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Science Fiction, Naturalism, and the Singularity

singularity

I love science fiction.

Though I haven’t read all that much of it recently.

The problem, I think, is that as I have grown older I have learned too much philosophy and metaphysics to really sit down and enjoy a meaty piece of speculative fiction. To be more accurate, I’ve learned too much of the wrong philosophy. Almost every really serious and thoughtful piece of science fiction I’ve read is heavily based in a naturalistic metaphysic, which is something I reject. This difference of opinion is particularly noticeable when it comes to science fiction opposed to other genres. In many ways metaphysics and philosophy is about models of reality, and different models will predict different things about the future.

For example, your average naturalistic model says that man is a kind of very, very complicated machine. Using that aspect of the model we can predict that someday we will build machines that are as sentient as ourselves. The naturalistic model also holds that the complexity of our bodies and brains is solely based in the natural process of evolution. If this is true then we can also predict that it is very likely that someday the sentient machines that we build will be superior to ourselves. This leads us to the whole concept of the “singularity,” the point at which computers will be smarter than humans and will be capable of designing even smarter computers which design even smarter computers and so on and so on for the foreseeable future. Once this singularity has been reached almost anything will be possible.

Of course it all depends on a purely naturalistic metaphysic.

If you’re like myself then you do not believe that the human mind is the product of a complicated machine. Though I do not fully understand what the mind is I understand enough to have confidence that it is not merely a machine. A machine is incapable of producing free will or reason, for example, and I have far more confidence in the existence of free will and reason than I have in the statement “the mind is what the brain does.” If we take this metaphysical position as our starting point the future looks very different. Computers may increase in processing power by wide margins but they will never be capable of reason or intelligence. Though some programs may be able to mimic human behavior they will only be able to do so by following the instructions of human programmers. Computers will never reach the lowest levels of actual intelligence; much less become our intellectual superiors. They will remain what they are: powerful processing tools. The computer on your desk is the equivalent of an army of accountants working at incredible speed, able to complete complex calculations and follow the commands of the most byzantine flowcharts imaginable, with only one major difference: an army of human accountants can think, while the computer can only obey. It is imaginable that an accountant working in a sea of other accountants could have an idea about a better way to solve the problem at hand than the instructions they’ve been given. The accountant might be completely wrong, of course, but a computer can never be wrong for the same reason that a computer can never be right. It doesn’t even have the capability to make an error without a human accidentally programming that error into it. How can a computer ever become a genius if it is not even capable of becoming stupid?

The only reason to believe that a computer could ever become intelligent is if you begin with the idea that the human mind is the result of a computer. Surely computers will produce intelligence if we can only make them complicated enough! It is a statement taken on faith, and faith alone. The computers we have now are as incapable of intelligence as a pencil and a piece of paper. It is only philosophy that makes them appear to be something more.

And that’s part of the reason why I have trouble getting into hard science fiction these days. The authors take so many things for granted that I simply don’t find plausible. It’s not like a fantasy either, where you can put your preconceptions away. J.K. Rowling does not expect us to believe that there is an actual hidden society of witches and wizards living in Britain, and thus we can enjoy Harry Potter; but the writers of many science fiction works do expect us to believe that the mind is actually a computer. No wonder I find one delightful and the other slightly insufferable.

 

The Argument From Reason: Inductive Reasoning, Determinism, and You

Paris_2010_-_Le_Penseur

Let’s begin with a quick lesson on the two primary types of reasoning: deductive and inductive.

Deductive reasoning is about starting with premises and following those premises to a conclusion. As long as the premises are true, and the logic is sound, then the conclusion must be true as well. Perhaps the most well-known example of a deductive proof is as follows:

  1. All men are mortal.
  2. Socrates is a man.
  3. Therefore, Socrates is mortal.

As long as premises 1 and 2 are true then 3 is logically true as well. You might have noticed that I started this series with what amounts to a long deductive proof. What sets deductive reasoning apart from inductive reasoning is that the deductive reasoning gives us conclusions which must necessarily be true, while inductive proofs give us conclusions that are only probably true.

Inductive reasoning works by taking certain facts, which we will here call grounds, and from them reasoning to probable conclusions. To better understand this let’s look at a hypothetical process of inductive reasoning. Let’s say I come home expecting to eat some leftover pad Thai that I put in the fridge last night. When I get to the fridge I find that the pad Thai is gone, and that the little blue Tupperware container it was in is now in the dishwasher. These are my grounds: the pad Thai is gone, the container it was in is in the dishwasher. From those grounds I can reason that something disposed of my pad Thai There are other grounds too: I know that animals don’t put containers away, so it must have been a human. I know that the apartment has been locked all day, so it was probably my wife who got rid of the pad Thai. I know that my wife does not typically throw away food that isn’t spoiled, so I can reason that she probably ate the pad Thai. Different grounds will lead to different conclusions: for example, I know that my wife doesn’t like my pad Thai so it seems unlikely that she would have eaten it. From there I might reason that my wife may have had a friend over and she might have offered them the pad Thai, or perhaps it was another family member. Now it is certainly possible that someone else might have eaten the pad Thai, but reason tells me that that is unlikely. Why? Because I have other grounds as well to consider, such as the fact that burglars don’t typically break into houses for the purpose of stealing leftovers, and probably wouldn’t put the container away if they did. From all this I conclude that a friend or family member ate my pad Thai.

To recap, deductive reasoning starts with base principles and comes to a sure conclusion. Inductive reasoning starts with grounds and ends with probable conclusions. Inductive reasoning cannot tell us what certainly is, but only what is probable (in the example above it is certainly possible that the family cat found a way to open the fridge, dispose of the pad Thai, and knock the container into the dishwasher, but it is very improbable that it did so). Most scientific theories come from acts of inductive reasoning, and we use inductive reasoning often in our everyday lives. This is because the premises of a deductive argument are usually up for debate, and can often only be reached by inductive means. Arguably the only deductive argument that begins with premises that aren’t reached through induction is “I think, therefore I am.” With all that in mind we must recognize the importance of inductive reasoning. Without inductive reasoning there is no science, very little philosophy, no industry, no agriculture, and no civilization as we know it.

This is where we run into a conflict with determinism. The conflict is a matter of questioning how inductive reasoning actually works. Take my example above: I would say that I came to the conclusion I did because it was the conclusion best supported by the grounds. However if determinism is true then that is not the reason I came to my conclusion; rather, I came to my conclusion because a series of cause and effect relationships in my brain were determined to result in the answer “a friend or family member ate my pad Thai.” I did not begin with a collection of evidence and reason my way to the conclusion, but was rather compelled to come to that conclusion by the laws of physics. And this undermines my conclusion. After all, one of the way’s we recognize bad reasoning from good is the extent to which we can explain someone’s conclusions with non-rational means. If a millionaire tells me that reducing taxes for the rich is the most rational thing to do, I will naturally be suspicious of his conclusion: after all, he might simply believe so because he’s rich and not because he reasoned it out properly. If a Senator makes a speech claiming that a certain oil pipeline is the most rational answer to our energy problems an opponent might try to invalidate that argument by pointing out that oil companies contributed large amounts of money towards his election. A commenter on this on blog made a similar argument against myself, essentially stating that my arguments couldn’t be trusted because I was a Christian. Now in all three of these examples the arguments made may still be valid: perhaps it is good fiscal policy to reduce taxes on the rich, or to build an oil pipeline. However if someone’s reasoning can be shown to be entirely based on non-rational causes then we can safely dismiss their conclusions.

Now if determinism is true then ultimately everything is based on non-rational cause and effect relationships. Atoms do not reason: they react, and they react in ways that are entirely predictable with sufficient knowledge. If, when I reason, the result is based not on grounds, conclusion, and logic but rather on the outcome of a complicated physical reaction then I have no reason to trust that my conclusions are accurate. If determinism is true then human reasoning has nothing to do with facts and logic and everything to do with the architecture of our brains.

Back in my series on the moral argument I mentioned a mad scientist who experimented with pills that changed people’s moral perceptions. Let’s return to this madman now. He’s just developed a new pill: this one changes the architecture of a subject’s brain so that a chemical reaction will occur that will cause the subject to believe that the moon is made of cheese. Those who take the pill soon come to believe with certainty that the moon is solid mozzarella. They know this to be true based, they believe, on solid reasoning. If you ask one of them they’ll even explain it to you: the moon is white, mozzarella is white, and if it was made of rocks then it would fall out of the sky. You might shake your head. You know that the moon isn’t made of cheese because cheese comes from milk that is tended to carefully by humans, and where in the world would you get enough milk to make the moon, and who would turn that milk into cheese? You feel certain that the moon is not made of cheese because of these grounds, and many others besides. However the mad scientist’s subjects feel just as certain as you about their own conclusion.

Now why do I bring up this crazy hypothesis? Simply to illustrate this point: if determinism is true then our own reasoning processes are exactly as valid as the test subject’s! Both (according to determinism) are the result of a series of cause and effect physical processes. Neither have anything to do with actual induction. The only difference is that the reasoning of the subject was caused primarily by the mad scientist’s pill, while your own reasoning is caused by your genetic makeup, the architecture of your brain, and ultimately the pattern that your atoms are currently in.

Blog Spotlight: Fide Dubitandum

I’d like to take today’s post and dedicate it to highlighting a fellow blogger. I may or may not do this in the future. Fide Dubitandum first caught my eye after its author commented on my first blog post on science and naturalism. I decided to check out his blog and I haven’t regretted it. I follow several WordPress blogs, but in all honesty his is the only one I actually read. When I get an email saying that he’s put up another post I click on the link to it with glee. He writes clearly, is very intelligent, and his comment threads are filled with civil and well managed debate. Most of his posts are critiques of the so called New Atheists’ philosophy. If you are a fan of reason then you should enjoy his ability to cut through the cobwebbs of muddled thinking and self-contradictory assertions that makes up much of popular atheism these days.

On top of all that he updates regularly, something I can’t even claim these days (to my constant shame). Check him out! You won’t regret it. Be warned though: better click on that link when you have plenty of free time. Once you start reading it can be hard to stop.

Naturalism and Science Don’t Mix

I think I missed a cog.

Today I’ll be continuing my series of posts on religion, science, and naturalism. If you haven’t read them already you can find the first two posts here and here.

Last week I discussed whether Christianity is opposed to science because it depicts a world that is fundamentally unreasonable, and found that was not the case. Christianity and naturalism both pass the test of believing in a reasonable world. Now let’s look at the second belief that is required to perform science: the belief that humans are capable of understanding the world. As I pointed out in my first post, if humans are incapable of understanding truth then science is a waste of time on a practical level. There’s no point in trying to work out the laws of physics if we are doomed to failure. If we can’t understand the world around us then science will give us incorrect observations or nothing; and it is here that a belief in naturalism is inconsistent with a belief in the validity of science.

Remember, as we talked about in the second post, all philosophies which believe that the universe is reasonable must also believe in a First Cause that has always existed. Christians believe that this First Cause is God. He has always existed and he is the ultimate cause of everything that has come into existence. Naturalists believe that nature is the First Cause. Nature has always existed and everything that has come into existence has been caused by the laws of nature. There is nothing outside of nature. Everything comes down to atoms, energy, and the laws that regulate how atoms and energy behaves.

Now this belief leads to some very interesting inferences. If everything is made up of energy and matter behaving according to the laws of physics then everything that happens must happen by necessity. When a cue ball ricochets off a wall it doesn’t get to decide which direction it wants to go: where it goes is determined by the laws of physics. As long as the cue ball is hit in exactly the same way across exactly the same surface with all other variables being consistent it will always end up bouncing off the wall in the exact same direction. In the same way every atom, every molecule, and every photon of sunlight can only follow the path that the laws of nature demands it must follow. If a scientist had perfect knowledge about the variables involved then that scientist could predict exactly how any atom in the universe will react to any event. Since human beings (according to naturalism) are made up of nothing but atoms and energy then we are no different. We are nothing more than a very complicated chemical reaction, and everything we do or think is a result of the atoms in our body reacting with themselves and the atoms around us. If I meet you in the street it may feel as if I have a choice about how I react to you: I could shake your hand, or ignore you, or punch you in the nose. However I am only a collection of atoms, and all my thoughts and decisions come out of the reaction of neurons in my brain firing according the to the laws of nature. If I shake your hand instead of punching you in the nose it is only because all the events and reactions leading up to this moment have made it so that shaking your hand is the only possible thing that could have happened. You can never say “This event could have gone one way or the other” but instead you must say “There was no other way this event could have turned out, and if we were wise enough to see all the variables we could have predicted it.”

I will not delve into the philosophical or moral implications of this belief, though there are many. The question I set out to answer is not whether naturalism is a good or enjoyable philosophy. I did not even set out to particularly see if it was true or false. My only concern right now is whether naturalism is consistent with science, and it is here that naturalism fails. Science requires a belief that humans are capable of understanding the world around us: naturalism only allows us to react to it. For if my mind is nothing more than the byproduct of chemical reactions in my brain, and if those chemical reactions must follow a certain inevitable path due to the laws of nature, then I cannot really understand anything. My thoughts are not thoughts at all but reactions. It may seem that I come to my beliefs due to a careful consideration of the evidence and by reasoning things out logically: but in actuality I had no more choice about my beliefs than I had a choice about the color of my hair. It was inevitable that I would come to believe the way I do. Nature is ultimately non-rational in the sense that it does not reason. Apples and atoms behave the way they do because of the blind laws of nature necessitate that they do, not because the atoms reasoned out for themselves what the logical thing to do is. Now if I can explain a belief as being completely caused by non-rational forces then the belief itself is irrational and we have no reason to believe that it is true. That belief is just a chemical reaction like wood burning or acid corroding metal. Fire and corrosion isn’t about anything; it just is. In the same way our thoughts and understandings are about anything in particular; they just are.

This is a problem if you want to perform science because science depends on our thoughts and inferences to reflect physical truth about the world around us. A scientist must be able to say “Phenomenon X works in way Y because the experiments I have devised and performed show us results B and C and reason shows us that Y will logically give us B and C.” But if naturalism is true then the scientist actually came to conclusion Y not because of logic and observation but because of a reaction of blind and non-rational atoms in his brain. His theories are all the result of the laws of nature working on the atoms that make us his body and we can’t expect the laws of nature working on matter to result in insight into truth. C.S. Lewis said that believing unthinking forces can produce actual truthful information is “like upsetting a milk jug and hoping that the way it splashes itself will give you a map of London.”

So, in the end, naturalism fails at the second belief required for performing science: the belief that humans are capable of understanding the world around us. From a naturalistic point of view we are only capable of reacting to the world around us. Naturalism and science are incompatible; if naturalism is true then science should be impossible. This of course causes a problem for naturalists because science as we know it works very well. Scientists behave as if they really do have an understanding of truth about the universe, instead of merely carrying out the results a series of inevitable chemical reactions. Dr. Gregory A. Boyd put this more succinctly and completely then I ever could. In Letters from a Skeptic he wrote “If our minds are simply “chemicals in motion,” then any truth we think we may discover amounts to nothing more than brute chemical reaction, and thus can have no more truth than, say, a burp. Chemical reactions are all equal on this score, regardless of how complex they are. So Einstein was just giving a complex burp with all his theorizing. But why then does his theory work? The success of his formula, and all of science, confirms our instinctive assumptions about the mind: Our mind is more than a network of chemical reactions. (pg. 68-69)”

Now what about Christianity? Does it have the same problem as naturalism? To put it simply, no. How do Christians know that our own minds are rational and capable of understanding truth? Because Christians believe that God is rational, and that he created us in his image.  The ultimate cause of everything is not unthinking nature but instead a thinking and rational mind. An effect cannot be greater than its cause; rationality can never come from a non-rational First Cause. But if the First Cause is itself rational then if follows that it can cause rational beings to come into existance. Christians believe that our minds are made up of more than our brains; that it partly consists of something outside of nature, namely a rational soul. Our minds are something outside of nature yet connected to it. It is similar to how an electronic signal traveling through the air is connected to a television that receives it. People argue that the brain and the mind must be the same thing because if we damage or manipulate the brain then the mind is affected as well. This is true, but it is also true that if I mess with the wiring in my television I will get an image that is a warped and corrupted version of the signal traveling to it. It’s true that if you give me alcohol my thinking will be impaired, and if you bash my brains to bits my thinking will disappear; it is equally true that if I change all the settings on my TV to something outside its normal bounds the image will change hue and perspective, and if you heave a brick though the television you won’t get any image at all. This is just a simple analogy for what Christians believe about the brain: that it is receiving and is affected by a rational soul outside of nature. I could write an entire post on that subject, but this one is long enough already and it would be off topic. The point is that the Christian worldview has no problem believing in the ability of humans to understand the world around us. We can take scientists at their word and really believe that there are thinking and rational minds behind their theories and statements, rather than non-thinking chemical reactions.

So, in the end, which philosophy is more hostile to science? Naturalism, or Christianity? I hold that if you are a naturalist then you cannot honestly believe in the validity of science, but if you are a Christian (or a Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Jew, or believer of any other religion that acknowledges the existence of rational forces outside of nature) then you can believe in science without problem.

Now of course Christianity and “science” do come into conflict on some subjects such as the age of the Earth, the extent of evolution, etc.  But I have found that if you look closely most (if not all) of the areas where Christians disagree with science is actually a conflict between Christianity and naturalism. As I said in my first post our culture often confuses the two. Christianity has no problem with theories that are provable with repeatable experiments, such as the potency of penicillin or the boiling point of water; it does have a problem with improvable and untestable theories that rely on the naturalistic assumption that there is no God who had a hand in creating the universe.

 

Christianity is Not at War with Science: Naturalism on Other Hand…

This picture has nothing to do with the topic, other than the fact that SPACE is SCIENTIFIC!

On Monday I laid out the reasons why believing in naturalism is not a requirement for believing in science. Today I want to take a look at some of the implications of that. There are a lot of ideas that we tend to label “scientific” or “unscientific” that actually have more to do with naturalism than science. I’d specifically like to focus on ideas about Christianity because a) I am most familiar with them and b) they seem to be particularly relevant to modern Western culture.

Christianity is, like most religions, generally considered to be “anti-science” in Western culture. We often hear about the war between “Faith and Science” and many scientists and religious leaders tell us to keep the two concepts well separated. But why should faith and science oppose each other? There is nothing specifically unchristian about the scientific method. As I talked about on Monday the only ideas you must necessarily believe in order to perform science is that the universe is reasonable (nothing happens without a reason) and that the universe is understandable (specifically by humans). Perhaps Christianity is in opposed to one of those beliefs; that would explain why so many consider it to be opposed to science. Let’s look to see whether this is the case.

First we’ll look at the belief that the universe is reasonable. I can understand why someone might disqualify Christianity on this front. Christians believe in many marvelous and unbelievable events: water turning to wine, multiplying bread, humans walking on water, and men coming back from the dead for a start. The Christian faith is full of and dependent on miracles that, we are told, are completely unreasonable. The laws of nature cannot be broken, and if they can then science is impossible. In a world where snakes talk and rivers turn to blood anything could happen.

At first glance this seems to be a convicting argument—but only at first glance. You see we are once again confusing “science” for “naturalism”. To explain let’s look closer at the requirement for a reasonable universe. A reasonable universe is, simply enough, one where everything happens for a reason. Every effect must have a cause: if something happens then something must have caused it to happen. If I hit a cue ball with a cue stick then it is reasonable for the ball to move across the table. If nothing hits it at all and if rolls across the table then there must be some explanation for it: perhaps the table isn’t level, or a gust of wind blew across it. It would be unreasonable (and thus unscientific) to say that it moved “just because”. Every effect has a cause.

However there is a logical problem to the idea that every effect has a cause. That is because the causes themselves are also effects and must thus be explained. What caused the cause to exist? If an earthquake caused a rock to fall down a hill, what caused the earthquake? If the earthquake was caused by the movement of seismic plates, then what caused the plate’s movement? But this chain cannot go on forever. Eventually we must reach something that is not an effect. There must be something that has no cause because it has no beginning; something that has always existed and is the ultimate cause of everything that comes into existence. Somewhere there must be a Fact that all other facts are based on. Naturalism claims that nature itself is this Fact. Nature has always existed. Nature with its immutable laws is all there is, all there was, and all there ever will be. This, incidentally, is why so many naturalist scientists are eager to find an alternative theory to the Big Bang. Before Edwin Hubble discovered that the universe was rapidly expanding naturalists could be content to say “We know that the universe has always existed, unlike the ignorant and backwards religious belief that it had a beginning.” Now we know that the universe must have begun at some point: and everything that begins must have a cause. Many naturalists today would say that the universe is cyclical in nature; expanding for eons and then contracting in on itself until it inevitably explodes outward again. Or they might claim that our universe is just a branch off of a mother universe in another dimension that has itself always existed. The former theory has yet to prove itself viable enough to dethrone the Big Bang and the latter is just as scientifically improvable as God Himself. Either way the point I’m trying to make is that naturalists believe, one way or another, that nature herself is the ultimate cause of everything. Christians on the other hand believe that nature is a created thing. Christianity claims that the ultimate timeless cause of everything is God. God has always existed and always will exist; nature and everything in it is his creation. Both the naturalist’s and the Christian’s beliefs are impossible to prove using science: the question now is whether either of these beliefs makes it impossible to be a scientist.

Now if naturalism is true then miracles are, indeed, unreasonable and impossible. Everything we have observed about nature tells us that water does not magically turn into wine just because somebody wants it to. The story must be false: if it did happen then it must have had a naturalistic explanation. Perhaps someone secretly dumped out the water and replaced it with wine, for example. Whatever the case something inside of nature must have made it happen or else it could not have happened at all.

However that only stands true if you believe that nature is the ultimate cause of everything. Of course miracles cannot occur if nature is all that exists: but if there is a God outside who created nature and exists apart from it than it is not unreasonable to believe that he could turn water into wine. Christians do not believe that miracles are events that happen without cause, but rather that they (like all things, ultimately) are caused by God. There is nothing unreasonable about believing that a God who created the universe could change water into wine if he chose.

Now some might object here that even if God existed he could not break the laws of nature. Even God cannot make one plus one equal three, and if he can then the universe is completely unreasonable and science is impossible. I think there is a great deal of merit to this argument but I also believe that it is a moot point. The laws of nature only tell us what will happen provided that nobody interferes with the experiment. The laws of nature tell us that water sitting in clay jars by itself will never turn into wine. However if a couple of con artists came along switched the water with wine they wouldn’t be breaking any laws of nature. Similarly if God choses to change the water he is breaking no law himself. C.S. Lewis puts it better than I ever could:

“The laws will tell you how a billiard ball will travel on a smooth surface if you hit it in a particular way—but only provided no one interferes. If, after it’s already in motion, someone snatches up a cue and gives it a biff on one side—why, then, you won’t get what the scientist predicted…in the same way, if there was anything outside Nature, and if it interfered—then the course of events which the scientist expected wouldn’t follow. That would be what we call a miracle. The laws tell you what will happen if nothing interferes. They can’t tell you whether something is going to interfere.” (from God in the Dock)

So, ultimately, you can believe in miracles and believe that the universe is reasonable. Believing that there is something outside of nature does not disqualify you from studying nature—from being scientific in other words. Christians, like naturalists, believe that there is a reason behind everything.

So what about the second belief that is necessary to be a scientist? You must believe that the universe is ultimately understandable by humans before you can try to understand it.  This post has already grown longer than I expected and I want to give the topic the attention it deserves. You’ll have to wait until next week to hear my thoughts about it, and why it is in this respect that naturalism, not Christianity, should be considered the truly unscientific philosophy.