Sunday, August 27, 2017

Happy Feast Day Again, St. Augustine*

St. Augustine and the Fires of Wisdom
from Wikimedia Commons
Happy those who feast on wisdom and savor her knowledge,
She will nourish and refresh them.”
Happy Those Who Feast on Wisdom, Hymn for the Office of Readings, 28th August.

Today is the Feast Day for St. Augustine, my favorite Doctor of the Church.     I've posted in this blog on his remarkable thoughts, applicable to the science of today (Let's Hear it for St. Augustine) , on his profound insights on God as greater than infinite (Mathematics, the handmaiden of theology) and on his sage advice for daily living (Good Advice from St. Augustine and More Good Advice) .    I'd like to add two more from the daily readings (Augustine, Day by Day, John Rotelle O.S.A, compiler)

LOVE (August 29th)

"Love is the only sign that distinguishes the children of God from the children of the devil.  To prove this, let them all sign themselves with the cross of Christ.  Let them all respond: Amen.    Let all sing: Alleluia.  Let all build the walls of churches.
There is still no way of discerning the children of God from the children of the devil except by love!" 
Sermon 1 John 5:7

THE INNER VOICE (August 26th)

"Consider this great mystery.  The sound of my words strikes the ears, and the Master is within!   Do not suppose that any human is the teacher of another.  We can admonish by the sound of our voice, but unless there is one Who teaches on the inside, the sound we make is futile.I, for my part, have spoken to all;  but those to whom the Annointing within does not speak, those whom the Holy Spirit within does not teach, go back untaught." Sermon on 1 John 3:12

That's it folks,
bob k


*This is reposted from August 28th, 2015.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Sean Carroll's "The Big Picture" Reviewed:
Why "Poetic Naturalism" is an Oxymoron

The Standard Model*, from Wikimedia Commons (by Latham Boyle)


Scientism, the belief that science can explain everything about the world and ourselves, is a religion, although not formally expressed as such. When I call it a religion, I mean that it is founded on faith, a faith that its proponents say is not faith, but rationality, but which is in fact a faith that denies rational objections to scientism.

There are many scientists who write books justifying their faith that science  gives the only answer to the question, “how should we live?”   Whether they do this to gather people into the fold or just to make money is a question I can’t answer.

Some--I'm thinking of Richard Dawkins in particular--are so convinced of the righteousness of their belief and the evil of religious faith that they would prohibit the practice of religion.  Others--I'm thinking of Sean Carroll--take a more balanced view, conceding there may be legitimate reasons for belief in God, but those reasons aren't for them.  Carroll’s new book, “The Big Picture”, gives his account of a materialistic ethos that doesn’t need God.

I believe there are serious flaws in Carroll’s arguments used to justify his non-belief, particularly in the two foundation stones for his thesis:

  • Poetic Naturalism” is a philosophy that will enable one to lead a moral, satisfying life, one that doesn’t need God;
  • Bayesian probability analysis and abductive reasoning demonstrate that it is very unlikely that God exists. 

I will also argue against Carroll’s views on the Anthropic Coincidences, Mind and Free Will, and Morality.


Carroll defines “Poetic Naturalism” as follows:
“Naturalism claims that there is just one world, the natural world…’Poetic’ reminds us that there is more than one way of talking about the world.   We find it natural to use a vocabulary of ‘causes’ and ‘reasons why’ things happen, but these ideas aren’t part of  how nature works at its deepest levels. “
—Sean Carrol, “The Big Picture”, pp 3-4. 
Carroll goes on to say that phenomena that I put outside the purview of science—for example, love, morality, beauty—are “emergent”.   Let me explain this more fully:   often in science when descriptions at a molecular or atomic level become very complicated and collective phenomena are involved, it is easier to describe things in a semi-empirical way.   Thus, for viscous flow hydrodynamic equations are set up; or to analyze ferromagnetism a collective description, an Ising model, is used.

For example, when we say “water is wet”, we could (in principle) give a reductionist picture and explain what’s happening  in terms of the surface tension of water, and at a deeper level, by an analysis of intermolecular attractive forces.   In short, we very often use a different language to explain or describe what could ultimately be explained by fundamental laws of physics (down to the level of subatomic particles and field theory).**

I call that view—that it’s only a matter of what descriptive language is used—a copout, a “scientism of the gaps”.    This position is not one that can be easily defended.  Indeed, poetry itself,  the joint appeal to our sensibilities of Shakespeare, Shelley and Bob Dylan, is not to be parsed by science.
So, as my subtitle suggests: the term “poetic naturalism” is an oxymoron.  It does not really explain, it just evades fundamental questions.


Carroll uses a combination of abductive reasoning***, “Inference to the Best Explanation” (IBE), and Bayesian probability analysis to argue that it is very unlikely that God exists.   Here’s one such argument:
“We have two  competing propositions: one is that God exists, and that transcendental experiences represent…moments when we are close to divinity;  the other is naturalism, which would explain such experiences the same way it would explain dreams or hallucinations…To decide between them, we need to see which one coheres better with other things we  believe about the world."
—ibid, p.134

Clearly Carroll believes the second explanation is the best, i.e. naturalism.    Others (myself among them) would believe that transcendental experiences cohere better with the existence of God, as does everything else we believe about the world.

Before discussing how Carroll applies Bayesian probability analysis to support naturalism, I’d like to emphasize some general points (taken from William “Matt” Briggs’ [“Statistician to the Stars”] blog post and book).   First, all probability is conditional, depends on evidence; such evidence may be facts, or it may be beliefs, beliefs founded on facts or knowledge, or—dare I say it—on Revelation. It’s just a way of working backwards from evidence to infer a probability.  Second, probability is quantitative.  You assign numerical values to  probability based on the evidence;  otherwise, there’s no way to judge between probabilities based on different evidence.

One well-known example of Bayesian analysis is the Monte Hall three door problem.   I want to  emphasize that Bayesian analysis requires quantitation (even if it's just a best guess, and a definition of an appropriate population (or prior probability) to conform with updated information and evidence.   The Appendix gives an example of such reasoning.  This isn’t what Carroll does.

Carroll argues that if God existed, he would create a world that provided overwhelmingly conclusive evidence for his existence:
“Imagine a world in which miracles happened frequently, rather than rarely or not at all.   Imagine a world in which all of the religious traditions from around the globe independently  came up with the same doctrines and stories about God… Imagine a world in which religious texts consistently provided specific, true, nonintuitive pieces of scientific information…Imagine a world in which souls survived after death, and frequently visited and interacted with the world of the living.  Imagine a world that was free of random suffering…In any of these worlds, diligent seekers of true ontology would quite rightly take those aspects of reality as  evidence for God’s existence.  It follows, as the night the day, that the absence of these features is evidence in favor of atheism. [emphasis added]
ibid., pp. 147-148

This view is simplistic in the extreme. It  does NOT follow “as the night, the day”, that the absence of these features is conclusive evidence for atheism. Consider just the statement that Scriptures should contain “specific, true, nonintuitive pieces of scientific information”.  The Bible is certainly not a science text.  It’s about how and why we should live.  Would a shepherd on the Judean Hills have made any sense out of Maxwell’s equations, or even Newton’s law of gravitational attraction?   Carroll’s argument here simply begs the question, assumes the answer he wishes us to believe.

To say that “God should make it easy to believe” is to support a proposition that ignores theology and philosophy.
Jesus said unto him, “Thomas, because thou hast seen Me, thou hast believed. Blessed are they that have not seen and yet have believed.” --John 20:29 (KJV)

That quote says it all.   I’ve argued in a blog post that there are excellent reasons why God does NOT make it easy to believe.    And there have been hosts of books on the problem of evil, theodicy, that show it is not truly evidence against the existence of God.

Let’s now consider some particular topics in Carroll’s “The Big Picture” for which his analysis is deficient:  the Anthropic Coincidences, Mind and Free Will, and Morality.


The Anthropic Coincidences are a set of restrictions on physical laws, constants, and geo-astronomical features, fine-tuned, so to speak, to enable the development of carbon-based life.   As explained in the post linked above, a  probability cannot be assigned to this “fine-tuning”, but it does strongly suggest that some sort of designing intelligence set up a universe in which humans could exist.   To quote Fred Hoyle:
"A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a super-intellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature.   The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question."--   Fred Hoyle,  “The Universe: Past and Present Reflections.” Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics: 20:16, 1982.

Carroll acknowledges the force of this argument:
“…fine-tuning is probably the most respectable argument for theism.”—Sean Carroll, “The Big Picture”,  p.303

Nevertheless, he says fine-tuning is not sufficient evidence for the existence of a designing intelligence.  He argues that the universe is what it is, we wouldn’t be here to speculate about the fine-tuning if the universe wasn’t there.  He also proposes that “eternal inflation” creates an infinity of universes, a “multiverse”, so that amongst this multitude of universes one or more will be fine-tuned as ours is.   Yet belief in a multiverse is as much an article of faith as belief in God.  Many eminent physicists (including Roger Penrose and  Paul Steinhardt) consider that inflation is not a  proven physical theory.

Following David Hume (his favorite philosopher?), Carroll says that talk about causation is empty and fallacious;  we can only describe and give correlations, not give causes for the way things are.  Consequently we can’t say that the universe was purposely designed for anything.  There was no cause for the universe and its fine-tuning doesn’t need an explanation. Thomas Nagel has a fine response to this sort of argument:
"One doesn't show that something doesn't require explanation by pointing out that it is a condition of one's existence. If I ask for an explanation of the fact that the air pressure in the transcontinental jet is close to that at sea level, it is no answer to point out that if it weren't, I'd be dead.”— Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos.

It’s worth pointing out that Nagel is an atheist, not a theist, but believes that the universe is indeed purpose-driven.


Books could be (and have been) written about the problem of mind and soul.   Rather than giving a full discussion and rebuttal of Carroll’s views on these issues, I’m going to cite some quotes and then, very briefly, argue against them.
“Under naturalism, there isn’t that much difference between a human being and a robot.  We are all just complicated collections of matter moving as patterns, obeying impersonal laws of physics…Wants and purposes and desires are the kinds of things that develop naturally along the way.”—Sean Carroll, “The Big Picture, p. 295
“If the world is purely physical, then what we mean by ‘understanding’****  is a way of talking about a particular kind of correlation between information located in one system and conditions in the external world.” ibid, p.348
“Consciousness isn’t an illusion, but it doesn’t point to any departure from the laws of physics as we currently understand them. [emphasis added].  ibid, p. 351
“One popular definition of free will is ‘the ability to have acted differently’.  In a world governed by impersonal laws, one can argue that there is no such ability.” ibid, pp. 380-381

I’ll not respond specifically to any one of these, but will only say that were I to believe them, I could see no reason for living.   I’ll add that there are philosophers and scientists who disagree strongly with each of these assertions, especially, 3 and 4.

Given that Carroll doesn’t believe in Free Will (or to put it more specifically, says that it’s only a way of talking about how we conduct our affairs), what does he say about morality?    How can there be ethical standards or moral values if we are not free to make decisions about our conduct, if they are predetermined by physical laws?

Let’s see what Carroll says about this; first, he acknowledges that without God there is no absolute moral standard:
“As Abraham learned, having an absolute moral standard such as God can be extraordinarily challenging.   But without God, there is no such standard [emphasis added] and that is challenging in its own way …Nature alone is no help. as we can’t extract ought from is;  the universe doesn’t pass moral judgments.”   ibid, p. 495

Then, according to Carroll, morality must be a personal construction:
“We have no objective guidance on how to distinguish right from wrong: not from God, not from nature, not from the pure force of reason itself…Morality exists only insofar as we make it so, and other people might not pass judgments in the same way we do.”  ibid, p.412.
“Poetic Naturalism refuses to offer us the consolation of moral certainty …How you should act depends on who you are. [emphasis added]”  ibid, p. 415.

So, that’s the problem, and I don’t believe Carroll offers a solution, other than that of the doctor in Camus’ “The Plague”:
“‘ What on earth prompted you to take a hand in this?’
‘I don't know. My… my code of morals, perhaps.’
‘Your code of morals. What code, if I may ask?’
‘Comprehension.’ “  —
Albert Camus, The Plague


There it is.   Poetic naturalism offers no support for a moral standard, and indeed, for any value system.   There is no reason we should take a system based (presumably) on Bayesian probability analysis and abductive reasoning to understand the world, other than that of the doctor in “The Plague”—it’s comprehensible.  

And here I think is where Carroll falls in to the honey-trap of scientism—that which can be explained in a scientific, naturalistic mode is that which is to be believed, and nothing else.   There is not a logical reason to follow this;  in fact, at the very beginning of “The Big Picture” Carroll emphasizes that science has nothing to say about the supernatural.  

So, I say Carroll’s “The Big Picture” is not that big.   It leaves out much of what is important and real for many of us.  But even so, reading his book, one gets the impression that Carroll is a thoughtful, learned, humane person.    I wish him well and hope he finds a belief system other than “Poetic Naturalism”.


*This illustration is used to acknowledge Carroll’s belief that the Standard Model for particle physics is the epitome of scientific knowledge, and that, in principle, all that needs be known about the world should conform to that model.  I’ve discussed the Standard Model in a post, God, Symmetry and Beauty: the Standard Model and the Higgs Boson.   I’ll agree that the Standard Model is one of the great intellectual achievements of modern physics, but as many physicists point out, it is not without problems and deficiencies.

**Or could do so if we had the knowledge, time and inclination for the more fundamental explanation.

***I’ve discussed modes of rational inquiry, including abductive reasoning, in a post, “Why do we believe…”.

****Carroll  is arguing here against John Searle’s “Chinese Room” analogy, a parable designed to show that computers can’t be self-aware.


ere’s an example using diagnostic tests. Suppose you visit a central Asian country, and after you’ve returned, are concerned about having contracted a parasitic disease, D, from having eaten a certain fish. There’s a diagnostic test T that’s good for detection of the disease, D: 99% sensitivity (i.e. the probability you actually have the disease D if you test positive is 0.99) and 90% specificity (the probability you don’t have the disease D if you test negative is 0.90). The prevalence of the disease D (proportion of people who have the disease in a selected population) is 0.1% in the general population. (Note: I’m picking numbers out of the hat in order to give a numerically simple example.)

You take the test and find that you have a positive result; should you be worried? Let’s consider 100,000 people in the general population.

  • The number of people out of a random sample of 100,000 with the disease D is 0.001 x 100,000 (prevalence times population size) or 100. 
  • Then, the number of people who don’t have the disease is 100,000-100 = 99,900. 
  • The number of people who have the disease and test positive is 100 x 0.99 = 99. 
  • The number of people who don’t have the disease and test negative is 99,900x0.90 = 89,910. 
  • Then the number who DON”T have the disease, but still test positive is 99,900-89,910=9990. 
  • The total number who test positive is then 99 +9990= 10,089. 
  • The probability that you have the disease is the ratio:                           number who test positive and have the disease / number who test positive = 99/10,089 =.0098 or about 1%.
--So, not to worry.

Now let’s change the population and include the fact that you’ve visited this Asian country. This is updating the evidence. For this population (people who’ve visited the country recently), the prevalence of the disease is 1% (or 0.01 in probability). Using the same type of analysis as above you can figure that in this case, the probability that you have the disease, having tested positive for it, is 990/10,890 or about 9%.

Let’s narrow the population some more, (update evidence further) and stipulate that only people who have visited the country AND eaten the certain fish will be taken as the population. In this case the prevalence of the parasitic disease is 50%. Doing the same type of analysis you would find that the probability of having the disease, having tested positive, is 49,500/54,500 = 0.908 or 91%.

Now the point of all this arithmetical fol-de-rol is to show first, that a probability analysis must be quantitative, and second, that updated information is used to specify a sampling population, or the prior probability.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Atheus Evangelismus--the Varieties of Evangelical Materialists*

Militant Atheism--modified from Wikimedia Commons
"Many people may be comforted by the idea of a powerful being who cares about their lives and who determines ultimate standards of right and wrong behavior.  Personally, I am not comforted by that at all;  I find it extremely off-putting."--Sean Carroll
 “[Religious] Faith can be very very dangerous, and deliberately to implant it into the vulnerable mind of an innocent child is a grievous wrong.” ― Richard Dawkins
 "Because there are laws such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the Universe going."--Stephen Hawking
"I can't prove that God doesn't exist, but I'd much rather live in a universe without one".--Lawrence Krauss
 "When people organize their lives around these [religious] beliefs, and then learn of other people who seem to be doing just fine without them--or worse, who credibly rebut them--they are in danger of looking like fools. Since one cannot defend a belief based on faith by persuading skeptics it is true, the faithful are apt to react to unbelief with rage, and may try to eliminate that affront to everything that makes their lives meaningful.” --Stephen Pinker 

Scientism, the belief that science can explain everything about the world and ourselves, is a religion, although not formally expressed as such.  By being a religion, I mean that it is founded on faith, a faith that its proponents say proceeds from rational processes, but which in fact denies many rational objections.

There are many scientists who write books, justifying their scientism;  whether they do this to gather people into the fold or just make money is a question I won't attempt to answer.    Some--I'm thinking of Richard Dawkins in particular--are so convinced of the righteousness of their belief and the evil of religious faith that they would prohibit the practice of religion.    Others--I'm thinking of Sean Carroll--take a more balanced view, conceding there are legitimate reasons for belief in God, but those reasons aren't for them.  

Now I'm more familiar with the works of Carroll, Dawkins and Hawking, but I do know something about what Krauss and Pinker have written about religion.   So, I thought it might be instructive put their quasi-religious beliefs into correspondence with some Christian sects.   So, here they are:

Carroll    <----> Unitarianism Universalism
Dawkins <----> Catholic Geocentrists 
Hawking <----> Low Church Anglican
Krauss    <----> Missouri Synod Lutheran or Southern Baptist
Pinker     <----> United Methodist

These correspondences are, I'll admit, arbitrary to an extent.   I've assigned them on the apparent willingness of proponents to argue reasonably and to acknowledge possible merit of those who do believe in God.   

What's your take?


*My wife, my beta-reader, said on reading this, "It isn't really a  post, it's more like a comment".    I agree, and the only two legitimate correspondences are those for Sean Carroll and Richard Dawkins--the three others are sort of put in just to get some more people and denominations in the list.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Can a computer have a soul?
The Theology of Science-Fiction, Redux2

Artificial Intelligence, Wikimedia Commons
"Theological Objection:  'Thinking is a function of man’s immortal soul. God has given an immortal soul to every man and woman, but not to any other animal or to machines. Hence no animal or machine can think.' Rebuttal to Objection: 'It appears to me that [The Theological Objection] implies a serious restriction of the omnipotence of the Almighty. It is admitted that there are certain things that He cannot do such as making one equal two, but should we not believe that He has freedom to confer a soul on an elephant if He sees fit? We might expect that He would only exercise this power in conjunction with a mutation which provided the elephant with an appropriately improved brain to minister to the needs of this soul.' " Alan Turing, Computing Machinery and Intelligence.

“Never tell a child,” said George Macdonald, ‘you have a soul. Teach him, you are a soul; you have a body." See Mere Orthodoxy


In the previous post, "Can there be ethics without God?  The Theology of Science Fiction, Redux 1", I discussed the religious beliefs (or lack thereof) of intelligent aliens, non-human life.   The question of whether intelligent, extra-terrestial beings could have souls was also raised (but not fully discussed).    I also said I would talk about artificial intelligent entities--computers, robots and minds (supposedly) implanted into computers--and whether these would have souls  (it being assumed that artificial intelligence is a possibility).   

So, here this is, a repost of "Does Data have a soul?"  Before proceeding, I want to recommend an article by Jim McCrea on the theology and philosophy of souls and artificial intelligence.    I also want to introduce, as a preface, what the Catholic Catechism has to say about souls.
SOUL: The spiritual principle of human beings. The soul is the subject of human consciousness and freedom; soul and body together form one unique human nature. Each human soul is individual and immortal, immediately created by God. The soul does not die with the body, from which it is separated by death, and with which it will be reunited in the final resurrection.  Glossary, Catholic Catechism;  see also, CCC 362-368.
Before discussing what science fiction (SF) has to say about souls and artificial intelligence, let me reminisce.   A long time ago when computers were still new (yes, it was that long ago), when I was at my first academic assignment, the head of the division dealing with computers gave a talk on artificial intelligence for computers.   One of the humanities faculty in the audience put a question after the talk "Would you want your daughter to marry one[i.e. a computer]?".   Legend has it (I wasn't there) that he answered "Yes, if she loved him". 

When we inquire about the souls of computers/robots we assume that computers/robots have a mind/self-awareness/consciousness.   That some sort of programmed intelligence can be conscious (self-aware) is a hotly debated proposition.   A book would be required  (many have been written) to explore this notion.   We don't want to write that book here, so let's suppose,  as do SF authors, that consciousness is possible by some means or another for computers and robots and see what SF has to say about them having souls.*


As a transition to considering machine intelligence, let's examine how SF treats the transfer of human intelligence/personality into computers or robots.  Note that one theoretical physicist, Frank Tipler, in his book, The Physics of Christianity,  posits  that heaven will consist of personalities transferred to software  as the universe reaches its end in an "Omega Point'  singularity.  Since it is a black hole type singularity, time is slowed down and the intelligences transferred to software thus have essentially an eternity to enjoy their virtual life. 

Among the many SF stories that deal with transferred human intelligence, there is one that especially focuses on the question of soulhood, Deus X, by Norman Spinrad.   Spinrad treats the question with respect, although his attitude to the Catholic Church is somewhat less than reverent (there is a female Pope, Mary I).    Below is a summary of the plot,  as given in McKee's excellent survey, The Gospel According to Science-Fiction:
"...thousands of people exist in an artificial afterlife called 'Transcorporeal Immortality', having copied their consciousness onto a worldwide computer network called 'The Big Board'....Catholic theologian Fr. Philippe de Leone argue[s] that this creation of an artificial soul, which cannot have true self-awareness, dooms the actual soul that is copied to damnation.   Pope Mary I, hoping to settle the controversy, orders Fr. DeLeone to have his soul copied upon his death, so that his consciousness can argue against its own autonomous existence from the other side."   as quoted in The Gospel According to Science Fiction. p.43
Superficially, Pope Mary's plan seems to contain a paradox.   If the downloaded Fr. de Leone changes "his" mind and says "yes, I am a real soul", how can we trust what an artificial soul might say?   The solution to the paradox is that all of Fr. de Leone's beliefs have been downloaded to his program.   If these beliefs are changed, it means that the entity in the computer has free will, and is thus autonomous and a real soul.     

In the story Fr. DeLeone's soul is "kidnapped" (how do you kidnap a program?) by a group of downloaded personalities that wants to convince the Church, via Fr. de Leone's download, that they have a real soul. As McKee points out in his synopsis, there is a reverse Turing Test applied here.  Fr. de Leone does change his mind, the downloaded personalities declare him a deity ("Deus X") and a new controversy arises:  Church officials declare how could this blasphemy come about.   To still the controversy, Fr. de Leone sacrifices his downloaded personality (dies), Pope Mary declares him a saint and recognizes that the downloaded souls are "real".


There are many SF works in which the Catholic Church plays a role.    In some, the Church and its teachings are treated with respect;  in most, not so much.   As Gabriel McKee points out in The Gospel According to Science Fiction
"SF, arising as it does from the secular humanism of the Enlightenment, is critical of religious institutions.   SF frequently argues that if organized religion is to be a positive force in the future of humankind, it must change drastically to meet the spiritual challenges of the future." Gabriel McKee, op.cit., p. 183
A sympathetic view of how the Church might interact with artificial intelligence is given in Jack McDevitt's fine story, "Gus"**. In this beautiful tale, the newly installed rector of a Catholic Seminary interacts with a computer simulation of St. Augustine of Hippo, purchased (the simulation, that is) to help students understand St. Augustine's teachings. The Rector, Msgr. Chesley, is at first greatly displeased with Gus's (the program's) dicta:
" 'The thing must have been programmed by Unitarians' Chesley threw over his shoulder. 'Get rid of it'" "Gus" in Cryptics, p. 373.
The relationship between Chesley and Gus becomes warmer with time, as they discuss the problems of being a Catholic in today's world:
'Why did Augustine become a priest?'   Chesley asked.
'I wanted,' Gus said, with the slightest stress on the first words, 'to get as close as I could to my Creator.'  Thoughtfully, he added, 'I seem to have traveled far afield.'  
'Sometimes I think,'  Chesley said, 'the Creator hides himself too well.'
'Use his Church,' said Gus. 'That is why it is here.'
'It has changed.'
“Of course it has changed. The world has changed.'
'The Church is supposed to be a rock.'
'Think of it rather as a refuge in a world that will not stand still.' " op. cit., p. 382,
Gus's sayings to the students become so unorthodox (he decries the doctrines/dogma of the infallibility of the Pope and the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary) that other faculty decided he should be downloaded to storage and traded in for a computer simulation of Thomas Aquinas (plus business software).    Gus asks Msgr. Chesley to hear his Confession and then destroy him, so he can have peace:
" 'I require absolution, Matt.'
Chesley pressed his right hand into his pocket. 'It would be sacrilege,' he whispered.
'And if I have a soul, Matt,[emphasis added] if I too am required to face judgment,what then?'
Chesley raised his right hand, slowly, and drew the sign of the cross in the thick air. 'I absolve you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.'
Thank you...There’s something else I need you to do, Matt. This existence holds nothing for me. But I am not sure what downloading might mean.'
'What are you asking?
'I want to be free of all this. I want to be certain I do not spend a substantial fraction of eternity in the storeroom.'
Chesley trembled. 'If in fact you have an immortal soul,' he said, 'you may be placing it in grave danger.'
'And yours as well. I have no choice but to ask. Let us rely on the mercy of the Almighty.'
Tears squeezed into Chesley’s eyes. He drew his finger- tips across the hard casing of the IBM. 'What do I do? I’m not familiar with the equipment.'
'Have you got the right computer?'
'Take it apart. Turn off the power first. All you have to do is get into it and destroy the hard disk.'
'Will you—feel anything?'
'Nothing physical touches me, Matt.'
Chesley found the power switch...He found a hammer and a Phillips screwdriver. He used the screwdriver to take the top off the computer.    A gray metal box lay within. He opened it and removed a gleaming black plastic disk. He embraced it, held it to his chest. Then he set it down, and reached for the hammer.  In the morning, with appropriate ceremony, he buried it in consecrated soil."  op.cit., pp.388-389
Even though I am moved to tears when I read this, do I believe that a computer program will have a personality, a soul?    Not likely***.


This will go somewhat afield.   (For those who aren't Trekkies, Data is the android navigator in the second Star Trek series, Star Trek: the Next Generation.   He aspires to humanity and sometimes reaches (and even surpasses) that state.)    There is a problem, however, in that whether Data has a soul is never considered in any of the episodes, possibly because the word "soul" (not in reference to music) is anathema to writers and producers of popular entertainment.    So in the episode, "The Measure of a Man", the question "Is Data a sentient being" is asked, rather than "Does Data have a soul".

The question is addressed in a trial, to see if Data, as a "sentient being", has the right to refuse to be disassembled for study and refitting.    Captain Picard acts in Data's behalf and Commander Riker, under duress, as the prosecutor.    Riker attempts to demonstrate that Data is a machine by switching him off:
"[Riker is doing his duty in the courtroom]
Commander William T. Riker: The Commander is a physical representation of a dream - an idea, conceived of by the mind of a man. Its purpose: to serve human needs and interests. It's a collection of neural nets and heuristic algorithms; its responses dictated by an elaborate software written by a man, its hardware built by a man. And now... and now a man will shut it off.
[Riker switches off Data, who slumps forward like a lifeless puppet]

Commander William T. Riker: Pinocchio is broken. Its strings have been cut."
"The Measure of a Man", Quotes.
Captain Picard gives a stirring defense, arguing that the question of whether Data is conscious--self-aware--has not and can not be settled, any more than whether one can be certain that another person is conscious except by external behavior.     And finally the question of soulhood is addressed minimally:
"Captain Phillipa Louvois [The Judge]: It sits there looking at me; and I don't know what it is. This case has dealt with metaphysics - with questions best left to saints and philosophers. I am neither competent nor qualified to answer those. But I've got to make a ruling, to try to speak to the future. Is Data a machine? Yes. Is he the property of Starfleet? No. We have all been dancing around the basic issue: does Data have a soul?[emphasis added] I don't know that he has. I don't know that I have. But I have got to give him the freedom to explore that question himself. It is the ruling of this court that Lieutenant Commander Data has the freedom to choose."
[notice the shift from "it" to "he"]  ibid.
And so Data is left free, and the question of whether he has a soul, undetermined--as in the Scottish verdict, "Not Proven".


Since I don't, myself, believe that true artificial intelligence--consciousness and self-awareness--is possible for computers or robots, then the question of whether such have souls is moot.   However, the SF stories give, I believe, an interesting perspective on what it means to have a soul.


*Along with Roger Penrose and John Searle, I don't believe that consciousness is a product of algorithmic processes, i.e. that the brain is a meat computer. But that's a post for another day.

**Scroll down to #1, "Gus".

***As always, I asked my wife to review this post before publishing.  I asked her whether she was moved by the story of Gus.  She replied, "If it were St. Augustine on his death-bed talking to his confessor, yes;  but a black plastic disc--never!"

Friday, August 4, 2017

Can there be Ethics without God?
The Theology of Science Fiction, Redux 1


Looking at my last post, "Why do we believe...", I thought there were things I didn't say in that that I had said in previous ones, particularly in the series  "Theology of Science-Fiction".   Also, being preoccupied with some other tasks, I thought it appropriate  to repost those with some minor revisions.   Let's start out with considering what science fiction (and the Church) have to say about intelligent aliens having a soul.


"If there are many planets inhabited by sentient creatures, as most astronomers (including Jesuits), now suspect, then `each one of such planets (solar or non-solar)' must fall into one of three categories:

(1) Inhabited by sentient creatures, but without souls; so to be treated with compassion but extra-evangelically.

(2) Inhabited by sentient creatures with fallen souls, through an original but not inevitable ancestral sin; so to be evangelized with urgent missionary charity.

(3) Inhabited by sentient soul-endowed creatures that have not fallen, who therefore
  • inhabit an unfallen, sinless paradisal world;
  • who therefore we must contact not to propagandize, but in order that we may learn from them the conditions (about which we can only speculate) of creatures living in perpetual grace, endowed with all the virtues in perfection, and both immortal and in complete happiness for always possessed of and with the knowledge of God.' "  James Blish, quoting Gerald Heard, from David Ketterer's Covering 'A Case of Conscience'
The quote above outlines what SF might say about the theological state of non-human intelligent life, but it leaves questions to be answered.    Certainly one would not try to convert Deep Blue, the computer that beat Gary Kasparov in chess, nor would one send a missionary to the local S.P.C.A.     What then is the requirement that one be fallen, saved or in a state of grace?   The quote distinguishes between intelligent life with and without souls ("sentient creatures, but without souls").     But what, when it comes down to it, are the hallmarks of having a soul?

I'm going to use some quotes from an earlier post, "Would Yoda have a Soul?" that explore this question.
"The human person, created in the image of God, is a being at once corporeal and spiritual...soul refers to the innermost aspect of man, that by which he is most specially in God's image:  'soul' signifies the spiritual principle in is because of the spiritual soul that the body made of matter becomes  a living, human body;  spirit and body in man are not two natures united but rather their union forms a single nature."  Catechism of the Catholic Church, excerpted from paragraphs 362, 363, 365.
Now that is a complete statement, but it doesn't make the properties of a soul explicit.   What do these properties entail--belief in a deity?   a moral/ethical code?   wonder about the meaning of it all?   As Brother Guy Consulagmo, a Vatican astronomer, put it when discussing alien life:
 "Going back to the Middle Ages, the definition of a soul is to have intelligence, free will, freedom to love or not to love, freedom to make decisions..." 
And here's what C.S. Lewis has to say:
 "By this (rational souls) I include not merely the faculty to abstract and calculate, but the apprehension of values, the power to mean by 'good' something more than 'good for me' or even 'good for my species'." (from Religion and Rocketry in The World's Last Night)


Let's start with C.S. Lewis's magnificent "Space Trilogy" (Out of the Silent PlanetPerelandraThat Hideous Strength).   I won't attempt to reprise the plot or characters (go to the link), but rather focus on the elements that display Lewis's theological construct for his SF universe: a pyramidal theological structure of deity and creatures that seems to be a mixture of mythology and Christianity, as depicted below:
  •  GOD (Maledil, and his son--the son of Maledil on Thulcandra [earth])
  •  Oyarsa  (archangels,  Lords of each planet)
  •  Eldila (angels, immaterial beings) 
  •  hnau (rational, mortal, material beings)
The Oyarsa, lords of each planet, are very much like the gods of the ancient Pantheon.   The Oyarsa of Mars is masculine (but not male), of Venus feminine (but not female), of Jupiter, multigendered, ...[I call to mind Gustav Holst's "The Planets].   

On earth (Thulcandra) the "bent" Oyarsa, Satan, has fought God and tempted the first humans to disobey God; thus comes The  Fall--Thulcandra becomes the "silent planet", interdicted from relations with all the others and humans become, like Satan, "bent".   

On Mars (Malacandra) there are three intelligent species (hnau)*:   the Sorns (Seroni), who are the philosopher/scientists;  the Hrossa, who are the poet/musician/story-tellers;  the Pfifitiggri, the artisan/engineers.     All three species live together in peace, supplying talents and services that are missing in their own species.  They have a common language and a common theology, believing in Eldila (who are present to them), the Oyarsa of Mars, and the supreme being, Maledil.     They believe in an ordered existence, the rule of God (Maledil) and have no fear of death;  they know when they will die and that they will be transported to a Heaven in outer space.   The quotes below give a better account than mine:   
"And how could we endure to live and let time pass if we were always crying for one day or one year to come back--if we did not know that every day in a life fills the whole life with expectation and memory and that these are that day?”  said by a Hrossa,  talking about death.
 “They cannot help it,' said the old sorn. 'There must be rule, yet how can creatures rule themselves? Beasts must be ruled by hnau and hnau by eldila and eldila by Maledldil. These creatures have no eldila. They are like one trying to lift himself by his own hair-or one trying to see over a whole country when he is on a level with it--like a female trying to beget young on herself.”   said by a Sorn, talking about the state of Hmans (humans).  
The hnau of Malacandra were tempted by Satan, but the temptation was overcome by the Oyarsa of Malacandra:
 "Many thousands of thousand years before this, when nothing yet lived on your world, the cold death was coming on my harandra. Then I was in deep trouble, not chiefly for the death of my hnau - Maleldil does not make them long-livers -but for the things which the lord of your world, who was not yet bound, put into their minds. He would have made them as your people are now - wise enough to see the death of their kind approaching but not wise enough to endure it. [emphasis added] Bent counsels would soon have risen among them. They were well able to have made sky-ships. By me Maleldil stopped them." said by the Oyarsa to the scientist, Weston (the villain)
 "Yes," said Oyarsa, "but one thing we left behind us on the harandra: fear. And with fear, murder and rebellion. The weakest of my people does not fear death. It is the Bent One, the lord of your world, who wastes your lives and befouls them with flying from what you know will overtake you in the end.  If you were subjects of Maleldil you would have peace. "  said by the Oyarsa in reply to Weston's comment that they (the Malacandrian hnau) will all die soon. 
Perelandra (Venus) is the Garden of Eden before the fall.   There is a wealth of plant and animal species inhabiting the sea and floating islands, and over them a humanoid queen and king (albeit green).   As in the Garden of Eden, God (Maledil) gives them a paradise but also a prohibition: they may not stay overnight on the one fixed bit of Perelandrian land.   Satan sends Weston, possessed by a demon, to tempt the queen to violate the prohibition.  Weston is overcome by the agent, Ransom, sent by Maledil to prevent the Fall.  After this, there is a glorious dance by the Queen, King and all the fauna and flora of Perelandra to celebrate the coming of a true paradise,    

Here's the crucial theological issue: doing what God wills is not only good for us, but also shows our love for Him.  Thus, disobedience in what might seem a small matter--staying overnight on the fixed land, despite His prohibition--is not a small matter, because we thus attempt to assert our better knowledge of how we should act.  Ransom (the hero), trying to dissuade the queen from Weston's temptation, argues why God should be obeyed:
 "I think He made one law of that kind in order that there might be obedience. In all these other matters what you call obeying Him is but doing what seems good in your eyes also. Is love content with that? You do them, indeed, because they are His will, but not only because they are His will. Where can you taste the joy of obeying unless He bids you do something for which His bidding is the only reason?” Perelandra, p. 59
In summary, the first two books of Lewis's Space Trilogy stress:
  • the rule of God gives us what is good;
  • before the fall we would know when we would die, but that we would also know that heaven awaits us, so that "Death has lost its sting";
  • we show our love for God by obedience to his commands.


C.S. lewis's vision  is that of 3) in the beginning quote, "inhabited by sentient soul-endowed creatures that have not fallen".    What about 1) "sentient creatures, but without souls" and 2) "sentient creatures with fallen souls"?    I'll discuss the SF examples of these only briefly, because I don't think they make the strong  theological points that Lewis's Space Trilogy does.

In category 1) is "A Case of Conscience"**,  by James Blish.  For plot and further commentary by Br. Guy Consolmagno,  the Vatican Astronomer, please use the link.  It deals with Lithians, a reptilian species who behave according to an inborn, "hardwired" ethical system,  but who have no religious beliefs.   They are visited by a team of scientists, including a Jesuit missionary (whence the judgment of Lithian ethics),  The missionary concludes that the Lithians are the work of Satan, created as a convincing argument that belief in God is not necessary in order to behave ethically, as humanists and atheists propose.

Can one imagine intelligent, self-aware beings not wondering about the purpose of their lives, how everything came to be,  putting forth the "why" questions?   Thus the basic premise of the novel does not seem very plausible to me.   And perhaps the injunction given in the beginning quote, "to be treated with compassion, but extra-evangelically", might have been the better course (although destructive of the novel's plot).

In category 2) are "The Sparrow" and "Children of God", by Mary Doria Russell.   It deals with the interactions of a Jesuit priest (again the Jesuits!) with two alien species who are sentient, but with a faulty moral code.   Critics have argued that the works deal with "faith under fire".  That may be so, but there are no good theological arguments put forth.    Indeed, the Jesuit missionary loses his faith after being tortured and sexually abused by the dominant species; there is no vision of redemption or suffering for Christ.  

There are other instances of alien intelligences adapting or transforming the Christian religion and interacting with the Church, given in references here.  Most have a strongly anti-religious bias.  An extreme example is that given by George R.R. Martin in "The Way of Cross and Dragon".   A huge cephalopod is an Archbishop of the transformed Church, "The One True Interstellar Catholic Church of Earth and the Thousand Worlds", who sends an Inquisitor out to determine whether a cult promoting the "Gospel According to Judas Iscariot" is heretical.    The tone of the short story is anti-religious--the Inquisitor is successful in prosecuting the heresy but loses his faith, becoming convinced that he is the Prince of Liars.


Finally, what about souls, ethics and belief in God for non-biological entities--computers, robots, biological intelligence implanted into brains?  

I'll deal with what science fiction has to say about this in a forthcoming post.


*Images of the creatures in the Space Trilogy can be seen in the following links:
HrossaPfifitriggi, Sorns (Seroni)

**A detailed literary and theological analysis of "A Case of Conscience" is given in Ketterer's  Covering "A Case of Conscience"