Thursday, September 07, 2006

God as the Final Variable!

I guess this kind of a post will be skipped by the experiences reader simply because of the millions of theories floating about. Almost all self respecting bloggers would have given their version of God/Religion/Mortality. I normally refrain from talking about religion and the “higher things in life”. The reason for that is two fold. Firstly, my own philosophy is that, there is no point worrying about the questions of higher powers, destiny, fate and related terms, at this age (meaning eighteen to thirty). My attitude can be summed up by Kahlil Gibran’s beautiful verse:

Yesterday is dead,
Tomorrow is unborn,
If Today be sweet,
Why fret?

The second reason is a basic question of how to think about abstract terms like “God” and those associated with it like soul, duty, heaven, hell and so on, without getting caught in a web of semantic confusion. In fact a simple cause of confusion could be the practice of capitalizing the “God” and “Him”. My view on such terms is this: If you cannot define a term properly, you MUST NOT use it.

(A digression: I am aware that this view follows from the so-called “Picture Theory” put forward by the great and equally enigmatic German philosopher Wittgenstein in his seminal work, Thr Tractacus Logico-Philosophicus . The problem is, after great effort, I did find a copy of the TLP, but unfortunately, I couldn’t make much sense of it. So I shall continue with the idea which captivated me though, I am not even sure if that is the “Picture Theory” that Wittgenstein intended.

Second Digression: Do Google about Wittgenstein. In my opinion, Wittgenstein, Von Neumann, “Che” Guevara, Camus are the most charismatic thinkers in recent times.)

The problem with much religious discourse is that the key terms used are value loaded i.e they immediately conjure up an impression/value associated with them even though the author may not imply it. Another problem is that in many cases, multiple meanings are attached to each word and therefore, there is just too much scope for interpretation and misinterpretation by followers.

It is for these reasons therefore, that writing about these topics is loaded with pitfalls. But I shall nevertheless put forward my interpretation.

One of the most striking features about Hindu Philosophy is the multitude of theories of God which exists in its framework. On the one hand, we have works like which seek to establish this “God / Ultimate Being”’s supremacy in terms of physical characteristics or some special powers. For example, the Purusha Suktham talks about the Purusha or the Ultimate Being having a thousand heads, a thousand eyes and his presence encompassing the Earth and so on. On the other extreme, we have philosophies like Advaita and Dvaita which are extremely sophisticated and abstract apparatuses to understand the “Supreme Power”. The beautiful thing is all these approaches to understanding God are equally relevant. It is this multitude of approaches which has led to me to come to my own view of God.

Essentially, as human beings, we strive to understand the world around us and our own existence. There are two reasons for this. One is utilitarian, in the sense that it is in our interests to understand how the world works from a mechanistic, “How and Why Things Work” point of view. This desire is to a great extent satisfied by Science. But at the deepest levels even Science finds itself entangled in often paradoxical philosophical questions.

The other reason is purely aesthetic. Understanding how the various aspects of life interact leads to a sense of confidence and fulfillment. Most of the philosophical nuances belong to this category. From a day to day point of view, nothing more than a rudimentary philosophical model is necessary. Indeed, a person can climb to the very top of the industrial world without any refined understanding of philosophy.

Often the quest for knowledge arises due to a combination of these compulsions. Having started on a line of thought due to various reasons, one cannot draw the line and say, we will address certain questions because they are of aesthetic value and avoid other questions.

Therefore, I think we have convincingly established that the two main motivations to understand the world are utilitarian and aesthetic.
Having established why we need to understand the world, the next question is How do we go about doing it? We have tools like Logic, Mathematics, Philosophy and Language is the “currency”, the means to express concepts. Let us call these the “Tools of Thought”. So in effect, we try to understand the world through our senses and some tools we have developed. However, these tools of thought keep on developing and at any point of time there are many phenomena which we cannot explain with our current level. In those cases, we have no recourse but to attribute those phenomena to something beyond our understanding, something “miraculous”. That Unknown Entity to which we attribute phenomena we cannot understand is called as “God”.

To give an analogy, consider Regression analysis. Say, there is a variable y which we think is to be modeled as a function of u,v,w. So typically we would write it as:

y = a1*u + b1*v + c1*w

What if unknown to us there is some other variable we have not taken into consideration? Also, the coefficients a1, b1, c1 obtained by fitting historical data cannot forecast future data perfectly. There will be a deviation. In Regression analysis, to account for this an error term is included in the expression.

y = a1*u + b1*v + c1*w + ε

To come back to our initial point, the world is what we try to explain through the tools of thought and in that endeavour we need the concept of God to play the function of the ε variable; A variable to explain all that cannot be explained by the Tools of Thought at that given point of time.

Please do not take this analogy literally. The term “Error Variable” may seem to trivialize the concept. What I am essentially saying is this:

The conception of God we have at a given point of time, is a reflection of what cannot be explained by the prevailing “Tools of Thought” at that point of time.
A Corollary of this idea is that the functions or the powers attributed to God should reduce once the Tools of Thought become more sophisticated.

In this framework of God as the Unknown Variable, the question of creation has no been addressed. My argument is that God is a man made invention so creation is merely a set of one-in-a-million occurrences which happened to occur period. An important fallout of such a view is the realization that different views of God are acceptable as long as the user can navigate his/her life. As a human being goes through the journey of life, his/her priorities change. The knowledge sophistication also changes. Therefore, it is very natural, in fact, very necessary that one’s conception to God changes. More importantly ideas related to God like morality, duty among others will and should change.

The next useful conclusion is that any work of religion should be viewed as literature, even if exceedingly brilliant. The crucial difference between literature and divine books is that, in literature you can reject the author's viewpoints without any feelings of guilt, in fact, you are encouraged to do so. However, refuting divine works always brings an inescapable feeling of guilt. This should be removed.

Re-reading this article I feel I have done some of the common mistakes that I started to debunk. Aaah! Maybe we shouldn’t even attempt to talk of these questions. Maybe you just realize the truth but language is insufficient to express it. Maybe!


Gajanana G K said...

Hey, neatly rounded post. Answered most of the queries abt the subject.
But I would like to differ with what you said on this aspect. Advancement of science, in my opinion, only refines that which we ascribe to 'God'. 'Reducing it' would be tantamount to bending the physical laws, which science hasn't done. If it does, then it wasn't a law in the first place.
And as far as philosophy for youth is concerned, personally I can't find a more appropriate time to get into all this for all the reasons you mentioned in the post.

themiddler said...

Hey,you have hit the nail on the head.

The advancement of science "refines" the notion of God ... yeah THIS sounds so much better. Thanks.