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Harry, Dumbledore and talking Gods

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About two thirds into the movie, Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows – Part 2, Voldemart uses the killing curse on Harry. In the next segment, Harry awakens in a brightly lit King’s Cross station. A powerful dialogue ensues between Harry and Dumbledore, as Harry is confronted with the choice of returning to finish the work he had started or move on. In the exchange, Dumbledore offers him some words of wisdom thus ….” Words are our most inexhaustible source of magic ….capable of both, inflicting injury and remedying it…….Do not pity the dead..Pity the living….Above all pity those living without love…” Towards the end of this interchange, Harry asks the question “Professor, is this all real? Or is it just happening inside my head?” Before disappearing into the brilliant white light,  Dumbledore responds, ” Of course, it is happening inside your head, Harry. Why should that mean it is not real?”

Harry’s questions highlight something interesting and unique about the human brain. The “real” part implies we perceive the external world through our senses. Perception here means we bring to bear some prior knowledge when interpreting the significance of the sensory input and translate it to an appropriate action (including do nothing). This is not the unique part. The “just happening inside my head” part is. We are probably the only life forms on the planet that can run “simulations” in the absence of sensory input from external stimuli. This extraordinary ability to simulate events (anticipate and plan a response) in our head confers enormous survival advantages – in my mind (no pun intended), a key ingredient that has led to our being at the apex of the food chain.  Neuroscientists would, generally, be very happy with Dumbledore’s response, but only with the first part because they do firmly believe mind is a product of physical processes. Harry’s questions then are trying to separate the real from the imagined. But the second part of Dumbledore’s response implies that they are really not distinct. Philosophers drool on this stuff and have orgies debating its ontological and epistemological aspects.

In the realm of the ordinary, real vs imagined is fairly well defined. Imagination is the engine of creativity and has benefitted society tremendously (from literature to technology). Wild imagination leads to fantasy , as in Indian films and Chinese martial art movies where the protagonists can violate all physical laws, including gravity, and perform astounding feats. Nevertheless,  it is still entertaining.  When the imagined becomes pathological, we label these excursions delusional, schizophrenic, paranoia and so on. These have an underlying neurological/psychological basis and are subject to treatment with therapy and medications .

In the realm of the Divine (notice I instinctively capitalized the D),  no such boundaries exist. Your beliefs can be fantastic defying any rational analysis, but they cannot be classified as symptomatic of something amiss. Let’s see how. Tanya Luhrmann, is an anthropologist at Stanford University. She was recently on the NPR program, Fresh Air. The topic was her book – When God Talks Back. She spent sometime with Evangelical Christians (Vineyard denomination) who believe in the notion of an intensely personal God. In fact, he talks back. To get a flavor of what the content of the interview was like, here are the opening remarks Luhrmann made

“.. I wanted to understand what people meant when they said that God spoke to them, that God had heard from them, and that they had heard what God wanted them to do. I was at – first became intrigued by this when I was doing a different project, and it was on religion and community, and I went over to the house of an evangelical woman. And she told me that if I wanted to understand, I should have a cup of coffee with God.

She had coffee with God all the time. She hung out with God. She chatted with God. She talked about God as if he were a person. And I was blown away. I was just so intrigued by what that meant and how she was able to do that.”

Please either listen to the interview or view the entire transcript by clicking on the links.

Here is another very interesting segment of the conversation..(reproduced verbatim from the transcript on NPR)


GROSS: Will you talk about, in going to the services and in going to prayer groups at this Vineyard church, how you felt that people were training their minds to perceive God? And you attended prayer training classes. What are some of the things you learn to do in prayer training classes?

LUHRMANN: Prayer, in this context, is in an imagined conversation with God. That doesn’t mean that you’re treating God as imaginary. It means that you’re using your imagination to have a back-and-forth interaction with God. And what people are first invited to do is to experience what I would call a new theory of mind.

They learn to experience some of their thoughts as not being thoughts from them, but thoughts from God, as being external communications from God that they hear inside their mind.

The second thing they’re invited to do is to pretend that God is present. And I take that verb from C.S. Lewis. He has a chapter of “Mere Christianity” entitled “Let’s Pretend,” and his, you know, his perspective is let us pretend in order to experience as real. These folks were invited to put out a second cup of coffee for God while they prayed, to go for a walk with God, to go on a date with God, to snuggle with God, to imagine that they’re sitting on a bench in the park and God’s arm is around their shoulders, and they’re kind of talking about their respective days.

And so what’s happening is that people are using their imaginations to create this conversation, and they’re seeking to represent God the way that God is represented in church – you know, in this kind of church, unconditionally loving, always wise, always responsive, always there. And then they’re trying to experience that God as talking back to them and to experience what God says as being really real, and not the creation of their own imaginations.

GROSS: How were you supposed to tell the difference between God actually speaking to you and you using your imagination to manufacture a conversation with God?

LUHRMANN: Well, that was tough, and one of the things I was so impressed by was how thoughtful people were about the process. But basically, the church taught people what they would call a style of discernment. So what thoughts – you know, what thoughts are good candidates for God’s thoughts?

Well, they are thoughts that feel different in some way. They stand out. They seem more important. They’re different from what you were thinking about at the time. They are thoughts that are consonant with God’s character. They’re the kinds of things that God would say. They give you peace. You’re supposed to feel good when you recognize God’s voice.

And so, you know, what I was fascinated by was that as, you know, people would enter the church, they’d be – you know, I don’t know what people are talking about. God doesn’t talk to me. And then they would try praying in this interactive, free-form, imagination-rich kind of way.

And after, I don’t know, six months, they would start to say that they recognize God’s voice. Some people told me that they recognized God’s voice the way they recognize their mom’s voice on the phone.

GROSS: Because, I mean, so distinctly, like it had a different sound to it?


Listening to this, would you say we could possibly continue this conversation in English? I hope you get my point about no boundaries existing in the realm of Gods. [I have to admit, I have nothing against the practitioners as long as there is no collateral damage from their beliefs].

Luhrmann found that the Vineyard practitioner’s needed about six months to “…start recognizing God’s voice.”  This is surprising. I thought God had a big booming voice like James Earl Jones, very distinct and instantly recognizable. So what gives? Actually, if we go back about fifty years, we may find an explanation.  Solomon Asch, a sociologist, demonstrated through experiments, that there is enormous pressure on individuals to conform. In Asch’s experiments, subjects could be manipulated into actually believing a line was longer or shorter than it actually was, through feedback from a peer group, even if their senses was providing contradictory information. Another example is Stanley Milgram’s famous role playing experiments, where the participants lost all sense of normal reality and made role playing their primary reality. The transformation of Vineyard initiates into recognizer’s of God voice must largely be due to this pressure to conform to beliefs and expectations of the VIneyard congregation. Clearly, the conversation with God is happening inside the head of the congregationers. It is imagined. In this case, conceding and answering Dumbledore’s rhetorical question in the affirmative, thankfully, has no serious societal consequences, at least for now.

(Disclaimer : Transcript contents belong to NPR/Fresh Air)

Written by asterix98

December 11, 2012 at 1:44 am

Cliff’s Notes for compassionate behavior

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Social psychologist David DeSteno and his colleagues have figured out the secret sauce for everyday compassionate behavior.  Based on insights derived from some clever experiments, DeSteno writes in Compassion Made Easy “…effortful adherence to religious or philosophical dictums (often requiring meditation, prayer or moral education), though clearly valuable and capable of producing results, is not the only way to go. …Increased compassion for one’s neighbor, for instance, can come from something as easy as encouraging yourself to think of him as (say) a fan of the same local restaurant instead of as a member of a different ethnicity….”

To put it differently, we should constantly strive to find ways to include our fellow human beings in our in-group. I think this is a nice little message. But, I disagree with DeSteno’s phrasing ” .. something as easy as…” . For the general populace, practicing this may be more difficult than the moral prescriptions he labels as “effortful adherence” simply because realigning your compassion compass by thinking differently about others also requires cognitive effort.

Written by asterix98

July 16, 2012 at 2:26 am

Sagan’s lectures on natural theology

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Ann Druyan’s introduction to  Carl Sagan’s – Varieties of Scientific Experience, is wonderful. Just like he does in the lectures proper, she challenges us to open our minds to critical thinking….”what is wanted is not the will to believe, but the desire to find out….we are spiritually and culturally paralyzed, unable to face the vastness [of space], to embrace our lack of centrality and find our actual place in the fabric of nature…” Contemplate this image. The earth is but a pale blue dot afloat in the immensity of the universe…a small speck situated in a solar system within one of a hundred billion galaxies.

The book is a compilation of Sagan’s Gifford lectures on natural theology. As Sagan notes, natural theology is “…everything about the world not supplied by revelation”.

The lectures are organized as chapters. It begins with a chapter titled Nature and Wonder: a reconnaissance of heaven. It is a beautiful tour of what is known about the cosmos. Sagan introduces us to the vastness of the universe and gives us a sense of scale and our relative position in the scheme of the universe. He also tackles superstition [a belief without evidence], and operationalizes the definition of religion [ “binding together from Latin] so essentially science and religion are after understanding the interconnectedness of things.

In the next chapter – The retreat from copernicus – loss of nerve – Sagan takes on creationism, the anthropic principle [interpreting the world in human metaphors], and also gives us a sense of what the lack of centrality for Earth in the cosmic order really means.

Organic universe is another brilliant discussion on the chemical makeup, universal laws and such.  We can see a sample of his wit here .”…so as science advances, there seems to be less and less for God to do. Of course its a big universe, so He, She or It can be gainfully employed in other parts….”  I really like the notion of the  “God of Gaps”, ie., whatever we cannot explain is attributed to God.

The next lecture makes a case for why extraterrestrial intelligence may exist. Sagan also notes that whether it exists or not, it is still hugely informative because it says something about our loneliness. This is followed by a thorough debunking of “extraterrestrial folklore”, the claims of UFO sightings and visitations from aliens, that have been reported in the media over the years.

In the God hypothesis discussion, Sagan provides an operational definition of God, take us on a quick tour of the world religions and their claims and postulates. He then , with scintillating wit (there are many examples throughout), systematically deconstructs these ideas. He also put forth arguments on why God as an OmniX being is not internally consistent.

In the religious experience – he questions the efficacy of prayers, discusses the influence of hormones on human behavior, and coins a God molecule – “theotoxin” he says (tongue in cheek) “would be biasing the issue too strongly….”

In the next chapter, Crimes against creation, he is very concerned with the possibility of a nuclear winter, but in general, it can be interpreted as a general concern for the earth and its inhabitants. Elsewhere, he pleads, “… if you disagree with another human, let him live. There is nowhere in the hundred billion galaxies you will find another…”

The last chapter “Search” – anticipates the world is flat state of affairs. We started as hunter gatherers in small groups, have grown into nation states, now technology, communications, and transport have blurred those boundaries even further. In short, we have to think of ourselves as world citizens. Sagan urges us to think critically on all matters and have compassion for fellow world travelers.  He asks why there is no equivalent of a 11th commandment – thou shalt learn….

In short, if I have not already conveyed it, this compilation of Sagan’s Gifford lectures is pure cognitive pleasure. Well worthy of earning a prominent place on your bookshelves. There are others who, in recent times, have gone after organized religion, such as Dawkins or Harris, but their tone has been angry and sometimes, completely intolerant. Here, I see, Sagan, like an explosives expert, placing the bombs through beautiful, calm, cogent, and brilliant arguments, strategically on the edifice of organized religion. The image I am striving for here is the demolition of tall skyscrapers that crumble in a heap with little or no collateral damage.

Written by asterix98

May 6, 2012 at 10:15 pm

Science, God and Atheism

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My practice as a scientist is atheistic. That is to say, when I set up an experiment I assume that no god, angel or devil is going to interfere with its course; and this assumption has been justified by such success as I have achieved in my professional career. I should therefore be intellectually dishonest if I were not also atheistic in the affairs of the world.

— J.B.S. Haldane

“Fact and Faith” (1934)   Quoted in Lawrence Krauss’ article God and Science Don’t Mix


It happens to most of us.  In the late adolescence, early adulthood stages, we tend to contemplate life’s big questions: Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going? The answers we settle on, more or less, form the “spiritual” foundation for the rest of our lives. For most, what started as a spiritual quest morphs into a religious identity (the mileage here varies from liberal to orthodox to fanatical), usually centered on a personal God/benefactor. However, for a small minority, the introspection, coupled with evidence from science, leads to a worldview filled with a lifelong skepticism or rejection of commonly held beliefs, particularly the religious kind. These individuals go by the moniker of atheists or the weaker version: agnostics.  They would acknowledge the notion of a God (or Nature or Einstein’s God), devoid of any special interest in human affairs.

On the face of it, one can just dismiss theism or atheism as just two differing viewpoints and move on. But if you examine the evidence over the years, it is abundantly clear that the institution of religion, in spite of it many societal benefits, fosters a worldview that numbs the intellect. Consider its origins. Early man is out foraging for food. Rainclouds are forming above him. Suddenly there is a flash of lightning followed by thunder. He is awestruck by this spectacle. Maybe even a bit fearful. He begins to wonder how and why (a fantastically unique human trait). He seeks an explanation for the phenomenon he has just witnessed. The methods and tools of scientific inquiry are not yet available to him. He walks away, answers not forthcoming. This cognitive state of affairs is common among his fellow tribesmen. Something interesting happens. Over a roast deer dinner, they discuss rain, thunder, and lightning (notice that language has emerged as a means of communication). They concur and attribute agency of these events to an external/unseen entity (this is an outcome of the projection of a mind similar to their own onto this agent). To address this agent collectively, they create symbols. Amongst this group, there is one individual who is thinking deeper and harder about these issues. He is observant and starts noticing some patterns in nature. He can predict an eclipse. He figures he can profit from it. He impresses his fellow tribesmen by predicting the next rains. He also claims he can communicate with the agent. The witch doctor/shaman is born. We also witness the birth of the religion meme.

[In this view, the method of inquiry gave birth to religion contrary to the view that science was born out of religion].

At this stage in human history, human societies are small, the migrations out of Africa are just beginning, the cerebral cortex is evolving, and agriculture as a way of life is still to be discovered. The religious meme, however primitive, offers a “reasonable” explanation of the world humans see, with their as yet meager cognitive abilities. It sticks. And travels with the bands of migrants.

Gradually society transforms from nomadic in nature to settlements. Man is now very appreciative and respectful of the bounties of nature [I find it interesting that many Native American tribes follow a ritual of paying their respects to bodies of water and then sprinkle some on themselves.  A similar tradition exists even among religious Hindus.]  His growing cerebral sophistication leads to awareness at several levels. Foremost amongst them is the realization of the inevitability of death: his own and those of others. This is very confusing and maybe even outright scary. To alleviate this anxious state of affairs he invents the notion of afterlife.  There are even barbaric elements (animal and human sacrifices for the appeasement of the Gods). In parallel, with the growing complexity of expanding societies, social structures emerge.  Social norms are put in place. The leaders find it challenging to enforce these rules. With the help of the high priests they devise a plan. They play on our inherent fears using religion and God as a convenient and powerful instrument for exercising control.  The outcome is the invention of Paradise and Hell. Good conduct is rewarded with a ticket to Paradise, bad results in a journey to Hell. Redemption and retribution become the cornerstones of the religious edict.  Collectively, these developments lead to the evolution of the primitive totem pole symbolism to a more sophisticated divine entity. The God meme has mutated towards theodicy: omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence. More importantly, this God is extremely tuned in to the personal fortunes of individuals.

Societies continue to expand and disperse. Within the general framework of a God outlined above, newer religions take on unique cultural identities. Elaborate hierarchies, involved in managing the affairs of the Gods, have now replaced the primitive shaman. The modern religious institution is a thriving economic enterprise with organizational structures that rival the best of breed in business. Most of them are monotheistic with one supreme liaison to God (the CEOs of the God enterprise). Interestingly, the Hindus and the Greeks have specialist Gods compared to monotheism that is more dictatorial in style [but has the benefit of unifying the message]. Thus, the God meme over generations has mutated into a very complex menome, very much in lock step with other cultural advances. God then was made and evolved in the image of man.

So there we are. From its humble and benign beginnings as a schema for the unexplained to its modern incarnation as a multi-headed Hydra, religion, like any other invention of man, has proved to be a double-edged sword. The graveyard of history is littered with the carcasses of religious excess. Unless you have been sleeping, the footprints of religion’s pernicious influences across the world are abundant. Ironically, many of the conflicts are based on religious identity [my God is better than yours]. At the individual level, the concern is more with the numbing of the intellect or lack of critical thinking. Individuals make important life decisions based on superstitions, numerology, astrology, and prayers. The list is endless.

Along the way, skeptics have emerged in all cultures and societies. They asked questions that threatened the foundations of established beliefs. But because the God meme has had a stranglehold on the majority, these individuals were labeled blasphemous or heretical, and usually met with terrible deaths, such as burning at the stake. Some, like the Buddha, were initially successful in establishing an alternative worldview, but the message has been slowly eroded.

Through the work of many generations of inquiring minds, starting with the early natural philosophers to modern day scientists, science has systematically unraveled the many mysteries of the universe. But the single most important intellectual achievement is Darwin’s theory of natural selection. It offers a fairly simple, beautiful, and elegant explanation of the natural world. It is indeed a monumental piece of cerebral dexterity. Instead of Religion’s cop out answer of “God works in mysterious ways” when confronted with the many contradictions and inadequacies of the religious worldview, Darwinism brings it all home, plain and simple. Darwin brought God down to Earth. Now advances in brain science (Neurotheology), has placed the locus of God inside your head!!

Richard Dawkins (some have referred to him as Darwin’s Rottweiler) has stirred the religious pot quite vigorously in his book: The God Delusion.  I highly recommend it.

Although, I do not agree with his main thesis (that religion is an evolutionary adaptation, to relieve the anxiety of death), I also recommend Matthew Alper’s book: The God part of the brain, for an interesting take on this whole issue. He, amongst others, has noted that the claims of received wisdom, a cornerstone of many modern religions, can be attributed to delusional minds.

Here is a full length debate between Richard Dawkins and John Lennox (a Christian Mathematician).

There is a fundamental misconception that the Atheist worldview has no room for accommodating and appreciating the beauty and grandeur of Nature. In this debate, Lennox argues that the atheist worldview is “hideous”. Compared to what? The lame God and his “mysterious ways” worldview?   The Buddha held the view that Prince or Pauper, you cannot escape Disease or Death. I want to argue that the atheist point of view, far from being pessimistic (everything is pointless) urges us to apply the razor of critical thinking when we conduct our worldly affairs. However, critical thinking does not come for free. It requires an open mind and enormous cognitive effort. I find it interesting that, in Indian thought, there is some cognitive stratification. The Jnana yogi is the thinker, his tool is introspection and contemplation. The Karma Yogi is the doer, finds meaning through action. The Bhakti yogi is the prayer (pun intended), requires the most help, and comes with many instruction manuals. The majority, in any society or culture, belong in the last category. Hence, Marx’s observation – Religion is the opium of the masses.

As Lawrence Krauss notes “.. Perhaps the most important contribution an honest assessment of the incompatibility between science and religious doctrine can provide is to make it starkly clear that in human affairs — as well as in the rest of the physical world — reason is the better guide.”

Written by asterix98

February 11, 2012 at 5:59 am


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This afternoon, I was waiting for my daughter’s turn at her dentist’s office. I looked around and picked up a copy of a January edition of Newsweek because it had Haiti’s earthquake tragedy on the cover. As I flipped through it I came across a very interesting article, in the religion section, entitled “Haiti and the Theology of Suffering“.

It starts out with this sentence “Haiti is surely a Job among nations” . The reference to Job is meant to highlight the plight of the Haitian people as an underprivileged lot that has seen much suffering.

Does that mean the Haitian people are not recipients of the benevolence of God? Theodicy (a term coined by Leibniz) tries to justify that God is omnipotent,omni-benevolent, omniscient. So what gives? When theologians and religious folk are confronted with such anamolies, they hide under the catch-all phrase. In the west, it is “God works in mysterious ways”. In India, it is ” Yeh sab Bhagwan ki leela hai”. (literal translation – All of this is God’s play). Huh! How romantic!  Humans have evolved checks and balances called social norms that keep us from degenerating into an Hobbesian society and yet our Beloved God in his playful mood will toy with people’s lives with impunity. Oh my God! What did I just say. I will now be banished to Hell on earth (Haiti?). 

For a much more erudite, brilliant, and devastating decimation of  the God delusion please read Dawkins book of the same name. Dawkins, of course, takes an extreme but necessary view to challenge organized religion.

Job found redemption in the end but for the people of Haiti it is nowhere in sight.

Written by asterix98

April 8, 2011 at 7:38 am

Posted in religion, science

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