Category: Philosophy, spirituality and religion


When someone asks me if I believe in God, they are usually expecting a one word, yes or no, answer, but I find this type of answer difficult to provide. If I answered “yes”, I would want to follow it up with “but”, and if I answered “no”, I would want to add a “if”. The question is not really that simple and often depends on how you define “God”. In fact there are several different possible views on this subject:

Theism is the belief in at least one deity, which is present and active in the governance and organization of the universe.

Deism is the belief that the universe was created by a God who does not intervene in it. They say this can be determined by reason and observation alone, without the need for organized religion.

Monotheism is the belief in one God or in the oneness of God, such as in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam (Deism is a form of monotheism).

Polytheism is the belief in multiple deities, such as in ancient Greek and Roman traditions.

Monolatrism is the worship of one God while recognizing the existence of others.

Henotheism, similar to monolatrism, is the worship on one God while accepting the the possible existence of others.

Pantheism, rather than having a personal, anthropomorphic creator, sees the nature of the universe and the divinity of God as one and the same.

Panentheism, while similar to pantheism, is the belief that God not only penetrates the entire universe, but extends beyond it through time and space.

Transtheism is another system of thought which is neither theistic, nor atheistic, and is too complicated to explain in a line or two so I’m not even going to try.

Atheism, a rejection of theism, is the absence of belief in any deity.

Agnosticism is the belief that the existence of a deity, as with any metaphysical claim, is unknown or even unknowable.

Apatheism considers the question of the existence of a deity to be irrelevant and meaningless. Apatheists are apathetic towards belief in general and are likely not reading this blog.

I was raised Roman Catholic but began to question many of the church’s teachings around age 12. My growing knowledge and understanding of science eventually led me to a complete rejection of all things religious later in my teens.

Later on, as I was exposed to more spiritual ideas, I began to take on a more open-minded approach to the whole question. I started taking many of the teachings from scripture, which I saw as no more than mythology, as metaphor and analogy rather than a literal depiction of history.

On top of this, my continued studies in science, especially psychology, made me realize that much is still unknown and can’t be fully explained by science alone. Some unanswered questions involve the origins of the universe and what, if anything, existed before the big bang. Also, the nature of consciousness and time itself are far from being understood.

Medical doctor and best-selling author, Deepak Chopra, thinks that science and spirituality need to be blended in order to have a full understanding of reality. While not claiming to have all the answers himself, he seems to believe in a sort of transcendent, conscious reality that exists beyond the physical world. This could be considered a panentheistic view.

Personally, while being open to ideas such as those of Chopra, I am not willing to adhere to any particular religious doctrine or way of thinking. Since I don’t actually believe in a deity, one could label me as an atheist. However, since I am willing to admit that there could be more to life than what science can explain, perhaps agnostic would be a better fit.

Actually, these categories aren’t as easily divisible as one might think. Within agnosticism, some people consider themselves agnostic atheists, who don’t believe in a deity, nor do they deny it as a possibility. Others would call themselves an agnostic theist, who believe in a deity, but don’t claim to know it as an absolute truth.

So, if I were to label myself, with the terms used above, I would have to consider myself an agnostic theist, who is open to pantheistic or panentheistic ideas. I worship nature and believe in the possibility of something that transcends our physical reality, that is, perhaps conscious, or even consciousness itself.

Just because someone identifies as an atheist, does not necessarily mean they have to remove themselves from all religious or spiritual ideas. In a recent TED talk, Alain de Botton describes a new approach to atheism that he calls atheism 2.0. He talks about incorporating parts of religious traditions into your life without having to accept the full doctrine.

While de Botton focuses on forms, traditions, and rituals that help satisfy the human need for connection, I believe it is also acceptable for atheists to study different religious or spiritual ideas, like you would study any kind of philosophical tradition.

I, for one, am fascinated by many different religious ideas from all over the world. There’s the nature worshiping of Paganism, the simple beauty of Taoism, and practices of Yoga and Zen meditation from eastern traditions, which have been shown to have many health benefits. Even the more dogmatic religions (Christianity, Judaism, Islam) have ideas that are worth studying, if not only for their cultural significance, then for their morals.

When it comes down to it, religion should be a personal thing. Everyone should have the freedom to believe what ever they feel works best with them. It’s not so much what you believe that matters, but that you are accepting of other people’s beliefs. It helps to be able to have an open discussion about these issues, so that don’t serve to divide us, but instead, bring us together.

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Free will, the idea that people are free to make decisions that are not simply the result of their physical reality has been debated among philosophers for centuries. The opposing view, determinism (specifically, causal determinism), holds that if, hypothetically,  it were possible to know every detail about the condition of the universe in the present, and all the laws of nature that govern it, then one could predict the future conditions down to the last detail.

The debate reminds me of a scene from the Matt Groening cartoon, Futurama, where Bender is sent flying through space and runs into God, which is apparently just a cluster of stars that can talk. Even though he is a robot, Bender has questions about the nature of free will.

Bender: So, you know what I’m going to do before I do it?

God: Yes

Bender: What if I do something else?

God: Then I don’t know that.

The existence, definitions, and compatibility of these ideas have been debated for thousands of years. In modern times, people have used science – including genetics, neuroscience, and quantum physics – to try to shed light on the debate. This issue has far reaching implications on science, religion, and also justice, as it raises concerns over moral responsibility for a persons actions.

It was believed by some geneticists that mapping the human genome would show that all behavior, beliefs, and desires could be traced directly to our DNA. It seems, however, that the Human Genome Project, now almost complete, has not shown enough genes to allow all of the psychological diversity of our species.

Some of the most notable challenges to free will have come from the field of neuroscience. In 2007, John-Dylan Haynes, a neuroscientist at the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience in Berlin, conducted an experiment that raised a lot of interesting questions. He showed volunteers a screen flashing a succession of random letters and asked them to press a button, whenever they felt the urge, with either their right or left hand, and to remember what letter was being displayed at the time that they made the decision. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was used to scan the brains of volunteers as the decisions were made.

While the decision was typically made about a second before the button was actually pressed, a pattern of brain activity was found to predict the decision up to seven seconds before hand. It seems that our brain can make a decision before we are even aware of it. This led researchers to question whether our decisions are under our conscious control, or if they are the direct result of our brain activity.

Critics of the research point out that the brain activity only accurately predicted which hand was used 60% of the time. Although this is significantly more than chance would predict, it is certainly not enough to prove that the brain is making a decision before conscious awareness. Others question to what extent this type of simple decision can be generalized to real world decision making.

My beef with the research is that it doesn’t take into account the idea of the sub-conscious mind. Is it not possible that some of us make certain decisions sub-consciously before we are aware of it, and that this could account for the brain activity that seems to predict the decision?

Michael S. Gazzaniga is an acclaimed neuroscientist,  director of the SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and author of the book, “Who’s In Charge: Free Will and the Science of the Brain.” In an interview with with Scientific American, he discussed many of the issues involved with studying free will from a neuroscience perspective.

One of these issues is that of an emergent mind. Emergence is the idea that complex systems can arise out of several smaller, more simple interactions. He argues that you can’t understand the overall function of the brain by simply looking at the neurons and their interactions. One must consider the big picture, including the effect society has on a persons thoughts.

Gazzaniga also makes a distinction between mind and brain. He makes a good point that while brain activity can affect a persons thoughts and actions, in a bottom-up way, it can also work the other way around. An example he gives is of patients suffering from depression getting help through talk therapy (top-down) and with medication (bottom-up).

Another branch of science relevant to free will and determinism is quantum mechanics. At the level of particles, events can only be predicted in terms of probabilities. This uncertainty undermines the idea of determinism, however, it does not necessarily allow for free will. If our decisions are simply a result of quantum randomness (as ridiculous as it may seem), then they are not exactly free.

An interesting thing about this debate is that the extreme views, on both ends, lend themselves to religious ideas. At one end, free will, according to some, requires an immaterial soul. At the other end, theological determinism implies that all events are pre-ordained by some kind of deity.

A Muslim Matters article, that explores many of these issues from a scientific and religious perspective, argues that these two views are not necessarily mutually exclusive. They say that not enough is known about the nature of consciousness to rule out the existence of a soul, and that free will doesn’t rule out the possibility that God has knowledge of events before they occur.

One problem with this whole discussion is that it usually boils down to people simply arguing over semantics. It seems to me that if we could all come up with agreed upon definitions of free will and determinism, then we wouldn’t have as much to debate, or at least we could understand the arguments of others much more clearly.

An opinion piece in the New York Times goes into the semantics behind the debate, asking what it means for a decision to be free. Does this mean that a choice can’t be predicted, or that it isn’t caused by anything physical? Also, if it isn’t caused, wouldn’t that make it random and, therefore, not free? A big question is: what is free will free from? Is it simply freedom from outside constraints, or from the laws of nature? There are also several types of determinism, including causal, theological, logical, biological and cultural/psychological.

What’s really important about this discussion are the implications it has about moral responsibility. If people have no control over their own decisions, and they are instead simply the result of our neurons firing, then how can we be held accountable for our actions. According to some research, what really matters is that we believe that we have free will. A Reason Magazine article goes into this idea further.

The research shows that if we induce people to believe that they have no free will, by having them read passages that encourage a belief in determinism, they are then more likely to cheat in experiments and act aggressively rather than in a helpful way. These results are interesting because they suggest that our will can be changed by exposure to certain information. If changing the way we think about something can affect our actions, does that not suggest that our will is free?

Free will is something that most of us take for granted. The fact that science can show that, under certain circumstances, the activity in our brains can affect our decisions before we are even aware of having made one, does not prove that these decisions are not our own. In fact, there is also evidence that our thoughts can affect our biology as well, such as the placebo effect and the success of cognitive behavioral therapy.

The reality is that our decisions are a result of a wide range of influences, including quantum randomness at the particle level, neuronal firing in the brain, our genetic predispositions, and all environmental influences on our lives from conception to the moment a decision is made. The sum of all these is what makes us unique human beings, and whether you simply call it the self, or a soul, it is undeniably us. In all practicality, our decisions must be our own. Determinism might certainly set limits on what decisions are possible, but in the end, any decision we make is ultimately our own.