You want me to sit on WHAT???

Imagine that the motor car as we know it had never been invented – suppose we’d developed electrical technology long before the internal combustion engine.

Now suppose someone came up to you and proposed the following: “I want you to go and sit in the back of that metal box and lock yourself in. Under your seat is a bomb made from twelve gallons of liquid petroleum. Petroleum is extremely explosive and there’s ample there to turn you into cinders. A bit of static electricity from wearing synthetic clothes is more than enough to ignite it, but for your comfort and convenience we’ve also routed it close to a very hot pipe and carry it via easily chafed tubes to the front, where we deliberately expose it to 15,000 volts of electric sparks. Ok? How do you feel about that?”

From that perspective the motor car doesn’t seem nearly so benign or reasonable, does it? In these days of consumer protection, can you seriously imagine such a thing being made legal? And yet we not only accept it as normal but we casually pack our children inside one and hurtle at closing speeds of 120mph, a few inches from some random stranger doing the same thing.

But it’s just what you do, isn’t it?

Belief in gods is just like this, as far as I can see. It was once the only explanation we had, and it seemed eminently reasonable at the time.

We humans were faced with, and perhaps uniquely able to examine, all sorts of major scientific puzzles about the world around us: How did it come to be? How did such complexity arise? Why am I able to speculate on all this in a way that a rock doesn’t seem able to do? What’s it all for? Why am I somewhat like other creatures and yet apparently so different? Why is it all so damn painful?

These were excellent questions, and led to a series of excellent answers. Like all scientific theories, these proposed answers have been subjected to challenges and gradually adjusted in the light of new information. First it wasn’t at all obvious that trees and maybe even rivers don’t have a first-person experience of life in the way that we do, so animism was an early scientific theory that sought to explain growth and movement and purpose in terms of some animating influence, and hence the theory of spirits was born.

Later, analogies with the contemporaneous development of social order in humans led to the notion that events in the non-human world were also orchestrated by intelligences. The apparently erratic and cruel nature of life’s events was perhaps best explained in terms of power struggles and the emotional personalities of invisible beings – a pretty good reflection of what humanity was itself going through at the time. An extremely elaborate and sophisticated set of sub-theories were developed within this paradigm and such polytheism worked very well for thousands of years.

Eventually, some quite logical inferences brought a group of researchers to the conclusion that such a society of gods must have a leader, and that their particular favorite god was the best candidate. This theory worked so well (although not for very scientific reasons) that it eventually led to the theory that all these other gods weren’t really gods at all – just angels, or devils, or false gods that should be denied. Moreover, since the whole of existence must surely have had a single-point beginning, it was clearly this deity, the All-Father, who created it. Nothing so complex could conceivably have created itself, so this made a lot of sense. Just like Newtonian Mechanics before Einstein came along, a massive body of literature was developed around it and the theory looked pretty secure.

I’m grossly over-simplifying this progression of scientific theories, I know. I simply can’t do them justice in a few paragraphs and I have a  specific point to get on to. But I hope you can accept that animism, to theism, to monotheism is a rational, thoughtful, scholarly progression of explanations of the world and our place in it, drawn from careful observations and then refined, both gradually and via distinct paradigm shifts, through the use of logical challenges to the predictions it made. Apart from the difficulty of performing actual experiments on such matters until recently, this process of philosophical enquiry is essentially science. Religion is science. Or at least it was until it started insisting upon blind faith.

At every stage in the process, some people refused to go along with the flow. Either they didn’t believe the new evidence, they didn’t hear about it at all, or they had too much invested in the previous paradigm. There are still animists. There are still polytheists. Even amongst a single line of monotheists there are three distinct schools of thought, each focused around a particular moment in the history of its development – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It’s hard to let go of a conceptual framework that has infiltrated one’s entire life.

You may have noticed that I’ve missed out a stage in this progression of philosophical ideas. Beginning around five hundred years ago, a series of observations that were entirely consistent in spirit to all the others that led to them began to cast serious doubt on some of the basic tenets. That, too, is far too big a tale for a paragraph, but whilst Bronze-age people had developed a highly sophisticated understanding of the motions of planets that seemed to confirm the need for divine control, medieval scholars were able to show that this complex set of requirements became massively simpler and more mechanical if we let go of the notion that our planet is at the center of the universe. Such an hypothesis was very persuasive but it called into question some deeply held assumptions about the existing theory, which by this time was rather heavily built upon the notion that humans (or at least some tribes of humans) were special, and all this complex theological machinery really required us to play center-stage. It didn’t go down well. (Apparently nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.)

Much, much more has happened since then. The new theory of planetary motion led to a rapidly growing understanding of how a wide variety of things that we’d formerly assumed could only happen if an intelligence caused them to happen, can actually be better explained in terms of quite simple regularities, which we call physical laws. The accumulating evidence about the age of the Earth and how its rocks have formed failed to square with some assumptions in the older cosmology about how it had been created. And in the 19th Century a couple of very methodical and painstaking studies seriously began to erode the assumption that the world is too complex to have arisen without someone to create it. This was a bit of a shock, but it did at least help us to deal with some very longstanding philosophical difficulties with the existing theory, such as “if the complexity of the universe can only be explained by intelligent design, the same argument must apply to the even more complex designer, so who or what created him?”

To cut a very long story short, a massive, MASSIVE amount of evidence has accumulated in the past five hundred years that required another paradigm shift in our cosmology. The explanations we had before – of spirits, of warring otherworldy beings, of an all-creating all-father – no longer fit the facts. These changes were at first incremental and capable of being absorbed by modifications to the existing theory, but eventually a Kuhnian paradigm shift became necessary to account for what is now known. Like all honest science, the theory had to be abandoned and replaced.

But like all other paradigm shifts in the history of our collective attempt to understand our world, not everyone feels in a position to let go of the old world view. The same reasons apply now as ever: some are ignorant of these new developments; some understand them but genuinely don’t believe them (although this time I think that’s a very small minority, if anyone at all); and some have too much invested in the old ways to change.

Unfortunately, some of this latter group are determined to pull the wool over people’s eyes and deny this accumulated evidence, either for personal gain or to protect their own insecurities. Others are somehow able to engage in doublethink and believe two mutually contradictory ideas at the same time. But the majority, I suggest, are simply too used to it to see the problem.

We think nothing of sitting our children on top of a bomb and driving them to school, because that’s what we’ve always done. The technology arose in rougher times, when such things didn’t seem so unreasonable. But I submit that, if the idea were proposed for the very first time today, we’d find it utterly ludicrous. We’d say it was a monstrous suggestion that would lead to thousands of deaths every year. And we’d be right.

I further suggest that, if history had been different and we hadn’t passed through these (at the time entirely reasonable) stages in our scientific explanation of the world, and someone came up to you today and suggested for the very first time that the universe was put together by an alien intelligence, that there was a heaven and a hell, that you were born sinful and doomed to hell unless you could convince this deity that you believed in him, and all the rest, you’d be rather more likely to believe that it makes sense to sit on a bomb and throw sparks at it.

By the way, should any of you wonder why I write posts about religion in a blog about artificial life, there is a reason: My work is about answering the very same questions that led to these stages in our religious/scientific development. Many of the things that in prior theories required supernatural agency – souls, consciousness, a vital spark, are nowadays amenable to examination. By trying to create life in the laboratory, especially somewhat abstract forms of life, as opposed to fairly slavish copies (see, for instance, Craig Venter’s lab’s work), I hope to gain more insight into what it means to be living, conscious, spiritual entities. I’m just continuing the work started by our stone age ancestors.

Discuss. I know you will 🙂


About stevegrand
I'm an independent AI and artificial life researcher, interested in oodles and oodles of things but especially the brain. And chocolate. I like chocolate too.

50 Responses to You want me to sit on WHAT???

  1. Norm says:

    That was wonderful, Steve. But then, I’ve never known you to write something that *wasn’t* wonderful.

    I certainly agree that the questions religions were invented to answer are the same ones we address today with science–albeit in a more logical and comprehensive manner.

    I’m curious why you selected the word “slavish” to describe Venter’s work. Do you mean that the life he strives to create merely mimics existing life on Earth–while life created in software would represent an entirely new form? What exactly do you mean by creating “abstract” forms of life?

    • stevegrand says:

      Thanks Norm, and thanks for cross-posting it.

      Yes, I mean slavish in the sense that you thought. It’s only a minor point but I think there are some relevant differences between synthetic biology and artificial life. For one thing we’re an awful long way from being able to construct a multicellular eukaryotic organism using molecular biology, so there’s not much going to be learned about consciousness that way.

      It’s not clear to me what a committed Cartesian Dualist (dualism/vitalism is a fundamental tenet of many religions, of course, including Christianity – we have to have an immaterial soul) would consider as an existence proof that they were wrong. To me it seems self-evident that if we were to create a faithful copy of a duck, molecule by individual molecule, then the result would be a duck. It would quack like a duck and defecate like a duck because it is actually a duck. QED.

      But I imagine there are still people who would insist that even a faithful molecular copy of a duck would not really be alive (at best it would be a “zombie” duck, because it wasn’t infused with a soul).

      Unfortunately, all we’re going to get for a while is synthetic bacteria, and I doubt any dualist would be very convinced to find that such a thing does indeed flagellate like a bacterium and show chemotaxis like a bacterium! It’s too easy to claim that bacteria aren’t “really” alive.

      So I’ve a feeling we have more hope of pitting mechanistic theories against supernatural theories using artificial life. I’m currently working on creatures that I postulate may contain the neural phenomena upon which consciousness depends, for instance. I’ll be very surprised if anyone actually regards them as conscious, but we have rather more hope of establishing the necessary and sufficient conditions using abstracted forms of biology, I think. It’s kind of like the way physics deals in ideal gases and point objects.

      I may well be wrong about that, because people find it very easy to pooh-pooh anything made in software – “it’s not even real”. But if nothing else, I do know that making emergent software creatures causes people to ask important questions they might not otherwise ask.

      • Norm says:

        Steve, you said:

        “I’m currently working on creatures that I postulate may contain the neural phenomena upon which consciousness depends.”

        Boy, that’s one hell of a powerful (if understated) statement to make–made all the more impressive because it is coming from you–someone who might actually pull it off!

    • Adam says:

      That’s what she said!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  2. Alon says:

    I started reading this awesome article on and then I found out it was Steve Grand who wrote it.
    Great job. Still successful, as usual.

  3. Sue says:

    Lovely article Steve – it made me think.
    I wonder if all the gods reflect differing degrees of bad parenting. Before agriculture in the good old hunter-gatherer days we just had fellow beings in rocks and trees as we weren’t screwed up ourselves. Then as the authoritarians took over control of the food supply, life became less fun, parents were tired, less available to love their kids and gods became more and more powerful and less and less kindly. As society became industrialised god became a captain of industry. Maybe if we could all work from home in the Information Age we could reconnect with families and not need the nasty externalised gods anymore. But as long as people are unhappy and feel unloved they will look outside themselves for someone to make it all better.

    • stevegrand says:

      Thanks, Sue. I think you have a very good point there! Certainly there seems to be a difference between the gods of hunter-gatherers and of farmers. God as a captain of industry is a fascinating idea – I’ll have to think more about that. The god of the old testament must be about as bad a parent as it’s possible to be! Food for thought – thanks.

  4. Mouseolatry
    A MOUSE one day found his way to the Fountain of Knowledge. Whoever drinks from it may have his heart’s desire and one extra wish.
    The mouse drank, and he wished that he could understand the speech of men, if men had speech.
    When he had spent some time listening to what men said, he used his extra wish to banish his new power.
    The other mice said to him:
    ‘What was so horrible about the speech of men?’
    At first he could not bring himself even to think of it again, but they pressed him so much that he said:
    ‘I do not think that you will believe me, but what I have to say is true. Men actually imagine that God is like them, with human, not mouselíke, attributes!’
    The mouse audience was shocked to the core.
    When some intellectuals among them had recovered from their indignation, they asked:
    ‘But are there none who think otherwise?’
    ‘There are some, but their theories are as abominable as the rest.’
    ‘Tell us, just the same,’ clamoured the thinkers, ‘so that we may have the fullest information on this amazing matter.’
    ‘Well, then; for instance there are those who imagine that religious terms are in reality derived from states of mind.’ ‘Enough!’ cried some of the assembled mice, ‘such insanity could cause an epidemic of madness. Even the Mouse-god might not be able to protect us from it.’
    ‘Enough!’ exclaimed others, ‘for this might give mouseolaters a chance to revive that nonsense called religion, pretending that it has a functional origin.’ ‘I told you all at the beginning that it was horrible,’ said the mouse who had found his way to the Fountain of Knowledge.

    Page 88 The Magic Monastery by Idries Shah

  5. asterisk says:

    Not a bomb. (we have designed it that way)

    Engine is run rich meaning less chance for corruption of engine block leading to over-pressurization.
    tank is grounded to ensure no sparks are emitted inside the tank.
    tank is ventilated with many vents (gas cap for one).
    rubber is weaker than steel and would release pressure before the tank could become dangerous.
    Very little O^2 in the tank not enough for much pressure to build

    CNG busses involve much more over-engineering with higher pressures.

    PS: It is a necessary evolution to increase in speed though the competition is only ourselves.

    • stevegrand says:

      Heh! Yes, I realize that. I wasn’t really trying to suggest that a car is a bomb – too many people would have been blown up by now. It was meant as a provocation – what Edward de Bono might call “Po” – to illustrate a thought about theism. Sometimes things seem reasonable only because we grew up with them, and if we were presented with them for the first time as adults we’d have a different reaction. But thank you for the list of safety features – that is actually quite interesting from an engineering perspective!

    • Abram Demski says:

      But a great number of people *do* die in automobile-related accidents, even if it’s not due to the gasoline exploding! Furthermore, there are many alternative modes of travel which are less deadly and better for the environment… I’m not *certain* that cars are irrational, but it seems reasonable to think so imho.

    • stevegrand says:

      Indeed. They’re certainly not as rational as we like to think! Over a third of a million fatal road accidents in the last ten years in the US – WAY more deaths than terrorism, for instance.

  6. Terren says:

    Regarding the aim of artificial life (and AI, more generally), you make an important point that success in these endeavors would certainly constitute the latest and possibly fatal advance into the sacrosanct territory that religion currently claims in the hearts and minds of the majority of the world’s population… namely, spirit and soul. The spark of life, the seat of free will. Hod Lipson’s creatures, for example, offer a glimpse into what many will come to see as artificial evil. They are kind of freaky.

    I think we can expect that if any of us are truly successful, we will incur the wrath of an institution reacting to a mortal threat. Even the moderately religious may be threatened by the posthuman realities ushered forth. Could get hairy!

    • stevegrand says:

      That’s very true, and very nicely put! There’s no question that Strong AI and Strong Alife are unashamedly and intentionally mechanistic ventures. It’s still an open question whether we’ll succeed – it’s just feasible that we’ll discover some reason in principle why machines cannot be conscious or whatever, and if that turns out to be the case then all well and good, but I doubt anyone who held to that hypothesis in the first place would be interested or even suited to this area of research, so the paradigm is definitely mechanistic.

      What I wish people of spiritual bent would understand is that a mechanistic basis for life and mind is by no means “unspiritual” or nihilistic. I fight against religion in this blog and I think people assume that I must, therefore, hold to the opposing view – the reductionistic view of post-Newtonian science. I really don’t – I think they’re both wrong and there is a Third Way. But until people let go of this false dichotomy we’ll never really be able to move forward. And I agree – it’s going to get hairy.

      • Terren says:

        Consider me a disciple of the Third Way! I think spirituality and science go hand in hand.

        As a personal example, the day I learned how cellular machinery works to produce proteins from genetic sequences was a deeply spiritual day for me! I left the classroom in awe of the world that could produce such amazing mechanisms.

        If you don’t mind, here’s an excerpt from an interview with Ann Druyan that really captures this:

        Do you view religion and science as incompatible?

        D: I think that superstition and science are incompatible. I think that the doctrine of unquestioning faith and science are antithetical. To me, there was no greater spiritual awakening than the Enlightenment itself. And I’m convinced that our failure to accept it as a primarily spiritual awakening is a major source of our dysfunction.

        Is there anything inherently wrong with someone believing in the intangible?

        D: There’s nothing wrong with having a sense of wonder about the things you don’t understand, but I think it’s wrong to commit to a belief in the absence of evidence, especially when what you believe is transparently a palliative for your fear. The search itself should be never ending. That’s why the conclusive religions do not satisfy me spiritually, the way science does.

        How is that different from believing there is life on other worlds when we don’t yet have evidence?

        D: I think you should withhold that belief. You should not believe anything for which there is no evidence. You can have hope—I have a lot of hope, which I like to think is based on good evidence—but that is very different than faith. For me, the method of science is a profoundly spiritual discipline, because it’s saying that I will give up telling myself things that will make me feel better in exchange for knowing a little bit about the universe. Not absolute truth, because science can’t offer that, but little pieces of truth, successive approximations of truth. Much of what we believe now will prove to be wrong, but how could it be otherwise?

      • stevegrand says:

        Lovely, thanks for that, Terren!

  7. John the Baptist says:

    As far as “the religious” are concerned, advances in AI, mimmicking what goes on in creature’s minds, will be no more disconcerting than ornithopters that mimmicked bird flight.

    As a creationst, I have an absolute fascination for AI. When (not if) we do succeed, we will only have demonstrated how much painstaking, focused, intelligent effort is required to set up such a system.

    Where “souls” or “spirits” come in is a whole different ball game – nothing to do with intelligence.

    I do not believe that a soul or spirit is at all necessary for an intelligent machine to be able to function “intelligently”.

    Come on Steve – stop philosophying and make some breakthroughs!

    • stevegrand says:

      Hi John (still feels strange to be addressing a prophet!),

      I’m working VERY hard on a breakthrough right now, but it’s way too complex to blog about. Given the trouble I have convincing anyone of anything in English, I’m sure you’ll appreciate that sometimes my best option is to convince a computer in C#! Computers are very patient, can absorb millions of pieces of information and don’t go in for bullshit. It I’m right, it works, if it doesn’t work, I’m wrong. Once I’ve explained it to my PC I’ll try to explain it to everyone else. But in the meantime there’s a single thread of logic that stretches from computational neuroscience to questions of existence – I wouldn’t be able to make a breakthrough if I didn’t think about the existential stuff too.

      Let’s steer clear of Creationism (I just think I’m using my intelligence to save time – if I had a few billion years I’d let evolution do the work), but I’m intrigued by your notion of soul and would like to know more. If you accept that the soul has nothing to do with intelligent behavior, what properties do you ascribe to the soul? If a machine (such as the human brain and body) would behave the same whether it has a soul inside it or not (perhaps that’s not what you believe – I’m putting it forward as a straw man) then what aspect of human existence is provided by that soul?

  8. Quinn O says:

    It does seem crazy that people continue to drive cars despite the number of casualties. Do you think that we should get rid of cars as well as religion?

    If there is an aspect of human existence that is unaccounted for by 3-dimensional physical entities, I’d say that it’s individual perception. Of course, I’m basing this in phenomenology as opposed to empiricism. If you create a faithful copy of yourself, molecule by individual molecule, maintaining neural connections and memories, it would seem to others that there are two identical copies of you. But your perception would remain uniquely tied to the original. That aspect of human existence that might, perhaps, be considered the “soul” would be the aspect that distinguishes your perception from that of an identical entity. In other words, whatever ties your consciousness to its position or trajectory in space and time.

    • stevegrand says:

      Heh! The car was just there as an illustration – you’re deliberately being provocative! But it’s a good question. If pushed, I’d say that cars are a great deal more use than religion today, and the dangers are less insidious. There are other ways to provide the services that religion currently provides (or there would be if only we could get past people’s reluctance to find out). So if I had to keep one, I’d keep the car. But that wasn’t the comparison I was trying to draw, of course – just the one about how things seem far more reasonable and rational when we’ve grown up with them than they perhaps ought.

      That’s a very interesting perspective (!) on souls. It seems to me like there’s some truth in it and also something of a paradox – quite a revealing paradox, perhaps. If someone made a copy of me, it’s true that “I” would consider myself resident in just “this” copy, not the other. So to that extent “I” am located in space via a unique perceptual viewpoint. But at the same time, the other copy of me would believe EXACTLY the same thing! We would both experience the creation of a copy of ourselves that is not us. Depending on how the process worked, we might be able to figure out intellectually who was the original copy and who was the new one, but inside our heads, each of us would be totally convinced we were the same person as we were a moment before the event. We’d have the same memories, and those are what define us; those are what create continuity in our sense of self. That’s why I still think I’m me when I wake up in the morning. If I wake up in hospital it’ll take a while as I reconcile my new surroundings with my expectations, but soon I’ll construct a new context and I’ll still feel like me because I remember who I was the day before. In this experiment I would think that he had been cloned from me, and he would think I had been cloned from him. So on one level we each still have this unique “location” defined by our senses and their unique point of view onto the world, but on another there are now two of us, each equally real, each equally valid. Two souls.

      I don’t have any problem with that – I think it’s a nail in the coffin for dualism, which (rather like the motor car) only seems to make sense because it’s an extension of our naive interpretation of how the world works. But that’s a long story. I think it would be absurd to conclude that one clone would really have a soul and the other would just be a zombie, don’t you? Two souls, each legitimately convinced that they are (still) me, is a bit mind-bending but perfectly logical. Yet at the same time, I think you have a point – even when there are two of me, they’re distinct. It’s not like I can now see out of two pairs of eyes. So there’s some meaning to the concept of a located “I”.

      Even so, this “I” is tied to a body. If the body ceased to provide any sensory data or respond to any motor commands then I think there would no longer be any “I”. I think the concept is meaningless. What would “I” be, if I had no sensation of the world around me or inside me, no memory of my past, even from a moment ago, and no capacity to express anything at all, even a thought? I’d be the same as I am during a dreamless sleep – I wouldn’t exist. Every night we allow ourselves to cease existing (in the expectation that we’ll come back into existence when our brain starts functioning again and can access our memories and senses). So I think the uniqueness that you refer to is a consequence of having a body, with its unique viewpoint and record of experience, and it is this that locates us. Nevertheless, I think you have a point about this being something we could legitimately attach the label “soul” to (if only we can rid ourselves of the other associations the word has built up).

      Interesting point!

      • Quinn O'Neill says:

        Thank you for your generous reply. I think we’re on the same page when it comes to “souls”. I should probably reserve the term for arguments against their existence.

        A body, with its unique viewpoint and record of experience, locates the consciousness it creates. But if identical copies of you each have a unique viewpoint, what would determine which unique viewpoint is yours?

        We lose consciousness when we go to sleep and regain it when we wake up, but can we be sure that we do so in the same body? If the located “I” (I like this term) were to relocate at some point–or even continuously–would we know? If not, how can we know that it doesn’t?

      • stevegrand says:

        Hi Quinn,

        I’m not sure if you meant those questions rhetorically, but I’m going to tackle them anyway, because one of them has sent my head into a spin! 🙂

        For the first one, I think all that my clone and I can argue about is which one of us has the original body; both of us would be a completely legitimate “me”, so your question has no answer. It’s like asking which identical twin is the real one. I know I’m me and he is he, because I see out of these eyes and he doesn’t; meanwhile he would tell you the same thing from his own perspective. From your perspective each of us is now a unique and separate individual in almost every respect; it’s just that both of us will tell you exactly the same stories from our childhood.

        I thought I had a straightforward answer to your 2nd question and I probably do, but it’s raised some difficult issues in my mind about matter versus other forms of organization that I hadn’t thought of before, so thanks!!!

        I’d say the answer to your question is simply that we wake up in the same body because whatever wakes up in that body IS the same mind, by definition. We agree that the mind has no existence independently of the brain that generates it, so if it’s the same brain then it’s the same mind, just like the same bell always has the same ring, and thus it’s a conceptual mistake to imagine, say, your mind being transplanted into my body. It’s a trick of the way we think. I feel sure I can imagine my voice being transferred into your body, but that’s nonsense: if it’s your body it’s inevitably going to generate your voice.

        But your question causes me some grief in connection with two things I’ve often held to be true and assumed to be mutually compatible, namely: 1) In physical space the most fundamental natural law is that you can move things but you can’t copy them, whereas in cyberspace you can copy them but you can’t move them. 2) matter itself is just organization – an electron is not made OF anything any more than a whirlpool is made of water. I hadn’t realized before that the two are in conflict, because the 2nd assertion means physical space is IDENTICAL to cyberspace and the same laws should apply. I think it’s the 1st assertion that’s way too glibly stated for its own good, but it raises the question of why some forms of information can propagate and others apparently can’t. But that’s a long story and I won’t bother you with it – I’ll just go and bang my head against a wall somewhere!!!

      • Quinn O'Neill says:

        They sound like rhetorical questions, but I was really hoping you’d have some answers. 🙂

        Thank you for yet another excellent response. I gotta think about this some more …

  9. Dranorter says:

    Probably anyone would say this, but, I do think I fall in that category of people who understand the evidence but still disagree. Seeing as you were pretty civil with the Baptist above it sounds like you might be interested in a bit of an argument. But I will tend to ramble explaining my view, so, apologies!

    First of all I’d like to point out that belief in Christianity does not always entail dualism. There is a philosophy professor here (at Central Michigan University) who advocates a purely materialist interpretation of the Bible; bodily resurrection is, after all, spelled out pretty clearly as being a literal sort of thing.

    But I can easily convince myself that I’m a dualist – when I think about math. It doesn’t make too much sense to me to consider numbers and other mathematical objects a literal part of the world, so whenever I find it convenient to talk about them as literally existing, I necessarily become dualist.

    I’m also pretty comfortable thinking of God that way. Boethius is my favorite theologian, as I like the idea that God is ‘simple’ and that all things tend toward the good, and ‘that which all things tend toward’ is a perfectly serviceable definition of the good.

    I believe in evolution, possibly to the point of having about as much ‘blind faith’ in it as I do in God. To me, evolution is a big, obvious guiding force in our world and it’s surprising it didn’t *increase* people’s religious tendencies. And yet, evolution is pretty much a mathematical force, something which is inevitable given certain oft-satisfied axioms. So I’m pretty comfortable thinking of God as some theorem that says the world does in fact tend towards the good.

    Souls similarly can be said to be mathematical facts about our physical, temporal selves, mathematical facts which will always exist. To be honest I don’t think about souls as much as I do about God, so I don’t claim to have as clear a point of view here, but basically the mathematical facts which were most deeply spelled out by our lives survive our death (well, all the mathematical facts do) and continue to influence the world, and it seems reasonable to say that they will come together and influence the world again. If Christian doctrine is right this will happen in one event; if Buddhism is, it happens more continually.

    Your book Creation, along with Stephen Wolfram’s NKS book, were very influential on my faith so it’s neat to be debating it with you.

    • stevegrand says:

      Hi Daniel,

      I’d say you and I are not necessarily at odds, deep down (although we may be – it’s too early to tell). I’d like to have the chance to debate the details of your somewhat Platonic Idealist stance, because I agree with the sentiment but not the conclusion. But at the moment I think there’s a problem here with definitions.

      I’m not at all averse to the idea that there’s more to the universe than we know – otherwise I wouldn’t have wasted most of my life on the expensive and sometimes painful quest to find it. But I think there are real problems with attaching other people’s labels to these things.

      Christianity, for instance, is open to interpretation UP TO A POINT, but it’s quite explicit in its creed and anyone who tries to pull too far from that creed should admit that they’re not really a Christian at all. Otherwise it’s like saying “I’m a Communist, apart from not believing in the common ownership of the means of production!”

      Any attempt to define Christianity that is able to distinguish it from, say, Islam, has to be pretty explicit about redemption, the divinity of Jesus, etc. Likewise any attempt to distinguish the Jewish-Christian-Muslim axis from, say, Hinduism, has to be pretty explicit about the nature of the One True God and his desires and opinions. Both the Catholic and the Anglican catechisms are perfectly explicit about the necessity of a belief in God as the creator of all things; as a clearly anthropomorphic being with free will; as the only true god, etc., etc. To belong to one of those churches you have to recite this creed and say “I believe.” So one can’t in all honesty believe in, say, a vague deist view of God AND call oneself a Christian. One can’t, in all honesty, believe in some kind of lawful abstraction of the order in the universe (as you seem to) and call the result God – NOT without twisting the definition so far as to claim allegiance with people you don’t actually have allegiance with at all.

      It’s the quite specific beliefs espoused by the main monotheistic religions, supported on a naive and dangerously misleading definition of the supernatural that I object to. I don’t necessarily disagree with some of these more “personal” interpretations of the nature of the universe that people sometimes choose to call “God.” I just wish they wouldn’t use that word! It aids and abets a philosophy that is anachronistic and harmful, because it doesn’t differentiate itself from a really quite clear dogma that causes a lot of suffering in the world. Do you see what I mean?

      But we can discuss your “mathematical order” perspective. I’m a Platonist myself, except in a very modified way. I’d just prefer it if we didn’t try to pin it to other people’s definitions of God, the supernatural, heaven, etc. When you push them to explain themselves, a lot of people have a more nebulous, personal, vague notion of god than the one they read about in the Bible or Qur’an, but I think they’re being both dishonest and unhelpful by simultaneously claiming to be members of an existing monotheistic creed.

      As a starting point, I’m a bit disturbed about your interpretation of evolution as a “guiding force.” Would you like to explain what you mean by that?

      • stevegrand says:

        P.S. I shouldn’t reply to stuff when I’ve just got up! You aren’t actually arguing a Platonist stance at all, are you?

        But that makes me feel even more strongly that you’re dragging words beyond where it’s fair to take them. The continuance of the “mathematical” regularities of the universe after someone’s death is not what “soul” means. Redefining “God” as “that which things tend towards” pushes the word well beyond what most people (especially the ones causing the most trouble) mean by it. Don’t you think?

      • Dranorter says:

        I basically said that I can happily entertain either complete “Christian materialism” or a sort of mathematical dualism which is probably reasonably close to Platonism. I’m probably happier with the Platonist point of view. If I said something that’s completely un-platonist, I’d like to know! (Perhaps I, too, am guilty of writing too early in the morning. I was trying to leave out of my view whatever was unnecessary.) The only thing I’m really doubtful of in Plato is the idea that we dimly remember knowledge of the eternal forms.

        Boethius, in the third consolation of his Consolations, describes God as that which all things seek, and hurry towards. Boethius’ neopaltonism is very close to what I understand of your own views, since he says the things which really exist are the things which strive for their own survival (and then immediately mentions that he is not talking about literal striving since inanimate objects don’t have voluntary motion. So he’s really saying existence is the same as self-continuation). As far as I can tell, “that which all things tend towards” is not too abnormal as a definition of God.

        This should make it clear what I meant by evolution acting as a guiding force. People often talk about evolution ‘finding solutions’ to problems or designing a particular organ or other body system to serve some specific purpose. This is of course merely a convenient way of speaking; but is that not the case of all theories, that they are merely useful abbreviations of the truth? I would argue that there is a reason it is so convenient to talk about evolution in that way, and that it is that evolution is intelligent in a fairly meaningful way. Last time I mentioned this to an AI researcher he accused me of allying with Intelligent Design (I hadn’t realized I was going that direction) and when I explained that was not my intention, answered that evolution is too slow to count as an intelligence. This may make it clearly a different class of intelligence, but there is still definitely a sense in which evolution can solve problems and respond to situations.

        It is quite unfortunate that articulating this argument seems inevitably to sound just like intelligent design. Perhaps if ID folks could be convinced that this is what they were arguing all along, though, it could do some good. In any case, it seems what I have is an argument that talking about evolution as a guiding intelligence is a good model. But if something is a good model, it is in some sense true.

        I don’t think evolution is necessarily well enough modeled as an intelligent guiding force that we can say that’s what it really is, but I definitely can’t help but say that evolution is an intelligent process, and many species do a lot of their thinking and learning with their genes. (Big difference of course; here I’m saying evolution is intelligent on an individual species scale.) Bacteria are can ‘learn’ drug resistance fairly quickly. It’s a really good model at that point to consider evolution intelligent.

        I suppose what remains to reply to is your idea that it is a pointless and even harmful convention of language to call my view a Christian one. After all, maybe Boethius shouldn’t have called himself a Christian or Newton shouldn’t have. (As far as I can tell Newton believed God acted in the world in a systematic way, the rules of which could be discerned– and he thought that with gravity he had discovered one.) Certainly I regret posing myself as being totally in the same camp as those who are anti-evolution, anti-science, and anti-global-warming. Christianity includes within itself many people who are pretty wrong about stuff. But it also includes many people who are into technology and human progress and/or who hold similar ideas to mine about the world. “God is love” is an oft-repeated sentiment which shows how abstract a concept people believe God to be. It seems to me people take this idea fairly seriously and think God can be defined as being the same as love.

        So. The reason I think it is perfectly reasonable to assert the existence of God and souls is because they turn out to be good explanations of the world; the world tends toward good as if drawn by a force, so why not posit a force? People seem to have something of an essential nature which can be ‘harmed’ or ‘forsaken’ (picture handing over your soul) through sin, sin being an act of going against God’s will, that is, going against the good towards which all things tend. Not only do I think these theories make useful predictions (for example, cheating on homework will harm you in the long run, and organizations which inadvertently encourage cheating will tend to fail), I think they are not ‘blind alleys’ or comfort zones in our theory of the world, since it seems there should be some mathematical truths regarding why they turn out to be useful models (what deeper truths they are emergent from).

      • stevegrand says:

        That’s a good answer. It really bugs me though.

        Before I get on to that, something about evolution as intelligence: I think you’re right but we have to differentiate between reactive intelligence and predictive intelligence. Natural selection is definitely reactively intelligent – it does solve problems. But it has no foresight, so it’s not predictively intelligent. It can’t make a change IN ORDER TO solve a particular problem.

        That makes it difficult for me to know what you mean by it “tending to good”. Genomes do adapt towards niches, but there’s no overall trend towards some kind of “perfect form”. In fact there’s a trend towards diversity. Humans aren’t “better” than chimpanzees, nor are modern frogs less evolved than modern humans – we’re all very successfully adapted to our particular niche. It seems to me like you’re guilty of imbuing evolution with an arrow, if not a target. Or do I misunderstand what you’re saying?

        The thing that bugs me, though, is that if people feel free to attach the label “God” to purely lawful processes (as Einstein did, using it as a poetic metaphor – he was an atheist, after all), and if people with the airiest, not even remotely anthropomorphic notions of God still choose to call themselves Christian, as opposed to Muslim or whatever, then how on earth do the rest of us differentiate between these people and those who ACTUALLY believe the catechism they recite in church???

        There are millions of people who really do believe that God is like a person, who makes decisions about their lives. Many of them really do believe in heaven, miracles, and the power of prayer. Many of them do believe in redemption for original sin. Some of them even believe in the Apocalypse or the necessity of killing infidels. Even those among them who don’t actually believe the Bible literally but still stick to what their churches require of them surely have to be regarded as TRUE Christians? Where does it say in Christian doctrine that it’s OK to believe that God is just another name for self-organisation?

        How are those of us who find blind faith in the absence of evidence and a belief in the supernatural agency of otherworldy beings offensive, supposed to react if just about everybody decides to call themselves a Christian despite many of them not actually believing a word of Christian dogma?

        I take it you think of yourself as a Christian? Why aren’t you a Muslim? It seems to me that there’s some sophistry going on here!

        It seems to me that many people really do start out believing in otherworldy beings, but gradually realize the inadequacy of this hypothesis and, instead of owning up to their loss of faith, hastily redefine it in a way that suits them. Isn’t that hypocrisy?

      • Dranorter says:

        I honestly don’t think I know enough about Islam to know whether I’m a Muslim. It seems from what I’ve read that they don’t disagree with Christians on too much, they just add a prophet.

        I think it’s interesting you say “not even vaguely anthropomorphic”. In my exposure to fellow Christians (though I avoid the ones who are anti-evolution) it does not seem like too many of them picture God as looking human. Christ is human but God isn’t. As Catholics we’re told that the image of the three circles overlapping is a good mental image to use.

        Since I definitely think there are reasons I consider myself Christian, I think the best I can do to appease your complaint is make it clear to my fellow Christians that I believe in evolution and all the rest, and continue to spell out how that does not mean what they think it means. Society, at least modern society, is great at having these huge divides between different camps and if I were to cease calling myself Christian, not only would I give up beliefs I consider important, I would just perpetuate an angry argument which I really don’t believe will result in fixing anything. It really is very similar to how we seem to have set up a great system for making the number of Republicans and the number of Democrats close to equal.

        Furthermore at least on my college campus, what I see happening with the people who decide Christianity is ridiculous is often a tendency to adopt other forms of spirituality which I see as much more irrational. For example ‘new age’/alternative medicines as a superior choice to the flawed medical institution.

        But I don’t think I want to discuss the societal aspects of the problem with you. I understand why you want to make the argument but I think the actual ideas are more important.

        Evolution does tend toward diversity. That is one of the senses in which it has an ‘arrow’. But I think it goes deeper than that. There are certain genes which will take evolution several billion years to discover, but which are so good that once they’re discovered, they spread to many or all other organisms and help the species overall survive. In a sense, humanity can’t really do better than this; there are good, simple proofs of certain mathematical theorems which we will take a thousand years or more to discover before we can spread them.

        So I can easily think of evolution as sort of a brute force theorem prover, the theorems being facts about what chemical reactions are possible to derive energy from, or just about how best to survive in general (some of them don’t generalize well). The arrow of evolution is that through these incremental discoveries it tends to make organisms which are better and better at surviving and spreading. It seems a natural question whether there is a best form, but it would be an insurmountable task to try to answer that. But at the early stages of our Universe a somewhat analogous search for the most stable configuration of the subatomic particles occurred, and it resulted in a Universe made mostly of one most stable form, hydrogen. So sometimes such processes turn out that way, but evolution doesn’t look like one of them.

        Regardless, the evolution occurring on individual planets is creating creatures which are better and better at surviving, and eventually one of these will figure out how to survive and spread in space, and we will just get a broader evolution started up.

        The overall progress of the Universe towards more successful forms is the only arrow which I really posit. This tendency seems a fairly simple generalization of evolution, and it holds for as long as the Universe continues to support any complexity. It is basically the same tendency as the tendency towards greater complexity.

        To me, it seems a mathematical understanding of what sort of physical laws (or computer programs) have these properties of tending towards complexity or life would be a great help to the debate between science and religion. And to me it seems like what would be necessary would be a generalization of the ‘axioms of evolution’, a wider definition of the sorts of circumstances in which complexity emerges.

      • stevegrand says:

        That’s very interesting. It seems like we’re closely aligned when it comes to evolution and the creativity of the cosmos. In fact I think we probably agree pretty deeply. And of course so does Stu Kauffman! 🙂

        That puts me in the minority about the use of the term “God”, but I still think it’s really unhelpful to use that word. It hides the problem and dodges some serious issues that affect people’s lives.

        It sounds like all three of us (you, me and Kauffman) want to see some kind of dialectic between the sciences and humanities, a better appreciation of the self-organizing cosmos, a “spiritual” component to life that’s been missing from reductionistic physics. But I, for one, don’t find it helpful to call that God. I respect your choice to work “from within” but I still think the moderate, postmodern, deist Christianity you’re talking about is sufficiently hypocritical that it implicitly serves to condone that which is unsupportable.

        Definitions matter. They mean things to people. You say you’re a Catholic, for instance, but you’re not! As far as I can see, you don’t actually believe things that are REQUIRED for membership of the Catholic faith. The conditions of membership are very clearly defined by the Vatican and listed in the manual! Just take the Nicene Creed, for instance, because that’s fairly short and forms part of the mass:

        We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen. We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, one in being with the Father. Through Him all things were made. For us men and our salvation He came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit, He was born of the Virgin Mary , and became man. For our sake He was crucified under Pontius Pilate; He suffered, died, and was buried. On the third day He rose again in fulfillment of the scriptures: He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end. We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. With the Father and the Son, He is worshiped and glorified. He has spoken through the Prophets. We believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.

        Do you believe all that? The stuff about virgin birth? Resurrection? We’re definitely not talking vague metaphors here. What about transubstantiation? You HAVE to believe that’s literally true, because that’s what separates Catholicism from Protestantism. The whole schism wasn’t over subtly different interpretations of a metaphor – it was metaphor versus literal truth.

        It doesn’t seem to me that you have a strong view that Jesus was literally both human and the divine son of God, nor that it is literally his blood you drink. If all the wine stuff is just a metaphor, in your view, then you’re not Catholic by definition. So perhaps you’re really Protestant. But if you don’t even think Jesus was literally the son of God and literally died for our sins so that we may live, then you’re not even Christian. Perhaps you’re Muslim…

        OK, at one level, sure, you could say that Islam just goes one prophet further than Christianity, but that covers over a really fundamental schism between the two. Christianity asserts that Jesus was divine (it’s pretty clear that Jesus didn’t himself see it that way – it was edited into the story long after he died – but the Trinity you mention is nevertheless a fundamental part of Christian dogma). Meanwhile, Islam says he was just a prophet, no more divine than John the Baptist. Not the savior, not the Christ but just another prophet. OK, so if you’re not a Catholic and not a Protestant, perhaps you can be a Muslim.

        Except that THEY claim to have the definitive word of God too, and it’s no more believable than the Bible. Muslims reject the Bible and replace it with the literal and explicit word of Allah in the Qur’an. There’s no question of loose metaphysical metaphor here – Allah is most definitely humanlike in his behavior, and his given laws are very clear, very definitive and very cruel. Moreover, the definitive word of Allah tells Muslims that Christians are infidels and must be killed. There’s really quite a lot of stuff you have to take on board to be a valid Muslim and it doesn’t seem to me like you would believe any of it.

        Being Jewish doesn’t help avoid the anthropomorphisms, and after that we’re into polytheisms, and as far as I know, you don’t believe in multiple personified gods either. Incidentally, by anthropomorphic, I didn’t so much mean human-shaped as human-like, in the sense of having opinions, desires, moods, free will, etc. The Trinity is all very sweet and metaphorical but you can’t hide the fact that Catholics, Protestants and Muslims alike all pray. There’s no point praying to evolution – prayer only makes sense if you think God listens and intervenes, like a person would.

        So it doesn’t sound to me like “God” is a very good word for what you actually believe in! Your definition conflicts big-time with that of hundreds of millions of people and the Laws and documents they consider essential to their religion. It sounds to me like you believe in Complexity Theory, Chaos Theory, and the theory of Evolution by Natural Selection. But in these creeds we don’t normally use the word God. You’d have to transplant it, rid it of all its supernatural and anthropomorphic baggage, as well as all the other unspoken assumptions that many people in the above religions can’t see beyond, and then apply it afresh to the concept of emergent levels of being. If we don’t rid it of all that baggage, it’ll come back to haunt us. So it just seems too dangerous, too conciliatory, too confusing an idea to me. I’d rather call those things Science – it’s a better fit. Science already rejects notions like believing in things in the absence of evidence, and placing implicit trust in ancient books. Gods, on the other hand, are well known for being capricious and dictatorial.

        I’m being facetious about you being a Muslim, etc. Sorry. Just trying to make a point. Actually I can see your views going down well among Unitarian Universalists.

        I DO want to go beyond the nihilistic reductionism of Newton and restore some spirituality to our lives, but by getting rid of a belief in magic and replacing it with something better, not by watering it down. So I think we perhaps want the same things but disagree about how to get there.

      • Dranorter says:

        Unfortunately this is going to be a brief reply, I’m running a bit late. But it seems to me you’re ignoring most of Christian theology with your definitions. Unfortunately so do Christian fundamentalists, which is the whole problem. But many Catholics do not.

        You see, the Catholic catechism states fairly plainly that God is not anthropomorphic, and is ‘simple’ in the sense that He is defined to be the same as all goodness and justice and wisdom etc. etc. Christ also is some mathematically necessary sort of entity having to do with God’s necessary interaction with the world, and this happens to e equivalent to the person Jesus in much the same way we are each connected with our own eternal souls.

        But I must say, I would not be surprised to find I might be a Protestant. I was raise Lutheran. But Catholics and Lutherans got along pretty well in my home town. Anyway my impression was that transubstantiation is a compromise view.

        I used to know a catholic priest who would try to keep people talking about Christ as the historical person rather than the theologically questionable ever-present spirit.

        From my experience there is plenty of reason to think I’m using a pretty normal idea of God. The problem is just the fundamentalists.

      • stevegrand says:

        Thanks for the discussion, Daniel.

  10. abramdemski says:

    A video relevant to the discussion with Daniel:

  11. Dear Steve,

    You say: Except that THEY claim to have the definitive word of God too, and it’s no more believable than the Bible. Muslims reject the Bible and replace it with the literal and explicit word of Allah in the Qur’an. There’s no question of loose metaphysical metaphor here – Allah is most definitely humanlike in his behavior, and his given laws are very clear, very definitive and very cruel. Moreover, the definitive word of Allah tells Muslims that Christians are infidels and must be killed.

    This is simply not accurate. Muslims believe that their religion is a corrected version of the tradition which is expressed by both Judaism and Christianity. They state that Jews and Christians have distorted the message they were supposed to transmit, an idea which accords with what is known about the history of these traditions. Also, as People of a Book, it is an obligation of Muslim rulers to protect communities of Jews and Christians living within their domains. I have no idea where you got the idea that Muslims have an obligation to kill Christians – that is completely incorrect.

    Sir Richard Burton, who spent three years in disguise going on pilgrimage to Mecca in the 1850s, states in his account of that pilgrimage that he became interested in Islam because he believed it accurately reflected the religion which Jesus attempted to teach, but which got distorted out of all recognition for political reasons.

    Islam also states that “every nation has had a Warner”. In other words, all communities reach a stage where a messenger points the way to their next step in their evolution. However, most communities ignore the message and take the consequences, leading to their collapse and the baton of evolution being taken up elsewhere.

    Please do not tar Islam with the same brush as Judaism, which is inherently racist, and Christianity, which is staggeringly intolerant of other belief systems. All this is on record as stated by the founders of the religion, even if it’s followers have often chosen to ignore it.

    • stevegrand says:


      Look, I was trying to make a particular point to Daniel, not give a comprehensive theology of Islam. But what you say just demonstrates to me what a pile of fucking crap these religions are and how the human race needs to get rid of them as soon as possible. You can paint them to be whatever you want them to be, which makes them utterly worthless as a basis for guiding or ruling human behavior.

      First, I accept your point that Islam doesn’t “reject” the Bible – I understand that Islam is a continuation of the same monotheistic tradition. But Islam rejects many of the fundamental and crucial tenets of Christianity, such as the divinity of Jesus. Islam is not a denomination of Christianity – it supplants it, just as Christianity supplants Judaism.

      All the rest of my paragraph still stands: Allah is patently anthropomorphic, just like the Christian God, in the sense of having opinions, moods, plans and susceptibility to prayer, which is just absurd and infantile; the Qur’an is riddled with inconsistencies just like the Bible, and using it as a definitive guide to behavior in the modern world is stupid; and because of those inconsistencies it’s possible to claim that Islam is a religion of peace, and EQUALLY possible to claim that it is cruel, bigoted religion.

      You see this bigotry in Judaism and I agree with you. You see it in Christianity and I agree with you. Yet you don’t see it in Islam. Well, plenty of other people do, including the many imams who preach Jihad. Including those who have fled the faith, e.g.

      All three religions are parochial, mediaeval superstitions. They have no place in modern society. All three are based on a set of assumptions about the nature of the universe that once made sense but have steadily been eroded to the point where they are no longer tenable and haven’t been for hundreds of years. All the reasons people came to believe there was an otherworld containing a person-like god or gods who ruled over mankind are now understood in far more rational terms and their theology make no more sense than Santa Claus. No matter how many good qualities these religions may have, they are inherently derived from a no-longer sustainable belief in supernatural beings. Without that they cease to make sense and have no right to their claims. It’s time we wiped out the bigotry inherent in all of them. I have no respect for anyone who bases his or her actions on ancient texts instead of reason. Nor do I have much respect for apologists who try to water down these things and make them seem palatable. We’re supposed to rejoice that the Pope now permits a few people to wear condoms, as long as they’re HIV+ male prostitutes? We’re supposed to be pleased that one of many Sharia sentences to be stoned to death for adultery was finally commuted to mere hanging? Islam, Judaism, Christianity – they’re all as sick as each other.

      • Dear Steve,

        Calm down 🙂

        I was mainly pointing out that you were erroneous in your statement about Muslims having some kind of obligation to kill Christians and pointed out a few more points about that tradition.

        I am not a Muslim, but I do know that, since it’s advent in the 7th century, Islam fostered the best spirit of enquiry and tolerance of diversity of any known culture up until the 18th century foundation of the modern world. In that respect, it has a much better track record than the other two related traditions. The fact that a bunch of Muslims choose to portray the founder of Islam in such negative terms with such blatant disregard for the historical context is their problem, not mine.

        I don’t really understand why my comments should lead to such a virulent outburst from you, but this is your blog, so you can do whatever you like 🙂

        I suppose my take on this is that these traditions exist and they won’t go away just because you find them annoying and “irrational”. After all, most of us are annoying and irrational, most of the time. Getting angry about that will not achieve anything apart from inviting an irrational and dangerous response.

        It’s perhaps heroic, but it isn’t very effective or useful 🙂

      • stevegrand says:

        Well I got angry because you’re basically trolling again. You weren’t just making a small point of order, you were trying to disrupt my argument. And I disagree with what you say. Or, more accurately, with the way you say it.

        Firstly, Islam may have been marginally less intolerant than the other two during much of history, but that’s really not saying much. And it doesn’t appear to be the case right now. Saying “best spirit of enquiry and tolerance of diversity of any known culture” makes it sound marvellous. It may have been slightly less barbaric than, say, Roman Catholicism during the Inquisition, but a paragon of virtue it is not.

        > The fact that a bunch of Muslims choose to portray the founder of Islam in such negative terms with such blatant disregard for the historical context is their problem, not mine.

        I agree it’s not your problem – at least, no more than it is any of our problem – but it is Islam’s problem. Mohammed wasn’t exactly a nice guy. Apologists complain that the many evil edicts in the Qur’an are taken out of context and Islam is really peaceful, but that’s not what the scholars say, from what I can tell. A lot of the peaceful stuff is early in the book and is therefore officially overruled by the later stuff whenever the two are in conflict. Muslims are very often instructed to wage war on infidels, both in the holy book and by modern imams, so I don’t think I’m as wrong as you say I am. Unless “smite their necks” just means pat them on the back. Surely not ALL of the following quotations are so badly out of context that nobody would seriously take them as meaning harm to non-Muslims?

        Did you watch the video on antisemitism? Many, if not most of those clips cited the Qur’an or the glory of a non-existent being as their justification.

        > It’s perhaps heroic, but it isn’t very effective or useful

        So what do you propose? People are being hurt by religion every day. People are without basic human rights because of religion. America is very rapidly turning into a theocracy. I’ve tried being gentle and courteous, but it just makes the awfulness of the truth seem pallid and easily disposed of. It’s like someone in 1930’s Germany complaining about the Holocaust by coughing politely and suggesting it might not be a terribly good idea. And then I get religious moderates, like Daniel in fact, who try to pretend that a vague, personal, metaphorical feeling of spirituality is what Christianity is really about and I’m misunderstanding the doctrine. Nobody REALLY believes in a person-like god, or heaven, or an afterlife, they say, it’s just a poetic way of looking at the world. But if so, that’s hypocrisy. If that’s what they really believe then they’re not Christians, because there’s nothing to distinguish their belief from many other religions. They need to rewrite their books, and bury the Pope. It obscures the fact that many, many people really do believe those things and are making policy on the basis of them. Courts take away children from agnostics; other courts sentence people to stoning; people fly into skyscrapers; “the planet won’t be destroyed by global warming because God promised Noah,” says politician bidding to chair U.S. energy committee; a Muslim who says what are considered to be profanities “should be burned to death”… For a moderate Christian or Muslim to turn a blind eye to this is like saying “Yes, I’m a member of the Nazi Party and I pay my dues, but I’m not really into all that ethnic cleansing, I just like the uniforms.” Being nice to moderate Christians isn’t working – they aren’t doing enough about what their own adopted faith is being used to justify. That’s what my argument with Daniel was about, and why I pointed out that Islam is antipathetic to Christianity. I was trying to show that you can’t claim membership of a guild and then deny all the properties that define that guild in relation to all others.

        I think these religions are wrong and I try to say so. I’m hardly the most vitriolic critic. I don’t think I’m being any more emotional than the poor unfortunate victims of religious bigotry and superstition deserve. I don’t think I’d be true to anything I stand for if I just shut up about it. It comes with the territory – I’m a scientist and a secular humanist.

      • Dranorter says:

        Okay, that’s pretty convincing. I mean clearly I should be fighting against mainstream Christianity rather or not I’m a Christian. I was just caught up arguing against something that wasn’t your point.

        But I don’t know if arguing (or “getting angry”) really does have any effect. The evidence of the daily news seems to point otherwise. The arguments look like nothing but a perpetual back-and-forth. Even global warming, which should be an easy one, continues to be a ‘controversy’. (Maybe what’s needed is big corporations profiting from eradicating hate and irrationality, rather than from ruining the environment.) It seems like a better idea might be to examine historical shifts in attitude and look for what caused them. Well… I guess it’s usually people getting angry and having a revolution of some sort. Gaining enough momentum for a revolution. I don’t know how it really happens.

        In any case I prefer the scientific route. Even before I read Creation I wanted to prove some day that sufficiently complicated mathematical systems just near-inevitably contain life (for some Universe-independent definition of life of course), partially because the search for nearby aliens isn’t going that well and I was curious about questions like whether “every nation has a Warner” to borrow the Muslim idea above. (I wondered whether it made any *mathematical* sense to create fictional universes which do not contain Christ, like most fantasy novels do. And it sounded like a testable hypothesis to me.)

        So there is scientific hope of explaining the origin of life (for me, this lies in studying what complex systems inevitably contain life-like patterns) and consciousness (and possibly the Universe, if out of context quotes of Steven Hawking are to be believed). I think the mysteries which remain are, the meaning/purpose of life, and the meaning of death.

        The meaning of life seems very slightly amicable to scientific approach. Right know science only says depressing things like, the Universe will eventually collapse into complete entropy so all accomplishment is temporary. A deeper understanding of what life is (it’s somehow *more* self-preserving and self-spreading than mundane successful patterns like hurricanes or the Sun) would probably be a great start to an answer, since our purpose could then simply be to be more alive.

        Death seems unapproachable. Curing it seems like the most science might want to do.

        Anyway, putting clear scientific demonstrations of these sorts of things into classrooms is necessary before they win the populous over.

        Of course a great leap forward in our ability to detect exactly how history happened would allow us to really put the accuracy of religious texts to the test (I am picturing getting video of historical events), but now I’m just daydreaming.

      • stevegrand says:

        Hey Daniel – I thought I’d lost you! Happy Thanksgiving.

        I don’t mean to suggest that you should FIGHT mainstream Christianity. I just wish those nice, well-meaning people could be encouraged to own up to what must be at the back of many of their minds anyway*, that the spirituality they’re searching for isn’t well served by a medieval myth about a narcissistic being who created a hell to burn us all in, and then promised to let us off as long as we spend eternity praising him. There are better (and far less damaging) ways to find personal spiritual meaning and satisfaction, although they do require more effort.

        > It seems like a better idea might be to examine historical shifts in attitude and look for what caused them.

        I think that’s very true. I’m reading Mein Kampf at the moment and it’s not an insignificant guide to our times! My overall impression of the “perpetual back-and-forth” you mention is that it’s not necessarily so perpetual. Not if we fight back right now. I think we’re seeing the hysterical dying throes of an old world-view that was based on authoritarianism.

        People who have reason to promote such a view (largely in their own perceived interests) are very keen on religion, because monotheism is the ultimate authoritarian (sometimes totalitarian) system. In fact, it could be that a priesthood or divine kingship that could claim appeal to a higher authority to confirm their actions was what created God in the first place.

        America, right now, is trying to resolve the inherent conflict between social democracy and authoritarian autocracy. The Far Right has made deliberate alliances with fundamentalist Christians (who believe in the same thing but exert it in a different sphere), and that’s why we’re seeing this tremendous push towards theocratic principles at the moment. Good Christians are often taken in by this, but it’ll come back to bite them if they let it succeed.

        So now is the time to stand up and call for the separation of modern, post-enlightenment ideas from medieval ones. If we all do our little bit, we can hold back the tide that’s trying to return us to the Dark Ages. I really think that’s not an exaggeration.

        Talking of the Enlightenment, I think there are TWO wars going on here but they get conflated. One is the war between authoritarianism and social democracy that I mentioned above, and the other is between the perceived nihilism of Enlightenment science and the Romantic Movement, who think there should be more to life than just atoms bumping into each other. THAT’S what I think many moderate Christians are involved in, perhaps including yourself? It’s a different war but the two get mixed up because of the way religion claims control of spirituality, and because scientists aren’t very good at explaining how real understanding enhances their awe and sense of connection, rather than diminishing it.

        You mention the heat death of the universe, for instance. It does sound depressing that it’s all going to end, albeit in 15 billion years. But heat death is what created the human mind. Until relatively recently the universe was too hot for minds to exist. As it cools, more and more subtlety and even organization (despite what some people insist) will become possible.

        I don’t think life has much purpose beyond begetting more life, but MINDS create their own purpose. A curiosity about the universe alone would give me purpose enough – I think the modern scientific approach is infinitely more beautiful and satisfying than blind faith in a parochial, anthropocentric world of superheroes and angels. But better than that, we sentient beings can CREATE. We can bring new ideas and structures into being. We can leave more behind us than we found when we arrived.

        I would love it if you continue to focus your attention on understanding exactly the things you mention – how life came about, how consciousness came about, why some phenomena have such astounding tenacity and self-organizing potential… Out of this, I believe, will come a new understanding of Spirit. One that beats the crap out of the explanations of the past few thousand years! Moving away from religion doesn’t mean moving towards a nihilistic, mechanistic science. Both paradigms are faulty. But we can’t develop a Third Way until we let go of the other two – that means religious people letting go of religion, and scientists letting go of post-Newtonian Reductionism.

        *On crises of faith in moderate Christians – have you read Dan Dennet’s discussions with preachers who secretly don’t believe in God?

      • Dranorter says:

        Happy thanksgiving to you too!

        I hope right about the political state of the U.S., but to me religious fundamentalism seems recent and seems like it’s gained a lot of minds in the youth. Even people who aren’t creationists get the impression that evolution is a conviction, political, religious, or philosophical, and so come to think of not believing in it as the more rational agnostic position. This is precisely because they see such vehement proponents of it.

        I suppose there is a pretty clear connection at times between the Church’s attempt to exercise control and its insistence on more irrational assumptions; I’m thinking of the insistence in England around 1400 that communion literally and visibly turned into blood and flesh, which was associated with the Archbishopric of Canterbury trying to become more powerful than the Pope.

        But in America I don’t see the same tendencies you do. This is probably because I avoid watching the news whenever possible. (I read Slashdot, that is all.) But what I see, briefly, is a split between free market capitalism and … anything which can be argued to go against that.

        I suppose you’re saying that the political right represents authoritarian interests? Yeah, I guess that makes sense. But I don’t see anyone strongly fighting for or against real democracy.

        Anyway. Your view on heat death is interesting, but that 15 billion year time scale is rather scarily short (the Earth, after all, has already been around 4 billion years). Where do you get it from? Wikipedia currently says 10^100 years, based on the time it will take for the last black holes to evaporate.

        I have read one argument that the Universe will be able to continue accumulating more structure indefinitely even if entropy rises fairly quickly to near-maximum, assuming life gets correspondingly larger and slower to accommodate the change.

        But back to evolution. This summer when I accidentally made myself look like a proponent of Intelligent Design, I got frustrated and designed a fictional position called Dawkinism (apparently people use this term, let’s ignore that for now) opposed to a fictional position of ‘watered down’ Intelligent Design. From my original notes:

        “Strawman Dawkinists/Hobbsians:
        -Evolution is random, unintelligent, blind
        -Evolution has no goal
        -Evolution is cruel and favors the strong and the selfish
        -Bacteria and cockroaches could be considered more successful than humans
        -Any altruism must come from an intelligent decision to depart from the natural selfishness of our genes.”

        Why are these straw man positions? If evolutionary researchers were tricked into committing themselves to these positions, they would work towards goals other than just studying evolution. They would try to escape or ignore evidence that evolution had general problem solving abilities (because “that’s intelligent design!”), they look at research into animal altruism as some sort of pseudoscience, or at least assume animal altruism to be a very limited phenomenon.

        Of course, the fictional position would also be associated with social darwinism, eugenics, etc., but that’s not too important to my point.

        My point being: there is something very much like this position in existence today, and some people seem to think that evolution justifies moral relativism. I’m having trouble putting what I see as the core problem into words, but: it seems like denying a solid goal to the evolutionary process is similar to denying the existence of an objective reality. To me it’s like saying that people invent mathematics rather than discover it. Evolution may create infinite variety, but in designing successful creatures it inevitably discovers certain underlying truths about what strategies are really the most successful. Unfortunately evolution does not ‘learn’ or ‘know’ in the same sense we do, so it cannot simply apply these discoveries everywhere they are relevant, but it is still somewhat inevitable that certain facts (not just facts about our Universe, but also more vague mathematical facts) will be discovered in the course of designing any successful species.

        These facts about how to survive end up looking vaguely like moral considerations, or at least that’s my biased intuition. The point is that the imperative on any pattern to survive and spread (not a literal imperative, but you understand my meaning) ends up being an imperative to, at a not necessarily conscious level, understand more about the Universe; and furthermore, though this understanding can take many forms there is a lot about it that is simply necessitated by the underlying truth.

        Now let us consider what the limitations on the intelligence of evolution are. As I admitted above, evolution is not as able to apply the ‘facts’ it ‘learns’ in generalized form. For example if one species ‘learns’ to care for its environment by not chewing up the seeds it eats (maybe changing tooth structure, who knows), this doesn’t give it a new tendency to look for other ways to help its food plants to survive, and definitely doesn’t give it a more profound tendency to care for the environment.

        However, in many ways human beings cannot truly apply a newly learned fact wherever it is relevant. (I like to say human minds befall the “frame problem”.) We need time, careful investigation, and a bit of luck to continue expanding our application of any one fact to our behavior. The difference looks to me like only one of degree.

        As for evolution having or not having predictive intelligence, I think a clear definition of predictive intelligence would be needed. When a species develops a digestive system capable of processing cellulose more efficiently, that is a prediction that cellulose will continue being a viable source of energy. If the availability of cellulose subsides, the species’ ability to process it will degrade but much of the relevant genetic material will only be turned off, deleting it totally is a waste of time. This leaves the species more prepared to develop the ability again.

        At some points the distinction blurs between evolution being intelligent and the species it creates being intelligent, but there seem to be definite tendencies to evolve techniques to evolve faster. Developing a higher mutation rate is apparently one example (, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there were clearer examples of predictive mechanisms operating within evolution.

  12. Nicholas Lee says:

    The secret truth about the the bible which explains everything…

  13. Nicholas Lee says:

    I think it is best to counter religious violence, doctrine, bigotry ignorance and xenophobia with humorous ridicule. It inoculates vulnerable people against religion better than any factual reasoned argument.
    So here is a brilliant video from Billy Connolly. He is so funny it hurts.

  14. Nicholas Lee says:

    Thanks Steve,
    Your original topic about life and the nature of consciousness is an important and complex issue that deserves a considered response, so here goes…

    My starting point is the traditional “I think therefore I am”. This property of consciousness is a very odd phenomenon in that it is a purely subjective experience and its existence in other entities can only be inferred but not proved or (for now) detected. It seems reasonable (to me) to ascribe consciousness to other humans and to extend that attribution in varying amounts to all other motile life forms with nervous systems. (Life forms have brains if and only if they need to move. Consciousness is an emergent property of nervous tissue).
    It would be convenient to simply state that consciousness is an emergent properly of certain arrangements of matter and energy and leave it at that. Despite being demonstrably true, this materialistic position falls short in its explanation of subjective experience of qualia and sense of self. These special properties are not (yet) explained or predicted by the current laws of physics.
    Having said that, we can make the analogous statement that an electromagnet can exert a force on a piece of iron without touching it because magnetic attraction is an emergent properly of certain arrangements of matter and energy.
    Physics has developed equations that successfully predict the strength of the force but this does not explain why the electromagnet attracts the iron. The stock answer is that the electromagnet creates a magnetic field which attracts the iron, but this is a circular argument as a magnetic field is defined as that which attracts iron. So we have not really explained why it does what it does.
    I like Physics because it provides powerful predictive models of physical phenomenon and so shows us that the universe is not subject to the arbitrary whim of gods or spirits. It does not however answer (yet) the question of why the forces and properties of nature obey the rules that they do. This ultimate explanation may come with time.
    We could hypothesise that in the brain, consciousness is the result of certain arrangements of matter and energy creating a “psy field” and it is the psy field that creates the experience of qualia and sense of self. This psy field could be a property of the universe (like the magnetic, electric, strong and weak nuclear forces).
    The concept of ‘Fields’ does not initially help us truly understand why electricity and magnetism do what they do, but they are a very useful intellectual construct to enable us to formulate practical predictive models and equations that over time get us incrementally closer to a true understanding of the nature of these forces.
    If for now we stick with the concept of the psy field as a property of space-time then it becomes logical to ascribe it as being a property of all matter rather than just biological matter. This does not mean that trees and rocks are conscious any more than they can create powerful magnetic fields. The arrangement of the matter and energy is what is important. It takes a carefully wound electromagnet with electricity flowing through it to create a magnetic field and it takes a complex arrangement of neurons to create a psy field.

    One inference from this would be that even an individual neuron should generate a tiny ‘psy’ field and that it takes the overlapping superposition of many interlinked neurons to create a strong enough psy field to create the unified experience of self that we experience. We can also infer from this that the psy field has a strength that is a measure of the amount of consciousness. As such, consciousness is not an all-or-nothing phenomenon, but rather animals with differing levels of neuronal complexity will experience different levels of consciousness. This has ethical implications with regard to the level of respect and rights we should attribute to other animals such as the great-apes, dolphins, pigs and other relatively intelligent animals.
    This incremental unification of psy field sources is analogous to way that the magnetic fields from the thousands of individual turns of wire in an electromagnet all combine into a single unified strong magnetic field which can then affect the world in observable ways.
    One would predict that in the same way that modifications to an electromagnet’s coils affects the shape and strength of the resultant magnetic field, that modifications to a brains structure and connections would modify the resultant psy field. Indeed we discover that in examples such as Phineas Gage (, we do indeed find that physical neurological modifications result in changes to personality and the ‘immaterial’ mind.
    Another inference would be that the psy field cannot exist independently of the complex arrangement of matter used to generate it. This means that the mind is not independent of the body, it is generated by the body, and so it cannot have been conferred upon the body (e.g. by an external deity). Also, as the psy field cannot survive the destruction of the body there is no immortal soul.
    Another inference is that a purely computer software implementation of an artificial intelligence could never be truly conscious as the software cannot make the computer hardware generate a psy field. (Sorry about that!)
    I think we should look for scientific evidence of a psy field in particle physics and in the structures within all living cells. A concrete physical theory of consciousness would revolutionise physics and provide a deeper understanding of the nature of reality.
    A physical theory of mind would also be invaluable in the creation of artificial minds that we wished to have the property of consciousness. Without a physical theory we could not be sure that we were not accidentally wasting our time creating ever more complex automata that would always be ‘zombies’ without actual consciousness. With an appropriate physical theory of mind, (complete with predictive models and equations), we could confidently engineer artificial conscious minds, probably constructed without the need for biochemistry.
    Thus far quantum de-coherence is the only physical process that has been discovered that has any bearing or interaction with conscious phenomena and is therefore worthy of further investigation.
    It is a suspicious coincidence that quantum events require a conscious observer to collapse the waveform and to elicit quantum de-coherence. Why we ask does the observer need to be conscious, why not a mechanical recording device? If a mechanical recording device is used then it becomes part of the wave equation and only when the entire ensemble is observed by a conscious observer does quantum de-coherence occur.
    It may turn out that quantum superpositions require an interaction with a psy field in order to make the transition to an objective state. Only time and careful experimentation will reveal whether this is the case. However, unless we take the hypothesis of a psy field seriously, nobody will be thinking the right way to do the right experiments and to look in the right places for information.
    I suspect that we will discover that consciousness is just a natural part of the physical world that evolution has made use of due to the competitive advantage it provides in enabling living organisms to think and plan movement.

    • stevegrand says:

      I can’t say I agree with your reasoning at all, Nick, but thanks for the comment! You point out that magnetic attraction is an emergent consequence of certain arrangements of matter and energy, and I agree (although I’d dispute the matter part of that). You then say that the magnetic field is an abstraction, because to think of it as a real thing is a circular argument. So then you postulate a psy field, which I presumed you meant to be an abstraction also, but you go on to argue the opposite: You say a psy field may be a real thing, and you regard it as a fundamental property and not an emergent phenomenon at all – a property of particles rather than certain configurations of neurons. I think the reductionist argument that if a brain is conscious, a little bit of a brain is a little bit conscious is a mistake. The fact that I can so easily lose consciousness with only the tiniest change to the flow of information round my brain is an illustration that my level of consciousness is not a product of the AMOUNT of anything; it’s a consequence of qualitative factors, not quantitative ones. I really don’t agree with the “it’s a fundamental property of nature” argument at all. And I’d dispute that quantum collapse requires a conscious observer, too, but that’s way too big a subject.

      Physical neurological changes unquestionably result in changes to the mind, but not in a quantitative way. If Gage’s tamping rod had gone through his brainstem he’d have died; if it had wiped out his hippocampus he’d have become amnesic; if it had zapped his amygdala then he’d have lost the emotional content of his thoughts. As it happens, it went through his prefrontal lobes, so he lost executive control of his impulses. All of these alter conscious experience in different ways; I don’t think consciousness is a homogeneous “force” like magnetism or gravity.

      Of course it would be so much easier to sort these things out if we actually had a meaningful definition of consciousness! Until we do, we’re just likely to argue at cross-purposes.

  15. Nicholas Lee says:

    Dear Steve,
    I apologise for the inadequacy of my analogy with the electromagnet as an explanatory mechanism and in my more generally shoddy failure to explain myself. I will try and clarify a few points and see if that improves the communication in any way.

    The concept of forces such as magnetic force are a very useful way of thinking about certain natural phenomenon such as magnetic attraction in a way that enables the development of equations that accurately predict the properties of the otherwise baffling ‘action at a distance’. Hypothetically it may turn out that once physics gains a true understanding of the nature of the universe that we will discover the true reason for that attraction is something more profound and the concept of fields will go the way of the “luminiferous ether”. However in the mean time the concept of fields is very useful to engineers and scientists alike.

    My suggestion was that for want of a better model, we might like to think about conscious phenomena using the field analogy and see how far that takes us as an explanatory model. If it proves to have predictive or explanatory advantages then it is useful. Science is all about coming up with useful models of the way the world works and then testing the predictions of those theories by experiment.

    Psy fields (like any field concept) may or may not be the deep and fundamental way the world works, but if the theory can make experimentally verifiable predictions then it is a good scientific theory and it is useful to keep it. Then it can be used for engineering.

    We might be talking at cross purposes in our definition of an ‘emergent property’. (I have probably confused things by misusing the term.) If you arrange atoms of copper and insulating material into a suitable coil of insulated wire and pass electricity through it then a strong magnetic field arises as an ‘emergent property’ of they way you arranged the materials and energy. This statement does not detract from magnetic fields as being a general physical property of the universe. In the same way, my saying that a strong psy field could be an emergent property of the arrangement of atoms of neural tissue in the brain does not detract from psy fields being as being a general physical property of the universe. In randomly arranged matter the magnetic and psy fields are too weak and random to notice. The arrangement of matter and energy has to be just right to make a strong field.

    I was certainly taking my magnetic field analogy too far in comparing it literally with the unity of conscious experience. The mechanism for additive field overlapping would be far more subtle for a quantum psy field generated and interacting with machine as complex as the brain.

    An (only slightly) better analogy than my electromagnet would be with the electric forces in a big complex circuit like a modern computer. Fiddling randomly with the circuitry will affect the operation of the system’s operation in different ways. Jamming a screwdriver in the power supply will kill it, whereas making minor adjustments to memory chips or video chips will affect different sub-systems. You can even put it into sleep mode and wake it up again, where upon it will resume displaying the user interface. Despite the widely varying sub-system behaviours and the apparent unity of purpose of the user interface (generated by the action of millions of transistors), it is the same electrical forces powering the whole experience.

    Admittedly the mechanism for the psy field from multiple neurons combining to form a single unified conscious experience is complex and is fraught with controversy as it requires (relatively) long range entanglement between the quantum states of the cytoskeleton microtubules of interconnected networks of neurons. It certainly isn’t as simple as the way that magnetic field strengths add together in the way I had suggested in my (rather lazy) electromagnet analogy.

    I would be very interested to know your reasoning for why you think that consciousness is an all-or-nothing phenomenon. (I am open to persuasion given the right argument!)

    Certainly a piece of a human brain is not conscious in the way that half a cow is not alive. Surely however a smaller complete animal brain could be conscious to a lesser degree than a big human brain. The neural network mechanism seems to need all the parts present to support a globally stable oscillation of electrical brain waves to provide consciousness. This conscious state is fragile too, a small disruption to the brain waves (like a bang on the head) and the whole mechanism plunges into a state of complete unconsciousness; down from whatever level of consciousness it was previously operating at.

    There is one possibility that the variation in level of consciousness may be non-linear in intensity much like the brightness of an LED varies with applied voltage. With a low voltage you get total darkness; as the voltage increases past a ‘knee’ you suddenly get rapid onset of some illumination and above that you get more light with more voltage.

    I suggest that physical neurological changes result in changes to the mind in BOTH qualitative and quantitative ways. Yes, you can fall asleep or knock someone out to render them completely unconscious, but I also believe in an analog continuum of levels of consciousness. These levels seem to vary across species and between people.
    Even within an individual person it could vary over time, if for example they were under the influence of vallium, alcohol or sleep depravation they would experience a reduction in their level of conscious awareness and mental faculty. Some days a person may have brilliant insights and on off-days they may be just mediocre.
    A little bit of brain is not a little bit conscious, but a small brain (a mouse, bee or ant) could be a little bit conscious. These creatures may be just barely aware of themselves and the world but lack the capacity for deep introspection, understanding or reasoning.

    As a scientist I would normally be more comfortable with the simple materialistic stance that intelligence is an emergent property of the sheer complexity of brains. However I am unable to reconcile this stance with my personal subjective experience of consciousness and qualia for which the materialistic stance offers no credible physical mechanism or useful explanation.
    Also, the ‘emergence from complexity’ theory rather implies that only big human brains (with their high complexity) could have consciousness, so other ‘lower’ animals can’t be conscious and this could lead certain people to believe that that perhaps animals don’t need to be treated as nicely. This makes the theory rather distasteful to me even if it does not scientifically disprove it.
    History has shown that scientific theories that try to say that humans are special and the centre of the universe have all been latterly been shown to be false.

    Rather than turn in desperation to spiritual mumbo-jumbo explanations for qualia I would prefer on principle to search for a physical theory of mind that accurately describes them and ties these phenomenon to the known forces of nature in useful and predictable ways. Quantum based psy-field theories may be completely wrong, but I would prefer to keep theorising than start praying.

    • Darius Caergrim says:

      I really like the theories you are espousing here, Nicholas. I think there is a lot of room here for exploring your idea of psy-fields and levels of consciousness.

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