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The Dice Game of Shiva: How Consciousness Creates the Universe

The Dice Game of Shiva: How Consciousness Creates the Universe

by Richard Smoley

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In this fascinating book, Richard Smoley examines the roles God has played for us and reconciles them with what we today know through science and reason. In the process, he shows that consciousness is the underlying reality beneath everything in the universe.

In one of Hinduism’s great myths, Shiva plays a dice game with his consort, Parvati, and loses


In this fascinating book, Richard Smoley examines the roles God has played for us and reconciles them with what we today know through science and reason. In the process, he shows that consciousness is the underlying reality beneath everything in the universe.

In one of Hinduism’s great myths, Shiva plays a dice game with his consort, Parvati, and loses consistently. If he is the greatest god, why does he lose? Through this story, Richard Smoley explores the interplay between consciousness, represented by Shiva, and experience, exemplified by Parvati. He draws on numerous disciplines to offer an illuminating exploration of mind and matter and a provocative understanding of consciousness, the self, and the world.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
While the subtitle could imply grandiose theorizing, Smoley (Forbidden Faith), the former editor of the journal Gnosis and a specialist in esoteric religious thought, has written a commendably modest book. In it, the sacred Vedas of Hinduism meet Western philosophers puzzling out causation, God, the nature of reality and other questions that have given philosophers and theologians of the East and West something to think about for the past few millennia. This history of thought predates contemporary neuroscience and its exciting discoveries about the relationship between brain and mind. It also reaches across the West-East spiritual divide (monotheistic, personal religion versus impersonal, nondual religious thought) to look at patterns, associations and categories that different cultures at different times have used to make sense of the world and the challenges offered by events of the world to human needs for justice and orderliness. This is a serious, almost old-fashioned history of ideas about transcendent and human thought rather than a cheesy come-on about how your thoughts can make you rich, beautiful and successful. (Nov.)

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The Dice Game of Shiva

How Consciousness Creates the Universe

By Richard Smoley

New World Library

Copyright © 2009 Richard Smoley
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-57731-917-7



Languishing in a Nazi jail in June 1944, the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a remarkable letter to his friend Eberhard Bethge. It is a haunting document, not only because Bonhoeffer would never live to flesh out his ideas (he would be hanged by his captors in April 1945), but also because, more than sixty years later, religion has not managed to solve — or frequently even face — the problem he sketched out. He writes, "Man has learnt to deal with himself in all questions of importance without recourse to the 'working hypothesis' called 'God.' In questions of science, art, and ethics this has become an understood thing at which one now hardly dares tilt. But for the last hundred years or so it has also become increasingly true of religious questions; it is becoming evident that everything gets along without 'God.'"

Humanity, Bonhoeffer goes on to say, has come of age. We don't need the idea of God to explain the workings of the universe; we are increasingly able to understand these things without it. Bonhoeffer's remarks echo the famous anecdote about the scientist Pierre-Simon Laplace, who, at the turn of the nineteenth century, published a work containing calculations of planetary motions. Napoléon called him in for an interview. The emperor, who was fond of asking embarrassing questions, said, "Monsieur Laplace, they tell me you have written this large book on the system of the universe, and have never even mentioned its Creator." Laplace replied, "I had no need of that hypothesis." Napoléon, greatly amused, told the story to the mathematician Joseph-Louis Lagrange, who commented, "Ah! It is a beautiful hypothesis; it explains many things."

Two hundred years later, we have, it would seem, still less need of "that hypothesis" than did Laplace. Science has closed up more and more of the causal gaps that divinities once had to fill. Unlike the ancients, we do not have to posit a hand of God that keeps the planets in their courses. Nor do we need a God to explain the origins of the cosmos or, very likely, of life. If there is an intelligence responsible for the universe, it is not the craftsman offered by conventional religion. Can we, then, jettison the idea of God, or, with Lagrange, shall we keep it not for its explanatory force but for its beauty?

Merely posing such a question will look like arrogance to the believer. Who are we to say we can take or leave the supreme ruler of the universe? It is not for us to decide such things; it is blasphemous to contemplate them. In any event, we have other needs for the idea of God. In 1788 Immanuel Kant wrote, "Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me." Even if we have no more need of God to account for the starry heavens, don't we still require his services as the guarantor of the moral law within?

Not necessarily. An article in the British newsmagazine The Economist discusses how human beings differ from chimpanzees in their approach to fairness. Scientists tested this by means of the ultimatum game, in which there are two players, a proposer and a responder. They have to divide a quantity of some good (which could be anything from cash to chocolates). The proposer chooses how much will go to him and how much to the responder. The responder has no choice but to take or leave the offer (hence the name of the game).

One might expect that the responder would accept any offer, no matter how small; after all, even a tiny portion of the good is better than nothing. And in fact that's what chimps do. But humans don't. Human responders have been repeatedly shown to reject any offer smaller than 20 percent — even though it's to their disadvantage to do so. The refusal is presumably intended to punish the proposer for his greed.

In this way chimpanzees turn out to be more rational economic agents than humans, who will walk away from an offer they deem unfair. And yet, The Economist points out, "a number of researchers in the field of human evolution think that a sense of fairness — and a willingness to punish the unfair even at some cost to oneself — is humanity's 'killer app.' It is what allows large social groups to form." Chimps are willing to punish actual thieves, but not perpetrators of unfairness. It seems that "the more sophisticated idea of fair shares, which underpins collaborative behaviour, appeared in the hominid line only after the ancestors of the two species split from one another."

An impressive finding, but also a dismaying one. The moral order within is considerably less magisterial when viewed as a genetic glitch that happens to foster large-scale collective efforts. It's somewhat deflating to see our higher moral impulses as the operation of selfish genes rather than as the law of God imprinted on our hearts.

Of course, as the more exuberant defenders of scientistic humanism emphasize, we don't have to find these discoveries deflating. They are triumphs of the human mind; they mean that we understand the world (at least the visible world) in new and astonishing ways. And in fact we would probably be far more inclined to exult in our advances if they did not point to a grim conclusion: that the universe is blind and mechanical, we are infinitely small and alone in it, and our existence has no meaning.

Most theologians balk and wince when confronted with this possibility. Bonhoeffer does not. He is not afraid to ask the final, most dreadful question: "Even though there has been surrender on all secular problems, there still remain the so-called 'ultimate questions' — death, guilt, to which only 'God' can give an answer, and because of which we need God and the church and the pastor. So we live, in some degree, on these ultimate questions of humanity. But what if one day they no longer exist as such, if they too can be answered 'without God'?" Bonhoeffer showed no more courage, I believe, in resisting the Third Reich (for which he had been imprisoned) than he did in facing this issue.

Of course, it's one thing to pose such questions and quite another thing to answer them, and this Bonhoeffer fails to do. The letter trails off into theological niceties, which were no doubt interesting to his correspondent but seem irrelevant to the subject he has just raised. Another letter, written a month later, takes up the theme again:

We cannot be honest unless we recognize that we have to live in the world etsi deus non daretur [even if God were not given to us]. And this is just what we do recognize — before God! ... The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God. God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us.

This passage combines two of the most distinctive aspects of Christianity through the centuries. On the one hand, for all its sins and enormities, Christianity has on countless occasions shown a relentless moral courage in embracing the suffering of the world: in feeding the poor, caring for the sick, and, like Bonhoeffer himself, opposing injustice. In this way, as Bonhoeffer might say, Christianity "is with us and helps us."

Alongside this formidable moral courage, on the other hand, we find a tremendous intellectual timidity and recalcitrance. It is simply unconvincing to say, "The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually." What does this mean? That we are supposed to believe in God because, in some mysterious and paradoxical way, we do not believe in him? This is a common tactic in Christianity, which has often taken refuge in paradox when it has found itself trapped in logical impossibilities. The most famous example is a remark by the church father Tertullian about the crucifixion of the Son of God: "Prorsus credibile est, quia ineptum est": "It is by all means to be believed because it is absurd." For many centuries this approach worked — largely thanks to the emotional appeal (and political might) of Christianity rather than because of its innate plausibility — but as an answer to today's questions, it is not very helpful. Bonhoeffer, facing the Nazi hangmen, may have found solace in reflecting that God is asking us to live in a world in which we cannot believe in God. This is an impressive feat, but it does not necessarily enable us to take the same comfort.

Someone might object that this attitude is too rationalistic, that it doesn't do adequate justice to the mystery of the universe. Certainly there are genuine mysteries and paradoxes, and ignoring or denying them in some rationalistic fashion is mistaken. But this does not mean that one can evade every dilemma simply by calling it a paradox. Even Zen monks don't attempt to apply their koans outside the monastery.

Christianity consequently has made a habit of evading its own contradictions. Ironically, its great enemy, scientism, has done the same thing. Scientism, as I am using the term, is not science as such — which is a methodology rather than an ideology — but rather a pseudoreligion that has set up science as its god. Like conventional Christianity, scientism has its own baggage to hide and its own screen behind which it tries to stash this baggage. In the case of scientism, the baggage has to do with purpose, intent, and design in the universe. The screen it uses is blind chance and randomness.

Let's look at one of the more recent statements of this perspective, by the philosopher Daniel Dennett. Summarizing his refutation of the argument from design — the idea, first formulated by William Paley in his 1802 book Natural Theology, that the universe is so complex and intricate that it must have had a supremely intelligent designer — Dennett contends:

When we looked through Darwin's eyes at the actual processes of design of which we and all the wonder of nature are the products to date, we found that Paley was right to see these effects as the result of a lot of design work, but we found a non-miraculous account of it: a massively parallel, and prodigiously wasteful, process of mindless, algorithmic design-trying, in which, however, the minimal increments of design have been thriftily husbanded, copied, and re-used over billions of years....

What is left behind is what the process, shuffling through eternity, mindlessly finds (when it finds anything): a timeless The Light That Governs the Universe Platonic possibility of order. That is, indeed, a thing of beauty, as mathematicians are forever exclaiming, but it is not itself something intelligent but, wonder of wonders, something intelligible.

This is a fascinating passage. To say that the universe is not intelligent but intelligible has a certain rhetorical charm but glosses over one rather crucial question: where did the intelligence come from that is able to perceive the universe at all? If it developed out of mindless matter (as materialists argue), we are not told why or how. This was the conundrum I encountered while studying philosophy of mind at Oxford. Things have not changed much in the past thirty years. Even cognitive scientists still confess themselves to be at a loss about this question. In an October 2007 issue of Scientific American, neuroscientists Christof Koch and Susan Greenfield write, "Neuroscientists do not yet understand enough about the brain's inner workings to spell out exactly how consciousness arises from the chemical and electrical activity of neurons."

What consciousness might be is one of the chief themes of this book, and I treat it in some detail. For now let's turn back to the first paragraph of Dennett's quotation, in which he says both that the process of evolution is mindless and that it involves design.

Let's grant Dennett's basic point: the old argument from design, the concept of a clockmaker God who fashioned the universe, is obsolete and unconvincing. This leaves us with an extremely strange dilemma: the concept of a design without a designer, or, if you prefer, an intent without anyone to intend it. And it is true that the idea of design hangs around scientism like a stray mongrel. Here is another passage from Dennett, in which he explains why we find sugar sweet: "Our sweet tooth is not just an accident or a pointless bug in an otherwise excellent system: it was designed to do the work it does, and if we underestimate its resourcefulness, its resistance to perturbation and suppression, our efforts to cope with it are apt to be counterproductive."

Materialist philosophers insist that, when they mention design, it's simply a manner of speaking — a metaphor and nothing else. Another evangelist of scientism, Richard Dawkins, takes this tack in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene:

We must not think of genes as conscious, purposeful agents. Blind natural selection, however, makes them behave rather as if they were purposeful, and it has been convenient, as a shorthand, to refer to genes in the language of purpose. For example, when we say "genes are trying to increase their numbers in future gene pools," what we really mean is "those genes which behave in such a way as to increase their numbers in future gene pools tend to be the genes whose effects we see in the world." ... The idea of purpose is only a metaphor, but we have already seen what a fruitful metaphor it is in the case of genes. We have even used words like "selfish" and "ruthless" of genes, knowing full well that it is only a figure of speech.

Of course it's legitimate to use figures of speech, and they are bound to resemble what they model only to an imperfect degree. But what kind of theory is it that constantly uses certain metaphors as integral parts of its explanation while at the same time denying those same metaphors? Even to speak of "behav[ing] in such a way as to increase their numbers" implies some purpose and intent, in the behavior if nothing else. In most of his book, Dawkins goes much further. The British philosopher Mary Midgley chides him for his "habitual rhetoric in elevating the gene from its real position as a humble bit of goo within cells to a malign and powerful agent."

Even if we can and must remove the clockmaker God from our explanations of the universe, it is not so easy to take away intelligence or design. The apostles of scientism insist over and over again that the forces of nature — natural selection, genes, "algorithmic design-trying," and so on — are mindless, but they can't even speak coherently about these things without using the concept of mind in some form.

It's said that, to a man who has only a hammer, everything looks like a nail. By the same token, to a philosopher armed only with Occam's razor, every proposition looks like something to cut. Standard evolutionary theory wants to trim away the supposedly unnecessary hypothesis of intelligence in the origin of species, but it is then left holding only, in Dennett's words, "a massively parallel, and prodigiously wasteful, process of mindless, algorithmic design-trying" to explain everything. This move may not be as simple and elegant as it might first appear. After all, cases commonly cited as proofs of the evolution of species by natural selection often don't involve the development of new species at all. Consider the celebrated case of the peppered moth in the industrial Midlands of nineteenth-century England. Before the Industrial Revolution, these moths were light gray with dark gray speckles, a color that served as camouflage when the moths rested on the bark of trees. After industrial pollution turned many of these trunks black, the peppered moth adapted by changing color: most of the moths were now dark gray with light gray speckles. No less an authority than the BBC website hands down the word from Cambridge professor Mike Majerus: "The rise and fall of the peppered moth ... provides the proof of evolution." Does it? It does prove adaptation by natural selection, but it doesn't prove that such adaptation produces new species; after all, both light- and dark-gray moths remain part of the same species, Biston betularia. So much for the elegance and economy of evolutionary theory. As Mary Midgley writes, "False economy is very common among people who rely too readily on it. As we are seeing, extravagance is not eliminated merely by becoming anti-religious, and thoughts which are designed to be sternly reductive often compensate by strange, illicit expansions elsewhere. In fact when we encounter a specially harsh reduction, officially launched in the name of parsimony, our first question should be: 'and what are these savings being used to pay for?'"


Excerpted from The Dice Game of Shiva by Richard Smoley. Copyright © 2009 Richard Smoley. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Richard Smoley is one of the world’s leading authorities on mystical philosophy. A graduate of Harvard and Oxford, Richard served for eight years as editor of Gnosis: A Journal of the Western Inner Traditions. Currently he is executive editor of The Quest, the members’ journal for the Theosophical Society in America.

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