Friday, January 26, 2007

Proof of the non-existence of God

I recently read a very good book, called The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins. The book argues that Atheism is the only possible religious opinion of people with knowledge of science, a sense of intellectual honesty, and good morality. While it made several good points, I was a bit dissapointed that it didn't really touch upon my personal favorite argument against the existence of God. So I am writing out that argument below. Enjoy.

One of the basic assumptions of science is that miracles do not happen. That is, it is not allowable in a scientific hypothesis to posit a supernatural or magical cause for any effect. This is a very necessary first principle, because if it did not exist, it would be impossible to do science at all. Scientists could never be sure if an observed phenomenon, or an experimental result, is the consequence of blind laws of nature working themselves out, or the by-product of the conscious intent of some supernatural entity who is just screwing with us. Anomalous observations, fossils, and experimental results that might otherwise spark interesting theories and new hypothesis could too easily be explained away as a miracle. It would be impossible to EVER know if we had a true theory of the laws that nature itself obeys, or if we had been misled by miraculous events into a false picture of how the world works when whatever supernatural force caused those miracles chooses to not cause similar ones.

This does not necessarily mean that science assumes there is no God. Rather, science assumes that God does not normally intervene in the world by means of miracles, and if God ever does, it will be so blindingly obvious that no one could possibly think it was a natural event. Science assumes that God, if he exists, does not in any significant manner break the laws of physics, or allow them to be broken.

However, while this does not rule out God entirely, it does place some limits on the sort of God which can be considered to be consistent with science. A God who is constantly answering prayers and working miracles, such as curing diseases or helping Brett Favre win football games, is not compatible with science. A God who, in essence, lit the fuse of the Big Bang and then stood back and just watched things happen, can be considered to be at least somewhat compatible with science, at least until such time as we figure out what happened before the Big Bang, or come up with a more coherent theory of what natural processes may have caused the Big Bang to happen without supernatural assistance.

Such a God may be compatible with certain interpretations of mainstream religions, such as the Unitarian Universalist movement within Christianity. But it is not compatible with young-earth Creationist strains of Biblical Literalists, or even most so-called mainstream faiths who still believe in most of the miracles of the Bible and that God answers prayers even occasionally.

But there is one area of science that, I believe, has put the final nail in the coffin of even the least fundamentalist strains of mainstream Judeo-Christian-Islamic faith. And that area is neuroscience.

Neuroscientists do not yet fully understand the brain, but they are coming excitingly close in recent years. We now know enough about how the brain works to make reasonably certain guesses about what sort of theories and discoveries are capable of filling in the few remaining blanks, and what sort of theories and discoveries are exceedingly unlikely to come along, because for them to be true, pretty much everything else we think we know about the brain would have to be monumentally false.

Let me explain what I mean by means of an example from a more widely-understood area of science. We know with a high degree of certainty that the Earth is round and that it orbits the sun. Oh, of course, the Earth is not perfectly round, because the centrifugal force of its rotation causes it to bulge slightly at the equator and to be slightly flattened at the poles, but basically, it’s round. We know this because we have circumnavigated the Earth in an east-west direction by ship along several routes at varying latitudes, sent subs across the north pole under the ice, and sent aircraft around at a multitude of angles. We have also sent spacecraft to orbit the planet at high altitude in several directions, as well as sent spacecraft to the moon and other planets, even out of the solar system itself, and they have taken pictures that clearly show it to be a sphere (again, with some slight deviations due to centrifugal force). Many of those same spacecraft have looked back at the earth while en route to other planets, and we have seen the earth as it orbits the sun. Seismologists have also used their instruments to follow the vibrations of earthquakes as they pass through the center of a round earth to shake seismograph needles on the opposite side of the world.

Now, it’s just barely possible that all these observations and experiments are wrong, that our pictures have fooled us due to some bizarre form of optical illusion, that some strange non-spherical topology or error in navigation has fooled our planes and ships and subs into thinking they have circumnavigated a spheoid earth when they have really followed some crooked path on a flat earth, or an earth of some other fantastical shape. But so much else would have to be wrong with so many other areas of science, areas such as geometry, geology, optics, astronomy, navigation, and possibly even basic mathematics, that we can say with a colossally high degree of certainty that there is effectively no chance that we are significantly wrong about the shape of the Earth, or its status as one planet among several that orbits the sun. Oh, we may refine our figures for its exact circumference and shape to a few more significant digits, but for any really major changes to these established facts, pretty much everything we know about science would have to be so monumentally wrong, that it would be mind-bogglingly bizarre that any of our technology and devices that depend on those subsets of science actually work at all.

In a similar way, we are reasonably certain that the brain works by means of neural impulses and neurotransmitter chemicals, and that everything that goes on in brains is the result of definable physical processes. Every emotion, sensation, memory, and thought process is traceable to a physical process inside the brain, to neural pathways of neurons firing in sequence, to chemical neurotransmitters activating receptor sites and causing more neural pathways to fire. These physical processes involve matter and energy, in the form of chemicals, chemical receptor sites on cells, osmotic barriers, and even flows of electrons very much like electricity in wires.

At death, all these physical processes stop. That’s what death is. If our memories are physical processes in our brains, how can our memories survive death and the cessation of those processes? How can we experience emotions if the neurons responsible for those emotions are dead? How can we experience the passage of time without a brain?

Consider a computer, such as a laptop or desktop. It has various software and data in its memory. Now take that computer and run it through a chipper-shredder. Grind up the resulting fragments until they are a fine powder. Burn that powder and grind up the ashes further. Now take the ashes up in the Space Shuttle, and sprinkle them out the window so they fall into the Earth’s atmosphere and burn up one more time on re-entry. This will pretty effectively reduce them to their component atoms. The atoms and such molecules as remain will drift down through the atmosphere, with the more solid ones falling to ground as the dust particles at the center of raindrops or snowflakes. Wait a couple of centuries. Some of the copper molecules from the wiring inside that computer will now be included in hemocyanin molecules in the blood of lobsters off the coast of Maine. Some of the carbon molecules from the plastic casing of the computer will be part of cellulose molecules in a tree in the Amazon rain forest. And so on for the other atoms that once were a computer. Now try to run the software on that computer, or retrieve the data. This is a laughably impossible proposition, of course.

The same is true for human beings. Take a dead human and cremate them and scatter the ashes. Or bury them and let worms and insects and bacteria decompose them. The result will be the same: their component atoms and molecules will be returned to the biosphere and recycled, and all trace of their former status as part of a human being will be lost forever. It is precisely as ludicrous to think that the memories in that dead human brain, or the emotions it felt, can be somehow recovered or reconstituted, as it is to try and play Minesweeper or recover a text document on a computer that has been shredded, burnt, and ground into dust.

Of course, with computers, you can copy and share your data and software to other computers, and they can be preserved. Can this be done with humans? Not with current technology, of course, but someday, maybe we will be able to download memories from one person to another, or allow others to experience our emotions as we do.

But try another thought experiment. Say that some bright scientist creates a process to clone a person, force the clone to grow to adulthood quickly, and then download an exact copy of the original person’s current mental state into that clone. The clone would look exactly like the original person; have all their same memories, the same emotional attachments, the same personality, the same foibles and character flaws. Would it be that person?

First, assume that the process of reading the brain of the original person is a destructive one, and the brain has to be diced or otherwise destroyed, killing the original donor. This might still be an attractive process for some people, especially if the new clone could be stopped in aging at a youthful appearance, yet have downloaded into it the mind and memories of an elderly person. But imagine if the process was as simple as getting a CAT scan, a non-destructive process leaving the original person undamaged and unchanged.

Would they be the same person? Of course not. After the procedure, they could go their separate ways and have entirely different experiences from that time on. They may be identical people at the moment the process is completed, but they are not the SAME person. Thus regardless of whether this identical clone is created while one is still alive, or their brain pattern is stored and a new clone created hundreds of years after their death, the clone is not the original person, merely a copy.

All of this has fatal consequences for the idea of life after death. An awful lot of doctrines and dogmas and traditions can be cut out of most religions, and still leave behind something recognizable as the original religion. The various Christian denominations, the subflavors of Islam and Judaism, the various Buddhist sects and traditions, all can be considered as groups who cut out part of each others’ beliefs, or insert new ones, to create new faiths still broadly recognizable as part of the larger tradition; Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and so forth. But I can think of no religion that does not have some form of belief in some form of life after death. Heaven, Hell, Sheol, Paradise, reincarnation, Nirvana, even continued existence here on Earth as some form of ghost or spirit, every religion believes that there is something essential about a person that survives their death, and still has some trace of that person’s identity, self-awareness, personality, and usually their memories as well. No religion I know of can survive having the concept of an afterlife removed from its doctrine and dogma, and still be recognizably considered as being the same religion.

If all of our emotions, memories, sensations, and thought processes are, in a fundamental sense, physical processes inside our brains, physical processes involving matter and energy, physical processes that cease at death, then there is zero possibility of life after death. Dead people cannot remember anything, since they have no neural pathways to store those memories, the neurons that made up those memory pathways are dead. Dead people cannot see, feel, smell, taste, or hear, since both the sense organs and the neurons that processed that information are all dead and gone. Dead people cannot experience any emotions, have any thoughts, experience the passage of time. They cannot love, they cannot hate, they cannot feel pleasure or pain. All the brain cells that handle such processes are dead, decayed to dust or cremated and blown away by the wind.

Some religious people claim that this doesn’t matter, that God will provide them with a new body and a new mind in heaven, perhaps one made entirely of “Spirit” or energy of some kind, one that will not age or die again. They claim that God will effectively download a copy of your consciousness and memory as they are at your moment of death into this new heavenly body, whether this process is immediate or delayed by quite some time. But remember what we established with the thought experiment involving the cloned consciousness above: that will not be the same person, merely an identical copy.

Even if there was a God capable of doing this, it would raise a shocking moral question. Go back to that cloned consciousness thought experiment. What if the person being cloned was a convicted criminal? Would it be moral to lock up the clone for the donor’s crimes? Or if the donor was a celebrity or hero of some type, would it be justifiable to give the clone the same honors and awards due to the donor? Not only would a supernaturally-reconstituted copy of a dead person’s body and mind not be the same person, but it would be a horrific miscarriage of justice to punish that copy for the failings of the dead person, to roast the copy in hell forever, or whatever your religion of choice has in store for bad people, just because the dead person that copy is a copy of did something considered evil.

Some religious people have a different objection to the above line of reasoning. They hold the belief that, yes, the body dies and is not resurrected, but that some separate entity, a spirit or soul, does survive after death, and it is this spirit or soul that carries on into the afterlife without alteration or cessation of existence, perhaps being inserted into a new heavenly body or reincarnated in a new earthly one, perhaps not, but having the necessary quality of continuous existence to get around the moral and scientific problems introduced by my above line of reasoning.

But this brings up new problems. Mainly, how does this soul interact with the physical body? In order to do the things that religious people want souls to do, they have to both be influenced by, and influence, the physical body itself. For example, a soul has to be able to “read” the neural impulses in the brain, to be able to experience the world. Souls cannot themselves “see”, or else there would be no blind people. Souls cannot “hear”, or there would be no deaf people, and so forth. It might be somewhat possible to posit a soul that can read the state of a physical brain and experience what that brain experiences, without too many problems with violating physical laws, although the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle may cause some problems. Nevertheless, let’s agree that this question is at best (or worst) an unresolved one given the current state of scientific knowledge, and move on to the other half of this problem.

How can the soul influence the body? In order for a soul to, for example, order a person to “say something”, it would have to cause a series of neural impulses to be generated that would not otherwise be generated. It would have to somehow cause electrons to flow, or cause chemicals to be released, perhaps even create chemicals and release them into the brain. Regardless of the exact mechanism, it has to influence ordinary matter in some form, either moving it, or creating it. This would require a soul to have a physical presence, that is, to include some matter, or equivalently, to possess or have some sort of energy in the ordinary scientific sense, rather than in the mystical “life energy” sense.

Now, it is just barely possible that some sort of “life energy” exists, and is energy in the same sense that electromagnetic energy is energy. After all, two of the four fundamental forces known to science were only discovered and understood in the 20th century, and gravity is still incompletely understood at best. The so-called “Dark Energy” that features in some recent cosmological theories may be a fifth fundamental force, but that is not yet clear. So there may be a sixth. But a physical form of energy, even one as-yet unknown to science, is not what religious people mean when they talk about souls. I doubt religious people think souls have a quantum-mechanics carrier particle like photons for electromagnetism, or gluons for the strong nuclear force.

If it doesn’t, then there is no scientific way that a soul can interact with matter, as any such interaction would violate several very fundamental laws of physics. The laws that would be violated are so fundamental, so well-established, so basic, that for them to be overturned by some new theory of “soul physics” would be far more surprising than some new theory of geotopology demonstrating that the Earth is not round and doesn’t orbit the sun. EVERYTHING we know about Physics would have to be wrong on such a fundamental level that I cannot conceive of any way that any of our technological wonders that rely on these laws being true could possibly continue to function. Everything we know about neurology and biology and medicine would have to be equally wrong, and the mere fact that any of our medical treatments work would be a coincidence of a monumental scale.

Life after death is an impossibly ridiculous concept. Whether we’re talking about reincarnation, drifting about as ghosts, or eternal bliss in heaven and eternal torment in hell, everything we know about physics, biology, and neuroscience says that life after death is a categorical impossibility.

If there is no life after death, all the major religions I know about have to be wrong on a very fundamental level, because all of them have some concept of an afterlife so deeply embedded in their doctrine that it cannot be excised without altering the overall fabric of that religion beyond all sense of recognition. If these religions are wrong on that fundamental a level, then the various deities they worship do not exist, at least not in the form that those religions hold dear. Allah, Jehovah, Brahma, and Yahweh do not exist, at least not in the forms recognized by Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, and Judaism, respectively. There can be no reincarnation, so the various eastern religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism and Shinto are similarly incorrect on a very fundamental level. And there can be no ghosts or disembodied spirits, so even most tribal animism and new-age cults are clearly wrong.

There is still some dim prospect of a vague Deist God existing, but a God who created the universe and then never interfered in it again, not even to the extent of looking after the souls of the departed, cannot answer prayers. Such a God is hardly worthy of the sort of intense worship and praise heaped upon the deities of the various mainstream religions, probably wouldn’t care if we did, and definitely wouldn’t do anything to reward those who did or punish those who didn’t. A “personal relationship” with such a Deity, of the sort that born-again Christians claim they have with Jesus, is a laughable concept. And if and when scientists come up with a theory that convincingly explains how and why the Big Bang happened, even that dim possibility of a Deist god will disappear.



Blogger Instructivist said...

Congrats to Martin the Prolix for weighty arguments.

There is a lot to chew on here. It would be best to have a ruminant digestive system.

12:09 PM, November 27, 2007  
Blogger joskip said...

I enjoy reading this because of the patient way you explain it. If only religious people would take their time to read this seriously and think about it...
Anyway, I happen to know to sources that connect to what you said, and I couldn't help mentioning them.
and the film "the Prestige"
Both enjoyable sources that don't add much, but are interesting.

5:49 PM, August 25, 2011  

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