God or not

Question of the day, March 27, 2013 – God, or Not…

Can you describe any emphatic or conclusive way that Gods existence could be proven or disproven to you?

A very interesting question, which requires some clarification of terms.
The terms central to this question are “god” and “proof”.

To me, the idea of god has a few key components. One component is the idea of intentionality, an entity capable of choice and action, that was responsible in some real sense for the existence of the reality in which we find ourselves. Another idea is of omniscience, the idea of knowing all.

The idea of proof is one that has undergone much evolution over the written history of humanity, and includes the idea of knowledge. For hundreds of years thousands of the worlds brightest minds have spent their entire lives exploring various ideas related to these ideas, and these are the philosophical branches of epistemology and ontology.
As with all complex ideas, people must start with simple approximations. We must all start from assumptions that there is such a thing as truth, and such a thing as false. For me, having spent half a century reading about various approaches, and contemplating various ideas in the context of modern scientific experience and practice, the ideas I have are simple in one sense, and not at all simple in another sense as they are based upon many layers of experience, abstraction and testing.
For me, Kurt Goedel has demonstrated in logic that not even if we know all the starting constraints of a system, can we logically prove all statements that are true about that system – logic itself is essentially incomplete in a subtle yet profound sense. This is Goedel’s famous incompleteness theorem, one of the most powerful and beautiful creations of any human mind that I have encountered.
If that is the case for closed systems, then how much worse must it be for entities existent within open systems?
For me, this is logical proof that the very idea of absolute knowledge is a myth. All knowledge must logically have uncertainty related to it.
Science has shown this in many other aspects.
The act of measurement of anything always has uncertainty associated with it, at many different levels. Thus all knowledge of reality is uncertain in practice.
Then came Werner Heisenberg, who developed the uncertainty principle, which has an even more profound implication on the knowledge of anything to do with reality. At the very finest level, he showed that we may know either the position, or the momentum, of a particle, but not both. The more accurately we know one, the less accurately we must know the other.

So for me, all knowledge has uncertainty associated with it (even this idea).

The idea of proof is closely related to knowledge.
One of the great philosophers of science (Karl Popper) has clearly shown that science cannot prove anything in any absolute sense, because science cannot test in all possible situations. Science can disprove (to a level of confidence), and it can establish levels of confidence.

Thus for me, all knowledge, be it of proof or of disproof, comes with levels of confidence. All is uncertainty in a sense, and some things have very little uncertainty.

It is in this context, that I can say with very high confidence, that while it is impossible to prove or disprove the concept of god in any sort of absolute sense, in the ordinary sense of confidence that we normally use the idea of knowing, then it is clear to me that it is highly unlikely that there is any sort of god that has had any sort of significant impact in the evolution of humanity.
The evidence for the biochemical evolution of all life on earth from a single common ancestor some 3 billion years ago is very strong (99%+).
The evidence for complex language and awareness arising by a process of mimetic evolution in naked apes of the genus homo is very strong (99%+).
There is no requirement for any entity other that the probabilistic laws that seem to govern this reality in which we find ourselves, to explain our existence.

The complexity of the systems that are involved in our existence as conscious languaging entities is amazing, and involves over 20 levels of cooperative behaviour starting at the atomic, and building in recursive layers up to the mimetic levels of abstraction in the brains of human beings.

50 years of the study of biology and science, and 40 years of practical programming and continued study of both living systems and systems theory as expressed in modern computer systems, and the levels of organisation employed in our culture (at all levels of politics and philosophy), give me a great deal of confidence in making these assertions.
And there is always the possibility of error, and the probability of error in the key components of this understanding seems very small (as they have been tested so many times).

So it seems clear, beyond any reasonable doubt, that god is an invention of the human mind, and not something with any reality outside of the beliefs of individuals (which beliefs are mostly determined by the cultural traditions in which children are immersed).
And human beings are capable of independent thought, and independent testing, and are capable of breaking free of the bonds of their cultural beginnings, and in the current economic and cultural reality in which we find ourselves, few do.

The institutions of power, be they economic, political or religious, have no incentive for people to attain freedom of thought; they are about control, and power.
The very notion of faith, in so far as it is applied to prevent people trusting their own deepest sense of judgement, is a virus of the mind, designed to maintain power structures.

So I encourage all to question and explore. Question me, question everything, test for yourself, come to your own understanding, trusting your own experience and intuitions as tested in your own experience (and the experience of others you have developed trust in).
I have come to suspect all motives derived from power structures.

[followed by]

@Sybil
I agree with you that appreciation of the magic of nature is an amazing experience.
Where we disagree is in the interpretation of that magic.
Arthur C Clarke once famously quipped “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”.
Life is not just coincidence.
Life is, beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt, the result of a many levels of filtered processes operating over vast amounts of time and space.
It is the filtering, of survival amongst variants in different environments, that has resulted in this amazing complexity we experience.
Sure random variation has a role in the process, in providing seed variation, and the process is so much more than pure randomness.
Evolution by natural selection is a highly filtered and non random process.
It is highly selective (that is what the term “selection” in “natural selection” means).
The process can also be highly recursive, with systems developing that lead to further selection on other systems in certain directions (sexual selection was one famous example that Darwin focused on, there are many others, at many levels).

@Brian
Yes, certainly, Love works.
Love is an expression of the higher orders of cooperation.
All high order life forms are characterised by new levels of cooperation (stabilised by appropriate attendant strategies to prevent destruction by cheating) [new levels of love in essence].
So I have no argument with you that love works.
For me, Love is the natural and inevitable consequence of the recursive application of evolution by natural selection to ever higher orders of software activity.
A mathematical and logical understanding of evolution leads to no other possible conclusion.
And as biological organisms, we all carry the “baggage” of the impulses of the lower order systems that are necessarily part of our being, part of our ancient evolutionary lineage.

[followed by]

Hi Brian

Your implication that human software activity is governed by fixed rules is only true in a meta sense. The rules are the same sorts of rules that govern the formation of holograms. Human software is much more probability based than is computer software.

I am not talking about organising human activity on the basis of fixed rules.
I have spent much of my adult life designing computer and legislative systems, and it is abundantly clear to me that the more rules we put in place the more damaging it is to the human spirit.
People often need guidance, and they also need the room to make mistakes and learn from them.
So it is very clear to me that you do not understand very much of what I am saying, and that is not surprising because what I am saying is not a common conversation. Very few people have understood all of what I am trying to convey, if any, ever. It is not a criticism of you personally, just an observation of the nature of the current reality in which I find myself.

I say that loving has many expressions. For many, loving is caring for the daily needs of other, for some it is meeting emotional needs, for some it is support in exploration.
It seems to me that there are an infinite possible range of expressions of love, and that they all have a flavour of higher level cooperation (at some level of understanding).

You seem to me to make a very sweeping statement when you state that “Those connections are things not yet understood by scientists and so there is no method for proving that love works within their framework”. I would agree that most scientists do not so understand, and I say that I am one individual scientist and mystic who does understand the power of love, and the source of love.

You seem to have a very negative frame of mind if you take as a given that “life on Earth is doomed”.
It seems to me that there is a great deal of possibility available to us.
I am cautiously optimistic that we are gaining sufficient awareness to move beyond money and markets and move to producing abundance of all necessities for all, and to stabilising social relationships through distributed trust networks.

In my mystic experience, we have choice, and we do all make a difference when we exercise that choice.
Our choices create our world.

[followed by]

Hi Sybil
For me, there is magic in the levels of organisation and relationship that science has shown us exist in nature.
Science seems to be clear that, at the lowest levels, reality is a mix of the lawful and the unpredictable. Stuff is predictable, within certain limits of probability.

We seem to see things so differently.
For me there is nothing that science cannot explain, and the is much that science has not yet explained – and there is a huge difference between those two possibilities.

Consciousness seems to emerge as a property of systems with many levels of recursive interaction with their environment and lower level systems.
As someone who has spent almost 50 years studying living systems, from the biochemical levels upwards, and has spent nearly 40 years programming computer systems, at many many different levels, I am familiar with the sorts of complex behaviours that can emerge from multi level systems with complex feedbacks.
The principles are similar with living systems, at some levels, and very different at other levels. Our processors are very different from silicon processors, and our memory storage and retrieval systems are very different also.
The electromagnetic energy emitted by life comes from chemical energy, which in turn comes either from sunlight, or from inorganic chemical energy (like hydrogen sulphide) – nothing really magical there.
For me the magic comes from the feedbacks and interplays between the many levels of systems in living entities.

When one studies the nature of knowledge, all knowledge is theories. Scientists are just more explicit than most others in stating that. Scientists clearly acknowledge that one cannot prove or disprove anything with absolute certainty, we can only do so within certain limits of probability.
So saying some thing is “just a theory”, implies that there is something else, which doesn’t appear to be the case.

When it comes to how life evolved, we have a great deal of information, and very few people are willing to put in the time and effort to study it. I have spent close to 10,000 hours over the last 50 years studying living systems, from the chemical and the systems perspectives.
So for me, the case is proven, beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt, that all life on earth is the result of many levels of evolution by natural selection, working in at least two separate realms.

If you want to study it, The Teaching Company put out a great set of audio resources, that can be listened to while driving. And there is a lot of free stuff out there.
Richard Dawkins’ 1976 book “The Selfish Gene” is probably still the best lay introduction to evolution, and it helps to have a little background in biology and biochemistry when reading it.

It is a fascinating topic, and so vast that we could keep learning about the subtleties of the systems for millions of years to come; and none of that invalidates the general principles that are well known to us now.

No human mind is capable of knowing all there is to know just about the human mind, let alone the rest of biology – so it will always be an endlessly fascinating journey of discovery – that to me is the magic.

[followed by]

Hi Sybil, Brian, Andrew et al,

I have a somewhat different view of science to Brian.

I certainly agree that the dominant scientific paradigm was for many years one of a clockwork universe, obeying strict rules; and that paradigm has been superseded; and almost all people who explore science start from simple paradigms and work their way through a series of transcendent paradigms of understanding.

In my paradigm, science is a body of knowledge, including a body of ways of gaining and interpreting information, that is an ever changing system of refinement and evolution of models, with occasional transcendent revolutionary models, of reality.

The alternative to science, is to take someone’s word for how things are, and not to question it (whether that person claims to have the word of god or whatever).

The things that distinguish science, are the ultimate appeal to reality, through repeatable testing, and the use of Ockham’s razor (when there are many competing hypotheses of differing explanations for the same set of observations, one should choose the simplest one that accounts for all observations, and includes all implicit assumptions in evaluating what is simplest).

So coming back to recursion, I really wish there was a simple way to explain that, and I have not yet come across one.
In computer speak, a recursive program is one that can call itself in certain circumstances. Things like webcrawlers (programs which find a website, then find all links from that website to other websites, and then follows them) usually make use of recursive routines.

At the level of atoms, there are many examples of a slightly different form of recursion, where the output of a set of reactions folds back and influences the start of the process in some way – which is known as feedback. If the feedback is negative then it has a stabilising effect, if it is positive, then the system as a whole acts as an amplifier of that particular signal, and will give a massive response to a small input signal.

The subtlety of the feedback systems within cells is amazing. So many examples that we know of already of feedbacks from 2, 3, 4 and more steps down a particular chain of reactions feeding back to affect the system as a whole.

Darwin had no real knowledge of atoms, let alone the amazing structures of DNA, RNA, protein catalysts, RNA catalysts, and all of the amazing feedbacks possible between concentrations of different classes of chemicals and the expression of different classes of genes, or activity of different classes of enzymes (enzymes are protein catalysts, and catalysts are molecules that speed the rate of some reaction, but are not themselves consumed in that reaction – a bit like coffee shops are to ideas – places where they can come and mix up with other ideas and leave different, yet the coffee shop is unchanged).

We now understand how many different sorts of molecules (proteins and complex sugars and even some lipids) bind to different areas of chromosomes and affect the rate at which different genes are expressed.

We see similar effects on some classes of enzymes.

Enzymes are large molecules like balls made of sticky string, where the string is not quite evenly flexible, but tends to fold and flex in certain ways depending on the exact sequence of amino acids in the chain, and some of those amino acids tend to bind well to others. So this can give complex 3 dimensional structures which have many amazing properties of electrical and magnetic fields, and flex, so that there are resonances occurring at many different levels, creating many very specialised environments that can exist for only a few nanoseconds, that allow for all sort of reactions to occur that would not otherwise occur – and changing all of that resonance by sticking something extra on somewhere changes everything.

Biochemistry is a profoundly beautiful subject if you have a mind that delights in visualising 3 dimensional structures (I do).

I have other things to do, and I hope this very brief introduction encourages you to explore further.

[followed by]

Hi Andrew,

One of the aspects of DNA is that there are some segments of it where the exact structure is not so critical as in other areas. These areas are almost free to change at random. There has been a lot of work done looking at these areas in detail between different species, and the rate of change is now accepted as one of the indicators of evolutionary time.

To me, the idea of a master architect who could allow children to die, and rapes an murders to occur, simply doesn’t make sense.

To me, it seems far more reasonable to simply acknowledge that evolution by natural selection has led to us and all the life we see around us – without any sort of grand plan, or justice. Life just is!

We, as human beings are very complex entities with stories about what we are that are also evolving rapidly.

We have the ability to create justice.

The thing that few people realise about evolution is that all major advances in life forms are characterised by new levels of cooperation in life. We are the current best example of that. We are capable of even greater levels of cooperation, in realms we commonly call love (but I as a geek programmer biochemist might give them a different label, and love works).

It seems abundantly clear to me, that our survival as a species requires us to make this next level of transition, to cooperation at a global level, that includes all life forms.

For me this has nothing to do with gods, it is all to do with logic and evolution – and it seems to align well with what most mystics have been saying (not all that surprising, given how the human brain actually seems to function, we are all very good at having intuitions, even if few of us have any idea of how the process actually works, we all potentially have access to the results of the process).

In me, intuition is firmly harnessed to the scientific model, not so in most others.

I do not deny my mystic being, I embrace it in the service of science, which is in the service of all life.

This to me is logic in action.

To me, we must move beyond money and markets, and bring our technology into the service of abundance, not the scarcity of markets.

Gotta go again.

About Ted Howard NZ

Seems like I might be a cancer survivor. Thinking about the systemic incentives within the world we find ourselves in, and how we might adjust them to provide an environment that supports everyone (no exceptions) - see www.tedhowardnz.com/money
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