Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Imagining an Ant God

A few days ago I asked readers of this blog for ideas on what they'd like me to write about, and my cousin Nikhil suggested a post on my religious beliefs (or lack of them). Now that's a tough one, since I find that, for the most part, the best way to retain one's religious beliefs is to not think about them too deeply. What I'd initially planned to do was to just record myself talking about this for a while and then post it as an ersatz podcast, since that would also make it a 'stream of consciousness' type post, which is also something that Nikhil asked for. However, I ended up recording myself at about 2.00 AM, which meant that I wasn't making too much sense when I was talking. Plus I usually sound like a 15-year-old with a blocked nose, and since the whole thing revolved around God and so on, it basically sounded like someone getting doped out of their head and talking nonsense. Not the sort of thing I'd want to post, thank you. Which brings me to this post. Hopefully the meandering prose sounds sufficiently like a stream-of-consciousness narrative so I can tick that off the list as well and not make up something to project my consciousness as being sufficiently arty-farty.
Now on to the topic at hand. I guess when talking about my religious beliefs, I can split the narrative into two posts detailing firstly, how I think about God at a broader rational(izing) level and, secondly, how that relates to my day-to-day life. Let me admit now itself that the links there are tenuous and the arguments inconclusive, and it all eventually comes down to belief and force of habit, so if you're hoping for a cogently argued piece on why everybody should go to church on Sunday, you may as well quit reading now. Consdier yourself warned.
When I was in school in Cochin, we used to have a weekly class on the Gita, taught by the Biology teacher who, incidentally, was an Ottamthullal dancer in his spare time (true story, though I'm a little hazy on whether it was Ottamthullal or Kathakali). One of the few things I remember from that class was that, during a discourse about God's existence, he said that the only people who have a complete definition of God are atheists, because only if you have a complete definition can you put it to the test and then say for sure that God does not exist. That's not entirely true, but I think it is a good way to start thinking about how the way we think about God is constrained by the limits of human comprehension.
Consider this: let's say you have a whole bunch of ants sealed up in an ant farm so you can observe them, but they are pretty much oblivious to the existence of the world outside of the farm. Assuming those ants were developed enough to think about these things, how would they think about a god in this case? Being at the top of the food chain within the farm, they'd probably assume that god was very much like themselves. The funny thing is, as the owner of the ant farm, you could pretty much play god with them if you felt like it, but they'd still think of you in ant terms - perhaps as a deity with six legs and magical pincers or something, until you revealed yourself as a human, at which point they probably would not even be able to comprehend your existence in non-ant terms.
Now that's not a great thought experiment, but what I wanted to bring out was that we as humans are far too vested in trying to think of god in strictly human terms, with broadly human motives and human emotions. Remaking god in our own image, as it were. And yet, if god as an entity really exists, it seems to me that he/she/it would be far too complex a being for us to wrap our minds around, far more complex than the idea of a human being would be to an ant. When we do prove that our earlier beliefs are wrong, that only demonstrates our own small-mindedness and ignorance. This doesn't prove that God clearly does nor does not exist, it's just saying that thinking about Him/Her in terms of human logic may not provide a sufficient answer. It then comes down to a question of belief or faith.
However, if god really is so complex, it does make it tougher to assign emotions or motives. We would like to believe he has a soft spot for us, but the ants in our hypothetical ant farm might also believe the same thing about the humans who own the farm. This is one of the things I definitely haven't figured out completely yet - how to engage with this idea of God. After all, if I don't know if there's a plan or what that plan might be, I may as well live my life assuming that there's no plan, or at best, that I'll play just an incidental role in any larger plan.

At this point, things get really murky, so I'm going to stop for now, and in my next post I'll try to cover how I try to engage with my religious beliefs on a day-to-day basis.
Right now I need to go get a haircut.


  1. The atheist's standard "proof" of the non-existence of God is in fact completely independent of motives or trying to get a complete understanding of the "plan", as far as I know. It just examines what we know of science and history and all that for evidence of some sort of supernatural activity and takes absence of evidence as evidence of absence. You can quite plausibly argue that that is not a very sound proof, I suppose.

  2. Reminds of that David Eagleman interview on the Guardian that Yohan was sharing the other day. You know, about knowing enough to know that simplistic 'ant-god' stories can't possibly be true, but acknowleging that we don't know enough to completely discount the possibility of something, how do I put it, 'God' like and beyond our comprehension.

    Now I'm really curious to know, given your position on the 'ant-god', how you reconcile that with attending Mass on Sundays. ;)

  3. I think I'm largely in agreement with you. God might be beyond our imagination. But this makes one wonder: how did anyone think up (or encounter) God in the first place?

    I think I should do a similar post on my blog.

  4. @Han Go ahead, put up a post. It would be interesting to see what we agree or disagree on. Incidentally, one of my other friends, Kanishka, has posted his ideas on this on his blog: Give it a read, people.