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The question of meaning

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

The question of whether there is meaning in the universe is trickier to deal with than the question of the existence of god since meaning is not anything tangible. Since it is usually associated with a god’s plan, the existence of god is a more basic question and eliminating god usually eliminates an externally imposed meaning. But some try to establish the existence of god backwards by arguing that we can infer meaning from the way that the universe is structured and therefore there must be an entity that created this meaning. The fine-tuning and anthropic principle arguments are attempts at this backwards attempt to argue for god’s existence.

What is becoming increasingly clear from all the research in cosmology and biology is that the universe has all the indications that it has no underlying purpose or design or meaning but is evolving according to natural laws in which chance and contingency also plays a role, just as it does for the evolution of life. The universe just is and we just are. As physicist Steven Weinberg says, “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it becomes pointless”, later clarifying his words by saying, “I did not mean that science teaches us that the universe is pointless, but rather that the universe itself suggests no point” (quoted in Has Science Found God? by Victor Stenger, p. 333). Richard Dawkins’s conclusion is that “The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.” (Scientific American, November 1995, p. 85) Some religious people have seized upon Dawkins’s words (which were purely an inference based on empirical observations on the nature of the universe) to suggest that he is some kind of depressed nihilist, when all the evidence suggests that Dawkins really enjoys life. What they are doing is projecting on to him their own fears about what the lack of an externally imposed meaning would mean to them.

All the evidence points to the conclusion that the universe and life do not exhibit any sign that everything is part of any grand plan. Rather than bemoan this fact, we have to come to terms with it and not indulge in pointless wishful thinking, trying to will into existence that which is not. Otherwise we will be like Peter Pan, the title character in J. M. Barrie’s classic children’s story, urging children to clap to show they believe in fairies in order to save the life of Tinker Bell. Life is not a fairy tale. Wishing and hoping and praying cannot bring into existence what is not there.

The appeal of a cosmic plan as a way to give one’s life meaning eludes me. What would such a plan imply, exactly? Does it mean that my life has been mapped out already, that one is merely a puppet manipulated by hidden strings, just going through the motions of life? Religious people counter this by arguing that god has given us free will but it is hard to reconcile that with a pre-existing plan. If I have genuine free will, why can’t I mess up god’s plan by doing something that was not part of the plan?

The question of whether each one of us thinks that our lives have meaning is a distinct one from whether the universe provides us with that meaning. Atheists think that the universe by itself does not provide us with meaning but it does not follow that they think that life is not worth living or that their own lives are pointless. As James Watson, co-discover with Francis Crick of the structure of DNA, said in response to the question of what he thought we are put in this world for, “Well I don’t think we’re for anything. We’re just products of evolution. You can say, “Gee, your life must be pretty bleak if you don’t think there’s a purpose.” But I’m anticipating having a good lunch.” (The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins, p. 100.)

Watson’s response that the anticipation of lunch gives his life purpose might be flip but it is true. There are plenty of things that we look forward to and are worth living for. Whatever our lot in life, we get pleasure from many things: the company of our family and friends, food, books, nature, and all the other things that we look forward to experiencing. The list of things which one can look forward to is endless. I for one eagerly anticipate learning new things and science is always opening up new frontiers of knowledge. There are new telescopes being built and satellites being put into orbit and new experiments being done. I am hoping that I will live long enough to learn at least some of what they discover. I also look forward to positive political changes such as the reduction of was and global poverty and disease and greater access to health care and education.

Atheists know that we have to create our own plan, for ourselves and, in conjunction with others, for the world. People, working together, can create a better world for all or choose to destroy it. Our fate is in our hands. If the goal of trying to create a better world does not inspire you and give your life meaning, then I doubt that religion will do any better. In fact, as I will argue in the next post, the absence of some external cosmically imposed meaning, rather than being depressing, is extraordinarily life affirming and exhilarating.

POST SCRIPT: How to attract more young people to church

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I predict that it is only a matter of time before churches introduce scantily-clad cheerleaders to further liven things up.

Comments

  1. says

    “God” never did a great job of providing meaning anyway. All-that-exists, whether that category includes a god or does not not, cannot by definition serve any greater purpose. You have to generate your own purpose at some point.

  2. Kyle J says

    I love the idea of humans – with their infinitely unlikely existence arising out a big, empty nothingness – crafting their own stories and meaning in the universe, only bound by the laws of physics and the potential of their abilities. To me, living a life within the rigid boundaries of a structured Christian narrative seems to be more pointless. Who wants to imagine we are just the toys of a creator in the sky who already knows how life will play out?

  3. says

    i believe, There is no such thing as a great plan, or in other words “Destiny”, because for starters, if a person’s destiny is to mutilate millions people, for example hitler, will God give open his doors to heaven just because he did what he obliged to?, if so, what is the purpose of Heaven and Hell?, what is the purpose of “living” if the people that live are just mere pupppets, made to do something among and to themeselves?, i find that ridiculous.

    The purpose of life is just enjoy,love, eat and die. and i, personally do believe in God, because, being a medicine student you can see everything that goes in your body, how everything is orchestrated my trillions of cells,how they help each other to keep us alive. Watson does say that were just products of evolution because he discovered the structure of the DNA, but tere is a lot more into that, the dna is only the plans of the body, after that, the dna plays a role of commanding the cells on what to do if something happens.

    The human body, and for that matter, every single mammal has too many complex systems just to evolve. to name a few: kidney regulation, immune system growth and deferentiation, immune system response, heart regulation, blood pressure regulation, nervous system.

    getting off topic here :P, but anyways, what i meant to say is that: The universe (God) has no real purpose for us, only what we make out of our lives, and who knows why we are born in this universe,maybe is just because God creates us first here in this world to test us, and then be judged into heaven or hell.

    Thats my 2 cents on this topic :P, Thanks for this great blog. i will order the book sometime soon (when i have the time to read it :P).

    Fernando D. Estrella
    Liberar Blackberry

  4. Scott says

    The idea of “God’s plan” and “meaning’ seems at odds with the idea that God gave us free will. If our will is truly free, then God doesn’t have a plan for us, and if he has a plan for us, then our will isn’t truly free, is it?

  5. Richard says

    Just by reading the comments above reflects the arrogant attitude of the individaul and their knowledge base(not intelligence)and lack of ability to show relevency. Nobody possesses the knowledge to answer absolutly.

    For example, “There is no such thing as a great plan, or in other words “Destiny”, because for starters, if a person’s destiny is to mutilate millions people…”.

    Who ever said mutilating millions was Hitlers destiny? Nobody but the person making the comment. We are all destine to die but nobody will take the same path. A basic premise of Christianity is that if you believe in God and strive to follow him you will be saved. That is destiny but it is your choice if to do it or not.

    The plan was for his son to die for man’s transgressions and redeem humanity. Can one have a individual God given plan? Sure but it doesn’t mean the individual will follow God’s plan (the individuals God given talents). Whether you believe this or not is not the point. That’s the Christian teaching.

    Or “I love the idea of humans – with their infinitely unlikely existence arising out a big, empty nothingness”. This person uses words they have no idea of their meaning.

    Quantum Mechanics shows the falacy of their argument. Let’s say the only reality is the hygrogen partical and it is invisible. Can someone see anything? NO, but everything is in existance in the form of probilities. So something can come from nothing.

    If a sculpter has a white block of “stuff”, every possibile shape exists in the block of stuff, it just needs the sculptor to expose it. White light has all the visable colors in it but we can’t see them unless the light is refracted exposing differing wavelenghts and the different colors.

    Or “God” never did a great job of providing meaning anyway”. This is really puzzling. Life does not “have” meaning, life “is” meaning. When we say “what is the meaning of this” we are really misunderstanding existance. The meaning of life is obvious, continuation. The question is where does the “will” to continue come from and to what end?

  6. says

    I see it as this:

    We all create meaning for ourselves. Just as religious people create a meaning in belief in god, I create a meaning in being kind to people around me. And If I give a good example to them, they are going to be kind to people around them and to their kids. If we educate them (eg. give them meaning in education and science), if they become good scientists they can discover great things and expand our knowledge. At this time, I can read more and more stories about longevity, singularism, nanothechnology and great discoveries. If we help our descendants to achieve the “ultimate goal”, eg, immortality for instance, this could be our purpose here and I am fine with this. Create better children which will create better society, which will create better humanity.

    I distinguish meaning and purpose when applying them to nature. Ant alone doesn’t have a particular meaning, but as a group there is a purpose for ants. The difference with humans is that they can give themselves a meaning and enjoy it, even if it is not some eternal individual meaning. Consciousness is a great thing!
    Consciousness can have a meaning, otherwise is a purpose for animals and nothing for non-living world.

  7. Richard says

    What basis is your perspective founded on? It can’t be externall imposed.

    Take a Cherry tree. A Cherry tree IS its fragrance, IS its appearance, IS its distinctive springtime flowers and leaves. You have to experience the reality of a Cherry tree to gain full comprehension. All that IS, encompasses the experience of what IS a Cherry tree. A Cherry Tree IS meaning.

    The individual can’t assemble letters into a word “Bruite” and give it a definition. That definiton, that meaning already has to exist in the existance of a “thing”.

  8. Kyle J says

    Rick, I’m not sure I fully understand what arguing here, but from what I can gather it doesn’t seem you’re talking about “meaning” in the same sense that this post intends. It sounds like your definition of the “meaning” of an item is the abstract idea of that item and all of the universal physical characteristics that encompass the definition of that type of item – something along the lines of Plato’s theory of forms? Please correct me if I’m wrong. Is it fair to summarize your argument as stating that things are what they are and there is no additional “meaning” to be placed on top of that? If so, it sounds as though you reject the entire idea of a human mind applying a greater purpose to itself or anything else above simply “being.” I think the word “meaning” in this post is less abstract than your version of it.

  9. Richard says

    Dictionary definition, Meaning = something that is conveyed or signified; sense or significance vs. an interpreted goal, intent, or end.

    Two definitions shoud have two different words because people use the same word but are thinking of different content and have misunderstandings, as now.

    In one case “meaning” is inherant and absolute, the other case it is imposed and relative. I would agree that the universe is what it is (absolute and the same for all). Now to say that there is a more encompassing meaning (maybe we should use meaning++ :) )is where we leave the likes of the materialists behind. The new “meaning” suggests that the human mind deems an additional non physical component as necessary to make a judgement, therefor the total meaning++ is greater than the sum of the parts. But the part added my the human mind is subject to human vices and corruption.

    If I laid under the Cherry tree several times and each time the wind blew the Cherry Tree ontop of me somebody might get the wrong meaning of a Cherry Tree because they would associate an external element to the tree.

    Does that help clarify or confuse?

  10. Richard says

    Richard Dawkings states “Human suffering has been caused because too many of us cannot grasp that words are only tools for our use, and that the mere presence in the dictionary of a word like ‘living’ does not mean it necessarily has to refer to something definite in the real world.” This may be a charming admission of humility in our ‘foremost authority’ but if a word like ‘life’ does not refer to anything definite, how can words like the ‘origin of life’ or the ‘evolution of life’ refer to anything definite either? If Dawkins begins without a clear definition of life, then how in the world does he know that any of his conclusions as to life’s origin and development are in any way accurate?…Matt Chait

    How can anybody take Richard Dawkins seriously when he spews such garbach? Craig Venter just made a cell replicate and the world states that artifical life has just been created Dawkins says that there is no such reality.

    These people prove they don’t have a clue what life really is. What the absolute meaning let alone what interpretation man puts to it.

    And to top it off Dawkins clearly is clueless when he cannot even realize that suffering is not “caused”. To live IS to suffer, you cannot ahve one without the other.

  11. Carolyn Wu says

    To understand free will vs. predestination is actually quite easy if you believe in a God that is all-knowing but still allows you free will:

    If God knows everything, then God knows what you will do because he knows everything (past, present, and future). It is hard to understand this because we live under time’s arrow but God exists outside time (otherwise he could not have created the universe — indeed, by definition, he exists apart form the universe, if he created it, although it is possible that he interferes with it [although as I have stated earlier, I believe that he has not]).

    So does that mean we lack free will? Not at all! The mere fact that God knows what will happen does not preclude free will. After all, what is free will? Free will is, from a scientific perspective, illusionary. You and I do not have free will in the sense that we can do anything we like. We instead do things in reaction to other things, such that it makes it look like we have free will. However, those reactions are precisely and completely foreseeable in advance.

    For example, I know already that you will not accept this argument. You will not become a theist no matter what I say (although note that I am not trying to make you into one: I have maintained that being an atheist is an acceptable personal choice that has every bit as much evidence going for it as being a theist, in other words, zero).

    Does the fact that I know that you will not accept this argument mean that you have no free will? Does it mean that you are predestined? Not at all! It simply means that free will needs to be understood for what it really is as opposed to what we all want to believe that it is (the true fairy tale!).

    So here is the truth: free will is illusionary. Oh, and get this, physics actually might be on the verge of proving it! How so? Because if there are 10^10^16 universes (a really big number) as posited by Stanford physicists Andrei Linde and Vitaly Vanchurin that we can discern as being different and 10^10^10^7 universes (that are actually different), for all practical purposes we have free will: we just have to be in a different multiverse to exercise it. You react based on chemical changes in the brain, which may be precisely calibrated to produce exact responses. There is no way that you would be (or do) anything other than you do. It is all predetermined. In fact, science may, in fact, be telling us so (otherwise, are you saying that God does play dice with the universe because that is the only way you get “free will”; you cannot have both).

    But you and I certainly think that we have free will, don’t we? I mean we get to choose between steak and hamburger at lunch, right? Well, not exactly. If every single variable were absolutely identical, how would humans react? We can try to exactly replicate every single variable but there is always one variable that remains illusive: time. Thus, you cannot disprove the notion that free will is nonexistent!

    So to reconcile the two: you only think you have free will.

    So then God must be a terribly mean entity to have created heaven and hell, right? I mean if we are damned or saved from day one (although we do not know it), what kind of belevolent God is that? Again, you miss the point: by providing Heaven and Hell as concepts, God changes the payoffs to us and thus alters how we behave (so Hitler goes to Hell and Gandhi goes to Heaven based on how they would react once Heaven and Hell were conceptualized). Of course, if we don’t believe in God, our behavior patterns are not altered by these concepts. Thus, only believers have “free will” but even that is a misnomer. A better way of saying it is that only believers had their behavior altered by the fantasy of beliving that free will existed. Now if that fantasy (like believing in fairies) ended up making those individuals better, then it was a useful fantasy and if it made them “worse” than it was not useful. We don’t destroy useful fantasies (unless we are evil) only useless (or worse than useless!) ones.

    Please note that even if God does not exist (or is not omniscient), it does not negate the predestination argument. It merely makes the whole exercise of existence even more pointless for us (although, perhaps, more important for God, provided He exists but is not omniscient — what if God is merely a computer scientist and we are all part of a vast program that He is running to see what works and what doesn’t, running it in parallel across 10^10^10^7 universes — my God, have I just discovered the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? Probably not. I’m not that smart [and most everyone else would probably delete the word “that” with reference to me!]).

    The only notion that I can see wherein we can possible have “free will” is when we choose not to exericise it (and even that might be illusionary). All actions must be the reaction to the environment since we are part of that environment.

    But now back to the point:

    I just make a universal claim: free will does not exist (at least insofar as your ability to exercise it). I have some evidence to support my position. Disprove it!

    (actually, I am not committed to this proposition that free will does not exist as of yet, so I really am interested in hearing how we get free will in a deterministic system but, if it is true, it does make the atheism vs. theism debate all the more silly and wasteful, don’t you think?)

  12. Carolyn Wu says

    On the role of chance:

    It is interesting, however, that Dr. Singham uses the concept of “chance”. How exactly does that work in a deterministic world? By that I mean, how can you determine that something is based on chance when “randomness” can appear out of deterministic systems (see chaos theory). I submit that there is no such thing as chance: that all things are predetermined (by the laws of nature) and we are merely delusional to think otherwise.

    Again, universal claim. Any proof that it isn’t so?

    Interestingly, if this is the case (but if God does exist and does interfere), doesn’t that mean that the only “chance” element is when God interferes? Ouch! How else do you get “chance” except by externally stimulating the deterministic system? But if we are externally stimulating the deterministic system that implies God. So, we must be internally stimulating the deterministic system (by doing it ourselves). But how can we prove that? How can we prove that we have free will and are not subject to predestination?

    I would submit that the truth does not matter. Indeed, we should not seek the truth in this. But if truth is irrelevant, what is relevant? Whether it is useful for us or not. A lie that is useful is far better than a truth that is useless. That is because merely knowing the truth will alter our behaviors (even if it is predestined for us to seek the truth or not; we are path-dependent creatures, after all).

    No, we should not destroy our “fairy tale” that we have free will. That is because the fairy tale of free will is useful. Determinism is useless. Therefore, we must embrace free will, even though logically, I really have serious doubts that we actually have free will, the more I think about it…

    Kinda like my argument in favor of God, right? It isn’t the truth that matter, it is whether it is useful. While God isn’t useful for you, it is useful for me. Therefore, I believe and you don’t. Simple, isn’t it?

    So to all you strong atheists, stop with your useless fantasy that because you believe God does not exist and you believe that it is useless to believe in God, no one else should believe either. You are being evil and trying to destroy the believer’s useful fantasy that God exists, ok?

    And all you strong theists, stop with your useless fantasy that because you believe God does exist and you believe that it is useless to not believe in God, everyone else should believe as well. You are being evil and trying to destroy the non-believer’s useful fantasy that God does not exist, ok?

  13. Richard says

    First, I believe your whole premise is faulty since you classify “free will” as synonymous with a persons’ ability to choose among several possible courses of action with each of leading to a different outcome. But for now we’ll ignore a difference.

    All of the physical world is subject to precise mathematical laws, which in their classical form at least, are deterministic. They are deterministic in the sense that if the state of the physical world were completely specified at one time then the state of the world at any future time would be completely determined and could therefore – in principal – be calculated. There would be no free will. Just because humans couldn’t perform the calculations wouldn’t mean there was no free will. Our bodies are made of matter and would have to behave in the way determined by the prior state of the material world.

    Chaos theory has no bearing since it only shows that a very small uncertainty in the “initial conditions” of a physical system can lead to very large uncertainties in the system’s behavior. Since we can never measure the state of the world or even a small part, the future is highly unpredictable in practice.

    Being unpredictable in practice is not the same as being undetermined in principal. Chaos systems are every bit as deterministic as any other system. And if determinism were correct, then the physical would be sealed off from any possible influence by non material entities, if such existed.

    Since Newton the scientific evidence was leading down this path, until recently. Enter Quantum Mechanics and the realm of probabilities. Determinism is dead.

    A Jewish Rabbi states that its’ interesting how Scripture could agree with this. Try this question on for size: What were Adam and Eve like before eating from either tree, the Tree of Knowledge of the Tree of Life? Were they mortal, or immortal?
    Let’s see what each tree has to say about this. We’ll start with the Tree of Knowledge.
    We know that Adam was warned not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, because “on the day that you eat from it, you will surely die” (Genesis, 2:17). As the classic commentator Nachmanides suggests, the verse can’t mean that the fruit immediately kills you, for in fact, Adam and Eve went on to live for a long time after eating the forbidden fruit. Rather, the verse seems to mean “on the day that you eat from the fruit you will become mortal”. I.e. you will immediately become transformed into beings that eventually die. This, apparently, is the meaning of G-d’s warning.
    So the Tree of Knowledge seems to answer the question we posed earlier. It proves that Adam and Eve were originally immortal. Right?
    Wrong. Because now its time to look at what the Tree of Life has to say about the question.
    The Torah tells us that G-d banished Adam and Eve from Eden “lest they eat from the Tree of Life and live forever”. Well, the verse seems pretty clear about it: The fruit of the Tree of Life confers immortality — once you eat it, you will never die. So if the Tree of Life makes you immortal — well, that seems to mean you were mortal beforehand.
    But wait a minute. I thought we said just a minute ago that Adam and Eve started out being immortal.
    The Tree of Knowledge seems to tell us that man would originally have lived forever. But the Tree of Life seems to tell us that he was originally a being that would die. At face value, the two trees seem to contradict themselves.
    But only at face value. There’s a way out of the contradiction. A surprising alternative exists about the original nature of Adam and Eve which would resolve the problem. Stop reading for a second, think about it, and see if you can find the solution.
    THE GARDEN OF EDEN AND THE HEISENBERG UNCERTAINTY PRINCIPLE
    Here’s what I would suggest: Both trees are right. Mankind, before eating from either tree, was neither mortal nor immortal. If he ate from the Tree of Life, he would become immortal; if he ate from the Tree of Knowledge, he would become a being that dies. As for right now, though — before eating from either tree, he was in the “twilight zone”. He was perched precariously between mortality and immortality, but as of yet, his nature was undetermined.
    If such an “undetermined state” seems strange to you, don’t fret. Just repair to the library and pick up any book on quantum physics. According to this branch of science, it is a pretty standard feature of reality for things to be undetermined. At any one moment, a given electron may be here or it may be there, Heisenberg famously proclaimed, but right now it is neither here nor there. Its position becomes “determined” only once an observer steps in and looks at it. Well, if electrons can remain undetermined — maybe people can as well.

  14. Richard says

    To Carolyn,

    Your showing a relationship between an al knowing God and free will and predestination is inaccurate. There isn’t any but there is relevency between rational thougth and free will since you cann’t have one without the other.

  15. Richard says

    To Carolyn,

    Your showing a relationship between an all knowing God and free will and predestination is inaccurate. Just knowing an outcome does not necessarily mean influencing an outcome.

    I know I’m going to die and I can’t change that. I can only influence when and where, not the predestination of death. If Christians are correct and we live our lives in accordance with God’s wishes christians are predestined eternal life, but they have to make a conscience effort to live accordingly.

    There isn’t any relevancy but there is between rational thougth and free will since you can’t have one without the other.

  16. Richard says

    Question. How can the Professor explain (with facts and evidence of course) how natural selection gave humans a intellectual program that is vastly more sophisticated than is required for survival?

  17. says

    Richard,

    I am not sure what the question is asking. What do you mean by ‘intellectual program’ and why do you assume that it is more sophisticated than necessary?

  18. Richard says

    This is the crucial question, whether the human intellect points to the existence of a reality that goes beyond the physical or is nothing more than the materialists claim that it is but a computer with natural selection providing the program for the intellect.

    Deep Blue was a computer built by IBM and programmed by grandmasters to play chess with a capacity to analyze 200 million positions per second. It beat the reigning chess champion Gary Kasparov but it couldn’t beat a 8 year old child playing checkers since it wasn’t programmed to play checkers. It can’t do what it isn’t programmed to do.

    I don’t assume it is more sophisticated than necessary, I believe its’ an obvious fact. The human mind is capable of not only of dealing with the kinds of problems that our primitive forebears faced, like how to escape from a predator, or how to make a rude shelter; it is also capable of doing an enormous variety of things that have no conceivable application to survival in the wild, like playing chess, proving theorems on non-Euclidean geometry, or doing research in physics.

    If the human mind is nothing more than a computer program, this versatility is quite mysterious. A program that could replicate human abilities (if it were even possible) in every field of activity would be far more complicated in structure than a program that had only the ability to do things that cavemen did in order to survive.

    Another problem with the human mind as a computer programmed by natural selection is that we have the ability to attain certainty about some truths, and the ability to recognize that some truths are true of necessity. Natural selection has no possible way to program us to have that kind of knowledge.

  19. Paul Jarc says

    A program that could replicate human abilities (if it were even possible) in every field of activity would be far more complicated in structure than a program that had only the ability to do things that cavemen did in order to survive.

    There is all the difference in the world between a program written by a person and a program produced by evolution. A human programmer understands the problem that the program is meant to solve, knows what code is needed to solve that problem, and uses only the code that is needed. Evolution tries random variations, not directed at solving any particular problem, and it retains anything and everything that isn’t so detrimental as to get you killed. There is no reason to expect any similarity between these, just as there is no reason to expect any similarity between the propulsion systems of a cheetah and a maglev train.

  20. Jared A says

    Richard,

    The difference between a computer and a computer program is significant. A computer program that plays chess cannot play checkers, but a computer that is programmed to play chess can also be programmed to play checkers. Also, computers can also be programmed to program themselves!

    With that preamble, most people who advocate for a scientific model of the human brain would analogize its mechanics to that of a computer, because both appear to be (at least approximately) universal machines. So you’re wasting your breath arguing that the human mind could never be a computer program, because nobody disagrees with you.

    Before you dismiss the scientific model for the human mind, you should first spend some more time trying to actually understand it. If you do, you will likely be able to answer your own question above.

    Here are some questions to start answering first: What is the difference between making subtle distinctions and making arbitrarily subtle distinctions? Under what circumstances is that difference important?

    best,
    Jared

  21. says

    Richard,

    Isn’t your question just another stage in the long-running ‘god of the gaps’ argument that takes some feature of nature and simply asserts that it could not have come about by natural selection? It used to be argued that the eye and the wing could not have evolved because what is the use of half and eye or half a wing.

    It is true that things like Euclidean geometry may not be directly necessary for survival but natural selection does not require everything to have a direct survival advantage. Some are just so-called ‘spandrels’, the accidental byproduct of selection for other things.

    The key evolutionary step had to be the ability to vocalize language. Once humans had that, they could accumulate and store knowledge over generations and thus create knowledge cumulatively, creating the spandrels of art and culture.

    It seems a little short-sighted to take present day computers, magnificent though they are, as some kind of measure of the limits of the human brain. We know that human brains are massively powerful and complex and can do many things (such as recognize patterns) that computers are weak at.

  22. Richard says

    Jared, a computer is a completely different than a computer program. A “program” is a set of instructions; a “computer” computes and carries out those instructions.

    Jared states, “computers can also be programmed to program themselves!”

    Computer programs can be written to write other programs or rewrite their own code, but they cannot write programs that are smarter than themselves. Remember, a human intelligence is behind the programmer.

    Jared said “So you’re wasting your breath arguing that the human mind could never be a computer program, because nobody disagrees with you.”

    You use the tem “mind”, I use intellect and I think its important to keep them seperated. The Mind is the element or complex of elements in an individual that feels, perceives, thinks, wills, and especially reasons. Intellect is the power of knowing as distinguished from the power to feel and to will : the capacity for knowledge b : the capacity for rational or intelligent thought especially when highly developed. Webster’s dictionary.

    The human mind cannot visualize more than 3 dimensions whereas the human intellect can think abstractly about mathematical entities like circles and spheres that transcend any number of dimensions.

    The discussion centers around “intellect”. Remember my initial statement. “This is the crucial question, whether the human intellect (not mind) points to the existence of a reality that goes beyond the physical or is nothing more than the materialists claim that it is but a computer. I think about the many well respected people like the mathematician and physicists Roger Penrose and Philosopher John Lucas who site the proven Godel numbering theorem as the basis why they believe that all of the powers of the human intellect cannot be accounted for by believing that the human intellect is just a computer.

    I don’t see how your points relate to how natural selection can program the human intellect.

  23. Richard says

    Paul states–There is all the difference in the world between a program written by a person and a program produced by evolution. A human programmer understands the problem that the program is meant to solve, knows what code is needed to solve that problem, and uses only the code that is needed. Evolution tries random variations, not directed at solving any particular problem, and it retains anything and everything that isn’t so detrimental as to get you killed. There is no reason to expect any similarity between these, just as there is no reason to expect any similarity between the propulsion systems of a cheetah and a maglev train.

    Richard states — Your thoughts seem non sequitur. You state that “there is all the difference in the world” between a program written by a human and one by natural selection and never state what it is?

    Richard Dawkins disagrees with your thought of a large programming gap of authors as he writes in ‘River Out of Eden’, his popular book on evolution, “The machine code of the genes is uncannily computer like”.

    He was referring to the accepted wisdom that DNA sends instructions to the cells using genetic code, which consists of four nucleotide ‘letters’ arranged in myriad sequences. Computers use a binary code 1 or 0, high frequency or low frequency. Simple math tells you that there’s more capacity for complexity with more available variables.

    But there is a huge difference in content. Binary code has no inherent information in the symbol’s 0 and 1 the computing device uses. The machine is hardwired by human intellect to associate the graphic symbol 0 with a certain frequency and the graphic symbol 1 with another. The genetic code itself, four nucleotides, are instruction messages in themselves.

    The evolutionary natural selection doesn’t hold up to the evidence for speciation. Once the basic conditions on this planet stabilized and the atmosphere became oxygenated, all indications are that environmental changes have been cyclical rather than linear. It’s hard to imagine a linear evolutionary path being naturally selected by cyclical changes in the environment.

  24. Richard says

    Mano states “It is true that things like Euclidean geometry may not be directly necessary for survival but natural selection does not require everything to have a direct survival advantage. Some are just so-called ‘spandrels’, the accidental byproduct of selection for other things”

    As I understand it, mutations can alter or rearrange genes, but they do not add genes. Gene swapping can add genetic code for the manufacture of a certain enzyme, but science knows of no gene swapping that results in a change in structure, shape, or a new organ or a higher level of organization. No genetic information is added. If this is the case, there’s no possibility of natural selection advancing the code.

    Mano states “The key evolutionary step had to be the ability to vocalize language. Once humans had that, they could accumulate and store knowledge over generations and thus create knowledge cumulatively, creating the spandrels of art and culture”

    I don’t see how “vocalizing” language can accumulate and store knowledge? The only way storage can take place is thru human memory or writing to a permanent record.

    A friend of a friend on mine noted to me “A ‘simple’ microorganism, faced with a challenge to it’s existence, senses that a neighboring microorganism has genetic material that would enable it to survive a threat. It seeks out that organism and either displays a receptor for a pilus which the donor organism then grows, or secretes substances that will stimulate the donor to produce clumping materials, each process resulting in the two organisms coming together and forming connecting pores, through which flows the very genetic material that will save the donee’s life.
    Complexity is certainly present. When does modern science say that altruism evolved? When does modern science say that intelligence evolved? Here we have processes dating back to the first billion years of our existence which are clear examples of sharing in the most fundamental and profound way and a mechanism that requires an awareness on someone’s part, (if not the bacteria themselves, then on who’s awareness does this entire process depend?) that requires an understanding of precisely what is needed genetically in one bacteria, and precisely what needs to be offered in the other and the most transcendentally specific and precise mechanisms to deliver this transfer. If intelligence is not the ability to read one’s environment and make adaptations to it that allow one’s survival needs and desires to be met, then what else could it possibly be? And what reading of an environment could possibly surpass the ability to recognize what is missing genetically in one body, to discern where it could be found in a neighboring body and to initiate and execute a process that delivers that amazing transfer?”

    You state “It seems a little short-sighted to take present day computers, magnificent though they are, as some kind of measure of the limits of the human brain. We know that human brains are massively powerful and complex and can do many things (such as recognize patterns) that computers are weak at.”

    I think you misstate my thoughts. I think computers are just what they are, machines that stand ready to perform as programmed by humans With the limiting factors of ability are material and their inability to mimic the human intellect.

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