This morning, a reader named Bill emailed me the following:
I stumbled upon [Quantum Computing Since Democritus Lecture 9] by accident and it seemed quite interesting but I was ultimately put off (I stopped reading it) by all the references to god. As a scientist (and athiest) I think personal religious beliefs should be left out of scientific papers/lectures, you shouldn’t assume your readers/listeners have the same beliefs as yourself…..it just alienates them.
I’m impressed — you seem to know more about my personal religious beliefs than I do! If you’d asked, I would’ve told you that I, like yourself, am what most people would call a disbelieving atheist infidel heretic. I became one around age fourteen, shortly after my bar mitzvah, and have remained one ever since.
Admittedly, though, “atheist” isn’t exactly the right word for me, nor even is “agnostic.” I don’t have any stance toward the question of God’s existence or nonexistence that involves the concept of belief. For me, beliefs are for things that might eventually have some sort of observable consequence for someone. So for example, I believe P is different from NP. I believe I’d like some delicious Peanut Chews today. I believe the weather this January isn’t normal for planet Earth over the last 10,000 years, and that we and our Ford Escorts are not entirely unimplicated. I believe eating babies and voting for Republicans is wrong. I believe neo-Darwinism and the SU(3)xSU(2)xU(1) Standard Model (though not its supersymmetric extensions, at least until I see the evidence). I believe that if the God of prayer couldn’t get off His lazy ass during the Holocaust, or the Rwandan or Cambodian genocides, then He must not be planning to do so anytime soon — and hence, “trusting in faith” is utter futility.
But when it comes to the more ethereal questions — the nature of consciousness and free will, the resolution of the quantum measurement problem, the validity of the cosmological anthropic principle or the Continuum Hypothesis, the existence of some sort of intentionality behind the laws of physics, etc. — I don’t have any beliefs whatsoever. I’m not even unsure about these questions, in the same Bayesian sense that I’m unsure about next week’s Dow Jones average (or for that matter, this week’s Dow Jones average). All I have regarding the metaphysical questions is a long list of arguments and counterarguments — together with a vague hope that someone, someday, will manage to clarify what the questions even mean.
To me, the most remarkable thing you said was that, despite being otherwise interested in my lecture, you literally stopped reading it because of some tongue-in-cheek references to an Einsteinian God. That reminds me of a funny story. When I was a student at Berkeley, my mom kept pestering me to go to the campus Hillel for Friday night dinners. And to be honest, despite all the pestering, I was tempted to go. My temptation was largely driven by two factors that, for want of more refined terminology, I will call “free food” and “females.” For some reason, both factors, but particularly the second, were in short supply in the computer science department.
And yet, I couldn’t bring myself to go. Every time I passed the Hillel, I had this vision of a translucent Richard Dawkins (sometimes joined by Bertrand Russell) floating before me on the front steps, demanding that I justify the absurd Bronze Age myths that, by entering the Hillel building, I would implicitly be endorsing. “Come now, Scott,” Richard and Bertrand would say, with their elegant Oxbridge accents. “You don’t really believe that tosh, do you?”
“No, most assuredly not, good Sirs,” I would reply, and shuffle back to the dorm to work on my problem set. (The thought of spending Friday night at, say, a beer party never even occurred to me.)
Then, one Friday, I had a revelation: if God doesn’t exist, then in particular, He doesn’t give a shit where I go tonight. There’s no vengeful sky-Dawkins, measuring my every word and deed against some cosmic code of atheism. There’s no Secular-Humanist Yahweh who commanded His infidel flock at Sci-nai not to believe in Him. So if I want to go to the Hillel, then as long as I’m not hurting anyone or lying about my beliefs, I should go. If I don’t want to go, I shouldn’t go. To do otherwise wouldn’t merely be silly; it would actually be irrational.
(Incidentally, once I went, I found that the other secularists there greatly outnumbered the believers. I did stop going after a year or two, but only because I’d gotten bored with it.)
What I’m trying to say, Bill, is this: you can go ahead and indulge yourself. If some of the most brilliant unbelievers in history — Einstein, Erdös, Twain — could refer to a being of dubious ontological status as they would to a smelly old uncle, then why not the rest of us? For me, the whole point of scientific rationalism is that you’re free to ask any question, debate any argument, read anything that interests you, use whatever phrase most colorfully conveys your meaning, all without having to worry about violating some taboo. You won’t endanger your immortal soul, since you don’t have one.
If the trouble is just that the G-word leaves a bad taste in your mouth, then I invite you to try the following experiment. Every time you encounter the word “God” in my lecture, mentally substitute “Flying Spaghetti Monster.” So for example: “why would the Flying Spaghetti Monster, praise be to His infinite noodly appendages, have made the quantum-mechanical amplitudes complex numbers instead of reals or quaternions?”
Well, why would He? Any ideas?
RAmen, and may angel-hair watch over you,