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).

Extreme Links Mega Overload

Via Marginal Revolution:

Via Carpe Diem:

Data, Shmata

On my bad days, when I’m wavering in my faith that humans have any air of rationality, I often begin to have a creeping fear that we have become allergic to data and evidence. And I don’t just mean that we avoid science. I mean in our everyday lives. Here’s an example. As I was logging into my WordPress account today I noticed on the homepage a blog post about Jonathan Franzan’s top 10 writing tips. I read the post, smiled, and reflected for a few moments. Noticing the blog’s author had written a related article about Franzan’s The Corrections, and having thought about picking up the book for several months now, I clicked on the link.

Several paragraphs into the post was this claim:

“Second, reviews on The Corrections from non book critics (read: normal people like you and me) are mixed. Take one look at The Corrections on Amazon and you’ll see what I mean. It’s a three-star novel with more than 1,000 reviews. Why is it three stars? People either really love it or really hate it.”

I hear these sorts of declarations made quite often. “Either you’ll love his sense of humor, or you’ll hate it.”  “Either you love her beff stroganoff, or you hate it.” “Either you’ll read this book in a single night, or you’ll throw it down in disgust after the first five pages.”  I’ve never been one to buy into such extreme pronouncements so I decided to mozy on over to Amazon and take a look at this book’s customer reviews.

If we assign “really love it” a review of 5 stars and a “really hate it” a review of 1 star and do a little math we’ll learn that 55% of people either love this book or hate it, while 45% have some ambivalence toward it. Far from the claim that The Corrections is either loved or hated, only slightly more than half of readers harbor such strong convictions regarding the novel.

I don’t mean to pick on what seems like a well intentioned blog (the author is reading all 100 of Time Magazine‘s greatest English-speaking novels since 1923, a glorious and praiseworthy effort); and perhaps a few of you will write my complaint off as pedantic. But I still think it matters.

The example above is but one case of what has become (or maybe always was) an aversion to hard evidence. That we don’t calculate the percentage of people who feel a particular way toward a novel before writing a blog post is of no import. The larger point is that, far from staying neutral on topics we know little about, we transform into raconteurs—waxing lyrical, compelled to have an opinion one way or the other on every topic at hand—all the while ignoring the solid terra firma of the measurable and real as it sinks further and further away beneath our feet.

The question, “How do people on Amazon feel about The Corrections?”, like many other questions in life, has an answer (at least in part). Many of the riddles that confront our everyday lives do not. To treat that which is fact as merely a matter of opinion—or worse, to treat that which is unknowable as something that can be made real simply by will of conviction—is to infuse into the genuine a spurious nonsense. It is to give credence to intentions, hopes, and desires while discounting outcomes, history, and evidence.  It is to bake a pie made of lies—an American Lie Pie—and try to force others to eat it.

The more we make such unwarranted claims in our daily discourse, the lazier our brains become, the more susceptible we become to specious professions, and the more we view data and evidence as the banal details that should be relegated to science labs and courtrooms. I also believe it is partly at fault for our blind adherence to our own ideology.

We are creatures of habit, running in the same circles of friends week after week, watching the same news programs, reading the same websites. The claims we make and hear from others get batted around unchallenged, slipping into conversation as easily as laughter or talk of the weather. True or not, our allegations to one another become reality. So much so that we are jarred when we are confronted with anything different. So enraptured in what we know to be “true” we respond with vitriol and indignation; only then does our scientific mind suddenly jolt to life, demanding from those who have challenged us every scrap of data and evidence on the subject hand. And even then we are likely not to believe.

We may not be able to pause for mathematical calculations or deep research with every lackadaisical comment we make. But we can stop and think, the next time we say something, “I wonder if that is true”. If there is a computer nearby maybe we can look up the answer. We can choose not to speak about the many things for which we have no knowledge, or when we do, we can state them as a matter of opinion, noting that we could easily be wrong. We can understand that on many issues there are multiple sources of data, often conflicting, and in these cases we can talk about the relative merits of each rather than discounting completely the side which contradicts our sensibilities. On matters that are settled, we can follow the evidence, even if it disagrees with what we want to believe. Or at the very least we can say, “Sorry, I understand where you’re coming from and understand your evidence, but I’m biased on the subject. Even if you’re right my heart won’t let me agree.”