The Case For Gods

[this is a repost from my personal blog Look there for posts explaining my priors.]

I’ve been playing with belief in God since I was a child.

During my adolescent years, when I started really digging the catchphrases of pseudo-rational-types like Terry Goodkind, I became a staunch atheist. It wasn’t until after my last grandparent died and I really came face-to-face with the living faith of my family that I suspected there might something more to belief in God than had previously met my horny-for-evidence hormone-blinded eye.

So, in order to make sense of this glimmer of an intuition that there’s something to faith, I joined a Bible study in my first year at university. I talked with other young Christians about what they believed. I teased out the little glowing thread of my own experience of divinity, the divinity I saw and felt in the room at my Oma’s funeral service. By the end of my winter semester, I felt as though I had a fairly close relationship with God, and I had a good working understanding of my fellow Bible-studiers as well. However, as the semester came to a close, I gave up on the project of Christianity in favour of something else that caught my fancy, who can remember what.

Two years later, (ie., this past week), a friend of mine wondered in passing at my faith in God. The word “faith” rankled, because even when I was trying on the hat of Christianity, I never made use of faith. While I loved the people in my Bible study, and respected their personal relationships with God, my long-abiding sternly-atheistic dismay at faith persisted.

I believed then and I believe now that God can be explicitly modeled in a way that preserves both rationality and the essential sense in which spiritual people mean “God.”

Return to the idea that our brain is playing a game of “interpret reality-data into predictively useful systems of symbols.”

If that’s the game, what’s winning? If the game is as described above, winning is “correct prediction.” However, within conscious experience, our sense of winning-at-life and correct prediction are rarely equivalent.

For example, when I look at my girlfriend’s eyes while she looks into mine, and the euphoria of love bubbles up inside of me, prediction is the farthest thing from my mind. That’s not to say the predictive model of cognition can’t, at some level, capture why I love my girlfriend. However, at the level of consciousness, if I’m trying to cultivate that love, the predictive model will be next to useless. This is because I don’t experience my own predictions directly, I experience them symbolically. Love is an unitary cognitive symbol emergent from an immense tangle of countless different predictions about my girlfriend. Trying to parse that tangle of predictions on its own terms is beyond my cognitive abilities.

It seems to me that, when the win-condition shifts from “correct prediction” to “the experience within consciousness of correct-predictions-as-symbols (eg., love and its accompanying euphoria),” we need to rephrase the operation of the game. The game pieces are no longer predictions, but symbols, with all the emotional freight attached to them.

The way to play this game is to maximize your access to the most euphoric possible symbols.

To return to the idea of God. When I say “God,” what I mean is “the set of all euphoric symbols.” This captures most of what God is to most of the Christians I’ve met, setting aside their zany metaphysical claims.

This treatment of God raises a question: why treat the set of all euphoric symbols as though it were a person? Why make it a character with a personality at all? Why not just take the set as it is?

This taps into the heart of why anyone believes in gods at all. My theory is as follows. Symbols and systems of symbols are far more palatable to our brain if they come in the form of a person. We are exceptionally good at mirroring the behaviours, emotions, and underlying structures of other people. Our brains are built for it.

So, if you want to mirror “the set of all euphoric symbols,” call it “God” and treat it like a person. If you want to mirror “the set of all euphoric symbols relating to a tree,” call it “dryad” and treat it like a person. If you want to mirror “the set of all euphoric symbols relating to masculinity, sex, life, death, and the cycles of nature,” call it “The Horned Lord,” or “Pan,” and treat it like a person.

Spend enough time with these people, and their symbols will come easy to you.