Thursday, January 31, 2008

Following the Herd off a Bridge

Having previously discussed religion as a product of both the human need for comfort, and our ignorance regarding the natural world, one additional religious catalyst must be mentioned. This catalyst can be considered a direct result of our social structure and behavior. Before attempting to understand and explain our behavior, it's important to step back from our own human perspective, and try to view our species as an investigative biologist from another planet.

"By looking at the comparative fossil history that lead to the eventual emergence of the homo sapiens species, one can note certain defining species' traits. They are foremost, a social creature, and as such, have a complex social hierarchy, with some individuals in superior positions, and most at various expanding levels of reductive social influence. As part of their social evolution, they have evolved the useful trait of language to communicate and increase group cohesion. In addition, their reasoning abilities, and tool usage allows them to greatly effect and directly influence the environment around them. As their culture has evolved, they have progressed towards greater senses of group identification. Initially, they were nomadic, traveling in small packs (clans), but as their social organization and cultural evolution progressed, they developed a greater sense of pack identity, and eventually, very large groups of this species retained a shared cultural belief. The great extent of this belief was related to the awe and reverie of the supernatural. Out of these longings for something that would provide them comfort and an understanding of the world they lived in, many grasped at illogical beliefs and traditions. As a social animal, their instincts to identify a person of authority and grant them permission to impact their lives became greatly important for self-identity and comfort. It appealed to their social instincts, and provided them with security in a world and a universe that they saw and felt to be cold, apathetic, and lonely. A few individuals, through countless generations, developed the necessary tools to properly investigate the world around them. Eventually, the tools known as science, and the scientific method ripened in this species to a point where it was accessible to a vast majority of the population. Yet, many greatly resisted this expanded understanding, and reverted to a very limited world-view. They allowed irrational beliefs, instinct, and their own fears to guide their lives. The large majority however, quietly resisted, allowing the tools of science to infiltrate their lives, but continuing their unreasonable beliefs against a mountain of data and evidence in the contrary."

As can be discerned from the last paragraph, this is an hypothetical observation that extra-terrestrial life forms may provide to their own exobiologists. None of what was said is untrue; just the perspective, or point of view is different. However, looking from the outside in, to the human species, one can't see our biological story much different. There is of course, much more descriptive detail than explained, and a paragraph can't do our species justice, but it's just a cursory summary so that our social nature can truly be discerned.

We truly are prone to social hierarchies, and we do provide a great deal of authority to people who we view as vitally important towards preserving our social structure. It's as though we're providing our resources to those individuals we deem as protectors against a hostile planet. Unfortunately, most of these so called authoritative protectors are mostly useless. Why, for example, do we provide so much authority to diluted, uneducated, irrational, and wasteful individuals such as the Pope, priests, ministers, mullahs, rabis, imams, gurus, monks, nuns, spiritual healers, and other such wasteful members of society? These individuals have dedicated their lives towards the study of empty, outdated, and useless processes of the imagination. We can laugh at individuals who devote their whole lives towards reading and studying about wood nymphs and their influential behaviors. We don't give them authority towards influencing anyone however, because group consensus tells us that those individuals are in the extreme minority and few believe that specific garbage. The one or two billion individuals who believe in some other irrational beliefs shouldn't however, expect to be treated any differently.

One must understand that although consensus is an important part of the scientific process, it does not necessarily translate to other areas of human reason. Just because consensus tells nearly three billion people in the world that there is a single entity in the universe called god (of course, the actual mechanism differs among almost every single individual), doesn't necessarily make it reality. Consensus does not equal reality, but is vitally important towards our social nature in allowing group identity and cohesion. It is within our instincts to allow certain individuals to lead us, and consensus results when many individuals agree upon the method of authority. Some individuals in a position of Authority actually deserve the respect and admiration. University professors, outside of theology and useless garbage like that, deserve the authority and consensus bestowed upon them. They have spent their lives devoted to a process that can help explain our world, whether it's language, mathematics, physics, chemistry, philosophy, economics, etc. Even culturally important studies like art, music, and yes, the study (but not the practice), of religion are all important in furthering our understanding of our world, ourselves, and our capacity towards growth and the future. One can argue that even subjects like poetry, that although don't specifically confer a selective advantage to cultures, are important because they help define cultural traits, and subtle nuances of our language. Not only that, but poetry allows for self reflection in a sense and understanding of the world that doesn't require one to reject the physical nature of everything around us. There are many such similar abstract studies that although seem useless, are vastly important to our understanding of our nature and culture. Religion is useful in that capacity as well, but it should be handled as poetry. People who disagree with each other on irrational grounds shouldn't be waging wars. It's as though those who find Haikus aesthetically pleasing war with those who find Shakespearian sonnets revolting. The reason no war occurs between the two is that perhaps some can find both revolting, or both pleasing, and even should there be a division of the two, no authority is given to someone who can wage war on behalf of a sonnet or haiku. Few have heard of the "poet wars", because none have resulted from such abstract notions.

It must then be understood that Faith that is popular means nothing other than enough people have been influenced to believe the same irrational thing through indoctrination, credulity, force, or other such means. Religion itself is shaped along the way to comform to the largest masses that can possibly be influenced without fully diluting some supposed sacred message or path. Why are we so willing to give credit to those who head these brain influencing and rewiring belief systems? As already explained, due partly to our sense of culture, and our social nature (with our need for authority and consensus fulfilled equally).

Unlike religion, consensus in the field of science is very important because one discovery often builds on another. All new scientific discoveries happen because there's a large foundation of data behind it. Without evidence, and gathered data, scientific discoveries would be useless. It is our observation of the universe, the experimentations to verify the theories based on the observation, and the gathering of data that helps to build positive consensus. The question then is how do we know the difference between positive consensus, and the negative kind that allows us to fall of the proverbial bridge? To avoid negative pitfalls, we must first be aware of our social nature. As a social animal, it is ultimately fear that guides us and forces us into a group environment. Once we identify our instincts, we can control them in a positive way by releasing these carnal fears. Comfort and security are both very valuable things in a society, but deciding to provide authority and cultural cohesion to the religious and misguided is completely incorrect. We should strive to analyze the world with the best possible tools that we have (science), and look at human society, our actions, and our instincts objectively. For those that fear science, there are many other fields that one can encounter rather then wasting time believing in what's likely to be wrong. One can look to the fields of philosophy if they wish to muse on metaphysics and possibilities. They can broaden their horizons in ethics, and the arts, psychology, even journalism. Those that fight for religion tooth and nail are doomed to live a life of ignorance. Our goals as a society should be to further our cultural progress and whatever disagreements we should have should focus on ethics and morality (both already explained in previous posts as outside the realm of religion). When we use religion as a crutch, and an explanation for our ethical and moral behavior, we are severely shortchanging our potential for progress. To avoid the chasm beneath the bridge then, one must educate themselves into appropriate forms of consensus and to seek comfort in the company of rational thoughts and actions. Our future as a human species depends on our understanding of the world, and how to modify it with the least amount of impact. These principles cannot be found in any religion or belief system, but with the tools that countless generations have tirelessly spent to develop and modify for our understanding and usage. We must not turn our back on progress just because it may disagree with the infantile belief system of the majority.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

God's days are numbered with Emergence

As science helps further our understanding of the universe, the large areas of knowledge that were once unattainable are now becoming greatly understood and expanded. There was a time when people were certain that although they knew the Earth was the center of the universe, and the sky was fixated as layers of shells (crystalline spheres), there would be no way to reach those points of light in the heavens. We now realize that Earth is not the center of the universe, that those points of light are suns similar to ours, and that it is possible to reach them. Just because we now know and understand the cosmos better then we did before does not mean that we're able to reach those stars yet. We now realize just how far they are from Earth, with the closest over 4 light-years away from us. That would mean that if we were traveling at the fantastic speed of 1/4 the speed of light, it would take us 12 years to reach the nearest star. We are a few hundred years away from reaching those capabilities at least, but we can imagine them nonetheless. Even with our expanded knowledge, we're still physically as far away as the nearest star as we always were. What changed in those span of centuries is our potential towards reaching those goals, and intermediate steps, such as landing on the moon (which also at one point was thought impossible by humans) definitely help us along the way.

There is no question that with all the knowledge we have attained, the gaps that exist are continually narrowing. Although we may never understand everything we attempt to, our base of knowledge is growing exponentially, and we're covering areas of physics, biology, and chemistry unknown even 50 years prior. A great deal of the current gaps relate to the concept of Emergence, or the phenomena of an Emergent property. Emergence is the phenomenon that relates to how complex systems arise from simple interactions. For example, how do termite colonies develop from the interaction between termites, their genetic programming, and the environment? These Emergent systems are very difficult to understand because there are so many variables involved, and understanding one system, does not make it that much easier to understand others. Emergence exists through all interactions of the universe but differs by mechanism in each system. Although the concept is similar, the technical details and the mechanism for complexity depends on many factors. To understand this aspect of Emergence, one can think of money. In general, the concept of money around the world relates to a certain nation, group of people, economic bloc, etc... agreeing to a common currency, and using this currency as a standard for trade. The currency can greatly vary, being a mix of paper and metal in some places, plastic in others, giant rocks, shellfish, animal teeth, beads, straw bricks, etc... Similarly, Emergence is like the general property we call money, but the actual mechanism and working detail vary, just as currency does for the monetary concept.

To better illustrate Emergence and how it can lessen the impact and reach that religion uses to wedge itself into reason, some examples must be shown to illustrate this phenomenon. The first relates to the concept of the human mind, or what we call consciousness. A good question to ask is how do the interactions between the neurons in our brain relate to the emergent property of the "mind". We know that we need our brains to process the world and communicate with it. Much like a computer, we input data from outside, process it, and output it in various ways. How does such complexity develop from these neural interactions? With the growth of the computer industry, we are slowly and steadily gaining ground in understanding this concept of the mind. One thing we do know is the network within our brains is vastly more complex and flexible then the static network in computers. We are just beginning to realize how complex a single neuron can be, the types of information it can send, and how billions of them can allow for the emergence of consciousness. We do know that other animals, like chimps, dolphins, and even in some experiments, birds (like parrots) have a limited sense of self and consciousness. Since our closest animal relatives are chimps, we must find those changes in our DNA and subsequently our brains that lead us to have a greater sense of self-awareness. Because of this gap in fully comprehending consciousness however, people are able to fill it with non-empirical concepts like the soul, or a universal consciousness, etc... Once we're able to explain how the mind develops from neural connections, we'll be able to completely discard supernatural notions like the soul.

Another example of Emergent behavior is global economics, or to simplify, national economics. How does the interaction between two people, one who has something, and one who needs it, lead to the complex web of economics as we know it today? There are many ways to observe these trends and attempt to understand the emergent properties involved. One is called the "top-down" approach. In this, one must first look at global economics as a single entity. Try to understand how nations deal with each other, and in doing so, perhaps this will lead to a theory which can trickle down towards lower levels. Another approach is called "bottom-up" where simple interaction between two people at the lowest levels can lead to a greater understanding of more complex interactions. Emergent properties seem to develop from looking at things from the bottom-up, while at the same time, noting the point where certain levels of organized, self-perpetuation complexity arise. Both top-down and bottom-up approaches are needed to understand emergent properties, and with economics, one must not only understand how simple supply and demand functions between two people, but how this relates to a whole community, a city, a state, the country, and eventually the world. At some point, economics appears to be an organized, self-perpetuation organism, and that is another example of emergence.

Once one thinks about it, the universe, at every level is in a constant flux of developing emergence. One way to categorize emergence (can't be by mechanism since there are so many individuals variables) is through a hierarchic system ranging from the smallest most miniscule levels to the largest ones imaginable. In this, the lowest levels involve the subatomic/quantum universe. Our whole universe and world, everything that we know and will ever know starts at the quantum level. The first and most pertinent question to ask is how do space and time emerge from the mess that is the quantum universe? That is, the universe at the smallest possible levels and energies (smaller then a subatomic particle). Imagine inventing the most powerful microscope possible, and looking at space. At this level, space has a completely different property then at our relatively large levels. Space in the quantum universe is a foamy mess, with particles popping in and out of existence (called virtual particles), interactions between particles so exotic that it's hard to grasp. A particle can co-exist in two places at once, called entanglement, and without knowing the mass and direction of a particle, it remains a probability, instead of a specific object (called the wave function). This means that light for example can either be a wave, or a particle, but without measuring it, it remains in two possible states at the same time. Only by doing an experiment and measuring it, do we "collapse the quantum wave function" and turn it into a particle. How then does this wild and chaotic quantum world emerge into a more or less predictable universe? By this, I mean how is it that we can't pop in and out of existence, or find ourselves entangled with our twins across the universe, or even remain a wave function until observed, and then collapse into a physical entity? This is one large mystery, with so much complexity that although we're nearing towards a greater understanding, its still a large mountain to ascend. As the physical world at our levels emerges from the quantum world, we also note that chemistry emerges from physics, and subsequently, biology from chemistry. So the lowest level of the Emergence Hierarchy would be the quantum (which would still involve everything in the universe, since the accumulation of quantum processes eventually leads to the birth of stars, galaxies, clusters of galaxies, superclusters of galaxies, and eventually the whole universe.)

As we scale higher levels of Emergence, we reach a point where we find ourselves in the familiar world we live in. Looking at the familiar, emergence can be found in everything. Beginning with life all together, how did certain chemical processes enclose themselves from the external environment and begin the process we call life? Once life started, how did single celled organisms develop the complexity needed to harbor multicellular structures and eventually into the mass of organisms that are required to generate complex life such as trees, mushrooms, birds, dogs, and even human beings? For as long as human beings have been around, god (or gods, ancestors, spirit animals, or any other supernatural entity or entities concerned with our health and welfare) was used as the initiator of this complexity. In fact, not only was god supposed to be the initiator but often the brooding figure that spent every waking moment looking after all, or certain groups of human beings. As our understanding of evolution and the development of complex life has progressed, god has slowly and methodically taken a back seat to natural processes. The emergence of these natural events has become the reason for the flourishing of life. The fight for survival in the form of an evolutionary arms race, where all creatures struggle to balance evolutionary costs and benefits, is but one example.

One way to look at life is like a sidebar in the hiearchy of emergence where we occupy levels in which we can create artificial intelligence that may itself soon self-perpetuate and therefore, even discover its own intelligence. As universal scale gets larger from our planetary point of view, soon, emergence can be found in the gravitational interaction which presents itself as solar systems, galaxies, clusters of galaxies, super-clusters of galactic clusters, and eventually into the overall physical existence of the universe. There are a lot of gaps in de-mystifying the emergent properties responsible for such large and complex structures, but with each mounting source of evidence, insight, and reason, we can slowly grow to understand the whole vastness of the universe without having to impose our silly and imaginary notions of god, superstition, and the "supernatural".

As an example, figure 1 here shows the nature of an Emergent hierarchy from the Human perspective. As can be seen, it takes many levels of emergence for consciousness to emerge, then language, and afterwords, economics, culture, and eventually, artificial Intelligence, which is another level of Emergence yet to be reached.

Figure 2 here demonstrates an Emergence Hierarchy from the Universal Perspective. The Human Hierarchy is just an offshoot at about the star level.

Almost any object can have a similar Emergence Hierarchy, whilst as mentioned before, the mechanism for emergence can vary. As for the large towering termite mounds, their emergent hierarchy's will mimic ours until the level of Biological, and from then, it would branch into perhaps insectoid, then social cooperation, and eventually a termite mound emerges. With the mechanisms present here, we have a decent understanding of how termite brains are programmed to create such structures. Of course, there are gaps, but these gaps are slowly being filled by science.

As can be seen from these Hierarchies, the need to invoke a divine presence is completely useless in explaining the phenomenon of emergence. It is easy to claim that a god(s) intervened in this emergence, but that would not help us explain our observations. We know that there are many forms of emergence which we can explain, so our goal is to find a scientific and empirically based explanation for those which we have yet to fully explain.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

The Burden of Proof

One of the prime irritating factors of debating my atheism with others is that it often appears that the burden of proof falls upon me to explain how the supernatural is not possible. What's accepted in our society is that those who adhere by some religious or spiritual doctrine have an elevated status as far as raising doubt about the non-existence of their deeply held belief system. What confounds the thinking is that those who find solace in their version of religion or spirituality feel as though we atheists must through logic and the scientific method completely disprove every tenet of their belief structure through the tools of science. Upon such achievement, it is only then that grounds for debate are established, and we apparently are on equal footing. It must be understood however, that the scientific method was not developed solely to refute the illogical beliefs of others, but to inquire and understand the universe that we live in. It has long been established that reason, with just religion and spirituality as tools alone could not help us understand the inner workings of our physical world. It is only through the accumulation of evidence and empirical thinking along the scientific method that we have begun to understand how the sun provides heat, gravity allows us to remain bound to the Earth, evolution through natural selection provides the variety of life, and even which areas of the brain activate to allow for lively philosophical debate. None of these answers can ever be attained by deeply studying some ancient texts that are deemed holy, or praying endlessly for weeks to understand the cause of an underlying disease. Perhaps religion's role is to sharpen our mental acuity for philosophical debate with others who hold on to an illogical and ill conceived faith-based view of the world?

With the burden of proof shifting to those who hold onto arcane notions of religion or spirituality, the task is completely up to them to explain their logic and endearing faith to such tenuous notions. It is only when one is able to step away from their indoctrinated belief structure for even a few moments that the illogic of their faith can be revealed. It is ultimately those who have the most enduring faith that see other's illogical belief as ridiculous, while justifying their system through jarring logical gaps. For these reasons alone, I shall try to briefly highlight the ridiculous notions of the major worldly religious and hope that even those who rigorously grasp at their faith can at least find the absurdity of some of these notions.

Christianity -- circa 2000 years ago in some backwater region of a backwater village in a backwater area of the Middle East, an omnipotent being sent himself through some dichotomous duplication even via his own offspring to cleanse humanity of their sins by dying. He was born through a virgin, convinced of his own superiority, managed to thoroughly convince some disciples and then eventually, nailed to a cross because he was inciting the revolutionary idea that he was the savior of humanity.

Islam -- A man, whom we must never depict from threat of death, reared in another backwater area, of a backwater region, of a backwater..... in the Middle East had the truth revealed to him while on a mountain by a supremely powerful deity who's greatest wish was adoration and unceasing, zealous, enthusiastic worship. He then married a woman much older then himself and sent about spreading this message through threats of violence, loosely woven metaphors, and strict adherence to fasting rituals and complete submission to the same deity of the previous faith.

Hinduism -- A pantheistic belief, originating in an extremely rural region of India, that incorporates the essence of animals as true gods, worships them in a variety of ways, depending on the regional difference, and through ceaseless rituals, countless gurus, and the doctrine that one's essence will be reanimated into another creatures upon their deaths attempts to achieve an enlightened state that can never be totally fulfilled.

Buddhism -- A malleable and ethereal essence that pervades the universe and continually transmits a notion of tranquility, requiring countless meditative trances and chants, while constantly adapting to regional differences and yet, will still always remain unattainable because perfection can never be achieved and can never be known (originating in another extremely rural region of India).

Judaism -- An all knowing, omnipotent, omnipresent entity, who was vengeful, genocidal, jealous, treacherous, and out right malevolent decided to choose a group of people and continuously test them through pain and suffering to gauge their loyalty and faith. These people then felt the need to quell any dissent from others of the same group who questioned such a hateful deity through mass slaughter, genocide, and of course the natural wrath of their deity. Plagiarized much of these ridiculous notions from neighboring regions and then attempted to pass them off as original (and although claimed to originate in a certain backwater region of the middle east, actually originated and spread through another backwater region of the middle east --is there a trend here?).

Scientology -- A group of space aliens from tens of millions of years ago from the planet Xenu escaped to Earth and were trapped, killed, and then their spirits were imprisoned before binding to certain human beings and then reanimated.

Quadrapteradragonism -- A four winged dragon that lives in an unseen parallel dimension ultimately chooses only the morally just people who have sacrificed their spare time to praying for rain on the 5th full moon of the year, fasting during the summer solstice for 3 days and then retreating to mass orgy on the nearest shoreline (whether sea or lake) after the 1st blue moon of the leap year. These people then control the direction that their offspring will take from the as yet unseen parallel dimension.

Well, obviously, having made up the last one, one can see how ridiculous these notions of religion can get. Yet, one can't easily leave those portending to adhere to some "spirituality" off the hook easily either. The thoughts and reasoning of these people tend to run in even greater notions of absurdity, and ultimately, one can truly be lost in this jumble of religions/spiritual insanity. The most reasonable mode of escape is to conclude that although any of these notions are possible, their likelihoods are so infinitesimally small that the burden of proof falls least upon the "de facto" atheist (a term coined by Richard Dawkins). This ultimately then is the starting point of logic, and it is up to the extraordinary beliefs to support their claims (as Carl Sagan said, "extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof"). In other words, the burden of proof lies not with the atheist, but with the religious and spiritual.

As a final note, much of this, and previous posts may come off sounding arrogant. That cannot be helped when one clears the garbage and attempts to inquire about the universe; ultimately leading to our understanding of our own place within it. These arguments only seem arrogant because there is a lot of working science behind them. To fully understand this position, one must embrace the scientific method, and learn to shy away from scientific ignorance. Before deciding that evolution through natural selection doesn't make much sense, try to understand the theory first. Before determining that there is no possible way the Earth can be 4.6 billion years old, try to educate yourself in introductory geology. The same however, cannot be said of religious or spiritual views. As much as one attempts to educate themselves with these notions, they are still ultimately an imaginary creation of the mind. It's like trying to obtain a degree of theology in quadrapteradragonism. Even though that may sound funny, this is exactly how other religions should be viewed. The only difference being that tradition has allowed the existing "official" religions to survive through virulent and self-perpetuating memes (another term coined by Richard Dawkins which represents tiny informational packets for the mind, much like genes are for the body). Much has been made of the fact that science explains the hows and religion explains the whys, but this is a very unreasonable estimation. Science can explain the whys about as well as religion, while also adhering to the working knowledge of the universe. As a final meme for thought, it must be remembered that, just because one seeks to find an answer doesn't mean there's an answer to be sought.