Archive for the ‘Ideas’ Category

On the origin of gods

Friday, August 10th, 2012

Hand-print-in-cave

In The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins the question is asked ‘Where do gods come from?’ but no answer is given.

Every human society around the world has some belief about a spiritual afterlife. Why should that be the case? If it is universal then presumably it cannot be a human quirk developed by accident and dependent on some special configuration of circumstances. This suggests that we are hard wired to develop a belief system or at the very least evolutionary inclined towards adopting this strategy. Here is my attempt at an explanation.

In his book The End of Forever, Darryl Reanney suggests that a belief in an afterlife was necessary to counter the negative impact of self awareness in consciousness. As consciousness developed in our species we inevitably realised that we as individuals would die one day – using intelligence to plan strategy will inevitably pose the question “what happens to us?” No other species has this knowledge, they all live in the moment. I am confident of this assertion because of the reasoning I will give later. If you are aware of your own mortality then this can produce a profound negative feedback loop in your thinking. If you’re going to die anyway, what is the point of doing anything significant or of planning too far ahead? Evolution ‘encourages’ species to develop and adapt to the environment and to ultimately replicate themselves. If we keep reflecting on what is the purpose of it all then, there is a danger that we will find no purpose and ’shut down’ in our consciousness preventing its further evolution.

As an experiment in evolution, consciousness is a hugely dangerous adaptation. For it to develop fully it needed to have a fail-safe mechanism for avoiding the downsides of self awareness.

In mathematics, the appearance of infinity in any equation is an abomination to the mathematician as it produces unacceptable results. In human consciousness the opposite is true; the finite is unacceptable. The realisation of our own mortality is an abomination for our consciousness, therefore the concept of an afterlife has to be created to avoid this finality.

Our species can now continue with the process of procreation using the powerful advantage of higher consciousness safe in the knowledge that there is a purpose for doing so.

In my opinion, Richard Dawkins‘ exploration of a god concept missed two crucial elements to its development, namely, art and drugs (particularly hallucinogenic drugs). To a lesser degree, language is another key component in the origination of an afterlife.

It is my contention that any species that produces art will have a concept of an afterlife, this is why I am convinced that although a species such as the elephant has self awareness, it does not produce art, therefore it has not made the leap into higher consciousness that allows it to extrapolate its own inevitable demise. The footage of elephants fondling the bones of other, recently dead elephants suggests that they are on the cusp of such an awakening. Incidentally, the ‘art’ that some elephants have produced has been shown to be the result of their handlers subtle signals and not any spontaneous expression from the animal.

So what is art?

Art is the demonstration of creativity. It is the leap of consciousness from merely observing the environment to manipulating it. Art has power. It is no accident that Islam forbids the representation of humans and animals.

The cave paintings from Lascaux tell us a great deal about the significance of art and narcotics.

What is not widely known about the cave paintings is that many of the pictures are difficult to interpret because of the curious marks that accompany them; mostly dots obscuring the image beneath. There are also zigzags and semi circles. It has been suggested that these marks represent the visual effects produced by certain narcotic substances. Whether the paintings were done under the influence of these narcotics or the visions were remembered and then reproduced is unknown. But here is the holy trinity for the origination of religion: art, narcotics and language.

Art is an attempt to make a connection with that being depicted. In the case of the Lascaux painters, the beasts that they observed and hunted. Art is creating something out of ‘nothing’ – the colours come from dirt, minerals, plants, insects. The representation of the animal from these basic, fundamental ingredients is a god-like act. It is not difficult to extrapolate from that realisation to the idea that a much larger artist created the world in just such a way. Art is creation, as is god. This connection can be verified by witnessing the hand silhouettes of the artists from thousands of years ago. I find these images disturbing because the art does what it intended to do – to reach out through time in an immortal salute and to defy death. I shiver at their timeless question; who was this person?

The predominance of human and animal sacrifice in many early belief systems points to an obsession with mortality and an afterlife.

The role of narcotics in helping to develop the idea of an afterlife is equally easy to understand. Anyone who has taken any kind of drug will know of its power to provide an alternative view of reality. For a human being (and indeed many other species) this window to another reality is hugely attractive. Again, nearly all human cultures have been shown to use narcotics in one way or another. Why do humans crave an escape from the one reality that they are familiar with? Perhaps we are back to the unacceptable ‘reality’ of our own mortality. Whatever the reason, the drug experience allows us to extrapolate to the conclusion that there must be other dimensions that are yet to be discovered.

The Lascaux artists were probably viewed as shaman or interlocutors by their fellow tribespeole. Vocalised language allowed these shaman to communicate the content of their visions to others. The story of another world that exists beyond our knowledge must have been so easy to believe and the story was then  corroborated by the language of art.

The paintings themselves at Lascaux are not easily accessible for the casual observer, they are deep within a cave system. This suggests an early development of the concept of sacredness or exclusivity for the ’seeing ones’.

How does this help from an evolutionary point of view? My guess is that those tribes with a strongly developed sense of an afterlife would co-operate more with each other and have a stronger sense of community. Crucially however, it would allow the investment of resources and time for bigger projects such as stone circles, calendars and burial mounds. These would help the future generations to have a better chance of survival. Here could be the very foundation of civilisation itself. A large scale meeting of tribes would increase trade, ideas and knowledge. This would give the group a greater resilience to future hardships when compared to godless humans who operated without this network.

This gets my vote

Monday, July 4th, 2011

no-confidence

Rightly or wrongly, political cynicism prevents many people today from getting involved in the democratic process. The whole procedure has an air of hopeless inevitability about it, like applying for Olympic tickets — vote as many times as you like but the corporate sponsors always get in.

This has resulted in a huge proportion of the population — more than half — abstaining from the process and producing a result which is divisive and unsatisfactory. Inevitably, a death spiral is produced and fewer and fewer people feel their vote has any relevance at all and even if they did vote, there is very little to choose between the cloned party leaders.

Here is my solution:
At the bottom of every ballot paper is another box which the voter can put a cross in: the ‘no confidence’ box. By casting their vote in this way, the voter is making a positive statement about their disenfranchisement from the political process. It also sends an unequivocal signal to the political parties that they have lost touch with the masses. So instead of the political leaders simply shrugging their shoulders at the poor turnout for the vote and continuing with business as usual, they would have to face their humiliation if those fifty odd percent of the population who currently don’t vote, stated publicly that they had no confidence in the current crop of privileged professional politicians… Having this extra dimension to the voting system would also assuage the guilt of the many people who feel voting is a waste of time but feel duty bound to do it because of all the human sacrifices in securing their right to vote.

Of course, the fun starts when over fifty percent of the population choose to vote, ‘no confidence’ in any election. What happens then? Perhaps a new election could be run with entirely different candidates?

God is a work of art

Tuesday, June 21st, 2011
Conceptual artwork

Conceptual artwork

God, as a work of art, is unparalleled in human creativity. The breathtaking audacity of its eternal vision, of its sweep and grandeur over the face of time and space itself and its use of concepts such as hell fire, purgatory, intercession, heaven, make it the apotheosis of sublime awe. In the masterworks gallery of conceptual genius, god sits on the finest plinth in the centre of the vaulted dome that generates the purest light.

Then along comes science and declares god a fake. Science claims that the author of the work — God himself — doesn’t exist and therefore only gifted artisans could have put the piece together. The body that declares the legitimate provenance of the work – the church, maintains its position, confident that science can’t come up with the necessary evidence. The accusation divides the viewing public. Those that believe the work to be genuine, dig in and entrench themselves with the historical ‘evidence’. Those that doubt the authenticity of the work, lose interest and leave the gallery. Very few ignore the inquisition altogether and simply enjoy the spectacle for what it is.

But the conundrum remains, nothing has really changed: the artwork remains exactly the same, it is only the perception of the artwork that is altered. Any painting, looked at rationally, is just marks of coloured shit on canvas or board. It is the belief about the construction of the artwork that fires our imagination.

Whether an artwork is fake or original or machine generated should be irrelevant, the artwork is what it is, either you like the piece or you don’t. Who created the piece is of interest only to those who benefit from that knowledge – collectors, art dealers, auctioneers, and owners…

And here is the crux of the story. Ultimately, it is the market that decides. Those with a vested interest will fight the doubt at all costs. They have empires to defend, property to maintain and income to collect. Even in the face of incontrovertible evidence, the intellectual property owners have to deny the evidence because the consequences are dire — if their authority is brought into question with this one, where does it end? What else is a fake in the gallery? And if you have invested a lifetime of prayer into these works… is that lifetime wasted then?

In the market of ideas, art is a confidence trick. The same trick is played in the currency markets, in the diamond market. The god market is no different.

The Kult of Bettakultcha

Tuesday, November 23rd, 2010

As some of you may know, Bettakultcha is an evening of PowerPoint presentations organised by myself and Richard Michie.

It sounds incredibly dull, like paying to attend other peoples office meetings about logistics or sales targets, but at the last event, 120 people paid £5 each to show up on a filthy, rainy night, and watch 13 presenters talk about something that they are passionately interested in.

Why?

The word passionate is the magic key here, because it unlocks a vast reservoir of untapped creativity and purpose in the people who attend. Part of the answer also lies in the four basic rules;

  • You must use 20 Slides
  • Each slide must last for 15 seconds exactly
  • After 5 minutes, your presentation is finished and your time is up
  • ABSOLUTELY no sales pitches

The strict template of 20 slides, 15 seconds each is a great way of keeping all the presentations focused. You can only really get one point across with these imposed limitations, so it had better be a good one. If you are used to waffling on in a presentation for forty minutes because you like the sound of your own voice then the Bettakultcha format is a merciless disciplinarian.

No sales pitches was a masterstroke. How many breakfast meetings, networking meeting, conferences etc., have you been to where someone abuses the privilege of your undivided attention by trying to sell you something that is overpriced, useless or unoriginal? And how many times have you resented that fact? In my case, far too often, so from the outset we wanted to make it clear that this was not a networking exercise or sales conference. We extended this ethos to the entire project. In the early days we were offered sponsorship for the event. As tempting as it was to have some kind of financial backing, we resisted because we didn’t want to be beholden to anyone who might start wanting to interfere with the running of the event or impose some kind of sponsor related theme. We wanted to have a free hand to experiment with the running of the event.

Due to this strategy, we had to use a venue that was either free, or incredibly cheap. This ruled out the usual corporate type venues with regimented layouts and over-heated rooms. Instead, we used Temple Works, with no heating and a ‘make do’ attitude. And so the first four events were held there. This made for an unusual evening in an unusual space. People brought their own drinks and enjoyed the evening in their overcoats.

What we discovered was that this unusual approach initially attracted those people who are still curious about the world. The randomness of the presentations was also a refreshing change from the themed homogeneity of most events. Subsequently, other people from different backgrounds began to hear about it through word of mouth, and started to attend. I should point out that the entire marketing budget for Bettakultcha was, and still is, £0 and it has only ever been promoted through Twitter. It is the people who attend who subsequently become our best marketers. Word of mouth from a trusted friend or colleague is still the most influential of all the media.

The result of this is a wide diversity in the demographic of our audience. There are no silo’s of ’suits’ or ‘arty types’ or ‘geeks’. We have them all!

And so another unforeseen consequence has emerged; incredible networking that actually works and has become something far more powerful; a community.

Because people can be themselves, because the evening is about ideas and passion and there is no business agenda, people talk to each other. They swap stories about the presentations, they borrow bottle openers, they learn something new. Then they swap Twitter names and ask what each other does…

Another attraction of the event is the true egalitarian philosophy surrounding it – anyone can have a go. There is no hierarchy at Bettakultcha. The presenters step up from the audience and when they finish, they step back into the audience. We sometimes do have professional speakers (who don’t get paid) talking about their passions but they are alongside presenters who might never have done anything like it before but feel strongly about something.

My gut feeling is that something much bigger is being created at the Bettakultcha events. It’s as if a sector of society is looking for a new identity to articulate their frustration or pleasures and Bettakultcha is providing a kind of alternative parliament to voice those ideas.

The Kult of Bettakultcha is, in fact, real democracy making a comeback.

Leeds Salon – a debate on economic growth

Tuesday, November 16th, 2010

A large crowd had gathered at the Carriageworks in Millennium Square, Leeds, last night to hear Daniel Ben-Ami and Clive Lord debate the limits of economic growth.

I use the emphasis because it wasn’t really a debate, more, a general airing of well formed opinions, prejudices and delusions by the speakers and audience members alike. I can say this because at no point during the evening was the skill of critical thinking allowed. I will explain why later but it was not for the want of knowledge.  At one point in the evening, I thought it was a competition to see who had read the most books around the subject, such was the lexicon of references.

It was clear that Daniel Ben-Ami was in the minority with his, “Growth is Good” premise and he rolled off the usual litany of technological achievements in medicine and the like. Unfortunately, his defence of the concept was about as robust as a string vest. Such was the confusion between technological innovation, capitalism, competition, human nature, economic wealth and happiness, that no-one could even begin to make a considered argument on such a swamp of shifting sands. This was a missed opportunity which could have been rescued if the focus had been on an example of what happens when untrammelled growth is followed through to its logical conclusion. And we have such an example, it is the, ‘tragedy of the seas.’

Technological innovation has improved the fish finding capabilities and catching methods of trawlers immeasurably. Actually we can measure the improvement, because there is very little fish left in the seas to catch. Also, with only a national sense of ownership and not a global one, the open seas are a paradise for any unbridled capitalist – the richest and most powerful take as much as they want leaving nothing for the less able or for future generations. The very worst predictions of the environmentalists regarding declining fish stocks are coming true. The economic and environmental destruction of the oceans is a disgrace which future generations (if they survive) will refer to in exactly the same way that we now refer to Easter Island as a salutary lesson in human greed and stupidity.

When I put this question of the fish stocks to Daniel Ben-Ami, he conceded it was a difficult one for which he had no ready answers but concluded that it was a just a political problem.

But, Mr Ben-Ami, everything is a political problem; damming the head waters of a river that also irrigates the fields of a country further down the precious artery, is a political problem, the fact that a tiny minority of the human population own the vast majority of the wealth is a political problem…civilisation is all about people therefore it is all a political problem.

I also suspect he had no ready answers because time has run out for the fishing industry and technology has not, miraculously, come to its rescue (fish farms, by the way, produce a net loss in terms of sustainability – they require more feed than they actually produce).

The incredible short sightedness of Daniel Ben-Ami’s vision was also telling. He boasted about the increasing life-span of humans when compared with the Victorian era (come, come, that’s like comparing life expectancy of today with the life expectancy of the population during 1942-1945 in say, Poland, particularly, Auschwitz) It was also symptomatic that he used the concept of longevity as a commodity to add to the growing list of stuff. The question was not raised however as to why the next generation will be showing a reversing of this longevity trend due to diseases of affluence – diabetes, heart disease, cancer et al.

I think it is important that people like Mr Ben-Ami gives everyone the heads up on important issues and I was fully prepared to amend my own views if a strong enough polemic was forthcoming from the discussion. I personally didn’t hear one last night but having said that, it was interesting to hear other peoples points of view and the subject matter was sufficiently emotive to stimulate fierce debate in the pub afterwards.

Job done.

Sleep

Thursday, November 12th, 2009

Consciousness is an activity in the brain (although we assume it is completely localised in the brain). Sleep is another activity in the brain although we have no recollection of it apart from occasional brief impressions from the dream state. We observe sleepers as being inert and unresponsive. Something is going on in our brains and we have no idea what.

Is this where our fear of death comes from? If we were conscious twenty four hours a day with no need of sleep, a lack of consciousness would be as unfathomable to us as death is to animals fixed in ‘now’ time. With sleep however, we get a reflected glimpse into a void, we come back from nothingness and realise that nothingness exists and that the possibility exists that nothingness may be the default setting.

Of course, all this conjecture stems from consciousness. Just because consciousness cannot contemplate something does not mean that it does not exist. Consciousness can only contemplate itself. We are left then with the possibility that I am an x dreaming that I am a man and that I awake when I die.

The starfish story

Tuesday, September 29th, 2009

For some strange reason I keep coming across references to this story all over the place. I’d never heard the story but apparently, it is so overused it is now a cliché.

So having familiarised myself with the story just now, I immediately noticed a flaw in it (damn these critical thinking skills!).

The story is about a bloke who is throwing starfish back into the sea. Another bloke asks him what he is doing. He tells him he is saving starfish. The other bloke looks at the miles of coastline and says he can’t possibly make a difference to the overall population of starfish. As the starfish guy throws another starfish into the sea he says “I’ve made a difference to that one.”

All very twee but as with all cliché’s nobody stops to think about it before they repeat the story parrot-like. Here is a conscientious guy going out of his way to help a species that can’t even evolve a basic survival strategy. What sort of design is it to have a salt water species getting stranded at every low tide? It’s doomed from the start. Unless, of course, the stranded starfish are sick or disabled and cannot get back into deep water before the low tide. In which case, by allowing the possibility of these sick starfish to breed with healthy specimens, this bloke is simply diluting the fitness of the starfish gene to survive in a hostile environment. Instead of saving an individual starfish, he is potentially threatening the survival of the entire species – the exact opposite of what he intended!

I’ve complained before about this idiocy in this article here where I bemoan the use of an incandescent light bulb to graphically illustrate a good idea.

The House of Women

Monday, September 21st, 2009

Approximately half the human population is made up of women. Women think differently to men. In a true democracy, women would get proportional representation.

That is why I propose we abolish the House of Lords and replace it with the House of Women. Here, proposed new laws would be scrutinised by breast feeding mothers and given the due consideration they deserve in an atmosphere of howling babies and even louder, reality-based gossip.

If the legislation is simply too complicated to understand, it is thrown out. If it is the result of testosterone fuelled one-upmanship, it is discarded along with the dirty nappies. If it does not nurture, then what is the point of it?

Reductio ad absurdum

Monday, August 17th, 2009

Following on from yesterdays post it occurred to me that we are not so far removed from the idea of someone else owning your body. It was not so long ago that someone proposed that we all be on a donor register by default. So when your time came you would be on the autopsy table ready to be carved up like a Sunday roast and dished out to whoever was invited to the organ feast. If you didn’t want this to happen you would have to tick the tiny box at the bottom of your income tax return, or whatever, that said ‘if you do not want to become spare parts signify here’.

Had that proposal become law, it would have meant that the state physically owned you (they already own nearly all of you so why not the whole hog) when you died. How long do you think it would be before the state laid claim to your body parts before you died and required you pay for the upkeep and maintenance of those parts? Thus, binge drinking would be punishable by a hefty fine as you were doing criminal damage to the state’s property – their liver. Not exercising would be punishable by community service as you would be neglecting the upkeep of another bit of the state’s property – their heart.

Actually, this wouldn’t be such a bad idea as people would be motivated to look after bodies in order to avoid punishment which ultimately would lead to a healthier population and therefore reduce the need for organ transplants in the first place – hey! problem solved.

The acquisition of wealth goes against nature

Thursday, July 23rd, 2009

I boiled an egg. I put the egg into a container of cold water. After several minutes I removed the egg from the container and noticed how warm the water had become in the container. The egg had transferred its abundant energy into the warmed water. The greater energy was given freely to the lesser energy. Nature demands that things be in equilibrium, in balance.

Capitalism is the opposite of this principle. Capitalism encourages accretion; the rich get richer as the poor get poorer. There is no balance, no giving of the abundant to the bereft. We KNOW inequality is wrong. Now I know why. It is unnatural.

It has been said that life is just nature’s way of speeding up the equilibrium of energy throughout the universe.

I boiled an egg. From that I got the cosmic order of natural law.

Sometimes I wonder where these thoughts come from.