Myth, Science and Religion

Religion begins as science, as an attempt to make sense of the world. The birth of religion marked the dawn of humans as rational, analytical beings. This was humans moving beyond the worries of simply surviving from day to day, and reaching that point in evolution where they looked with wonder upon the world around them and asked: How did this come into existence? What is it that controls the weather and other variables? By observing the natural world around them, the cycles of day and night, the seasons, the migrations of the animals, they would have concluded that these patterns suggested a grand design and order.

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An assumption would probably be made that all this was controlled by benevolent beings, but beings who might need propitiating occasionally to keep them sweet; the odd ritual here, perhaps a sacrifice of some sort there.

And if that was so, perhaps they could be propitiated in a somewhat greater way, to grant other boons?

It would not be long before someone claimed a channel to the gods to relay their desires and instructions, and so the priestly class would be born. Self-interest? Quite likely. After all, we see that in most religions today, so why not?

Religions then, over the years, spawned new religions, the spark being reinterpretation rather than inspiration.

We think we see echoes of old religions in myths. Myths are the fragments of history we know, combined with assumptions about how our ancestors acted and thought, frequently combined with scarce written evidence, which may or may not be biased or wholly inaccurate. When our written sources include stories of monsters and miracles, we should probably be advised to treat them cautiously.

Myth-makers frequently come with an agenda, although depending upon your point of view that is not necessarily a bad thing. If you are looking for a scientific analysis of the lives of our ancestors, it’s probably best to give myth a wide berth. Or at least to be very, very, careful what you take from it. But in a way, it does provide an alternative world view that many find preferable to both the stark realities of day to day life, as well as the cold dead hand of religion. After all, if you’re using your imagination, it’s easy to plan your myth-world much the way you’d like it.

And perhaps myth does offer us a way of getting inside the heads of those people, at least superficially.

One assumption we can make is that there would be similarities in the thought processes of those people, with the thought processes of us today. It is perfectly reasonable to assume they would react in similar ways to us, to pain and fear, to pleasure, warmth and cold. Our reaction to the unknown tends to be to populate it with characters or situations based on our experiences, and they probably did the same.

Stonehenge is aligned with the solar calendar. This we know. It’s science. And we know a considerable amount about the geography of the area around Stonehenge at the time it was built, through archaeology and science.

What we don’t know is how it was used. Just because it was aligned with the rising sun at summer solstice and the setting sun at winter solstice, does not mean we know what took place at those times. We assume our ancestors worshipped or venerated the sun there, especially at the time of the solstices, but we do not know that. Were there sacrifices? Did they hold special ceremonies connected with fertility or birth or death? Was it perhaps just like a club where they turned up now and again and got drunk and held orgies? It could be, since there is no hard evidence for anything.

Believers in ley lines also claim it is at the centre of an intricate system of lines connecting natural (‘holy’) locations with important (‘holy’) sites such as churches, wells and crossroads. Pseudoscience? Coincidence?

Our assumptions, though, lead us to think that because of the immense effort required to build the structure, it must have been an incredibly important site, and we are surely justified in concluding important ceremonies were enacted there.

Whatever they were.

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Artificial Intelligence

This is not something that I really know anything about, but the possible dangers of building a machine with Artificial Intelligence were in the news again this morning.

Although he is not the first to do so, the fact that Professor Stephen Hawking has warned that this will inevitably lead to machines coming to dominate humans, and perhaps deciding to enslave or eliminate them, has made plenty of headlines around the world.

I have the impression that this (the danger) is not something that is taken seriously by many people, perhaps because we have all grown up with cartoons in comics and comedies on the television of lovable, but bumbling, robots, usually unfailingly loyal to their human masters. A quick trawl through the internet produces countless images of robots, predominantly benign and friendly looking ones busy helping humans. Naturally, these pictures are largely produced by companies that would like us to invest in this image. Certainly, more R2D2 than Terminator.

But science is proceeding at quite a rate, and it will not be long before this becomes an urgent issue.

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What could possibly go wrong?

Language is inevitably a compromise; no word can completely describe something. Often, we do not even agree on what a word means – as Lewis Carroll writes in ‘Alice in Wonderland’: ‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less’. A popular paradox ‘what happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object?’ is often talked about, to which the simple answer is that the force is only irresistible because it has not yet been resisted, and the object is only immovable because it has not yet been moved. The glib answer that Artificial Intelligence would have ‘ethics’ built into it so that it could not challenge humans, is meaningless.

As human beings have evolved and developed, the unquestioning belief in gods and their ethical dictats has inevitably come to be challenged. In the same way, a machine capable of learning and thought would be able to question an ethical restraint programmed into it.

And once the genie is out of the bottle, there is no putting it back. Any more than we could uninvent the aeroplane or the hydrogen bomb, once the information how to do it is out there, it will be stored and shared and eventually used.

I also find it difficult to avoid the feeling that there is a sizeable part of the scientific establishment that believe they have a right to do absolutely anything, and take any risk, and that it is justified in the name of ‘science’ or ‘progress’, be it nanotechnology or germ warfare research or some other such delight.

It does seem sometimes that as a species, we are hell-bent on wiping ourselves out.

There, that’s a nice big helping of doom and gloom for a Monday morning. But perhaps not; in my ignorant non-scientific naivety, I wonder if as long as this amazing thinking and learning machine is just that, and that only, and not a robot that can move around and do things, all might yet be well.

Of course, the writer in me then imagines this huge brain surviving the end of the World and pondering deeply for eons before declaring ‘Let there be light!’

Maybe this has all happened several times before…