January 4, 2012
Yesterday I came across an article which really caught my attention. It contained a rather harsh analysis of the worldview behind science.
Is there a god? No. What is the nature of reality? What physics says it is. What is the purpose of the universe? There is none. What is the meaning of life? Ditto. Why am I here? Just dumb luck. Is there a soul? Is it immortal? Are you kidding? Is there free will? Not a chance! What is the difference between right and wrong, good and bad? There is no moral difference between them. Why should I be moral? Because it makes you feel better than being immoral. Is abortion, euthanasia, suicide, paying taxes, foreign aid, or anything else you don’t like forbidden, permissible, or sometimes obligatory? Anything goes. What is love, and how can I find it? Love is the solution to a strategic interaction problem. Don’t look for it; it will find you when you need it. Does history have any meaning or purpose? It’s full of sound and fury, but signifies nothing.” I take this cutting-edge wisdom from the worst book of the year, a shallow and supercilious thing called The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions, by Alex Rosenberg, a philosopher of science at Duke University. The book is a catechism for people who believe they have emancipated themselves from catechisms. The faith that it dogmatically expounds is scientism. It is a fine example of how the religion of science can turn an intelligent man into a fool.
I wish I had a strong rebuttal against these accusations, but I don’t. That is the worldview that science leads you to. It’s incredibly bleak. It’s not empowering, and as the author points out quite vividly, I don’t think it’s a worldview a person wanting to “Enjoy Life” is going to take on. But do we need illusions and superstitions, and do they improve our quality of life? I’d argue that those won’t help either.
There are probably critical ideas missing from the scientific way of viewing the world, but I have to be really careful with this one. Bear with me. I suspect that there are aspects to our existence beyond our sense organs, and therefore beyond testability and reason. You may want to exclaim, “Jason, what are these aspects of our existence which you claim are beyond our ability to understand?” First off, I don’t know whether they’ll always be beyond our understanding. Maybe one day we will understand how it all works, but for now, I suspect we’re still in the dark on many key issues. As for why I feel this way, I can only point you to vague feelings within me. For a key example, take subjective consciousness. Science likes to say, “Look, we’ve defined who you are. You’re activity in your brain.” I’d argue that that’s a half-truth. I don’t deny that what I experience is directly correlated with that brain activity, but I just don’t believe that what goes on in my brain is the entirety of my existence. When I eat an orange, there are rich, vivid personal subjective experiences of tasting the fruit, smelling it, and feeling its texture. That’s different from the electrical pulses shooting through neurons. There is no way to test and observe these things outside of experiencing them for ourselves. I don’t know how things taste and feel for you. Considering there are people who hate oranges, whereas I personally love them, we must not be having the same subjective experience.
The reason scientists fear this line of thought is because it opens a big nasty door to superstitious nonsense and humanity has suffered so much pain from superstition. If I can propose there’s more to our existence than what we can observe with our senses, why can’t religious priests claim there’s gods, goddesses, and evil spirits? We don’t have any tools to keep people’s minds in check, and before long people are irreconcilable conflicts. “My God is the true God, and if you don’t believe in Him, you must die! Infidel!” “No, you’re the infidel! Your culture and your ways are blasphemous. All of you must be wiped off the Earth to cleanse it!”
What I think most scientists, including myself, want from our fellow humans is simply this. Once we open that big door, and you all speculate about higher aspects of yourself and what may be beyond our senses, beyond death, and so forth, realize that it’s all speculation and that you don’t know for sure. When you claim to have a personal revelation from the heavens, realize that it isn’t the highest form of truth, it’s the lowest form. It’s mere guesswork. It might be true, it might not. You’re dealing with an empty hypothesis with nothing to back it up. And since other people aren’t likely to have the same personal revelations you are, accept that many people will be believing widely different things, and they’re not evil for doing so. If we just can just all live together peacefully and say to one another, “There are many mysteries to the world. In the end, we just don’t know a lot of things” we’ll be fine.
Next I’d like to share my own feelings on the idea of truth. I hear a lot of atheists say things like, “I don’t like a lot of the conclusions I come to anymore than you do, but if it’s true, it’s true. I want to know the truth. That’s what matters to me.” There’s a lot of courage to that position and I greatly admire it. Even so, deep down, I suspect it’s based on a fundamentally wrong way of viewing the world. These are vague feelings I haven’t fully fleshed out, but I’ll share what I’ve came up with so far.
I’ve noticed a trend as I’ve studied science: the more we understand about the universe, the more powerful we become. This leads me to believe that “truth” only matters when you’re powerless to the forces of nature. We seek the “truth” about this world when we’re so clueless as to how things operate, we’re not skilled enough to remold reality how we wish it. But I suspect that as humans grow in knowledge, the “truth” will matter less and less. The more relevant question will become, “What do I want to experience?”
I have another vague feeling that we’re not properly understanding what knowledge is. We have a flawed idea of inside and outside. Self vs the world. I doubt it’s the correct way of viewing things. Long ago, I can’t remember where on my blog, I raised a thought experiment where a man was merged with a super-computer, and this man wanted more and more mental power to understand and control the world. He consumed the entire Earth and turned it into computational machines connected to his brain. Craving more understanding and thought power, he consumed the entire galaxy and turned it all into computational thought machinery, used exclusively for his thinking and storing the vast knowledge he’s acquiring about the world. After all, we have to remember that all knowledge has to be stored in some physical form as data, just like information on a computer disk. It takes energy to store it, and energy to retrieve it. This can be made highly efficient, but ultimately you won’t get around the law of conservation of energy. There will be limits.
As this computational super-being expands, imagine the eventual limit. That being would consume the entire universe and make every piece of matter its own personal mind. At that point there is no distinction between the self and the outside world within that universe. The whole nature of knowledge debate is thrown out the window. The “world” is what you want it to be at that point. You just change the data within your machines, and then simulate whatever environment you wish for. You may say, “Well, the REAL truth is that you’re in a machine, like the Matrix.” Yeah, and so what? I guess if you want to build a probe and waste some of your energy flying around looking at your machinery, go for it. But understanding the “truth” about that reality isn’t going to do anything for you. Truth seems irrelevant at that point.
Knowledge of the outside world wouldn’t necessarily even have to exist in that universe. It’d be a waste of energy and space. Knowledge of the past wouldn’t matter. All the transitions the matter had flowed through until reaching that almost God-like state of pure control and harmony. To store knowledge of history and past states of existence requires space in a brain, or in a computer, or whatever. The more of the past you try to store, the more you limit your own future potential because you could use that energy for your own creations. You probably would and should only keep knowledge of the past things and forms which you find beautiful, so you could use them in your creations. I’d keep 3D models of plants, lovely animals, birds, and so forth, but I don’t think I’d ever resurrect a virtual mosquito. Send those to oblivion. *hits delete button*
We humans need to know the truth about the world because we’re subjected to so many dangers and are weak. The stronger we become, the less truth matters. There might be some sort of evolutionary big picture where science is one of its first stages. We move from an age of discovery to an age of creation. I don’t know. We’re still pretty far from that transition, but it seems to be the direction science is taking us.
I have a few more thoughts to share on this idea of “truth”. There’s a good chance that we live in a universe with infinite parallel universes along side us. The universe may well be a cyclic process with new big bangs happening all the time. A universe is born from random quantum fluctuations, expands and expands, until it’s so thin it’s basically nothingness, and then random quantum fluctuations cause other big bangs, and so on, indefinitely. The random fluctuations provide the initial conditions and raw material for us to work with. We’re dealing with an eternal creation machine making every possible reality, with every possible law of physics. What would the “truth” be? That is there is no absolute truth? That anything is possible?
Now let’s take a look at the ultimate end of science — complete mastery of the universe. Once we achieve some sort of perfect state of harmony, what do we do with ourselves? Say we built this grand computer out of ever spec of matter of the entire universe and immerse ourselves in every conceivable fantasy and paradise. What then? We’d have to periodically erase our memories to free up space for new memories. Otherwise the entire universe would be consumed with storage of our past memories. So in time, its inevitable that we’d have to forget things that have happened to us. No matter how precious the memory, a romantic encounter from 2 billion years ago would eventually have to be thrown out to make room for new experiences.
If you think this through, imagine what you would you use your computational power for? Say you enhance your brain and powers. What are you going to want? I’d presume you’ll want a virtual experience that’s very difficult to overcome, pushing you to the limits of your abilities. Otherwise it’d be boring. The only way to enjoy harmony is to rid ourselves of emotions as we know them. I can’t conceive of a world without our emotions. They make life worth living. Emotions and feeling. Being challenged. They’re core laws and important creation factors of the universe. And you’re definitely not going to want the “strategy guide” loaded into your mind, telling you all the answers to beat the game. What fun is that?
Maybe we all complain about this world because it seems the difficulty setting is too high. Most of us are so weak, without working together we can’t accomplish anything. But maybe long long ago, we’ve beaten this game of life before. We all sat in virtual reality and said to ourselves, “I’m bored.” “Me too.” “Let’s erase everything and immerse ourselves in the beginning. We’ll work together and do it all over again. I wonder how we’ll solve this game of infinite solutions this next time?” Just a thought. But if we’re finite beings, I don’t think many of us realize what the word “infinite” really means. It never ends.
My conclusion these days is to embrace the world’s struggle as it is. Try to overcome it as best you can, and find ways to work together. This is some sort of cooperative experience. I say this all with reservation though. There is a lot of suffering and misery here. As I said before, you have to realize that any speculations about the “big picture” of life are just that — mere speculation. If you don’t agree with me, I’m not going to stone you to death, and I don’t believe you’re going to hell.