Brain as computerIn the theory of non-overlapping magisteria, people argue that religion and science both have value because the two cover different domains. The argument is that while science is good for explaining hows and whats, it does not — cannot — explain why.

And there’s the value of religion.

To me, this dichotomy fails because the two subject so often overlap. In explaining the why, religions often assert the “hows” and “whats”. In addition, the “hows” and “whats” of science challenge our conceptions of the “whys,” and some folks would love to create a scientific “why”.

I’m not entirely sure if the dichotomy is useful. These days, I’m not sure what “how” means and what “why” means. It all seems…less than real. But there is one thing that strikes me when I read some religious literature: the sheer arbitrariness of much of it.

A while ago, I read a book over and over. My father had recommended it, and although my father and I do not see eye to eye on religious matters, I read it dutifully to see if maybe it would click. The book, like most religious books, seeks to describe why things are. It internally ascribes to the idea that both religion and science are incomplete, and while it doesn’t use the exact terms, I inferred that one of the book’s reasons to be is to describe why its brand of spiritual-but-non-religiosity can explain the inadequacy.

Here’s how it tries:

In the beginning, we all were in the World of Answers. God, like a light, radiated light constantly and fully. We could not help but receive the light of his goodness at all times every time.

And we were not pleased with this.

Because we had not earned this light, and we could not earn this light, we requested that he give us the opportunity to earn light for ourselves.

God complied by creating a World of Questions, in which we would be veiled off from light by our five senses, and by the Adversary.

(…as I’ve read this book, I’ve found many things in common with Mormonism, although the book is definitely not Mormon. [Years later, I discovered that the reason for the similarities was because Joseph Smith had studied Kabbalah at some point in his life.])

I imagine that many Mormons take for granted that the Adversary is this external being in opposition to God and humans from reaching their goal. Even if Mormons also believe that there must be opposition in things.

But in this book, the M. Night Shyamalanian twist is that the Adversary is Doubt. And Doubt is Ego. Our egos, however, are not really about preventing us from reaching our goal. I mean, yes, they are, in the sense that they prevent us from seeing the light. They are a curtain over the light that obscures that light.

But for us to “earn” the light, we need that light to be hidden, and Ego/Doubt/the Adversary is the way that that happens. That Adversary is necessary.

Truth: Literal and Metaphoric

As I read this book, I think, “OK, so this is an interesting story, but is it true?

The book preempts my thoughts: “Your ego has programmed you to doubt every word this book says.”

I wonder if my question wasn’t premature or immature. I mean, when I ask if it is “true,” I’m thinking of truth as a literal matter of factual accuracy. But doesn’t that stick to hows and whats? Aren’t whys something categorically different?

Metaphoric or allegorical truth doesn’t seem as…inspiring, however.

The thing that strikes me is that the answer to this question (is it allegorical or literal?) is never really clear. It seems like a joke I’m not getting: the joke-teller doesn’t want to explain the punchline because it’ll ruin the joke. From my perspective, however, I’m already not getting the joke, so how could explaining it ruin it for me? So just tell me: is this something I’m supposed to literally believe or is it just a metaphor?

One thing that bothers me about “why” answers is their arbitrariness. It seems to me that these answers are 1) actually “how” answers in disguise and/or 2) things that regress until ultimately you reach an answer that is arbitrary, axiomatic, or taken-for-granted.

Think of a little kid who asks, “Why?” And think of how he can keep on asking why to everything you say. At some point, you get frustrated and answer with something arbitrary like, “Because I said so” — even if you wanted to be one of those good parents who doesn’t resort to something so crude.

It’s interesting that kids eventually stop asking why incessantly…even though the incessant why never actually resolves.

That’s what strikes me about religions…and what struck me about this book. It is asserting all these things with confident as an answer to why things are, when it doesn’t really suffice for me.

Ritual: Literal and Metaphoric

In the end of the book is a ritual to be practiced. A Prayer or meditation, of sorts. It’s basically the only concrete thing I have. I don’t have any understanding of why this works (or even how, despite this book insisting that it would give at least the former, if not both the former and the latter). I just have blanket statements that it works.

OK, well maybe I just need to try it to see for myself. It’s harmless, unlike many things.

But then the same questions from before arise about ritual. Are rituals literal or metaphoric? And if they are literal, then must I legalistically follow them? What if I mess up? What if I mess up inadvertently, because I did not understand properly? I don’t even read Hebrew!

I asked a friend who is into this kind of magical stuff, and he pointed out that if you don’t believe it, if it doesn’t “go” with you, then it’s not going to be effective.

Religion as Brain Software

I was intrigued by my friend’s comment. If it doesn’t go with you, then it’s not going to be effective.

I asked him: what do you mean, if it doesn’t go with you? Can the truth not go with someone?

He shrugged (at least, in the way you shrug over an internet connection mediated through text.) Traditions are something you have to feel. You have to have a taste for one or another. If you don’t, then it’s not going to work.

Interestingly, even the book suggested something like this. While it labeled religion as corrupting truth, it simultaneously pointed out that the major traditions also all transmit truth. The reconciliation is that they each are incomplete. The book made an analogy to parts of the body (something that will also be familiar to Mormons and non-LDS Christians as well)…but it also made an analogy to colors. One religion might be “red” and one might be “green,” and seeing that red and green are opposites on the color spectrum, the two might think the other is diametrically opposed to the truth that it has.

But when you take all the colors together, you get pure white light. That is the complete truth.

I can buy that, outside of the particular baggage of each religion, most of them tend to be saying the same thing deep down. It’s just that people get bogged down on the minutia, and sometimes the minutia contradicts the deeper underlying core message. (For example, for a religion that says, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” different adherents come up with really funny values for “love” and “neighbor.”)

In this way, I can also buy that different religions can be like different flavors…and it may be that we have different appreciations for different flavors…sticking to a flavor we dislike can be not only counterintuitive,  but limiting or destructive to our development.

I have thought of another analogy, however…of religion, spirituality, “why answers” (whatever and wherever those come from) as being like brain software or operating systems.

If you try to install an operating system on hardware that it is not designed for, you won’t get very far. If you try to install an operating system without right drivers, kernel modules, what have you, you won’t get very far. But not only that, it will frustrate your attempts to do stuff…and possibly even make you really upset with the OS itself.

I know people who flash new ROMs on their smartphones multiple times a day. I know people who install new Linux distros every week. Flashing Android phone with custom ROM

I also know people who never upgrade anything. They complain about how sluggish their computer has gotten, but they are stuck with a hopelessly outdated OS that doesn’t even suit their needs.

I have dabbled in installing linux distros. I have dabbled in flashing custom Android ROMs. I’m not a huge fan of the process…I would rather someone tell me: given x, y, and z requirements, what is the best distro? What is the best ROM?

But not only are these answers forthcoming, but it seems a given as if the question itself is stupid. There is no best distro. Three is no best ROM. People can’t really suggest things to you as if there is an objective one-to-one correspondence between what things you’re looking for, and what ROMs are available.

You have to get a feel for things.

Did this post seem familiar? It was originally posted at my solo blog, Irresistible (Dis)grace.