Thursday, October 15, 2009

A few random musings

What is more likely? That there are countless billions of universes, and ours just happens to be the one suitable for life?….or that there is some mind behind the one we are in, and that it is in some sense specifically designed to support life? Probability estimates are not of much use here……but somehow to me the latter seems more plausible. Is the Mind, or Designer, the God of any particular religion? Not necessarily….it could be something totally beyond our comprehension, as far beyond our ken as quantum mechanics is beyond a dog’s understanding.

So many on both sides commit the fallacy of arguing for or against a specific religion based on its usefulness or harmfulness. For example, many Christians seem to argue for their belief on the basis that it is needed to ensure moral behavior. On the atheist side, many argue that a religion has harmful effects, and we’d be better off without it. Both are largely wrongheaded….only the truth matters. If a particular religion is not based on it being true, then one should reject it. Similarly, an atheist that argues that a particular religion has harmful effects should, one would think, regard that as irrelevant it were somehow given that the religion is true. It does not seem to me that many think about the truth on both sides. High points must be given, I think, to such atheists as Richard Dawkins (an evolutionary biologist and author of the brilliant book, “The God Delusion”) and Stephen Weinberg (Nobel prize winning theoretical physicist) for clearly stating that truth is the issue. Bertrand Russell, did, I believe, also often evince this attitude in his writings on religion. On the other side, John Polkinghorne , theoretical physicist and ordained Anglican priest, emphasizes the importance of truth, and quotes David Pailin: “Attempts to defend theism by ignoring the question of truth…are fundamentally atheistic. They worship human wishes rather than ultimnate reality”.

Will we ever understand consciousness? I do not see how that is possible, given that it a purely subjective phenomena, locked inside the skull of each of us, inaccessible to any outside observer. For that reason it will never be understood by the canons of objective science, although conjectures will surely continue to be made as to why it has evolved, how it can be created artificially, etc. But if an entity passes the Turing test (that is, gives responses indistinguishable from a human’s), maybe we will have to give it the benefit of the doubt and view it as having consciousness (and concomitant rights). The implications of this are serious: if we do succeed in creating seemingly conscious robotic systems, then to consign them to drudgery on behalf of the human race would seem to be a form of slavery.

It is interesting to consider who among ones friends, colleagues, and family are optimists or pessimists. There are, I guess, two levels to this way of dividing people. The higher level is a philosophical or metaphysical one, where one asks like whether it is a good thing that the human race exists, whether human life is basically worth living. The more mundane level involves a sort of instinctive every day attitude where an optimist might tend to always try to make the best of things that happen and grumble only occasionally, while the instinctual pessimist would always be seeing the bad side of what is going on around him or her. The practical optimist might often, I suppose, be a metaphysical pessimist, and vice a versa, though I am not sure how often this is the case. And there are probably cases where the two levels merge, and a pessimist at both levels might be dour and grumpy and also hold that it is a bad thing that life and the universe exist.
I would think that the practical optimist would tend to come across as “merry”, with a good sense of humor, but also might quite often—even usually—be serious. The practical pessimist might not always have a sour expression, but probably a key trait is that there are a great many grudges that weigh on him, and he may sometimes come across as angry at the world.
I do not think that a person who suffers from depression is necessarily a pessimist…I see that ailment as being more subtle, perhaps largely a physical or medical shortcoming.
Perhaps here is a practical test: one may ask oneself if he/she is glad to be alive…glad to have been born. Is the realization of the mere fact of existence a happy grateful thought, or is it a “gee, I wish I had never been born”. I guess a suicidal mood would be one in which one decides to act to take oneself out of existence….such as was evident in the musings in Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be…” soliloquy.

Will the human race be here for thousands, millions or trillions of years? Will war be abolished? Will all of the present religions of the earth become extinct, and new ones take their place. Or will all religions come to be regarded as relics of the infantile imaginings of our race. Will we become, as many have imagined, intermingled with artificial forms of intelligence? Will we become intermingled with alien races of other star systems, perhaps occupying ourselves regions of the universe vastly removed from our present region (new forms of space-time travel having been discovered)? Will humans go through some sort of spiritual metamorphosis such as Arthur C. Clarke has imagined in his novels “Childhoods End” and “2001”? Or are humans just an intermediate stage that is only useful for creating another more important form of life, one we would call artificial (perhaps silicon based)?

I must say that I am puzzled by rather oft-quoted remarks attributed to atheists Richard Dawkins and Stephen Weiberg. Both seem to have said, in effect, that the universe strongly suggests that there is nothing deep or meaningful behind it. Weinberg has been quoted as saying that the more we learn about the universe, the more pointless it seems. Huh? What has been learned in physics that even bears on it being pointless or not pointless. I wish he had given examples. Dawkins has said that the universe appears to be just the kind of place that we would expect if there is no deity involved in making it. Hmmm, again. What kind of evidence would there be if there were a creator behind it, one wonders? Also, in Dawkins’ generally excellent book, “The God Delusion”, I think he may have misrepresented the religious views of Albert Einstein. While some of Einstein’s writings do suggest that he was using “the mind of God” in a purely materialistic sense, in other places it seems to me that Einstein was open to there being some actual Mind behind it all. But there is no doubt that Einstein rejected the Judeo-Christian concepts of God.

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