Been There, Done That; Creating the Anthropocentric Relatable God

The essay that follows is from a collection of writings I’ve been working on since the summer of 2021. The collection is entitled Schrodinger’s God and nearly all the essays deal with paradoxes, contradictions, inconsistencies, and just plain old absurdities with regard to concepts of God or gods that I have come across. Like the Schrodinger’s Cat thought experiment that was conceived to illustrate what Erwin Schrodinger felt was an untenable implication of the superposition principle, Schrodinger’s God is my attempt to illustrate untenable implications of certain claims, beliefs, tenets, and principles concerning god concepts, particularly omni-god concepts.

There is a scene in the 2015 movie Avengers: Age of Ultron in which Tony Stark in his Iron Man armor is chasing after Ultron after the fight on the ship that Ulysses Klaue was using to store his weapons and vibranium stock. Finally cornering Ultron against one of the ships, Ultron says, “Ah, the vibranium is getting away.” Stark responds, “And you’re not going anywhere!” To which Ultron quips, “Of course not. I’m already there. You’ll catch on.”

I particularly like that brief exchange because it illustrates, for me, that even in worlds with overt gods, people with incredible powers, and highly intelligent robots, humans – even supposedly really smart humans – tend to think very linearly and temporally. I am particularly impressed that the Avengers writers came up with that nugget because for the most part our understanding and depictions of how other entities must operate and behave tends to be informed by, and limited by, our own abilities within the world. As such, when we imagine other entities – elves, vulcans, cylons, terminators, predators, xenomorphs, androids, and yes, even gods – they tend to have an awful lot of similarities to us humans. In many cases, they look like us except for some minor physical distinguishing characteristic: ridges on their foreheads, a single eye, pointy ears, furry feet, a dog-like muzzle, slight height advantage, and so forth. Part of this, of course, is that in visual media such as television and movies, it’s easier and cheaper to have your “others” look human-ish because it’s a heck of lot more expensive using high-end technological special effects rather than human actors with rubber foreheads. But even back in ancient times before TV and movies, this was how most people thought of non-human heroes, enemies, and gods, right? Look at the depictions of Zeus, Athena, Anubis, Poseidon, Buddha, Vishnu, Izanagi, and so forth. All are very human in appearance and they all are depicted in writings as having rather human-esque physical and mental limitations. Sure, they are described as being able to do some pretty amazing things relative to humans, but they are all still relatable in terms of their actions, perspectives, and most of all, appearance. None of them come across as alien or incomprehensible in any sense. I submit, they are all reflections of a very human perspective and a desire for gods and creators that are, on most levels, relatable and comprehensible and above all, human-centric. Even depictions of the Christian God reflect this treatment. Check out the paintings by Jacob Herreyns, Fra Bartollomeo, Pietre De Grebber, and the somewhat more famous Michelangelo and his work on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

It makes sense that most folk throughout history would envision gods and other powerful beings in mostly familiar human forms. The fact is, most stories and depictions of such entities were created for the expressed purpose of a) telling stories about humans, and thus present the gods and other such entities as a human-focused supporting cast, b)  providing people a sense of importance and, specifically, demonstrating that humans were closer in design and authority to gods than to the other animals and other aspects of creation, and c) to provide powerful and iconic, but relatable and comprehensible, fictionalized characters for humans to elevate heroic, tragic, dramatic, and magical stories above the mundane elements of human existence that would then better highlight morals, ideals, and lessons the authors wished to get across.

For the most part this is ok if your gods are simply super-humans with super abilities for specific jobs. I mean, if you’re going to present a story about the virtues of war culture and warriors, having a God of War who exhibits all the qualities of what was considered the finest combat prowess, who looks like a big human, and who is depicted curb stomping those considered your enemies, well that’s just a pretty good rallying idea. It’s very relatable and inspiring. Going for the abstract has a tendency cause your audience’s eyes to glaze over. If you’re trying to depict the concept of love and fertility among your followers, having something called “the Goddess of Love” depicted as a beautiful young human female makes sense. If the Goddess of Love were depicted to look like a squid or catbrier, people might be a little turned off. So yes, having your super-human entities look human makes sense.

But what about Ultimate Creator gods? What about monotheistic omni-gods? As noted, there are depictions of the Christian God as an old, white-haired, human king type person, but does this depiction make sense?

First, let’s tackle what I mean by “omni-god”. A little history is in order to appreciate the concept. That history starts with the recognition that the Earth can be a pretty scary place at times. Back in ancient times when humans huddled together in small nomadic bands and tribal groups and didn’t have much understanding about the properties and characteristics of things like wind, fire, water, electricity, storms, the sun, earthquakes, volcanoes, snow, seasons, and all manner of other phenomena, people in those groups tried their best to make sense of the phenomena and come up with explanations for them. Those people’s imaginations ran wild and they came up with all sorts of concepts: wind being the breath of ancestors or demons or the result of the flapping of wings of giant invisible bird-like creatures; earthquakes being the stomping of giant beasts or the sound of fights between giant humans; the sun being carried across the sky by a great human herald in a boat, and so forth. In other words, to make sense of these strange activities, the people tried to relate them to activities they did understand. In many cases, the activities these people most related to were human activities, so a lot of explanations for the unknown were associated with human actions. And since the explanations were associated with human actions, in many cases the beings they imagined as the actors in those explanations were imagined to be similar to humans in appearance and behavior. Over time, the human-like entities and spirits that were used to explain specific activities and events were expanded in scope into beings responsible for a wider range of activities. So, the gods and spirits of the fields or the rivers became gods of all flora and gods of all the waters. Later, these entities and their stories were reimagined and revamped again, with the god of all flora becoming the god of all life and the god of all waters becoming the god of all elements. And the more responsibility these gods and entities were given, the more powers they were given and more powerful in general they became. Of interest, as they gained more power and became more powerful, they were also depicted as larger in size and physical strength. Some of the names of the Hebrew gods of the Old Testament such Ail, Shaddai (the plural of Shad), and Elohim all include “mighty” and “powerful” as part of their meaning. Eventually folks started bundling the various god concepts or simply absorbing the characteristics of other cultures’ entities into few very powerful, multitasking entities. These depictions ultimately gave rise to the monotheistic omni-god concepts of Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, and Judaism.

So what do I mean by “omni-god”? Well, an omni-god is a god with omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence. In other words, an omni-god is a god that is all powerful, is or can be everywhere at once, and knows or is aware of everything and anything that can be known.

Here’s the thing though: although adherents have a tendency to treat their omni-gods as pretty much superpowered specialized human-esque entities, the conditions and characteristics that would be inherent in the “omni” aspect of omni-gods would include or at least imply consequential parameters and boundaries in terms of the entities’ manifestations and their ability to relate to and interact with the world and the universe in general. And I submit that such entities not only would not look at all human, but could not even remotely resemble anything living we could relate to. An omni-entity that could create a universe – the universe we can see and experience to some limited extent – likely could not have a physical form at all and certainly could not exist, in any physical sense, within that universe It created. An entity that could create the universe we can experience would have to be completely beyond human comprehension. As a very weak analogy, it would like a person who creates a massive, football field sized HO scale railroad model and accompanying towns and other details trying to live in that model. That person just could not do so based on physical (and likely mental and emotional and all sorts of other) constraints. From a logical standpoint, an omni-god existing within its own creation is simply an inconsistency. More so, trying to imagine such an entity in a relatable physical form creates an inherent contradiction; a conceptually All Powerful, limitless entity cannot have physical form because, by definition, “physical form” is a definitive limit.

This, of course, is very specifically what I mean by the term “Schrodinger’s God”. Concepts of God or gods that include these types of inconsistencies and inherent contradictions are concepts I cannot accept as valid. The essays to follow go into more details on some of contradictions, paradoxes, and inconsistencies I’ve come across and why I find them untenable.

56 thoughts on “Been There, Done That; Creating the Anthropocentric Relatable God

  1. Thanks for this, Robin, will have time for a proper read later. Just to say I added a “read more” tag.

  2. Alan Fox:
    Thanks for this, Robin, will have time for a proper read later. Just to say I added a “read more” tag.

    Thanks! Appreciate that Alan! Not sure how it got posted under the category “Evolution” either. Been awhile since I posted and I think I forgot the bits I need to pay attention to. 🙂

  3. I like this very much!

    I think it does a nice job of showing how theology is basically playing tennis without a net (as the saying goes): it essentially relies upon a conflation of “the God of the philosophers” and “the God of the Bible”.

    The god of the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament is very much a god of the Israelites: it is the story of their relation with their god, just as other epic poems and tales of antiquity are stories of people and their gods. What makes this god unusual are (1) he has no visible form — he appears as a pillar of fire or as a voice, but he has no face or body and (2) no one knows how to pronounce his name, since this was a secret known only to the high priests.

    The god of the philosophers is, in the Western tradition, grounded in Xenophon’s critique of polytheism and Parmenides’s argument that only Being exists and can be conceived — we cannot conceive of that which doesn’t exist, etc.

    That argument was massively influential in how Aristotle understood the Unmoved Mover, Thought Thinking Itself. And it also strongly influenced how the Stoics conceived of Providence, the world-spirit.

    Both of those, in turn, hugely influenced Christian, Jewish, and Islamic theology.

    But the God of the philosopher is not something that makes any sense to worship or pray to — it doesn’t really care about us very much at all. Meditating upon its existence is supposed to calm the troubled mind, but prayer doesn’t get it to do anything that it otherwise wasn’t going to do. (Aristotle is actually very clear that the unmoved mover does not even notice anything other than itself!)

    So what happens is, as Robin said, a Schrodingers’s God: any time God is imagined to be too remote and distant from human affairs (the God of the philosophers) we’re told to bring it back to the God of the Bible, and any time God is imagined to be too much like all the other gods (petty, jealous, vengeful, limited), we’re told to bring it back to the God of the philosophers.

    Back and forth, back and forth, always trying to hit that constantly moving target.

  4. Yes, it seems humans create gods rather than gods create humans. And those gods humans create demonstrate both the variety and limitedness of human imagination.

  5. Alan Fox,

    Definitely. There’s a growing field called “cognitive science of religion” that inquires into the neural mechanisms underpinning the perception of the world as containing spiritual beings and the evolutionary processes that might have facilitated the emergence of those mechanisms. I don’t know much about it, but it seems really fascinating.

  6. Kantian Naturalist: The god of the philosophers is, in the Western tradition, grounded in Xenophon’s critique of polytheism…

    Xenophon? Did you perhaps mean Xenophanes (of Colophon)?

  7. Kantian Naturalist,

    I appreciate the compliment and the summary KN! I also appreciate the summary. I know a bit about the Stoics, but not how the God of the Philosophers influenced Aristotle and his thoughts on the Unmoved Mover. That’s interesting and good to know. There seems to be a tendency among some more conservative Christians to engage in a bit of equivocation on the two different concepts of the Designer. Perhaps I’ll try my hand at an essay on that.

  8. Thanks for giving us these thoughts, Robin. This should stimulate a nice exchange of views.

    Here are my initial comments from some of what you say.

    Robin: Back in ancient times when humans huddled together in small nomadic bands and tribal groups and didn’t have much understanding about the properties and characteristics of things like wind, fire, water, electricity, storms, the sun, earthquakes, volcanoes, snow, seasons, and all manner of other phenomena, people in those groups tried their best to make sense of the phenomena and come up with explanations for them.

    In my opinion you are assuming the consciousness of all ancient people gave them the equivalent of a modern, rational, scientific worldview. But what if in ancient times people did not rationalize in this way? It is more likely that they did not have the narrow, focused minds associated with modern humans but had a broader dream-like consciousness.

    We tell fairy stories to toddlers and they accept the pictures portrayed without question. They don’t even consider how many of the events in them would be impossible in actuality. It is the same with the myths of ancient times. The people listening to these stories would not have dreamed of analyzing them. They were not something to be thought about, they were something that engendered feelings deep within their psyche.

    The myths were not a poor attempt at explaining anything, they were taken straight from an imaginary consciousness that participated more fully in the world. Modern humans feel much more isolated from nature and are forever looking for hidden causes behind external events. Ancient minds did not operate on these principles. As is the case with modern infants, they lived more in the feeling life than in analytical thinking.

    Have you read much of the writings taken from the words of people such as the ancient Indians? If you are interested and don’t already know about it, there is a good source here.

    It includes ancient Indian epics such as The Mahabharata.

    Robin: Look at the depictions of Zeus, Athena, Anubis, Poseidon, Buddha, Vishnu, Izanagi, and so forth. All are very human in appearance and they all are depicted in writings as having rather human-esque physical and mental limitations.

    I’d be surprised if Gautama Buddha wasn’t depicted as human, because he was actually human.

    Regarding Vishnu here is a translation of the words of Krishna from the “Bagavad Gita”:

    Well then, O best of Kauravas! I will state to you my own divine emanations; but (only) the chief (ones), for there is no end to the extent of my (emanations). I am the self, O Gudâkesa! seated in the hearts of all beings. I am the beginning and the middle and the end also of all beings. I am Vishnu among the Âdityas, the beaming sun among the shining (bodies); I am Marîki among the Maruts, and the moon among the lunar mansions. Among the Vedas, I am the Sâma-veda. I am Indra among the gods. And I am mind among the senses. I am consciousness in (living) beings. And I am Sankara among the Rudras, the lord of wealth among Yakshas and Rakshases. And I am fire among the Vasus, and Meru among the high-topped (mountains)

    It goes on to list other attributes of this Divine Being. As you can see this ultimate Divine Being, although some aspects are in human form, It encompasses a great deal more than this.

    We can see the early evolution of rational thinking in the ancient Greeks. The epic poems of the likes of Homer was inspired by the old imaginative, picture consciousness and later thinkers such as Socrates criticized the way the Gods were depicted therein. Of course Socrates himself claimed to have an inner Divine voice advising him on what to do.

    Your post has the makings of a fruitful discussion. I hope it develops into one.

  9. I appreciate the feedback, Charlie! Thanks!

    CharlieM:
    Thanks for giving us these thoughts, Robin. This should stimulate a nice exchange of views.

    Here are my initial comments from some of what you say.

    In my opinion you are assuming the consciousness of all ancient people gave them the equivalent of a modern, rational, scientific worldview. But what if in ancient times people did not rationalize in this way? It is more likely that they did not have the narrow, focused minds associated with modern humans but had a broader dream-like consciousness.

    I am actually not suggesting that our long-past tribal and nomadic ancestors had the same sort of scientific/logic based thinking that we have now. Heck…I don’t even think the majority of folks today necessarily have a logic/reason grounded scientific view on many, if not most, subjects either. That said, sociological, anthropological, philological, and even archeological research suggests that people did try come up with stories and explanations for the phenomena around them. And as I note, in many cases their explanations were rather fantastic and mythical in nature, so I feel I did at least suggest a more dream-like thinking approach to such understanding and perspectives.

    That said, I’ll go through it and see if I need to make that more clear.

    We tell fairy stories to toddlers and they accept the pictures portrayed without question. They don’t even consider how many of the events in them would be impossible in actuality. It is the same with the myths of ancient times. The people listening to these stories would not have dreamed of analyzing them. They were not something to be thought about, they were something that engendered feelings deep within their psyche.

    I agree. Tolkien actually said pretty much the same thing in his lectures on fairy and tragic stories.

    The myths were not a poor attempt at explaining anything, they were taken straight from an imaginary consciousness that participated more fully in the world. Modern humans feel much more isolated from nature and are forever looking for hidden causes behind external events. Ancient minds did not operate on these principles. As is the case with modern infants, they lived more in the feeling life than in analytical thinking.

    I don’t feel I suggested that myths were a poor attempt to explain things. However, while myths provided a basis of comfort, communal bonding, and some level of participation in the world, they were (and are) an incomplete and less useful approach to aspects of the world in terms of practicality and development. The fact is, as useful as myth, fantasy, fairy story, and tragedy might be, there is something to be said for demystifying things like thunderstorms and realizing not only that they are not the result of battling or angry gods, but that they are not personal at all.

    One thing that may help understand my perspective in these essays is Issac Asimov’s Relativity of Wrong. See here

    So, I’m not suggesting that ancient peoples’ fantastical explanations for the phenomenon they encountered in the world around them were a poor attempt at explaining things. Rather I am suggesting they were limited in scope and really only useful at the limited scale and awareness in which those people existed. As people’s experience with not only the phenomenon of their locality expanded, but also their experience with more of the world itself increased, not only did their explanations concerning their experiences begin to become more grounded in many ways, their views and stories about gods (and God) evolved as well.

    Have you read much of the writings taken from the words of people such as the ancient Indians? If you are interested and don’t already know about it, there is a good source here.

    It includes ancient Indian epics such as The Mahabharata.

    I actually have, but thank you! I’ll take a look.

    I’d be surprised if Gautama Buddha wasn’t depicted as human, because he was actually human.

    An excellent catch, Charlie! Thanks! I meant to include Brahma. I’ll make that change.

    Regarding Vishnu here is a translation of the words of Krishna from the “Bagavad Gita”:

    It goes on to list other attributes of this Divine Being. As you can see this ultimate Divine Being, although some aspects are in human form, It encompasses a great deal more than this.

    I totally understand this. There are places in the Bible where God is describe in more abstract and fantastical terms as well. But these depictions were by no means the most common and accepted understandings of these entities and certainly not how most followers describe or believe in said entities. A quick Google search provides an abundance of very similar illustrations of the more common understandings of what Vishnu “looks” like. All of them are strikingly human-eque.

    We can see the early evolution of rational thinking in the ancient Greeks. The epic poems of the likes of Homer was inspired by the old imaginative, picture consciousness and later thinkers such as Socrates criticized the way the Gods were depicted therein. Of course Socrates himself claimed to have an inner Divine voice advising him on what to do.

    Of course. Certainly not all people accepted the more human-eque depictions of divine beings. Clearly I’m not the first or only person to have an issue with this. The entire point of these essays is my attempt to articulate specific paradoxes, contradictions, and absurdities I’ve encountered. They are not an attempt to be an exhaustive exploration of all people’s thoughts and approaches to the divine.

    Your post has the makings of a fruitful discussion. I hope it develops into one.

    Well cool. I certainly hope it develops into such as well! 🙂

  10. James Chapman: Xenophon? Did you perhaps mean Xenophanes (of Colophon)?

    Oh my goodness! Yes, I did! How embarrassing! (Though Xenophon is also worth reading).

  11. Robin:
    Kantian Naturalist,

    I appreciate the compliment and the summary KN! I also appreciate the summary. I know a bit about the Stoics, but not how the God of the Philosophers influenced Aristotle and his thoughts on the Unmoved Mover. That’s interesting and good to know.

    Aristotle on the unmoved mover is just so weird — like, it makes sense given the basic rules of his system, but if you don’t know the rules, it’s just utterly bizarre.

    Roughly, for one thing, Aristotle envisions the world as eternal (it never came into existence, it will never cease to exist) with all movement as circular: trees have seeds that become trees, frogs have tadpoles that become frogs, the circular movement of the seasons, the phases of the moon, the stars, etc. What keeps this circularity going — everything moving in a circle in its own distinct way, is that which itself does not move. Everything has moves has some potentiality in it. That which doesn’t move must be pure actuality — the highest possible degree of actual being. But in a surprise twist, the activity that has the highest possible degree of actuality is thinking. And what can the highest possible form of thinking be about except of course Itself? So in Aristotle’s rational theology, it is thought thinking itself that upholds and preserves (and is the final cause of) all the circular movements in physics, biology, psychology, ethics, and politics, in the whole eternity of the universe, without beginning and without end.

    Needless to say, when Islamic, Jewish, and Catholic theologians encountered Aristotle, they had to get very creative at reconciling it with their own doctrines — a loving God who created everything out of nothing, a linear conception of history, a beginning and an end to all things! And they encountered heavy resistance as well.

  12. Robin: There seems to be a tendency among some more conservative Christians to engage in a bit of equivocation on the two different concepts of the Designer. Perhaps I’ll try my hand at an essay on that.

    Yes, I agree that Schrodinger’s Designer can be seen here too — the Designer is exactly like us, except for all the ways in which It isn’t.

  13. Kantian Naturalist: Aristotle on the unmoved mover is just so weird — like, it makes sense given the basic rules of his system, but if you don’t know the rules, it’s just utterly bizarre.

    Clearly I need to reread some Aristotle because it’s been awhile and I never got that much into this Unmoved Mover musings.

    Roughly, for one thing, Aristotle envisions the world as eternal (it never came into existence, it will never cease to exist) with all movement as circular: trees have seeds that become trees, frogs have tadpoles that become frogs, the circular movement of the seasons, the phases of the moon, the stars, etc. What keeps this circularity going — everything moving in a circle in its own distinct way, is that which itself does not move. Everything has moves has some potentiality in it. That which doesn’t move must be pure actuality — the highest possible degree of actual being. But in a surprise twist, the activity that has the highest possible degree of actuality is thinking. And what can the highest possible form of thinking be about except of course Itself?So in Aristotle’s rational theology, it is thought thinking itself that upholds and preserves (and is the final cause of) all the circular movements in physics, biology, psychology, ethics, and politics, in the whole eternity of the universe, without beginning and without end.

    So…it’s going to take me a few days to think on this because right now my brain is just going *kaboom!* Though I will note on just a quick thought, aside from the circles, there’s a similarity to Paley’s concepts and those of other theists of his time about the world. All of these folks were, on varying levels, influenced by Aristotle, Plato, Aquinas, and so on, so I’m not really surprised. I guess what strikes me is how influential and thus how long this thinking of permanence lasted. I don’t think that’s a point I’m going to get into in my essays per se. For one thing, that type of history of physics and metaphysics is just not my area of expertise (or simply a notional understanding) at all. For another, I don’t think it really applies directly to the theme in my collection of thoughts. Still, I find it really interesting.

    Needless to say, when Islamic, Jewish, and Catholic theologians encountered Aristotle, they had to get very creative at reconciling it with their own doctrines — a loving God who created everything out of nothing, a linear conception of history, a beginning and an end to all things! And they encountered heavy resistance as well.

    I’m sure! Which is something I clearly DO need to explore given that I do attempt (and at this point I’m using that term loosely) to touch on those issues in a few of my essays. Alas, as I noted above, I’m not trying to create an exhaustive examination of all the various philosophies and religious thinkings over the years and how they all relate to one another and various philosophical environmental upheavals that lead to rather dramatic shifts in thinking and the fusion of explanations, beliefs, and perspectives. It’s not my focus or my expertise.

  14. Kantian Naturalist: Yes, I agree that Schrodinger’s Designer can be seen here too — the Designer is exactly like us, except for all the ways in which It isn’t.

    Yes! That’s one of the major points of my essays EXACTLY! Nicely put!

  15. Kantian Naturalist: Aristotle on the unmoved mover is just so weird — like, it makes sense given the basic rules of his system, but if you don’t know the rules, it’s just utterly bizarre.

    So, I just want to pick your brain a little on what you wrote about Aristotle, KN. If thought thinking is the highest actuality, is thought thinking itself circular? Just curious. Also, is the thought thinking about Itself what creates or actualizes all the other circular moving phenomena, or do they come from something else or (and here’s the part I’m having difficulty with) do they actually not “come” from anything, but really are eternal in all senses of the term, and are merely upheld and preserved by the Unmoved Mover? If the latter, I’m stunned that any of our more modern religious philosophies even regard Aristotle’s thoughts as worth referencing. I’m also stunned that Aristotle would conclude that nothing – any of the components of existence – would need to have a starting point. I just can’t wrap my head around that.

  16. Robin: So, I just want to pick your brain a little on what you wrote about Aristotle, KN. If thought thinking is the highest actuality, is thought thinking itself circular? Just curious.

    Not in the sense that everything is, because it isn’t a kind of movement.

    Also, is the thought thinking about Itself what creates or actualizes all the other circular moving phenomena, or do they come from something else or (and here’s the part I’m having difficulty with) do they actually not “come” from anything, but really are eternal in all senses of the term, and are merely upheld and preserved by the Unmoved Mover? If the latter, I’m stunned that any of our more modern religious philosophies even regard Aristotle’s thoughts as worth referencing.

    Yes, it’s the latter — so far as I understand!

    And yes, once you understand that really important part of Aristotle’s metaphysics, it becomes shocking that Islamic, Jewish, and Catholic theologians even tried to reconcile his views with theirs.

    For one thing, I don’t know much the tension was really evident to them, or how reliable the early Arabic, Hebrew, and Latin translations were. I’ve only read Aristotle in translations from Greek to English, and the only translator of Aristotle’s I trust is a guy named Joe Sachs. I trust him because he is explicit in saying that he’s not trying to preserve any continuity between Aristotle’s Greek and medieval Scholastic Latin, but rather try to recreate in English the weirdness of Aristotle’s Greek. But that’s a personal choice of mine.

    I’m also stunned that Aristotle would conclude that nothing – any of the components of existence – would need to have a starting point. I just can’t wrap my head around that.

    I know, right? The ancient Greeks were not like us — they didn’t have the same basic starting-points for thought. Ancient Greek myths are all cycles: seasons, weather, growing up and growing old, birth and death. And on top of that, they thought that the circle is the more perfect of geometric shapes, so of course everything had to be circular or else it wasn’t fully rational, fully comprehensible.

    Somewhere Aristotle has a quick argument that goes like this: if the universe had a beginning in time, then there must have been a time before there was any time. But that is absurd. Hence the universe must have always existed.

  17. Kantian Naturalist: There’s a growing field called “cognitive science of religion” that inquires into the neural mechanisms underpinning the perception of the world as containing spiritual beings and the evolutionary processes that might have facilitated the emergence of those mechanisms.

    Ha. This sounds like a good argument for why you shouldn’t believe anything you believe. After all, if you believed such mechanisms exist, then there would be no reason to believe you are right about anything.

    Is this part of the modern synthesis KN?

  18. Kantian Naturalist,

    Wow! I don’t know how you work in that world for a living. My head hurts just reading this little bit.

    It is interesting though – the whole circular bit. I’ll have to look into that in a bit more detail at some point.

  19. Robin: I appreciate the feedback, Charlie! Thanks!

    CharlieM: Thanks for giving us these thoughts, Robin. This should stimulate a nice exchange of views.

    Here are my initial comments from some of what you say.

    In my opinion you are assuming the consciousness of all ancient people gave them the equivalent of a modern, rational, scientific worldview. But what if in ancient times people did not rationalize in this way? It is more likely that they did not have the narrow, focused minds associated with modern humans but had a broader dream-like consciousness.

    Robin: I am actually not suggesting that our long-past tribal and nomadic ancestors had the same sort of scientific/logic based thinking that we have now. Heck…I don’t even think the majority of folks today necessarily have a logic/reason grounded scientific view on many, if not most, subjects either. That said, sociological, anthropological, philological, and even archeological research suggests that people did try come up with stories and explanations for the phenomena around them. And as I note, in many cases their explanations were rather fantastic and mythical in nature, so I feel I did at least suggest a more dream-like thinking approach to such understanding and perspectives.

    In my opinion ancient humans did understand the natural phenomena you talk about, only not in the way we understand them. I’m sure there were small tribal groups back then as there are today. But I think the ancient creation myths came from the type of people who were capable of feats of engineering which produced structures such as the pyramids, the sphinx, stone circles and the like.

    I would say that the ancient peoples were much more sophisticated than we give them credit for.

    Robin: That said, I’ll go through it and see if I need to make that more clear.

    Thanks.

    CharlieM: We tell fairy stories to toddlers and they accept the pictures portrayed without question. They don’t even consider how many of the events in them would be impossible in actuality. It is the same with the myths of ancient times. The people listening to these stories would not have dreamed of analyzing them. They were not something to be thought about, they were something that engendered feelings deep within their psyche.

    Robin: I agree. Tolkien actually said pretty much the same thing in his lectures on fairy and tragic stories.

    And of course being an “Inkling” he was influenced by Owen Barfield who studied ancient languages.

    CharlieM: The myths were not a poor attempt at explaining anything, they were taken straight from an imaginary consciousness that participated more fully in the world. Modern humans feel much more isolated from nature and are forever looking for hidden causes behind external events. Ancient minds did not operate on these principles. As is the case with modern infants, they lived more in the feeling life than in analytical thinking.

    Robin: I don’t feel I suggested that myths were a poor attempt to explain things. However, while myths provided a basis of comfort, communal bonding, and some level of participation in the world, they were (and are) an incomplete and less useful approach to aspects of the world in terms of practicality and development. The fact is, as useful as myth, fantasy, fairy story, and tragedy might be, there is something to be said for demystifying things like thunderstorms and realizing not only that they are not the result of battling or angry gods, but that they are not personal at all.

    I’m not sure what comfort is to be had from many of these myths. Arjuna having to engage in a battle that he sees no sense in, or Prometheus having his liver being constantly gnawed and regenerating, are a couple of examples of the top of my head.

    Robin: One thing that may help understand my perspective in these essays is Issac Asimov’s Relativity of Wrong. See here

    Thanks, it’s been a very long time since I’ve read any Asimov.

    Robin: So, I’m not suggesting that ancient peoples’ fantastical explanations for the phenomenon they encountered in the world around them were a poor attempt at explaining things. Rather I am suggesting they were limited in scope and really only useful at the limited scale and awareness in which those people existed. As people’s experience with not only the phenomenon of their locality expanded, but also their experience with more of the world itself increased, not only did their explanations concerning their experiences begin to become more grounded in many ways, their views and stories about gods (and God) evolved as well.

    I would say that our modern view is more limited because of our focus on the physical. Within the limits of the physical the amount and accuracy of our knowledge is incomparable.

    Robin: Have you read much of the writings taken from the words of people such as the ancient Indians? If you are interested and don’t already know about it, there is a good source here.

    It includes ancient Indian epics such as The Mahabharata.

    Robin: I actually have, but thank you! I’ll take a look.

    Of course there is such a wealth of writing here that it would be nigh on impossible to read it all.

    CharlieM: I’d be surprised if Gautama Buddha wasn’t depicted as human, because he was actually human.

    Robin: An excellent catch, Charlie! Thanks! I meant to include Brahma. I’ll make that change.

    Good. 🙂 What do you think of Buddha’s teachings and how they compare with the teachings of Christ?

    CharlieM:Regarding Vishnu here is a translation of the words of Krishna from the “Bagavad Gita”:

    It goes on to list other attributes of this Divine Being. As you can see this ultimate Divine Being, although some aspects are in human form, It encompasses a great deal more than this.

    Robin: I totally understand this. There are places in the Bible where God is describe in more abstract and fantastical terms as well. But these depictions were by no means the most common and accepted understandings of these entities and certainly not how most followers describe or believe in said entities. A quick Google search provides an abundance of very similar illustrations of the more common understandings of what Vishnu “looks” like. All of them are strikingly human-eque.

    Yes indeed, many of them from a more modern, decadent age. And we would need to be careful in distinguishing Vishnu from avatars of Vishnu.

    CharlieM: We can see the early evolution of rational thinking in the ancient Greeks. The epic poems of the likes of Homer was inspired by the old imaginative, picture consciousness and later thinkers such as Socrates criticized the way the Gods were depicted therein. Of course Socrates himself claimed to have an inner Divine voice advising him on what to do.

    Robin: Of course. Certainly not all people accepted the more human-eque depictions of divine beings. Clearly I’m not the first or only person to have an issue with this. The entire point of these essays is my attempt to articulate specific paradoxes, contradictions, and absurdities I’ve encountered. They are not an attempt to be an exhaustive exploration of all people’s thoughts and approaches to the divine.

    And that is a good thing you are doing. There are a lot of paths I have looked to follow only to find that I cannot honestly accept some of their teachings.

    CharlieM: Your post has the makings of a fruitful discussion. I hope it develops into one.

    Robin: Well cool. I certainly hope it develops into such as well! 🙂

    I notice you have made a further post. I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but I look forward to doing so.

  20. phoodoo: Ha. This sounds like a good argument for why you shouldn’t believe anything you believe. After all, if you believed such mechanisms exist, then there would be no reason to believe you are right about anything.

    I don’t see how that follows from anything I’ve said.

    For one thing, there are people working in cognitive science of religion who are also working in natural theology. As they see it, God guided the emergence of the cognitive mechanisms necessary for us to know Him.

    Is this part of the modern synthesis KN?

    Not at all.

  21. Kantian Naturalist: phoodoo: Ha. This sounds like a good argument for why you shouldn’t believe anything you believe. After all, if you believed such mechanisms exist, then there would be no reason to believe you are right about anything.

    I don’t see how that follows from anything I’ve said.

    You don’t?

    First Alan’s point (that you responded to with Defintely!) is that humans create God’s in their mind. You can on to say that cognitive science is studying how evolutionary mechanisms led to people creating God’s in their minds.

    And you don’t understand how that would follow that other things you believe in your mind would also be created through evolutionary mechanisms? Its just the God part that is a false believe, huh?

    You don’t understand how that follows? Interesting.

  22. phoodoo: You don’t?

    First Alan’s point (that you responded to with Defintely!) is that humans create God’s in their mind. You can on to say that cognitive science is studying how evolutionary mechanisms led to people creating God’s in their minds.

    And you don’t understand how that would follow that other things you believe in your mind would also be created through evolutionary mechanisms?Its just the God part that is a false believe, huh?

    You don’t understand how that follows?Interesting.

    I think you may have missed the point. Nearly everything people do, they do for some reason, with some purpose or goal in mind. It’s not all that hard to grasp that people, who do everything for some purpose, turn around and see purpose wherever they look, whether it’s there or not.

    Consider the rain dance, performed for the purpose of persuading some god or other to produce rain. The purpose of rain is to make the plants grow, what other purpose or goal would rain be trying to achieve? So whoever’s purpose is to have crops grow would be (hopefully) open to persuasion to make it rain.

    Now, is the notion of Final Cause, the purpose of things, a product of the evolution of our brains? Clearly, if everything has a purpose, someone somewhere must be trying to reach some goal. So, gods are an inevitable by-product of universal purpose. And therefore, if we choose to focus exclusively on HOW things happen, without assuming there is any WHY things happen, then gods are meaningless; they are the answer to a problem that may not even exist at all.

    We live in a world where nearly everything that happens is the result of a constellation of coincidences. Prediction is hard, especially about the future. How comforting it is to know that what LOOKS like a lot of coincidences interacting in unpredictable ways is actually engineered by some entity in the furtherance of some goal. Even if we can’t determine that goal very well.

  23. CharlieM: In my opinion ancient humans did understand the natural phenomena you talk about, only not in the way we understand them. I’m sure there were small tribal groups back then as there are today. But I think the ancient creation myths came from the type of people who were capable of feats of engineering which produced structures such as the pyramids, the sphinx, stone circles and the like.

    Here’s the thing – at least for me (and it’s kind of the point of these essays) -, Charlie: I don’t buy into the notion of “alternate knowledge”. I get there are people who believe that many ancient peoples and cultures were more “attune to the supernatural/metanatural” than we are now and that therefore, there “knowledge” about the world was just as valid as our knowledge today. I just don’t accept that based on the evidence. As I noted previously, many people really did believe that thunderstorms were the result of godly wars. That’s not understanding natural phenomenon as we do today.

    And frankly, being able to engineer great works, such as the pyramids and Avebury doesn’t really say much about understanding natural phenomena. Such works may (actually do) say something about paying attention to and recording the movement of certain celestial objects, but it doesn’t indicate that such folk understood anything about the underlying characteristics of those objects. So I really don’t see your point.

    I would say that the ancient peoples were much more sophisticated than we give them credit for.

    Maybe, but there’s sophistication in engineering and there’s sophistication in physics/chemistry/biology/geology/etc. The two areas are not the same thing. I don’t believe that ancient peoples were more sophisticated in the latter than I’m giving them credit for.

    And of course being an “Inkling” he was influenced by Owen Barfield who studied ancient languages.

    My understanding is that Barfield studied ancient poems (as did Tolkien, in terms of his work on the Elder Edda and the like) and presented hypotheses on consciousness. Be that as it may, Tolkien was a scholarly philologist and invented his own languages, and it appears was rather the expert on ancient languages himself. Certainly they all influenced each other.

    I’m not sure what comfort is to be had from many of these myths. Arjuna having to engage in a battle that he sees no sense in, or Prometheus having his liver being constantly gnawed and regenerating, are a couple of examples of the top of my head.

    I can’t say I’m that familiar with the epic adventures of Arjuna, though I know a little of his history. Like many such epics, it reflects the states and feats of the human condition that the author(s) wished to impress and glorify. That’s a form of cultural comfort.

    And Prometheus very much reflects and impresses the importance of man. He defies the gods without regard for his own safety and freedom for human progress. How is that not a comfort?

    I would say that our modern view is more limited because of our focus on the physical. Within the limits of the physical the amount and accuracy of our knowledge is incomparable.

    You are welcome to your opinion. I disagree.

    Good. What do you think of Buddha’s teachings and how they compare with the teachings of Christ?

    I can’t say I’ve read a lot of Buddha’s teachings, but I do keep a lookout in case I run into him on the road so that I’ll have something to kill…

    On a slightly more serious note, I don’t see the point in comparing religious/spiritual perspectives and teachings. It’s like comparing Mark Twain to Charles Dickens; both have valuable insights that I think stand on their own.

    Yes indeed, many of them from a more modern, decadent age. And we would need to be careful in distinguishing Vishnu from avatars of Vishnu.

    On this we agree. There is a tendency to confuse a map for a territory in many such discussions and arguments and even contemplation. But that does not affect my overall point: people do tend to gravitate to the idea that gods look like us.

  24. phoodoo: First Alan’s point (that you responded to with Defintely!) is that humans create God’s in their mind. You can on to say that cognitive science is studying how evolutionary mechanisms led to people creating God’s in their minds.

    Yes, but these two points aren’t logically connected. Cognitive science of religion is not the basis of my belief that gods are a product of human psychology.

    But why does it matter to you? After all, every theist worth their salt is always saying that God isn’t a god — that the Creator of all things isn’t anything like a ‘pagan’ deity like Zeus or Quetzalcoatl.

    And you don’t understand how that would follow that other things you believe in your mind would also be created through evolutionary mechanisms? Its just the God part that is a false believe, huh?

    The cognitive sciences should — at least in theory — explain how we form beliefs about the world at al, both true beliefs and false beliefs. Cognitive science cannot help us figure out which beliefs are true and which ones are false. That’s a project for epistemology or its everyday counterpart, common-sense reasoning.

  25. CharlieM: In my opinion ancient humans did understand the natural phenomena you talk about, only not in the way we understand them. I’m sure there were small tribal groups back then as there are today. But I think the ancient creation myths came from the type of people who were capable of feats of engineering which produced structures such as the pyramids, the sphinx, stone circles and the like.

    The Pyramids and the Sphinx were products of a massive civilization predicated upon sophisticated techniques of measurement and calculation, and with a huge division of labor — including, of course, a good deal of slavery.

    It’s important to keep distinct what we’re talking about when we talk about creation myths, which (as far as we know) are a human universal — something found in all cultures, very likely beginning at least with behavioral modernity in Homo sapiens if not before.

    That is quite distinct from the kinds of myths and stories about gods and heroes that accompany the rise of civilizations, which involve permanent settlement, surplus agriculture, division of labor permitting the rise of experts (mathematicians, priests, administrators, scribes, etc.).

    As a side-note, I read recently that ancient Egyptian geometry was literally measurement of the land (geo-metry): there was a dedicated class of civil servants who knew how to use long pieces of rope, with knots tied at regular intervals, to compare shapes and areas of farms and fields. (Apparently this became important for making sure that parcels of land remained the same after annual flooding of the Nile changed the shape of the countryside.)

    It was the ancient Greeks who developed this techniques into a separate area of inquiry by drawing diagrams in sand-boxes, disconnected from immediate practical application. All of the proofs in Euclid’s text are written summaries of procedures of drawing diagrams in the sand.

  26. Kantian Naturalist: So what happens is, as Robin said, a Schrodingers’s God: any time God is imagined to be too remote and distant from human affairs (the God of the philosophers) we’re told to bring it back to the God of the Bible, and any time God is imagined to be too much like all the other gods (petty, jealous, vengeful, limited), we’re told to bring it back to the God of the philosophers.

    Back and forth, back and forth, always trying to hit that constantly moving target.

    Many people can’t understand what transcendent is. Many others can’t understand what immanent is. And then there are others who cannot understand or even hear when it’s said that God is both immanent and transcendent. Not one or the other, but both, hence no ping pong.

    All discussions about God are as limited as the people having the discussions. This applies both to theists and atheists. But whenever one is serious about a subject, one should care less about discussions and more about studying the subject.

  27. Erik: But whenever one is serious about a subject, one should care less about discussions and more about studying the subject.

    That is good advice, and I appreciate that you took the time to criticize my indifference here. I have read some theology in the past, but only enough to realize that I wasn’t for me. I spend my time reading history, psychology, sociology, and biology (plus of course philosophy of all of the above), and that is quite sufficient for me. Moving forward I shall do better to indicate when I really do know what I’m talking about — and when I don’t!

  28. Robin:
    CharlieM: In my opinion ancient humans did understand the natural phenomena you talk about, only not in the way we understand them. I’m sure there were small tribal groups back then as there are today. But I think the ancient creation myths came from the type of people who were capable of feats of engineering which produced structures such as the pyramids, the sphinx, stone circles and the like.

    Robin: Here’s the thing – at least for me (and it’s kind of the point of these essays) -, Charlie: I don’t buy into the notion of “alternate knowledge”. I get there are people who believe that many ancient peoples and cultures were more “attune to the supernatural/metanatural” than we are now and that therefore, there “knowledge” about the world was just as valid as our knowledge today. I just don’t accept that based on the evidence. As I noted previously, many people really did believe that thunderstorms were the result of godly wars. That’s not understanding natural phenomenon as we do today.

    I’m not sure what you mean by “alternative knowledge”. Knowledge is unique to each individual and constantly changing within each individual. And in those ancient times much of the knowledge possessed by the few select leaders was kept hidden from the masses.

    I don’t like the word “supernatural” as it leads to dualistic thinking instead of thinking of a continuum. Today a universe filled with external galaxies which we consider to be part of natural reality would have been “supernatural” to the ancient people. Go far enough back and communication through the written word would have been “supernatural”. Even up to relatively recent times in Western society most of the people would not have been able to make sense of what had been written down.

    Here is my opinion. Any view that there were actual super beings in human form throwing thunderbolts across the sky was and is an understanding which holds a decadent form of mythology. The old myths and legends had the purpose of creating pictorial scenes which stirred up feelings in the listeners and they would have lost their effect by being thought about and analyzed as we are accustomed to do.

    As Barfield pointed out many ancient people used the same word for breath and wind. This was not because of any lack of knowledge, but because they recognized underlying connections. Atmospheric winds and breathing are both part of cyclic rejuvenation. Analytical minds viewing things in isolation were not features of ancient cultures. They existed in a deeper more connected cultural framework. The universe as living and everything subject to the processes of life and death. The atmospheric forces were the macroscopic equivalent of the those taking place in the human microcosm. There was very little thinking involved because they experienced the connection in their feeling lives.

    Robin: And frankly, being able to engineer great works, such as the pyramids and Avebury doesn’t really say much about understanding natural phenomena. Such works may (actually do) say something about paying attention to and recording the movement of certain celestial objects, but it doesn’t indicate that such folk understood anything about the underlying characteristics of those objects. So I really don’t see your point.

    They didn’t understand very much about physical side of reality. But their constitution wasn’t appropriate for examining the world in this way. That was for a future more individualistic rational age.

    But it is obvious that they pictured an ensouled world and they knew it mostly as a living soul rather than in its physical aspect. For them a modern scientific understanding would be like a person having all the chemical constituents and physical attributes of a family member and from that believing they had complete knowledge of that person. What they lacked in knowledge of physical nature they made up for in their knowledge of soul nature.

    CharlieM: I would say that the ancient peoples were much more sophisticated than we give them credit for.

    Robin: Maybe, but there’s sophistication in engineering and there’s sophistication in physics/chemistry/biology/geology/etc. The two areas are not the same thing. I don’t believe that ancient peoples were more sophisticated in the latter than I’m giving them credit for.

    Yes I agree that they weren’t as sophisticated in physics/chemistry/biology/geology/etc. They did not have any science that was compartmentalized in this way.

    CharlieM: And of course being an “Inkling” he (Tolkien) was influenced by Owen Barfield who studied ancient languages.

    Robin: My understanding is that Barfield studied ancient poems (as did Tolkien, in terms of his work on the Elder Edda and the like) and presented hypotheses on consciousness. Be that as it may, Tolkien was a scholarly philologist and invented his own languages, and it appears was rather the expert on ancient languages himself. Certainly they all influenced each other.

    Certainly Tolkien was a far better storyteller than Barfield. But as is written in the Tolkien Gateway website:

    Tolkien was very fond of Barfield’s works and his linguistic views were most influenced by Barfield, specifically his concept of ancient and original unity between meaning and sound.

    Also from that site:

    Verlyn Flieger’s expanded and updated edition of Splintered Light, a classic study of Tolkien’s fiction first published in 1983, examines The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings in light of Owen Barfield’s linguistic theory of the fragmentation of meaning. Flieger demonstrates Tolkien’s use of Barfield’s concept throughout the fiction, showing how his central image of primary light splintered and refracted acts as a metaphor for the languages, peoples, and history of Middle-earth.

    I’m not aware of anything of significance that Barfield got from Tolkien. His friendship with Lewis was much more of a productive two-way exchange of ideas.

  29. CharlieM: I’m not sure what you mean by “alternative knowledge”. Knowledge is unique to each individual and constantly changing within each individual. And in those ancient times much of the knowledge possessed by the few select leaders was kept hidden from the masses.

    I don’t like the word “supernatural” as it leads to dualistic thinking instead of thinking of a continuum. Today a universe filled with external galaxies which we consider to be part of natural reality would have been “supernatural” to the ancient people. Go far enough back and communication through the written word would have been “supernatural”. Even up to relatively recent times in Western society most of the people would not have been able to make sense of what had been written down.

    People may well have varying amounts of knowledge and intellectual ability, but when you say, “In my opinion ancient humans did understand the natural phenomena you talk about, only not in the way we understand them” coupled with insisting that ancient people were more sophisticated than we given them credit for, I feel you’re trying to argue that there is more than one equally valid way to look at and understand facts and that there are folk who were more in tune with “alternative” aspects of “reality” that we modern folk have lost the ability to understand and appreciate. This I disagree with.

    Here is my opinion. Any view that there were actual super beings in human form throwing thunderbolts across the sky was and is an understanding which holds a decadent form of mythology. The old myths and legends had the purpose of creating pictorial scenes which stirred up feelings in the listeners and they would have lost their effect by being thought about and analyzed as we are accustomed to do.

    As Barfield pointed out many ancient people used the same word for breath and wind. This was not because of any lack of knowledge, but because they recognized underlying connections. Atmospheric winds and breathing are both part of cyclic rejuvenation. Analytical minds viewing things in isolation were not features of ancient cultures. They existed in a deeper more connected cultural framework. The universe as living and everything subject to the processes of life and death. The atmospheric forces were the macroscopic equivalent of the those taking place in the human microcosm. There was very little thinking involved because they experienced the connection in their feeling lives.

    I think you are overrating the way some people equated wind, breath, and life. The fact is, there is extensive evidence that groups of ancient people thought of wind as the breath of unseen beings. And this just isn’t valid no matter how you slice it.

    They didn’t understand very much about physical side of reality. But their constitution wasn’t appropriate for examining the world in this way. That was for a future more individualistic rational age.

    But it is obvious that they pictured an ensouled world and they knew it mostly as a living soul rather than in its physical aspect. For them a modern scientific understanding would be like a person having all the chemical constituents and physical attributes of a family member and from that believing they had complete knowledge of that person. What they lacked in knowledge of physical nature they made up for in their knowledge of soul nature.

    The point in my essay is that there is not a lot (if any) evidence that ancient people understood storms, fire, wind, water, etc in modern, more practical terms. Most such people did buy into very fantastical and mythical explanations for such phenomenon. Whether you say that they saw wind as the breath of giant mythical beasts or the breath of their ancestors or in some wider sense as the equivalent of the breath of the living world, it’s still not as valid or practical or factual as our more physical understanding of gaseous planetary dynamics.

    Yes I agree that they weren’t as sophisticated in physics/chemistry/biology/geology/etc. They did not have any science that was compartmentalized in this way.

    Ok.

    Certainly Tolkien was a far better storyteller than Barfield. But as is written in the Tolkien Gateway website:

    Also from that site:

    I’m not aware of anything of significance that Barfield got from Tolkien. His friendship with Lewis was much more of a productive two-way exchange of ideas.

    I certainly do not disagree with this. And I’ve read Splintered Light. I think Flieger makes some leaps in his assessments, but overall I have no problem with his overall points.

    As for Tolkien’s influence on Barfield, take a look at The Notion Club Papers and the discussions concerning linguistics and dreams.

  30. Robin:

    CharlieM: I’m not sure what comfort is to be had from many of these myths. Arjuna having to engage in a battle that he sees no sense in, or Prometheus having his liver being constantly gnawed and regenerating, are a couple of examples of the top of my head.

    Robin: I can’t say I’m that familiar with the epic adventures of Arjuna, though I know a little of his history. Like many such epics, it reflects the states and feats of the human condition that the author(s) wished to impress and glorify. That’s a form of cultural comfort.

    It reflects the trials and tribulations a person must endure. The message of the Gita has nothing to do with glorification. It is an instruction of how a person should conduct his or her life. Encountering both pain and pleasure is inevitible, but we must not be guided by either. We must overcome them by rising above them as there is no real difference between them. We should accept both suffering and pleasure with equinamity.
    I have already quoted from the Gita the words attributed to the supreme Godhead. The repeated use of the words, “I am” lists some of the attributes of this Deity. This is the same being as was communicating with Moses in Exodus, the “I AM”, the higher Ego.

    As self conscious beings we are made in this image. Not in our physical bodies but in our ego nature.

    Robin: And Prometheus very much reflects and impresses the importance of man. He defies the gods without regard for his own safety and freedom for human progress. How is that not a comfort?

    The Prometheus myth is hardly a comfort. It signifies the path of human evolution. Prometheus bound is a representation of us as we are at present. He is chained to a rock as we are bound to the physical earth. His liver is eaten and continually regenerates. The composers of this myth obviously knew of the regenerative power of the liver. We use up our bodily resources while awake and replenish them during sleep. He brings fire to humankind as we sustain our existence through the use of energy. There would be no modern technology without this appropriation of energy (fire). Prometheus mean fore-thinking and it is through human fore-thinking that all of our technical advances have come about. Our modern lifestyle has been achieved via the minds of the inventors of all the machinery and equipment we rely on. Prometheus is set free by Heracles. Only by undergoing severe trials can Heracles free the earth-bound Prometheus. For human evolution to advance is a Heraclean/Herculean task. Until then we are confined to this material existence that we call reality.

    CharlieM: I would say that our modern view is more limited because of our focus on the physical. Within the limits of the physical the amount and accuracy of our knowledge is incomparable.

    Robin: You are welcome to your opinion. I disagree.

    I know. It would be a waste of my time me having a conversation with someone that agrees with me. That’s why I like it here. 🙂

    CharlieM: Good. What do you think of Buddha’s teachings and how they compare with the teachings of Christ?

    Robin: I can’t say I’ve read a lot of Buddha’s teachings, but I do keep a lookout in case I run into him on the road so that I’ll have something to kill…

    On a slightly more serious note, I don’t see the point in comparing religious/spiritual perspectives and teachings. It’s like comparing Mark Twain to Charles Dickens; both have valuable insights that I think stand on their own.

    I think what separates the various religious/spiritual perspectives and teachings is incidental. I am more interested in their deeper commonality.

    CharlieM; Yes indeed, many of them from a more modern, decadent age. And we would need to be careful in distinguishing Vishnu from avatars of Vishnu.

    On this we agree. There is a tendency to confuse a map for a territory in many such discussions and arguments and even contemplation. But that does not affect my overall point: people do tend to gravitate to the idea that gods look like us.

    That is true. But what we these depict are idols. We must look beyond the idols to get at the truth.

  31. CharlieM:
    Robin,

    Quick note, Verlyn Flieger is a she not a he.

    My bad. I should be better about doing my due diligence given my own name…

  32. Robin: The point in my essay is that there is not a lot (if any) evidence that ancient people understood storms, fire, wind, water, etc in modern, more practical terms. Most such people did buy into very fantastical and mythical explanations for such phenomenon. Whether you say that they saw wind as the breath of giant mythical beasts or the breath of their ancestors or in some wider sense as the equivalent of the breath of the living world, it’s still not as valid or practical or factual as our more physical understanding of gaseous planetary dynamics.

    This would be right if they were even trying to explain phenomena. But are stories even attempts at explanation? I find that highly dubious.

    One book that really shaped my thinking about these issues is When They Severed Earth From Sky by the Barbers. They argue that myths are robust, highly reliable ways of conveying information over generations in the absence of writing.

    I don’t know much about the cognitive psychology of myth but my sense is that stories play lots of different functions, including reinforcing the kind of collective identity necessary for obligate cooperative foraging (different people play different social roles, all of which make a distinct contribution to sustaining the culture as a whole, especially from generation to generation). And they provide people with a cognitive map of the local ecological relationships (predator species, prey species), how to extract resources from the local ecosystems so that resources aren’t over-extracted beyond ability to regenerate, etc.

    In other words, we should regard hunter-gatherer myths as reliable ways of encoding useful information about cultural identity, social roles, local ecosystems — and not as attempts (not even failed ones) to explain anything in our modern sense of ‘explain’.

    The whole story changes with the rise of agriculture and ‘civilization’, because entirely different social and political institutions arise and need to be mapped in order to be skillfully navigated. The rise of knowledge-experts such as priests, seers, astronomers, blacksmiths, etc changes the kinds of cognitive maps that people need in order to cope with the social environment.

    Above all there is, with the rise of agriculture and permanent settlement, the emergence of hierarchies — political, economic, military, and clerical. These enable new interpretative schemas (e.g. the gods themselves as having a hierarchy, Zeus as “king of the gods,” etc.) and those schemas can in turn be used to legitimize new forms of power and authority.

  33. John Dewey runs the argument, which I find really quite fascinating but not entirely unproblematic, that the ancient Greeks did not have science.

    His argument runs as follows: in a society built upon a strict caste division between manual labor and intellectual labor, between those who do and build and those who speculate about the how and the why, there can’t be science.

    This is because science involves not just coming up with hypotheses about the principles governing phenomena, but also testing those hypotheses, which means deliberately intervening into the causal structure of the world in order to take measurements that can be used as evidence for or against a hypothesis.

    And Dewey thinks that the caste structure of ancient Greece prevented them from doing that — you had the people who thought about stuff, and you had the people who did stuff, and there were strict social conventions that prevented the free exchange of ideas between the world of manual labor and the world of intellectual activity.

    The relevance of his point, I guess, is that modern science has its own distinct social and political conditions that allowed it to emerge when and where it did.

  34. Robin from the op:

    Look at the depictions of Zeus, Athena, Anubis, Poseidon, Buddha, Vishnu, Izanagi, and so forth. All are very human in appearance and they all are depicted in writings as having rather human-esque physical and mental limitations. Sure, they are described as being able to do some pretty amazing things relative to humans, but they are all still relatable in terms of their actions, perspectives, and most of all, appearance.

    Rudolf Steiner in 1924:

    When you consider the cultures that have religion you find everywhere — in the old Indian culture, for instance — veneration for beings who are invisible but who seem to resemble human beings on earth. It is the peculiar feature of all later religions that they represent their invisible beings as manlike.

    As Steiner noted and you have also noticed, this is a common feature of religion.

    Steiner recognized four dominant cultures previous to the one we live in now, the ancient Indian culture, the ancient Persian culture, the Egyptian-Chaldean culture, and the Greco-Latin culture.

    Although the ancient far Eastern culture of China and Japan pre-dated the Indian culture, religion had its beginnings in ancient India. And it is from this time that we begin to see higher beings being represented in human-like form.

    Steiner recognized the Greco-Latin period as pivotal with the beginning of Christianity as the fulcrum. We are a repetition of the Egyptian-Chaldean period in modern form.

    Kepler himself had claimed that the source of his planetary discoveries came from ancient Egypt. From here:

    Kepler himself boasted, in print, at the end of Book V of his series Harmony of the that he rediscovered the lost laws of Egypt, as stated below:

    “Now, eighteen months after the first light, three months after the true day, but a very few days after the pure Sun of that most wonderful study began to shine, nothing restrains me; it is my pleasure to yield to the inspired frenzy, it is my pleasure to taunt mortal men with the candid acknowledgment that I am stealing the golden vessels of the Egyptians to build a tabernacle to my God from them, far, far away from the boundaries of Egypt.”

    The jubilant Kepler did not state that he himself discovered anything. Rather, it was all Ancient Egyptian.

    The ancient Egyptians became masters at measuring the earth and the heavens and Pythagoras is said to have been taught by the Egyptians.

    And today’s science is all about numbering and measuring.

  35. Kantian Naturalist: The cognitive sciences should — at least in theory — explain how we form beliefs about the world at al, both true beliefs and false beliefs. Cognitive science cannot help us figure out which beliefs are true and which ones are false

    Can it? Let’s say cognitive science searches for the mechanisms for how we form believes, and it can’t find any. Does it then conclude that beliefs aren’t mechansistic at all, but are metaphysical phenomenon that can’t be explained by mechanisms? I will take a wild guess that they would never conclude this-and as such what they really are trying to do is not find out truth, but rather they are trying to support a worldview preference.

    Is that science?

  36. phoodoo: Let’s say cognitive science searches for the mechanisms for how we form believes, and it can’t find any.

    It can’t because of the fundamental limit that no sentient entity can understand anything as complex as itself.

  37. Kantian Naturalist,

    While I take your point KN and while I’m not going to dispute the Barbers, bits I’ve read in terms of archaeology, sociology, and even some philology suggest that at least some of the ideas were presented in part as explanations on some levels. I certainly don’t know (and I doubt) they were explanations as we think of explanations today, but I believe to an extent, there was an attempt to make sense of what folk were experiencing and perceiving.

    This point though:

    …including reinforcing the kind of collective identity necessary for obligate cooperative foraging (different people play different social roles, all of which make a distinct contribution to sustaining the culture as a whole, especially from generation to generation). And they provide people with a cognitive map of the local ecological relationships (predator species, prey species), how to extract resources from the local ecosystems so that resources aren’t over-extracted beyond ability to regenerate, etc.

    And

    The whole story changes with the rise of agriculture and ‘civilization’, because entirely different social and political institutions arise and need to be mapped in order to be skillfully navigated. The rise of knowledge-experts such as priests, seers, astronomers, blacksmiths, etc changes the kinds of cognitive maps that people need in order to cope with the social environment.

    I completely agree with.

  38. phoodoo: Let’s say cognitive science searches for the mechanisms for how we form believes, and it can’t find any. Does it then conclude that beliefs aren’t mechansistic at all, but are metaphysical phenomenon that can’t be explained by mechanisms? I will take a wild guess that they would never conclude this-and as such what they really are trying to do is not find out truth, but rather they are trying to support a worldview preference.

    Not seeing that. Why would it matter for their truthfulness whether beliefs are “metaphysical phenomena” or can be explained in physical terms?

  39. Corneel: Not seeing that. Why would it matter for their truthfulness whether beliefs are “metaphysical phenomena” or can be explained in physical terms?

    Not to mention the notion that a great deal about human cognition remains well beyond the state of the art in terms of complete mapping. There is a large gap between not being able to find something, and that something not existing. I think phoodoo is correct here, that cognitive science not being able to find something doesn’t mean researchers will throw their hands in the air and conclude it can never be found.

    On the other hand, I strongly suspect that phoodoo is looking for ratification of HIS worldview, and jumping on a science in its infancy because it cannot yet refute him. I enjoy the irony of phoodoo projecting his need to support his worldview onto those whose work may someday bear fruit.

  40. phoodoo: Let’s say cognitive science searches for the mechanisms for how we form believes, and it can’t find any. Does it then conclude that beliefs aren’t mechansistic at all, but are metaphysical phenomenon that can’t be explained by mechanisms? I will take a wild guess that they would never conclude this-and as such what they really are trying to do is not find out truth, but rather they are trying to support a worldview preference.

    If it were to turn out that, according to our best science, there aren’t any intentional phenomena — no such things as beliefs, desires, hopes, expectations, regrets, fears, etc. — that nothing can be about anything else — we would face a conceptual shift that would probably destroy the possibility of any civilization worth having. R. Scott Bakker calls this “the semantic apocalypse”: the realization that there is no meaning.

    This is different from nihilism, which is usually understood as skepticism or dogmatic rejection of values — no, the semantic apocalypse is not just that nothing has any value, but that language itself is fundamentally and essentially deceptive, because we use language as if words have meaning but they don’t, because nothing does or can.

    Perhaps there will be people who would prefer to reject naturalism in order to hold onto their belief in semantics.

    I, at any rate, do not think that naturalism will entail the semantic apocalypse — a better neuroscience may give us reasons to reject certain mistaken views about what meaning are (e.g Platonism and its many progeny), but it won’t show that semantics as such is nonsense.

  41. Kantian Naturalist:
    CharlieM: In my opinion ancient humans did understand the natural phenomena you talk about, only not in the way we understand them. I’m sure there were small tribal groups back then as there are today. But I think the ancient creation myths came from the type of people who were capable of feats of engineering which produced structures such as the pyramids, the sphinx, stone circles and the like.

    Kantian Naturalist: The Pyramids and the Sphinx were products of a massive civilization predicated upon sophisticated techniques of measurement and calculation, and with a huge division of labor — including, of course, a good deal of slavery.

    There are debates about the slave connection but however they were constructed they are remarkable feats of engineering.

    “The builders of the Great Pyramid of Khufu aligned the great monument to the cardinal points with an accuracy of better than four minutes of arc, or one-fifteenth of one degree,” Glen Dash, an engineer who studies the Giza pyramids, wrote in a paper published recently in The Journal of Ancient Egyptian Architecture

    The only one of the seven wonders of the ancient world still in existence. The pyramids were built, not only for the dead, but for posterity. A solid, connecting link between ancient Egypt and modern culture.

    Kantian Naturalist: It’s important to keep distinct what we’re talking about when we talk about creation myths, which (as far as we know) are a human universal — something found in all cultures, very likely beginning at least with behavioral modernity in Homo sapiens if not before.

    That is quite distinct from the kinds of myths and stories about gods and heroes that accompany the rise of civilizations, which involve permanent settlement, surplus agriculture, division of labor permitting the rise of experts (mathematicians, priests, administrators, scribes, etc.).

    The Egyptian creation myths are said to have originated in the major cities.

    At first glance, ancient Egyptian cosmogony does not seem very different than those of other cultures. A closer examination reveals that the Egyptian system had one very notable difference than all others – there were three creation myths.

    The three ancient Egyptian creation myths corresponded to the cities where they originated: Hermopolis, Memphis, and Heliopolis.

    Creation myths can also be found written in hieroglyphics within pyramids. And one of the Egyptian Myths that came to the fore is the Osiris, Isis, Horus myth. An Egyptian Holy Trinity.

    And regarding the veil of Isis there was supposedly an inscription of the one that “that has been and is and shall be”. Words very similar to those attributed to Krishna which I have previously posted, and I’m sure we are all familiar with these words from the Bible.

    The motif was based on a statue of Isis, or of the goddess Neith who was sometimes equated with her, in the Egyptian city of Sais mentioned by the Greco-Roman authors Plutarch and Proclus. They claimed the statue bore an inscription saying “I am all that has been and is and shall be; and no mortal has ever lifted my mantle.”

    There are deep commonalities between the myths of various cultures, adapted to suit the nature of the people that receive these myths. It was the leaders such as the pharaohs who were the initiates responsible for disseminating these myths amongst the people.

    Kantian Naturalist: As a side-note, I read recently that ancient Egyptian geometry was literally measurement of the land (geo-metry): there was a dedicated class of civil servants who knew how to use long pieces of rope, with knots tied at regular intervals, to compare shapes and areas of farms and fields. (Apparently this became important for making sure that parcels of land remained the same after annual flooding of the Nile changed the shape of the countryside.)

    It was the ancient Greeks who developed this techniques into a separate area of inquiry by drawing diagrams in sand-boxes, disconnected from immediate practical application. All of the proofs in Euclid’s text are written summaries of procedures of drawing diagrams in the sand.

    Yes, the Egyptians used geometry for practical purposes but Euclid studied geometry for its own sake. What was applied mathematics was becoming pure mathematics.

  42. CharlieM: And one of the Egyptian Myths that came to the fore is the Osiris, Isis, Horus myth. An Egyptian Holy Trinity.

    Yeah, that’s what the Christians copied it from.

  43. Kantian Naturalist: Yeah, that’s what the Christians copied it from.

    Among others. There seems to be quite a list of mythical characters of the time, who were born to virgins, had gods as fathers, rose from the dead, performed miracles, etc. Some were Egyptian myths, but by no means all. Probably not even most.
    You might like to look at the Raglan Hero Scale listing 22 traits of mythological heroes. Only Mithra, Krishna and Oedipus score higher than Jesus according to various sources. It seems pretty obvious that the Jesus character was a composite of quite a few of these folks.

  44. True enough, the traditional mind sought God as a supra version of itself. But we have learned to understand God as immaterial mind that does not occupy space.

    How are we even able to think of the concept of immateriality if we are only limited to material reality? Yet there it is. We are able to think in this manner as opposed to not. From an evolutionary standpoint it makes absolutely no sense that we should ever need such an intellectual capacity.

    Yet, here we are, the only organism on the planet that supposedly needs this extraordinary imaginative capability in order to……survive.

    If there is no GOD, then why do we have the capacity to even think it? How far must we strain credulity to explain the evolutionary need for any level of imagination let alone a supposedly imaginary God?

    The rational position is to assume God is true because we have the capacity to think it. Just as Pink Unicorns are true because we have the capacity to think it.

    Like a helicopter was true when Da Vinci imagined it was true. Just as astronauts were true when cavemen scratched them into rocks. Just like wireless communication was true (before Edison demonstrated it to be true) because he imagined it to be true. So it seems the demonstration of a truth never preceded the existence of that truth.

    God’s existence is real regardless of if/when it is demonstrated to be true.

  45. Robin:
    CharlieM: I’m not sure what you mean by “alternative knowledge”. Knowledge is unique to each individual and constantly changing within each individual. And in those ancient times much of the knowledge possessed by the few select leaders was kept hidden from the masses.

    I don’t like the word “supernatural” as it leads to dualistic thinking instead of thinking of a continuum. Today a universe filled with external galaxies which we consider to be part of natural reality would have been “supernatural” to the ancient people. Go far enough back and communication through the written word would have been “supernatural”. Even up to relatively recent times in Western society most of the people would not have been able to make sense of what had been written down.

    Robin: People may well have varying amounts of knowledge and intellectual ability, but when you say, “In my opinion ancient humans did understand the natural phenomena you talk about, only not in the way we understand them” coupled with insisting that ancient people were more sophisticated than we given them credit for, I feel you’re trying to argue that there is more than one equally valid way to look at and understand facts and that there are folk who were more in tune with “alternative” aspects of “reality” that we modern folk have lost the ability to understand and appreciate. This I disagree with.

    They certainly would have had a greater connection with nature than the average Westerner of today. How many people today would be able to distinguish between a filed of wheat and a field of oats or even know where the bread they pick up from the supermarket came from? We are becoming more and more detached from nature.

    But apart from having such shared practical knowledge, in times long past the lives and customs of the people were determined by the tribe or clan to which they belonged. Very few people would have had literal skills but they would have had a more direct wisdom.

    We have to be very careful in transplanting the minds of modern people into the minds of ancient peoples. The way they thought would have been very different from our way of thinking.

    CharlieM: Here is my opinion. Any view that there were actual super beings in human form throwing thunderbolts across the sky was and is an understanding which holds a decadent form of mythology. The old myths and legends had the purpose of creating pictorial scenes which stirred up feelings in the listeners and they would have lost their effect by being thought about and analyzed as we are accustomed to do.

    As Barfield pointed out many ancient people used the same word for breath and wind. This was not because of any lack of knowledge, but because they recognized underlying connections. Atmospheric winds and breathing are both part of cyclic rejuvenation. Analytical minds viewing things in isolation were not features of ancient cultures. They existed in a deeper more connected cultural framework. The universe as living and everything subject to the processes of life and death. The atmospheric forces were the macroscopic equivalent of the those taking place in the human microcosm. There was very little thinking involved because they experienced the connection in their feeling lives.

    Robin: I think you are overrating the way some people equated wind, breath, and life. The fact is, there is extensive evidence that groups of ancient people thought of wind as the breath of unseen beings. And this just isn’t valid no matter how you slice it.

    To equate things you must first see them as separate. Such separation was meaningless to the people who used these words.

    They did not imagine unseen beings. Because they saw everything as alive. All of nature, the forests, the rivers, the mountains, the earth, the clouds, the heavenly bodies; all of these they saw as living beings.

    CharlieM: They didn’t understand very much about physical side of reality. But their constitution wasn’t appropriate for examining the world in this way. That was for a future more individualistic rational age.

    But it is obvious that they pictured an ensouled world and they knew it mostly as a living soul rather than in its physical aspect. For them a modern scientific understanding would be like a person having all the chemical constituents and physical attributes of a family member and from that believing they had complete knowledge of that person. What they lacked in knowledge of physical nature they made up for in their knowledge of soul nature.

    Robin: The point in my essay is that there is not a lot (if any) evidence that ancient people understood storms, fire, wind, water, etc in modern, more practical terms. Most such people did buy into very fantastical and mythical explanations for such phenomenon. Whether you say that they saw wind as the breath of giant mythical beasts or the breath of their ancestors or in some wider sense as the equivalent of the breath of the living world, it’s still not as valid or practical or factual as our more physical understanding of gaseous planetary dynamics.

    Certainly it wasn’t as valid or practical as our modern science and technology. But in what way are our modern advances valid, practical and factual? These modern skills are purely for human comfort and benefit. Even if they are designed for the benefit of one section of society over another. So far little thought has gone into concern for the planet as a whole. It is a fact that our modern culture treats the earth as a dead lump of matter whilst draining the life out of it.

    CharlieM: Yes I agree that they weren’t as sophisticated in physics/chemistry/biology/geology/etc. They did not have any science that was compartmentalized in this way.

    Robin: Ok.

    CharlieM: Certainly Tolkien was a far better storyteller than Barfield. But as is written in the Tolkien Gateway website:

    Also from that site:

    I’m not aware of anything of significance that Barfield got from Tolkien. His friendship with Lewis was much more of a productive two-way exchange of ideas.

    Robin: I certainly do not disagree with this. And I’ve read Splintered Light. I think Flieger makes some leaps in his assessments, but overall I have no problem with his overall points.

    As for Tolkien’s influence on Barfield, take a look at The Notion Club Papers and the discussions concerning linguistics and dreams.

    I’ll take a look, thanks.

  46. CharlieM: They certainly would have had a greater connection with nature than the average Westerner of today. How many people today would be able to distinguish between a filed of wheat and a field of oats or even know where the bread they pick up from the supermarket came from? We are becoming more and more detached from nature.

    Well, the complexity of the global economy makes it almost impossible to know the answer to “where does our bread come from?” — is it made from wheat grown in the Ukraine? Or Canada? Or somewhere that most Americans can’t even find on a map?

    But apart from having such shared practical knowledge, in times long past the lives and customs of the people were determined by the tribe or clan to which they belonged. Very few people would have had literal skills but they would have had a more direct wisdom.

    I don’t see how the second sentence is supposed to follow from the first.

    We have to be very careful in transplanting the minds of modern people into the minds of ancient peoples. The way they thought would have been very different from our way of thinking.

    How do know this? What’s your evidence that their “way of thinking” was different just because they didn’t have our level of technological development?

    To equate things you must first see them as separate. Such separation was meaningless to the people who used these words.

    How do you know this?

    These modern skills are purely for human comfort and benefit. Even if they are designed for the benefit of one section of society over another. So far little thought has gone into concern for the planet as a whole. It is a fact that our modern culture treats the earth as a dead lump of matter whilst draining the life out of it.

    Yep, that’s what capitalism does.

  47. Steve:
    True enough, the traditional mind sought God as a supra version of itself. But we have learned to understand God as immaterial mind that does not occupy space.

    How are we even able to think of the concept of immateriality if we are only limited to material reality? Yet there it is. We are able to think in this manner as opposed to not.

    There’s a distinction between merely negating a determinate concept and affirming a logically incompatible but also fully determinate concept. The concept of “immateriality” is just “not material”. It tells what this kind of existence isn’t, not what it is.

    From an evolutionary standpoint it makes absolutely no sense that we should ever need such an intellectual capacity.

    There’s nothing in evolutionary theory which entails that organisms couldn’t evolve that can master negation as a logical operator and apply it to concepts that they use to cope with their environments.

    Yet, here we are, the only organism on the planet that supposedly needs this extraordinary imaginative capability in order to……survive.

    Imagination can be found quite widely amongst animals, including most vertebrates, some molluscs (cephalopods) and some arthropods (insects).

    If there is no GOD, then why do we have the capacity to even think it? How far must we strain credulity to explain the evolutionary need for any level of imagination let alone a supposedly imaginary God?

    Imagination in conjunction with planning behavior is widely seen in lots of animals. The Evolution of the Sensitive Soul is very good on this. It doesn’t answer all the questions but it advances our understanding considerably.

    The rational position is to assume God is true because we have the capacity to think it.Just as Pink Unicorns are true because we have the capacity to think it.

    Like a helicopter was true when Da Vinci imagined it was true. Just as astronauts were true when cavemen scratched them into rocks. Just like wireless communication was true (before Edison demonstrated it to be true) because he imagined it to be true.So it seems the demonstration of a truth never preceded the existence of that truth.

    What happens to the distinction between fiction and fact, on this view? Is Middle Earth true because Tolkien imagined it?

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