September 30, 2013

Paradox of the ad hoc bullshit stone

Many sceptically-minded people go through a phase of rationaler-than-thou, self-righteous internet atheism in their early teenage years in which they are convinced that every religious person on the planet is mentally retarded and religion is the root of all evil and should be punishable by death, and most of their time is spent reciting the paradox of the stone and similar, done-to-death arguments all over the internet. I wonder if that's why I never hear of any serious attempts to discuss said paradox: everyone are sick of it and no-one wants to hear any more about it.

I'm going to give you my view on the subject, but first a little digression. All macroscopic objects (bugs, humans, planets...) are essentially just collections of atoms that have clumped up into various structures, and atoms are just collections of protons and neutrons that have clumped up and electrons that hang around close to them, and protons and neutrons are just collections of quarks that tend to behave in certain ways that make them probabilistically form greater structures. According to string theory, quarks are made up of one-dimensional strings. Doesn't it seem like it should be possible to go further down the rabbit hole until it's all just matter shaped in various ways, and let's say the shape determines which elementary particle it is.

According to quantum mechanics, pretty much anything is physically possible. I think. Atoms can disappear and then reappear, and that could theoretically happen to an entire planet if every atom disappeared at once, even though the chance is practically zero of that ever happening. The planck length, ~1.6×10-35 m, is the smallest measurable distance, which means (maybe? I dunno lol, but who cares) that it's the smallest physically meaningful distance. Planck time, ~5.4×10-44 s, is the smallest physically meaningful time or something.

Because of all of this, I like to see the universe as a giant three-dimensional (or more-than-three-dimensional) grid of cubic cells with the side length of 1 planck length, in which there can either be matter or not be matter, and this whole grid "updates" at the "frame rate" of one frame per planck time. Essentially, the whole grid could be seen as a binary sequence where 1 represents matter and 0 represents empty space - let's call it a "universe binary state". The probability for each binary state to occur would be determined by the ones that came before, meaning all laws of physics could be described by a function that to each possible sequence of binary states from the beginning of the universe up until any point in time would assign the set of all possible binary states along with the probability for those states to occur in the next "frame" ( (ordered list of all states since the universe began up until the present) ↦ {(state, probability), (state, probability), ...} ). Quarks would be a result of matter bunching up, and the "movement" of particles and objects would be a result of cells becoming empty and other cells becoming full in a certain pattern, and all of this would happen because the probability function is such that these events are extremely likely to happen on any measurable level.

Now, this model of reality is completely useless for making scientific predictions and also quite possibly incompatible with modern physics in a million different ways. It's not wrong, though, in the same sense that classical mechanics is not wrong but rather inaccurate when it comes to making predictions about reality on very large or very small scales, and the theory of relativity is not wrong when it talks about the size and velocity of macroscopic objects even though it's practically impossible to properly define objects (and their size, shape, position, velocity...) in terms of elementary particles, and the individual particles don't move exactly as the object is predicted to. You can't really say a model of reality is "wrong", but you can say it does a more or less good job of explaining various physical phenomena and observations within its intended range of applications. The reason I introduced the model above is because it's a useful tool when it comes to discussing certain philosophical and religious matters, although admittedly viewing the universe as just a collection of elementary particles would pretty much get the job done as well (though, I like to think, less elegantly), so I guess part of the reason is because I think it's a pretty cool idea and I wanted to write it down.

With that out of the way, let's get back to the subject matter. The paradox of the stone. Could God create a task for himself that he couldn't complete, e.g. create an unmovable stone? This is supposed to be a paradox because God is omnipotent; capable of all things conceivable and inconceivable. But that definition of omnipotence has to my knowledge never been espoused by any theist or religious text such as the bible or the koran. It seems like it was specifically constructed with paradoxes like this one in mind. When most people think of God, they think of the almighty creator and master of the universe. He can make anything within the universe happen, i.e. manually set a sequence of universe binary states to occur instead of letting it all play out randomly. He can alter the laws of reality, i.e. alter the probability function described above. And that's pretty much it. He doesn't have to have power over himself or anything that's not within the bounds of our universe. Whatever he chooses to do with the universe, he can undo it later.

There's another paradox that goes "how could God know that he's omniscient?". It's just as nonsensical as the paradox of the stone. God is supposed to be all-knowing, which means that all the data concerning the universe is available to him. He could view any universe binary state that has happened, will happen, or could happen. It doesn't mean that he has any knowledge of himself or the nature of his own reality.

A more interesting question is the theodice problem, i.e. if God has the power and knowledge to end all evil (or even just stop isolated, unnecessary instances of suffering), then whence cometh evil? To answer that, you first have to ask yourself: what is evil? What is suffering? From a scientific point of view, it's a part of the electrochemical process that is your consciousness. To an outside observer looking at the universe, it (along with consciousness and life in general) is an invisible consequence of how some matter is arranged, a detail of a detail of a detail within a tiny concentration of mass somewhere in the universe, a sequence of length ~1050 of subsequences of universe binary states. And if our universe was created, whether it be by a god or by some scientists that made a simulation in a lab, it seems pretty unlikely that they would even care about us or consider the notion of suffering within our world to be meaningful. Our creators would have to be so far above and beyond us that we're less than ants to them. We're a bunch of ones and zeros, arranged in a very specific combination that is no more inherently valuable than a combination in which we suffer, or don't exist at all. Life and happiness are valuable because humans perceive them as valuable, and an ant's life and "emotions" (the state of their central nervous system) are less valuable to us because we perceive them as such, and our value to our creators is entirely contingent upon how they perceive us. We can create advanced simulations of human beings with artificial intelligence, and we certainly don't consider them to be equal to actual humans to the point where we consider termination of the program to be equivalent to murder. If our creators could simulate the entire universe we live in, imagine what they could do if they put all that effort into creating one mind that's as advanced as possible. We are nothing compared to that. Why, then, would any eventual creators care about mankind's suffering? It seems absolutely preposterous to claim to have any idea of how the minds of such beings work or what their actions, goals and values are, or to think that anything humanity will ever do is of any consequence to them whatsoever. With that in mind, I'd like to offer an alternative to Epicurus's riddle: whence cometh benevolence?

That's how I reason regarding the theodice problem, and incidentally it also makes a pretty good case for why the concept of worship is inherently flawed. There's no reason to believe that a being so superior to us as God would be more concerned with us dying than we are with stepping on an ant, so why should we pray to him? Even if there's a divine plan in which humanity is central, why should we believe that it includes him answering to prayers, or us worshipping him, or that it requires any action whatsoever on our end? Even if he wants to be worshipped, why should we believe that he has any interest in rewarding us for it, or that he even values our well-being, or that his views on what's best for us are even remotely similar to ours? Maybe he views matter arranged in such a way that it forms a suffering human being as its optimal state and that's the paradise we get. You don't fucking know. And how would he reward us with paradise? If you created an exact replica of yourself, atom by atom, you wouldn't consider it to really be you, because you and it would be two separate minds that think, feel and perceive independently from one another. So if you were replicated or your body and mind were restored after your death, you would still have ceased to exist. But what's to say God would find that distinction meaningful? All you are is an arrangement of matter. And it seems to me that the only way for him to reward (or punish) you after death would be to not make that distinction, in which case you're not really getting anything out of it.

There are so many questions to ask about how such a being as God would work, and no answers. Who the hell are these people that claim to know the answers about this being we cannot possibly comprehend in any meaningful way? It seems no matter how much I think about religion, I always find some new way to be flabbergasted with it, but the conclusion I keep coming back to is that they're just not asking the questions.

ADDENDUM 2017-03-18: Re-reading this, it occurs to me that I was too harsh in my assessment of the omnipotence and omniscience paradoxes. They do hold up perfectly well as long as you don't apply them too broadly. They prove that a being can't have total control over or knowledge of himself or his own reality, but they do not refute the idea of an almighty god who has total control over and knowledge of a reality "beneath his own", so to speak (so a question like "does God know that he knows everything about the universe?" is a question not about his knowledge of the universe but about his self-knowledge). What they do prove is interesting in and of itself on a philosophical level, even though they don't make for good arguments against e.g. the Abrahamic God as understood by the average believer.

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