Do you believe in a higher power?

High as in up? Or high as in big?

I.
Foititus: Do you believe in a higher power?
Didaskalus: Higher? In what sense?
Foititus: Do you believe in a power greater than yourself?
Didaskalus: Absolutely! Gravity. Electromagnetism. That force that holds protons together in the nucleus of an atom…
Foititus: No, I mean do you believe in a will, or a consciousness that is greater than yourself?
Didaskalus: How do you measure the amount of consciousness that something has, to determine whose consciousness is greater? Do you have a greater consciousness than I have?
Foititus: OK, let’s start over.
Didaskalus: Let’s.
Foititus: Do you believe that a consciousness is behind… all of the great complexity in the universe?
Didaskalus: You are talking about the origins question, then?
Foititus: Yes, I suppose I am.
Didaskalus: Then you should just ask the origins question. All of this very vague bulshytte about “higher” and “greater” and “power” only muddies the conversation, and usually results in answers that are meaningless. It turns the conversation into a social exercise in agreement: two people can always agree on the topic of a “higher power” if they try hard enough, because the words “higher power” themselves are literally meaningless.
II.
Foititus: Friend Didaskalus, I think many people get the feeling that there must be some conscious organizing principle behind the universe, because they look outward and they perceive… such vastness! Such beauty! Such complexity! I think intuitively people feel that complexity and vastness of such a great magnitude must have a cause that is equal in complexity and magnitude.
Didaskalus: I think you are correct that people feel that way. This is part of how the human mind is put together: we expect small, uninteresting causes to have small, uninteresting effects; and conversely, we expect great, interesting effects to come from great, interesting causes.
Foititus: Is that so unreasonable?
Didaskalus: Well, yes and no. We probably evolved to have that bias in the first place, because in our normal day-to-day lives is it fairly sensible. It isn’t true all of the time, certainly! After all, a leader of a country can die from choking on a cracker. But much of the time, it is a reasonable first guess to make.  You see a big crater, you assume a strong impact.
Foititus: So therefore, is it so unreasonable to assume that a cause of great complexity and power is behind the great complexity and vastness of the universe.
Didaskalus: Well, I should like to correct you: my point is that this is a cognitive bias. It is not unexpected that people would assume this. If by “reasonable” you mean “is it possible to comprehend why someone would think that way?” then the answer is: of course it is reasonable. That doesn’t mean, however, that it’s sensible or rational or correct.
Foititus: So you are saying that we have a cognitive bias to assume that great complex effects come from great complex causes, but that that bias sometimes leads us astray.
Didaskalus: That is true. In fact, it is that cognitive bias that leads to any number of conspiracy theories in politics. J. F. K. was a great man, and his death was a powerful and shocking event. As a result, people assume that there must have been some equally powerful evil force behind it… because it is emotionally unsatisfying to think that a mere crazy person with a gun could have such a strong and profound impact on such a great man.
Foititus: I still am not convinced. I’m not sure that you have explained why I should not believe that a great consciousness was somehow involved in creating the universe as it appears today.
Didaskalus: Because there isn’t any evidence that consciousness would be necessary to produce it.
Foititus: But why….
Didaskalus: No! There is no “why”. You don’t randomly believe things until you have a reason not to. If that is how you actually worked, on a day-to-day basis, you could easily believe a million contradictory things at any given moment. You could believe that China has been wiped out overnight by a plague, simply because nobody has proven to you that it wasn’t. That’s not only bad logic, but it reveals your own bias. People never reason that way unless they are trying to rationalize something that they can’t justify.
III.
Didaskalus: I will say, however, that we have slipped back into talking bulshytte. I should have caught it and stopped the conversation immediately when it happened, and I apologize for not doing so.
Foititus: What part of that was bulshytte?
Didaskalus: We were talking about “greater” and “powerful” causes and “vast” and “complex” effects, without ever defining those terms. Come to think of it, we never really defined “consciousness” well enough to even begin that conversation.
Foititus: Can we not simply assume that we have an intuitive understanding of consciousness, for the sake of discussion?
Didaskalus: Well, allow me to make this observation: if your contention is that you feel consciousness must be behind the vast beauty and complexity of the universe, then I completely agree with you!
Foititus: You do?
Didaskalus: Yes. The feeling of awe and inspiration and beauty that you get when observing the universe is the result of a consciousness… yours!
Foititus: Well, now you are teasing me, friend Didaskalus. You know that is not what I mean when I talk about a consciousness being an organizing principle of the universe.
Didaskalus: And yet, you should consider that maybe that is what is behind the feeling you have, even though you might have interpreted that feeling wrongly.
Foititus: What do you mean?
Didaskalus: Things like “complexity” and “vastness” and “beauty” are difficult to define, in part because they carry an emotional weight. They refer at least in part, not just to something “out there” that is being observed, but to the feeling that the observation produces in you, the observer. The fact of observation, and therefore consciousness, is an intrinsic part of the concept of “beauty”.
Foititus: That makes sense. In a universe without conscious beings, the entire notion of “beauty” might not exist because there is nobody there to make that emotional judgment.
Didaskalus: Exactly. But human beings are terrible about being self-reflective in this way. When you are filled with a sense of awe, a sense of overpowering wonder and oneness with the universe around you, you by definition are not analyzing that feeling in terms of the neurochemical reactions that are going on in your body to trigger the feeling.
Foititus: Of course not. In fact, if you did that, it would destroy the feeling of “oneness” entirely. Instead of experiencing the universe, you’d just be theorizing about your own structure.
Didaskalus: And yet the experience that you have of the universe is a direct consequence of your structure, whether you theorize it that way or not. Your sense of awe when you look up at the sky is mediated by the flow of neural firings and chemical releases that are triggered in your brain and body. You may feel like you are experiencing wonder at a universe that is “out there”, but what you are in fact experiencing is changes to your own body that are triggered by your senses.
Foititus: That is all very interesting, and I suppose it is true as far as it goes. But I feel like this is a distraction from our main point. The universe is complex and vast, whether we think it is beautiful or not. Doesn’t that mean that we should be compelled to ask how it got to be so complex and vast?
Didaskalus: Maybe. Or maybe we should be asking why our biology happens to be wired in such a way that we perceive the universe as complex and vast.  And beautiful, for that matter.
Foititus: Are you saying that the universe might not actually be complex and vast?
Didaskalus: I’m saying that if the universe were any simpler, then we—as beings inside the universe—would also be simpler, and therefore would no doubt still consider the universe to be complex and vast.

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