But I digress. On December 17, 2015, Dr. Hawkins wrote to Wheaton in which she explained the reasons for her position as well as her personal statement of faith.
Opinion is of course, split, concerning the question of whether or not Muslims and Christians worship the same God. Dr. Edward Feser addressed the issue in the affirmative here. Vox Day, and many of his readers, answered in the negative, here. Last night at dinner, my wife initially said, "no"; this morning at breakfast, my reform seminary graduate friend Steve immediately said "yes."
I think Wheaton College is about to fall into a pit that they just don't yet see.
Let us consider two cases, one from literature and one from science. For literature, consider the two authors C. S. Lewis, who wrote the Narnia Chronicles, and Gene Roddenberry, who wrote Star Trek. Now suppose that there are two groups of people. One group asserts that humans owe their existence to having entered our world through a gate from Narnia. This is, of course, backwards from the way Lewis told the story in "The Magicians Nephew" — but bear with me. The other group asserts that humans originally came from the planet Vulcan. And again, in the original lore, it was the Romulans who were the offshoots of the Vulcans — just let me run with this. The only thing these two groups have in common is the idea that we came from somewhere else. Everything else is completely different and they are completely different because they are solely products of human imagination. Fans may argue the differences between Narnia and Star Trek, or Battlestar Galactica and Babylon 5. No one takes them seriously (except themselves) because we know it's "just fiction." It doesn't make sense to argue about which imaginary world is right.
Now consider the realm of science which attempts to discern how Nature works. We believe that this Nature exists independently of us. It is not a product of our imagination. At one time, science advanced the theory of the aether which was thought to be necessary for the propagation of light. But the Michelson-Morley experiments showed that this theory was wrong. Improvements to experiments to test Bell's inequality have shown that local realism isn't a viable theory of quantum mechanics. No discussion of misguided and incorrect scientific theories would be complete without mention of the famous phrase, attributed to Wolfgang Pauli, "That is not only not right, it is not even wrong." And let us not forget to mention String Theory, where some scientists say that not only is it not good science, it isn't science at all; while other scientists claim that it's really the only theory which can unite relativity and quantum mechanics. (As always, Lubos Motl is entertaining and instructive to read when it comes to String Theory).
In this case, we do not say, "you aren't studying the same nature we are." We say, "your understanding of nature is flawed."
If Wheaton continues down this path with Dr. Hawkins, whether they know it or not, they will be giving aid and comfort to those who claim that God is purely imaginary. And if they do that, then they are the ones who have betrayed their statement of faith.
Robots are deterministic finite state machines.
Dogs are non-deterministic finite state machines.
Humans are also non-deterministic finite state machines that have greater complexity than dogs (our ability to extend our memory through writing makes us, effectively, Turing machines, which are finite state machines that have infinite memory).
I will condense this to:
Man is the animal that uses external storage.
As of this posting, Google finds no matches for this sentence, nor does it match if "that" is replaced with "who". So I lay claim to originality of phrase.
Other examples of "man is the animal" below the fold.
Two monks were arguing about a flag. One said, "The flag is moving." The other said, "The wind is moving." The sixth patriarch, Zeno, happened to be passing by. He told them, "Not the wind, not the flag; mind is moving."
-- "Gödel, Escher, Bach", Douglas Hofstadter, pg. 30
Is thought material or immaterial? By "material" I mean an observable part of the universe such as matter, energy, space, charge, motion, time, etc... By "immaterial" would be meant something other than these things.
The problem with which we are now concerned is a very old one, since it was brought into philosophy by Plato. Plato's 'theory of ideas' is an attempt to solve this very problem, and in my opinion it is one of the most successful attempts hitherto made. … Thus Plato is led to a supra-sensible world, more real than the common world of sense, the unchangeable world of ideas, which alone gives to the world of sense whatever pale reflection of reality may belong to it. The truly real world, for Plato, is the world of ideas; for whatever we may attempt to say about things in the world of sense, we can only succeed in saying that they participate in such and such ideas, which, therefore, constitute all their character. Hence it is easy to pass on into a mysticism. We may hope, in a mystic illumination, to see the ideas as we see objects of sense; and we may imagine that the ideas exist in heaven. These mystical developments are very natural, but the basis of the theory is in logic, and it is as based in logic that we have to consider it. [It] is neither in space nor in time, neither material nor mental; yet it is something. [Chapter 9]
I claim that Russell and Plato are wrong. Not necessarily that ideas exist independently from the material. They might.1 Rather, I claim that if ideas do exist apart from the physical universe, then we can't prove that this is the case. The following is a bare minimum outline of why.
LogicLogic deals with the combination of separate objects. Consider the case of boolean logic. There are sixteen way to combine apples and oranges, such that two input objects result in one output object. These sixteen possible combinations are enumerated here. The table uses 1's and 0's instead of apples and oranges, but that doesn't matter. It could just as well be bees and bears. For now, the form of the matter doesn't matter. What's important is the outputs associated with the inputs2.
CompositionSuppose, for the sake of argument, that we have 16 devices that combine things according to each of the 16 possible ways to combine two things into one. We can compose a sequence of those devices where the output of one device becomes the input to another device. We first observe that we don't really need 16 different devices. If we can somehow change an "orange" into an "apple" (or 1 into 0, or a bee into a bear) and vice versa, then we only need 8 devices. Half of them are the same as the other half, with the additional step of "flipping" the output. With a bit more work, we can show that two of the sixteen devices when chained can produce the same output as any of the sixteen devices. These two devices, known as "NOT OR" (or NOR) and "NOT AND" (or NAND) are called "universal" logic devices because of this property. So if we have one device, say a NAND gate, we can do all of the operations associated with Boolean logic.3
CalculationNAND devices (henceforth called gates) are a basis for modern computers. The composition of NAND gates can perform addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, and so on. As an example, the previously referenced page concluded by using NAND gates to build a circuit that added binary numbers. This circuit was further simplified here and then here.
MemoryWe further observe that by connecting two NAND gates a certain way that we can implement memory.
ComputationMemory and calculation, all of which are implemented by arrangements of NAND gates, are sufficient to compute anything which can be computed (cf. Turing machines and the Church-Turing thesis).
MeaningElectrons flowing through NAND gates don't mean anything. It's just the combination and recombination of high and low voltages. How can it mean anything? Meaning arises out of the way the circuits are wired together. Consider a simple circuit that takes two inputs, A and/or B. If both inputs are A it outputs A, if both inputs are B then it outputs A, and if one input is A and the other is B, it outputs B. By making the arbitrary choice that "A" represents "yes" or "true" or "equal", more complex circuits can be built that determine the equivalence of two things. This is the simplified version of Hofstadter's claim:
When a system of "meaningless" symbols has patterns in it that accurately track, or mirror, various phenomena in the world, then that tracking or mirroring imbues the symbols with some degree of meaning -- indeed, such tracking or mirroring is no less and no more than what meaning is.
-- Gödel, Escher, Bach; pg P-3
Neurons and NAND gatesThe brain is a collection of neurons and axons through which electrons flow. A computer is a collection of NAND gates and wires through which electrons flow. The differences are the number of neurons compared to the number of NAND gates, the number and arrangement of wires, and the underlying substrate. One is based on carbon, the other on silicon. But the substrate doesn't matter.
That neurons and NAND gates are functionally equivalent isn't hard to demonstrate. Neurons can be arranged so that they perform the same logical operation as a NAND gate. A neuron acts by summing weighted inputs, comparing to a threshold, and "firing" if the weighted sum is greater than the threshold. It's a calculation that can be done by a circuit of NAND gates.
Logic, Matter, and WavesIt's possible to create logic gates using particles. See, for example, the Billiard-ball computer, or fluid-based gates where particles (whether billiard balls or streams of water) bounce off each other such that the way they bounce can implement a universal gate.
It's also possible to create logic gates using waves. See, for example, here [PDF] and here [paid access] for gates using acoustics and optics.
I suspect, but need to research further, that waves are the proper way to model logic, since it seems more natural to me that the combination of bees and bears is a subset of wave interference rather than particle deflection.
4 So why are Russell and Plato wrong? It is because it is the logic gates in our brains that recognize logic, i.e. the way physical things combine. Just as a sequence of NAND gates can output "A" if the inputs are both A or both B; a sequence of NAND gates can recognize itself. Change a wire and the ability to recognize the self goes away. That's why dogs don't discuss Plato. Their brains aren't wired for it. Change the wiring in our brains and we wouldn't, either. Hence, while we can separate ideas from matter in our heads, it is only because of a particular arrangement of matter in our heads. There's no way for us to break this "vicious" circle.
Footnotes "In the beginning was the Word..." As a Christian, I take it on faith that the immaterial, transcendent, uncreated God created the physical universe.
 Note that the "laws of logic" follow from the world of oranges and apples, bees and bears, 1s and 0s. Something is either an orange or an apple, a bee or a bear. Thus the "law" of contradiction. An apple is an apple, a zero is a zero. Thus the "law" of identity. Since there are only two things in the system, the law of the excluded middle follows.
 This previous post shows how NAND gates can be composed to calculate all sixteen possible ways to combine two things.
 "Drawing Hands", M. C. Escher
Several weeks ago, the teacher stated (paraphrasing) that "we believe 2+2=4 because of the axioms of mathematics." However, in "Quantum Computing Since Democritus", on page 10, Aaronson writes:
How can we state axioms that will put the integers on a more secure foundation, when the very symbols and so on that we're using to write down the axioms presuppose that we already know what the integers are?
Well, precisely because of this point, I don't think that axioms and formal logic can be used to place arithmetic on a more secure foundation. If you don't already agree that 1+1=2, then a lifetime of studying mathematical logic won't make it any clearer!
Today, in passing, it was said that responsibility necessitates the free will of man. Nothing could be further from the truth. I continued my reading of Aaronson during lunch today and came across this gem on pages 290-291:
Before we start, there are two common misconceptions that we have to get out of the way. The first one is committed by the free will camp, and the second by the anti-free-will camp.
The misconception committed by the free will camp is the one I alluded to before: if there's no free will, then none of us are responsible for our actions, and hence (for example) the legal system would collapse….
Actually, I've since found a couplet by Ambrose Bierce that makes the point very eloquently:
"There's no free will," says the philosopher;
"To hang is most unjust."
"There is no free will," assent the officers.
"We hang because we must."
Looking ahead to the end of the chapter, Aaronson brings Conway's "Free-Will Theorem" into play. What he doesn't apparently discuss (I've just scanned here and there), is that this randomness is not under our control.
But what to study? My standard response these days is either theology or computer science. Then I add that I'm not sure that I really see a difference between the two. While driving in to work this morning, my subconscious found that my flippancy isn't so far off the mark. If thought is matter in motion in certain patterns (which it is), then writing software is the act of putting thought in physical form. A moment's reflection shows that this must be so: the computer is all hardware. The software is just ones and zeros but, again, this is just a collection of physical states arranged in specific ways. If the criticism is that "computers don't think!", the answer is that this is because computers don't have the huge number of connections that are in the human brain. But in time they will.
Putting thought in physical form is what God did with His Son. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. … And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us." Jesus is God's thoughts in physical form.
So Christianity and computer science are both incarnational.
The "autonomous" section is concerned with the functions of the brain that operate apart from conscious awareness or control. It will receive no more mention.
The "introspection" division monitors the goal processing portion. It is able to monitor and describe what the goal processing section is doing. The ability to introspect the goal processing unit is what gives us our "knowledge of good and evil." See What Really Happened In Eden, which builds on The Mechanism of Morality. I find it interesting that recent studies in neuroscience show:
But here is where things get interesting. The subjects were not necessarily consciously aware of their decision until they were about to move, but the cortex showing they were planning to move became activated a full 7 seconds prior to the movement. This supports prior research that suggests there is an unconscious phase of decision-making. In fact many decisions may be made subconsciously and then presented to the conscious bits of our brains. To us it seems as if we made the decision, but the decision was really made for us subconsciously.
The goal processing division is divided into two opposing parts. In order to survive, our biology demands that we reproduce, and reproduction requires food and shelter, among other things. We generally make choices that allow our biology to function. So part of our brain is concerned with selecting and achieving goals. But the other part of our brain is based on McCarthy's insight that one of the requirements for a human-level artificial intelligence is that "All aspects of behavior except the most routine should be improvable. In particular, the improving mechanism should be improvable." I suspect McCarthy was thinking along the lines of Getting Computers to Learn. However, I think it goes far beyond this and explains much about the human mind. In particular, introspection of the drive to improve leads to the idea that nothing is what it ought to be and gives rise to the is-ought problem. If one part of the goal processing unit is focused on achieving goals, this part is concerned with focused on creating new goals. As the arrows in the diagram show, if one unit focuses toward specific goals, the other unit focuses away from specific goals. Note that no two brains are the same -- individuals have different wiring. In some, the goal fixation process will be stronger; in other, the goal creation process will be stronger. One leads to the dreamer, the other leads to the drudge. Our minds are in dynamic tension.
Note that the goal formation portion of our brains, the unit that wants to "jump outside the system" is a necessary component of our intelligence.
Earlier this week, over at Vox Popoli, Vox took issue with a particular scientific study that concluded on the basis of experimental data that free will does not exist. While I think I agree that this study does not show what it claims to show, I nevertheless took the approach the free will doesn't exist. The outline of a proof goes like this.
Either thought follows the laws of physics, or it does not. X or ~X. I hold the law of non-contradiction to be true. Now, someone might quibble about percentages: most of the time our thoughts follow the laws of physics, but sometimes they do not. But that misses the point.
Why would anyone suppose that our thoughts don't follow the laws of physics? Perhaps because of an idea that thought is "mystical" stuff; that there is a bit of "god stuff" in our heads that gives us the capabilities that we have. If this were so, since the Christian God transcends nature, our thoughts would transcend nature. It's how we would avoid non-existence upon physical death: the "soul" which is made of "god stuff" returns to God. Perhaps it's due to not knowing how thinking is accomplished in the brain. What I'm about to say certainly isn't taught in any sunday school I've ever attended, or been discussed in any theological book I've ever read. While that may be because I don't get out enough, I suspect my experience isn't atypical. Another, more general reason, is because that's the way our brains perceive how they operate. It's the "default setting," as it were. Most people, regardless of upbringing, think they have free will. I think I can explain why it's that way, but that's for another post.
How does one prove that thoughts follow the laws of physics? The ultimate test would be to build a human level artificial intelligence. I can't do that. The technology isn't there. Yet. The best I can do is offer a proof of concept. I maintain that this is better than what the proponent of mystical thought can do. I know of no way to build something that doesn't obey the laws of physics. By definition, we can't do it. So any proof would have to come form some source from outside nature held to be authoritative. In my world, that's typically the Bible. There is no end of Bible scholars who hold that Scripture teaches that man has free will. It doesn't, but my intent here is to make may case, not refute their arguments. Although I acknowledge that it certainly wouldn't hurt to do so elsewhere.
What is thought? Thought is matter in motion in certain patterns. This is a key insight which must be grasped. The matter could be photons, it could be water; in our brain it is electrons. The pattern of the flow of electrons is controlled by the neurons in our brain, just like the pattern of the flow of electrons is controlled by NAND gates in a computer. While neurons and NAND gates are different in practice, they are not different in principle. NAND gates can simulate neurons (there are, after all, computer programs that do this) and neurons can simulate NAND gates (cf. here). Another way to view this is that every time a programmer writes computer software, they are embedding thought into matter. I've been programming professionally for almost 40 years and it wasn't until recently that I understood this obvious truth. But if this is so, why aren't there intelligent computers? As I understand it, there are some 100 billion neurons in the brain with some 5 trillion connections. Computers have not yet achieved that level of complexity. Can they? How many NAND gates will it take to achieve the equivalent functionality of 5 trillion neuron connections? I don't know. But the principle is sound, even if the engineering escapes us.
Humans are governed by the laws of quantum mechanics, just as computers are. Having just re-watched all four seasons of Battlestar Galactica on Netflix, it was fascinating to watch the denial of some humans that machines could be their equal, and the denial of some machines that they could be human. In the season 4 episode No Exit, the machine's complaint to his creator "why did you make me like this," is straight out of Romans 9. Art, great art, imitating life.
However one cares to define the concept of "free will," that definition must apply to computers as equally as it does to man. The same principles govern both. As long as it meets that criteria, I can live with silly notions of what "free" means. "You are free to wander around inside this fenced area, but you can't go outside" is usually how the definitions end up. I think limited freedom is an oxymoron, but people want to cling to their illusions.
There is so much more to cover. If our thoughts are the movement of electrons in certain patterns, then how is that motion influenced? What are the feedback loops in the brain? What is the effect of internal stimuli and external stimuli? Is one greater than the other? The Bible exhorts the Christian to place themselves where external stimuli promotes the faith. The dances of their electrons can influence the dance of our electrons. Can we make Christians (or Democrats, or Atheists, or…) through internal modification of brain structures through drugs or surgery? How does God change the path of electrons in those who believe versus those who don't? Would God save an intelligent machine? Could they be "born again"? Does God hide behind quantum indeterminacy? So many questions.
In April 2009, I wrote the post Ecclesiastes and the Sovereignty of God, which gave excepts from the book A Time to Be Born - A Time to Die, by Robert L. Short. Using the Bible, in particular the book of Ecclesiastes, Short reaches the same conclusion I do arguing from basic physics.
The universe controls us. We do not control the universe.
This brings me to the Gene Wolfe quote mentioned at the beginning of this post:
This is what mankind has always wanted. … That the environment should respond to human thought. That is the core of magic and the oldest dream of mankind…. when humankind has dreamed of magic, the wish behind the dream has been the omnipotence of thought.
[to be continued]
If true, that rule is not a minor flaw in scientific reasoning. The law is completely nihilistic. It is a catastrophic logical disproof of the general validity of all scientific method!
If the purpose of scientific method is to select from a multitude of hypothesis, and if the number of hypothesis grows faster than the experimental method can handle, then it is clear that all hypothesis can never be tested. If all hypothesis cannot be tested, then the results of any experiment are inconclusive and the entire scientific method falls short of its goal of establishing proven knowledge.
About this Einstein had said, "Evolution has shown that at any given moment out of all conceivable constructions a single one has proved absolutely superior to all the rest," and let it go at that. But to Phaedrus3 that was an incredibly weak answer. The phrase "at any given moment" really shook him. Did Einstein really mean to state that truth was a function of time? To state that would annihilate the most basic presumption of all science!
But there it was, the whole of history of science, a clear story of continuously new and changing explanations of old facts. The time spans of permanence seemed completely random, he could see no order to them. Some scientific truths seemed to last for centuries, others for less than a year. Scientific truth was not a dogma, good for eternity, but a temporal quantitative entity that could be studied like anything else.
He studied scientific truths, then became upset even more by the apparent cause of their temporal condition. It looked as though the time spans of scientific truths are an inverse function of the intensity of scientific effort. Thus the scientific truths of the twentieth century seem to have a much shorter life-span than those of the last century because scientific activity is now much greater. If, in the next century, scientific activity increases tenfold, then the life expectancy of any scientific truth can be expected to drop to perhaps one-tenth as long as now. What shortens the lifespan of the existing truth is the volume of hypothesis offered to replace it; the more the hypothesis, the shorter the time span of the truth. And what seems to be causing the number of hypothesis to grow in recent decades seems to be nothing other than scientific method itself. The more you look, the more you see. Instead of selecting one truth from a multitude, you are increasing the multitude. What this means logically is that as you try to move toward unchanging truth through the application of scientific method, you actually do not move toward it at all. You move away from it. It is your application of scientific method that that is causing it to change!
What Phaedrus observed on a personal level was the phenomenon, profoundly characteristic of the history of science, which has been swept under the carpet for years. The predicted results of scientific enquiry and the actual results of scientific enquiry are diametrically opposed here, and no one seems to pay much attention to the fact. The purpose of scientific method is to select a single truth from among many hypothetical truths. That, more than anything else, is what science is all about. But historically science has done exactly the opposite. Through multiplication upon multiplication of facts, information, theories, and hypotheses, it is science itself that is leading mankind from single absolute truths to multiple, indeterminate, relative ones. The major producer of the social chaos, the indeterminacy of thought and values that rational knowledge is supposed to eliminate, is none other than science itself. And what Phaedrus saw in the isolation of his own laboratory work is now seen everywhere in the technological world today. Scientifically produced antiscience -- chaos.
There is a lot to consider and commend in this argument. Certainly, anyone who has uttered, "the more I know the less I know" understands that as knowledge increases the unknown also appears to increase. Every advance in knowledge pushes out the unexplored frontier. It is unclear how much there is to be known. Even if an argument to the boundedness of knowledge about the physical universe could be made based upon the number of particles therein, I suspect we will find limits to how far we can explore. We likely cannot know all that could be known. And this omits the field of mathematical knowledge, where Gödel showed the incompleteness of formal systems.
The idea that scientific knowledge is a function of time needs to be stressed. Now I happen to think4 that the recent Opera claim of superluminal neutrinos won't stand upon further investigation, but if it does it will require adjustments to relativity.
Finally, if it is true that science produces antiscience then the resulting chaos can't be repaired by more application of the scientific method, unless scientific knowledge is finite.
While I think that much of this argument has merit, I put it in the Bad Arguments category, not because I necessarily disagree with the conclusions, but because the premise that "the purpose of the scientific method is to select a single truth from many hypothetical truths" is wrong. The scientific method is not "when I repeatedly do this I get that result therefore this result can always be expected". That's observation and induction, no different from "the sun rose yesterday, the sun rose today, therefore the sun will rise tomorrow." We know there will come a time when the sun won't rise the next day. Induction is not a sure means to truth, even though we often have to rely on it.5 As Einstein said, "No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong."6
The power of the scientific method comes from the logical equation: (A → B) ∧ ¬B → ¬A. In English, "if A implies B, and B is not true, then A is not true." Experiments don't establish theories, they show if a theory is wrong. The scientific method doesn't establish truth, it establishes falsehood. Consider a piece of paper as an analogy to knowledge. Let the color gray represent what we don't know. Let white represent truth. Let black stand for falsehood. The paper starts out gray. We don't know if the paper is finite or infinite in extent. Science can turn gray areas black, to represent the things we know are not true. But it can't turn gray areas white.
And yet, the earth revolves around the sun and E=mc2. Even if superluminal neutrinos really do exist, atomic weapons still work by turning a little bit of matter into a lot of energy. How we go from gray to white is another topic for another day. But with the correction of Pirsig's premise, much of his argument still follows.
 In the Author's Note, Pirsig writes "[this book] should in no way be associated with that great body of factual information relating to orthodox Zen Buddhist practice. It's not very factual on motorcycles either."
 Pg. 559. I don't know why I bother with page numbers, as they vary from e-reader to e-reader.
 Phaedrus is the author in an earlier stage of his life.
 I'm no expert. Don't wager based on my opinion.
 See On Induction by Russell.
 This appears to be a paraphrase. See here.
I'm also finding interesting articles which have to be worked into the biological theory of morality, such as ParaPundit's "Non-conformists Better At Working Toward Common Good", which I highly commend to your attention. Since this mentions the positive role of the nonconformist in society, with the recent passing of Steve Jobs, it is fitting to mention this except from the Newsweek article, "Exit the King" from the Sept. 5 issue:
After becoming rich and famous in his early 20s, he realized that he needed colleagues who weren't awed by his myth and could assert themselves forcefully against him – especially since he was at once strong-willed but under educated and inexperienced and still insecure about his judgment. He found that by delivering brutal putdowns of his co-workers he could test the strength of their conviction in their own ideas. If he said "this sucks" or "this is sh!t" and they fought back fiercely, he would trust their passion, especially since he often lacked the necessary technical acumen or aesthetic confidence. (Even though he instinctively grasped the importance of design from early on – he had wanted to enclose the Apple I in a case of beautiful blond koa wood – he remained uncertain about his taste for many years before he settled on the safety of austere minimalism). He found that many of the most brilliant engineers and creative types actually responded well to cruel criticism, since it reinforced their own secret belief that they weren't living up to their vaunted potential. Jobs's relentlessly high standards inspired their own maniacal work.
Continuing with the theme of the need for the non-conformists, Here's To The Crazy Ones, narrated by Steve Jobs:
Here, I want to address the problem of thought. Some Christians assert that human thought does not follow the laws of physics and that it cannot do so. Man is a body and a soul, or body, soul, and spirit, where at least one of soul or spirit is supernatural and is what makes us human. Atheists, of course, assert that thought is just matter in motion in certain patterns.
An in depth treatise on this won't fit in 2,000 words, so I will just sketch the outline of the materialist case. We know that the logical operations of and, or, and not are capable of expressing all statements of boolean logic. We also know that the nand (not and) and nor (not or) operators can do the same thing: (nand x x) = (not x), (nand (nand x y) (nand x y)) = (and x y), (nand (nand x x) (nand y y)) = (or x y). This means that we can string together any number of nand (or nor) gates together to implement boolean statements. In addition, nand gates can be used to implement memory, multiplexers, demultiplexers and in, general, the elements of a computer. A set of nand gates in one configuration results in an adder; a different set of nand gates results in something that can recognize whether or not a particular circuit is an adder or not. Both represent electrons flowing in a certain pattern.
We are used to thinking of software and hardware as two different things: but they both reduce to a particular arrangement of nand gates. Software is just electrons moving in a certain pattern.
Now, software is, at least, a subset of thought, so we have established that human thought, insofar as it is software, is "just" electrons in motion. And, certainly, our brains consist of axons which use chemical reactions to shuffle electrons around. Furthermore, we know that the brain can be damaged with a resultant change in the ability to think. Alcohol, for example, is one way to temporarily disrupt the flow of electrons from their usual patterns.
Is thought more than just complex software? Opinion on this is, of course, mixed. Ashwin Ram of Georgia Tech gives a concise readable look at some of the issues here. Hofstatder took 832 pages to explore the issue in his landmark Gödel, Escher, Bach. Obviously, the only way to show that our minds are complex software is to build a human-level artificial intelligence, and our ability to do this isn't quite there, yet. But this doesn't mean we can't explore how it would be done. To do this, I have to deal with (at least) two theistic objections: absolute truth and morality.
What is truth?
Christians sometimes argue that materialism does not give a sufficient basis for reason. For example, C. S. Lewis wrote, "One absolutely central inconsistency ruins [the popular scientific philosophy]. The whole picture professes to depend on inferences from observed facts. Unless inference is valid, the whole picture disappears... unless Reason is an absolute[,] all is in ruins. Yet those who ask me to believe this world picture also ask me to believe that Reason is simply the unforeseen and unintended by-product of mindless matter at one stage of its endless and aimless becoming. Here is flat contradiction. They ask me at the same moment to accept a conclusion and to discredit the only testimony on which that conclusion can be based."1 Similarly, J. B. S. Haldane wrote, “It seems to me immensely unlikely that mind is a mere by-product of matter. For if my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true. They may be sound chemically, but that does not make them sound logically. And hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms.”2
Earlier I wrote that I'm not aware of a catalog of basic beliefs. Let me start one by citing A. J. Hoover:3
Probably the most basic law of human thought is the principle of contradiction. Some call it the “Law of Contradiction,” others call it the “Law of Noncontradiction.” Both terms refer to the same thing. Whatever you call it, this principle is the basis of all rational thought and rational communication.
What is a contradiction? It is not so much a thing as it is an event. A contradiction occurs when two statements can’t possibly be true at the same time and in the same relationship. If I say, “It is raining here right now,” that contradicts the assertion, “It is not raining here right now.” Both of these statements cannot be true at the same time.
Logicians usually identify three laws that all seem to stem from the basic principle of contradiction:
The law of contradiction asserts that A can’t both be A and non-A at the same time and in the same relationship.
The law of identity asserts that A is A; that every event and every judgement is identical with itself.
The law of excluded middle asserts that everything must be A or non-A.
These three laws, taken together, make it possible for us to communicate rationally.
Now, there are multi-valued and fuzzy logics but, leaving those aside, we believe these three laws because we have to. We couldn't communicate without them. They work. Similarly, we hold Euclid's axioms to be true because they work, even though the universe may ultimately be shown to be non-Euclidean. Inference is valid for the same reason -- it usually works (cf. Russell's On Induction). Lewis' argument fails because "Reason" doesn't have to be absolute. It just has to be good enough to allow us to grow food, build bridges that stay up, land men on the moon, raise children, and argue with one another. Haldane's argument fails because, while there may not be "a reason to suppose my beliefs are true" there likewise isn't a reason to suppose they are false. We are constantly analyzing our body to knowledge to see if it is internally consistent and coherent with external reality (whatever that may end up being). We have to live with uncertainty.
An Algorithmic Basis for Morality
Morality is an area where theists think they have a strong argument. Certainly, Sam Harris' attempt to provide a science of morality in The Moral Landscape was a dismal failure. However, both sides are remiss in that neither side has produced a definition of morality that isn't circular (cf. a very, very early post of mine, "Good and Evil, Part I").
Recall fact D (our brains are goal-seeking engines with variable goals). We understand how to model goal seeking behavior as finding a path in a graph from some initial state to some goal state.3 A path that leads from an initial state to a goal state is good; a shorter path between the two points might be better (depending on other goals); the shortest path might be best (again, depending on any additional constraints). Likewise, paths leading away from a goal state are deemed bad. Fact A stated that we are partially self-aware. This self-awareness extends to our ability to partially introspect our goal seeking behavior and this is what gives us a knowledge of good and evil.
Note that Harris hypothesized that the brain would show differences when making a moral decision as opposed to other types of decisions. He didn't need to do his neuroimaging experiments to show that this was not the case; after all, a computer uses the same circuitry to compute an integral as it does to evaluate a game tree. They aren't fundamentally different kinds of operations.
Since morality is essentially a search operation through a state space, it is an algorithm that can be encoded in nand gates or axons, and, therefore, is electrons in motion in a certain pattern. This idea is bolstered by the experiments at MIT where the moral judgements of test subjects could be swayed by the application of a magnetic field to the scalp.4
McCarthy's third design requirement from fact D, "all aspects of behavior except the most routine must be improvable. In particular, the improving mechanism should be improvable" has some remarkable consequences. If everything can be improvable, then nothing is what it ought to be. This gives rise to Hume's is-ought distinction.5 It also gives a basis for the problem of theodicy: if everything can be improved, nothing is what it ought to be. In particular, god is not what he ought to be. This is why the problem of evil is not a valid argument against theism. It also explains the Christian notion of "sin" (Greek amartia - "to miss the mark") since we are not what we ought to be. It's interesting to note that some brains focus on the former, while some brains focus on the latter. Our brains are in dynamic tension between wanting to settle on a goal and wanting to change the goal and keep searching.6 It would be an interesting experiment to classify where atheists and theists fall in this range. Perhaps theists are those whose bias is to reach a goal, while atheists are those who have a bias toward continuing the search. This might also explain why theists tend to think teleologically and why atheists tend to suppress it.
There is likely a correlation between morality and intelligence. In GEB, Hofstadter wrote:
It is an inherent property of intelligence that it can jump out of the task which it is performing, and survey what it is done; it is always looking for, and often finding, patterns. (pg. 37)
Over 400 pages later, he repeats this idea:
This drive to jump out of the system is a pervasive one, and lies behind all progress and art, music, and other human endeavors. It also lies behind such trivial undertakings as the making of radio and television commercials. (pg. 478).
It seems to me that McCarthy's third requirement is behind this drive to "jump out" of the system. If a system is to be improved, it must be analyzed and compared with other systems, and this requires looking at a system from the outside.
Earlier, Vox was quoted as saying, "…I believe in evil. I believe in objective, material, tangible evil that insensibly envelops every single one of us sooner or later. I believe in the fallen nature of Man…" The algorithmic pressure to seek new goals is behind Vox's statement. He "knows" that he can be improved -- that he is not what he ought to be. That man is "fallen" is a teleological interpretation of the inner working of the human mind coupled with the notion that god is the ultimate goal. It is this notion that everything is improvable that is behind morality and intelligence and, coupled with self-awareness, is what makes us human.
Given that morality arises from introspection of our goal seeking behavior, what goals should we seek? That will be the subject of the next post.
 Is Theology Poetry, see Argument from reason.
 "When I am Dead" in Possible Worlds (1927)
 The Mechanism of Morality
 Moral judgments can be altered ... by magnets
 The Is-Ought Problem Considered As A Question Of Artificial Intelligence
 “Our moral judgments are not the result of a single process, even though they feel like one uniform thing,” she says. “It’s actually a hodgepodge of competing and conflicting judgments, all of which get jumbled into what we call moral judgment.”4
It is common wisdom that "you can't prove a negative." Strictly speaking, this isn't true. Some negatives can be proven, just like some positives can be proven. Circa 300 B.C.E. Euclid showed that there is no largest prime number. In 1995 Andrew Wiles proved Fermat's Last Theorem, which says that there are no integers, x, y, and z > 0 such that xn + yn = zn, where n > 2. But showing that there is no god (or gods) is a more formidable problem. Such a proof would be like showing that no pink unicorns exist -- the only way to do this is by an exhaustive search and, by definition, god supposedly exists outside of nature where man cannot look. In theory, god can only be found if he/she/it actively broke the natural/supernatural barrier and left one or more clues to his existence.
Since I've already mentioned an attribute of god (supernaturalness), Vox has declined to define "god or gods" and has referred to dictionary definitions. I have no interest in arguing for or against beings that are worshipped (which says more about the worshipper than the worshipped), or beings greater than man that have power over nature (cf. Star Trek's Who Mourns for Adonis? where Kirk and crew run into Apollo). I will limit my arguments to a supernatural being who created nature. This could be the god of the three main monotheistic religions; it could also be a deistic god or alien scientists who are running our universe as a simulation in one of their computers (many implies one).
How then, to make the case for atheism? Bertrand Russell, in "The Problems of Philosophy", states that all knowledge is based on instinctive beliefs (pg. 25). Aside from cogito, ergo sum I'm not aware of a catalog of basic beliefs (I'm a software engineer, not a philosopher). Is "there is/is not a god" a basic belief, or is it a derived position? I will argue that both positions are basic beliefs, accepted without proof. Given two axiomatic systems, which one is right? The problem is like that of geometry. Euclidean and non-Euclidean geometry have the same number of axioms -- five -- but the fifth axiom is different in each. Each geometry is consistent. Which geometry corresponds to the universe we live in? On a very small scale, the universe is Euclidean (i.e. space is flat). But for the entire universe, we don't know, because we don't know the mass of the universe. To make the case for atheism, then, it must be shown that atheism is consistent and that it corresponds to the universe we live in.
Informally, both atheism and theism are consistent, in that neither axiom results in a statement that asserts a contradiction. There are claimed contradictions, for example, the problem of evil supposedly contradicts the existence of a loving god. Likewise, the problem of good has been used to argue against the non-existence of God. But neither hold up to scrutiny. Both systems result in explanations for all natural phenomena, even though those explanations may be wildly different. Does atheism correspond to the universe? That's a difficult question since we have incomplete knowledge. For example, if it could be shown that life could not arise by natural processes, then atheism would fail the correspondence test. This is, I think, one of two weakness of atheism and is what caused the formerly leading atheist thinker Antony Flew to convert to deism in 2004 before his death in 2010. However, this is a position adopted from ignorance informed by incredulity. There is no shame in saying, "we don't know," since incomplete knowledge is a problem in both systems, and the argument from incredulity is a logical fallacy recognized by both sides.
The arguments for theism typically fall into one of four categories:
- The problem of origins - God is needed to get things going.
- The problem of thought - materialism cannot account for human thought.
- The problem of morality - Vox wrote in "Letter to Common Sense Atheism I", "Why am I a Christian? Because I believe in evil. I believe in objective, material, tangible evil that insensibly envelops every single one of us sooner or later. I believe in the fallen nature of Man…"
- The problem of personal testimony/transformation - God did such and such in someone's life. For a powerful example of such testimony, see John C. Wright's "A Question I Never Tire of Answering". Vox said much the same thing, himself. I, too, have been on the road to Damascus. This would include the category of miracles including, but not limited to, the Resurrection of Jesus and fulfilled prophecy.
- We are partially self-aware. Our self-awareness is partial because it doesn't fully extend to how our brains work. For example, we make decisions, but we can't see the mechanism by which those decisions actually come about. This study, for example, shows how analysis of brain wave patterns enable prediction of decisions before the test subjects were aware of what they were going to do.
- Our brains are wired to look for patterns.
- Most brains are wired to think teleologically, that is to ascribe meaning to external events. As shown by this study, theists think teleologically, atheists think teleologically but then suppress it, and people with Asperberger's do not think teleologically. Their wiring prevents it. See also the work of Catherine Caldwell-Harris of Boston University. Note that this describes typical behavior; individuals may vary.
- Our brains are goal-seeking engines with variable goals. Animals are wired for reproduction and, to support reproduction, have the sub-goals of feeding, fighting, and fleeing. Man, however, is a general purpose problem solver and, according to John McCarthy in Programs with Common Sense, one feature to enable this behavior is that "All aspects of behavior except the most routine must be improvable. In particular, the improving mechanism should be improvable."
- We are "selfish" organisms, that is, our default behavior is to maximize our long-term benefit.
Earlier, I said that both theism and atheism were basic beliefs. C and D show why theism is, for most, a basic belief. It's how most brains are wired. C by itself explains the belief that many gods exist (many things need explanation), D explains monotheism (a goal seeking engine without a fixed goal will imagine an ultimate goal). God belief is also comforting because it can always be used for explanations where our knowledge is incomplete (there is ultimate meaning, ultimate morality, ultimate cause). Atheism is, likewise, a basic belief since it cannot be shown to be true. The atheist claim that there is no evidence for god is misguided, since belief guides the evaluation of evidence. This also applies to the theist.
If this is so, then why the debate? Partly because of the challenge. Partly because I detest bad arguments -- from either side. Proverbs 27:17 says, "Iron sharpens iron, and one person sharpens the wits of another." Christians have become dull over time and need a wakeup call. Partly because I think I may have some new insights to offer, particularly since computer science is still in its infancy and I think it has important things to say with respect to theology. And partly because I think the result will be surprising. My position actually contains the seed of its own destruction (earlier, I said that atheism has two weaknesses) but I'm not going to give it away.
 Dominic Saltarelli eventually volunteered.
Today, I came across the article "Does Secularism Make People More Ethical?" The main thesis of the article is nonsense, but it does reference work by Catherine Caldwell-Harris of Boston University. Der Spiegel (The Mirror) said:
Boston University's Catherine Caldwell-Harris is researching the differences between the secular and religious minds. "Humans have two cognitive styles," the psychologist says. "One type finds deeper meaning in everything; even bad weather can be framed as fate. The other type is neurologically predisposed to be skeptical, and they don't put much weight in beliefs and agency detection."
Caldwell-Harris is currently testing her hypothesis through simple experiments. Test subjects watch a film in which triangles move about. One group experiences the film as a humanized drama, in which the larger triangles are attacking the smaller ones. The other group describes the scene mechanically, simply stating the manner in which the geometric shapes are moving. Those who do not anthropomorphize the triangles, she suspects, are unlikely to ascribe much importance to beliefs. "There have always been two cognitive comfort zones," she says, "but skeptics used to keep quiet in order to stay out of trouble."
This broadly agrees with the Scientific American article, although it isn't clear if the non-anthropomorphizing group is thinking teleologically, but then suppressing it (which is characteristic of atheists) or not seeing meaning at all (characteristic of those with Asperger's).
Caldwell-Harris' work buttresses the thesis of Atheism: It isn't about evidence.
Too, her work is interesting from a perspective in artificial intelligence. One purpose of the Turing Test is to determine whether or not an artificial intelligence has achieved human-level capability. Her "triangle film" isn't dissimilar from a form of Turing Test since agency detection is a component of recognizing intelligence. If the movement of the triangles was truly random, then the non-anthropomorphizing group was correct in giving a mechanical interpretation to the scene. But if the filmmaker imbued the triangle film with meaning, then the anthropomorphizing group picked up a sign of intelligent agency which was missed by the other group.
I wrote her and asked about this. She has absolutely no reason to respond to my query, but I hope she will.
Finally, I have to mention that the Der Spiegel article cites researchers that claim that secularism will become the majority view in the west, which contradicts the sources in my blog post. On the one hand, it's a critical component of my argument. On the other hand, I just don't have time for more research into this right now.
Lead us, Evolution, lead us
Up the future's endless stair;
Chop us, change us, prod us, weed us.
For stagnation is despair:
Groping, guessing, yet progressing,
Lead us nobody knows where.
Wrong or justice, joy or sorrow,
In the present what are they
while there's always jam-tomorrow,
While we tread the onward way?
Never knowing where we're going,
We can never go astray.
To whatever variation
Our posterity may turn
Hairy, squashy, or crustacean,
Bulbous-eyed or square of stern,
Tusked or toothless, mild or ruthless,
Towards that unknown god we yearn.
Ask not if it's god or devil,
Brethren, lest your words imply
Static norms of good and evil
(As in Plato) throned on high;
Such scholastic, inelastic,
Abstract yardsticks we deny.
Far too long have sages vainly
Glossed great Nature's simple text;
He who runs can read it plainly,
'Goodness = what comes next.'
By evolving, Life is solving
All the questions we perplexed.
On then! Value means survival-
Value. If our progeny
Spreads and spawns and licks each rival,
That will prove its deity
(Far from pleasant, by our present,
Standards, though it may well be).
Aside from being heretofore unaware of this poem, my reason for blogging is to note two of Lewis' observations about evolution which I will later use in another post. First, is Lewis' poetic description of evolution as an open-ended search. Second, is the linking of evolution and morality with the supposition that an open-ended search for reproductive success leads to an open-ended morality.
James commented on my post Bad Arguments Against Materialism a month ago and it deserves a response. I appreciate every reader and, while I may not respond to every comment, I do want to engage in dialog. "Many eyes make short work of bugs" can be as true here as it can be with software (but don't get me started on "code reviews" that miss even the simplest mistakes!)
My only comment - and I'll leave it at this - is that, despite a very well worded argument, you seem to forget the very basis on which your argument stands. That being, using your own abstract allusion, though information (of any type, not just software of course) can be coded in zeros and ones, does not record itself. There needs be a CODER.
Under materialism, the coder is the universe itself. That is, the motion of the particles, operating under physical law, gave rise to the motion of electrons in certain patterns that make up our thoughts. Whether or not this is the true explanation is hotly contested. One side will argue that this is such an improbable occurrence that it couldn't be the right explanation. The other side will argue that improbable things happen. Both sides tailor their argument according to their preconceived notions about the nature of reality. Synchronously, John C. Wright has a droll take on it here.
It may be transmitted one way or another, either zeros and ones, or brain waves, or goal-seeking algorithms, but itself is something rather more transcendent. If you doubt that, then why would more than one person get upset over the same wrong? (Say invasion of a country you don't even live in) or be offended when you step on the foot of an elderly woman whom you don't even know?
This is a topic that I hope to get to this year. There is an explanation for this, see Axelrod's "The Evolution of Cooperation." For an idea of how the argument will go, see Cybertheology.
And if we "call steps leading toward a goal good" then that simply means any goal is good. Including, say, a despot's systematic murder of an entire people. There are few goals as effective as that for survival of a people, state or regime.
First, whether or not a goal is good depends on its relationship to other goals, and those goals exist in relationship to other goals, and so on. That's one reason why morality is such a difficult subject -- the size of the goal space is so large. It's much, much bigger than the complex games of Chess and Go.
Second, there may be times when it's necessary for one group to die so that another may live. We don't like that notion, because we may think that the reasoning that leads to the deaths of others could one day be used against us; on the other hand, listen to the reasons given for the necessity of using nuclear weapons against Japan in World War II. That there is no universal agreement on this shows how difficult a problem it is.
You also note that Axelrod's game theory shows how the golden rule can arise in biological systems. Well, if that happens so "naturally," why hasn't it happened in any of the (numerous beyond count) organisms that have, on an evolutionary scale, been here longer than Man? Say, for instance, the shark? Or the ant, which has a complicated social system?
It has happened, and Axelrod (with William D. Hamilton) gives examples of this in chapter 5: The Evolution of Cooperation in Biological Systems.
We are not necessarily walking conundrums, BTW. …
Then you're a better man that St. Paul, who wrote:
I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? [Rom 7:15-24]
Which leads me to the last point: No, the Bible doesn't teach that Jesus died because of man's inability to follow any external code.
Actually, it does. Again, St. Paul wrote, "I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing." (Gal 2:21) and "For if a law had been given that could make alive, then righteousness would indeed come through the law." (Gal 3:21).
For example, in Gödel, Escher, Bach, Hofstadter writes:
It is an inherent property of intelligence that it can jump out of the task which it is performing, and survey what it is done; it is always looking for, and often finding, patterns. (pg. 37)
Over 400 pages later, he repeats this idea:
This drive to jump out of the system is a pervasive one, and lies behind all progress and art, music, and other human endeavors. It also lies behind such trivial undertakings as the making of radio and television commercials. (pg. 478).
It seems to me that McCarthy's third requirement is behind this drive to "jump out" of the system. If a system is to be improved, it must be analyzed and compared with other systems, and this requires looking at a system from the outside.
Hofstadter then ties this in with Zen:
In Zen, too, we can see this preoccupation with the concept of transcending the system. For instance, the kōan in which Tōzan tells his monks that "the higher Buddhism is not Buddha". Perhaps, self transcendence is even the central theme of Zen. A Zen person is always trying to understand more deeply what he is, by stepping more and more out of what he sees himself to be, by breaking every rule and convention which he perceives himself to be chained by – needless to say, including those of Zen itself. Somewhere along this elusive path may come enlightenment. In any case (as I see it), the hope is that by gradually deepening one's self-awareness, by gradually widening the scope of "the system", one will in the end come to a feeling of being at one with the entire universe. (pg. 479)
Note the parallels to, and differences with, Christianity. Jesus said to Nicodemus, "You must be born again." (John 3:3) The Greek includes the idea of being born "from above" and "from above" is how the NRSV translates it, even though Nicodemus responds as if he heard "again". In either case, you must transcend the system. The Zen practice of "breaking every rule and convention" is no different from St. Paul's charge that we are all lawbreakers (Rom 3:9-10,23). The reason we are lawbreakers is because the law is not what it ought to be. And it is not what it ought to be because of our inherent knowledge of good and evil which, if McCarthy is right, is how our brains are wired. Where Zen and Christianity disagree is that Zen holds that man can transcend the system by his own effort while Christianity says that man's effort is futile: God must affect that change. In Zen, you can break outside the system; in Christianity, you must be lifted out.
Note, too, that both have the same end goal, where finally man is at "rest". The desire to "step out" of the system, to continue to "improve", is finally at an end. The "is-ought" gap is forever closed. The Zen master is "at one with the entire universe" while for the Christian, the New Jerusalem has descended to Earth, the "sea of glass" that separates heaven and earth is no more (Rev 4:6, 21:1) so that "God may be all in all." (1 Cor 15:28). Our restless goal-seeking brain is finally at rest; the search is over.
All of this as a consequence of one simple design requirement: that everything must be improvable.
On the first of the year I wrote "Cybertheology" to begin the long process of using science, particularly computer science, evolutionary biology, and game theory to give evidence for and provide understanding of God. After all, I believe that the God who reveals Himself in the spoken and written Word also speaks through nature -- and that the message must be the same in both. In 2009 I wrote "Evidence for God" which gave my reaction to one atheist's claim of the lack of evidence for God. Over at John Wright's blog, another atheist commenter recently claimed again that there is no convincing evidence for God.
I have now come to the conclusion that a consistent rational atheist cannot claim that evidence, or the lack thereof, is the issue at all. The proof is really very simple and builds upon ideas in the earlier post "Bad Arguments Against Materialism."
Every argument should have well-defined terms. Defining "God" is surprisingly hard. Traditionally, Christianity has said that God is immutable and omniscient; however, an Open Theist would disagree with these characteristics. Some argue that God is inherently good; otherwise would say that the existence of evil disproves this notion (and this latter group is wrong, but that's not the topic of this post). The notion of "creator" is sufficient for now. Materialism has to conclude that matter in motion is the source of the idea of God -- "god" is an emergent property -- just like the number i is an emergent property (to the best of my limited knowledge of physics, one can't point to the square root of -1 apples or protons). Theism holds that matter is an emergent property of God and, therefore, God must be immaterial. One side holds that God is the product of man's imagination; the other says that man's imagination is the product of God.
Tangentially related to this is the question of how to recognize the existence of and the reason for singular events, such as Creation or the Resurrection. As will be shown, this reduces to differences in brain wiring.
If a creator God does not exist, then nature must consist solely of matter in motion. In particular, our thoughts arise from the movement of matter in certain patterns and our thoughts must obey the laws of physics. The laws of physics themselves are simply descriptions of how matter moves in relation to other matter. A description is just matter in a different dynamic relationship to other matter. Some theists may reject this idea and state that there is a supernatural aspect to thought, but the atheist has no such recourse. Computers, goldfish, and human minds work via electrons in a silicon, or carbon, matrix. The complexity of thought depends on the arrangement of atoms in the brain (or CPU).1
The key insight is that evidence is simply atoms that are external to the brain; different brains process the same data differently. There is a reason why we don't discuss theology with goldfish, golden retrievers, or computers: their brains don't have enough particles in the right configuration. The same principle applies to the atheist and the agnostic. When they say, "the evidence isn't convincing," what they really mean is "the atoms in my brain don't process the external data the way yours does."
The observation that brain states can be changed due to external factors (memory is "simply" state changes in the brain) doesn't help. Either the brain actively causes brain states to change based on how the brain processes the data, or there is some effect where the brain is passively changed. In the first case, the brain's wiring affects the brain's wiring, so the data is irrelevant, because different brains process the same data differently. The external data just shows how the brain is wired. In the second case, the external data changes the brain. The brain isn't evaluating evidence in the sense of the claim that the "evidence isn't convincing." Instead, the correct view is "my brain is/is not capable of being changed by the external world in the same way as other brains."
Since the external evidence is the same for both theist and atheist, the difference is in the way brains process that data. Given the way most human brains work (cf. The Mechanism of Morality), we ask "which arrangement of atoms is better?"
The rational atheist must answer, "that which results in reproductive advantage." The problem for the atheist at this point is that theists have more children than atheists. Even though atheism appears to be on the rise, population in general is on the rise. In relative numbers, the atheists are losing ground. Writing in "The Source of Evangelism" (atheist evangelism), Vox Day said, "... their own children are converting to religion faster than religious children are converting out of it."
We have evolved to think in teleological terms. As this study showed, people with Asperger's typically don't ascribe intention or purpose behind the events in their lives. Atheists, on the other hand, can reason teleologically, but they reject those explanations. It isn't evidence -- it's wiring. The atheist can't come out and say that their brains are wired better than the theists, for at least two reasons. First, it isn't supported by the demographics. Again quoting Vox Day, "But the demographic disadvantage means that the atheist community has to keep all of their children within the godless fold and de-convert one out of every three religious children just to keep pace with the growth of the religious community." Second, it isn't supported by reason. After all, materialism is a strict subset of theism. The theist can think everything the atheist can -- and more. The theist has a bigger "universe" in which to think.
One explanation for this demographic disparity may be found in the difference between brains wired to recognize the existence of a creator God and those that are not. In the Abrahamic religions, the creator God is strongly identified with life. For example, the Jews were told by God, "Choose life so that you and your descendants may live..." [De 30:19]; Jesus said, "... have you not read what was said to you by God, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is God not of the dead, but of the living.” Christianity asserts that death is an "enemy" -- the last enemy to be overcome [1 Cor 15:26]. Certainly, one doesn't have to reject the idea of a Creator God to reject life; but in my limited experience it sure seems that social battles of abortion, homosexuality, and euthanasia, are drawn with a line generally between secular and religious. The side that places a premium on reproduction will outproduce those that do not.
If the atheist can't say that their brains are wired better than theists, they also won't say that their wiring is worse. That would totally defeat their arguments. Therefore, they adapt a form of protective coloration wherein they deflect the issue to be external to themselves -- the evidence -- when it clearly isn't. Adopting protective coloration against one's own species may be another reason for the reproductive disadvantage of atheists. After all, this is a form of defection against the larger group and, as Axelrod has shown, an evolutionary strategy to maximize reproductive success is to defect in turn.
It appears that the atheist cannot win. If God does exist, they are wrong. If God exists only in man's imagination, evolution has wired man so that the idea of God gives a direction toward reproductive success. The attempt to remove God from society will result in demographic weakness. Shiny secular utopias simply don't exist.2
 After posting this in the morning, in the evening I started re-reading Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid, by Douglas Hofstadter. Via seemingly different paths we have come to similar conclusions. On P-4 he writes:
As I see it, the only way of overcoming this magical view of what "I" and consciousness are is to keep reminding oneself, unpleasant though it may seem, that the "teetering bulb of dread and dream" that nestles safely inside one's own cranium is a purely physical object made up of completely sterile and an inanimate components, all of which obey exactly the same laws as those that govern all the rest of the universe, such as pieces of text, or CD-ROMs, or computers. Only if one keeps on bashing up against this disturbing fact can one slowly begin to develop a feel for the way out of the mystery of consciousness: that the key is not the stuff out of which brains are made, but the patterns that can come to exist inside the stuff of a brain.
This is a liberating shift, because it allows one to move to a different level of considering what brains are: as media that support complex patterns that mirror, albeit far from perfectly, the world...
 On 5/12, CNN.com posted the article "Religious belief is human nature, huge new study claims". In this article, Oxford University professor Roger Trigg, is quoted as saying "The secularization thesis of the 1960s - I think that was hopeless."
I want to examine and expose bad theistic arguments against materialism, which generally reduce to the idea that materialism cannot explain abstract thought in general and morality in particular.
As a software engineer, I know that software -- which is abstract thought -- can be encoded in material: zero's and ones flowing through NAND gates arranged in certain ways. Wire up NAND gates one way and you have a circuit that adds (e.g. here). Wire them up another way and you have a circuit that can subtract. Wire them up yet another way and you have memory. A more complicated arrangement could recognize whether or not a given circuit is an adder (i.e. one implements "this adds," the other implements "that is an adder"). If something can be expressed as software, it can be expressed as hardware. The relationships between the basic parts, whether they are NAND gates, NOR gates, or something else, and the movement of electrons (or photons), between them encode the abstract thought. Yet Lopez wrote:
For this to be true, those thoughts have to exist independently of the hardware which is our minds. They have to exist in the mind of God. But he hasn't shown that this is the case nor do I know how to prove it, even though I think it true ["in Him we live and move and have our being." -- Acts 17:28]. Just as the materialist cannot prove his position that the thoughts cease when the electrons stop moving (see my post Materialism, Theism, and Information where I have this argument with a materialist), the theist also hasn't made their case. It's one thing to cite Scripture, it's quite another to show why it must be so independently of special revelation.
For example, while electrical impulses may occur when a person has particluar [sic] thoughts or feelings (or propositional qualities, per Greg Koukl), the impulses themselves are not the thoughts or feelings.
That thought can be encoded in hardware should be familiar to Christians. After all, the Word became Flesh. Where the theist and materialist differ is in the initial conditions. The materialist will say that matter is made of atoms, and atoms are made of protons, neutrons, and electrons; and protons and neutrons are made of up quarks. One overview of the "particle zoo" is here. String theory offers the idea that below the currently known elementary particles lie even smaller one dimensional oscillating lines. Do strings really exist? We don't know. What we do know is that simple things combine to make more complex things, more complex things combine to make even more complex things. The greater the number of connections between things, the greater the complexity. Perhaps this is why the human mind tries to reduce things to their most simple components and this is what drives the search for strings in one discipline and God in another. Whether it is clearly revealed in Scripture or not, there has certainly been the idea that God is immaterial, irreducible, and simple. The materialist will say that at the bottom lies matter and the ways they combine. This combining, recombining, and recombining again eventually resulted in self-aware humans. Genetic algorithms, after all, do work. The theist says that at the bottom lies an immaterial self-aware Person who created matter and, eventually, self-aware people. In one camp, self-awareness is emergent; in another it is fundamental. After all, when Moses asked God to reveal His name, He said, "I am who I am."
If the existence of self-aware thought is one way theists argue against materialism, likewise is the existence of morality which theists claim cannot be explained by science. Lopez also wrote:
The materialist answer is fairly simple. Morality is what we call the goal-seeking algorithm(s) in our brain (see my article The Mechanism of Morality). Basically, we call steps leading toward a goal good, and steps leading away bad. Robert Axelrod, in his ground-breaking book The Evolution of Cooperation, showed how strategies such as cooperation, forgiveness, and non-covetousness could arise between competing selfish agents. Morality is then objective the way language is objective. If language is the means whereby a community uses arbitrary symbols to share meaning, morality is the means whereby a community shares goals. The grounding for the imposition of one moral system over another would then be whether or not it leads to greater reproductive success, in exactly the same way that English is currently the lingua franca of science, technology, and business.
Indeed, if our entire essence - the totality of who we are, was reducible solely to particles in motion, then what justification would there be for any concept of an objective morality? What grounding** would there be for any application - or imposition - of morality from one human being to another? Survival of the fittest? Perpetuation of our species? The selfish gene?
If morality is a property of the goal-seeking behavior of self-aware beings, and the goal is reproductive success, then certain strategies will be more effective than others. Axelrod used game theory to show how something like the golden rule can arise in biological systems. There is one sense in which the "game" of life is like the game of chess -- both have state spaces so large that it is impossible to fully analyze all strategies. Life, like chess, requires us to develop heuristics for winning the game. It's a field that's wide open for research via computer simulation. But even if we can say with confidence which choices ought to be made, this leads to the next issue.
I am puzzled the theist's insistence on the existence of and necessity for an objective morality: something written in stone which solves the "is-ought" problem, to which all mankind (and extraterrestrial life, if it exists) must agree "this ought to be," i.e. "these are the goals toward which all must strive, whether freely or not." The materialist isn't bothered by moral relativism any more than he is bothered by the fact that there are different languages. It's the way our brains work. The goal-seeking algorithm in our brain tends to reject fixed goals. We are walking conundrums that want to choose yet aren't satisfied by the choices we make. John McCarthy recognized this in Programs with Common Sense, Axelrod found it via computer simulation in The Evolution of Cooperation, Hume exposed the problem, but not the cause; St. Paul made it the basis of his exposition of the Gospel in the book of Romans and drove the point home in his letter to the Galatians, and it's central to the story of the creation of man in Genesis (see What Really Happened in Eden). After all, the central claim of Christianity is that Jesus died and rose from the dead because of man's inability to follow any external moral code. To say that the need for an objective external standard is an argument against materialism completely misses the point of Christianity. We know that our brains are wired for teleological thinking; people with Asperger's have been shown to be deficient in this area (People with Asperger's less likely to see purpose behind the events in their lives). The theist says that God represents the ultimate goal, the ultimate purpose, the solution to the is-ought problem; the materialist will say that this is just something that minds with our properties wished they had. It's how scientists say we're wired, its how Christianity says we're wired. Arguing that materialism can't support an objective moral standard won't change that wiring.
In summary, then, neither abstract thought nor morality are a problem for a materialist, as currently argued by theists.
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.
Several statements in the book have resonated with me, because they touch directly on topics of several recent internet “discussions” and because they cohere with positions I’ve taken. Several of these deserve further elaboration and may become topics of future posts. Until then, I’ll just present each along with a brief observation.
The first pertains to how worldview influences the evaluation of evidence:
When historians seek to describe the past, they place facts within the framework of a narrative. Numerous interpretations and theories can be quite imaginative. Moreover, many times specific narratives can neither be proved nor disapproved, and historians from every camp often fail to place a sort of disclaimer informing readers of the tentativeness of their narrative, which is stated as fact. [pg. 57]
The second deals with the question of just how literal an interpretation of a text ought to be (see, for example, Operation Chaos). Are ancient descriptions to be understood as if they were video recordings?
However, no one would charge a portrait as being errant because they portrayed something in the background that was not there during the sitting but was created in order to communicate character or personality. Literary devices such as invented speeches and encomium are common traits of ancient bioi. Thus, in some instances, those who complain of contradictions and inventions in the Gospels are guilty of judging them in terms of photographic accuracy, when this may not have been the intent of the author. Still, this earmark of ancient bioi makes hermeneutical considerations of the Gospels all the more challenging. [pg. 76]
The third ties in with the second when dealing with “young earth creationism,” which I should note that I don’t think does justice to the Biblical text. Are there any good reasons to suppose “Tuesdayism” is or is not true, other than philosophical ones or a very literal reading of Genesis?
Neither historians nor philosophers can prove that the world is older than 10 minutes at which time everything was created with the appearance of age and that we were created with memories of events that never took place and with food in our stomachs from meals we never ate. [pg. 82]
The fourth is based on the principle of non-contradiction:
Another theory of truth is coherence theory, which states that a proposition is true when all of its components cohere with other propositions believed to be true. This theory of truth may be especially attractive to those historians who excel in forming creative narrative. Their narrative is true because it coheres better with other widely held propositions. [pg. 91]
The fifth echoes Russell’s statement from “The Problems of Philosophy” that, “All knowledge, we find, must be built up upon our instinctive beliefs, and if these are rejected, nothing is left.” What Licona says about historians is true for everyone:
Historians are required to make numerous philosophical assumptions before entering every historical investigation. For example, they assume the external world is real. They assume our senses provide a fairly accurate perception of the external world. They assume logic facilitates our quest for truth rather than merely functioning as a pragmatic tool that aims at our survival and quality of life. They assume natural laws in effect today were in effect in antiquity and that they operated in a similar manner. More importantly, the majority of historians assume that history is at least partially knowable. [pg. 156]
These last two quotes touch on logic, science, and the nature of truth and deserve a post of their own.
Excerpting passages from Genesis 2 and 3 we read:
One answer to the question “how did Eve know the fruit was good for food” is that this just means that Eve understood that the fruit was edible; that is, good in the physical sense, but not in the moral sense.
And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. Out of the ground the LORD God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. ... The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the LORD God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” ... So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves. [Genesis 2:8-9, 15-17, 3:6-7, NRSV]
This answer betrays a misunderstanding of how our minds work. As previously noted, “good” and “evil” arise from goal-seeking behavior of self-aware beings. “Good” is our evaluation of that which leads to a goal; “evil” is that which leads away from a goal. Eve exhibited goal-seeking behavior when she observed that the fruit would satisfy her physical needs. Now, animals also exhibit this same goal-seeking behavior, yet we typically believe that they are not moral creatures. Sometimes the reason given for this is because they are not self-aware. In particular, they neither reflect on their choices, nor are they aware of the consequences of their actions. Yet from the Genesis account, it seems obvious that not only was Eve self-aware, but that she had been informed of the consequences of her actions. She at least knew the consequences, even if perhaps the serpent was able to put doubt in her mind. Since Eve was a self-aware goal-seeking individual who knew, if not fully understood, the consequences of her actions, I don’t agree with the supposition that she wasn’t morally awake.
What, then, is this story trying to tell us? I think the answer is found in the repetition of the phrase, “and God saw that it was good.” I believe this means is that every creature that exhibited goal-seeking behavior used the external standard set by God as their goals. That is, animals, Adam, and Eve exhibited fixed goal-seeking behavior with the goals set by God. Zoologists say that animal behavior is driven by the four “f’s”: feeding, fighting, fleeing, and reproducing. When Adam and Eve ate of the “fruit” (not that this needs to be taken literally, mind you), they no longer had fixed external goals. Their behavior was thereafter driven by goal-seeking behavior based upon variable internal goals. When Scripture says that they would become “like God, knowing good and evil”, this meant that they became capable of setting their own goals, apart from God. As animals are driven by the four “f’s”, we became driven by five: feed, fight, flee, reproduce, and fix. This additional attribute is shown in the Genesis account by the pair clothing their nakedness with fig leaves. It is what enables us to build machines and create works of art.
Am I mistaken in this interpretation? Am I reading McCarthy’s design requirements for human capable intelligence back into Genesis? Could it be just the case that McCarthy and the author of Genesis were shrewd observers of the human condition and came to the same conclusion about human nature? Is it coincidence that an atheist luminary in computer science and an ancient writer described the same thing in different ways? Could it be that science and Scripture aren’t at odds, at least when it comes to the software run by our brains?
On 3/15, I had a conversation with an atheist in which he wasn't able to handle a question about intelligence.
On 3/23, I had almost the exact same converstation in this thread on Fark. It's 576 comments long; look for the exchange between "poundgrayly" and "Epicedion".
Today, the same thing happened on this thread on Vox Popoli with "Nicholas_Gascoine".
Because the Fark thread is so extensive, I'm working on diagramming it for presentation and further analysis. But the short form is that those who claim that science is the only means for obtaining "true knowledge" have trouble with these questions:
- What is the scientific definition of intelligence?
- What is the scientific test for intelligence?
- Are you intelligent?
- How do you know?
As a certain pointy-eared green-blooded epitome of rationality would say, "Fascinating!"
Back in December, I wrote some preparatory remarks toward a formal article on evidence for God. I haven't had time to work on it, but this discussion at Vox Popoli gives the sketch of one approach. One commenter remarked on the atheist's demand for scientific proof of God's existence. I wrote that science is self-limited on what it can know:
The scientific method is only applicable to a subset of things we know about. For example, it can tell us about what is, but it cannot say anything about what ought to be. It also cannot prove itself. So, their epistemological foundation can't support them.
To this, I should add that I suspect that Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem can be applied to the scientific method. What this means is that there are things which can be known to be true, but which cannot be proven true by science.
I then wrote:
Having said that, the scientific method can still be useful. How can one test for God? What science isn't good at, right now, is testing for intelligence. At best, the Turing test can be used. But intelligent beings are not things that respond in predictable ways. How does one test an intelligent computer that doesn't want to talk to you, but will talk to someone else? When scientists have an answer to that, they can then try to apply the scientific method to God.
The discussion picks up where "Victorian dad" uses Occam's Razor in an attempt to exclude God on philosophical grounds. "Victorian dad's" words are in green, mine are in blue.