Robert C. Priddy

Writings on diverse themes from philosophy, psychology to literature and criticism

  • Robert Priddy

    In this blog I post information and critical views concerning ideologies, belief systems and related scientific materials etc. I am a retired philosophy lecturer and researcher, born 1936.

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Archive for the ‘Environment’ Category

Nature and Divine Retribution – science undermines belief

Posted by robertpriddy on March 23, 2011

Consider the statement: “Scientists today are exploring the powers of nature with a view to enjoying them without limit. They want to bring all those powers under human control for their unrestricted enjoyment. This is responsible for so many of the natural disasters we witness today.”

This seems reasonable to very many people in this era, not least because of the intense and ever-mounting pressure on the environment, ecological systems and nearly all usable natural resources. It is of course vitally important to recognize the effects of human exploitation on nature and to work to contain and counteract all life-threatening enterprises. However, once one combines this aim with religious teachings – whether Christian or Hindu, Judaic or Islamic or New Age etc. – a peculiar warped attitude to science and technology soon arises. One speaks of ‘Mother Earth’ (Bhoomidev . a deity in Hinduism) and ‘Gaia’ – as if the earth is a living, sensing and intelligent entity. Alternatively, many religious scriptures attribute all that happens to the will of God.. the (illogically conceived)  ‘uncaused cause’ of everything. Yet another variant -contradicting the previous – is the claim that human moral decline is the root cause of all ills, including what are otherwise known to be independently-caused natural phenomena. That is, not caused by God by only by humankind!

Consider another quote by the same person as the first quote above: “Many natural catastrophes are entirely due to ‘man’s behaviour. Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, wars, floods and famines and other calamities are the result of grave disorders in Nature. These disorders are traceable to man’s conduct. Man has not recognized the integral relationship between humanity and the world of Nature”.(December 1992 by Sathya Sai Baba – in the journal Sanathana Sarathi).

It is true that some natural disasters may have been triggered by human activities (massive dam building causing earth movements, as one example). But the sweeping claim in the quote exhibits confused thinking indeed. God is somehow no longer the cause, especially not of bad things. Human actions which alone can make ‘wars’ are included under natural calamities, while ‘volcanic eruptions’ and ‘earthquakes’ are supposedly caused by human (mis)conduct!  Granted, floods may sometimes be the result of bad land management, but only a tiny percentage of such calamities, not to mention major tsunamis.  As the scan above shows, the tsunami of  2004 was attributed to human lapses by Sathya Sai Baba – who has a multi-million following which includes 4 Presidents of India and 6 Prime Ministers (including the present incumbents!).

Richard Dawkins has illustrated the same ideology in Christianity, and pointed out the hypocrisy of those who support a faith, yet cherry-pick what to believe or not from the canonical scriptures. This selectivity is necessitated by the inroads science has made into most key statements in the Bible about the natural world, its origins and how to explain it (not to mention any details of many similar disproven ‘truths’ in the Koran):-

See article on Dawkins’ web site here


Posted in Belief, causality, Christianity, Environment, Religion | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Faith Schools – divisive indoctrination

Posted by robertpriddy on December 16, 2010

Induction into a religious faith at a tender age is indoctrination. While physical abuse of children is now at last forbidden in the most civilized countries, mental abuse is still allowed, and this includes inculcating defenseless children with superstitious folklore and false conceptions.

It should be a human right not to be subjected to an environment where environmental pressures and ‘group effect’ acts to make any child accept a religion. Richard Dawkins has led the way in courageously speaking out to this effect (see here). Bringing up children under a system of education which contain non educative elements (i.e. proselytizing) is contrary to education, which means the learning of real facts about the real world and imbibing the human values (not divine commandments) upon which civilized society and international agreements rest. Faith schools differ from secular schools in that they are really belief-inducing schools. The increasing isolation and unwillingness of “faith” communities to integrate is a threat to future social harmony and world peace, where terrorism is the new kind of war.

All religions are actually ideologies, and their core beliefs are unsupported by any substantive facts or science. They differ as to values and consequently in many parts of the world they are at loggerheads and often in direct violent conflict with one another. To contribute to this disruption, this battle of the sects, however much one talks of peace and goodness, is a blind policy. Socially divisive ‘brainwashing’ – of whatever type and however mild – is unacceptable and to endorse it through an educational system should be made illegal. Divisiveness arises from the pretense that this or that faith has superior access to ‘the truth’, and often that truth will include claims about the unity of mankind… yet which only leads to hypocrisy in action. The consequences are already exploding on the streets of Europe and the USA, not to mention in the developing world where divisions are extreme.

Education deserving the name should develop the autonomy of people, enlightening them as to how to make their own choices in a reasonable way and with knowledge of possible consequences. Obscurantist scriptures should be banned from schools, which would mean the exclusion of large parts of most scriptural sources.

Often, faith schools are popular with parents because they impose more discipline on pupils than secular schools, not least because of the absolutism of the moral codes enshrined in their religions (the Ten Commandments for example). Though often effective, this is absolutely not the best way to achieve integration of pupils into harmonious working groups and communities. Understanding, communication and help in socialization (through special needs assistance and counseling) is the way to go instead. But selection of pupils on religious and other (often bogus) criteria excludes the problem children and avoids the social problems that such schools should bear and face up to, rather than avoiding them. Since their chief aim is religious indoctrination, however, they manipulate so as to avoid those who will be ‘difficult’ and especially potentially critical children and parents.

One commentator (protogodzilla) wrote in the Daily Telegraph

“I attended an RC school in London in the ‘fifties. We were indoctrinated into believing protestants were the spawn of the devil. When I mentioned to the priest that we were all Christians I was caned. We were brain washed into believing that our religion was the most important matter of our lives. I abandoned my religion on the day I left school – there was too much hatred in it for my taste. As a recipe for division, mankind has never devised a better stick than religion to destroy itself. Muslims hold to their brand of bigotry as savagely as the RCs of my youth. If there is a God would He/She be happy with this state of affairs? Faith schools segregate rather than integrate and should be outlawed to encourage social cohesion.”

On such a background one can understand the horrendous events that have terrorized Northern Ireland, and – mutatis mutandis – which are yet worse in the Middle East, Africa and the Indian subcontinent.

Posted in Atheism, Belief, Catholicism, Disinformation, Environment, Ideology, Religion, religious faith, Understanding | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Spirituality redefined without religion or mysticism

Posted by robertpriddy on December 3, 2010

The words ‘spiritual’ and ‘spirituality’ are nowadays being widely used to advance all manner of religious and pseudo-religious theory, such as unrealistic ‘New Age’ belief systems. They should be redefined entirely within the context of the ‘human spirit’, not any kind of imagined disembodied holy entity (God) or world of spirits (an afterlife or realm of eternal beings). The creations of human ingenuity – whether artistic or scientific, social or moral, practical or even technological – can be expressions of the human spirit. Genuine spirituality is – in real terms – about all those down-to-earth values whereby one does one’s best to advance society in everyday life, create secure and peaceful conditions for oneself and others. Always defending the truth and being truthful, loving others and where possible serving them while respecting their genuinely human qualities and acting in accordance with this to the best of one’s understanding and ability… these are signs of recognisable and real true human spirituality.

A fair degree of self interest is not incompatible with such ‘spirituality’ as we also have a duty to ourselves to survive, develop and live fully. However, there is a vast amount of what passes for spirituality which is self-serving in that people aspire only or predominantly to their own supposed salvation or benefit. This involves putting one’s own wished-for ‘liberation’ from worldly problems entirely before other concerns, aiming to win divine benefits through worship, prayer, meditation,  rituals of many kinds. The desired attainments would raise oneself above others, such as in trying to obtain extraordinary psychic powers or other imagined ‘holy’ dispensations. Those who aspire to such believe in otherworldly and discarnate entities as promoted by mainstream religions and a host of sects and cults of almost every conceivable description.

Looked at from the standpoint of non-belief, religions are seen mostly to be about moralistic control of others and creating false hopes of healing, miracles, divine forgiveness and other promised rewards which seldom occur (and when appearing to are without proof of any divine origin). Not least, religion exercises power over others through creating fears of punishments of many kinds, especially after death. Religion is too often largely about believing in beings which cannot be proven to exist and events which cannot be proven to have occurred – or in scriptures and doctrines about them. Countless conflicts are either caused by religious fervor – or are supported by religionists on opposing sides. Human values are – by the very concept – not divinely ordained, they are human… based in human interests for survival, happiness, peace, freedom from oppression and glaring inequality. Religions have tried to subjugate these values to themselves and/or the absent deities or God in whom they believe. (See some of the theological tricks involved examined here)

It is unnecessary for any mention of God or religion in the context of moral issues, they can be discussed adequately and fully – and practised – without any such reference.  Human life teaches values naturally, for the peace, prosperity and happiness for all towards which good people strive arise from observable actions within the scope of such values, and equally man-made sufferings are easily seen to arise from false values. The desires for fulfillment of human needs are quite universal, though the needs will differ with changing circumstances, But ignorance of our nature and lack of empathy causes many to try to reach them through short-cuts like corruption, violence and crime. None of that has anything to do with any god, deity or spirit – and natural disasters are exactly that, natural not divinely caused! We should harm no living beings if avoidable and possible for the reason that it causes fruitless suffering, not because any god or cosmic intelligence created living creatures – they and we are all products of an enormously long, complex and amazing process of evolution which needed no divinity to operate, nor to begin. The real evidence shows only that we are all products of evolution, not of divine creation. (Those who still doubt the validity of this would benefit by seeing David Attenborough’s film for BBC and Discovery Channel  ‘First Life’

Once entrapped in religious thinking, one tends to attribute everything to God even when it is really our own doing, but especially when it is something (negative) beyond ones control. God is a summary word for all manner of believed ideas, derived from groping superstitions handed down, extended and manipulated for countless generations. It is bolstered by millennia of ignorance (and fear) about the real causes of events and has generated a social inertia (i.e. an accumulated energy which is most difficult to counteract without an equally strong opposing force). Science has taught us the real causes of the majority of known events, starting really seriously only a few centuries ago. The scope it now encompasses compared with what it did even when left school in the early 1950s is amazing, and our knowledge is expanding at a colossal pace which is still increasing.  Since then has successfully been explaining more and more things humankind originally came to believe must be done by  some God, spirits or other non testable speculations.

We can now look at the sky and realise there is no one up there, though long believed they must be, and since we could not get off the ground, physically or otherwise, we were in awe of it as ‘heaven’ or the abode of the ancestors or whatever. We understand, for example, that from seeing volcanoes the idea of an underworld and a hell where one burns arose. Yet religions still preach these absurdly primitive falsehoods to billions of people, and it is shameful indeed that Pope Benedict XVI
(falsely claimed to be an intellectual) still preached the primitive and absurd doctrine of damnation in hell for non-believers in his particular delusions! As argued previously on this blog, on the evidence so far and with the highest probability, God is nothing but the creation of the human mind.

See also Human Values as Common Ideals
Human Values in Psychology

Posted in Atheism, Belief, Catholicism, Creationism, Disinformation, Environment, Ethics, Evolution, Ideology, Religion, religious faith, Science, Spiritual propaganda, Theology, Uncategorized, Understanding | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

The Origins and Persistence of Religious Belief and Faith in God

Posted by robertpriddy on September 5, 2010

Views on the origins and development of religion expressed here are a contribution to secular and humanistic culture. They are no doubt anathema to believers in almost all religions today. There is a vast wealth of intricate evidence, interpretations and argument underlying my thesis into which I shall not without digress much so that the main lines are more readily graspable.

Religion certainly had its roots in both awe and fear, the overriding fear being that of death.

Wonder and awe at existence, at the world early humankind lived in and not least at ‘the heavens’ are common to us all and there is evidence that neolithic humans also had the capacity and the time for this. The human condition of not knowing the whys, hows and wherefores of being pertains even today, though is doubtless not so overwhelming as it once was. This awe cannot have been insulated from fear, which is so closely related to ignorance. (Even the word ‘awe’ is parent to the word ‘awful’). With the development of primitive technology and understanding of nature and with the inception of ideas of causation from a largely invisible (and often threatening) spirit world, the human mind groped through prehistory towards conceptions of creative and ruling gods, and eventually a single God entity. Gradually the idea of divine benevolence became more prominent than that of a jealous and punishing God, if only relatively very recently. All that has never been a smooth or painless transition, nor is the transition in recent centuries to the removal of a supposed divine agency from the one field of research to the next… and the spreading loss of faith in any God.

Fear is a natural human condition in a hostile environment, which most often prevailed in prehistory. The mystery of death and fear of it is obviously an existential reality, however one tackles it and remains a challenge to humanity. Since the earliest history of humankind, when the causes of death were not understood to anywhere near the extent that is the case today, it would have been ‘natural’ to suppose some ‘supernatural’ agency. This was surely one powerful motivation to seek explanations in an unseen world peopled by spirits or other unseen beings, to help allay that fear and to grapple with the many enigmas of life, natural events and inexplicable human physical and psychological conditions. Needing an explanation of the many circumstances that sustain human life and how to face and overcome the challenges of this world – as science now knows them to be – the continued life of soul or spirit (in later religious terms) and realms where they resided were conceived – and developed in many local variants. This belief in an afterworld – or parallel world – was developed along very diverse lines. It persists today in religious conceptions of heavens and hells.

The struggle to deal with the conditions of life – scarcity of food, weather extremes, illness, wild creatures and many other circumstances related to such basic factors of existence, also involved a struggle to master and understand them. The causes were mostly seen in animistic terms – that beings inhabited and controlled the earth, water and the heavens. Rites and sacrifices came about in the attempt to propitiate and so influence these spirits (or deities) to protect and help the tribe. Contacting them ‘shamanistically’ through trance and altered states was a further step. Ideas about transcendental entities and places were no doubt based on experiences from intense rituals, tribal rites like dance and deprivations, shamanist induction of trances, rigorously demanding initiations, and not least through altered states of consciousness caused by a variety of psychotropic plants and fungi, through high fevers, extreme starvation or loss of blood… and so on. The break with more simple kinds of animism took many ages to effect, and it is not even over today for few religious cultures or groups have been rid of all animistic beliefs. Here and there resurgence of certain natural and pagan superstitions regularly happens. Animism is yet very prominent in various sects among Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Islamic sub-cultures and in amalgams of Christian with spiritualist and/or traditional tribal beliefs. In these practices one clearly sees the general prototype of religious beliefs as are widespread today. The sheer extent and time span of these primitive urges to understand the world has a tremendous cultural inertia.

The Inertia of Religious Belief:
We grow up under the pressure of ideas caused by what I call ‘the inertia’ of religion. This inertia was generated by millennia of human culture where one knew almost nothing of the infinitely complex systems of natural causation. From misty beginnings, we sought to explain them as results of the acts of spirits, deities, gods. Fear of terrible scourges that beset early humans must have given rise to desires and hopes of propitiating whatever or whoever caused them. Human sacrifice is known to have been a fairly common kind of ‘offering’ to please whatever powers-that-be, and it still occurs even today in some parts of the world. The idea of influencing an invisible agency grew, multiplied, divided and were propagated – being employed in many ways to regulate or control human affairs, in short – the root of religion. These conceptions formed the glue of many societies and were the basis of a considerable part of every language, interwoven in many ways into words and phrases, and in ever-developing forms up to this day. Religions still try to propitiate idols, deities or holy figures through countless and changing rituals… and in more knowledgeable or enlightened societies this mostly takes the form of prayer, devotion, personal sacrifice and social work.

Since the sky was probably the most impenetrable mystery to early humankind – unreachable and inexplicably dark or sunlit – it was the repository of our early ideas of gods. Probably only much later did the speculative ‘heaven’ as a derived realm to which the spirits of the dead went and which was hopefully imagined to be ‘paradise’ in its being close to the God the Creator and source of all wisdom and whatever. Similarly, volcanoes must have been equally impenetrable and fearful, and no doubt prefigured the widespread visions of hell as a burning realm. It only became a place of burning torture for souls for all time – eternally, much later.

Human beings have always had to rely since birth until maturity on their parents to answer their needs and questions. Where lacking, elders or other authorities capable of fulfilling these requirements took the place of father and mother. Yet the adults and elders themselves had not such paternal being to watch over them, to whom the could appeal for solace or justice. Thus the idea of God easily filled that role – the great spirit which made the wonderful world work and who could hopefully be appeased when troubles descended. Voltaire most likely also considered this when he wrote: "If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him." ("Si Dieu n’existait pas, il faudrait l’inventer."). Times have changed, however, as the need to ‘un-invent’ God becomes more widespread and intellectually and morally pressing.

That cultural heritage is the motor which drove religion forth for most of human existence on earth. What is now known to be superstition persisted and is carried along well after it has been explained away by religion’s inertia We know that God does not bring the rain (Latin “Jupiter pluit” – i.e. Jupiter causes it to rain) or the drought. Yet many primitive religions still believe this and even educated people go to church to pray for the end of a drought… and the same with many trials and tribulations. Not least also, of course, thanksgiving to one God or another all manner of things which arise as normal effects of nature and life.

Religion and Politics:
Politics in the very broadest sense includes all forms of leadership, however enforced enforced or chosen. The multitude of primitive superstitions and beliefs which formed religion in tribal societies since the stone age (as known to us) were so intertwined with the interests of those who were leaders that separating the two would be near impossible from our perspective. This relationship has always persisted with few probably exceptions even to this day. The preponderance of religion in most nations at least since before the Enlightenment, still applies to most nations and its intimate associations with the origins and influences of national law are historical fact. This being so, the United Nations 1948 Human Rights declaration had no option but to include freedom of religious expression and tolerance of religion throughout both private and public life. This is an embodiment of the secular, humanist value system. "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance." (United Nations’ ‘Universal Declaration of Human Rights’, Article18).

This ideal had long been suppressed and rejected in one practical or theoretical way and another – often quite totally – by all mainstream religions. These require adherence to belief in the authenticity of each their various scriptures which must be regarded as the will of God and not to be doubted or criticized with the aim of challenging them. This limitation on freedom of information – and consequently on the scope of education – student the growth of those brought up within a belief system and either delays or stops natural human development of knowledge in the search for the truth (which may contradict doctrine). Religious bodies have had to pay respect to human right, though sometimes grudgingly and only as lip service (as in much Hinduism and most of Islam).

Two quotes capture essential features of the problem of interaction or interference of religion in politics: "You cannot avoid the interplay of politics within an orthodox religion.
This power struggle permeates the training, educating and disciplining of the orthodox community. Because of this pressure, the leaders of such a community inevitably must face that ultimate internal question: to succumb to complete opportunism as the price of maintaining their rule, or risk sacrificing themselves for the sake of the orthodox ethic.
" and "When law and duty are one, united by religion, you never become fully conscious, fully aware of yourself. You are always a little less than an individual." (Frank Herbert in the ‘Dune’ series).

Religion and equality: All mainstream religions and virtually all sects still contravene or silently ignore (less in theory than in practice) central values in the UN Declaration of Universal Human Rights, Article 2, which states: Article 2:
"Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty."

Sex or gender is almost universally regarded in discriminatory ways by religious scriptures and doctrines derived from these. Even where women are accorded freedoms in religious scriptures, the organised religious communities often fail to allow them to exercise the few freedoms the doctrines allow.
The discrimination against non-heterosexual persons is rife in most religious communities, and has traditionally been punished by the most brutal means… and this occurs widely still today with religious doctrinal backing. Even religions which preach and emphasize love and compassion at the same time also often supported (or fail to condemn) extreme religious bigotry, intolerance of dissenters and provoked fanatical zealotry and social hatred to convert others through unfreedom. This has been due to the absolutist nature of most handed-down scriptural injunctions and to the many doctrines derived more or less from them. These have caused only hate, violence and have contributed the driving force in countless destructive wars and conflicts to this day. Organized religions have supported many wars as ‘holy’, the idea of the ‘jihad’ not being confined to Islam by any means. No all mainstream religions extend universal rights or equality to all, whatever they happen to believe. The two religions with most adherents, the Roman Catholic Church and Islam, provide prime examples of this non-universalism and divisiveness.

Are spiritual beliefs a human necessity? To start with religious faith (assuming ‘spirituality’ can have some fruitful meaning apart from religion or faith in a God), the evidence is that people can live well – most likely far better – without belonging to or believing in any religion. This presumes a social and cultural environment where there is no strong authoritarian or group pressures to be or become a believer (or to cease believing)… in short, in societies where there is freedom of thought and expression both in law and in practice. Only in the latter case can interchange of ideas, values and friendships really develop, with the security, harmony, peace and pleasure that this engenders. Tolerance of religious belief is essential, though any pressure to ‘respect’ and therefore not criticize beliefs one rejects and sees as harmful would not protect the freedom of speech and thought and should be avoided. Non-interference in the private life of others is an ideal which seems essential to personal freedom. This gives the opportunity to foster a universal attitude, one where human equality and common rights, duties and destiny are understood. This universal humanistic attitude enables people to work for common human benefit. Yet where it is done more or less out of fear of punishment or hope of reward in a next (invisible) world it is not done for the sake of fellow humans, but for oneself. Being able to think freely and express one’s ideas without being persecuted (provided that one does not break the laws of an enlightened or ‘liberal’ society) gives much creative energy and personal fulfillment. This is a secular value, above all, and is the result of millennia of struggle towards liberation of humanity from the bonds of ignorance and unfounded fear.

See also On the roots of religious, political and other fanaticism

Posted in Atheism, Belief, Catholicism, causality, Creationism, Environment, Ethics, Evolution, Free will, Intelligence, Religion, religious faith, Theology, Understanding | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

How your brain creates God (i.e. subjective ‘realities’)

Posted by robertpriddy on July 10, 2010


New Scientist article on human brain and its natural inclination for religious belief

In relation to the inset article: This is interesting because it indicates – at the least – how the human brain is most likely the creator of myths… rather than there being any spirit or soul which instructs the brain. On the other hand, the (admittedly tentative) conclusion that humans have a ‘natural’ inclination to religious belief is rather facile, to say the least. It is rather disappointing that the New Scientist publishes material which contains research based on imprecise or questionable usage of terms (eg. ‘religious ideas’, ‘natural inclination’, ‘hard-wired’).

The instance quoted to support this – hard times such as the Great Depression causing a rise in authoritarian church attendance – is not much of an empirical generalization… for surely countless counter examples could be found. The talk of the ‘brain being hard-wired’ for many different things, such as ’empathy’ and ‘romantic rejection’, then also ‘religious belief’ strikes a semanticist as an exaggeration in terminology for findings which are yet of a very tentative nature. For example, if the human brain is, through evolutionary pressures, now hard-wired for religious belief of some kind, how is that so many people are atheistic, agnostic or simply don’t care and never bother themselves with God in any shape or form.

Widespread atheism in a society is a recent development in human history, and does this not indicate that but the alleged “hard-wiring” proved soft after all? In the most progressively intellectual countries of Northern Europe, America (apart from the alleged USA religious majority), Australasia and so on, religion has lost it iron grip on the common mentality of people. Prevailing attitudes – which share the noosphere with opposite attitudes, can hardly be said to be evidence of ‘hard-wiring’. One suspects that there can sometimes even be a pseudo-religious agenda in emphasizing this supposed powerful ‘natural’ inclination (Thank goodness it is not called a ‘natural instinct’ any longer, as on the Cartesian-type model of a ‘God-embedded’ idea of God in human minds). In short, the jury must remain out and should not speak about their private conclusions until the evidence is overwhelming… which it most likely never will be, considering the huge exceptions I have so far only touched on.

The continued preponderance of religious ideas and their role in the arts, music, literature etc. can be explained in numerous other ways than by reference to evolutionary brain developments, which researches still remain in the shadow area of speculation, not verified and well-established hypotheses. Firstly, there is no longer a common religion in all cultures, and most religions were virtually unknown to one other in the main before the modern age of global communications. Besides, there were – and still are – many cultures where what religionists interpret as religion bears little resemblance to any of today’s mainstream religions. What can be defined as a religion is almost a political issue. This vastly complicates research addressing such sweeping terms as ‘religious’.

Secondly, the development of arts in civilised societies are understandably influenced by the other ideas, including prevalent religious beliefs. There can be many reasons for such influences other than then brain’s inclinations. There is the matter of getting accepted by others, which means communicating in terms they understand or prefer. The successful artist is almost always  dependent on a degree of pandering to prevailing tastes, fashions and the lingua franca of the ‘moral’ leaders or law-makers of society, often a priesthood,  if only so as not to be persecuted (one things of Bruno and Galileo for a start). Thirdly, that the brain can “conjure up an imaginary world of spirits, gods and monsters” is no more fundamental than what the mind of a child can create beyond the everyday world from which it draws its elements (especially of a religiously un-indoctrinated children) . Imagination is not limited to spirits, gods and monsters – of course – though these were employed by primitive humankind in an attempt to grasp the causes of the otherwise ‘mysterious’ nature (plagues, droughts, calamities rule a population and even that it rains ‘Deus pluit‘ and a thousand other daily enigmas to early people). This emphasis on religious element in imagination in the ‘hard-wired religion’ camp is without any empirical stringency, since alternative figments of the mind are innumerable too, especially today when all have potential access to everything all cultures have produced.

One of those who capitalizes on such research findings is Iona Miller of the Asklepia Foundation, 2003 writes: “The god-experience is a process, a subjective perception, rather than an objectively provable reality. Distractions cease, replaced by the direct impact of oceanic expansion, sudden insight, childlike wonder, ecstatic exaltation above bodily and personal existence, dissolution in a timeless moment, fusion, gnosis” I shall consider this in a separate blog later.

Se also On the roots of religious fanaticism

Posted in Belief, Creationism, Environment, Evolution, Ideology, Philosophy, Psychology, Religion, Science, Spiritual propaganda, Theology, Understanding | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

What comes first: matter or mind?

Posted by robertpriddy on July 1, 2010


To ask what came first, such as ‘matter’ or ‘mind’ is often brushed aside as an unsolvable riddle like ‘which came first, chicken or egg’ problem. The body-mind schizma, the god vs. creation argument and all related basic (epistemological) dualisms are, in some ways, glorified chicken-egg questions. What is much greater is the depth of interpretations that can be devised, the sophistication and breadth of the pro and contra arguments and – not least –  the degree of empirical evidence that can be brought to bear. To claim it is unsolvable because it is based on assumptions or supposed axiomatic data is a mentally short-circuited attitude. Even assumptions can eventually be tested and proved or disproved – and, failing that, shown to be extremely unlikely or the reverse. Blowing the mental fuse and breaking the flow of insights, the connections between questioning, investigating, observing and reasoning. It disposes of the essential problem without even an attempt to probe what it means or what consequences it can have for human thought and knowledge, culture and life itself.

The most contradictory standpoints and cultures are generated from one or another side of the ultimate ‘ontological’ dualism which takes many forms such as mind vs. matter, cosmos vs. universe, God vs. no creator, soul vs body, religion vs. science, spiritual idealism (‘mentalism’) vs. materialism/physicalism, belief vs. (empirically-based) knowledge. The questions ‘Was the cosmos created by God?’ and “Is God a mental creation of humankind” encapsulate the divergence as ‘creationism’ versus ‘evolutionism’. This is parallel to the issue whether mind can create matter or not (the latter implying that mind arises from matter).

Before summarizing the main reasons why I maintain that mind is matter-dependent and not the reverse, I shall examine some of the grounds on which the most subtle religious ideas about creation are based. Note, however, that belief is absolutely required in the case of the ‘spiritual’ side of the divide and – since belief is ultimately just ‘blind’ faith other than empirical nor methodically-tested rational knowledge – this brings us into the realm of speculation or religious mysticism. The influence that this has had on humanity and all cultures is immense, so it must be confronted and questioned where it stands on its own ground. Ideas of God’s existence, nature and all interpreted qualities vary more tremendously than one can encompass fruitfully, so I concentrate on some of the key or mainstream beliefs.

Indian cosmology has various explanations of creation by God (as creative Brahma) one representation of which is the cosmic egg . [One inadvertently thinks ‘was there a cosmic chicken?’] Some argue that the cosmic egg – which is though to be a spheroid rather than have a true egg shape – is alternatively represented as the Shiva lingam – which is at odds with the usual Shiva lingam shape as that of an erect ‘membrum virile‘. All most confusing. [Apropos what comes first, in a literal sense, the egg precedes the chicken, since dinosaurs laid eggs and are far from being chickens which evolved from them.] A more accepted Indian idea of creation is that it is the breath of Brahma which initiates the cosmos with the sound ‘Aum‘. This may be reflected in the Christian cosmology of St. John “In the beginning was the word, and the word was God…” The inevitable criticism would be, how did the owner of the cosmic lung arise? Since God is generally now recognized in Indian monotheism as a universal being as spirit (Atman) immersed totally in consciousness and bliss, one must conclude that the material universe is generated in and by consciousness. Again, from where did consciousness and/or bliss itself spring? It is inconceivable… and this is the catch. What one cannot perceive but must blindly believe to exist does not advance our understanding of anything, let alone ourselves (as it is doctrinally supposed to do). Was the original awareness just a tiny glimmer which expanded later – like the physical universe? If so, it is the Big Bang all over again, but in an immaterial sense – either prior to physical creation or possibly concurrent with this. This brings understanding of any spiritual creative origin no further forward… though the physicalistic theory of the Big Bang advanced human understanding by a huge empirical- and knowledge-based factor compared to scriptural words. Some would add that the Atman is eternal… but this is a vague assertion. ‘Eternal’ can mean enduring for ever through time, or else possibly existing independently of time (and space). The first alternative is ruled out since the Big Bang posits that time-space arises with it, before which was nothing. The second alternative is fraught with the same problem that is at the root of all spiritual ideas… there is nothing in human experience which can be called independent of time-space or even described symbolically with any reasonability or consistency.

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Humanism educates, dispels ignorance and reduces miseries

Posted by robertpriddy on May 27, 2010

Humanism as it appeals to me holds that, within the conditions set by the natural world, human beings are themselves – either individually or collectively – entirely the cause of all the ills of the world, as well as all the good. It is safest and most likely by far that there is no other agency influencing humanity or nature.

Human history and enterprise, however fruitful or destructive, remain human, none of it is divine (or demonic). Whether material and practical, our works are ruled by precise and unavoidable natural laws, and conditioned by the environment, including social conditions. That an infinite power (the ‘God’ of ancient and modern beliefs) intervenes to rescue us is a ‘delusion and a snare’. Sometimes, when life seems to us too hard and unfair, otherwise sensible people looking for help and hoping for some ‘miracle’ delude themselves into religious beliefs. When succour fails to occur, many pray for salvation or invoke divine justice. There is, however, no definitive proof of any reasonable kind too show that a single divine intervention has ever occurred or  succeeded in saving humanity from its miseries. For every instance where it seems to have happened, there are countless others where it has not… it is just the law of averages at work, not any benign invisible agency.

If humans were the creation (or manifestation) of God or a divine will (though extremely unlikely) then he (or she or it) would also be entirely responsible for all human faults and so-called ‘evils’ which would be a consequence of that creation, known in advance to any omniscient entity. If it were that such a being existed who could create humans and provide them with a measure of ‘free will’, they would still not be responsible for their condition and choices, for these are made within a framework which is limited by creation itself and which gives very little room for overall change.  If we observe divine intervention in human history as this belief has been handed down to us from the most ancient of times when we understood almost nothing of the workings of nature, it is seen to be a superstition, a faulty primitive conception derived from ignorance combined with fear, escapism, desire and hope.  There have been and still are many thousands of claimants to divine knowledge and power. The India gurus especially know how to take advantage of those who listen to them, having a long and highly sophisticated tradition of priestly doctrine and means of control and manipulation of people to draw upon. It is constantly handed down by word of mouth with the vast pseudo-spiritual community of swamis, mendicants, gurus and the common herd who have been totally indoctrinated to accept their ‘teachings’.

However, enough wonder and beauty is in nature and our human world to make supernatural wonders superfluous.  Both beauty, ugliness, pleasure and pain are almost perfectly explainable by natural laws, which are experienceable and understandable. Even our origins, and the origins of the stars and galaxies are now understood to a vast extent – a development which has taken place within 100 years or so… which is a tiny time span compared to the billions of years of our solar system. The secret of how human have developed and how DNA programmes this is cracked and science is on the threshold of the creation of the most elementary life form from which all else came. All that was a most securely ‘closed book’ to the writers or ‘channellers’ of scripture… their wisdom was in fact simply a speculative mask for their ignorance of natural law in its myriad detail.

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Religion and conspiracy theory

Posted by robertpriddy on February 26, 2010

The greatest and most accepted conspiracy theories are not just at the fringe of mainstream discussion. They are found in the religions of the world. That an invisible, insubstantial, incorporeal, unknowable, omnipotent, totally unaccountable person, with a vast hierarchy of disembodied helpers, is behind almost everything  otherwise unexplained that happens on earth, should surely qualify as the prototype of all conspiracy theory.

It is prototypical because of its very ancient roots in early prehistory. The idea of a monotheistic God – I submit – eventually developed from a host of attempts to explain the apparent contingency of events on earth… the weather, illnesses, accidents, illnesses, death, birth, the impenetrable sky and volcanic fires and so on ad. inf.
Dreams gave rise to the idea of spirit beings, from which arose worship of ancestors, animals, images, objects as idols… As these ideas clashed and were inadequate to explain or bring about desired results in the dawning light of wider understanding, they were superceded by more general deities – and out of the long historical clashes of warring sects then national beliefs, pantheistic and/or monotheistic Gods arose and the mainstream religions took them in hand, so to speak, and theologised them further… always more and more abstracted until nothing corporeal could be involved.

In essence, the idea that a clandestine intelligent power is conspiring to control us cannot be taken further to excess than is done by the mainstream religions – with the exception of some forms of Buddhism and other lesser known teaching.  While some conspiracy theories  have actually be proved to be substantially true, what we can tag as ‘the Divinity Conspiracy’ can – by its very nature – never be proved to be true. Nor can it be definitively proven to be untrue, though the likelihood of it being true can be shown to be minimal. This likelihood increases all the time as science advances, providing genuine and testable explanations for more and more of the phenomena originally considered to be mysterious, miraculous, impenetrable, and so wondrous as to be forever beyond human comprehension.

The theory of evolution, having expanded its database vastly in a matter of a mere 200 years, which is developing at an ever-increasing pace, gives answer to enigmas that were previously unsolvable throughout human history. Religions, appealing to ancient scriptures, (and largely distorted and often censored) have been bolstered up by flawed speculation of a theological and mystical kind  appealing to awe for the supposed ‘creation’ by an uncreated Creator – all at the expense of serious investigation.

The understanding of genetics which hardly got anywhere before the 1950s with Crick and Watson, is also racing ahead exponentially, confirming and deepening the understanding of the evolution of life. Neurological research is answering more and more of the enigmas about the human brain/mind and the subjective phenomena it can produce.  The religious belief in mystical revelation or ‘cosmic consciousness’ is itself increasingly being shown to consist in phenomena due to functions or dysfunctions of the brain alone.

See also: Some key distinctions for the science-religion debates: agnosticism vs. atheism and secularism

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Light on the Cartesian dichotomy – evolution & neuroscience

Posted by robertpriddy on January 24, 2010

My summary/part transcript of the discussion on the BBC entitled: Exchanges At The Frontier, Episode 3 – Patricia Churchland This is a MOST interesting exchange because of the light it throws on the so-called body-mind duality (or matter-mind or matter-soul schizma) and how evolution provides answers to dispel miasmas and reinforce the fact of ‘free will’ – as I see it – against all religious determinisms.

How did the human brain evolve to care for others? If brain science can explain the cause of someone’s actions can we morally blame them for what they have done?

In ‘Exchanges At The Frontier’ (17 Dec. 2009), A.C.Grayling spoke to the neurophilosopher Patricia Churchland about what we now know about the machinery of our minds and the implications for society.

Neuroscience is starting to tell us how human decisions are really made, beginning to explain what it is that gives us a sense of our self and is shining light on the nature and the limits of ‘free-will’.

To understand mind we must look at the brain.

What we experience is very different from what we see when we look at a brain or a piece of spinal cord. This causes skepticism about the unity of brain and mind. Until recently very few functions of the brain were understood. But…

Evolutionary biolog: We know the structure of human and animal brains is very similar. Many animals do very complex things. solve complex problems. But could this merely be caused by instinct? Why should a Cartesian ‘spook substance’ need to exist to explain complex functions, but only in human beings?

Old concepts change as science advances… the concept of memory. Since 1950s when memory was though of as one thing, we have learned that memory is very complex which fragment into many sub-types and sub-systems. Under physical lesions, many parts dissociate. Eg. one can, in memory loss, retain skills while losing recollection of events. Short-term memory can be lost while long-term memory increases etc. Memory is multi-dimensional.

One remarkable case illustrates the question. A 40yr old man with stable re-marriage – step daughter claims she had been molested. Police found pornography on his computer. He began to get very sever headaches. A scan found a significant frontal (hypocampus) tumour… which is where sexual activity is controlled. Tumour removed, interest in young girls stopped… marriage back to normal. Then a relapse—  tumour had regrown as not all was removed, also removed with same result.

People can lose their capacity to suppress an impulse.

The prarie vole was an evolutionary mystery. How do animals develop self-care.  Then how to get from self-care to care for others. With mammals 2 major changes – use of a simple peptide – if the wrong peptide is predominant, the animal will lose all care for offspring. A mammal can feel a localised pain (big toe) or a ‘generalised sense of awfulness’ (eg. distress caused by calls from young). Prarie vole males care for the young. Male montain voles do not, they don’t guard the nest. The answer is in the microstructure of the brain. (Very detailed brain analysis and study of blocked receptors which then make self-care possible etc.). This means an evolution in behaviour, which is efficient for the species and which functions can be extended.

The same peptides is much the same as in prarie voles. Instead of fixed action patterns, in the developed state of human brains, there is flexibility, executive functions… steering attention, maintaining a goal, (deferring gratification, tolerating pain for a greater aim etc.

Culture clearly plays a huge role. It probably began with the development of agriculture (ca 10,000 years ago). Institutions developed which could enforce the right kind of behaviour. A ban is more trustworthy that one person.

Consciousness and freedom of the self: Choice the outcome of earlier states of ourselves and the earlier states of the universe? Descartes though free will “created from nothing” a choice. However, choices do have antecedent desires, beliefs,,, Discoverable differences between voluntary and involuntary choices… and a profile of these is being developed by neuroscience.

The [current UK and often prevailing] justice system does not require that a choice is not motivated by any precedent events. Though it does recognize compulsion by others as reducing responsibility.


Quote: A.C. Grayling: “requires a clearer conception of “free will.” Its formal identifier is the “genuinely could have done otherwise” requirement: but not only does that itself require unpacking, we also need to look for the fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) traces that suggest which structures in the brain import novelty into the world’s causal chains, making their possessor a true agent, and not merely a patient—a sufferer—of the universe’s history.”

Comment:If self-care arises only when a particular peptide is dominant, then the vast history of evolution gives room for countless such changes which result in what were once thought to be the human ‘instincts’ of motherhood, spontaneous compassion and all those observable human reactions which underpin what we now call ‘human values’. There is absolutely no need to posit an Invisible Being – found nowhere – which could instruct humanity morally… nature has done it through evolution. Of course, those who are psychologically or otherwise personally dependent on belief in a God will say that He (She or It) created nature may try to argue that God created evolution! This is the final crunch… the last argument which can never be validated in any way whatever. Some people believe what they want despite anything… there is probably no saving many of them.

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Is religion necessary to humanity?

Posted by robertpriddy on November 23, 2009

“As my friend Matt Ridley has written, ‘Most scientists are bored by what they have already discovered. It is ignorance which drives them on’,
Mystics exalt in mystery and want it to stay mysterious.”
Richard Dawkins ‘The God Delusion’ (p. 151f, Black Swan 2007 edition)

The reasons for supposing the benevolent existence of a caring God are very many and powerful, not least the need of adults to assuage anxiety and fear about existence and death, of suffering and possible divine punishments over and above those exacted by our own kind (or for the weak-mind, that of an eternal hell run by demons or a devil). Whether faith in religion has an overall positive or negative function for humankind is inseparable from the ultimate question of the existence of a God, whether as a Supreme Intelligence, the Creator of the Cosmos, and Omniscient and Omnipotent consciousness – or the like expressed in other terms.

To place faith in a being that does not exist cannot be genuinely fruitful in the longer term.  It may certainly have a temporary or even quite extended   consoling or uplifting effect on people. Yet it is really an expression of ignorance which, obviously, cannot be fruitful for humankind and whatever future it may have.

As science continues, decade after decade, to fill more and more of the gaps in our knowledge, there is less and less space for the mystical explanation and the supposed ‘divine hand’. The process of cumulative human knowledge based on massive observation and experimentation – instead of superstition and speculative theology – has continued since earliest human history, when the actual causes of some natural phenomena began to be understood. In the last century it has been progressing geometrically and shows no sign of slowing down.

“If the history of science tells us anything, it is that we get nowhere by labelling our ignorance “God”.
Jerry Coyne, US geneticist, reviewing the legally discredited ‘creationist’ theory of Behe.

Creationism – the belief that the world was created by one or more intelligent beings (usually God, spirits or deities) – was almost (though not entirely) universally believed before European science and philosophy progressed. The creationist belief came under strong attack as the science of evolution  advanced to become accepted by most world scientists and intelligentsia. The body of knowledge explaining the development of all living beings has developed and grown by leaps and bounds at an ever-increasing rate. It is so many-sided, so empirically fact-based that religionists’ counter-arguments have fast narrowed down to a very limited scope.  The so-called ‘unknown’ causes – which were the main support of creationism and other forms of mysticism (including belief in evil deities like Satan) – have been largely explained in phenomenal detail and tested by observation and experiment. The once universal awe and fear of a Divine Creator whose planned and rules the natural order – red in tooth and claw – and the near endless series of calamitous hells that world history had recorded became less and less convincing and effective. 

Beliefs in supernatural phenomena and beings has most often been due to sheer ignorance of causes of what are natural phenomena and events. The sense of being looked after by an omnipotent protective parent is natural and all but unavoidable for children to survive until adulthood, but many cannot make the transition and find some other imaginary being as a substitute – angels, spiritual beings of all conceivable (but unobservable) description and not least the most often vague catch-all belief in ‘God’. Such conceptions formed and became ritualised and a part of a primitive developing culture, and remained in the long run (though constantly modified in the transition of cultures – even beyond recognition).

When science gave rise to the versatile alternative form of understanding of the universe and superstitions were shed on a huge scale, the keystone idea of all traditional religions – an all-powerful, all-knowing God creator (and destroyer) – appeared more and more superfluous, even ridiculous. The idea of such an insuperable (and often most fearful) being was used to control people, whether or not cynically was discredited. However, even today the priesthoods are powerful influences and even belief in a strong, determined and clever person as being holy, divine, or even God Himself in human form is most common in history. (Rama, Jehova, Jesus, Roman and Eastern emperors… and countless more since). Today there are plenty who profess to be holy, divine and even to be God Incarnate, and they often have very large followings (especially in the East) and countless charlatans proclaims they are God’s Messenger, God’s Mouthpiece, or God’s Representative on Earth (e.g. not forgetting the Catholic Pope as ‘Vicar of God’, meaning ‘deputy’).

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