Excerpt: Earth Systems
What do we really mean by the noun ‘God’
The Jolly Pilgrim, Part 7, musings 31
In my experience when you ask people what they mean by the word ‘God’ 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 a noun like ‘being’ comes naturally. Our mythology and art are full of beings which are non-human, such as aliens, dragons, fairies and conscious computers. We therefore easily grasp the concept and presume that we have a handle on how such entities might think and act.
But, of course, no one has ever met an actual alien, dragons and fairies are figments of our imagination, and no computer which could reasonably be regarded as conscious has yet been built. We therefore have no information as to how such things would actually think and act, or what about the world they would regard as interesting, significant or noteworthy.
I think one of the fundamental problems we humans have when assessing our world views is that we don’t have anything radically different to compare them against. As a result we have no idea how arbitrary our basic cognitive architecture for thinking about the universe is.
The only non-human thinking beings that humans have ever encountered are Earth’s other animals. At least some of those animals are probably clever enough to possess world views to which we might, theoretically, relate. Dolphins and chimpanzees most clearly possess intelligence and consciousness which is (in form if not in magnitude) comparable to our own. Whales and elephants seem to have a level of human-style consciousness and some would argue that dogs, and a few of the other higher mammals, are conscious.
Among the non-mammals, one or two species of bird (crows for example) appear to be self-aware and some species of squid and octopus are apparently quite brainy. It’s even within the realms of possibility that ant and termite colonies can think in a way which could be characterised as consciousness, although in a wacky hive-mind sort of a way that we’re (so far) completely unable to relate to. Don’t even get me started on bees.
But our ability to communicate with any of those other intelligent and (arguably) conscious animals is exceedingly rudimentary. We’ve yet to work out even really basic things about whale songs, and we’re a long way from being able to say to a whale: ‘We think we’re a bunch of animals on the surface of a planet. What do you think?’
There’s a further big problem in assessing our world views: in a world teeming with information we only perceive a very limited amount of what’s happening around us. The human eye picks up only a tiny spectrum of the electromagnetic radiation entering the eyeball. Our sense of hearing only monitors the air pressure at our eardrums, and our senses of taste and smell provide (at best) an idiosyncratic chemical analysis of the matter on our tongues and in the air at our nasal membranes.
If these limitations weren’t severe enough – not only do we humans have nothing non-human to compare our world views to and not only do we perceive what’s happening around us in a very limited way, but we also spend almost all of our time interacting with other extremely similar beings, with similarly limited sensory systems and almost precisely identical world views.
None of this encourages us to be objective about ourselves. It encourages the creation of boxes which we then, collectively and resolutely, think inside.
Humans relate to each other, and each other’s behaviour, reasonably well. Another human who came across me for the first time could probably make sense of the stuff I get up to (going on bicycle rides, writing travel diaries) and the things I regard as noteworthy (girls, food, sunshine etc.).
Humans broadly relate to the other animals on Earth. A human coming across a dolphin – a being from the same branch of the same tree of life that shares most of the human’s genetic code – might not be able to guess what the dolphin is thinking, but it could probably hazard a fairly intelligent guess as to the sorts of things the dolphin would be interested in (fish, water temperature, other dolphins etc.).
But if one were to meet, say, an intelligent extraterrestrial – a creature from a different branch of a different tree of life from a completely different planet – you can forget everything you’ve seen in the movies, because the information we have about how such entities would think and act, or what about the universe they would consider to be noteworthy, is exactly zero.
And when we talk about an idea like God (who I don’t think anyone would argue is a life form from a tree of life with limited sensory data about anything), He would interact with the universe in a way that was different from dolphins, termites, humans, bees or aliens. Radically different.
When the Book of Genesis describes God it describes Him as ‘walking in the garden [of Eden] in the cool of the day’. When the stories in the Qur’an describe Him they describe Him providing flowing springs in garden-like heavens where humans can drink and frolic forever. When Terry in Nimbin thought about God he imagined Him living in Atlantis and ‘channelling’ through American women.
These are all projections. They are examples of human beings looking out upon the infinite and seeing a reflection of themselves. They are not seeing the universe as it is. They are seeing the universe as they are.
We’re hard-wired to think about and to perceive the world in a very specific way. Being clear about those inbuilt preconceptions is one step along the journey of reaching beyond them. In doing so we can set out world views which account more honestly for the underlying nature of these intriguing Homo sapiens who use sound and ink patterns to paint pictures in each other’s minds. And of the particular mind which is reading these words right now.
An excerpt from the travel and philosophy book, The Jolly Pilgrim.