God and Life

Now that I have finished Peter bloody Conrad I can return to Oliver Morton’s Eating the Sun, and I was struck yesterday by the difficulty, at the margins, of defining life. This is not just a matter of molecules being lifeless, even when they complicated and themselves essential to living things. It applies at the other end of the scale, to: is a planet alive, as Gaia would have us believe? In other worlds, one of the necessary characteristics of life is that it involves a whole lot of non-living things.

And it seems to me that there are similar difficulties with religion. It is an arrangement of things not themselves intrinsically or necessarily religious. Unless you define it to mean all forms of social organisation, as functionalists easily end up doing, anything classifiable as a religion is going to use lots of irrelegious fragments of social organisation; and they, in turn, are going to have qualities which might be pressed into service by a church.

Note that this distinguishes quite clearly between religion and superstition, since I am using “superstition” to mean a tendency to people the world with spirits, or just generally to think illogically which is an individual, not a collective phenomenon. A hallucination is individual; an apparition is collective.

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8 Responses to God and Life

  1. Monsignor Quixote says:

    I thought the regulatory aspects of Gaia were organic since, by their very nature, inorganic elements of the planet cannot respond to a change in conditions. A response to changing conditions is necessary to maintain some form of life, which rocks have no need to do.
    here is nothing which is intrinsically religious. Religion is narrative (sacred text) and theatre (ritual) designed, but their being read and rehearsed to orient participants to live a view of the world which they believe to be one which goes with the grain of the universe as they understand it.
    But I’m just a simple country vicar, whadoo I know?>

  2. H. E. Baber says:

    Religion is: (1) belief in some supernatural being(s) or states; (2) cult; (3) belief that there’s a causal connection between the cult and the supernatural.

    This captures the central cases, e.g. Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and explains why the borderline cases are borderline. Marxism fails (1); Neoplatonism fails (2). The idea that religion essentially involves “social organization,” or as some suggest, ethical commitments is revisionary and covertly normative–like doctrinaire claims about what REAL art is or isn’t. Greek religion didn’t involve any serious ethical commitment or social organization–in the way that, e.g. Islam does. But surely it was paradigmatically religions: (1) supernatural beings (and lots of them); (2) cult: temples, sacrifices, graven images galore, liturgical year, etc; (3) belief that sacrifices propitiate the gods. This is the heritage of Mediterranean Folk Catholicism.

    The difference between religion and superstition (and there’s no bright line here) is that superstitious belief in supernatural agency isn’t associated with a cult involving all the organizational machinery, temples, services, statues, etc. Again, there are central and borderline cases and what makes them so is how closely “associated” the beliefs and the extent to which the practices can be counted as cultic. Practices that were superstitious become religious when they get folded into a cultic organization.

    So, any counterexamples? Remember this is conceptual analysis–not some pious normative account of what religion should be.

  3. acb says:

    argh! it’s 9.15 pm and I have just finished an exciting overdue article on computers. I will reply to this tomorrow.

  4. acb says:

    Harriet: I don’t see how you can have “cult” without social organisation. Obviously we’re defining that slightly differently, but I meant by “social organisation” co-ordinated action. That’s what cult is. You can’t have a cult of one. Apart from that, I think I agree — except when I think about football. What do football supporters think they are doing? Communing with something supernatural, and thus lending strength to their team, would seem to be the obvious answer. But I suppose you would say it still fails (1) since they have no clear idea of what is the supernatural being corresponding to Liverpool Football Club.

    But, really, I am not trying to be piously normative.

    Monsignor: I think you’re confusing “organic” meaning alive(-ish) with “organic” meaning that it contains carbon. There is lots of organic chemisty in Gaia — one way or another, it all comes down to Carbon Dioxide — but much of it involves dead things. The whole point of the idea is that there are cycles of behaviour involving both live and dead things which tend to produce a single homeostatic whole, which may itself, in some sense be alive. You can’t look at any of the bits of my cells and say that they are alive. They are just chemicals. Yet when they are rightly arranged, these dead things become part of an alive thing, though not themselves ever alive. Thus the miracle of molecular biology (and, incidentally, an example of scientific progress arising from atheism: it was Crick’s atheism which drove him to the boundary of living and non-living things, because he wanted to show there was nothing supernatural about life).

  5. Rupert says:

    I’m not at all sure the Gaia hypothesis is useful, beyond saying that all (pace those weirdos metabolising the mantle) living things live in an interdependent dynamic system. Which is a good way to think, being true and informative, but does it confer any special status on the system? You could say that London was alive, with perhaps greater accuracy, as it mimics a living animal far closer than does the Earth.

    I suspect that ‘life’ isn’t capable of a touchstone definition, though. It could be a purely religious concept.

  6. Andrew says:

    Rupert: the point about Gaia is that it’s supposed to be self-regulating, not just interdependent. More carbon dioxide in the air, increased abundance of those organisms (chiefly microorganisms) which consume carbon dioxide, carbon dioxide returns to the “right” level, and the ratio of CO2-producing and CO2-consuming organisms goes back to maintain a balance as the consumers flourish less well in the lower levels of the gas. Negative feedback loops making the planet safe for life, in much the same way that (I assume, having done geochemistry rather than biochemistry) if your body contains too much glucose, that stimulates the pancreas to produce more insulin and return the glucose to a safe level. Lovelock’s book struck me as an undergraduate as being entirely reasonable, and some of his followers as people who probably weren’t capable of understanding it (I’m not sure Mary Midgley does, for example – there’s a tendency in a lot of pro-Gaia writing to anthropomorphise Gaia in exactly the way she complained Dawkins anthropomorphised genes, assuming that a blind process has a “will” or a “purpose”).

  7. Rupert says:

    ISurely interdependence implies a degree of self-regulation? The classic example would be the rabbit and fox population computer simulation; if you whack one side side way out of kilter, then it soon settles down to its previous steady state (or mutual extinction). But the same sort of dynamics apply to systems that have no live components – valleys of stability between the mighty mountain ranges of improbability.

    Perhaps it is the tendency of Gaia fans to push the Woo button that makes me a bit chary about it. Naming the hypothesis after an earth goddess does run that risk!

  8. Andrew says:

    The point about Gaia is that it’s planetary self-regulation, and it’s keeping the planet in an “unnatural” state. If it wasn’t for plankton (to put it crudely), the temperature of the planet and the balance of gases wouldn’t be suitable for any life at all, which is why Lovelock viewed the planet as an organism. It has some similarity to foxes and rabbits keeping numbers within limits (though my understanding of predator/prey cycles is that you have cycles of boom and bust rather than the maintenance of a steady state – as if you set your oven to 200C and it cycled from 100C to 300C with a 200C average, which would not be good news if you were trying to cook something). However, the rabbits and foxes aren’t affecting the global environment in the way microorganisms do.

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