Thursday, December 09, 2010

Bow to me (and squander your potential) my robot!

When we create a robot or an AI or a new breed of dog1, do we program it to worship us, its creator?

Isn't the thought that a creator would infuse its creation with a supreme desire to worship it above and beyond anything else just repugnant? And ripe with arrogance and vanity?

When humans create something, we try to give it autonomy, intelligence, free will, etc. Our last concern is that our gadgets turn around and praise us. That would be utterly ridiculous! What do i care if my robot glorifies me or not? What kind of creator would I be if I did? (Imagine further if we did create gadgets to worship us, but also programmed them to not be able to see or hear us... clever...)

It seems highly more likely that the true test a creator would present us with is not how many times we can repeat creeds, but how much we can achieve and evolve and progress independently.

What would you prefer in 50 years? A robot that followed you around chanting your praises and leaving offerings on the kitchen table, or one that solved your problems and those of the people around you in cool and fantastical ways. (If you said "both", please read the last sentence of paragraph 2 again.)

1 Admittedly, dogs worship us, but it's in their nature, plus, dogs are a bit unsophisticated.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Religion is the best Deception

If you're a thinking person, then you've got to be skeptical of something which demands belief based only on faith. You just have to be. Why? Well, look around. How many religions are there in the world which require blind faith from their followers? How can one choose the "correct" religion from among these many options? One cannot. There is absolutely no way. So, people end up adopting the religious faiths of their family, neighbours, or countrymen. (Thankfully, a growing number of us don't bother choosing at all.)

An alien landing on the earth confronted by its various faiths would have no clue as to which, if any, of the religions were true. The claims are all the same: "I've got an old book! It's got some good stories in it! You need it to live a good life! You need to believe in this one particular god and this one particular prophet! You want proof? No, no, there's none! You must accept everything on faith! And if you don't, you will suffer eternally in a horrible place!" There is absolutely no reason for the alien to choose one over another, and in fact, there is no real reason to make a choice in the first place. (In this scenario, one hopes that the alien has all the answers, and proceeds to enlighten our little planet rather than destroy it.)

Those who have made this choice (or have had the choice made for them) are imprisoned but are unaware of it. It is extremely difficult to break out of this prison because first and foremost, the inmates are content (indeed begging) to stay! Secondly, once their leap of faith is made, the believer is strapped into an almost unescapable philosophical straightjacket. This is why I call the deception in the title the "best" deception. It is so strong, and so unwielding to any argument. The deception can come from anywhere (one's self, one's priest, one's parents) and it's almost never recognized as deception. The only time someone recognizes this kind of deception is regarding the "other": in another culture, country, or religion. If a Christian contemplates someone of a different faith, the Christian is quite ready to say "that poor guy is deceiving himself" or "is being deceived". But it's just inconceivable to the Christian that he himself is in exactly the same situation.

If I were a believer, but could still construct logical arguments, I would have to conclude that religion was created not by a caring god, but by a devil. Faith in something without evidence is not noble or honourable, it's sinister. Why are we so gullible and so willing to be deceived?

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Religious Awe is the Lazy Man's Awe

I experience just as much (if not more) awe than a religious person does when considering nature, life, the universe, etc. But whereas I know that I can come to a fuller understanding of these things through hard work and diligent study, a religious person more often than not simply says "God did that". To me, this is a lazy man's appreciation of nature. It is the behaviour of a person happy to not understand, or not willing to put in the effort to come to a better understanding of the world.

The other day, I had an idea for a skit, which featured two young boys, one scientifically-minded, and the other not. I imagined the first boy running through a field or forest, excitedly looking at flowers, plants, and insects, and trying to understand the connections between them, and wondering about their origins and evolution. With each object this boy marvelled at, the other little boy would pop into the picture and quickly blurt out "God did that!" Each time, the first boy would answer "Oh" and continue looking at the next object. With each successive "God did that!" and "Oh", the first boy's curiosity would start to wither. Perhaps it would be better to have a religious parent instead of the religious boy. More realistic that way. And sad.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Do mathematicians create or discover?

The answer to this question will significantly affect the idea of my previous post. I have a feeling that in general they discover. For example, a Tyrannosaurus Rex probably couldn't count, but that doesn't change the fact that it had 2 arms, 2 legs, 1 tail, and "x" razor-sharp teeth. So numbers "existed", but they weren't really being thought about carefully.

If mathematicians always discover (rather than create) mathematics, then my analogy in the previous post becomes quite weak. However, my faulty analogy might not change my acceptance of the (rather unlikely) possibility that an advanced civilization had a hand in the creation of the universe.

Thinking about Mathematics: The Philosophy of MathematicsI should do some reading on the philosophy of mathematics and then post what I've learned. Stay tuned.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Oh my god. Did I just become a deist?

I just had an idea about the plausibility of some form of creator, which is quite odd as I'm a diehard atheist (and quite possibly an anti-theist.) I was brushing my teeth, and suddenly I conceived of an idea that, unlike all other arguments I've heard for deism, seemed to have non-zero probability.

To get a grip on my idea, I must introduce some relatively simple concepts from mathematics. Mathematicians typically don't deal explicitly with numbers, they deal with objects. They are very good at converting practical ideas into abstract concepts for the purposes of research. For example, take the integers: ..., -3, -2, -1, 0, 1, 2, 3, ... along with simple addition '+'. (The ellipses, by the way, imply an endless continuation to the left and right.) Mathematicians take the integers and addition and abstract them into an object which they call a "group". (Please completely divorce this mathematical term from the normal definition of the word "group" which you are thinking of right now.)

In mathematics, a "group" is a set of things (possibly finite, possibly infinite) along with an operation which describes how the things can be combined, resulting in other things from within the same group. In groups, there's one very special thing called an "identity", which actually doesn't do much of anything. Also, for each thing in the set, there exists exactly one other thing called an "inverse", and when a thing and its inverse are combined, the result is the "identity".

Making this a bit more concrete, consider the group of the integers along with addition. The special thing called the identity is zero (i.e. 0) which clearly doesn't do anything since 5 + 0 = 5. For each integer, there is one inverse. For example, the inverse of 3 is -3, since 3 + (-3) = 0. (Remember, 0 is the identity of this particular group.) As another example, the inverse of -897 is 897, since (-897) + 897 = 0.

The integers are a very large set of numbers, in fact it is an infinite set. But this infinite set can be generated by only the number 1. 1 is called a "generator" of this group. [Just continue adding 1 to itself to get all of the positive integers: 1, 2, 3, 4, ... . Then take the inverse of 1, namely -1, and continue adding it to itself to get the negative integers. To generate 0, simply add 1 + (-1).] The idea of a generator is important as it shows that a very large set can be generated by very few members (and sometimes only one).

Group Theory in the Bedroom, and Other Mathematical DiversionsGroups seem like quite simple things, and they sometimes are. But their simple definition can be misleading. Once we cast away numbers and just focus on the abstract definition and objects, we start to uncover many very interesting properties. Shelves and shelves of books have been written on Group Theory and current mathematicians are expanding the theory monthly in numerous journals on the subject. (There are one or two other properties of a group, but in the interest of concision, I hope you will trust me when I say they are not very important to this argument.)

So, what is my point. How does this relate to the possibility of a creator? Well, when mathematicians first started thinking about groups, they had relatively little idea of the complexity, unexpected features, or beauty of the characteristics and theorems that would result after intense study. In a similar way, it is not so difficult to imagine a creator establishing its own kind of "cosmic group": a small set of elementary particles or energies (the generators), coupled with some initial rules dictating how these particles and energies interact (the operation). Over billions of years, the world we see today could have evolved from this very simple beginning, as the generators interact with each other, creating new matter and new energy.

This idea does not do away with the infinite regress question: if there was a creator, who created it? And who created the creator of that creator, and so on ad infinitum. This idea does however alleviate a concern I've always had with the idea of a creator. Looking around me, I've always wondered why our omnipotent God (assuming one exists) didn't create a much simpler universe, with no evil, no disease, and no mosquitos. Well, perhaps a creator did create the simplest of universes, using only simple initial conditions, but really had nothing to do with any of its evolution into the current complex and mosquito-infested universe we call home. I'm in no way saying that I could believe in any of the man-made gods that my fellow humans worship. But I could see myself contemplating the possibility of an incredibly advanced alien civilization (probably indistinguishable from God, as Asimov puts it) seeding our universe with the requisite primeval elements.

Of course, this is all a mathematical analogy, and doesn't prove a single thing. It has simply allowed me to consider (however minute) the remote possibly of some kind of creator. Since there is absolutely no evidence for such a creator, I could never bring myself to "believe" what I have just described. However, I will certainly not deny its possibility until a philosopher or mathematician pokes holes in my reasoning.