On God, evolution and the mind

– Tom De Smedt & Tom Van Iersel (2007)

Tom1: Hi Tom2! It's always so nice to have these conversations. And I believe I do have an interesting point or two we can discuss today. But tell me, how have you been doing?

Tom2: Hi Tom1! I have been doing quite fine thank you! Life has been going about it's pleasant habit of becoming increasingly complex and interesting. Starting a conversation with both ends of the receiver being named Tom is sort of a nice example... it almost feels as if I was talking to myself.

Tom1: (laughs) Yes I know that feeling! In the late seventies Tom was very popular. I know at least seven Toms, so we had to number them to avoid confusion. I wonder if it will come circling back in a decade or two.

Tom2: Perhaps we should adopt some smart and contrasting internet nicknames that reflect our digital idiosyncrasies, that really set us apart from the mass of others.

Tom1: Well personally I am kind of fond of appending an incremental digit to matching names of participants entering the conversation! But let me congratulate you on becoming a future dad. Did you come up with a name already?

Tom2: Well no, and anyway I'm suspicious enough not to tell you if we had come up with a name already. Let's await the current trends for a while and see what everyone else is naming their newborn! We must not go against the current of social dynamics, now must we Tom1? But in the meantime let us engage in thoughtful conversation for a while, you had some things you wanted to share I believe?

Tom1: Well yes I did.

Tom2: (arranges himself into a more comfortable position) Well, let's hear it then, Tom1.

Tom1: You see, I had this funny dream still lingering in my head when I woke up yesterday morning. It was a particularly funny dream because God was in it. My own revelation!

Tom2: I'm listening! You're saying our great God (of whose greatness I am doubtful) had time to spare to appear in your dream? This I want to hear.

Monkey see, monkey do

Tom1: As the dream started out I found myself quite happily awake in a large and sunny house. It was the kind of house you go to on a holiday with a group of friends. It had an odd collection of unmatched furniture, lots of airy rooms with big windows and a garage in which a network of computers was being set up on a collection of wooden tables. All around were old and rusty bikes and motorcycles. Outside an idyllic landscape of grassy hills and groves unfolded. There was also a small river nearby, with a path (that seemed ideal for some cycling) meandering next to it.

Tom2: That seems like a nice place for a vacation.

Tom1: I would like to think so too. But like any other perfectly Good and Wholesome fairytale the dream had a need for a Dark Secret.

Tom2: Why is that?

Tom1: I wouldn't know Tom2! You know how you are sometimes dreaming while realizing that you are dreaming? I try to get control of that dream, to get every aspect right, make things in the dream the way I want things to be. But it never works out that way. The dreams always struggle for a twist of their own. Apparently even when I'm dreaming I can't be the master of my brain.

Tom2: We often imagine ourselves to be in control of everything, do we not? But it just isn't a fair reality considering millions of fellow humans / brains are pondering the same. And there are many other factors in life as well we could perhaps summarise as "chance". But "chance" is just a word as you know, Tom1... anyway let's hear about this dark secret.

Tom1: Yes. Well apparently the groves in the dream sheltered some kind of cruel and unseen monster. Occasionally some of the people staying at the house would go for a ride on a rusty bike along the meandering path near the river, and then they got eaten by the monster. One by one the guests went for a bike ride and got butchered by the monster until I was the only one left. Then it started to rain.

Tom2: That seemed like a good time for some rain and clouds. Then what did you do? Go for a bike ride?

Tom1: I tried but instead got stuck in the kitchen of the house. Now the kitchen seemed to be sinking, the floor was all slanted and covered in a pool of cold water and the only exit (aside from the door I came in but I couldn't go back now) was blocked by an old wooden cupboard. So I was trapped. I looked around for a while in indecision until I noticed the monkeys. There were four or five of them, small, brown and springy, and they were working together in collaboration to open one of the large windows. Once they got it to open, out they clambered, in single file, and then continued to shuffle along the other window edge to a place they could drop down on some garbage cans below. Now as I witnessed this exciting event it occured to me that it was actually a smart thing of the monkeys to do. And as they say: "when in Rome, act like the Romans do". So I did as the monkeys did, adopting their technique, and clambered out the window onto the ledge and dropped down on the garbage cans below. It felt like being a Neanderthal trying to make fire by watching others make fire.

Tom2: That is quite a dramatic turning point.

Santa Claws

Tom1: It gets worse. So then I found myself jumping down on the garbage cans outside and rushing towards the garage to find a bike, only to realise that none of the bikes were mine... so I couldn't take one.

Tom2: But since everyone else was already eaten by the monster the bikes were no longer really theirs.

Tom1: You have a point, but something in the dream refrained me from taking a bike that was not mine. Anyway, something else happened. You remember that effect from the Lord of the Rings movie, where the trees seemed to part and zoom in at the same time? Well it was that exactly. Wind rustled the leaves in the trees and out galumphed – no not the monster – a giant twenty-meter-high Santa Claus! Now Santa Claus is moving very fast and he definitely has an irritated look on his face. He trudges over towards me -thump thump thump - meanwhile bellowing: "OH IT'S YOU! I LIKE YOU. YOU DON'T BELIEVE IN ME DO YOU!" To which I hesitantly respond that now that he's actually here I should perhaps reconsider. Bellows the Santa Claus: "YES, I AM GOD AFTER ALL. YOU SHOULD BELIEVE IN ME." Then he stops to ponder his own words for a while, and angrily adds: "BUT DON'T BELIEVE A WORD OF WHAT I'M SAYING!" Since at this point in the dream I had gotten very confused and really had very little to say, God continues to glare silently and angrily at me for what seems eternity and then finally turns away.

Tom2: I think you would have a hard time forging a new religion out of your "vision". It doesn't seem to offer much comfort or certainty... nor clarity. I don't think anyone would like your Angry Santa religion very much.

Tom1: I see your point Tom2. But I'd like to remark that even if my "vision" doesn't make any sense, a religion does not ask you to question. It only asks for your belief. It might ask us to accept people walking on water, seas parting, water turning into wine, miracles and resurrections, does it not? None of which can be factually proven. That makes me even more uncomfortable. At least this Monster/Santa-God dream is real within the confines of my memory. But you are right that my vision (as you call it) would not be much of a religion. It seems to lack straightforward moral answers to everyday life.

Tom2: It might help you to write everything down in a book. The truth about Santa Claws in clear and simple terms! And then have ages of editing pass over it. So what happens next?

Tom1: Well, next to the house is a hollowed-out ancient forum complete with crumbling pillars and pedestals covered in ivy. The walls of this forum are lined from top to bottom with thousands of books. There are people everywhere in the forum, awaiting the coming of Santa Claws. So in God trudges then - thump thump thump - and with a flourish waves around his arms, shouting: "LOOK! I HAVE COME. AND I AM VERY FICKLE AND ILL-TEMPERED TODAY!" Then he clambers on top of one of the pedestals and sits down. "WHAT HAVE THE CHILDREN BEEN READING?" he demands. Children's stories and fairytales, the people respond. "FOOOOLS!" the enraged God bellows. "HAVE THEM READ PHILOSOPHY FROM NOW ON: SOME KANT PERHAPS." He points his trembling finger towards one of the children. "YOU! SHOW ME WHAT YOU HAVE READING." The child offers God a heavy volume of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. "STUPID MIDGET! YOU ARE FAR TOO YOUNG TO BE READING THAT! READ SOME FAIRYTALES."

Are dreams real?

Tom1: The dream goes on like this for a while, with Santa Claws eventually lapsing into a monologue on duality... Now what do you make of that? Did you know that many people claiming to have had a near death experience saw God appearing as Santa Claus?

Tom2: It appears you are about to ask me if this dream is any proof for the existence of a deity!

Tom1: It certainly is an odd dream isn't it?

Tom2: It certainly is that. But then dreams often are. However, before we can even consider taking a dream as a proof for anything, we must first ask ourselves if a dream is real. What is real? And as an afterthought, what exactly does "many people" (as you say) mean?

Tom1: You sound like a character from The Matrix movie.

Tom2: (smiles) That's actually not a bad metaphor. The Matrix used a lot of Baudrillard's theories on hyperreality as inspiration. We could ask ourselves similarkinds of questions about dreams. There is an old tale about a buttefly that is dreaming that it is a man lying in the grass dreaming he is a butterfly, and so on. Anyway, this is just to point out that "reality" is an old discussion. As for dreams: dreaming by definition is considered as the activity that the brain engages in whilst sleeping.

Tom1: You mean it is as "real" as any other activity in the brain, like thinking or communicating. Only in a different mode or context.

Tom2: I personally prefer not to use the word mode... it almost implies as if the brain was a state machine, or as if there's a kind of hierarchy in brain activity. The options given to us by behavioral psychology to explain why we dream make sense, but I tend to read a little bit more in them. I love to dream!

Why do we sleep?

Tom2: First of all, a dark environment is potentially dangerous from a survivalistic point of view.

Tom1: Night predators awake!

Tom2: Yes. Logically you have – as an animal – statistically less chance of getting injured if you stay in one place. You don't even have to be eaten by a tiger. When it's dark you can't see where you are going. So to sleep and rest (and stay still) is a possible and sound alternative to stumbling around in the dark and falling of a cliff.

Tom1: That sounds like a logical argument. So we hide away and go to sleep to while away the time.

Tom2: Exactly. But you must realise that it is very hard for a brain to stay healthy if it has nothing to do. "Whiling away the time" makes a brain rusty.

Tom1: Like a car you don't drive around everyone now and then.

Tom2: Well there's a nice metaphor again! Like a car you don't drive around, a brain will have difficulties in getting started. If you take it for a drive once in a while it will start up much smoother. But a brain with nothing to do will start harassing you with hallucinations. With nothing to do I mean that none of the senses are stimulated (body temperature, floating, darkness, no sound; this is called sensory deprivation). So when you sleep your brain will try to keep itself occupied. Obviously a brain never stops until it dies. During the day it's awake, during the night it's asleep (although some never tend to be fully awake nor asleep). Both conditions are active functions of our brain. The brain is not turned off during the night. During the day our brain works through the information given to us by our senses, our memory. And during the night it folds upon itself.

Why do we dream?

Tom1: So then dreaming is just our brain keeping itself busy for a while until it's daylight again.

Tom2: Yes and no... the behavioral train of thought completely ignores the content of what we dream about. First of all, the brain doesn't simply grab random things stored in memory. It processes a lot of events that happened recently and starts reorganising itself. Dealing with memories and things that are lingering on. Making weird associations. But from a behavioristic point of view the content of a dream is irrelevant. It's very hard to remember a dream. It tends to slip the moment we wake up. Then we could argue that, since the brain isn't explicitly programmed to remember dreams, it must be that they are irrelevant to our evolutionary chances of survival. Just as being able to see ultraviolet light would not enhance our survival capabilities (it would just cause extra noise in our vision). Remembered dreams would flood our brain with useless information, only clouding its more essential tasks.

Tom1: Like a computer that would remember each action it executed and store it on a file on the hard drive. It would eventually clog with useless data.

Tom2: Something like that, but a brain is not the same as a computer of course. However, to continue with this metaphor: not everything that is not remembered is irrelevant. A computer does not memorise all of its actions for all of eternity, but those actions do have a lasting effect. They might eventually result in a file on the hard drive. I tend to think that dreams must be granted a bit more respect than simply keeping busy. I think it is wrong to claim that that "mode" of our brain is inferior to its daytime occupation. What it does is just as real as what it does during the day. The intensity of emotions can be just as profound as any daytime experience.

Tom1: Sometimes you wake up and you are still madly in love with the girl from your dreams, or you have experienced the painful loss of someone you loved again... or those math-class-nightmares!

Tom2: These are common things everyone dreams about. The emotions when you wake up are real. So why should a dream be any less real because you can't remember it (not always at least)? Or that you cannot keep tangible reminders? If you write a dream down, does it have less value than a story someone else says to have experienced? No. Dreams are an integral part of your mind's unconscious reality. I think they should be valued and thought about and considered as a source of inspiration, maybe even self-reflection. Remember that most activity in our mind happens unconsciously, not consciously. The random, weird and colorful associations that we make when dreaming could be used to make our daytime conscious state more pleasant and richer. In fact, that is exactly what we do when telling fairy-tales or playing games. I believe that this other side of life is just as essential as the "real" side. Otherwise it wouldn't take up such an amount of our time and energy. And it would definitely not be a function exercised by our brain.

Easter bunny

Tom1: So then, does my dream prove the existence of God?

Tom2: Of course not. Why do people tend to call dreams about gods and angels messages or revelations? If I dream about pink dinosaurs, does it mean dinosaurs are pink? Of course not, pink + dinosaur is a random association remember, or something I may have seen in a cartoon on television that day. If I dream about Zeus, Odin or the Easter Bunny, does it mean that those deities are trying to pass me a holy message? Does it offer you even the slightest of slightest of belief in the idea that Zeus and the Easter Bunny are real? No? Then why do people tend to take me serious when I dream about God? I see no difference. It proves no point. If George W. Bush told you he had been commanded in his sleep by the Easter Bunny to invade Iraq, would you take him serious? No? Then why did millions of Americans take him serious when he said God had told him to invade Iraq? [...]

Tom1: Hold on, our train's here, let's get on it first...

Do you like these kind of discussions? Here is some further reading:

  1. The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins (2006)
  2. The Mind's I, Douglas Hofstadter (1981)
  3. Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff & Mark Johnson (1980)