As winner of the Best Umeshism Contest (remember that?), Peter Brooke earned the right to ask me any question and have me answer it on this blog. Without further ado, here is Peter’s question:
If it is assumed that God exists, what further, reasonable, conclusions can be made, or is that where logical inquiry must end? Reasonable means in the light and inclusive of present scientific understanding. Defend any assumptions and conclusions you make.
At least Peter was kind enough not to spring “Is there a God?” on me. Instead, like a true complexity theorist, he asks what consequences follow if God’s existence is assumed.
Alas, Peter didn’t say which God he has in mind. If it were Allah, or Adonai, or Zeus, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, then I’d simply refer Peter to the requisite book (or in the case of the Spaghetti Monster, website) and be done. As it is, though, I can’t assume anything about God, except that
- He exists,
- He created the universe (if He didn’t, then it’s not He we’re talking about), and
- He’s a He.
(Note for Miss HT Psych: the third assumption is a joke.)
So the only way I see to proceed is to start from known facts, and then ask what sort of God would be compatible with those facts. Though others might make different choices, the following facts seem particularly relevant to me.
- About 700,000 children each year die of malaria, which can easily be prevented by such means as mosquito nets and the spraying of DDT. That number will almost certainly grow as global warming increases the mosquitoes’ range. As with most diseases, praying to God doesn’t seem to lower one’s susceptibility or improve one’s prognosis.
- According to our best theories of the physical world, it’s not enough to talk about the probability of some future event happening. Instead you have to talk about the amplitude, which could be positive, negative, or even complex. To find the probability of a system ending up in some state, first you add the amplitudes for all the ways the system “could” reach that state. Then you take the absolute value of the sum, and lastly you take the square of the absolute value. For example, if a photon could reach a detector one way with amplitude i/2, and another way with amplitude -i/2, then the probability of it reaching the detector is |i/2 + (-i/2)|2 = 0. In other words, it never reaches the detector, since the two ways it could have reached it “interfere destructively” and cancel each other out. If we required the amplitudes to be positive or negative reals rather than complex numbers, there would be some subtle differences — for example, we could just square to get probabilities, instead of taking the absolute value first. But in most respects the story would be the same.
- From 1942 to 1945, over a million men, women, and children died in one of four extermination complexes at Birkenau, or “Auschwitz II” (Auschwitz I was the smaller labor camp). Each complex could process about 2,500 prisoners at a time. The prisoners were ordered to strip and leave their belongings in a place where they could find them later. They were then led to an adjacent “shower room,” containing shower heads that were never connected to any water supply. Once they were locked inside, guards dropped pellets from small openings in the ceiling or walls. The pellets contained Zyklon B, a cyanide-based nerve agent invented in the 1920’s by the German Jewish chemist Fritz Haber. The guards then waited for the screams to stop, which took 3-15 minutes, depending on humidity and other factors. Finally, Sonderkommandos (prisoners who were sent to the gas chambers themselves at regular intervals) disposed of the bodies in the adjacent crematoria. With the arrival of 438,000 Hungarian Jews in 1944, the crematoria could no longer keep up, so the bodies were burned in open pits instead. Besides those killed at Auschwitz, another 1.6 million were killed at the four other death camps (Sobibor, Belzec, Treblinka, and Chelmno). In the USSR and Poland, another 1.4 million were shot in front of outdoor pits by the Einsatzgruppen; still others died through forced starvation and other means. Judged on its own terms, the extermination program was a spectacular success: it wiped out at least 2/3 of Russian and European Jewry and changed the demography of Europe. The Americans and British declined numerous opportunities to take in refugees, or to bomb the camps or the train tracks leading to them. Most of the perpetrators, except for a few top ones, returned to civilian life afterward and never faced trial. Millions of people today remain committed to the goal of a Judenrein planet; some, like my friend Mahmoud, are working to acquire nuclear weapons.
- According to our best description of space and time, the faster an object is moving relative to you, the shorter that object will look in its direction of motion, and the slower time will pass for it as observed by you. In particular, if the object is moving at a fraction f of the speed of light, then it will contract, and time will slow down for it, by a factor of 1/(1-f2)1/2. This does not mean, as some people think, that concepts like “distance” have no observer-independent meaning — only that we were using the wrong definition of distance. In particular, suppose an observer judges two events to happen r light-years apart in space and t years apart in time. Then the interval between the events, defined as r2-t2, is something that all other observers will agree on, even they disagree about r and t themselves. The interval can also be defined as r2+(it)2: in other words, as the squared Euclidean distance in spacetime between the events, provided we reinterpret time as an imaginary coordinate. (This is known as “Wick rotation.”)
- When I was younger, my brother and I went to an orthodontist named Jon Kraut. Dr. Kraut was a jovial guy, who often saw me on weekends when I was home from college even though his office was officially closed. He was also an aviation enthusiast and licensed pilot. About a week ago, Kraut was flying a twin-engine plane to South Carolina with his wife, Robin, their three kids (ages 2, 6, and 8), and the kids’ babysitter. Kraut reported to the control tower that he was having problems with his left engine. The plane made one approach to the airport and was coming back to try to land again when it crashed short of the runway, killing the whole family along with the babysitter. On the scale of history, this wasn’t a remarkable event; I only mention it because I knew and liked some of the victims.
Now, based on the facts above, plus many others I didn’t mention, and “in the light … of present scientific understanding,” what can we say about God, assuming He exists? I think we can say the following.
First, that He’s created Himself a vale of tears, a theater of misery beyond the imagination of any horror writer. That He’s either unaware of all the undeserved suffering He’s wrought, or else unable or unwilling to prevent it. That in times of greatest need, He’s nowhere to be found. That He doesn’t answer the prayers of the afflicted, or punish evildoers in any discernible way. That He most likely doesn’t intervene in human affairs at all — though I wouldn’t want to argue with those who say He does intervene, but only for the worse.
Second, that He apparently prefers complex numbers to real numbers, and the L2 norm to the L1 norm.