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Some thoughts on Spirit/Beliefs

Modeling

"Reality" is a model. Perception is the ability of our minds to take in certain (very selected) data and use it to construct an internal model of what our surroundings are. All animals need to "learn" how to use their eyes: this is how the mind "calibrates" the model to develop a working system that converts data (various stimulus patterns of light) into an internal "picture" of the world. Animals denied the ability to quot;test the model" (to go and touch or move their eyes and explore from different angles) are functionally blind, though their visual apparatus is perfectly healthy.

I think religion(and other complex stories we tell ourselves)serves the same function on another level. Most religious systems help us make sense of certain aspects of the world and our experiences. Science serves the same purpose in different ways/dealing with different aspects. There are some things that science simply can't answer at the moment, but we may need to have some sort of model anyway (like, "why am I here?" - I believe we all answer that question, if only in a very sketchy way, at least as a "working hypothesis, but science isn't likely to provide any certain answers to that question, at least not any time soon!).

I propose that we think of human perception, thought and philosophy as all different types of "models" because it's a useful concept. I believe that we are all attempting to understand the existence we find ourselves in (if only to better achieve our goals). A "model" is a working representation of something else (the "real" thing). By making a model we can predict how the "real" thing will act/perform. We can then "test" the model by seeing how true our predictions are. Click here for an example of what I mean by "testing" a model.

Our internal understanding of the world is a complex network of models operating at various levels at the same time. I believe that religious thought - and scientific thought - are attempts to provide functioning models for the world/universe. They just deal with different topics.

The Afterlife

One key focus for religious model-making has been to attempt to make some sense of our experience of linear existence. That is: we die. Most major religions (all?) have some story or "myth" or explanation for how we got here and where we're going when we die. I believe the stories we tell ourselves - and believe - are tremendously important to our well being and sense of purpose. They guide our actions and just make this existence a better show all around. So I do not discount the process of religious model-making, even if I'm basically a skeptic. I think the basic stance of skepticism is a realistic one: if we have no way to reliably test a model we can't rely on it's predictive ability. (That is since we can't know what happens after we die unless we die and find out, then we can't rely on the predictions of any model that purports to predict what will happen when we die...). But that doesn't necessarily negate the value of creating the model, we just have to rememberthat very large grain of salt! (Much of the grief caused by religious zealots is, in my opinion, from this failure to remember.)

With that said, I have to say that most of the models for the "afterlife" in the major world religions are ultimately unsatisfying to me. They usually predict that one (if one is good...) ends up in one version or another of "nirvana", which is usually described, in one way or another, as "endless bliss". Even Buddhism, which teaches one is reincarnated and, thus, returns here for life after life, also teaches that once you "get it right" (or learn all your lessons) you then "leave the wheel" and enter nirvana. Neo-Paganism, which is what I practice when I'm feeling religious, doesn't really have any one "doctrine" but many practitioners seem to believe in an amalgamation of reincarnation and nirvana, either ultimately, or more often, in combination (you hang out in nirvana, or the Summer Land or Valhalla or somewhere, until you decide to return and are reincarnated).

I'm sorry, but I find all of these stories/models ultimately unsatisfying. Doing anything for eternity sounds, well, boring. Or maybe it's the science fiction aficionado in me: I can't help but ask "what's beyond the beyond?" (What's beyond the edge of the Universe? but that's another essay...).

Beyond the Great Beyond

I confess, the Buddhist idea that we're here to learn things, and we get endless chances to get it right appeals to me (tho' I don't quite agree with the suffering part...). I like the idea of forever increasing the precision of our internal models. I find learning amusing, and reality is so "there" - figuring it out seems, somehow, well,meaningful. The more sophisticated a model is, the closer it is to "reality" itself. So to have an ultimately predictive model, we would ultimately be that which we are describing. I like the idea that we are here to expand conscious awareness to encompass all of that is. In that way, when we master one level of understanding, we move on to another level. So in the Buddhist context, I would say that once one reaches Enlightenment and frees themselves from this life, they would move on to another level. I can only imagine the kinds of lessons one might be challenged by once they've learned everything there is to learn in human existence, but one thought I've had (that satisfies me) is a change in scale/complexity. After we "graduate" from human existence (assuming, of course, that in a supposedly infinite number of lifetimes, we all will!) we move on to the planetary scale. Once we've got the "individual human" level down, we get to become biosphere's. What kind of a world would your unconscious make? (see the works of Gail Baudino - her "Dragon" trilogy , in particular, for an expansion of that idea). The beauty of this model/story is that it's infinitely expansive. We do not know what is "beyond" the end of the Universe. I would contend that that exploration is for when we're a different scale.

Also, it amuses me.


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© 1997 Robin A. NíDána
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