(continued from Part One)
So, let's go on somewhat, because we still have not (perhaps) addressed the creation of the universe itself. Perhaps it will never be possible to know. Perhaps a future technological civilization will find the answers to this. Let us remember that as much as we like to think of ourselves as being on the bleeding edge of technology and understanding, on the time scale of the universe we will appear not much different from stone age peoples. I have addressed the possibility that future generations may have altered our ancestors' genes to mitigate some pain and other negative effects - but for the most part our ideas of morality seem to have naturally evolved, as GL_in_Lyrics mentioned in this discussion. So how does something as complex as morality evolve?
Well, the results are complex but the mechanism is really pretty simple: whatever is conducive to the survival of a species propagates by natural selection, while that which is harmful to the survival of a species is gradually weeded out, and this includes our moral preferences. If our ancestors who preferred not to kill, not to steal, not to covet, and generally to play well with others increased in numbers over time, while those who did not decreased over time, then the preferences for the behaviors that made our ancestors outperform their peers became more common and were written into our DNA, or "written on our hearts" to use the Biblical phrasing. These became our morals because they worked and because they were selected for. Could our evolved morals have been different? Well, in a sense they are. Every animal species out there is a cousin of humanity, all distant but some more distant than others. Some of those have very different morals from humans - and yet they have survived. Still, humans dominate in a way that none of those other animals do - so perhaps there is something very special about human morals after all. Even among humans we will find small differences between individuals and between different people groups - but some ideas, like opposition to murder and theft, are so common - especially among the most advanced civilizations - that there is good reason to believe that they are incredibly useful and nearly universal.
Now what holds true for humans also holds true for human institutions, and this is where Hajduk and myself find so much in common: a great number of religions have been established over human history, and most have faded away over time. These religions have been subject to the same sort of natural selection that our genes have been subject to. Therefore it would behoove us look at these religions and see what they have in common, and to consider which religions are most successful (by various metrics) and consider why they are successful. It may be that the most successful religious beliefs are not true at all, literally speaking, but that hardly matters at a practical level. Hajduk has given a survey of a number of religions, and of the religions I am aware of I largely agree. I especially appreciate the Calvinist doctrines about the fallen nature of humanity and salvation by grace, and if we consider future mastery of time the doctrine of predestination does not conflict with free will - foreknowledge is not force. The fallen nature of humanity is vital because we need to recognize the necessity of self-improvement, but salvation by grace is crucial because the human response to being loved despite our weaknesses appears to make a huge difference at both the individual and group level. In fact, salvation by grace seems to be the key doctrine that is shared by the most productive nations around the world, which is to say the chiefly Protestant nations and Japan (which derived a very similar doctrine through Shin Buddhism). In fact, I have been told by missionaries to Japan that when they tell the Japanese that God loves them, the Japanese simply reply "Yes, we know." There seems to be great power in knowing that one is loved, regardless of one's failings. (One more reason I detest our culture's current preoccupation with preventing children from knowing they are loved!) One more religion I will mention is Mormonism. I am not closely familiar with it, but many of its claims are obviously false - bizarre even - and yet Mormon believers who follow its tenets tend to be successful and happy. (For the most part - obviously there are exceptions, which might point to there being no single religion that is right for everyone.) I actually like the bizarreness of Mormon doctrine because it should be relatively easy for a believer to come to recognize both its being false and its being useful.
Both walkinginthepark and GL_in_Lyrics mentioned in this discussion the difficulty of reconciling the God of the Old Testament with the God of the New Testament. I do have one possibility, and that is that the Old Testament is all about genetics, and the New Testament is all about memetics.
Look at the Old Testament and you will find an obsession with family lines and passing on one's seed. Genocide of neighboring peoples was to ensure a space for Abraham's line to grow. However, even here many neighbors were not subjected to genocide. Those that were targeted are those said to have been wicked - and by inference, incompatible with God's chosen people.
Now naturally I won't take issue with those who doubt that this was the case. I wasn't there, so I don't know. But the idea is at least compatible with a loving God (or other interventionist). I have already addressed the influence of natural selection on our sense of morals at a genetic level - and perhaps there were some people groups whose genetics would ensure that they and their descendants would forever be incompatible with their neighbors, and always at war with them. If such were the case, genocide might be the only reasonable option open to an interventionist. The earlier it happened, after all, the less suffering overall.
The New Testament, by this reading, and the New Covenant, were possible only when the necessary genetics were in place that a new type of civilization could be built on top of. Such a civilization would need new ideas, and that is where Jesus came in: to provide the new ideas, the new memes that the earlier population was not ready for (the scriptures even hint at this in places), which would allow that civilization to prosper.
And we can break that down further: Protestant Christianity was, at least from a materialist point of view, a clear improvement on Catholicism. Such an improvement that even the Catholic Church had to adapt and reform itself just to stay relevant, though it took a few centuries to get around to it. Protestantism merely required a new reading of the old scripture, but the major shift in thinking was significant nonetheless. Perhaps it did not occur sooner because the people were not yet ready for it. I don't know. But it does point to the fact that specific religious beliefs may sometimes need to evolve even as the underlying requirements stay the same: whatever is necessary for the people to live and prosper.
Now one thing here that relates to our community: Jesus proclaimed that "the meek shall inherit the earth". His audience understood this in a way that most modern people do not. "Meek" did not mean "timid" to them, but "gentle" or "domesticated", and in fact the New Testament says a lot about domestication. In the parable of the wheat and the tares, it is helpful to know that wheat and tares are the same species - the difference is that wheat is domesticated and far more productive. Jesus lets us know that the undomesticated tares will be destroyed, while the fruitful wheat will be harvested. Keep in mind here also "the fruit of the Spirit" - love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Note that "gentleness" (domestication) appears once again. This is a really important New Testament concept. Sheep are a prime example of domestication also. And so are humans.
In fact, humans have sometimes been called "the domesticated ape", as well as "the neotenous ape", and the two are related. Neoteny, or the retention of juvenile characteristics into adulthood, is common in domesticated species and appears to be a chief driver of domestication. Neoteny is linked to both physical and psychological changes in a species. It produces a larger head, larger eyes, lower levels of melatonin, less aggressive behavior, and increased cooperative behavior and increased plasticity of mind. Of course reduced aggression and increased cooperative behavior is necessary to build a civilization, and greater plasticity of mind is linked to greater intelligence. In short, domestication and neoteny are essential to what it means to be human, and to increase neotenous traits naturally requires people who are attracted to neotenous (juvenile) physical and psychological traits. Perhaps this also explains why God chose Mary, who we know from circumstantial evidence and our knowledge of the culture of the time would have been about 12 or 13, to give birth to Jesus.
Now this is getting long and I will try to wrap it up now. I will note here the idea that we may be living in a simulation, which is based on the idea that we are close to having the technological ability to simulate the world (at least at the level of the perspective of an individual), and there is good reason to think we are more likely to be in a simulation than the real world. The biggest reason is simply numbers: If one original world simulates multiple worlds, each like itself, and those worlds in turn simulate multiple worlds like themselves, and those worlds in turn, etc., there will soon be an infinite number of simulated worlds for each original one. We can imagine why an advanced society might simulate a world - including teaching history and culture to their children, simulating the lives of their ancestors to understand how they lived, for entertainment, for modeling new societies, all sorts of things. Add to that that we live at a crucial time - that point in history where humanity seems poised to leave the earth, as well as a time of enormous social and technological change. Naturally this period will appear very interesting even to our most distant descendants, should we be successful. Therefore, it seems likely that this period would be extensively and repeatedly studied. Add all this together and it seems far more likely that we are in a simulation than not.
A few last things - you may have noticed that while I am very respectful of religion, I am viewing this as an atheist or agnostic looking at the mechanics of religion - how it works, why it works, and what we should learn from it. It is possible that this perspective is necessary to understand God, and that there could be no God without atheism. I particularly note that C.S. Lewis was an atheist before he became a notable Christian apologist, and several of my ideas are common to him (aliens who are in harmony with God, multiple worlds, worlds within worlds). I also suspect, from his description of Susan in his last Narnia novel, that he may have been one of us. From this agnostic perspective I deduce that, if there is not a God we may need to make one; if there is not a heaven, we may need to establish one; if there is not resurrection of the dead, we may want to do something about that; and because there will always be a few awful people who care about no one but themselves, if there is not a hell we may need to create one of those, too - though hopefully only for those who actively do evil things to other people, and not those who merely fail to accept an invitation to heaven.
With this perspective we may also find that other ideas, like reincarnation, are possibilities - though perhaps more than one option is open. Perhaps many religions are true and one god and many gods can sometimes be the same. Still, as developed elsewhere in this discussion we should not presume that all gods are equal, or that there are no false gods. There are false gods that lead their adherents to destruction - and we should never worship those false, frequently secular gods.