Wednesday, April 8, 2009

An animate God

I have been reading Sherry Turkle's wonderful book 'The Second Self' lately. She talks about how computers are challenging and changing the very notion of what it means to be human and how children, teenagers and adults relate to computers in different ways.

The section on how children interact and relate with computers in particular, and with the world in general, is quite fascinating. She compares children to philosophers -- young philosophers -- hypothesizing about and categorizing the world into shifting and changing categories. She terms computers as 'evocative objects' -- objects which are neither living nor non-living but which sit tenuously at the boundary of being alive and not-alive in the minds of young children. I heartily recommend the book if the above introduction piqued your interest. However, in this post I want to discuss some thoughts I had which are only tangentially related to the book but which were triggered by the material in the book.

She claims that one of the first categories that the children divide the world into is between living and non-living things. This categorization also makes evolutionary sense because anything that is living is potentially hostile and thus demands more attention. As is to be expected, children treat nearly everything as animate and alive in the beginning -- to paraphrase her, in a child's mind, a rock falls down a slope not because of gravity but because the rock "wants to get to the bottom". On a personal note, I was surprised to see my 3 year old cousin terrified of the water when I went to the beach with him and his family last year. One possible explanation might be that he considered the water to be alive and having a will of its own, wanting to suck him into itself, thus causing the fear I saw in his eyes. His behavior seemed to suggest that this was the case.

Now I want to relate this primal instinct to classify things into living and non-living things with the preference for an animate as opposed to an inanimate God.

We humans have a tendency to construct objects out of everything we think about. In fact, the very act of thinking about something requires that something to be perceived and objectified. We need to give the totality of all that we experience a name if we are think about it as well; and God seems to be the name most people give to that -- this perhaps explains why the notion of God being everywhere is common to nearly all religions. Now, God is not the only contender for this coveted spot. The physical laws can potentially also describe the totality of all there is, and some vague notion of a 'universal force' might satisfy some people too. Such laws and forces have a cold and calculating nature however. People don't associate the same warmth and love with laws and forces as they associate with an animate God. Perhaps, maybe, our unconscious evolutionary bias towards understanding the world in terms of living animate things -- most of which we learn to 'de-animate' as we grow older -- might have something to do with our preference for an animate God.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting. Perhaps it is a combination of a tendency to believe in supernatural and to anthropomorphosize.