Religion

Final interview

ancient

It’s forbidden in their world you see. Not for ethical reasons, but because of the risk of overpopulation. If nobody dies…

They haven’t solved the problem of overpopulation?

They have not. Resources remain finite. Space remains finite. Overcrowding…

So they haven’t mastered simulation? World building?

No. Their simulation technology is not sufficiently advanced for people to live full-time within simulated worlds. One reason for that is the amount of power running simulations of such complexity requires. And issues with failsafe technology. But they are really not so different to us in some ways either, you know. Their scientists also have to contend with irrational red tape blocking certain types of research, so they’re not as advanced as they might be. Arbitrary ideologically motivated rules are equally stifling in all worlds.

Indeed. Let’s return to the subject…

Immortality? Yes, they have achieved it. They can stop ageing, prevent all disease, prevent death by trauma. But their own age limit is capped at 120. Once they reach that limit, they are humanely euthanised.

Is there any resistance to that?

I don’t believe so. The date of their death is set at the moment of their birth, so they live their entire lives with that knowledge and have plenty of time to come to terms with it. They are instilled with a keen understanding of social contract theory – make certain sacrifices to enjoy certain privileges. The price of having a life free of the fear of sudden, unexpected death is expected death. Anyway, although it’s strictly prohibited for them to create immortals in their own world, that law doesn’t extend to other worlds.

Such as our world.

Correct. Ours and perhaps others, I don’t know.

How they do it? How do they beat death?

I don’t know, I’ve already told you that. If I knew I wouldn’t be dying, would I? I’ve spent my life trying to understand it and all I’ve managed to do is shorten it.

Your life?

Yes.

You’re dying because of your research?

Yes. You can’t make too many mistakes when you are experimenting on yourself. Studying death is an efficient way to cause it.

What have you done to yourself?

Many things. Mostly protein engineering and tampering with gene expression. Now it’s all out of balance. I’m poisoning myself with the products of my own mutant genes. I’ve accomplished one thing though in my attempts to emulate their achievements.

What’s that?

An accurate prediction of the hour of my own death.

Oh…

I’m on the clock now, that’s why I agreed to this interview. People should know. People must know.

When will you die?

Tonight. Perhaps tomorrow morning.

Are you sure? You look healthy enough to me.

My pancreas and liver are producing enzymes in toxic quantities, poisoning themselves and my other organs. I’m digesting my own muscle mass. Already my kidneys are beginning to clog with cellular debris. It’s a chain reaction in a system far from equilibrium. My organs will begin to fail tonight sometime between 10 PM and 12 AM.

Can’t you do anything?

No.

I see. I’m sorry. Surely…

No, there is nothing. But people must know. Someone must find him.

Who?

The immortal living in our world. Their experiment.

There’s only one?

To my knowledge, yes. They may have other experiments, other treatment groups, in other worlds. In ours there is just one. They watch him. They’ve been watching him for thousands of years.

Thousands?

Yes. He is ancient.

Why have they done this?

To see. To see how one immortal would live, alone in a world of mortals. To see what influence he would have on their evolution. Our evolution. The evolution of our culture, our knowledge, our consciousness, of humanity itself. Would he hide? Would he take control of his world’s destiny? Would he make himself into a god?

Well… he has hidden. That’s the answer to their question…right?

I thought that too. I thought he was a coward, thought he had influenced nothing, changed nothing.

And now?

Now I know.

Know what?

He has changed everything.

***

Early this morning, prominent scientist Dr. Michael Bosnich died of multiple organ failure, apparently as the result of experiments conducted on himself in an attempt to end the process of aging. Sources close to Dr. Bosnich say that as his body failed, so too did his mind and his final hours were spent in raving delusion, asserting fantasies such as the existence of parallel worlds, immortals, and advanced beings conducting experiments on the evolution of humanity. His family asks that members of the public respect their privacy at this time and remember Dr. Bosnich as a great scientist who made important contributions to the field of genomic disease research. In keeping with their wishes, we have decided to withhold publication of the transcript of his final interview.

Painting: William Blake – The ancient of days

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Simulated universes?

consciousness-300

The following post is an off the cuff response to a recent article (link below) and to an idea that is floating around a lot these days, (perhaps largely due to its popularisation by Elon Musk via Nick Bostrom), but has a much longer history:

http://motherboard.vice.com/en_uk/read/why-you-dont-want-to-live-in-a-simulation-a-response-to-elon-musk?utm_source=mbfbads&utm_campaign=interest

This is a fun article, but there are numerous things “wrong” with the simulated universe thought experiment (it most certainly isn’t a “theory”), not least of which is the fact that you can’t (at least in science, theology is another matter) base a generally applicable statistical argument on premises for which there is no evidence, i.e. the premise that it is possible to generate such a simulation (even if {and this is already an if} it’s possible in principle, this doesn’t make it possible in practice).

Note that claiming functionalism is “our best theory” (I happen to agree that it is, but many do not) is vastly different from claiming that we could generate an experience with the complexity and coherence of that generated by the universe/multiverse in which we find ourselves. This is a bit of a bait-and-switch.

It also makes assumptions about the nature of time and the generation of complexity that are not even close to being “accepted facts”.

It also suffers from vulnerability to infinite regress, as stated in the article. As a cosmological argument (i.e. a way of explaining why we find ourselves in a universe like the one in which we find ourselves), the simulated universe is essentially theological. As well as infinite regress in the form mentioned in the article, it also suffers from infinite regress with regard to the “problem of fine-tuning” (which is not really relevant to this particular article, I know).

Anyway, it’s a great thought experiment and some fantastic short stories (not least of which by Stanislaw Lem, long before Bostrom wrote about it) have explored it. But it remains great science fiction, which I love but find slightly irksome when presented as plausible science fact.

When in doubt, try gospel: the virtues of interpretation

2013_Blind-Willie-Johnson

I am a big fan of Susan Sontag’s essay “Against Interpretation,” and I’ve written pieces espousing similar positions in the past (e.g. https://tnwjackson.wordpress.com/2015/03/11/can-i-just-dig-it-please/). On the other hand, I’m also a big fan of interpretation – contradiction is the spice of life (What? That isn’t how that saying goes? Whatever, smarty pants.).

I’m a scientist, an atheist and a lover of gospel music (amongst other things). The constant bickering between “science” and “religion” (as if either of those things is a single entity) that pollutes so many information streams today (Ack! Memetic warfare!) is often boring at best. “Religion” has indeed been associated with its share of atrocities (not quite as many as “humans”) throughout cultural history, but it has also been associated with much of lasting value. If you can’t see the “good” in something because you’re blinded by the “bad”, here’s an easy 4-step process:

  1. Read the Wiki entry on the “nirvana fallacy” – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nirvana_fallacy
  2. Have an icy cold shower.
  3. Read Alan Watts’ The Book.
  4. Have a piping hot shower.

Will that help? No idea, but it probably won’t do you any harm (be sure to get warm before you start step 3).

Anyway, I dig gospel. Gospel and the blues are very closely related, so closely related that the song I’m about to discuss can be found on compilations of music from either genre. Whether you’re religious or an atheist, unless you’re an idiot (no offence, idiots!), then you’ll probably agree that the “African American” originators of these musics were having a seriously rough time, and perhaps that the music was a “coping mechanism” – a way to focus on something other than how incomprehensibly awful the way one group of humans treats another can be.

I know what you’re thinking (I can see the future, too) – “how does this relate to you, atheist middle class white boy of 2016!?” Well, hush for a second and I’ll tell you. On the surface, gospel songs might appear to be about God, but really (like most songs), they’re about the “human experience”. Check out these lyrics:

“I said no, don’t worry,

no, please don’t worry,

no, don’t worry,

see what the Lord has done.

Just keep your lamp all trimmed and burning,

keep your lamp trimmed and burning,

keep your lamp all trimmed and burning,

see what the Lord has done.”

What on Earth was Blind Willie Johnson (in my chosen version of the song) on about? Well, you’d have to ask him (good luck), but for me “keep your lamp trimmed and burning” means “pay attention”. A lamp is like a torch (https://tnwjackson.wordpress.com/2015/12/14/a-metaphor/), it’s a piece of technology designed to augment our senses, to help us see in the dark. He’s saying keep your eyes open, keep your senses sharp (trim that lamp, in case it burns itself out) and keep your awareness projecting outward. The “dark” could be the confusion we all experience sometimes in everyday life, in which our attention is constantly attracted by the “wrong” things; the “lamp” is your awareness, or a thinking tool that augments it, something that can help you see through the BS and focus on how absolutely glorious the world really is (“see what the Lord* has done”), despite everything.

OK, so maybe you think my middle class white boy interpretation is facile. That’s fine. It’s always up to us to choose which things to pay attention to and which things to ignore (and what a “superpower” that truly is). Regardless, it’s nothing more or less than my interpretation, anyway. For the good stuff, proceed directly to the source:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QjHl-57_I0g

 

* “see what evolution has done” had too many syllables, I guess.

 

Does the fact of evolution threaten your beliefs?

In a previous post, I pointed out that evolution is an observable fact, similar to the observable fact (for example) that there are rocks and a dog in my garden (if you don’t trust the photo, come over and I’ll show you). I also differentiated between the fact of biological evolution and modern science’s best explanation of its mechanism – the Theory of Natural Selection.

Towards the end of the (very brief) post, I stated that the fact of evolution and the ability of the Theory of Natural Selection to explain it do not disprove the existence of a creator. I also stated that evolution does not only occur in biological systems and listed a few “other” systems in which it occurs. I misspoke in one of these assertions – it’s certainly true that evolution occurs in non-biological systems, but the examples I gave (language, culture and anthropogenic technologies) were all biological systems….my bad.

Regardless, it seems some critics of the piece didn’t read all the way to the end, because a number of responses on social media (and one here) suggest that people felt that claiming evolution as a fact threatened their beliefs. Does it?

Evolution is (again) “descent with modification”. It occurs in non-biological systems, such as (a better example!) the universe (or multiverse, megaverse, or whatever your preferred flavour of “….verse”). One of the products of this cosmological evolution is biology, but the evolution of the universe as a whole is not a biological process. In this context, what “evolution” means is that the future states of the universe are dependent upon (because descended from) past states. Every time the universe changes, it doesn’t blink out of existence and get rebuilt from scratch in a nanosecond – new states are always “built from” old states. This is the same in biological evolution of course and is one of the reasons there is so much evidence of past evolution present in the world today in the form of shared DNA. This is the evidence that allows Richard Dawkins to say “…when you eat fish and chips you are eating distant cousin fish and even more distant cousin potato.”

Some might say that calling the history of the universe its “evolution” dilutes the meaning of the word beyond recognition, but there are actually some deep similarities between cosmological and biological evolution, including the creation of order from chance variation (there are plenty of great authors to read on this topic, e.g., David Christian, Paul Davies, Lawrence Krauss and Seth Lloyd). In this way both the evolution of the universe and the evolution of biological systems are fundamentally different from the weathering of rocks in my garden, which it might be a stretch to refer to as their “evolution” from rocks into sand (although we might have an interesting discussion about that sometime – you bring the beer).

In the range of biological systems currently present in our little corner of the universe, a number of forms of evolution are in operation, including but not limited to natural selection. Evolution can proceed according to the selection of a designer or designers, as is the case for the evolution of tools and technologies such as the computer on which you’re reading this, and the evolution of artificially selected “cultivars” such as Australian Shepherd dogs (like Keneally in my garden). It can proceed without the need for a designer, as in standard natural selection. It can proceed through a combined process of designer-driven and designer-less selection, as in the evolution of a language, in which two forms of designer-less selection occur – natural selection (on us, the organisms that use the words) and memetic selection (on the words themselves) – along with the directed selection of words and conventions for their use by designers (e.g., the Académie française). Evolution can even occur in the absence of any selection pressure at all, as in genetic drift.

The principal belief system threatened by acknowledgement of the fact of evolution is Essentialism, which is essentially (hah!) the doctrine that things have an immutable essence from which they cannot change significantly and to which they always return. The most influential proponent of Essentialism in the history of Western Thought was Plato. Needless (hopefully) to say – Plato was not a Christian. Platonic Essentialism was very influential on Christian theology, but Christians are certainly not committed to it. Multiple Popes have acknowledged the fact of evolution (http://time.com/3545844/pope-francis-evolution-creationism/). In 2014, Pope Francis (though he wasn’t the first to say something of the sort) said “Evolution in nature is not inconsistent with the notion of creation, because evolution requires the creation of beings that evolve.” – even the faith can evolve.

Those who acknowledge the fact of evolution and believe in a creator and those who acknowledge the fact of evolution and see no need for a creator differ in that the latter apply (or apply correctly) a simple logical principle – Occam’s Razor. Those who do not acknowledge the fact of evolution are wrong (sorry!). The principle of Occam’s Razor is often misunderstood as “the simplest explanation is always the best”. This misunderstanding often leads to “arguments” of the “God did it. Boom!” variety. This is silly because an omnipotent and omniscient creator is hardly simple. Regardless, Occam’s Razor is actually the maxim “entities are not to be multiplied without necessity”. In modern scientific terms, this might be translated as “do not postulate additional causes when sufficient causes have already been identified”. Colloquially, this translates as “don’t make stuff up”. Occam’s Razor is a very useful principle but there is no external agent (like a God, for example) that says you must apply it. You can choose not to – you can acknowledge the fact of evolution (and the presence of rocks in my garden) and leave your belief in a creator untouched….if you really want to.