All atoms are the same, life is an illusion, and God is real

A commentary from Scientific American argues life does not exist:

“Why is defining life so frustratingly difficult? Why have scientists and philosophers failed for centuries to find a specific physical property or set of properties that clearly separates the living from the inanimate? Because such a property does not exist. Life is a concept that we invented. On the most fundamental level, all matter that exists is an arrangement of atoms and their constituent particles. These arrangements fall onto an immense spectrum of complexity, from a single hydrogen atom to something as intricate as a brain. In trying to define life, we have drawn a line at an arbitrary level of complexity and declared that everything above that border is alive and everything below it is not. In truth, this division does not exist outside the mind. There is no threshold at which a collection of atoms suddenly becomes alive, no categorical distinction between the living and inanimate, no Frankensteinian spark. We have failed to define life because there was never anything to define in the first place.”

When I posted this on my Facebook page a few Christian friends objected. I am quite non-religious myself, but I feel there is still a strong philosophical argument that can be made for accepting the paragraph above and maintaining one’s faith in God:

I find this explanation wholly consistent with the existence of God. If both God and people exist he evidently made us out of something. Simply because he chose the same something to make both humans and, say, chairs does not imply there is not a hidden spiritual division between the two groups of atoms. Presumably God did not design a world where faith can only be accessed through a sophisticated understanding of modern science; otherwise He has condemned the unscientific mind without due consideration. Rather, faith in God’s existence should be apparent simply from the beauty of our visible world, the spiritual ties we feel toward one another, and the subtle yet distinct direction from God in our lives (which is especially evident after introduction to the teachings of Jesus Christ). That is, faith must be immune to the vicissitudes of scientific thought. Faith must be flexible enough to accept scientific discoveries in the physical and natural sciences, but rigid enough to maintain value in its own right. Some might say that science is the champion of imagination, but that faith is the ruler of the heart.

Does God Exist?

I am about as agnostic as they come, but I nonetheless found a lot to disagree with in Sean Carroll’s recent blog post on Slate. At one point Carroll writes the following:

Due to the efforts of many smart people over the course of many years, scholars who are experts in the fundamental nature of reality have by a wide majority concluded that God does not exist. We have better explanations for how things work. The shift in perspective from theism to atheism is arguably the single most important bit of progress in fundamental ontology over the last 500 years.

Yes. And theologians — those who specialize in the rational examination of the existance of God — have overwhelmingly come to the opposite conclusion. So for starters, I’m not sure I understand why I should find philosophers so much more persuasive than theologians. Indeed, there is an obvious endogeneity problem in Carroll’s observation: it isn’t hard to imagine that those who choose to become academic philosophers are themselves predisposed to be atheists (otherwise they might have sowed their interest of “origin thinking” by becoming theologians or pastors). In short, the survey Carroll cites showing a “majority” of atheist philosophers likely suffers from selection bais. There is also the obvious point that many intelligent observers maintain a faith in God (see this list, for example).

But there is a more fundamental criticism of Carroll’s view. Philosophy itself is not science. In many ways the modern world is an ode to the majesty of the human mind, but there is no evidence that 500 years of diligent contemplation about human existence has brought us any closer to the fundamental truths of the universe because there is little emprical evidence about what the truth of the universe actually is. Philosophy isn’t necessarily defined in contradiction to science, but there are obvious problems in the little brains of 2013 bringing evidence to bear on problems that are so unimaginably immeasurable. Sure, modern science is beginning to break through these measurability barriers, but only just; for now the barriers do indeed exist, and in multitudes.

Moreover, theologians also use science — archeology, anthropology, history, and the like — to explain and expand on many of the stories in The Bible and other religious texts. So, if neutrality is our starting point why should we be persuaded by the philosophers but not the theologians? It’s probably true that the importance of their personal religious beliefs may incentivize theologians to pick and choose evidence that supports God’s existence, but this is no different than any other field, including philosophy itself. As observers of human nature, surely philosophers are acutely aware of this.

At any rate, it is my belief that looking for proof of God’s existence (or lack thereof) is fundamentally foolish. The purpose of belief in God is faith — that is, belief in the absence of evidence. If proof of God’s existence was easy to observe then salvation would have little meaning. Only an imbecile would turn his back on incontrovertible evidence of God and choose damnation over eternity in heaven. Instead, the evidence of God’s existence is meant to be more subtle: the proof is existence itself.

Indeed, one would think that a God powerful enough to create the universe could quite easily erase definitive proof of her existence, necessitating a blind conviction rather than a forced belief by way of science. The purpose of desiring faith by the product of her creation (us) may escape human logic, but then again we didn’t create the universe.

If you are religious, a better scientific understanding of the universe moves religion and science closer together, not further apart. This attraction is not the result of proof of God in any meaningful sense, but rather a deeper appreciation for God’s creation: human existence (including the observable universe). For a scientist, better knowledge of the universe does not necessarily point to God, but it certainly doesn’t exclude her existence either. This is especially true under a paradigm of a God that is purposefully elusive and desiring of faith over evidence. (The details of this argument depend on the particularities of the religion in question. I am speaking here of the Christian God, though I suspect similar arguments could be levied with equal effect at other religions.)

I am not a philosophy major. In fact, I know little at all about the subject. I am, however, quite sure that thinkers much smarter than myself have long ago solved this ontological quandary and I’m sure Carroll would be quick to inculcate me of this fact. Nonetheless, I am unlikely to swiftly dismiss the future possibility that religion and science can be reconciled in a manner that connects broadly with academics and nonacademics alike. If the last 500 years has seen a “shift in perspective from theism to atheism,” who knows what the next 500 will bring.

(My own objection to God is that she seems like an indisputably human creation. Gods have existed in various cultures for thousands of years, perhaps tens of thousands. It seems unreasonable to assume that, of all the ways to envision the underpinnings and inner workings of the universe, peoples — globally and without communicating with one another — all happened to randomly converge on a set that is so nearly precise: “No, no, you see, there aren’t many Gods, there is only one. Other than that you all aren’t that far off.” There is also the point that people are terrible at processing stochastic events and imbue every coincidence — which are all quite likely to occur from a probabilistic standpoint — with a religious context. “OMG, why did XYZ happen to me?!?! What does it mean???” Well, it was going to happen to someone, stop internalizing everything; the universe isn’t about YOU. These two factors combined with the fact that a belief in God would require a radical transformation of a life and group of friends I very much enjoy combine to create an idea that I simply cannot accept. But let’s be careful: (a) I could be wrong and (b) my sentiments in no way imply that the believers among us cannot appropriate science toward an understanding of God’s design or that those who believe in science should necessarily exclude God as a possible origin story. However, also note that my previous statement does not endorse the teaching of Creationism in public schools, which I am very much against).


I’m getting caught up on Radiolab and recently listened to this June 2009 podcast on Stochasticity (randomness).

As always, it is fun to hear different ways people misinterpret randomness. Paradoxical, the average person seems to simultaneously hold two seemingly divergent views of randomness. On one hand we attribute too much systematic structure to randomness, on the other we seem to find fairly unremarkable events extraordinarily random, as if caused by fate.

In the first case we often mistake long-term expected probabilities in place of random short-term results. Think of flipping a coin. In the program Deborah Nolan, a statistics professor at the University of California Berkeley, divides the radio crew into two groups, one with a real coin and another with no coin. The second group is meant to try and fool Nolan, who at this point is waiting patiently in the hall, by streaming together a random set of “heads”-“tails” chains. The other group, meanwhile, is diligently flipping an actual coin 100 times. After both pairs have recorded 100 entries they write their results on the board and call Nolan back in to see if she can distinguish the real set of coin tosses from the fake.

The results? It’s no contest. Nolan quickly and easily spots the manufactured chain. The problem is that the second group’s longest string of consecutive same-sided flips was only four entries long. The real coin toss group had a string of seven. In my view, the mistake of this first group was to substitute the expected probability of flipping a head or a tail (one-half) with the shorter-term probability of getting a long string of, say, consecutive heads. We know from common sense that there is a 50-50 shot of getting either a head or a tail for every flip. And, indeed, if we were to flip the coin an infinite number of times the number of heads would tend toward the number of tails. But this is in the long run. In the short run — that is, along the way to infinity — we would likely get very long consecutive streaks of heads and tails. It’s simply that in the long run these streaks average out. Indeed, the probability of getting a string of seven heads during a session of 100 coin flips is about one-sixth, not improbable at all. But while you’re in the middle of flipping, seven seems like forever. The group with the coin momentarily thought the coin was rigged because it just seemed so improbable that seven heads would come up in a row. We (mistakenly) think that because the expected probability of flipping a head is one-half, that any normal string of flips should not deviate greatly from our intuition: H-T-H-T-H-T.

This same phenomenon is perhaps more common in our daily lives, and more pernicious, in the form of gambling. For example, people often change their betting strategy in a game of roulette if the wheel comes up black, say, five times. Surely, the next spin is more likely to be red. But each spin is an independent event and so the wheel is no more or less likely to come up red after five spins landing on black than after 100. You are simply observing over a very, very short timeframe a roulette wheel that is essentially spinning everyday non-stop for years. That at some point during its lifespan the wheel will hit black five times in a row is not strange. What would be amazing is if that didn’t happen. But because we are human, we find significance in our being present for such a streak and ascribe meaning, mistaking what is a probabilistic fact — that there’s a 50-50 shot of the wheel landing on red — with what is happening in this moment before our eyes. We somehow think that the world is out of balance if the roulette wheel comes up black several times in a row, and that the universe is then obligated to give back what it took by letting the wheel come up red. The universe “took it” and now it “owes it back.” Unfortunately, stochasticity doesn’t work like that.

In the second case people assign unbelievably low probabilities to events that aren’t at all uncommon. Take the case of multiple lottery winners, as Radiolab does. What is the chance that a person wins a major jackpot twice? Most of us think the odds are astronomical, but they aren’t. Lots of people play lots of different lotteries all around the country, and so the chance that someone at some point will win the lottery twice is almost assured. The kicker is that if we are that person our minds seem almost designed to ascribe some sort of meaning other than pure chance. Call it fate, religion, or whatever you like.

The Radiolab segment also has a great piece about two young girls who meet by chance. I’ll save the details so I don’t spoil it for you, but trust me, once you hear the story you’ll think for sure there is some otherly-world explanation. But as Jay Koehler, a professor of finance, quickly points out we are quick to spot patterns and ascribe all sorts of meaning to events we find improbable, but are slow to pick up on all of the differences and ways that most events aren’t all that uncommon at all. I think this happens to a great extent in religion, for instance. People often look for signs and, unsurprisingly, find them in their own lives or the stories of loved ones. They assume that God is watching out for them because the events they are experiencing can’t, just can’t, be chance. In reality, any given event is likely to happen to someone at sometime, but the fact that it happens to us seems to be all we need to lend even more support to our faith.

Indeed, society would be much, much different if we all had a better understanding of stochasticity.