Friday, May 15, 2009

Possible Post-poll Scenarios

Consequences of Maya winning with the 3rd Front's backing

Consequences of the 3rd Front ditching Maya

The picture says it all

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Probabalistic God

Let me confess at the outset that my practical knowledge of religion is limited to what I see around me and what I have experienced in these 23 years. Most of my notions of God are a result of these experiences and of my contemplations on the subject. In addition, I have been influenced by Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, Stephen Hawking’s The Theory of Everything, and Klaus Klostermaier’s A Brief Introduction to Hinduism.

I’m sure most people of my age would already have contemplated about religion, and most would’ve made peace with their faith or the lack of it. So, if you think most of what you read is clich├ęd, please consider this a personal diary that I feel like baring. This post is, not surprisingly, very long. I've added some pictures for relief, but with the hope that they don't trivialize the issue.

What we all know

We all agree that God as a subject has been debated for years now, and will be debated for many more without a logical conclusion. As we all know, the closing line in all such debates is, “It’s finally down to your faith.”

I don’t know about you, but for me, faith is based partly on reason, so I can’t just “feel” my faith; it’s something I need to decide- especially if it’s about faith in an entity that we cannot see; whose presence we assume; whose influence we consider all-pervading; who is considered the ultimate Chief Justice, Scientist, and Engineer; and whose identity depends on the average of each man’s religion.

Most of us have had a religious upbringing and understandably so, because until recently there was very little ammunition available to the doubter in us. In fact, by the time we’re old enough to be inquisitive, we begin taking God and his existence for granted. Even those of us who contemplate know that we can never conclusively disprove God’s existence just as believers can never conclusively prove the same. Read this masterpiece about Russell's teapot. This is where faith (a euphemism for gut) steps in.

Our gut is heavily influenced by our early experiences, which are almost always pro-God. The existence of an omnipotent God also seems intuitive when we are young, because we look at our bodies, at the marvels of nature, at stars and the Sun, and realize that there must really be a super-intelligent being designing all this. All those who don’t read or hear about Charles Darwin and the history of the universe have very little reason to believe that our bodies are not God’s handiwork and that the universe is not created by God. But even among those who believe in evolution and natural selection, there are those who believe that our daily lives, our future, and our every action are governed by God’s will, and are judged by Him. How can we ever defend or contest this?

The problem with prayers

Many believers in God believe prayers have the power to help them achieve an end that they might not have been able to achieve otherwise. Even if they agree that their prayers are more an expression of hope than a demand for action, they somehow feel praying helps them. Now this is the ultimate Russell’s teapot. How can you ever prove or disprove the power of prayers? Whether you are a believer, an agnost, or an atheist, you will agree that not all prayers are answered. For atheists, the reason is simple- since God does not exist, why God does not answer some prayers is a non-question. But how do believers explain unanswered prayers?

Believers believe that some prayers are not answered because of God’s will, where as non-believers believe that prayers that are answered are pure strokes of luck. Non-believers use this selective answering of prayers as one of their proofs against god; they ask: Why are some sincere, well-intentioned, and desperate prayers unanswered? I came up with some possible answers for this question, and one of these answers gives this post its name. The answers:

The sincere believer’s answer (my assumption)

Because this is how it was meant to be. God doesn’t always give you everything you want; there must be a good reason why your prayer has not been answered; maybe God has better plans for you. Just have faith.

My answer

Well, this is not really an answer but something I was contemplating and found appealing. If God exists, I don’t believe He has a supercomputer to process all supplications and allot receivables to each stakeholder according to merit. It’s easier to imagine God being a little inefficient, and thus He doesn’t answer your prayer because it is still enqueued in Wishamp.

An alternative explanation that I found appealing is that God doesn’t decide the final outcome of the prayer and what each stakeholder in the prayer should get in the end. He probably just tweaks the probabilities in favour of the person praying, and thus if your prayer is not answered, it just means the probability has not worked in your favour. For example, if you roll a die praying to God that you get a number between 1 and 3, God might just bias the die against 4,5, or 6 so that the probability of your winning increases from ½ to 3/5. You might still lose the game, but your prayer has not gone unanswered. Thinking about God this way naturally leads one to wonder how much influence God has over these probabilities. Will more fervent praying bring the probability closer to 1? On the other hand, is it possible that God works within the realms of probability and the laws of nature, and thus has no real power to tweak either?

The other problem with analyzing prayers is that they are often not object-oriented. In fact, true devotees will tell you that it’s selfish to pray for something specific, and that we should pray regularly without a selfish motive. The problem is, the benefits of this genre of selfless prayers are tough to ascertain, unless we can create a parallel identical universe where we can test the consequences of not praying. For most believers, benefits do not matter because the process of praying gives them a contentment and sense of fulfillment that make prayer-analysis and stupid calculations of probability irrelevant. I cannot, and will not make an attempt to, shake this belief in prayers- people are entitled to indulge in whatever makes them feel good irrespective of their truth-value.

Destiny vs. God

The trade-off between destiny and God has always puzzled me. Most believers in God also believe in destiny, which essentially means they believe what happens to us is part of a grand cosmic plan that has been written at the start of time (the “honi ko kaun taal sakta hai” school of thought). So if you believe in destiny, and you also believe in God’s power to make things happen, it means you believe God can alter destiny. If you don’t believe that, praying serves no practical purpose. The problem is, since none of us knows our destiny, we can never conclusively prove God’s ability to change it- this lack of knowledge is the ideal breeding ground for all manners of faiths and superstitions such as wearing rings and amulets, and performing pujas and havans. But most believers nowadays don’t consider destiny sacrosanct; they know astrologers’ predictions are fallible, and use destiny only as a crutch in times of distress, which I think is pretty fair.

The What-if believers

There are those who believe in God, but do so mainly because they are unsure of His existence. These people pray because if He does exist, why take a chance? After all, it just takes a few minutes of our time every day or every week. Till very recently, I counted myself in this category. But as I started contemplating and reading more on the subject, I felt less and less sure about God’s existence.

Why I have almost pulled the shutters down on belief

Multiple Gods

The things that make me most unsure of God’s power are the multiple identities of God, the friction between these multiple identities, and our belief that He is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent. When we say God is omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient, whose God are we talking about? Are there many o-o-o Gods fighting for this space, or is there only one God, as we all claim? We all know different religions originated at different points in time. Are the Gods of these religions avtars of the first God thus being consistent with him in some way, or were the new Gods free to expand their reign and challenge the authority of the existing Gods? When a war is fought in the name of religion, is it actually a proxy war between two Gods? That is, are Hindu-Muslim riots actually cosmic duels between Allah and Ram? And what of intra-religion warfare like the Sunni-Shia conflicts?

One God

And if there is only one God, how does He tolerate a Hindu leader masterminding a riot against Muslims because of a suspected Muslim hand in the burning of a train? How does He tolerate one group of Muslims branding people of other communities infidels, bombing them, and getting away with it? How does He tolerate one group of Christians printing lewd material about Hindu Gods, and in return how does He tolerate Hindus raping nuns and razing churches to the ground? How does he tolerate Bhindranwale’s men firing shots on the Harmandir Sahib, and subsequently tolerate some people calling Bhindranwale the eleventh Sikh guru? How does he tolerate men being executed for blasphemy, women being stoned to death for defying His strictures, and women being abused and assaulted for going against Hindu “culture”? If in these moments of crises, especially in crises caused by clashes over His identity, God can do nothing but watch people die and property burn, will we be wrong in assuming that God is just a figment of our imagination? And that if he does exist, he has little influence over what happens on earth, and is really just a slave of nature and of man’s perception?

The Last Word

I think imagining a world without God makes things simple. Things happen because circumstances make them happen, and each of those circumstances arise because of other sets of circumstances. That some of these circumstances coincide and lead to a particular event can be either due to human design or due to the vagaries of luck. Thus, if I walk out of my house today and get run over by a car, it’s a purely random event caused by the chance presence of the car and Akshay at the same point in space-time. It’s not because God intended to end my innings on earth and begin the driver’s behind bars, and facilitated this eventuality by finishing my stock of shaving cream and forcing a baaraat through Road A so that the driver had to use the road I was crossing.

God might exist, and I really am not as much concerned about the fact of His existence as I am about the power we think He wields. The notion most people have of God is of a friend, philosopher, and guide; of a hope and an inspiration in times of distress; and of a gentle, compassionate, and all-embracing entity. This notion is sustainable and harmless; and it doesn’t depend on the existence of God. The Calvins of the world need their Hobbes. It’s only when people start killing each other and doing other crazy things in the name of God is one forced to think whether the whole fuss about God is worth it. I don’t think it is. I don’t think a person with an atheistic upbringing in atheistic surroundings will ever feel the presence of or be able to visualize a power that is watching every step he takes- in other words, he will never need or miss God. If God exists and is reading this post, I want to assure Him that I am not disrespecting his role in making people’s lives better- it’s just that till I am completely convinced of his powers, I prefer to follow my gut and stay an agnost. I’m sure God will excuse this temporary suspension of belief.

I have a lot more opinions on this subject, but they have been articulated so beautifully by Richard Dawkins, that writing them in my own words here seems pointless. This post might sound very immature and even laughable to many believers. The fact is, these are my current thoughts on the subject, and I am far from convinced about them. I hope to read a lot more and either stand firmer on my ground or shift to the believers’ ground a happy man.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Caught in the Web

103 days and counting...