What’s the problem with saying “the universe happened by chance”?

big bang

Before stepping into agnosticism, I was an atheist, asserting that the universe, as it exists, needs no efficient cause for justifying its existence. I booed away the god-explanation tagging it as a ‘miracle’ explanation. It seemed so right & scientific, that there wasn’t any probability that it could be wrong.

Let us check. What is a miracle? Suppose while reading this, your computer, be it a tablet or a laptop or a pc changes into a supercomputer, with not just internal changes, but also external changes, making it look brighter & more attractive than ever before. How would you explain this event? The first reaction to this could be terming it as a hallucination. But as you confirm its reality, you start looking for an explanation. There is no way such a thing could ever happen. So how would you explain the event?

The explanation would be difficult as you wouldn’t have any efficient cause in your mind which could produce that effect. You may take a huge amount of time calculating this or that, but the magnitude of the anomaly in  the event is far greater than would fall within the purview of the existing set of logical explanations. At last you’d fall down and say okay that’s a miracle, an extraordinary and welcome event that is not explicable by natural or scientific laws. So the miracleness of an event is in the incomprehensibility or non-existence of an efficient cause which could produce it.

Now let us consider the ‘by chance’ argument. When do we say that something happened by chance? It’s a similar situation like the aforesaid. When you do not find any efficient cause which could explain and/or justify the existence of a particular effect, you could say that it happened by chance. To say that something happened by chance is also to say that there were innumerable chances that it couldn’t have happened, but it did.

Don’t the ‘by chance’ and ‘miracle’ arguments sound alike? Yes they do. They sprout out of one thing; us not being able to find an efficient cause to explain and/or justify an effect. So it doesn’t matter what you call it, either ‘chance’ or ‘miracle’, it’s the same thing.

Now let’s consider the existence of this universe. It is still true that the field of science doesn’t know how this universe came to exist. As an atheist, just to avoid a god like thing (sticking to certain definitions of god) to be used in the explanation, I simply asserted that it was just a chance that this universe is what it is now. Also while doing that, I took ‘existence’ of anything and any sort for granted. For mathematician Gottfried Leibniz, the question rather should be, “why does anything even exist, rather than not existing?”

So while taking existence for granted, I took the ‘by chance’ argument. As I proved above, I also implicitly said that the universe came about by miracle. At the same time, I booed away the god-explanation saying it was absurd. But there’s a catch here; in the god-explanation, you are presented with an efficient cause capable of bringing about the effect, that is the universe, whereas in the chance-explanation, we give no cause to the effect at hand. So by the law of causation, in which every logical person holds firm belief, the god-argument, even if some of us dislike, is valid. You have a cause, you have an effect, where the cause has the ability to produce that effect. To this I asked about the cause of god, and then asserted that it would lead to an infinite regress, leaving us with no explanation whatsoever. The theological reply to this is that god is ‘causa sui’ or the uncaused cause.

So what seems as an illogical argument, is actually a good one as it adheres to the law of causation, and that which seems to be the most logical one, is empty on one of its two sides (the side of cause), leaving it incomplete & hence invalid. So for an atheist, the better assertion would be a negative assertion that is “I don’t know”, which would at any point be true anyways. Though unwillingly, this would push him/her towards agnosticism, which is my approach.

And while taking the side of science to be hellbent to disprove god’s existence, one must know that science doesn’t concern with the supernatural because it is untestable, hence making him/her unscientific in the first place.

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Why I doubt the idea that brain produces & controls mind

Hersenfuncties

In this era of materialism, it is but natural to reduce all phenomena to just matter & energy. In that flow, the mind is reduced to just the functions of the brain, which means that all your thoughts & attention are just what the brain does. Hence the brain is a dictator, what it has to do, it does, no appeals allowed.

But is it really so? Is the brain really a dictator or a servant/tool? I have been a very angry person in the past. It wasn’t just anger, it was probably devil’s anger. I felt as if I couldn’t control myself anymore. I could feel strong violent impulses pushing me from inside to do harm to others. There seemed to be no appeal against it.

Then, I came across what is called rational thinking, to break down one’s thoughts to a point to find if there is any solid reason to believe whether they were true or just an illusion of truth. By this process, gradually my anger came down substantially as most of it was just irrational thoughts in the garb of facts. Speaking in scientific terms, my emotional part of the brain calmed down.

If I go according to the theory that the emotional part of my brain produced those emotionally impulsive thoughts, then how did it all change with my conscious thinking? As is said popularly that the very consciousness is produced by the brain, hence controlled by it, how could I consciously guide myself out of that devil’s anger? Someone could still say that it was again the brain’s decision. So, welcome to another religion folks, where brain is the god who accomplishes its wishes, no appeals allowed.

But it was I who chose to be what I am now, a pretty peaceful person. I could continue my life as an angry bozo, but I did not. It was a conscious decision. And I swear, I didn’t take any medication or get my brain surgically operated. I technically did some kind of a cognitive behavioural therapy, where I identified my cognitive distortions & then reduced them substantially. If we say that ‘the brain does it all’, cognitive behavioural therapies would be a waste of time & effort.

A simple illustration is of yourself listening to someone. You are there, being bombarded with loads of sensory information, looking into the eyes of the speaker, but a few minutes into the speech, you have no idea what the speaker spoke. It is because you paid no attention to it. Then to avoid any more embarrassment, you consciously pay attention to the speaker’s speech. Now you know every part of his/her speech & can be an active participant in the related discussion. Did the brain choose to pay attention? Or you chose it?

I have been a person advocating the ‘brain does it all’ theory of thoughts. But there came a time where I seriously had to ask myself if I could really support that idea. Yes, brain is a very complex tool for cognition, but the data just explains how the brain functions or what regions of the brain are activated while certain mental activities.

The dualism of mind & brain has helped me a lot in fixing more and more cognitive distortions or illusions of truth. It has worked both in theory and practice. Like whenever I see a potential angry response coming, I am consciously watching it happen and so can fade it out fast. It has made me more and more rational. I can easily spot my cognitive biases & subdue them quickly.

I am still ready for a better explanation which works both in theory & practice.

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The Brahmin of Manu Smriti – The other side of the coin

brahmins

Manu smriti is one of the most popular law books of ancient India. One of the reasons for its popularity is that the ‘caste system’ of the Hindus has found its deepest details in it. So it is also despised by many people. The caste system of the Hindus is based on an hierarchy which is: Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, Shudra. Brahmins are meant to be teachers & priests, Kshatriyas are meant to be warriors & politicians, Vaishyas are meant to be farmers & traders, Shudras are meant to serve the above three castes. So Brahmin is at the top.

Such a position of the Brahmin makes him be inferred as a subject of the most comforts and the most power. But a sincere reading of the text shows another side of his life. The bias of a reader begins with the first chapter, where in its 93rd verse, it is said that because the Brahmin was produced from the mouth of the God, he is the lord of this whole creation, which means that all this belongs to him.

But as one proceeds to read the next chapters, one finds that such extreme gifts for a Brahmin are subject to so many regulations. It is said that even though a Brahmin is worthy of having gifts, he must not incline towards accepting them as it diminishes his divine light. So it is an order that without the full knowledge of the prescribed rules for the acceptance of gifts in the sacred law, he must not accept any gift even if he pines with hunger (Chapter 4, verses 186-187).

Then is mentioned (Chapter 4, verse 204) that if a Brahmin does not observe the paramount duties (Yama) and only observes the secondary duties (Niyama), he loses his rank, or falls from his caste. What is Yama? In Yama are included non-violence, non-stealth, self-restraint and renouncing of every possession. Niyama include cleanliness, contentedness, penance, meditating on self, and devotion to god. So even if a Brahmin is clean, is a devotee of god, but is violent and/or possesses riches/property, he shall lose his caste. So acquiring any sort of property or riches can lead to the loss of the brahminhood of a Brahmin.

In chapter 4 (verse 179-185), it is clearly mentioned that if anyone (mother, father, wife, son, daughter, servant[shudra]) insults a Brahmin, the Brahmin must bear that without anger and avoid any quarrel with them.

In the chapter 11 (verse 31 & 33) the Brahmin is given the right to himself punish someone who has insulted/injured him. And how to punish? By reading certain verses, that is it. Speech alone is said to be the weapon of a Brahmin.

So he has to be way too humble in all respects. He cannot be angry, he cannot hit anyone physically (except for his son & pupil for discipline-chapter 4, verse 164), he cannot own property or he shall lose his caste. This is the other side of the coin which is taken out of this book. One side of it has been told popularly, but this side too needs to be seen, if this book is considered to be a reflection of the society of its time.

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The big bang of the Rigveda

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We’ve all heard about the Big Bang Theory, not the comedy show, but the other one which is about the beginning of this universe. Scientists estimate a primordial explosion to have taken place inside a bubble, and they call that explosion as the Big Bang. It is said that the Belgian priest Georges Lemaître is the founder of the Big Bang Theory. So this theory has its origin in the 19-20th century AD.

The Rigveda is till now the oldest literature of the Indian civilisation. It dates back to more than 1800 BCE. Rigveda has many hymns describing how the universe came into being. I happened to read the most unpopular one, a hymn composed by Laukya Bṛhaspati and/or Aditi Dākṣāyaṇī. It is the 72nd hymn in the 10th book of the Rigveda.

To my surprise, in its second verse, it clearly speaks of a bang like happening. Here is my translation of it:

“Like a blacksmith (karmāra iva), the protector of expansion (brahmaṇaspatiḥ), completely blew/blasted the births (/birthplaces) of the natural forces [into flames] (etā samadhamat). In the ancient era (pūrvye yuge) of the natural forces (devānāṃ), manifest was born (sadajāyata) from unmanifest (asataḥ).” 

(brahmaṇaspatiretā saṃ karmāra ivādhamat. devānāṃ pūrvye yuge asataḥ sadajāyata.)

I chose to translate the word ‘deva’ as ‘natural force’ because in the Rigveda ‘deva’ doesn’t always seem to translate as ‘god’. The Rigvedic people worshipped air, fire, earth, rain, the force behind rain, etc. 

Look at the imagination, the poet describes the ‘force’ behind the big bang as being like a blacksmith, the surface is kind of heated and then he blows/blasts it. And then he/she says that in the ancient era of the natural forces, manifest was born from unmanifest. There is heat & there is a blast and that too in the births or as I think  the poet means, in the birthplaces of the natural forces.

Another interesting part is that the force to which the big bang is attributed is brahmaṇaspati or the protector of ‘expansion’. Brahma means that which expands (brahmaṇaḥ = of brahma), pati means protector. A force of expansion has been said to have done the blast like act.

So near about 1800 BCE, or even earlier, there was a poet, who imagined that the beginning of this universe happened in a bang like manner. The confidence of the poet’s imagination reflects in the first verse which I’ve translated as:

“In detail do we speak about the origin of the natural forces, so that in the future, in the praises being sung, one could see them.”

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Why I am not a non-vegetarian

I was born in a Hindu Brahmin family, so non-vegetarian food was a taboo since then. Maximum for me was consuming eggs and milk (and its products). Otherwise my food was filled with all vegetarian stuff. It was to my surprise to find my cousins eat meat, which sometimes made me jealous of them, but I reconciled with my state of affairs. Then I grew up and became a very religious boy. And so my argument against eating non-veg food was ‘god’. My religiosity didn’t survive for long and by the time I was 20 or 21 years of age, I concluded that I had no faith in any religion. Gradually I lost faith even in ‘god’.

It was a great relief for me because now I was free from the supernatural stick which I feared would hit me hard if I committed some sin (non-veg food in this case). I introduced meat in my food. I started with KFC. Eating chicken was once in a month affair and it continued for 3-4 months or so. Then I started to figure out that the food I eat, breathes and walks before being slaughtered. I had heard vegetarians and non-vegetarians argue about ‘sentience’ of beings, plants and animals. Non-vegetarians defend themselves by calling plants ‘fully sentient’ and ask vegetarians to give up plant food. I was really confused as I needed to have solid argument against/for my position.

I surfed the internet about plant-sentience. I saw some videos of experiments. One video showed how mimosa pudica plant dozed off after ether was sprinkled on it. But I felt that it could be just a mechanical/chemical response and not just ‘consciousness’ or ‘self-awareness’. I then wrote a blog post ‘how conscious can plants be’ (in which I have explained and built up my arguments against the notion of plants being as conscious as animals). I thought that the stimulus-response system of a being is critical if viewed from the evolutionary point of view. Suppose you can feel pain but can’t respond to it, you’re being sliced and you can’t just help it. This doesn’t fit in the ‘survival of the fittest’ frame.

On the other hand, suppose a fully conscious animal being cut and reacting in jumps and screams. We need not be a PhD scholar in order to determine the difference between the consciousness of a plant and an animal. Just imagine you yourself being cut to be cooked and eaten. That’d be approximately the same terror, pain, trauma that the animals experience. Being a rationalist, I value freedom and liberty the most. In that sense, I can’t interfere with another person’s freedom and liberty without a valid reason. The reason that comes in favour of non-veg food is that you’ll go deficient in certain nutrients if you only eat veg food. Well, to some extent it could be true. But for the rest of the range of non-veg food items, I disagree. I have been a vegetarian the most of my spent life (even eating eggs wasn’t a regular event). I haven’t felt any weaker than the my non-veg eating counterparts. In fact I remember a few times when I outweighed them in physical strength. The basic point is to adequately cook and properly digest the food.

So when it comes to eating stuff, I prefer a less conscious being over a fully conscious being because I can’t happily imagine of a being screaming and begging for his life before entering my mouth. Yes, if it’s a case of acute shortage of vegetarian food items, one can opt for eating meat for it would be better justified then. Historically, some societies preferred non-vegetarian food items as they couldn’t stay at one place for longer periods, practise agriculture and wait for long periods of time to eat stuff. Also in places where extensive agriculture is technically not possible, eating non-vegetarian food items is justified. Yes, I care to check if my acts are justifiable or not. And when it comes to the protection of my own freedom and liberty, I care not to hurt those of anyone else without a valid reason.

Well I am still open to arguments in opposition of my position.

© Satyan Sharma 2015

How Conscious Can Plants Be

When we talk about ‘living beings’ we also include the plants. Now the argument given by vegetarians against a non-vegetarian diet is ‘not to kill living beings for food’. By that argument we mustn’t kill plants also. But then from where would we get any food? I’ve been pondering upon this idea for long and had quite good debates with my own self.

I read a few articles and saw a few videos on plant consciousness. The fact is that we still don’t have a firm evidence that the plants are as conscious as animals. The pro-plant-consciousness arguments are based on estimates and inferences. Even if we take the plants to be conscious, another question arises as to whether their consciousness is at par with that of the animals.

Here I took my imagination as a tool. I imagined how would it feel to be enough conscious to feel the pain but not enough equipped to react to it in defence. It would be worse than even the process of dying. A plant would prefer to die than to live such a helpless life. Now if the plant isn’t dying voluntarily, does it mean that it has no control over its body? If the answer is yes, this would go against the pro-plant-consciousness arguments.

If it is conscious, then it has control over its body. If it doesn’t commit suicide, it means it doesn’t want to or it doesn’t feel that much pain as to prefer death over life. Not to take just one plant into consideration, let us imagine of all the generations of plants to this day and imagine them feeling helpless. It can’t be that they are all into that ‘COMA’ like condition. If they are, we can’t say that they’re conscious to the level a normal animal is.

In this experiment my tool is imagination through which I got an inference. I call it an inference because I have the evidence that plants are alive and I, to my current capability, reasoned it out. I still am working on this. I will be glad to hear counter-arguments to this inference.

© Satyan Sharma 2014