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Religious Feelings

April 10, 2013

If you spend much time on the internet reading articles and posts, you’ll find there’s a lot of hostility toward religion.  You’ll leave with this general impression.


Lately I’ve been sharing information from the famous physicist Freeman Dyson, who is an enlightened religious man.   I’ve been reading his book Infinite In All Directions, and I’d like to share a quote from the text.

“I recently listened to a talk by a famous biologist. He spoke about two philosophical viewpoints which he called scientific materialism and religious transcendentalism. He said, “At bedrock they are incompatible and mutually exclusive.” This seems to be a widely accepted view, both among biologists and among Christian fundamentalists. I do not share it. I do not know what the word “materialism” means. Speaking as a physicist, I judge matter to be an imprecise and rather old-fashioned concept. Roughly speaking, matter is the way particles behave when a large number of them are lumped together. When we examine matter in the finest detail in the experiments of particle physics, we see it behaving as an active agent rather than as an inert substance. Its actions are in the strict sense unpredictable. It makes what appear to be arbitrary choices between alternative possibilities. Between matter as we observe it in the laboratory and mind as we observe it in our own consciousness, there seems to be only a difference in degree but not in kind. If God exists and is accessible to us, then his mind and ours may likewise differ from each other only in degree and not in kind. We stand, in a manner of speaking, midway between the unpredictability of matter and the unpredictability of God. Our minds may receive inputs equally from matter and from God. This view of our place in the cosmos may not be true, but it is at least logically consistent and compatible with the active nature of matter as revealed in the experiments of modern physics. Therefore, I say, speaking as a physicist, scientific materialism and religious transcendentalism are neither incompatible nor mutually exclusive. We have learned that matter is weird stuff. It is weird enough, so that it does not limit God’s freedom to make it do what he pleases.”

– Freeman Dyson, Infinite In All Directions

I’ve always wondered how free will could be in operation.  My brain is made of the same substance as the world, which seems to follow these laws of nature.  We perform experiments in neuroscience and can predict what a person is going to do up to ten seconds before they were aware of even having made the decision.  They hadn’t even become consciously aware that they wanted to do that, but we look at the neural activity in their brain and know, with certainty, what they’re going to do.  Then again, that is only in rather basic human activities, like pushing a button.  We can also look into patients with various brain lesions, and split brain patients, and it becomes apparent that the brain makes its decisions and then another area of the brain tries to figure out “why” you (your brain) made that decision.  If it can’t figure out, it justifies and rationalizes the situation.

We’ve all been in the situation where we did something ridiculous and then later wondered, “Why in the world did I do that?”  So you sit there, wondering and wondering.  Your brain is always playing catch up.  It does its thing and then you try to rationalize it all later.

But, maybe there is some freedom in there?   Maybe we are shaping the world, in some capacity.  I don’t have the slightest clue why brain activity would create in me a sense of subjective existence.   When I was younger, I used to think about virtual reality.  When we play video games today, we have to use gamepads, mice, and keyboards to control the game and characters.  However, I used to wonder how I would receive input if the player was fully immersed in virtual reality.  Since their entire body would be “in” the game, there’d be no joystick buttons for them to press.  How would I know what they wanted to do?

Many years later when I studied neuroscience, I learned some rather bizarre things.  Our brains create our sense of existence.  To read what you wanted to do, I’d have to either have implants within your cortical homunculus, or maybe have some sort of really sensitive headgear over your skull to read the magnetic fields.  There’s these two “slices” within the brain which are where motor signals come from.



Going down those “slices” of your brain, I could read what you are wanting to do with your body.  If you are wanting to move your hand, your tongue, your eyes, whatever.  Each side controls one half of your body.  However, all of this just begs more questions.  If you can “create” signals within those brain areas, making your body move at will, then why couldn’t you do the same thing to a gamepad or mouse?  Why can’t you just create electrical signals within your keyboard and no longer have to type?  It’s not like the brain is made of some magical substance.  Is there something special about neurons put into a special configuration which then allows this “consciousness” to give inputs into the world?

When I look at this problem, I think that if you’re going to believe free will exists, you’re going to have to go broader and beyond just the brain.  Somehow your free will is manifesting itself in all aspects of what you perceive as reality, if it exists at all.  The observer and the observed have to be combined.  So, maybe Dyson is on to something?  Maybe everything around me is somehow the mind of God?  Maybe it’s all responding to me and what I do?  Those “random” happenings at the atomic quantum level may not be random at all.  They may be God actively engaging with us, molding and creating the world based on what we’re choosing and doing?  I don’t know.

On a lighter note, when I was younger I used to wonder to myself, “What’s the big deal about kissing?  Why kiss?  Why not rub arms, or scratch each other behinds, or rub knees?”   Sounds ridiculous, but you have to remember you’re talking to an introverted virgin scientist who rarely leaves his home outside of going for long walks in the middle of nowhere down country roads.  I have no experience in these things.  I don’t learn about life the way most people do.  But I did eventually find the answer, in the usual manner — through reading technical books.  A great deal of the somatosensory cortex is dedicated to the face, hands, and genitals.  There’s more “depth” to those areas of your body than say your arms or legs.  Way more brain tissue is dedicated to sensing it and feeling it.   If we look at how the “body” looks as our brain senses it, it’d look something like this.


There’s a ton of sensory input from the hands, tongue, and lips.  So there’s the answer.  The even more interesting question is why?  We evolved from organisms that basically lived by shoving things in their mouths, chewing them up, absorbing the nutrients, and then exuding the waste as excrement.  Unlike plants, we can’t produce our own energy.  We have to eat other things.  We’re basically tubes which constantly shove things in our mouths, extract energy, and then flush it back out the other end.  Our shovels and the seal to our “tube” is very sensitive.  However, we’re not constructed very well and fall apart very quickly.   Therefore we need to make copies of ourselves before we stop functioning, so that our copies (children) can go on shoving things in their mouths and exude the waste.  Such is life for us, the ever-evolving electric meat-bags.

I was listening to Alan Watts the other day while I was out for a walk.  He made a comment that the job of a philosopher is to look into an everyday event and burst into laughter at the absurdity of it all.  Oftentimes when I see people kissing, I see that homunculuar man and those huge lips, rubbing against a similar looking woman.  Then the man takes his hand and pinches the girl on her little skinny behind.  The woman doesn’t feel much, but the man, he feels that round rear end in detail with those big hands!   The meat-bags are making love.  Stimulate my senses baby!  I’ll be turning back to dust soon so give me your lovin’!

If we’re all aspects of the divine who chose to descend down into this world, we’re some crazy characters.  “I want to be a water tube with a bone skeleton.”  “What?  No way!  Me too!”  “Let’s go down to Earth and rub our faces together.”  “Sounds good!”

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