Category: Religion

The Orchard of Belief

CherriesOne of the most important impacts of the “new atheists” was to break religious discussion out of its silos. Before their recent rise, it was easy for the sophisticated secularist to laugh at the Pat Robertsons because they seemed absurd caricatures of Christianity in America. It was equally irrelevant to the Catholic theologian what analytical philosophy was up to in worrying over the meaning of meaning. And Muslims largely kept to their mosques. But with the critiques of the new atheism came a new willingness to hold remarkable, frank, and intelligent discussions about religion and modern life.

Take Andrew Sullivan’s article in Newsweek that attacks a range of Christian movements within the US through the critical lens of the Jefferson Bible. Sullivan promotes the sermon-on-the-mount Jesus as a radical guru focused exclusively on love. The surrounding texts and their subsequent grafting onto church doctrines are the source of strife both within Christianity and in its interactions with other peoples down through history.

And so as Andrew Sullivan cherry picks on Jefferson’s intellectual plantation, Gary Cutting of Notre Dame points out that there is not much fruit on the vine in the New York Times:

Read alone, the Sermon on the Mount will either confuse us or merely reinforce the moral prejudices we bring to it.

The moral messaging is just too diffuse for Cutting to be able to render into a ethical road map: Should we try to maximize happiness or focus on individual rights? Is the state the proper vehicle for charity? Is democracy better than totalitarianism? These are all contemporary notions that are beside the point in the orchard of Sullivan’s love.

We can contrast this sparring with Ross Douthat at Slate in his ongoing debate cycle centered on his new book, Bad Religion, that picks at the same line of criticism as Sullivan with regard to some of the current strains of evangelism in America. In his debate, however, he descends into a familiar line of attack against the non-religious:

Whereas much of today’s liberalism expects me to respect its moral fervor even as it denies the revelation that once justified that fervor in the first place. It insists that it is a purely secular and scientific enterprise even as it grounds its politics in metaphysical claims. (You will not find the principle of absolute human equality in evolutionary theory, or universal human rights anywhere in physics.) It complains that Christian teachings on homosexuality do violence to gay people’s equal dignity—but if the world is just matter in motion, whence comes this dignity? What justifies and sustains it? Why should I grant it such intense, almost supernatural respect?

Much of 20th Century Continental philosophy was built around trying to find a place for human striving in a world that no longer seemed to reflect the simple metaphysical certitudes of traditional life and religion. Isn’t it intellectually repugnant to not try to understand the world without recourse to that certitude?

Moreover, we can easily find justification for absolute human equality in the broader web of enlightenment and scientific reasoning and create a simple enough algorithm:

  1. I don’t want to be harmed or treated unfairly.
  2. Those around me appear to be like me and say they don’t want to be harmed or treated unfairly.
  3. Don’t harm others or treat them unfairly.

We can also start to explain why using evolutionary theory and our understanding of how non-zero-sum cooperation lead to social interactions. We can also bind this all up in the enlightenment liberalism that he critiques: liberty, equality, fraternity. In other words, we get human dignity through reasoning about what others are like and what we can do to make society better. Should there be moral fervor around that? Absolutely, especially when it is driven by a belief that someone is not being treated fairly.

Now it is up to Mr. Douthat to explain why that is not enough and how not applying that algorithm to everyone (including gays) is somehow more metaphysically sound, better for society, and justified by his orchard of cherries.

Poetry and Imprecision

But what if the written word is not identifiably personal or about human relations? What if the ideas expressed in the texts don’t bind to any kind of honest analysis of the facts? What if the semantics are so diffuse that they are open to almost any interpretation?

Then we have poetry.

On the Bay Area’s KQED Forum, Elaine Pagels talks about the Book of Revelation and her new book, its influence, misinterpretation, reinterpretation, and the scholarship that surrounds it.

Poetry is hidden and mystical. This makes it great in inspiring interpretation but also great in the breadth of the imaginable interpretations. Imprecision can inspire monumental achievements and horrific human tragedies–likely in about the same proportions. Luckily, we now have the power to parody and deconstruct it all without fear and with the building knowledge that through that deconstruction we can better account for an understanding of the humanity of others.

Teleology, Chapter 26

Wherein, the protagonist, Mikey, his twin brother, Harry, and a journalist, Jacob, are being physically healed by intelligent nanomachines while their consciousnesses are in a virtual world that appears to be a research ship in the Pacific Ocean.


We hovered in our “matrix” of sorts for ten more days. The Lexis reported that the search by US military forces was intensifying. Swarms of unmanned underwater and airborne vehicles were scouring the sea, though the most intense efforts were concentrated several hundred kilometers from our new location. The Lexis believed that the platform was in jeopardy because of the new connectivity that they had achieved to the outside world through the control of the nanobots, but also seemed consigned to whatever fate I dictated concerning their disposition. I chose to wait because our medical conditions were improving day by day—at least according to them—and I saw no reason to emerge until maximally healed.

We relaxed aboard the Recherché in the meantime, eating Cottard’s increasingly elaborate cooking and drinking his exceptional wines. The wines and foods were all familiar to me, I realized; the sensations had been mined from our thoughts and recollections. There was something disturbing about that, though I didn’t feel particularly violated because the Lexis were both a familiar quantity to me and their motivations I suspected were not malevolent.

While waiting I worked with the Lexis to try to understand how they had taken command of the external nanomachines and how they had modified them to improve their functionality. They regarded the entire exercise as something like the Sistine Chapel ceiling. It was an elaborate artistic effort designed to promote the idea of the Creator among their kind by showing my adventures in an almost unimaginable heaven that they saw us living in. The idea of our physical universe was largely outside their ken but was supported through the equivalent of oral traditions among their kind. Even the act of saving us was more like rearranging statuary on an altar to them—an act of religious observance that had moral implications as mystical stories but was otherwise not translatable into their frame of reference.

I asked for control over the spatial representations and they created a series of dashboards on the bridge of the ship that allowed me to, initially, change textures and lighting. Being becalmed in a misty fog was wearing on me, so I admitted sunlight and designed a small island with a lone palm tree for fun. I asked for a view of the platform and they provided it, showing how dark it was three miles below the surface of the pacific before I asked for alternative lighting and an ultrasonic visualization was provided. The platform was huge, now, yet they were still building, focusing on support structures for landing Leapers and docking cargo ships for a larger industrial enterprise.

I was sitting with Jacob and Harry when I asked them why they chose the designs they had chosen. It was very simple, the Lexis had replied, the designs were needed in order to build and lift the components needed to create the Cosputer. They had read my mind and were simply following through on what they thought was needed to make it happen. Harry had been solemn for the past several days, ever since I revealed that we were in a simulation and showed him a video of what had transpired.

“I’m worried that you really are the anti-Christ, Mikey. Look, you have created the power to live forever and create your own heaven.”

“Trapped on a ship is hardly heaven, Harry, although Cottard’s cooking is very good,” I joked, “But seriously, man, I don’t want to deceive anyone. I don’t want to lie. I don’t intend to harm anyone and, as far as I know no one has been harmed except for a few of your compatriots in those Leapers. Other than people not being so interested in Christ or Allah or Mohammed or Krishna, what lies do you see?”

“Well, that’s just it. There is the great lie of separation from God that you are promoting.”

“I’ve never understood that, Harry. You are claiming that there is this rift and it is caused by human choice and belief, yet is only discernable to a select few like yourself, while the rest of us are just victims of some impending doom. When I talked of private versus public knowledge, I was being far too kind, really. The fact is that you are asking people to surrender their minds and all thinking to a series of irrational abstractions. It is delusional and crazy in a very real way. I am not even sure what the Cosputer can be used for. The idea of being absorbed into it is just one possibility that is not even well worked out. Mostly I’m interested in this slightly incomprehensible physics that happens when these micro black holes start whirling in close orbits near their event horizons.”

“But it is all so inhuman. Our gods were designed for us here on Earth,” Jacob said.

“They were. That is the secret, really, Harry. You can escape from the tyranny of the irrational by just giving yourself over to one of the oldest realizations: we invented the gods to order our world and help us. You can be a good Christian again if you realize that. There is no explaining the cruelty and horror of the Old Testament or the barbarism of the Koran without that realization. Odd, though, when I put it that way it actually gives Christianity a slightly elevated position among the Abrahamic trinity, at least. Perhaps ‘the least offensive of them’ is the more proper description. Still, you get a tremendous amount of mileage out of religion if you just give up on the literalism and irrationality. You can appreciate the messages of love and understanding as reflections of a fundamental need for people to live together. Though shall not steal or murder makes perfect sense as evolved algorithms for social order and were invented by every major civilization through religion or civil law or some combination of the two. Religion was and is an evolutionary learning system that has served us well but you are showing the unintended consequences of that primitive system when you are irrationally literal about these things. Actually, though, that is incorrect. You are not being particularly literal on these issues. You are being too expansively creative, instead, trying to apply poetic mythical guidance to every event in the world according to whims of your dictates. God didn’t intervene to give the US the first atomic bomb or infect the Chinese computing network with the Shibboleth 7 virus in 2034, but God is worried about my nanomedicine inventions and what their role is in the grand theater of the end of the world? Why not show some humility and just calmly wait for things to happen? Why are you so egotistical that you think you have a role in all this?”

Harry was stunned at my diatribe and sat still for a long pause just watching me. “Maybe I have a role because of who you are,” he said sheepishly.

“Maybe, but it is definitely the case that there is nothing evil in any definition of the word to what I have accomplished so far, nor was there ever evil intent, nor did I directly or indirectly hurt anyone. I can’t even tell you the last time I lied to anyone, Harry. I am certainly flawed in many ways. I doubt myself. I think badly of others sometimes. I hated you for years, though I’m not sure how flawed that was. I have lustful thoughts, which is something that your people seem to find bothersome yet with too many examples of hypocrisy to bother enumerating. Mostly, though, I have just studied the history of ideas and rational thought to come up with what I have achieved. And here you are, being brought back from the dead to share in the future.”

Jacob poured himself another glass of virtual wine. He was clearly enjoying my rant. “Mikey, do you think it would be possible to create a nanobot virus or something that would actually disable or remove the urge of people to be religious? Would that be possible?”

I sat back down, realizing suddenly that I had been pacing, and poured a glass myself. “I suppose so. Our minds are currently interfaced together supporting the direct stimulation of our sensory subsystems to provide an almost perfect simulation of normal reality. That knowledge could be used to stop religious thinking, too, I guess.”

“Under what circumstances would you consider doing something like that? Let’s say that some crazed Muslim terrorists were plotting a bombing and you came to know about it. Would you be willing to simply stop the titer of dopamine or whatever that feeds that religious feeling? How about when Harry was about to bomb Rio?”

Harry stayed quiet while listening to our discourse. He was angry, I could tell, periodically shaking his head in disbelief at what he was hearing.

“I don’t think so. Morally, I see a basic principle of minimal action to achieve a needed goal in play. The person should be allowed to think and, well, not-think, their way through complex dilemmas up and to the point where they are going to take action to harm someone else. Then, the choice should be based on the least invasive means to achieve the goal of stopping them. So, I guess I would blow out Harry’s van’s tires before I would invade his brain. He has a right to think badly, I suppose, and we have a right to protect ourselves against that bad thinking, but we have minimal rights to modify his brain.”

“What about for the mentally ill? Let’s say that there are people who are pathologically aggressive due to a genetic predisposition. Do we have the right to modify their brain under those circumstances? And what if religious fervor is, in fact, linked to this tendency towards magical thinking and dopamine? Is it acceptable to consider religious feeling mental illness under those circumstances? You just declared it all expansively irrational, after all.”

“Hard questions, but the problem of mental illness and its relationship to crime has to be driven by the individual. Same with religious belief taken to extremes, I think. If Harry wanted his brain modified, I would be inclined to let him make that choice. But for the delusional psychotic it may be appropriate to modify their brains just a bit in order to get them to a level where they are at least able to process information accurately enough to be able to make the choice as to whether they want to have the mental illness lifted from them. Anything else bespeaks tyranny to me, even given an otherwise irrational hatred of another group or people. You kind of need a Turing Test in way to determine whether someone is mentally capable or not.”

Harry seemed roused from his funk, “What’s that?”

“Alan Turing, British chap who developed much computational theory and worked on decrypting German Enigmas in World War II. The Turing Test is simple enough. If you communicate with a remote system and it convinces you it is human, then it is indistinguishable from human. That’s what I brought Jacob out to the platform for in a sense—to let him talk to the Lexis. But a weaker version of the Turing Test might apply to human rationality. If a remote communicator leaves the impression that it is capable of decision-making based on principles that are mostly internally consistent and can reason about the outside world, then they must be seen as mentally capable. This is slightly different, I think, from the legal dividing lines of sane versus insane, but is useful to me to answer this question, at least. Since Harry would have passed that test even around the time of the bombing, he would be entitled to just being shot dead rather than having his mind altered to bring it into better conformity with some greater rationality.”

Jacob was intrigued, “So, do you retract your claim of irrationality, then, concerning religious belief? Your requirement of sufficiency of rationality would be disputed by people like Szasz.”

“It’s worth nuance, I think. We can be irrational about many things. I loved Cassandra. I love my mom. My emotion on these points is just that—subjective—not derived out of rational consideration of their value to society or me, yet when we generate poetry about our loved ones we don’t expect that poetry to command us to act irrationally. Rationality is an understanding of consequence and an acceptance of limitations, I think. I read books in my teens that were so interesting to me that I wished they were, in fact, true. If I had translated that wish into actively trying to make them true, I would have been in trouble. I didn’t and most people who feel that way about their favorite fiction don’t commit crimes, either. Religion seems to be the exception.”

“Stop. Who did you read?”

“Niven’s Known Space, Dick, McCaffrey, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Robert Anton Wilson; the hit list goes on and on. I wasn’t overly discerning until later in life,” I said, trying to distance myself from youthful exuberance. “Your comment on Szasz—Myth of Mental Illness, right?—isn’t as accurate as you might want it to be. Reality is partly a social construct, but equality for all in a safe environment kinda trumps that. Witches could be burned had they really, provably, been harming people.”

Jacob was intrigued, now. “Wish fulfillment is aspirations run amok. We visualize what we would like to be true—to be real—and sometimes it jibes with actual outcomes. Could you see religion as wish fulfillment, then? Irrational when at its worst but a driving force for moral reasoning at best, especially when there is no, was no, educational background that helped promote reasoning about ethical decisions?”

“Absolutely. Daddy is watching me and will whack me if I don’t do the right thing. My desire is muzzled by the constraints of religious teachings, just like the legal system and ethical reasoning constrains us today.”

Harry was sitting up, attentive again, “So you don’t think that my thinking was inherently crazy, just that when it was combined with the bombing it became crazy?”

“I suppose so. I said before that I forgive you and I mean it, but that forgiveness is almost exclusively predicated on you being able to keep it in your pants, so to speak. Talk all you want but don’t mix diesel and fertilizer. Craziness is only relevant when it exceeds the bounds of one mind. The worrisome thing for me is the question of where children’s minds live in this kind of an ethical system. Legally, here in America,” I realized the humor of what I had said, “or back there in America, I should say, children are a special, protected class of citizens, entitled to some rights but having lesser rights, as well. Still, I think the same rules must apply. Until the crazy religious kook hits the kid as part of indoctrination, there is no harm done. I would dearly love that the Madrasahs and Rabbinical and Catholic schools taught kids to reason first and then asked them if they wanted to believe afterwards, but the end of that kind of thing is a long way out.”

“OK, OK,” Jacob continued, “I see your point concerning manipulating brains directly. But how about doing it indirectly?”

“What do you mean?”

“Lexis, could you make the platform fly?” Jacob asked into the air over the wine bottle.

“Yes, certainly.”

“Could you turn the platform into a sphere of nanomachines that could work cooperatively to achieve different goals while hovering in the air?”


“Could you create nanomachines that could go into people’s homes and project three dimensional holograms of Jesus or Mohammed or Krishna and have those holograms talk to the people?”


“See, Mikey, you are in the lobby of omnipotence. You could drive people’s beliefs without the need for modifying their brains. But is it ethical? Let’s say that you could use these holograms to tell Muslim terrorists that they were on the wrong path?”

“It’s an intriguing possibility, though the ethical dilemma is that it is deceptive. I would be deceiving them that I was their god or prophet or something.”

“Right, OK, what if the talking hologram was none of the above but indicated that it was a new representative of ‘great forces for good’ or something happily neutral sounding, and it indicated that great good could come about by not following the old ways? It would have to happen to everyone on the planet on the same day and would have the remarkable benefit of being direct experience. The Lexis know all the languages of mankind, too, which would make it easy for them to translate the message of sorts. What would you command, oh Creator?”

“I still feel uncomfortable. Even with careful avoidance of details, it feels deceptive. It fails the sniff test. I’m trying to get others to believe certain things and willing to exploit their weaknesses to achieve my goals.”

“Yahweh and Allah and Jesus didn’t have that kind of conscience, you know? They demand things of people and are not apparently concerned with their feelings, very much. Job expressed doubt but there wasn’t much sympathy on the part of God. We are the pathetic creatures to be toyed with for our own good.”

“Jesus didn’t do that,” Harry exclaimed, “Jesus just loved us.”

“Well, he loved us so much that he threatened us with Hell, a concept that didn’t even exist in the Old Testament. He loved us so much that he was resurrected and left the planet. Why bother, really? How does any of that translate into some supermiraculous love? God gave his son… God is omnipotent. He could create any number of super luminous beings and send them on down to us. And then Jesus becomes identical with God in some Trinitarian blurring together of words? You are demanding that we give up rationality again and just support random semantic constructs.”

“It’s not random to us. The trinity is real and reflects differing aspects of God. Jesus is the redeemer aspect.”

“Nonsensical and contradictory. Our moral compass has evolved an exquisite sensitivity to fairness and to being treated unfairly, yet your God wants fairness only for believers. It worked as a cosmic plotline for bad poetry, but it doesn’t scan now. All the Abrahamic gods lack morality, lack love and lack kindness in any modern sense. They lack the ability to grant that to the people because they are not as great as their creations. I can’t trick or force people to not believe, just as I can’t trick or force people to believe in something new, because it is wrong for me to do so. It is abstractly wrong—ideologically wrong—because I abstractly believe in freedom and personal ideals. That was only a weak theme in good old-fashioned religion. You have the choice, perhaps, but the choice has supernatural consequences. I would not promise the impossible because it would be wrong, nor would I manipulate possibilities. All I could do is accept the choices.”

“How close were we all to death?” Jacob asked. He was pulling the cork from another bottle the steward had brought in off Cottard’s infinite wine list.

I peered at him and laughed, “Lexis, were any of us technically dead in the sense of our hearts having stopped for an extended period of time?”

The air fluttered and spoke, “Yes, both you and Harry were technically dead according to that criterion. Creator, your heart was stopped for two hours and forty minutes while we repaired the damage. Harry was dead for twenty seven minutes.”

“Harry, we both rose from the dead and have the possibility of being benevolent gods. Any interest?”

Harry was angry, now, “Just because you have these powers doesn’t make you into a god!”

“Why not? What separates your God and Jesus from super-intelligent and super-potent space aliens? Or some pre-existing form of life that looks remarkably like us. After all, we were made in God’s image, weren’t we?”

“But God is infinite love, the creator of all things, and light!”

“You don’t really mean that, though, do you? He can’t be light per se. Light is just electromagnetic radiation, so you can’t mean that literally, right?”

“Not literally, but in the sense of goodness.”

“Well, why not just say ‘goodness’ then, rather than saying ‘light’? But more critically, I am a creator, at least to these Lexis, and I have the ability to love all people, at least enough that I won’t harm them. What makes this possibility so very different from your God?”

“You are not infinite and omniscient.”

“And how does being actually infinite and omniscient make God better than me? First, it doesn’t really make any sense. If God were infinite He would occupy all known space or even perhaps all space including unknown space. That would mean that we were in fact part of God’s body, but that would also mean that we couldn’t actually be apart from God. It would be more like pantheism, I think. And ho ho for omniscience. How does knowing everything that is happening, has happened in the past or will happen actually make God good? He obviously isn’t really using that power to save us from disease, much less even Yahweh’s chosen people or Allah’s chosen people or anyone else. He foresees every little cancer, but let’s us suffer through them for our spiritual growth. Ahhh, yes, but He sees a greater purpose that we can’t possibly know that is still to come and happens in the afterlife. But so what? We can live forever, or at least until the universe collapses by simply repairing these bodies at a molecular level. We can eliminate pain and suffering without actually needing to know the future. The future doesn’t much matter insofar as you are not subject to its impacts.”

“Those are the lies we feared, Mikey. You are promoting the greatest lie that we can live without Jesus. It is all unfolding just like we had feared. You may very well be Satan incarnate.”

I laughed and sipped at the Bordeaux. Harry was agitated and it wasn’t going away. I tried to calm him down a bit, “Come on, Harry, this is just a discussion. You must have had discussions like this over the years?”

“Not really. We talked about our love of Jesus, mostly, and matters related to the church. This kind of blasphemous speculation never came up.”

“Why do you think that is?”

“Because we are more godly than you. We understand the power of Christ to redeem our souls. You don’t even care. You just want to change this world without regard for Heaven.”

“Wait, are you implying that any attempt to explain this world or make life better for people is evil? That seems remarkable to me. Didn’t you go build clinics somewhere to help people?”

“Yes, but it was done in Jesus’ name. That’s the difference.”

Jacob was perplexed, “So, if Mikey had done exactly the same research and come up with exactly the same results but had been an avid Christian, you would embrace the outcomes as good?”

“Yes, if he called on the Holy Spirit and he did God’s will and helped people through nanomedicine or whatever, than it would be holy, too.”

“I guess I don’t see what difference it makes? What if Mikey were to project into every home in every language that he wanted everyone to follow his new interpretation of Christianity that had brought about these miraculous changes to our lives? And let’s say that you weren’t aware of this discussion, would you believe it to be true and good?”

“I suppose so. The name of Jesus purifies everything, so if he was to use it it must be holy.”

I was mortified. He was suggesting a kind of warding magic. If the word was used, it had power in itself. But not all words had that power, just the word “Jesus.” “You are aware of the No True Scotsman fallacy, aren’t you?”

“No, what’s that?”

“Well, you want this invocation to have power, but there must be some other Christians who you don’t think are right, right? Like the Christians who support gay marriage and pride, or those who think evolution is accurate science?”

“They aren’t true Christians.”

“Well, how is it that they pray, invoke the name of Jesus, yet come away with all these wrong ideas? I thought the word purified everything?”

“They’re just misguided.”

“Right, no true Scotsman would murder his clansman, so he just can’t be a Scotsman. It’s as old as stone. Once again, if you want words to have meaning and power, they have to be at least consistent in their meaning. If you say the word Jesus has power, then you have to explain why it doesn’t have power most of the time. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, help me. Nothing. Bupkes. I’m irredeemable and you were brought back from the dead by the miraculous intervention of science. It’s not a lie and, honestly, the closest thing to a grand, all-encompassing and deep conspiratorial lie I’ve ever encountered is the claim that there are supernatural beings who created us, intervene in our lives and can be petitioned to carry out our wishes. We have the power to try to make that lie stop, yet so many fools and children buy into it because it gets them laid, because it comforts them, because they never think for themselves, because they are unwilling to ask basic questions about why we are here and what we should do with our lives. Here we are, though, continuing on with the grand mystical tradition of living and we still haven’t given ourselves over to an honest assessment that there are no gods at all out there, that we are part of a remarkable and random event, possibly driven by forces we don’t yet understand but altogether unrelated to the little wondrous fables that were invented during the Roman Empire.” I paused and realized I was too riled up, but there was sudden inspiration, too. “But what if we did what Jacob suggested, Harry? What if I did fly around in a big impervious sky ball and tell people that God has really returned and that they must do certain things. Would you see my decision making as being influenced by Satan? Does Satan influence me either way, really? If I decide not to do it because it is dishonest at some level or if I decide to go ahead with it?”

“I don’t know. It doesn’t matter because neither was done in the name of Jesus, I suppose, so it wouldn’t matter.”

“I get the broken record thing, Harry. I also have to turn you over to the police when you are well enough to move. You realize that, don’t you?”

“I do. I came to you to warn you. I don’t care about my fate here on Earth any longer.”

“What if I gave you the option of remaining in this state of suspension, instead? You would effectively be in jail. You could observe outside events but would otherwise live inside a virtual cocoon. Not as primitive as this but at least as lonely?”

Jacob cocked his head, “Why would you do that? You don’t think society—the other families—deserve some kind of justice?”

“Wouldn’t I be giving it to them? They would know he was decommissioned and I might even tell them that he was imprisoned. And, in a way, he would be helping with the Cosputer effort. This virtualization is just one step removed from being truly bodiless. He would better serve here as a research subject in righting the wrong to Rio and its employees than in a federal prison, wouldn’t he?”

“You would have to tell the families. They wouldn’t agree to it.”

“Maybe, I don’t know. If I were to move him and his body into space, there would be no jurisdictional issues. Well, I could be prosecuted for aiding and abetting a fugitive, I suppose, were I to return to the States. Or, alternatively, I could just offer to house all criminals in such a place, thus getting Harry as part of the bargain.”

Cosmologies and Theories of Everything

Zach, fictional though he is, is not the only one interested in cosmological theories. But what form do these theories take? A Theory of Everything or TOE is a theory that intends to explain the entire observable universe using a compact specification of equations and the conceptual arguments that support them. In the modern sense, a TOE is a physical explanation of the large-scale structure of the universe. Later, we can start to expand the TOE to look for “bridging laws” that help justify other phenomena that approach the human scale.

What are our alternatives? The previous post mentioned the Catholic Church’s embrace of Big Bang cosmology as justifying Genesis. Apologist and philosopher of religion William Lane Craig also elaborately evaluates Big Bang theories as substantiating theism by supporting creation at the singularity event.

But do these notions change the underlying TOEs? No, in general. The best that they can do is accept the TOE as an input and make a deductive argument based on assumptions that are not excluded by the TOE. For apologists, that means that the singularity event provides a divide between a non-temporal pre-universe and the current universe–effectively between non-existence and existence. But that is not the only TOE available to us. There are a range of TOEs that have been devised.  The following is derived from Marcus Hutter’s A Complete Theory of Everything (Will Be Subjective):

  1. (G) Geocentric model: Ancient notion that the Earth is at the center of the known universe.
  2. (H) Heliocentric model: Evolution of the model to centralize on the Sun.
  3. (E) Effective theories: General relativity, quantum electrodynamics, and Newtonian mechanics, but without a unifying architecture.
  4. (P) Standard model of particle physics: Beginning of unification that contains numerous arbitrary parameters and has yet to unify gravity.
  5. (S) String theory: new theoretical framework that unifies gravitation and P.
  6. (C) Cosmological models: Standard inflationary Big bang stuff.
  7. (M) Multiverse theories: The notion that there are many possible universes and that they might overlay one another through black holes or just evolve in parallel with one another.
  8. (U) Universal ToE: We’ll get back to this in a future post, but this is just an extension of M where we live in one of the multiverses and that the multiverse is “computable” in that it can be characterized in a specific way that lets us argue about its properties.
  9. (R) Random universe: This is essentially the same argument that irrational numbers like Pi or e, in that they contain infinite, random digits, also contain all the known works of Shakespeare. Likewise, an infinite and random universe would contain low-entropy areas that might look like our universe and, perhaps, contain local information sufficient to deceive us about the properties of the universe.
  10. (A) Al-a-Carte models: This is like buffet-style religion, but we can simply claim that the universe is a subset of a random string of specifications and achieve similar results to R.

Do any of these theories have anything to do with religious notions, whether Western, abstractly New Age, or Eastern? I find no similarities. The defining difference is between an epistemological approach that reifies mystical abstractions derived from pure speculation versus one that attempts to harmonize empirical results with theorization.

Zach is justified in his enthusiasm for the latter.

Cosmological Interregnum

Zach, the main character in Signals and Noise, finds himself fascinated by cosmology because it is the only thing that takes him outside of everyday reality into a realm that is alien and mysterious. Biology is reconcilable to our personal lives, law is a linguistic game, computer science is second-hand to Zach, the complex mathematics of the titular “Signal” is discoverable in intent if not details, but cosmology asks questions that cross into a metaphysical realm. Unlike religious feeling, however, there is no requirement of faith and no direct application to human interactions. There is no ethics of cosmology and little human history.

Should we have expected this? Should we have expected a universe that has black holes or neutrinos? We currently believe that the universe is expanding and may expand forever into a cold, diffuse conclusion. Dark matter and dark energy have to be invoked to explain this and the clumping we observe in the universe. But, interestingly, tiny little particles called neutrinos may be a large portion of this dark matter. Neutrinos have tiny mass and behave somewhat like photons passing through translucent materials when they pass through matter, but they change forms during transit according to an interesting interaction with matter known as “flavor oscillations.”

While the Catholic Church uses cosmology to justify ex nihilo creation, there is almost nothing in modern cosmology that justifies or supports religious sentiments, whether Western or Eastern. Indeed, this is just plain weird shit that devolves out of mathematical results and then is confirmed or denied by experimental methods (with a bias towards the confirmed results).

Zach is more than justified. He is right in his fascination and his skepticism about merely human ideologies.

Etruscan Teleology

I was, somewhat ironically, concocting salmon risotto with a drizzle of white wine while my wife read to me about Etruscan mythology from Wikipedia this evening.  From Seneca the Younger:

Whereas we believe lightning to be released as a result of the collision of clouds, they believe that the clouds collide so as to release lightning: for as they attribute all to deity, they are led to believe not that things have a meaning insofar as they occur, but rather that they occur because they must have a meaning.

Last year we had the opportunity to visit the National Etruscan Museum in Rome during the most unbearably tropical European summer in recent memory.

Seneca the Younger somewhat snidely detected a difference, driven at least partially by a feeling of cultural dominance, that teleological explanations are inferior to naturalistic ones, that one more entity (or a host of them) provides no additional value to the explanatory system.

Transcendent Ivory

Alain de Botton has an interesting suggestion in the Wall Street Journal: create restaurants that are communal and that are designed to foster social interaction with an almost religious quality. This follows fairly closely on the heels of Hubert Dreyfus of Berkeley’s suggestion that maybe a good religious substitute can be found in mass sports events.

Why is a secular substitute for religion needed? It’s not completely clear. Each author argues that there is something fundamentally missing from our modern, cosmopolitan lives. What is missing is a sense of wonder, a sense of transcendence, a sense of community involvement, a sense of egoless participation, a universe of interactions based on something other than commercial interests, non-creepy greetings (de Botton)…something.

But they both neglect one of the crowning achievements of the modern world. Organized sports are largely passive events for the spectators. Restaurants are far too much about eating and not about ideas. What we do have, however, are university systems that are dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge and are accessible (with all the caveats of price) to almost all of the population. Only in university systems are people organized around a commitment to knowledge, science, and art. Economic status is less important than intellectual capacity. Ideas reign and social interaction is driven by common cause.

What we need is more ivory towers. After all, even the phrase may have been sourced from the Song of Solomon:

Thy neck is as a tower of ivory; thine eyes like the fishpools in Heshbon, by the gate of Bathrabbim: thy nose is as the tower of Lebanon which looketh toward Damascus

Solomonoff Induction, Truth, and Theism

LukeProg of CommonSenseAtheism fame created a bit of a row when he declared that Solomonoff Induction largely rules out theism, continuing on to expand on the theme:

If I want to pull somebody away from magical thinking, I don’t need to mention atheism. Instead, I teach them Kolmogorov complexity and Bayesian updating. I show them the many ways our minds trick us. I show them the detailed neuroscience of human decision-making. I show them that we can see (in the brain) a behavior being selected up to 10 seconds before a person is consciously aware of ‘making’ that decision. I explain timelessness.

There were several reasons for the CSA community to get riled up about these statements and they took on several different forms:

  • The focus on Solomonoff Induction/Kolmogorov Complexity is obscurantist in using radical technical terminology.
  • The author is ignoring deductive arguments that support theist claims.
  • The author has joined a cult.
  • Inductive claims based on Solomonoff/Kolmogorov are no different from Reasoning to the Best Explanation.

I think all of these critiques are partially valid, though I don’t think there are any good reasons for thinking theism is true, but the fourth one (which I contributed) was a personal realization for me. Though I have been fascinated with the topics related to Kolmogorov since the early 90s, I don’t think they are directly applicable to the topic of theism/atheism.  Whether we are discussing the historical validity of Biblical claims or the logical consistency of extensions to notions of omnipotence or omniscience, I can’t think of a way that these highly mathematical concepts have direct application.

But what are we talking about? Solomonoff Induction, Kolmogorov Complexity, Minimum Description Length, Algorithmic Information Theory, and related ideas are formalizations of the idea of William of Occam (variously Ockham) known as Occam’s Razor that given multiple explanations of a given phenomena, one should prefer the simpler explanation. This notion that the most parsimonious explanation was preferable to other explanations existed as a heuristic until the 20th Century, when statistics began to be merged with computational theory through information theory. I’m not aware of any scientist describing facing a trade-off between contending theories that was resolved by an appeal to Occam’s Razor. Yet the intuition that the principle was important remained until being formalized by people like Kolmogorov as part of the mathematical and scientific zeitgeist.

The concepts are admittedly deep in their mathematical formulations, but at heart is the notion that all logical procedures can be reduced to a computational model. And a computational model running on a standardized computer called a Turing Machine can be expressed as a string of numbers that can be reduced to binary numbers. One can imagine that there are many programs that can produce the same output given the same input. In fact, we can just add an infinite number of random no-ops (no operations) to the bit stream and still get the same output from the computer.  Moreover, we can guess that the structure of the program for a given string is essentially a model of the output string that compresses the underlying data into the form of the program. So, among all of the programs for a string, the shortest program is, like Occam’s Razor predicts, the most parsimonious way of generating the string.

What comes next is rather impressive: the shortest program among all of the possible programs is also the most likely to continue to produce the “right” output if the string is continued.  In other words, as a friend coined (and as appears in my book Teleology), “compression is truth” in that the most compressed and compact program is also the best predictor of the future based on the existing evidence. The formalization of these concepts across statistics, computational theory, and recently into philosophy, represents a crowning achievement of information theory in the 20th Century.

I use these ideas regularly in machine learning, and related ideas inform concepts like Support Vector Machines, yet I don’t see a direct connection to human argumentation about complex ideas. Moreover, and I am hesitant to admit this, I am not convinced that human neural anatomy implements much more than vague approximations of these notions (and primarily in relatively low-level perceptual processes).

So does Solomonoff Induction rule out theism? Only indirectly in that it may help us feel confident about a solid theoretical basis for other conceptual processes that more directly interact with the evidence for and against.

I plan on elaborating on algorithmic information theory and its implications in future posts.

Are Theists Obligated to Create a Simulated Universe?

I recently re-read Mark Alan Walker‘s manuscript (unpublished?), A Neo-Irenaean Theodicy: Evolution, Playing God and Becoming Gods. The argument is straightforward and expands on the Theodicy of Irenaeus: God created evil as part of the process of letting His children–humanity–develop their own moral faculties as part of becoming gods ourselves. This quiet trick contra Augustinian Theodicy made it fashionable to treat The Fall as somewhat metaphorical that was inverted by the reclamation of the potential for moral perfection by Mary and Jesus.

Professor Walker’s paper takes Irenaeus further by suggesting that the obligation of becoming like God extends further towards perhaps genetic manipulation of ourselves, for if by having bigger, better brains makes us less likely to sin and more like God, then that transforms into a moral obligation. The argument seems to prescribe even more radical actions, too: are theists morally obligated, following our ascension as gods, to create new universes? Are simulations mandatory? Should Christians begin now?

Singularities as Child’s Play

Dystopian literature is mostly about the unintended consequences of technological change.  Cory Doctorow expands on this theme related to technological singularities on Boing Boing:

Indeed, it seems to me that in literature, the Singularity’s role is to serve as a straw-man for critiquing technology as a one-sided panacea.

Fair enough. Literature and drama are all about conflicts and Man vs. Technology is at least one of the primary conflicts of the modern age.

Heaven stuffBut why is it that we are drawn to this notion of some kind of transcendent mechanism that alleviates us of the struggles of everyday existence? It’s a central theme of Hinduism (get off the wheel of existence), Buddhism (existence is void; free the mind of your very desire of it), Christianity and Islam (post-life existence is better and more perfect). I think it arises from the same predisposition for magical thinking combined with hope that is part of imaginative play among children. In play, the child creates an imagined and utopian existence where their alter egos typically overcome all obstacles. There are a few sex differences that are part conditioning and likely partly biological, but the patterns are remarkably utopian in terms of the dispositions of the children’s play avatars.

The translation of this into adult formulations of heavens filled with inchoate goodness and light (or many virgins), or even an emptiness that defies ordinary characterization, is just an extension of this urge to play. In a technological world, singularities are the secular equivalent, but with the additional propellant of observed technological change that surrounds all of us.