Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Beyound the omniscient CPU   posted by Razib @ 7/27/2005 12:26:00 PM

In Genesis 6:3 God states "...My spirit shall not always strive with man, for that he also is flesh: yet his days shall be an hundred and twenty years." And yet if you keep reading you note that many people do live beyond 120 year in the Bible. And in the past century people have lived past 120 years. Something is off. In a comment below one individual asserts that "religion - no matter what the denomination is, and always has been a logical absurdity." I believe when viewed as a system of axioms religious beliefs fall flat on their face due to an internal lack of coherency, and yet they persist.

But just because religion fails as a system of formalized knowledge about the world does not mean that we should chalk it up to historical forces (opium of the masses), abstracted psychological yearnings (wish fulfillment) or an inexplicable irrationality (mass hysteria). I have stated that the religious need seems to be rather lacking in my own person, but, two personal points should get across what I want to communicate:

1) I can still repeat Surah Fatihah, the opening passage of the Koran and the preamble to the daily prayers, when called upon to (in a language foreign to me, and without any ability to break the passage into "chunks").
2) When I hear a call to prayer I have a difficult time expressing in words the peculiar chill that runs down my spine.

One must keep in context the following facts:

1) I never really believed.
2) My Islamic education was minimal at best.
3) I have never lived in an area with many Muslims.

If I could "delete" my knowledge of the Surah Fatihah, I surely would if that meant I could free up "space" for something far more interesting. But somehow it persists in my memory.1 Humans often live under the illusion that we govern ourselves fully consciously, but a moment of reflection on what you've done in the past hour would surely disabuse you of that notion if you still hold to it. You might have taken a shower, locked the door or turned the oven off with barely a recollection of the details, these chores have become "instincts." Many aspects of our nature are delegated to subroutines or helper programs, and we don't really have conscious access to what's going on down there. In theory we can issue a chain of commands, but don't expect the help to oblige you if they are of one mind. It recalls an acquaintance of mine who was raised a Born Again Christian, and though a vocal atheist now, he still listens to Christian music. Though he didn't believe in the message, the melodies and themes were familiar to him and still aroused an emotional response that he sought out.

The importance of indepdent cognitive subroutines and emotional associations are just two of the facts that I believe make religion explicable. For whatever reason a minority of any given population tends to dissent from the dominant supernatural narrative of its locale, but unfortunately many of these individuals project their own peculiar psychology on to the rest of the population. I believe a good portion of this minority even verbally assents to the general supernatural narrative but recreates it so that it is intelligible in its own language (ie; theology). I suspect an understanding of religious process is possible, but we need to move beyond assuming that it is either a formal system of thought or that it is at its core irrational, and will never be accessible to systematic inquiry.

1 - Some Muslims would offer this as evidence of the miraculous nature of the Koran, but I could give other examples of things I can't forget that I would like to.