of time, isn’t ‘meaningful’, then I have absolutely no idea what ‘meaningful’ would look like.


Conceptual architecture and neurological underpinnings 

The more one understands its nitty-gritty details, the more evocative and filled with numinous connotations physical reality becomes (without reference to anything outside matter and energy). If there wasn’t a word for this aspect of the Universe there would definitely be a need to invent one. Luckily, there is.

If the authors of the Bible had had access to the facts regarding that cosmic story, they could have included it in their book (making it an even more compelling read). Nevertheless, the book’s central messages as to how to live one’s life in reference to it all could have remained essentially the same.

Because, stripped of its sanctions on enquiry and reinforcement of tribalism, the traditional religious systems provide frameworks for understanding of great utility. People will always need symbols to summarise, and help them grasp, the truths revealed by science and philosophy. That is a role religion can serve. Plenty of people won’t feel the need for that particular symbolical architecture. Others will find the stories and literature of the world’s religious traditions useful.

As the religious historian Karen Armstrong has said, religion will maintain its relevance if it leads to justice, compassion and peace, and helps people detach themselves from a selfish perspective and extend benevolence across their community (which, at this point in history, is global). At the end of the day action, not semantics, is what counts. You say ‘praying to God’; I say ‘meditating on your relationship with the oneness of creation.’

In my view, a scientific rationalist (let’s take Richard Dawkins as our example), who believes the Universe is internally coherent, and composed of matter and energy, and who feels awe at its numinous beauty, is experiencing the same neurological response to the same basic stimuli as a person from a traditional religious background (who believes ‘God’ is omnipotent and benevolent) when they feel religious awe. The difference is that Professor Dawkins has access to an array of empirical information which informs (and, some would argue, enriches) his sense of awe, while the religious person consciously ties their sensation to a cultural tradition, to which millennia of metaphysical allusions have become attached.


To my mind (and one has to be a little picky about which parts of Abrahamic scripture one takes seriously) the best bits of moral philosophy contained in the Abrahamic texts sum up fairly precisely how to live an ethical and satisfying life. The next stage in the Abrahamic religions’ evolution will not involve fundamental changes to core practice, only an updated interpretation of its pre-modern cosmological concepts.


The gates of interpretation

The major Eastern religious systems (Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism etc) are already largely in harmony with the reasoning above. Compared to their Middle Eastern counterparts, their founding doctrines far more readily survive the modifying force of modern science.

Within the Abrahamic faiths, the Unitarian movement is not all that far from the ideas above. We Brits are generally less strident about religious self-expression than our American cousins, and the British denominations of Christianity, which have been manfully struggling with the lessons of modernity for two centuries, are well set up, intellectually, for the further evolution of Christian concepts. It was from a British Christian that I first heard the view that Jesus Christ was the ‘son of God’ in the sense that he was tuned into cosmic realities and how to live one’s life in accordance with them (‘the exemplar model for living one’s life’).

The first three Gospels (the most contemporaneous with Christ) strongly suggest that Jesus himself wasn’t in the business of declaring himself divine in any ‘supernatural’ way. Such an interpretation is in keeping with the insights evidenced in his parables and the profound moral wisdom set out in the Sermon on the Mount. Writing as a humanist, it does not strike me as inappropriate – given the universal love and brotherhood practised and preached by him – to look to the life of Jesus Christ for meaning, and to his death on the cross as a legitimate symbol of redemption. Whether or not Jesus also had the ability to shoot lighting from his fingers is of no wider cosmological significance.

The Catholic church largely accepts the empirical findings of modern science and has shown a remarkable ability to adjust to changing realities over the millennia. Many Jews already see their faith as primarily a cultural choice, and Judaism has long approached its scripture more as an account of its people’s relationship with ‘God’, rather than a faultless cosmic instruction manual.

It’s true that many Christian denominations (particularly some of the American ones) can be somewhat fanatical in their literalist interpretation of the Bible – but in my experience, they largely live in accordance with the realities of modernity, while occasionally sounding-off with goofy metaphysics. Given time, I suspect those religious denominations will subtly but steadily shift their positions (and that the recent fad for ‘intelligent design’ is an expression of such a shift).

The Abrahamic religion whose contemporary mainstream practice seems furthest from re-evaluating its interpretation of God into something more in tune with physical reality is probably Islam. Much rubbish is talked about the Qur’an by non-Muslims. The Islamic holy book mainly stresses peace and tolerance (the directive that it’s OK to slap one’s wife appears once and is very measured). When it comes to encouraging people to think about their relationship to infinity, Islam has some of the finest cultural traditions (in the Five Pillars of Islam). Islamic philosophy – notably Sufism – has an incredibly rich history of pluralism and openness.

It’s true that contemporary practice of Islam often can give the impression of adherence to an unchanging set of words which disempower its members from assimilating to changing world circumstances. Unconstrained literary analysis of the Qur’an remains largely taboo in Islam’s heartlands. This has arguably led to a limiting of debate, which has led to a relative isolation from the world of ideas, and left many Islamic cultures relatively disempowered from harnessing the fruits of modernity in the best interests of the Muslim people.

For example, the concept of ‘ummah’ (the community of Muslims, tied together by religion), which is fundamentally about universal brotherly love, is often interpreted so as to highlight affronts to Islam and blame the underperformance of Islamic countries on outsiders or Muslim leaders of insufficient ideological purity.

In my view, the process social and cultural evolution currently playing out in the Middle East (The Arab Spring and all that it entails) will ultimately include the evolution of Islamic religious ideas. At a recent lecture at the London School of Economics, the Iranian philosopher Abdulkarim Soroush was asked how religion can remain consistent in an ever-changing world. He pointed out that, just as science can never hope to achieve anything more than a series of interpretations of the Universe, Islam will only ever be a series of interpretations of Islam, and the gates of interpretation are never closed.


Monotheism to Gaiaism

In speculating about the next stage of the evolution of religious systems, I’m not telling anybody what to do. My aim is to reflect upon a process which I regard to be inevitable – as the constructed symbols and language of religion catch up with the explosion in humanity’s empirical understanding of the Universe. It shouldn’t be surprising that the extant religions haven’t integrated all the new information about the world just a few centuries after the scientific project really started rolling.

As I say repeatedly in my book: look to the bigger picture. One day, all this will be a footnote on some far-future history database; one more phase in the evolution of religious systems that have been continuously evolving for at least 60,000 years. Does anyone with a passing familiarity with the longer sweep of human history take seriously the idea that, 1,000 years from now, the world will have religious institutions which look like those of today?

The underlying realities of nature aren’t going away, no matter how inconvenient they are to the ideologically stubborn. It’s true that in 500 years it’s likely there’ll still be some people who believe the world was created in 4,000 BCE. But with nine billion humans on the planet, there’ll always be some people who believe peculiar things.

The change from a monotheistic conception of ‘God’ to a more Gaiaistic conception has a deeper rational in cultural evolution than the theoretical arguments above first suggest. Ultimately, religions evolve to meet changing circumstances in the real world. The political scientist Francis Fukayama has pointed out that the development of monotheism, from around the sixth century BCE, was probably critical to getting people away from simpler animistic ideas and towards a moral universalism, which facilitated cooperation across wider groups.

Given that this globalised world’s make-or-break challenges are likely to be environmental for the next few centuries, more Gaiaistic religious frameworks make a lot of sense. Contemporary debates regarding whether ‘God exists’ are the fleeting expression of a cultural transition taking place in the way that we think about our relationship to infinity.


The redundancy of atheism?

When it comes to religion, I’m of the Samuel Taylor Coleridge school of analysis. Instead of asking ‘is it true’, the interesting question is ‘what is religion’. Many atheists dismiss it as a pre-modern delusion with no larger relevance. I think that’s a simplistic caricature, which fails to do justice to religion’s cultural and moral achievements and capture their value for posterity. Rather than a chapter in human history that will wither away, I predict religion will evolve and change (possibly out of all recognition), while remaining, in some sense, part of the continuum of human cultural evolution.

People who read my book occasionally describe me as an atheist, which always exasperates me. If you want to know if I believe in ‘God’, first tell me what you mean by the term. If your definition is a reduction to a word like ‘being’, ‘spirit’ or ‘force’, I’ll keep pressing until you say something concrete. If you want to know whether I believe in an ill-defined, all-powerful pseudo-human who controls the universe, I’d say that was a facile question.

What I object to about atheism is that it says little or nothing about one’s rich and diverse emotional relationship with the Universe, and puts denial of something at the root of one’s personal philosophy. That sounds too much like nihilism to me.

Atheism was a legitimate intellectual response to a phase in history when a traditional set of metaphysical concepts had outlived their relevance. However, the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have come and gone, and certain truths have been settled intellectually, even if they haven’t sunk in emotionally.

Atheists would do better setting out what they do believe in, not defining themselves by ‘non-belief’ in an outmoded idiom. In the new millennium – with the extraordinary blossoming of cosmic and Darwinian evolution laid out before us, and an ever more integrated global society preparing for the future together – there is a more interesting discourse to be had.




The Jolly Pilgrim, was first published by HotHive Books and is available from on Kindle, iBook and from Amazon.

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4 Responses to “Cultural Evolution, and God”

  1. Peter McDade Says:

    Dear Peter

    Thanks for the above and for sending me the essay on theoretical cosmology by Anthony Aguirre, which was fascinating & mind boggling. I love all that multiverse stuff. Must be what led me into stochastic modelling, where we run multiple simulations of the world, each one equally likely, and then try to draw conclusions from our god-like perspective across the financial multiverse

    Response to the above

    Glad to read your essay on religion. I agree with most, but not all, of it.

    When disputing whether God was a meaningful term you asked me two questions:

    1) To define what I mean by ‘God’
    2) What difference it made whether such a ‘God’ exists or not.

    A definition of God

    I’ll use the term ‘creating entity’ if I may (‘God’ carries too much cultural and emotional baggage). I would define ‘creating entity’ to entail some sort of consciousness, the deliberate actions of which led to the existence and properties of the universe we now inhabit.

    I don’t mean an anthropomorphic old geezer with questionable taste in robes and facial hair, nor a person in the usual sense, nor a single entity. It could just as well be a group consciousness, a sentient cloud, a multiverse-spanning awareness or whatever.

    I’m also not falling into the trap of assuming that such consciousness bears any resemblance to human intelligence (‘sharing one feature of advanced animal brains’ as you put it). If such an entity exists it is likely to be orders of magnitude beyond anything we can even imagine.

    The key attribute of a creating entity, as I’m attempting to define it here, is that some kind of volition is at work.

    The difference between universes with and without God

    A universe that came into existence via the deliberate actions of such a creating entity is in stark contrast to the alternative of a universe which ‘just came to be’. I’m not suggesting that such a universe is any less wondrous. I agree with your description of the awesomeness of the cosmos, and that holds true whether there is a creating entity behind it or not. But the two situations are different in nature and in purpose.

    To address your second question of what difference it makes: where I think I differ from you is the teleological angle, i.e. the concept of purpose. If there is a ‘creating entity’, then it’s reasonable to suppose such an entity had some purpose in mind when setting about creating reality.

    A universe that just came to be in accordance with mindless physical laws has no inherent purpose.

    That wouldn’t be to say that the universe is without meaning, as you point-out in your essay. It could be that emergent life within a naturalistic universe can create meaning and purpose as it develops. But I think such emergent purpose is fundamentally different in nature from the inherent purpose arising from the intentions of a pre-existing creative entity.

    Not better or worse, just different.

    Differences in purpose

    I agree that how you live your life may be similar under both world-views. But the motivations are different and I’d argue that matters. Two people may behave in identically altruistic ways, one motivated by a pantheistic desire to contribute to the improvement of this beautiful planet, the other primarily motivated by a desire to attain the anticipated rewards of an afterlife.

    Both world-views are daunting: in one we may be at the mercy of an intelligence way beyond us; in the other the burden falls on us to avoid meaninglessness. But each is also thrilling: in either there is a grand plan to which we can contribute and the tantalising possibility of continued existence beyond death; or the opportunity to create a plan from scratch.

    The conventional dictum is that religion and politics shouldn’t be discussed in polite society. A friend once said “but those are the only things worth talking about.” I’m not so sure about politics.

    That’s enough metaphysics for now. Must pop out for a croissant!


  2. Peter Baker Says:


    Thank you for your thoughts, and forcing me to drill into the detail of the area of my thinking about God/religion which needed drilling into.

    My thoughts on your thoughts:

    • I accept your point that there is a difference between a universe that ‘just came to be’ and one brought into being by ‘a creating entity’ (assuming, for the sake of argument, that such a creating entity could be meaningfully defined).

    • I accept your point that an ‘emergent purpose’ (of a universe) is different from an ‘inherent purpose’ (of a creating entity).

    • I accept your point that the motivational difference between two altruistic persons – one with a pantheistic desire to do good for the greater whole, and one with a desire to attain the rewards of an afterlife (or whatever) – is a legitimate point of difference.

    Where I dispute what you’ve written is in the legitimacy of the term ‘creating entity’ as a meaningful subdivision of space-time, while taking on board all your thoughts regarding ‘some sort of consciousness’, ‘a multiverse-spanning awareness’ or a ‘sentient cloud’.

    I put it to you that a deep anthropomorphism (or, at the very least an ‘evolved-life-on-Earth-morphism’ or ‘consciousness-morphism’) is implicit to the term ‘creating entity’.

    Life, volition and consciousness

    We agree that consciousness usefully describes a real phenomenon of human (and animal) mental activity. We also agree that the phenomenon of life is likely to be a general phenomenon, which exists it many forms and stages of development, in different parts of the Cosmos.

    We can therefore say that consciousness is an emergent property of the universe which (based on the current state of our knowledge) appears to include the quality of ‘volition’.

    Aside: what is actually known …

    You highlighted ‘volition’ as the key attribute of your creating entity. In my view, this assumes we know something about free will and consciousness that we do not.

    Right now, as far as anyone can tell, every process in the universe is either deterministic or random. It’s not clear that there is ANY such thing as free will (which I think is what you basically mean by ‘volition’?) that we can currently definitively identify.

    This is an unknown in the jigsaw that may fall into place during our lifetimes. Once we understand what is basically going on with consciousness/free-will/the-human-mind, we might be better empowered to speculate as to whether the processes are likely to hold any lessons for the underlying patterns of reality.

    But for the time being that remains an anthropomorphistic assumption.

    ‘God’: a noun with absolutely no ontology

    Please allow me to sketch-out two unspoken anthropomorphic assumptions that I believe are central to your concept of ‘creating entity’ (and also, out of interest, to the concept of ‘God’ held by those who self-identify as ‘atheists’ and regard the term to mean anything more profound than “I don’t believe an all-powerful pseudo-human controls the Universe”).

    Anthropomorphic prejudice 1: assumptions about consciousness

    Imagine an intergalactic scientist, with no anthropomorphic prejudices at all, traveling through time and space collecting samples of all those life forms you mention, including the hive minds, the cloud minds, the humans and the god-like super-beings.

    Said intergalactic-time-travelling scientist (let’s call him Derek), starting from an entirely non-anthropomorphic point of view, might conclude that these higher life forms share certain characteristics that (having a clearer understanding of what consciousness means than we do) he could legitimately claim to be a specifically identifiable emergent characteristic of matter – even though the cloud minds and the humans appear radically different to a casual observer.

    That’s all fine, I think it’s implicit to what you are saying and I also think it’s a reasonable working assumption. However, none of it means that the phenomenon of consciousness holds any fundamental lessons, whatsoever, for the underlying metaphysical nature of reality.

    For, in addition to the emergent phenomenon of consciousness, in all its forms, Derek might also identify MILLIONS OF OTHER properties of matter, which we haven’t thought of because, unlike life/consciousness, we have no clues as to what they might be.

    And yet if intergalactic Derek were to categorise those other phenomena he might conclude that they were just as remarkable, while having nothing – whatsoever – to do with consciousness, or any phenomenon within the universe he had good reason to label as inherent to an ‘entity with volition’.

    Derek might, for example, conclude that these other phenomena were as different from consciousness as the photograph pinned to my wall is from a quasar. But because we know about consciousness (even if we don’t understand what it is), it’s automatically in our conceptual armoury when arguing about, and trying to make sense of, reality.

    I see no reason to suppose that ‘consciousness’ or ‘an entity with volition’ describes the ultimate patterns of the universe any more meaningfully than any of those other phenomena Derek might have identified.

    Of course, it MIGHT be that the phenomenon of consciousness – as exhibited by the life forms on Earth – IS peculiar and distinctive from all other phenomena in the universe. Maybe intergalactic Derek, with his unimaginable volume of data, would decisively conclude that consciousness is SO notable and distinct that there is good reason to privilege it above other phenomena, when speculating as to the deepest patterns of reality.

    But given that we don’t have Derek’s data, we have no basis on which to draw such a conclusion.

    Anthropomorphic prejudice 2: assumptions about ‘entities’

    I put it to you that there is an even deeper anthropomorphic assumption in your concept of ‘creating entity’.

    We think of ourselves as individual entities walking around on a planet, due to the specifics of our psychic hardwiring. However, Derek (being more capable of objectivity) might regard that as a trivial and naïve way of thinking about human beings. Derek might instead view ‘us’ as (for example) more properly segments of long strings of immortal germ cells stretching back three billion years.

    Derek might look at the entities of Peter McDade and Peter Baker (including their conscious bits) as ephemeral two-legged expressions of that deeper process – no more worthy of particular attention than the sequence of hair pigmentation across the past 200 generations of McDades and Bakers.

    So, when speculating about the fundamental patterns of the Cosmos, why not look to that long string of germ cells, which are arguably a more profound expression of what’s going on with you and me, than the walky-talkie-two-legged-conscious bits?

    Following that reasoning further, Derek might judge that those strings of germ cells (throwing up their once-per-generation somas) are more properly a sub-pattern in the Earth’s ecosphere. So when looking for the deep patterns of the Cosmos (creating or otherwise), surely it would be more clear-headed to look to that Gaiaistic system: and that your ‘creating entity’ is really something like an ecosphere, with little in the way of free-will/volition as we understand it.

    But while we’re at it, rather than just Earth’s ecosphere, why not look for those deeper patterns of the universe in the ice floes of Europa? Or the gravitational ripples in the Oort cloud? Or the whole Solar System, which gave rise to, and sustains, Earth, and by extension us? Or to the Milky Way galaxy that gave rise to the Solar System?

    OR, just drop any arbitrary preconceptions regarding what separates the ‘creating entity’ parts of space-time from the ‘non-creating-entity’ parts of it, and also drop any claim for an objective basis on which to demarcate the difference between ‘God’ and ‘something outside of God’ and simply say: God is the Universe.


    Religion Redux

    In my experience, contemporary atheism has bought into so many of the rules defined by the theist traditions that atheists don’t see clearly that they are arguing within a theistic framework.

    In my book I make statements such as:
    • ‘I’m not just optimistic about the world but about the very fabric of space-time’ and
    • ‘We have nothing to fear’ [as we continue to unravel the deeper mysteries of reality]

    In my view, these statements are exact synonyms for saying that I believe in God. And they are, in essence, matters of faith.

    My basis for that faith is that, thus far, the nature of reality appears to have an ever more exquisite and internally consistent rationale the more deeply one perceives it. To my mind, that journey of understanding has been a central element of the collective human story.

    Initially the universe looks like a magical sound and light show. Then we realise there is a method behind the madness (Newtonian Mechanics). Then we realise that there is a deep rational for the natural world (Darwinian Evolution). Then we realise that all of the things that are most enraging about the human condition (such as war and selfishness) also have a deep rationale (Evolutionary Psychology). Then we realise that history itself isn’t random in the slightest, but directional and with a clear progression (Cultural Evolution). And we perceive that this whole pattern within a pattern contains inherent drivers that will keep it moving in a linear way (Technological Progress).

    Now it MIGHT be that when our distant descendants have uncovered the next 100 layers of meaning that the most parsimonious way they’ll have to describe it all will be as a universe that ‘just came to be’ but with no ‘inherent purpose’.

    My feeling (‘faith’) is that this isn’t what will happen.

    Matters of faith

    My feeling is that, instead, the nature of reality will, to them, appear to have an even deeper and more profoundly exquisite rationale – although I’m sceptical of the phrases ‘purpose’ and ‘meaning’ for the same reason you use ‘creating entity’ instead of ‘God’.

    I further feel that, assuming those deeper realities are at some point pieced together and modelled, there WILL BE an identifiable set of processes which gave rise to them – I just think that we may as well look to the ice floes of Europa, as much as ‘a creating entity with volition’, to speculate as to the nature of those processes – and that to do otherwise is premature (to say the least) and only constrains one’s ability to think clearly about the Cosmos.

    I therefore put it to you that what you are REALLY saying is:

    • there are loads of amazing things about physical reality, which we’re not close to grasping; but
    • if we could (or when we do) grasp them, everything would (will) make more sense, and be even more beautiful.

    I’d say:
    • the first part of that is unarguable, and
    • the second I agree with.

    So: the purpose of religion isn’t to explain the meaning of life, but to make sense of life’s meaning.



  3. Peter McDade Says:


    When I first read your response I thought “I must get hold of some of that weed he’s smoking!” But on second reading it began to make sense, and on the third reading I got it.

    Sci-Fi deserves some of the credit (or blame). Surely only an aficionado could develop an argument like this. The reason I struggled first time around was the epic scope of your analysis, in particular the idea that consciousness itself might not hold a privileged place in the list of attributes of matter. That’s a really difficult concept to grasp. I also hadn’t appreciated just how many anthropomorphic assumptions I was making.

    It’s a beautiful analysis and I agree with almost all of it. I agree with your conclusions at the end as to what I’m really saying and what the purpose of religion is. The thought that came to mind reading your response is a sense of wonder at how much there still is for us to learn, and how much, in the future, discussions like this will develop as our collective knowledge increases.

    Points to add

    The culmination of your argument is that we should “drop any preconceptions regarding what separates the ‘creating entity’ parts of space-time from the ‘non creating entity’ parts of it”.

    I don’t want to make any preconceptions as such. I’m merely suggesting such a separation as a possibility. That is, that there may be an entity which has an existence independent of the physical multiverse. I know such a statement is open to challenge on exactly what I mean by the terms ‘physical multiverse’ and ‘independent’. I also acknowledge that, as you put it, there is no “objective basis on which to demarcate the difference between ‘God’ and ‘something outside God’”. However none of this precludes the possibility, however faint, that such a separation exists.

    The inability to rigorously define something doesn’t preclude the existence and truth of that something. To be fair, I don’t think you’re asserting that this possibility doesn’t exist, you just regard it as unnecessarily constrained, and influenced by our limited human experience, which is fair comment.

    For my part, it was never my intention to seek to limit the possible attributes of unknown super-beings to those that we can share or conceptualise. The refusal to apply limitations is what makes rigorous definition so hard.

    Going a step further, I think that although you are doing a very good job of keeping assumptions to a minimum, you are making a subtle assumption when you frame the discussion in terms of carving up physical reality (i.e. the universe/multiverse/space-time) into God/not-God. Isn’t it possible that something exists that is truly beyond physical reality rather than a subdivision of it? I hesitate here, as I take on board everything you’ve said about consciousness, free will, and thinking conditioned by our narrow human experience on one planet, and defining what ‘beyond reality’ means is even tougher than defining a separation within reality.

    If the multiple levels of ‘reality’ (that cutting-edge physics seems to imply) are ultimately part of some coherent whole, then ‘beyond reality’ has no sensible meaning. But again, I can’t eliminate the possibility that there is something fundamentally beyond the multiverse of matter.

    I run out of synapses after that.


    You make a good point about free will and how little we understand this concept. I was unwittingly making a somewhat anthropomorphic assumption by ascribing volition/free will to my creating entity. Like you I think this is an area in which we might gain real understanding within our lifetimes, with potentially huge consequences for our worldview and self-image.

    I don’t think we’re all that far apart. You have arrived at a truly expansive and remarkably visionary and open-minded worldview. I have a slight bias – doubtless because of my upbringing – to something more deistic/theistic, but acknowledge the force of your analysis.


  4. Peter Baker Says:


    Thank you.

    I can assure you that I was stone cold sober when I wrote that last response. You’ve elegantly summarised the core of it – “consciousness itself might not hold a privileged place in the list of attributes of matter.”


    I enormously enjoy corresponding about with you metaphysics.


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