The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life
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Sunday, February 21, 2010
Religion ...

I’m still slowly plowing through a book by philosopher Paul Churchland about neural networks and the profound implications they have for understanding how our brains and minds really work. The book is called “The Engine of Reason, The Seat of the Soul”, and it is good. Churchland gets down to some nitty-gritty on what neural networks are and how they work (well, he can’t exactly give examples, as the mechanisms by which these networks behave are still quite complex, even though they ultimately ground themselves on fairly simple logical rules; in other words, you can’t just go out and build your own neural network on a computer after reading this). And then he goes into all of the implications for philosophy, psychology and even sociology.

I will say that if you can follow him, you will think of the mind in a somewhat different way than you did previously. I hope that psychology majors are learning this stuff. And sociology and philosophy majors too. But then, should we go the next step, into religion? Well, Churchland certain does.

Neural networking is the process by which the brain finds some hint of order and pattern in the jumble of sensory experience that we undergo throughout our life. It’s how we learn things, which we store in our memory. It’s how we learn to avoid getting hit by a moving car on the street, how we learn what not to eat, how we form opinions about other people, how we decide what clothes to wear before going out. And much, much more, including language, face and voice recognition, math and science, and even social customs, political governance and morality.

Ah, morality. That’s where Churchland decides to have a chat about organized religion. The neural networks in our brain are somewhat like the social networks between people that every human must enter into. In fact, the neural networks in our brain constantly interact with the higher-level social networks, through language and other forms of social communication. IF social structures and networks (e.g., governments, businesses, churches, labor unions, churches, social clubs, etc.) are like neural networks, then they are also learning devices. They use the written word (and other things, such as art and photography) to record what we collectively learn, just as our memory saves what we individually learn in the daily lessons of our lives. Over time, through the trial and error of hard experience, our social structures and organizations hopefully adapt to changing conditions (e.g., climate changes, discoveries of gold or oil, new types of germs and disease, droughts and famine; not to mention the effects, positive and negative, of the new technologies that individuals and social groups produce and apply, e.g. nuclear power and weapons).

They hopefully also GET BETTER, over time; they do more than just play catch-up with an every changing environment. They hopefully discover better ways for people to interact socially, e.g. better kinds of government, better ways to conduct trade and economic activity, better notions of social customs, etc.

For example, the idea of slavery was well accepted for many centuries; only in the last few hundred years did our social networks, interacting with our individual neural networks in our brains, figure out that we’d all be better off without slavery (even though some people did have vested economic interests in it). Only in the last two centuries has the idea that women should have equal economic and political rights gain traction. Before that, everyone (including most women) agreed that women and men should have very different and differentiated roles in society, and that males should be given greater administrative rights. In ancient hunter-gatherer societies, and even in later agricultural structures, sexism made sense in terms of survival. But after much struggle, we discovered that in today’s world, changed much as it has been by the collective growth of science and “Enlightenment thought”, women should have equal rights in 99.9% of cases. (What are the accepted exceptions? Well, they still don’t have equal rights to the men’s bathroom, and vice versa).

So how does religion fit in with this? Well, religions are certainly social organizations, certainly an integral part of the social network. But, per Churchland, they have developed this notion that they represent the epitome of moral development. They feel that they are protecting an extraordinary wisdom given from on-high, generated externally from the slow process of human / social learning mediated by the neural network process of prototype recognition and memory. They believe that this body of inspired learning and wisdom is clearly superior from what is developed through the daily grind of social interaction, and must be protected from corruption by it.

That’s the picture of religion that Churchland draws, and condemns. He says that such a belief only gets in the way of human moral development and improvement. It locks us into notions that will become outmoded as both we humans, our social institutions, and the physical world around us continually changes. E.g., the ideas in some churches that women’s roles as ritual celebrants must be limited or forbidden. Or the idea that gay people and their sexuality should not be viewed as a sickness, but should be seen as something natural, an inherent feature to human nature which manifests itself in a small but ongoing percentage of the population. Under this view, our secular social institutions are generally (if slowly and painfully) making progress in dealing with the question of gay people. But many of the religious institutions are trying to impede this progress (although some, e.g. the U.S. Episcopal Church, are also painfully trying to make progress here).

For me, this is a “chin-scratcher”. I myself am “haunted by God”, concerned about the notion of God, even though right now I’m not formally involved with any one religion. I had been involved with several religions in the past, and I still have my sympathies with them (although I fundamentally disagree with some of their theological viewpoints). In some cases, religions have protected human and humane notions, in the face of terrible mistakes made in the secular portion of society (e.g., Nazism during the 1930s and 1940s).

Despite Churchland’s optimism about the general social learning process, big mistakes sometimes still happen. There is still quite a bit of noise and chaos (in the sense of chaotic attractor patterns and chaotic tipping-points) in the social-wisdom system. Many religions claim to hold fast to fundamental wisdoms derived from “natural law”, which are denied and assaulted every so many years by secular institutions. And there may be something to that defense, even in the modern day world (e.g., modern secular notions regarding human sexuality might sometimes go too far, into the zone of human degradation; those religions who preach the unpopular message that unfettered sex is wrong might well be doing society a favor). Other religions continue their brave opposition to war and violence, even in the face of short-term pragmatic justifications for the use of armies and navies. They also call for radical charity, even when this is acts as a brake on the forces that create wealth (i.e., capitalism; the bountiful wealth that it creates unfortunately is seldom shared according to human need).

On the other side of the coin, religions have gotten in the way of major social improvement movements that originated in secular society. Again, with regard to slavery, some religions helped to fight that institution, but others cited ancient revered writings to preserve it. And again, with regard to women today, some religions are supporting or even accelerating secular pressure to give women their appropriate rights in the modern world; but others cite ancient theological myths and writings to fight this. And yes, also with the modern question of gay rights. And science – some religions still waste much energy defending ancient notions of direct divine creation of our planet and ecosystem, despite overwhelming empirical justification for natural evolution.

I hope (probably in vain) that Engine of Reason becomes required reading in all theological training schools, including fundamentalist Christian and Islamic schools. Religious leaders need to understand that the larger network of social interaction can sometimes develop wisdom, wisdom that challenges the ancient myths and scriptures. They need to learn that some of what their religions have traditionally defended is dross, not gold. BUT, they should also see where Churchland fails; i.e., in his attempt to explain away the reality and uniqueness of our subjective conscious experience. There is something more to reality and to our lives than neural network interactions can explain. Perhaps this does point to a divine creator. And perhaps that divine creator, reflected through natural law, has somehow communicated wisdom beyond what our social structures will come up with. E.g., the Golden Rule is a good starting point.

So yes, I do think that religion (or at least some religions) have something to say, something fundamental to contribute to the welfare of society and human beings. But they’ve gone too darn far over the centuries in mixing the gold with the dross, in confusing what is truly valuable and sacred in their message, with ancient notions that were “tacked on” to their myths and stories. E.g., St. Paul’s acceptance of slavery and male superiority, and his condemnation of homosexuality. Religions need to read their texts a bit more carefully, and throw away what is not at the core of their inspiration.

But Churchland also needs to realize that HE does not know it all, either!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 12:02 pm      

  1. Jim,
    As I read your evaluation of Churchland’s book, I saw that your thinking about God has changed since you’ve started writing about it here. And I’d say that the change is a really good change. You may never end up with an answer as such to what I sometimes see as the conundrum of God, but I think eventually one works out one’s own approach or view of how he/she will perceive God in his/her own life—and that’s a good thing.

    I see three “evidences” of how your thinking is changing. First, you mention you are “ ‘haunted’ by God.” Second, you say that there “is something more to reality and to our lives than neural network interactions can explain.” In other words the sum of the parts is greater than the parts. When I read that, I said to myself, “Thank you, Jim.” In this same connection you mention the “reality and uniqueness of our subjective conscious experience.” I say, Excellent! And third, you mention that religions may have something fundamental to contribute to society and human beings. I certainly agree with that statement, although, like you, I reject 99 percent of what passes for religion. (I have to say about myself that I “woke up” one day realizing that although I had long ago been thrown out by my professed religion, I have basically refused to leave. Since I was baptized in that religion, following their own thinking, they simply cannot throw me out if I refuse to leave. In that sense it’s like “home”—where when you go there they have to take you in.)

    I like your “haunted” concept because I think that is really what happens in a person’s life when he/she is an honest searcher. I also like the concept that the reality and uniqueness of our own subjectiveness is important in the search for God in our lives—more important than we may sometimes think it is. And lastly, I like the fact that you are willing to think that, although religion(s) may not be exactly your cup of tea, they may still have something to offer. I once heard or read (I forget where this idea came into my consciousness, but it is not original to me) someplace that one should always listen to those that one thoroughly disagrees with because they have a point that SHOULD BE HEARD in the argument that is being made; the struggle in finding the truth is to ferret out the “right” parts that those with whom we disagree profess and to ferret out the “wrong” parts of our own thinking. In other words look for the truth where it may be, and definitely do not expect simple answers (although in the end the answer may prove to be “simple”),.

    So, I do not mean to be in any way condescending here, but I do wish to point out the change in your thinking—which change I see as a real advance in your search for God.

    Comment by MCS — February 22, 2010 @ 2:24 am

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