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How to Build a Computer Model of God
November 15, 2011 7:25 AM   Subscribe

My assumption has always been: If something like a soul exists, and it affects our consciousness in any manner, then it must be detectable by some scientific device. I find it difficult to imagine that something can interact with my physical body without leaving any physical trace. But though I find it hard to imagine, is it possible for something like a soul to interact with me without leaving any physical trace?
posted by veedubya (152 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite

 
from article: “Despite my desire to accept religious teachings, I am constantly prevented by a simple fact: no one has found any physical evidence of something like a soul, or any mechanism which might enable a persistent consciousness beyond our current brain.”

This is flatly false. Aristotle stated, and St Thomas Aquinas affirmed, that "soul" means a thing at-work-being-itself which is born, comes to maturity, has the potential to reproduce, and dies. There is ample scientific evidence that such things exist.
posted by koeselitz at 7:30 AM on November 15, 2011 [14 favorites]


What an interesting approach.
posted by Miko at 7:31 AM on November 15, 2011


Much of the Summa is far beyond me, but the part dealing with the nature of the soul begins here, for those who are scholastically inclined.
posted by jquinby at 7:34 AM on November 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


But though I find it hard to imagine, is it possible for something like a soul to interact with me without leaving any physical trace?

Yes. Strong magnetic fields, for one. Bad approach to a tricky topic.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:35 AM on November 15, 2011


Yes. Strong magnetic fields, for one. Bad approach to a tricky topic.

No, magnetic fields are trivial to detect, as are their interactions with the world. Magnetic fields are a good example of phenomena that is the opposite of what he's talking about.
posted by -harlequin- at 7:38 AM on November 15, 2011 [20 favorites]


Completely disregarding the concente of the FPP, wouldn't strong magnetic fields have an effect on the body's iron content?
posted by griphus at 7:39 AM on November 15, 2011


But though I find it hard to imagine, is it possible for something like a soul

Magnetic fields are something like a soul?
posted by lumensimus at 7:39 AM on November 15, 2011


A fairly well-written intro to an idea that's been a staple in science fiction for a long time. See also the simulation hypothesis, where virtualisation isn't even a metaphor. That our universe might be a simulation doesn't of course imply that there's any persistence after 'death', sadly.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 7:40 AM on November 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


While I enjoy reading this sort of thing the hypervisor metaphor falls down in a couple of places, not least of which is when he gets to the claim that "the Hypervisor could approximate a process flowing through states of reincarnation or travel from Earth to Heaven or Hell, all without leaving a trace in the original environment". There are many ways that from inside a VM you can determine that you are in fact inside a VM. They're nontrivial, but they certainly exist.

But more broadly, this metaphor collapses under its original phrasing: "If something like a soul exists, and it affects our consciousness in any manner, then it must be detectable by some scientific device." By that metric, the number four doesn't exist. The golden rule, the oxford comma, democracy, tyranny, right and left don't exist any more than your name exists. We just made all that stuff up, but they exist in some sense regardless of their lack of mass, agency or corporeality. And I think this lack of appreciation (or maybe even awareness) for the subtleties around the arguments he's trying to make are why this comes across as so awkward and clunky a piece.

If there's one thing more embarrassing than listening to philosophy majors talk about computers, it's listening to comp-sci majors talk about philosophy.
posted by mhoye at 7:40 AM on November 15, 2011 [37 favorites]


Aristotle stated, and St Thomas Aquinas affirmed, that "soul" means a thing at-work-being-itself which is born, comes to maturity, has the potential to reproduce, and dies.

This really isn't the standard definition of a soul, especially the dying part.

What an interesting approach.

Interesting, but it reminded me of the fourth turning article. It's really easy to create a model, and terribly hard to create a model that can actually predict anything. I also deduct 5 points for abusing scientific terms. He hypothesis has no predictive powers, and cannot be detected.

Looking over it again, this is Solipsism in computer architecture clothes. What's the difference between this and a brain in a jar or the evil demon.
posted by zabuni at 7:41 AM on November 15, 2011


There is ample scientific evidence that such things exist.

Mortal souls exist. Eternal souls exist only as the flap of a butterfly's wing exists in a hurricane.
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 7:42 AM on November 15, 2011 [4 favorites]


What's the difference between this and a brain in a jar or the evil demon
Or a video game character in an embedded system.
posted by SyntacticSugar at 7:43 AM on November 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Any interaction, any effect on "you", is the physical trace.
posted by benjonson at 7:43 AM on November 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


Magnetic fields are something like a soul?

Not really. Much more like Power Pop.
posted by benito.strauss at 7:44 AM on November 15, 2011 [6 favorites]


He hypothesis has no predictive powers, and cannot be detected.

Does your hypothesis about his hypothesis have predictive powers? How can we detect whether it is true?
posted by phrontist at 7:48 AM on November 15, 2011


Meh. This is an overly elaborately framed version of the old idea that God is the machine executing the program of our observable reality (I say overly because by introducing the virtual machine layer he's adding unnecessary elements). To those saying that in his model the universe is actually the hardware: from the perspective of the programs executing on the machine, the hardware/software divide is meaningless: they have one interface that they read/write to/from no matter how you divvy it up.

At any rate, the core flaw here is that he's proposing a fundamentally irrational worldview. God inserting our souls' intent by manipulating all of reality, continuously, at a fine-grained level. Well, great, but if you accept that, then the basic cause->effect nature of the universe is thrown out as a consequence, and there's no point in attempting to understand our surroundings or ourselves because both are fundamentally inconsistent from our perspective.

To sum: yes, you can craft an explanation in which the soul does not leave physical traces: you just have to be prepared to accept that the universe and your own actions/state within it are fundamentally irrational and unknowable. I'd contend that isn't a terribly useful way of looking at things.
posted by Ryvar at 7:48 AM on November 15, 2011 [7 favorites]


zabuni: “This really isn't the standard definition of a soul...”

The notion that there is a standard definition of a soul is the whole problem, I think. My point was mostly that there are religious (and philosophical) definitions of "soul" which are entirely in accordance with physical evidence.

The assumption he's making here, I think, is that everybody defines "soul" in this weird sort of Cartesian way that means some invisible, non-physical thing hanging over our bodies and controlling them or something like that. I don't think that definition of soul is really coherent. And it's somewhat annoying when people act as though that is the standard definition; it's not. The concepts that's based on have only really be popular in a very small subset of the world for the past three hundred years. In all of the world and all of history, three hundred years is almost nothing.
posted by koeselitz at 7:52 AM on November 15, 2011 [8 favorites]


I like that this guy keeps his materialism at the level of an unprovable, initial assumption rather than elevating it to the level of dogma.

(But, as koeselitz has noted, he's also making an incredibly important assumption about the definition of soul that needs to be part of the essay.)
posted by resurrexit at 7:53 AM on November 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


I don’t like the idea of disappearing when I die.

I look forward to it. Even better, before I die.
posted by Obscure Reference at 7:54 AM on November 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


He lacks a crucial ingredient to accept God, namely humility. This isn't a good or bad thing, hell I share the trait, but in order to believe in God, as defined by Christianity, you need to accept that one can not know and understand God and be ok with that. Some people aren't made that way and they'll never really be ok with the concept of a Christian God or soul.

Attempting to describe how a soul could exist is fool's errand for early 21st century humans, if one expects to prove or disprove a soul exists. However, it may provide a certain amount of mental and spiritual solace to those of a certain mind.

There is so much we don't know about ourselves, our bodies, our minds and our world, that attempts to do so almost seem blindingly arrogant. As cliched as it might sound, the ant can not understand humans, it has no framework to mentally articulate the concepts of humans and the things we do. At best they only see shadows of much larger world and only feel its effects, such as when the rain falls or a person stomps on an anthill.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:56 AM on November 15, 2011 [6 favorites]


I don't have a problem with the idea of a universe as simulation at all.

The problem I have is the part where he confuses processes with souls. Consciousness, from what we can tell, arises entirely from physical action in the brain. If there are processes running in this simulated universe, then they are processes which are running physical simulations, not processes which directly act to control the minds of people.

In a virtual machine you'd be able to tell if something from outside was spawning processes, and also, and in a world where physics is run by processes, it would be detectable by physics changing.

Although the thing about being able to allocate more resources (ram, etc) in the background is interesting -- what if that kind of thing were detectable as energy increasing constantly everywhere in the universe -- a kind of dark energy that permeates everything and causes space to expand (giving more space for physics to occur in). (sorry, that's just some stoner bullshit, but it's interesting to think about)
posted by empath at 8:03 AM on November 15, 2011 [3 favorites]


The number four doesn't exist. Four is an interpretation* imposed on an observation**. Unlike fire, people have to learn what four is before it can affect them.

Disclaimers:
*Note that the interpretation itself (presumably) leaves some sort of physical (electrochemical) trace in the brain that can be measured, in which case four does meet the "scientific device" metric, and so does every other idea on your list.

**Does not apply to four in formal mathematics, which is not observation dependent.
posted by yeolcoatl at 8:08 AM on November 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


...keeps his materialism at the level of an unprovable, initial assumption...

Conjectured entities such as "souls" and "gods" have to be proven to exist. Once they are proven to exist, then "materialism" is disproven.
posted by DU at 8:08 AM on November 15, 2011


Can we all stop redefining religious terms to try and weasel around the fact that there is absolutely no evidence for them? Every religion offers up demonstrably false claims. You either have faith, belief despite a lack of evidence or plausibility, or you don't.
posted by karmiolz at 8:09 AM on November 15, 2011 [6 favorites]


It is not more than a little irrational to advance the argument that magic "must" be detectable using science?
posted by three blind mice at 8:09 AM on November 15, 2011 [3 favorites]


The process can be read out of memory without the VM noticing, but the hypervisor can't manipulate VMs without the VMs being able to tell that they're being manipulated in a literal system of this type, as others have pointed out. The author stipulates that these VMs can't tell that they're being manipulated, but I think that stipulation winds up carrying much more weight than it was intended to carry. The nature of the stipulation isn't fleshed out, and if we give it up, we'll wind up with a pretty limited God. The author needs a compelling story about how the VMs can't tell when they're being manipulated that fits with the VM metaphor and allows appropriate power to God and living things as we understand those concepts.

It's not really fair play to criticize his gloss of what a soul is, right? Better to work with his assumptions and see where we can get and we can take our turn with a different gloss after that.
posted by Kwine at 8:14 AM on November 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


three blind mice it's basically cognitive dissonance. The desire to take comfort in religious beliefs despite the fact that in the modern world these beliefs sit outside everything we know to be true.
posted by karmiolz at 8:14 AM on November 15, 2011


It's not really fair play to criticize his gloss of what a soul is, right? Better to work with his assumptions and see where we can get and we can take our turn with a different gloss after that.

I mean it's probably worth pointing out flaws in his definitions, but I think it's more interesting to accept them as a given and see if his proposed model actual works on his own terms. I don't think it does.
posted by empath at 8:18 AM on November 15, 2011


Interesting approach to a very old critique of Cartesian dualism -- the mind-body problem or problem of interactionism. This just replaces "mind" with "soul".
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 8:19 AM on November 15, 2011


three blind mice it's basically cognitive dissonance. The desire to take comfort in religious beliefs despite the fact that in the modern world these beliefs sit outside everything we know to be true.

Faith is exactly NOT cognitive dissonance, for the exact desire you stated is the end goal.
posted by spicynuts at 8:22 AM on November 15, 2011


**Does not apply to four in formal mathematics, which is not observation dependent.

So, does formal mathematics exists?
posted by mhoye at 8:22 AM on November 15, 2011


It would be preferable to search for physical evidence rather than take something on faith alone, keeping in mind that absence of physical evidence may not mean absence of phenomena.

If you go about experimenting looking for something that fulfills your desires, you are not a very good scientist. Which is not to say you won't find what you want, but since you're committed to your particular desire first, and the search for knowledge itself second, you're giving yourself some bad disconfirmation bias: if you find your experiment doesn't offer much insight into the particular phenomenon you want to find, well, you're done. No sense coming up with an alternative hypothesis now. That's not what you want at all.

It might be a better mindset for an engineer who is trying to build something good. In principle, the transhumanist movement is about that. In practice, few of them contribute much to artificial intelligence, and the rest are people of faith.
posted by LogicalDash at 8:23 AM on November 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


everything we know to be true

One could argue that the words "everything", "we", "know" and "true" are all problematic in that phrase. Hopefully we won't be talking about the definition of "is".
posted by gimonca at 8:23 AM on November 15, 2011 [5 favorites]


kwine I think it's completely fair to criticize his gloss of what a soul is. Philosophical gymnastics to cling to a gnawing personal desire. It's disingenuous to religious beliefs, no religion would accept this turning of what a soul is, and to underlying principles of reason. What is his cause for even building this system? Instead of trying to describe a phenomena, the goal is to build a way for phenomena which has not been observed to exist! On the face it is plain silly. The motivation is nothing more than their personal desire to be possessed of an eternal soul. Any religion with an omnipotent God is also perfectly consistent, yet he seems to have thrown those out.
posted by karmiolz at 8:24 AM on November 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Conjectured entities such as "souls" and "gods" have to be proven to exist.

Do you mean that in order to exist, they must be proven to exist? That assumption is unwarranted, since we might not be able to observe (or deduce) everything that exists. After all, we're animals. There are other animals that can't understand everything humans know about what exists. In principle, there could be a super-perceptive alien who could observe existent things of which we're perpetually unaware.
posted by John Cohen at 8:28 AM on November 15, 2011 [5 favorites]


I think I'm happier with the idea that there may be many things that are fundamentally unknowable from our perspective than I am with the idea that all that we can observe or infer from our observations must be all that there is. By definition, I can't know which of those is the better description of reality, but the former seems somehow more rational.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 8:29 AM on November 15, 2011 [5 favorites]


Brandon: I disagree that an atheist's, "I don't know" is any more arrogant than that posed by modern apologetics.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 8:30 AM on November 15, 2011


spicynuts Faith is certain belief despite having utterly no evidence. Being convinced of something without any cogent argument in its favor is ridiculous at best. It crosses into dissonance when someone knows anything about history and science, both of which fly in the face of supernatural beliefs. The simple way around this is to claim God is omnipotent, which is internally consistent with making the laughable claims of fossils basically being tricks.
posted by karmiolz at 8:30 AM on November 15, 2011


If something like a soul exists, and it affects our consciousness in any manner, then it must be detectable by some scientific device.

Theological side note: the old "angels on the head of a pin" argument was not about the size of angels but rather about if they had any physical existence at all.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 8:31 AM on November 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Can we all stop redefining religious terms to try and weasel around the fact that there is absolutely no evidence for them?

I question the veracity of your sweeping assertion.

Every religion offers up demonstrably false claims.

I keep hearing and reading this claim that various unspecified religious claims are "demonstrably false." I have come to the point where I am not convinced that any of the people saying that know what "demonstrable" means.
posted by The World Famous at 8:33 AM on November 15, 2011 [6 favorites]


The World Famous If you make a claim, like the whole world was simultaneously flooded, you can investigate that claim. When you find that there is no evidence of that, or use logic and ask where the water receded to considering that would be impossible lest it evaporated into space, you demonstrate that claim to be false. When you claim a six thousand year old Earth an every branch of science refutes it, you demonstrate that claim to be false. You claim creation instead of evolution, proven false. You an always get around this by asserting an omnipotent God, which is at east internally consistent.
posted by karmiolz at 8:40 AM on November 15, 2011 [4 favorites]


karmiolz: “Faith is certain belief despite having utterly no evidence. Being convinced of something without any cogent argument in its favor is ridiculous at best. It crosses into dissonance when someone knows anything about history and science, both of which fly in the face of supernatural beliefs. The simple way around this is to claim God is omnipotent, which is internally consistent with making the laughable claims of fossils basically being tricks.”

I really feel that you're misunderstanding deeply what "faith" means to us Christians. In the Christian tradition, faith means having belief despite the impossibility of evidence ever existing. It is not possible, for example, to have faith that the sun is not shining when the sun is obviously shining. Moreover, it is also not possible (in the Christian tradition) to have faith, for instance, that there is water on Mars. We await scientific evidence about that question; until we receive it, any guess is just that – a guess – and not an example of faith. Paul is the origin of this doctrine; as he said, "faith is the evidence of things not seen."

But I trust that you'll tell me that I don't understand my own beliefs, that I'm just redefining things in order to weasel around difficulties, and that you know much more about the Christian tradition than me.
posted by koeselitz at 8:41 AM on November 15, 2011 [6 favorites]


A fairly well-written intro to an idea that's been a staple in science fiction for a long time. See also the simulation hypothesis, where virtualisation isn't even a metaphor.

That popped into my head as well. Basically, I think that the thought experiment devised by this blogger is pretty freaking obvious. But it's broader implications are a lot more interesting to me -- that there CAN be a broader context to the universe that interacts with us in a sort of uni-directional fashion.

It's interesting when you try to define things like "the universe" and "material phenomenon" because, when you start thinking about them, all sorts of caveats suggest themselves to spoil your definition. What makes an object part of one universe and not another? It would seem like it would have to do with interaction. So one might be led to suspect that we should be able to detect anything that exists within our universe, since we are by definition interacting with it. This runs into a bit of trouble when you consider thought experiments like the one in this post. Of course, interaction really does occur in both directions (i.e. an observer from "outside the simulation" is presumably affected by what he or she observes in the simulation, so they really can be considered a single universe), but not in a way that seems meaningful to us.

In other words, the author's conclusions are just a more narrow interpretation of a larger and more interesting truth -- that aspects of the world we live in may not even be theoretically detectable by us, even if they affect us. And even this is just a narrow reading of what Godel was actually getting at.
posted by Edgewise at 8:45 AM on November 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Microsoft Virtual Braintm
posted by Old'n'Busted at 8:45 AM on November 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Like any pursuit of supernatural consolation, this is the very opposite of spirituality. Looking for the loophole in reality because you're scared of dying isn't a noble attempt to sustain the grandeur of human life, it is the pitiful denial of any significance to anything.
posted by howfar at 8:45 AM on November 15, 2011 [3 favorites]


karmiolz: “If you make a claim, like the whole world was simultaneously flooded, you can investigate that claim. When you find that there is no evidence of that, or use logic and ask where the water receded to considering that would be impossible lest it evaporated into space, you demonstrate that claim to be false. When you claim a six thousand year old Earth an every branch of science refutes it, you demonstrate that claim to be false. You claim creation instead of evolution, proven false. You an always get around this by asserting an omnipotent God, which is at east internally consistent.”

Regardless of whether various crackpots have believed that the whole world was simultaneously flooded or that the earth is six thousand years old, neither of those beliefs is an article of Christian faith. Nor, I should note, are they articles of the Jewish faith; in fact, very few Orthodox Jews (if any) actually believe those things at all.
posted by koeselitz at 8:47 AM on November 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


No, I absolutely agree with you on the definition of faith. I will say that you worded it more precisely than I did. However you run into a God of the gaps problem. Where once it was impossible that any evidence of our origin could be discerned, thus this line of thought would be relegated to faith, we can now probe these questions. It would be fun to try and see which elements of a religion could never be probed, in fact the article aims at that. Your definition also does not refute my main point, faith is absolute belief despite no evidence in supporting.
posted by karmiolz at 8:47 AM on November 15, 2011


koeselitz, I don't think your definition of faith is universally accepted by Christians, and there's a great deal of evidence that faith was originally thought of in terms of fealty to a higher power and trust that if you obeyed his commands that he would reward you in the afterlife. It was more like 'trust' than 'belief despite lack of evidence'.

In order for there to be a need for faith in the way you defined it, there would have had to have been a tradition of non-belief for it to be opposed to, and it simply didn't exist during early Christianity. It was simply assumed that God existed, there was no question about it. Belief in God didn't require the kind of faith you just described.
posted by empath at 8:50 AM on November 15, 2011


koeselitz I never said that religious people weren't hypocritical. The holy text absolutely claims these things to be true. Why be willing to part with them over any other part of the text? Biblical literalists may seem ridiculous to most, even those in the same religion, but at least their honest.
posted by karmiolz at 8:50 AM on November 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


It is not possible, for example, to have faith that the sun is not shining when the sun is obviously shining.

Enh. In the physical world, the sun is shining, the solar wind is streaming, the Earth is bombarded with photons etc., but that's just the physical world. In the metaphysical world, the sunlight's true substance is transubstantiated into darkness which is its true substance, for those who have eyes to see. Obviously, some branches won't agree that sunlight is literally not shining when it shines, but that the not-shining is metaphorical.

Obviously, all that is nitpickery and smartalecky, but the thing about unfalsifiability is that it can be used to prop up anything at all. Sunlight actually being darkness is no more inherently silly than any number of actual non-smartass-sourced religious beliefs, when viewed from the outside.
posted by Drastic at 8:54 AM on November 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


What does it mean to say that the holy text claims something to be true? The holy text is telling a story, nothing more; that doesn't mean that it's claiming to be a factual account of events. That's a gloss some people add, but it's not integral to the text.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 8:56 AM on November 15, 2011


The Bible intentionally contradicts itself within the first few paragraphs. Biblical literalism isn't coherent.
posted by koeselitz at 8:56 AM on November 15, 2011 [5 favorites]


There are many ways that from inside a VM you can determine that you are in fact inside a VM.
If by "a VM" you mean "one of the common virtual machines used in computing today", then sure; it seems like practically every hack used to make a VM run faster than an emulator leads to corresponding tricks that the virtualized software can use to deduce the existence of the virtualizer.

If by "a VM" you mean "any theoretically possible virtual machine", then no. That's probably Turing's most famous development: the discovery that all the systems we were building to compute things were equivalent to the same conceptual "Turing machine", and that there exist "Universal Turing Machines" which (given enough memory, enough time, and the right initial instructions) can precisely reproduce the output of any other Turing Machine. In other words, if an emulator system is allowed to have enough more memory than the system it's trying to emulate, then with the right emulator program that target can't tell it's being emulated.
If there's one thing more embarrassing than listening to philosophy majors talk about computers, it's listening to comp-sci majors talk about philosophy.
I think you might be missing out on a lot.
posted by roystgnr at 8:58 AM on November 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


Why be willing to part with them over any other part of the text?

I hasten to point out here that fairly large number of Christians accept (as a defining element) both the authority of the text and the Church's role in authoritative interpretation of this text over two millenia. Just sayin'.
posted by jquinby at 8:59 AM on November 15, 2011


The World Famous If you make a claim, like the whole world was simultaneously flooded, you can investigate that claim.

I'm not going to quote your whole comment. I agree with you that certain claims that are made by certain limited subsets of religions can, in fact, be investigated to a certain point. I disagree with your various characterizations on multiple grounds, but I don't think it's fruitful to argue about that here. But I think you missed the point of my earlier comment. I don't think there's any compelling reason to try to help you get the point in this thread. If you'd like to discuss over MeMail, I'd be happy to address your flood example and anything else you'd like to discuss.
posted by The World Famous at 9:00 AM on November 15, 2011


The Bible intentionally contradicts itself

The Bible has intentions?
posted by yoink at 9:01 AM on November 15, 2011 [5 favorites]


The Bible intentionally contradicts itself within the first few paragraphs

You mean the people that compiled the book of genesis from several sources, yes?
posted by empath at 9:03 AM on November 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


jquinby It is easy enough to get around the historical account of how these works were translated and edited, God influenced those that were translating and editing. Also, good luck on your upcoming election.
posted by karmiolz at 9:09 AM on November 15, 2011


The World Famous My starting statement is that redefining to the point of obscurity something like the soul, just so it fits to a personal level of accepted plausibility is pointless. If you believe in a soul, believe in the power of a od to make that soul exist out of any observable phenomena by definition and move on with your day. If you don't believe in the power of a God to do that, then why believe in a soul?
posted by karmiolz at 9:12 AM on November 15, 2011


The holy text absolutely claims these things to be true. Why be willing to part with them over any other part of the text? Biblical literalists may seem ridiculous to most, even those in the same religion, but at least their honest.

Who are you implying is dishonest? The Bible is composed of multiple genres of literature written over many centuries, some of which were intended to make historical claims, others of which weren't. Understanding that and reading accordingly is far from dishonest, and is much better than the "either it's all intended to be historical or none of it is" approach taken by fundamentalists.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 9:13 AM on November 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


"My assumption has always been: If something like a soul exists, and it affects our consciousness in any manner, then it must be detectable by some scientific device."

Your assumption is unfounded.
posted by clvrmnky at 9:14 AM on November 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Pater Aletheias Please point to me the parts of the Bible that do not claim their own veracity.
posted by karmiolz at 9:16 AM on November 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


clvrmnky Exactly, very well said.
posted by karmiolz at 9:17 AM on November 15, 2011


Please point to me the parts of the Bible that do not claim their own veracity.

The New Testament's claims about it's own truth not withstanding, many of the books in the Old Testament don't make any particular claims about accuracy or inerrancy.
posted by empath at 9:24 AM on November 15, 2011


What is the difference between a soul and mind?

From the article:

I normally hate it when people use Physics principles or Mathematical theorems to justify something unrelated and not intended.

related?

I feel that the initial experiment by Grinberg-Zylberbaum (1994) and the corroborating experiments at the Univ. of Washington (Standish et al, 2004) and the Univ. of Freiburg (Wackermann et al, 2003) with spatially separated human subjects, both of whom are in Faraday cages, should essentially screen out any neural, electromagnetic, acoustic or electrolytic influences, leaving only mental events as one of the main processes possibly involved. In addition, ongoing experiments at the Univ. of Milan (Pizzi et al 2003; 2004a; 2004b) with 2 separated human neuronal basins, also in Faraday cages, are analogous to the Freedman-Clauser nonlocality experiment (1978) where the polarizers were held in a fixed position. Since one knows that Freedman-Clauser provides direct evidence for a quantum nonlocal effect between two spatially separated and entangled photons, then one should be justified in saying that this same quantum nonlocal effect may be utilized also between, not only entangled human subjects but, entangled human neuronal basins. And, that this can be referred to as a mental event (since neurons are involved in both instances) which is equivalent to the information transferred in correlated photon polarization events.

As per Libet (1994) we know that neural events can influence, control and presumably
‘produce’ mental events, including conscious ones. The reverse of this, that mental processes can influence or control neuronal ones, is known as the ‘reverse direction’ problem. In his experimentally testable solution he has proposed a conscious mental field (CMF), whose chief attribute would be that of a unified conscious subjective experience, with the second attribute being a causal ability to affect or alter neuronal function. He states that this CMF would not be in any category of known physical fields, is not describable in terms of any known physical theory and, is only detectable in terms of the subjective experience reported on by an individual subject. One is immediately restricted by having to define some new ‘field’, which supposedly does not now exist and, in having to rely upon anecdotal material.

posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 9:25 AM on November 15, 2011


karmiolz, the link in my last message has nothing whatsoever to do with authorship or redaction in sacred scripture. I only point out that for a fairly large number of Christians (a billion or so Catholics to start with), scripture alone is insufficient as a basis for faith.

I'm not really sure where the election thing comes from.
posted by jquinby at 9:28 AM on November 15, 2011


I've always tended to describe the Hindu philosophy on soul (atman) and its role as being similar to a LAN network, with a central processor and a whole lot of nodes - or rather, that's what helps me understand the concept.

From Swami Vivekananda,

So then the Hindu believes that he is a spirit. Him the sword cannot pierce — him the fire cannot burn — him the water cannot melt — him the air cannot dry. The Hindu believes that every soul is a circle whose circumference is nowhere, but whose centre is located in the body, and that death means the change of this centre from body to body. Nor is the soul bound by the conditions of matter. In its very essence it is free, unbounded, holy, pure, and perfect. But somehow or other it finds itself tied down to matter, and thinks of itself as matter.

I can't find the quote but there's one where he explains in the Congress of Religions in Chicago in 1893 that the spark of the divine fire (the "life force") is the same as that of the "god" i.e. one may be a drop of water and you the mighty ocean but we are both of the same structure.

So in this context, if all life is bits of the same spark as the "god" just tinier and more scattered, isn't it kind of a huge network of varying degrees of intelligence and capacity, similar to that of a bunch of different devices all connected together? I don't know if it could be ubicomp or the internet of things though, so for now I'll hold the mainframe and a bunch of terminals visualization.
posted by infini at 9:43 AM on November 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


karmiolz, you haven't pointed to any part of the Bible that does claim its literal veracity. The text just doesn't make those claims in explicit terms.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 9:46 AM on November 15, 2011


I'd like to defend this guy's approach for a moment. First of all, it's a model and as such, is only that and not a transcendent experience or a proof or unification with the deity or any of the other things people would like to get out of religions. That said, it demonstrates that you can logically construct models that allow for certain phenomena that are usually considered irrational or magical or unspeakable. It's not the real Tao, because the real one can't be computer-simulated but it's a simulation none the less.

All theories, by being expressed in language, are abstractions and contain irrelevant side effects of the medium in which they are expressed (sometimes the medium is only a medium) but that's not the part you are supposed to be attending to.

The limitation of his theory lies elsewhere. If you are actually a process in a virtual machine, or a brain in a vat, there is no way within the system to discover this. In actual religions you can be enlightened, or open your heart or be born again, and his model doesn't have the system calls to achieve this.
posted by Obscure Reference at 9:46 AM on November 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Wow. This discussion started with bad science ("strong magnetic fields" "interact ... without leaving any physical trace"), and bad definitions of "exist" ("By that metric, the number four doesn't exist" - correct!), but quickly became a really neat discussion of individual understandings of faith, soul, and personal experience/existentialism.

Yay! Keep it up.
posted by IAmBroom at 9:49 AM on November 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


karmiolz, you haven't pointed to any part of the Bible that does claim its literal veracity. The text just doesn't make those claims in explicit terms.

Bulgaroktonos, there isn't any part of the Constitution that claims its literal veracity, either... but those who support it insist that it was meant to be interpreted literally.

Kinda meta to claim the Bible doesn't make the claim that the Bible is accurate.
posted by IAmBroom at 9:51 AM on November 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


The New Testament's claims about it's own truth not withstanding, many of the books in the Old Testament don't make any particular claims about accuracy or inerrancy.

This is an utterly intractable issue. It is entirely impossible to determine from intratextual evidence which claims in a text are intended to be taken as "true" and which are not. I can point you to plenty of novels that insist repeatedly that everything in them is absolute historical fact. There are lots of political satires etc. which outwardly proclaim themselves to be fiction while they attempt to convey the truth about the current political regime.

I think for anyone who believes any part of the Bible to be divinely inspired this has to be a disturbing problem (and handwaving the problem away as naive or trite is simply dodging the issue). In the end all measures for "this bit is the real divine truth" and "this bit is just a parable/allegory/myth/entertaining story that somehow got caught up with the divine scriptures by tradition" come down to rather arbitrary personal (or communal/traditional) matters of taste--cutting your deity to fit your conceptions of what seems "reasonable."
posted by yoink at 9:52 AM on November 15, 2011 [6 favorites]


There are many ways that from inside a VM you can determine that you are in fact inside a VM. They're nontrivial, but they certainly exist.

By the way, I'd really like someone to elaborate what these would be.
posted by yoink at 9:56 AM on November 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


So the Magnetic Fields are now a soul band? Am I getting this right?
posted by grubi at 9:57 AM on November 15, 2011 [5 favorites]


Bulgaroktonos, there isn't any part of the Constitution that claims its literal veracity, either... but those who support it insist that it was meant to be interpreted literally.

What do you mean when you say "literally?" Up until this comment, I was under the impression that "literal" in the context of discussions about the Bible referred to the notion that the factual accounts in the Bible are all literally true, rather than figurative, metaphorical, or subjectively stated and, therefore, necessarily flawed accounts. But throwing the Constitution in and suggesting that "those who support [the Constitution] insist that it was meant to be interpreted literally" casts that notion in a completely different light, given that the Constitution is not an account of purported historic facts, stories, or other accounts. Are you suggesting that, when you refer to Biblical "literalism," you're not talking about taking the factual accounts as flawlessly presented, but instead saying that the legal proscriptions therein should be literally and strictly interpreted? If so, I think that's a very, very different assertion than what is typically discussed in these sorts of threads.

Kinda meta to claim the Bible doesn't make the claim that the Bible is accurate.

Then in this sentence, you change your terminology to "accurate" rather than "literal." Which is interesting, but makes me wonder if you see the distinction between the two.

I would also point out that the Bible doesn't say anything about the Bible, because the Bible is a compilation of writings, all of which existed prior to the existence of the Bible and which, therefore, cannot, by definition, say anything about the Bible.
posted by The World Famous at 10:04 AM on November 15, 2011


Bulgaroktonos, there isn't any part of the Constitution that claims its literal veracity, either... but those who support it insist that it was meant to be interpreted literally.

This was close to my point, karmiolz has made the claim that the Bible "absolutely claims" that, for example, the flood story is factually true. This is a claim that he has made without any evidence and then demanded evidence that the reverse is true; in fact, there's not really any explicit evidence either way, which is what I was trying to point out. It's actually like the Constitution that way.

In the end all measures for "this bit is the real divine truth" and "this bit is just a parable/allegory/myth/entertaining story that somehow got caught up with the divine scriptures by tradition"

I don't think anyone really says that though. For most Christians, It's all "divine truth" in the sense that it reveals something about God or the world; sometimes this truth is revealed through metaphor and figurative language. That's a different type of truth from "literal truth" in the sense that it's a factual description of real world events.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 10:07 AM on November 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


jquinby Just remrkingthat your name reminded me of honorable mayor Joseph Quimby.
posted by karmiolz at 10:11 AM on November 15, 2011


He lacks a crucial ingredient to accept God, namely humility. This isn't a good or bad thing, hell I share the trait, but in order to believe in God, as defined by Christianity, you need to accept that one can not know and understand God and be ok with that. Some people aren't made that way and they'll never really be ok with the concept of a Christian God or soul.

This isn't the hurdle all non-believers face. As someone who is religion-friendly (I have lots of theist friends) but an atheist, I have heard this argument for years. It always strikes me as odd, because it doesn't apply to me at all.

My cosmology is riddled with unknowns. Whether you accept a purely Materialist explanation of a God explanation, you still face the turtles-all-the-way-down problem: What caused the Big Bang? What caused God? Claiming that either is causeless may be true but isn't emotionally satisfying.

I deal with unknowns on a daily basis, and while I won't claim to be at peace with them, I totally accept they exist and aren't going away. And if I ever became a theist, I would expect my life to change in many ways, but I wouldn't expect it to change in that way. I would expect, as either an atheist or a theist (and certainly as an agnostic) to see question marks.

One fascinating aspect of the theist/atheist debate is that both sides accuse the other of being unable to cope with mystery.
posted by grumblebee at 10:11 AM on November 15, 2011 [6 favorites]


The notion that there is a standard definition of a soul is the whole problem, I think.

This work seems pretty definitive.
posted by kirkaracha at 10:13 AM on November 15, 2011 [4 favorites]




In the end all measures for "this bit is the real divine truth" and "this bit is just a parable/allegory/myth/entertaining story that somehow got caught up with the divine scriptures by tradition"

I don't think anyone really says that though.


Bulgaroktonos, you're wrong; I've even met born-again Christian who described the Old Testament as "full of whacky stuff", but professed to believe the Bible as a literal truth (assumedly, the New Testament).

And of course there are Christians who profess to believe the entire book is the literal truth. Of course, their logical capacities are somewhat diminished, since verses regularly contradict each other...
posted by IAmBroom at 10:13 AM on November 15, 2011


And of course there are Christians who profess to believe the entire book is the literal truth. Of course, their logical capacities are somewhat diminished, since verses regularly contradict each other...

What do you (and they) mean by "the literal truth?"
posted by The World Famous at 10:16 AM on November 15, 2011


"My assumption has always been: If something like a soul exists, and it affects our consciousness in any manner, then it must be detectable by some scientific device."

Your assumption is unfounded.
posted by clvrmnky at 12:14 PM


My actions are the end result of neural impulses being sent to muscles. Our understanding of the brain is currently somewhat rudimentary, but suggests that the original cause of those impulses (after massive processing and some hectic internal debate between competing electrochemical potentials) was incoming stimuli from my sense organs.

At some very far future point we may have the ability to observe every single chemical reaction that occurs in the process of converting that incoming stimuli into output. Everything we currently know (which is less than we'd like, but far more than most people who aren't reading recent neuroscience papers suspect) suggests that there is no outside force beyond the known principles of physics interfering with this process.

If that is the case, then the soul has no expression whatsoever in the physical realm and because our perspective sits wholly within that realm (although some of the comments here are causing me to question that assumption for unintended reasons), there is no discernible difference between its existence or non-existence.

TLDR; anything that affects your mental state leaves physical tell-tales, and we either can or someday will be able to detect that.

That said, it demonstrates that you can logically construct models that allow for certain phenomena that are usually considered irrational or magical or unspeakable.

Yes, and in this case he does so by proposing a fundamentally irrational universe in which the soul is an internally consistent phenomenon. That doesn't yield much by any measure.
posted by Ryvar at 10:17 AM on November 15, 2011


The World Famous Likely meaning that the words themselves describe literal events and are not just metaphorical. You know, what everyone means when they say literal truth.
posted by karmiolz at 10:18 AM on November 15, 2011 [3 favorites]


he World Famous Likely meaning that the words themselves describe literal events and are not just metaphorical. You know, what everyone means when they say literal truth.

Thank you for taking the time to write that condescending non-answer. You may have missed the comparison above with the notion that the Constitution is "literally true," or maybe you just don't quite grasp the possibility that not everyone means exactly the same thing when they say "literal truth." Maybe you can go back and read the rest of this thread and see if you pick up on it more. It has been discussed in several comments.
posted by The World Famous at 10:23 AM on November 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Bulgaroktonos, you're wrong; I've even met born-again Christian who described the Old Testament as "full of whacky stuff", but professed to believe the Bible as a literal truth (assumedly, the New Testament).

Maybe people who completely throw out the "whacky stuff" exist, but I've never met them including among born-again types. I've met people who take the whole thing as a factual account (with whom I disagree), and people who believe certain verses to be "true", but metaphorical as I described above (my own perspective). Either way, problems with what someone else believes is not an especially strong challenge to my religious beliefs, which was what was initially claimed.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 10:23 AM on November 15, 2011


His conclusion is wrong. He first posits:

If something like a soul exists, and it affects our consciousness in any manner, then it must be detectable by some scientific device.

The key here being "and it affects our consciousness".
If something can affect our consciousness, then it must be detectable. Right? That's the hypothesis he's trying to disprove.

He starts his attempt to disprove this with:
To achieve this, I introduce a new function to the Hypervisor. This new function allows the system to look at any process running in a virtual machine by accessing (reading) a given memory location.

Ok, that's fine. But this function does not *write* to the virtual machine, it only reads from it *without affecting it's state*. This alone is insufficient to test his hypothesis. He needs to *affect* the virtual machine ("our consciousness") in an undetectable way to disprove his hypothesis.

So, then he says:
It could, for instance, reincarnate the saved process into a new process in the same virtual machine by copying the saved contents into a new process, or perhaps only certain segments of the saved process state.

Ok, these are things that it could do to affect the virtual machine. He does not even *attempt* to prove that these changes it makes are unobservable from outside the virtual machine. He shows that a god or a soul could affect the universe, but doesn't show that it could happen without anyone noticing.

It couldn't.

Pretend I am a process that runs inside of this virtual machine named "scientist". I am a very curious process, constantly observing the state of my virtual machine and making notes about it. In fact I constantly make checksums of the various parts of my virtual machine, and then go back and check that they were correct. If you start injecting new data into places where it previously wasn't, I will be able to detect that something strange is happening, because I remember what it was supposed to look like, and I'll be able to say "Woah, that's weird, where did that data come from?"

Now, if the hypervisor is smart enough, it can alter my table of checksums as well, such that when I go to look one up and check that everything matches, the newly modified part of the world reflects my table, and I don't notice.

Except, in the real world our checksums are the laws of physics. Scientists watch the world and verify that everything they see conforms to the laws of physics. If hypervisor god wanted to try this in the real world, he'd make a change to the world incompatible with the laws of physics, but he'd pause the whole world while he did it, and he'd change the laws of physics to match, and he'd change everyone's memories such that they all remembered these new laws of physics, and he'd change the color that leaves turn in the fall, or the constants of gravity, or whatever else needed to be changed to fit this new physical definition of the world.

Basically he'd be building a whole new world over from scratch with a few things in common with the existing world, and that whole world would be different at the fundamental level where physical laws are defined.

If you wanted to violate physics at just a small level, such as just enough to affect a single person's decision, then it would be detectable. If you wanted to make that decision not physically impossible, you have to start over and rewrite physics.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 10:25 AM on November 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


The World Famous You know exactly what is meant when someone is talking about Biblical literalism.
posted by karmiolz at 10:26 AM on November 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


What do you mean when you say "literally?" Up until this comment, I was under the impression that "literal" in the context of discussions about the Bible referred to the notion that the factual accounts in the Bible are all literally true, rather than figurative, metaphorical, or subjectively stated and, therefore, necessarily flawed accounts.

Yes, Bulgaroktonos, by "literal" I meant what you wrote.

The Constitution wasn't a perfect analogy, but better known than (say) the Bagavad Ghita for most Mefites (and I am uncertain if devout Hindus believe that BG's story is literal or not), so I used the COTUS. My point was that damned few texts ever make an explicit claim about their own literal veracity; those that do are usually fiction ("Everything I'm about to tell you actually happened...").


Bulgaroktonos: Then in this sentence, you change your terminology to "accurate" rather than "literal." Which is interesting, but makes me wonder if you see the distinction between the two.

Yes, it was sloppy.


The World Famous: I would also point out that the Bible doesn't say anything about the Bible, because the Bible is a compilation of writings, all of which existed prior to the existence of the Bible and which, therefore, cannot, by definition, say anything about the Bible.

True, but that's what's wrong with Bulgaroktonos' claim that the Bible wasn't meant to be taken literally, since it never makes that claim of itself.


Again, Bulgaroktonos: What does it mean to say that the holy text claims something to be true? The holy text is telling a story, nothing more; that doesn't mean that it's claiming to be a factual account of events.

To admit that the holy text is doing nothing more than telling a story is to say that it is just a work of fiction, which may intersect the historical record occasionally. I can't name a lot of Christians that would accept the idea that the Bible doesn't literally imply Jesus of Nazareth was born to a woman, preached in Jerusalem, was crucified, and rose from the dead three days later. That's pretty clearly considered a literal part of the Bible, by most readers.
posted by IAmBroom at 10:26 AM on November 15, 2011


IAmBroom, meet 1 in 6 Dutch Pastors.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 10:31 AM on November 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


The World Famous You know exactly what is meant when someone is talking about Biblical literalism.

Someone? Unless you tell me who this someone is, I have no way of knowing whether or not I agree with your statement. But to the extent that you are asserting that every single person in the world who contends that the Bible is "literally true" means exactly the same thing by that term, I am afraid I have to laugh out loud and the absurdity of your assertion.

True, but that's what's wrong with Bulgaroktonos' claim that the Bible wasn't meant to be taken literally, since it never makes that claim of itself.

Actually, what's wrong with that claim is that the passive voice makes it impossible to analyze or refute. Meant by whom?

I can't name a lot of Christians that would accept the idea that the Bible doesn't literally imply Jesus of Nazareth was born to a woman, preached in Jerusalem, was crucified, and rose from the dead three days later.

But see, you're still picking and choosing selected parts that are considered, more often than not, to be true factual accounts in some sense (but which are still the subject of significant disagreement even within sects). And the fact that you say "literally imply" seems to at least partially acknowledge that even so-called Biblical "litearlism" separates itself from the actual text, as well.
posted by The World Famous at 10:33 AM on November 15, 2011


. If hypervisor god wanted to try this in the real world, he'd make a change to the world incompatible with the laws of physics, but he'd pause the whole world while he did it, and he'd change the laws of physics to match, and he'd change everyone's memories such that they all remembered these new laws of physics, and he'd change the color that leaves turn in the fall, or the constants of gravity, or whatever else needed to be changed to fit this new physical definition of the world.

Once you get to this point, you can throw out everything you think you know about the world and this whole conversation is meaningless.
posted by empath at 10:34 AM on November 15, 2011


le morte de bea arthur: "I can't know which of those is the better description of reality, but the former seems somehow more rational."

It may be rational in the abstract, but pragmatically it is irrational in a vast majority of cases to act as if it were the case.

Something we will never detect is by definition an object against which our reason is powerless. We can accept such a thing in the shallowest sense, but cannot rationally integrate it in any way that helps us. And we lose nothing by going about our business as if it were nonexistent.
posted by idiopath at 10:38 AM on November 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


I wrote:

In the end all measures for "this bit is the real divine truth" and "this bit is just a parable/allegory/myth/entertaining story that somehow got caught up with the divine scriptures by tradition" come down to rather arbitrary personal (or communal/traditional) matters of taste--cutting your deity to fit your conceptions of what seems "reasonable."

Bulgaroktonos replied: I don't think anyone really says that though. For most Christians, It's all "divine truth" in the sense that it reveals something about God or the world; sometimes this truth is revealed through metaphor and figurative language. That's a different type of truth from "literal truth" in the sense that it's a factual description of real world events.

I think you misread my statement. I was giving a series of options (this bit is a parable; this bit is an allegory; this bit is just a myth; this bit is just an entertaining story that somehow got caught up with the divine scriptures by tradition [e.g., a pretty common claim about the Song of Songs]). So your alternative claim "it's all 'divine truth' in the sense that it reveals something about God or the world" is not in competition with my claim--it's one example of what I was writing about: parable/allegory/myth--all things that are not "literal truth" but which can "tell us something about God or the world."

The problem, though, is that your personal decision that, say, the story of Adam and Eve is not a record of something that actually happened but is, rather, a myth designed to impart important spiritual truths by means of--let's spin the wheel of possibilities and come up with...allegory!--isn't based on anything in the text and, indeed, cannot be based on anything in the text. But it makes a real and serious difference as to what we think God is, what we think God's intentions are for this world, what we think our relationship to God should be if the story is an historically accurate account of something that actually happened or if we think it's an allegory...or a non-allegorical myth or what have you. And you are, in fact, faced with the problem I was writing about which is the problem of "where do you stop"? O.K., you're happy with writing Adam and Eve off as non-literal. Great. But what if I assert that the entire claim of the existence of a God is also merely an allegory--that God simply stands for the impersonal principle of "the Good." If you get to choose which bits of the Bible don't "really mean" what they appear to say they mean, why can't I?

The fact that this is an old and familiar problem in theological disputation doesn't mean that it's one that can be easily solved. It is, as I said above, intractable. God didn't provide a "how to read the Bible" handbook (unless, of course, you treat the New Testament as such in relationship to the Old) and even if he did, that would just leave us with the problem of how we are meant to interpret the handbook.
posted by yoink at 10:42 AM on November 15, 2011


It's stuff like this that makes me fundamentally ignostic on the existence of the soul. While I certainly find ideas like, "that which gives life meaning," or "a thing at-work-being-itself which is born, comes to maturity, has the potential to reproduce, and dies" to be theoretically plausible, I question why we're using such theologically loaded terms instead of just talking about meaning and existence, and I'm not convinced those are propositions that we can really argue about, much less "believe in."

It's not just that modern religions largely punt on the issue of existence, but they don't offer much in the way of an argument for belief that doesn't eventually become an elaborate Godwin.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 10:42 AM on November 15, 2011


All I can say is, I look forward to hearing what you guys determine about the existence of God and/or the soul. It's a question that hasn't gotten nearly enough discussion or examination over the years, so it'll be good to finally have a definitive answer.
posted by El Sabor Asiatico at 10:43 AM on November 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


Didn't Dan Brown cover this topic in The Lost Symbol? In the book, a woman weighs people the moment when the die and finds that the dead person weighs slightly less than when they were alive. Thus the weight difference was contributed to a "soul" leaving the body.
posted by amazingstill at 10:44 AM on November 15, 2011


To admit that the holy text is doing nothing more than telling a story is to say that it is just a work of fiction, which may intersect the historical record occasionally.

Inasmuch as you can call a work of tremendous historical impact and significance full of complex parables "just" a work of fiction, sure.

I, atheist that I am, don't think that the Bible should be judged by an "accept/reject" standard, and I think that whatever your beliefs, you're doing yourself a disservice by taking that stance.
posted by mhoye at 10:45 AM on November 15, 2011


All I can say is, I look forward to hearing what you guys determine about the existence of God and/or the soul. It's a question that hasn't gotten nearly enough discussion or examination over the years, so it'll be good to finally have a definitive answer.

Most of the best discussions are about things that are inherently insoluble. I never understand why people think the fact that the issue isn't going to be resolved means you should just shut up about it.
posted by yoink at 10:47 AM on November 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Didn't Dan Brown cover this topic in The Lost Symbol?

There is no latin term weighty or grandiose enough to describe a logical fallacy as fallacious as "argument-by-Dan-Brown-novel."
posted by mhoye at 10:48 AM on November 15, 2011 [13 favorites]


I find it difficult to imagine that something can interact with my physical body without leaving any physical trace.

I got thinking about this morning in terms of the placebo effect.

The placebo effect is extremely strong in humans, to the degree that it appears to be about 30% across the board for all medical treatment. In fact there is a pretty good argument that this is why homeopathy and other odd cures can be effective for believers.

So there is your intangible -- belief-- interacting with your physical body without leaving a trace other than the resulting healing effects.

Personally I believe that the soul and belief are inextricably tied up, and also a biological phenomenon. Some day when we get a better handle on the brain it will just be a matter of shutting down the 'belief' system and suddenly this entire discussion will become uninteresting.

Whether it is good or bad I don't know, but the more we see what oddities our brains produce with a little cut here and there the more I come to believe that this entire is discussion is about biological phantoms.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 10:48 AM on November 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


True, but that's what's wrong with Bulgaroktonos' claim that the Bible wasn't meant to be taken literally, since it never makes that claim of itself.

I never made that claim of the entire Bible. I believe in the literal truth of portions of the Bible, but not others. It's a complicated text by many different authors, so it would be unusual if there was one set of rules for interpreting it. The Gospels, for example, look (to me) as if they were written to be seen to be literally true, so I accept them on those grounds. Genesis doesn't seem to be written that way, since for one, it makes it clear that the words are being written centuries after the events described, and thus I don't accept it as literally true.

But what if I assert that the entire claim of the existence of a God is also merely an allegory--that God simply stands for the impersonal principle of "the Good." If you get to choose which bits of the Bible don't "really mean" what they appear to say they mean, why can't I?

Of course you "get" to do that, just like I "get" to believe something else. I don't really see it as a problem, except insofar as it might take you far enough outside my tradition that it's difficult to have a conversation about God. It might pose a problem for someone who believes in eternal damnation, but I don't, so it's not really a problem for me.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 10:50 AM on November 15, 2011


So there is your intangible -- belief-- interacting with your physical body without leaving a trace other than the resulting healing effects.

You're making an unsupported assumption that belief is intangible. I would argue that "holding a belief" requires a series of entirely tangible/testable brain operations. It is even imaginable that in the future it will be possible to scan someone's mind to see whether or not they do, in fact, hold a particular belief.
posted by yoink at 10:55 AM on November 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Can we all stop redefining religious terms to try and weasel around the fact that there is absolutely no evidence for them?

Can we stop trying to stuff all religions into the same box to try to weasel around the fact that the talking points you read on alt.atheism don't actually refute every religion?
posted by straight at 10:57 AM on November 15, 2011


I have come to the point where I am not convinced that any of the people saying that know what "demonstrable" means.

Repeatable works for me. Supernatural claims in religion are not repeatable. Empirical tests can show if a phenomenon is repeatable.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:59 AM on November 15, 2011


Of course you "get" to do that, just like I "get" to believe something else. I don't really see it as a problem, except insofar as it might take you far enough outside my tradition that it's difficult to have a conversation about God. It might pose a problem for someone who believes in eternal damnation, but I don't, so it's not really a problem for me.

It matters if you think it is possible that one account may, in fact, be correct and another may, in fact, be false. That is, it's nice that you don't believe in eternal damnation, but it's hard to imagine a God who is bound to accept your beliefs in that regard.

You seem to be saying "I believe what my community believes and that's good enough for me." That's fine (and refreshingly honest), but as someone who doesn't share your belief (or any belief in a God or gods) the problem has to present itself to me as one of "is there a reason why I should accept this account over some other account?" And there, unfortunately, "well, all so-and-so's friends and neighbors agree" is of no help whatsoever.
posted by yoink at 11:01 AM on November 15, 2011


I would argue that "holding a belief" requires a series of entirely tangible/testable brain operations.

Can you be more specific in your argument? For example, please provide a detailed list (it need not be exhaustive) of the tangible/testable brain operations that you contend are required for belief, with enough specificity to support your argument that they are both testable and exclusively tied to belief, and then describe the specific means of testing for each.

I'm not saying I disagree with you. I'd just like to know what your argument actually is.

Blazecock Pileon:

Repeatable works for me. Supernatural claims in religion are not repeatable. Empirical tests can show if a phenomenon is repeatable.

I agree to a certain extent to your position on that, Blazecock Pileon. But the assertion that gets trotted out time and again in these sorts of discussions, from commentators ranging from MeFi contributors to the most high-profile atheist intellectuals, is embodied in the term "demonstrably false." I'm not sure that's encompassed in your shift to the quite reasonable assertion that supernatural claims in religion are not repeatable.
posted by The World Famous at 11:01 AM on November 15, 2011


Tell Me No Lies : IAmBroom, meet 1 in 6 Dutch Pastors.

Wow. OK, now I have to amend my statement, because apparently there are Christian pastors in this world that are to all practical purposes completely agnostic about the NT.

Wow.

By my understanding of the term "Christian", they're no more Christian than I am... but that's just terminology.
posted by IAmBroom at 11:02 AM on November 15, 2011


please provide a detailed list (it need not be exhaustive) of the tangible/testable brain operations that you contend are required for belief

As I'm not a neurologist, I'm afraid I can't do that for you. Nor would I suggest that this claim has yet been proven. I am saying that it cannot be ruled out and that I personally suspect that it will ultimately prove to be the case: i.e., that "belief" will be shown to be a physical brain-state rather than, what, an orientation of the soul?

My statement was that we cannot assume that belief is "intangible."
posted by yoink at 11:06 AM on November 15, 2011


My statement was that we cannot assume that belief is "intangible."

Can we assume that the soul (using whatever definition you want) is intangible?
posted by The World Famous at 11:10 AM on November 15, 2011


You're making an unsupported assumption that belief is intangible. I would argue that "holding a belief" requires a series of entirely tangible/testable brain operations.

Now that you mention it, I do sort of argue that in the second half of my post.

So, uh, never mind :-)
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 11:11 AM on November 15, 2011


In the book, a woman weighs people the moment when the die and finds that the dead person weighs slightly less than when they were alive. Thus the weight difference was contributed to a "soul" leaving the body.

Congratulations, you've caused me to hate Dan Brown even more than I did before. What a hack.

Because it's fun, I've thought a bit about this. Starting from the assumption that souls do exist (which is something that cannot be proven I think, can only be assumed) I've come up with two possibilities, both highly speculative, regarding souls:

1. It's silly to think that the processes of biological life, which are not qualitatively different from other processes, could give rise to something like a soul spontaneously. So maybe... EVERYTHING has a soul. (I call this the "Henchman 24" argument.) This is a more profound statement than it appears at first -- all objects have souls, alive or dead. Even dead people have souls. In fact, it's meaningless to speak in terms of a "soul," because everything is really part of the same overarching perspective, and all combinations of atoms that could be considered to have consciousness, in fact, do, mushing all around in a great mass of soulstuff. By this speculation, consciousness arises from the workings of the brain, in conjunction with this stuff. An infinite number of possible beings can and do exist, but with no senses, no memory, no thought processes that could be considered a mind, they are without even the conception of time, and so functionally do not exist. They don't have the thought processes necessary to give spiritual substance to that raw will.

2. Alternatively... when you read a book, the characters are, in a way, given life through your attention and empathy. Maybe this is analogous with our reality. Maybe we're like characters given life through the attention of some other, higher-order being. Maybe our world is like a book to it, and it sees us as independent entities that it's following through the thread of the work, which gives us identity. Larger-order interesting systems might thus be considered to have a soul too, although it's impossible to tell. Such a being itself might have a similar existence, and thus reality could be a sequence of these nested perspectives with no ultimate end, turtles all the way down.

There you go! A plate of idle, baseless speculation to chew on. It's probably got at least as much right to be considered as this article.
posted by JHarris at 11:11 AM on November 15, 2011


P.S. The World Famous you might try Googling "fmri belief" for some suggestive experiments in this area (e.g. fMRI studies distinguishing between "belief," "disbelief" and "uncertainty").
posted by yoink at 11:11 AM on November 15, 2011


I'm somewhat familiar with that, yoink. I'm not sure I buy into the notion that the fact that the brain processes things in a given way constitutes proof or disproof of the tangibility of a concept.
posted by The World Famous at 11:13 AM on November 15, 2011


Can we assume that the soul (using whatever definition you want) is intangible?

No, unless the statement is tautological. That is, if you define soul as intangible then it's intangible by definition. Otherwise, all bets are off.

Given that none of us can present a soul for examination, the question seems likely to remain moot--like how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.
posted by yoink at 11:15 AM on November 15, 2011


I'm somewhat familiar with that, yoink. I'm not sure I buy into the notion that the fact that the brain processes things in a given way constitutes proof or disproof of the tangibility of a concept.

A "belief" is not a concept, it is an act. What you believe in may be a concept.
posted by yoink at 11:16 AM on November 15, 2011


A while back on Cable Access down in Austin there was this crazy-assed conspiracy show (way way nuttier than Alex Jones) that presented the idea of the "soul matrix", which was basically biological in nature, and that the evolution of biology created the possibility of higher levels of self awareness to exist, and beyond that biological matrix we were unable to survive. The theory went on to state that reptilian gods from another galaxy knew the genetic code for the "soul matrix" and could build beings with souls to live on any planet. The theory goes on to state the reptilian beings created us to harvest gold, because gold was the fuel for their advanced hyperdrive ship technology. The shows premise was the human race is in a race to discover the soul matrix before the reptilian gods come back so that we may advance ourselves sufficiently enough to overthrow the bonds of slavery they have imposed on us.

I kinda like the theory, I mean, it's more fun than Christianity fer Chrissake's.

but in all seriousness, I think the biological soup IS the thing that makes the soul, the soul is our conciousness, and we had better damned well take care of the soup that holds the soul.
posted by roboton666 at 11:18 AM on November 15, 2011


A "belief" is not a concept, it is an act. What you believe in may be a concept.

"Belief" is a concept. Believing (i.e. the act of believing) is, in some sense, an act. But I thought we were talking about belief, not the act of believing. The fact that something linguistically and defined as an act is, in fact, an act is not something that we really need an MRI to examine.
posted by The World Famous at 11:18 AM on November 15, 2011


One of the few things about my life that I actually regret is the amount of time I've spent wondering and worrying about (a) where the universe came from and how it happened to do so, (b) what is the nature of my I, and (c) what, if anything, happens after I die.

The trouble with this piece, though, is that it's kind of doomed from the start. I've thought out the things the author's thought out, and I could rewind the tapes in my brain and find quotes like "I want to believe in such things, especially when it comes to continuity of my consciousness. I don’t like the idea of disappearing when I die" scattered throughout the things I've said and concerned myself over.

The thing is, he's looking for a comfort, as if there is such a thing, when he might as well just surrender to a faith of some sort, because both will be based on the same complete lack of evidence. What is there after life? No one knows. No one can know, either, unless someone actually works out a way of signaling from there that can stand scientific scrutiny. It hasn't happened yet, and probably won't. If it does, then it'll be a good time to start thinking about it all again. For now, well—life's already awfully short.

"I like to think heaven will be whatever we hope it will be," some of the more glossy-eyed modern types say, and I always sort of squint back and scowl.

"What conceivable scrap of evidence have you seen in your whole life that would make you think that you're either going to be rewarded or punished on account of your good or bad behavior after this life?" I ask, but usually that just shuts down the conversation. I tend to think that, if there were an afterlife, it would almost certainly be about as frustrating and complicated as this one. "If fairness isn't a function of the universe as it stands, why would it exist in another layer of the world?"

Still, though, it's all just an emotional palliative, far less substantial even than the scraggly twenty-four year-old security blanket that gets me through the long nights.

The irony is that the desperation for there to be something there is often the source of the anxiety, even more than the presumably sad conclusion that, at the end of our lives, we'd just run out of spring and stop. You'd think we'd have learned, after all these years, but there's always some new angle.

The smooshy new age contingent latched upon quantum mechanics, to the horror of actual scientists with even the most sketchy understanding of quantum mechanics, and produce hilarious, embarrassing propaganda to promote their so-easy-we-should-have-known-all-along solution to all of life's great curiosities fears. With the invention of the computer, suddenly that's the great answer to all those unanswerable questions. No doubt, the internet will be the next substrate for the soul, or maybe the great cosmic Facebook of the soul. Sometimes, I wonder if people thought we were all handles on the great mystical C.B. radio waves of the seventies—it's all just so...I dunno. We just love to think we're the smartest generation there ever was.

I guess I just wish it was easier for those of us who don't have access to faith, whether because we think we've outgrown it, or because it just never worked for us, or because we just don't need it, to say we can't do anything about the end of our lives except to live them as best we can until it's all over. I used to envy people with faith, because I was jealous of the certainty and serenity that they seemed to have, and I do think that faith can be a wonderful basis for a well-lived life, but I was fortunate enough to find my own solace.

For me, it comes down to a misquote of Chuang Tzu, courtesy of Ursula Le Guin:

知止乎其所不能知,至矣。若有不即是者,天鈞敗之

To let understanding stop at what cannot be understood is a high attainment.
Those who cannot do it will be destroyed on the lathe of heaven.

It's sort of an article of faith for me, because, like most articles of faith, it's been grossly mistranslated. At the same time, there's a searing grain of truth there, at least for me, in that it points out that there is a point at which understanding stops, and while it might not be a lathe that destroys us, because there were apparently no lathes in China at the time of Chuang Tzu, we burn time when we spin our wheels on such things, and life is already short enough.

I know I have a soul because it's what I'm using to ramble on here, and it's what makes me gasp at the sight of a clever joint in the windows at Fallingwater and it's what makes me go "wheeeee!" when I whip around a nicely banked turn on Detour Road in West Virginia on my motorcycle. My soul may be software running on a meat computer, or some kind of cosmic function of multidimensional physics, or the breath of Kali, carried on an autumn wind, but from a functional standpoint, it's the me in me. Maybe it'll give me another go-round in the world, at the pleasure of Ganesha, or a reward, at the grace of Jesus, or another quasi-real matrix of program memory to explore. I have no clue, and I never will.

So I don't envy faith like I used to, because acceptance of the way things are is as good, in some ways, as knowing the outcome. We're all headed for the shredder, from the moment we crash land on this planet. You can sit around in deep thought, drawing up elaborate charts with clip-art of computers and people and arrows and such, working out a sort of plausible "why" and a sort of semi-reasonable "what should I do next?" but it's all just as baseless as religion. If it suits you, by all means. Me, well, sheesh, I worked at a museum devoted to the work of "visionaries," which meant I had to mount and handle and dust a thousand giant charts covered with seven point handwriting explaining the great simple magical secret behind it all, so I start to read through these things and get a little weary.

I'm headed to the shredder, and so are you.

Possibly there will be something else. If there's a simple plan for preparation for that, it's never been put in print, carved into glaciers, or even in flaming letters at the crest of the Quentulus Quazgar Mountains, so we just get by as best we can. It's a little disappointing, thinking that this may be all there is, but desperately trying to find a way of interpreting reality to force a happier ending on things doesn't actually force a happier ending on things.

Possibly we'll all live on in the quantum foam, or as datastreams, or, god forbid Ray Kurzweil gets his way and tricks a generation of young programmers into inventing his creepy post-human reality, backed up into another (?) simulation, but these are things currently not backed by actual information.

We could always just worry about baking good bread, and learning to ride our motorcycles with skill and flair, and about whether we're being kind or helpful enough in the world, or how to write a really great song or a great app or a great novel, until we run out of time.

This piece doesn't provide an answer to the fear of the unknown. It just highlights that fear, and gives it a modern home. Better we just stop where reason leaves off and go about our lives, because life's already awfully short.

This isn't to say we ought not consider the point. We just need to be as smart about conceding to the overwhelming force of no data when we hit that point as we are when we're celebrating our wonderful, curious, open-hearted souls.
posted by sonascope at 11:19 AM on November 15, 2011 [5 favorites]


Personally I believe that the soul and belief are inextricably tied up, and also a biological phenomenon. Some day when we get a better handle on the brain it will just be a matter of shutting down the 'belief' system and suddenly this entire discussion will become uninteresting.

PLEASE STEP AWAY FROM THE SCIENCE AND PUT YOUR HANDS BEHIND YOUR HEAD
posted by resurrexit at 11:20 AM on November 15, 2011


"Belief" is a concept. Believing (i.e. the act of believing) is, in some sense, an act. But I thought we were talking about belief, not the act of believing. The fact that something linguistically and defined as an act is, in fact, an act is not something that we really need an MRI to examine.

Please refer back to the argument I was engaging with:

I got thinking about this morning in terms of the placebo effect.

The placebo effect is extremely strong in humans, to the degree that it appears to be about 30% across the board for all medical treatment. In fact there is a pretty good argument that this is why homeopathy and other odd cures can be effective for believers.

So there is your intangible -- belief-- interacting with your physical body without leaving a trace other than the resulting healing effects.


Again, what is influencing this person is the act of believing in the efficacy of the drugs that they are taking. The mere concept of efficacy is not having any influence whatsoever.

You are free to engage in another argument in which "belief" is defined as "the concept you believe in" rather than "the act of believing in a concept" but that wasn't the argument in progress that you joined here.

If you could come up with an example of a "belief" influencing someone without anyone actually performing the act of "believing" that belief that would be a good start.
posted by yoink at 11:36 AM on November 15, 2011


Sorry, but machines do not have souls.
posted by markkraft at 11:47 AM on November 15, 2011


There is no soul? Tell that to Aretha Franklin.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 12:48 PM on November 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


If you defend your Christian faith by claiming that the Bible, uniquely among all texts that aren't frank fictions, makes no claims as to it own veracity, you're on very shaky ground. It may not tag every affirmative statement as "true" explicitly, but the very act of making affirmative statements implies their truth, except in very unusual circumstances. The book of Genesis does, in fact, state that a world wide flood occurred. It may not start the story by saying,"Note well: this is true." But it asserts that the flood occcurred nonetheless, merely by relating a narrative in which it did.

And even if you don't believe that, if you somehow have been led to believe that most human writing prefaces every purportedly true statement with an explicit declaration that it is true, I am left wondering: why doesn't the text then explicitly reject that premise when it's not applicable? It does not, after all, preface the stories you wish to interpret as metaphors with a statment,"Note well: this is figurative language only." There are cases where similes and metaphors and parables are explicitly labelled as such in the text, but Genesis is not one of them. Why not, if it's only figurative?
posted by Ipsifendus at 12:53 PM on November 15, 2011


Not to mention that most believers prior to the development of modern geology would not have claimed that the Flood was figurative -- in fact, many early scientists openly asserted that it had occurred, and this continued to happen as late as the 19th century, until the idea was finally surrendered by its own defenders (only to resurface a century later).

Historically speaking, the Flood is "figurative" precisely because it's been shown to be demonstrably false. That makes it a rather poor example of a religious belief that doesn't count as falsifiable because it's "figurative".
posted by vorfeed at 1:18 PM on November 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


If you defend your Christian faith by claiming that the Bible, uniquely among all texts that aren't frank fictions, makes no claims as to it own veracity, you're on very shaky ground.

What do you mean by "makes no claims as to its own veracity?" The Bible is a compilation that contains no internal references to itself as a whole.

It may not tag every affirmative statement as "true" explicitly, but the very act of making affirmative statements implies their truth, except in very unusual circumstances.

Sure. But by that logic, the very act of making an affirmative statement that is inconsistent with another affirmative statement contained in the compilation (e.g. the Gospels' varying factual accounts) implies the inaccuracy of the compilation as a whole, doesn't it?

When the Gospel of Mark makes affirmative statements, it is logical to characterize those statements as implying their own veracity. But given that they are inconsistent with other accounts of the same events contained in the other Gospels, does it not follow (by your logic) that the implication of the Bible is that the Bible, as a whole, is not accurate?
posted by The World Famous at 1:26 PM on November 15, 2011


Historically speaking, the Flood is "figurative" precisely because it's been shown to be demonstrably false. That makes it a rather poor example of a religious belief that doesn't count as falsifiable because it's "figurative".

This is wrong; while a believer in the era before modern geology would have claimed that the Flood was an historical event, there is a long tradition of ascribing non-literal meanings to every event in the Old Testament. What's happened is not the invention of figurative meanings, but the abandonment of (some) literal meanings. The Flood story for instance, is thought of as being allegorical of Baptism, based on a passage in (I think) 1 Peter.

The meaning of the Flood has evolved for some Christians, but not without a firm basis in the older tradition.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 1:37 PM on November 15, 2011


This is wrong; while a believer in the era before modern geology would have claimed that the Flood was an historical event, there is a long tradition of ascribing non-literal meanings to every event in the Old Testament. What's happened is not the invention of figurative meanings, but the abandonment of (some) literal meanings.

I'm quite aware of that, but I don't see why it matters that figurative meanings existed before the literal ones were disproved, rather than being invented out of whole cloth afterward. The literal meaning which "a believer in the era before modern geology would have claimed" was still shown to be demonstrably false, and the current prevalence of the figurative meaning is still a direct consequence of that. This is why I said "historically speaking" and not "theologically speaking".
posted by vorfeed at 1:53 PM on November 15, 2011


I'm quite aware of that, but I don't see why it matters that figurative meanings existed before the literal ones were disproved, rather than being invented out of whole cloth afterward. The literal meaning which "a believer in the era before modern geology would have claimed" was still shown to be demonstrably false, and the current prevalence of the figurative meaning is still a direct consequence of that.

It matters because it makes the statement "the current prevalence of the figurative meaning is still a direct consequence of that" wrong. Among people with the biblical and theological literacy to be aware of the tradition, belief in the figurative meaning of the Flood is not especially more prelevant now than it has ever been.

Your statement that the flood "is "figurative" precisely because it's been shown to be demonstrably false" is historically wrong; it's been figurative basically since the beginning of Christianity.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 2:03 PM on November 15, 2011


What do you mean by "makes no claims as to its own veracity?" The Bible is a compilation that contains no internal references to itself as a whole.

The phrase "makes no claims as to its own veracity" is as close as I can get to a neutral, non-argumentative rephrasing of the idea that the Bible, as the central holy text of Christianity, doesn't offer any falsifiable claims, and that in particular descriptions of now disproven historical events aren't falsifiable claims. That idea is not my own, but I believe it's a fair restatement of the idea voiced by those who disagreed with karmiolz.

Sure. But by that logic, the very act of making an affirmative statement that is inconsistent with another affirmative statement contained in the compilation (e.g. the Gospels' varying factual accounts) implies the inaccuracy of the compilation as a whole, doesn't it?

It sure seems that way to me, yes. In normal circumstances, I wouldn't necessarily harp too much on the internal consistency of a "text" that had multiple authors; eyewitnesses are unreliable, and so on. But when a major world religion claims that text to the primary vehicle of an ineffable God's relevation to a fallen mankind, I get a little more nitpicky. If the omnipotent God who inspired this text did not protect it from error creeping in, the text cannot be what multiple generations of believers belonging to multiple branches of the Christian religion have claimed it is: the inerrant word of God.

But given that they are inconsistent with other accounts of the same events contained in the other Gospels, does it not follow (by your logic) that the implication of the Bible is that the Bible, as a whole, is not accurate?

It is true that the Bible cannot be perfectly accurate, but that does not imply that each of the constituent texts do not claim accuracy for themselves. They absolutely do, and every one of those constituent books that depicts historical events has made falsifiable (and now falsified) claims.
posted by Ipsifendus at 2:07 PM on November 15, 2011


If "belief in the figurative meaning of the Flood is not especially more prelevant now than it has ever been", how does that jibe with "a believer in the era before modern geology would have claimed that the Flood was an historical event"?

Oh, wait: "among people with the biblical and theological literacy to be aware of the tradition". I think it's obvious that "people with the biblical and theological literacy to be aware of the tradition" are far from the only actors involved in history, so I'll have to disagree that the long-term prevalence of this belief among one particular group makes my statement about its general prevalence wrong.

This is exactly why I went out of my way to qualify my statements with words like "most believers" and "historically speaking" -- if that's not good enough for you, I'm sorry, but I think it's still accurate. If not for evidence to the contrary, most believers would probably still be asserting that the Flood was a literal event.
posted by vorfeed at 2:17 PM on November 15, 2011


It is true that the Bible cannot be perfectly accurate, but that does not imply that each of the constituent texts do not claim accuracy for themselves.

Some of them do, yes. And the very fact that they do and that they contain inconsistent accounts of the same events makes it untenable to suggest that the Bible itself makes claims as to its own veracity as a whole.

But when a major world religion claims that text to the primary vehicle of an ineffable God's relevation to a fallen mankind, I get a little more nitpicky.

Why? Sure, there are some people who claim that every single word of some unspecified translation of the Bible is absolutely flawless and was put down on the page by the direct and unimpeded command of a supreme being who meant for people to interpret every single assertion as a literal and perfectly clear account of historic events. I mean, I keep hearing that such people exist, though I'm not sure I've ever met one of them. But that particular argument is so completely stupid that it's not really worth hashing out in a MetaFilter thread, is it? Is there anyone here who actually takes that position? I suspect not.

This is exactly why I went out of my way to qualify my statements with words like "most believers" and "historically speaking"

vorfeed, isn't it true, though, that, historically speaking, most people are ignorant of a great many facts about history and natural history, independent of whatever their religious affiliation may be?
posted by The World Famous at 2:21 PM on November 15, 2011


Vorfeed, you seem to believe that each person has one belief about the Flood, which is wrong. It used to be more common to believe that it was both literal and figurative, now it's more common to believe that it is purely figurative; the prevalence of the figurative interpretation hasn't changed.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 2:33 PM on November 15, 2011


It used to be more common to believe that it was both literal and figurative, now it's more common to believe that it is purely figurative; the prevalence of the figurative interpretation hasn't changed.

All right, then: if it please your honor, I suggest that the Flood is purely figurative (or "non-literal", if you prefer) precisely because it's been shown to be demonstrably false. Either way, the point is that it used to be considered literal and now it's not.
posted by vorfeed at 2:41 PM on November 15, 2011


This is kind of a non sequiter, but here goes. I get the impression that most people (in general, not in this thread) think that the two propositions:

(1) God exists and (2) Human beings have immortal souls

are logically equivalent. But, they aren't! There could be a God, but no souls, or souls that last for 500 years and then die, or even immortal souls, but no God.
posted by thelonius at 2:43 PM on November 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Well, I wrote a whole novel (and half an uncompleted sequel) on exactly this idea. Allow me to distill the end result of 20 years of thinking about this:
  1. What most people call the "soul" is the information content of your nervous system. Your nervous system creates consciousness by performing processing on this information. The information is mostly represented as grown axons and synapsses, and electrical activity which represents a current state. If Moore's law and biological research keep up and our civilization doesn't collapse, one day we'll be able to simulate it. If we haven't found a simpler way by then, we will finally have machine intelligence.
  2. Getting that information out of a living brain to build the simulation is all but impossible according to current physics. Freezing and microtoming might do the trick; it's reasonable to think that the electrical activity isn't necessary since we can survive things like insulin shock.
  3. As for the universe, there are really only two possibilities. The universe tells us a very detailed, convincing, and compared to its overall size simple story of how it works. It's all made of particles with fixed behaviors and while we might not have access to all the information necessary to build a perfect copy of it, we can assume that information exists. The two possibilities are that this is really how the universe works, or it is lying to us.
  4. If the particle thing is the true working of the universe, it doesn't matter whether it's a simulation or not; there is no such thing as an immortal soul or reincarnation. The reason is that there is no "process" representing the essential you; there's only a bunch of particles no different from similar particles flying through space, at the heart of the Sun, or falling into a black hole. The process that iterates particle positions and states to create the movement of time has no reason to group certain particles into "you" or even an understanding of how biochemical processes work to figure out the essential data of your soul.
  5. If, however, the universe is keeping tabs on us as individuals, then it is lying with great verisimiltude when we point telescopes and electron microscopes at it. I consider this a non-trivial possibility; if the Universe is a computer it's a very fucking big computer and it would save a lot of storage and processing power to group swarms of particles and treat them as single entities with a more complex state.
  6. If this latter possibility is the true nature of the universe, then there very could well be immortal souls, ghosts, reincarnation, or whatever. But it also means that we have to discard everything we think we know about reality. It's not just a little adjustment to how physics works, it is a rejection of the possibility that physics can ever explain anything with more than immediate practical usefulness. It casts doubt on everything we've seen through an instrument that extends our perception beyond the natural range of our senses; it means that the Universe is not just neutrally supporting us but it is constantly, vigorously, and very proficiently lying its digital ass off to us about everything. I really think this is a much more disturbing possibility than having my information structure erased when my scope ends.
This has been another episode of Localroger Thinks It's Simple.
posted by localroger at 2:50 PM on November 15, 2011 [8 favorites]


I liked it better when Spinoza did it.
posted by mek at 3:08 PM on November 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


The more interesting question is not about the what of the consciousness but the who. Rather than devising elaborate models that might allow for the existence of something like a consciousness (which all just end up deferring to simulation anyways) it would be much more productive to investigate the boundaries of the consciousness. An interesting experiment that might actually be possible today would be an attempt to capture just how much information (both "internally" of the self and "externally" of the world, though the distinction is likely false) would be necessary such that were a given agent A transported from world W1 to W2, we could say that A had been "reincarnated."
posted by nixerman at 3:26 PM on November 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


nixerman: That is a very interesting question.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 3:35 PM on November 15, 2011


The soul is the mind that is the result of brain function. Once the brain is dead, so to the soul.
posted by analogtom at 4:06 PM on November 15, 2011


My assumption has always been that the soul is much like a cockroach, and scurries away into a dark hiding place whenever you flick the lights on. You can dissect a body in search of it, but there's always another organ for it to hide beneath. It might have even attached itself to the underside of that liver you removed earlier - check the tray!
posted by tumid dahlia at 4:11 PM on November 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


nixerman, that is indeed an interesting question, perhaps moreso than you realize.

While we lack a lot of details about how consciousness works we do have a pretty good grasp of the shape of the overlying data structure. We represent the world as a series of symbols which begin at a very low level of abstraction -- most likely line segments and tiny features in the retina, which is for practical purposes part of the brain. These simple features are used as elements to identify larger features in a higher level of abstraction, and so on and so on for 30 or 40 levels of abstraction, until we are building symbols for things like "Grandma."

It seems likely that each level of abstraction is built more or less randomly, based on our particular experience and even possibly thermal noise. This means that the "words" we use to build an idea at some high abstract layer are highly individual. It means something like the device depicted in the movie Brainstorm will probably never be possible, because our experiences are coded in a code that is unique to each of us.

So when I wrote a form of reincarnation into an as yet unpublished story, this is how I had proxy God do it: Experience still influences how each level of abstraction is programmed, but there is "a very strong attraction" to the template pattern of the person being reincarnated, to ensure that the symbols will be available to encode the next layer of the reincarnated person's consciousness. Since this "attraction" is implemented by the lying universe de-randomizing random events it would be pretty much undetectable by physical examination.

This attraction would be lessened at higher layers of abstraction, such as actual conscious memories, and of course there wouldn't be any direct access to the memories of the original person unless they were deliberately (by proxy God) fused into the new person's neural net.

Still, I did write a character who has a parent so contrary and motivated that she manages to fuck it all up, creating a person so different from his pre-incarnated self that he loathes the person he was in previous life and hates the memories of that life when they are revealed to him.
posted by localroger at 4:38 PM on November 15, 2011


Leaving aside the question of immortality, I understand "your soul" to be a longer (by one syllable) way of saying "you." It is a way to draw a circle around all the differences in behavior between a living, acting, thinking, speaking person and a fresh corpse, and to refer to everything in the circle by a single noun rather than addressing it all collectively by a single pronoun.
posted by jfuller at 4:39 PM on November 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


I agree, jfuller. I think the idea of the "soul" in much of civilization is largely a descriptor of the general notion of consciousness and individual identity. The "immortal" part is, largely, wishful thinking or hope.
posted by The World Famous at 4:45 PM on November 15, 2011


P.S. on my previous 6-bullet-point comment...

Point #6 is pretty much exactly how the Gnostics saw the universe; God was mad, reality was a lie, and only by direct connection with a divine entity could one see past this lie to the reality that lies beneath.

And yeah, it's the philosophy of The Matrix too, which was pretty obviously a Gnostic gospel.
posted by localroger at 4:56 PM on November 15, 2011


localroger: God was mad

"Don't you know there ain't no devil, there's just god when he is drunk" - Tom Waits
posted by Hairy Lobster at 4:59 PM on November 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


So if God gets drunk, what is his favorite cocktail?

This idea does have derail written all over it, doesn't it?
posted by localroger at 5:09 PM on November 15, 2011


So if God gets drunk, what is his favorite cocktail?

Whatever you're having.
posted by Errant at 5:33 PM on November 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Not only are you and the cocktail finite modes of attributes of God, but they proceed necessarily from his existence. Cheers.
posted by mek at 5:36 PM on November 15, 2011


Whatever you're having.

So God's a cheap wine and vodka kind of guy. I always figured he would have an infinite supply of Johnny Walker Blue.
posted by localroger at 5:48 PM on November 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Given that this is the best of all possible worlds, he appears to have a preference for Bud Light and Franzia.
posted by mek at 5:57 PM on November 15, 2011


METAFILTER: started with bad science [...] and bad definitions of "exist" [...] but quickly became a really neat discussion of individual understandings of faith, soul, and personal experience/existentialism.
posted by philip-random at 6:38 PM on November 15, 2011


What makes the question of who interesting is there's a rich bit of metaphysical debate over exactly what is reborn/reincarnated. Memory, consciousness, and identity are usually argued to be things that survive only as exceptions.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 7:53 PM on November 15, 2011


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