Sunday, October 29, 2006

Religion done right

I just spent the afternoon at a meeting of the local interfaith society, which was arranged as a panel discussion between various denominations - Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish and (to my surprise) Humanist. I was somewhat shocked to find that I agreed with almost everything that was said.

Recently I've been feeling my way towards a new philosophy, based on notions analogous to Quality albeit somewhat more pragmatic in tone, which defines reality in terms of beliefs which are useful. We can then draw a distinction between consensual reality (the beliefs that are real for all humans) and personal reality (subjective "truths").

This has the usefulconvenient feature that it provides a concise explanation for the importance of science. Science is based around a particular subset of usefulness: an idea is scientifically useful if it gives rise to a more predictive understanding of the universe. This scientific usefulness has the unique property of applying to pretty much any intelligent lifeform that could exist (with a scant few pathological examples). Not just to certain individuals, not just to humanity as a whole - any intelligent lifeform, whatever its goals in life, will be more able to achieve those goals if it can accurately assess what future circumstances will be. As such, concepts conforming to this version of usefulness can be legitimately treated as part of an objective reality, regardless of their actual material existence.

Note: this also provides a nice refutation of the all-too-common claim that atheism cannot be true because if it were there would be no reason for us to be able to accurately perceive our environment. It is quite clear that, in general, it will be of value to an organism to accurately perceive its environment - as that is a prerequisite for predicting what its environment will do next - and so such a trait would be an extremely plausible evolutionary outcome.

Consensual reality is slightly more expansive than scientific reality - at present, it also incorporates concepts that are useful to all humans, but that might not be useful to martians (if we ever met any martians, we might have to re-evaluate this...). For example, "soft sciences" such as project management or psychotherapy apply to anyone with a human-like mind, but might not be useful for (picking a random example) a hive species.

This redefinition moves the philosophical battleground of theism from the question of whether God is real to the question of whether He is real for all lifeforms, or "just" all humans, or simply a subset thereof. This is where the concept of usefulness comes into its own as a model of human behaviour, as we can then start to analyse all the other ways in which a statement might be useful, with a concept's reality for an individual being a weighted average. It's also a significantly more tractable question than whether God "exists" in any more materialistic sense. As you're probably aware, my belief is that God is not real in this sense - I am, of course, open to discussion here.

This brings us back to the interfaith talk, because it was quite apparent that most of the participants were talking less about whether their beliefs were objectively (scientifically) true than whether their beliefs were subjectively useful.

Of particular note were the Hindu Swami and the Jewish Rabbi. The Swami focused almost entirely on religion as a means of spiritual development, a set of useful markers and methods to help us along the path of personal growth (this theme was also echoed, albeit with rather less vigour, by the Christian on the panel). In this sense, religion is "merely" a handy guide, a set of well-trodden roads that people have laid down over the centuries, with no need to be objectively real. The Rabbi focused on the standard gunk - religion as bringer of morality etc - but was unusual in that she expressly stated that this was true for her, and might not apply to someone else. IMO that's a far more respectable stance on this question than the usual one, and I found it very refreshing.

Is God objectively real? As far as I can tell, the answer is no. Is God real for some individuals? Apparently so, and I hope to explore further why this should be the case. Is God part of consensual reality? At present I'd say no, but I'll need to examine this question in future posts.

In light of this reformulation, how does one define the reality-based community, the faith-based community and the action-based community? What's the most effective combination of these to live by, and why?

Watch this space, folks. And visit any interfaith events in your area, they're bloody marvellous.

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