Long-awaited God post

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.

Dear Bill,

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,
Scott

165 Responses to “Long-awaited God post”

  1. Massimo Says:

    Maybe as a youth atheist he has been the target of a lot of attempts to be “corrected”, or has been put in minority or something else. I’m from Italy and you can (no you can’t) imagine how difficult is to be atheist in public school, where there is one teacher selected by Vatican church (such class is not mandatory but default). I’m sure Italy is not an exception.

    So in general young atheists became quickly very sensitive people regarding “God” speaking. Some became far too sensitive.

    Bad luck for him he didn’t finish to read the lecture. I’m just giving a quick look on basic quantum computing and I found your material very accessible.

  2. Scott Says:

    Thanks for the insight, Massimo. Yes, many people’s feelings about this subject are, one way or another, a product of their upbringing. That’s why I adopt a different tone than I would in less fraught territory.

  3. anonymous Says:

    Do you think it is important to have a belief as to whether people besides yourself have a soul?

    Do you think that this question has implications as to whether it is important to have a belief as to whether God exists?

  4. Scott Says:

    Do you think it is important to have a belief as to whether people besides yourself have a soul?

    No, I think that what matters is how you treat them.

    Do you think that this question has implications as to whether it is important to have a belief as to whether God exists?

    I don’t know — someone who answered “yes” to the first question would presumably have more insight.

  5. Pascal Koiran Says:

    Scott, a remark on “consciousness as an ethereal question”: there is actually a paper entitled “How to study consciousness scientifically” by John Searle, a philosopher working at your alma mater UC Berkeley.
    Searle is well known for his chinese room experiment. I haven’t read the paper, but no doubt one of the millions of readers of this blog has, and will be glad to tell the world about it.

  6. Scott Says:

    It’s been known for more than a century how to study consciousness scientifically — just redefine what you mean by it!

  7. anonymous Says:

    Scott, if people do not have souls, then why does it matter how you treat them?

    So basically, you are working on the assumption that people might have souls and this is why it is important to treat them well.

    But you can take this argument further: God might exist and therefore it is important to act in a way that is consistent with that possibility.

  8. Scott Says:

    anonymous: Rather than trying to justify the Golden Rule in terms of something else, I just regard it as an axiom (arguably, the moral axiom).

    Your claim that “God might exist and therefore it is important to act in a way that is consistent with that possibility” raises all of the usual difficulties: how should one act? Which church should one go to, etc.? How does one know one isn’t already acting in a way consistent with the possibility of God’s existence?

  9. anonymous Says:

    The Golden Rule only makes sense if other people might have souls. Just regarding it as an axiom would be completely arbitrary otherwise. And so the question of whether other people have souls is an important one.

    As to how to act in a way consistent with the possibility that God might exist, you can decide that on your own given whatever historical and scientific information is available to you.

  10. Scott Says:

    The Golden Rule only makes sense if other people might have souls. Just regarding it as an axiom would be completely arbitrary otherwise.

    I have trouble with any statement of the form, “we should treat other people well because X” — since all such statements invite the obvious response, “you mean that if X were false, then we wouldn’t have to treat other people well?” For me, there’s no scientific or philosophical fact whose discovery would make it OK to be an asshole.

    Indeed, I see this as the fundamental problem for any moral code based on religion. Supposing that God had commanded us to murder, would that make it virtuous? I would say that the answer is no. When God told him to sacrifice Isaac, Abraham should’ve said “go fuck yourself!” Moses, to his credit, showed more backbone in similar situations.

  11. Amory Says:

    The golden rule can be viewed as pragmatic, through the lense of social evolution. We believe that it is right to treat other people well because without this belief, we would be unable to cooperate, and we’d never hunt down that antellope.

  12. Bill Says:

    I am the ‘Bill’ that you refer to, and I firstly would like to apologise for making assumptions about you without knowing you (or even bothering to ask you). That said, you did mention the G word 12 times in your lecture, and given that 99.999% of your readers don’t know you either, you can’t really blame me for thinking you were a religious man.

    But my gripe wasn’t about you believing in a god, who am I to complain about your beliefs. The reason I took the time to email you was because I found the number of references to god in a scientific lecture a little off-putting. I’m pretty sure i’m not alone.

    Let me ask you a question. Let’s say that instead of mentioning god 12 times in your lecture, you mentioned Allah. Do you think that and any Christian, Buddhist or Sikh readers would feel comfortable reading this? In the same way an Atheist would feel maybe reading the current lecture? After all, atheism is just another belief system. :-)

    My point is that scientific papers and lectures should be as agnostic as possible. Especially when it is deployed onto the internet and is available for everyone on the planet to read, whatever their beliefs. Do you agree with this Scott?

    Anyway, even if you don’t agree with me, some good has come from this discussion….i’m going to go back to the lecture and read every word, using the suggested substitutions of course. ;-)

  13. wolfgang Says:

    Scott,

    pretty good post.
    But I stumbled over this one sentence
    “I believe I’d like some delicious Peanut Chews today.”

    I would think that you *know* whether you like Peanut Chews today or not.

    Maybe I did not understand the core of your argument 8-)
    Why are discussions about this topic always so difficult – so difficult that even the Peanut Chew causes trouble ?

  14. Jay Says:

    I _believe_ this post makes up for that Biting Vagina Monologue post. :)

    As an agnostic/atheist/ethical nonotheist I had no problem with all the references to God in the lecture. Well, I shouldn’t say “all” because I only got about halfway through before falling asleep. I doubt I would have made it that far with out all the God jokes.

    As for Anonymous who said “The Golden Rule only makes sense if other people might have souls,” I say, Thank God for religion (no offense, Bill) because otherwise these people would be running around like wild banshees.

  15. John Sidles Says:

    Scott, your faith-based belief in your own rationality is truly touching, and even better, you express your faith with kindness and humor.

    But you’re aware on some level, aren’t you, that scientists and engineers are not any more rational or objective than the general public?

    There is a large scientific literature on the widespread belief that humans have in human rationality. The evidence shows that faith-based belief in one’s own rationality is just as universal in human societies as belief in God, and that scientists and mathematicians are exceptionally susceptible to it.

  16. anonymous Says:

    My point about the Golden Rule is that if other people did not have souls, then it would be ok to treat them poorly just as it would be ok to treat a piece of plastic poorly or to talk back to your TV during a movie.

    The question of whether animals have souls is important also in determining whether you want to be a vegetarian for example.

  17. anonymous Says:

    “My point about the Golden Rule is that if other people did not have souls, then it would be ok to treat them poorly just as it would be ok to treat a piece of plastic poorly or to talk back to your TV during a movie.”

    I think statements like this clearly demonstrates the complete lack of morality in many with strong religious beliefs. Rather than treating others well because of the personal empathy of a normal human being they merely do so out of egotistic fear of punishment.
    That said, this does not apply to everyone who is strongly relgious, there are some good people there too.

  18. Chrononautic Log 改 » Blog Archive » There is no vengeful sky-Dawkins Says:

    […] Or, a reverse take on Pascal’s Wager. Scott Aaronson, responding to a militantly secular critic: […]

  19. John Sidles Says:

    Just one further remark about rationality versus faith in science and engineering.

    For scientists and engineers, peer review is “the cop on the beat” who assures the dominance of reason over faith. The fact that we all must submit to peer review is mainly what keeps science, math, and engineering honest.

    But isn’t it true, that there are areas in science and engineer where peer review is largely or wholly absent, such that our community is bound together largely or wholly by ideology and faith?

    Chief among these, arguably, is the almost universally-accepted article of faith among scientists, mathematicians and engineers that “Fundamental research always pays off” (to quote science-fiction author Robert Heinlein).

    The point of this post is to suggest (gently and kindly, like Scott’s original post) that the exponentially increasing capabilities of modern system engineering are now beginning to expose this chief article of faith to stringent tests.

    As a familiar public example, the first Boeing 787 is scheduled to fly in late 2007. But the virtual rollout of the 787 took place much earlier, in December 2006 — a rollout that was based wholly on model-based design and HWIL simulations.

    Immense global resources—millions of jobs, and hundreds of billions of dollars—are being invested in the 787. So these simulations had better be accurate! Because to the extent that they are accurate, the resulting payoffs will be immensely valuable to society.

    Here, peer review will be accomplished by the globalized aerospace market—notoriously a harsh reviewer. Still, if Boeing’s engineers meet their claimed performance targets, all will be well.

    As the tools of quantum system engineering become more powerful, it is reasonable to foresee that similar engineering methods will become applicable to quantum technologies. This will occur as part of a system engineering surge that is already happening, all over the world, in pretty much every engineering discipline. Quantum mechanics is very unlikely to be an exception to this universal trend.

    In the process, what was once an article of faith—the value of fundamental research in science, mathematics, and engineering—will become, increasingly, an article of reason.

    Such testing is always a nervous time, for any ideology! :)

  20. Niel Says:

    Anonymous 3:48 —
    With regards to requiring the the golden rule to be justified, you may wish to reflect on what it means to have a moral axiom.

    If you can only motivate the Golden Rule by belief in a soul, what motivates the beleif in the soul? Do you motivate good behaviour circularly, or is it “turtles all the way down” for you?

    The Golden Rule can easily be motivated by other reasons — with or without souls — but then you have to choose somewhere else to stop your demand for justification, or abandon the idea of rationally justifying your morals. If one insists on rationally justified morals, then the Golden rule is a fairly decent thing to take as an axiom.

  21. anonymous Says:

    “I think statements like this clearly demonstrates the complete lack of morality in many with strong religious beliefs. Rather than treating others well because of the personal empathy of a normal human being they merely do so out of egotistic fear of punishment.”

    Personal empathy makes sense only on the assumption that other people might have souls.

    I would suspect that the vast majority of people do in fact believe that others have souls — though this is something that is taken on faith.

  22. wolfgang Says:

    > But isn’t it true, that there are areas in science and engineer where peer review is largely or wholly absent, such that our community is bound together largely or wholly by ideology and faith?

    String theorists often submit their papers to hep-th only, but not to peer-reviewed journals. Do you suggest that this encourages a community “bound together largely or wholly by ideology and faith” ?
    And a quick look at the physics blogosphere should make it clear that scientists have no reason to worry about their rationality …

  23. island Says:

    the validity of the cosmological anthropic principle

    If you’re talking about the WAP, then you’re talking about a selection principle, at best, not a cosmolgical principle.

    Otherwise, please feel free to goto the latest post on my blog and prove that the universe isn’t observed to be strongly anthropically constrained until somebody proves otherwise with a valid ToE, or at the very least, a proven tested theory of quantum gravity.

    While you’re there, please explain why people dogmatically ignore this fact without justification:

    http://evolutionarydesign.blogspot.com/

  24. John Sidles Says:

    Wolfgang, I envy you living in the Bahamas!

    As for being bound together by peer review versus faith, that’s an interesting question … there are presently about a million peer-reviewed articles per year. In a world with ten billion people, one percent of who publish, each one article per year … that would be 100 million peer-reviewed articles per year.

    It seems that barring apocalyptic collapse, huge growth in the peer-reviewed literature is pretty much inevitable. Large-scale social changes in the science and engineering community are therefore inevitable too.

    I guess the question is, will this evolution—which is already underway—be driven mainly by ideology and faith (which amounts to “blind evolution”), or will it be driven mainly by rationality and open discussion?

    As Martin Luther King famously said: “God is on our side, but he is not going to do all the work!” :)

  25. Dave Bacon Says:

    My point about the Golden Rule is that if other people did not have souls, then it would be ok to treat them poorly just as it would be ok to treat a piece of plastic poorly or to talk back to your TV during a movie.

    No way. I can imagine a plethora of worlds with souless people in which treating them according to the Golden rule is “required.” Suppose that we don’t have souls, but there is a God who punishes those who don’t obey the Godlen rule not by taking away an afterlife but by punishing them in their daily life. Suppose that we don’t have souls, but that the physics of the universe is set up such that those obeying the Golden rule live longer, more fullfilling lives. Suppose that we don’t have souls, but instead, the manner in which we die is determined by our adherence to a Golden rule. Clearly “Soul” does not imply “no reason to be moral” (while “Soul” does imply (for many) “a reason to be moral”.) A implies B, does not mean A implies not B.

    To butcher a famous John Bell quote, and justfy further flaming on Scott’s blog, I will end by saying “what is proved by religion is a lack of imagination.”

  26. wolfgang Says:

    > I envy you living in the Bahamas

    It is indeed a very nice place from November to June.
    The other months are not always pleasant (it can be
    hot and humid with the occasional hurricane added).

  27. island Says:

    It is indeed a very nice place from November to June.

    Oh whoaisme… it’s hot in paradise in the summertime… lol

    Ever been to Walkers Cay?

    Sorry Scott.

  28. Scott Says:

    I stumbled over this one sentence
    “I believe I’d like some delicious Peanut Chews today.”

    I would think that you *know* whether you like Peanut Chews today or not.

    Excellent point, Wolfgang! I do in fact know. But if I know something, then in particular I believe it, and I needed the parallelism for literary reasons.

  29. Scott Says:

    To expand on what Niel said: even if you do accept that other people have souls, it’s not clear to me why that implies the Golden Rule. Sure those jerks have souls, but they’re not my soul, so screw ‘em!

    Or, as it is said on the Immortal Show:

    Lisa: What’s the difference between this lamb and the one that kissed me?
    Bart: This one spent two hours in the broiler. [Takes a big chomp.]

  30. ano Says:

    “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.”

    A friend once said:

    If wishes were horses, beggars would ride, but if answered prayers were horses, beggars would probably continue to hitchhike.

  31. James Says:

    All this talk of souls and defining things precisely, yet no one has bothered to do it in this case.

    If by soul, you mean the capacity to enjoy Aretha Franklin, then certainly X has soul if and only if X is human. It follows that the two forms of the Golden Rule above are equivalent.

    (N.B. For those worried about the apparently arbitrary definition, there are many equivalent ways of defining soul, and some don’t even mention music.)

  32. Scott Says:

    John Sidles: Not only do I not think scientists and engineers are more rational than other people; I think we’re markedly less rational. The rational thing to do is to become a rock star, cult leader, or mystical guru, and collect dozens of gullible young concubines.

  33. anonymous Says:

    By “soul”, I mean the sort of self-awareness that you have, no more, no less.

    “To expand on what Niel said: even if you do accept that other people have souls, it’s not clear to me why that implies the Golden Rule. Sure those jerks have souls, but they’re not my soul, so screw ‘em!”

    The point is that adhering to the Golden Rule really only makes sense if you believe that there’s a good chance that other people have souls. You are of course free to believe that other people have souls and not follow the Golden Rule.

    The point I am trying to make is that just as the vast majority of people believe that others have souls without scientific proof, it also makes sense to believe that there’s a chance that God exists without scientific proof.

  34. Matt Says:

    I think there is an important point in Bill’s comment that has yet to be made explicit. When you say “God” in your lectures, and indeed when most scientists say “God”, we know it is a euphemism for the “harmony of the natural world” or some similar concept. We know this because we are a community of like-minded individuals who all use the term in the same way. The problem is that the general public do not know this. There is quite a section of the population to whom the word “God” always means some very specific bloke up in heaven. They will always assume you are talking about him, however many times you refer to him as her or she, and however many times you explain the whole “God of Spinoza/Einstein” thing. They simply have a mental block about using the word in any other way.

    It’s not a big problem when confined to specialist lectures about quantum computing/the whole of human knowledge, but when Stephen Hawking talks about “the mind of God”, or when people call the Higgs boson “the God particle”, you can be pretty sure that it will be extensively misconstrued and misquoted. The result is a public misconception, especially when it comes to BIG/fundamental science, of scientists as “sacred keepers of the holy knowledge”, akin to Catholic preists, who do things so complicated that the public should not even try to understand them. If you don’t believe that this is the inevitable result of over-Goding your prose then read this annoying recent article (you have to go down a few paragraphs to get to the God stuff). The result of all this is a general conflation of science and religion, which doesn’t help our cause when trying to explain things like why Intelligent Design is not science, or why people should trust scientific theories, to the general public.

    In my opinion, the solution to this is to treat use of the word “God” in a similar way to swearing. Back in high school, I learned it was harmless, and even “cool”, to swear in front of my peer-group, but that I would be in deep trouble if I did it in front of the teacher. This was fine for a while, but it was not long before a swear word accidentally slipped out in the classroom when I wasn’t thinking. The eventual solution was to train myself not to swear at all, or at least only rarely, so that I didn’t have to modify my exclamations depending on who I was talking to. Similarly with the word “God”. It seems fine and even “cool” to use the word in front of other scientists and students, but you will be in deep waters if you do it in a public forum. Therefore, perhaps it’s best to train yourself, and all your fellow scientists, not to use the word at all.

  35. Aaron Denney Says:

    Most people (in western culture, anyway) don’t mean “self-awareness” by soul. They mean some thing that has self-awareness that inhabits the body and may survive after death. If you mean self-awareness, why not just say that?

  36. John Sidles Says:

    Scott sez: The rational thing to do is to become a rock star, cult leader, or mystical guru … .

    … and therefore, the irrational thing to do is mathematics, peer-reviewed publication, teaching, and blog. `Cuz geez, a person would be luck to end up with any illusions left at all, after a regime like that! So kudos to you, Scott.

    “The truth is precious; let us economize” as Twain said. Modern information theory and cognitive science surely permit multiple readings of this saying!

  37. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    In my view, mentioning God is typically a distraction from good explanations in science, even when it is only a metaphor. It’s typically just pretentious. A good example is Leon Lederman’s dubious book title, “The God Particle”. Lederman meant the Higgs, but his argument applies just as well to the electron. Consider how different life would be without it!

    Likewise when Einstein said (in paraphrase), “God does not play dice with the universe”, he could just as well have said, “I don’t want to believe quantum probability.” It would have been less eloquent, but also less pretentious, and more to the point.

  38. John Sidles Says:

    I am sick at heart to read just now … BAGHDAD — A pair of simultaneous car bomb explosions this afternoon killed at least 63 Iraqi college students and injured 135, capping a grisly day of sectarian and political violence throughout the capital. … The two bombs were detonated as students waited for rides home from Baghdad’s Mustansiriya University. … One explosion took place in a minibus filled with 20 students waiting for rides home, police said. The other, which inflicted greater casualties, was caused when a small Korean-made bus apparently packed with explosives was set off in the middle of a crowd of students. … Uninjured students and nearby passersby rushed the dead and dying to an already overburdened Kindi Hospital, less than a mile away, piling them onto wooden carts and the flatbeds of pickup trucks. … “It’s like a disaster that cannot be described,” said a police official at the hospital, who asked that his name not be published. “Most of those who are injured are about to die.:

    —–

    Which makes my previous post look like the most unfortunate prophesy imaginable: “A person would be lucky to end up with any illusions left at all.” :(

  39. roland Says:

    >The rational thing to do is to become a rock star, cult leader, or mystical guru, and collect dozens of gullible young concubines.

    Then the rational thing to do in science is to become a
    literature professor, because that is what they do (i think).

  40. Amin Says:

    Scott, I wonder what exactly your “becoming what most people would call a disbelieving atheist infidel heretic” had to do with your bar mitzvah. Was it a time coincidence or was there something special to the ceremony?

  41. Arno Nymous Says:

    Massimo: In Germany, religious instruction in high schools is similar. AFAIR, The default is to get about 1-2 hours of religious (roman catholic or protestant) instruction per week. In some schools there is also islamic instruction. The christian teachers are approved (employed?) by the corresponding big churches, but I think paid by the government. So much for the seperation of church and state*.

    Greg: Maybe, rationally speaking, Einstein should have rephrased his quip, but then it would cease to be a quip. He was good at marketing himself. I don’t think the quote “I don’t want to believe quantum probability.” would’ve entered the mainstream…

    *I hear a court in the state of Bavaria (think Texas) has ruled that the law criminalizing islamic teachers wearing head scarfs but allowing nuns to wear their burkhas^H^H^H^H^H^H outfits is legal: http://www.cbc.ca/world/story/2007/01/15/german-scarves.html

  42. Scott Says:

    Amin: Time coincidence. Around that time I started reading Sagan, Dawkins, Russell, Feynman, etc.

  43. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    [Einstein] was good at marketing himself.

    He wasn’t bad at it, but actually he was also widely marketed by others. The “God does not play dice” quote, for example, was polished up by other people.

  44. anonymous Says:

    “Most people (in western culture, anyway) don’t mean “self-awareness” by soul. They mean some thing that has self-awareness that inhabits the body and may survive after death. If you mean self-awareness, why not just say that?”

    I should have said “self-awareness” throughout. Sorry for the confusion.

  45. Curtis Says:

    Arno Nymous: I’m not so sure a law like that would survive anywhere in the US (even Texas). Even if some local school district conjured up enough support, it would be difficult to slip it under the radar of the folks at places like the ACLU. But if you know of a counterexample — I’d be interested to hear about it.

  46. Aleksandr Mikunov Says:

    >>If some of the most brilliant unbelievers in history — Einstein, …

    Well, then it might explain why he borrowed (I was about to say “stole”) so many ideas/equations from other people: in special relativity from Poincare/Lorentz/etc… including mc^2.
    In relativity from Grossman (metric tensor = gravity) and Hilbert (correct form of the equation)

  47. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    Well, then it might explain why he borrowed (I was about to say “stole”) so many ideas/equations from other people: in special relativity from Poincare/Lorentz/etc… including mc^2. In relativity from Grossman (metric tensor = gravity) and Hilbert (correct form of the equation)

    In all fairness, if Einstein accepted equations from other people, the ideas really were largely his. As I understand it, Lorentz and Poincare didn’t want to believe special relativity. Assuming that it really was so, then it is surprising, because Poincare at least was just the sort of person who should like relativity.

    Although Hilbert may have understood both the mathematics and the physical interpretation of relativity as well as Einstein by the end, he still learned the real proposal from Einstein. It was absolutely Einstein’s original idea to interpret gravity in terms of pseudo-Riemannian curvature. Grossman’s and Hilbert’s contributions take away very little from that. I think that Grossman, unlike Hilbert, never believed general relativity. I’m not sure that Grossman even believed special relativity.

    The one contemporary mathematician who truly bested Einstein at interpretation was Minkowski. Minkowski realized what Poincare and Einstein should have realized, that according to special relativity, 4-dimensional indefinite geometry is the true (non-gravitational) geometry of the laws of physics.

  48. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    Another comment about Scott’s post: One thing that Erdos, Einstein, and Twain have in common is that they are all dead. They may have been atheists, but they could assume an audience of believers in some or many circumstances. Now that the audience itself is more secular, it’s both less useful and less fashionable to invoke God in scientific discussions. Feynman didn’t talk that way; neither do Weinberg and Witten.

    Mathematics is also a bit different from physics in this respect because religious beliefs are more compatible with research. I suppose that it’s not for me to say as an atheist, but that is my impression. I know that there are a few religious astrophysicists and evolutionary biologists, but I suspect that it is a hard combination. If you mainly study things that you know are sheer abstractions, e.g., convex bodies in a million dimensions, then it may be easier to also believe the Bible.

  49. Scott Says:

    Matt: Thanks for the comment, and sorry it got held up by my spam filter!

    In my opinion, the solution to this is to treat use of the word “God” in a similar way to swearing.

    Since I swear like a pirate, that’s really not the right analogy to use on me… :-)

    Seriously, one could accept everything you’ve said, but then give it an opposite interpretation. Why not try to communicate valid scientific ideas to the public using terminology that they’ll understand and relate to? On this view, the word “God” is like a powerful weapon in the popularizer’s terminological arsenal. Sure, you can use it to sell crap, but you can also use it to sell good science — it’s entirely up to you!

  50. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    On this view, the word “God” is like a powerful weapon in the popularizer’s terminological arsenal.

    But maybe also a loose cannon?

  51. HN Says:

    Scott mentioned the problem of evils as an argument against “God”. There are plenty of (albeit illogical and/or dubious) explanation from the religious community of this problem.

    I have another problem with (the Abrahamic) God, I’m wondering if anyone has stumbled upon any “explanation” at all:
    God created a game, the players, and the rules of the game. One of HIS rule is that if a player — HIS creation — does not follow HIS rule, then the player goes to hell.

    Thanks in advance for any pointer!

  52. Scott Says:

    One of HIS rule is that if a player — HIS creation — does not follow HIS rule, then the player goes to hell.

    HN: Yeah, that’s one of the classic theological doozies; it even appears repeatedly in the Bible itself. For example, here’s Isaiah 63:17:

    “O Lord, why hast thou made us to err from thy ways, and hardened our heart from thy fear?”

    (There was a recent discussion of this passage in David Plotz’s “Blogging the Bible” series.)

    I’m not saying your conundrum has an answer — in my opinion, it doesn’t! — just that it’s extremely famous and old.

  53. saharvetes Says:

    To the person insisting that belief in a “soul” is necessary to treat others well: Would you mutilate a friend’s body after he was dead?

  54. ano Says:

    Bill:

    Do you cringe when a scientist mentions Maxwell’s Demon? Or the Darwinian Demon?
    Do you worry that the term “natural selection” might imply a selector? How about the invisible hand?
    Or when a biologist says that this or that protein “wants” to do something? Are you worried that they’re ascribing agency to a molecule?

    God can be a useful word

  55. Pascal Koiran Says:

    Scott, when are you going to treat us with the long-awaited post on the quantum measurement problem ? It seems to me that this is much more of a scientific problem than the existence of god.
    For instance, the interpretations that insist on a rigid separation between the microscopic and the macroscopic world can be challenged by experiments that create interferences between objects of ever-increasing size.

  56. John Sidles Says:

    Pascal Koiran Says: Scott, when are you going to treat us with the long-awaited post on the quantum measurement problem ?

    Second the motion! In engineering, we teach measurement before we teach dynamics and computation. The only textbook we know that does this is “Mike and Ike” — are there any more?

    The serendipitous sequela is that measurement topics (especially continuous weak measurement) turn out to be much more interesting and natural to most students than dynamics.

    The mathematics is interesting too, because it is so much richer than “mere” unitary rotations, and especially because it is very naturally linked to the enormous engineering literature on model order reduction and large-scale simulation.

    We will note that in this engineering literature, phrases like “NP-hard” and “complexity class” occur quite often … which is proof that complexity theory has plenty of real-world relevance.

    So this skill-set can help students get jobs. Good.

    —–

    As for theology, the comments are seemingly drifting toward Socianism, and therefore, we’ll all soon have a chance to study thermodynamics at the University of Hell. :)

    The good news is, at the University of Hell tuition is free and the professors are excellent:

    There Socrates and Plato both I mark’d
    Nearest to him in rank, Democritus,
    Who sets the world at chance, Diogenes,
    With Heraclitus, and Empedocles,
    And Anaxagoras, and Thales sage,
    Zeno, and Dioscorides well read
    In nature’s secret lore. Orpheus I mark’d
    And Linus, Tully and moral Seneca,
    Euclid and Ptolemy, Hippocrates,
    Galenus, Avicen, and him who made
    That commentary vast, Averroes.
    Of all to speak at full were vain attempt;

  57. Kurt Says:

    I’d also be interested in seeing your take on the measurement problem. I just finished reading the book “Quantum Enigma” by Bruce Rosenblum and Fred Kuttner, and they make the point mentioned by Pascal Koiran above that the measurement problem will trickle up from the microscopic realm to the macroscopic, and the only way to resolve it is by involving consciousness. They justify this claim largely by invoking some work by John von Neumann, although their exposition was less than convincing to me. (In fact, I found the book to be down-right annoying, but that has more to do with their writing style than matters of substance, I suppose.)

  58. Scott Says:

    Scott, when are you going to treat us with the long-awaited post on the quantum measurement problem ?

    The measurement problem seems like the easiest problem in all of science: if you read the quant-ph arxiv, you’ll find it solved several times a day!

    Seriously, to the extent I have anything to say, I’ll try to say it in the remainder of QCSD, especially Lecture 11.

  59. John Sidles Says:

    From my BibTeX database, here is a quote from Howard J. Carmichael’s book on quantum measurement.

    Note: IMHO this is an exceptionally well-written textbook, albeit quite specialized on quantum optics. And it was Carmichael who introduced the very useful term “unraveling”, which none of us can live without these days.

    And yes he told me he well-along with Volume II … hoorah!

    @book{Carmichael:99,
    author = {H. J. Carmichael},
    title = {Statistical Methods in Quantum Optics I: Master Equations
    and Fokker-Planck Equations},
    publisher = {Springer},
    year = 1999,
    jasnote = {Note: there is no volume II as of 2005. Quote from the Preface, (no page) “As a graduate student working in quantum optics I encountered [\ldots] deep irritation caused by the work I was doing, something quite fundamental that I did not understand. \ldots Certain elementary notions that are accepted as starting points for work in quantum optics somehow had no fundamental foundation, no verifiable root. My inclination was to mine physics vertically, and here was a subject whose tunnels were dug horizontally. \ldots I now appreciate more clearly where my question was headed: Yes it does head downward, and it goes very deep. What is less clear is that there is a path in that direction understood by anyone very well. [\dots] Here one must face those notorious issues of interpretation that stimulate much confusion and contention but few definite answers.”},}

  60. Blake Stacey Says:

    In the Lectures on Physics, Feynman reflects lightheartedly on the reasons the Universe might exhibit such interesting symmetry properties. He describes a beautiful gate in Neiko, Japan, which was carved with perfect mirror symmetry, except for one small figure deliberately left upside down so that the gods would not become jealous of the perfection made by humankind. Feynman then turns the parable around and says that perhaps the broken symmetries of the Universe were established so that we humans would not be too jealous of the gods’ perfection.

    Does the indefinite plural form gods sanitize the issue, making the argument more about poetry than theology? If so, we have a problem, because in QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter, Feynman says of the electromagnetic coupling constant, “We might as well say that God wrote that number, and we don’t know how He pushed His pencil” (or words to that effect).

    All this bush-beating around the issue reminds me of the problems the biologists have when arguing the creationists’ assertion “it’s only a theory” — an “argument” which only works, of course, because the general public isn’t aware of the way scientists use the word theory. Do we start talking about the “principle of Evolution” instead, or do we keep trying to explain what we mean when we say “theory”?

    A similar problem besets skepticism in general. When skeptic becomes a loaded and almost dirty word, mixed up with cynic and other baggage, what are we to do? Do we try calling ourselves “Brights” instead, or do we go out and reclaim the good word we already had?

    In this context, we can keep explaining Spinoza’s pantheism, constantly polishing our sound bites — to physicists, “God” is poetic shorthand — or we can try rhetorical trickery, saying “Zeus” or “Isis” in the contexts where Feynman, Einstein and Aaronson have employed the word “God”. (These are not necessarily exclusive options, mind you.) The latter choice might have the incidental benefit of reminding people that whatever lurks in the Planck-time Gap, even though we try to personify it, shares very few character traits and interests with the chap who wrote Leviticus.

  61. Scott Says:

    Feynman, Einstein and Aaronson

    :)

  62. Alex Says:

    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.

    You know, I had almost the same epiphany at one point when I was in grad school and I had the opportunity to sing for a paid choir in a church. On the one hand, I was not religious and this was most definitely a religious activity and I would be singing religious songs. On the other hand, I could use the money, it was really good practice for my sight-singing skills, and most of the other members of the choir were either irreligious or belonged in entirely different denominations/religions than the church in question.

    But it was the reasoning you outline above that was the real clincher for me – if I don’t believe in God, then I’m certainly not offending him by singing in his church. As long as the congregants aren’t offended by having singers who are non-believers, then why worry? I must admit though, it did help that the church in question was socially liberal and, apart from the whole Jesus thing, generally espoused positions that I agreed with.

  63. Scott Says:

    Thanks for sharing, Alex! I’m glad to learn that others have reasoned similarly.

  64. island Says:

    Greg said:
    Likewise when Einstein said (in paraphrase), “God does not play dice with the universe”, he could just as well have said, “I don’t want to believe quantum probability.” It would have been less eloquent, but also less pretentious, and more to the point.

    ‘Nature isn’t random’, would have be a more accurate depiction of Einstein’s naively supported belief that there is purposeful structuring in nature.

    ano said:
    Do you cringe when a scientist mentions Maxwell’s Demon? Or the Darwinian Demon?
    Do you worry that the term “natural selection” might imply a selector? How about the invisible hand?
    Or when a biologist says that this or that protein “wants” to do something? Are you worried that they’re ascribing agency to a molecule?

    God can be a useful word

    I agree, in context with inherent thermodynamic bias:

    http://www.lns.cornell.edu/spr/2006-02/msg0073320.html

    The term, “God”, is essentially interchangable with Nature, in this context, but the apparent “intent” within the physics is simply a perpetually inherent “goal oriented” predispositioning existing innately within nature.

    In this case, an inherent imbalance in the energy of the universe justifies the impetus toward resolution, but an inherent asymmetry can’t be reconcilled, and so the effort toward absolute symmetry is as futile as it is “perpetual”.

    “God” does NOT throw dice YET, dear cutting edge theorists.

  65. Jud Says:

    Scott said: “I believe I’d like some delicious Peanut Chews today.”

    Aha, so you *are* Chewish!

    Anonymous: I do not know whether my sweet, wonderful, gentle, faithful chocolate Lab, Rosie, has a soul (in the sense of self-awareness, life after death, or any other version of “soul” you care to posit). But I would not harm a hair on her head, and woe betide anyone else who tries to do so in my presence. In honor of Scott’s formulation (“For me, there’s no scientific or philosophical fact whose discovery would make it OK to be an asshole”), we might refer to this as the “Don’t be an asshole” rule, or perhaps in honor of Rosie, we’ll refer to it as the Lab Test. It appears to me to be incontrovertible that belief in the existence of God/souls is not coextensive with the ability to pass the Lab Test.

  66. Scott Says:

    Jud: You didn’t know I was Chewish?!

    I, too, would never harm a dog; what I’m more concerned about is dogs harming me.

  67. wolfgang Says:

    > I, too, would never harm a dog

    My guess is that we do not make such decisions based on the existence of a “soul”, but based on cuteness.

    I assume people would have no problems killing a mosquito even if somebody demonstrates that it has feelings and a “soul”.

  68. Scott Says:

    My guess is that we do not make such decisions based on the existence of a “soul”, but based on cuteness.

    Or in my case, fear of canine retribution.

  69. Dennis Says:

    Anon said: The Golden Rule only makes sense if other people might have souls.

    That doesn’t make any sense at all. I’m not going to punch you, because I don’t want you to punch me. That has nothing at all to do with whether or not you or I have souls, I just don’t like physical pain, which is a bunch of electrochemical impulses. The Golden Rule is a method for maximizing net gain – we both win by treating each other well. The Prisoner’s Dilemma is a good game-theoretical simplification of the Golden Rule.

  70. John Sidles Says:

    Anon said: The Golden Rule only makes sense if other people might have souls.

    The Golden Rule also makes sense if you’re a recently evolved primate who is cognitively adapted to live together with other primates in small academic departments troops! Gosh-golly … these primates might even come to possess a capability called “empathy”. :)

  71. anonymous Says:

    “That doesn’t make any sense at all. I’m not going to punch you, because I don’t want you to punch me. That has nothing at all to do with whether or not you or I have souls, I just don’t like physical pain, which is a bunch of electrochemical impulses. The Golden Rule is a method for maximizing net gain – we both win by treating each other well. The Prisoner’s Dilemma is a good game-theoretical simplification of the Golden Rule.”

    That’s a weak form of the Golden Rule. What would be your incentive to give money to the poor? Would it be a purely selfish incentive such as feeling better about yourself or looking good in front of your friends?

  72. Scott Says:

    Yes — “I’m not going to punch you because I don’t want you to punch me” is the Bronze Rule at best. :-)

    As a moral theory, it’s open to exactly the same objection as “I’m not going to punch you because I don’t want to roast in hell.” Namely: “you mean that if I or God wasn’t going to retaliate, then you would punch me?”

  73. Anon Says:

    Scott,

    I tried substituting “Flying Spaghetti Monster” as you suggested, and I found the resulting document horribly offensive as I am on a low carb diet.

  74. Jud Says:

    So, anonymous: Would you hit a dog that had done nothing to make you fear it? Is your answer based on a dog’s possession/lack of a “soul”? Is this “soul” equivalent to a human’s? If not, how does it differ?

  75. anonymous Says:

    “Would you hit a dog that had done nothing to make you fear it? Is your answer based on a dog’s possession/lack of a “soul”? Is this “soul” equivalent to a human’s? If not, how does it differ?”

    On one level, one would not do this since it is unacceptable (and possibly illegal) in many societies. However, other activities such as killing cows for meat and killing insects are perfectly acceptable. Why there is a distinction made between these animals is unclear.

    On another level, it would be wrong to hit an animal that is self-aware and that would suffer. Even if this self-awareness is somewhat less than what you would find in human beings, one could argue that it is still wrong. The problem is that it would be impossible to prove that it is not self-aware, so to be safe, you might assume that it is.

    On a third level, your belief in God may override some of these considerations. If God says it’s ok (e.g., to eat cows), then it’s ok. Moreover, even if an animal is not self-aware, God may still require that you not harm it.

  76. Owain Evans Says:

    “For me, beliefs are for things that might eventually have some sort of observable consequence for someone.”

    What do you mean by observable consequence? How does the proposition “eating babies is wrong” have observable consequences, but not “mathematical objects exist platonistically” or “humans have free will” or “the continuum hypothesis is true”.

    I can understand that if the proposition “Global warming is real” is true, then we’ll observe a change in temperature all over the world in coming years. Similarly, if neo-Darwinism is right, then we’ll find that animals, plants, and fossils conform to the predictions that neo-Darwinism would lead us to make. But what will we observe if the proposition “eating babies is wrong” is true? We might observe mothers crying after their babies have been eaten, but that is not conclusive evidence that the act of eating babies is wrong (German mothers cried when the Nazis lost the war). I don’t see a way in which we observe moral-rightness. So I don’t see how you can make a clean distinction between moral and metaphysical questions.

    You might be convinced about moral principles like the Golden Rule, and unconvinced of metaphysical principles (e.g. “there are two substances: mental and material”). But then the difference is about how much you are convinced by these arguments, and not about how the moral and metaphysical statements differ themselves.

  77. TW Says:

    Anon says:
    What would be your incentive to give money to the poor? Would it be a purely selfish incentive such as feeling better about yourself or looking good in front of your friends?

    You mean that is different than the purely selfish reason of doing it because you are scared God will punish you or you want God’s reward?

  78. CaptainBooshi Says:

    Earlier, anonymous said:

    “The point I am trying to make is that just as the vast majority of people believe that others have souls without scientific proof, it also makes sense to believe that there’s a chance that God exists without scientific proof.”

    This is Pascal’s Wager, and it has been shown to be pointless many times before. Also, I think that there is evidence that people are self-aware, which you define as having a soul, unless you are using some weird, obtuse definition for being self-aware.

    Also, there are selfish reasons for giving money to the poor, if you want them. Many people believe that bettering the condition of those in worse shape than us improves the entire society. Others want the practice to continue in case they or anybody they like eventually end up poor for one reason or another. Others, like you said, want to assuage guilty consciences or look good in front of others.

    Not that I believe you have to have selfish reasons to help someone, either. Many of us feel empathy for people in rough situations, and want to help without some outside force punishing us if we don’t.

  79. anonymous Says:

    “Also, I think that there is evidence that people are self-aware, which you define as having a soul, unless you are using some weird, obtuse definition for being self-aware.”

    This would be impossible. By “self-aware”, I mean the sort of self-awareness that YOU personally feel. I don’t just mean that someone appears to be self-aware. What matters is whether that person IS self-aware. Science can’t help you with this problem.

  80. anonymous Says:

    “This is Pascal’s Wager, and it has been shown to be pointless many times before.”

    I think it’s a bit different although there is a similarity.

    My argument is that most people already believe others are likely to be self-aware, although this is not something that you can demonstrate scientifically. And this belief influences the way they act — just to play it safe in case others really are self-aware.

    It’s not much of a stretch to take this line of thinking further into a belief that God might exist and behavior that is consistent with that possibility — just to play it safe in case God really does exist.

  81. Scott Says:

    How does the proposition “eating babies is wrong” have observable consequences, but not “mathematical objects exist platonistically” or “humans have free will” or “the continuum hypothesis is true”.

    Owain: I agree there are interesting philosophical issues here. For simplicity, though, I’ll simply define a belief to “have observable consequences” if it’s about how the physical universe is, or was, or will be, or ought to be; or if it’s about the outcomes of computations that could be performed on Turing machines.

    Maybe “having observable consequences” isn’t the right term for what I have in mind — can you suggest a better one?

  82. Scott Says:

    It’s not much of a stretch to take this line of thinking further into a belief that God might exist and behavior that is consistent with that possibility — just to play it safe in case God really does exist.

    Should I join a Satanist cult, just to play it safe in case Satan is Lord? Help me here!

  83. Chris W. Says:

    [Anon says: What would be your incentive to give money to the poor? Would it be a purely selfish incentive such as feeling better about yourself or looking good in front of your friends?]

    TW says: You mean that is different than the purely selfish reason of doing it because you are scared God will punish you or you want God’s reward?

    I suppose that doing it because you’re scared of God’s punishment, or out of hope for a reward from Him, adds some measure of craven obedience to authority. I guess that’s supposed to be an improvement…

    It’s interesting how often Christian (and Islamic?) apologetics tends to suggest that one might just as well be a depraved and murderous psychopath if one doesn’t believe in God or the immortal soul. In effect if not intent, it attempts to undermine and belittle the morality of people who don’t ground their moral feelings and behavior in Christian doctrine. And that’s leaving aside the fact that quite a few people have found ways to excuse or justify acts of murder or depravity with interpretations of Christian doctrine.

    As Steven Weinberg has said: Mark Twain described his mother as a genuinely good person, whose soft heart pitied even Satan, but who had no doubt about the legitimacy of slavery, because in years of living in antebellum Missouri she had never heard any sermon opposing slavery, but only countless sermons preaching that slavery was God’s will. With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil—that takes religion.

  84. Chris W. Says:

    The fundamentalist believer is mostly a weird intellectual who often lacks real faith altogether. As a self-appointed attorney for God, who is in no need of attorneys, he very easily turns out to be more godless than the agnostic and the unbeliever. At all events, he seems deaf to poetry.
    — Steve Allen

    How can I believe in God when just last week I got my tongue caught in the roller of an electric typewriter?
    — Woody Allen

  85. grendelkhan Says:

    It’s odd that you should pick the continuum hypothesis as an example. My math is horribly rusty, but I’m pretty sure CH is independent of the standard ZF set theory (as well as its extension, ZFC). This is similar to how the parallel postulate is independent of four-axiom Euclidean geometry.

    As mathematics is a formal system, there’s really nothing to believe about this. Plenty of people believed the parallel postulate to follow from four-axiom geometry, but we now know that it doesn’t. It makes no more sense to believe in CH than is does to believe in the parallel postulate. Both are independent of the standard formal systems they (or their converses) are proposed against.

  86. anonymous Says:

    “Should I join a Satanist cult, just to play it safe in case Satan is Lord? Help me here!”

    The fact that there are many competing and contradictory religions says little as to whether God is likely to exist.

  87. Scott Says:

    grendelkhan: Yes, CH is independent of ZFC, and indeed I don’t have a belief about its truth! On the other hand, I certainly do believe the Gödel sentence of ZFC, even though that’s also independent of ZFC. For me, the criterion for a mathematical question to have a definite answer is that it should ultimately be expressible in terms of the outputs of Turing machines.

  88. Scott Says:

    The fact that there are many competing and contradictory religions says little as to whether God is likely to exist.

    No, but the question at hand was whether one should “live one’s life” as if there were a possibility that God exists. The point, again, is that even if you wanted to, you couldn’t without substantive information about what it is that God wants.

  89. anonymous Says:

    “No, but the question at hand was whether one should “live one’s life” as if there were a possibility that God exists. The point, again, is that even if you wanted to, you couldn’t without substantive information about what it is that God wants.”

    There are several ways to think about this issue.

    One way is to perform a comprehensive analysis of all the major religions so that you can identify some core set of values and practices that would put you in good standing in many of these religions — thus increasing your probability of satisfying God if he were to exist.

    But even if this were not possible, one might argue that a fair God would accept any reasonable religion, even religions that are contradictory along some major points.

    Another possibility is that God would give people a chance with the correct religion in at least one of their lifetimes. In this case, following the religion of your parents might suffice.

  90. Scott Says:

    One way is to perform a comprehensive analysis of all the major religions so that you can identify some core set of values and practices that would put you in good standing in many of these religions — thus increasing your probability of satisfying God if he were to exist.

    Sorry, I can’t accept the lack of imagination implicit in this proposal. Why should my probability measure over Gods be concentrated on the ones that happen to have a sizable following? What if the true religion hasn’t been discovered yet, and is nothing like any current one?

    I agree that one can identify a “core set of values” across many religions, but why should I think that reflects anything more than a shared human nature and evolutionary heritage?

  91. anonymous Says:

    “Sorry, I can’t accept the lack of imagination implicit in this proposal. Why should my probability measure over Gods be concentrated on the ones that happen to have a sizable following? What if the true religion hasn’t been discovered yet, and is nothing like any current one?”

    A fair God would probably not want a huge number of people to be misled, so looking at major religions makes sense.

    A fair God would take into account the limits people have in knowing what he wants of them. You probably would get points for at least trying.

  92. Scott Says:

    Why wouldn’t a “fair God” just reveal the true religion to everyone, instead of leaving them to guess?

    Also, why would a fair God care whether or not I worship him? Wouldn’t such a God be more interested in my behavior to others?

  93. Owain Evans Says:

    Owain: I agree there are interesting philosophical issues here. For simplicity, though, I’ll simply define a belief to “have observable consequences” if it’s about how the physical universe is, or was, or will be, or ought to be; or if it’s about the outcomes of computations that could be performed on Turing machines.

    Maybe “having observable consequences” isn’t the right term for what I have in mind — can you suggest a better one?

    Do you mean something like “empirically testable”? A statement is empirically testable if there is some set of observations whose occurrence would confirm (or disconfirm) the statement. These observations might be easy for humans to obtain (e.g. observing that the average temperature in the US has risen) or very difficult (e.g. using painstaking scientific techniques to date fossils). This definition rules out metaphysical claims. For example, there is no set of observations that would confirm or disconfirm the metaphysical theory of idealism (‘all that exists are minds and ideas/mental states—there is no external world’), since idealism makes the same predictions about experience that realism (‘there is an external world’) does.

    [Note that “empirically testable” as I’ve explained it is a similar notion to “verifiable” as used by the Logical Positivists.]

    The problem with this notion of empirical testability is that it rules out ethical statements. As I said before, you never observe moral-rightness. You might need to have certain experieneces in order to understand ethical questions, but your justification for ethical beliefs does not come from those experiences.

  94. anonymous Says:

    “Why wouldn’t a “fair God” just reveal the true religion to everyone, instead of leaving them to guess?

    Also, why would a fair God care whether or not I worship him? Wouldn’t such a God be more interested in my behavior to others?”

    Who knows why. Our view of reality might be very limited. Maybe with a more complete picture, the situation would be more fair.

    For example, if people have multiple lifetimes and one of them involves the correct religion, then one can see that the situation is more fair than it appears.

  95. Scott Says:

    Owain: No, I specifically want a notion that doesn’t rule out ethical statements.

    My problem with the metaphysical statements is not that they aren’t “testable”; it’s that I can’t find any way to assess them. To assess a statement, I need it to refer somehow to the world I experience: how it is, how it was, how it will be, how it could be, how it should be. In math, “the world I experience” means the world of Turing machines.

  96. Scott Says:

    For example, if people have multiple lifetimes and one of them involves the correct religion, then one can see that the situation is more fair than it appears.

    In that case, I’ll simply stay an unbeliever in this lifetime, and count on a future lifetime to cancel out my transgressions!

  97. DavidD Says:

    I’m reminded of the proof of the Pythagorean Theorem I saw in school where some ancient fellow drew a right triangle and the squares of the sides, with whatever additional lines he wanted to prove the point, and simply wrote, “Behold” in whatever language he used. I would think most people would do better with a lengthy verbal explanation and lots of examples, but maybe this mathematician wasn’t up to it. I suspect that’s human nature, vision being important for us to notice something, but words being necessary for most of us to understand what we see, even as ambiguous as words are, like “God”. But could even God, if She is the Creator, explain it in words, equations, principles, anything like that? What is the probability of God saying, “It is what it is,” even that She doesn’t remember what happened and didn’t design anything? People have such powerful expectations of God.

    I had physics professors who used “God” exactly as you did in this lecture, including at least one Nobel prize winner. If someone is put off by that, I’m not sure where he or she learned physics. While I am tolerant of this use of “God”, I do have some antipathy toward the practice, as it does assume too much of God. I am a liberal Christian, someone who finds my understanding of God at odds with those who define God as Creator, because of many of the points atheists make. It’s not just forcing responsibility of everything on God, though, that I wonder about. It is quite an assumption that there is any process that plotted out the universe through some branch point where it decided we needed complex numbers, not real numbers. Couldn’t the principle or principles behind the universe have required whatever was necessary to fulfill them without having any intelligence at all about what was necessary to do that? I can’t help but think that the way I was taught quantum mechanics, where the quantization of energy is fundamental, due to some fundamental graininess of the universe, vs. starting with negative probabilities are both reflections of something deeper and simple, too much so to be making decisions. I doubt whatever that is has anything to do with who answers my prayers.

    Have you seen a video on how to make a hat that actually is showing in reverse a woman tearing up a hat? In reverse it looks like pieces of the hat are jumping into her hands as she puts them into the hat. What if our view of the universe, being inside it as we are, is just that skewed? If so we’ll never understand it, but only where empiricism takes us, as it would with that misleading video. That doesn’t mean God is unfair. It does mean there may be no way for God to explain the process to anyone, even if He does know, even if it was a very simple trick, not involving the choice of complex numbers over real ones.

    I treasure science anyway, and I think you’re right in what you wrote about the freedom of scientific rationalism. It should apply to everything, from subatomic particles to however one defines God, since one can indeed be rational about what else there may be besides the physical universe we mostly understand. If only people wouldn’t take it so personally.

  98. Paul Beame Says:

    For those who enjoy arguing about the necessity of metaphysical explanations for the Golden Rule, Hilary Putnam has a series of lectures published under the title ‘Ethics without Metaphysics’ that tackles the problem head on. Overall, though, it is much less fun than reading his devastating review of Penrose’s misinterpretation of Godel Incompleteness in ‘Shadows of the Mind’!

  99. Scott Says:

    DavidD: Thanks for the comment!

    It is quite an assumption that there is any process that plotted out the universe through some branch point where it decided we needed complex numbers, not real numbers.

    No, there needn’t have been such a process, but still one would want some explanation for why the amplitudes are complex numbers. As I’m sure you’ll understand, I can’t accept any view that tells me to be satisfied with “it is what it is,” and not keep searching for reasons why it isn’t what it isn’t. To do so would mean to stop doing science.

    Maybe there are truths so profound that they can never be expressed in words or diagrams — but because those truths can’t be communicated or criticized, they could never form part of science. In any case, religious propositions clearly don’t fall into this category; their proponents have been communicating them verbally (and boy have they ever) for 4000+ years.

  100. island Says:

    I can’t accept any view that tells me to be satisfied with “it is what it is,” and not keep searching for reasons why it isn’t what it isn’t. To do so would mean to stop doing science.
    -Scott Aaronson

    They don’t get much better than that.

    FYI: Ole’ Sam Clemens was politically neutral, calling both sides of the ideological spectrum, “insane”.

    This comes from the absurdities that are necessitated in order to defend any extreme position.

    Oh, yeah… We selfishly give money to the poor because we know deep down that “there but for the grace of ‘god’, go us”… period.

    Bye

  101. craig Says:

    “Personal empathy makes sense only on the assumption that other people might have souls.”

    What a load of bull.
    Personal empathy makes sense on the assumption that other people are conscious and can feel pain and don’t like it when they do. Which is what I assume. Because I’m not a freaking psychopath.

    Being “moral” out of fear of punishment or hope for reward is not morality, it’s just selfishness. It’s how dogs are trained – and by that standard dogs are more reliably moral beings than people are. Dogs must therefore have greater souls, huh?

  102. craig Says:

    We selfishly give money to the poor because we know deep down that “there but for the grace of ‘god’, go us”… period.

    Well its good to see a religious person finally admit that their “morals” are actually nothing but selfishness. But speak for yourself.
    When I help people I don’t help them because I have some idea that it will prevent me from needing help someday – that doesn’t even make any sense. I don’t help them because I think someone is keeping score, I help them because I know it sucks to need help and not get it, and I have empathy for them.

    You guys are saying that empathy requires belief in god or the fear of punishment thing, which actually means that you don’t believe in empathy at all. You don’t empathize, you just strategize. Without religion you’d be a psychopath, everyone would be.

    Pretty fricken creepy. Speak for yourself.

  103. Jud Says:

    Anonymous –

    Near the beginning of the thread, you inquired, “[I]f people do not have souls, then why does it matter how you treat them?”

    Much later in the thread, in response to a question from me regarding treatment of dogs, you gave a number of replies regarding why one might decide not to treat a dog cruelly. One of them had to do with belief in God; another with socially acceptable behavior (which one can argue imports precepts stemming from belief in God by most members of the society); a third did not refer to belief in God: “On another level, it would be wrong to hit an animal that is self-aware and that would suffer.”

    In that latter formulation, you have part of the answer to your initial question. In fact, I don’t think the line is necessarily drawn at self-awareness. I can recall being bothered watching a small boy stomp on a caterpillar. More dramatic examples, e.g., treatment of bodies after death, have been raised elsewhere in the thread. In response to these things, one is simply left with the feeling that, as you (and Richard Nixon) said, “[I]t would be wrong.”

    Of course, as you have pointed out, we humans aren’t consistent in our “It would be wrong” responses. Most of us are perfectly happy having animals (that quite possibly possess some degree of self-awareness) killed so we can eat them. But belief in the concepts of God and soul are no guarantee of consistency either, as the statements of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell (who certainly, whatever else we might say about them, understand themselves to believe in God and souls) regarding the World Trade Center and Katrina deaths demonstrate.

    Of course, it’s the whole Problem Of Evil thing, isn’t it? Was the Holocaust all part of God’s plan? Was it a demonstration of how far God allows humans to go in exercising free will (thus making it also part of God’s plan)? Was it a demonstration of Satan’s power (though he cannot be more powerful than God if one believes in the first of the Ten Commandments; therefore Satan’s power is also subject to God’s will and thus part of God’s plan)?

    How should I react to what is going on in Darfur? Should I trust my instincts that “it would be wrong” not to do what is in my power to try to alleviate the suffering (regardless of any belief on my part that God exists or doesn’t, as to whether the people of Darfur have “souls” in some theological sense, as to whether they are “sinners,” as to whether they believe in the “one true” God)? Or is this part of God’s plan for those folks in some way that passeth my mere mortal understanding, and should I therefore sit tight and not f**k up God’s own justice?

    To sum up: “It would be wrong” isn’t always easy to apply, and leads to inconsistent results. But then, the very same is true of “God exists” and/or “People have souls.”

  104. anonymous Says:

    “In that case, I’ll simply stay an unbeliever in this lifetime, and count on a future lifetime to cancel out my transgressions!”

    It might be the case that your current lifetime is the only one where you have been raised with the correct religion.

  105. Torbjörn Larsson Says:

    To use God or not to use God – is a personal question, whether in faith or in science.

    But it is such a vague yet loaded concept that it seems more harmful than not in secular use. I agree with those who find it distracting. Mostly IMO because “God” is presumptuous (theory-laden :-), I often find “gods” more appropriate and provoking.

    It gets really tedious to see the special pleading of the moral argument ride in on a moral justification for souls. Altruism and empathy isn’t restricted to humans and has evolutionary explanations. Specifically, it doesn’t lead to the golden rule but leans more towards tit-for-tat with forgiveness.

    What it is based on, both evolutionary and psychologically, is that some others are sufficient like oneself (humans, dogs, whatever gets your fancy). This basis would extend to the fabled golden rule. There is no requirements for souls, self-awareness, or minds. (But of course mind and self-awareness helps when recognizing “like”.)

    If it is a lesson in there, it is perhaps that nature has thoroughly rejected solipsism. ;-)

  106. George Atkinson Says:

    If writing is to communicate, it’s a good idea to use words that are readily understood. The word “God” (unless followed by “damn”) has no particular meaning in general currency beyond “someone else’s god.” It would be a courtesy for the writer to supply some specification such as “Bush’s god” or “Osama’s god.”

  107. John Sidles Says:

    Seriously, how do young people think they can make progress in the study of human ethics without acknowledging the work of scientists like Frans de Waal?

    This is like studying planetary orbits without knowing Newton’s laws. You’ll just end up with theories of endless epicycles, and no foundational understanding. Worse, no ability to influence the future.

  108. ano Says:

    “Seriously, how do young people think they can make progress in the study of human ethics without acknowledging the work of scientists like Frans de Waal?”

    The same way Frans de Waal did. He seems to have done just fine, and he didn’t need to study Frans de Waal first before thinking for himself!

  109. island Says:

    Well its good to see a religious person…

    Wrong. “craig” apparently missed the ‘ ‘ around “god”, and/or craig didn’t see the quote marks around the whole sentence.

    Dear Craig, I am a atheist.

    Pretty fricken creepy. Speak for yourself.

    indeed, I’m glad that I checked back one last time.

  110. Michael Gogins Says:

    This discussion is a mess, so I’ll muddle it further with some quotations from religious persons that point to its resolution.

    “Do not objectify God.” — Zen master Joshu Sasaki (one of my teachers).

    “God is not a ‘being.'” — Christian existential theology text.

    “Truth is subjectivity.” — Soren Kierkegaard.

    “God is pure act.” — Thomas Aquinas.

    “The world is everything that is the case…. The meaning of the world, therefore, is outside the world.” — Wittgenstein.

    I am not appealing to authority here, these remarks simply encapsulate an understanding of God and of religion that is radically at variance with the understanding assumed (on both the ‘atheist/agnostic’ and the ‘believing’ side) in most of this discussion so far.

  111. wolfgang Says:

    Michael,

    I think you are exactly right:
    We should not objectify the FSM.
    And the pink unicorn is not a being, rather ‘pure act’.

  112. Scott Says:

    Thanks so much, Michael, for taking the time to enlighten us prisoners of objectivity. I’m sure I speak for all of my readers when I say you’ve settled everything!

  113. H Haller Says:

    I thought your lecture on quantum mechanics was very nice but I felt it to be a little compact (and this I’m sure cannot be corrected in a single lecture)- may be you just want the readers to figure out the rest … but I seriously doubt most of will be able to. Are there any other references which are a bit more comprehensive that take a similar perspective, i.e., a non-historic perspective among other things, of quantum mechanics?

  114. Scott Says:

    H: Try this article by Lance Fortnow, or this one by David Mermin.

  115. John Sidles Says:

    Scott recommends: Try this article by Lance Fortnow, or this one by David Mermin.

    IMHO, those two articles are a very good start. Opinions may vary, but my personal choice would be continue to chs. 2 and 8 of Mike and Ike (to handle weak measurements and noise, with deep references), followed by the RMP article by Peres and Terno (to link to deep physics issues like relativity, also with deep references).

    As these are not on-line, BibTeX entries follow.

    And to top it off, pretty much everything that Carlton Caves ever wrote is good.

    —–

    @article{Peres:04,
    author = {A. Peres and D. R. Terno},
    title = {Quantum information and relativity theory},
    journal = {Reviews of Modern Physics},
    year = 2004,
    volume = {76(1)},
    pages = {93–123},}

    @book{Nielsen:00,
    author = {M. A. Nielsen and I. L. Chuang},
    title = {Quantum Computation and Quantum Information},
    publisher = {Cambridge Press},
    year = 2000,}

  116. Douglas Knight Says:

    I’m going to pick up Owain Evan’s thread.
    I can’t tell if Scott is agreeing or disagreeing with Owain. He seems to assert the former and then continue making.

    I hold that moral issues are on par with metaphysical ones (actually, worse). You can’t derive ought from is. When you said that you can justify morals in terms how the world should be, that sounds terribly circular to me. It’s fine, as you seem to when not talking to Owain, to take the golden rule as axiom not about the world, but about yourself. But this is very different than the position you seem to take when talking to Owain.

    One advantage metaphysics has over morality is that there might be a right answer. Another is that, as anonymous pointed out, some questions, about utilitarianism, or who deserves the application of the golden rule may depend on who has qualia (souls).

    On another note, there’s no Sam Harris in the sky to punish you after you’re dead for consorting with silly beliefs, but I believe he argues that going into Hillel has terrible consequences in this world.

  117. God Says:

    Let me clear a few things up.

    (1) I don’t care. All I do is create. The nature of reality is as follows: I, the only intrinsically necessary being, create all possible worlds, one of which is your own, and that’s all I do. In some worlds, I intervene; in other worlds, I don’t. Once again, all possible forms of intervention and non-intervention are realized.

    (2) There’s no way that any entity in your world can actually know this. You’re equal to the task of imagining that everything I said in (1) might be true, but your epistemic faculties are inherently insufficient for the task of proving or disproving it. The same thing goes for this very proposition.

    (3) The last sentence of the Tractatus is wrong.

  118. Scott Says:

    On another note, there’s no Sam Harris in the sky to punish you after you’re dead for consorting with silly beliefs, but I believe he argues that going into Hillel has terrible consequences in this world.

    Yes, Harris advocates going to Buddhist temples instead. We all have our vices.

  119. KWRegan Says:

    Speaking as an Oxford grad student and Junior Fellow, I’ve had reason to beware the flesh-and-blood Dawkins, but never a “vengeful sky Dawkins”! Scott, surely that’s an example of “The Dawkins Delusion”! Actually, you expressed the understandable difficulty really well, and it aligns with good points in his book (TGD) esp. ch. 9 and bits of 7.

    Speaking as a Christian, liberal like DavidD and otherwise agreeing with him and Matt, I’ll try to give a simple linguistic partial answer to the original issue:

    1. The Lord, Yahweh/’ ‘/Adonai, El-[biblical qualifier], Lord/God-of-[biblical qualifier], Allah, Al-[Quranic name], der Herr Gott, “He” with capital H: reverent only.
    2. God, Gott, der Herrgott, Dieu/Dios/Dio/etc., he/she: neutral, can be either, no problemo by me. (Not sure about “El” by itself.)
    3. “God”, God with a non-scriptural qualifier (like Einsteinian or of-nature), The Master: IMHO freer of confusion. (Beware: G-d can be J.Orthodox-reverent; G*d is fine I guess. “The Master” has some reverent echoes but they’re muffled IMHO by Hesse’s /Magister Ludi/.)
    4. Supreme Fascist (SF), FSM, Teapot, etc.: clearly and refereshingly non-reverent :-), but IMHO more for blogs than public lectures…

    IMHO “She” is problematic, a quantum superposition of 1. and 2. Which may be intended e.g.(?) when used by Leon Lederman in /The God Particle/ (?—NB: the title is due to co-author Dick Teresi), which also has a long Democritus dialogue! With so many books in the science section of Barnes & Noble having “God” in their titles, it’s hard not to use the name to communicate our awareness of how close the edge of science is to fundamental understanding, though maybe so far. Allowing that, I’d recommend 3. as suitable for everyone, but Scott’s 2. is OK and has always been clearly Einsteinian enough to me.

    A relevant anecdote: When I first saw the cover with skyward-looking Einstein of Subtle Is The Lord, I did a double-take, “Einstein a standardly-reverent believer?” When I realized later it was translating Raffiniert ist der Herrgott, aber boshaft ist er nicht I had a barfing sensation—since I knew “raffiniert” goes with Kerl/rascal/tricks and I knew the narrower scientific meaning (but if you work in the Riemann Hypothesis, it’s “All Boshaft, All The Time”:-). Well, Arnold Lesikar’s site I HREFed the quote to seems to get it right, and with all sorts of links there too, we can find common understandings, flexible depth, and deserved respect.

  120. Sonya Says:

    Hi Scott – I hope you don’t mind if I throw in my two cents here.

    Anonymous Person, you said –
    So basically, you are working on the assumption that people might have souls and this is why it is important to treat them well.

    But you can take this argument further: God might exist and therefore it is important to act in a way that is consistent with that possibility.

    and

    My point about the Golden Rule is that if other people did not have souls, then it would be ok to treat them poorly just as it would be ok to treat a piece of plastic poorly or to talk back to your TV during a movie.

    and

    Personal empathy makes sense only on the assumption that other people might have souls.

    I’d just like to point out that at this juncture you’re making a rather disingenuous semantic, not theological, argument. You’re using “soul” by two different definitions simultaneously, the one being “consciousness” and the other being “a spiritual nature which is eternal”, and you’re arguing that folks must subconsciously believe in the latter definition, on the basis of the former. If that sounds a little confusing, try plugging those definitions in –

    “Personal empathy makes sense only on the assumption that other people might have consciousness”

    or

    “Personal empathy makes sense only on the assumption that other people might have a spiritual nature which is eternal.”

    – and you can see what I mean, yes? It doesn’t make much sense to have personal empathy without acknowledgment of other people as conscious beings. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s impossible to have empathy for a creature you do not at least believe to be conscious, or potentially conscious, to some degree. On the other hand, whether that consciousness is of finite or infinite duration and whether it has a biological or preternatural origin, doesn’t seem to be of very much moral significance to me. Whether we think and feel because of a complex chain of chemical reactions, or we think and feel because of some essense of self that cannot be observed by any physical means, doesn’t affect the fact that we do think and feel. Neither does the presense or absence of an expiration date on those experiences.

    I don’t think you’re wrong to use the word “soul” in either sense – with appropriate context, I think either meaning would be understood by your reader. However, trying to pass off nigh-universal recognition of human consciousness as proof of universal subconscious acknowledgement of man’s spiritual nature? That’s not good logic, that’s poor language skills (and I suspect it’s entirely affected).

    -Sonya

  121. anonymous Says:

    Scott,
    Just curious – How much time do you allot everyday to maintaining this SuperPopular blog? Surely the volume of responses makes responding almost a full time job?
    120 comments to this entry! Am I allowed to say Holy Crap?

  122. Michael Gogins Says:

    By making fun of my quotations about subjectivity, you’re simply begging the question they raise: whether ordinary consciousness and human purposes, in a manner completely consistent with the scientific world view, nevertheless transcend the objective world.

    You may not even view this as a consistent position, but I’ll do my best to concisely ground it.

    First, let us distinguish the ‘philosophy of scientific method’ (no teleological explanations, no subjective purpose or meaning in Nature, ‘Turing machine’ style explanations are possible for any observable) from the ‘philosophy of scientists’, an implicit metaphysics that is presupposed by working scientists (I am sure you will correct me if I am wrong): there is a real world out there, and scientists can indeed understand it by formulating ‘Turing machine’ style explanations; but their formulation of these explanations is guided by informal considerations such as beauty, simplicity, an intuitive or visual metaphor for phenomena, and so on. The central point is that scientists assume, without any justification except past success, that whenever a crisis develops (no explanation for some puzzling phenomenon, two competing explanations of equal predictive power but different formulation) that their informal human reason can, eventually, resolve the difficulty and create an improved formal explanation.

    There is an implicit tension here, even a contradiction, between the ‘philosophy of scientists’ with its implicit teleology, and the ‘philosophy of scientific method’ with its implicit mechanism and determinism.

    Scientists seem to assume that, one day, at least in principle, the ‘philosophy of scientific method’ will subsume the ‘philosophy of scientists’ by formulating a ‘Turing machine’ style explanation that will completely cover the purposeful informal thinking of scientists.

    I submit that this makes no sense, and I even think it is vulnerable to a diagonal argument. Assuming it were true, scientists could not verify it without appealing to principles of greater power. But if they could not verify it, that would contradict the assumption that scientific thinking will always ultimately be able to provide an improved formal explanation.

  123. anonymous Says:

    “You’re using “soul” by two different definitions simultaneously, the one being “consciousness” and the other being “a spiritual nature which is eternal”, and you’re arguing that folks must subconsciously believe in the latter definition, on the basis of the former.”

    Actually, this was not intended. I just used the wrong word. Please replace all references to “souls” in my argument with “self-awareness”.

  124. RM Says:

    Sonya wrote:

    “In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s impossible to have empathy for a creature you do not at least believe to be conscious, or potentially conscious, to some degree.”

    Well, people are certainly capable of empathizing with inanimate objects in some circumstances. Small children do this all the time, but even adults are prone to it.

    For example, there was an IKEA commercial a while back about an old lamp that gets thrown out and replaced with a new one. Emotional music and clever camera angles create the illusion that the old lamp is sad and lonely. At the end a man says “Many of you feel bad for this lamp. That is because you’re crazy! It has no feelings, and the new one is much better.”

    This is not entirely contrary to your assertion, as one could say that people ascribe consciousness to such objects when they feel empathy for them, but they don’t literally believe them to be conscious.

  125. Scott Says:

    anonymous:

    Just curious – How much time do you allot everyday to maintaining this SuperPopular blog?

    I don’t “allot” time for anything; I simply end up having spent it.

    Surely the volume of responses makes responding almost a full time job?

    Yes.

    120 comments to this entry! Am I allowed to say Holy Crap?

    Yes.

  126. John Sidles Says:

    To complete the suggested reading list, here are two seldom-cited but very readable articles from the mid-70s by Choi, that are at the heart of Nielsen and Chuang’s textbook, in particular the theorems of ch. 8.

    The point is, you can read these two Choi articles and say to yourself “Amazing! These dry algebraic theorems make it possible for causality, special relativity, and quantum mechanics to coexist.”

    Then all you have to do is figure out a clever and compelling strategy for introducing general relativity … :)

    ——–

    @article{Choi:75,
    author = {M.-D. Choi},
    title = {Completely positive maps on linear matrices},
    journal = {Linear Algebra and Its Applications},
    year = 1975,
    volume = 10,
    pages = {285–290},
    jasnote = {POVM literature},
    }

    @article{Choi:72,
    author = {M.-D. Choi},
    title = {Positive linear maps on $C\sp{*}$-algebras},
    journal = {Canadian Journal of Mathematics},
    year = 1972,
    volume = 24,
    pages = {520–529},
    jasnote = {See Choi:75},
    }

  127. KWRegan Says:

    I realized overnight that “The Master” has a relevant non-personal meaning in English, as a template or primordial pattern. This is exactly the sense of the Master theorem as named in the classic Cormen-Leiserson-Rivest(-Stein) Introduction to Algorithms text. For example, one can speak of “The Master” behind general relativity as a standard personification of Einstein’s main equation, in relation to its allowed solutions, leaving any divine impersonation discussion to later.

    So in the context of my contribution above (logged 1/19/07 5:48am UT), I will simply make that my recommended usage.

    Semi-thorough spot-check: My 1988 Thorndike Barnhart Student Dictionary gives “Jesus” as meaning 13 (there’s the “reverent echo” I mentioned), but my big Webster’s IIIrd International does not, and the only occurrences of “master” in the Wikipedia entries for“God” and “Jesus” are labeled Native American and New Age. The etymology from Latin magister parallels Hebrew rabbi, “teacher” based on “my great one”. The Quran objects to “rabb/great” for persons other than God, but in English at least we can duck that etymology, and “teacher” and “great” work fine for the universe of science! There is the meaning slave-master, but that even works to sub for Erd”os’ “Supreme Fascist” 8-). The point is that “The Master” should not seem to force an interpretation as “Bill” originally perceived, and does not exclude anyone either. It is flexible but definite, universal, clear, and of common heritage.

    BTW, I should mention that the linked discussion of Einstein’s quote in my other item was taken by Professor Lesikar from Abraham Pais’ book itself. The wealth of primary source material on Lesikar’s Einstein and Religion site shows the extent to which the deep scientist was an “Elephant”. See the last verse of the poem!—but the point is that Dawkins’ book gives only a hind leg not only of Einstein (cf. also this first quarter of his main source by Max Jammer), but also Dyson (recent interview here), the US “Founding Fathers”, and much else.

  128. Ken Regan Says:

    Oops—the Flying Missing-/ Monster exacted Divine Revenge on my post! I saw the prophetic warnings in the new P-NP thread too late…

    But I did begin this post with a close-italics HTML tag, as atonement :-).

  129. KWRegan Says:

    But the italics are still broken in my Firefox, fixed only in Explorer on my Win XP laptop. Definitely bugginess to report (to WordPress?) somehow… I’ll also fix that Explorer defaults me as “Ken Regan”; I prefer “KWRegan”—it’s currently less not more ambiguous e.g. on Google and Skype.

    I should also clarify that I was an Oxford grad student and JRF in 1981–86 and part of 1988, interleaving a Cornell MSI postdoc, and have been on the faculty of the University at Buffalo, CS/CSE Dept., since 1989.

  130. Cynthia Says:

    Scott, hate to be the bearer of bad news! But it appears as though you might oughta amend your statement that using the word “God” in conversation isn’t taboo.

    Evidently, “God” is not only being edited out of airline movies, but it’s being bleeped from TV programs as well. Therefore, perhaps during your lecture, you were using God’s name in vain after all. I’ve gotta admit though, Cosmic Variance recently generated a most colorful comment thread regarding “this bleeping of God”. In fact, one commenter presented a rather unsettling piece of anecdotal evidence.: “South Park was edited for network TV by bleeping the ‘god’ from ‘goddammit’ (instead of the dammit).”

    When it comes to irony, I can’t fathom a greater one: Hell’s okay, but God ain’t. Try to quantum compute that one!;)

  131. Scott Says:

    I hadn’t heard about that, Cynthia! What’s the stated rationale — the whole name-in-vain thing?

  132. Cynthia Says:

    Come on, Scott, please don’t think I believe that you use God’s name in vain. Quite the contrary, in fact! However, from the sounds of it, some folks must think otherwise…

    If, say, for instance, a video tape of your lecture were to be viewed on an airline or on a TV network (God forbid! just kidding, of course;)), then your reference(s) to God would–more than likely– be edited/bleeped out. From what I gather, your reference(s) to God would be edited/bleeped out from your talk, even if your reference(s) are totally innocuous.

    Perhaps you’d better understand what I’m talking about if you’d just skim through Sean’s post entitled “Save the Queen” along with its comment thread.

    Have a most enjoyable weekend!
    Cynthia

  133. Sonya Says:

    still-remaining-anonymous person said: Actually, this was not intended. I just used the wrong word. Please replace all references to “souls” in my argument with “self-awareness”.

    . . okay, I’m at a loss, in that case. Your argument is then, “So basically, you are working on the assumption that people might have [self-awareness] and this is why it is important to treat them well.

    But you can take this argument further: God might exist and therefore it is important to act in a way that is consistent with that possibility. “

    I don’t see the connection. Back when we were talking about souls, as in immortal spirits, there was a connection – a tenuous connection along the lines of “if one aspect of the spiritual is real, it makes it more likely that other spiritual things may also be real” – but still, a connection. You could also go with, “If you’re willing acknowledge the existance of one unproven entity to the degree that you let its potential existance direct your behavior, consciously or subconsciously, then it’s not too much of a stretch to give other unproven entities similar consideration.”

    But if we’re talking about self-awareness, then I don’t follow at all. I’m aware there are schools of thought that would say the self-awareness of human beings as a species is unproven – there are schools of thought that would say the existance of most of what we call reality is unproven, too – but on a practical basis, the self-awareness of others is an observable fact. I can observe on a daily basis that other people are happy or sad, that they get upset when bad things happen to them, they laugh at jokes, they carry grudges, they hold opinions – when cut they bleed, y’know? And I don’t think there’s anything subconscious about most folks’ beliefs that others are as self-aware as they are themselves. People with autism have difficulty correctly identifying emotional responses in others, and sociopaths lack empathy with others, but for the majority of the human population, that others are self-aware falls into the catagory of “Well, duh – and didja know the sky was blue, too?”

    . . which makes it rather different from belief in God, whose existance cannot be readily observed. In fact, when people claim to see or hear God, or that God has intervened in their lives in all but the most abstract and round-about of ways, we tend to assume they’re hallucinating and prescribe them psychoactive medications. Even people who are quite devout, who believe that God had something to do with their getting that job they needed so much or with the traffic accident they narrowly missed, are likely to look askance at someone who claims to have had a two-sided conversation with the Almighty.

    And anyway, as far as living in a way that takes into account the possibility of God’s existance, here’s my theory:

    a.) With or without God or gods, I want to do my best to be a good person, live a moral life, etc. To do what is right to the best of his or her ability ought to be anyone’s highest priority, IMO.

    b.) There are approximately as many differing opinions on what is right and good as there are people on the planet. There are points of general agreement, yes, but in terms of achieving perfection? There’s no consensus on what that even means –

    c.) – ergo, the best any person can do to lead a moral life is to, well, do the best that they personally can do, making use of what intelligence and intuition they have and the available data. They can choose teachers and listen to the guidance of others who seem wiser, they can retain humility and awareness of the possibility of error, but ultimately, you can only use what you’ve got.

    d.) Presuming God gave us our cognitive abilities, senses, intuition, etc., he must be aware of their limitations.

    e.) If God is himself good and deserving of the worship of people who value goodness, then he ought to value our striving towards goodness, too – and if he created us flawed and limited in our ability to perceive what is good, then he ought to have sympathy for our shortcomings.

    f.) If the God described in e.) is in charge of what happens to you when you die, than anyone who is trying sincerely to lead a good life, ought to be okay. Whether they believed in and worshipped God or gods during their lifetime ought to have no bearing on their eternal fate.

    g.) If the God who is in charge of what happens to you when you die is not as described in e.), and in fact values something else above morality – such as belief in him – and would eternally punish people who have tried sincerely to be good for failure to achieve this other, unrelated thing – then he is not good, and it would be a moral failing on my part to worship him, regardless of what he can do to me if I piss him off. Might does not make right.

    -Sonya

  134. Scott Says:

    If the God who is in charge of what happens to you when you die … in fact values something else above morality – such as belief in him – and would eternally punish people who have tried sincerely to be good for failure to achieve this other, unrelated thing – then he is not good, and it would be a moral failing on my part to worship him, regardless of what he can do to me if I piss him off. Might does not make right.

    Amen to that.

  135. KWRegan Says:

    Hope I can help again. First to answer the “stated rationale”: (a) I translate Rule #2(or 3) as, “Do not use The Name for an empty purpose” (cf. “lightly” in David H. Stern’s translation), and “vain” = Latin vanus = roomy, empty, fruitless… (b) The “rationale” for the bleep-out policy is that many class “God” as reverent-only usage, though my contrary opinion was both observational and reverent. And Scott’s purpose is far from empty!—but by me, the absence of “God”, or selective usage as in Dyson’s Disturbing The Universe, is what’s reverent.

    I may have to withdraw “The Master” as too-Christian for universal taste, since I just found Brian McLaren’s A Generous Orthodoxy defining “the Lord” as meaning “master” (cap-L for Jesus here, small-m!), a reduction I thought went only in the other direction… I’ll sound out for reaction and other advice, since this is what I’ve used (sparingly).

    But hey, I forgot about simply “Nature” with a capital N! Now Hawking’s famous ending “…for then we would know the mind of God” is another example of the purpose being to ascribe cosmic mindfulness to choices like L2-norm for quantum as per Scott’s notes. Whereas “nature” is often mindless in common parlance, but need this be so? Here Dyson’s musings about “mind” in my links above may be helping…and also, McLaren’s book expressly de’constructs not only “master” but (comfy-)theology with IMHO more Derridaean violence than Dyson manages, just keeping it in-text.

  136. anonymous Says:

    “…but on a practical basis, the self-awareness of others is an observable fact. I can observe on a daily basis that other people are happy or sad, that they get upset when bad things happen to them, they laugh at jokes, they carry grudges, they hold opinions – when cut they bleed, y’know?”

    One can’t demonstrate self-awareness in others. Just imagine a robot that mimics those behaviors that you describe and yet is not self-aware in the sense that you are self-aware.

    “If the God who is in charge of what happens to you when you die is not as described in e.), and in fact values something else above morality – such as belief in him – and would eternally punish people who have tried sincerely to be good for failure to achieve this other, unrelated thing – then he is not good, and it would be a moral failing on my part to worship him, regardless of what he can do to me if I piss him off. Might does not make right.”

    So you might decide that he is not a good God, but how would this help your situation after death if indeed he does behave in that manner?

  137. Arun Says:

    You’re all bumping against the problem that can be roughly stated as “why be good?” (Glaucon’s challenge to Socrates?)

    Perhaps the answer lies within the idea that there is no “I” different from my actions, there is no “real me” (soul?) distinct from the way I act. “Why be good? is then answered by “Why breathe?” Insofar as “I” have value, I am compelled to do both.

  138. Avi Says:

    Scott,

    The comment:

    “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.”

    shows your ignorance of your own religion. The fact that there was a Holocaust and God did nothing about it was exactly what God said He would do to the Jews if they forsaked His word.

    First read Deuteronomy 31:15-18 to see God’s promise of a Holocaust for the Jews if they forsake His word.

    Next, read Deuteronomy 32:21 to see what God promised would happen if Jews chose the non-god of secularism/atheism over God. They would have to deal with a “non-people”. Now who could this non-people be?

    These events should give you all the more reason to trust in God and the Torah.

  139. Scott Says:

    In that case, why were the ultra-Orthodox gassed along with the atheists? Were the four-year-old kids also murdered for forsaking His word?

    Your Hitlerian God, who brought about the Holocaust as “punishment” for the Jews’ supposed wrongs, is unworthy of worship by any civilized human being. If He exists, He can bite me.

  140. Avi Says:

    “In that case, why were the ultra-Orthodox gassed along with the atheists?”

    The ultra-Orthodox Jews died wishing that they had been better Jews.

    The atheist German-Jews died wishing that they had been better Germans.

  141. anonymous Says:

    A being as the one Avi seems to describe appears to be evil by just about any standard. If such a being existed the main problem facing mankind as a whole would be to find a way to capture and control, or destroy, this malevolent entity.

  142. Scott Says:

    “The ultra-Orthodox Jews died wishing that they had been better Jews.

    The atheist German-Jews died wishing that they had been better Germans.”

    Personally, I would’ve died wishing the Germans had been better Germans…

  143. Sonya Says:

    Anonymous says:
    One can’t demonstrate self-awareness in others. Just imagine a robot that mimics those behaviors that you describe and yet is not self-aware in the sense that you are self-aware.

    If one understood precisely the mechanism by which the robot was programmed to mimick those behaviors and could be absolutely certain there was no underlying thought process involved, then one would be justified in treating the robot as a thing. On the other hand, if a robot were initially programmed to learn and upgrade its own programming in response to its experiences, and reached a point where its programming became incomprehensible to its creators, or anyone else . . and it displayed what appeared to be emotional reactions, joy, suffering, etc. . . then IMO it would be safest, morally, to treat the robot as a person. Perhaps it does not truly think and feel as we do – but perhaps it does, or perhaps its means of experiencing existance is equivalent, worthy of equal moral consideration.

    . . have you perchance watched the new Battlestar Galactica? :)

    Anonymous also says:
    So you might decide that he is not a good God, but how would this help your situation after death if indeed he does behave in that manner?

    It wouldn’t. See point a.) of the post preceding this one. I would add, along with “might does not make right” that futility does not make for justification. You can say, “So what if he’s not good, he’s God, he makes the rules and you can’t do anything about that” – and I would say that actually, yes, I can. I can refuse to contribute to an unjust system. That you cannot change or save the entire universe or reality as we know it, does not make you any less responsible for those things you can control – and should you come to a point where all you can control is your own mind, nothing else, you are still responsible for that.

    Or at least, that’s my theory – the conclusion I’ve reached with what intelligence and understanding the Flying Spaghetti Monster has granted me. ;)

    (For the record, I actually do believe in souls, and the label I’m liking best these days, religiously, is agnostic pagan. I’m not opposed to spirituality, at all. I am, however, opposed to any philosophy of morality that reduces the idea of goodness to an arbitrary set of rules handed down by an unassailable authority. I’ve come to realize over the course of several debates like this one that the way I use the words “good” and “moral” may be very strange to anyone who was raised traditionally Jewish or Christian or Muslim, and continues to hold to those beliefs – to me, to say that “good” is synonymous with “the will of God”, is in essense to say that goodness does not exist.)

  144. anonymous Says:

    “On the other hand, if a robot were initially programmed to learn and upgrade its own programming in response to its experiences, and reached a point where its programming became incomprehensible to its creators, or anyone else . . and it displayed what appeared to be emotional reactions, joy, suffering, etc. . . then IMO it would be safest, morally, to treat the robot as a person.”

    In this case, the robot is just a thing with no self-awareness. There is nothing inherently wrong with treating it badly.

    The only moral case that I see for treating it well is this: if a person has no problems with treating this robot badly — even though it really does behave similarly to people — would this person have any problems with mistreating people as well?

    It’s sort of like the argument against violent video games.

  145. John Sidles Says:

    The laments in this thread have all been heard before (and even that lament has been heard before!).

    Contemporary examples follow:

    ——
    Jared Diamond, writing in the epilogue to The Third Chimpanzee: “[New Guinea explorer Arthur Wichman] grew disillusioned as he realized that successive explorers committed the same stupidities again and again: unwarranted pride in overstated accomplishments, refusal to acknowledge disastrous oversights, ignoring the accomplishments of previous explorers, consequent repetition of previous errors, hence a long history of unnecessary sufferings and deaths. The bitter last sentence that concluded Wichman’s last volume was: ‘Nothing learned, and everything forgotten!'”
    ——
    Phillip Converse, writing in a recent Critical Review: “The world is large, information about it seems infinite, and even the most capacious minds must stringently limit their acquisition of information to amtters that interest them either in the abstract or, more centrally, that they find otherwise useful to have on hand. Beyond this point, information costs are not worth paying, and ignorance is rational. … I think the case has been made that interest and engagement are the main missing ingredients in producing a more informed electorate … the big question this leaves is whether we might expect some secular trend of improvement … the obvious hope has long resided in the advance of education in the population, but one can imagine other developments as well.”
    ——

    So, who has ideas for what Converse’ “other developments” that will help remediate Wichman’s informatic lament of “nothing learned, and everything forgotten!”?

    Also, who better than information theorists to come up with these new ideas?

  146. Daniel Says:

    Scott:

    If I’m understanding you correctly, your support of the golden rule, or any ethical rule, is grounded in a notion of evolved social patterns (e.g. altruism, empathy) that result in “good” social outcomes. Here “good” is very vague — too vague in my opinion.

    So here are my questions:
    1) Is is wrong for tigers to kill and eat other animals? How about the practice of new alpha male lions to kill the young offspring of the previous alpha male?
    2) In connection to (1), suppose there was some intellegent parasitic species that preyed on humans — would it be wrong to them to prey on people?
    3) Instead of the parasitic species of (2), just imagine a parasitic social strategy — like Mongol hordes stealing food from peasants rather than growing their own — that is highly successful. If pursuing this strategry is wrong in your view, what exactly makes it wrong?

    More generally with regard to atheist ethics — how does one possibly decide on more subtle issues than murder, e.g. capital punishment, abortion, etc? What’s the foundation?

  147. Scott Says:

    Daniel: So basically, you’re asking me to expound a fully-developed moral theory, one that would resolve not just one but numerous problems that the greatest philosophers have debated for millennia.

    Alright, fine. It’ll have to be a future post though. :-)

  148. John Sidles Says:

    Scott: Alright, fine. It’ll have to be a future post though.

    And meanwhile, we can all enjoy classic issues of God-Man: The Superhero with Omnipotent Powers. :)

  149. JohnPearson Says:

    Nice Post.

    That was well said. Always appreciate your indepth views. Keep up the great work!

    John

  150. Jesse M. Says:

    I just wanted to note that although Einstein did not believe in any sort of personal “God”, he did explicitly deny being an atheist–from what I can tell, he seems to have believed in some sort of impersonal “intelligence” behind the elegance of the laws of nature, inspired party by the pantheist God of Spinoza. The book “Einstein and Religion” by Max Jammer has a lot of good info on Einstein’s beliefs, and a while ago I posted some quotes from the book here.

  151. Jesse M. Says:

    “On the other hand, if a robot were initially programmed to learn and upgrade its own programming in response to its experiences, and reached a point where its programming became incomprehensible to its creators, or anyone else . . and it displayed what appeared to be emotional reactions, joy, suffering, etc. . . then IMO it would be safest, morally, to treat the robot as a person.”

    In this case, the robot is just a thing with no self-awareness. There is nothing inherently wrong with treating it badly.

    Well, how do you know that the robot has no self-awareness? What if the robot’s learning was based on a simulation of the way neurons in our brains learn, for example? For that matter, what if the robot was an upload, based on a detailed simulation of a particular individual’s brain which had been mapped at the synaptic level, and the behavior and personality and memories of the robot appeared to be indistinguishable from that of the original biological human?

  152. anonymous Says:

    “Well, how do you know that the robot has no self-awareness? What if the robot’s learning was based on a simulation of the way neurons in our brains learn, for example? For that matter, what if the robot was an upload, based on a detailed simulation of a particular individual’s brain which had been mapped at the synaptic level, and the behavior and personality and memories of the robot appeared to be indistinguishable from that of the original biological human?”

    I would not call that self-awareness. I really do believe that what makes an organism self-aware (in the sense that YOU are self-aware) goes well beyond what we can know about our physical world.

  153. Jesse M. Says:

    OK, then you are assuming a priori that “self-awareness” means something supernatural, that it cannot arise as a consequence of purely lawlike physical interactions like the interactions between neurons in the brain or like the computations carried out by a computer. But this is obviously a highly contentious claim, one which few nonbelievers in the supernatural are likely to agree with. Your original post was trying to use the “soul” to justify a belief in God, then later you said you really just meant “self-awareness”, but it seems like your notion of “self-awareness” is smuggling in some supernatural soul-like idea, rather than making a reasoned case for it. Of course those who believe in a supernatural soul are more likely to believe in a supernatural God, but why should my own self-awareness lead me to believe this in the first place?

  154. anonymous Says:

    “Of course those who believe in a supernatural soul are more likely to believe in a supernatural God, but why should my own self-awareness lead me to believe this in the first place?”

    Because the alternative is even harder to believe. And Occam’s razor does not apply here as there are no plausible explanations for why self-awareness exists in the sense that you are self-aware.

  155. anonymous Says:

    “And Occam’s razor does not apply here as there are no plausible explanations for why self-awareness exists in the sense that you are self-aware.”

    On the contrary, self-awareness is obviously useful for survival, as the explosioin in the number of individuals of our species over the last few thousand years show. Since it is useful for survival it will be promoted by natural selection and evolution.

  156. Jesse M. Says:

    Because the alternative is even harder to believe.

    Why is it hard to believe? Science seems to be making plenty of progress in understanding how the brain produces our behavior, and we also have any number of cases where brain injuries damage various cognitive functions, including decreased levels of self-awareness.

    And Occam’s razor does not apply here as there are no plausible explanations for why self-awareness exists in the sense that you are self-aware.

    A vague plausible explanation is that it results from parts of the brain taking activity of other parts as an input, just like vision has to do with the brain taking signals from the optic nerve as input. It may also have to do with the brain correlating observations of itself with observations of the body through the senses–the mirror recognition test for self-awareness depends on noticing that you have control over the mirror image’s movement, for example.

    In any case, no aspect of the brain’s function is fully understood, it’s obviously a very complex structure, but I don’t see why self-awareness should be any more mysterious than, say, vision, or language acquisition. Unless you can state in clear terms why it should be more of a puzzle, this just seems like an argument from incredulity to me.

  157. anonymous Says:

    “On the contrary, self-awareness is obviously useful for survival, as the explosioin in the number of individuals of our species over the last few thousand years show. Since it is useful for survival it will be promoted by natural selection and evolution.”

    Just because an organism appears to be self-aware does not imply that it is self-aware in the sense that you are self-aware.

    So the evolution argument is irrelevant.

  158. anonymous Says:

    “Why is it hard to believe? Science seems to be making plenty of progress in understanding how the brain produces our behavior, and we also have any number of cases where brain injuries damage various cognitive functions, including decreased levels of self-awareness.”

    That’s interesting research, but science will not settle this question for the simple reason that the sort of self-awareness I am referring to cannot be observed in a scientific experiment.
    It is not sufficient to demonstrate that an organism appears to be self-aware. Moreover, it is impossible to demonstrate that an organism actually is self-aware in the sense that you are self-aware.

  159. Jesse M. Says:

    That’s interesting research, but science will not settle this question for the simple reason that the sort of self-awareness I am referring to cannot be observed in a scientific experiment.
    It is not sufficient to demonstrate that an organism appears to be self-aware. Moreover, it is impossible to demonstrate that an organism actually is self-aware in the sense that you are self-aware.

    Can you explain what you mean by self-awareness, if it has nothing to do with behavior and cognitive abilities? Perhaps you are talking more about what philosophers would call “qualia” or “consciousness”? If we had A.I.s that behaved identically to humans, what possible reason could you have for being totally confident they lacked this quality? Even if one believes consciousness is a mystery that cannot be adequately explained by a purely materialist metaphysics, one could still adopt some sort of naturalistic panpsychism in which everything that we call a “physical process” is associated with qualia of some sort (with the association perhaps being determined by ‘psychophysical laws’, as speculated by some philosophers), the brain being a very complex special case…see David Chalmers’ book The Conscious Mind for a detailed elaboration of this idea. In this view the laws of physics would still be adequate for predicting the outward behavior of any physical system including the brain (no need for a supernatural ‘soul’ influencing our decisions), and there would be no problem with the idea that a physical computation could be associated with some inner qualia.

    And let me ask you this–are you so sure of your views that, if you had an A.I. who was behaviorally indistinguishable from a person, you’d feel free to torture or enslave it since you “know” it doesn’t really feel anything? Since all metaphysics is speculative I think it’s better to take a cautious approach just to avoid any inadvertant harm…after all, there are some scary religious cults that say that only white people have “souls”, but even if they sincerely believe this, it wouldn’t make it any less monstrous for them to act on this belief by torturing non-whites. And do you have any more rational justification for your belief that A.I.s would lack souls than they do for their beliefs, or are they both just religious convictions?

  160. anonymous Says:

    “And let me ask you this–are you so sure of your views that, if you had an A.I. who was behaviorally indistinguishable from a person, you’d feel free to torture or enslave it since you “know” it doesn’t really feel anything? Since all metaphysics is speculative I think it’s better to take a cautious approach just to avoid any inadvertant harm…”

    My argument is one of caution as well, but with a different conclusion.

  161. Jesse M. Says:

    My argument is one of caution as well, but with a different conclusion.

    But we’re talking about different kinds of caution: philosophical caution about whether A.I.s with humanlike behaviour would really have any inner experience vs. ethical caution about treating such A.I.s badly on the basis of a speculative belief that they don’t. What’s more, you seem to not just be “cautious” about concluding the A.I. would have an inner experience, but confident that it wouldn’t, which is not a very cautious position.

    Also, you didn’t answer my question about whether you’d have any reasoned argument for why you’d find it doubtful that A.I.s with humanlike behaviour have inner experience, or if it’s just a feeling or a conviction based on your religious views (similar to the creationist’s conviction that complex organisms couldn’t possibly have been ‘designed’ by random mutation and natural selection alone). Presumably you don’t have the same doubts about the consciousness of the opposite sex, or other races, or people over a certain age, etc.? Philosophically, we can’t be certain that anyone but ourselves has consciousness, after all. Maybe your answer would have something to do with the similar biology and origin of other humans, but in that case, what would you think about intelligent aliens? If you find it plausible that intelligent behavior can exist without necessarily being accompanied by any inner experience, would you be any more likely to think an A.I. was lacking consciousness than an alien?

  162. Jesse M. Says:

    It’s not much of a stretch to take this line of thinking further into a belief that God might exist and behavior that is consistent with that possibility — just to play it safe in case God really does exist.

    It’s a huge stretch, if you believe that human consciousness is entirely dependent on the physical brain. Why should I believe in an immaterial consciousness when I have not seen a single example of such a thing, even an angel or demigod or ghost?

    Anyway, what does “playing it safe” mean in regards to God? There are many different religions whose Gods make different demands of their followers, as well as various philosophical Gods such as the God of Aristotle or Spinoza, and it’s not obvious why a real God should be any more likely to resemble any existing God-idea thought up by humans than some totally different version of God that no known religion or philosophy has thought up (if there are aliens out there, presumably they have their own versions of God).

    If we restrict ourselves to what can be done with standard sorts of computers, then I think it’s obvious that they would not be conscious in anyway.

    I asked you if you had a “reasoned argument”–I take it the answer is no? A sufficiently powerful computer can simulate any physical system, the brain is a physical system, ergo a sufficiently powerful computer could simulate the brain. If you believe consciousness originates from the information-processing done by the brain–and this is the standard assumption in neuroscience–then it’s not at all “obvious” why a computer could not be conscious.

    Less obvious would be a computer that makes use of biological tissue.

    So you believe consciousness originates from what neurons are made of rather than that what they do? This seems bizarre to me, the composition of brain cells differs little from the composition of cells in any other part of my body, they don’t contain some special consciousness-ectoplasm that makes them individually aware. It also seems obvious that the intelligent behavior produced by the brain is a function of how neurons interact and the pattern of how they’re wired together, not what they’re physically made of. And we judge others to be conscious based on their conscious-seeming behavior, not based on peering into their skulls and seeing what their brain is made of (presumably if I had a vat of unconnected neurons kept alive in a nutrient bath, few people would think the vat was conscious).

    Also less obvious would be the result of a teleporter if such a thing were possible. Such a device would kill. I think this is obvious. Moreover, in my view, the recreated organism would have no inner experience.

    How is this “obvious”? Is your reasoning about consciousness completely based on gut feelings and whether the origin of the intelligence seems too “unnatural” to you? Are you aware that the molecules that make up the neurons in your brain are constantly changing, so that your brain today is made up of a completely different set of atoms than it was a year ago? Why should artificial replacement, as in a teleporter, be fundamentally different than natural replacement?

    I suppose if you already believe in a creator-God, then what is “natural” is the way God designed things to work, so maybe it’s more plausible that “unnaturally-created” intelligences wouldn’t have the same consciousness…on the other hand, if you believe the biology of the brain arose through a process of random mutation and natural selection, so that what is “natural” is just a contingent fact about how things happened to come out in our history, then there’s no particular reason to think that an intelligence with an “artificial” origin would be any less likely to be conscious.

    Speaking of which, you never answered my question about intelligent aliens. Perhaps your answer would depend on whether you believed the aliens had been designed by God? If it turned out the aliens had evolved from some simpler organisms which were designed by some previous race as an experiment millions of years ago, would this make you less likely to think they were conscious?

  163. Jesse M. Says:

    Do most people “detect” consciousness through “warmth signals”? So if you have a robot or a dog who is able to send these signals clearly but a person who is not, the robot and the dog will be treated better than the person (of whatever sex, age, gender, etc.).

    Can you explain what you mean by “warmth signals”? Maybe like body language and expressions that instinctively provoke empathy?

  164. anonymous Says:

    “It’s a huge stretch, if you believe that human consciousness is entirely dependent on the physical brain. Why should I believe in an immaterial consciousness when I have not seen a single example of such a thing, even an angel or demigod or ghost?”

    My argument does not require this actually. If you believe there’s a good chance that human consciousness is entirely dependent on the physical brain, then you would believe that there’s a good chance that others are conscious. But this is all based on faith as no scientific experiment can demonstrate this. So you are playing it safe in that regard. So why not play it safe with regard to God as well?

    “Anyway, what does “playing it safe” mean in regards to God? There are many different religions whose Gods make different demands of their followers, as well as various philosophical Gods such as the God of Aristotle or Spinoza, and it’s not obvious why a real God should be any more likely to resemble any existing God-idea thought up by humans than some totally different version of God that no known religion or philosophy has thought up (if there are aliens out there, presumably they have their own versions of God).”

    This was addressed in my previous posts.

    ==

    There are several ways to think about this issue.

    One way is to perform a comprehensive analysis of all the major religions so that you can identify some core set of values and practices that would put you in good standing in many of these religions — thus increasing your probability of satisfying God if he were to exist.

    But even if this were not possible, one might argue that a fair God would accept any reasonable religion, even religions that are contradictory along some major points.

    Another possibility is that God would give people a chance with the correct religion in at least one of their lifetimes. In this case, following the religion of your parents might suffice.

    ==

    Also:

    ==

    A fair God would probably not want a huge number of people to be misled, so looking at major religions makes sense.

    A fair God would take into account the limits people have in knowing what he wants of them. You probably would get points for at least trying.

    ==

    “I asked you if you had a “reasoned argument”–I take it the answer is no?”

    This is philosophical debate, not mathematics. Sometimes concepts such as “gut feeling” and “plausibility” are all that you have. Moreover, rather sophisticated looking philosophical debate often boils down to these two concepts in the end once you strip away all the verbage.

    “Why should artificial replacement, as in a teleporter, be fundamentally different than natural replacement?”

    Because one process preserves inner experience while the other does not.

    Evolution may also preserve inner experience — at least for some organisms.

    “Speaking of which, you never answered my question about intelligent aliens. Perhaps your answer would depend on whether you believed the aliens had been designed by God? If it turned out the aliens had evolved from some simpler organisms which were designed by some previous race as an experiment millions of years ago, would this make you less likely to think they were conscious?”

    My arguments about inner experience don’t require a belief in God. However, from them, one might conclude that there’s a good possibility that God exists.

    As for the aliens, whether they have inner experience would depend on the process that created them, and whether that process preserves inner experience.

  165. Jesse M. Says:

    It’s a huge stretch, if you believe that human consciousness is entirely dependent on the physical brain. Why should I believe in an immaterial consciousness when I have not seen a single example of such a thing, even an angel or demigod or ghost?

    My argument does not require this actually. If you believe there’s a good chance that human consciousness is entirely dependent on the physical brain, then you would believe that there’s a good chance that others are conscious. But this is all based on faith as no scientific experiment can demonstrate this.

    I wouldn’t call it “faith”–it’s more a matter of philosophical elegance, similar to Occam’s razor. I know I’m conscious, and I see that my inner will and thoughts and perceptions and desires seem to be able to influence my outward behavior, and I see others similar to me with the same sort of behavior. I also see, through science, that these behaviors appear to originate in the functioning of the brain, and that brain damage can remove people’s ability to exhibit various behaviors associated with intelligence. So it’s simpler to assume a lawlike relationship between consciousness and the behaviors and brain functions than to assume I am a special exception to the rule or it’s just a weird coincidence that my behaviors seem very similar to other people’s.

    In contrast, there’s really no reason to make the leap to believing in a consciousness not associated with any physical system, any more than there is to believe that physical systems which fail to display any humanlike behaviors, like rocks, secretly have a humanlike consciousness. If you think belief in immaterial minds is “playing it safe”, do you think belief in animism–that things like rocks and trees really do have humanlike consciousness–would be “playing it safe” too?

    Of course one might still believe in a God that did have a physical side similar to our own brains, like the omega point God advocated by people like Frank Tipler (a God who’s the limit case of an infinite process of increasing intelligence of beings in the universe until the end of time) or the pantheist God of Spinoza (whose physical side is the entire physical universe itself). But presumably you are not advocating this sort of God.

    One way is to perform a comprehensive analysis of all the major religions so that you can identify some core set of values and practices that would put you in good standing in many of these religions — thus increasing your probability of satisfying God if he were to exist.

    Only if you believe that the religions humans have invented are somehow more likely to reflect the desires of God than some made-up religion I invent on the spot, or philosophical views of God such as Aristotle’s or Spinoza’s. Since humans have an obvious tendency to anthropomorphize and project “Gods” who closely resemble the authority figures in their society, there are good reasons to be skeptical of this proposition.

    But even if this were not possible, one might argue that a fair God would accept any reasonable religion, even religions that are contradictory along some major points.

    Another possibility is that God would give people a chance with the correct religion in at least one of their lifetimes. In this case, following the religion of your parents might suffice.

    Here you are making the gigantic assumption that God would care whether you were religious, that he would reward a good religious person more than a good atheist, that God somehow wants to be worshipped. This assumption seems every bit as silly and anthropomorphic to me as the assumption that God needs physical offerings made to him (which certainly a large number of human religions have believed), and that he prefers certain types of foodstuffs as offerings over others, like meat over vegetables.

    Beyond that, it’s also pretty anthropomorphic to assume God would be concerned with “rewarding” or “punishing” a particular species of bipedal primate over all other beings. Do you think God rewards and punishes other animals, such as cats? How about plants, or lifeless objects like stars?

    A fair God would probably not want a huge number of people to be misled, so looking at major religions makes sense.

    God apparently didn’t mind people being “misled” for thousands of years about factual questions like whether the Earth is the center of the universe or how humans originated, so unless you make the assumption that God is going to reward or punish people based on the correctness of their theological beliefs, why do you think God would mind people being misled about factual questions involving the details of God’s nature or desires?

    I asked you if you had a “reasoned argument”–I take it the answer is no?

    This is philosophical debate, not mathematics.

    I’m not asking for a rigorous proof, just some argument where you have some general premises that you justify on the basis of something like philosophical elegance, and you show how your conclusion would be expected to follow from these premises. That’s what I tried to do with my argument about why other humans are likely to be conscious, for example. In contrast, you are just making assertions, like the assertion that an A.I. or a teleported person would lack consciousness, and I have absolutely no idea why you think they are more likely to be true than not.

    “Why should artificial replacement, as in a teleporter, be fundamentally different than natural replacement?”

    Because one process preserves inner experience while the other does not.

    See, that’s just an assertion. I could respond with a counter-assertion like “wrong, of course they are the same because they both do preserve inner experience”, but that probably wouldn’t get us anywhere–did you ever see the Monty Python argument sketch? All I’m asking for is some sort of justification for this belief, not a proof, but some appeal to general principles of some kind, for which this is just a special case. My general principle is something like “I observe my will/thought/etc. to influence my behavior, I see others with similar sorts of behavior, it is simplest and most elegant to assume a lawlike relationship between the types of processes that generate such behaviors and the presence of conscious experience, rather than have a giant number of special cases or arbitrary rules.”

    My arguments about inner experience don’t require a belief in God.

    I think your arguments only seem plausible to you because you have the implicit belief that there are “natural” types of origins for an intelligent system and “unnatural” origins, and God can be trusted to preserve inner experience in the case of natural origins which he designed himself, but not in the unnatural ones (you may not be consciously thinking this way, but I think it’s implicit in the way you’re thinking about these problems, and that’s part of the reason I’m asking you to try to make the reasoning behind your assertions more explicit). On the other hand, if one believes that the “natural” way that biological intelligences originate does not reflect the intentions of a supreme designer, but is just a contingent outcome of a long process of random mutation and natural selection, then it just doesn’t make sense to think the universe would make this sort of distinction between “natural” and “unnatural” origins, it would be a bit like thinking “unnatural” nuclear fusion originated by humans should fail to release energy while the “natural” fusion reactions in the center of stars do. If you believe that the relation between the physical world and the mental world should behave in some regular lawlike way rather than depending on the arbitrary whims of an intelligent being, then it’s hard to think of a set of “psychophysical laws”, with the same kind of generality and simplicity as other natural laws, which would insure that the natural replacement of brain cells preserves inner experience while artificial replacement does not, or that brains made out of carbon-based cells have inner experience while functionally-identical brains made out silicon or some other substance do not. It’s much simpler to assume that psychophysical laws would be of a more general nature, like “all instances of computation X are associated with experience Y”.

    Additionally, there are some clever philosophical arguments for why it seems unlikely that functionally identical systems might have totally different inner experiences, like the “fading qualia” and “dancing qualia” thought-experiments of philosopher David Chalmers–see this paper. To give a short version of the fading qualia argument, suppose I was gradually replacing your brain cells with functionally identical computer chips–you’d believe that when the replacement was complete you’d have no inner experience, so presumably there must be some gradual transition where you lose more and more consciousness, right? For example, if I had only replaced the cells of the visual cortex, you might conclude that you would lack inner visual experiences but that the rest of your consciousness was intact. The problem is that, on the assumption that your behavior is determined by your brain and that the computer chips are functionally identical to the brain cells they replaced, there’d be no change in your outward behavior–when asked, you would still claim to be seeing normally, you wouldn’t be complaining of blindness or anything of the sort. But if aspects of your consciousness really were fading, this would imply a complete disconnect between your inner experiences and your outward behavior, which is our whole basis for thinking that other humans have inner experiences like our own, or that rocks do not.

    As for the aliens, whether they have inner experience would depend on the process that created them, and whether that process preserves inner experience.

    And how would you know whether a given process “preserves inner experience”? Just arbitrary gut feelings again? To repeat another question I asked earlier, are you so certain of your gut feelings that you’d be willing to torture or enslave a being whose origin is one that your gut tells you would not preserve inner experience?