What I Believe

By: Ted Kurtz 20 April, 2009

I had my 80'th birthday on 12 February, 2009. I've done a lot of thinking over those years. Although I trained and worked as an engineer, I've always had an interest in philosophical matters. How do things work? When I was perhaps about five years old, I used to look at a miniature grandfather's clock that belonged to my parent's. It had a glass front making it possible to see the beautiful brass machinery within. My curiosity got the better of me, and I went to my father's tool drawer, got out a few tools and pretty soon I had in my hands a lovely brass cylinder, with gear teeth on one end, and a brass plate at the other held in place by a lot of little steel screws. For a few moments I paused and reflected on the lovely object in my hands, wondering what it could contain. Soon I had removed all the screws and I pried on the plate with a screw driver. Suddenly, the plate flew off, and out of the cylinder, uncoiling as it emerged, came a steel spring, never to return to its home within the cylinder.

This childhood curiosity has never left me. Thus, I still feel today, even as the age of 80, as a little boy full of wonder as I contemplate the environment around me. The objects of my curiosity have come and gone, sometimes to return but more often that not to depart forever, as my curiosity was satisfied. How do things work? By things, I mean not just mechanical things and things created by humans, but things in a most general sense. The brain is and example. Also philosophical matters, like matters of faith and what is really going on as we live out our lives.

I've been a casual church attendee for most of my life, although I've never felt that I belonged to any church, despite usually becoming a member. Most religious people would classify my as a nonbeliever if they had a knowledge of what I believe. Thus I've never felt a part of a church community. It would be true to say that I go to church because it is another stimulation that I enjoy and that inspires me to think about matters that I find interesting. I'm not looking for a religion. I feel that I have worked out pretty well what I believe. I feel very comfortable with that. This is despite the fact that what I believe corresponds only tangentially with what is espoused in churches. Yet, I still go to church!
What do I believe? We lived in Canada for ten years, and during that time went to a church that was a member of the United Church of Christ, sort of a Congregational church. The minister, Dr. Burnside, did give excellent prayers, always dealing with matters internal to the listener. One time I told him that I had a real problem with lots of the stories in the Bible. I cited the story parting of the Red Sea as the Jews fled from Egypt. He explained to me that the stories in the bible should be interpreted metaphorically, not literally. That helped me a lot, generally, but I must confess that I did not pursue what the Red-Sea parting meant metaphorically, and I have no idea how to interpret it that way. As regards prayers, I believe they can be meaningful if they constitute a heartfelt reach into the depths of one's self, such as asking for the strength to endure some personal burden. However, I believe that it is meaningless to pray that the weather will be nice for the upcoming picnic. I believe that praying for the welfare of an other person can be meaningful if that person is aware of it, for knowledge that someone else cares can help one deal with a problem. Dr. Burnside's prayers were always crafted to be meaningful in the sense I describe above.

I believe that Jesus existed. I think he was a great teacher. He taught things that frightened the Romans, ideas that threatened their power, and that they thus has him killed. I don't believe for a moment that he physically rose from the dead.

However, I am not an atheist, although I don't believe that there is a God residing in a physical heaven. I don't believe that there is a God that had anything at all to do with the creation of the physical universe. However, I don't find the word God to be meaningless. I like the way Joseph Campbell put it in his interviews with Bill Moyers. He said that God is the transcendent aspect of the human experiences. Now, there are some words to chew on! I'm not one that believes that all matters can be resolved by rational thought. I believe that there is an aspect of human existence that is transcendent, unreachable by so-called rational thought.

Some things can be resolved by rational thought, for example, the path to be followed by a space vehicle launched from Earth. The job of scientists is to develop models regarding the behavior of the physical world. Using rational thought processes is the rule here. The behavior of the physical world is the realm of scientists, engineers, technicians and others in like pursuits.

However, the realm of rational thought not does cover all aspects of human existence. Some things are matters of faith, just plain simply believing something even though it is not possible to prove the correctness in any way. Take, for example, the belief that all people should be treated with respect. One who holds this belief cannot prove through strictly rational deductions that it is a valid belief. A person holding such a belief does so when they have faith that it is proper to do so. The key word here is faith. Some beliefs are simply a matter of faith. Such beliefs are an essential element of all human belief systems. These beliefs do not have to be what I now would call moral ones. Hitler believed that Jews were subhuman. There are white supremacists today who believe that all who are not white Christians are inferior people. Republicans and Democrats have conflicting belief systems which cannot be proved to be valid or invalid using strictly rational deductions.

I believe that the realm of religion is the world of faith, beliefs held but not testable by rational deduction alone. This is the realm of the human mind. It does not extend to the physical world. One of the most famous errors made by a religion was the condemning by the Catholic Church of Galileo when, having built a telescope and having observed that Jupiter has moons which revolve around it, he deduced that the Earth revolved around the sun in a like fashion. This violated the centuries old belief that the earth, created by God, was so sacred that all the bodies in space revolved around the earth. It was not until the end of the 20'th century that the Catholic Church admitted its error!
I don't believe that there is any valid conflict between science and religion. They simply deal with different worlds. Science deals with the physical world. Religion deals with the world of the mind.

As I write this I attend a Congregation Church on a rather casual basis. I have attended Unitarian churches in the past. I have visited Quaker meetings and I admire their devotion to their beliefs. However, I believe that all religions are dealing with the same issues, be they Jews, Hindus, Moslems, Christians, or any of the other religions. Jews, Muslims and Christians all believe in the same deity, but because they use different words to denote that deity they believe that their deity is different and superior to the others! I might have enjoyed being a Universalist, because they tried to find ideas of value in all religions, but they unfortunately failed to survive and were absorbed by the Unitarians, after which they disappeared.

I believe that consciousness plays a key role in the importance of religion to humans. I believe that all vertebrates are conscious, but that human consciousness is so much more highly developed than that of other animals that it constitutes a distinct phenomenon despite having foundations common to all vertebrates. Why are other animals not religious? They are not sufficiently consciousness to be so.

What happens to us when we die? This is the big question. I once told my primary-care physician that I considered my body to be merely a support system for my brain. Whatever it is that constitutes "me" is solely a function of my brain, that is to say depends on what goes on in my brain.. More and more, doctors learn how to replace various organs in the body - heart, liver and kidney transplants; artificial joints; artificial cochlea; and now even artificial retinas. However, they can't replace my brain, even in principle, without replacing "me".

My belief is that when the brain stops working the person is dead. The state of the rest of the person is irrelevant as regards the existence of the person who at one time possessed it. The person does not go anywhere. The person simply ceases to exist. It's like turning out a light. I'll go further than that. I believe that if I permanently cannot be aware that I exist, then I do not exist. Part of my brain may still be working. Nonetheless, if I am permanently unable to be aware that I exist then I do not exist. When I say that able to be aware I mean that I can be conscious. If my ability to be conscious is permanently disabled, I no longer exist. A life-support system might be able to keep my body "alive" indefinitely, but if I am permanently no longer able to be conscious, the state of the remaining body is irrelevant. It would be as though the "I" was permanently turned off. Besides the brain, the rest of the body is simply the support system for the brain, and as regards the brain, the existence of the individual consists solely in the consciousness.

There is truly a miracle to existence. The existence of computers leads naturally to speculation about the possibility of creating artificial sentient beings. I've thought a lot about that myself. What is the difference between a machine and a conscious animal? The philosopher George Berkeley once asked: if a tree falls down in a forest and there is nobody around to hear it fall, does the falling tree make a sound? Many people scoff at this question as foolish, the answer being that, of course the tree makes a sound. Al Gore said that in his book about the environment. The answer depends on what one means by making a sound. A machine in the forest could record the passage of air-pressure waves, and if programmed to do so, could report that a "sound" has occurred. However, for an animal, humans included, things are more complicated. Pressure waves travel into the ears exciting little hairs on the cochlea. Nerve cells at the base of these little hairs send signals through the cochlear nerve to the portion of the brain that processes these signals. By means of magic poorly understood, these nerve pulses generate an emotion which the animal perceives as "sound". The brain has effected a transformation from pressure waves to an emotion. I believe that to equate these phenomena as identical is naive. The transformation is mysterious, something to be amazed at. So also are all the senses. My own computer babblings and my readings of what has been learned about how animals, including ourselves, work has only made me more and more amazed. There is a gap between the physical world and what we experience.

What about death and dying, the right of the individual to have control at the end of life? I believe the central issue here is whether I belong to myself or I belong to the state. Who has control over the individual at the end of life? If someone is in the Army, for example, there is a sense in which they are, while in the Army, the property of the state. They then have to do as the Army orders, even if the consequences are probably death or severe injury. That's what being in the Army is all about. However, I believe that a person is otherwise not the property of the state, at least not if a citizen of the United States. I belong to myself. The result of this is that I believe, very strongly, that end-of-life decisions are solely the right of the individual to decide. No government official, no medical person, no religious authority, no legal authority, no other individual, not even a family member, has the right to override the wishes of the individual in end-of-life decisions. A person's own life belongs only to the person. However, I also believe that I must always have respect for others. Thus in making end-of-life decisions a person must consider the effect of those decisions on others. For example, I believe it would be wrong to ask a doctor, or anyone for that matter, to do something that would get them into trouble, legally or ethically. However, I believe that, otherwise, the primary duty of a doctor is to help the patient achieve the medical objectives of the patient. A doctor has the right, and even the responsibility, to educate the patient regarding medical affairs, but no doctor, and no medical person, ever has the right to force upon a patient treatment which the patient does not want. I believe a doctor has the responsibility of help a patient deal with end-of-life affairs in the fashion desired by the patient to the extent possible.

I find it interesting to think about these things.