Category: Religion

Humbly Evolving in a Non-Simulated Universe

darwin-changeThe New York Times seems to be catching up to me, first with an interview of Alvin Plantinga by Gary Cutting in The Stone on February 9th, and then with notes on Bostrom’s Simulation Hypothesis in the Sunday Times.

I didn’t see anything new in the Plantinga interview, but reviewed my previous argument that adaptive fidelity combined with adaptive plasticity must raise the probability of rationality at a rate that is much greater than the contributions that would be “deceptive” or even mildly cognitively or perceptually biased. Worth reading is Branden Fitelsen and Eliot Sober’s very detailed analysis of Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (EAAN), here. Most interesting are the beginning paragraphs of Section 3, which I reproduce here because it is a critical addition that should surprise no one but often does:

Although Plantinga’s arguments don’t work, he has raised a question that needs to be answered by people who believe evolutionary theory and who also believe that this theory says that our cognitive abilities are in various ways imperfect. Evolutionary theory does say that a device that is reliable in the environment in which it evolved may be highly unreliable when used in a novel environment. It is perfectly possible that our mental machinery should work well on simple perceptual tasks, but be much less reliable when applied to theoretical matters. We hasten to add that this is possible, not inevitable. It may be that the cognitive procedures that work well in one domain also work well in another; Modus Ponens may be useful for avoiding tigers and for doing quantum physics.

Anyhow, if evolutionary theory does say that our ability to theorize about the world is apt to be rather unreliable, how are evolutionists to apply this point to their own theoretical beliefs, including their belief in evolution? One lesson that should be extracted is a certain humility—an admission of fallibility. This will not be news to evolutionists who have absorbed the fact that science in general is a fallible enterprise. Evolutionary theory just provides an important part of the explanation of why our reasoning about theoretical matters is fallible.

Far from showing that evolutionary theory is self-defeating, this consideration should lead those who believe the theory to admit that the best they can do in theorizing is to do the best they can. We are stuck with the cognitive equipment that we have. We should try to be as scrupulous and circumspect about how we use this equipment as we can. When we claim that evolutionary theory is a very well confirmed theory, we are judging this theory by using the fallible cognitive resources we have at our disposal. We can do no other.

And such humility helps to dismiss arguments about the arrogance of science and scientism.

On the topic of Bostrom’s Simulation Hypothesis, I remain skeptical that we live in a simulated universe.

Teleology, Chapter 6

Teleology CoverartThrough that winter, as I recall, Harry became even more involved with the church. I kept my mouth shut about his choices. Mom, sensing that I might be feeling left out, pushed me to get involved in a mentoring program for gifted students after I opened up with my theories about evolutionary simulation and meaning.

My first meeting with my assigned mentor went pretty well, though he intimidated me by not responding immediately to most of what I described. Dr. Korporlik was Serbo-Croatian by ethnicity and had worked for years as a computer scientist and mathematician at the nearby Department of Energy laboratory, Los Alamos, after coming to the US via German laboratories. He was now at a local think tank—the Rio Grande Group—that specialized in studying complex systems. I knew next to nothing about RGG when my school counselor set up my appointment to meet Korporlik. On a crisp November night, Mom drove me to their office building near the downtown plaza. She planned on doing some grocery shopping and left me with instructions to call her if I finished before the allocated hour was up.

Korporlik introduced himself and said he worked on problems in computer science mostly, but that those problems had parallels in biology, and asked what I thought about school.

“It’s OK,” I said.

“Good grades, I think?” he responded.

“Yeah, I get pretty much all As unless I get too bored and then I sometimes get lazy,” I said.

“Yes, it is a common problem. The schools here could be more challenging, yes?” He said rapidly. His accent was fairly thick with chirpy Germanic overtones.

“I guess so. I don’t mind it being easy, I guess. Less homework means more time for other things,” I responded.

“Alright,” he said, “I will give you some other things to think about.” He handed me a book from his bookshelf and waved his hand dismissively in the air. “Come back next week and we will discuss it.”

The book had a soft cover with some diagrams and seemed cheap. “Ilya Prigogine,” I mouthed and he nodded and turned towards the whiteboard behind him.

I left and walked a block towards the plaza glancing at the introduction. Korporlik had not impressed me. He was too distracted and uninterested in talking about ideas. I wasn’t sure if it was because I had been uninteresting in my comments or whether he was just so inwardly focused that everyone only commanded a few moments of his attention. I would read the book but somehow doubted that discussions with him about it would result in new insights insofar as he stayed a dour Eastern European enigma.

The back of the book and the preface were already grabbing my attention, though. Self-organizing chemical systems that could become more complex over time, seemingly defying the idea that entropy breaks things down in an inevitable process. Why had he given me a book about chemistry when he was a computer scientist? Yet the parallels with my conceptual problems with evolution seemed obvious. If chemical systems could self-organize and become more complex, they were moving towards the kinds of replication that was essential for variation and selection—the key components of evolution.

Mom was clearly irritated when she finally located me after rounds of text messaging. The evening was turning frosty as she pulled through the plaza, the warm glow of candelarias already shining from the rooftops of galleries and restaurants. The other kids had dispersed early because of the chill, leaving me perched alone on a bench seatback, the cold of the formed cement beginning to penetrate my light jacket as I projected misty funnels of breath against the sharp moonlight.

At home, I found Harry reading in the den and was surprised to see it was a copy of a Bible that Dad had gotten from my uncle and left untouched on a bookshelf. He had been an advocate, like Mom, of the idea that no books should be excluded from our consideration, yet seeing Harry pouring over it was a violation of the principle because I wasn’t convinced he had the proper detachment to understand the book in context at this point.

“You’re reading the Bible?” I asked with a tone of amused derision.

“Sure,” he responded, “Sarah thinks I need to read it.”

“Uh-huh, Sarah. So you don’t want to read it?”

“Naw, that’s the wrong impression. You’re too cynical. She mentioned it and I am reading it. Have you read it?” he asked.

“Well, some of the Old Testament and chunks of the New,” I responded, confident that there was nothing new he could spring on me.

“Right, chunks,” he smiled at me, though it was an accurate description of my interaction with the book. I had read Genesis closely, but got lost in all the “who begat whom” language, ultimately skipping through to Exodus.

“Really, I did chunks. I was at the Rio Grande Group HQ down by the plaza tonight. I had a really interesting meeting with my contact, there,” I exaggerated. “We discussed how entropy can actually create complex systems.”

“Entropy? Isn’t that randomness?” He asked.

“Not exactly, but it is the reduction in order that is in the universe as a whole. Things fall apart,” I said, suspecting he would not get the reference. We had been growing apart over the past several years, but things had really accelerated in the last year or so, and I was beginning to feel like I was capable of manipulating him at a certain level.

“So how can a reduction in order create anything?” he asked.

“The key is that entropy only increases for closed systems without energy inputs. The universe as a whole is an example, but for the Earth it doesn’t apply. The sun is constantly supplying energy.”

“I don’t buy it. Watches don’t self-assemble, regardless of the energy. You are trying to justify evolution and it just seems ridiculous to me,” he proclaimed.

“Ridiculous?” I was on my heels. I was impressed with Prigogine as a technical solution to the problem of entropy and the possibility of life. The idea that it was a contentious issue had caught me by surprise, and the idea that it related to his newfound interest in religion was equally unexpected.

“Look, why do you want to fight me all the time?” he suddenly yelled. I was guilty of concern and even cynicism about his recent religious affiliations, but tracing a direct path between reporting the evening’s events and his religious interests was off base.

“What’s your problem?” I yelled back. Realization suddenly struck me and I tried to cool down a bit. Harry was standing. His shoulders were tensed and his face twisted up in rage. “This is just stuff I’m studying, man. Your religion stuff is your business.”

“No way. You’re always talking it down. You’re jealous because of my friends and the fun we are having.”

I tried to be as composed as I could, “No, not really, Harry. I don’t care about fantastical nonsense.” My composure brought with it a desire to challenge him and I knew that the more composed I was the angrier he might become. Did his volatility parallel his emotional commitment to religion itself? There was no reason why he should react with such intensity unless he felt challenged or that his faith was being shaken. I had no faith, however, just ideas that were at work explaining the world. If there were sound reasons to doubt them, I could release them and move on to other options. But that wasn’t the way religion worked. Either you were committed to unreason or you were unreasonably defending it.

His face contorted and his lips rolled back, “Sarah is right. You are being influenced by the Devil,” he yelled at me.

I was caught off-guard by that and my forced composure slipped as my mind raced. “Are you serious?” I asked as the smug expression eased into confusion.

“Yeah, you are the Master of Lies, needling me about evolution and entropy and things like that. You need to read the Bible and drop that pseudo-intellectual crap. Join the human race.”

It made no sense whatsoever. He made no sense, but his rage was evident as he pushed me suddenly and forcefully in the chest. The room jerked and receded as I flew back over the end table, knocking the lamp to the floor beneath me as I slammed into the armoire and dropped to the tile floor. Pain emanated from the back of my head. I heard Mom’s voice.

“What? Harry, what did you do?” she yelled.

“He’s pushing me Mom. He thinks he’s so smart but he’s just trying to trick us all,” he yelled back.

Then I was in Mom’s arms and she looked me over. There was blood running down from the back of my head. It was warm and sticky.

“I didn’t do anything, ” I quietly told her as she asked me if I was hurt anywhere else. Harry was gone. I heard the kitchen door slam and Mom brought an ice pack. She asked me to tell her what happened and I did the best I could.

“You pushed him some, though, didn’t you?” she asked.

“Not enough for his reaction. I called religion ‘fantastical nonsense’, I think, but that’s about it,” I told her.

“You need to find a way to get along, you know? He’s really interested in, well, what he’s interested in, and you have your interests. You just need to coexist in peace, find some harmony between you or at least keep your distance,” she said.

I could feel a headache emerging and beginning to wrap its way around my skull. “I was really just telling him about my stuff with RGG, Mom, and he got really defensive.” I could tell that she didn’t fully believe me from her expression, but she was compelled to help me nonetheless.

Many years later I would recall this conflict as the first of many. The pair bond of twins had entwined everything until recently. What bothered him bothered me. What concerned him equally concerned me. Then it changed and we diverged as if we were not brothers at all, but complete strangers. Or so it seemed in retrospect, though a rational analysis would have traced the separation back over the last several years. Yet it hurt and I wanted to run to Harry and try to reconcile, to fix the divisions between us and make things the way they once were. And, still, I was angry with him over his irrationality—his fantastical nonsense—and that he was unable to control his emotions and look clearly and calmly at the issues we were trying to discuss.

“I feel like he doesn’t think anymore,” I told Mom, “he just reacts.”

“That’s standard teenage stuff, you know?” she smiled at me as she held the icepack against my head. “You do realize that you are the exception in that regard?”

I was nonplussed. “Thinking is the exception?” I asked.

“Somewhat. Most people and certainly most teenagers don’t think very clearly. It’s enough for them to sort out why they feel the way they do. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, you know. Feeling is very human.”

“Thinking is what we should do about facts and ideas. Feeling is for feelings,” I responded, but suddenly felt a certain longing. Mom was distinguishing emotion and logic in a way that celebrated emotion itself as valuable. It was a concept that worried me. If we felt about economics or business, if we felt about science, or if we felt about something as mundane as public safety, our lives would be diminished. Theories would not be envisioned, policies would not be enacted and crosswalks would not be created. It was not that I didn’t feel things—indeed, I felt I was far too often driven by feelings—but I wanted to govern those feelings enough that I could actively distinguish between situations where feeling was appropriate and where reason should hold the upper hand. Yet, how was it possible to make that distinction? If every thought, feeling and idea becomes subject to reason and consideration, doesn’t that eradicate the spontaneity and impulsive character of emotional response itself?

Mom looked at me with seriousness. “We need both. They have to balance in some way. Look at art or music. They channel emotion through mechanisms of expression that can be rationally characterized in a way, but the final product is still uniquely…” She winced, searching for the right phrase, “…determined by the emotional drive to produce that art.”

I circled back to the logic of natural history. If the formation of the brain was ultimately dictated by the evolutionary circumstances in which it was formed, what determined the creation of novelty like art and poetry? I couldn’t connect Mom’s balancing act of emotion and reason to Harry’s religious interests—at least not the way she had characterized it. If emotion was a wildfire that randomized everything, it hardly seemed connected to the orderly and non-evolved world that Harry envisioned where God determined everything.

A better model might have been that Satan introduced randomness into the mind of the artist or musician to better allow them to transcend existing modes of expression with the ultimate consequence being new artworks. This played into the notion that good and evil had to be intertwined for the world to work, though, something that Christians were opposed to, yet something that fit well with any attempt at explaining the horrible events that befall people all on God’s watch, much less the existence of Shakespearean sonnets or the brilliant excesses of Abstract Expressionism.

Harry wanted to belong and wanted to not have to think about why he was belonging. It was enough to belong and be among accepting friends who were not troubled by these complexities, I thought. But I was already onto something new, I realized. Evolutionary forces made us complex creatures who were superior in a way to other creatures by dint of our tools and language. We could even transmit ideas through generations using books and recorded information. We seek knowledge and thrive on ideas. But that creativity must be hard to evolve. Much harder than something like better night vision that has immediate consequences to survival. Instead, creativity often results in failure and requires some kind of randomization, a breaking down and rethinking of how things work and how the universe is conceived.

“Sometimes, I guess,” I responded, relieving the sharp sting of the ice pack by raising it a bit and repositioning. “But I can’t conceive of how emotion actually drives people to produce art.” I thought of the galleries and the Indian pottery downtown. “The potters do it because it is functional and decorate the pots based on traditional patterns. Painters aren’t really driven to paint or their heads might explode, are they?”

She smiled, gently. “True. It’s a more subtle emotional commitment, I guess, not like love or hate or sorrow or any of the terms we use for emotion. The same is true I think about Harry’s interest in religion. Pious people operate on a kind of internal joy that justifies their choices concerning how to think or not think about some subjects,” she emphasized the “not” with a conspiratorial lowering of her voice.

“They avoid thinking about them,” I said flatly.

“Sure, but they also sometimes see them as threats when they do come up. Avoiding conflict in order to remain happy works for physical threats, why not for threats to your mental model?” She paused. Her eyes traced along the bookshelf over the English tea chest with the silver filigree inlays and settled on a Mudhead Kachina. “That’s why Harry is so passionate about what you say. You can think of it as him caring about your opinion of him, in a way. If he didn’t care, he wouldn’t be so passionate.”

My head healed the way kid’s heads do, but I avoided Harry for the rest of the week. The nights were getting colder now. The evening air smelled of piñon fires. I returned to RGG for my meeting the next week. Koporlik was warmer, it seemed, perhaps because I had made the effort to return and brought the book with me.

“How was it?” he asked.

“Very interesting. I didn’t fully understand the chemistry and physics in it, though,” I responded.

“No, of course not. What are your takeaways?”

“Systems can self-organize at several different levels as a consequence of entropy, which is essentially the experience of time due to change in physical systems.”

“Very good. I am actually not a chemist, as you know, but my work also involves self-organizing systems. Here at RGG we are studying very simple rules systems that can self-organize in different ways. Let me show you.” He walked to the whiteboard and drew a line of squares near the top. “Imagine that we are playing a game with these squares. The rules are very simple. Call this the initial configuration.” He blackened the most central of the squares. “Now, let’s say that if a square is black, it will remain black in the next step. Also, if it is black, its neighbor will turn black in the next step.” He drew another row of squares and blackened the central three squares. “Now, what does the next step look like?”

It seemed so simple that I was concerned there was a catch and froze for a moment. I didn’t want to make a mistake so I double-checked my own thinking. “Five black in the center?” I finally said.

“Precisely. This is a cellular automaton. Cellular because it operates on squares or cells and automaton because it is an automatic device.”

Did he really study such trivial games, I wondered? He seemed serious and I couldn’t imagine what kind of joke he might be trying to play on me if it was a joke.

“Come around here,” he invited me to his desk dominated by a flat-screen monitor. An application was running that showed complex and detailed patterns flowing from the top of the interface to the bottom. “This is a cellular automaton with just slightly different rules,” he waved his hand in front of the pyramidal shape riven by elaborate chains of smaller triangles. A few mouse strokes later and a new pattern began to form, starting from a single dark pixel at the top of the screen, elongating downwards, line by line, forming into detailed silver embroidery wrapping into itself. “And this one,” he smiled.

“They’re very pretty,” I said, “They’re producing complexity out of very simple rules, like Prigogine’s chemical systems?”

“Right. That’s right. And there is even work dating back to the 50s and 60s that shows that cellular automata—CAs for short—can be designed that are capable of reproduction.” He was grinning now as he watched my reaction.


“Yes, they can assemble a copy of themselves, though such a CA operates in two dimensions rather than just one dimension in terms of the interaction rules.” He switched the view on the application and showed elaborate patterns forming and dissipating, racing along in different directions. “Here, this is called a shuttle,” he said pointing at a small triangle zipping through empty space.

Waiting for my ride that evening I was overwhelmed with the possibilities of what Korporlik had shown me: abstract mathematical machines that could reproduce themselves; self-sustaining gardens of pixels that were filled with modulating, pulsing forms all powered by a rules system of enormous simplicity. The problem of how complexity could emerge and begin to evolve had suddenly become tantalizingly solvable. I tried to imagine what self-reproducing versions looked like. Korporlik had said two hundred thousand cells were involved in some versions. How could such a thing have been conceived? It was inevitable, I realized, that given an infinite or even large-enough collection of random patterns self-reproducing automata would emerge. Then, with variation and selection, anything was possible.

The need for a computer to execute the automata concerned me, though, because it again introduced a higher power of sorts that enforced the rules system and changed the cell states. It was a simulation, I knew, and only a simulation. The rules system certainly had no sense of godlike powers in the way we talk about such ideas, but within the context of the CA engine there was a sense of control being exercised by the computational machine. I supposed that merely the structure of rules themselves as part of the operational environment did not really rise to the level of control in a strong sense. After all, in the wider universe, physical law imposed limits on self-organization but only, as Prigogine had suggested, in that it created an entropic environment where that organization was possible. Physical law was executing the program of physical action that allowed the emergence of life, but was not the controller of it in a way paralleling the notion of God.

I was satisfied with that solution—at least temporarily—and remained excited for weeks. As the discussions with Korporlik unfolded, I felt a greater purpose than I ever had through an increasing understanding of the most complex questions I could imagine. I still found myself mildly jealous of Harry and his happy world of teen interactions, but that jealousy was tempered by a buoyant calm that was resistant to everyday events. Reading and daydreaming became my main focus. I imagined chemical circuits pulsing like the arabesque needlework of the running automata, splitting and reproducing in cyclical elaborations of fractal triangles. I imagined shuttles running like primordial chemical messengers within the confines of the protective membranes of shimmering cells created by tiny chemical loops. Then, eventually, there was self-awareness, though it was too far removed from reproduction and self-organization for me to find a visual connection between them.

Towards an Epistemology of Uncertainty (the “I Don’t Know” club)

space-timeToday there was an acute overlay of reinforcing ideas when I encountered Sylvia McLain’s piece in Occam’s Corner on The Guardian drawing out Niall Ferguson for deriving Keynesianism from Keynes’ gayness. And just when I was digesting Lee Smolin’s new book, Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe.

The intersection was a tutorial in the limits of expansive scientism and in the conclusions that led to unexpected outcomes. We get to euthanasia and forced sterilization down that path–or just a perception of senility when it comes to Ferguson. The fix to this kind of programme is fairly simple: doubt. I doubt that there is any coherent model that connects sexual orientation to economic theory. I doubt that selective breeding and euthanasia can do anything more than lead to inbreeding depression. Or, for Smolin, I doubt that the scientific conclusions that we have reached so far are the end of the road.

That wasn’t too hard, was it?

The I Don’t Know club is pretty easy to join. All one needs is intellectual honesty and earnesty.

The Churches of Evil

The New York Times continues to mine the dark territory between religious belief and atheism in a series of articles in the opinion section, with the most recent being Gary Cutting’s thoughtful meditation on agnosticism, ways of knowing, and the contributions of religion to individual lives and society. In response, Penn Jillette and others discuss atheism as a religion-like venture.

We can dissect Cutting’s argument while still being generous to his overall thrust. It is certainly true that aside from the specific knowledge claims of religious people that there are traditions of practice that result in positive outcomes for religious folk. But when we drill into the knowledge dimension, Cutting props up Alvin Plantinga and Richard Swinburne as representing “the role of evidence and argument” in advanced religious argument. He might have been better to restrict the statement to “argument” in this case, because both philosophers focus primarily on argument in their philosophical works. So evidence remains elusively private in the eyes of the believer.

Interestingly, many of the arguments of both are simply arguments against a counter-assumption that anticipates a secular universe. For instance, Plantinga shows that the Logical Problem of Evil is not incoherent, resulting in a conclusion that evil (neglect “natural evil” for the moment) is not logically incompatible with omnibenevolence, omnipotence, and omniscience. But, and here we get back to Cutting, it does nothing to persuade us that the rapacious cruelty of Yahweh much less the moral evil expressed in the new concept of Hell in the New Testament are anything more than logically possible. The human dimension and the appropriate moral outrage are unabated and we loop back to the generosity of Cutting towards the religious: shouldn’t we provide equal generosity to the scriptural problem of evil as expressed in everything from the Hebrew Bible through to the Book of Mormon? That is, after all, where everyday believers pick the cherries of their arguments?

Of course, such realizations are not an argument for atheism per se, for why concern oneself with such barbarism if it is all simple hooey? Instead, it is the moral character of such deities that is put in question by the scriptural analysis of evil. The religious should actively discourage reference and reverence to the works that define them. Cutting hints at this in his extended critique:

There are serious moral objections to aspects of some religions.  But many believers rightly judge that their religion has great moral value for them, that it gives them access to a rich and fulfilling life of love.  What is not justified is an exclusivist or infallibilist reading of this belief, implying that the life of a given religion is the only or the best way toward moral fulfillment for everyone, or that there is no room for criticism of the religion’s moral stances.

I would argue that the first statement takes precedence over issues of exclusivity and infallibility, however, and not just based on contemporary applications of Christian or Muslim belief concerning gay rights or whether or not infidels must die. Instead, the extensive cruelty and moral evil expressed in most ancient texts must be addressed by religious believers by distancing themselves from their traditions. The modern, evolved versions of the faiths could easily declare themselves as “derived from the best teachings of Christ” or “the most loving aspects of Islam” and so forth, thus also ensuring that they don’t have to confront the grotesque shades haunting their own traditions.

Bats and Belfries

Thomas Nagel proposes a radical form of skepticism in his new book, Minds and Cosmos, continuing his trajectory through subjective experience and moral realism first began with bats zigging and zagging among the homunculi of dualism reimagined in the form of qualia. The skepticism involves disputing materialistic explanations and proposing, instead, that teleological ones of an unspecified form will likely apply, for how else could his subtitle that paints the “Neo-Darwinian Concept of Nature” as likely false hold true?

Nagel is searching for a non-religious explanation, of course, because just enervating nature through fiat is hardly an explanation at all; any sort of powerful, non-human entelechy could be gaming us and the universe in a non-coherent fashion. But what parameters might support his argument? Since he apparently requires a “significant likelihood” argument to hold sway in support of the origins of life, for instance, we might imagine what kind of thinking could result in highly likely outcomes that begin with inanimate matter and lead to goal-directed behavior while supporting a significant likelihood of that outcome. The parameters might involve the conscious coordination of the events leading towards the emergence of goal-directed life, thus presupposing a consciousness that is not our own. We are back then to our non-human entelechy looming like an alien or like a strange creator deity (which is not desirable to Nagel). We might also consider the possibility that there are properties to the universe itself that result in self-organization and that either we don’t yet know or that we are only beginning to understand. Elliot Sober’s critique suggests that the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics results in what I might call “patterned” behavior while not becoming “goal-directed” per se. Yet it is precisely the capacity for self-organization that begins at the borderline of energy harvesting mediated by the 2nd Law that results in some of the clearest examples of physical structures emerging from simpler forms, and in an inevitable way. That is, with a “significant likelihood” of occurrence. Can we, in fact, say that there is a meaningful distinction that can be drawn between an inevitable self-organizing crystal process and an evolutionary one that involves large populations of entities interacting together? It seems to me that if we can conceive of the first, we can attribute an equal or better weight of probability to the second.

Are there other options? Could the form of this “new teleology” that is non-materialistic in nature achieve other insights that are significantly likely? One possibility would be if a physical property or process showed a unique affinity for goal-directed behavior that could not be explained by bridging rules that straddled known neuropsychological and evolutionary models. Such a phenomena would be recognized for its resilience to explanation, I think: there are no effective explanations for creativity; it is a uniquely human quality. Yet we just don’t have any compelling examples. Creativity does not appear to be completely resilient to explanation, nor does any human mental process.

Our bats, our belfries, remain uniquely our own.

The Evolution of American Gods

Taking a break from my countdown, Simon Critchley is back in the New York Times with his fascinating analysis of Mormonism and the varied doctrines concerning reincarnation and the eventual divinity of, well, at least men. Interestingly, reading The Book of Mormon doesn’t illuminate these topics–they exist largely as exegesis through specific lectures by Joseph Smith. As Critchley notes about Smith’s lecture, the character and nature of God is finite, is a member of the Host of Heaven (or a council per the lecture), and creation in Genesis is not creation per se, but is instead some kind of reorganization of an infinite and timeless universe.

Fascinatingly strange, and compounded in its strangeness by the assertion that:

The mind or the intelligence which man possesses is co-equal [co-eternal] with God himself.

It is an evolutionary assertion that suggests our ultimate being is a divine form, and that we have the capacity to achieve this divinity through action, through works, and through effort at being good. As Critchley concludes:

…I see Joseph Smith’s apostasy as strong poetry, a gloriously presumptive and delusional creation from the same climate as Whitman, if not enjoying quite the same air quality. Perhaps Mormonism is not so far from romanticism after all. To claim that it is simply Christian is to fail to grasp its theological, poetic and political audacity. It is much more than mere Christianity.

While I doubt that this analysis will help assuage the concerns of conservative Christians about Mitt Romney’s faith, it undoubtedly serves as a touchstone for that uniquely American principle of religious freedom, and the underlying assumption (on Constitution Day), that the choice of a leader should not be tied to their choice of romantic delusions.

Science, Pre-science, and Religion

Francis Fukuyama in The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution draws a bright line from reciprocal altruism to abstract reasoning, and then through to religious belief:

Game theory…suggests that individuals who interact with one another repeatedly tend to gravitate toward cooperation with those who have shown themselves to be honest and reliable, and shun those who have behaved opportunistically. But to do this effectively, they have to be able to remember each other’s past behavior and to anticipate likely future behavior based on an interpretation of other people’s motives.

Then, language allows transmission of historical patterns (largely gossip in tight-knit social groups) and abstractions about ethical behaviors until, ultimately:

The ability to create mental models and to attribute causality to invisible abstractions is in turn the basis for the emergence of religion.

But this can’t be the end of the line. Insofar as abstract beliefs can attribute repetitive weather patterns to Olympian gods, or consolidate moral reasoning to a monotheistic being, the same mechanisms of abstraction must be the basis for scientific reasoning as well. Either that or the cognitive capacities for linguistic abstraction and game theory are not cross-applicable to scientific thinking, which seems unlikely.

So the irony of assertions that science is just another religion is that they certainly share a similar initial cognitive evolution, while nevertheless diverging in their dependence on faith and supernatural expectations, on the one hand, and channeling the predictive models along empirical contours on the other.

Theology and Apologetics in Politics

If politics is religion because political theories are not justifiable in any rational sense, then we should expect to find deep theology and apologetics accompanying political “theories.” And we certainly do. Moreover, we should expect that the apologetics gin up mythological frameworks to satisfy prevailing political winds. Social insurance programs are case-and-point. What originated as a scheme to counter the desire to redistribute wealth through a limitation on downward social mobility became synonymous with socialism itself. Elizabeth Anderson of University of Michigan points out the deep ironies in her Chicago Law Dewey lecture on this topic:

The ironies are amplified as we think about the debate over the current health care reform efforts and the flip-flopping of everyone from The Heritage Foundation (note, however, that Heritage denies flip-flopping through an appeal to nuance) to Mitt Romney.

Religion doesn’t care, of course. Religion just requires consistency and a consistent denial of oppositional rhetoric. It also helps to have an enemy, as Ms. Anderson points out. And having cartoon tracts can help, too, as this cartoon embodiment of Freidrich Hayek shows:

The Jehovah’s Witnesses of political theory.


An ever-present flaw in almost all theology and apologetics–and a flaw that is easily remediable–is the requirement for omnipotence, omnibenevolence, and omniscience (OOO) on the part of the structure of God or the gods. We see this in the argumentative doldrums of the Problem of Evil, with practitioners like William Lane Craig and Richard Swinburne building-out elaborate explanatory theodicies in an effort to justify or, at least, allow for an OOO deity. There are extensional consequences, too, like Paul Draper’s argument that an OOO-deity may be obligated to create more than just a single worshipful species given the known extent of the universe.

And what if we remedy the flaw by simply declaring that the OOO assumptions are unnecessary for deities? What if we simply loosen the requirement to something like “God is super-powerful and super-good?” Let’s call this the semi-OOO god theory or SOOO for short. Does SOOO short-circuit the most problematic issues that arise in placing the gods so far above us that we no longer resemble them at all? (an interesting side note: given Christianity’s obsession with the avatar-like character of Christ, it hardly seems aesthetically wrong to assume a flawed God).

The theological and apologetic problems do seem to evaporate, though philosophical arguments evaporate, too:

  • The Ontological Argument: The premise requiring God to be the greatest possible being (Anselmian formulation) immediately goes away. Therefore, there is no Ontological Argument. God doesn’t exist, but only on the initial premise. God may still exist as an SOOO deity.
  • The Cosmological Argument: No impact; the First Cause could be just about anything, as before. Only pre-scientific societies necessarily associate such a cause with an OOO deity.
  • The Problem of Evil: There are actually many formulations of the Problem of Evil, and it remains debated to this day, yet the primary formulation currently fashionable among apologists requires evil (at least moral evil, but sometimes also “natural” evil) in order to provide a proving ground for our moral character. This sometimes seems at odds with OOO notions like predestination, but with a bit of hand-waving we can presume that the gods know what is best for us and it all represents a higher good in a grander scheme than what is known in our philosophy. What world does SOOO suggest? Well, a so-so world on moral character. We might simply say that God is always morally better than us (never mind the genocide and other barbarisms in the Old Testament), which allows for evil to exist because God didn’t intend a perfect world or even a moral obstacle course. This makes religion much more casual an affair, appealing to moral aspirations rather than certitudes, which is at least appealing insofar as certitudes are intellectually unappealing.

The SOOO God or gods have some rather interesting properties that need investigation, however. If we presume that a SOOO-thing is always better than us and is an aspirational icon, then we still have to discount the apparent moral failures in the more ancient texts or the rational failures in the more recent ones (demons cause illness, snake venom can be cured by faith, etc.) while still trying to hold on to a hope that SOOO should remain an object of our aspirations. That is hard. That is slippery. It’s sooo much more appealing and easy to drop SOOO as easily as OOO under an even easier assumption that such an entity adds no value to our understanding.

Mental Religious Math

The Los Angeles Times reports on an article from Science that shows that analytical thinking and religious belief may be inversely proportional. That may not be news to some, but at least one of the example problems (that the religious failed to complete at higher rates than the non-religious) is quite interesting:

A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

Here there is an initial intuitive leap that says that $1 more than 10 cents is precisely $1.10. Therefore, the ball costs $0.10 or 10 cents. It is easy and clear, but the math undermines that result:

Bat + Ball = $1.10

Bat = Ball + $1.00

(Ball + $1.00) + Ball = $1.10

2*Ball + $1.00 = $1.10

2*Ball = $0.10

Ball = $0.05

Bat = $1.05

This result makes sense if one considers that the cost of the bat must be greater than $1.00 because it is $1.00 more than the ball (and not $1.00 itself). But it is obscured by the initial intuitive leap based on simple subtraction.

But that example is a pretty hard one to reconcile concerning historical and faith-based judgments. I doubt that there is good reason to suspect that mathematical prowess and intuitive dispositions about the costs of things correlates with faith decisions because I suspect that there are other reasons that the faithful believe what they believe. Specifically, most religious faithful believe because they were told to believe by their parents or community. The fact that they do so doesn’t seem to translate into mathematical prowess or ineptness. They may very well score more poorly on these kinds of results because of other individual differences like that those who are more predisposed to critical analytical skills are less likely to have come from highly religious backgrounds, and vice versa.

Interestingly, the subsequent reported experiments appear to show that religious belief might be mutable by more analytical tasks, which is a different sort of argument altogether, but one that shows that belief is more variable than our folk psychology often seems to suggest.