Don't Believe in Cthulhu
May 23, 2007
Cthulhu is an invention of the early
twentieth century horror writer H.P. Lovecraft – an indescribably grotesque and
gigantic cosmic horror, that caricatures a human, an octopus and a dragon, and
that moves as if it were a mountain stumbling forward. To gaze upon it is to
bathe in madness, and to encounter it is to meet death at the casual hands of
something so immense and terrible that you are nothing to it but an insigificant speck beneath its tentacles. It symbolises a stark and meaningless universe,
where nothing but death or madness await us all. Surely no-one believes in
Cthulhu, except perhaps for their own amusement? So why bother to ask that we
not believe in it at all?
To get to the bottom of this cryptic nonsense, let us cast our minds back in time a few hundred years to the cultural circumstances that existed at what has been dubbed the dawn of the Age of Enlightenment…
The triumph of the Enlightenment was the assertion of reason as a superior tool to tradition, and from the 18th century onwards we consequently saw the rise of philosophical debate and scientific exploration as a new way of coming to grips with the world. The Enlightenment pushed against established ways of thinking, and in particular resisted the authority of religious traditions. The work of the Enlightenment in shifting our focus is long since concluded, but unfortunately the momentum is still pushing in this direction – and arguably no longer to our general benefit.
If the Enlightenment managed to put pay to many religious superstitions, it could not have anticipated that it would lead to the establishment of so many scientific superstitions, such as presumptive teleology, the multiverse of quantum timelines and the mythology of progress as a sustainable ideal. Like Orwell’s Animal Farm, what began as a noble overthrowing of institutions that exceeded their domain now seems turning full circle: now the revolutionary threatens to become the oppressor.
Whereas before religious authorities
provided canonical opinions for the masses, now scientific authorities
provide their canonical interpretations. Indeed, many people now look to scientists in much the same way they used to look at priests – as a source of
authoritative interpretation. The underlying assumption seems to be that “the
scientists know what’s really going on…” One only has to look at the way
newspapers turn to scientists to provide justifications or explanations as an example. The problem with this is that the domain of science is the empirical,
but the domain of life and experience extends far beyond what may be tested. I trust scientists to conduct experiments or develop engineering solutions to problems, but there the implicit expertise ends.
Culture, art, narrative, ethics and imagination all become stunted if one attempts to bound them at the edge of the
testable, or indeed in any way other than the ways we individually chose. If humanity did not accept the attempts of tyrannical authority figures to place limits on what was allowable thought under religious guises, I am hopeful it can resist any attempt by tyrannical authority figures to achieve the same end under scientific guises.
The influential Enlightenment philosopher David Hume looked deeply into the world through an empirical lens. He dismissed religious superstitions as unfounded, but drew a line at God saying the problem is man’s tendency to presume qualities of God, who was essentially unknowable. He dismissed tradition as an inferior means of understanding the world to reason, but observed that reason itself was severely limited as a tool, requiring a leap of faith before it could be successfully employed. He dismissed conventional ethics as inferior to a morality based upon utility and agreeableness, but observed that our notions of self were illusory.
There seems to be a widely distributed secular worldview that renders life both bleak and pointless, and perhaps this viewpoint counts Hume as part of its causes – but if so, it has taken all of his initial
observations, and ignored all his caveats. It is a sickness of the modern world
that the legacy of the Enlightenment has been the elevation of science to some
strange doctrine of inflexible Truth (and not of exploration), and that the philosophical
questioning which drove the Enlightenment seems almost to have passed, leaving
in its wake a widespread belief in a hollow and valueless reality of
Here is a brief sample of some common tenets of this peculiar belief system:
Nothing exists that cannot be tested. Everything has come about through pure chance. Humanity, and all life on Earth, appeared through a series of random processes, which gradually refined life as we know it. Life is selfish. It preys on other life. Our ultimate fate is to die. If the universe could be personified as a god it would be Great Cthulhu – a lurking madness that if it happens to notice us at all, it is as food to devour, but mostly we are utterly insignificant to this blind and ultimately destructive force.
This will doubtless seem like an overstatement, and the evocation of Cthulhu as unnecessary. However, it does sometimes seem to me that there are at least a few people who believe something akin to the proposition: if there is a god, it is Cthulhu, and I refuse to worship Cthulhu, especially since it does not exist. I doubt this is a fair caricature of the motivation behind anti-theist sentiments which seek to “bring down” religion, but it is at least, I hope, an amusing perspective on the issue.
The problem which gives rise to this
philosophy of Cthulhu realism, if you will permit me some license, is
the belief that the tenets of the secular worldview described above are the
only ones logical, reasonable or possible.
But is it really reasonable to believe that nothing exists that cannot be tested? This is to presume that the universe consists only of those elements which we happen to have senses and tools to detect. It is like seeing the universe as a Lego construction, and the only real entities as those constructed out of Lego. Is it not more likely that there are other elements to the universe that lie beyond our ability to test? Or at the very least, that we will find new tools for observation in the future that will take us further than the short distance we see now?
Not to mention our sense of self, our love of
others, our societies and nations and so forth; these are not empirical
constructs at all, but part of our personal reality – a reality which is both private, and untestable.
Is it really reasonable to believe that everything has come about by chance? Even accepting the evolutionary process, it was still necessary for us to live in a universe where the laws and circumstances made such a process possible. We can imagine an infinite number of possible worlds, with every possible variation of physics, chemistry and biology – yet the one we live in happens to have atoms that form certain chemicals that self-replicate, which can form complex and fascinating life forms. It need not be so.
The anthropic principle declares that given that we exist as observers, we must be in a universe that
allows such a state – it is not entirely clear how this idea substantially
differs from belief in a pantheistic God, other than its choice of words.
Either way, it seems to be an error to believe that chance is the only
factor in our existence.
Is it really reasonable to characterise life as being selfish, existing solely to prey on other life for its own self-perpetuation? Every multi-cellular organism is a testament to the power of symbiosis to overcome competition. We are each a walking metropolis of bacteria who have somehow managed to work together so closely than we routinely mistake it for a single entity! Nature is rife with examples of co-operation, symbiosis and mutual aid – and it is a purely metaphysical pursuit to determine which had the greater influence on our evolutionary history, competition or co-operation, since we can neither see the past in full nor make any judgement that requires omniscience for its arbitration.
Is it really reasonable to consider death our
only fate? Certainly death is an experience we will all share, but the
meaning of our life is what happens between birth and death, not merely how we
meet our end.
And if we believe that the essence of what we are is our consciousness, and our consciousness is a particular state of mind with no necessary connection to our earlier selves than the strictly historical (as Hume shrewdly observes, albeit nervously), then if a future human happens to share our state of consciousness but not our memories, is that human not a phenomenological analogue to ourselves? If we have amnesia, we still believe we are ourselves, and this being so, can we not imagine a kind of amnesiac rebirth to be at work in the universe (even if only for a moment)?
Are you so certain that what makes you
yourself could not exist again? And if so, is it solely because you conflate
yourself with the metropolis of bacteria you are currently living in?
I raise these questions not to convince anyone of any specific alternative view, but simply to demonstrate that Cthulhu realism is not the only reasonable view of life, the universe and everything. We have a choice in how we approach these issues, and that choice is perhaps the most vital decision any of us will make. Do we want to work towards a better world, or would we rather just wallow in despair?
The acclaimed writer Michael Moorcock
chastises HP Lovecraft’s writing for its bleakness (as well as its misogyny,
awful prose and so forth), and comments that Lovecraft appeals to us only when
we are feeling depressed and dejected. Who but the most pathological Goth could
sustain such an attitude into adulthood, and still hope to glean some enjoyment
Cthulhu realism is a valid belief system, but it is one of many we can choose between. I suggest we take our instinct to disbelieve in Cthulhu and take it further, to the point whereby the reality that metaphor entails vanishes entirely. If your reality fills you with despair, change it. That is the power of free will and freedom of belief – and it is yours to do with as you will.
Chris, you might want to borrow this flameproof jacket... here, have this tin hat too... and here's the shovel to dig the foxhole. Thus prepared for the oncoming masses, let's see what happens :-).
I think you're referring to the strong form of the anthropic principle when you equate it to pantheistic belief - and I think I'd agree with you. I'm not sure the weak form (which is probably an alternative expression of my own view) can be so equated. I think "what's the probability of a universe in which we could exist actually existing, given that we exist to observe it?" doesn't presuppose anything other than chance - and, of course, the untestable belief that there *is* an external reality, which is a belief I elect to hold.
If I were to personify the universe as a god? Er... here, I think I lose at your language game. The universe *is*. It's not malevolent or benevolent, it's just the set of conditions in which we find ourselves. Any of us may make anything we wish of that, subject to the constraints of the universe (which may include the actions of other actors in the universe). What's so Cthulhoid about that? :-)
Posted by: Peter Crowther | May 23, 2007 at 05:02 PM
I especially like the allusion that the Enlightenment failed to anticipate scientific superstitions. Poor thing. I agree it probably couldn't have foreseen them specifically, but come on!
Surely it had some idea that the thing it was replacing could easily end up eating its own tail as well? Tsk, Ages, eh? You think they are full of noble spirit and enlightenment only to find out they are as clueless as the rest of us towering cities of bacteria.
On a more depressing note - it would be nice to be able to change my reality - but for reasons I am at a loss to describe in words that people understand - I cannot.
E.g. BLAHHAGGHHHARRGGANDSOFORTH. See?
Posted by: Neil | May 23, 2007 at 05:04 PM
Peter: Thanks for the imaginary flameproof gear! I shall wear it with pride. :)
Forgive my foolishness, but on finishing reading Hume this was what was waiting in my head and I had to get it out somehow.
"I think 'what's the probability of a universe in which we could exist actually existing, given that we exist to observe it?' doesn't presuppose anything other than chance"
I disagree! The probability is unity. Where is the chance, then? ;) I'm interested in your view on the anthropic principle(s), as they just seem like lexicographical obfuscation of deistic god-concepts to me... Doing away with an expressly sentient god isn't quite enough for me to make it no longer a god-concept. Perhaps I just have a very wide definition of god! :D
"It's not malevolent or benevolent, it's just the set of conditions in which we find ourselves."
In other words, if you were able to play the game of making a god of the universe (which I appreciate you aren't), it wouldn't be Cthulhu, but more like Spinoza's god - a celestial architect, implied but wholly absent.
You are an utterly fascinating atheist to throw around these ideas as very little seems to offend you. :)
Neil: No-one predicts the future with any degree of accuracy; you just make the best job you can from when you happen to exist. :)
"...it would be nice to be able to change my reality - but for reasons I am at a loss to describe in words that people understand - I cannot."
Perhaps you should get someone else to change it for you, then? ;)
Posted by: Chris | May 23, 2007 at 06:07 PM
The anthropic principle is a thermodynamic conservation law... ergo, the ultra-low entropy configuration. No big deal, but...
The anthropic constraint on the forces just means that the universe is "Darwinian", so there is a missing mechanism in physics... ergo the "great anthropic mystery" of the ultra-small cosmological constant.
These are self-evident predictions of any true anthropic cosmological principle, because a strong anthropic principle will *necessitate* a reciprocal connection between the human evolutionary process and the evolution of the universe, so physicists are really screwing-up by not pursuing the natural prediction that there exists a mechanism that will enable the universe to "leap"/bang to higher order of the same basic configuration, just like we did.
I predict that this self-evident truth will die unrecognized by the dogmatically infected minds of the ideologically warped... which is just about all of us.
Posted by: island | May 23, 2007 at 06:43 PM
island: thanks for your description here! As an ex-astrophysicist (my first degree, I jumped ship to computer science before finishing) I don't understand why I didn't come across this until decades later. Was it not in common discussion in the 1990s?
Your explanation suggests that universes evolve, which I have no problem with, but in the grand metaphysical scheme it still doesn't allow us to reduce everything to chance, as far as I can tell. There must still be some constraints, some tendencies, inherent in a universe to make such a system work, surely? For example, how does one produce an evolutionary argument for general relativity? For quantum physics? I'm genuinely interested in these issues! :)
Posted by: Chris | May 23, 2007 at 06:52 PM
And then go here:
And then, here:
Posted by: island | May 23, 2007 at 07:19 PM
Good grief! Why on earth would a gentle conversation about... well, pretty much anything... offend me? I regard this blog as I would a leisurely evening spent chatting to friends and acquaintances, and friends of friends - oh, and the occasional newcomer who might become a friend. It's a pleasant way to communicate and to spend time, and in no way a source of offence (except for the occasional drive-by flaming, which prompts me to wonder why more people don't shoot idiots on sight).
"So where does the chance come from then?" - exactly the same place as any other source of chance, though that place may vary depending on your beliefs. It may take 2^(10^6) trials to toss 10^6 successive tails on a fair coin, but if your existence depends on those coin tosses and you exist, then that's how they must have landed. One can argue about whether the 10^6 coin tosses were in fact random or were guided by some [Gg]od, but I think we're well into metaphysics there - certainly I can't think of a way of testing either hypothesis. I happen to follow my skeptical world view and elect to reduce the number of entities I'm concerned with, and exclude a god. And if that still sounds (reads) like lexicographical obfuscation, then I think we do indeed have very different definitions of god.
Posted by: Peter Crowther | May 23, 2007 at 07:20 PM
I have so many almost-said things scrambling to the back of my skull in order to avoid, once again, being uttered.
The only poor phrase too stupid to get out of the way is, "I talk to trees."
I thoroughly enjoyed this post, though!
Posted by: Corvus | May 23, 2007 at 07:41 PM
"So where does the chance come from then?" exactly the same place as any other source of chance'
Only problem is, that isn't the natural expectation, which would be expected follow the least action principle:
It is the failure of science to define a "dynamical mechanism", (David Gross), which causes them to reach to a multiverse of potential in an attempt to answer the question via a selction principle, rather than a cosmological structure principle, but the latter does not supercede the former, unless the multiverse is proven to be necessary to the one true theory of everything or MAYBE a valid and tested theory of quantum gravity.
Posted by: island | May 23, 2007 at 07:45 PM
I have nothing witty to say or anything to add. I'm just glad you're settled and back to writing so that I may enjoy.
Posted by: Ophelea | May 23, 2007 at 10:53 PM
Island - I take your point; I merely feel that it's very difficult to use a term such as expectation (which is inherently statistical in nature) when we have a single sample that we're observing a posteriori. When we can find ways of observing other universes in some way, so that we can get a larger sample size, then I'd be very happy to start discussing my natural expectation of the universe. At present, this is the only one we've got.
Posted by: Peter Crowther | May 24, 2007 at 08:19 AM
which is inherently statistical in nature
No, you missed the point. The expected configuration of the universe based on our natural turbulance driven models, is NOT by any means, "inherently statistical".
Read the paper, there is a natural expectation which is not observed, and this is the whole reason why the anthropic principle came to be in the first place.
The dynamical principle that David Gross calls "the the main failure of science in 20 years", (more like 30), would "make the landscape disappear".
This physics would explain in perfecly clear terms why the universe is *not* unexpectedly configured, and in context with an anthropic cosmological principle, this would mean that we are "specially" woven into the natural evolution of the universe in some relevant way that will explain why this is so, via a physics principle, rather than a selection principle, which is what the weak anthropic principle is.
It isn't even a physics principle.
Posted by: island | May 24, 2007 at 10:41 AM
See, you talk about ethics and everyone's afraid to comment - but talk about Cthulhu and suddenly it's a party! :D
island: thank you so much for the links! I shall enjoy digging through this. You clearly have a better grasp of cosmological metaphysics than me, and I thought I was pretty well versed! :) I think I lost interest after reading New Scientist for a year... It seemed to me that every other week I was being shown some new amazing cosmology - but when I examined it, all they had was some interesting maths and no evidence or experimental options. After a while, I lost interest.
As someone with their finger on the fringes of astrophysics, may I ask your opinion of string theory? Initially, I was enthusiastic. Then, suspicious. Now, I feel it must be a dry well. Advances in physics have not yet required such exertions to uncover - usually it is the subtle insight which drives the big picture. I guess this is the root of my disfavour with string theory, although, of course, who knows what the future will bring!
I don't believe a "Theory of Everything" is coming either, although I do believe there are perspectives beyond the ones we have that we haven't found yet. And I'm doubtful that any theory of quantum gravity would require a multiverse inherently in its mathematics - like all the many quantum interpretations, the gloss we attach to certain theories is not essential for the physics - only for the peace of mind of the physicist. :)
If you have time, I'd love to hear your further thoughts on these issues!
Peter: ah, but of course. How careless of me! The empiricist position avoids having to define God to reject it, because it can reject any and all metaphysics a priori by its decision to focus upon the testable. It's a shame, though. I want to know what lives in the asymptotes of people's realities - whether or not they believe in them - so it's always disappointing when someone has factored these interesting infinities away. :)
And Corvus - I talk to all manner of things, the question must be: do you achieve a dialogue? ;)
Best wishes to you all!
Posted by: Chris | May 24, 2007 at 11:53 AM
I've absorbed a chunk of your information and continue to find it fascinating. Now I appreciate your goal is to remain focussed on this issue from a physics perspective (which is laudible!), but I hope you will accept that from a philosophical perspective every physics model is open to interpretation at a metaphysical level, and will grant me some leeway in what might otherwise be considered a diservice to your fascinating astrophysical investigations.
I hope by weaving theology with your physics (below) I will not exceed your level of comfort - this is not an attempt to undermine your physics, but rather to explore how a theologian might interpret it. (This option is always available in the metaphysics, after all...)
"Albert Einstein vehemently disagreed with the idea of a 'meaningless' unguided universe for his entire life, maintaining that there is an underlying structure that produces a guiding method to nature's madness, but he realized that this was just physics, not god."
I wish to point out that Einstein became content with equating physics and God, since he was happy with Spinoza's conception of God. Outside of the physics, in the religious realm, this option will always be available.
"Thus, goes the argument, the second law of thermodynamics is not contrary to the existence of life; rather, it is the cause of life. That law drives evolution to higher levels of complexity and to more sophisticated societies and technologies for the sole purpose of disseminating energy gradients."
The purpose alluded to here is from the perspective of the universe, though. That purpose is not necessarily a purpose at a *human* level, and if an individual believes in God, it need not be God's purpose either. Rather, this "purpose of the universe" can surely be seen by theologians as 'the mechanism by which God proceeded to take action'. :)
What amuses me here is that a theist can use this physics to defend God (albeit unnecessarily), and an atheist can use it to suggest that humanity's purpose is to build particle accelerators - surely a great comfort to the particle physists! :D There is much room for further metaphysical speculation, as any good physics theory should entail. ;)
Equally, I love the idea that we are on "equal footing" with black holes - our "cosmic brothers and sisters"! :D (Forgive my poetic distortions!)
"...carried perpetually forth to higher orders by the second law in the impossible effort toward idealistically pure symmetry."
I find this beautiful. To a theologian, this represents a trace of God's blueprint, and to an agnostic or atheist, it serves to underline the absolutely amazing qualities of our very existence!
Whether or not one chooses to use God as part of one's metaphysics, our existence is a truly incredible thing.
Many, many thanks for an enlightening tour of the borders of our current astrophysical position, and best of luck taking this forward with the utterly hideous quantum mathematics required for further progress!
Posted by: Chris | May 24, 2007 at 01:23 PM
Hi Cris, thanks for your comment on my blog.
may I ask your opinion of string theory?
I guess that you can't see me sticking my finger down my throat to illustrate me gagging, huh?... ;)
I do believe that the ToE is already defined by the TOE, but I don't think that multiverses are anything more than a cop-out on first principles that David Gross says that they are.
If my physics is correct, which, to date, has never been disproven, then the ToE is a lot more simple than anybody currently believes that it is. They simply misinterpreted the negative mass solutions that Dirac's equation produces, is all.
Posted by: island | May 24, 2007 at 04:55 PM
A very stimulating piece!
As an avowed and somewhat passionate athiest, two things leapt out at me:
"But is it really reasonable to believe that nothing
exists that cannot be tested?"
The conclusion I came to from my own discussions on this point is that it is entirely reasonable to believe that nothing exists that can not be tested. If it can't be tested, then clearly it has no measurable impact, and if it has no measurable impact it can be safely ignored - or to put it more strongly, it's not real.
Any dualist position runs into trouble as soon as the non-material aspect has any influence on the material world, as doing so makes it of that world and "material", in some sense.
Many emergent properties have this ephemeral quality though - "Temperature", to give just one example, is the word we use to a describe the averaged energy of a sizable group of molecules. It's not physical in any way, and even not "real" in some senses (The energy is real, but the generalization is just convenient), but it is clearly still a plain old material property.
I feel confident that many elusive properties will turn out to be similar, and culture, art, narrative, ethics and imagination are all testable, even if we currently don't fully understand our instruments (ourselves).
I also wanted to respond to "if there is a god, it is Cthulhu, and I refuse to worship Cthulhu, especially since it does not exist", because I often feel almost exactly this way when talking to theists. I don't believe in a benevolent creator, and I struggle to understand how others can. It seems to me that any theistic belief system must be struck down by Cthulu, not an atheistic system that requires nothing even vaguely intelligent.
I've rabbited on more than I meant already, so I'll leave it there.
Thanks for your piece, I enjoyed it a lot.
Posted by: Jules | May 25, 2007 at 07:38 AM
Jules: thanks for your comment! On the subject of struggling to understand theists, you yourself (see below) explicate a possible reason why you struggle to understand them (although I freely admit that many theists have been badly trained in their belief system and behave in manifestly inconsistent and incoherent fashions! Much like all humans, really!)
"If it can't be tested, then clearly it has no measurable impact, and if it has no measurable impact it can be safely ignored - or to put it more strongly, it's not real."
This is a strong belief in the capacity to untangle forces, factors and so forth that is not enormously compatible with modern physics. Let me give you some quick examples.
Heisenberg's uncertainty principle means that we cannot know both the position and the velocity of a particle, because to measure one is to disturb the other. Therefore, one cannot acquire absolute knowledge of particles - the act of measuring interferes with the system. This general principle extends to many different situations.
It is difficult to conclude that unmeasurable factors have no measurable impact. We can measure rainfall et al as the outputs of the weather system but we cannot (because chaotic systems are not wholly measurable) test the specifics of the weather system, as the weather system itself is an untestable phenomena. In a kind of macroscopic analogue to the uncertainty principle, to completely measure the weather system is to interfere with it so substantially as to alter the outcome! This is why meteorology is never an exact science.
Finally, there are non-interactive particles which we cannot easily measure (test) but which can have a measurable effect via physical mechanisms such as gravity et al. We can only postulate their existence.
We cannot test the behaviour inside the event horizon of a black hole - we can only theorise about it using our best models, but to conclude that the black hole is not real because it cannot be tested would be a strange choice of interpretation.
It is a hangover of the "clockwork universe" mentality which tricks us into thinking that causes and effects are always explicable - sometimes, as Hume observes, all we can do is say that certain things occur in connection with one another. :)
This is not to mention that many physicists are postulating multiverse solutions and other metaphysical devices which are entirely untestable... modern science is actually rife with untestable ideas, but the metaphysics of science is an important input into the scientific process - evolution was metaphysics long before it crossed into the testable, and even now, most evolutionary observations cannot be tested because we do not have access to complete information from the past. It would have been an error to conclude, before evolution could be tested, that it was not real!
This last example is the clincher, I believe. One cannot test how life began (short of time travel), but to say that the origin of life has no measurable impact because it cannot be tested is surely an error!
It strikes me that, like Peter, your core belief system is empiricism - and that you have chosen to bound your belief system at the testable. There is nothing wrong with that. But you cannot then force other people to adopt the same belief system, which means you must afford some respect (however grudgingly) to people who hold beliefs outside of the testable. After all, many of them are scientists. ;)
Posted by: Chris | May 25, 2007 at 01:08 PM
I didn't mean to imply something so strong as "If you can't quantify it precisely it doesn't exist".
I think your own quote sums up more accurately my position:
"It is difficult to conclude that unmeasurable factors have no measurable impact."
It's that measurable impact I was referring to - I'm perfectly willing to accept demonstrated smitings as proof of divine will, for example, or demonstrated miracles, without necessarily knowing the height and mass of a devine creator, but people have stopped wincing as they said "May God strike me down" as they lie.
I'll take a brief moment to wonder about my actual reaction to such evidence - it is an interesting thought experiment.
Regardless, in the current absence of such evidence it seems rather foolish to base attitudes and behaviours on such ideas. They are, absolutely, interesting topics, and theories and debates - precisely like those on the contents on black holes - should be encouraged. But to alter one's behaviours based on those beliefs seems ill advised.
The case of life is an excellent one - we can't observe its beginnings. We can, however, test the beginning very simply - "Is there life?" "yes" "Was there always life?" "no"(or perhaps "We have strong evidence to believe that there was not").
We can reason with some confidence that life did begin, but we can only speculate on why. There are currently several theories, both secular and non-secular, on this one.
If I can draw the analogy with the related case of complex life, before we had Darwin there were also several theories about how complex life came about.
The difference, as far as I can see, is how new evidence is handled in religion and science. Lamarkism and Creationism were two competing ideas to explain how such diversity came to exist in biology, and my position is that both are legitimate theories in the absence of any evidence.
Later, as evidence mounted for evolution, Lamarkism died out, and yet creationism did not, despite a matching lack of evidence for both.
Evolution also can't be tested directly, but the fossil record, coupled with our understanding of DNA supply strong evidence in it's support.
I don't claim that one must have direct experience of a thing to claim it "real", but one should have some impact, some evidence, to support the claim.
Perhaps "directly testable" and "indirectly testable" are significant distinctions, and I'll be giving some thought to that, but there is a distinct lack of direct or indirect support for most religious systems.
You don't need to be able to pin down all the details exactly right now to claim a thing is "real" but you should be able to show how the thing you're positing makes some difference to the world by existing.
Alas, we didn't touch on "If there is a god, it is Cthulu", which I think is the far more damning attack on theism :)
Posted by: Jules | May 29, 2007 at 08:03 AM
>>I feel confident that many elusive properties will turn out to be similar, and culture, art, narrative, ethics and imagination are all testable, even if we currently don't fully understand our instruments (ourselves).
>>... but there is a distinct lack of direct or indirect support for most religious systems.
>>... but you should be able to show how the thing you're positing makes some difference to the world by existing.
It seems to me that a religious system would at least qualify as "cultural artefact" similar to myth etc. It's the religions's stronger claims ("and God created...") that you qualify as "unsupported" or even "unreasonably" - and I tend to agree from an "epistemological" point of view.
But since at least the existence of religion is an undisputed fact the question is what people get out of such a belief system - my short answer is: not so much "the Truth about the beginning of xyz" but things like "personal guidance to the art of life", "assistance during crisis beyond the narrow confines of their families", "a *tested* frame of reference to base their (moral) actions on".
In short it's the *foundation of ethics* that's most important about one's (religious or secular) belief system.
Posted by: translucy | May 29, 2007 at 12:07 PM
Some interesting comments here...
Jules: if nothing else, you must accept that God has a significant effect on the culture you live in by virtue of the people who believe in God. From a purely phenomenological viewpoint, therefore, God most certainly has a measurable effect in the world! (And if all you see of this are the negatives, I encourage you to look more closely).
Oh, and as a small point, it turns out that some elements of Larmarkian inheritance do apply - it is possible for parents to pass on traits to children, apparently by gene-methylation, part of a field known as epigenetics.
Also, I wish to observe that belief in Biblical Creationism is only common among US Christians. Elsewhere in the world, Theistic Evolution (which is the official position of the Catholic church) is the prevailing model. The idea that it's 'evolution versus religion' is essentially fallacious; rather it is more like naturalistic evolutionary realism versus Biblical realism - two forms of realism fighting among themselves. I prefer to ditch the realism, personally, but each to their own. :D
I think, perhaps, that your position places a lot of weight on the notion of a thing "existing" or "not-existing". Do quarks exist? The answer is more open to debate than it may first seem. :) The division between realism and instrumentalism among scientists is illustrative of a far larger metaphysical issue.
translucy: while I obviously agree that the foundation of ethics is a vital role of religion, I believe that the importance of the metaphysical element cannot be eliminated either. Sadly, I lack the time to expand this point, and anyway, I feel confident you could derive what I would say in this regard anyway. ;)
Thanks you both for the comments! Wish I had more time this morning...
Posted by: Chris | May 29, 2007 at 02:40 PM
I seem to remember that already last year we found this slight disagreement on the relative importance of ethics v. meta-physics :)
Posted by: tranlucy | May 29, 2007 at 05:47 PM
I'll happily accept that religion has a significant effect on culture (and is therefor real), but it provides no more support for the existence of "modern" gods than animal sacrifice did for the greek gods. Reminds me of the "One fewer god" quote ;)
I don't mean to focus so heavily on the negative attributes of religion, I just feel that their positive attributes have so very many positive advocates that there is little for me to contribute. I know that religion is involved in a lot of positive actions in the world, but it seems responsible for a significant amount of hostility and anguish as well.
It gave me pause for thought when I realized that the leader of a nation as powerful as the USA belongs to a religion that claims that world will be destroyed, but they will be saved. Does he personally believe that? Is such a belief compatible with a responsible stance on nuclear weapons and climate change? I don't know.
The dubious existence of quarks is a very interesting point. Also the creation of matching matter and antimatter pairs out of nothing. Both strike quite deeply at my belief in realness.
It's certainly possible that there is a god, and he acts through the uncertainty at the quantum level, but there is no evidence whatsoever that this is the case, so I'll trust in occam's razor, and interpret "random" as "random" until there is evidence of something more intelligent.
Should proof of such arise in the future, I'll still claim that I was right to be wrong now ;)
Posted by: Jules | May 31, 2007 at 05:13 AM
Thanks for the additional comments, Jules!
I personally have moved well beyond "theistic" religion so I sometimes tend to forget that it is the discussion about (an "intelligent") God that lies at the heart of many bitter debates.
Looking at US evangelicals from the outside I sometimes wonder if the catholic church was right that the christian religion is too full of subtlety and contradictions to be interpreted without "professional guidance" ;-)
Posted by: translucy | May 31, 2007 at 10:55 AM
Jules: thanks for sharing your views here! We aren't asking you to change your own beliefs - you must believe whatever your path requires you to believe! - we simply enjoy discussing these issues with you. :)
The problems that seem to come from religion may also be seen to come from intolerance of other perspectives. I believe that the root of the problem is the intolerance, not the religion, per se, since intolerance exists outside of religion (look at Marxism's 20th century track record). If this view is accepted, the problem ceases to be religion, and instead we have something tangible to oppose.
Are you aware, incidentally, that your beliefs on God assume a particular vision of God? (For instance, you presume intelligence - a decidedly human term). This being so, ruling out God relies on your own model therein. I mention this only in passing - perhaps there are perspectives on the issue you haven't explored yet... ;)
As for Mr. Bush's claims to Christianity - he is a very poor Christian as far as I'm concerned. I doubt his sincerity, and his theological acumen.
And as for Christians who believe the world will be destroyed and they will be saved - everyone believes the world will be destroyed at some point, don't they? By the ultimate demise of the sun if nothing else! So the distinction for the Christians is that they believe in a life after death. This belief is not enough for any Christian (I hope!) to *want* the world to be destroyed - such would be a gross violation of Christian ethics; it is to will mass murder, which would necessarily be evil in Christian terms.
However, your comments do bring to mind Bill Hicks (may he rest in peace) and his comments about Bush Sr in the White House with his hand on the nuclear button whispering "tell me when oh Lord!" It's a grossly unfair picture in many ways, but it still made me laugh! :)
translucy: it's funny, as a child I never understood how the Catholic church could be built on the authority of an individual and not (say) on the Bible, but as an adult I see the merits of having only one person interpret a religion instead of having millions of different views! :) The problem with Christianity in the US, in my opinion, is the poor quality of its leaders. The individual Christians I meet have been good honest folk; they could do great things if only they had better leadership.
Posted by: Chris | May 31, 2007 at 12:57 PM
Ok, this is not related to this specific article (I'm posting here for deliberate mayem purposes) but I just wanted to simply express... well sheer excitement and admiration regarding the vast quantity of extremely intresting concent and articles in here.
It's a massive source of food for thoughts if there has even been one, and it's extremely nice to see that there are more wierdos like me who can simultaneously be interested in philosophy and videogames, rpgs and other various seemingly (but not actually) unrelated subjects =)
I'm just glad I'm found this place. Bateman is probably the best 'thing' that has 'happened' to me during this year's AIIDE.
Lead AI/Gameplay Programmer
Ia Ia Cthulhu Fhtagn!
All hail Eris!
And much more =)
Posted by: Olivier Rouleau | June 15, 2007 at 04:59 PM
Chris, a point of clarification: when you say that things which cannot be observed may still exist, do you mean things which by definition cannot be observed, or do you just mean things which cannot be observed by us at this point in time, including things which may at some point, due to advances in knowledge and technology, become observable?
Posted by: Pantsman | October 12, 2008 at 01:51 AM
Pantsman: both. But especially things that by definition cannot be observed, since these remain eternally problematic.
Posted by: Chris | October 14, 2008 at 11:24 AM
I want to put in my 'hear hear.'
Our ultimate fate is to die.
Even accepting the underlying beliefs, the correct conclusion is that our ultimate fate is to have lived.
Your comments about Heisenberg are off, though. Particles don't have precise speeds or positions, because no physical wave has a precise speed or position - it can't be 'measured' even by other particles. It just so happens that how precise their speed is depends on how precise the place is.
The limits are a good way to demonstrate this. To have a proper speed requires a precise wavelength. Problem is that to put an edge on a wave requires superposing it with of an infinite number of wavelengths - and then which of these do you pick in the middle? There is one way to avoid this - have a wave that extends infinitely in all directions, but then it has no meaningful position. It is everywhere.
Similarly, to precisely locate a wave, it would have to exist in only one spot, but points don't exactly have wavelengths.
In a sense, position and velocity are like temperature - they are defined for the convenience of the physicist, not truly observed by the system. But, having been defined, waves exist in a tension between the two definitions.
Posted by: Alrenous | December 28, 2009 at 11:08 PM
Alrenous: "Even accepting the underlying beliefs, the correct conclusion is that our ultimate fate is to have lived."
Wonderful - this is how the more positively minded existentialists would have responded. :)
Thanks also for polishing my reference to the Uncertainty Principle here; I was not intending what I wrote here to be assessed so rigorously. ;) I like the way you put this, though - it's an accessible angle on a usually inaccessible concept. And as you say, almost all physics concepts are means of humans getting information out of systems - and that process sets up limitations in what knowledge can then be attained.
Thanks for commenting!
Posted by: Chris | January 06, 2010 at 08:54 AM
Wow. Well, most of the comments went straight over my head (whenever someone mentions physics I run away before my head explodes), but I loved the bit about the Enlightenment. I've been studying the changes in religious philosophy post-Hume and Kant, and it frustrates me how many people can't see past science and rationality or think it can explain the whole world: there is so much more to humanity than that. I think there are problems proving God using that kind of argument (is it basically a design/teleological argument?) and definitely any specific God, because the kind of chance argument I glanced at above can always be used. Also there's the Hume-ian argument about rude experiments of minor deities etc (I'd put quotes but I can't quite remember it...) - however, it makes it much more difficult. :-) And I love that I'm not the only person that has at least considered the prospect of rationality not being the be-all and end-all of life.
Posted by: Als | June 16, 2010 at 06:14 PM
P.S. Apologies for posting comments on age-old posts you'd probably forgotten all about...
Posted by: Als | June 16, 2010 at 06:15 PM
Als: firstly, never apologise for posting on old material! If you find it, and if you like it, I'll always be pleased to find a comment on it, no matter how old. :D
And I haven't forgotten this one... it's still one of my favourite nonsense pieces, and I actually looked at it myself recently. A friend asked for some sound samples to use in his music, so I recorded a line from this piece as part of the set.
I've written quite a lot about the choice to prioritise rationality on the blog... I have no objections to people choosing this, it's when they presume that it's the *only* valid choice that it becomes a kind of scientistic fundamentalism.
See also my piece on Science and the Sacred in this regard.
Posted by: Chris | June 25, 2010 at 11:48 AM