Proof of God

What “Proof of God” justifies your position? (part four)

This is part four of a four-part series.

So God isn’t omnipotent. He’s still the Creator.

When believers say, “God is beyond understanding, beyond definition,” they don’t really mean it. At the very least, I would say, there is one characteristic that provides a very clear definition of God: “God is the entity that can determine the nature of matter and its interactions in a definable region. God makes universes, at least this one.”

That’s why Jews, Christians, and Muslims couldn’t possibly accept Zeus, Odin, or Brahma as “God”; none of those can claim they created the universe. This “creation claim” is unique to the Abrahamic religions and central to their beliefs.

Proof of GodI find this to be a beautifully scientific claim. There are all sorts of things that we may not yet understand, but that are potentially comprehensible to us: the nature of matter, the nature of physical laws, the nature of space and time (a definable region). We consider all these to be scientific; we can work with this.

Other claims of the miracles that God can perform are vague, silly, and somehow lesser than this one. We have biblical stories that God can change water into wine, raise the dead, stop the planet’s rotation for a while. These do seem rather “miraculous” (if given any credibility at all). I will claim however that these are nothing more than fancy applications of advanced technology.

Proof of GodModern medicine raises many people from the dead (myself included) when it brings back someone whose heart has stopped. You might say, “Oh, they’re not really dead, they need to be dead longer.” That just sounds like an application of more advanced technology. Has all metabolism stopped? Has all DNA degraded? At what point would believers want to claim God can raise someone from the dead? What if they have degraded down to their molecular components and been dispersed around the planet? What if they fell into a burning sun or a black hole?

Stopping the revolution of the planet is pretty impressive. One could conceive of the application of massive and powerful energies being applied and some kind of a stasis field to stop the oceans from sloshing around and people from flying off the surface due to the sudden deceleration. Highly advanced technology, to be sure, and we certainly have no idea how to do such a thing at our present stage.

But to say, it is not even achievable technologically in principle is to make a prediction about the limitations of the capabilities of future humans or any advanced civilization. Whenever one has made those in the past, they have almost always turned out to be wrong, providing they have any scientific basis whatsoever.

I claim there is only ONE capability that would give someone the “right” to call themselves “God.” That is the ability to impose a set of natural laws on real matter (equivalent to “creating a universe”). If you have the ability to create a universe, where the stuff of that universe behaves in a way that you determine, you are “God” (at least to that universe). Anything that constrains the kind of matter you can make or the way that matter interacts, limits your claim to be called “God.”

Any other entity, no matter how advanced its technology, that is constrained to operating within the natural properties of the matter in its universe, should not be considered “God.” A being that could determine the natural properties of matter would trump any other kind of technology. Only that being could be said to be Supreme.

The main theological claim of the Abrahamic religions is that, despite whatever logical or natural limitations there may be to God’s abilities, He is nonetheless the Creator of the universe (some may say, specifically, of the world and of life, but I think creating the universe encompasses these smaller claims).

Is “being God” the same as having advanced technology?

Proof of GodLet’s ask ourselves about “God, the Creator.” Does God understand how He does what He does? Does He understand the process of Creation in a scientific sense, the way we understand how computer chips work? If so, can God teach these scientific principles to another person, teach someone else how to be God?

There are only two possible answers: Yes or No.

No: If God has no idea how to create a universe, we really have to ask how He could lay claim to having done it. How does He know it came into existence by His action? Could He do it again? If we answer, “No,” we have to ask whether the “God claim” is substantiated.

Yes: If God understands completely the principles of universe creation, then it would seem to be a science. That is, it’s something that is comprehensible by some being (with sufficient intelligence, one would presume). One would expect, like most things that can be understood, that God can subsequently teach “godhood” (i.e. how to create a universe), i.e. that “godhood” is essentially a science.

If it’s a science, why can’t we discover it on our own? If it’s a science, then the “supernatural” (outside of nature) claims for God simply fail. God becomes a subset of “natural.” We may honor that, respect that, but why would we worship it?

Now some might argue that God understands how to make universes but no one else can (presumably because we are either not smart enough or lack some ability). But this fails logically.

Everything that is understandable can be taught to someone of sufficient intelligence and ability. Some point to perceptual or physical limitations, saying things like: “You can’t teach the colorblind to see color, though they may understand the principle”; or “You can’t teach a person without arms to play the guitar.” These are silly objections because they are based on essentially technological limitations.

Even we humans are not that far away from using stem cells to restore cone receptors in the eyes of the color blind. Limb regeneration is not an impossibility, as we already know there are creatures on Earth who can regrow severed limbs; we just need to develop the understanding.

Surely, the Creator (who understands how He does what He does) could hypothetically also create a being capable of perceiving and understanding the process of creation. Surely, He would have enough scientific knowledge to be able to pass it down to a sufficiently advanced being. If we can extend our knowledge and abilities, why can’t He?

The conclusion is almost inevitable: Any being sufficiently advanced to create a universe should be able to teach the ability to another sufficiently advanced being. Further, the Creator should understand enough biology (or computational theory) to find a way to make capable beings that are currently incapable of understanding creation. We may not know how to do this yet, but it would be the height of hubris to suggest God can’t do it. Being God, “godhood” –if that has any meaning—must be a science that we could potentially understand.

Conclusion

So, we’ve explored the limitations to any putative “God’s” abilities. We’ve concluded that the God of the Abrahamic faiths is not all-loving, all-knowing, nor all-powerful. Those conclusions are an inevitable result of Scripture, experience, and logic. We’ve also narrowed our definition of God to His primary defining characteristic or claim: God is the Creator of the universe. But then we’ve gone on to show how creating a universe is really something that is scientifically achievable, at least in principle. If it’s something that has a scientific basis, we humans should eventually be able to figure it out on our own.

Why should we use the possibility that there is some other being who understands more about how the universe works as a justification for our reckless, insane behaviors, for going to war with someone whose views are only moderately different? Especially when we can’t really distinguish between this imperfect being we call “God” from some scientifically, technologically very advanced alien being. This seems much more akin to “picking a favorite team” than any rational basis for how we approach the universe.

Proof of GodIs “God” just a “favorite team?” How do people in Boston decide they like the Celtics, the Bruins, or the Red Sox more than they like Toronto’s Raptors, Maple Leafs, or Blue Jays? Well, favorite sports teams are chosen by where we were born, where we grew up, where we live, who our friends are, and so on. All social factors. It turns out that being born and growing up in a country that primarily practices the Muslim faith is a great predictor that you are more likely to become Muslim than Christian or Jewish. It turns out most of us pick religions much the same way we pick sports teams or political parties.

If God is like a favorite sports team, why would rational people choose that method to determine how they live, who they associate with, who they listen to as authorities? They wouldn’t. Religion is a lot like that; it’s not rational. More dangerously, it’s not a rational way to develop public policy. As I said at the beginning, I don’t really care what you believe in the privacy of your own mind, but when your beliefs affect the public policy that you propose or support, then I care greatly.

I want public policy to be rational, based on the best available evidence and logical analysis. I want public policy to be flexible, to adjust in the face of new data rather than defend its dogmatic and indefensible ideology. That’s the only reason I care about your beliefs, the only reason I challenge those beliefs. When anyone uses their unsubstantiated beliefs to formulate policy in the public domain, I think it’s incumbent on evidence-based, rational people to challenge the basis of those beliefs.




Proof of God

What “Proof of God” justifies your position? (part three)

This is part three of a four-part series.

Is God all-knowing?

Proof of GodWell, this is absurd on so many levels. If God was all-knowing then why were Adam and Eve punished (kicked out of the Garden of Eden) for eating of the forbidden fruit? Didn’t God see that one coming? Is it fair to punish someone for doing something that was practically built-in to their design by their supposedly perfect, inerrant designer?

And what of free-will? How can we freely choose between options AND have God know what our choice will be before we make it?

From an information-theory point of view, there is a LOT of information in the universe. Does God know where each single subatomic particle in the universe is and where it’s going? How does He know this? More importantly, how does He bypass the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle (which states “it’s not possible to know both the position of a particle and the velocity of that particle with perfect precision, not even in theory)?”

 

 

Proof of GodInformation can be represented as bits, 1s and  0s. Think of it as “information removes uncertainty.” Before you flip a coin, you don’t know if it’ll land on heads or tails. Your uncertainty is equal to the probability that either choice could come up, one-in-two or one-half (we use a mathematical formula to convert this to bits of information:). Once you flip it, the coin lands on one side or the other. At that point, your uncertainty drops to zero from one-half. We say the information from that test is one bit.

So, how many bits of information are there in the universe? This is impossible to know, but the number is enormous. A single atom of iron may require 1080 bits to fully describe it. Derek Abbott of the University of Adelaide says,

“We know the entropy of a black hole is related to its surface area divided by the Planck length. So what we can do is pretend the whole [known, ed.] universe is a black hole and use the radius of the known universe to get its surface area. And as entropy is related to information, we can calculate the maximum number of bits. Then depending on the details, you’ll get a number between 10122 and 10124 bits for the whole universe.”

Your modern desktop computer, has something like 1011 bits in its hardware. You’d need 10113 such computers to store all the information in the known universe, alone. The whole universe only contains around 1082 atoms, so it’s hard to see how you could ever have enough computers for the task. Especially given that each computer contains around a mole (1023) atoms of material.

“So, what?” a believer might ask. Well, here’s the thing. God (if such a being exists) would need to be much bigger than the universe just to contain all the information that is in that universe. “No problem,” the believer says. “God is infinite.” (another scientific claim, by the way) Now, let’s add to God’s burden. God is all-knowing so, in addition to knowing everything about our universe, He must know everything about himself.

In addition to encoding all the bits about our universe, an all-knowing God needs to encode all the bits that represent Himself. That includes His representation of our universe. You can see this is going to become a problem very quickly. The omniscient God must contain enough bits to encode all the information PLUS all the information about the bits that encode that information PLUS all the information about those bits that encode that information PLUS…it never ends.

The only reasonable conclusion is that God can’t logically be omniscient.

Is God all-powerful?

The Stone Paradox is most commonly used to represents logical limitations to an omnipotent being. Simply, it asks: Could an omnipotent being create a stone too heavy for it to lift? Other variations of this include: Could an omnipotent being make a square triangle?

Proof of GodThe basis for the Stone Paradox is simple. If the answer is “Yes” (God can make a stone too heavy for Him to lift) then there is something He can’t do, namely lift a stone He created. If the answer is “No” then, again, there is something He can’t do, namely make such a stone.

More recently Pastor Peter LaRuffa has (in)famously stated,

“If somewhere within the Bible, I were to find a passage that said 2 + 2 = 5, I wouldn’t question what I’m reading in the Bible. I would believe it, accept it as true, and then do my best to work it out and understand it.”

This is the same stance taken by French mathematician and philosopher Rene Descarte. The view that an omnipotent being could do absolutely anything, even the logically absurd, is known as ”voluntarism.”

Most theologians and philosophers don’t accept voluntarism but instead resort to “act theory“ interpretations. These take on the form: A being S is omnipotent if-and-only-if S can perform any action A such that A is possible. So, because a square circle, for example, is not possible, it is absurd to believe an omnipotent God can make one.

Act theory doesn’t claim the absolute omnipotence of God, but rather that God is the maximally powerful being. That God can do anything that can be done. A logically contradictory state of affairs is not a thing at all, but NOTHING. An all-powerful God can do or make anything, but it’s meaningless to say that He can do or make a ”nothing.”

The point is, ‘a rock too heavy for God to lift’ really means ‘a rock too heavy for a being who can lift anything’, so it is a self-contradiction. A ‘square circle’ and ‘2+2=5’ are likewise contradictory states of affairs. Therefore these are all nothings.

This immediately leads to the objection, “What sets the constraint about what can be done? Is God forced to obey laws of nature or laws of logic that He has not created? If so, God is not the maximally powerful being imaginable. Why do logical paradoxes lead to NOTHINGS for an all-powerful God?”

Some philosophers have tried to overcome these problems by resorting to the “result theories“ of Leibniz and Ross, where a being is omnipotent if-and-only-if any possible state of affairs, or any possible world. A possible state of affairs is defined as “a way the world could be.” For instance, the sky’s being blue is a possible state of affairs, and John’s being a married bachelor is an impossible state of affairs.

Result theory would say, there being a stone an omnipotent being cannot lift is clearly not a possible state of affairs. An omnipotent being could therefore not bring it about. On the other hand, there being a stone its creator cannot lift is a possible state of affairs, and could be brought about by an omnipotent being, under the Leibniz-Ross theory, for an omnipotent being could bring it about that some other being created a stone which that being could not lift. Therefore, the Stone Paradox is claimed to not be a problem for the Leibniz-Ross theory.

I have a hard time distinguishing this from act theory; it may be too subtle for me. I would claim that this hasn’t got around the Stone Paradox at all. The result theory argument is that there’s a possible world where omnipotent being A creates some other being (or version of itself) B that makes the stone that A cannot subsequently lift, at the same time that a different being or version of itself is lifting it. That would seem to imply that A can make a possible world where being B  can do something A can’t. Why would we call A omnipotent in that case?

Here’s a video that demonstrates an interesting attempt to get around the Stone Paradox by making God able to split into two different versions of himself. Version A can’t life the rock, but at the same time version B can lift both A and the rock. That’s pretty neat. But, the original claim implied a single being we could call God. In this video, God splits into two beings with different capabilities. Is it fair to call either of them omnipotent? Are either of them still God?

This is a cute trick but it seems more like saying, “God’s right hand can make a stone too heavy for God’s left hand to lift.” It’s not at all clear this is the same test as the Stone Paradox proposes. Instead of proposing two different versions of God, we could simply say, “God at time x can create a stone that only God at time y can lift.” That is, we can split God temporally instead of spatially. I would claim these are not logically equivalent to our initial proposal.

The Leibniz-Ross result theory, leads to other odd or absurd metaphysical consequences, including the implication that an omnipotent being exists necessarily. According to Leibniz’s formulation, an omnipotent being would be able to actualize any possible world, but it is absurd to suppose that an omnipotent being should actualize a world in which it never existed. It follows that no such world is possible. Of course, this assumes that an omnipotent being existed in any possible world.

If there is no world (not any) in which an omnipotent being could possibly exist, then it wouldn’t exist in all possible worlds. Either God exists in all possible worlds or in none.

There are easily enough paradoxes in the idea of an omnipotent being that can’t be logically dismissed that we should be very wary of the whole concept.

In the next post, I’ll examine the “Creator claim” made of the Abrahamic God and draw my final conclusions.




God's superpowers

What “Proof of God” justifies your position? (part two)

This is part two of a four-part series.

What is the nature of the Abrahamic God? Besides creating the universe and life, what does He do? What are His superpowers? There have been many secondary claims made about the Abrahamic God: He is variously claimed to be omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent (all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving). These claims are easily disputed through scripture, experience, and reason. Let’s examine them.

God's superpowers

Is God all-loving?

The Greek philosopher, Epicurus (341-270 BC) famously asked:

“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”

In Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro, Socrates asks, “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” In other words, is any act of God morally good because God did it (or commanded it), or is God constrained to only perform or command morally good acts? If we are able to independently judge God’s acts as “good” or “bad” then is there a basis for that judgment that is independent of God?

What can we learn of God’s morality from the Bible?

Let’s look at how the Bible views slavery, for example, something that very few believe is morally good in this day and age. Here are a few excerpts from a lengthy article on the subject:

God's superpowersExodus Chapter 21, verse 1:

When you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, and in the seventh he shall go out free, for nothing. If he comes in single, he shall go out single; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him. If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master’s and he shall go out alone. But if the slave plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free,’ then his master shall bring him to God, and he shall bring him to the door or the doorpost; and his master shall bore his ear through with an awl [presumably to make way for an earing, ed.]; and he shall serve him for life.

In his book, “Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God”, Lee Strobel argues against our common interpretation of slavery in ancient Jewish culture:

Servitude in Israel was radically different than slavery in the antebellum South. Although people on both sides argued that the Bible does—or does not—endorse slavery, I argue that we have good reason to think that the “biblical case” for Southern slavery doesn’t hold up.

For one thing, the term “slave” or “slavery” in the Old Testament is often a mistranslation. The Mosaic Law typically refers to “servitude” as indentured service—much like arrangements in colonial America: those who couldn’t pay for their voyage to the New World would work for seven years to pay off their debt, and then they were free to operate in society as ordinary citizens.

What’s interesting about contracted servitude in Israel was that it was, first of all, voluntary: a person would “sell himself” or parcel out family members to work, and they would in return receive clothing, a roof over their heads, and food on the table. Servitude was also limited to seven years unless the servant voluntarily chose lifelong servitude, which brought both stability and security in difficult economic times.

But read the following passages and ask yourself if that sounds like “indentured service” or “contracted servitude.” I don’t think so.

Leviticus Chapter 25, verse 44:

Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. You can will them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly.

Exodus Chapter 21, verse 20:

If a man beats his male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies as a direct result, he must be punished, but he is not to be punished if the slave gets up after a day or two, since the slave is his property.

So the Bible recognizes it is okay to trade in people (but not fellow Israelites), though perhaps this is just the buying and selling of indentured servitude. It recognizes slavery as being ruthless and that is the primary justification for not taking other Israelites as slaves. But it also recognizes that beating slaves is acceptable as long as that slave does not die (one can only presume maiming is acceptable).

The question is, then, does the God of the Old Testament act in a way that the cultures of the time saw as being morally correct, but which we no longer approve? Or is God’s “morality” constant and outside of the morality of the cultures of the time, the way most Abrahamic religions portray it? If so, how do we reject slavery in modern times?

Are we wrong, or is God?

Some Christian apologists say, “Those verses are from the Old Testament and no longer apply because of Jesus.” But, this ignores the fact that Jesus specifically states that the laws of the Old Testament still stand in the New Testament. In Matthew 5:18 Jesus says:

“Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

What can we learn of God’s morality from experience?

English comedian and activist, Richard Fry, when asked what he would say to God if he were confronted by Him at the Pearly Gates, answered:

“I’d say, bone cancer in children? What’s that about? How dare you? How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault? It’s not right, it’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid god who creates a world that is so full of injustice and pain? That’s what I would say.”

British naturalist David Attenborough, when asked why he didn’t credit God for the wonders of nature in his documentaries, replied:

“They always mean beautiful things like hummingbirds. I always reply by saying that I think of a little child in east Africa with a worm burrowing through his eyeball. The worm cannot live in any other way, except by burrowing through eyeballs. Why would an all-loving God, Creator of Life on this planet, have planned such a hideous punishment for an innocent child?”

God's superpowers

One of the most famous quotes about God’s morality is attributed to a carving on the wall of a Nazi concentration camp by an anonymous Jewish prisoner. It reads, “If there is a God, He will have to beg my forgiveness.“ Clearly, the world is, and always has been, full of suffering. It is difficult (impossible, really) to reconcile an all-loving God with current, historical, and even biblical human experiences.

“But God works in mysterious ways,” many apologists answer. Yet, it doesn’t seem so much mysterious as contradictory. We have to ask ourselves, if we can look at things (like slavery, prison camps, bone cancer, and parasitic worms) that appear acceptable to God, and see that they are obviously wrong, why should we trust that He really was working for the eventual betterment of the human condition?

In the next post, I’ll discuss “God’s superpowers.” Is God all-knowing and all-powerful?




God

What “Proof of God” justifies your position? (part one)

What “Proof of God” justifies your position?

I begin a four-part series today.

Philosophers, theologians, and scientists have been grappling with the issue of God’s existence for millennia. Much of the discussion in past centuries may have been motivated simply by curiosity or by a protest against theological dogma. For many of us in the modern world, the notion of God is a very private one. God may show up in our prayers but frequently doesn’t have much effect in our daily decisions. Why might it still be important to ask whether or not God exists, today?

Why does God still matter?

Related imageLet me state up front that I don’t really care what you truly, deeply believe in the privacy of your own mind. You could believe you are the King of Narnia. You could believe Harry Potter or Peter Pan are real, for all I care. I know many people who believe things at least as improbable as this.

You may not believe it, but I don’t like debating people’s faith, no matter what arguments they use to justify or rationalize why they believe. I don’t think rejecting religious beliefs is the best road to atheism. In many ways, atheism is not really a belief system at all and is certainly not a replacement for religion. That’s why I’m an “empirical physicalist“; it seems more like a philosophical position than simply not believing the “God claims” of others.

But people’s beliefs, particularly the heartfelt ones, have a habit of making their way into public policy. If you say, “In the case of North Korea, God has given Trump authority to take out Kim Jong Un,” you are now using your beliefs (without much, if any, objective evidence) to justify, recommend, or set public policy. And that public policy could lead to a proliferation of global nuclear war, ending the time of “God’s children” on this planet.

Is Trump’s authority from God?

proof of godThat’s where I have trouble.

Religious beliefs are among the most blatant and pernicious belief systems when it comes to influencing public policy. Religious beliefs gave us prohibition and help governments and other public groups justify their ongoing wars against drugs, abortion, homosexuality, the sexual revolution, feminism, evolution theory, Big Bang theory, science, and – most notably – against other religions.

In the United States, despite being in the vast religious majority, Christians feel they increasingly suffer from religious persecution. And they have begun to take steps to reverse what they see as their exclusion from public policy formation. Many atheists rush to point out that there is no persecution of Christianity, only a desired leveling of the moral playing field, a removal of the privileges commonly granted religious organizations such as freedom from taxation and the “right” to deny public service on the basis of Faith.

For this reason, it is important for those who hold religious beliefs to examine the reasons they use to justify their public policy positions.

For many people, a belief in God comes along with the religious beliefs they grew up with. There is no doubt that the emotional and social support many receive through the beliefs they share with their family and community provides great comfort. When asked why they believe, people will point to nature or the universe and ask how one could otherwise explain the existence of such beauty. They may claim they “feel” God or have a “God-shaped-hole” in their hearts that yearns for a connection to something greater than themselves.

These are emotional justifications; they simply assume that God must exist because that is the only way the believer can imagine their feelings having a source. I usually try to be more rational about something as potentially important as a belief in how the universe works. I certainly hope none of our politicians make their important decisions on the basis of their “feelings.” Psychological studies into paranoia and schizophrenia suggest that feelings or subjective experiences are not always the best basis for making good decisions.

Many people have fuzzy notions of God. God could be a “force,” a “presence,” or a “Guardian/Protector,” for example. For many, their idea of God has some basis in their holy texts.

Perhaps unique to the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) is a belief in a single God. Other religions like Hinduism and Buddhism either have a proliferation of gods or no god in particular. The central claim of the Abrahamic religions is that God is the Creator of all: the universe, the Earth, all life, and the human soul.

In the next post, I’ll discuss the nature or character of the God of the Bible and we can start examining the claims made of His existence in greater detail.




"virtual particle

Could a “virtual particle chaos” explain the origin of the universe?

In preparing to write the Deplosion series, I wanted to give my ideas as deeply scientific a basis as I could. My formal university training was in Computing Science and then in Molecular Biology and Genetics, so I’m no cosmologist. But Cosmology and Quantum Physics have always been hobbies of mine (begin “geek” comments now) so I thought I’d do my best to make a plausible hypothesis.

I found two sources to be amazingly helpful in putting these ideas together. The first is Lawrence Krauss’ fascinating book, “A Universe From Nothing.” The second is Matt Strassler’s website “Of Particular Significance”, in particular his discussion of virtual particles (https://profmattstrassler.com/articles-and-posts/particle-physics-basics/virtual-particles-what-are-they/).

But rather than yammer on about how I see this, I’m going to let Darian Leigh describe “his” theory in this excerpt from “The Reality Thief”:

"virtual particle

The observable universe is 90 billions light years across and contains over 100 billion galaxies.

“Today, I want to talk about what the universe might have looked like in the beginning, the Universe before the Universe, if you will.

“Since we’re not all physicists here, I’d like to start out by talking about the Big Bang, and how cosmologists think the universe began. From there, we’ll move on to nothing. What do philosophers, theologians, and physicists mean by the word, nothing? I’ll warn you now it’s more complicated than you think.  Then things are going to get a little strange for a while. I’ll introduce you to what I think of as the ultimate bits of nothing, virtual particles; how physicists think about them; why we’re certain they exist, even though they can’t be directly observed; and why they’re so important. And that will bring us to my most recent theories, which attempt to answer some of the most interesting and fundamentally important questions in our era, questions such as: How could real particles and the physical universe evolve from the virtual particle chaos that preceded it? Where do the ‘laws of nature’ come from? And, how can we test and apply these ideas?

“Let’s begin with something you’ve probably heard. Scientists believe everything in the universe began in a sudden expansion called the Big Bang, around 13.8 billion years ago. So, why do we think everything came from a Big Bang, a moment of creation? It is still a relatively new idea. The ancient Greeks, for example, believed that the universe was static; it had always existed.”

Darian put up a slide of the familiar Milky Way galaxy shown as it was projected to look from hundreds of light years above its elliptical plane.

“Until the mid-1920s, astronomers thought our own Milky Way galaxy, with its hundred billion stars, comprised the entire, never-ending universe. Then in 1925, Edwin Hubble used a 100-inch telescope at the new Mount Wilson observatory to prove there were other galaxies outside ours. Suddenly the universe was a lot bigger and more interesting.”

The slide changed to a famous picture compiled by the Hubble telescope, showing the thousands of galaxies visible to it in what used to be thought of as an empty portion of the sky.

“Around the same time, a physicist, named George LeMaître, constructed a mathematical model based on Einstein’s theory of relativity. His model concluded that the universe was expanding from an initial Primeval Atom. But nobody believed him, not even Einstein. A few years later, Hubble showed that not only was the universe expanding, but the farther away from us a galaxy was, the faster it was moving away.

“Since then, we’ve looked at millions of galaxies, using far more powerful telescopes, like the orbital Hubble, the James Web, the Wukong 3, and they all confirm what Professor Hubble saw over a hundred years ago. When you rewind the motion of the fleeing galaxies, you can project that all matter must have, at one time, occupied the same point in space from which it expanded outward in a Big Bang.

“These calculations and observations put an end to the idea of a static universe. For a while, some people believed that perhaps the universe was oscillating through periods of expansion and contraction, eternally being re-created. But our best calculations today suggest this universe is going to go on expanding forever. There’s not enough matter for gravity to pull it all back together. There’s no contraction in our future and there probably wasn’t in our past, either.

“But not everyone has been satisfied to leave it at that. There’s a simple problem with the idea of a Big Bang: where did everything come from? If there was nothing here before that, what was it that exploded? What caused the expansion?

”Our best cosmological answer is still: nothing. However, the physicist’s definition of ‘nothing’ is quite different than the philosophical idea of nothing. And precisely defining ‘nothing’ in a way that satisfies everyone turns out to be exceedingly difficult, more difficult than one would imagine. Both sides agree that something can’t come from absolutely nothing. So how do you get around the problem that there is, obviously, something?

“Let’s look at the philosophical theologians’ perspective first. Christian ideas about creation, for example, along with those of many other religions, assert the existence of some deity, God, if you will, who is outside of time and space, who has always existed, and who created the universe from absolutely nothing.

Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling

Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling

Darian changed the slide from the image of thousands of distant galaxies to a picture of the famous Michelangelo paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, showing the Christian God in the act of Creation.

“Let’s think about that for a minute. Theologians say, ‘God is not made of anything.’ In other words, God is outside the universe of matter and energy, outside of space and time. Still, He is powerful enough to make something from nothing. But is this really nothing, even a philosophical nothing?

“As I see it, there are two possibilities that fit with this traditional religious model of creation. Either the universe was created as part of God, or there was something in existence, or potentially in existence, apart from God, before He supposedly created the universe from it.

“If the universe came from a part of God, and the universe is made from ‘something,’ then it seems logical to conclude that God is made, at least in part, of ‘something’ as well, especially if the universe is still a part of God. On the other hand, if God created the universe apart from Himself, then whatever He made it from was either ‘something’ or had the potential to become ‘something’.

“Some theologians speak of ‘an empty room,’ separate from God, with absolutely nothing in it. But ‘an empty room’ is a location, a space separate from God. So, that’s still ‘something,’ isn’t it? Either everything was God at the beginning, or there was something, maybe only an empty space, that wasn’t God. In the end, the Creationist idea of an omnipotent God creating the ‘something’ of the universe from ‘absolutely nothing’ fails logically.

“So, we’ve arrived at one conclusion. The argument that a Creator God existed before the universe is not substantially better than the Greek static model of the universe. The Greek model doesn’t fit our observations, while the Creationist model simply moves the static, eternal part into an adjacent universe, containing an intelligent, willful being. It does not say how this universe containing a purposeful, omnipotent God came about. Nor does it explain how or why a potential universe, a space adjacent but separate from the universe of God, an empty room—from which or where He created everything—could exist. It is illogical.

“What does physics have to say about all this? What kind of natural ‘nothing’ could have existed before the Big Bang, according to physics?”

The next slide was a pure black image.

“In quantum mechanics, ‘nothing’ is generally interpreted as space devoid of stuff, without matter or energy. The nothing of physics is not the same as the nothing of philosophy or religion, so physicists call it something different, a quantum vacuum. A quantum vacuum is empty of matter and energy, it contains no things. But it’s not completely empty; it’s full of virtual particles.

“Aha, you say, that’s still ‘something’! Well, yes, and no. Virtual particles are called ‘virtual’ because they’re not real. In a quantum vacuum, they’re as close to nothing as physicists can imagine. Virtual particles simply pop in and out of existence all the time.

unicorn“I know this sounds completely ridiculous and unreal to many of you. You’re thinking, he might as well say unicorn as virtual particle. It would make as much sense. An imaginary thing for an imaginary thing, right? What would that sound like? Unicorns come in balanced pairs: unicorns and anti-unicorns. One of the unicorn types can travel some distance for a very short time before recombining with an antiunicorn of the same type. When they combine they are both annihilated. This happens over such a short time and distance that unicorns can’t be observed. Nevertheless, unicorns have real effects that can be observed.

“Sounds silly, I agree. Except they’re not the same. Unlike unicorns, virtual particles are more than just an idea. How do we know that?

“We use virtual particles to explain such things as quantum tunneling. That’s a well-documented phenomenon where an electron can disappear from one side of an insulator and instantly reappear on the other side, in spite of the barrier. All of our modern electronics containing quantum dot, field effect transistors depend on this tunneling effect.

“Ordinary static electricity is a virtual particle phenomenon. It’s a field composed of the virtual particles emitted by moving electrons inside a charged material. Virtual particles allow us to calculate the exact wavelengths of light emitted by heating pure elements with astounding accuracy; within one part in a billion, or 0.0000001 percent. So we accept the virtual particle theory because it allows us to make the most accurate calculations in all of science.

“Now, many of you may have heard of the two kinds of real particles, fermions, and bosons. Fermions are particles such as quarks, electrons, or neutrinos. The bosons carry forces between the fermions. Bosons include photons, gluons, Higgs bosons, and so on. We can calculate how these real particles and the virtual particles are related.

MushroomCloud“Everyone remembers Einstein’s famous E=mc2, right? Energy equals mass times speed of light squared? An atomic explosion converts mass into energy. Most people don’t realize that Einstein’s equation works in the other direction, too. When you put enough energy in one place, that energy gets converted into mass.”
He displayed an image of the familiar mushroom cloud from an atomic explosion. That was shortly replaced by a strange-looking image full of weird blobs, representing the interactions between virtual particles and quarks inside a proton.

Virtual particles inside a proton

Virtual particles inside a proton

“The binding energy that ties virtual particles together inside a real particle makes up the majority of the mass of that real particle. Indeed, about seventy-percent of the mass of a proton comes from the energy created by the virtual particles bound together inside of it.

“Another way to think of real particles is as complete standing waves in the quantum field. What does that mean? Well, think of each real particle as a string that loops back on itself. The looped string represents a wave in the quantum field. If a wave is of the correct frequency, relative to the size of the loop, when it reaches the end of the loop, it starts all over again, creating what we call a standing wave in that loop. Kind of like when an audience at a football game performs a wave that goes all the way around the stadium, and starts over again. Real particles, standing waves in a loop, are stable.

Standing waves in loops

Standing waves in loops

Virtual particles, on the other hand, are just incomplete sections of a complete standing wave. They’re highly unstable, transient, and do not last long enough for us to even observe.

“We have recently shown that every known real sub-atomic particle can be modeled, not as a solid speck or ball, but as a boiling collection of randomly appearing and disappearing virtual particles that somehow manages to maintain a consistency of behavior in the aggregate, that is, in the collective whole.

“How do these chaotic, erratically behaved virtual particles—these incomplete waveforms—become nice, stable standing waves? The short answer is, through resonance. Two resonant—or compatible—waves on the same looped string reinforce each other. When they match the natural resonance of the string, they form a stable standing wave.

“So, imagine we have a partial wave in a quantum field, and it meets up with another partial wave of the same frequency. The second wave ‘completes’ part of the first wave. And, if you put enough of these resonant partial waves together, you create a full standing-wave pattern. And, bingo, the virtual turns into the real. The sections that overlap are redundant and fall out of the resulting real particle as excess binding energy.

“That makes reality, the universe as we know it, an emergent phenomenon of interacting virtual particles, of things that don’t really exist in a measurable way. Poetically speaking, one might say that the physical nothing of the quantum vacuum is filled with an infinite number of tiny bits of imagination, existing without dimension, for no time. That sounds like a whole lot of unicorns, I mean, ‘nothing’ to me.”

Very few laughed. An unusually high number stared back, stone-faced, uncomprehending, fidgety and silent. What, no laughs? C’mon, surely that line was funny. Wow, tough crowd—he thought, but it was more than that. There was a pervasive tension, a nervousness, building out there. Something’s up. He took a sip of water and returned to his lecture, uneasy.

“An entire universe filled with nothing but virtual particles would be very chaotic, yet it would appear completely empty to us. Virtual particles of all kinds would spontaneously appear, perhaps briefly interact with each other, and disappear. Most of these interactions would be extremely short-lived because the incomplete waves of one particle would likely not resonate with the incomplete waves of incompatible, neighboring virtual particles. Either the natural resonances, the type of the virtual particles, wouldn’t match or else they’d be too far out of phase.

“Now, at last, we come to the question that has motivated my research team: How could a universe full of these poorly behaved, chaotic virtual particles give birth to the well-behaved universe we see today, via the mechanism of the Big Bang? How can we conceive of a completely natural mechanism of real matter evolving by a kind of natural selection from virtual matter? Without the intervention or initiation of any intelligent creator. In other words, without God.

“The problem of spontaneous creation of a universe from nothing is not really a problem of the creation of energy and matter. As we’ve established, what we used to think of as nothing, is actually full of stuff. The quantum vacuum, deeper than the deepest vacuum in outer space, is crowded with energetic virtual particles.

The Big Bang

The Big Bang

“The problem is: in the universe before the Big Bang, these virtual particles had not yet evolved a consistent set of stable, well-behaved associations with each other. They existed, in a sense; they just didn’t exist stably.

“Our newest theory came from thinking about this problem. That led us to the next question, which led to the next, and so on. Questions like: How could these virtual particles that filled the great nothingness before the Big Bang achieve stable associations in an otherwise chaotic universe? How could stable virtual particle interactions spread from one pair to another?

“Our best theory is that an orderly universe would start to distill from this chaotic brew of virtual particles by resonance, as I’ve already described. By chance, out of the unfathomably huge numbers of different ill-defined interactions, some of these virtual particles found themselves adjacent to other virtual particles whose waveforms happened to resonate.

“A very rare, low-probability event would eventually place numerous virtual particles, each with sufficient overlapping chaotic oscillations to produce a complete resonance, adjacent to each other. Eventually, this would lead to a standing wave in the quantum field. Such standing waves would be the first real particles and would provide ‘little islands of stability’ in an essentially chaotic universe.

“The standing waves of these real particles would interact with the incomplete waves of nearby virtual particles. Our models show, after many, many interactions—too many to count—these interactions could eventually lead to larger stable domains in the otherwise chaotic universe. All of this would have taken place with ridiculously low probability. But before the Big Bang and the causality that we know and love today, even ridiculously low probability events were essentially guaranteed to happen eventually.

“These resonances formed the basis of the rules that determine how matter and energy interact, the laws of nature if you will. The laws evolved from these interactions; they were not designed or imposed by an external force. The resonances, leading to the ways in which particles formed and interacted, arose by chance from infinite possibilities. Now, the universe that was formed through this process, our universe, still shares the same space with infinitely many other possible virtual universes. However, these other possible virtual universes have been unable to form a stable set of interactions and become real.

“This is different from the so-called multiverse theory, which states every universe that can exist, does. That’s correct to a certain extent, but only our universe ever became real, that is to say, stable. All other possible universes remained virtual, never forming a stable relationship between enough of their member virtual particles to coalesce into reality. They’re all still out there, those many other possibilities, interacting, appearing, vanishing. Rather boggles the mind, doesn’t it?

Darian switched to a slide showing a traditional analog stopwatch with a ticking second hand. The image was overlaid with a large question mark.

“I’ve got another brain twister for you. Consider the ridiculously high—practically infinite—number of interactions that would have to take place, along with the ridiculously low probability of just the right bits coming together precisely when, where and how they needed to. Got that? Now, given all that, how long do you think it took for our universe to come together, to evolve naturally from chaos? Anyone want to venture a guess?” Darian looked around to see if there were any takers. The second hand moved on the overhead slide. He let them suffer for only a few seconds before jumping back in.

“No takers? Well, I don’t blame you; it was kind of a trick question. In a universe struggling to come into existence as I’ve described, the question, ‘how long’ is meaningless. There is no way to measure time before the first stable interactions were in place. The chaotic universe was eternal, lasting forever. Time was immeasurable as far back as one could possibly imagine. Without cause and effect, time has no direction. In such a universe of chaos, we can roughly define time as something like event opportunities. According to this definition, we can see there would be adequate time for a real universe to evolve. Event opportunities are essentially infinite.

“Another question we’ve been scratching our heads over is: How could that lead to the Big Bang?

“What we’ve come up with so far is this. While partial waveforms of virtual particles are easily able to share the same space, standing waves of identical real particles, particularly those we call fermions, are not. This is called the Pauli Exclusion Principle. Remember those little islands of stability I mentioned earlier? As more and more of those interacting domains of stability appeared, a sufficiently large nucleus accumulated.

“The effect those domains had on adjacent virtual particles through resonance became overwhelming. New real particles sprang into existence as the stable interactions started to spread outward, mediated by their resonance effect on adjacent virtual particles. The nucleus of real particles expanded faster than the speed of light because the resonant effect of virtual particles is not limited by the speed of real photons.

“Virtual particles coalescing into real particles in this way hate to occupy the same space. They rushed to get away from each other. This led to the release of a huge amount of energy, the culmination of which, we call the Big Bang. Although, I think it would be more accurate to say, the Big Bloom.

The Big Bloom

The Big Bloom

“Our universe blossomed out of the chaos, rather than exploded. A region of stable reality spread into the surrounding area where only non-coherent virtual particles had existed previously. I suspect the process is still ongoing at the edges of the real universe, which continues to expand into the infinite chaotic virtual universe faster than the speed of light.

“In this way, the ancient Greeks were right: our universe has existed forever. There was a universe of chaotic virtual matter going back forever before the Big Bang. That virtual matter is the source of our universe, and the stable interactions that evolved between coalescing virtual particles are what we think of as the laws of nature.

“I realize that what I’ve described to you sounds extraordinary, certainly less than obvious. Science is, above all, pragmatic. We can make up all the outlandish theories and hypotheses we like, but they can only become scientifically accepted after they are tested against the reality of the universe. Reality is always the final arbiter of truth.

“So how can we test these ideas I’ve described? How do we go from wild conjecture to scientifically sound knowledge? We can’t exactly go back 13.8 billion years into the past to test the origin of the universe, nor can we go trillions of years into the future to see how it all turns out.

“Now here’s where it gets really interesting. We believe we can develop a machine capable of generating complex fields that will increase and select interactions among other virtual particles. Particles other than the ones that led to real particles in our universe.” Darian noted a couple of dubious faces peering up at that comment.

“Once these virtual particles are coaxed into their own resonance, they will form tiny universes with their own natural laws, laws different from our own.” A few more furrowed brows appeared.

“We call these fields ‘Reality Assertion Fields’ because they assert a new set of natural laws on a region of space. It turns out that a Reality Assertion Field, or RAF, is surprisingly easy to generate. All we have to do is compute the shape of a field that will encourage the selection of these new resonances between adjacent virtual particles within the RAF.

“We can use any field, but electromagnetic fields are the easiest to generate. The hard part is computing the shape of the overlap of a large number of EM fields so we can encourage the specific resonances we desire among the various virtual particles in a portion of space. The math gets a little difficult, as you might imagine.”

That line drew an appreciative chuckle, at least from the physicists in the audience. Darian checked in with his lattice sub-routine again. No one, other than the Reverend LaMontagne and the strangely unremarkable man had raised any further alarms within his algorithm. He would keep an eye on those two during the Q&A session, which was only a minute away.

“My group is now in the process of building a very fast and powerful computer, and developing new types of mathematics, which we will use to calculate the fields required to generate a new RAF in a very small volume—about one hundred cubic centimeters—of a nearly perfect vacuum.

“Once completed, we will probe this region with a variety of tests to make sure that it has physical properties different from those specified by the laws of nature in our own universe. We expect to be able to demonstrate that our principles are correct within the next few months and, from there, I anticipate some very interesting new science unfolding.”

Among the sea of confused, bored, or frustrated faces looking back, Darian counted a disappointingly small number of individuals still exhibiting rapt attention. In his distraction, he failed to see the ire building in a number of the protestors seated in Theatre 3. Darian consulted his lattice. Thirty-five minutes! “I apologize for the lengthy lecture,” he offered, sheepishly. “It’s easier to explain with the math but, unfortunately, that makes it harder for most people to understand.” He nodded at Dr. Pratt to resume control of the meeting and stood off to the side.




Do we have a soul?

Do We Have A Soul?

I’ve encountered a number of atheists asking if there are those among us who believe in “ghosts” or “souls.” As you may know, I not only do *not* believe in any God or gods, but I also assert the reality of the physical universe and our ability to understand it by asking it about itself, i.e. by doing experiments or tests. That’s why I call myself an “empirical physicalist.”

In my novel “The Reality Thief” Darian Leigh, at a welcoming lunch on his first day in his new job as Assistant Professor, has a discussion about whether or not there is a thing as the human soul. I’m going to let Darian carry it from here. I ended the argument rather abruptly in the novel for plot purposes, so I’ll be back with my take at the end.

* * *

Indian Arm from Burnaby Mountain

Indian Arm from Burnaby Mountain

They ordered and ate their meals, confining their remarks to trivial appreciation of the food and scenery, and were relaxing over coffees and teas when the conversation took an unexpected turn. “I was sorry to hear of your father’s death this past winter,” President Sakira offered, “I’m sure he is in a better place now.”

“I doubt that he would prefer an urn over our house in California,” Darian responded.

“I mean,” the University President corrected, “his soul in heaven.”

“Of course,” Darian said. “His soul. Well, I’m quite sure that, prior to his death, my father was finally convinced there is neither heaven nor hell, and that the whole concept of souls is simply a reflection of a very human inability to accept that our brief physical existence on this planet is really all there is. He accepted his death as his ultimate end.”

Dr. Pratt could not resist weighing in. “That couldn’t have been very comforting to him.”

“I’m sure it wasn’t as comforting as his previous belief in the myth of an eternal afterlife. After facing the prospect of his imminent death for two years, my father was finally able to accept that nothing that was uniquely him would survive the cessation of coordinated biological activity in his brain. We had many discussions about this during his battle with cancer. I think he was brave to discard his earlier superstitions and face his death without emotional crutch.”

Do we have an eternal soul?

Do we have an eternal soul?

“I hate to say it, Dr. Leigh, but you sound rather heartless,” Dr. Pratt retorted. “Science has little if anything to say about the existence of a soul or spirit, if you will, nor about the possible existence of heaven.”

“That is not at all correct.” Darian’s three post-docs gasped in unison. Pratt was an internationally respected moral philosopher whose moderate religious views were perceived as generously inclusive.

“I would be interested to hear how you believe the study of natural law can contribute to our understanding of the transcendent,” said Pratt.

“Very well,” agreed Darian. Kathy rolled her eyes discreetly. “First, I need to know which version of the soul you might subscribe to.”

“Version?”

“Yes. Do you believe the soul is just a kind of energy that temporarily occupies the brain or body and is returned to the universe upon corporeal death, where it simply dissipates? Or do you believe that the soul is an organized structure unique to each person? That it can think or feel, and possibly, remember? The soul alluded to by most religions would generally belong to this latter category, I think.”

“If those are my alternatives, I will go with choice number two, that the soul is eternal and unique to each person. But I reserve the right to revisit choice number one.”

“Fine. Can you accept the compendium of sub-atomic particles that constitutes the Standard Model of Physics, as incomplete as it may be?”

“Certainly.” Dr. Pratt was reasonably well-versed in modern physics, considering it to be a sub-interest of sorts to reconcile common scientific and religious viewpoints. “But, the soul belongs to the supernatural.”

“And what exactly is the supernatural?” asked Darian.

“Something outside the laws of nature,” Pratt replied by rote.

“But a supernatural soul would still need to interact with biological matter, no? With cells made of molecules, those molecules consisting of atoms, those atoms formed from the various sub-atomic particles, all behaving according to the laws of nature?”

“Of course.”

“How exactly would it do that?”

“I don’t know. It’s supernatural.”

Sub-atomic particles can be forced apart by energetic collisions

Sub-atomic particles can be forced apart by energetic collisions

Darian’s entire body bobbed eagerly. “Mm. This is the crux of the problem. The known particles of physics interact with each other in well-understood ways. For example, electromagnetic forces are carried by photons passing between particles such as electrons—”

“Well, you and Dr. Wong are the experts on the various particles and forces. But, yes, that is also my understanding.”

“And a supernatural soul—if it doesn’t interact with the brain in any conventional manner—would still need some kind of mechanism to exchange information with the normal matter of the brain in order to affect the body’s actions.”

“I agree.”

“So, if we were to speculate that a soul is some sort of, as yet undiscovered, force, we would still have to admit that it can somehow interact with the normal matter of our brain, no? Otherwise, both body and soul would exist but would have no relationship to each other.”

Dr. Pratt chewed on the idea. “Well, there is certainly some kind of interaction. Our life experiences and the moral judgements we make on Earth must be reflected in our soul. If not, how could we be judged fit for Heaven?

“So, if the soul is some kind of matter or energy we haven’t yet discovered and it interacts with normal matter, it must do so through some force or particle we also haven’t discovered yet.”

“I would certainly agree that we haven’t found any ‘soul particle’ yet.”

“So one important question is: how does the soul know the matter it’s associated with belongs to the brain of a human, and not to a chimpanzee or a dog, or a fly? After all, biologically, neural cells from many different species are largely indistinguishable.”

“Certainly there are some differences between the cells of a man and those of a fly,” said Pratt.

“Of course, there are. But would that require the soul to read the DNA of the cell? Or would it just recognize cell-surface proteins the way another human cell would?”

“Let’s say the soul recognizes human DNA.”

Human and chimp DNA is 98% identical

Human and chimp DNA is 98% identical

“Okay. Given that chimpanzee DNA is about 98% identical to human DNA, do chimps also have souls?”

“I think that’s a trick question.”

Darian laughed. “Good for you. It is a trick question. You know that the DNA between male humans and male chimps is more alike than between male and female humans.”

Dr. Sakira couldn’t help herself, “That explains so much.”

Pratt smiled indulgently. “While animals may have spirits of their own, only human souls are generally considered to be made in God’s image. So, let’s say the souls we are discussing are uniquely human.”

Darian became serious again. “Okay. Let’s specify that the soul can recognize some subset of the DNA present in male and female humans that is uniquely human. Unless you would like to deny that human females have souls?”

Dr. Pratt looked at President Sakira and Kathy. “I think I had best not deny that,” he said with a wry smile. Sakira returned the smile graciously.

“Okay, so the soul recognizes some unique human brain DNA. Do you see the problem here?”

“Yes, I think so. Since the DNA of all the cells in one person is essentially identical, it would need to be able to specify some non-DNA recognition mechanism that is specific to the brain, wouldn’t it?”

Darian smiled. “Exactly. Now, we still could allow the soul to recognize some surface molecule encoded by the DNA but only expressed in the brain.”

“Very well,” Pratt replied, “Let’s do that, although I’m sure you’ll find some way to make me regret conceding the point.”

Dr. Pinto, who had remained relatively quiet through lunch, chimed in. “Why can’t we say the soul somehow recognizes electrical activity in the brain?”

“Sure,” said Darian. “I imagine we could make a case that there is some pattern of brain activity that is uniquely human, perhaps even unique to each human. And perhaps that would allow the soul to stay attached to the body so long as the brain continued to be active.”

“I could accept that,” said Pratt.

“That would obviate the question of how a soul knows its host body is dead. If it just recognized molecules instead of activity, one would think it would stay attached after death until decomposition was complete.”

“I hadn’t realized the discussion was going to become so morbid.”

This "brainbow" image shows neural interconnections

This “brainbow” image shows neural interconnections

“My apologies,” Darian briefly bowed his head in mock contrition. “However, even this would still require the so-called soul particles to interact with active neurons, with their molecules and atoms. We already have a model for how that might work, if we take a look at the dendy lattices. The semiconductor dendy sensors position themselves at synaptic junctions in the brain so they can detect and modify the neurochemical activity. One reasonable place to look for the soul-brain interface would be at those synapses. I see two possible ways it could do this.”

“Only two?”

“Logically, that’s all that’s possible. First, there could be interactions that we haven’t discovered between the molecules in these synaptic junctions and the supernatural particles of the soul. Of course, those interactions would still have to act according to some sort of governing laws. Technically, that would make them supra-natural, not super-natural. Just because we haven’t discovered or explained these particles and interactions, doesn’t make them outside of nature. They would still fall under the purview of physics eventually.”

“But the supernatural is unknown and unknowable,” Pratt objected.

“Exactly,” replied Darian. “Accepting the possibility of such a mechanism would suggest that there are simply gaps in our understanding. We can surmise that we could eventually discover these soul particles and delineate their interactions with other particles.

“Perhaps we need to put a live human in a particle accelerator,” Pratt suggested.

“The fact we have never seen such particles suggests we might need to do something like that,” said Darian. Even Greg wasn’t sure he was being serious. “Of course, over time, the discovery of such soul particles could conceivably lead to the development of a technology that might include soul detectors, perhaps even soul modifiers or soul destroyers.”

“I don’t think I’d like to see a technology of the soul.” interjected Dr. Sakira.

“Me neither,” replied Darian. “If atomic soul particles actually existed, they could be horribly abused. However, Dr. Pratt also said that the supernatural is unknowable so that only leaves us with the second mechanism.”

“And what is that?”

“The soul interacts with the brain directly by altering the local natural laws for a short while. This is the very definition of supernatural. For example, the soul could alter the natural laws of physics locally causing an ion channel in a synapse to open and initiating neural activity. Souls could be composed of what one could call collections or fields of natural laws. But no science of any such thing exists; we have no understanding of how such fields might interact with each other.”

“In that case, souls would exist outside the universe of natural law. So science would have nothing to say about them, would it?” Pratt concluded triumphantly.

“Yes. In that case, souls would be outside the natural laws of this universe.”

* * *

Paul back. In the novel, I stopped the discussion here because it led Darian off on an inspirational tangent. That tangent eventually allowed him to develop the Reality Assertion Field, central to the series. The point of the debate here was to challenge the actual basis for the soul. What could it be made of? How could it interact with real matter in the universe? Clearly there are problems with conventional magical thinking about how that might work.

In a similar vein, one could even ask, “How does a soul think, or feel, or remember?” The definition of a soul as “energy” is unsatisfying because we know a lot about energy and it doesn’t seem to meet the requirements for soul. Energy transfers between particles, mediated by other particles. When the particles of matter that we use to store and manipulate energy, release energy into the environment, it dissipates. That raises the question of how energy could maintain pattern after the disruption of the matter that imposes that pattern, i.e. the brain, following death.

There are two beliefs about “spirit”: some think it’s a form of energy that is spread throughout the universe after death, and some believe it’s eternal and maintains pattern. The first definition is kind of meaningless to me as it’s indistinguishable from the physical disruption of the brain at death. Without the presence of mind emerging from the conceptual pattern making of the brain, there is no “person” to talk about after death.

People who believe the second thing: that the soul is eternal and maintains its pattern (memories, knowledge, beliefs, and personality) independent of the brain; are another thing entirely. Darian’s argument makes a strong case that nothing we have discovered could suit as the basis for building such a thing as a soul. So, why do people think there might even be such a thing? I mean, apart from wishful thinking that some part of us persists after death.

Knowledge representation: a Simpsons conceptual network

Knowledge representation: a Simpsons conceptual network

I believe this comes from our inability (so far) to understand the nature of cognition and of consciousness. Because we don’t understand how our thinking, our feeling, our experiences could all be emergent properties of a physical (and physiological) brain, we invent the “soul” to explain them. Of course, we have models for cognition; they’re called computers. They’re not good models but they suggest that it’s possible to build devices that have emergent properties not contained in any of their individual elements.

The program for playing chess in a computer is not built up from individual components of hardware or software, each of which knows how to play chess a little (equivalent to the consciousness elements of Qualia proposed by some). Instead, the ability to play chess is an emergent property of lots of lines of code and some data, interpreted as instructions by hardware. That’s a model (a very simple model) for cognition in the brain.

More on this later.

 

For more of my work, please visit my Author Page at paulanlee.com