Archive for March, 2011

“We all Deserve Hell”

Posted in Evangelism on March 26, 2011 by RWZero

That’s what they would always say when the question came up as to how a loving God could send people to Hell. We’ve all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and as such, we all deserve Hell. It’s really lucky that God chose to save us, though, because he didn’t have to.

So Jack and Jill go on their merry way, thanking God for sparing them the eternal conscious torment that they deserved. Then they fall in love, and decide to have a child, because that’s what people do. They name her Jane. When Jane is old enough, they explain to her that she deserves to suffer eternal torment for falling short of God’s standards. But if she accepts the Lord, she can be spared this terrible fate. Jane decides to accept the Lord, and cannot believe how nice it was of God to keep her out of hell.

Jane meets a nice Christian boy named Jason. After a few years of nice Christian marriage, they decide that it would be nice to have a child around the house. They name him Joe. When Joe is old enough, they explain to him that (unfortunately) he is a sinful creature who deserves to burn in hell for all eternity, but if he accepts God’s gracious forgiveness for all his sin, he can avoid this terrible fate. But he doesn’t. He stops going to church, and decides to become a career man who doesn’t really believe in God.  Jane and Jason are mortified. They pray and pray that Joe will change his mind, so that he will not be tormented forever.

To me, it seems pretty simple. To wake up in the morning, butter your toast, hold down a steady job, cheer for your favourite sports team, talk with co-workers around the water cooler, and maintain that kind of a theology, your thinking has to be seriously compartmentalized.

But to hold that kind of theology and intentionally have biological children of your own, you have to be utterly sick.

Science, Scientists and Scientism

Posted in Faith and Science on March 18, 2011 by RWZero

“Science and religion,” reads the headline. A lively discussion is anticipated. Yet this is a topic that thrives primarily on equivocation–vague statements are made, and vague counterpoints are offered. At the end of the day, nothing is said. If the participants would abandon their propriety and admit the weaknesses in their positions, however, it might be possible to say something. I think Stephen Jay Gould was wrong about NOMA. I think science and religion (here meaning the Christian religion) do overlap, but I do not think they mix.

The first thing that one notices about “science and religion” is that the very topic itself is vague. We don’t talk about “sociology and grapefruits,” so what is it that has gotten these two words in the same phrase together? Three questions come to mind:

– Is natural history, human evolution, and the nature of the world compatible with a theistic view?

– Have we explained away our souls, and other religious ideas (e.g. sin)?

– Are miracles possible?

It seems that even heavyweight minds are content to engage in complex dances of politeness in order to avoid conceding the weaknesses in their own positions, and letting their supporters down.

There are various weaknesses in the Christian position. Amongst those who are able to come to terms with the age of the earth and the origin of the human race, there nonetheless exists a certain superficial aloofness towards the implications of scientific discoveries. Yes, I believe that scientists are good and right, and their efforts have also built me fine technology. Now let us discuss the mind of God, which cannot be addressed by science. But it is really not as simple as that. Science is not the study of atoms and chemical reactions; it is the study of all things. Christians tend to wiggle away without really accepting the picture painted by our discoveries about the world.

Evolution, for instance, is not just a question of whether we are descended from animals, but the whole natural history that led up to our descent, including the existence of non-human hominids, prehistoric religious activity, the amount of time that we have been around, and the evolutionary programming that shapes our behaviour today. Some Christians seem to think it is possible to believe in evolution whilst denying that it has any influence on our ideas about sex, our life goals, and decision-making. As if we can simply brush a million years of dust and move on with our free, individual lives, while thanking God for “using evolution” to get us here. But this is not accurate at all. Evolution has tremendous explanatory power, and it even offers compelling explanations for why we developed ideas about sin and morality in the way we did. It raises real conflicts with a Christian view of humanity’s place in the world. On the other side of this coin, however, is the inability of many atheists to admit that evolution cannot explain why things are the way they are. We have evolved impulses towards religion and morality for clear reasons; however, it is an entirely separate question as to why we live in a universe where intelligent creatures universally evolve such impulses–whether the evolved impulses are directed towards something that has any ontological substance.

The question of the soul is contentious. On the one hand, all human behaviour seems to be deeply rooted in the brain. This has led some materialists to dismiss the idea of a transcendent component to human existence. Christians often dismiss such talk of the brain as an inability to see through the blinders of science, but they often have not properly read up on the relevant experiments, and the biology of their own brains. If they did, they would realize how fragile they are, and they would be less confident in the continuation of their personality, and the immutability of their souls. Yet science has not totally deconstructed the person, and it is wrong to assert that we have completely accounted for ourselves. The hard problem of consciousness is problem that will not go away: and we cannot really know that there is “nothing more” to us than a brain, for this would be a brain saying something about itself that it is in no position to say.

Miracles are not a difficult issue, if one is willing to be honest. Science has made many miracles more difficult to believe, because it has given us testable alternative explanations for many of them, and explained how others have come about. Knowing just how many atoms are in a bowl of pudding, and how complex their interactions are with the world, makes it harder to believe that bowls of pudding can simply disappear. The ascension of Jesus looks a lot more like a fabricated addition to the end of the gospels when one discovers that there is no place up in the sky for Jesus to go. When we discover the inner workings of a system, we can recognize stories that are made up by people who do not understand it. In Genesis, we read about “waters below” and “waters above.” The waters above cease to be confusing when the modern reader remembers that the ancients saw a blue sky, and they believed what they saw.

Yet science has not really eliminated miracles at all. The claim that someone has risen from the dead, or that cancer has been healed, does not really “contradict science.” Science observes what tends to happen–what is normal. A miracle has always been a miracle precisely because it is not normal, and it is nothing more than an abnormal observation. The ancients would have been just as surprised by the walking dead and we would be. Their scientific illiteracy did nothing to detract from their observation that dead people stay dead, objects tend to fall to the ground, and so on. The unilateral denial of the “supernatural” and miracles would be one thing if people did not report them. But they do, and sometimes quite compellingly. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence in order to be admitted into the realm of scientific inquiry, but they do not require extraordinary evidence to be believed unless you decide it is so. A hardened materialist might say that miracles do not occur in laboratories because they are all fabricated. But it is also possible that “miracles” do not occur in laboratories because most of the things in the world that can be controlled (and hence performed in a laboratory) have been figured out, whereas the things that cannot be so easily studied have not. A true skeptic will go on doing science without feeling the need to aggressively debunk miracles, for he knows that they have not interfered with his work before, and this is all that matters to him.

*   *   *

Every interaction in my life has contributed to my perception that scientists are often terrible philosophers. It is intuitive to imagine that someone who has intensely studied some facet of the world will be best equipped to discuss the meaning of it all. But experience does not seem to vindicate our intuition in this case–it has shown us that scientists are normal human beings who, unless they develop their thinking in the areas under consideration, will have no advantage over the common person in answering the question. We know that biologists study the human body, so we ask them: who are we? We know that cosmologists study the cosmos, so we ask them, what is all this? But we often only get the answers that serve the needs of the discipline–mere definitions and tautologies that are useful for practicing the science at hand, but say nothing in and of themselves. For some reason or another, the secrets of the universe are pliable to the adult mind in the same way that the everyday world is pliable to the childlike mind. A girl and a boy catch sight of each other across the room. The one giggles, and the other turns away. A conversation begins. They know how to manipulate the circumstances, but if they are too young, they will not know what is happening, and why they do as they do.

Praying for Stupid Things

Posted in Faith Experience on March 10, 2011 by RWZero

Lookie here,

I realize that you have schoolwork, professional work, job interviews, deadlines, parking tickets, and a dull ache in your hip that is almost certainly temporary. I’ve noticed that a lot of you pray about these things quite a bit. But I’ve also noticed something else.

I’ve noticed that in the past 24 hours, a large number of people have died. Others have been raped, tortured, shot with automatic weapons, and had various parts of their body separated from the part of their body that their head is attached to. Some of them appear to be prayerful.

Additionally, I’ve noticed that the majority of the population–who, in spite of whatever religion they may mark down on the census, do not seem to pray about these things–recover from their minor injuries, pay their parking tickets, meet their deadlines, and succeed at their job interviews, with about exactly the same rates of success as the people who pray.

The bus will come when it comes, your stubbed toe will heal when it heals, and you will get the job if your interviewers liked you (not if God likes you more than the other praying candidate).

You are being ridiculous.

On Monistic Idealism and the Primacy of the Mind

Posted in The Facts and Ideas on March 5, 2011 by RWZero


At the time of writing, I am a pessimist. If there were any view of reality that could help me gain some optimism (and I am unsure of this), it would be the only one that I suspect may have some truth to it—that is, monistic idealism, or something very much like it.

Here I have expressed the views that would take, if I were to adopt the position myself. They would be my answers to the questions, which I have developed by thinking about it alone in my room, and by reading about everything in the world. They do not necessarily represent the views expressed by people who ascribe to monistic idealism, as I am not yet well-acquainted with the opinions of such people. Some of the ideas below are actually held by respectable people, while many others are simply wild and unwarranted speculation. I nonetheless consider it important to develop one’s own views before spoiling them with trends and consensus.

It is important to note, while reading this, that I do not actually know the answers to these questions. Rather, this is what I would say if I were forced, at gunpoint, to put on a suit and deliver all the answers from a podium.

What is monistic idealism?

Monistic idealism is essentially the view that consciousness is the ground of all being. Mind creates matter, and the physical world does not objectively exist outside of the mind.

What reason is there to believe this?

Monistic idealism can handle all the results of modern science, and it admits the hard problem of consciousness. It leaves the biggest questions unanswered, but nonetheless reduces the number of questions. It is a parsimonious description of the world.

What does this have to do with science?

The work done in science initially showed us that reality obeyed certain physical “laws.” Everything is casually linked in a testable and consistent way. Under the assumption that the “laws of physics” were the same everywhere, experiments allowed people to manipulate and understand (in some sense) the world around them by doing whatever worked the first time.

However, alongside this mechanistic aspect of reality, there has always been the philosophical question of whether something is “really there” if you are not observing it. Everyone is familiar with this because of the oft-repeated question: “If a tree falls in the forest, and there is no-one there to hear it, does it make a sound?”

Today, this question most often appears as a sarcastic or trite allusion to the navel-gazing futility of philosophical reasoning. But the question has a simple answer: no, the tree does not make a sound. One might argue that air surrounding the tree is disturbed, but a “sound” is an experience that is had when little bones rattle in the ears of an observer. If there is no observer, there is no sound.

The philosophical question of reality existing apart from observation does relativity and quantum mechanics. While the methods are highly complex and the interpretations contentious, a few simple and undeniable conclusions arise:

–         Physical particles do not have absolute positions or velocities. Moreover, particles exhibit wave-like behaviour, and do not actually have to “be” anywhere unless observation requires them to be there. They can be in two places at once.

–         There is no objective, universal “now”

–         There is no objective, universal speed of an object

The scientific results of the 20’th century could be viewed as counting against the objective existence of the physical world, except inasmuch as it exists “for” the observer. The evidence seems to indicate that the only thing that is “real” is what is observed. Particles/waves only exhibit specific behaviours when they are forced to for the sake of “observation.” Time and distance are not measured by a universal standard, but relative to an observer.

Many scientists would not endorse such interpretations, but it is up to you how you would like to interpret the facts.

What about the hard problem of consciousness?

The hard problem of consciousness, and the issue of qualia, is, in my view, the most insoluble problem that exists. Simply put, it is the question of why we experience information. Why do we experience anything at all? We are made out of the same material as all the inanimate objects around us. A materialist outlook can causally link every event in the universe, but it cannot account for the experience of information. Although various arguments (such as the inverted spectrum argument) have been formulated to illustrate the hard problem of consciousness to those who are not familiar with it, it is a problem that is obvious to any honest, living, questioning brain, and I think it is denied chiefly by materialists (e.g. Dennett) who depend on the robustness of scientific materialism for their personal well being, among other things. Ironically, deniers of the hard problem of consciousness deny even the existence of a problem. But while people are demonstrably susceptible to arguments about things that do not exist, they are unlikely to argue about problems that do not exist.

The uniformity of qualia (or, whether the colour red is experienced identically by everyone) is quite beside the point. No amount of correlation between the wavelength that corresponds to “red” and the behaviour induced in human brains can explain the subjective experience of the colour red. There is not, and there cannot be, any empirical description of a private experience, because there is no explanation provided as to why it should happen at all. Furthermore, it is often overlooked that everything in our lives—including the very arguments about the hard problem of consciousness, and the measurement of “objective” data—is a subjective experience. The vivid glow of the screen as you read this text against the black background is not objective data. It is an experience. There are scientific descriptions of these events that will predict all the events around you, and even your own actions, with great accuracy; but they exist only as the experience of taking the measurements, making the conjectures, and publishing the scientific papers. The “objective data” of wavelengths disturbing your retina and sending the signals to your brain exists only as the subjective experience of measuring the wavelengths, dissecting retinas, and recording the observations in vivid, subjective sense-terms. Data can always be described in terms of experiences; experiences cannot be described in terms of data.

If the hard problem of consciousness is so simple to recognize, why is there so much rigorous and detailed argument surrounding it? Possibly because by admitting it, one is admitting a problem that is very difficult, if not impossible to explain, and has mystical overtones. It feeds the wild speculation of New Age believers, among other things. This is thoroughly contrary to the mood that has been established in modern scientific circles, and it inspires (perhaps healthily) fear in them.

The hard problem of consciousness is the crux of monistic idealism, which suggests that consciousness is the ground of all being. Subjective experience of mind is the thing that is “just there,” the thing that was not created, but the thing that creates. One no longer needs to explain how all the material causes in the universe led up to such a queer, freak circumstance on one lonely planet. Rather, consciousness is the thing that cannot be explained. It is the first mover. It is the bottom of the mystery, and it bends the material world to allow for its existence, creating whatever causal chain is necessary.

“Primacy of mind?”

If one begins with materialism (without explaining any of the physical laws, and without explaining why there is matter in the first place), attempting to arrive at one’s present condition, the result is catastrophic, and the result is profoundly nihilistic. If one simply asserts the mind, however, one can truly believe in one’s own existence, and can explore even a cold and empty world as something that is beneath the mind, rather than the creator of the mind.

Hawking has recently co-authored a book (the Grand Design) which alludes strongly to these ideas. He touches on the lack of an objective reality, and even mentions the anthropic principle. He also discusses this idea of asserting the existence of the mind when he discusses a “top-down” approach to reality, calling humans the “lords of creation [in a sense],” because they have selected out the history of the universe in which conscious life exists. The authors do not even mention consciousness, however.  Why don’t they explore those ideas? They end the book by taking a stand upon the law of gravity, asserting that we exist “because there is such a law as gravity” and “the universe can and will create itself from nothing.” The authors then go on to say that because of this, there is no God necessary to “light the blue touch paper” and start the universe off. While the full complexities of modern science are inscrutable to all but a few (if any) human minds, the absurdity of such statements is obvious to all. The existence of these statements is best explained not by scientific analysis, but by psychoanalysis. Hawking is dying. He is running out of time to explain the universe, so he is making a stand on the best science of the day.

Monistic idealism is parsimonious because it does not assert an unobservable multiverse, nor does it leave all the physical theories of matter to be reconciled with each other. It asserts only what we all know to exist: consciousness. We are still left with huge problems, but we are perhaps closer to the truth about the huge problems.

So then what’s the point of existence?

This isn’t a religion. It doesn’t answer this question. A possible non-teleological purpose of existence is to have a bunch of minds, and the single, sole purpose of all physical matter (which is more a network of experiences than something that is “there”) is to ensure that no two observers disagree on what they are experiencing, hence arriving at a contradiction. This is the reason for the existence of oranges, squirrels, chess, cavemen, the universe, and everything. These things all exist only in order to maintain the consistency of our observations and allow us to communicate with each other—to consistently answer any question that can be asked by a subjective observer, with any degree of rigour. This explains the intense causal linkage between everything that is discovered by the scientific method. The universe that we observe is the only way that such minds can exist and communicate.

The teleological purpose of existence (if there is one) is totally inaccessible to human minds, and may or may not remain this way, in life or in death. But we appear to be moving towards something. Far be it from me to stifle your speculation.

So where did the universe come from?

Perhaps it did not “come from” anywhere. We (and any other conscious beings that exist, or “the consciousness” if there is only one big mind) create the universe, along with its deep history and its perplexing collapse backwards in time, when we ask the right questions. The universe exists because there has to be a consistent history that answers all the questions that can be asked.

Still. Why is there something rather than nothing?

Some people think that it’s possible to get an answer to this question. Some even think they have provided a satisfactory answer. I laugh in their faces.

Perhaps there’s no such thing as nothing?

Why the hell am I in this body with four limbs, a circulatory system, lungs, bones, etc.? Why are we born as little children, slowly coming into higher consciousness?

This is just the way it works out. This is what is necessitated by consistency of experience. Why you are experiencing your particular body during a particular time (rather than some other body and time) is still an unanswerable question, as is the question of whether there are other types of conscious beings.

Perhaps brains are like ham radios that both measure and distort the electromagnetic field (the “field” being, in this case, consciousness, or ultimate reality). Having a larger brain is like having a larger radio antenna.

What about paranormal phenomena?

Monistic idealism accommodates paranormal phenomena (if you believe in the stories that you hear from your friends), because it suggests the ultimate reality of the mind. Phenomena such as action at a distance, correlations of dreams with distant or unobserved events, vivid visions that appear to supersede physical reality, can all be accounted for under the hypothesis that reality is mental in nature; if no information exists to prevent the occurrence of an event (by making it logically impossible), this event can occur, even though it most likely will not.

But there’s just so much stuff in the physical world, including my body. When I leave an eraser crumb in the corner and come back years later, it’s still there. The physical world simply has to exist outside of the mind.

You only say this because you find your personal, consistent experiences of the physical world so convincing, which is what this is all about.

In fact that eraser crumb has a minuscule effect on everything in its surroundings (spatial and temporal), which eventually tie into someone’s singular experience of the world, such that the crumb couldn’t be in any other place when you look for it.

What about meaninglessness, suffering, death, oppression, emotional pain, pensions, and so on? Why do our lives involve so many useless details, and why are we so unaware of truth and purpose?

The evidence indicates that it is not ultimately important whether people are clueless, or suffer from meaninglessness. Most of the people throughout history were profoundly clueless, and they died clueless. This is probably going to be the case with us. We are part of something bigger that we cannot understand (even if you are an atheist who does not accept any of the arguments here, this is true), and at the moment it clearly does not matter to this big thing that we understand it, or live meaningful lives.

So again: what’s the point of existence?

How am I supposed to know? Participate in it, maybe, on the expectation that there is some kind of a story unwinding, and that the source of your consciousness is the ground of all being (therefore even though “you” will personally die, existence cannot be destroyed by death)? Love the other people? Try to figure something out that will be helpful?

What about morals?

Suffering and experience are the most real things that exist; therefore the golden rule holds, because the things you cause in other people’s minds are real. Also, on this view, hurting someone else may literally be the indirect or delayed injury of yourself.

Life sucks.

We actually don’t live that long.

Won’t everyone eventually die?

Well on this view, no, every conscious being cannot die (even though this is suggested by our understanding of reality, and modern physics), because subjective experience is what ultimately exists. The universe does not really exist in and of itself, and it cannot exist without observers. How consciousness will go on existing is a mystery, and perhaps if we live long enough we will find out. Perhaps when you die to drain back into the vat of bubbling, steaming mental awareness.

There are many who would assert that a lifeless universe can easily exist, since it is so easy to imagine. But it can only be imagined so long as you exist to imagine it. If we were to posit a God who is invisible, and does not interact with any human beings (nor has he ever interacted with human beings), the question of whether he is there is meaningless, and many would assert that he does not exist. These same people are quick to defend a universe full of lifeless rocks, containing no observers. But the very idea, in and of itself, has no meaning. This may seem counterintuitive, but some reflection will do it justice. In the lifeless universe, what speed does a particular particle travel at? How does time flow (and for whom does it flow?) Where are the particles? The results of modern science have destroyed our conceptions of objectivity in this regard. A lifeless universe is impossible to imagine, and the extension of this idea (mad as it may seem) is that there are no lifeless universes, and there never will be.

What about determinism?

We know because of quantum mechanics that the universe is ultimately not deterministic. Perhaps this is because consciousness creates matter, and things are only as certain (i.e. determined) as they have to be to keep all observations consistent. Human beings may or may not have free will, but since they cannot define it (because of the Standard Problem), those who can accept the mystery can live as if they have free will.

It may be argued that human beings must be determined because the structures in the brain are too large for quantum effects to play any role, even if quantum effects could be philosophically associated with freedom of the will. This is irrelevant because human behaviour ultimately is correlated with external factors that we have no knowledge of, and these are not determined. If a person is instructed to perform a certain action based on the timing of three random isotope decays, the person has just performed an action that resulted directly from a non-deterministic process. Additionally, various human behaviours arise from the givens of existence (i.e. the self-awareness, the knowledge of one’s own condition). These are rational thoughts that are not clearly “caused’ by any particular input. Rather, the input is the existence of the device that receives the input. This forms a feedback loop, which creates what we might commonly call a mystery—something that treads on its own assumptions.

What about the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics?

I don’t know, but let me speculate wildly:

Consciousness is absolute. The mind houses perfect abstractions. The physical world cannot contain perfect abstractions because it is dependent upon observation, and for whatever reason, it is impossible for such abstractions to facilitate the interaction between observers. They contain infinities. A circle can be imagined at some distance, but the closer one gets, the more the curvature must adapt to accommodate the information that is requested (analogous, perhaps, to requesting more digits of Pi). Pi is an infinitely long number, and it cannot be imagined instantaneously in its entirety, since subjective experience seems to require (for reasons unknown) limitation.

What is death? What happens when I die?

One might imagine that people are like a vast array of windows looking out onto a scene from different perspectives. When a person is born, a window is opened. When a person dies, a window is closed. What you personally experience is really not known, of course. Notice, however, that when you wake up in the morning, you seem to appear out of absolutely nowhere.

The teleological view of death is that it generates a larger and more holistic spectrum of experience (childhood can only be experienced once by a person who lives and dies, perhaps).

Why are we all split up into so many separate minds? Are we unique beings, or a single consciousness?

If there is one consciousness (i.e. pantheism), perhaps separate minds are the best way for it to learn something about itself. If we are unique individuals, I have no clue. I have no clue either way, really.

What about rational thought?

On materialism, rational thought becomes very difficult to explain, because every one of our thoughts (even this thought about rational thought) is enslaved by the causes that generated the thoughts. These causes have no more reason to result in a “right” answer than a “wrong” answer, since they are blind causes determined by arbitrary physical laws. There is no reason why they should not be hopelessly and irreparably deceived. On monistic idealism, rational thought is the ability of consciousness to manipulate and apprehend the reality that it creates, because it transcends and supersedes this reality.

What should people do with their lives?

Let me speculate based on the assumption that there is a purpose to the universe:

People engage in isolated and communal activities. Some of the isolated activities (science, knowledge, technology) advance the evolving universe towards something, like turning the pages of a story. The communal activities fill the pages of the story. The rest of the stuff that happens in between is largely bad, it seems, and the purpose of it is unknown to the individuals. It is possible that there is nothing specific that you are supposed to do with your life–that you can be aware of, at least. But you did not choose to exist. You are being forced to exist, and whatever mysterious and twisting nether is forcing you to exist is achieving its goal perfectly. You are meeting its needs. Be happy that you’re meeting its needs.

Does anyone else believe this?

Some very intelligent people, such as Christopher Langan, reach a similar type of conclusion. Langan is quoted as saying that “you cannot describe the universe completely with any accuracy unless you’re willing to admit that it’s both physical and mental in nature.” I think Langan is noteworthy because he is very smart, but he was also never poisoned by any academic biases of the day, and hence he does not feel pressure to deny the mental nature of the universe, or the possibility that it has a purpose.

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Now back to our regularly scheduled programming.