Archive | February, 2013

What I Would Do With Infinite Time and Resources

26 Feb

There is much discussion of what the world will be like following the Technological Singularity, and this discussion naturally leads into speculation of what people will do with so much time and so many possibilities at hand.

I often joke that I will spend my post-Singularity days in the company of a rather simple robot sex slave and consuming rather simple Kentucky charcoal filtered whisky…whisky with the advantage that it will not have any of the lingering effects referred to collectively as a “hangover”. However, even an old redneck such as myself can see that these simple pleasures, while certainly noble, will not suffice to fill the indefinite leisure time likely to be available to the typical person. What would I actually do?

Spike Accessorized

Instead of pursuing a hybrid answer to this query that is based partly on desire and partly on what I expect to be available, I will simply describe those things I would like to do and leave the tedious details to the future of science.

Before I could enjoy my permanent retirement, I would have to make sure that every living creature was similarly advantaged. This would include everything from the person living next door down to the smallest creature that swims in a Petri dish. The details of this endeavor could become quite burdensome. Nevertheless, I could not enjoy my personal heaven until I was able to provide it for everyone.

If I were going to design heaven, it would certainly have to accommodate every extant living thing. However, to the extent that it is feasible, it would also have to accommodate everything that has previously lived. If it were somehow possible to resurrect every person and animal that has ever lived, I would have to pursue it. I might reduce my labor by distinguishing between those creatures that were actually aware of their own existence—in other words, conscious—from those that were merely alive in the organic sense. However, lacking better information, my heaven would have to accommodate every horse, rat, lizard, worm, and even microbe. It would be a daunting task, but it would be a moral imperative.

I have given some thought to how paradise could work for such creatures as mice and worms. Every mouse would experience the equivalent of plenty of food that mice enjoy and an abundance of willing, though possibly illusory, mates. Every worm would live in rich, smooth soil filled with nutrients. Worms that live in the gut of other creatures would be provided with an ideal illusory intestine to explore. Since it would be a kind of doom for these simple creatures to live out eternity in such a simple and redundant environment, they would be allowed to gradually morph into higher forms. The worm would know what it is to be a lizard, the lizard would know what it is to be a mouse, the mouse would know what it is to be a dog, the dog would know what it is to be a primate, and the primate would know what it is to be a man.

So, what of all these creatures living in paradise? Assuming that every living being was destined to live the life of a fully sentient human, and not forgetting the ones that were human to begin with, what would they do with their time?

The obvious answer is that they would continue to get more intelligent and pursue higher and higher goals. However, with computer intelligence outstripping all human knowledge and experience, possibly overnight, it seems that this path might suddenly lose its appeal. Would a typical person want to become as a god over night…with such vast knowledge and awareness that a present human could not grasp the width or depth of that knowledge? I wouldn’t. I may hope to eventually climb those lofty peeks, but I wouldn’t want to stand astride them tomorrow. There are too many ordinary human experiences I have never explored.

First of all, I would exhaust all of my more lascivious fantasies. These are things I consider guilty pleasures and almost never discuss except with one very close friend who has been familiar with the inner workings of my mind from childhood. I won’t go into the details of these fantasies. I assume that all normal people who are willing to explore their true feelings have them. Nevertheless, to avoid annoying or even offending readers, I will not describe them in detail. Suffice it to say that many of them would not be possible in our present environment.

Then, I would explore some of my more adventure oriented fantasies. I would like to walk in worlds like the ones depicted in films like Avatar, with strange plants and animals. I would not just walk. I would also fly. I would fly like superman in these worlds, without the aid of any external device. Naturally, I would want to face a variety of challenges, such as fighting with a dragon or riding a dinosaur. I would also dive into clear warm lagoons and swim among strange creatures. I would encounter mermaids that sing like the ones in Harry Potter and sea horses large enough to mount.

Mermaid Seahorse

It is difficult to guess how long these types of endeavors would remain interesting. It is entirely possible that one idea would lead to another until I had a whole catalogue of things I wanted to try. On the other hand, it is possible that the artificiality of these experiences would cause me to tire of them quickly. If and when this occurred, I would start to explore more serious ideas.

One thing I would like to do is experience reenactments of historical epochs exactly as they occurred. There is no guessing what degree of accuracy may be possible in the post Singularity universe. Perhaps only a sketchy impression of events can be reconstructed, or perhaps there will be some way to see into the past so that depictions of events are 100% accurate. If this is the case, I can imagine spending many lifetimes reviewing the past. Since the whole past would be like a giant soap opera unfolding on a billion stages, it would be possible to spend more time experiencing these reenactments than there is likely to be time in the known universe.

I would watch people’s entire lives unfold firsthand. But I would also learn. This would be an opportunity to learn all of science as it was originally discovered. I could sit in on lectures by the greatest thinkers of all time. I could sit in on gatherings as famous philosophers first developed and shared their ideas. Naturally, I would learn a hundred different languages. I would cause my own brain to become resilient and receptive so that I could assimilate all the knowledge I am exposed to. I would not only learn every idea that proved out, but explore all the false leads and see firsthand how the truth was ultimately uncovered.

Socrates Teaching

If I actually managed to exhaust human history, I might then begin to explore what-if scenarios. What if an accident that might have killed Christopher Columbus as a child had actually killed him? What if Charles Lindbergh had crashed during his flight to Europe? What if the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been duds?

Assuming that I could ever completely exhaust the aforementioned possibilities, I would then take the vast scientific and historical knowledge that I had acquired in this natural way and begin to create new worlds. I would carefully sculpt their evolution so that they would evolve creatures with different characteristics and aspirations than our own. I would, of course, do this responsibly. One does not play god without a strong sense of personal responsibility.

I do not wish to create the impression that I would do these things in the precise linear order that I have described them. Most likely, as I was working in one area, such as running simulations of the past, I would also be experimenting with what-if scenarios. As I was experimenting with what-if scenarios, I would also be looking into ideas for creating diverse worlds of my own. This is intended more as a list of priorities than as a strictly observed checklist.

I suspect that after many years of learning and creating, and with the greatly expanded consciousness and knowledge base that is likely to be the inevitable outcome, I will become curious about solving larger problems. Maybe it will be possible to create a universe that is entirely different from our own, with different numbers of dimensions and different physical properties. It is difficult to imagine, in my present state, how such endeavors would be anything but disorienting or even disillusioning, but by that time I will no longer be in my present state. New things will be interesting and they will be interesting in new ways.

Hopefully, as I evolve into the future creature I expect to become, I will learn that the possibilities for knowledge and understanding are infinite and infinitely diverse. Hopefully, as I conquer each frontier, I will discover that I am only at the beginning of a new one. But, I didn’t create the universe and there is no telling, from where I stand, what it actually has to offer. That will be a problem for a far off day.

The Game of Faith

8 Feb

People sometimes wonder why I have ideas so similar to Christians but do not simply become a Christian. The reason has to do with something I call “The Game of Faith”. This game is not a game that Christians play, but a game that they seem to depict God as playing. Explaining this game will require considerable background.

There are many objections that non Christians, and sometimes Christians, raise about the Christian faith. These objections fall roughly into three categories. The first category consists of contradictions that the Bible appears to have with itself. An example is the genealogy of Jesus given in the book of Mathew and the genealogy given in the book of Luke. The second category consists of contradictions that the Bible appears to have with recorded history. For example, there is no evidence of a census being taken at the time of Jesus’ supposed birth. The third category consists of contradictions that the Bible appears to have with experimental science. The most famous example of this is the 4000 BC dating of the earth, which appears to contradict the evidence of archaeology.

Christians have explanations for all of these apparent contradictions. They argue that the genealogy given in Mathew and the genealogy given in Luke are Jesus’ separate genealogies through Joseph and Mary respectively.  They argue that that just because the census is not recorded does not mean it did not occur. They argue that archaeology is flawed and has merely dated the Earth incorrectly. However, there are more problems, and these are not so easily dismissed.

For example, how are we able to see stars that are millions of light-years away if the universe is only 6000 years old? Christian apologists have actually developed their own cosmology to explain this. It is very awkward and no astrophysicists take it seriously, but it gets the apologists past the first round of objections. Another example is the condemnation of homosexuality given in Leviticus 18:22. Recently, I confronted a traditional Christian about this. What I asked him specifically was who hermaphrodites are permitted to have sex with? A hermaphrodite is a person that has both male and female genitalia:

Hermaphrodite

He explained that this would depend on their chromosomal makeup. Do they have two X chromosomes or an X and a Y? I objected, asking why one must have a DNA test to determine what is and is not a sin. He had a somewhat stilted comeback. Needless to say, I was not impressed by his explanation.

You might get the impression from my discussion thus far that my objection to traditional Christianity has to do with these apparent contradictions. Actually, it doesn’t. My objection does not stem from the existence of contradictions, but from the fact that anyone contemplating Christianity as a belief system has to contend with them. The Bible is supposedly a book inspired by God. Christian apologists typically demand that it be interpreted literally and as though it is inerrant. My objection is that this literal and inerrant book of God creates too many stumbling blocks for potential believers. Christians offer excuses for these stumbling blocks, but the excuses have begun to pile up.

I am a math teacher at a local technical college. I have a lot of experience dealing with students and their study habits. Something I have learned through years of experience is that students who present problems at the beginning of a quarter typically present problems all through the quarter. If they come to me at the beginning of a quarter and ask, “Will it be OK for me to start the class a week late. I have to attend my sister’s wedding.” I can almost assume that they will always be late for class, always be late getting assignments in, fail tests, make excuses, and generally be difficult. This is a sad but reliable observation. There is a saying: “Those who are good at making excuses are seldom good at anything else.” When I observe the Christian faith presenting potential believers with so many immediate stumbling blocks, albeit those stumbling blocks are accompanied by elaborate apologetics,  I come away with the same impression that excuse-making students give me: why does Christianity have so much to apologize for?

It would be one thing if these apparent contradictions existed in a vacuum of alternate explanations. But there are simple and obvious explanations. The Bible was written by people of faith who were ignorant of each other, history, archeology, cosmology, biology, and modern science. In other words, the Bible was written by simple people telling stories without any regard to how they related to the observable universe. The simple explanation is that the Bible is not the literal inerrant word of God.

However, as I began to explain above, my objection does not have to do with the validity of these contradictions or the efficacy of the apologetics.  It has to do with the sheer number of contradictions and the fact that prospective Christians have to contend with them.

Some Christians argue that these apparent contradictions are not important or are even intended to test and strengthen Christians. A pastor that I took a class from years ago explained that the Bible was meant to be challenging so that mature believers could rise to the challenge. Like many Christians, he seemed to feel that a true Christian would know the truth of the Bible without any proof as one knows the difference between the color red and the color green. The apparent contradictions would not matter to a true Christian because he could see through them to the truth.

This brings me to something I call “Magic Eye Theology”. A magic eye puzzle, more formally known as an autostereogram, is a puzzle that is printed in 2D, but in which one can see a stereoscopic image by focusing past the surface:

autostereogram

I often think of the ability of Christians to sense the truth of the Bible as being like the ability to see the stereoscopic image in a magic eye puzzle. Once a person is able to see the image, they are always able to see it (unless they lose vision in one or both eyes). You could never convince a person who is able to see it that it is not there. You could point out mountains of evidence that the image cannot possibly exist (evidence that would be flawed, I might add) but you could not dissuade them from the belief that they see the image. I am easily able to see the image in any magic eye puzzle. My mother, who apparently has perfectly functioning stereoscopic vision, has never been able to see one.

So, maybe seeing the truth of the Bible is like being able to see the image in a magic eye puzzle. Hence the name “Magic Eye Theology”. The problem is that I have never found evidence that Christians actually have such an experience. Moreover, I have found considerable evidence that they do not have such an experience. Many Christians, when asked about this possibility, either indicate that they have no idea what I am talking about or indicate that they do not believe any such experience exists. If they did all have a common experience like this, I would expect them to be able to describe it in a consistent manner. Note that everyone who can see the image in the magic eye puzzle sees the same image. I have never found evidence that there is any such consistency among Christians.

In any case, if there is some ability to see the truth in the Bible as one sees the image in a magic eye puzzle, it seems that once a person saw this truth they would be inoculated against disbelief as one is inoculated against disbelief that there is a stereoscopic image in a magic eye puzzle. Once they saw it, they would always see it, or at least always know they saw it, and nothing could ever dissuade them. I have not seen any evidence that Christians are thusly inoculated. Moreover, there is considerable evidence that they are not. Why else would they read and refer to books like Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ? Such books would be as meaningless to a Christian as a book that argues for the existence of the stereoscopic image in a magic eye puzzle. Christians would wonder why anyone would bother to write such a book.

Even if Christians all had a magic eye experience, even if they could not be dissuaded of the existence of the experience, and even if they all described it consistently, why would God implement such a thing? Especially, why would he allow some people to see the image in the magic eye puzzle and others to not see it?

Maybe some of the people who could see it would not like what they saw. Similarly, a person in a burning airplane with a parachute strapped to their back might not like the idea of jumping out in order to save their life. However, they would at least know what they are dealing with. Some Christians argue that faithless people actually can see the truth and are merely denying what they see. I find this contention unsatisfying. A person who is too afraid to jump out of a burning airplane would be heard to say, “I’m too afraid to jump.” A person who is denying the truth of Christianity should be heard to say, “I see that Jesus is lord and savior and that I will burn forever in hell if I don’t accept him, but I just can’t bring myself to do it.”

This brings me to the real topic of this essay: The Game of Faith. When you consider the whole issue of a book that appears on its face to contradict itself, history, biological reality, archeology, and astrophysics; when you consider the difficulty with which one comes to terms with the supposed truth of this book, one cannot help but think that the whole thing is a kind of game. God supposedly presents us with an inconsistent book, a badly explained religious experience, and a lot of uncompelling witnesses; and we are expected to arrive at the conclusion that a man named Jesus who lived 2000 years ago was the human incarnation of the son of God; and that he suffered a horrible death so that we can get into heaven. Moreover, we are expected to believe that the only way for us to get into heaven is to accept this account and embrace its hero, Jesus of Nazareth. Finally, we are told that if we cannot manage to believe, we will suffer a fate infinitely worse than death by slow torture.

Why this game? Why does the God of Christianity remind me so much of the students who contact me at the beginning of a quarter to tell me they will be starting class late because they have to attend their sister’s wedding? Why all of this apologizing and why the magic eye puzzle? If salvation is real, important, and urgent, why hasn’t God made it either more strait forward or more evident?

Of course, there is the old bromide about how it is not for us to decide what God can and cannot demand of us. I don’t think of that old bromide so much as an explanation of God’s behavior as an excuse for a flawed theology. I am not asking God to explain himself. I am asking Christians to justify their belief system.

We all understand that if we are in a burning airplane we have to jump out in order to parachute to safety. It may be a terrifying experience, but it is clearly comprehensible. We all understand that we must go to medical school to become a doctor. It may take years and be expensive, but the path is clear. We all understand that we must go through pregnancy and the pain of childbirth to have a baby. It may be uncomfortable and ultimately painful, but the evidence of the task is constantly before us. Why is getting into heaven cryptic, enigmatic, and suspicious—especially when there is supposedly so much at stake? God supposedly loves us and wants us to come to him. Why would he make the path to him so unclear? Why would God turn faith into a game?

I have a simpler explanation than the ones Christians provide. The Bible was never intended to be interpreted literally and it is not inerrant. Jesus never intended to lay a huge guilt trip on us; nor is God the author of a gigantic magic eye puzzle. The road to heaven is not more clearly marked because it is not really possible to get off the road.

There is no point in digging through the Bible to find passages that justify this opinion. If the Bible is not to be taken literally, and it is not inerrant, it doesn’t matter whether or not these passages exist.

My belief is based on an appeal to common sense and to the heart. If the Bible is not to be taken literally, then we are free to accept the evidence of science: that the world was formed through cosmological processes that took billions of years, and that life evolved. If life evolved, there probably was no original sin. If there was no original sin, there is no need for atonement. If there is no need for atonement, there can be no judgment. If there is no judgment, there is no case to keep anyone out of heaven. That is the common sense part of the argument. The heartfelt part of the argument is that I would expect God to be like me. I am tolerant and I want everyone to live forever in paradise. I would not damn anyone, so I would not expect God to damn anyone. The Bible says that God created man in his own image. That is the one part I definitely think I understand. I know that God wants the best for everyone because I want the best for everyone. The best way to make sure that everyone has the best is simply to give it to them.