Sunday, November 18, 2007

Patterns, Seekers, & Religion

We'll get back to the humor, pattern seeking, and sentience in a post or two, but I wanted to touch more about the idea sentient, pattern seeking beings, and spirituality that was only momentarily mentioned.

First, a revisit, rewording, of the musings to the question Why would sentient beings be pattern seekers?

Whether they seek the pattern as individuals, or as some hive mind, seeking patterns is a way to 1) determine, learn, and predict cycles of good and bad weather, feast and famine, good and bad mating opportunities, best and worst hunting or gathering techniques, and other things related to survival of the individual and the species and 2) especially for higher level sentience - to find, learn, and predict "abstract" cycles.

The first is easy - to some degree most any creature with some sentience to it will have some ability to learn patterns. My fish know that when the aquarium light goes on in the morning, it won't be long until I will be feeding them. I visited a Japanese garden in the Bay Area in California when I was a teen and I remember that a Buddhist monk came out and rank a bell - he was clear across the garden (and it was a big garden) but the fish near me all suddenly turned and swam furiously away - toward the bell. This is similar to Pavlov's famous experiment with dogs. To train a creature, it has to learn to recognize and memorize a pattern - a ringing sound means food is a very simple pattern, but an important one for those fish.

Higher level beings gain the ability to recognize, memorize, learn, and predict more complex, and more abstract, patterns. They look outward from themselves, and outward even from the group. They see patterns in the stars, in the galaxies, in the Universe. They detect complex patterns that may take generations to repeat, and pass down that knowledge to others of their kind.

This pattern seeking has a bit of a drawback though. As we've all probably experience or heard about at some time or another in our lives: we see patterns in clouds ("doesn't that one look like a horse?"), patterns in the stars ("doesn't that pattern of stars look like a horse?"), and patterns in nebula's ("doesn't that interstellar nebula look like a horse head?"). We also see patterns in potato chips (chips that look like Elvis, Abraham Lincoln, the state of Nebraska, or the Virgin Mary), in cliffs ("The Old Man of the Mountain"), and even a rabbit, or a Victorian Lady reading a book in the moon. Those who can play with the brain's way processing and recognizing patterns are those that can create optical illusions.

And sometimes we misinterpret patterns - we have causality logic errors; just because one thing happens before another repeatedly doesn't mean that the first is responsible for the second, maybe the both have a shared cause. For instance, the ancient Egyptians noticed that the flood season for the Nile always happened after the "Dog Star" Sirius would make its first appearance for the year. Since Sirius' first appearance always shortly preceded the floods, Sirius was the logical cause since no other could be discovered. However, what the ancient Egyptians didn't realize was that the seasons were caused by Earth having a tilted axis and its travel around the sun, and this also caused the appearance of the night sky to cycle throughout the year as well. Sirius rise and the rise of the Nile's water levels were the result of one shared cause.

And sometimes we oversimplify, or apply a particular logic further than it should go. As I was writing the above paragraph, I realize that many English students struggle with "its" and "it's" - this is because the usual pattern for a possessive (for a word not ending in "s") is to use an apostrophe and then an "s" at the end of the word. Logically, one would think this applies to pronouns as well, but it doesn't. Pronouns have their own logic. They do not use " 's " to create possessives (I - mine, you - yours, she - her, him - his, we - our, they - their, and it - its). Keeping those two patterns straight is a bit of a pain.

OK, great, so what's this to do with spirituality?

The ultimate pattern, the ultimate abstract pattern, is, I believe, that which answers the ultimate abstract questions - why are we here? what is our purpose (beyond the biological purpose of eating, surviving, and reproducing)? Are there higher patterns than the physical? This is the area of ethics, morality, philosophy, and theology - an area I believe most other creatures on this planet do not concern themselves with. It can be argued, that some creatures do have a sense of sorts of a wrong and right - "bad dog" and "good dog" sort of thing; but I think it could be also argued that such awareness is limited (not that having an even limited concept of good and bad isn't still amazing). Last year there were studies that showed that dogs could actually map language - something that was thought only humans could do, and that some birds could actually make and use a tool. Abstract thinking folks, and the kind that requires abstract processing of patterns.

A few side anecdotal stories:

  • My mom had a Manx cat, Mr. Stubbs. I once came around a corner and saw him walking along the mantle - he did not yet see me - and knock over some glass knick-knack. It crashed to the floor and he immediately dived to the floor ran a short distance, curled up like he was asleep but then jerked his head up as if awakened by the crash. To me any animal that can lie, has at least some awareness of the abstract, and has some awareness of good and bad, even if limited. And it seems to me a hint that maybe animals have souls.
  • We had several dogs over the years, and what amazed me about them is that when you got home and found one of them cowering under the table, you knew that it knew that it had done something wrong, and knew it was going to be in trouble when we got home (seems cats lie more readily than dogs, maybe all dogs do go to heaven after all!).
  • One day we can home to find a most interesting sight: the bird cage was knocked over, and our German Shepherd was standing over Mr. Stubbs who was standing over JoyBoy our small, and obnoxious, parrot. They were all frozen - the bird in fear of the cat, the cat in fear of the dog who was going to attack if the cat was going to attack the bird (that dog just loved birds, if she could read, Snoopy would be her hero).
However, while some creatures do show various higher levels of sentience, of abstract thinking, I'm not sure they worship god(s) - oh, sure, the joke goes that cats think they are gods because we take care of them (and the Egyptians did worship them as gods) and dogs think we are gods because we take care of them, but there is no evidence yet of any creature on this planet other than humans that feels an inherent need to worship, and especially in an organized (itself a pattern) way.

Most creatures don't have a need to figure out higher patterns. For instance, the patterns of the seasons -many don't live long enough for that to be of great concern (some don't even live a year, some less than a month, and the adult species of some insects live only a day). But humans live long enough, and have evolved to become hunters and gatherers and farmers. And to be successful farmers, one needs to have a long term understanding of nature. Not only of rain cycles, but the more complex cycles that involve crop rotation, among others.

This need to understand the world around us may be the cause for our need to understand the universe. To make sense of it. Or maybe this need to predict and understand long term cycles created a side-effect - like the process for an incandescent bulb to create light has a side effect of giving off heat - the process of processing more complex, and more abstract, patterns has a side effect of creating a wonder about the meaning for the patterns.

The meaning for the patterns - or, maybe, the pattern behind the pattern. The fish who respond to the bell don't look for the meaning behind the pattern, just that the meaning OF the pattern is food is being delivered. Not why it is delivered when the bell rings, or what is the nature of the bell ring sound, or its cause - what is behind the bell ring? How is the bell ringing created?

But humans - and, I believe by extension, most, if not all, sentient life - look for the meaning for the patterns. It is a higher level of pattern searching. I don't know if an even higher one exists (maybe it does). But this looking for the pattern behind the pattern is what leads to theological questioning.

And so, would it be the natural, logical, common pattern result of the pattern of higher sentience? That is, will most, if not all, alien intelligent sentient beings eventually have theological/philosophical thoughts?

If they do have those thoughts, how would they be similar, and how would they be different, from ours? Some, like the Mormons, feel this question is already answered - all planets have met Christ (it is only on our planet that he was crucified - we, apparently, are the worst brats in the universal family). Others, well, that answer is up in the air (and some Earth religions do not believe any other intelligent race exists in this large universe filled with hundreds of millions of galaxies).

So, how aliens' theologies differ (or echo) ours? It may depend upon how strong their emotions are compared to ours (or if they even have anything equivalent to our emotions). It may depend upon their celestial environment: beings on a planet circling a twin star may develop a whole different line of mythological reasoning than those on a planet circling one star, beings on a planet in a galaxy that is colliding with another galaxy, or in a galaxy very close to two galaxies colliding (such that it is visible to the naked eye) may very well develop a whole different line of mythological reasoning, or beings on a habitable moon circling a gas giant - well, the list goes on.

Though could those different starts have similar endings? Could most arrive to the same conclusion, given enough time? And how would civilizations advanced enough to discover and communicate with other alien civilizations be theologically affected? Would that allow for some ultimate Universal Religion?

I do think there is one thing common with all religions on this planet. Patterns - patterns looking for meaning and purpose and thus patterns looking for order. Order -that is the positive and negative of it.

The positive is that such patterns of understanding and of ultimate order gives us peace, and calm, and strength to endure. It is what defines what is good - for good seems to be that which is order or gives order (that which creates patterns from chaos), and evil is that which is chaos, which destroys. The Ultimate Pattern will show that what may appear to be chaos, is not, for this Ultimate Pattern will explain all, show all, expose all the patterns in the universe, and gives them purpose.

But of course there are false patterns, patterns which seem on the surface to be order, to be constructive, but in the long term are momentary patterns, and thus still chaos, still destructive.
Some use the Great Order, the Ultimate Pattern of religion to impose selfish and shortsighted "order" on others. It is used to control and suppress, and in doing so, to destroy. It is a pattern that can be sustained for it is not a real pattern, or at least not a real Universal Pattern (but merely a local pattern, based just on one person, or one elite group).

Anyway, it seems that maybe most religions will be that which looks to determine, describe, learn, and predict the Ultimate Pattern - the one that explains all other patterns, that gives all other patterns purpose and/or reason, and that exposes the true chaoses.

At least, that will be, for now, the definition I will use when discussing alien theological possibilities. There may be other definitions, but I think for now this is the most useful as a starting point.


"The Timeline of...The Old Man and the Mountain."
New Hampshire Division of Parks and Recreation. 18 Nov 2007.


Anonymous said...

Pattern seeking do not have to mean believing in personal deities, an afterlife or any kind of non-peer reviewed authority.

Mr. David Michael Merchant said...

Absolutes are rare, so yes, pattern seeking does not have to mean believing in deities. But it may be a common cause nonetheless - extending creating of patterns from visible, physical life to invisible, metaphysical life is plausible.

Anonymous said...

Invisible and abstract does not have to mean personal or unquestionable.

Anonymous said...

Realizing that things are connected is one thing. Asking why they are connected is different in kind. Many opportunistic foragers (primate or not) have conditioning windows spanning hours, even a day or more, but it cannot be gradually incremented forever. For instance, a being with a six months conditioning window would never again eat anything of what it ate during the six months before it fell ill. Any animal-in-kind planning approaching a week or more seems extremely impractical. But asking why-questions opens a whole new world of opportunities. It makes it possible to figure out laws of nature and use them to make open-ended predictions (just to mock the primatologists, exactly how many days do they think is the upper limit for human future imagination? We have big chill hypotheses spanning gogool years!).

Anonymous said...

And at least as important as the planning is the ability to discuss why something should be done, barring mere threatening. True discussion makes it possible to tell the reason to do things. Animal cultures teaches how to perform tasks, but no nonhuman Earth life explains the reasons. Their "pupils" just keep performing what gave positive results.