Eternal life means there will inevitably come a time where it would take you a billion years just to type out how old you are.
Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category
When you reach out to grab your cup of coffee, what is causing this action? Is there a special internal ‘you’ somewhere in there pulling the levers? If so, what is this ‘you’ made of and how does it cause these limbs of meat and bone to move? Or do you believe that you are merely a big heap of atoms, nothing more? How then do mere atoms ‘want’ to grab a cup of coffee?
These are some of the kinds of questions that rear their heads when we start to think about our ‘minds’; who ‘you’ are, what ‘you’ are made of and what our relationship is with the world around us. How is the mind different from the brain?
For a very long time a common view was held (and is still held by some people today) that ‘we’ are a non-physical essence or soul linked in some way to our physical brains — this is called ‘dualism’ because you believe in two types of ‘stuff’ — and this essence is able somehow to cause our brains and therefore our bodies to do things. But this concept is riddled with problems and I’m not going to go into them here suffice to say that very few people who’ve taken an interest in any kind of science of the mind would hold to it.
But in the absence of this non-physical explanation and in the light of the mounting evidence for the brain merely being ‘what the brain does’ we’re left in a bit of an awkward situation. How can mere atoms be emotionally moved by a song? How can bags of chemicals build a car? These kinds of questions become especially difficult when you happen to believe that the universe is such that there is a supreme being out there who has a purpose for you and yet you find dualism decidedly uncompelling. Reductive physicalism (i.e. a world which is only made of physical things that can be explained by describing the smallest parts) doesn’t really seem to have a place for a supreme, purposeful being.
A solution may be at hand however. What if we accept that, yes, atoms do clump together to form molecules and molecules clump together to form organisms that can act in their environment all in a kind of a ‘bottom-up’ path of causation. But then we will notice that things such as natural selection can themselves emerge and have a kind of a ‘top-down’ causation that, in turn, affects and improves these critters that have been produced purely by the actions of atoms. This gives us a way to view the world in the light of the best available evidence (i.e. we can have just atoms and we can include the power of natural selection and so on) at the same time as breaking away from the disconcerting concept of a world in which everything is driven by the mere mindless jiggling of atoms. This is called ‘non-reductive physicalism’ because we admit that we’re made of ordinary matter but the rules that guide atoms are not enough on their own to get us to where we currently are.
I think I spotted a flaw in this logic but in order to effectively illustrate what the error is I’m going to have to go off on a tangent and discuss a geeky bit of software called Conway’s Game of Life.
Conway’s Game of Life was created back in 1970 by mathematician John Horton Conway. In essence it’s a grid of blocks that can be either alive (black) or dead (white) in which each block conforms to four simple rules:
- If you’re alive and have one or less alive neighbours, you’ll die
- If you’re alive and have two or three alive neighbours, you’ll survive
- If you’re alive and have more than three alive neighbours, you’ll die
- If you’re dead and have three alive neighbours you’ll become alive
Using these four simple rules if you start off with a pattern of three dots selected one above the other like an ‘l’ you will find that the top and bottom dots will die (become white) because they each only have one neighbour. The middle dot will remain because it has two neighbours. The empty dots to the left and right of the middle dot will come alive because they both have exactly three alive neighbours. Once this has been calculated the grid is redrawn and you’ll notice that we now have three dots again but this time they’re side-by-side like a dash. If we apply these same rules again we’ll end up with the same configuration that we started with and so on and so on. Not really all that interesting but it’s a start.
There are many different configurations possible. Some of them remain static, some blink like the example above, some bloom out into endless randomness or collapse into a detritus of blinking and static objects. Some that have captured the imagination of many can even ‘travel’ across the screen endlessly or even generate repetitive patterns. See the image on the right for an example of one of the most common travelling objects called a ‘Glider’. See how it obeys the four rules and yet seems to have transcended them in some way. It now seems to have some additional rules like “move on a diagonal down the page and to the right”.
Here, have a play with this one online but please come back to see how this all relates to the seeming conundrum of minds, bodies and non-reductive physicalism.
Even more complex, see the example on the right of a ‘Gun’ which produces an endless stream of gliders. Now we can’t help but lose track of our four simple rules and we’re now seeing actual entities interacting with each other in a seeming causal manner. The gun has got two stopping/absorbing blocks with a couple of arrow-things that fly back and forward between them producing a stream of gliders which move diagonally away from the gun.
Can you see where this is going yet?
What we’re doing — albeit at a simplified level — is we’ve acknowledged that four simple rules can create some interesting patterns and then we’ve started thinking about the movements of the patterns themselves in a way that doesn’t seem to need to account for the four rules any more and, if we aren’t too careful, we might be tempted to think that the four rules weren’t sufficient to describe a ‘Gun’ that ‘produces’ ‘Gliders’.
This is exactly what I see happening when people posit non-reductive physicalism. As with Conway’s Game of Life where I can show you just enough yet be able to drag you back to admitting that, yes, these four simple rules are up to the task of producing what we perceive as guns and gliders so it is with the power of atoms to use a very simple set of rules (i.e. varying degrees of attraction/repulsion/jiggliness and so on) to produce molecules, chemicals and organisms which interact with each other. And to even provide us with brains in which to build mental constructs — which are themselves purely physical — of things such as glider factories and natural selection).
Non-reductive physicalism can be fairly described as “the idea that while mental states are caused by physical states they are not reducible to physical properties”. But what I think they are really saying is “In order for us to understand mental states, we can’t do it just by looking at the atoms that make them up”. Which, to me is exactly the same as saying “while glider guns are caused by the four rules they are not reducible to those rules” or, “In order for us to understand the behaviour of glider guns, we can’t do it just by looking at the the four rules”. But this speaks more to how our limited physical minds operate and how we require the use of analogies within analogies in order to form predictions and descriptions about the world. Not to how the world really is.
Consider this hypothesis:
‘Oughts’ must always be accompanied by a goal of some kind. ‘Ethical oughts’ are a subset in which the goal is in some way related to degrees of pleasure or suffering of others.
If we expand on this we can see examples of fairly straight-forward ‘oughts’ like, “you ought to pour the hot water into the tea cup” where the unspoken goal is “if you want to make a cup of tea then…”. This ‘ought’ combined with these ‘ises’ (i.e. there are ‘ises’ in that there is a cup, that there is water, that there is a creature with a goal of making a cup of tea, etc) show that it is ‘wrong’ to pour the water on the bench and ‘right’ to pour it in the cup. If the goal was to clean the dishes then the ‘ought’ would change.
Ethical ‘oughts’ like, “you ought not steal” have unspoken goals like “if you want to avoid making others unhappy then…”. This ‘ought’ is also derived from a bunch of ‘ises’ (there are other people who are unhappy when stolen from, you are a creature with the ability to steal or not steal, you are a creature who doesn’t want others to be unhappy, etc) and shows that, within this framework, there is a ‘right’ way to act and a ‘wrong’ way to act.
When you read the ethical example you are no doubt asking “well, why ‘ought’ you want others to be happy?” You could ask the same of the tea cup example; why ‘ought’ you make a cup of tea? We can step out to meta-oughts and we’ll find that the same rules apply: that even a meta-ought requires a goal of some kind and that an ethical meta-ought will involve some kind of ability to make others suffer.
We ought to make a cup of coffee because we desire it (thirst, addiction, etc). If we are to fulfil this desire then we ‘ought’ to make a cup of coffee. It is ‘right’ in this context to boil the jug.
We ought to want to make others happy (or, at least, not cause others to suffer) if we find ourselves in a society which returns favours or which punishes us when we cause harm. It is ‘right’ to not cause others to suffer in this context.
What about meta-meta-oughts? The same rules apply. Each meta-ought gradually becomes more and more empirically simple, not more and more supernaturally ethereal. They fade out into ‘ises’. We eventually end up with ‘oughts’ based on how our bodies/brains work. We ought to be thirsty because our bodies trigger a thirst response when they require water to keep working. Conversely, we ought to fight this addiction (if it is one) because our brains — through gradual understanding about how the world works — informs us that even though our bodies desire and reward us for caffeine we are suffering in other ways. We ought to avoid suffering because our bodies use suffering in order to stop us harming ourselves. Our bodies ought to provide these responses if we are to survive and spread our genes. Our genes are configured in this way because if they weren’t we wouldn’t be here. At the very foundation it’s simply a matter of patterns that survive.
At some stage our ethical oughts fade into non-ethical oughts when the ‘ought’ no longer pertains to the well being of others. Even if you believe in the existence of a God who is either a punisher and rewarder (you ought to simply because God says you ought to) or a trustworthy advisor (we ought to because God knows more about how the universe works and his advice can be trusted to bring us happiness) we eventually end up with ethical oughts based on our own personal well being which, as I have shown, fade into non-ethical oughts because they don’t involve the well being of others. If you believe in a God of some kind ask yourself “why oughtn’t I murder?” and follow those meta-oughts as far as you can. I guarantee you’ll end up dealing with a non-ethical ought based on your own well being which, in turn, will end up disappointingly as a mere surviving genetic pattern. (I personally don’t find it disappointing; I think it’s one of the most wonderful things ever. I used to though.)
It shouldn’t really surprise us that complexity arises from simplicity. We have first-hand experience of gradually arising from a single sperm and an egg. We know that the amazing diversity of life evolved from simple chemical reactions billions of years ago. We suspect that the universe itself came about from deep simplicity. When we examine oughts and meta-oughts it certainly feels as though the ought of “you ought not steal” should have come from on high but as with the case of the coffee-making we can see that even this arises from something as simple as looking after our own interests.
At their very foundation, ‘oughts’ (even ethical ‘oughts’) are ‘ises’. It’s the layers of meta-oughts that trick us into thinking otherwise. It’s also the fact that some people are happy to speak the implicit “if you want to make a cup of tea then…” in common oughts but have difficulty speaking the implicit “if you want to avoid causing suffering then…” in what we term ‘ethical oughts’.
(This was originally posted as a comment over at FruitfulFaith and it was only after seeing how monstrously huge it was that I realised it was suitable as a post in itself. I’ve had a lot of different thoughts on morality and the issues that surround it and this is a good distillation of my latest thinking. And like all my previous thoughts this will likely change too — but right now I can’t see any gaping holes and it seems a fairly robust hypothesis capable of explaining a lot.)
Warning: contains offensive language.
But that’s kind of the entire point of the song if you listen to the lyrics.
Imagine, if you will, a person who believes in the power of homeopathy to heal. He’s had a number of experiences that lead him to believe that homeopathy is more than just a placebo. He doesn’t quite know how to explain why it works, he just knows that it does work. This person is no fool. He doesn’t believe every homeopathic claim without regard. He will apply the core tenets of skepticism to examine claims and will discard those where there is a perfectly natural explanation. But where there is no explanation and homeopathy has been used he accepts that this is a result of the the power of homeopathy.
Now, imagine a Christian who believes in miracles. She’s had a number of experiences and heard the testimonies of genuine and reputable people. She doesn’t know how it works only that, occasionally, it really does work. She’s no fool either. She understands skeptical thinking. She won’t accept any and all miracle claims and is aware that there have been many, many bogus claims in the past. But when she sees examples of miracles where there is no natural explanation and the miracle is done in the name of Christianity she accepts that this is a genuine miracle.
In both of these examples, the people are acting perfectly skeptically within their predefined set of beliefs. They are applying the techniques properly and should be commended. But in both of these examples there are two fundamental flaws which, when combined, render the process of skepticism almost useless.
First, if a magician performs a trick and you can’t think of how it could possibly have been done you are usually happy to shrug and say you simply don’t know how he did it. But we are pattern-seeking creatures and it often doesn’t sit well with us to say we don’t know. Especially when the claim seems genuine. We have to find an explanation. In both of these examples our Christian and our homeopath have not been content to simply say “I don’t know” in the absence of a natural explanation and have defaulted to the explanation provided by their predefined beliefs. Which is perfectly understandable given that they have good reason for their beliefs.
Or do they?
This leads me to the second flaw. We have to ask how the homeopath came to the conclusion that homoepathy is actually effective (beyond placebo) in the first place. Did they use the skeptical method? Or could they just not think of a natural explanation and so jumped to the conclusion that homeopathy must therefore be genuine? What about the Christian and her miracles? Was she displaying good critical thinking when she decided that there is a supernatural God capable of supernatural miracles? Why not be content with an “I don’t know” instead of attempting to fill the unexplained with what the unexplainable?
Skeptical thinking breaks down if your premise was not built using the tools of skepticism in the first place.
As an example of this, in a recent blog entry over at Beretta, the author posts three examples of miracles he believes to be genuine at the same time as taking some pains to point out that’s he’s skeptically-minded. One of them was of a man with a lump of some kind being prayed for who is then shown to have no lump. A commenter pointed out that the man is wearing a different shirt later on (which gives us no idea of how long it’s been since being prayed for or what has happened between) whereupon the author wisely agreed and subsequently withdrew his endorsement. But what if the man happened to be wearing the same shirt days, weeks or months later when the two videos were stitched together? How would he ever have discerned whether this was a fake or not?
Skepticism recommends that you should settle for “I don’t know” over a supernatural and unexplainable explanation. Sure, you sometimes have to temporarily choose an explanatory model in the absence of good evidence but if you’ve chosen one that relies on no known natural laws you really owe it to yourself to spend every minute of every waking hour doubting and re-examining your beliefs because:
“Man, once surrendering his reason, has no remaining guard against absurdities the most monstrous, and like a ship without rudder, is the sport of every wind. With such persons, gullibility, which they call faith, takes the helm of reason, and the mind becomes a wreck.” – Thomas Jefferson 1822
If you are a Christian you may boggle at the inanity of this. If, like me, you are not a Christian this will probably make as much sense as the musical manipulation we normally see in happy-clappy churches.
As someone who believes in critical thinking, scepticism and rational enquiry it is with a little trepidation that I want to address the recent announcement of the Atheist Bus Campaign here in New Zealand.
I’ve given more thought than most would on the issue of the existence of God and, after many years of deep belief, have come to the difficult conclusion that it is just not true. For many this question is simply not an issue; they’re either completely ambivalent and would see someone as a bit wonky for believing or they know ‘deep down’ that God exists.
The campaign represents my beliefs nicely. I even respect the use of the word ‘probably’ in the opening line “There’s probably no God”. It’s nice and accurate and less like the dogma we mistrust so much in religion.
You’d think that I’d be quite enthusiastic about the campaign but I’m just not.
I think that replicating the campaign here in New Zealand smacks of an identity crisis fuelled by a little too much US Internet consumption. We just don’t have the same problems they do. A person can become the leader of our nation and not believe in an imaginary God. People don’t seem to think I’m a morally inferior person when they find out that I’m an atheist.
Sure, we have our problems. The main one I can think of regarding religion is that religions are tax exempt by default; all they have to do is “further their religion”. And there is the occasional exorcism/murder but that’s pretty much down to pig-stupidity and I doubt any amount of buses with signs would stop that. Most of our problems are down to a lack of critical thinking. Whether it be alternative medicine that just doesn’t work or our embarrassing statistics on global warming denial or our deep fear of anything not ‘natural’ (whatever that means). Here in New Zealand we have a deep distrust of science and we lack the ability to carefully weigh facts. It’s almost like we’ll back whoever comes out with the most anti-scientific sentiment as if we are backing the number-8-wire-underdog who will come through in the end with their wacky but revolutionary ideas.
I feel that the closest thing to a ‘magic bullet’ here in New Zealand is to teach children how to think critically, how to examine evidence, how not to be fooled in life, at a primary school level. Methods that we can all agree on that they can apply later in life when someone tells them about the latest healing remedy or their life-transforming revelation or the magnets that help them sleep, etc, etc.
I feel that all an Atheist Bus Campaign will do is make those who are ambivalent think that atheists are wannabe martyrs and give a platform for media-desperate fundamentalists who will come off looking semi-respectable in contrast.
To those running the campaign I say good luck and that I agree with what you are saying. I just don’t think it’s going to achieve what you think it’s going to achieve.