The End of Atheism

From Scientific American, quoted in full on the Integral Options Cafe:

A mathematical theory places limits on how much a physical entity can know about the past, present or future…

David H. Wolpert, a physics-trained computer scientist at the NASA Ames Research Center, has chimed in with his version of a knowledge limit. Because of it, he concludes, the universe lies beyond the grasp of any intellect, no matter how powerful, that could exist within the universe. Specifically, during the past two years, he has been refining a proof that no matter what laws of physics govern a universe, there are inevitably facts about the universe that its inhabitants cannot learn by experiment or predict with a computation…

As Scott Aaronson, a computer scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, puts it: “That your predictions about the universe are fundamentally constrained by you yourself being part of the universe you’re predicting, always seemed pretty obvious to me…”

What is therefore the point to atheism? Even if there is nothing else but the physical universe, there is no way for any part of it to “learn it all by experiment” or “predict with a computation“. In other words, the physical universe is the only thing that can fully know the physical universe.

How far is that from the definition of Divinity? And what does that leave to the atheist? Absurdities like believing in the non-existence of the physical universe?

If Wolpert is right, there is no logic left in atheism. And Dawkins’ “Ultimate 747″ proof of the non-existence of God appears quaint: the Divinity cannot be any part of the physical universe.

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One of course can and will always be able to reasonably state agnosticism. But post-Wolpert agnosticism becomes simply the belief that the Divinity cannot be communicated with or experienced as such).

There is one thing we can be certain of, in any case: that there’s more out there than a collection of physical entities.

Anti-evolution at the Vatican

Catholic circles especially in Rome are unwisely toying with the idea of discounting the Theory of Evolution, as it would confine God “to just lighting the blue touch paper for the Big Bang” (Evolution and Religion – In the beginning“, The Economist, April 19).

Furthermore, if natural selection works with random steps, according to some people we lose the “unique, God-given role in the animal kingdom” for the human species, especially favoured by Pope Benedict XVI.

Actually, the “blue touch paper” issue is ill-posed. Even if the Universe has been created to follow Natural Laws such as Evolution, there is enough built-in uncertainty, such as in Quantum Physics, to allow any Creator to tinker at His pleasure.

And regarding man’s unique role…I would rather promote more humility…it makes little sense to try to defend one’s standing when the counterpart is… God!

The Physics of Miracles And Of Free-Will

A scientific finding published a few months ago on Physical Review Letters and reported on The Economist may soon send religious types of all sorts and shapes to salivate back to their Physics books.

5% of a proton’s magnetism is contributed not by the host quarks but by visiting strange quarks that have popped out of nowhere“.

It is a perfectly reasonable discovery. Current quantum physics in fact

predicts that so-called virtual quarks, together with their anti-matter partners, are continuously emerging from the vacuum of space and then disappearing again as a result of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. So, while a proton has three resident quarks, it also plays host to a lot of short-term visitors

Nevertheless, such a discovery may herald fascinating consequences.

First of all, 5% is not exactly a negligible quantity.

Second, the measurement is obviously an average, so one proton will get a little nudge in one direction, another proton a slightly larger or smaller nudge in another direction, and so on and so forth. There is no macroscopic effect…but only insofar as the virtual particles pop up randomly in the protons.

Third, if this happens for one kind of particle, it is extremely likely it will happen for all kinds of particles, not just protons

Fourth, if this happens for one kind of force, it is highly likely it will happen for all kinds of forces, not just magnetism

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The end result is that when we will be able to control where, when and how virtual particles pop-up within real particles, we will be capable to do all sort of currently deemend impossible actions. Imagine being able to “focus” the properties of a magnet so that it will attract a particular metallic object, instead of all the objects within a certain distance range….suddenly, one could move specific objects from a distance. That’s telekinesis for you.

Or look forward to the time gravitational fields will be strengthened, weakened, focused at will. That’s levitation for you. And spaceflight and levitating cars will become a child’s play to build and pilot.

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Those are just dreams at the moment, impossibilities, what we could call Miracles if we were to witness them (as per A.C. Clarke’s famous saying: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic).In fact, what is there to prevent God from using those same virtual quarks exactly to perform…Miracles? (God of course could be prevented by being non-existant 8-) ; but let’s assume for now that’s not the case…).

Levitation does indeed allow one to walk on water or fly from Mecca to Jerusalem, or telekinesis the parting of the Red Sea. Some good control of the strong force and quark mechanics simplifies transforming water into wine or anything else.

Etc etc. So virtual particles popping all over the place may be God’s Backroom Control: invisible and intangible but still very much of consequence. Sort of a Miracle Physics (MP) Model.

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For the Theist, it all makes sense.The Deity would have created a Universe that can take of itself but still not completely impervious to on-the-fly modificationsAlso the main objection against miracles would lose ground, as in the MP model the Divinity can intervene without foregoing the natural laws inscribed in the Universe

Just as light is a wave AND a particle, and an electron is a wave and a particle, we could say that the Universe is at the same time deterministic AND random. Not to mention that Evolution can then be a random walk AND the guided unveiling of some underlying plan.

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So do we (well, IF we exist) have free will or are we in the hands of an omnipotent figure (if He/She exists) that decides things for us? Both.

Intelligent Design – Blasphemy?

Religious discussions about the theory of Evolution crop up every once in a while. Now it’s the turn of The Economist to dedicate one Briefing to “Evolution and religion”.

In that article it is reported the well known fact that in certain Christian and Muslim circles there is now support for so-called “Intelligent Design” (ID), “the idea that some features of the natural world can be explained only by the direct intervention of a ingenious creator“.

Frankly, as a Christian and Monotheist myself, I do find ID insulting to the very concept of an Omnipotent God and therefore bordering onto the blasphemous.

Let’s assume some computations mentioned by ID proponents are correct (“it would require about 300 times the age of the universe to by chance form just one protein molecule“). The alternative is to have an Intelligent Being making something as complex as a protein, or as an eye appear.

This God or Gods would continuously interfere with the Universe, adding bits here and there, making eyeballs and noses and whatever else.

Such a notion should be rejected at once. It directly implies that the Being was/is not Intelligent enough to create a universe where proteins, eyes and everything else would indeed come out of a natural mechanism such as Evolution.

It all becomes clearer once we stop separating “natural” from “God-made”. Such a step should be quite easy for a religious type.

Therefore: since God is designing the whole of nature, including all “natural mechanisms”, what prevents Him from making evolution a natural process, using a rather more elegant solution than having to clumsily get any or all parts, big and small, made on purpose?

And think again of the eye: ID proponents say it is “too complex to have evolved on its own“. It’s them putting some kind of limitation to what God could and could not do.

That’s blasphemy: the implication that God would not be able to devise something called “evolution”, and had/has to intervene “personally” in the making up of new species.

Au contraire: the Theory of Evolution is so much more compatible than ID with the whole idea of an Omnipotent God.

The Intelligent Being, if any exists, has created us with a clear instant-by-instant perception of time flowing in a particular direction. This applies presumably to all creatures on Earth. Why not use that constraint then in designing and implementing them all?

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Catholic circles especially in Rome are unwisely toying with the idea of discounting the Theory of Evolution anyway, as it would confine God “to just lighting the blue touch paper for the Big Bang“. Furthermore, if natural selection works with random steps, there it goes the “unique, God-given role in the animal kingdom” for the human species, especially favoured by Pope Benedict XVI.

These arguments should be aired after extremely careful consideration. First of all, as reported by The Economist, there is no point in devaluing the Church by letting it proclaim things that are manifestly false (a warning first made by St. Augustine).

As for the “blue touch paper“: the question is ill-posed. Even if the Universe has been created to follow Natural Laws such as Evolution, there is enough built-in uncertainty, such as in Quantum Physics, to allow any Creator to tinker at His pleasure.

Finally, regarding man’s unique role, I would rather promote more humility.

It makes little sense to try to defend one’s standing when the counterpart is… God!

God’s Many Dices (II) – The Philosophy of Parallel Universes

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
(Hamlet, I, v, 166-167)

In a Reality of many and much varied Parallel Universes, as modeled from contemporary Cosmology, it is possible not just to revisit and better understand scientific puzzles like the nature of Mathematics and Time, the Goldilocks Enigma, and the Many-Worlds interpretation of Quantum Physics

The Science of Parallel Universes has also significant consequences outside science itself, and can be used to provide answers to age-old questions in the fields of philosophy, morality and theology, such as:

  1. Why would a benevolent God, or gods, or any Creator let bad things happen?
  2. Do we have Free Will and what exactly is that?
  3. Are we the combination of a physical entity called body and ethereal ones called mind and/or soul? And what is the reality of our thoughts?

Surprisingly, the one and only assumption really necessary for that to happen, is for cosmos to be unimaginably big, containing an untold number of different versions of everything we see, some of them stranger to us than others

(I know: the below is far from complete, far from perfect, and under development: but elegantly simple)

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A branch of contemporary Cosmology predicts that “All There Is” (let’s call it the Cosmos) is made of many “Parallel Universes”

Not of the creepy, nearby kind favored in sci-fi movies: as explained by Max Tegmark of MIT in a recent SciAm article, those Universes all reside in the same hugely gargantuan volume of space but at very big and growing larger distances from one another

Those Parallel Universes can be grouped in Multiverses at Level I (same physics, only initial conditions differ); Level II (different physical constants and particles); and Level IV (different physical laws, different mathematical structures)

More: there is equivalence between the Level I//II set of those Universes and the multiple-outcome probabilistic world of Quantum Mechanics (the Level III Multiverse)

This suggests that the quantity of Parallel Universes is truly huge, and their diversity enormously great: because their combination will cover everything that is possible

A detailed overview on the topic can be found at this link

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But if “All There Is” coincides with “All That Is Possible”, then any thing that can happen, does, did and will do, in some Parallel Universes (or just one)

Let’s call this the “EP:H Model of Reality“: somewhere, sometime everything possible happens

(That should obviously read Almost Everything and almost any thing: it depends on the number and variety of Parallel Universes. The qualifying adverb is implied in the rest of the text)

The implications beyond a strictly scientific arena are almost unimaginable

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1. Why would God, or the gods, or any Creator let bad things happen?

In the EP:H Cosmos, because the possibilities of existence appear to be more important than a pre-ordained good and evil

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The question about the apparent inaction of the Divinity in the face of iniquity or calamity is the topic of the branch of philosophy and theology called Theodicy: from the Greek: theos, “god” and dike (pr. dee-kay), “justice”

“The justice of God” (or lack thereof) has kept philosophers busy for millennia

Why for example doesn’t any God just intervene to rescue a little child on top of whom a house has collapsed after an earthquake? Or to eliminate a little-know Austrian painter called Adolf instead of letting him butcher people in the millions?

In ancient Greece, philosopher Epicure elaborated the Epicurean Paradox, arguing that a benevolent, omnipotent God indeed does not exist: “God either wants to eliminate bad things and cannot, or can but does not want to, or neither wishes to nor can, or both wants to and can. […] If he can but does not want to, then he is spiteful […] If he wants to and can, which is the only thing fitting for a god, where then do bad things come from? Or why does he not eliminate them?” (from “The Epicurus Reader”, translated and edited by Brad Inwood and L.P. Gerson, Hackett Publishing, 1994, p. 97)

Interestingly, whilst Epicurus still believed in a different kind of Gods, his argument has been repeated by countless people since, as way to deny tout-court the existence of a God.

Pick a tragedy, any tragedy, and you will find your proof that there is no God

German polymath Leibniz coined the term Theodicy in a 1710 essay, and he is remembered as arguing that in spite of much evil within it, the world is the best of all possible worlds. He went further, saying that God as “infinite being” will create as a matter of course an infinitely rich universe (perfect in the sense of being complete)

In reaction to that, after the Lisbon quake of on All Saints’ Day, 1755, French philosopher Voltaire wrote the novel “Candide, or Optimism” (1759). In there, Leibniz himself (or possibly, French savant Pierre de Maupertuis (1698-1759)) is satirized as the character Pangloss, convinced against all kinds of odds and runs of bad luck that “All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds

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The centuries -old Epicurean argument against the existence of God loses validity in the EP:H Cosmos: the God(s) (if existing) is/are simply letting everything happen.

Everything means everything: everything good, and everything bad. It will include all things evil, and all disasters (and not-so-incidentally, all joys and all luck)

This is known as the Plenitude Principle. It can be traced back to Aristotle, and has been reasoned by many including St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and Kant.

Paraphrasing then Albert Einstein (once scorning Quantum Mechanics by saying that “God does not play dice with the Universe”): God (if one exists) does indeed play with the Universe(s), throwing a very large lot of dices, making sure that all possible results do happen

This is another way of saying that there is no “morality” in “Nature”

Reality coincides with the Realm of The Possible, not the Empire of the Good: therefore, for a benevolent (or otherwise) God (if one exists indeed) there may be no meaning in “preventing evil”

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Three (obvious?) points about EP:H and the Divinity:

(a) EP:H is no proof of the existence of God(s)
(b) If there is no God the Theodicea question becomes a moot point
(c) A Divinity may as well choose to intervene, in particular circumstances in particular Universes…that’s compatible with EP:H as long as the action is physically possible)

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2. Do we have free will and what exactly is that?

With EP:H, on the whole Free Will is an overall illusion, and a particular reality

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The issue of Free Will is about a conscious being’s ability of choose and/or control their decisions

In the EP:H Cosmos something somewhere is going to happen, as long as it is possible. At first glance then, the question of Free Will may appear as having no meaning

In one sense, anything possible is compelled to happen

If there is, say, a one-in-a-million chance of you buying the winning lottery ticket, and 999,999 copies of yours have failed to do so in as many Universes, well, really there will be no escape…

Still, each individual’s life experiences are evidently a limited subset of the whole range of possibilities. Therefore the fact that everything is happening can only be statistically reflected at the level of the person, who may as well retain Free Will for all intents and purposes

Thus, each of us is practically free as individual to choose one’s next action. The only constraint is on the set of all our “copies”. They (we) will commit all possible acts wherever they exist somewhere in the Cosmos, but only when considered together

On the other hand, in a gas that is moving in one direction as a whole, a particular molecule can yet move at a particular instant in the opposite direction. Likewise, each of us can still be free to choose which way to go at every particular step in our lives

Paradoxically (but only up to a point), the EP:H Cosmos is made of items that are individually free, but constrained as a group

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3. Are we the combination of a physical entity called body and ethereal ones called mind and/or soul? And what is the reality of our thoughts?

Everything is physical: there is no need for any “external metaphysics” located somewhere outside of the EP:H Cosmos

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The belief in a soul may have accompanied our species for at least 30,000 years (although our concept of it is of strictly ancient Greek origin). It has sometimes crossed or collided with the other belief, that of a mind just as well separated from lowly physical body, a major point in the philosophy of great rationalist Descartes himself.

Current Christian theology speaks of a soul-body singular union that will be reinstated by God at the End of Times. But a fundamental question remains: how can a non-physical entity act in the physical world? Where is the ultimate interface between the body and the soul?

Wolfgang Pauli answered with the consideration that in quantum physics, it is not possible to precisely measure all variables, and thus they may be considered even not to “physically” exist: in a sense, “hiding” metaphysics in the uncertainties of quantum mechanics

In the EP:H Cosmos things are much simpler. There is no need for anything “beyond physics” to exist: either it is possible, and therefore is indeed “happening” in one or many Parallel Universes: or it isn’t possible, and therefore it does not exist

Thus there is no need for the concept of a soul. But that does not mean that the soul does not exist: it means that it is a physical entity

Or starting from a slightly different point of view: in the EP:H model, anything we can think of is indeed “happening” in some other Parallel Universe

But if thoughts inside us are as real as anything we experience outside ourselves, then there is no necessity for a “spiritual” or “metaphysical” world beyond the physical universe

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EP:H is a strange Cosmos indeed

It is a freer world: God (if one exists) prefers to make everything (possible) happen rather than constraining us in a particular setting. Even if our life will overall resemble some of our copies’, still we can choose to do whatever particular action we want

Our whole being is a single entity, not a split creature with an untraceable soul. The world in our heads is just as real as the one in our hands

It is at the same time a terrible and an uplifting thought

Somewhere out there in the EP:H universe, I am (i.e. my equivalent being is) winning loads in Las Vegas. Somewhere else my whole family is being gunned down and/or persecuted. In a place I am the Emperor of the Galaxy, in another I wasn’t born, or my infant body has been discarded in some garbage dump

Somewhere, I am a refugee holding on to dear life to reach some kind of Promised Land. Somewhere else I am the policeman charged of sending the refugee back home, or the people-smuggler profiting from the refugee’s awful situation

What sense can we make of all of this? Obviously, the best way to understand all that is through probability

In fact, even if “everything happens” it doesn’t mean that it has the same chances to happen. It only means that somebody able to oversee all the various “equivalent Earths” out there would see some kind of a pattern.

For example, with my body size and shape the likelihood that any of my equivalents is the topmost dancer at the local Russian Bolshoi theatre in any Universe is, say, 1/100,000. In an EP:H Cosmos big enough to contain one hundred thousand of my equivalents, just a lonely one of them will manage that miraculous feat (in the Universe of the Very Plump People, no doubt)

If the Cosmos is instead full of 100 million of my copies, there will be a whole thousand of them proudly working as “primo ballerino” at the Bolshoi (in the 1,000 Universes of the Very Plump People, no doubt)

But if on the contrary the Cosmos contains just 10 Maurizio’s, well, so much for my Barishnikov impersonation

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Is the inherently ethics-less EP:H Cosmos a licence to do as one pleases?

Can we justify any action we do by saying that everything is happening, anyway? Can one make it out with the intern whilst his copy is becoming the US president?

(Well, we all know something managed to do both at the same time. Is there an unfortunate William C of Little Rock, Arkansas, living a life with no lust and no power in another Universe, just to even out the overall chances?)

On the other hand, even if there are countless other people out there, similar or even identical “copies” of us, in EP:H each individual is still substantially free to will as he or she wants to

And just like there are many copies of us in the Cosmos, there are many houses like ours in our streets. Some homes are tidy, some dirty, some are well maintained and some are left to run down

Still, the state of any other house has no bearing on our individual “duty” to keep our own house as clean and in as good conditions as possible (if we want to)

And so for our own good, for everybody’s good, because of our nature, to happily live next to one another: or for whatever personal reason driving us to act in one way or another, still there is a meaning to have, develop and follow our own specific brand of ethics (if we want to). All that, whatever the number and diversity of Parallel Universes

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The journey through the implications of a EP:H Cosmos of many and much varied Parallel Universes has just begun

Consider the concept of “Humanity”: just as every “copy of me” is another Maurizio with slightly (or a lot) changed initial conditions, so every person could be seen as the copy of somebody else, from the same Universe, with changed initial conditions

Not only then we belong to the same species, we may as well consider each other as variations on the same theme

In EP:H we are all brothers indeed: twin brothers

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Perhaps there are as many questions as universes, still left to explore. Is the EP:H model too simple? Does it explain too many things at once? Can it be partially or wholly confuted?

What’s next step in discussing Cosmological Theodicea? Is it compatible to the beliefs of any mainstream religion?

One thing we can be sure of: things much weirder still are out there to discover

There is a theory which states that if ever
anybody discovers exactly what the Universe is for
and why it is here, it will instantly disappear
and be replaced by something even more
bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory
which states that this has already happened
(Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe)