Thursday, February 17, 2011

Uncodified Spiritual Musings

One of the potential pratfalls of being an agnostic, atheist, or otherwise uninterested in the matters spiritual is that one rarely has the philosophical workout of clarifying or redefining the basic tenets of their belief (or disbelief). After having a brief spurt in college as a starry-eyed undergrad ready to conquer the world, I'm finding the hodge-podge design of my spiritual architecture is extremely sketchy. Catalyst for dusting off my description / explanation is a newfound friendship with a charming but totally religious kid of roughly undergraduate age. When she dives into some insane explanation of God or story about missionaries or something else, I internally scoff at the very idea of such literal and active belief. But I can't communicate this disdain. Not for lack of tact but, literally, for lack of vocabulary.

So, though it may smack of juvenile theologism, I'm using this space to stretch the articulate legs on my spiritual structure. Those uninterested in the implicitly self-absorbed ramblings of one's personal belief system need not read further.

Any belief system's value can be understood based on two questions:
  1. How well does it answer questions otherwise unanswerable by non-spiritual systems?
  2. How well does it provide us with a sense of fulfillment should non-spiritual life prove unfulfilling?
Some might argue that a third question is required to involve morality or ethics. (i.e. How well does the system provide us with a moral framework?) The implication being that the moral complexities of our evolved society cannot be understood via non-spiritual systems. That the seven deadly sins are sinful only when understood as an affront to god. That atheists are fundamentally immoral, regardless of how they behave. 

Before digging into the two valid questions above, I want to defend myself against this third assumption since my framework does not contain any moral directions. 

The ubiquitous Golden Rule.
Human morality can be distilled to The Golden Rule which is represented in the moral instructions of all major religions: treat others as you would like to be treated. The universality of this rule across religions and cultures that otherwise vary wildly speaks to the commonality of a human moral compass. While the believers would cite this as evidence #1 of the human soul, thereby justifying it to promote their particular brand of religion, I find the anthropologist's analysis more compelling. 

Humans are a social creature. In comparison to the other denizens of our planet, we are naught more than overgrown fetuses. (Read The Once and Future King for the source material for this particular piece of my theology.) We are not armed with thick fur or sharp claws or leathery hides. In exchange for our vulnerability, we have our brains with which we can fashion solutions effective enough to make us the dominant species on this planet. But the history of human progress is marked by the interaction of people, not by their isolation. Our brains, while powerful by themselves, are unparalleled in tandem. The group is our natural formation and our instincts have fashioned a moral compass along these lines. To best preserve the group and thus further our own evolution and continued survival, we need to work well together. This basic need manifests itself as a lofty ideological goal which we package as morals. But these morals come not from some higher power or codified whisperings of a prophet but from our natural instincts. 

As such, the idea that atheists are immoral or non-spiritual morals are bankrupt is wrong. Our moral sensibilities are not pinned to a spiritual prerogative but rather to a shared instinctual notion. This understanding of morals allows for a bit of leeway vis-a-vis cultural relativism (the specific manifestations of do unto others can vary depending on the underlying culture) but isn't so flexible as to allow, say, Muslim mistreatment of women get a pass. 

It is important to note, however, that omitting this third moral requirement for an analysis of a spiritual system is a luxury afforded by advanced society. The more chaotic the political and cultural environment, the less ambient support of morals can be found. (Anarchy breeds, nay requires, a predatory disposition that is at odds with our 'do unto others' understanding of basic morals.) As such, pinning a moral code to religion is an effective way to promote moral behavior in an environment that would otherwise leave it unrewarded. But assuming that morality is therefore inseparable from spirituality is incorrect. (Indeed, the bell-curved nature of religion-based morals suggests that advanced societies could even supplant these codes once they become archaic. The immoral assertions of heterosexual superiority from the religious contingent of my own society certainly supports this idea.)

Time to move on. that we've hopefully established the appropriate metrics for judgement, let's turn to answering the questions in order. 

1. How well does it answer questions otherwise unanswerable by non-spiritual systems?
Based on my experience, limited though it may be, there are two gaping holes in our understanding of reality which require some kind of spiritual explanation from the curious mind. (Nothing against atheists personally but I do not understand how such a mindset can exist without being actively uninterested in this corporeal plane. It's probably just a matter of semantics though. I would call them agnostics and they wouldn't call a recognition of the unknown spiritual.)

The first big hole is historical. That pesky question of 'where did we come from' has not yet been answered sufficiently to abandon a spiritual explanation and it seems likely that it never will. Bear in mind, by this question I mean not 'we' as humans but rather 'we' as matter. Protons and electrons. Carbon. Light waves. Reality. This is not a question regarding evolution but rather existence.

We can go back as far as the Big Bang with confidence in our non-spiritual explanations. But go a nanosecond before that and it all falls apart. How can something come from nothing? Our understanding of a physical world requires causality for any action, leaving a gap that needs to be filled with a spiritual explanation.

The Big Bounce cycle.
Though recent scientific discovery has suggested that the universe is unlikely to collapse back in on itself anytime soon, there is something nice about the cyclical nature of the Big Bounce theory. (The Big Bounce theory basically holds that the expansion of the universe will slow to the point at which it completely stops. At which point, the combined mass of reality will exert a gravitational pull strong enough to collapse back in on itself to the point of a singularity. This would then, in turn, lead to a second Big Bang.) The universe could be thought of as God's heart, with each Big Bang and Big Crunch serving as the heart beat. All life, all reality, is thus a byproduct of God's existence and its meaning is therefore to sustain It.

The second big hole left by our understanding of reality is at a far smaller physical scale though no less confounding. There is a metaphysical test designed to prove the existence of the human 'soul.' All one must do is curve their index finger and then consider the chain of events that leads to this outcome. Working backward, science can take us almost all the way but, as with the Big Bang, no further than the initial spark. Our finger curves because the muscles contract. The muscles contract because they received a chemical signal from the brain. The chemical signal was issued due to an electrical surge from the cerebral cortex. The electrical surge came from a specific pattern of synapses that fired in our neurons. And these synapses were fired because...because...

And that's where it falls apart. No less important than understanding what came before the Big Bang is the mystery of what came before our synapses. As with the Big Bang, logic dictates as causal reality in which no action can be sprung from nothing. But what causes this first synapse? Is it purely random? Is it the product of a complicated Butterfly Effect of stimulation, removing free will? Or does the failure of these two hypotheses prove the existence of a human soul?
But what comes BEFORE!?

The idea that the synapse could fire randomly seems absurd. There is too much order in our day-to-day lives to suggest that all of it is the product of randomness. So too is the idea of a reaction to some kind of stimulus. If the synapse fires simply due to some incalculably complex series of external stimuli, it would rob us of free will. (Granted, I'm writing this article in reaction to the presence of a religious individual in my life. And her interest in spiritual subjects might, itself, be a reaction to an event in her life unknown to me. And that event might be a reaction to something else...etc etc.) Though there is something palatable about a system that recognizes causality to this extent, it removes the concept of choice, taking with it morality, ethics, and replacing it all with destiny. Unknowable destiny yes, but destiny nonetheless.

While my actions from the great to the unimportant may indeed be motivated by any number of external stimuli, I still feel that I have agency over them. There is some part of me that receives this external stimuli, unpacks it, and then chooses to act. That first synapse must be sprung from that faculty which, for lack of sufficient scientific explanation, we will call a soul. How this soul interacts with the synapse to start the causal chain to move my finger is a mystery but my logic dictates that it must exist. And if such a thing exists, it opens the door to many interesting possibilities...not least of which is, what happens to it when it is stripped of its synapses?

However, theorizing about death ranges too far into skeptical territory for yours truly. Or rather, it opens a can of worms that I don't see much value in answering at present. Without knowing what this soul is, how can I claim that it lives forever? And if I make such a claim, where does it go upon my death? And if I imagine such a location, what does it look like? By this point, pop culture and societal trappings fill my brain with puffy clouds and firey pits and the agnostic in me comes out.

Most likely, my final living moment will stretch out to infinity and I will have to hope that it is pleasant. Time has been occasionally understood to be dependent on events. The movement of a clock's hand does more than just mark the seconds, it creates them. Ergo, without events there would be no time. For our ability to perceive reality, the same logic can presumably apply. Our last moment of unpacking said stimuli will be the last event in our life. Beyond that, with no events there will be no time. That last moment thus becomes eternity.

To summarize the response to the first metric, my theology holds that God is, essentially, order. God is present in all things from the grand (the universe) to the minuscule (semi-permeable membranes). It is in the battle between chaos and order that reality is allowed to exist. The more complicated manifestations of matter (life) are differentiated from the innate by virtue of what we understand as a soul. This soul adds the wrinkle of agency to the causal nature of reality. It is order in its purest form. It is a piece of God.

Cool? Cool. Now onto the second metric.

2. How well does it provide us with a sense of fulfillment should non-spiritual life prove unfulfilling?
The above understanding is palatable for several reasons. The most important of which, for me at least, is that it doesn't seem absurd. The tenets of organized religions, even at their most flexibly abstract, seem childish. Most important for my acceptance in this system is that it doesn't portray God as a human or humanoid being. The idea that man was created in God's image seems preposterously masturbatory and totally illogical. How vain are we that the creator of all reality must look like us? How simple are we that this phenomenon needs to speak our languages? How childish are we that He must be concerned with our daily lives? There is a great temptation to abandon logic for the sake of comfort but it is a temptation I cannot stomach in my spirituality and one the above happily avoids.

However, does the sacrifice of psychological comfort violate the second metric for a system's worth posed above? Does this unknowable God fail to provide us with a sense of fulfillment in our daily lives? Does robbing us of a sympathetic ear make us more lonely and depressed when times are tough? Perhaps it does for those accustomed to the rewards of prayer and the ever-ready spiritual answers of organized religions and their human Gods. But not for yours truly. I can't give into the temptation of psychological comfort simply because its requirements seem too patently absurd. Attempts to talk to God feel phony and empty to me because I can't believe in a God that is relateable or even communicable.

And yet I still derive extraordinary psychological comfort from this structure. When times are tough, my spiritual system does a wonderful job of making me feel better because it establishes a noble meaning of life that is surprisingly absent from most major religions. Our existence, indeed the existence of all reality, is for the survival of God. Our role may be minimal but participating in this grand dance is nonetheless rapturous when understood as such. This understanding helps me accept the hardships I may face because I know I am part of something bigger but does not give me the humanized father-figure to rail against when my chips are down.

Furthermore, while my God may not listen or care about my personal trials and tribulations, I never feel lonely for It. God is everywhere and in all things because our reality is comprised of order and chaos. The monetary exchange of currency for sustenance at the local restaurant is order. The cracked face of an old man walking into a coffee shop is order. The projection of these words onto my computer monitor is order. The constant beat of my heart is order and is just as glorious as God's own heartbeat in which I exist. What is the point of life? To live. The simplicity of this system allows me to easily remind myself of life's rapture and I feel equipped to deal with the worst my short human existence can throw at me.

And there you have it. The uncodified spiritual system of a 21st century man. If any of the above offended you in any way dear reader, try to have a sense of humor about it. We are, after all, still enjoying the rapture of existence. 

1 comment:

  1. Wow, it's a loooooooong passage... did you type by yourself??

    You know what... i became a Baha'i a year at the end of 2009... it may answer some of your questions!

    - Angel.