In all our scientific endeavors, we use similar high-level techniques to understand and study things. The most common technique is reductionism. It is based on the belief that the behavior, properties and structure of large and complex objects can be understood in terms of their simpler constituents. In other words, we try to understand the whole (the universe, for instance) in terms of smaller, reduced constituents (such as particles).
Animals have different sensory capabilities compared to us humans. Cats, for instance, can hear up to 60kHz, while the highest note we have ever heard was about 20kHz. Apparently, we could hear that high a note only in our childhood. So, if we are trying to pull a fast one on a cat with the best hifi multi-channel, Dolby-whatever recording of a mouse, we will fail pathetically. It won’t be fooled because it lives in a different sensory world, while sharing the same physical world as ours. There is a humongous difference between the sensory and physical worlds.
Free will is a problem. If all of us are physical machines, obeying laws of physics, then all our movements and mental states are caused by events that took place earlier. What is caused is fully determined by the cause. So whatever we do now and in the next minute is all pre-ordained by antecedent events and causes, and we have no control over it. How can we then have free will? The fact that I am writing this note on free will — is it totally and completely determined by the events from time immemorial? That doesn’t sound right.
When it comes to the amount of intelligence and experience required, we have a clear hierarchy from data to information to knowledge to wisdom. What we get from raw observation are just data points. We apply some techniques of aggregation, reporting charting etc. to arrive at information. Further higher level processing in revealing interconnections and relationships will give us condensed and actionable information, which we can consider knowledge. But to arrive at wisdom, we need a keen mind and years of experience, because what we mean by wisdom itself is far from obvious. Rather, it is obvious, but not easily described, and so not easily delegated to a computer. At least, so I thought. How could machines bridge the gap from data to wisdom?
Among the religious texts of Hinduism, the Bhagavad Gita is the most revered one. Literally presented as the word of God, the Bhagavad Gita enjoys a stature similar to the Bible or the Koran. Like all scriptures, the Bhagavad Gita also can be read, not merely as an act of devotion, but as a philosophical discourse as well. It presents a philosophical stance in understanding the world, which forms (for those from India) the basic and fundamental assumptions in dealing with life, and the unknowable reality around them. In fact, it is more than just assumptions and hypotheses; it is the basis of commonsense handed down from generation to generation. It is the foundations of intellect, which form the instinctive and emotional understanding of reality that is assimilated before logic and cannot be touched or analyzed with rationality. They are the mythos that trump logos every time.
Most religions believe that we have a soul. They don’t quite define what it is, but they are all quite sure that we have it.
A bit of reading in philosophy will lead us to the notion that the soul holds the key to our personal identity. In other words, if I put your soul in my body, then you would find yourself trapped in my body. My body would not be going around feeling that there is a strange something inside me. So your soul is expected to be the key to your personal identity.
I read somewhere that what Descartes really said was, “I think, therefor I am French.” Or may be, “I think in French, therefore I am.” Ok, that was in a phrasebook called Wicked French. In reality, the phrase was originally written in Latin, I believe — Cogito Ergo Sum. It introduced us to the beautiful geeky word Ergo. But what does the statement really mean?
It is a sensible question: What does it feel like to be a bat? Although we can never really know the answer (because we can never be bats), we know that there is an answer. It feels like something to be a bat. Well, at least we think it does. We think bats have consciousness and conscious feelings. On the other hand, it is not a sensible question to ask what it feels like to be brick or a table. It doesn’t feel like anything to be an inanimate object.
I want to wrap up this series on atheism with a personal story about the point in time where I started diverging from the concept of God. I was very young then, about five years old. I had lost a pencil. It had just slipped out of my schoolbag, which was nothing more than a plastic basket with open weaves and a handle. When I realized that I had lost the pencil, I was quite upset. I think I was worried that I would get a scolding for my carelessness. You see, my family wasn’t rich. We were slightly better off than the households in our neighborhood, but quite poor by any global standards. The new pencil was, to me, a prized possession.