Saturday, 4 May 2019

Science And The Mind Of God

John O. Campbell

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

Religious belief is a defining characteristic of our species and the cultures that we have formed, including those at the hunter-gatherer level (1). Anthropologists generally understand that the existence of these kinds of universal characteristics imply that they are grounded in the human genome. The evolutionary history of these genetically based characteristics is studied by evolutionary psychologists.  As some leading biological anthropologists have noted (2):

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 religion have evolved through the process of natural selection for at least hundreds of thousands of years. 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 a couple of avenues of research pursued by anthropologists and evolutionary psychologists suggesting indirect forms of fitness that religion may confer such as promoting cultural cooperation and the enforcement of moral stability.  

However, these may only be by-products of religious belief, what about the content of religious beliefs, our predisposition to believe in supernatural agents? Did natural selection get that right or does our predisposition for religion only confer fitness through indirect means?

It is tempting, in this scientific age, to dismiss belief in supernatural agents as clearly mistaken and incapable of providing fitness. In fact, science is based upon naturalism, the belief that only natural processes take place in the universe (3). In this view ‘supernatural’ is an oxymoron as everything is part of nature and nothing is outside of it.

But, before dismissing the existence of supernatural agents out of hand we might consider that natural selection very rarely gets things wrong: it is a powerful method of inference (4; 5) which almost always gets things right. As Daniel Dennett wrote (6):

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 this conundrum be solved, how can belief in supernatural agents be consistent with our scientific understanding? The solution suggested here is that natural selection has provided us with the propensity to believe not only in supernatural agents but also in natural agents. Supernatural agents are an oxymoron in the sense that if one were discovered it would then be part of nature so instead, we can think in terms of natural agents or agents who operate within the laws of nature.
In any case, our natural propensity towards belief in powerful agents acting in the world is woefully lacking in specifics and we have little easily available evidence as to these agents’ identities. Cultures have imagined a huge variety of specific agents including ghosts, witches, spirits and Gods but given a lack of evidence that could select among the possibilities, our imaginations are free to roam. Clearly our intuitions about agents in control of the universe do not rule out natural agents. As we will see, what evidence we do have concerning agents operating in the world is evidence of natural rather than supernatural agents.

In a religious context then, the agents which created and run this universe may be natural agents. This approach to religion has already been developed by philosophers such as Baruch Spinoza (1622 to 1677) and scientist such as Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955) who considered that God is equivalent to nature as it is understood by science. According to Spinoza’s biographer, this equivalency was the primary point of his philosophy (7):

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

Einstein confirmed Spinoza’s vision (8):

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

Einstein’s awesome scientific insights told him that science provided our best route to knowing God. In fact, he thought the very purpose of science is to provide us with what he called cosmic religiosity (9):

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 the tradition of Spinoza and Einstein, that science can reveal God in a form equivalent to nature, is quite common among leading scientists. As Stephen Hawking put it (10):

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

Unfortunately, neither Einstein’s nor Hawking’s genius was able to describe the specifics of scientific religiosity. Einstein was hampered by the scientific concepts of his time that were in terms of clockwork mechanistic metaphors sometimes called the Newtonian paradigm. Einstein played a major role in the revolution which would sweep away Newton’s paradigm, but he was in the final years of his life before a key component of that revolution was contributed by Claude Shannon (1916 - 2001) in the form of information theory (11).

Information theory is just a perspective on the mathematics of probability theory. It focuses on a function of a probability -log2(p), where p is a probability and names this function ‘information’. Information is the surprise which an agent experiences when it assigns the probability p to some possible outcome and then discovers that outcome has actually occurred. If the agent had previously assigned a high probability to the actual outcome then there is little surprise, if it assigned a small probability then it is greatly surprised. The surprise has units of bits of information. 
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 surprise or information experienced by the agent is 3 bits. Crucially the very concept of information presupposes an agent, mind or model which assigns a probability to something occurring in the world around it and then is surprised when it receives evidence of the actual outcome.

Shannon’s information theory raises the sceptre of agents inhabiting the world wherever information is found. The original use of Shannon’s theory was to describe electronic communication systems operated by human agents, but his theory applies equally well to any agent that can assign a probability or anticipate the likelihood of an outcome. For example, biological organisms are adapted to or anticipate a specific environment; fish expect to find themselves in water. Extreme surprise for an organism is, in this case, death. Many prominent biologists now view the core processes of biology in terms of information and information processing (12).

In general, since Einstein’s day human culture and the human conception of the world have undergone an ‘information revolution’ which has replaced the Newtonian paradigm involving clockwork industrial mechanisms with the concepts of information and information processing. The information revolution has transformed most cultural processes and is often thought of in terms of computation.

Critically, the new information metaphor has been adopted and championed by nearly every branch of scientific study. It has been found that practically all the domains of reality studied by science are readily described in terms of information theory. Quantum theory, at the basis of all physics[1], is described in terms of quantum information and quantum information processing. Genetic information is a central concept in biology. Neural based behaviour is understood in terms of brains which gather, process and act on information. And finally, human culture is understood to have emerged into an ‘Information Age’ (13).

In short, information is now a key component of all scientific understanding and some physicists understand information to be even more fundamental to our understanding of the universe than are physical entities such as mass or energy (14).  This is a radical revolution in our conception of the universe and our place in it, one that holds radical spiritual implications. I have written extensively about these implications and have suggested they be named ‘Einstein’s Enlightenment’ (15).
The information revolution allows us to scientifically consider that all of reality is inhabited by agents having their own expectations and agendas. In this view natural selection has been exonerated; the agents it has placed in our intuitions actually exist and it provides fitness by preparing us to understand reality on a new, deeper level.

On a religious level these scientific advances may allow us to better glimpse the mind of God. At a stroke we are taken from a state of great ignorance as to 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 may glimpse deeper into the mind of God.

This book will not focus on these important religious implications but will leave it to the reader to come to their own conclusion on that count. Here we will instead focus on the unifying role which the information revolution plays in portraying all areas of science in terms of a common metaphor.
I suggest a slightly different central metaphor than information as information may only exist within an ecosystem of associated concepts and processes such as probabilistic models and Bayesian inference, which we will explore later. Instead I will suggest the central metaphor of knowledge as knowledge is the output of information processing and as I will argue, the foundation of existence.
This book will develop the argument that knowledge is necessary for existence of any sort; that the laws of nature are extremely hostile to existence and existing forms must develop knowledge of autopoietic (self-creating and self-maintaining) strategies in order 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 it suggests is that information and information processing accumulate knowledge and knowledge is essential to all forms of existence.

Chapter 1 will review scientific understanding of the dynamic relationship between existence and knowledge. Chapter 2 will discuss the general nature of the autopoietic knowledge required to overcome the many challenges posed to existence. Chapter 3 will discuss how this general strategy to achieve existence has played out in the creation and evolution of each of the domains composing reality.

Obviously, this paradigm has deep spiritual implications which I attempted to survey in my earlier book Einstein’s Enlightenment (15):

  1.     Knowledge is the creator and sustainer of all things;
  2.   There is but one universal source of knowledge;
  3.  Humans were created by this universal source and are the most advanced form of knowledge yet found in the universe.
Rather than focusing on spiritual understanding, this book will focus on the scientific understandings, developed during the information revolution, which support this new conception of reality. Hopefully, in the tradition of Spinoza, Einstein and Hawking, we will see that spiritual and scientific understandings are much the same thing.  


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. :, 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. A mathematical theory of communications. Shannon, Claude. 1948, Bell System Technical Journal.
11. Theoretical bilogy in the third millenium. Brenner, Sydney. 1999, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.
12. Wikipedia. Information Age. Wikipedia. [Online] [Cited: May 2, 2019.]
13. Information in the holographic universe. Bekenstein, Jacob. August 2003, Scientific American.
14. Campbell, John O. Einstein's Enlightenment. s.l. : Createspace, 2017. ASIN: B06XNZDGCS.

[1] 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).