Materialism, Theism, and Information

Over on John C. Wright's blog, there is yet another discussion in the continuing series on Materialism vs. Theism, this one titled Return of the Robot Zombie Slaves.

In one corner, is John Wright, a theist, who holds that there is more to man than just a collection of atoms in a certain pattern. In another corner is Dr. Rolf Andreassen, who is a strict materialist. I'm in the third corner.

Andreassen is trying to argue that one could, in theory, make an exact atomic copy of a man, and that this copy would act identically to the original. Wright is arguing that this isn't the case, because he holds that symbols cannot be reduced to atoms. I think that both of them are wrong. Wright is wrong because symbols can be reduced to atoms (all software can be expressed as NAND gates, for example). Andreassen is wrong, because even though symbols can be encoded as atoms this doesn’t mean that atoms are required for symbols (“in the beginning was the λογος”).

One of the interesting things is Andreassen's attempt to support his position. He wrote:
... I was saying that this proposition (more accurately, the underlying proposition that meaning arises from matter) I believe simply on the grounds that it seems reasonable to me, that my intuition, wisdom, or experience tells me it is so. There is some supporting evidence, such as the disruption of meaning caused by a bullet or a concentration of alcohol to the brain; but how one interprets this is a question of wisdom, as you put it, or intuition, as I prefer.

I observed that his evidence didn't necessarily support his position:
You filtered this evidence through the lens of your worldview. That is, you couldn’t come to any other conclusion without abandoning your materialism. For example, I can put a bullet though a computer and disrupt the working of its software. But that doesn’t say anything about the existence of me, the programmer, who put the software there in the first place. As a materialist, you will automatically exclude the idea of a Programmer for this universe.

Andreassen then went on to say:
You are your body, neither more or less. If I damage your body I damage you; if I destroy your body you cease to exist; I cannot make you cease to exist except by damaging your body.

To which I replied,
Nonsense. You’re letting your materialism control your evaluation of evidence. We exist first and foremost in the mind of God. This body is just a vessel, as it were, for our software.

Andreassen proposed an experiment:
This at least offers itself up to experimental test. I suggest you volunteer to be shot, and we will see whether you still exist after the bullet has passed through your brain. If you wake up in Heaven (or even Hell – the dispute is not about anyone’s virtue), I will admit I was wrong. If your consciousness is snuffed out like a candle, you still won’t admit you were wrong, because you won’t exist. So, clearly, it’s a win-win scenario for you.
Or to put it another way: Your god does not exist, therefore we do not exist in its mind, either primarily, secondarily, or otherwise.

Note what he did. He proposed an experiment where he could not observe the results! The scientist was reduced to bogus science! And so, this becomes the blog entry to receive the “Bad Arguments” tag. There will be more to come.


I had wanted to title this post “A New Word for a New Year”, but cybertheology is already being used. A very superficial survey shows that it is typically used to describe how people use the internet in relation to theology. I want to use the term to describe a scientific discipline with the focus of discovering and understanding God. As a Christian, I hold that God has spoken to us through His prophets and, ultimately, His Son (Heb 1:1-2). But the God who reveals Himself through the written and spoken Word, has also revealed Himself in nature (Rom 1:20). I contend that there will be no conflict between Nature and Theology, but that the scientific study of Nature can be used to inform theology, and theology can be used to inform science. I propose that cybertheology be where these two disciplines meet.

I use the “cyber” prefix because of its relation to computer science. Theology and computer science are related because both deal, in part, with intelligence. Christianity asserts that, whatever else God is, God is intelligence/λογος. The study of artificial intelligence is concerned with detecting and duplicating intelligence. Evidence for God would then deal with evidence for intelligence in nature. I don’t believe it is a coincidence that Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice” [John 10:27] and the Turing test is the primary test for human level AI.

Beyond this, the Turing test seems to say that the representation of intelligence is itself intelligent. This may have implications with the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, which holds that “what God says” is, in some manner, “what God is.”

I also think that science can inform morality. At a minimum, as I’ve tried to show
here, morality can be explained as goal-seeking behavior, which is also a familiar topic in artificial intelligence. Furthermore, using this notion of morality as being goal seeking behavior, combined with John McCarthy’s five design requirements for a human level AI, explains the Genesis account of the Fall in Eden. This also gives clues to the Christian doctrine of “original sin,” a post I hope to write one of these days.

If morality is goal-seeking behavior, then the behavior prescribed by God would be consistent with any goal, or goals, that can be found in nature. Biology tells us that the goal of life is to survive and reproduce. God said “be fruitful and multiply.” [Gen 1:22, 28; 8:17, 9:1...] This is a point of intersection that I think will provide surprising results, especially if Axelrod’s “Evolution of Cooperation” turns out like I think it will.

I also think that game theory can be used to analyze Christianity. Game theory is based on analyzing how selfish entities can maximize their own payoffs when interacting with other selfish agents. I think that Christianity tells us to act selflessly -- that we are to maximize the payoffs of those we interact with. This should be an interesting area to explore. One topic will be bridging the gap between the selfish agents of game theory to the selfless agents of Christianity. I believe that this, too, can be solved.

This may be wishful thinking on the part of a lunatic (or maybe I’m just a simpleton), but I also think that we can go from what we see in nature to the doctrine of justification by faith.

Finally, we look to nature to incorporate its designs into our own technology. If a scientific case can be made for the truth of Christianity, especially as an evolutionary survival strategy, what implications ought that have on public policy?