Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Noah, the Tower of Babel…and Science

A lot of efforts have been made to appraise the Bible in terms of science and vice versa. For example, I've had fun showing (to a conference of transhumanists, no less!) that the book of Genesis clearly states we were meant to be scientists and co-creators and that "nothing is beyond us."

Noah-Film-2014PosterIndeed, it can be illuminating to plumb the Bible -- one of the keystone books of western civilization. Moreover, it gives you the ability to stun, surprise and gain a back-brain door into the minds of some of your deep-steeped neighbors. And so, in light of the recent Russell Crowe film, let's pause and sample the story of Noah.

Now of course, it is somewhat like shooting fish in the proverbial barrel. Past scholars, uncharitable toward literalist believers in "biblical inerrancy," have calculated the needed size of the Ark, for example. Were even just all known mammal species shoved aboard, shoulder to shoulder -- you'd need a hundred modern aircraft carriers.

In fact, this argument has had results! Creationist "scientist" Ken Ham conceded -- in his recent debate with Bill Nye -- that evolution (yes "evolution"!) must have radiated all the species we now see, from a seed population that rode upon the Ark! I cannot believe this major concession got so little play in the media or among devotees of either religion or science. It is a real shift in ground.

Noahs_ArkSo, all right, following Ham's clever dip-n-dodge… Noah only carried two of every GENUS and not species. I'm not sure even that will suffice… but however you may groan over this bit of back-pedaling, you also have to be impressed with the agile footwork! Okay, so evolution is real. But it only happened after the flood. Jumping Jehosephat.

Take a look at this article: Creationists Need Faster Evolution than Evolution on Skeptic Ink, who claims that creationists are "using evolutionary theory to support Noah's Ark. Sad."

(For you science-y types, here's the capsule from Skeptic Ink"There are 2,798 HLA-B alleles in the human population. If these originated from the 8 individuals on the ark (assuming all were heterozygous), the mutation rate for the gene must have been one every 2 years (from the day Noah stepped off the Ark until the present). But this mutation rate for the HLA gene wasn't matched by mutation rates for other genes. We don't have 2000 alleles for eye color or blood type or other genes in the human body." In other words, no possible set pif genetic mutation rates can match this story against what we now see going on, in the cells and chromosomes of living creatures today.)

Kaspar_Memberger_(I)_-_Noah's_Ark_Cycle_-_3._The_Flood_-_WGA14802Okay.  Then something else occurred to me. Let's say the entire human population, including guiltless babies, were drowned in a fit of angry pique by a questionably-balanced deity who was not setting a very good parental example, that's for sure. And let's further posit that the wives of Noah's three sons must replenish the Earth with humans. Less than ten generations later, you have cities and Babel-towers being built. What's the math on that?

Well, if each woman is very very fertile -- and extremely lucky -- let's generously figure ten surviving offspring. (Extremely generous, for that era, but let's go with it.) Five of those ten are daughters who can make human beings. (For our purposes, only females matter.) If each generation can multiply the number of fecund females by five, then ten generations of continuously lucky folks, who breed like rabbits and lose almost no babies at all, will give you close to ten million people! Wow.

Tower-of-babel-bible-languageOf course, that calculation is at the extreme high end. See this analysis, where other scholars suggest there were 900,000 people around to start building the Tower of Babel and perhaps as few as 36,000. In which case you get a completely different set of math quandaries…

…like how much physical volume of stone or rammed earth could be stacked upon a tower, in just the century alloted, by such a small population that also had to grow food and live "by the sweat of their brow"? By the time you get to 20,000 feet, the sheer amount of stuff… neglecting compressional and other engineering forces… could not have been hauled by 100x that population -- equipped with trucks! No wonder Talmudic scholars decided (in the 7th century) that the word "tower" must have stood for some kind of machine or high technology that had been lost to time, one that enabled human wizards to fly to heaven's gateway. Okay, that's kinda sci-fi cool, I admit, especially for the 7th Century! But a topic for another time. Let's get back to Noah.

the-dove-sent-forth-from-the-ark-1866One suggestion by the talmudists that's very interesting is that the human species that was wiped out by the Flood was different than ours. That the flood-reset wasn't just moral but genetic, with Noah's family being fundamentally different than his water-doomed neighbors, not just morally but as a matter of speciation. (One sage suggested that people before that point "had no thumbs" until Noah's new sub-species introduced that novelty. Can anyone find a reference?)

Hmmm. well, the mind roams at this point, picturing a humanity 1.0 that might have been really unpleasant by nature… (what? worse than us?)… in which case, is the questionable morality of the Flood eased, at all?

Alas, that raises a counter question about the fallibility of a deity who had to revise His design. (Not a problem, by modern reckoning! All ambitious projects undergo revision. It is only a quandary - ironically - to the obsequiously devout, who insist on zero-fallibility, a completely unnecessary trait of a creator and, well, a hard piece of flattery to live up to!)

imagesOf course, all this calculating misses the point… that the literalist inerrancy folks are wrong, on a truly manic scale. Standing upon a tower of evidence, we know the ages of the Rocks of Ages. We know the universe is vastly greater, older and more beautiful than their cramped, cover-the-eyes-and-ears frenzy permits them to see. But even if you take the stories at face value, problems abound.

For example, if the Babel dispersal happened around 1800 BCE (about the time of the Thera explosion of Santorini, a thought provoking coincidence!) then a seed population of maybe 100,000 would have had to bear successful babies at a prodigious rate… while walking very quickly… in order to spread to the corners of the globe and diversify into the countless tribes who we know to have dwelled in countless far-flung locales. Most of which we know to have been occupied already, long before 1800 BCE. Indeed, by that date, Egypt had already been operating for quite some time… and their language did not change as a result of any tower.

But it's that successful birth rate that has me confused. At what point did the accelerated replenishment cut off, with the world's women losing that reproductive lucky streak, tumbling into the long era of filth and pain and childbed-fever and still-births and miscarriages and infertility and death, death, death that we know to have been their lot, both from written records and from mummies and bones?

It must have been an abrupt transition -- a terrifying and dismaying one… from a blithe expectation of long lives and ten healthy children, into a maelstrom of horror and bleeding and mourning. Yet no records or even stories tell of such a devastating shift. Nor do I know of any any theological musings to explain why the rebuild of population since the flood was so rapid, then abruptly limited by pain and death after death. Was this another punishment? If so, it seems nastier than any flood.

GalileoQuoteOne group inconvenienced by these points of math is the Mormon community. If (as calculated) there were about 340 years between the flood and Babel… and if the Babel crisis precipitated the barrel-migration of a Hebrew tribe (Jaredites) to America… then the building of populations in the Americas becomes almost impossible to contemplate, especially with no Ice Age Bering land bridge to make things seem plausible. But of course, the same quandaries afflict any other faith that insists on interpreting the legends of illiterate shepherds as physically precise accounts…

...instead of allegories that still convey powerful lessons, to this day.

And so, that is where I will leave things. First, because there can be no resolution, because biblical literalism is simply wrong and also because it insults any chance of a God worth our time and attention, portraying Him (her?) as too vicious for words to describe…

Maxwell-equations-light… instead of as the vastly subtle Creator worshipped by Einstein, who concocts a vast cosmos of stunning complexity, diversity and extant -- a universe truly worthy of respect. A God who -- Albert would tell us, if he were here today -- must have gotten things started fourteen billion years ago by uttering the stunning beauty of Maxwell's Equations, in order to command…

 "let there be light."

153 comments:

Mark said...

I used to read AIG all the time. It really is fascinating how much detail they put into their "science". These are not stupid people! Wisdom, unfortunately, is quite lacking.

The original version of their ark solution actually used the word "evolution" to describe where all the various species came from after saving two of each "kind", but over the years they have modified the writing and no longer use that word positively, no matter what.

Myles F. Corcoran said...

I realized recently that talking sensibly to my several conspircy theorizing friends (contrails, JFK,Gov did 911 & etc.) that I had about as much chance of bringing them over here, where we only know things we can show to exist, was no more possible than bringing evangelicals over.

Our biological ability (functionality?) allows for belief in conflicting ideas. Magical thinking is very human. All I can hope for is that they never again have the political power to urn us at the stake!

A.F. Rey said...

The answers to all of your questions, Dr. Brin, is right down the street. Or freeway, actually.

El Cajon, CA houses the Creationist Museum, right off of Hwy. 67. (Look for the big T. Rex statue.) The last time I checked, its free, and they are now open 7 days a week. And they will explain to you that there was a land-bridge to North America, due to the ice age that occurred right after the Flood.

You really should check it out sometime. It's a hoot. :D

http://www.creationsd.org/

Tony Fisk said...

Looking at your transhumanist talk, I think your parable of the naming of the beasts being a command to learn about the environment (for SCIENCE!) is a wonderful interpretation, David. Truly.

Unfortunately, a closer reading of the St. James Bible (or the Hebrew Book of Genesis) doesn't quite support it:


18 And the LORD God said: 'It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a help meet for him.'
19 And out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto the man to see what he would call them; and whatsoever the man would call every living creature, that was to be the name thereof.
20. And the man gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for Adam there was not found a help meet for him.
21 And the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; and He took one of his ribs, and closed up the place with flesh instead thereof.
22 And the rib, which the LORD God had taken from the man, made He a woman, and brought her unto the man.


So there was a purpose behind all this: had Adam found a 'helper meet for him', the naming might well have ended then and there. Half our problems would be solved, we'd all be happy with our 'significant udders', and we would dismiss those other big things as 'irrelephant'.

(Puns aside, my mind fair boggles at the connotations of what was going on back there!)

However, as it is, I can see the Lord stroking his flowing beard and saying "Hmph! All that work and we *still* got nothin'?. Maybe I should have taken a day off earlier instead of cramming."
... and maybe he did. According to the geological record, it was an *awfully* long time between first life and first nookie.

Tim H. said...

In Robert Silverberg's "Gilgamesh The King" Ut Napishtim tells Gilgamesh he led people to higher ground and the story grew in the telling.

LarryHart said...

When the "Noah" movie came out, it was criticized from both sides: from the secularists for pushing a religious point of view, and by the religionists for not being religious enough.

Onc criticism from the right was that apparently, they never have Noah talking about God by name, but only as "the Creator". The religious right sees that as an expression of Hollywood's atheism.

In fact, I take that as an attempt to be true to the history. Noah is many generations prior to Abraham, who is considered the first monotheist--the first one to realize that there is only the One God. So from a Bibilical literalist point of view, it wouldn't make sense for Noah to be talking like a Christian, a Jew, or a monotheist at all. It was sufficient that he had some sort of sense that he was dealing with the Creator of the universe.

LarryHart said...

Dr Brin in the main post:

And let's further posit that the wives of Noah's three sons must replenish the Earth with humans. Less than ten generations later, you have cities and Babel-towers being built. What's the math on that?


Well, generations were much longer in those days, right? Isn't Genesis full of descriptions of people living 900 years or so?

Actually, my wife just informed me that her theory is that those lifespans were mistranslated and were really more like 900 months. Which I have never heard before, but it makes so much sense it must be right.

Tony Fisk said...

Heh!

Calvin and Hobbes' variation on David's riff about the Tower of Babel and 'Try again when you're older, kids'

cooksappe said...

:0

Daniel Duffy said...

(Warning, rant follows)

IMHO extreme atheists and fanatical fundies are like Nazis and Communists - so far apart on the political spectrum hat they are virtually indistinguishable.

I myself am a Catholic whose church has never had a problem with evolution. Pope JPII a few years ago described it as being "more than a theory". For the cautious Vatican, this amounts to a ringing endorsement. As long ago as the 6th century St. Augustine of Hippo speculated that organisms changed form over time, though he didn't have any kind of fossil record to back up his claim. Like biologist Kenneth Miller (who was featured in the last episode of the PBS series on Evolution), a fellow Catholic and author of "In Search of Darwin's God", I see no reason why evolution should conflict with my religious beliefs. Like Gould, I see science and religion as occupying non overlapping magesteria, as the first deals with mechanism and the other with teleos.

If it is wrong for a Creationist to impose a teleological view on mechanistic science, then it is equally an error (if in the opposite direction) for someone like Dawkins to impose a mechanistic view on teleological beliefs. It is not possible for science to make any claims (good, bad, pro or con) concerning meaning and purpose. Therefore it is a logical error for someone like Dawkins to claim that existence has no meaning or purpose because science can't find any. What really drives me up a tree concerning Dawkins is his constant dressing up of purely philosophical/metaphysical speculations in the guise of science. I find that intellectually dishonest.

(Here endeth the rant.)

Daniel Duffy said...

IOW, to quote the Book of Mormon (the musical, not the religious text):

"IT'S A METAPHOR!"

Tony Fisk said...

In his autobiography Dawkins speculates on the possibilty that, as a baby, he was mistakenly swapped from another branch of the clan who featured a long line of Anglican missionaries.
It appears to be a private family joke.

Alex Tolley said...

The Noah story also ignores all the animals that have been found as fossils. It ignores the all the aquatic fauna (what happens when the fresh water rain dilutes the oceans, or the saline oceans mix in with the freshwater?) When I once questioned one of the published creationists back in the 1970's all I got was "dinosaurs sank". No explanation of why they were not saved, nor why ocean going reptiles suddenly were unable to swim. And let's not forget the impact of flooding on ecosystems that magically recovered after the global flood waters receded.

There are so many holes in the account that one has to be in denial to accept the story as literal truth.

The modern creationists are inconsistent too. I understand that the Creation Museum has people riding dinosaurs (to explain the fossils), yet somehow God forgot about these animals during the flood and so they were not spared? Did God suddenly decide he didn't like his own creation?

I recall seeing Pat Robertson[?] appeal for money to find the Ark on Mt Ararat, using blurry images to suggest it might be there. In the age of Google maps, why not have his followers look for it directly? The fame from finding it on the maps and then going to actually find it on the ground would be immense. Hmm, wonder why that hasn't happened?

Anonymous said...

It's certainly fun reinterpreting bible stories like this, but I don't think it's a good way to argue or persuade. If you accept that the bible can be used as evidence for anything you've already lost, since now that is the terrain you're fighting on, and it's a terrain much less advantageous to the force of science and reason than the terrain of actual evidence.

Gator said...

@DDuffy:
"IMHO extreme atheists and fanatical fundies are like Nazis and Communists - so far apart on the political spectrum hat they are virtually indistinguishable."

NOT. You're just trying to make excuses for your own magical thinking.

I'm not sure who you would classify as an "extreme atheist". Dawkins is an outspoken athiest, and is also very articulate in backing up what he believes with reason. This is pretty much the opposite of fanatical fundies as David Brin points out in this post.

occam's comic said...

Whenever I deal with biblical literalists, I argue that biblical literalism is Literary Idolatry. That they are worshiping a book not God. That the Devils favorite book is the bible because he can find a bible quote to justify just about any evil deed and look holy doing it. When someone quotes the bible to justify a prejudice I say “Did anyone else get the overpowering stench of brimstone when he said that?” What really gets them is when I say you can’t follow Christ’s first commandment to Love God with your whole heart, mind and soul and be a biblical literalist at the same time. Biblical literalist refuses to use their whole mind.

Anonymous said...

@Daniel Duffy, can you please explain how this makes sense? http://www.catholic.com/tracts/adam-eve-and-evolution

Near as I can figure, that's arguing that Catholic belief requires that all humans be descended from Adam and Eve, so the original sin theory will work. You can look at the genetics; we're not nearly that inbred. That's way worse than cheetahs.

Hans said...

Hi,

What with David's recommendation and all, I've been reading Kos a bit, and it seems fairly solid if excessively partisan at times.

Is anyone aware of a similar news site with a conservative view point that is rational most of the time?

Anonymous said...

All very interesting and I certainly enjoy reading things like this (thank you) however over the decades I've learned that trying to teach "True Believers" anything is like trying to teach a pig to sing. All it does is waste your time and annoy the pig.

Daniel Friend said...

David,

Interesting post. There's a bit of Mormon scholarship that you might be interested in with regards to the Jaredite question you bring up. John Sorenson (whose final book I helped edit during my internship at BYU's Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship), posits the idea that the Book of Mormon can best be understood as a Mesoamerican "lineage history," in which the history of the ruling class or tribe is recounted and the history of their vassals is mostly ignored. Given this idea that the Jaredites may have arrived in America and become the rulers of the people who already lived there, the Book of Mormon can co-exist quite felicitously with both the Bering Strait land bridge and archeology as we know it. In fact, the Jaredites' history corresponds quite nicely in both time and place with the Olmec civilization. (Mormon scholars determined quite some time ago, using only evidence internal to the Book of Mormon, that the record covers a geographic area comparable in size to the Holy Land; phrases like "the whole land" should not be misconstrued to mean the entirety of the Americas.)

LarryHart said...

occam's comic:

Whenever I deal with biblical literalists, I argue that biblical literalism is Literary Idolatry. That they are worshiping a book not God.


Great post (not just the snippet).

I've argued with religionists for years that I don't know whether God exists or even if I understand what that question entails, but that I refuse to have faith in Scripture.

To many people, especially those in their culture's dominant religion, seem to think that one follows logically from the other--that if God exists, then the Bible is necessarily His word. I see many steps missing from that proof.

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Daniel Duffy said...

Gator:

"You're just trying to make excuses for your own magical thinking."

No, just avoiding the willful ignorance of the fundy and the inherent nihilism of the atheist. And its not magical to believe that the universe has inherent meaning and purpose - a reason to exist.

Science cannot say anything (good, bad or indifferent) about questions of meaning, which is what a belief in God boils down to. Did a deity create the universe? If so, then existence has meaning and purpose. Is the universe an accidental by product of the Big Bang only. Then existence is meaningless and pointless. The answers to these questions cannot be found inside science. They are inherently unscientific questions, but not meaningless or unimportant.

Meaning is meaningless only to a nihilist.

Robert said...

If you need your imaginary friend-father-figure to give you meaning in your life, then your life truly has no meaning.

You are the product of mathematics, ultimately, and the chance that you yourself would come to exist is so infinitesimally low that your existence, my existence, even Dr. Brin's existence could be considered miraculous to those who seek to inject magical thinking into the processes.

What meaning is there to life? There is none. So just live your life. It will end eventually, and you will only live on in the memories of others... and will eventually fade entirely. But the atoms that make up what you are will exist in other things as well. A piece of you will exist in other entities, human and otherwise. And when our sun eventually dies, it is believed this planet will likely be consumed by Sol and those atoms will likely be thrown out into the interstellar void... and in time will make up other stars and other planets... and even other life.

It may not be the harps and magical thinking of "heaven" but damn it's a glorious way to go.

Rob H.

A.F. Rey said...

Daniel Duffy said: Is the universe an accidental by product of the Big Bang only. Then existence is meaningless and pointless.

Not necessarily. We can give meaning to our own lives. We don't need someone else to provide it.

Meaning only has meaning when there is intelligence. We provide the intelligence, so we provide the meaning.

matthew said...

Prescient article about the logical conclusion of income inequality. "It will be the bloodiest thing the world has ever seen."

http://www.salon.com/2014/05/22/bloodiest_thing_the_world_has_seen_david_cay_johnston_on_inequalitys_looming_disaster/

As to the OP,I do think that the three Abrahamic religions have done much more harm than good to our world. I was raised outside of monotheism and am thankful for that every single day.

The characterization of atheists (I am not one BTW) as nihilists shows a profound misunderstanding of the vast majority of non-believers. I suspect that the next great social "freedom" movement will be to recognize atheists as worthy of government office, equal protection under the law, etc. Be careful you do not end up on the wrong side of history.

the1grape said...

Robert,
Even Einstein knew that a force greater than man existed and could not be accounted for. I'm at a loss for time or I'd find his quote. It's out there for you to find, just look.

Doris said...

What if the universe has meaning -- and that meaning is not very nice?

Gator said...

@DD
"No, just avoiding the willful ignorance of the fundy and the inherent nihilism of the atheist. And its not magical to believe that the universe has inherent meaning and purpose - a reason to exist."

1) that is hardly equating fundamentalists and atheists, which you called "virtually indistinguishable." You seem to have identified a way to distinguish them.
2) I'm an atheist -- if you want to label me a nihlist, in that the universe does not impose an objective set of morals or meanings to my life, then OK. I guess I can live with that. But that doesn't mean that my life is meaningless to me, or that I don't follow my own set of ethics.
3) If you think the universe does impose some set of objective morals or meanings, then that is exactly magical thinking. I'd like to see you prove what these objective meanings are.

Science can show how the universe evolved since 10e-20 sec after the big bang. Science can show how life evolved on this planet. So far science can't say what caused the big bang, or if "cause" even makes sense in that context. If you want to call that cause "deity", well, I don't think that adds anything to the discussion. What possible meaning could that give to your life? Something created a vast universe 13 B years ago, and you think that thing cares if you cheat on your wife?

Alfred Differ said...

For the believers who like to think of God as transcending time, I prefer to quote the Maxwell equations in their four-dimensional format with a field tensor.

Do it all with geometric algebra and =the beauty of the symmetry is more obvious. It occasionally prompts the non-mathematical folks to be curious.

del . F = J
del ^ F = 0

I'm a non-theist at heart, but I'll admit I was moved when I learned E&M this way.

Robert said...

@the1grape - Actually, you're wrong. Albert Einstein didn't know. He believed. God has not been proven mathematically. As such, anything Einstein said about "something greater" was a personal opinion and not verified scientifically.

Scientists can believe whatever they want to believe. But that does not mean what they believe in is true.

Rob H.

Daniel Duffy said...

For those claiming that a God is not necessary for purpose and meaning to exist, let me reiterate:

If the universe was deliberately created by a deity, it was created for a purpose and existence has a reason for existing. However, if the universe is a mere accident, then accident by definition are meaningless and without purpose.

Therefore atheism results in macro-nihilism on the cosmic scale. To which you respond that you can create your own personal meaning in an otherwise meaningless universe and thus avoid micro-nihilism at the personal scale. Let me explain to you why that is not logically possible.

There are several problems with do-it-yourself purpose/meaning. First it involves an act of to solipsism ("that self is the only object of real knowledge.", OED). To claim that you have created meaning in your own mind is akin to claiming that you believed that you floated around the room like a balloon, therefore that must have been a real experience.

The second problem lies in the evaluation of the do-it-yourself purpose and it existential in nature. As Sarte and Neitzche discovered to their dismay when "God is dead", nihilism is what you get in return. Their philosophies dwelled on this existentialist blind alley, trying to find an escape, such as Sarte's "duty" to make meaning in your life. But if all of existence is inherently meaningless, what possible compass can you use to guide yourself in the search for meaning and purpose? The following is a quote from the internet library of philosophy to illustrate this point:

"In the twentieth century, it's the atheistic existentialist movement, popularized in France in the 1940s and 50s, that is responsible for the currency of existential nihilism in the popular consciousness. Jean-Paul Sartre's (1905-1980) defining preposition for the movement, "existence precedes essence," rules out any ground or foundation for establishing an essential self or a human nature. When we abandon illusions, life is revealed as nothing; and for the existentialists, nothingness is the source of not only absolute freedom but also existential horror and emotional anguish. Nothingness reveals each individual as an isolated being "thrown" into an alien and unresponsive universe, barred forever from knowing why yet required to invent meaning. It's a situation that's nothing short of absurd. Writing from the enlightened perspective of the absurd, Albert Camus (1913-1960) observed that Sisyphus' plight, condemned to eternal, useless struggle, was a superb metaphor for human existence (The Myth of Sisyphus, 1942). The common thread in the literature of the existentialists is coping with the emotional anguish arising from our confrontation with nothingness, and they expended great energy responding to the question of whether surviving it was possible. Their answer was a qualified "Yes," advocating a formula of passionate commitment and impassive stoicism. In retrospect, it was an anecdote tinged with desperation because in an absurd world there are absolutely no guidelines, and any course of action is problematic. Passionate commitment, be it to conquest, creation, or whatever, is itself meaningless. Enter nihilism."

In other words, if the universe did not already have "meaning and purpose" , then individuals would have the impossible task of creating them ex nihilo.

Daniel Duffy said...

(continued) The third problem I have is that this view point tends to make human value subjective instead of absolute - and thereby kills the concept of human dignity. Now even though meaning and value are not strictly the same thing, we do value the meaningful over meaningless. Not everyone can or will give the same level of meaning to their lives. Is the life of a Wall Street millionaire more valuable than that of a child with Down's syndrome? Either human value and dignity are absolutes, universals without exceptions, or they are meaningless. If you disagree, first ask yourself which is intrinsically more valuable, universals or subjective.

Lastly, is the lack of free will. If God does not exist, then neither does the Soul. And in a purely mechanical universe devoid of any spiritual dimension, free will is not possible. As such any feeling of exercising choice ,or volition are mere illusions. Lacking free will it is not physically possible to create meaning. Which bring you back to the inescapable black hole of nihilism.

So for reasons both existential and practical, atheism = nihilism at all levels.

Daniel Duffy said...

(continued) As for atheism resulting in nihilism at both the cosmic and personal level, I would like to call to my defense Prof. Richard Dawkins, noted atheist and polemicist:

"The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but pitiless indifference."

"Let me summarize my views on what modern evolutionary biology tells us loud and clear ... and these are basically Darwin's views. There are no gods, no purposes, and no goal-directed forces of any kind. There is no life after death ... there is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning in life."

Fun guy, wonder if he's available for kids parties?

Such hard reduction ism is like a man peeling away an onion layer by layer until nothing is left, and then boldly pronouncing that there was nothing there in the first place. Let me repeat that meaning and purpose are holistic concepts which can never by ascertained by reductionist methods. To attempt to do so is a logical fallacy. For example, focus on any small segment of a graph showing the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Any small section will show apparently pointless and meaningless zigs and zags in the value of the DJIA. Now pull back and look at the whole graph and you'll notice a definitive and purposeful overall trend upward driven by a causal agent - economic progress.

Dawkins and his protégé Susan Blackmore have taken this hard reductionism to new heights (or lows) with their elimination of the "Self". Dawkins, et al have always hated DesCartes "I think, therefore I am" because it implies some sort of ghost in the machine which can't be accounted for by purely mechanistic explanations.

Daniel Duffy said...

(continued)Dawkins meme concept was taken to its logical conclusion by Susan Blackmore who makes the claim that the Self is merely an illusion. Dawkins has adopted this position. Let the following quotes illustrate this:

In a recent joint lecture, Dawkins asked his colleague Steven Pinker: "Am I right to think that the feeling I have that I'm a single entity, who makes decisions, and loves and hates and has political views and things is a kind of illusion that has come about because Darwinian selection found it expedient to create that illusion of unitariness rather than let us be a society of mind?" Pinker answered affirmatively that "the fact that the brain ultimately controls a body that has to be in one place at one time may impose the need for some kind of circuit . . . that coordinates the different agendas of the different parts of the brain to ensure that the whole body goes in one direction." That hypothetical circuit is all that remains of the illusion of a free-acting self. [The Dawkins-Pinker exchange is available at www.edge.org]

And from a recent interview:

Stangroom: One final question about hard determinism. I think at the end of The Selfish Gene you said that one of the important things about human beings is that they are able to choose to act otherwise than perhaps their selfish genes would have them. Obviously, however, for a hard determinist the choices we make are themselves determined. In an interview with The Third way www.csis.org.uk/Articles/Intrview/interv1.htm) you indicated that you had some sympathy with Susan Blackmore's view that ".The idea that there is a self in there that decides things, acts and is responsible, is a whopping great illusion. The self we construct is just an illusion because actually there's only brains and chemicals.". Is your position then that statements about consciousness or selfhood will ultimately be reducible to statements about neurons and chemicals?

Dawkins: I suppose that philosophically I am committed to that view because I think that everything about life is a product of the evolutionary process and consciousness must be a manifestation of the evolutionary process, presumably via brains. So I think that has got to mean that consciousness is ultimately a material phenomenon."

Daniel Duffy said...

Finally, let me make this clear. I am not claiming atheism is wrong, only that it is nihilistic. To claim otherwise is a cowardly act of believing in magical creatures like the Self, Free Will, and Meaning and Purpose.

If atheism is true, none of these things can exist.

So an honest and courageous atheist must drink deeply of every bitter, nihilistic dregs of his atheism.

Duncan Cairncross said...

Hi Daniel
"I am not claiming atheism is wrong, only that it is nihilistic. To claim otherwise is a cowardly act of believing in magical creatures like the Self, Free Will, and Meaning and Purpose."

Surely if there is a God then the question of what is the god for and who created him only pushes the argument about nihilism back one rung
If an atheist is nihilistic then a deist is nihilistic in a second hand manner

You can't get away from it - "It's elephants all the way down"

Gator said...

@DD,
You start off with "If the universe was deliberately created by a deity..."

What if the universe was created accidentally, or if the reason has nothing to do with YOU or any other human, but with something over in another galaxy 100 M light years over that-a-way?

You start off with "I believe" and therefore end up with "I believe."

Later you say "If God does not exist, then neither does the Soul." I see no reason why god => soul. You could certainly conceive of a deity who created the universe we see around us with no afterlife waiting for its inhabitants. Again, a bunch of wishful thinking.

And it certainly comes as a surprise to me to learn that it is impossible for me to have meaning or goals for my life. I certainly perceive that I do. Reminds me of that Edie Brickel song. Tell me some more about what my life must be if I'm an atheist.

Daniel Duffy said...

"What if the universe was created accidentally"

Then it is devoid of meaning or purpose.

"or if the reason has nothing to do with YOU or any other human"

The actual purpose is irrelevant. Simply having a purpose allows existence to escape the trap of nihilism.

"And it certainly comes as a surprise to me to learn that it is impossible for me to have meaning or goals for my life. I certainly perceive that I do."

It's merely an illusion. How is perceiving that you have meaning in your life different than perceiving that there is a God?

You just exchange one illusion for another.

Robert said...

@Daniel Duffy - your argument is fallacious. You assume that there is no purpose for morals and meaning without a divine entity. But human nature is such that we create explanations for the world around us so to better comprehend it. Thus it was our neurochemical processes that instigated the belief in a divine entity and that brought about a moral code.

Moral codes are not meaningless in the absence of divinity. They allow humanity to function in groups while also competing against other groups. But eventually they become outdated and unnecessary.

It is not nihilistic not to believe in God or to believe that existence ends with our death. Humanity is currently developing methods of encoding immortality of a sort. If we gain the ability to "upload" our memories and personalities into electrochemical networks, then an aspect of that person could continue so long as the network exists. It would not be "soulless" as there is no actual soul. It is just a change of form and function.

Rob H.

Daniel Duffy said...

"I see no reason why god => soul."

The immortal soul exists, but not God? I'm afraid you miss my point. A complete absence of any spiritual aspect to a purely materialistic existence would preclude both God and the Soul.

And without the Soul there is no Free Will (reread Dawkins and Blackmore).

Without Free Will there can be no meaning or purpose.

You're just a meat puppet.

Daniel Duffy said...

"Surely if there is a God then the question of what is the god for and who created him only pushes the argument about nihilism back one rung"

Wrong question. The question really isn't whether or not God exists but whether or not Existence has inherent meaning. That is only possible if it was deliberately created.

The nature of the Creature is not the issue.

If we live in a holographic simulation, then the Creature is a software programmer.

If our universe is a baby universe created in an alien lab in another parallel universe then the Creator is an Alien Scientist.

If the bible is literally true, the Creator is Yahweh.

In any case, the universe would have meaning and purpose.

Daniel Duffy said...

"Creature" should be "Creator".

Sorry for my poor typing skills.

Robert said...

Why would you say there is no free will without a soul? Just because a couple of philosophers argued as such doesn't make it so. It is commonly felt that animals don't have souls, and yet they have freedom of choice. There is footage of orcas toying with a young seal... going up onto the beach as it was about to escape and pulling it back and the like... and yet at the very end, they let the seal live. They deliberately let it go. Yet they are animals. And thus soulless according to most religious beliefs.

We don't need a metaphysical energy force to explain free will. Simple chaos theory and genetics helps explain choice.

Rob H.

Daniel Duffy said...

Seriously, Dr. Brin, an edit button for our entries would be very useful.

Daniel Duffy said...

"Why would you say there is no free will without a soul? Just because a couple of philosophers argued as such doesn't make it so."

Philosophers and neuro-scientists. Go read "Sorry But Your Soul Just Died" by essayist Tom Wolfe

"It is commonly felt that animals don't have souls, and yet they have freedom of choice."

They have instincts.

"and yet at the very end, they let the seal live."

That's how young orcas learn to hunt.

Daniel Duffy said...

"Moral codes are not meaningless in the absence of divinity. They allow humanity to function in groups while also competing against other groups. But eventually they become outdated and unnecessary."

There's a word for relativistic morality. Its called "expediency".

Daniel Duffy said...

"Why would you say there is no free will without a soul?"

Just me and Dawkins, and Blackmore, and Dennet and Pinker...

dgaetano said...

"Just me and Dawkins, and Blackmore, and Dennet and Pinker..."

You're going to have to give a definition for free will, it's a bit of a slippery concept. I've found those of the "we have none without a soul" persuasion tend to define it as "that magical property one gets with a soul".

(As opposed to, just for example, "decisions made in a state of self awareness" where being able to pass the mirror test counts as self awareness)

LarryHart said...

Daniel Duffy:

Wrong question. The question really isn't whether or not God exists but whether or not Existence has inherent meaning. That is only possible if it was deliberately created.


"If existence was deliberatly created"? Do those words even make sense in that order?

What I think you are asserting is that if and only if something was created does it have meaning...to its creator. That is not the same thing as whether it has meaning...full stop. I have a daughter who I, in some sense "created". Her life has meaning to her in a very different manner than it has meaning to me.

Yes, I'm using "meaning" in a subjective sense. Is that your point? That an accidental creation has no standard of objective meaning? If that's the case, I'd say it doesn't matter. In 10,000 years, we will all be dead. Does that make the way we live our lives meanigless? Only if quality of life fails to matter to you.

Andy said...

David you may be interested in the short story Tower of Babylon by Chinese-American sci-fi author Ted Chiang. It's part of his collection called Stories of Your Life and Others, which is great!

Alex Tolley, Mt Ararat is in a restricted military zone in Turkey which conveniently gives fundies an excuse for not yet having found the ark.

Daniel Duffy... there's a difference between some sort of cosmic ultimate meaning and local, subjective meaning for an individual. Subjective meaning can exist even if objective meaning does not. Asserting over and over that it doesn't exist doesn't make you right :)

As for free will... there is no such thing in the sense that most theists conceive of it. Think about it: when someone makes a choice, how is that choice arrived at? Nature + nurture has molded the state of nir brain over time, and if you knew the state of every neuron and had complete knowledge of the laws of physics you could predict what choice ne will ultimately make. It's either that or random chance, and neither is "free will."

LarryHart said...

Daniel Duffy:

"It is commonly felt that animals don't have souls, and yet they have freedom of choice."

They have instincts.


You haven't spent time living with a cat, have you?

LarryHart said...

Daniel Duffy:

There's a word for relativistic morality. Its called "expediency".


The same word describes a moral code which amounts to "Do whatever will keep the Authority Figure from punishing you."

Andy said...

The lack of free will leads to one of my biggest problem with Christianity: that God would condemn someone to Hell for sins that they were predetermined BY GOD to commit in the first place!

God is omniscient, so he foresaw that he would have to send people to hell... there was no possible way for those people to NOT end up in hell, because God set up the initial conditions of the universe in such a manner which would inevitable lead to them sinning! Pretty effed up. But for some reasons Christians think this is okay... like when God deliberately hardened Pharaoh's heart, leading to the murder of thousands of innocent children by his angel of death.

Picture it... Pharaoh is like "I'm TRYING to let your people go Moses! I really am! I'm SICK of all the blood and boils and frogs and flies! But I... I just can't! DAMN THIS HARDENED HEART!"

The Old Testament God is a twisted puppet master, playing with people's will in order to demonstrate his "power" and "glory." Makes me sick, and ashamed/frightened that I used to believe it.

LarryHart said...

dgaetano:

You're going to have to give a definition for free will, it's a bit of a slippery concept. I've found those of the "we have none without a soul" persuasion tend to define it as "that magical property one gets with a soul".


I think that religious people believe that the soul is what has free will over choices concerning its own disposition. "You can choose to obey God or to disobey God". That sort of thing. Perhaps, the reasoning is that without an immoratl soul subject to Heaven or Hell, such choices are meaningless.

That's a whole different thing from what you and I probably think of as "free will", i.e., you are free to spend your $10 at Starbucks, or at McDonalds, or to give it to the homeless guy, or to save it for later. That sort of free will has no relation (that I can see) to whether one possesses a soul.

Gator said...

@Andy: They don't call it Christian apologetics for nuthin! ;)

@DD:
You assume so many things and then act like you proven something. Soul = free will? What the hell is a soul? And so what?

I'm much happier making my own meaning than letting someone else tell me what my life should mean. At least you seem to admit that your religion is just an illusion...

You seem to be so scared of the world that you are willing to believe any sort of nonsense in an attempt to prove the world has "meaning".

What if the universe was created by a "deity", but by accident? Or if it was created to provide a habitat for something in another galaxy, and we are just the bacteria growing on the edge of the petri dish? You would truly say your life therefore has meaning? What kind of meaning is that?

dgaetano said...

"...if you knew the state of every neuron and had complete knowledge of the laws of physics you could predict what choice ne will ultimately make."

This is incorrect, the Universe is simply not deterministic in the way that this implies. (Not that it changes the point you were making, but this subtlety is worth getting right)

Wave functions are deterministic, and with infinite knowledge you could calculate an infinitely accurate wave function for a system.

However, how that wave function collapses is random (although it conforms to the probability density determined by the wave function). And not just slightly random, we're talking unknowably, undeterministically instantaneously random. The definition of random random.

How quickly this randomness bubbles up from the quantum world into ours is situationally dependent, but you can take solace (or horror, guess it depends) in the knowledge that our world is not deterministic.

(In other words: if you magically turn the clock back 24 hours and then let it go forward again, the new day will not be the same as the previous incarnation, and this is a fundamental property of the universe)

Tony Fisk said...

You don't even need quantum theory to refute the notion of 'determinism'. There are chaotic mathematical sets (eg Mandelbrot) which are quite classical, but whose boundary conditions require infinite precision to be determined. This makes them effectively random.

Meanwhile, having discussed it a couple of days ago, I am delighted to see that Tom Siddell, the creator of Gunnerkrigg Court, appears to grok David's parable of the animals (Sorry Stefan. You're about a chapter behind this)

LarryHart said...

Gator:

Or if it was created to provide a habitat for something in another galaxy, and we are just the bacteria growing on the edge of the petri dish? You would truly say your life therefore has meaning? What kind of meaning is that?


Back in fifth grade, we learned about the placenta (afterbirth) and were told that it is a by-product of the gestation process which is "born" a few minutes after the baby. It immediately occured to me to speculate on whether we know if the baby might rather be the bi-product in the production of a placenta instead.

In the world of comic books, the somewhat-famous "Spawn" and the non-nearly-as-famous "Deathlok" (and I'm sure many other stories as well) explore the premise of an anti-hero whose creator clearly produced him for evil purposes and whose own conscience compells him to rebel against that purpose in favor of his lost humanity. I've always found that sort of narrative to be quite compelling.

Andy said...

@dgaetano

You are correct, that is the "random" choice I was referring to, though I didn't make it clear it was quantum waves. Either way, no free will.

Although, there is always the possibility that what appears to be random is not random, but is actually the product of yet to be discovered deterministic processes.

Andy said...

"I think that religious people believe that the soul is what has free will over choices concerning its own disposition. "You can choose to obey God or to disobey God". That sort of thing. Perhaps, the reasoning is that without an immoratl soul subject to Heaven or Hell, such choices are meaningless."

Exactly... oftentimes it seems that free will is "that which makes you morally responsible for the choices you make."

I often hear that the explanation that "God gave us free will so we could truly love him. You could program a robot to love you, but it wouldn't be true love because it was programmed."

I fail to see the difference :)

LarryHart said...

Andy:

I often hear that the explanation that "God gave us free will so we could truly love him. You could program a robot to love you, but it wouldn't be true love because it was programmed."

I fail to see the difference :)


Well, if the person who loves you has free will to choose, that proves you have actually earned the love.

But again, God is omniscient and (presumably) immune to the lure of fooling Himself, so He already knows whether He is worthy.

What I find more interesting are questions about free will in the physical world. Your free will is self-evidently limited by your capabilities and environment. For instance, I can make a free will choice whether to eat a dessert that tastes good but will harm my health. Yet, I can't indulge a free will choice to fly to the moon without a vehicle.

I guess the real philosophical question, then is whether "choosing to love God" or "choosing to be gay" or any number of similar choices are limited in a like manner.

Paul451 said...

Daniel dismissed Duncan's "turtles all the way down" comment, but missed the relevance. If conscious creation is required to give the universe purpose, and that purpose is required to give human life meaning, then God/God's Realm must also have been created by an Even Greater Being in order for God (and His actions) to have purpose/meaning. (And the Even Greater Being must have been Created by a Yet Bigger Thing in order to give Its actions purpose and thus meaning...)

If that it not necessary, then the logic accepts that the meaning/purpose of the action doesn't have to exist beyond the actor. God can instil Purpose into the universe, even though His own Existence has no Purpose except to Himself and His Actions have no Meaning except for Himself. If that is the case, then humans can also instil meaning in their lives (which they are creating as they go) without a Creator-God.

Otherwise, we're just arbitrarily re-defining "meaning" as something God gives, and then immediately concluding that without God there's no meaning-as-defined-as-something-God-gives. Which is somewhat circular.

And says nothing about whether atheists are nihilists.

We are. The problem is that nihilism has many forms, so there's a tendency to treat the ones we are not as the sole definition of "nihilism". So when accused of "nihilism", we act as if we are being accused of something we are not. Atheists generally do not believe in an absolute (objective, external) morality, so we are existential nihilists. That is only one meaning of nihilism. Atheists typically believe in an objective reality, so we'd reject a different form of nihilism (metaphysical nihilism). Many atheists believe that an objective reality is at least partly knowable, therefore are not pure epistemological nihilists, even if we reject the idea of absolute knowledge. And while being existential nihilists, most atheists would accept that humans impose a morality on each other, one that has value to themselves, and thus are not pure moral nihilists. Nor, often, are we political nihilists (rejecting all "authority"), although we may reject an absolute authority-by-right. Daniel, of course, makes it worse, because when he accuses atheists of "nihilism", he very much uses one type of nihilism to justify branding atheists with all forms in absolute. For example, rejecting the idea of external purpose doesn't reject the idea of self- (or even collective) purpose. Rejecting the idea of external morality doesn't mean that all morality is the same to us, nor valueless to us. And any kind of philosophical "nihilism" doesn't mean that a person is emotionally "nihilistic" in their view of their own lives; because those two forms of nihilism refer to completely different things.

Paul451 said...

Daniel also misses the point of Gator's "god !=> soul" comment. Gator made the point that the mere existence of God doesn't mean the existence of souls. And Daniel even repeats this idea when talking about metaverse aliens as the creators, who thus imbue the universe (and our lives) with meaning. Yet elsewhere he requires souls for our lives to have meaning. But a creator-alien doesn't have to create souls when creating our material universe. Ditto a Creator-God.

But inspired by Daniel's reply to Gator, I suppose an "immortal soul" could exist without God (or multiverse alien), as an emergent property of a mechanistic universe. At some level of complexity, our consciousnesses became imprinted on some universal substrate, which then continues after our deaths. So in theory, an atheist could believe in an "immortal soul". Hey, if dark-matter/dark-energy exist, and only a tiny part of the universe is baryonic, perhaps complexity of thought somehow reflects on the dark universe. And once freed of the tie to our baryonic forms, the mirror-selves are free to explore the rest of reality to which we have been blind.

Re: Random/chaotic/quantum...

I don't think invoking any kind of random mechanism solves the "free will" problem, only the "pre-determination" problem. Generally because we can't define "free will" in a useful way. [What does an absence of "free will" mean without pre-determination?]

Jumper said...

There is no determinism as Duffy blindly (on faith?) assumes. The universe is non-computable and not determinable. The existence of free will rests on this fact alone. No imaginary constructs needed.

Jumper said...

Is God clever enough to create a scenario whose outcome He can't predict?

Frederic Janssens said...

@Andy

"Although, there is always the possibility that what appears to be random is not random, but is actually the product of yet to be discovered deterministic processes."

Even if it is historically explainable, it is still surprising to what extent the only possibilities considered are "random" or "deterministic".
When you talk to somebody do you really feel that what you say is either random or determined?
A more reasonable explanation is that the conversation depends on the relation between the speakers.
There is now a QM interpretation coherent with that point of view : Relational quantum mechanics (RQM) :
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Relational_quantum_mechanics

It has my favor, and does not need paradoxes.

If you take Relations to be fundamental, as I do, random and determinism are just two idealized limits. No relation or one universal homogeneous relation. If you posit one of these idealizations you can easily have the impression that you have "understood everything", but I suggest that that impression is illusory.

To really understand something you have to relate to it.

locumranch said...

In the sense that it is recursive, metaphysical argument always ends where it begins, the predetermined product of the beggared question & buggered logic.

Progress, purpose & fate are three such terms which (while defined in retrospect) are thought to represent the forgone conclusion as in 'My presence here now was predetermined by my prior arrival at this location'.

Such is the Cosmological Argument that assumes 'contingent being' in order to presuppose the existence of a non-contingent creator. And such is the argument used to prove that human morality springs from something more profound that human arbitrariness.

Duffy had it right before he flew off the rails: Science deals with mechanism and religion with 'telos' (the end term of a goal-oriented process), the latter being beggared by its beginning and the former being non-contingent.



Best

Paul451 said...

Jumper,
"Is God clever enough to create a scenario whose outcome He can't predict?"

Yes. Moreover, He can predict such outcomes.

sociotard said...

Dr. Brin probably wouldn't like Christopher Farnsworth's books (secret agent vampire kills monsters and covers up their existence).

That said, he might like the commencement address he just gave.

"We have to stop waiting for Armageddon to get us off the hook. If everything is doomed, then we are free from any responsibilities. But everything is not doomed. Our greatest fear is not that the world will end, but that it won’t, and that we will have to live with the consequences of our actions."

http://www.goodreads.com/author_blog_posts/6307313-waiting-for-the-end-of-the-world?ref=ru_lihp_up_abp_10_mclk&uid=6307313

lr said...

Farnsworth presents us with a false choice: EITHER we are free from any responsibilities if everything is doomed OR we are responsible for everything if everything is not doomed.

Ask instead about the nature of responsibility, the duty to what, the obligation of whom, the why of liability and the burden of consequence.

Robert said...

Here, Dr. Brin - an article on the sole U.S. Republican Senate candidate who is pro-science and believes in climatic changes. It's interesting who he blames for the anti-science sentiments - he doesn't pull punches. Not only are Republicans and talk radio to blame, but so are environmental groups for failing to effectively sell their position. :)

Rob H.

Randy Winn said...

I'm not entirely clear what the meaning of "meaning" is in that long discussion, or what is wrong with God allowing me to figure out the meaning of my own life without worrying about the meaning of all life.
It seems to me that free will (whatever the heck *that* may be) without at least some permission to construct personal meaning would be dreary indeed.
Trying to understand the meaning of the entire ancient and possibly eternal multiversrseter would stun even the smartest human; "Sufficient unto the dazed are the evils thereof."

Daniel Duffy said...

Duncan

"Surely if there is a God then the question of what is the god for and who created him only pushes the argument about nihilism back one rung"

Since God would have created time when He created the universe there is no "before". You may as well ask what is north of the north pole.

What came before God is a meaningless question prior to the existence of time.

Daniel Duffy said...

dgaetano

'I've found those of the "we have none without a soul" persuasion tend to define it as "that magical property one gets with a soul".'

Actually it atheists like Dawkins, Blackmore, Pinker and Dennet who make this claim.

Daniel Duffy said...

LarryHart

"Do those words even make sense in that order?"

Why would they not.

"What I think you are asserting is that if and only if something was created does it have meaning...to its creator. That is not the same thing as whether it has meaning...full stop."

No what I'm saying is that an accidental universe can have no meaning at all of any kind. A deliberately created universe (whether by software programmer, alien scientist or Yahweh) would have to have a reason for existing - a purpose.

The nature of that purpose is not important. What is important is the complete absence of purpose in a purely accidental universe. Hence the macro nihilism.

Daniel Duffy said...

Andy

"Daniel Duffy... there's a difference between some sort of cosmic ultimate meaning and local, subjective meaning for an individual. "

I've never said anything else. A lack of a God would be needed for cosmic level macro nihilism.

The lack of a Soul, and thus the lack of Free Will, makes personal level micro nihilism.

Daniel Duffy said...

Andy

"The lack of free will leads to one of my biggest problem with Christianity: that God would condemn someone to Hell for sins that they were predetermined BY GOD to commit in the first place!"

Why would foreknowledge be the same as predestination?

If I had a time portal that allowed me to see into the future and I saw that you would do something bad like order a spicy pepperoni pizza for dinner next Friday, did I CAUSE you or MAKE you order that pizza?

Of course not, you did that on your own. I merely saw where your free will would take you.

Now I could have intervened and stopped you from ordering that sinful pizza - but I would have to prevent you from exercising your free will by physically restraining your ability to act.

Or if I was God like, I could make it so you r brain wold never think to do something so awful - again by removing your free will.

Free will is perfectly compatible with foreknowledge.

Daniel Duffy said...

Gator

"I'm much happier making my own meaning"

My point (and the point of neuroscience) is that it is impossible for you to do so since you have no free will and even your sense of self is a mere illusion.

Daniel Duffy said...

Paul 451

" If conscious creation is required to give the universe purpose, and that purpose is required to give human life meaning, then God/God's Realm must also have been created by an Even Greater Being in order for God (and His actions) to have purpose/meaning."

Let me repeat, prior to the Creation of Time when the universe was created,there is no "before". Asking what preceded God prior to time existing is a meaningless question.

Singedrac said...

What if the Ark was actually a TARDIS? Bigger on the inside?

Daniel Duffy said...

Once again let me use Dawkins (or in this case a critique of Dawkins) to show another reason why free will is not possible:

http://www.arn.org/docs/johnson/pj_robotrebellion.htm

Modern Darwinists can respond that selfish genes do not always make selfish people, because it may be in the interests of the genes to encourage some forms of social cooperation, particularly within the family. For example, a mother might spread her genes most effectively by sacrificing her own life to preserve the lives of her offspring, who carry the same genes.

That's a pretty weak reassurance when contemplating the kinds of things that commissars and fuehrers tend to do. Stronger medicine is required if Darwinism is to avoid the obloquy that now attaches to "social Darwinism," and so Dawkins desperately tries to square his gene theory with some acceptable morality by proposing a robot rebellion. He writes: "Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish. Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have the chance to upset their designs, something that no other species has ever aspired to." (TSG, p. 3)

This is not only absurd but embarrassingly naive. If human nature is actually constructed by genes whose predominant quality is a ruthless selfishness, then pious lectures advocating qualities like generosity and altruism are probably just another strategy for furthering selfish interests. Ruthless predators are often moralistic in appearance, because that is how they disarm their intended victims. The genes who teach their robot vehicles not to take morality seriously, but to take advantage of fools who do, will have a decisive advantage in the Darwinian competition. If a man is preparing his son for a career with the Chicago mafia, he'd better not teach him to be loving and trusting. But he might teach him to feign loyalty while he is planning treachery!

There is an even more fundamental problem with the robot rebellion, however. Just who is this "we" that is supposed to do the rebelling? Like other Darwinian reductionists, Dawkins does not believe that there is a single, central self which utilizes the machinery of the brain for its own purposes. The central self that makes choices and then acts upon them is fundamentally a creationist notion, which reductionists ridicule as "the ghost in the machine." Selfish genes would produce not a free-acting self, but rather a set of mental reactions that compete with each other in the brain before a winner emerges to produce a bodily reaction that serves the overall interests of the genes.


Again, you can't escape nihilism no matter how much you fantasize about having Free Will. That and the Self are both mere illusions.

Tony Fisk said...

" Since God would have created time when He created the universe there is no "before". You may as well ask what is north of the north pole. What came before God is a meaningless question prior to the existence of time."

Which reads to me as "I don't need to answer what what made God because the question is meaningless."

Which sounds suspiciously like 'emergent property of the system.', or how people like Dawkins would define the current known batch of self-aware entities.

I could also call it a cop-out, but if you're not comfortable in this application of Occam's razor, then that's your business.

Duncan Cairncross said...

Daniel Said
""Surely if there is a God then the question of what is the god for and who created him only pushes the argument about nihilism back one rung"

Since God would have created time when He created the universe there is no "before". You may as well ask what is north of the north pole.

What came before God is a meaningless question prior to the existence of time."

All you are doing is saying time is god

The question of where god came from is still valid

It's still elephants (or turtles) all the way down

Daniel Duffy said...

And finally let me leae you with this from Tom Wolfe's brilliant essay, "Sorry, But Your Soul Just Died":

http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles/Wolfe-Sorry-But-Your-Soul-Just-Died.php

They start with the most famous statement in all of modern philosophy, Descartes's "Cogito ergo sum," "I think, therefore I am," which they regard as the essence of "dualism," the old–fashioned notion that the mind is something distinct from its mechanism, the brain and the body. (I will get to the second most famous statement in a moment.) This is also known as the "ghost in the machine" fallacy, the quaint belief that there is a ghostly "self" somewhere inside the brain that interprets and directs its operations. Neuroscientists involved in three–dimensional electroencephalography will tell you that there is not even any one place in the brain where consciousness or self–consciousness (Cogito ergo sum) is located. This is merely an illusion created by a medley of neurological systems acting in concert. The young generation takes this yet one step further. Since consciousness and thought are entirely physical products of your brain and nervous system—and since your brain arrived fully imprinted at birth—what makes you think you have free will? Where is it going to come from? What "ghost," what "mind," what "self," what "soul," what anything that will not be immediately grabbed by those scornful quotation marks, is going to bubble up your brain stem to give it to you? I have heard neuroscientists theorize that, given computers of sufficient power and sophistication, it would be possible to predict the course of any human being's life moment by moment, including the fact that the poor devil was about to shake his head over the very idea. I doubt that any Calvinist of the sixteenth century ever believed so completely in predestination as these, the hottest and most intensely rational young scientists in the United States at the end of the twentieth....

A hundred years ago those who worried about the death of God could console one another with the fact that they still had their own bright selves and their own inviolable souls for moral ballast and the marvels of modern science to chart the way. But what if, as seems likely, the greatest marvel of modern science turns out to be brain imaging? And what if, ten years from now, brain imaging has proved, beyond any doubt, that not only Edward O. Wilson but also the young generation are, in fact, correct?

LarryHart said...

Daniel Duffy:

"Do those words even make sense in that order?"

Why would they not.


Well, the words in question were "If existence was deliberatly created". Since the creator would have had to exist prior to the act of creation, the whole concept reeks of nonsense to me. The English language allows for such sentences as "This sentence is a lie", but that doesn't mean the assertion makes any sense.

If I had a time portal that allowed me to see into the future and I saw that you would do something bad like order a spicy pepperoni pizza for dinner next Friday, did I CAUSE you or MAKE you order that pizza?


No, but if a time portal were possible, then the future would have to be determined, right? I don't see how you can have it both ways: either next Tuesday is set in stone or else there is no such thing as a time portal which allows you to view what happens next Tuesday.

If this metaphor helps, my response to the question of what happens when an irresistable force meets an immovable object is: "The question is nonsense. The existence of an irresistable force imples that there is no immovable object, and vice versa."

Several years ago, on a different web forum, a fellow comics fan was really bummed out over the "fact" that since space-time can be modeled as a four-dimensional solid which is unchanging, all of his future actions were already set in stone. I mean he was really Woody Allen-level bugged by this. My suggestion was to wonder aloud whether the parts of the four-dimensional solid which represent the future really do already exist (whatever "already" and "exist" mean in that context). Perhaps the future part of the model is only now being constructed for the first time (whatever "first" and "time" mean in that context).

LarryHart said...

Daniel Duffy:

Let me repeat, prior to the Creation of Time when the universe was created,there is no "before". Asking what preceded God prior to time existing is a meaningless question.


So you do understand.

And yet, you think it somehow makes more sense than that to discuss "existence being created"? To me, the phrase is nonsencical for exactly the same reason as "what happened before time" is.

j said...

Yes, Daniel, we understand your blank assertion that in roder for meaning to exist, there must be a God to create that meaning.

However, this is nothing more than an assertion. If we do not accept that axiom (and many here do not), then nothing can be proved by reference to it; thus, I didn't even bother with the rest of your construct of logic, as it was built on such a flawed foundation.

Now, if you can prove that there is no meaning without a supernatural Creator to give that meaning, then by all means do so. You will have accomplished something which has eluded philosophers and theologians throughout recorded history.

If you cannot prove this assertion, however, you need not expect widespread acceptance from an audience of skeptics.

Jonathan S. said...

That was supposed to indicate it was from me, not "j". Although it would be interesting to see a Marble Hornets character wax philosophical...

Randy Winn said...

Clearly the meaning of life is to read science fiction.

On this list, we all perform a wide variety of activities; we have different genders, nationalities, tastes in music and so forth. But what we have in common is that, at some point, we have read science fiction.

Q.E.D.

Also clearly, God created the universe so He would have something to read. Many are the times spent in waiting rooms where I wished the same power!

P.S. I repeat with more urgency the necessity to define "meaning" in the discussion above, lacking which, we can only conclude that there is no meaning to meaning.

Daniel Duffy said...

Duncan

"Since the creator would have had to exist prior to the act of creation, the whole concept reeks of nonsense to me."

No more nonsensical than quantum physics. Why would your common sense notions apply to an entity that exists outside of time?

Daniel Duffy said...

j

"Yes, Daniel, we understand your blank assertion that in order for meaning to exist, there must be a God to create that meaning."

No, what I am saying is that non-created, purely accidental universe can have no meaning or purpose.

All else follows from that rather obvious statement.

Daniel Duffy said...

LarryHart

"No, but if a time portal were possible, then the future would have to be determined, right?"

Determined by your own actions, not pre-determined by God.

Daniel Duffy said...

One more time:

In a recent joint lecture, Dawkins asked his colleague Steven Pinker: "Am I right to think that the feeling I have that I'm a single entity, who makes decisions, and loves and hates and has political views and things is a kind of illusion that has come about because Darwinian selection found it expedient to create that illusion of unitariness rather than let us be a society of mind?" Pinker answered affirmatively that "the fact that the brain ultimately controls a body that has to be in one place at one time may impose the need for some kind of circuit . . . that coordinates the different agendas of the different parts of the brain to ensure that the whole body goes in one direction." That hypothetical circuit is all that remains of the illusion of a free-acting self. [The Dawkins-Pinker exchange is available at www.edge.org]

Daniel Duffy said...

Seriously, you all need to read "Sorry, But Your Soul Just Died".

http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles/Wolfe-Sorry-But-Your-Soul-Just-Died.php

Until you have, you haven't taken your atheism through to its logical conclusions.

Daniel Duffy said...

So where do you stand on this whole God-Purpose-Soul-Nihilism thing we've been talking about Dr. Brin?

Duncan Cairncross said...

"So where do you stand on this whole God-Purpose-Soul-Nihilism thing we've been talking about Dr. Brin?"

Dunno where the good doctors stands but I would rather talk about something more concrete like science fiction or politics or economics and leave the sky fairy's for the church

sociotard said...

Pursuant to Dr Brins vision of supertrenches: this solar powered road features a trench.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qlTA3rnpgzU

Randy Winn said...

//*...non-created, purely accidental universe can have no meaning...*//

That would be a non-sequitur if you had bothered to provide a definition for meaning.

Since you haven't: "Das ist nicht nur nicht richtig, es ist nicht einmal falsch!"

"...Seriously, you all need to read..."

=

"The reason you don't agree with me is that you haven't read the right book"


Randy Winn said...

But to get back to science and stuff, is anyone concerned that the Scudderites have ordered the Pentagon not to study Global warming?.

Next: let's get rid of that pesky germ theory of disease!

Tony Fisk said...

I suspect that something is likely to get lost in translation with that bill.

Also. Vetoes.

Paul451 said...

Daniel,
If a causeless universe is without meaning, then a causeless God is without meaning. And if God has no meaning, no purpose, then his actions are also without a greater purpose, and thus the universe is, again, without meaning.

If, however, you think the intentionality of God gives his actions meaning, then your logic accepts intentionality as the arbiter of "meaning". In which case, the universe can be "meaningless" but the lives of those within it still rich with meaning and purpose.

Re: "What's north of the north pole?"

Rotational axes extend to infinity. So the answer to the question is "Half of everything."

Jonathan S. said...

"No, what I am saying is that non-created, purely accidental universe can have no meaning or purpose.

All else follows from that rather obvious statement."


And all I am saying is that this is only an "obvious" statement to you. Until such time as you can support your claim (preferably without reference to Wolfe, whose arguments are hardly more rigorous than your own), you need expect to convince no one here of the truth of your assertions.

Incidentally, you also need not assume that just because someone disagrees with your particular point of view, they must of necessity be atheist, or nihilist, or whatever tag you wish to dismiss them with while failing to understand that tag yourself.

Paul451 said...

Larry,
"Several years ago, on a different web forum, a fellow comics fan was really bummed out over the "fact" that since space-time can be modeled as a four-dimensional solid which is unchanging, all of his future actions were already set in stone."

Even better, it can be modelled as a multi-dimensional solid, where neither time nor the 3 spatial dimensions are amongst the dimensions in that space.

Imagine a universe with two particles. The only spatial or temporal property that exists in that universe is the distance between the two particles, as measured against themselves. (Ie, "two thousand particle-widths apart".) Time can't be measured, except by the change in distance. There's no "change in distance over time", because there's only distance. Therefore you can model the entire universe as a point on a one dimensional line.

Add another particle and you have three measurements, distance(AB), distance(AC), distance(BC). You can therefore model the entire universe as a single point in a three dimensional space. Instead of three particles in 4 dimensions of space/time, you have one dimensionless point in 3-space. Motion between the particles merely moves the point, but there's still no inherent measurable time or space, so the entire history of that universe can be modelled as a single unchanging line within the three dimensional space.

Add more particles and you add more dimensions to your hyperspatial graph; the number of dimensions quickly gets ridiculous, but the history of the universe is still just a fixed line. No past, no future, no change, only the line.

Of course, in our universe, distances aren't neatly measurable. QM means that you can't know both the position and change in position absolutely. Instead, our particles and their distances exist as probability curves. So our "line" becomes a region of probability, smearing out across the multi-dimensional "space", with a "density" that reflects probability that the universe exists at that point. Picture a block of clear acrylic shaded with a dye inside of varying density, fixed and forever.

And Daniel, that's the point of Larry's comment about your time portal making the universe pre-determined, thus ruling out free-will. If there is a future for the portal to reach, then time becomes a fixed dimension, the universe a solid block in four-dimensional space-time (or the higher-dimensional block in my example.) In order for there to be free-will, there can be no future for the portal to reach, just a changeable now. Likewise if God is "outside" of time (whatever that means), he is seeing a fixed changeless universe. It means he didn't create the beginning of the universe, he created a solid unchanging block of space-time that is the entire history of the universe. How can a thread in a piece of fabric, already in place from beginning to end, have "free will"?

Daniel Duffy said...

Duncan

"and leave the sky fairy's for the church"

Once again, that is the wrong question. The real question is whether or not existence has meaning and purpose.

Daniel Duffy said...

Randy

"That would be a non-sequitur if you had bothered to provide a definition for meaning"

The type of meaning is not important. If we are living in a computer simulation than "God" is a software programmer and his reason for creating us may be simply to get a good grade in his lab assignment.

What is important is the complete lack of any meaning (or any kind or type) in a purely accidental universe.

By definition, accidents have no purpose.

Daniel Duffy said...

Paul 451

"then a causeless God is without meaning."

The question of what caused God is a meaningless question before the existence of time. Nothing precedes God in a timeless state.

Before the existence of time, there is no "before".

"It's turtles all the way down"

Before the existence of time, there is no "all the way down".

Duncan Cairncross said...

Duncan

"and leave the sky fairy's for the church"

Once again, that is the wrong question. The real question is whether or not existence has meaning and purpose.

Well my existence has meaning
I have a family! (smug icon)
Dunno about yours

Tony Fisk said...

Another question to ponder is whether or not purpose is an emergent property of the Universe.

Daniel Duffy said...

Jonathon

"And all I am saying is that this is only an "obvious" statement to you."

It is not obvious to you that accidents are inherently meaningless?

"Incidentally, you also need not assume that just because someone disagrees with your particular point of view, they must of necessity be atheist, or nihilist"

It's not a matter of disagreement, it's a mater of logic:

An accidental universe can have no meaning or purpose. Hence a Godless universe results in macro nihilism on the cosmic scale.

Since both Free Will and the Self are mere illusions the creation of personal meaning and purpose are impossible. Hence a Soulless individual results in micro nihilism on the personal scale.

Not that having Free Will would make any difference in either case. As I pointed out up thread: "in an absurd world there are absolutely no guidelines, and any course of action is problematic. Passionate commitment, be it to conquest, creation, or whatever, is itself meaningless. Enter nihilism."

IOW, the absurdity of a meaningless universe makes even your mos passionate commitment pointless and meaningless.

Daniel Duffy said...

Duncan

"Well my existence has meaning"

YOU do not exist. The Self is merely an illusion.

Daniel Duffy said...

It occurs to me that there is an unspoken reason for the emotional opposition to my taking neuroscience to its logical conclusion and announce the not only is God dead, but the Self is dead as well. It stems from Tom Wolfe's observation in the essay it quoted:

"A hundred years ago those who worried about the death of God could console one another with the fact that they still had their own bright selves and their own inviolable souls for moral ballast and the marvels of modern science to chart the way."

I have taken that consolation away and killed your last hope. Your negative emotional response is therefore understandable.

You see, it takes more than just a bit of narcissism, or at least pride and vanity (don't you love the feeling of superiority it gives over those stupid, rubes who believe in God?), to be an atheist. Atheism requires more than just a bit of self worship.

And I have left your "bright selves" laying broken in the dust like toppled idols.

Tony Fisk said...

Just as a set of assertions are merely an illusion of argument.

Although argument might be a self-emergent property as well... what do other Bruces think?

Daniel Duffy said...

Paul451

"How can a thread in a piece of fabric, already in place from beginning to end, have "free will"?"

The granting of free will to each individual thread is what allows the structure to be ever changing and with it the future observed by someone existing out of time.

Your question is akin to that old sophomoric question, can God make a stone so heavy even he can't lift it.

Duncan Cairncross said...

""Well my existence has meaning"

YOU do not exist. The Self is merely an illusion.""


Well is a pretty good illusion
And an illusion that cannot be told from reality is the same as reality

If it quacks like a duck...

Anyway onto more interesting stuff

Any more comments on Piketty's book??


Daniel Duffy said...

Duncan

"Well is a pretty good illusion
And an illusion that cannot be told from reality is the same as reality"

So how is believing in the illusion of the Self different than believing in the illusion of God?

Tony Fisk said...

Umm. One can believe in illusion of self without invoking an illusion of god?

Idle thoughts on Piketty I gather he gives a rigorous description of how increasing wealth inequality is a natural tendency of economic activity. I wonder, though, how relative wealth equality occurs in the first place.

Daniel Duffy said...

Tony

"One can believe in illusion of self without invoking an illusion of god?"

Why would that mater when they are both illusions?

Why would believing in one lie be better than believing in another?

LarryHart said...

Daniel Duffy:

Once again, that is the wrong question. The real question is whether or not existence has meaning and purpose.


Then perhaps the real real question at hand is what does it matter whether or not existence has meaning or purpose. Later on, you assert that we're all bummed out because you've shattered our precious illusions, but the only one who really seems bummed out here is you, not because the universe is without meaning or purpose, but because the rest of us morons don't seem to give a crap.


By definition, accidents have no purpose.


By that narrow definition of "purpose", which requires anything from pennicllin to my daughter's friend with the two adult siblings to be without purpose (by definition, no less), my reaction is that I don't really care whether the universe has purpose or not. The value to me of my own life and those I care about is self-evident. It doesn't rely on anything else.

LarryHart said...

Daniel Duffy:

YOU do not exist. The Self is merely an illusion.


Then who is it that you are trying to convince?


I have taken that consolation away and killed your last hope. Your negative emotional response is therefore understandable.


Whose negative emotional response? I don't exist, remember?

Tony Fisk said...

Simplification. Belief in self arises from experiencing direct sensory input. Is it a lie? It seems to be a means of 'making sense' of that input. An illusion, perhaps (I would say there are long periods when I can sense without being aware of self). I would hesitate to call it a lie as that has connotations of wrongness.
Belief in God is not necessarily a lie either, but it isn't necessary to make sense of everything.

LarryHart said...

Daniel Duffy:

You see, it takes more than just a bit of narcissism, or at least pride and vanity (don't you love the feeling of superiority it gives over those stupid, rubes who believe in God?), to be an atheist. Atheism requires more than just a bit of self worship.


Oh, I see. (Or rather, I would see if I actually existed). You're one of those believers in God who presume that there is no such thing as non-believers--that atheists merely substitute themselves for God in the scheme of things.

You're wrong. (Or you would be wrong if you actually existed).

Atheists don't look to the supernatural for explanations. That doesn't mean they worship themselves instead of God any more than democracy means we all think of ourselves as kings or that abolition of slavery means we all think of ourselves as masters.

LarryHart said...

the prolific Daniel Duffy:

"One can believe in illusion of self without invoking an illusion of god?"

Why would that mater when they are both illusions?

Why would believing in one lie be better than believing in another?


Who exactly are you addressing this question to?

LarryHart said...

Tony Fisk:

Idle thoughts on Piketty I gather he gives a rigorous description of how increasing wealth inequality is a natural tendency of economic activity. I wonder, though, how relative wealth equality occurs in the first place.


To me, it seems that originally everything would be part of "the commons". Everyone is equally wealthy because nothing is individually owned. If there is lots of food and water, then everyone in reach of it is that wealthy. That sort of thing.

Over time, specialization occurs. There's more meat for society at large if specialized hunters focus on providing it, which means other people have to do their laundry and build their furniture. I speak simplistically, but I trust my meaning is clear. Specialization seems like a good idea because everyone is wealthier than they would have been in a state of nature, but specialization doesn't increase everyone's wealth uniformly. Thus inequality.

Inequality in and of itself isn't an evil, but there is a level at which large swaths of people no longer have a stake in the game--that they really would be better off back in a state of nature than they are as part of a society which has deemed most-if-not-all of the commons to be someone else's private property.

My having more food than you have is not a problem if neither of us goes hungry. My ownership of all the food--and the subsequent requirement that you must deal with me on my own terms for your own survival--is the problem.

Tony Fisk said...

Larry,
I was speculating that this tendency to inequality was akin to the endless staircase illusion., otherwise surely by now everything would belong to one.
Putting aside similes to the parallel theological thread, I wonder if levelling mechanisms exist other than wrecking balls wielded by the disenfranchised.
This is very vague speculation btw.

LarryHart said...

@Tony Fisk,

I believe Thomas Paine suggested that the private owners of portions of the commons owe rent to those displaced by their private ownership.

In theory, that could be a win-win, as the oil companies (for instance) still make huge profits, but some consideration is given to the fact that all that oil wasn't given to their possession by God, but by society at large.

As Dr Brin points out, the present course in which the wealthy and powerful seem bent on removing any leveling mechanisms but the guillotine is short-sighted.

Robert said...

Back to free will and predestination, at one point I created a character for some books I never wrote (pieces of them exist, but nothing in its entirety) in which I was struggling with the concept of predestination and free will and how they both could exist at the same time.

The primary protagonist of the book was a fallen angel who didn't rebel against the Creator, but rather protested against the Creator's punishment of those who did rebel, stating "eternity is a long time" and suggesting the Creator was... I'm not quite sure of the exact phrasing, but basically "full of yourself" or something to that ilk. It's been ages since I've seriously looked at the character. ^^;;

The fallen was cast out. When he swore "I will always serve" the Creator responded with "we'll see about that" and cursed him with eternity and omniscience - the knowledge of the future and what his actions will be. If he deviated from that set path then obviously he had rebelled and the Creator was right. (Basically it was a matter of hubris on both their parts.)

The problem? How can you have predestination for one, but free will for others? Eventually it dawned on me. The fallen saw ALL potential futures... and what his actions would be for each one. People could choose to do what they wanted. His actions were set - they could change as a result of what other people did, but he did not have choice, other than to break from his vow and truly become fallen.

Rob H.

Tony Fisk said...

Rob, if you have time, you might like to hunt down a copy of 'The Book of Joby'. The first section, where Lucifer wheedles God into revisiting the notion of what man would do if he truly had free will, is frankly a bit drear as the Creator abandons a young boy to the Devil's machinations, and expressly commands the Archangels not to interfere unless asked directly. (drear because a, God's actually done this and b, the Devil is a bit of a douche as well) Get past that, however, and things start going off the rails in interesting ways.

Paul451 said...

Daniel,
"The question of what caused God is a meaningless question before the existence of time. Nothing precedes God in a timeless state."

So as I said, "then a causeless God is without meaning." Therefore God's acts are without purpose and the universe remains without meaning. You haven't even tried to address this.

"The granting of free will to each individual thread is what allows the structure to be ever changing and with it the future observed by someone existing out of time."

The structure isn't changing if it's possible to be viewed by someone out of time, that was my point. By positing an external observer, the universe is entirely pre-determined and fixed, and you cannot have free will.

"It occurs to me that there is an unspoken reason for the emotional opposition"

I think you might be projecting. Most of the objections are based around the flaws in your logic.

"I have taken that consolation away and killed your last hope. And I have left your "bright selves" laying broken in the dust like toppled idols."

Wow. Yeah, really projecting.

I merely clap my hands to show that I believe in LarryHart.

Paul451 said...

Tony,
"otherwise surely by now everything would belong to one."

Beyond the periodic reset, it may also be that the greater the concentration of wealth, the harder it is to vacuum up the rest, it ends up costing more to steal the last morsel of bread from a homeless man than the morsel is worth.

[However, "All belonging to one" is surely a reasonable description of any absolute monarchy?]

LarryHart said...

Paul451:

Beyond the periodic reset, it may also be that the greater the concentration of wealth, the harder it is to vacuum up the rest, it ends up costing more to steal the last morsel of bread from a homeless man than the morsel is worth.


Maybe the object of the game (as in "Monopoly") is to own all the money. In reality, I don't see how an economy would "work" after that happens. The game really would be over. On some level, the wealthy and powerful must realize that there's a certain amount of money that has to be possessed by others in order for their own to be of any value.

In a healthy socio-economic system, perhaps the understanding of that fact by the wealthy and powerful is a damping mechanism.

Currently, we seem to be in what Thom Hartmannn calls the "cancer stage" of capitalism, where the .01% really is willing to consume its host until there's nothing left to feed off of.

Alex Tolley said...

Re: Piketty

We seem to at last getting some interesting conversations on the web. The FT poked some very small oles in Piketty's spreadsheets, raising some questions, but not I think, causing much damage. There are certainly people who are claiming that r > g cannot be true over long periods, thus proclaiming that Piketty must be theoretically wrong. However, given the wealth of data and observations, the Piketty observations to be reasonably robust. Whether his explanation is correct will take some time to confirm. Unfortunately, economics being what it is, the debate may become ideological, rather like the God and "meaning" argument upthread.

I've only cracked open the book so far, so this argument may have been answered, but it seems to me that the wealthy try to "rig the game" to keep r > g, so that their position is secured. A sort of natural selection of wealth accumulation.

Paul451 said...

Larry,
"On some level, the wealthy and powerful must realize that there's a certain amount of money that has to be possessed by others in order for their own to be of any value."

There's also the trap of Cartman's amusement park (from South Park.)

The Guy Who Owns Everything doesn't want to farm his own fields. And the farmers he hires must themselves be fed, along with the supervisor, and the sheriff who stops them from stealing his stuff, and so on until the poor rich bastard has a whole kingdom, with regional directors demanding he sign some Large Paper to protect their rights... Sigh. FML.

locumranch said...

For those concerned about political progression:

Democracy is the sole purview of the non-specialist because, in order to allow any & every citizen an equal voice in the political process, the democratic society must assume a large measure of equality in component capability (aka 'plenipotence') which would then allow any individual to fulfill the requirements of any political role.

Unfortunately, as specialization increases, there is a corresponding decrease in both equality & component capability which then requires unequal representation (through the adoption of either hierarchy or political subcaste) in order to function as a cohesive social unit, leading inevitably to the development of a highly ordered hierarchy composed of non-interchangeable, unequal & increasingly specialized components, one functionally indistinguishable from a feudal, monarchical or 'Empire of the Ants'-type system.

In other words, political evolution is analogous to the differentation of biological cells wherein the plenipotent components of democracy are analogous to stem cells, specialization requires increasing levels of centralized control & hierarchical complexity, and democratic equality quickly becomes analogous to cancer (rather than vice versa) once society evolves past the fetal stage, so much so that a democratic rebirth will most certainly require the demise of the fully-developed feudal host.

Best.

Alex Tolley said...

On some level, the wealthy and powerful must realize that there's a certain amount of money that has to be possessed by others in order for their own to be of any value.

I don't see why. If the monarch has all the money, and the peasants are just renters of his land, paying him for the privilege of working it (as they must to survive), the monarch has complete control. Yes, he has to pay sheriffs to police the land, but they in turn require his payments to survive too. As long as he can stay in power, he is OK. Naturally he has to use some of his wealth and income to pay personal protectors and armies to protect him from local or foreign bandits, but that reinforces his position, rather than weakens it. All those costs ultimately fall on the renter.

Oligarchs today are doing the same thing. The costs are borne by renters as taxes, and these costs include "law enforcement", paying legislators, etc.

"Capitalism" in the US is becoming increasingly predatory. Yet I see very little effort to stem it. False debt collection scams seem unchecked. Payday loans. Even the not quite 0.1% are being scammed by excess "management fees" by private equity firms. Everywhere one looks, another predator or incumbent is buying legislation to legitimize their thievery.

Alex Tolley said...

@ locum - so cancer cells would be "revolutionaries" in your model?

locumranch said...

It's a matter of perspective.

In an embryonic setting, stem cells are 'plenipotent', capable of either recapitulating the entire organism or differentiating into specialized components.

In the setting of full maturity, plenipotent cells capable of unrestricted or unlimited growth are termed 'cancerous', the most aggressive cancers also being the most undifferentiated.

This analogy explains why democracies tend to flower in 'young' societies (the nascent USA, USSR & Australia) but tend to wither & die in the 'mature' setting (the late USA & France), perhaps as the metaphorical result of a societal immune response.

This also explains why some mature societies are 'killed off' by the democratic impulse (the late USSR, Cambodia & Monarchical France) and why other slightly more vital mature societies can 'fight off' democratic growth with a mix of therapeutic bread & circuses, selectively toxic legalisms and metaphorical bone marrow ablation.

Best

Alex Tolley said...

I think the correct term is "pluripotent", not "plenipotent" when referring to stem cells.

LarryHart said...

Alex Tolley:

On some level, the wealthy and powerful must realize that there's a certain amount of money that has to be possessed by others in order for their own to be of any value.

I don't see why. If the monarch has all the money, and the peasants are just renters of his land, paying him for the privilege of working it (as they must to survive), the monarch has complete control.


Caveat emptor, I am not an economist, just an amateur who tries to think about these sorts of things.

At the very least remove, the monarch who owns all of the money has to pay others to do things for him, at which point, they own some money themselves. So then he doesn't own all the money any more.

But ok, you want to say they owe him back more than he pays them. So one person could own all the money. But what happens then? Who does he trade with? The whole idea of money seems to be undermined if it's not in general circulation.

The lord in your example would have to provide food, shelter, and protection for his slaves in order to induce them to work for him. Money isn't going to be an incentive to work if the money is all presumed to be owed back to the lord anyway.

Money creates more value in the economy when it circulates with high velocity. If one person owns all of it, that's about as low velocity as it gets. It no longer functions as an incentive to anyone else.

And at the opposite least remove, in such a system, the other 99.99% of people would have to have some new (informal) method of trading among themselves, and whatever that method is would become the new money. One person owning all of the means of trade is not only disfunctional, it is unstable. It's not a system that can work or last for long.

Randy Winn said...

//*The type of meaning is not important. *//

... then the existence of meaning is likewise unimportant.

If any *type* of meaning is as good as any other, then any *particular* meaning is as good as any other, including meanings that are trivial or non-existent.

Given the evidence provided, the most likely meaning of the universe is that the universe has no meaning, and that such is o.k.: we can live our lives and be good people anyway.

In my experience, this is true: the ultimate meaning of the universe never informs any moral choice that I, or any genuinely good person, ever makes. For (to use the canonical example) you decide not to steal candy from a baby for fear of hell or hope of heaven, you are not a moral person at all; you are merely good at economics.

Which is something Pekitty might have something to say about. If the Meaning of the universe is to have some sort of hierarchy, e.g. S.M.Sterling's Emberverse, then ever-increase wealth is in fact good and godly. If, on the other hand, the meaning of the universe is to do something about the hungry and all that Sermon On The Mount stuff, then a very different result would be indicated.

Frankly, if *I* were constructing a universe that had a meaning that its inhabitants were supposed to support, I would have labelled it more clearly - even my mattress has a "Do Not Remove" tag on it. I lack the knowledge to discern whether Pekitty is right or wrong, but it seems to me that he is working on the right topics and getting people thinking about some of the right things.

Perhaps the House of Representatives can forbid the Pentagon from reading his book, too.

Tim H. said...

With the lock up of large portions of the economy by the .01% I kind of expect a crash, since so few people control so much, but there is the possibility of another economy rising as so much of the existing economy is sequestered out of reach of so many, it becomes irrelevant. What the .01% will then do with impressive numbers in their accounts, redeemable for increasingly less will be an interesting question. In short, inequality is important, too much and the machine breaks.
BTW, there is meaning in the universe because we say so.

Tony Fisk said...

To clarify my own stance: I am not an economist either (in fact, I usually keep in the background here when economics is the topic.)

Piketty is an exception because he has, by all accounts, drawn a solid conclusion from a rigorous interpretation of data.

I am not comfortable with that conclusion (which doesn't mean it's wrong, of course!). What I'm doing is putting into words the reasons why I'm not comfortable with it.

An inexorable accumulation of wealth would have reached an equilibrium by now, surely? Yet we are currently the most egalitarian society in history. I suspect something else is going on as well. What I would like to see is someone identify that 'something else' and combine it with Piketty's work to describe a economic model in dynamic equilibrium. Hopefully, it doesn't inevitably require collapse, or we might have to start working on a 'Piketty Foundation'.

I suppose this has parallels with the inexorable march of entropic decay vs. the emergence of increasingly sophisticated self-organised systems (life)

LarryHart said...

Tim H:

but there is the possibility of another economy rising as so much of the existing economy is sequestered out of reach of so many, it becomes irrelevant. What the .01% will then do with impressive numbers in their accounts, redeemable for increasingly less will be an interesting question.


That's kind of what I've been trying to express lately--if the .01% run off to Switzerland or wherever with their electronic representations of money on their computer hard drives--do they really impoverish the rest of us, or can we all agree not to recognize their electronic representations as having any claim on the real world?

Back to the question of everything being owned by one--even in an oligarchy, it makes a kind of sense to work for (say) Charles Koch in order to get money that (say) Sam Walton will trade you goods and services for. If instead, all of the money that you can earn from Charles Koch is redeemable only by Charles Koch...well, isn't that just a master/slave economy without the money really playing a part? The lord of all things had better be very benevolent and wise, or else the only recourse the 99.99% have is the gullotine.

Finally, if one person owns all of the money, how can he ever make more? Seems to me the economy would lapse into metaphorical heat death.

Jumper said...

I never knew there was a cult based on a bad Wolfe essay so full of straw men it should have spontaneously combusted upon the ink drying.

Duncan Cairncross said...

Tony Said
"An inexorable accumulation of wealth would have reached an equilibrium by now, surely? Yet we are currently the most egalitarian society in history"

First - you are not - America may have been back in the 1940's - but as Piketty shows you are now back where you were in the 1910's - actually its worse you are back where Europe was then

The reason that inequality has not gone to a limit is;
War/Rebellion/Collapse
The re-distribution that occurred 1914 - 1945 - 1970

Before that America was "insulated" by a very high growth rate
3 million to 300 million in 200 years

Before Piketty there was an "understanding" that there were equalizing mechanisms in capitalism and that as time went by inequality would reduce

Turns out - there is no such mechanism,the reason some economists thought there were such mechanisms is because their data was all from the time of redistribution -1914 - 1970(ish)

Its not hopeless - simple things like wealth taxes can control the growth in inequality

But I don't think democracy can exist with massive inequality

LarryHart said...

Duncan Cairncross:

But I don't think democracy can exist with massive inequality.


I'd put it slightly differently--I don't think democracy can exist without a robust commons which can support the community's needs.

Think of it this way--a healthy society can produce enough food for its citizens and even provide a surplus which can be traded for luxuries or converted to cash which can be traded. But that's not where we are at. We consider all of the food to be someone else's private property. The private owners of the means of survival are not obligated to feed us with it. We therefore only have a right to live to the extent that we are useful to the private owners of the means of survival.

That's the part that democracy cannot exist alongside.

LarryHart said...

This really says it all.

From Kurt Vonnegut's novel "God Bless You Mr. Rosewater" published in 1964:

When the United States of America, which was meant to be a Utopia for all, was less than a century old, Noah Rosewater and a few men like him demonstrated the folly of the Founding Fathers in one respect: those sadly recent ancestors had not made it the law of the Utopia that the wealth of each citizen should be limited. This oversight was engendered by a weak-kneed sympathy for those who loved expensive things, and by the feeling that the continent was so vast and valuable, and the population so thin and enterprising, that no thief, no matter how fast he stole, could more than mildly inconvenience anyone.

Noah, and a few like him perceived that the continent was in fact finite, and that venal office-holders, legislators in particular, could be persuaded to toss great hunks of it up for grabs, and to toss them in such a way as to have them land where Noah and his kind were standing.

Thus did a handful of rapacious citizens come to control all that was worth controlling in America. Thus was the savage and stupid and entirely unnecessary and humorless American class system created. Honest, industrious, peaceful citizens were classed as bloodsuckers, if they asked to be paid a living wage. And they saw that praise was reserved henceforth for those who devised means of getting paid enormously for committing crimes against which no laws had been passed. Thus, the American dream turned belly up, turned green, bobbed to the scummy surface of cupidity unlimited, filled with gas, went bang in the noonday sun.

E. pluribis unum was surely an ironic motto to inscribe on the currency of this Utopia gone bust, for every grotesquely rich American represents property, privileges, and pleasures that have been deined the many. An even more instructive motto, in the light of history made by the Noah Rosewaters might be: Grab much too much, or you'll get nothing at all.

Jonathan S. said...

"It is not obvious to you that accidents are inherently meaningless?"

No, it is not. As I said, you state this as an axiom, when in fact if you wish to persuade others you must back this assertion with data.

stephen said...

I read a quote in the New York Times Book Review, and I wish I'd written down the name. This was from a philospher with a German-Jewish sounding name.
I don't find this quote anywhere.

The only philosophically valid objection to the Nazi Holocaust is the possibility of eternal perdition in an afterlife.

Gator said...

@Stephen
"I read a quote in the New York Times Book Review, and I wish I'd written down the name. This was from a philospher with a German-Jewish sounding name.
I don't find this quote anywhere.

The only philosophically valid objection to the Nazi Holocaust is the possibility of eternal perdition in an afterlife."

Wow. You can't think of any other reason not to slaughter millions of your neighbors other than fear of hell? I hope you don't live near me.

Gator said...

@D Duffy
I am a pragmatic nihilist. If "I" stub my toe, "I" hurt. If "I" throw a rock at "you", "you" complain. This is sufficient for lil ole me to go with a working version of "self" and "other". I suspect it is for you as well.

There is no comparable pragmatic test for "god." There is nothing in science that corresponds to "god" where I can throw a rock at him and make him react. You want to call something that exists outside of time, before time, ?, and does not have any measurable interaction with the universe after the big bang "god". Well, I don't see the utility in that, but if it helps you sleep at night, I guess that makes it useful. I honestly don't see how you can find "meaning" in that.

stephen said...

Gator:

I didn't say I agreed with him, and I can think of lots of other reasons not to kill millions. But I wondered if anybody else knew the quote, and how others would respond to it.

Maybe, he meant, in the long run, millions of years from now, will it matter if humans exist(ed) or how they treated each other?

He might have been suggesting that the Nazi regime wouldn't have lasted, the world would descend into a permanent dark age, but would it matter one way or another to the universe at large?

(Like I said, I don't have the name of the philosopher I was quoting, I don't really know what he thought about God.)

Martin Luther in his collection, "Table Talk" had another good quote--your god is that which you fear most to lose.

We don't agree with everything Luther said, but that one seemed like a good definition.

One more quote, then I'll go.

J. B. S. Haldane -
My own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.

If all sentient beings get some sort of afterlife (not necessarily the one in the Bible) that might seem pretty queer.

(And by queer I'm sure he didn't mean gay, but...)

I wonder, which of the following have souls?

Humans, Neanderthals, Denisovans, Homo Idaltu, Flores, habilis, erectus, Chimps, Gorillas, parrots, octopi, sentient dust clouds, C3PO, R2D2, Darth Vader, Anakin Skywalker....?

(Trick question--the last four are fictional. Oh, well. I don't know. But I still wanna be nice.)

(The Bible suggests there might be plants and animals in heaven--so there might be Denisovans as well.)

Okay, I'll stop now before I get silly.

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