Thursday, May 25, 2017

God the Creator and the "Useless Machine"

A Useless Machine, using a touch screen instead of a switch
External Finger:  "On" or "Box Open"
Internal Finger: "Off" or "Box Closed"
"No computer has ever been designed that is ever aware of what it's doing; but most of the time, we aren't either."  Marvin Minsky, Inventor of the Useless Machine.
"It from bit symbolizes the idea that every item of the physical world has at bottom — at a very deep bottom, in most instances — an immaterial source and explanation; that which we call reality arises in the last analysis from the posing of yes-no questions and the registering of equipment-evoked responses; in short, that all things physical are information-theoretic in origin and that this is a participatory universe."  John Wheeler*


While surfing the internet, looking for my grandsons's birthday gift, I ran across the "Useless Machine," invented by the computer theorist, Marvin Minsky some 60 years ago.     A switch opens the lid on the box, and a hand comes out and flicks the switch to close it.    My version, using touch screens instead of a switch, is illustrated above.

The Useless Machine (also known as the "Leave Me Alone" machine) is one more item in John Wheeler's catalog of bits that make up "It".  The binary nature of computer instructions is given by:   "0" representing  "on" (or "open");  "1" representing "off" (or "close"). Thus the possible states of the box can be represented by (0,1),  as answers to the "yes/no" question cited in the quote from John Wheeler.

This picture is incomplete, I claim.   I will argue in this article that an important element is missing in the description of the Useless Machine, if we only list its algorithmic elements.


My own take on John Wheeler's arguments for "It from Bit" is given in another post, so I won't repeat that in detail here.   However, his premise of "Four No's"  is  relevant to this discussion, so I'll review these again:
  1. No "tower of turtles"**;
  2. No laws;
  3. No continuum;
  4. No space, no time.

The "no tower of turtles" statement asserts that infinite regress in a causal chain is not possible.  In this Wheeler, St. Thomas Aquinas, and other philosophers are in agreement.

The "no laws" assertion denies that the universe is a machine built on laws, a machine that would entail a multiverse, "universes in infinite variety and infinite number".    Rather, Wheeler envisions a "world self-synthesized":
"...the notes struck out on a piano by the observer-participants of all places and all times, bits though they are, in and by themselves constitute the great wide world of space and time and things." --John Wheeler,  Information, Physics, the Quantum: the Search for Links. p. 314
The "world self-synthesized" by "observer-participants of all places and all times"is Wheeler's "Participatory Universe", the notion that the universe is, as Bishop Berkeley suggested, created by observation: "esse est percipi".
Icon representing Wheeler's "Participatory Universe"
By looking backward in time (to distant galaxies) we create them
 But more questions are raised than answered here.  Would an annelid worm, an eagle, or a human synthesize the same world, or is it only "intelligent beings"?   If the last, what about the world synthesized by a Cro-Magnon man, an Australian aborigine, or Helen Keller?  There is not, as far as I can see, a coherent scheme here.  But I do have a different answer, given below.

By stating there is "no continuum", Wheeler denies the reality of transcendental and irrational numbers.   He uses quotes from the mathematician Hermann Weyl and the philosopher Willard Quine. to support that claim.  One should also note that  the "no continuum" condition requires that space and time must be discrete.

Wheeler's "no space, no time" condition is perhaps the most unappealing of these arguments. He claims that space and time are man-made inventions, and that at the beginning of the universe, "The Big Bang", quantum behavior would override General Relativity--there would be no connectivity in space, and before and after would have no meaning.


John Wheeler had an original and inventive mind.   In addition to "It from Bit" and the "Participatory Universe", he proposed a thought experiment, the Delayed Choice experiment, in which the choice of an experimenter, the observer, can yield a change in a  quantum trajectory even after the quantum entity has supposedly traversed its path.   Wheeler's idea has been realized experimentally by several physicists.  One of these, Raymond Chiao, has used the results to argue for a new interpretation of Bishop Berkeley's, "esse est percipi", "to be is to be observed":  God is the observer who creates and sustains the world by His act of observing it.

Which brings us now to the Useless Machine, and what it tells us, as a metaphor for the world,  about "It from Bit" and the Participatory Universe.    Here are three important things to note:

  • There is a finger external to the box that initiates the opening.
  • The machine did not build or design itself;  it was an external agent, Marvin Minsky, who invented it and an external agent, Claude Shannon, who had it built at Bell Labs.
  • The binary nature of the machine does not describe it completely--there is a lid, there is a finger inside the box, etc.   The states of the machine can be represented by 0 and 1, but we would need to know more than that to know all about the box, its attributes, its contents.

Can you translate these objections to taking the Useless Machine as a bit in "It from Bit" to taking the Universe as a collection of bits?   I can.   There is only one external finger, and that is the hand of God.    There is only one designer and creator, and that is the mind of God.   There is only one way to describe our world, and that is as God's Creation, sustained by Him, and only partially known by us.


*John Wheeler was one of the world's most creative and brilliant physicists.     See his NY Times obituary for a  partial list of his achievements.

**Wheeler is paraphrasing the expression "turtles all the way down".   There's  a famous anecdote about the elderly lady who  asserts that the earth is flat to a famous philosopher (two versions: William James or Bertrand Russell):  the earth rested on the back of a large elephant, which in turn rested on a larger turtle.   When asked what that turtle rested on, the lady replied, "don't be silly--it's turtles all the way down."

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Suffering--Our Great Gift from God*

The Sufferings of Job, William Blake
from Wikimedia Commons
"In a sense, everything that happens to me is a gift from God.  I may resent disappointments, rebel against a series of misfortunes which I regard as unmerited punishment.   Yet in time I may come to understand that these can be considered gifts of enlightenment."
--One Day at a Time in Al-Anon, May 4
"The witnesses of the Cross and Resurrection of Christ have handed on to the Church and to mankind a specific Gospel of suffering. The Redeemer himself wrote this Gospel, above all by his own suffering accepted in love, so that man 'should not perish but have eternal life.' This suffering, together with the living word of his teaching, became a rich source for all those who shared in Jesus’ sufferings among the first generation of his disciples and confessors and among those who have come after them down the centuries"
--Pope St. John Paul II (Salvifici Doloris, VI:25).


Al-Anon is a Twelve Step group for family members and friends of alcoholics and addicts.  Some twenty-five years ago I went  regularly to Twelve Step group meetings for several years and then stopped because it seemed that I might get more meaningful support  from a deeper religious faith.  A "Higher Power" just didn't cut it then.   A month ago I  came back to Twelve Steps and started to attend a men's Al-Anon group, not because of family circumstances, but because I wanted support for self-examination and from group interactions that would complement and supplement my Catholic faith.

At a meeting two weeks ago a guy new to the group whose son had just hit bottom--been arrested with drugs, needles and other stuff--wondered why this had to happen to his family.  Another member brought up the quote given at the beginning of this post and there was then, shall we say, a  heated exchange of views.   I didn't participate,  but I did recall a talk given early on by a priest, recovering from alcoholism, in which he made the same point as the quote:  the alcoholic and his family have been given a gift from God, a gift that will enable them to grow in faith and spirituality.

I've been thinking about this problem since then.  It's one piece of the general problem of theodicy, why does God allow evil to exist.  As for myself, the suffering I endured 20 to 30 years ago did serve a good purpose:  it led me to my Catholic faith, after I had realized that belief in an amorphous "Higher Power" could not by itself sustain me.   What I will attempt to show in this post is how our Catholic faith does indeed show that suffering may serve purposes we do not perceive, and that we may transform that suffering into--not joy exactly--peace.


A common argument atheists use in attempting to disprove the existence of an all-good, all-powerful God, is that such a God would not allow the existence of suffering.    There are variations on this argument (one in Sean O'Carrol's recent apologetic for atheistic naturalism, "The Big Picture," relies on Bayesian probability analysis).   I'm not going to discuss such propositions in this post.   The counter-arguments to atheists have been given by better theologists and philosophers than I--see, for example, Professor Peter Kreeft's audiobook "Faith and Reason", and his CERC chapter, "Faith and Reason")

We, as Catholics, accept the dogmas and doctrines of the Magisterium,  and thus have a rational basis to understand (at least partially) why "bad things happen to good people".  As Catholics we must believe in Free Will and Original Sin, that Man is flawed, and that we inflict evil on ourselves.  We also believe, as in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, that if bad things happen to us in this life, there is another life in heaven that will overshadow present misfortune.


There is a special Catholic perspective on suffering:  that by our own suffering we share Christ's salvific suffering for  us.   We should, therefore, not try to avoid suffering but to welcome it.   Quotes from the saints attest to this:

St. Augustine of Hippo:
"Trials and tribulations offer us a chance to make reparation for our past faults and sins. On such occasions the Lord comes to us like a physician to heal the wounds left by our sins. Tribulation is the divine medicine."
St. Francis of Assisi
"... our Lord Jesus, whose footsteps we ought to follow, called his betrayer “friend,” and offered himself willingly to his executioners. Therefore all those who unjustly inflict upon us tribulations, anguish, shame and injuries, sorrows and torments, martyrdom and death, are our friends whom we ought to love much, because we shall gain eternal life by those things which they make us suffer. And let us hate our body with its vices and sins, because by living in pleasures it wishes to rob us of the love of our Lord Jesus Christ and eternal life, and to lose itself with everything else in hell.” 

St. Ignatius of Loyola:
"If God sends you many sufferings, it is a sign that He has great plans for you and certainly wants to make you a saint."
"If God gives you an abundant harvest of trials, it is a sign of great holiness which He desires you to attain. Do you want to become a great saint? Ask God to send you many sufferings. The flame of Divine Love never rises higher than when fed with the wood of the Cross, which the infinite charity of the Savior used to finish His sacrifice. All the pleasures of the world are nothing compared with the sweetness found in the gall and vinegar offered to Jesus Christ." 
St. Teresa of Avila:
"Blessed be He, Who came into the world for no other purpose than to suffer."
"One must not think that a person who is suffering is not praying. He is offering up his sufferings to God, and many a time he is praying much
more truly than one who goes away by himself and meditates his head off, and, if he has squeezed out a few tears, thinks that is prayer."
St. John of the Cross: 
"Whenever anything disagreeable or displeasing happens to you, remember Christ crucified and be silent."
"The purest suffering bears and carries in its train the purest understanding."
St. Rafqua Al-Rayes:
"O Christ, I unite my sufferings to yours, my pains with your pains, as I look at your head crowned with thorns."
St. John Vianney:
 "Whether we will or not, we must suffer...There are two ways of suffering — to suffer with love, and to suffer without love. The saints suffered everything with joy, patience, and perseverance, because they loved. As for us, we suffer with anger, vexation, and weariness, because we do not love. If we loved God, we should love crosses, we should wish for them, we should take pleasure in them."
There are many more--just do a web-search: "quotes saints on suffering".


"Born of the mystery of Redemption in the Cross of Christ, the Church has to try to meet man in a special way on the path of his suffering. In this meeting man 'becomes the way for the Church', and this way is one of the most important ones."  Pope St. John Paul II, Salvifici Doloris.
In 1984 Pope St. John Paul II published his encyclical, Salvifici Doloris, three years after he had been shot by a would-be assassin.   Although I have not found any historical accounts to validate my conjecture that he suffered great pain during his recovery, it seems likely,  given that he had two sections of bowel removed.   It is reasonable to assume then that his Apostolic Letter was written in the context of his physical suffering, if not as a consequence of this suffering.

Pope St. John Paul II explores the dimensions of human suffering, from its relation in the Old Testament to God's Justice and the consequences of evil, the good man who suffers (Job), to the New Testament, in which Christ tells us to carry our cross and follow Him.   Pope St. John Paul II emphasizes that suffering is a mystery, but that by realizing  Christ suffered,  took on our sin and death, we can better understand God's purpose in allowing suffering.   By joining in suffering with Christ, we can unite our human distress with Christ's salvific suffering.   I do an injustice to the encyclical by this brief summary, and I urge the reader to read the letter in its entirety.    Two quotes are in order:
"In the Cross of Christ not only is the Redemption accomplished through suffering, but also human suffering itself has been redeemed,. Christ, - without any fault of his own - took on himself "the total evil of sin". The experience of this evil determined the incomparable extent of Christ's suffering, which became the price of the Redemption." Salvifici Dolores  18
 "Those who share in Christ's sufferings have before their eyes the Paschal Mystery of the Cross and Resurrection, in which Christ descends, in a first phase, to the ultimate limits of human weakness and impotence: indeed, he dies nailed to the Cross. But if at the same time in this weakness there is accomplished his lifting up, confirmed by the power of the Resurrection, then this means that the weaknesses of all human sufferings are capable of being infused with the same power of God manifested in Christ's Cross. In such a concept, to suffer means to become particularly susceptible, particularly open to the working of the salvific powers of God, offered to humanity in Christ. In him God has confirmed his desire to act especially through suffering, which is man's weakness and emptying of self, and he wishes to make his power known precisely in this weakness and emptying of self. " ibid. 23


It's a hard row to hoe, but I can only follow Catholic teaching.   When I pray the sorrowful Rosary and come to the fourth mystery, Jesus carries His cross, I pray that I can take on my sins, my failures, my suffering, offer them up and thereby  lighten the load of His cross.   We can not know what God wills for us,  but must assume that it is for our ultimate good.   And if we suffer now, we have to look to the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, to envisage that final reward that faith promises us.

*In an earlier post I have "discussed and compared" the Jewish and Catholic theologies of suffering;  see "Suffering--A Catholic | Jewish Perspective".

About Me

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Retired, cranky, old physicist.   Convert to Catholicism in 1995.   Trying to show that there is no contradiction between what science tells us about the world and our Catholic faith.   Intermittent blogs and adult education classes to achieve this end (see   and

Extraordinary Minister of Communion volunteer to federal prison and hospital; lector, EOMC.
Sometime player of bass clarinet, alto clarinet, clarinet, bass, tenor bowed psaltery for parish instrumental group and local folk group.

And, finally, my motivation:
“It is also necessary—may God grant it!—that in providing others with books to read I myself should make progress, and that in trying to answer their questions I myself should find what I am seeking.
Therefore at the command of God our Lord and with his help, I have undertaken not so much to discourse with authority on matters known to me as to know them better by discoursing devoutly of them.”
St. Augustine of Hippo, The Trinity I,8.