Tuesday, May 24, 2005

consistency and miracles

Ted Chiang wrote a very good little story called Hell is the Absence of God
It is the view of someone in a world where the Old Testament God is real and present, miracles are a daily reality and God likes to be worshipped and honoured. And the protagonist denies God, creating a paradox, for good and interesting reasons.
It is a fascinating story, people should read it. even Sean.

So, Science as a fundamental premise, implictly assumes there is no God - in the sense of an omnipotent, supernatural deity. Individually scientists deal with this either by becoming atheists, agnostics, or holding their deistic upbringings in a state of contradiction in their minds (and a surprising number do so, rather to my surprise). Good for them.

If you look at science and theology in historical context then deism has undergone an obvious evolution from pantheistic concepts of Tribal Gods as Greater Than Normal People, gratuitously mixed in with Spirits of Nature and Object concepts, to latter day monotheisms which are basically Our God Kicks Your Gods Butt.
Fine, people being confused and insecure is logically irrelevant to existence of a God or not; and the major religions spent the best part of a couple of millennia burning out good thinkers on rationalising this.
But science, as expressed so well by Laplace, has no use for that hypothesis.

Why the antagonism?
Well, the fundamental premise of science is that nature is consistent, understandable and follows "law".
As a tertiary hypothesis, we also conjecture the laws are fundamentally mathematical and quantifiable.

This precludes "miracles" - as I once discussed with a colleague, it is not tenable that "God" could arbitarily pick up a galaxy and aesthetically rearrange the local universe on whim. Note that this is also a testable hypothesis - if we observe a supernatural "miracle" then it is subject of scientific study, and science as a concept can be falsifiable (that is actually interesting, not only are scientific theories falsifiable, by construct, but the meta concept of science is falsifiable).

So, what is this: well, we need to distinguish between different contingencies:
- there is the "technology indistinguishable from magic" - projecting back, this is obvious - consider the reaction of a person 2000 years ago to a "clap-on" light switch combined with electric lights. Such phenomena are scientific in essence, and amenable to our analysis, although potentially intractable (the technological singularity hypothesis).
Arbitarily Advanced Civilizations can arguably functionally act as a "God" to less informed intelligences, but by bootstrap anything they do is amenable to scientific discovery and can be reproduced given enough resources (man I'd like to write that grant proposal!)
- there is "god as programmer" - where our experiential reality is under some external control - we can experience miraculous rearangements of reality much as a character in a computer game might be arbitarily jumped to a new situation with no regard to the game rules. That would be annoying; there would still be a "reality" out there, but no more accessible to us than a monster in Halo could go for a walk in Central Park (think Star Trek Next Generation virtual reality room). Everyday miracles would then basically be "easter eggs" in the game of life...
The Holographic Conjecture (wiki entry here as starter) is kinda scary in this context; it is how I'd design a virtual universe for easy read of the internal state.
- and there is ye old fashioned God. Who can either be your personal God or can be a Newtonian 'set things in motion' kinda God - classically this was problematic because it appeared to eliminate free will, unless you reintroduced some supernatural element; but quantum mechanically this arguably not an issue. QM plus initial conditions probably permits complex enough systems to have something functionally like a free will.

And that is a problem. A Prime Mover leads of course to the classical paradox of who set the PM in motion. No more satisfactory than panspermia theories of life.
A God who does nothing is irrelevant from a scientific perspective (yes, that may be the whole challenge of faith, good for those with faith, but irrelevant then to practical day-to-day life).
A God who intervenes, contraditcts the premise of science, and should be ignored, until and unless the contradiction becomes apparent; at which point we re-evaluate.

Oh, and the "God as fakeout" - it is setup to look like it evolved but really was created, and is just test of faith. Please, I'll just go with the illusion then and become a cosmologist or something. Pah.
Pascal's wager used the wrong prior. Not only do most religious factions firmly believe that most other believers in something different are damned; most of their putative Gods are so obnoxious I'd rather be damned (go read the Chiang story ok, he's a much better writer than I). Or pray that God will go with the Unitarians, I would if I were God.

So, "that about does it for that God person", eh?
The interesting question is the prevalence of deistic myths in human societies; there are hints that it is a evolutionary adaptation, a coping mechanism until we can deal with reality, as it were. Plus the extra incentive to accept social moral codes is a big social evolutionary driver until more people understand meta-game theory and classical iterated game theory.

Finally, a disturbing thought: if QM does not rescue us from the Newtonian paradox of free will, given the initial conditions of the universe, would then a single miracle - a single violation of physical law at some point in space-time - be sufficient to circumvent this and provide free will - non-deterministic trajectories in the future light cone?
You could sorta see how it might, or maybe I should not post so late...

Ah well, for a refreshed sense of purpose I should go see where Arkani-Hamed has gone with the whole "space of theories as a degree of freedom", I've always been a sucker for meta-theories of physics, where the laws of physics become a free parameter.


Blogger Sean Carroll said...

I love reading good stories about God. Did you ever read Julian Barnes's History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters? The ending is the most convincing interpretation of Heaven that I've ever read -- everyone gets everything they want, but they are limited by their own imaginations.

10:54 PM  

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