The patterns of AI in the stuff of the future.

There’s a fascinating interview of Max Tegmark, a prominent physicist now focussing on artificial intelligence research, by Sam Harris (the well known atheist neuroscientist), broadly on the future of AI, in particular once it reaches the point of producing a generalised intelligence at least equal to that of humans.

There are too many points of interest for me to extract those and save you from the recommendation that you listen to the podcast, but a few points stood out to me.

Firstly, Max has apparently pretty much the same view as I have about ontology (i.e. the study of what is actually there at the most fundamental level); he even uses the same language as I’ve been doing. I suppose that as we are both physicists at root, this is not as surprising as it might seem (I’m pretty sure he hasn’t read what I write, and I’ve not read anything he’s written!) There is “stuff”, and there is pattern, and pattern is not heavily dependent on the stuff which bears the pattern – as he puts it, pattern is substrate-independent. He points out that wave equations later adapted to describe fundamental particles were originally developed in fluid mechanics; the mathematics describes this class of patterns (which happen to be dynamic patterns) irrespective of whether they are in water or in, say, the electromagnetic spectrum.

He moves rapidly from there to discussing how AIs of the future are likely not to be using electrons in solid state systems, they could be in something entirely different – but the patterns will be transferrable, and in the process mentions that in IT there is one basic element, the NAND gate, which he likens to synapses in the human brain. However, of course, you can construct a NAND gate out of all sorts of “stuff”…

The bulk of the interview is about how we might control intelligences we create which could be far greater than our own intelligence, but there are many directions in which they could have gone but didn’t. Can we hope, sometime, to upload the pattern which is “us” to a computer, and thereby defeat death, or at least the limited lifespan of our biological substrate? Mention was made of the fact that the best chess player is now not a computer, after the famous defeat of Gary Kasparov, but a human-computer team, which Max calls an “android” – probably correctly, as it is a human-machine combination. Might we augment ourselves and become amalgams of human and machine? (As I get older, I would very much appreciate some memory augmentation, perhaps a few terabytes…)

What, morally, is our position regarding a machine with a generalised intelligence greater than ours? Is it morally acceptable for it to be effectively a slave? (There is some discussion of this, but by no means exhaustively). If not, will we see a situation, as Sam and Max discuss, of the superhuman intelligence being, in effect, in the position of an adult surrounded by young children, unable to make decisions as good as the adult?

If I have one overwhelming worry about this prospect (and it is closer than we might think – the self-driving car is already with us, the military are playing with machines which may, Bond-like, have a “licence to kill”, and the cheapest calculators can perform calculations many times faster than even the fastest human, giving a glimpse of what the situation might be were their “intelligence” generalised rather than restricted to arithmetic), it is that we are biological systems, and as such have emotions – and emotions are what founds most of our moral behaviour (as well as some of our most immoral). Without emotion, can an artificial intelligence ever be trusted to make good moral decisions? I worry about that; my long period of depression, which ended in 2013 (deo gratias!) ended up in a state of anhedonia, in which, broadly, I did not feel emotions. I could assess what would happen if I did something fairly well – my computing power wasn’t seriously damaged – but I couldn’t make a decision as to whether actually to do it or not because there was no emotional charge giving me this instead of that course of action. Even the prospect that the action would damage me, perhaps kill me (or others), had no emotional charge – it was a matter of indifference whether I were injured, or in pain, or dead in the future.

I got through that period by following a set of rules, largely “act as if” rules. Others did not get damaged, other than perhaps emotionally, and I got damaged relatively little and am still here to write about it. But it could so easily have been different.

Would a super-AI have the same problem? If so, we would want there to be VERY strong “rules” imbedded at an early stage to avoid disaster.

But then, I took much the same view when raising children…

Imaginary friends…

There’s a new attempt to claim that the existence of God is rationally probable kicking around at the moment, divided into five “reasons”.

Therer’s a general problem about all of these, in that while they may point to there being something which we don’t yet fully understand underlying existence, the directions the author is going in would lead to a “God of the philosophers”, which (as I’ve complained regularly) looks nothing like the God of the Bible. In fact, it looks a lot more like Stephen Hawking’s “Theory of Everything”, and while I would be absolutely fascinated to see Hawking or some other brilliant mind come up with such a theory, and I would no doubt regard it as wonderful, awesome and similar words, I can’t see myself worshiping, loving or having allegiance to a theory.

I may come back to the other four reasons, but at this point I want to talk about the first, which has been called by others “the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics”. The link I use there refers to a number of objections by Richard Hamming, but the list of names who have regarded this as a puzzle which requires answering includes some very great thinkers, and I don’t think it can be dismissed out of hand. As Max Tegmark suggests, perhaps at a fundamental level everything IS mathematical. It is definitely the case that mathematics comes up with concepts, and those concepts later find use when some theoretical scientist realises that that piece of maths describes (at least reasonably well) the mechanism which they are studying. The use of the Riemann mathematics in General Relativity, rather a lot of years later, is indeed a fine example.

I am not going to set out to dismiss the idea, but I do see a number of problems (apart from the fact that equating God with mathematics would negate virtually every religious or spiritual writing in history). Hamming mentions one, which I think has a lot of force – mathematics continues to produce a load of concepts, and not all of them by any manner of means manage to find a natural mechanism to describe. Some of them don’t describe the mechanism particularly well – I would argue, for instance, that string theory (which is an admirably complex piece of mathematical thinking) doesn’t actually describe the fundamental state of matter particularly well, given that to date it has failed to make any prediction which could be tested and that it keeps on being modified by legions of theoretical physicists in the hopes that one day it might.

He then develops that (it’s listed as a separate objection, but I think it flows from the above) to argue that we use the conceptual tools we have (which are, in science, largely provided by mathematics) to try to explain things. If we lack a mathematical concept for something, science doesn’t explain it, at least not yet.

What concerns me more, however, is the fact that mathematics throws up concepts which have no physical correspondent. Infinity is one such; we cannot observe an infinity; if we could, it would not be an infinity. It (together with a class of mathematical concepts which are quasi-infinities, called “transfinites”) is incapable of being experimentally verified; they just result from a contemplation of what would happen if an operation which you can perform a lot of times were continued indefinitely. I’ve written elsewhere of the problems faced by referring to attributes of God such as omnipotence and omniscience as infinite; I am deeply uncertain of the wisdom of this habit of saying “well, it looks as if it’s going there” without actually doing the experiment, as concepts have a habit of breaking down in limit conditions.

However, there’s another mathematical concept which cannot exist in the real world at all (it isn’t just not verifiable by experiment, it cannot exist) and that is the square root of -1, called “i”. The definition is i2 + 1 = 0. It is actually called an “imaginary number” for just that reason – it can have no real world equivalent. Mathematics therefore (arguably) axiomatically overspecifies what actually exists (axiomatically as opposed to the as-yet-unused mathematical concepts which may find an application some day).

I grant you, a very common use of imaginary numbers is in complex numbers of the form a + bi, where a is the “real” and bi the “imaginary” part; the imaginary part is then thought of as somewhere on an axis at right angles to the real axis. Any point on a two dimensional graph can therefore be represented as a single complex number.

The thing is, imaginary numbers are all over the place in some fields of mathematics, notably in areas like Rieman spaces (mentioned above) and anything to do with waves, including quantum physics. The mathematics for things which do exist therefore relies on concepts which don’t and can’t exist, despite the comments of the mathematicians talking with Melvyn Bragg in this BBC programme.

There are, I suppose, two ways of looking at this. The first is to say that mathematics clearly includes nonexistent things, and therefore cannot demonstrate the existence of God, because, well, God exists and they don’t.

The other is to say that if, just perhaps, there is something in the author’s argument that mathematics can tell us something about God, it is that “God exists” is at best a deceptive statement – because God includes some aspect which is, strictly speaking, imaginary…

So, my atheist friends, forgive me if I laugh at your comments about God as my “imaginary friend”. You’re reading this courtesy of techology which relies on imaginary numbers to exist.

One man and his God?

I’ve been struck over the last couple of days by two articles. The first, an interview with Donald Hoffman, a professor of cognitive science, contains these words:-

“I call it conscious realism: Objective reality is just conscious agents, just points of view. Interestingly, I can take two conscious agents and have them interact, and the mathematical structure of that interaction also satisfies the definition of a conscious agent. This mathematics is telling me something. I can take two minds, and they can generate a new, unified single mind. Here’s a concrete example. We have two hemispheres in our brain. But when you do a split-brain operation, a complete transection of the corpus callosum, you get clear evidence of two separate consciousnesses. Before that slicing happened, it seemed there was a single unified consciousness. So it’s not implausible that there is a single conscious agent. And yet it’s also the case that there are two conscious agents there, and you can see that when they’re split. I didn’t expect that, the mathematics forced me to recognize this. It suggests that I can take separate observers, put them together and create new observers, and keep doing this ad infinitum. It’s conscious agents all the way down.”

The second is a piece by Keith Frankish, a philosophy lecturer in a similar area of research, who says, among other things, “As well as being embodied, mental processes can also be extended to incorporate external artefacts. Clark and fellow philosopher of mind David Chalmers propose what’s since been called the Parity Principle, which says that if an external artefact performs a function that we would regard as mental if it occurred within the head, then the artefact is (for the time being) genuinely part of the user’s mind. To illustrate this, Clark and Chalmers describe two people each trying to work out where various shapes fit in a puzzle. One does it in his head, forming and rotating mental images of the shapes, the other by pressing a button to rotate shapes on a screen. Since the first process counts as mental, the second should too, Clark and Chalmers argue. What matters is what the object does, not where it is located. (Compare how a portable dialysis machine can be part of a person’s excretory system.) The rationale is the same as that for identifying the mind with the brain rather than the soul; the mind is whatever performs mental functions. “

These seem to me to give a real basis for some of the intuitions carried by the mystical experience; firstly (per Frankish) that the boundary of the self is extremely “fuzzy” and can be much smaller than the extent of the “mind” or extend much further than the extent of the physical body, and secondly (per Hoffman) the feeling of being part of and connected with something far larger than the self, which something has at least some characteristics of a consciousness (or, if you like, “person”).

I was searching for an analogy to use for this, and thought of my wife (who is currently starting training our one year old german shepherd for working trials) and recalled the BBC television series “One man and his dog”. Watching a well-handled sheepdog herd sheep, the dog becomes very much an extension of the handler, which is two consciousnesses acting as one, despite the fact that the dog (the subservient partner) has a consciousness all of its own. That’s something my wife is currently battling with, as Lutz has a very well developed willfullness all of his own, and she isn’t yet completely attuned to the subtle signals Lutz gives off about his intentions.

Now, I’m sceptical about the validity of Hoffman’s more general claim that, in essence, it’s “consciousness all the way down” and that we should think of the whole of existence as a collection of consciousnesses, or at least proto-consciousnesses. That said, Frankish makes me think about Heidegger’s picture of the man wielding the hammer, in which the hammer becomes in a sense a part of the person wielding it. I would myself be inclined to think that for something to be a consciousness, it would need some sense of self, some feedback loop giving it a concept of what it is in itself. We certainly have that, and frankly I think Lutz does as well, although in his case it isn’t nearly as well developed (if I were asked to guess why, I’d say that it’s because he doesn’t have the same memory retention characteristics as humans do). But in the case of “One man and his dog”, I think we have a clear case of a single consciousness temporarily formed out of two – and it might be possible to stretch and say that the ensemble of man, dog and flock of sheep became a single consciousness for at least short periods.

Suddenly it doesn’t seem quite so far-fetched that I could write of feeling at one with a consciousness greater than myself of which I am integrally part…


Peter Enns mentions, in a post which is mostly about incarnation, the fact that some scholars don’t take inspiration and revelation seriously.

Probably, the more “liberal” your theology (or “progressive” if you like) the less you’re likely to regard these as important terms. However, by almost any standards other than out and out atheist, I’m pretty much firmly in the liberal/progressive camp, theologically speaking – but I do take both of these concepts very seriously indeed.

That’s because I’m at root a mystic. I wouldn’t be writing this kind of post or reading a stack of theology, biblical study and spirituality material if it weren’t for that fact; the me aged between about 8 and about 15 was a complete atheist, and was frankly happy with that state – and there’s probably no room in an atheist, materialist worldview for inspiration or revelation. A mystical experience, however, whatever framework of interpretation you apply to it, comes with a large dose of self-verification – in other words, it tells you that it’s true, and more true than anything experienced through more mundane channels.

That said, it’s also incredibly difficult to communicate (at least to anyone who isn’t themselves a mystic) – mere words just don’t quite seem to hack it. They might for a poet, I suppose, but I don’t think I’d ever qualify as a poet (an occasional versifier at best…). I don’t think my “muse” is poetic.

I keep that very centrally in mind when talking either of my own experience or of the words of others which have been widely identified as “inspired”; the experience in and of itself may well be completely true, but by the time it’s filtered through the concept structures and language I have available, in my case at least it’s only somewhat true – and I expect that to be the case with any other person’s inspired statements. That means that I need to do some digging within the words used to try to discern what the original inspiration may have been – and that is particularly true where the original writer was using a set of concept structures and language which are foreign to me. On the most simple level, I need it translated into English. However, I also need it translated from, variously, a first-century Hebrew set of concepts or a first century Greek set of concepts when dealing with scripture, and translating into a modern-to-post-modern set of concepts.

The “post-modern” bit of that is a bit of a saving grace. The viewpoints Dr. Enns is talking of are, by and large, modern – and a modern view of inspiration is that it needs to be entirely rationally sustainable and reducible to material elements; this is what produces an insistence on an historical Adam and Eve, an historical recent creation and an historical flood. Those events have to have actually happened exactly as the literal words describe, otherwise they’re of no use whatsoever – a view agreed on by atheists and fundamentalists alike.

I can try to look behind the literal meaning and seek the inspiration which gave rise to to that kind of expression, given (in those cases) a several-thousand-year old Hebrew viewpoint on the way things were. A lot of what I post here involves that kind of process; I am working through scripture, reinterpreting it along the way as I am forced to do by not having an Iron Age Hebrew worldview and concept structures, and I am working through doctrines with the same compulsion caused by not having a first century Greek worldview and concept structures (particularly their philosophical ideas).

I haven’t got round to all scripture yet. There are some passages of scripture in which I find it so far impossible to discern an inspiration which I can regard as “true” – particularly those passages in which God is seen, ostensibly, as counselling genocide (the Amalekites in the Hebrew Scriptures, for instance) or as effecting it himself (the flood, or some interpretations of Revelation, for instance). Maybe those will never make sense to me as being inspired by or a revelation from God. Maybe they weren’t, and were inserted in what is definitely in part an inspired set of works by some thoroughly uninspired individual. I prefer, however, for the moment, to assume that at some point in the future I may work out how it is that they are divinely inspired, and in the meantime just not act on any of them which does not seem to me to display injunctions to love, not hate, and to peace, not strife.

The consciousness and experience of a neutrino

I was interested by an article I read on panspychism (broadly, the suggestion that consciousness is the most fundamental thing and that matter and energy are epiphenomena or emergent properties of consciousness). Frankly, I’m inclined to agree with it’s stance, though another article which a commentator on the first links to, by Galen Strawson, entirely rightly refers to Bertrand Russell’s observation that “We know nothing about the intrinsic quality of physical events, except when these are mental events that we directly experience.” In that sense, at least, consciousness has to be primary, because that’s all we have to work with. Everything which we think we know about the world around us except for consciousness is ultimately a construction of our consciousnesses.

That, of course, includes such absolutely fundamental building blocks of science (and materialism) as matter and energy (ultimately, in Physics, the same thing).

The thing the author of the first article seizes on, however, is that while concepts such as matter and energy lead to a supremely useful edifice of scientific theory and hypothesis, the concept that everything rests ultimately on tiny units of consciousness does not lead to this, and in fact it’s very difficult to see that it leads to anything. It’s worth mentioning that this is one reason why I have difficulty with Process Philosophy and with its offshoot Process Theology – I find with Process that, once you get beyond the assertion that everything ultimately is reducible to moments of experience (and that all matter and energy is finally composed of moments of experience),  I tend to agree with the theologians who espouse it a lot. (There may be a viable distinction between micro-elements of consciousness and micro-elements of experience, but I don’t think it’s one which differentiates the two views significantly).

The trouble is, I can’t see that the explanation adds anything (and in the case of Process Theology, I can’t see that this basis is actually necessary for the rest of the theologians’ conclusions).

However, it is distinctly possible to see the same tendencies as are described in panpsychism as “consciousness” and in process as “experience” as self-organisation. As this video from Neil Theise MD, (principally a cellular biologist) indicates, if you put together self-organisation (which occurs at extremely fine scales, i.e. subatomic) with a random element (likewise) and some negative feedback, you will get larger scale stable things (communities or organisms, for instance). I interject that this is particularly the case where there is some means of storing information about the past. Incidentally, even if you don’t commonly click on my links, click on this one – it’s fascinating.

As you will see from the video, Dr. Theise found himself, to his surprise, put on a panpsychism panel when presenting some of his ideas, and has since convinced himself that he is, at least in some way, a panpsychist. However, he also indicates that he is reluctant to draw hard and fast lines where a continuum is involved, and while I can sympathise with that, I think it has led to him using the term “consciousness” for something which most of the rest of us would not call “consciousness”. He may not be prepared to draw that line, but our use of language has done so, even if it is a very fuzzy line (as is so often the case with language).

In particular, I think that in order to call something “consciousness”, we need the means of storing information, and that is not evident at the very lowest levels of organisation. This is a major reason why it is difficult for me to consider “experience” as basic, because to me, “experience” also demands a level of information storage which is just not present at the atomic level. Of course, being in origin a Physicist, my tendency is to see atoms or subatomic particles as fundamental, whereas Dr. Theise is used to seeing cells as fundamental. I just can’t say that a neutrino has consciousness or experience – it doesn’t fit.

However, he has drawn for me a pathway through something which may be called “epiphenomenology”, or may be called “emergence” all the way from the quantum soup to higher level beings such as ourselves.

The incoherence of the philosophers?

I came across an “In Our Time” in which Melvyn Bragg discusses Averroes, the 12th century Muslim philosopher from Cordoba, with, inter alia, Peter Adamson of the History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps podcast. I recommend both.

One point I particularly take away is this. Islam had, in the twelfth century, discovered the works of the ancient Greek philosophers, particularly Aristotle, and had started translating these into Arabic (a practice which, mostly via the incredibly tolerant culture of al-Andaluz (Andalucia) in which for a brief period Muslim, Christian and Jewish scholars worked together and sparked off each others’ works, introduced the Christian West to Aristotle, who had been largely forgotten about).

This concerned a theologian called al-Ghazali, writing in Baghdad. Al-Ghazali wrote a work against Aristotle (who he thought was dangerous to Islamic faith) called “The Incoherence of the Philosophers”, thus making himself a philosopher as well as a theologian – you can’t attack philosophy as a discipline without, ironically, being a philosopher yourself.

Averroes was engaged in writing commentaries on Aristotle, which were so influential that some centuries later Thomas Aquinas referred to Averroes as “The Commentator” and quoted him extensively. Not surprisingly, Averroes didn’t always agree with al-Ghazali, and wrote a rebuttal called “The Incoherence of the Incoherence”. However, on some things he did agree with al-Ghazali, but attributed that to faults in the interpretation of Aristotle by Avicenna, a Muslim philosophical giant of the previous century…

Don’t you just love philosophers?

A God of psychotic unconcern?

There’s an interesting article on Patheos’ “Unfundamentalist Christians” blog  by Randall Rauser, which I strongly suggest you read before reading further.

Rauser could also have pointed out that the granddaddy of Western Theology, Thomas Aquinas, wrote as an answer to question 94 of his “Summa Theologia”:-


1. The sufferings of the damned will be perfectly known to the saints or blessed in heaven, and will only make them the more thankful to God for his great mercy towards themselves.

2. There can, however, be no pity in the saints with reference to the damned. For, on the other hand, they know that the damned are suffering what they chose and still perversely choose. On the other hand, pity is painful in the one who experiences it, and there can be nothing painful in heaven.

3. The blessed are in full conformity with the will of God who wills justice. The saints rejoice in the accomplishment of God’s justice. To this extent it can be said that they joy in the pains of the damned.

Rauser (to my mind entirely reasonably) asks how we can see holiness in individuals in this life as involving increased compassion for others, but think that the summit of holiness, presumably reached by being “saved” and thus one of the blessed in heaven could mean the complete absence of compassion for others.

To my thinking, this is the result of the miscegenation of Judaism and subsequently Christianity with Greek philosophical ideas, in this case the deduction that God must be “impassible”, i.e. not moved by passions. There is a decent article on Aquinas’ position at Helms Deep, which (inter alia) attempts to dispel the idea that this means the same as “impassive” (i.e. unfeeling) and, to quote, the idea that “An impassible/impassive God is said to exhibit psychotic unconcern.”

Aquinas also uses the same set of principles, arguing from God’s perfections; God must be perfectly loving, pure, wise, holy and just, to argue that God cannot be angry or jealous (both of which scripture ascribes to God repeatedly) nor can he repent (as scripture says he does on several occasions, notably in the book of Jonah), as these would detract variously from Godly perfections, as would (for example) pity or sadness (again, both ascribed to God in scripture).

My perhaps naive conclusion is that the “God” described by Aquinas (and by most of the Western traditions of theology up to and including the evangelicals of today) is not the God described in the Bible – but this “God” is one who exhibits psychotic unconcern.

And not one fit for worship.

The incomprehensibility of Trinity

Allan Bevere has recently written a number of posts in the lead up to Trinity Sunday, one of which I feel the need to focus on. Allan has often been a valued colleague on Global Christian Perspectives (currently undergoing a hiatus while we rethink the format), and I generally find myself agreeing with much of what he says, which always has a strong devotional and scriptural basis. Not all, however!

Here, based on his longer appraisal of a work by Nicholas Lash he talks about Christian Theism, and distinguishes it from Trinitarianism. The first thing I note is that he is talking about Theism as a synonym for what we commonly call Deism these days (with authority from Voltaire who, it seems, coined the usage he talks about). However, I find that it was rather earlier used by Ralph Cudworth, whose definition was “strictly and properly called Theists, who affirm, that a perfectly conscious understanding being, or mind, existing of itself from eternity, was the cause of all other things” (from Wikipedia). Cudworth’s usage is, I think, somewhat closer to the way the term is used these days, which includes Monotheism, Polytheism, Pantheism, Panentheism and Deism (among others) as specific instances of the broader term “Theism”, though modern usage does not include the requirement that God be “first cause”.

His first point is this:- “Theism starts with the assumption that there is a “central core” of beliefs about God that makes Christians, Jews and Muslims all theists. The differing beliefs about God are further additions to one’s theistic faith. These further beliefs are where Christians, Jews and Muslims no longer agree. Lash maintains, however, that any belief about God cannot be divided into any kind of “central core” without perverting fundamental Christian, Jewish and Muslim belief about God. Thus a theistic account of God is unacceptable.”

I immediately disagree with this statement. Leaving aside Muslims (who believe in a revelation subsequent to the New Testament), it cannot be that the God of Christianity is different from the God of Judaism; that would be to say that the whole of the Hebrew Scriptures (without which the New Testament is arguably unintelligible and definitely shorn of most of its content) are irrelevant and, indeed, to suggest that they refer to a God different from the Christian God. That is the position of Marcion and of the Gnostics, both of whom were anathematised as heretics.

Indeed, the Apostles’ creed which Lash makes the subject of his book starts “I believe in God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth” (the common alternative, the Nicene creed, starts similarly but states “I believe in one God…”). Everything after that is quite clearly “a further addition to ones theistic faith”. Jews and Muslims both would, I think, find no problem in either formulation up to that point. Thus, I would suggest, the most one could say is that the theistic account of God is inadequate.

He continues “The God of theism is abstract. Without the doctrine of the Trinity (“as it is employed in defining, determining or shaping Christian life, prayer, action and suffering”) “spirit” is an “empty word.” It becomes an abstraction situated in the’ ‘broad framework of Cartesian contractions.” “. In the longer response, he comments that Theism is the “God of the philosophers” – and indeed, I am inclined to agree that Deism (not Theism – neither Judaism nor Islam would consider themselves Deist religions) is very much the God of the philosophers. He also, however, states “Yet Lash maintains that the doctrine of God’s incomprehensibility requires us to confess God as mystery at the outset. “

The suggestion that without a doctrine, “spirit is an empty word” is just ridiculous to me; spirit is experienced, so it cannot be an empty word; it designates a real phenomenon. We might well not fully understand it, but that would be entirely consistent with the incomprehensibility of God. In fact, Trinitarianism is itself a doctrine of the philosophers, or at least of the product of Greek philosophy with the experiential truths that God is to Jesus (and to the ancient Hebrews, and to us) Father, and that Jesus incarnated the Word of God (which was God) and that God acts in the world through the Holy Spirit from the beginning and the necessity to continue to pronounce monotheism in the words of the Shema. “God is one”. Two of those three are common ground between Christianity, Judaism and, in fact, Islam. The sticking point between Christianity and either of the others is that neither sees Jesus as incarnating God.

And, indeed, there is no statement of Trinitarianism in our scripture, merely some passages where an ardent trinitarian can discern all three elements (most notably Matt. 28:19, which does not say that all three are God, let alone prescribe any particular relationships between them). Trinitarianism took some significant time to arrive, and it arrived through early theologians steeped in Greek philosophy trying to make sense of the fact that God was one and yet all three statements in the preceding paragraph were correct. If you adopt the philosophical positions of Platonism or Aristotelianism, you may well want to try to jump through the same hoops as did Theophilus of Antioch (the first to use the term in the late second century), Augustine (who developed the concept considerably) or Acquinas (whose “Summa Theologica” is the basis for subsequent Trinitarianism in Catholicism and Anglicanism). Personally I do not, as I do not adopt either Plato’s nor Aristotle’s concepts of how the world works, and neither Augustine nor Acquinas makes sense to me philosophically.

There are many instances of scripture where what are regarded as “Trinitarian heresies” such as subordinationism (an example from John) are made clear and because the doctrine has ended up being impossible to expound to normal people, principally due to modalism being declared a heresy. If I am asked to subscribe to a doctrine, I really do not want it to contradict scripture, nor do I want it to be functionally useless.

There is, however, one really good thing in Lash’s account, which I have already mentioned – the doctrine of the incomprehensibility of God. The end point of Trinitarian discussion in the Orthodox Church was the Cappadocian fathers, one of whom suggested that in the end the Trinity was not comprehensible, was a “holy mystery”.

I gently suggest that it would have been perfectly adequate to say “it’s a holy mystery” after stating that the Father is God, Jesus is God and the Holy Spirit is God, and without all the philosophical paraphernalia which has tried to clarify the situation and has ended up back in bafflement. We’d still be Trinitarian, but without all the fuss…

And, in passing, I really do not like the suggestion that the other great religions are idolatrous. If we accept that God is incomprehensible to us, we are in no position to say that any of the others is wrong – and that way lies a total failure to love our neighbours as ourselves – yes, and even our enemies.


A not so finely tuned argument?

Having recently written a post about naturalism, in the way of these things I come across a couple of items which speak to what is often regarded as the overwhelming problem for naturalism, namely the Fine Tuning argument, and to one of the “answers” often provided to this in the form of multiverse concepts. The first is from a theological standpoint, and rather boldly claims that the fine tuning argument coupled with the exit into multiverse as an explanation represents a huge problem for science and it’s naturalistic bent. I recommend reading through to the comment on that as well. There has also been a recent interview with Keith Ward on Homebrewed Christianity which raises the fine tuning argument, The second is an excerpt from a discussion presentation by the cosmologist Sean Carroll, which takes an opposing view. I happen to think, with Carroll, that it is hugely premature to do probability assessments and to come up with the answer “It’s colossally improbable that the physical constants would have had exactly the values they do have, which would not produce life if they were only slightly different”. For one thing, as he points out, that argument should say not “life” but “life as we know it”; we do not know what the conditions would be for producing life of any kind, just those dear to our own hearts as they produced us. He also points out that one of the constants which has often been used to bolster this argument can actually be calculated from within the cosmological theory generating universes, and it turns out that the probability of the constant having the value it has is 1. In other words, it had to have that value anyhow. Moving on from that, he says (with justification) that at the moment we don’t know enough to be able to calculate the probabilities of other events. Although he doesn’t say it explicitly, it is entirely possible that there are mechanisms at work which force the values we actually see, so their probabilities are also 1; alternatively, other values might well produce life of some other kind, as we aren’t yet sure what constitutes “life”. This is not quite the old answer to the anthropic principle, which is that clearly the probability of the conditions which produced us is 1, as otherwise we would not be here to ask the question and try to generate the probability… but it is coming fairly close. Carroll does, however, think that a multiverse concept saves the day. I am much less with him on that point; multiverse theory multiplies the number of universes to a ridiculous extent (and would have utterly horrified William of Occam) at the same time as preserving the situation, as all possibilities become actualities in some universe. Do I therefore think that science (and therefore naturalism) has a problem here? Well, no. As the theologians rightly point out, the multiverse concept is not scientific. There are several reasons for this, but the obvious one is that there is no way to test the theory; it is axiomatic for the theory that the multiple universes do not interact with each other after their formation. However, that merely tells me that the problem is not a scientific one, it is a philosophical one. It goes beyond what science (naturalism) sets out to do. In essence it is enquiring as to the nature of causation and advancing the idea that there is no randomness and no probability at all about the universe, it is just that where we see randomness and probability, the universe actually splits and the two (or more) universes go their own way serenely unconnected with each other. This is actually a problem for some theologians as well, not so much in discussion of proofs for the existence of God (this is the teleological argument) but in discussion of the problem of free will versus determinism in the face of a belief in an omniscient God. Some theologians also come up with a multiverse concept to deal with this; at every point where a decision is made “by free will”, actually all possible decisions are made, and God knows all of them. (I don’t personally think that God is omniscient in this sense; any omniscience God has is limited to that which can be known, and what has not yet happened cannot be known except as a probability). At the root of both is an all too human horror of anything uncertain. And, perhaps, a persistent refusal to accept that there’s anything which is ultimately not capable of being understood by us, which is an astonishingly arrogant statement. This refusal drives science, and that is, on the whole, a good thing – I don’t think we should ever give up trying to understand everything, but it also drives theology, which is at root an attempt to find out enough about God to make God predictable. I don’t think we should stop doing that either. But I don’t think we should be too confident of success!

Naturalism and it’s discontents

A man was caught in floods, and climbed up onto his roof to avoid the rising waters. He prayed to God to save him from the flood. Along came a man in a monster truck, which had a high enough wheelbase to be clear of the water, and offered him transport out of there. “No”, said the man, “God will save me”. The waters rose higher. Along came a man in a boat, and offered him a place in the boat. “No”, said the man, “God will save me”. The waters rose higher. Then a helicopter flew over, and a man called from it “Here, I’ll drop you a ladder – climb up and I’ll take you to safety”. “No”, said the man, “God will save me”. The waters rose higher. Eventually, standing on the ridge of the roof, with the water lapping at his feet, the man prayed again “God, why have you not saved me?” A voice came from the clouds “I sent you a truck, a boat and a helicopter – what more do you want me to do?”.

I’ve recently had a couple of exchanges on Global Christian perspectives revolving round the fact that I’m a methodological naturalist. That means that, when confronted with a situation, I look for natural rather than supernatural causes, i.e. I look for a scientific explanation.

What happens if I can’t work out a scientific explanation? In conscience, I assume that there actually is a scientific explanation, just not one which I can yet understand – maybe based on scientific principles which haven’t yet been discovered. What I don’t do is go the extra step and say that it is not possible that there is a non-scientific, supernatural explanation (which would be ontological naturalism, i.e. naturalism going to the root of what things are in themselves) – but for all practical purposes, that isn’t saying much. It caused a bit of a stir at my small group a while ago when I said that I couldn’t believe in any supernatural cause – how is it, one person asked, that you can be a Christian and not believe in the supernatural?

It’s actually entirely possible. There are even atheist Christians, who positively disbelieve in the existence of God, but much more widespread are a large number of what are commonly labelled “liberal” theologians, of whom a 20th century German theologian called Rudolph Bultmann stands out. His great project was to “demythologise” scripture, which meant to look for the meaning of scripture stripped of all the mythological elements, which included miracles, but also a large amount of the story told in scripture, in his case particularly any account of the historical Jesus.

Much of the academy (i.e. those who study theology and scripture professionally in universities) are in line with this kind of thinking. However, this relatively seldom translates into local churches, at least in my experience; theologically trained clergy put aside their philosophical positions when delivering their sermons, or they find some philosophical “work round” such as neo-orthodoxy or post-liberalism. I have never heard a sermon attempting to explain either!

In conscience, though, I also find that whatever the people in the pews state as their beliefs (which are usually far more historically conventional than followers of Bultmann), in practice they are also methodological naturalists. Most of them will respond very positively to the story I started with, variants of which I’ve heard in several sermons. Most of them will not rely just on prayer for healing, they will also see a doctor and take medicine. They are largely relying on naturalistic solutions, though they may well pray as well.

A few, a very few, actually go through life depending on God (or as an atheist would see it, chance) to provide for them. They appear actually to believe that “if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matt. 17:20). And, mirabile dictu, it quite often seems to work for them. Mind you, it also seems that non-religious people who are fired with unshakeable convictions can sometimes achieve things which the average somewhat doubtful person could not. To this congenitally sceptical observer, it also seems that sometimes both groups set themselves up for colossal failure by doing this, and that the positive impression I have painted may be largely the result of confirmation bias, but from where I sit, if you can live like that, do it. I can’t, however hard I may try.

I am not, of course, suggesting that people are being hypocritical or lying about their beliefs, or at least not any more than every human being does. Most people, I find, don’t actually examine their beliefs in very much detail, and those that do may well feel that a kind of desperate hope that, in fact, things might be the way they believe is sufficient. I can manage that desperate hope myself (and do, particularly when there’s no other option than desperate hope) – I just can’t any more elevate it to the category of something I really believe in

That, of course, extends to “faith that” statements which I am regularly asked to confirm I believe, and where those include a supernatural element (such as, for instance, the virgin birth) I have to say that I cannot actually bring myself to believe these; the nearest I can get is to suspend disbelief and (with Bultmann) look for what else such a statement is able to carry as a message.

Don’t get me wrong. I have no antipathy toward the supernatural – in fact, I would love there to be supernatural explanations for things. When younger, I was fascinated with claims of supernatural events and effects and spent a lot of time exploring groups and traditions which claimed to have special knowledge and/or special abilities in that direction. I am still keen on reading fantasy books for relaxation, and have a weak spot for superhero narratives. The trouble is, almost universally I came to the conclusion that in the world which we inhabit, supernatural forces are not at work. The most I can say is that we do not yet fully understand all of the natural forces which exist. That, tempered with the occasional desperate hope…

Mind you, in studying “the supernatural”, I very much took the view that it needed to have theories of how it worked, and experimental techniques, and confirmatory experiments – and all this would actually have reduced the supernatural to another set of natural forces, just ones which didn’t operate by the set of rules we currently have in science. The personal God would, in addition, have a character, and that could be analysed.

In other words, in doing theology, we are attempting to establish sets of rules by which supernatural events and effects operate, with a view to controlling their effects on ourselves. If we view God as having, in any sense, agency (i.e. being able to act in the world other than as an impersonal force), theologians are attempting to psychoanalyse God, to establish what God will do given a particular set of circumstances – and as time has gone by, they are less willing to accept a view of God as arbitrary and unpredictable (faithful, steadfast and just are frequently used terms, while philosophical theologians have arrived at terms such as unchanging and immutable). The gods of (for instance) Greece, Rome or the Teutons or Norse were hugely unpredictable, and historically they lost ground very rapidly to a God conceived of as being rather more reliable.

If we view God as being more akin to an impersonal force (which is broadly speaking the deist position), it is still possible to analyse how it is that this force operates in the world. Finally, if we end up in the position of God as “ground of all being” or “the condition for the possibility of existence”, analysis will still take place, although among philosophical theologians rather than what we might call “practical theologians”. The unpredictable is anathema these days (it wasn’t in the days of, say, the Greek and Roman pantheons of gods, who could be incredibly arbitrary and unpredictable), and most of us instinctively agree with Einstein when he said “God doesn’t play dice” – though, at a subatomic level, it now seems that this is exactly what everything we see depends on.

In this connection, I think it’s worth mentioning two approaches to conceiving of God. One is that of the philosophers, starting in the West (as far as our records show) with Plato. There is a splendid set of lectures by Professor Keith Ward outlining this general approach. The trouble is, the God outlined by the philosophers is usually a long way from both the interventionist picture of God and from the personal picture of God enshrined in Christian scripture. But then, I think that reasoning towards God from first principles is a fundamentally flawed idea; to me God is first and foremost an experiential reality, and any picture of God must be built up from that experience, and not from philosophical argument. In any event, these arguments end up with a God who is far more impersonal force than personal, relational entity, and I harbour the strong suspicion that any suggestion that this is what God most fundamentally is is eventually going to come up against a new discovery of science which actually describes how that force operates.

Another (and it is to some extent part of the philosophers’ armoury) is the appeal to a first cause, something which set everything we know of in motion, called it into existence; the creator God. Of course, science has taken over most of the history of the universe, and from the point of view of physics, it is fairly settled what has happened since the extremes of the first second or so after the Big Bang (and there really is no place for a creator in that account). However, a source of constant wonder for scientists (myself included) is the fact that so many physical quantities are so precisely fixed as to create circumstances in which all of the immensity and complexity of the known universe could exist. There is a good lecture by Professor Ard Louis on this subject, which I think illustrates well how finely tuned physics actually is to produce what we see.

There are a few problems with Prof. Louis’ account. Firstly, it is notoriously difficult and deceptive to calculate probabilities for something happening which has in fact happened – after all, the probability of something happening which has actually occurred is 100% (or 1). In any event, it can readily be suggested that the anthropic principle is fundamentally flawed in that, in order for us to be observing this amazing coincidence of masses of constants, those constants in any case had to be exactly as they are; had they not been, there would have been no observer.

Some physicists extend this thinking and posit that on every occasion on which more than one thing might happen, actually all possible things happen and the universe splits into multiple almost identical “multiverses”. It’s worth mentioning that this idea, which would have horrified William of Occam, who inveighed against the multiplication of metaphysical entities, is also attractive to some theologians, who find in is a solution to the freewill -v- determinism issue – with multiverses, everything can be simultaneously totally determined and totally freely chosen. I rather recoil against it myself. After all, one of the fundamental drives of both scientists and theologians is to simplify things so that they can be understood, rather than complicate them to an extent approaching infinity!

However, there is as more substantive problem, and that is that physics does not have any idea of a mechanism by which such physical quantities might be fixed. This feeds back into my first point – if you don’t know anything about a mechanism, assessing the probability of one thing happening rather than another is perhaps foolish. Also, however, it leaves the age old hostage to fortune in being a “God of the gaps” answer. Science has filled a very large number of those gaps in the past, and this one might get filled in the future. Also, I am inclined to go along with the argument of Douglas Adams, in “The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” regarding the Babel Fish, an universal translator:- “Now it is such a bizarrely improbable coincidence that anything so mindbogglingly useful could evolve purely by chance that some thinkers have chosen to see it as a final and clinching proof of the non-existence of God. The argument goes something like this: “I refuse to prove that I exist,” says God, “for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.” “But,” says Man, “the Babel fish is a dead giveaway, isn’t it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and so therefore, by your own arguments, you don’t. QED.” “Oh dear,” says God, “I hadn’t thought of that,” and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic. “Oh, that was easy,” says Man, and for an encore goes on to prove that black is white, and gets killed on the next zebra crossing. Most leading theologians claim that this argument is a load of dingo’s kidneys. “

Finally, of course, it doesn’t paint a picture which the authors of either the New Testament or the Old would have recognised as being God.

Of course, this is all at base because science answers the question “how does this happen?”, generally with the subtext of “how can I make it happen, or prevent it from happening, again?” or “what new and interesting things could I see once I understand how this happens?”. It does not answer the questions “what is the purpose of this?” or “what does this mean?” Those questions, at least arguably, only have validity in the space of thought.

And, of course, whatever science may explain away, it is undeniable that God exists in the space of human thought and, as our experience is always in that space, in human experience.