Saturday, 4 May 2019

Science And The Mind Of God


John O. Campbell

This is an excerpt from an upcoming book: The Knowing Universe.

Throughout human history, our most fundamental question concerning our position in the universe has perhaps been ‘who runs this universe?’. The many intuitive concepts answering this question, although varied, are similar in their description of supernatural agents running our universe.

Religious belief is a common characteristic of our species as all cultures, even the first hunter-gatherers, developed religious beliefs (1). Evolutionary psychologists and anthropologists generally consider these kinds of universal cultural characteristics as rooted in human genetics, in the sense that all humans have a built-in biological propensity to acquire those cultural characteristics. As leading researchers note (1):

Recent studies of the evolution of religion have revealed the cognitive underpinnings of belief in supernatural agents, the role of ritual in promoting cooperation, and the contribution of morally punishing high gods to the growth and stabilization of human society. The universality of religion across human society points to a deep evolutionary past. 

In other words, the underpinnings of religiosity have evolved through the process of natural selection for at least hundreds of thousands of years. Natural selection is concerned only with fitness, and we must ask, 'did natural selection get this right? Is the religious perspective useful in the sense of conferring greater fitness?' After all, fitness is the only goal of a Darwinian process.

The quote above notes avenues of research pursued by reasearchers, suggesting some indirect forms of fitness that religious beliefs may confer, such as promoting cultural cooperation and the enforcement of moral stability. However, these are only by-products of religious belief; what about religious beliefs' primary content, our predisposition to believe in supernatural agents? Did natural selection get this right, or does our predisposition for religion only confer fitness through indirect means?

In this scientific age, it is tempting to dismiss belief in supernatural agents as clearly mistaken and incapable of providing real fitness. Naturalism, or the belief that only natural processes occur in the universe (2), is fundamental to science. In this view, 'supernatural' is an oxymoron as everything is part of nature, and nothing is outside of it.

Nevertheless, before dismissing supernatural agents' existence out of hand, we should consider that natural selection rarely gets things wrong; it is a powerful inference machine (3; 4), which almost always gets things right. As Daniel Dennett wrote (5):

Getting it right, not making mistakes, has been of paramount importance to every living thing on this planet for more than three billion years, and so these organisms have evolved thousands of different ways of finding out about the world they live in

How can we solve this puzzle? How might belief in supernatural agents be consistent with our scientific understanding? The solution suggested here is that natural selection provides us with the propensity to believe that active agents run our universe but does not stipulate these to be supernatural agents, allowing the possibility that they are natural agents. After all, existing supernatural agents are a contradiction in the sense that a discovery of a supernatural agent would place it within nature, so instead, any agent for which there is evidence must be a natural agent and must operate within the laws of nature.

We should note that those who believe in supernatural agents may not consider them as 'supernatural'; they likely consider these agents part of nature. Laws of nature are recent concepts before which philosophy didn’t draw distinctions between the natural and supernatural. We must conclude that rather than adapting us for belief in supernatural agents, natural selection may have adapted us for believing in the less specific concept of unseen agents.

Discerning the identity of the unseen agents operating in the universe has been notoriously problematic because our propensity to believe in them is woefully lacking in specifics. We do not have a genetic propensity to believe in a specific agent, nor is there much in the way of readily available evidence to constrain the possibilities – the agents are mostly unseen. Our imaginations, unfettered by evidence, are allowed to run wild. Cultures have imagined a huge variety of specific agents, including ghosts, witches, spirits, and Gods, but given a lack of evidence that could help select among the possibilities, our imaginations are free to roam.

Intuitions about agents in control of the universe do not rule out natural agents. On the contrary, what evidence we do have concerning agents operating in the world supports natural rather than supernatural agents. Understanding that natural selection has provided us with the propensity to believe in agents' existence leaves open the possibility that the agents that create and run this universe may be natural. Within a religious context, God and nature may be the same. Philosophers such as Baruch Spinoza (1622 to 1677) and scientists such as Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955) have taken this approach to religion and have proposed that God is equivalent to nature. According to Spinoza's biographer, this equivalency was the primary point of his philosophy (6):

Above all Spinoza's God is numerically identical with nature. God is nature.

Einstein seconded Spinoza's vision (7):

I believe in Spinoza's God who reveals Himself in the orderly harmony of what exists,

Crucially both Spinoza and Einstein believed that science is our best method of coming to know both God and nature. Einstein's remarkable scientific insights told him that science provided our best route to knowing God. He thought the very purpose of science is to awaken our capacity for what he called cosmic religiosity (8):

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the Mysterious — the knowledge of the existence of something unfathomable to us, the manifestation of the most profound reason coupled with the most brilliant beauty… This is the basics of cosmic religiosity, and it appears to me that the most important function of art and science is to awaken this feeling among the receptive and keep it alive.

Beliefs about God in Spinoza’s and Einstein's tradition that science reveals God in a form equivalent to nature is quite common among leading scientists. As Stephen Hawking put it (9):

If we do discover a theory of everything...it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason—for then we would truly know the mind of God.

To be clear, Hawking expects the mind of God to consist of scientific understandings (10):

If you believe in science, like I do, you believe that there are certain laws that are always obeyed. If you like, you can say the laws are the work of God, but that is more a definition of God than a proof of his existence.

And (10):

I use the word "God" in an impersonal sense, like Einstein did, for the laws of nature, so knowing the mind of God is knowing the laws of nature.

Einstein went further than Hawking credits and envisioned a science whose function is to awaken cosmic religiosity. His goal was an easily understood science inspiring awe and wonder rather than merely the technical laws of nature that practically no one understands. Only a cosmic science has a chance of inspiring cosmic religiosity.

An interpretation of science with the power to awaken cosmic religiosity might seem a stretch to many of us who have attempted to learn science. Many find the attempt to be baffling, tedious and almost the opposite of a spiritual experience. A science capable of awakening cosmic religiosity is far from the science that is usually taught and understood. We design science curriculums primarily to produce scientists and engineers who are productive in developing new technologies. Only a few scientists, often the most creative researchers, are blessed with a cosmic science experience. As Einstein described it:

On the other hand, I maintain that the cosmic religious feeling is the strongest and noblest motive for scientific research. Only those who realize the immense efforts and, above all, the devotion without which pioneer work in theoretical science cannot be achieved are able to grasp the strength of the emotion out of which alone such work, remote as it is from the immediate realities of life, can issue.

 

We can only wonder at what a science curriculum designed to inspire awe and religiosity rather than mere efficiency and productivity would be. Unfortunately, neither the genius of Einstein nor Hawking was able to develop a spiritual science. Einstein may have been hampered by his time's scientific concepts that described the universe in terms of clockwork mechanistic metaphors, sometimes called the Newtonian paradigm. He played a significant role in the revolution which would sweep away Newton's paradigm, but it was in the final years of his life before a critical component of that revolution was contributed by Claude Shannon (1916 - 2001) in the form of information theory (11).

Mathematically, information theory is just a perspective on probability theory. It focuses on a function of probability -log2(p), where p is a probability and names this function 'information'. We may interpret information in terms of the surprise which an agent experiences if it assigns a probability p to some possible outcome and then discovers that outcome has occurred. If the agent had assigned a high probability to the actual outcome, it experiences little surprise, and the agent receives little information; if it is assigned a small probability, then the agent is greatly surprised. We quantify information or surprise in units of bits. For instance, if the agent initially assigned the probability 1/8 or 2-3, to what turned out to be the actual outcome, then the agent's surprise or information is 3 bits; -log2 (1/8) =3.

Crucially, the very concept of information presupposes an agent having a mind or model which assigns a probability to something occurring in the world around it and then is surprised to some degree when it receives evidence of the actual outcome. Surprise provided by the evidence induces these agents to adjust their models or expectations to those more in tune with the evidence and learn and accumulate knowledge.

Now that science tells us that information is one of the universe's most fundamental components (12), Shannon's information theory raises the sceptre of a universe inhabited by agents acting in accord with their agendas wherever there is information. Shannon's theory's first use was to describe electronic communication systems operated by human agents whose minds hold probabilistic models of the information they receive[1]. However, his theory is not anthropomorphic and applies to any agent that can assign a probability or anticipate the likelihood of an outcome. For example, through their specific adaptations, biological organisms anticipate a specific environment; fish expect to find themselves in water. Extreme surprise for an organism, in this case, comprises death. Many prominent biologists now view biology's core processes as information processing (13).

In general, since Einstein's day, human culture and the human conception of the world have undergone an 'information revolution' (14), which has replaced the Newtonian paradigm involving clockwork industrial mechanisms with the concepts of information and information processing. And the information revolution, especially in terms of computation, has transformed many of our cultural processes.

Critically, this new information metaphor has been adopted and championed by nearly every branch of scientific study. Scientists now use information theory to describe practically all the domains of reality studied by science. Examples include quantum theory, fundamental to all physics[2], described using quantum information and quantum information processing (15). Genetic information is a central concept in biology. A central nervous system that processes information is essential to neural-based behaviour. Finally, we understand information processing as central to culture, such as learning to make tools and use language. Culture is now widely understood to be emerging into its own 'Information Age' where computation extends our cultures’ innate informational abilities (14).

In short, information is now a vital component of all scientific understanding, and some physicists take information to be even more fundamental than traditional physical entities such as mass or energy (12).  This information revolution allows an interpretation of scientific understanding where agents having expectations and agendas inhabit all of reality. From fundamental physical particles to humans, all entities may be dynamic information processing systems, and thus, we may view the world as inhabited by human-like agents.

This view exonerates natural selection; agents of the kind it has placed in our intuitions do exist and may be observed and studied in detail through the lens of information theory. Our belief in unseen agents running the universe may be justified after all; an intuitive belief in unseen agents bestows fitness as it is a profound insight allowing us to understand our world better.

To say that agents inhabit the universe is not to say that all these agents closely resemble humans. While we share some information processing abilities with other existing entities, humans and their collaborative cultures are the most potent information processors. Our predilection for seeing human-like agents operating in nature often includes even super-human agents, but this leap of imagination appears to have no scientific basis. Although nature has evolved fantastically complex information processing abilities, it appears that its crowning achievement is with humans.

This human-like aspect of natural entities has caused a great deal of confusion for scientists. For example, some leaders in quantum theory’s development thought quantum phenomena must include human-like consciousness (16). However, recent analysis has shown that an ability to receive and be informed by information is the only informational ability shared by human and quantum systems (17). On the one hand, this shared ability may appear trivial, but on the other, as we explore in later chapters, it implies all the necessary sophistication for the quantum system to act as an inferential system.

In this view, science provides an alternative to faith-based religion. The information revolution prepares us to view both nature and God as active agents possessing types of minds and gives us the tools to glimpse this mind of God. By adopting science as the best way to know God, at a stroke, this understanding takes us from a state of great ignorance concerning the specifics of religious agents, such as supernatural Gods, to a state of relative knowledge backed by hard scientific evidence. Thus, the religious enterprise becomes evolutionary; as our scientific knowledge expands, we gain more profound glimpses into the mind of God.

This book focuses on the unifying role of the information revolution in portraying all existence with a common metaphor. However, we explore a slightly different common metaphor than information and instead focus on knowledge. As we discuss, information only exists within an ecosystem of associated concepts and processes, such as probabilistic models and Bayesian inference that we call an inferential system. We suggest the central metaphor of knowledge because knowledge is the output of information processing, and, as we argue, it is the foundation of existence.

This book develops the argument that knowledge is necessary for all existence; that the laws of nature are incredibly hostile to all existence, and existing forms must develop autopoietic (self-creating and self-maintaining) strategies to overcome these challenges and to evolve new existing forms. This view may go some way in providing an answer to the obvious question, 'Why does science find information and information processing to be fundamental to all existing entities?' The short answer suggests that information and information processing accumulate knowledge, that knowledge is essential for all forms of existence, and therefore, information and knowledge are a common characteristic of all existing things.

Rather than focusing on spiritual understanding, this book focuses on scientific understandings, developed during the information revolution, which support this new conception of reality. Hopefully, in the tradition of Spinoza, Einstein, and Hawking, we may come to see that those spiritual and scientific understandings are not in opposition but instead are much the same thing. 

This book focuses on answering questions concerning why things exist. The short answer takes the form of a near tautology: things exist that can exist. This statement is saved from tautology only by the word can. Can is a deceptively simple word that papers over the complex and nuanced knowledge nature employs to achieve existence. This book explores the general principles underlying nature's strategy for existence, the evolution of this strategy over cosmic time and its application to the several domains of existing entities composing our universe.

References

1. Hunter-Gatherers and the Origins of Religion. Peoples, Hervey C., Duda, Pavel and Marlowe, Frank W. 3, Hawthorne, New York : Human Nature, Vols. 27,3. doi:10.1007/s12110-016-9260-0.

2. Temporal Naturalism. Smolin, Lee. s.l. : http://arxiv.org/abs/1310.8539, 2013, Preprint.

3. Universal Darwinism as a process of Bayesian inference. Campbell, John O. s.l. : Front. Syst. Neurosci., 2016, System Neuroscience. doi: 10.3389/fnsys.2016.00049.

4. Simple unity among the fundamental equations of science. Frank, Steven A. s.l. : arXiv preprint, 2019.

5. Dennett, Daniel C. Darwin's Dangerous Idea. New York : Touchstone Publishing, 1995.

6. Nadler, Steven. Einstein's God - Prof Nadler on Spinoza, pt 1. YouTube, 2007.

7. Einstein, Albert. telegram response to New York rabbi Herbert S. Goldstein. New York : s.n., 1924.

8. —. An Ideal of Service to Our Fellow Man. NPR radio 'This I believe'.

9. Hawking, Stephen. A brief history of time: from the big bang to black holes. s.l. : Bantam Dell Publishing Group, 1988. 978-0-553-10953-5.

10. —. Brief Answers to the Big Questions. s.l. : BANTAM DOUBLEDAY DELL, 2018. ISBN13: 9781984819192 .

11. A mathematical theory of communications. Shannon, Claude. 1948, Bell System Technical Journal.

12. Information in the holographic universe. Bekenstein, Jacob. August 2003, Scientific American.

13. Theoretical bilogy in the third millenium. Brenner, Sydney. 1999, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.

14. Wikipedia. Information Age. Wikipedia. [Online] [Cited: May 2, 2019.] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Information_Age.

15. Quantum theory from rules on information acquisition. Hoehn, Philipp Andres. s.l. : Entropy, 2017, Vols. 19(3), 98;.

16. Wigner, Eugene. Symmetries and Reflections: Scientific Essays. s.l. : MIT Press., 1970.

17. Quantum Reversibility is Relative, or Do Quantum Measurements Reset Initial Conditions? Zurek, Wojciech. s.l. : Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A, 2018, Vol. 376: 20170315 (2018).

18. Campbell, John O. Einstein's Enlightenment. s.l. : Createspace, 2017. ASIN: B06XNZDGCS.

 



[1] For example, we might consider telegraphy operators who have learned a model of the Morse code. These operators are more efficient decoders if they also have a probabilistic model of the relative occurrence of letters in the language.

[2] The three forces of nature composing the standard model of particle physics are quantum forces and the fourth force found in nature, gravity, is probably emergent from quantum entanglement (189).