Thinking of God

August 22, 2008

The human brain is ideally suited for inventing God.

In his groundbreaking book, On Intelligence, Jeff Hawkings (the creator of the Palm Pilot) explains his very convincing hypothesis on how the human brain works. The problem up until Hawkins was that neuroscientists were concerning themselves with gathering data about the many complexities of the brain (a very important task) but not hypothesizing about what that data means. As we all know, the scientific method happens by hypothesis and falsification. So without the hypothesis, the science of the brain is only half-complete. So a big thank-you to Jeff from the rest of mankind.

Hawkins’ hypothesis is that the basic function of the human brain is “naming patterns.” Hawkins’ model has the brain organized as a tree-shaped hierarchy. At every stage in the brain’s analysis, the neurons of the neocortex receive input from several other neurons (structurally “beneath” it) and react by sending some kind of signal on to the next neuron (structurally “above” it). The processing done by the neuron in question, Hawkins suggests, is essentially the recognizing of learned patterns and passing the name of that pattern up in the hierarchy. This signal then becomes one of several inputs to the neuron next up in the hierarchy and the process happens again.

Let me give up my summary of Hawkins’ hypothesis with a hearty recommendation to read his book! A consequence of this model is compelling for thinking on religious matters: The human brain is ideally suited for inventing the concept of God. But before I explain what I mean, let me just say that if Hawkins’ hypothesis is found valid and my argument here also, it doesn’t necessitate God’s non-existence. This argument could equally be a rationale for how humans beings are intentionally created to find God, and thus without excuse. But I don’t find it as such.

The hierarchical human brain naturally categorizes. A glance around a coffee shop finds more than just one kind of thing (the coffee shop), but several: people, furniture, decorations, food. We can further categorize; pick furniture: tables, chairs, counter. Keep going; Table: legs, top, surface, edges. Etcetera, etcetera. But I still would mention only one thing if I tell you “I’m going to a coffee shop.”

We categorize in the other direction as well, getting to bigger things. A person is part of a family, which is part of a community, which is part of a municipality, which is part of a state, which is part of a country, which is part of the planet, etcetera.

This happens for events as well. “The ball is thrown; strike out; the inning is over; the Brewers lose the game. The Cubs win the world series. They are the national champions.”

This pattern happens very naturally for humans because it is how our brains function. We see patterns everywhere and we give them names. It’s how we create. Christians are prone to follow these created categories of mind in either direction, increasing or decreasing, and find God at each end. An educated Christian might hypothesize God’s action as the causal force behind superstrings, or even as a grand-unified theory of the cosmos—the next hierarchical category in either case. A Christian-on-the-street might cite God’s providence as the unifying category for several “coincidences” this week.

In any example I might give, it’s the basic suggestion of Hawkins that human beings are naturally inclined to take several disparate incidents and categorize them by finding (creating?) a common pattern. So of course, for anyone who tries, God can be found everywhere since he is by definition the ultimate category; and we are, by design, wired to create and name our categories.


POSTSCRIPT: Whether you find this line of thinking as an argument for or against the existence of God will depend upon your starting point. A Christian will see this as an explanation of how God works in the world: “God created mankind to seek and depend on Him; this is how He did it.” A non-Christian will read this as a simpler explanation for natural things observed: “See? We have an account to explain phenomena which doesn’t require God, so we shouldn’t add him in unnecessarily.” It comes down to a matter of which question you’re trying to answer: “How does God work in the world?” or “How God need not work in the world.” Is it any surprise that each side only ever succeeds in convincing people who already agree with them?