The User Interface to Reality
The User Interface to Reality
July 15, 2014
I was raised as a Methodist and I was a believer until the age of eleven. Then I lost faith and became an annoying atheist for decades. In recent years I’ve come to see religion as a valid user interface to reality. The so-called “truth” of the universe is irrelevant because our tiny brains aren’t equipped to understand it anyway.
Our human understanding of reality is like describing an elephant to a space alien by saying an elephant is grey. That is not nearly enough detail. And you have no way to know if the alien perceives color the same way you do. After enduring your inadequate explanation of the elephant, the alien would understand as much about elephants as humans understand about reality.
In the software world, user interfaces keep human perceptions comfortably away from the underlying reality of zeroes and ones that would be incomprehensible to most of us. And the zeroes and ones keep us away from the underlying reality of the chip architecture. And that begs a further question: What the heck is an electron and why does it do what it does? And so on. We use software, but we don’t truly understand it at any deep level. We only know what the software is doing for us at the moment.
Religion is similar to software, and it doesn’t matter which religion you pick. What matters is that the user interface of religious practice “works” in some sense. The same is true if you are a non-believer and your filter on life is science alone. What matters to you is that your worldview works in some consistent fashion.
If you’re deciding how to fight a disease, science is probably the interface that works best. But if you’re trying to feel fulfilled, connected, and important as you navigate life, religion seems to be a perfectly practical interface. But neither science nor religion require an understanding of reality at the detail level. As long as the user interface gives us what we need, all is good.
Some of you non-believers will rush in to say that religion has caused wars and other acts of horror so therefore it is not a good user interface to reality. I would counter that no one has ever objectively measured the good and the bad of religion, and it would be impossible to do so because there is no baseline with which to compare. We only have one history. Would things have gone better with less religion? That is unknowable.
If you think there might have been far fewer wars and atrocities without religion, keep in mind that some of us grow up to be Josef Stalin, Pol Pot, and Genghis Khan. There’s always a reason for a war. If you add up all the people who died in holy wars, it would be a rounding error compared to casualties from wars fought for other reasons.
What I know for sure is that plenty of people around me are reporting that they find comfort and social advantages with religion. And science seems to support a correlation between believing, happiness, and health. Anecdotally, religion seems to be a good interface.
Today when I hear people debate the existence of God, it feels exactly like debating whether the software they are using is hosted on Amazon’s servers or Rackspace. From a practical perspective, it probably doesn’t matter to the user one way or the other. All that matters is that the user interface does what you want and expect.
There are words in nearly every language to describe believers, non-believers, and even the people who can’t decide. But is there a label for people who believe human brains are not equipped to understand reality so all that matters is the consistency and usefulness of our user interface?
Co-founder of CalendarTree.com
Author of this book
P.S. Yesterday was the sixth anniversary of my surgery to fix my voice problem (spasmodic dysphonia). There was some question at the time about whether the surgery would be a permanent fix. So far, my voice has improved each year since the surgery.