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Reason, Causality, and Totalizing


Well before the formalization of the scientific method, humans understood the basics of cause and effect. We didn't know as much about all the various causes and their effects as we do today, but people understood enough. For example, throw your spear a certain way if you want to hit the buffalo, etc.

Humans also understood that lots of things "just happen", without any apparent reason or cause. We would often hypothesize a spirit world of unseen causes to explain these events. Often these unseen causes were (and still are) explained as the powers of one or more gods and their associated angels, devils, demons, and other invisible sentients. Strangely, many wars were fought between humans because they disagreed with each other about how this unseen spirit world actually works.

Over time, as the body of scientific knowledge increased, some people began to see mathematical (logical, reasonable) causality as the only explanatory system worth using, allowing both agnosticism and atheism to spread widely among the literate peoples of the world.

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Despite all our scientific advances, there are still many events we can neither explain nor control, especially if we limit ourselves to "rational" explanations. The desire to understand why things happen still motivates people to make and believe unverifiable hypotheses about gods or spirits, souls, life after death, and intuitive methods of perception (such as psychic powers or ESP).

There are scientists who search for a "grand unified theory" ... some sort of totalizing explanation for all the matter, energy, and interactions between them that occur in the known universe.

The known universe is so large that I doubt whether a single human mind can ever truly make sense of it all. Yet, we try. We model the events that happen within our perceptual wells and we rely on these models to make sense of our lives, to give us direction and meaning.

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Reason is simply this -- an expectation that relationships can be established between contiguous events, and that these relationships will persist into the future, and that these relationships can be extrapolated to other sufficiently similar contiguous events. An expectation that we can perceive patterns and that these patterns will happen in anticipated or controllable ways.

Survival would be damnably difficult if there were no order in the universe. We ourselves are persistent patterns of matter and energy, it is difficult to imagine how we could exist at all if there were no predictable order in the universe. We are good at survival (and reproduction) because we are good at perceiving such order, figuring out its temporal and contemporaneous requirements, and predicting what will happen next. Even if we are only correct more often than not, that's good enough to keep most of us alive long enough until we've raised the next generation and taught them most of what we know.

And each of us is merely one tiny piece of reality. No matter how reasonable we are, we can't perceive everything that happens in the universe, and we can't grasp all the relationships between everything. We probably have no possible concept of how much we can never know -- but that doesn't stop us from trying, from assuming that there is a God in charge of it all ...

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The idea of the monotheistic, omniscient, omnipotent God is the greatest totalizing idea of all. But why do we need this idea? Some people get very anxious at the suggestion that there is no God, and that we can't ever know what really makes the universe do what it does. These people may feel like they have no purpose for living without a God, or that without God there is no moral code for them to follow.

Why must we have a purpose at all? Why must we have a moral code at all? Why must we try to explain the totality of everything when it is fairly obvious that we can't? Even people who hypothesize the existence of one God do not claim to know everything that this God knows. They have faith that this God loves them, takes care of them, and will shepherd them into heaven after they die. The strength of their faith, even when opposed by elements of reason, is often extremely powerful. Feeling like the Creator of the Universe is on your side is quite the support network ;-)

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Does the brain create these concepts of spiritual beings to keep itself from endless anxiety and worry over events it can not explain? Does the brain require an explanation for everything, even if that explanation is God's will?

Or is it possible to lead a healthy life while admitting that there are things beyond our perceptions that we can never know, and explanations for our perceptions that we can never understand?

I remember wandering around during high school with a handwritten journal entitled "Why?" I was a curious and intelligent young man ... and I'm still a curious and intelligent adult ... but I'm less driven to fully understand things. I'm more willing to let go and sit in wonder without judgment or understanding. The known universe is a fascinating place, full of life and activity, full of matter and energy, with many questions to be pursued. But all of our explanations and perceptions are limited. We can not know how correct we are in our models of reality. Sometimes we can't even know that what we are perceiving is reality. Dreams, intuitions, psychosis ... if something happens to me in a private room, and leaves no physical marks, did it really happen? And if something happens to other people, and they tell me a story about what happened, did it really happen? People are sometimes mistaken in their perceptions, people sometimes lie on purpose ...

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Reason is a tool we use to survive. Many of us are very good at reasoning. However, it is still just a tool, something going on inside our heads, not a method of truly knowing all that we desire to discover.


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