Monday, 5 March 2007

Brains Gods and Spacetimes

If you've anything like a philosophical interest, then you might want to read all eleven pages of this article. It asks the question of why it seems that our brains are wired to be so ready to believe in Gods or ghosts or in fact anything that constitutes a higher power than ourselves.

Coincidentally I've also been reading a variety of text on string theory, superstrings, physics, a very fine book published online named "Motion Mountain" and which you can read by going here - also I believe Christoph Schiller is still accepting proofreading errors and any other errors you may find so if you find anything then he is wide open to your suggestions.

The authors of the 11-page article suggest that the capacity to believe evolved as a "spandrel," a consequence of the changes that gave us survival ability and is not of itself a survival trait. But there could be a far simpler explanation that has no basis in evolution at all...

When I go to natural beauty spots around here I have now twice heard someone say "this is so perfect and beautiful that it proves there is a God." Well, not those precise words of course but that sentiment.

Those people are suffering a common misconception, namely that there has to be a God because everything is so well designed for humans. The real truth falls somewhere in the range "I was born under a blue sky to the sight of green trees and mountains and rivers and oceans and lakes - and because they are what I have seen all my life, I find them beautiful. And this spot is the most natural and beautiful I've seen in a while, bearing out the conjecture that we find beautiful that which we are born into."

In the same way, I read a very long magazine article once which enthused about how strange it was that water had the properties it did, thus making it perfectly suited to promoting life. After a fairly long read of the article I wondered if the guy was writing a satire. Life evolved to the form it is today because water had such weird properties that it forced life to evolve to suit it!

There are countless very intelligent and respected people gettign hold of the wrong end of the stick out there. Unfortunately they develop a following who then all mill around praising the mystical entity that created water just for us...

That mystical entity is sometimes called God, and sometimes, String Theory, or even the Grand Unified Theory, or Brahma or Karma or Physics or Ogg the Rock God Outside My Cave.

And they're all equally unproveable.

One thing that comes out of Physics and Science is that we are living in a knife-edge kind of a Universe. If vacuum energy was larger than 1 to the power of ten to the power of 118 units or less than than 1 to the power of ten to the power of 120 units (yes that is right it's an inverse) then the Universe would either explode violently a la Big Bang or else collapse extremely violently a la the other end of the Big Bang scale.

That's a range of of maybe two in a line of dots with 1 time ten to the 120th zeroes after it. In fact, it's a range of two in a line of dots that stretches to infinity in either direction. It so improbable that this exact amount of vacuum energy should be what's left over after the Big Bang and produce this stable Universe for us to inhabit. Hmmm... Or maybe it's just that while this Universe has just the right amount of vacuum energy to hold stable, life has developed, taking advantage of the opportunity?

But my explanation for the fact that we think about Higher Powers is simple - if you believed that we're only here because of a one in infinity event, in a Universe which will exist for only one time unit in an infinity of time, and which besides has all these seeming paradoxes which enabled life, well I think we'd just stop...

It's just easier to ascribe things to higer powers and my theory is that every child develops this as a coping mechanism, because they are indoctrinated into it by parents and peers. Ability to think abstract thoughts is what made us into the thinking beings we are, and therefore we apply our ability to abstract to the problem of Why? and come up with the socially-endorsed answer.

Even dogs can think abstract thoughts, think Pavlov's experiments with dogs. Ring a bell, feed dog. Repeat. After a while, ring a bell, dog associates sound with food and salivates. A ringing sound has no flavour but dogs make an association between the events and prepares for something that will magically come true shortly...

We think a bit beyond the bell to who might be ringing it, and come up with gods....

I just found one more quote in that article that illustrates the extremely inconsistent and interwoven nature of our belief systems, this one from a scientist who is studying belief theory, and is a Christian. He writes:

Suppose science produces a convincing account for why I think my wife loves me — should I then stop believing that she does?

That rather plaintive statement shows how conflicted the gentleman is - because if it was placed in the same context as the entire belief theory he should have said:

Suppose science produces a convincing account for why I think that I have a wife who loves me — should I then stop believing that she does?

You see the small sidestep he took to avoid conflicting thoughts, and then you can see why understanding is still a long way from perfect...

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