Imprimatur me!

In the you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up department, I learned a few minutes ago that I have been quoted, approvingly, in an article published with the imprimatur of the Vatican. This is from a news report that made Slashdot; I have not seen the article itself, which is apparently print-only and is likely in Italian.

OK, yes, I did say, “Hackers build things, crackers break them.” And it’s nice that the author got the distinction right. But as for the rest of the argument…well, since they quoted me to support it, I guess I’m almost obligated to point out that it’s so wrong it’s hilarious.

The thrust of the article is an attempt to argue that the hacker culture and Christian virtue have essential parallels. The irony only begins with the fact that they by quoting me they attempted to derive support for this position from a third-degree Wiccan and atheist whose utter detestation of Christianity (and all other faith-centered religions) is no secret.

But it is in other ways evident even from a secondhand account that the author (one Antonio Spadaro) doesn’t actually understand the hacker culture very well, and is to a damaging extent projecting what he wishes to see on it rather than paying close attention to what’s actually there. Hacker culture, we are told, “opposes models of control, competition and private property”.

There’s just enough truth to that to make it far more misleading than claiming the exact opposite would be. It makes hackers out to be a bunch of fuzzy-sweater communitarians shading over into cultural Marxists. And indeed, hearing this sort of thing from the Vatican is a first – the usual attempts to co-opt us in this way issue from secular left-wingers.

Er, for those of you who also haven’t been paying attention, I am in my own person pretty good evidence that the hacker culture gets along with private property and competition just fine, thank you. If that weren’t the case my anarcho-capitalist politics would look like much more of an outlier than they do. But they don’t, because I am only a bit more outspoken and theoretically consistent than the average in the large contingent of libertarian hackers.

Any of you tempted to dismiss the above as argument by anecdote should remind yourselves of the fact that Spadaro cited me as an authority on the hacker nature. But of the handful of other people he might have cited similarly, I’m pretty sure not one – not even RMS, who’s the closest among our philosopher-princes to an ideological anti-capitalist – would cop to being opposed to private property other than in software.

And as for competition…hackers are a cooperative bunch, but I look around and see a lot of competition going on every day. That the goals are mainly reputational doesn’t make it any less real. Spadaro is, probably, one of these simple-minded thinkers for whom cooperation is good and competition is bad; such people can’t get that to really maximize efficiency you need to play both games well. Hackers play both games well.

To say that hackers oppose “control” is closer to being true, but it’s a pretty rum thing to hear approvingly from a Catholic priest. Hello? Hello? I was a Catholic once. Your religion is all about control; I’d call it the original totalitarianism if the Zoroastrians hadn’t gotten there first. Sin, guilt, dogma, thoughtcrime, and the demand to obey or burn in Hell are what you are made of.

So far, though, we’re in the territory of what I think of as “normal” projection; secular left-wingers utter pretty much the same wrong-headed things about hackers, and about the only change in the counter is that it’s their statist politics rather than their religion that makes their words hollow by being all about control and coercion.

In both cases (the priest Spadaro and any random left-winger) part of what’s going on is a massive disjunct between what they claim to believe about “control” and what they actually manifest in their behavior. Out of one side of the mouth they praise hackers for supposedly being opposed to “control”, and out of the other side they repeat the rhetoric of causes like Christianity and Marxism that are soaked in the blood of people who just wanted to be left the hell alone and uncontrolled.

Again, this is all bog-standard stuff. I’ve watched such people project misty-eyed collectivist idealism on the hacker culture so often that it doesn’t even bother me any more; I just laugh at the idiocy and move on. Where Spadaro takes off into a special, almost unique looniness is where he tries to connect the hacker culture to Christian theological ideas.

Fair is fair; I’ll start by admitting that if you happen to be deep inside a Christian worldview the idea that hacking is “a form of participation in the ‘work’ of God in creation” is at least reasonable. But, er, why just hackers? Why not other kinds of engineers, too? There’s nothing generative here, no account of what makes hackers special little angels or why. Consequently the claim is either meaningless or crazy.

“It’s a vision that is … of a clear theological origin,” Spadaro is reported to say. Right, because theology has to be at the bottom of every virtue. There is only one source of Good, and if you’re not plugged in you are either inconsequential or the enemy. See “totalitarianism”, above. Listen close, because Spadaro’s innocent-sounding claim here is absolutism, evil, and death speaking.

To his credit, Spadaro seems not completely unaware of the contradictions in his own view. The secondary source reports this:

Spadaro acknowledged there were problems of compatibility between the Catholic Church’s hierarchical organization and its focus on a “revealed truth” and the hackers’ rejection of authority and of any hierarchy of knowledge.

Um, yes. When I titled The Cathedral and the Bazaar as I did, the proximate cause was that Fred Brooks had used cathedral-building as a central metaphor in The Mythical Man-Month, and I wanted to challenge the model that book presented on both an objective and symbolic level.

But it was also in my mind that cathedrals – vertical, centralizing religious edifices imbued with a tradition of authoritarianism and “revealed truth” – are the polar opposite of the healthy, skeptical, anti-authoritarian nous at the heart of the hacker culture.

Spadaro wants to pretend that the circle can be squared, that the “problem of compatibility” can be ignored. And he has the audacity to quote me in support. But I know better – and so, I think, do most hackers.

126 thoughts on “Imprimatur me!

  1. And indeed, hearing this sort of thing from the Vatican is a first – the usual attempts to co-opt us in this way issue from secular left-wingers.

    To the extent that any co-opt attempt is rational and/or successful, it’s not about co-opting the hacker — it’s about co-opting the image of the hacker. It’s not about getting the hackers on their side, it’s about trying to convince the rest of the world that the hackers, the new technological thought leaders and wizards, are on their side.

    The rest of it is simply the usual political posturing and brainwashing, which will most likely have the usual results, but to the extent this rehabilitates the word “hacker”, it’s a good thing — in the future, perhaps, if you tell somebody you’re a hacker, he may now look favorably enough on you for you to be able to gently alter his thinking.

  2. “hearing this sort of thing from the Vatican is a first – the usual attempts to co-opt us in this way issue from secular left-wingers”

    Jesuits have a reputation for being left-wingers and despite being a religious order many of them are suspected of secularism.

  3. I have always felt “a form of participation in the ‘work’ of God in creation” to be precisely the spiritual element of hackerdom. No, it’s not any different from any other form of engineering. When I watch Deadliest Catch or Dirty Jobs or any of the other Discovery/Science/History shows about How Shit Gets Done, I feel this same sense of communion with others who participate in creation.

    Human creativity is the Seventh Day of Creation. God may be resting, but we have plenty of work to do.

  4. Congratulations, now you made it!

    More seriously, as an italian, I can provide some more background.

    Officialy, la civiltà cattolica is just a journal published by the jesuits, but is indeed vetted at the highest level (actually, each issue is checked three times: for consistency with church positions, conformity with the relationships of the vatican with other states, and political opportunity).

    It was founded in 1850, and aims to express the catholic position on culture in the widest sense – to substantiate the idea that there is indeed a whole “catholic civilization”, as opposed to the “modern civilization”.

    While very reactionary and anti-secular (and anti-semitic) in the past, in recent times (after the Second Vatican council) it has moved to more and more open and progressive positions, to the point where it often finds itself to the left of several other Vatican institutions.

    Spadaro is a Jesuit (as all the people who work in the journal), a theologian with a degree in philosophy, and he often writes about literature. He is by no means ignorant or deluded, but I doubt he has any direct knowledge of the hacker culture (though he has lived in the states for a while) or even current relevant issues in technology.

    That is not the point though – to an Italian the whole article is clrearly aimed at some other cultural position inside the church. I am not a catholic, so I don’t know what’s going on behind the scene, but I guess Spadaro wants to show that they know what happens in the real worlds, what technology is, what the people are doing on the internet – Spadaro has written a previous article about Wikipedia. for instance.

    If this is correct, the idea that hackers may have something in common with Christians is clearly a provocation aimed at those in the church who pontificate about the modern world but never used a computer in their whole life.

    And indeed, you can buy and download the article here:

    http://www.laciviltacattolica.it/it/quaderni/articolo/2546/etica-%C2%ABhacker%C2%BB-e-visione-cristiana/

    in the italian wikipedia there is a voice about spadaro:

    http://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antonio_Spadaro

  5. > if you happen to be deep inside a Christian worldview the idea that hacking is “a form of
    > participation in the ‘work’ of God in creation” is at least reasonable. But, er, why just hackers? Why > not other kinds of engineers, too? There’s nothing generative here

    well, in other secondary sources in italian I see that he explains that there is indeed a “hacker ethic”, and that it is an important part of there being a ” hacker community”. that would distinguish hackers from other engineers.

    The whole hacker/christianity parallelism may sound ridicolous but in fairness his article (from what i read about it) seems better informed than many similar ones in mainstream computer journals …

  6. Competition is a precursor to cooperation. Competition is how you pick the best offer of cooperation. They are not opposites; they are not separates.

  7. >Spadaro is a Jesuit

    M’kay…

    >He is by no means ignorant or deluded,

    If he’s a member of an order of superstition, and he’s not deluded, then he must be quite the cynic.

  8. Having read both, I’m not sure if either of you really understands the other. To say the Catholic Church is all about control seems strikingly odd, especially in light of the fact that they’ve abdicated political control over Europe to secularists over the past few centuries, and without the usual bloodshed which accompanies purely political struggles. To claim there are no parallels between Christianity and the hacker culture also seems odd, because for most (okay, maybe not you personally) hackers, giving away software we’ve written is merely living out the golden rule.

  9. > If he’s a member of an order of superstition, and he’s not deluded, then he must be quite the cynic.

    That’s an interesting point. As an atheist I find it difficult to take seriously the truth claims *about religion* made by religionists of any stripe. However, in my view this is not to say that believers are ignorant or (at least not unusually) stupid.

  10. I’ll second Tom’s view. I’m not about to call someone else deluded or ignorant merely because they’re a believer in a religion. To do so is to paint with one of the broadest brushes in existence. If people have the right to believe as they wish, then I should not denigrate them simply for exercising that right.

    Whatever else Jesuits may be, ignorant and deluded they are not, at least not in general, and they are some of the best trained thinkers out there.

    In this case, Father Spadaro is misinformed about hackers, something Eric has, hopefully corrected. It would be interesting indeed to see what Father Spadaro does with this information should it reach his attention.

  11. >To claim there are no parallels between Christianity and the hacker culture also seems odd, because for most (okay, maybe not you personally) hackers, giving away software we’ve written is merely living out the golden rule.

    Not an interesting parallel, because the golden rule is not in any sense definitive of Christianity. The same argument would attach hackers to any one of hundreds of other religious and secular ethical systems.

  12. >I’ll second Tom’s view. I’m not about to call someone else deluded or ignorant merely because they’re a believer in a religion.

    Ignorant, no. Deluded is fair, though, in the sense of being attached to false-to-fact or unfalsifiable beliefs But I don’t normally use ‘deluded’ because the word implies only a point failure in modeling the world – you can fix ‘deluded’ by persuading the victim to believe specific different facts.

    “Delusional” would be better. Religious faith is more like the kind of delusional insanity you see in paranoid schizophrenics, in which individual crazy beliefs are manifestations of a systematic and profound distortion of cognition. Changing specific factual beliefs (if you can manage it at all) doesn’t fix this because the victim can and will generate more craziness. It’s not a point problem; something is broken at a level way more fundamental than individual beliefs.

    If we encounter a paranoid schizoprenic who thinks he’s Napoleon, his problem isn’t that he’s specifically “deluded” about who he is; he’d be no better off if he thought he were Julius Caesar. Similarly, it doesn’t make any real difference whether a faith-holder is attached to the Immaculate Conception or Mohammed ascending to heaven on a flying donkey. The problem isn’t with specific beliefs but the anti-rational mode of belief formation.

  13. The problem with that argument, Eric, is that it implies far more brokenness than is usually the case, and carries with it a value judgment that is often far too harsh. That someone believes in Christianity does not, by itself, impugn their rationality or reasoning ability. If it did, there would be no Christians in the sciences or in computing.

    Indeed, it can be argued that religion is, fundamentally, a set of axioms about things that have not been and cannot be proven or derived from what we know as scientific fact. As with any such set of axioms, their usefulness is measured by their results – but one must examine *all* of those results in the case of a person, not just those one wishes to examine. Is a Nobel-winning scientist any less because he’s a Christian?

    Irrationality is a continuum, not a binary state, and one’s belief or not in a supernatural deity is only one of a large number of factors that speak to it – and not even the most interesting one.

  14. Strange reasonings.

    1) The fact that those in (absolute) power become corrupted and end up wading in blood is not connected to any single believe system. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, whether it is the pope or the secretary of the central committee, or simply a former colonel without an official function. Any ideology or believe that promotes or facilitates the concentration of absolute power into the hands of a few will also facilitate death and destruction. That is human nature. The Christians started with a Taliban like priest class and the history of the Vatican has been written largely in blood ever since.

    2) Painting those members of humanity that harbor religious believes “delusional” is attaching a pathology to 90% of all humans. In short, it is not helpful in trying to understand people.

    Rationality and irrationality are labels that only make sense in a certain cultural tradition. All humans can act rationally and irrationally at times, superstitious and orthodox at others. People simply are not consistent in their believes and demanding consistency is inhuman (which makes most theologies inhuman).

    The Catholic church is a prime example of millenniums of incoherent and inconsistent teachings recruited to bolster the power of the Vatican. Jesuits were infamous for their torturing of the truth (and heretics). They were the vanguards of the Vatican to fight protestantism in theology, philosophy and law. The suggestion that the Vatican abdicated power voluntary (by Another Guy) is also rather odd in this light. The Vatican fought this battle every step. With arms if necessary (see unification of Italy). Just look up the policies of Opus Dei for modern examples.

  15. Jesuit Priest quotes Third Degree Wiccan. Film at 11.

    Seriously, though:

    “Delusional” would be better. Religious faith is more like the kind of delusional insanity you see in paranoid schizophrenics, in which individual crazy beliefs are manifestations of a systematic and profound distortion of cognition. Changing specific factual beliefs (if you can manage it at all) doesn’t fix this because the victim can and will generate more craziness. It’s not a point problem; something is broken at a level way more fundamental than individual beliefs.

    I’m not so sure that “delusional” is accurate either, esr. The problem is that there are plenty of people who can and do make a transition from conventional faith-holding religion to atheism or at least agnosticism.

    Now, to be fair, most of the time someone makes this transition, it’s simply a reflection of what they already believe. I, myself, remember observing friends and relatives speaking of their conventional Christian beliefs and thinking them to be silly, from a very early age. OTOH, I have a hard time thinking that everyone who makes this transition did so by the same model I did.

    My logic about this is that there is practically an infinite diversity of people as each individual person is unique, therefore experiences will vary widely. This view generally seems to hold up for most things and I have no reason to believe that religion is any different.

  16. >The problem with that argument, Eric, is that it implies far more brokenness than is usually the case, and carries with it a value judgment that is often far too harsh. That someone believes in Christianity does not, by itself, impugn their rationality or reasoning ability. If it did, there would be no Christians in the sciences or in computing.

    I think you’re wrong on both counts, Jay.

    First, we fail to recognize much of the cognitive brokenness for what it is because, for historically contingent reasons, our society is unusually good at suppressing the overt symptoms of religious insanity. This is what it means to be “secular”; compare, for example Islamic societies that routinely amputate the clitorises of teenage girls. Because we’ve lowered the overt costs of religious insanity, it’s easy for well-meaning people like you to trivialize it and conclude that condemning it is “too harsh”, only to be left without a basis for comprehension when it erupts violently into your world a la 9/11.

    Then, too, much of the brokenness that we haven’t banished is socially rewarded. You and I both live in a society where, if someone claims to have seen the Virgin Mary’s face in the mold at the back of her refrigerator, she gets socially evaluated in a different way than J. Random Schizophrenic projecting his emotional complexes on reality. This, too, misleads you about the costs and consequences.

    As for religious faith-holders in the sciences (I don’t want to specifically gig Christians, the problem is broader than that), they function by compartmentalization – that fraud Stephen J. Gould’s “non-overlapping magisteria” position. In effect, they separate the universe into two causal domains, in only one of which scientific reasoning applies. The problem with this is that the universe doesn’t actually work that way; you can’t be an evolutionary biologist and a young-Earth creationist at the same time.

    And that implies the answer to your question “Is a Nobel-winning scientist any less because he’s a Christian?” The answer is yes, because he has defined a causal domain in which he will not and cannot permit scientific reasoning to apply. There is a fundamental dishonesty about this, a kind of failure both instrumental and ethical.

  17. I liked the last para

    The debate reflects a growing attention within the Catholic Church to the evolution of modern communications technologies, which Pope Benedict XVI has encouraged his followers to harness for the dissemination of the Catholic faith.

    Priests massaging the internet now?

  18. @esr
    > that fraud Stephen J. Gould’s

    OT, but what’s your beef with Gould?

  19. > But of the handful of other people he might have cited similarly, I’m pretty sure not one – not even RMS, who’s the closest among our philosopher-princes to an ideological anti-capitalist – would cop to being opposed to private property other than in software.

    Two questions if I may. First, do you think so-called “intellectual property” in realms other than software (books, music, movies, patents, etc.) has valid claims as “private property?” Second, have you taken a look at left-libertarianism (aka free-market anti-capitalism), probably best described by http://www.amconmag.com/blog/libertarian-left/ ?

  20. In effect, they separate the universe into two causal domains, in only one of which scientific reasoning applies.

    Assuming Hawking’s black hole information paradox doesn’t throw causality out the window. *ducking*

  21. Successful religions co-opt and infiltrate the existing power structures partly by incorporating preexisting traditions. The clitorectomy is no more of Islamic origin than the Christmas tree is of Christian origin. And yet, some who consider themselves liberal view the appearance of the latter at their child’s elementary school as infinitely more evil than an obscenely large number of the former performed inside a culture which is different, yet theoretically equally valid for some specious reasons of fairness and tolerance.

    In short, most of the insanity is preexisting, and, as much as it pains me to admit it, many atheists are just as prone to succumbing to it as some of the most religious people. But I think that this is because, for some, atheism is actually a substitute religion.

    The evil inherent in religion is not the shared insanity, which may well always be with us. Rather, it is merely the legitimization of the refusal to even consider rational discussion about the shared insanity, which obviously makes it difficult to mitigate the worst effects of our nature.

  22. And yet, some who consider themselves liberal view the appearance of the latter at their child’s elementary school as infinitely more evil than an obscenely large number of the former performed inside a culture which is different, yet theoretically equally valid for some specious reasons of fairness and tolerance.

    Not really a good analogy. The root of each problem is different. The root of the Christmas tree problem lies in the separation of church of state: the real root of the problem is that there should be no socialized education. Education should be left up to the free market. If it were, we’d not have this problem and we’d have better education to boot.

    But, given the present education system: both are evil, obviously.

  23. >OT, but what’s your beef with Gould?

    You can start with Eliezer Yudkowsky’s deadly-accurate takedown. Then read the letter by Cosmides and Tooby.

    I can add to this that Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man was a dishonest piece of axe-grinding that both lied and suppressed truths about IQ and psychometry. His account of the early history of the field (most especially the Cyril Burt scandal) was particularly meretricious.

  24. >The evil inherent in religion is not the shared insanity, which may well always be with us. Rather, it is merely the legitimization of the refusal to even consider rational discussion about the shared insanity, which obviously makes it difficult to mitigate the worst effects of our nature.

    Your attempt to distinguish between “shared insanity” and “refusal to consider rational discussion about the shared insanity” is a doomed attempt at evasion. They’re not separable.

    To be concrete about this, you can screw all day around with historical questions about whether female genital mutilation is of Islamic or pre-Islamic origin. It doesn’t matter, and all you will do if you get engaged in that argument is to miss the central moral fact of the situation; millions of young girls are having their pudenda attacked with rusty razors every year and Islamic religion is pinning that custom in place. The people who are committing these atrocious crimes will tell you this themselves.

  25. > The root of the Christmas tree problem lies in the separation of church of state.

    I’m an atheist with children who attended public school. I can tell you right now that I would be in the administration’s face about something like mandatory prayer, but I think it’s inanely stupid for parents to complain about Christmas Trees and Christmas Carols. These utterly fail as tools of religious indoctrination, and people who complain about them are the secular equivalent of Church of Christ or Mormons who don’t want to have any fun and don’t want anybody else to, either.

  26. > Your attempt to distinguish between “shared insanity” and “refusal to consider rational discussion about the shared insanity” is a doomed attempt at evasion. They’re not separable.

    I don’t know. Christian missionaries successfully replaced (some) local shared insanities in many societies with more global ones. One question is if you can do that without religious underpinnings.

    > Islamic religion is pinning that custom in place.

    But if you successfully remove religion from the equation and then you find that the mutilation is still happening (just like in other parts of Africa), what then? Egyptian mummies were found with evidence of this, centuries before Christ, never mind Mohammed.

    > The people who are committing these atrocious crimes will tell you this themselves.

    Yes, but my thesis is that removal of religion is almost certainly necessary but in no way sufficient. If you could wave a magic wand and make the religion disappear, then the mutilation would probably continue. But at least then you would be able to discuss the issue without the conversation ending in “but God said we should do this.”

    Perhaps I should have worded things a bit differently — when I said “merely the legitimization”, I didn’t mean to minimize the deleterious effects of the legitimization, but rather to show that the legitimization is a separate issue than the things it legitimizes. When it comes to fixing the problems, though, I couldn’t begin to say whether it is more productive to address the issues together (see what religion leads to) or separately (where in the Koran does it say you should do this?). It probably depends on the audience, among other things.

  27. >Yes, but my thesis is that removal of religion is almost certainly necessary but in no way sufficient.

    I think I see the problem. We’ve been partly talking past each other because you have ‘religion’ identified with its belief content, whereas for me the belief content is nearly epiphenomenal – what’s important is the religion’s theory of belief confirmation. Is it mystical? Authoritarian? Rationalist? (Rationalist religions are rare but they do exist. I live in one.)

    I previously put it this way: it isn’t the specific content of any religion that is the problem, it’s the anti-rational mode of belief formation. You’re right; if a new faith-centered religion of the Great Luminous Aardvark were to replace Islam in Egypt tomorrow the odds are that FGM would persist. But if Egyptians were to start saying to each other “What is this shit? Voices from the sky telling you to mutilate your daughter is just crazy!”, they wouldn’t simply be rejecting Allah or the Great Luminous Aardvark, they’d be rejecting the whole class of epistemological mistakes that are required for faith-centered religions ton flourish.

    So “removing the religion” in your sense wouldn’t stop FGM. But “removing the religion” in my sense almost certainly would.

  28. > We’ve been partly talking past each other because you have ‘religion’ identified with its belief content

    Not exactly.

    > I previously put it this way: it isn’t the specific content of any religion that is the problem, it’s the anti-rational mode of belief formation.

    I certainly agree that if we could remove humanity’s anti-rational mode of belief formation, e.g. “removing the religion” in your sense, that would solve the problem. But my view of religion is that it is more the anti-rational obstacle to belief dissolution. A fine semantic hair, to be sure, and perhaps not very useful. However, I am slightly more optimistic that we can increase the market share of atheists who work together to try to address that class of epistemological mistakes, than that we can stop making those mistakes altogether.

  29. Pingback: Hackers and Vatican « Owl's Opinions

  30. > As for religious faith-holders in the sciences (I don’t want to specifically gig Christians, the problem is broader than that), they function by compartmentalization – that fraud Stephen J. Gould’s “non-overlapping magisteria” position. In effect, they separate the universe into two causal domains, in only one of which scientific reasoning applies. The problem with this is that the universe doesn’t actually work that way; you can’t be an evolutionary biologist and a young-Earth creationist at the same time.

    Dissing the “non overlapping magisteria” idea with the most overlapping example there could be in geology and biology doesn’t speak much of your comprehension of Gould’s point, right or wrong as he might have been. Strawmenapplaud, though. Being married to a Catholic biochemist, your words sound especially false to me.

    > And that implies the answer to your question “Is a Nobel-winning scientist any less because he’s a Christian?” The answer is yes, because he has defined a causal domain in which he will not and cannot permit scientific reasoning to apply. There is a fundamental dishonesty about this, a kind of failure both instrumental and ethical.

    Is faith really a causal domain?

  31. > Is faith really a causal domain?

    That’s the wrong question. The faith is faith about a causal domain, e.g. if I do these things, I will go to this place, and if I do those things, I will go to that place. The faith defines that domain and then deflects any attempt at rational inquiry about the domain.

  32. “That’s the wrong question. The faith is faith about a causal domain, e.g. if I do these things, I will go to this place, and if I do those things, I will go to that place. The faith defines that domain and then deflects any attempt at rational inquiry about the domain.”

    That example assumes that a thinking adult still clings to a childish interpretation of faith and religion. My wife, to give a quick example, doesn’t accept the basic kindergarten good==heaven, bad == hell; she certainly didn’t and doesn’t let any holy book define her sexuality. Many devout christians are open to rational inquiry about the life of Jesus, for one.

    Granted, you may well be giving me a simplified example. I still don’t think that so many intelligent people are unethical and unprofessional because they believed in something trascendental, and that they were somehow just lucky in keeping the god and the science apart enough that we got gravitational theory, Perl, or chemical elements.

    And from there, it’s a very slippery slope into “No true faithful” territory.

  33. @Patrick
    Yes, you could argue that to be a catholic, in particular, you’d have to accept the Credo, which does state quite a few irrational things.

  34. >Is faith really a causal domain?

    No. Faith is what you do when you self-lobotomize – when you will yourself into a condition of not applying critical reasoning because the psychological or social rewards of believing are so high. The evasive maneuver of trying to split the universe into disjoint causal domains (also found, for example, in the utterly bogus but widely-held belief that you cannot turn an “is” into an “ought”) is not a cause of faith, it’s a strategy to limit the dissonance between what reason tells you and what faith demands.

    But Gould’s maneuver (and the way religiously-inclined scientists like your wife apply it while barely being conscious of doing so) isn’t even honest in its own terms. If the universe were really composed of “nonoverlapping magisteria” they wouldn’t overlap. There’d be no exchange of information, no way to perceive one from the other. What that consummate bullshit artist Gould was actually describing in elevated pseudo-philosophical bafflegab is a social agreement that certain sorts of inconsistency are out of bounds of discussion. And these go way beyond what you incorrectly dismissed as a strawman.

    For example: you can have a universe in which matter/energy in conserved, or a universe in which the will of God can create ex nihilo. You can’t have both. More generally, you can have a universe of causal regularity or a universe in which miracles occur; you can’t have both (the reductio ad absurdam of the contrary position begins with the question “How can I know when the next miracle will occur?”). If you chase the consequences with enough rigor, you’ll eventually discover that there are only two positions that are internally stable: mechanism (it’s all causality and no God) or occasionalism (there’s no causality, it’s all God’s will).

    Want to see how this gets practical? One of the major reasons for the shit we’re all currently is a book called Tahafut al-falasifa (the Incoherence of the Philosophers) written by the Islamic theologician Abu Hamid al-Ghazali in the latter half of the 1000s. He followed out this argument to its conclusion so persuasively that occasionalism became a core premise of Islamic theology, destroying the rationalist tendencies in early Islamic civilization and eventually reducing the Arab world to its present condition of failure, mania, and barbarism.

  35. “in an article published with the imprimatur of the Vatican” – So what? All that means is that the publication is free of doctrinal or moral errors. It is not an endorsement, positive or negative, of the work.

    “I was a Catholic once”. That’s nice, and it’s not the same thing as being knowledgeable about this (particular) faith. Respectfully, you are not. Regardless, if being “a Catholic once” gives you a right to make pronouncements/judgements on Christianity and religion in general, then so long as Spadaro has used a browser or email client at some time in the past, he would be equally capable of making pronouncements/judgements on the hacker culture. After all, “Fair is fair”.

    “causes like Christianity and Marxism that are soaked in the blood of people”. Quite right, esr – only you’re missing the forest for the trees. It really has to do with the biggest collectivist organization there is – the human race.

  36. esr: “the utterly bogus but widely-held belief that you cannot turn an “is” into an “ought””

    Huh? The “is-ought fallacy” is the practice of saying that something IS true because the speaker believes it OUGHT to be true. Are you saying that’s not a fallacy?

    jmm: “the biggest collectivist organization there is – the human race.”

    Wow, projecting your preferences onto your entire species – is that the logical limit of hubris? What makes you think that the human race is either “collective” or an “organization”?

  37. Alex, I’m not sure what you mean by “projecting your preferences”. I’m not really sure I have any preferences yet for myself, let alone for my entire species :P

    The thought process that produced that sentence went something like this (esr, please forgive the injustice of blithely summarizing a portion of your thought):

    esr does not appreciate “causes like Christianity and Marxism that are soaked in the blood of people”, and this has as much to do with the pernicious ideology/creed as it does the collectivist nature of the organizations which push such ideology (hence esr’s anarcho-capitalist politics). He also thinks that the rationale of people who adhere to these ideologies is in error. When I said that the problem “has to do with the biggest collectivist organization there is – the human race”, I was hoping to convey that the problem is less religious or collectivist than human. I do not “think that the human race is either ‘collective’ or an ‘organization’” per se.

  38. >Huh? The “is-ought fallacy” is the practice of saying that something IS true because the speaker believes it OUGHT to be true. Are you saying that’s not a fallacy?

    Wrong fallacy. I was referring to the belief that normative moral/ethical statements (‘ought”) can never be derived from empirical facts about the world (“is”).

  39. >When I said that the problem “has to do with the biggest collectivist organization there is – the human race”, I was hoping to convey that the problem is less religious or collectivist than human.

    And you’re dangerously wrong. It is a form of cop-out that enables damaging, evil ideologies to insist that they don’t actually matter. But if I am a Jew at Buchenwald, then yes Naziism does matter, because memebots running the Nazi program in their heads put me there.

    “It’s just people” is a shoulder-shrug, an abdication of our responsibility to oppose lethal memetic plagues like Naziism. And Communism. And Islam. And Christianity too.

  40. >“It’s just people” is a shoulder-shrug, an abdication of our responsibility.

    As opposed to saying that it’s just a “lethal memetic plague”? :P

    I don’t think that attributing the problem to human nature absolves us of a responsibility to address the problem, or even to solve it. Indeed, I think that would make it even more pressing … it would be far simpler if we knew that we only need correct certain “isms”.

    But to illustrate my point:

    Muslim to Christian: “You’re batshit crazy for believing that your deity is three persons in one.”
    Hindu to both of them: “You’re batshit crazy for only believing in one deity.”
    esr and other hackers to all of them: “You’re batshit crazy for not not believing in any and all deities.”

    From where I’m sitting (in a low-end Ikea chair), there’s a disturbing parallel.

  41. >From where I’m sitting (in a low-end Ikea chair), there’s a disturbing parallel.

    Just because a coffee table and and a wolverine both have four legs doesn’t make them both predators. On the historical record, the monotheists in this hypothetical situation are the ones likely to follow “you’re batshit crazy” with an attempt to kill you. From the polytheist that’s unlikely, and from the rationalist the odds are hard to distinguish from zero.

  42. If you chase the consequences with enough rigor, you’ll eventually discover that there are only two positions that are internally stable: mechanism (it’s all causality and no God) or occasionalism (there’s no causality, it’s all God’s will).

    I think this statement comes pretty close to being a tautology. Consequently, I don’t think the inferences that you can derive from it are nearly as significant as you think they are.

    Imagine, if you will, that your universe consists of playing online games of the Battle for Wesnoth. You have the complete source code to both server and client. The server code draws on some random inputs in order to roll the hit dice, but every other aspect of the game is completely deterministic. This is therefore a universe that you can describe compellingly in mechanistic terms. However, it nonetheless contains a “god”: the server administrators, who by attaching a debugger to a running instance of the server binary are capable of wreaking all manner of havoc. Neither you nor anyone you know has ever seen evidence that they ever do this. The hit dice pass every histogram test you’ve ever run on them, and every other server response has always been exactly as you expect.

    So, is the Wesnoth universe a mechanistic one, or an occasionalist one? Epistemically, the answer is “occasionalist”: the server admins really do exist, they can intervene any time they choose to, and therefore any time that the game conforms to your usual expectations, it is because it is the admins have willed it so by choosing to leave the server alone. Instrumentally, on the other hand, you are well-served by simply disregarding the possibility of “miracles” and optimizing your playing strategy according to strictly mechanistic principles.

    The point of this analogy isn’t to argue in favor of deism. The point is that uttering “mechanism, or occasionalism — choose!” doesn’t win you anything, because the respondent can choose occasionalism while still maintaining a worldview that is both a) self-consistent, and b) completely palatable to all but a small fringe of rationalists like you and I.

  43. # Another Guy Says: “… in light of the fact that they[Catholic Church] have abdicated political control over Europe to secularists over the past few centuries, and without the usual bloodshed which accompanies purely political struggles”

    One what planet???

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thirty_Years%27_War

    To quote from the first sentences: “The Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648) was one of the most destructive conflicts in European history”.

    And as for the consequences of the war (or rather had the war gone differentely), see the inscription on Breitenfeld monument to Gustav Adolf: “**Freedom of Belief for the World, salvaged at Breitenfeld**, Gustav Adolf, Christian and Hero. 7 September 1631.”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Breitenfeld_%281631%29#Battlefield_today

  44. # esr Says: “… the monotheists in this hypothetical situation are the ones likely to follow “you’re batshit crazy” with an attempt to kill you. From the polytheist that’s unlikely, and from the rationalist the odds are hard to distinguish from zero.”

    Of course, people from mass-murdering Robespierre to Russian Commies (who killed off gazillion Christians since “religion is the opiate of the masses”) all claimed to be stone cold rationalists. I bet so did Mao. As for polytheists, see Azteks. I’m sorry, but historical record seems to prove jmm’s view – success of memes that propagate by human violence is inherent in human nature. The only thing that changes is the excuses in the form of the rest of the meme being propagated.

  45. # esr Says: “More generally, you can have a universe of causal regularity or a universe in which miracles occur; you can’t have both (the reductio ad absurdam of the contrary position begins with the question “How can I know when the next miracle will occur?”). If you chase the consequences with enough rigor, you’ll eventually discover that there are only two positions that are internally stable: mechanism (it’s all causality and no God) or occasionalism (there’s no causality, it’s all God’s will).”

    Envision, if you will, the following model of the universe: it’s a very complicated program. Everything in the internal state of the program is 100% causal and obeys rational laws (program logic). Yet, an externality (say, a mediocre-skilled developer who runs said program in gdb and thus can change any variable’s value, or a more advanced programmer who can simply monkey-patch random bits in memory to whatever they want) can affect ANYTHING within the program’s state at will.

    Most “rational” religious persons’ view of the universe is pretty much likely to be similar to that model. At the very least, most agnostics’ would be.

  46. >So, is the Wesnoth universe a mechanistic one, or an occasionalist one?

    The answer is “neither”. You’ve misunderstood occasionalism. In an occasionalist universe, nothing happens except by the direct and immediate will of god. There is no causality. There is no clockwork left running or dice rolling until God intervenes. Insh’allah – “God wills it” – is the only reality there is to anything. This has been orthodox Islamic theology since al-Ghazali’s followers slaughtered the Mu’tazilities nearly a thousand years ago, and is also doctrine in some versions of Brahmanism.

    Your Wesnoth universe is not occasionalist. It’s not actually Deist either, since your premises don’t exclude miraculous intervention after the moment of creation. It resembles most strongly the Thomist version of Christianity, in which the universe is causal punctuated by sporadic miracles.

    Now you’re doubtless itching to reply by pointing out that it’s not possible to tell from inside a universe whether it’s a Thomist one or an occasionalist one in which God chooses to simulate mechanically causal behavior with every moment of his will, except when he lets his ya-yas out with some dope shit like Mohammed’s flying donkey. And, formally speaking, you’re right. But al-Ghazali was a thousand years ahead of you, dude.

    What al-Ghazali pointed out was that he who believes in causal regularity must place limits in his mind on the power of God. This leads to a subtler argument than you probably think is coming. For, you see, al-Ghazali didn’t actually care whether the universe actually has causal regularity; whether it does or not, he says, believing in that regularity would be impious. Science, or natural philosophy (the categories of Ghazali’s day didn’t exactly match ours): Ghazali’s argument is not that it is blasphemous because all is the will of God and there’s nothing for science to study, it’s that even if there are causal regularities, the mental posture you must assume to study them is still intrinsically blasphemous.

    And now you know why the Islamic world hasn’t produced a single first-rate scientist since Avicenna. But more to the point…al-Ghazali’s argument about the psychology of belief and disbelief is independent of unobservable differences between “causal regularity” and “God is faking it”. And it applies to the scientists of our day as well as it did to the natural philosophers of his.

  47. >Of course, people from mass-murdering Robespierre to Russian Commies (who killed off gazillion Christians since “religion is the opiate of the masses”) all claimed to be stone cold rationalists.

    We’ve been over this before; they were lying about that. They were not rationalists but rather worshippers of the state (or perhaps of the dialectic of history). Like other authoritarian monotheists, they didn’t handle competition well.

    Remember, the essentially dangerous thing about faith-centered religions – the way you spot one – isn’t the content of belief but the mode of belief formation. The content of belief may not include the word “God” or “supernatural”, though normally it does. Another example of a religion that apes rationalism in its belief content is Scientology.

    >I’m sorry, but historical record seems to prove jmm’s view – success of memes that propagate by human violence is inherent in human nature. The only thing that changes is the excuses in the form of the rest of the meme being propagated.

    jmm’s view is a popular form of excuse-making by faith-holders who want to deny the evil on their historical back-trail, but it leads to absurd conclusions. According to this view, you shouldn’t object to your child being taught Aryan racial theory by a Nazi. Because he’s a good kid and there’s no way it will ever influence him to spit on Jews and Gypsies, right?

  48. We’ve been over this before; they were lying about that. They were not rationalists but rather worshippers of the state (or perhaps of the dialectic of history). Like other authoritarian monotheists, they didn’t handle competition well.

    No, ers, they were not lying. They were observably more rational than you are, given that No True Rationalist is the logical fallacy known as the No True Scotsman. True rationalists, which you most certainly are not given your predilection for errors of fact and reason, are extremely dangerous as they can justify extinguishing large quantities of human beings for many logically supported reasons.

    For example, it is quite easy to demonstrate that genital-mutilating, female-oppressing culture is perfectly rational in light of the poor demographic performance of sexual equalitarian societies. It is totally irrational to subscribe to female equality if that equality results in sub-replacement birth rates that is mathematically guaranteed to lead to the extinction of the equalitarian society. The fact that your faith in non-existent concepts like equality with no scientific or material basis in fact is not conventionally religious does not mean that you do not have faith or that your faith is any less irrational than the most ignorant and uneducated theist.

    And to DVK, the fact that you are citing one war from 400 years ago is evidence that your case is a remarkably stupid one. Religion has been the cause of around 7% of the wars in recorded human history, and more than half of them were caused by Islam. Only those who are ignorant of military history attempt to criticize religion on the basis of its connection to war. Science is far more intimately and dangerously connected to war, and it should be clear to anyone with a functioning cognitive capacity that if the human race destroys itself, it will almost certainly be science and not religion that is to blame.

  49. # esr Says:”He followed out this argument to its conclusion so persuasively that occasionalism became a core premise of Islamic theology, destroying the rationalist tendencies in early Islamic civilization and eventually reducing the Arab world to its present condition of failure, mania, and barbarism.”

    Progressivism, being godless and this worldly, should supposedly be rationalist, and certainly claims to be rationalist. Unfortunately, progressivism requires the faithful to believe all sorts of things about this world which are quite obviously not true, which in turn leads to a different form of irrationalism: Postmodernism and crimestop – an outcome every bit as disastrous, or even more disastrous, than the faith magisterium invading the empirical magisterium as happened with Islam.

  50. >Progressivism, being godless and this worldly, should supposedly be rationalist, and certainly claims to be rationalist.

    But most forms of it are state-worship as surely as Communism is. The failure modes you describe follow logically.

  51. > Is a Nobel-winning scientist any less because he’s a Christian?

    This may be beside the point, but Nobel laureates are a somewhat arbitrary bunch in this regard. The prizes are awarded for a discovery or a group of connected discoveries, not for general sanity. A lot of the winners are great scientists. Others simply happened to be collaborating with the right people at the right time, and some probably came up with their big idea because of being a little loony. I guess the recent example is Luc Montagnier, who got the prize for discovering the HI virus. Someone else had the idea that there was a new virus going around and asked for Montagnier’s help with the research. Montagnier led the group that then applied relatively standard methods of virology to isolate HIV. He got the Nobel in 2008 together with Françoise Barré-Sinoussi for the discovery. Montagnier went completely off the deep end in 2009, publishing two papers on how dilute DNA solutions can transmit genetic information as electromagnetic waves and that viral infections can be communicated this way. The papers are total bullshit (experimental setups described only as cartoon-like pictures, no proper controls on anything etc.), published in a journal that Montagnier had set up himself and where he was the head of the editorial board.

  52. DVK: The Thirty Years’ War began nearly 500 years ago. That’s more than “a few centuries”; “few” usually means “two to four”.

    Eric: The Thomist universe is the one I’d understood Christian scientists to operate in; to them, their work describes how the universe operates in the absence of miracles. I don’t find this irrational at all, since it simply reduces to the rationalist case if you rule out miraculous intervention.

  53. The answer is “neither”. You’ve misunderstood occasionalism. In an occasionalist universe, nothing happens except by the direct and immediate will of god. There is no causality. There is no clockwork left running or dice rolling until God intervenes. Insh’allah – “God wills it” – is the only reality there is to anything.

    Now you’re doubtless itching to reply by pointing out that it’s not possible to tell from inside a universe whether it’s a Thomist one or an occasionalist one in which God chooses to simulate mechanically causal behavior with every moment of his will, except when he lets his ya-yas out with some dope shit like Mohammed’s flying donkey. And, formally speaking, you’re right. But al-Ghazali was a thousand years ahead of you, dude.

    I’ve properly understood occasionalism but misunderstood your point about it. The objection that you’ve correctly anticipated is exactly why I structured my analogy the way I did: from in front of your computer terminal, it’s impossible to distinguish the aforementioned Wesnoth universe from one in which you only get a response from the server because the admins are constantly and frantically running all the game mechanics on paper and typing the results back at you. I thought this indistinguishability was exactly your point when you described mechanism and occasionalism as the only stable positions.

    For, you see, al-Ghazali didn’t actually care whether the universe actually has causal regularity; whether it does or not, he says, believing in that regularity would be impious. Science, or natural philosophy (the categories of Ghazali’s day didn’t exactly match ours): Ghazali’s argument is not that it is blasphemous because all is the will of God and there’s nothing for science to study, it’s that even if there are causal regularities, the mental posture you must assume to study them is still intrinsically blasphemous.

    But now waitasecond. Getting to that conclusion requires more premises than merely believing in the possibility of miracles. You need to import a lot of other Abrahamic claptrap into your worldview before you can make sense of terms like “impious” and “blasphemous”. If you concede this, then it seems you’ve weakened your assertion quite a bit from what you’ve stated here:

    For example: you can have a universe in which matter/energy in conserved, or a universe in which the will of God can create ex nihilo. You can’t have both. More generally, you can have a universe of causal regularity or a universe in which miracles occur; you can’t have both (the reductio ad absurdam of the contrary position begins with the question “How can I know when the next miracle will occur?”). If you chase the consequences with enough rigor, you’ll eventually discover that there are only two positions that are internally stable: mechanism (it’s all causality and no God) or occasionalism (there’s no causality, it’s all God’s will).

    You’ve gone from “there are only two positions that are internally stable” to “there are only two positions that are internally stable for Islam and maybe the other Abrahamics“.

  54. >Eric: The Thomist universe is the one I’d understood Christian scientists to operate in; to them, their work describes how the universe operates in the absence of miracles. I don’t find this irrational at all, since it simply reduces to the rationalist case if you rule out miraculous intervention.

    Yeah, but that “if you rule out miraculous intervention” is a doozy. It means you exile God from the universe, at minimum moving to a Deist position. You can’t do that and still be a Catholic. The contradiction here is essential, not accidental. I’ll develop this point further in my reply to Daniel Franke.

  55. > They were not rationalists but rather worshippers of the state

    ..and in many cases, worshippers of individual tyrants. The Kim family nut-cult in North Korea, and the mostly-defunct Mao cult in China are particularly horrific examples.

  56. @VD:

    It is totally irrational to subscribe to female equality if that equality results in sub-replacement birth rates that is mathematically guaranteed to lead to the extinction of the equalitarian society.

    To the extent that female equality contributes to greater wealth, it would certainly be a factor in low birth rates.

    But even if it were true that, e.g. Burkina Faso is going to take over the world, and even if that’s because they keep their women barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen, you still haven’t shown that it is because they believe in things like female genital mutilation, or even because they allow things like female genital mutilation.

  57. Yeah, but that “if you rule out miraculous intervention” is a doozy. It means you exile God from the universe, at minimum moving to a Deist position.

    Not necessarily. I can see a scientist rationalizing the contradiction by saying that it is not for him to know the mind of God, and therefore there’s lots of reason to describe how the world works in the absence of miracles – and since there’s no way, by definition, to predict the occurrence of a miracle or its effects, they can be ignored in the realm of scientific inquiry, even though (to such a scientist) they exist and are the direct work of God.

    Such a scientist may not be a good Catholic, but there’s nothing stopping him from being a good scientist.

  58. @Daniel Franke:

    Take your scenario a step further. Suppose the universe we experience is a simulation running on some super-duper computer. Suppose we somehow obtain evidence of this (for example, John Walker, of AutoCAD fame, thinks we might eventually see something like round-off error when we are able to probe physics at a small enough scale like the Planck scale). Then the same question arises, just bumped up a level: is the meta-universe that the super-duper computer and its programmers live in mechanistic, or occasionalistic? And esr’s reply still holds: those are the only two stable positions. Of course, you could then ask whether the super-duper computer meta-universe is itself a simulation, in a meta-meta-universe, but eventually this regress has to bottom out: there has to be a “toplevel” where the mechanistic-occasionalistic question can’t be pushed back any further, and where those are the only two stable positions.

  59. Peter Donis: you’re not going to convince me of anything this way because I think that the simulation argument, and in particular its premise of substrate independence, is bullshit. An apple is not a simulation of an orange just because you can construct a homomorphism from the states of one to the states of the other.

  60. >You’ve gone from “there are only two positions that are internally stable” to “there are only two positions that are internally stable for Islam and maybe the other Abrahamics“.

    You’re right, and any confusion this has caused is my fault. There are actually two interrelated prongs to my argument, because the Thomist position is unstable in two distinct but related ways. Both of them apply to Christian-believing scientists.

    I covered one kind of instability (let’s call it the “psychological” one) in my last comment to you. You haven’t quite got the scope on it right; it actually bites any religion in which questioning the omnipotence of God violates a core article of belief. This category includes the Abrahamic religions, but also a number of others I won’t distract us right now by listing. The instability is closely related to what in Christian theology is called the problem of theodicy and, yes, it would be a problem for Christian scientists in the absence of evasive strategies like “non-overlapping magisteria”.

    The other kind of instability is the one I originally referred to; I’ll call it “causal-regress instability” for reasons which will soon become obvious. OK. Suppose you think you live in a Thomist universe: that is, it obeys causal regularities but God can miraculously intervene at any time. There’s an implied separation between the causal universe, which has rules and runs predictably unless God screws with it, and the mind of God which is outside that system – causing, but uncaused.

    The reduction to absurdity of this position is very simple and formally similar to the standard counter to the First Cause argument. It starts with the following question: in what possible worlds can I expect causal regularity to continue in the future? Or, to come at it from an opposite and perhaps more revealing direction, when can I expect the next miracle to disrupt my ability to reason causally?

    There are only two possible answers: either you can predictively model the occurrence of miracles or not. If you cannot do it, welcome to occasionalism. Creation ex nihilo could scupper conservation laws at any time; you no longer have any warrant to believe causality at all. Game over, science is done with, insh’allah. This is where al-Ghazali and orthodox Islamic theology require you to land.

    Christian scientists don’t think this way. They carry a semiconscous premise that miracles are rare and mostly happened in the far past. They don’t expect to see any themselves, so they can maintain an investment in causal theories. But there’s a trap here they don’t notice. Any theory about the predictability of miracles in necessarily a causal model of the mind of God. Leaving aside al-Ghazali’s charge of impiety, this does something much more fundamental; it co-opts God, or at minimum some portion of his godly mind, into causality. I mean, sure God could change his mind about the rules he follows at any time – but by hypothesis that’s exactly the same position he’s in with respect to the causal universe.

    Now, reset. Define causal-universe-prime as our plain old phenomenal causal universe plus the portion of the mind of god we can model predictively, and God-prime as the uncaused causer. Now, re-ask the original question: when can I expect the next miracle to issue from the mind of God-prime and disrupt my ability to reason about either the causal universe or the piece of the mind of God that we sliced off and added to it in the previous round? Lather, rinse, repeat….

    When you run this loop to completion there are are only two possible outcomes. Either God is a robot – we’re actually in a mechanistic universe with a peculiar sort of mechanism at the top – or we reach a point at which we stop being able to slice more causal regularity off the mind of God. In the former case, game over and the rationalists win.

    But in the latter case, the occasionalists still win! To see this, suppose we’ve extracted a bunch of causal regularity out of the mind of God and arrived at a justified belief that there will be no miracles inside the orbit of the planet Saturn for the next five thousand years.

    Fine, you say. Thomism works. And I reply: Er, yes, until it doesn’t. All I have to do is take you outside the orbit of Saturn to re-pose the question we started with. Logically, any other causal condition on the ability of God to produce miracles has the same problem. Either God is a robot or al-Ghazali gets the last laugh after all.

    Notice the kicker: God doesn’t have to be omnipotent, omnibenevolent, or anything else Abrahamic for this reductio to work.

  61. >Such a scientist may not be a good Catholic, but there’s nothing stopping him from being a good scientist.

    Bingo. It is necessarily true that either his religion is defective or his science is. You’ve just, actually, conceded my original point. Not the general one about Thomism but the one about nonoverlapping magisteria being an unsustainable evasion.

  62. >Either God is a robot or al-Ghazali gets the last laugh after all.

    Sorry, on rereading I realized I left out a step. If, after running the causal regress to termination, you still have an uncaused kernel of God, and that God is capable of miraculously intervening, all the predictive guarantees you thought you accumulated are vapor. Occasionalists win.

  63. When you run this loop to completion there are are only two possible outcomes. Either God is a robot – we’re actually in a mechanistic universe with a peculiar sort of mechanism at the top – or we reach a point at which we stop being able to slice more causal regularity off the mind of God. In the former case, game over and the rationalists win.

    It seems to me that rationalists don’t really win here, because Thomists still have this dodge available to them:

    Sure, in principle you could construct a deterministic model of the mind of God, but that model would be vastly more complex than anything that mere humans can hope to reason according to. That doesn’t mean that we can’t make good guesses about some limited aspects of that model. 99.999999999% of the time, things seem to follow the model that physicists tell us about fairly closely. If God addressed me one morning to wish me happy birthday and gave me a flying donkey as a present, I’d be quite startled, but I can’t completely rule out the possibility that he’ll do so, because the predictive model I’m using to tell me this probably won’t happen is only an approximation of the true mind of God. So, while I concede to you that the cosmos as a whole is mechanistic, Thomism is a better description of the slice of it that we humans can experience.

  64. >So, while I concede to you that the cosmos as a whole is mechanistic, Thomism is a better description of the slice of it that we humans can experience.

    That’s a clever dodge. Now go read Charles Stross’s Accelerando, watching for the phrase “weakly Godlike entity”. Stross argued, in some pointed and rather funny ways, that your hypothetical Thomist’s argument applies to any entity with an information-processing capacity sufficiently larger than a human’s – er, even if it started out life as a stuffed animal.

    Accordingly, a Thomist making this argument can use it to gain tactical victory only at the expense of massive strategic failure. Suddenly, the universe is potentially full of gods – and by hypothesis, humans are not actually capable of distinguishing between weakly Godlike “fakes” and the Abrahamic creator-deity the Thomist believes exists and is performing his apologetic for.

  65. If you happen to be the Medieval catholic church, this is not a strategic failure at all:

    You’re not capable of distinguishing between the weakly Godlike fakes (Satan and his minions) and the real thing? Damn skippy, you’re not! That’s why you have us here to help! Why can you trust us? Because We Say So and if you don’t agree we’ll burn you at the stake — and because the true God is omnibenevolent, so He wouldn’t have allowed us to come into that position of power unless we were truly following him.

  66. “Accordingly, a Thomist making this argument can use it to gain tactical victory only at the expense of massive strategic failure. Suddenly, the universe is potentially full of gods – and by hypothesis, humans are not actually capable of distinguishing between weakly Godlike “fakes” and the Abrahamic creator-deity the Thomist believes exists and is performing his apologetic for.”

    So… Exactly where we are right now, with different religions all over the place, many of them ignoring or acknowledging each other cordially.

  67. @Daniel Franke: But wasn’t the original premise for your scenario essentially the premise that “our universe” is a simulation? If not, what are the server admins doing there? In my statement of the scenario, the “server admins” are just the people in the meta-universe who are running the super-duper computer, and can inject arbitrary code into the process that’s running our universe, thereby arbitrarily changing or violating its “laws of physics”. Logically, the two statements of the scenario, yours and mine, seem to me to be equivalent. So my argument should equally well apply to the “server admins” in your statement of the scenario, and the “world” that they live in.

  68. Peter Donis:

    The difference in my analogy is that you-in-the-Wesnoth-universe and you-in-the-meta-universe are still made of the same stuff: a bag of meat sitting in front of a computer terminal. In the simulation argument, only in the simulated universe are you a bag of meat; in the universe doing the simulation, you’re a bag of bits instead.

  69. @Daniel Franke:

    In the universe doing the simulation, I am *not* a “bag of bits” if by that you mean I am a purely abstract thing. I still have to run on hardware; it’s just not the hardware that I, inside the simulation, *think* I am running on. And my ability to maintain the illusion that I am in a universe that somehow admits a middle ground between mechanism and occasionalism lasts only as long as I don’t know that the hardware I’m actually running on is not the same as the hardware I think I’m running on; once I realize what hardware I am actually running on, and become aware of the causal connection between my simulated universe and the meta-universe, I can exploit that connection to predictively model the meta-universe just as I do the simulated universe–which includes being able to now predictively model “bugs” in the simulation, based on my knowledge about the programmers in the meta-universe, that I could not even consider modeling before, when I didn’t realize “my” universe *was* a simulation.

    So there still is no essential difference between your and my statement of the scenario. The “me” in the simulated universe *is* made of the same “stuff” as the “me” in the meta-universe; it’s just that I don’t know it (yet) in my version whereas I presumably do know it in your version. But that’s irrelevant to the main point concerning whether or not there is a stable middle ground between mechanism and occasionalism.

  70. Peter Donis:

    In the universe doing the simulation, I am *not* a “bag of bits” if by that you mean I am a purely abstract thing. I still have to run on hardware; it’s just not the hardware that I, inside the simulation, *think* I am running on.

    Nonetheless, the relationship between the states of the silicon and the states of the meat remains purely abstract and is not uniquely determined. There’s nothing determining whether the computer is simulating universe A or universe B, so long as universes A and B both have little enough information content that they fit in the computer’s memory.

  71. @Daniel Franke:

    Huh? The computer certainly knows which process it’s running at any given time step (the universe A one or the universe B one), and the sysadmins for the computer can certainly distinguish them (for example, by running top–supposing for a moment they are doing the simulation on a Unix system, heh–to see whether universe A or universe B is using more CPU). If you mean the relationship isn’t logically *guaranteed*, of course not; it’s arbitrarily determined by the programmers who wrote the code and the sysadmins who set up the program to run on the computer. But “arbitrarily determined” is not the same as “purely abstract”. Once concrete instances of each program are up and running, the relationship, for those particular instances, is concrete and unique.

    It’s true that, purely from *inside* a given simulation, you can’t tell anything about the “meta” process that’s running it. There has to be some way for information about the meta universe to get to you inside the simulation. But the same is true of your scenario; if I’m just sitting playing Battle of Wesnoth, I don’t know, from inside the game, whether the server that’s running it is in the US or France or China or wherever, or whether I’m talking to a single server process or a bunch of different ones, and so on. But if I can step outside the game, I can look in the settings and see what server URL I’m talking to, and run nslookup to get its IP address, and use geolocate to find out where it is physically. If I want, I can call up the server admins and ask for the PID of the server process that’s talking to my instance of the client. And if I’m in a whole universe that’s simulated, but I *know* it’s simulated, I can look for ways to acquire similar information about the meta universe.

  72. Once concrete instances of each program are up and running, the relationship, for those particular instances, is concrete and unique.

    No it isn’t. It is unique only when the minds of the programmers are taken into consideration, in order to establish understandings such as “the floating point value at memory address 0xDEADBEEF corresponds to the magnitude of the force acting on whatever matter is occupying the space at coordinates (x,y,z)”. What the program is doing is giving the programmers information — perhaps complete information — about what the simulated universe would do if it actually existed. That’s not the same as causing it to exist!

  73. @Daniel Franke:

    Ok, I understand better where you’re coming from. A couple of comments:

    (1) Since I’m a physicalist, taking the minds of the programmers into account doesn’t change what I was saying, it just makes it more complicated to state it. The programmers’ minds are also physical things in the meta-universe, as are the interactions between those minds and the states of the computers that give “meaning” in your sense to the computer states. So to be more accurate in stating my scenario, I could have said that the relationship is concrete and unique when the full web of causal interactions is taken into account, including those between the programmers (and sysadmins) and the computers running the simulation.

    (2) In fact, the actual “meaning” of, for example, the floating point value at memory address 0xDEADBEEF is *not* determined by what the programmers intended it to be. It is determined functionally by how the value at that memory address actually affects, causally, the sequence of events inside the computer (including other events inside the simulation). Put briefly, if the value at that memory address doesn’t “act like” it means the magnitude of the force acting on matter at coordinates (x, y, z), then it doesn’t *mean* that, even if the programmers intended it to. The programmers may have made a mistake.

    (3) The simulated universe is perfectly real in the sense that it is running on hardware–the super-duper computer. Minds within that simulated universe are therefore also running on hardware (though not the hardware they think they are running on). My mind and yours are also running on hardware. If you think there’s an essential difference between the cases that makes our minds “real” and the minds in the simulation “not real”, what is that difference?

  74. Peter Donis:

    I don’t object to points (1) and (2), so I’ll just address this question from (3):

    If you think there’s an essential difference between the cases that makes our minds “real” and the minds in the simulation “not real”, what is that difference?

    I take the statement “I’m a physicalist” (I am too) to include the belief that qualia are the product of physical processes. So, let’s apply that here. I’m happy at least to accept for the sake of argument, and perhaps be legitimately convinced, that there is a real mind present in that simulation. However, given that this mind is being operated by completely different physical processes than the mind that you are purporting simulate, why would you suppose that being one mind feels anything at all like being the other?

  75. I probably could have been slightly more clear. For

    that there is a real mind present in that simulation

    substitute

    that there is a real mind present in that simulator

  76. @Daniel Franke:

    I agree with your working definition of “physicalist”. As I read your argument, it sounds to me like the argument John Searle makes, that human brains have “causal powers” that computers simply can’t simulate. Some things to consider:

    (1) Why is it necessary that being the simulated mind should feel anything like being your mind or my mind? Surely the fact that it feels like anything at all is enough?

    (2) The simulation does not have to be at a level of granularity that is at all relevant to the mental processes. Suppose the super-duper computer is powerful enough to simulate a universe equivalent to our own at the Planck scale. At the level of our mental processes, how could it possibly make a difference whether the Planck scale stuff is the “real” bottom level or is simulated? That level is so far below the level of our mental processes that any variation there will be swamped by variation at higher levels that we already know is present in our thinking brains (for example, any variation at the Planck scale is swamped, by many, many orders of magnitude, by thermal noise in your brain, and thermal noise in your brain clearly doesn’t prevent you from having a mind).

  77. >I agree with your working definition of “physicalist”. As I read your argument, it sounds to me like the argument John Searle makes, that human brains have “causal powers” that computers simply can’t simulate.

    I agree with this criticism, and note that I find it a very surprising error to hear coming from Daniel.

  78. @Daniel: Our posts crossed in the mail, so to speak. I think my considerations still apply, but maybe I should amend item #1. You are saying that, even if there is a “real mind” present in the *simulator*, we can’t assume it’s “the same” as the simulated mind inside the simulation.

    But I’m not sure there are actually two minds present; after all, there is only one physical process present (the simulation, or the part of it that purportedly simulates the “simulated” mind). For that process to be called a mind at the level of the meta-universe (which is what I take you to mean by “a real mind present in that simulator”), it would have to interact directly with the meta-universe, not just with the simulation, *and* its interactions with the meta-universe would have to be causally isolated enough with its interactions with other elements of the simulation that we could justifiably partition the process off into two distinct “things”, one a “mind in the simulator”, interacting with the meta-universe, and the other a “mind in the simulation”, interacting internally inside the simulation.

    If we did something like that, then I would agree that there could be two distinct minds present; but I still don’t see that it would rule out the possibility that the mind “in the simulation” was itself a real, genuine mind, separate from the “mind in the simulator”.

    If, on the other hand, there is only supposed to be one, unified “mind” process running in the simulator, then that process is one mind, which may or may not be able to interact with (and thus “know about”) both the simulated universe and the meta-universe. That depends on how it’s implemented. But either way, it would be a single mind because it’s a single unified physical process. Being that mind still might not feel anything like being you or being me, but it would be a mind.

  79. Searle argues that intelligence requires biology. I’m arguing that human consciousness requires biology. I don’t agree with Searle because I don’t think that intelligence requires consciousness.

    I don’t understand point (1) at all. If the simulator for my brain outputs different qualia than my brain does, then obviously you’re not simulating it properly.

    The only thing I think you’ve shown by point (2) is that modeling a mind is a simpler problem than modeling everything down to the Planck scale that goes on within the confines of a brain. I don’t object to that, nor do I see that it undermines anything I’ve asserted.

  80. Our posts crossed again; I posted my last comment before I saw either of the previous two. Peter, I’m still digesting yours. Eric, if me previous post wasn’t enough, let me clarify further: I’m not arguing against the Church-Turing thesis. I don’t think that the human brain can compute anything that a Turing machine can’t. What I’m saying is that you need a biological brain to generate the sort of qualia that humans are accustomed to experiencing. I am not claiming that a computer based in some other medium cannot reason about everything that goes in a biological brain, including what qualia a brain generates.

  81. @Daniel: I may not have been clear enough about how I’m using the term “simulation”. I’m not trying to say that the mind in the simulation is trying to simulate any specific “real” mind. I’m just saying that there is a process running in the simulation that qualifies as a mind “within the simulation”, even if it’s not the same mind as any other and not “trying” to be.

    My point (1) (I didn’t number points in my last post, but I take you to be referring to the part about two “separate” minds, one “in the simulator” and one “in the simulation”) was just saying that the process running in the simulation that qualifies as a mind “within the simulation” does not have to have any direct knowledge or contact with the meta-universe. That doesn’t stop that mind from having qualia–it just means the qualia will be about things in the simulation, instead of things in the meta-universe.

  82. >What I’m saying is that you need a biological brain to generate the sort of qualia that humans are accustomed to experiencing.

    Ah, I see. I agree with that, actually – though there are some serious technical problem lurking in the nearby weeds. I’ll reread with that interpretation in mind.

  83. @Daniel: Understand you’re still digesting, but a question about your response to esr: Would a simulation at the Planck scale of a biological brain be able to generate the same qualia as a “real” biological brain?

  84. Peter: Not if we’re still talking about a simulator composed of silicon chips, no. I agree with you that Planck-level details are irrelevant.

  85. I consider stupid to comment a 14 pages article written after studying a lot and trying (as much as I can) to be respectful, if you haven’t read it. Just stupid.

    News agencies, you know, usually tend to create debates, contrasts, they write blank and white when the reality has colors, vivid sometimes, and grays, nuances. I’m really surprised and upset to see my work read by you in such a way. I quoted you, of course, but, please, don’t pretend to know how if you haven’t read it. My article is on line full text on my blog and you can read it with Google translator if you like. It’s here: http://www.cyberteologia.it/2011/03/etica-hacker-e-visione-cristiana-ecco-larticolo-full-text-apparso-su-la-civilta-cattolica/ You can download it also in pdf format.

    So don’t be so arrogant before having read it. I’ve NEVER quoted you in a way that makes your answer reasonable. I love your writings but this doesn’t mean I completely agree with you so in my article I made distinctions, I put questions and so on… we comes from different cultures and that’s fine, that’s great. But it doesn’t mean we can’t talk, we can’t share things and even point of views. Don’t be so simple minded to trust just news agencies, ok? Very nice you consider me a left-winger! Wow! Tell me where you find this great piece of news out! And know that I’ve never praised you because you are opposed to control. Read the article and you’ll get the evidence of the contrary. So you vented your anger for nothing. And thanks for accuse me of absolutism, evil and death speaking! oh, wow! 8-/ Thanks, buddy!

    Anyway… I’ve NEVER quoted you in support of a compatibility. I’ve just quoted you when I tried to explain to my reader what the word “hacker” means and to explain their “philosophy”. Just that. I quoted Larry Wall and Tom Pittman NOT you when I wrote about Christianity and hackers. Ok? I even criticized you (after having appreciated your writings which I still think are great stuff) for the simplistic use of the metaphor! As I did a bit also about what Pekka Himanen wrote about Academia and Monastery in his great book I quoted more than yours since he quote the Bible, Augustin, Dante… Does it sound better to your ears? Hope so.

    But, please, please, please, don’t trust secondary sources. I think it’s inappropriate.

  86. @Daniel Franke: I didn’t specify what the simulator was made of; I just specified that it can simulate a biological brain at the Planck scale. That was to ensure that the grain level of the simulation was (as you agree) way, way below any level where it might make a difference. I don’t think such a super-duper simulator could be made out of silicon chips, but that’s not the question I asked. The question I asked was: can such a simulator, regardless of what it was made of (but of course it would have to be made of something that could run a simulation of a biological brain at the Planck scale), generate the same qualia (more precisely, the same sort of qualia, the sort of qualia that humans are accustomed to experiencing) as a “real” human brain? I’m not trying to specify what kinds of materials can support such a simulation (as I said, I agree silicon chips probably can’t); I’m trying to understand what you think the requirements are for being able to generate qualia of the sort humans are accustomed to experiencing.

  87. Peter, I think we need to explicitly define and settle on common vocabulary before we can productively take this conversation any further. I suspect that once we do so we’ll find out that we’re furiously agreeing with each other. I’ll make an attempt at proposing such vocabulary later in the day.

  88. >Very nice you consider me a left-winger!

    Nope. Didn’t do that. Just said you were emitting a kind of rhetoric I associate with secular leftists. I found this surprising.

    >And thanks for accuse me of absolutism, evil and death speaking!

    That I won’t back down from. As long as you insist that every virtue must be grounded in your trademarked theological version of absolute truth, you are speaking the kind of language that creates genocides. If it makes you feel any better, consider it a criticism aimed not at you personally but at your religion.

    >But, please, please, please, don’t trust secondary sources. I think it’s inappropriate.

    I’m reading the article now.

  89. > Just said you were emitting a kind of rhetoric I associate with secular leftists. I found this surprising.

    Again, Eric: you found what the news agency let you understand of my essay as… emitting a kind of rhetoric you associate with secular leftists

    >As long as you insist that every virtue must be grounded in your trademarked theological version of absolute truth, you are speaking the kind of language that creates genocides. If it makes you feel any better, consider it a criticism aimed not at you personally but at your religion.

    I said that? Where? In my article? And I doubt that genocides come from a vision about the virtues. Anyway, that’s what you think. It’s ok.

    I leave you reading for now… I’m gonna hit the hey in a bit. Let me know.

  90. We consider two universes: a simulator universe and a simulated universe. The simulated universe is exactly that — simulated — and we make no claim about its actual existence. The simulated universe is notionally inhabited by at least one sentient being who can experience qualia. You’ll need to understand the terms “sentient being” and “qualia” intuitively because I have no idea how to define them rigorously and neither does anyone else. The law of physics in the simulator universe and the simulated universe are either identical, or sufficiently similar that it’s still possible to make sense of the notion that the simulator universe in some configuration notionally produces the “same” qualia as the simulated universe actually would in some analagous configuration. A sentient being in the simulated universe notionally experiences time in a totally-ordered fashion, and at any given point in the being’s timeline he is notionally experiencing a certain set of qualia. For any given point in the being’s timeline, some subset of the simulated universe’s configuration constitutes the sentient being’s past light cone, and the set of qualia he is notionally experiencing at that moment is a function of the configuration of that light cone.

    In the simulator universe, there is a computing device whose configuration (considered abstractly) moves through a series of discrete states. Each of these states corresponds to the configuration of a simulated sentient being’s past light cone at some point in the sentient being’s timeline, and later states correspond to later points in the timeline.

    We say that the computing device QUALITATIVELY MODELS the sentient being if there exists (in the formal mathematical sense of “exists”) a computable function which, given inputs of a) the contents of the computing device’s memory when it is at a given state and b) a description of a quale, decides whether the being is experiencing that quale at the point in his timeline which that state corresponds to.

    We say that the computing device EFFECTS a sentient being if while it is in the physical process of transitioning from state T to state T+1, it causes a sentient being in the simulator universe to experience all the same qualia that a simulated being qualitatively modeled by the computing device would notionally experience over the corresponding interval in his timeline.

    Now, consider the following two hypotheses:

    I. A computing device can take a wide variety of physical manifestations while still effecting the same sentient being.

    II. Any computing device which qualitatively models a sentient being effects that same sentient being.

    I’ll call (I) the weak hypothesis of substrate independence, and (II) the strong hypothesis of substrate independence.

    Now, I claim:

    1. That both the strong and the weak substrate independence hypotheses are false.

    2. That the fine details of my model of physics and model of computation are inessential: that given any straightforward modification to these models, both substrate independence hypotheses remain false.

  91. Daniel, before responding to anything else, I want to make sure I understand the intent of your definition of when a computing device EFFECTS a sentient being. You say “a sentient being in the simulator universe”, but does that just mean that the computing device itself, and therefore any program running on it, is an object in the simulator universe, or do you mean that there must be a separate object in the simulator universe that somehow “mirrors” the state of the computing device in such a way that the sentient being embodied in that object experiences the same qualia that the computing device is qualitatively simulating?

  92. Peter: In the obvious case, the sentient being is part of, or even identical to, the computing device — but I don’t think it’s necessary to stipulate this. So I think the answer your question is “I don’t care”.

  93. Daniel, unfortunately, your answers are making me more confused instead of less. If the sentient being that the computing device is supposed to effect isn’t a part of (or identical to) the computing device, what’s the point of the computing device?

    I may have been wrong when I said I suspected you were right that we were furiously agreeing with each other. Maybe I’d better offer my own definitions of terms.

    I agree with taking the term “qualia” as a primitive concept that can’t be defined, for our purposes here, in terms of any others; we can only say that “we know it when we experience it”.

    * A “sentient being” is a physical system that generates qualia. (This is just your working definition of physicalism.)

    * A “substrate” is a class of physical systems that all share some particular property or properties.

    * A substrate “can instantiate” a sentient being if the set of properties which are shared by all systems in its class are sufficient for generating qualia.

    Question #1: What substrates can instantiate a sentient being?

    You gave the answer “biological brains” above to question #1. But did you mean “biological brains–meaning the brains that human beings, here and now, have–*only*, and *no* other substrates”, or did you mean “biological brains, like those human beings have now, or substrates that have an equivalent set of properties–which may in principle exist, even if we don’t, now, know of any other such substrates”? The former answer is what seems to be implied by your claims that substrate independence is false; but I would only agree to the latter answer (and I suspect the latter answer is what esr had in mind in his earlier response–though he’ll correct me, I’m sure, if I’m wrong).

    Now for some more terms and a second question:

    * A “simulation” is a physical system that can be viewed as passing through a sequence of discrete states, and for which there is a computable function mapping its states to the states of another system, called the “simulated system”. There are two types of simulations (this is a distinction I didn’t draw in earlier posts and probably should have):

    – A “generic” simulation has a mapping to the states of the simulated system, as above, but there is *no* requirement that the sequence in which the simulation passes through its states be the same as the sequence in which any particular instantiation of the simulated system passes through its states. (This is the kind of simulation I was referring to in earlier posts.) In such a case, it might be better to think of the generic simulation as simulating a *substrate* rather than simulating a specific instance of a substrate.

    – A “specific” simulation not only has a mapping to the states of the simulated system, but passes through its states in exactly the same time sequence as the simulated system. (This is what I believe you have been referring to as a simulation.) In this case, the simulated system cannot be merely a substrate (as defined above); it must be a particular specific instance of a substrate (i.e., a particular, specific physical system, not just a class of systems).

    * The “grain level” of a simulation is the lowest level at which the mapping between its states and the states of the simulated system can be specified. I have been implicitly assuming that “supervenience” holds here, which means that once the mapping is specified at the grain level of the simulation, there is automatically also a mapping at all higher levels.

    Question #2: Given a simulation and its simulated system, and some property possessed by the simulated system, must there be some grain level at which the simulation will also have that property?

    The question I was asking earlier about simulating a brain at the Planck scale was just a particular case of question #2, with the simulation being a generic simulation with the human brain as the simulated substrate, and the property in question being the ability to instantiate a sentient being. My answer to this particular instance of question #2 is “yes”; I suspect that yours would be “no”.

  94. If the sentient being that the computing device is supposed to effect isn’t a part of (or identical to) the computing device, what’s the point of the computing device?

    Think “The Matrix”. I wanted my definition of “effects” to be general enough to cover that kind of simulation, without having to care about questions of where the human begins and the machine ends. But anyway, we’ll work with your definitions. So,

    Question #1: What substrates can instantiate a sentient being?

    I have no idea. For all I know, a lump of granite experiences qualia of some sort. The question I find more interesting is this one: “What substrates can instantiate all the same qualia that a biological brain can?” I conjecture the answer to that question to be “Nothing that doesn’t physically resemble a biological brain down to some very tiny grain level (but not Planck-tiny)”.

    Question #2: Given a simulation and its simulated system, and some property possessed by the simulated system, must there be some grain level at which the simulation will also have that property?

    Emphatically no, and my argument for this is straightforward:

    1. Qualia are physical phenomena.
    2. Reasoning about a physical phenomenon is not the same as causing it. You cannot create new territory by sketching a map of it, no matter how much detail you include in your map, and even if you dash out updated maps at the same rate that your hypothetical territory changes (your “specific” simulation).
    3. The idea that qualia are some sort of special exception to point 2 is bizarre.

  95. I just read question #2 more carefully and realized that it doesn’t specifically ask about qualia at all. So, my answer becomes an even stronger no, and I can refute it without having to invoke the nature of qualia.

    Suppose you’re simulating a very simple universe which obeys a Newtonian gravitation law. This universe has no quanta; matter is homogeneous at all sufficiently small scales. The only objects at the start universe are two perfect spheres in proximity to each other.

    I can straightforwardly write a numeric simulation that models this universe down to arbitrary granularity by computing the forces acting on each sphere at a given instant, updating their position and velocity to where they’d be a small increment of time later, and repeating. I assume that “a force of magnitude 5kN is acting on sphere A” is a possible example of the sort of “property” that you had in mind. Well, at no point while I’m running this simulation am I actually causing a 5kN force to act on anything, no matter what the precision of my floating points!

  96. Peter, I have a supplementary reply stuck in the moderation queue. You might want to wait for ESR to get to it before you answer me.

  97. Daniel, I’ll defer a fuller response until your supplementary reply appears, but in the first of your posts in response to mine you use another term that I think needs defining: “physically resembles”. How would you define this term so that a generic simulation, by my definition (a physical system which has a mapping of its states, at some grain level, to another physical system), does *not* qualify as “physically resembling” the substrate it is simulating?

  98. Peter, my supplementary reply was there when you posted; it’s the one about the simple Newtonian simulator. To answer your question about a generic simulator which doesn’t physically resemble what it simulates, consider that same Newtonian simulator, but with only the program logic loaded into memory, awaiting the universe’s initial conditions as input.

  99. Daniel, so does that mean once the Newtonian simulator gets the input and starts running, it *does* physically resemble what it’s simulating?

    I’m sorry if it seems like I’m nitpicking. The reason I’m zeroing in on this question is that, to me, a super-duper computer that is simulating a human brain at the Planck scale *does* “physically resemble” a “real” human brain in the sense required for the computer to generate human-style qualia. The reason I think that is that I can’t think of any way of making sense of the term “physically resembles” that would rule out that case while not also ruling out, for example, the claim (which I would hope we would agree is true) that my brain physically resembles your brain (not that both our brains generate identical qualia, but just that they both generate human-style qualia).

  100. No, it still doesn’t physically resemble what it’s simulating. In order to do that, it would have to contain actual spheres with actual mass.

    For a machine to walk the way a human walks, it must have the form of a human leg.

    For a machine to grip the way a human grips, it must have the form of a human hand.

    And for a machine to experience the way a human experiences, it must have the form of a human brain.

  101. The reason I’m zeroing in on this question is that, to me, a super-duper computer that is simulating a human brain at the Planck scale *does* “physically resemble” a “real” human brain in the sense required for the computer to generate human-style qualia.

    I don’t understand why you think this, unless you mean that it must simulate it in real time, in which case I agree: if you want to simulate any Planck-scale system in real time, you need to build your simulator at the Planck scale or else speed-of-light limitations will get in the way. But, if you take away the real-time requirement and allow the simulator to take a day to simulate a system that would actually run in one second if it were built, then you’re free to build your Planck-scale human-simulator out of silicon or desert rocks or whatever else — but then it would indeed be only a computer simulation of how a human works, and would not be producing human-like qualia while it ran, just like the computer simulation of two-body orbital mechanics is not producing significant gravity.

  102. By the way, lest the accusation return that I’m echoing Searle, here in a nutshell is what’s wrong with Searle.

    Q: If a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears it, does it make an acoustic vibration?

    A: Yes.

    Q: If a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears it, does it make an auditory sensation?

    A: No.

    Q: If a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears it, does it make a sound?

    A: What do you mean?

    Q: Can the Chinese Room pass a Turing test administered in Chinese?

    A: Yes.

    Q: Does the Chinese Room experience the same qualia that a Chinese-speaking human would experience when he drafts a reply to a letter written in Chinese?

    A: No.

    Q: Does the Chinese Room understand Chinese?

    A: What do you mean?

    Searle has made a career out of obfuscating the answer to the second “What do you mean?”.

  103. Daniel, okay, I understand your viewpoint a lot better after these posts. We may not be in complete agreement, but we’re pretty close, and whatever disagreements may remain I think are about issues where there’s no clear answer anyway. A few further thoughts:

    (1) When I talked about a Planck scale simulation of a human brain physically resembling a human brain, yes, you are right, I was implicitly assuming simulation in real time, and I agree that is a crucial requirement. Which leads me to:

    (2) When you say the Chinese Room doesn’t experience the same qualia as a human Chinese speaker would, are you basing that on the fact that the Chinese Room (at least as I understand Searle’s standard formulation) does not simulate in anything close to real time?

    (3) I agree with your characterization of Searle’s tactics. However, I think there is an interesting further question to be asked, which I’ll give along with the answer I glean from your earlier posts:

    Q. Does the Chinese room experience qualia of any kind (even if they aren’t anything like those of a native Chinese speaker)?

    A. Insufficient data for a meaningful answer.

    (4) Regarding your statement about a machine having to have the “form of a human brain”, I think there is another interesting question to be asked (to which I think you would give the same answer as the previous one, but I’ll give a different one):

    Q. At what grain level must a machine simulate a human brain in order to have the form of a human brain?

    A. No exact answer at this time, but the conceptual answer is: at whatever grain level is necessary in order to reproduce all the *functional* properties of the human brain, in real time.

  104. Peter,

    I’m not sure we’re in agreement yet, because I think you’re placing undue weight on the real-time requirement. Suppose you built something that is almost like a human brain, but transmits neural impulses at 10% of the rate a normal human brain does. I think the result would be something that still experiences human-like qualia, albeit like the qualia of a human who has taken some sort of psychoactive drugs.

    Conversely, and more importantly: You could build a human-simulator which reasons about what qualia a human would experience and returns answers in real time, yet does not physically resemble a human and does not experience human qualia. Such a simulator could not correctly model Planck-level details, but we’ve already agreed that those details aren’t significant.

  105. I agree with this:

    Q. Does the Chinese room experience qualia of any kind (even if they aren’t anything like those of a native Chinese speaker)?

    A. Insufficient data for a meaningful answer.

  106. Daniel, I would agree that something that was like a human brain except 10 times slower could still generate human-like qualia, though as you say they wouldn’t quite be “normal” human-like qualia. But somewhere in between that speed ratio and a speed ratio of 86,400 to 1 (your earlier example of taking 1 day to simulate 1 second’s worth of brain activity), you apparently do believe that human-like qualia are no longer generated, and I agree with that too.

    Also, by the definition I gave earlier, something that could reason about what qualia humans would experience and return answers in real time would not necessarily be a “simulation”, since it would not have to have states that mapped directly to human brain states. It could represent the information it uses to reason about human qualia in a form that did not have any useful correspondence with the way human brains represent that information, except in the very weak sense that the answers it returns make sense.

    (I suppose that you could view this as an edge case of my “grain level” definition–the “reasoner about humans” is just a “human simulator” where the “grain level” is the level of the answers it returns–or rather the semantic meaning of the answers it returns. Then I would say that that grain level is too coarse for the “simulation” to share the necessary properties to generate human-like qualia.)

  107. Daniel, I would agree that something that was like a human brain except 10 times slower could still generate human-like qualia, though as you say they wouldn’t quite be “normal” human-like qualia. But somewhere in between that speed ratio and a speed ratio of 86,400 to 1 (your earlier example of taking 1 day to simulate 1 second’s worth of brain activity), you apparently do believe that human-like qualia are no longer generated, and I agree with that too.

    I’m not convinced this is correct but I at least find it reasonable. When I say that the qualia of a brain-like thing running at 10% speed wouldn’t be quite normal, I mean in the sense that it would feel like the external world was whizzing past it and it couldn’t keep up. If you threw the normal human and the slow human in a sensory deprivation chamber, they might not feel any different from each other. But I’d have to understand more about how qualia are produced in order to assert this confidently.

    (I suppose that you could view this as an edge case of my “grain level” definition–the “reasoner about humans” is just a “human simulator” where the “grain level” is the level of the answers it returns–or rather the semantic meaning of the answers it returns. Then I would say that that grain level is too coarse for the “simulation” to share the necessary properties to generate human-like qualia.)

    I think I probably agree with your point here even though I find your categories idiosyncratic. Semantics are all I expect a “simulator” to preserve. If a simulator can give me perfect information about a human, then I think of that as a perfect human-simulator even though it’s not necessarily a human. You seem to be demanding more than that.

  108. > You seem to be demanding more than that.

    For my definition of “simulation”, yes. “Simulation” might not be the best term for what was thinking of; maybe “emulation” would be better.

  109. Eric, did you get the chance to read my article (ok into a googletranslated English…)? Does it sound still so terrible as it did when you got the news from the agencies? I’m quite eager to know what you think about it, I mean about the “real” thing.

  110. >Eric, did you get the chance to read my article (ok into a googletranslated English…)?

    About halfway through, then I had to go fight a fire. I will finish it and respond.

  111. ESR,

    “In effect, they separate the universe into two causal domains, in only one of which scientific reasoning applies.”

    OK I think I finally understand why is that that you are way less tolerant to religion that myself: a similar kind of “two worlds” view I find perfectly normal and necessary for non-religious thinking too, although of course just as a predictive model and not as absolute truth.

    1) See, we live in a world – cities, villages fields – shaped by human beings, with purposes, and we find this human world meaningful because we can understand the purpose, the intent of people who erected a building or cut down a forest: we understand what they meant to do. As there are two levels of understanding, one of causes, and one deeper, one of purpose and intent, and only this second can make something meaningful. ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Verstehen#Weber_and_the_social_sciences ). The difference is largely that in understanding causes, we still stand outside the situation as an external observer, but in understanding purpose and intent, we put ourselves in others’ shoes.

    2) Now, this human world of purpose and intent is embedded in a natural world without purpose, intent and therefore meaning: and because it has no meaning, we can understand it, via science, the causes of things, but cannot grok the meaning of them, because there is none. And when they two overlap and a tsunami destroys a city that was formerly full of meaning and there is none in the event because there was no purpose behind it, of course it creates some difficulties, some tension.

    3) Generally, we can say that for the natural world, non-purposive, causal models are more predictive, for the human world, it is the purpose-oriented ones. Thus we need two system of models, two “worlds” although not in the absolute sense but just as two set of maps, and be able to switch between them. For example, when looking at a painting, we can switch to the map of natural science and examine the materials it is made of or its size or the exact RGB code of the colors used, or we can switch to the human map and tell something about the person whom the picture depicts.

    4) Living in two “worlds” at once creates a certain kind of tension, and there are two ways to resolve that. Either try to explain logic by purpose or intent, and then you have magic, pre-scientific religion, Arisototelean physics, and so on. This works bad, the history of science is exactly the history of getting rid from this magical view of nature. Or we can try to force the purposelessness of the natural world onto the human world and deny purpose and intent in human doings, and then we get behaviourism, a Marxist interpretation of history, the “curve-fitting” kind of macroeconomics, Comtean positivism, and similar things. They do not work very well either, as they are unpredictive, Hayek said a good example: there is very little similarity we find from a natural science point of view between a hammer and a steam hammer. But from the human point of view they are both hammers because people use them for similar purposes.

    Both primitive-magical religion and primitive “scientism” (f.e. behaviourism) tries to unify these two worlds and it does not work well.

    Now, the reasonable non-religious person can do one thing: live with this tension, accept it, and use whatever set of maps are more useful in the given situation.

    Now, the religious scientist does something very similar, he too lives in two worlds. Of course these aren’t exactly the same, but has a similar kind of problem behind it. So when a religious scientist talks about god, I don’t get angry, because I think he means it in a similar sense to when I call what I see on a canvas with brush-strokes on it a person: this is not meant on the literal map of natural sciences but on the human map.

    (I tend to debate with my religious friends, but on a wholly different level. They say god is something that relates to the world as man relates to his thoughts. I say fine, but are you sure you know how man relates to his thoughts – are you sure about your knowledge not about god, but about man, because your assumptions about god seem to depend on it? And then we have interesting discussions about man, from psychology to buddhist philosophy. It seems they do not know that much about man… and here is the ur-problem of religions of belief, not in belief itself, but in belief extrapolated from rather unfounded psychological assumptions about man. Having said that sometimes they say interesting things. One of the most interesting one of them said that the creation the world almost certainly means not making matter out of nothingness but simply creating a point of view, offering a “standard” interpretation of the world. Interesting.)

  112. ESR said: In effect, they separate the universe into two causal domains, in only one of which scientific reasoning applies. The problem with this is that the universe doesn’t actually work that way; you can’t be an evolutionary biologist and a young-Earth creationist at the same time.

    And that implies the answer to your question “Is a Nobel-winning scientist any less because he’s a Christian?” The answer is yes, because he has defined a causal domain in which he will not and cannot permit scientific reasoning to apply. There is a fundamental dishonesty about this, a kind of failure both instrumental and ethical.

    True; you can’t be an evolutionary biologist and deny evolution at the same time.

    But that very choice of examples reinforces Jay’s point (which I unsurprisingly agree with) – outside of the very few areas where Christian dogma conflicts with science, there just isn’t a significant conflict.

    Christianity itself has no inherent doctrinal requirements to suspend scientific reasoning in areas that affect the vast majority of scientific endeavors. (Some sects, naturally, have more, like the Young Earth Creationists and Biblical Literalists who suppose God created the animals fully formed by fiat.)

    (Indeed, for Catholics, there’s not even a conflict with evolutionary biology, since Catholic dogma denies only the evolution of the soul. And since science deems the soul meaningless at best (because-without-evidence), the way evolution doesn’t apply to it in the dogma is less important than the dogma that it exists at all – which itself isn’t really important in evolutionary biology.)

  113. >But that very choice of examples reinforces Jay’s point (which I unsurprisingly agree with) – outside of the very few areas where Christian dogma conflicts with science, there just isn’t a significant conflict.

    Sure, if you define all conflict to be out of scope, there’s no conflict. That’s dishonesty again.

  114. ESR said: Sure, if you define all conflict to be out of scope, there’s no conflict. That’s dishonesty again.

    Not all of it, though – I mean, right before what you quoted I pointed out the most obvious conflict.

    But I said very few and literally meant it.

    I’m not seeing a lot of practical* conflict between Christian dogma (of the Catholic kind, for example, rather than the Worst Possible Example Literal-Bible-Young-Earth-Creationists) and the vast majority of scientific endeavor.

    Yes, the idea of two causal domains is there, and notionally problematic, but nonetheless this doesn’t seem to have stopped Christians from being perfectly good Physicists (or even Cosmologists!).

    And of course in things like the applied sciences, in materials science research, in medical research (outside of the fairly limited areas where there might be a religiously-based moral objection – though of course those have also occurred more or less identically to non-religious people so I’m calling them a wash), computer science (both science-of-computation and the practical materials-and-technologies research), and the whole score of other “scientific” endeavours, and all the Nobel prize areas (since Nobels were the original quotation), Christian dogma doesn’t seem to actually interfere.

    Where is the practical conflict, outside of evolutionary biology?

    (For that matter I’m unclear on what’s supposed to be “dishonest” about a scientist being a Christian (or any other religion that has the same domain issues) – unless you’re defining for the scientist what his responsibilities “as a scientist” must be, in a way that seems unsupportable.

    Scientists are people that do science of some sort; if they’re non-scientific in other realms than the one they claim to do science in, I see no dishonesty.

    If they start to claim that those other realms are ones they have some special claim to speak to because they’re scientists in some other context, then that’s dishonest, sure.)

    (* Asterisked to make it clear that yes, there’s a philosophical tension with the idea of “being scientific only in certain areas” or even “being scientific in all areas except THESE”, but I don’t see how that produces a problem in and of itself in the areas NOT covered by the exclusion.

    In other words, why do I care if a chemist is a Christian? I don’t. It’s not even clear, so far, why I should, or why I should consider him “less” than another chemist who isn’t, in terms of how good his Chemistry is.

    If you meant only that a scientist is “less” of a “Total Scientist” by not being a scientist in Every Possible Way, well… you’re right. But that’s so unlike what what “scientist” means in normal usage that I’m confused by the desire to use it that way, or the amount of caring about it, since I’m not sure, again, that more than a handful of scientists are EVER that.

    If you didn’t mean that then I simply can’t imagine [clearly enough to wish to ascribe it to you even tentatively, at least] what “less” signifies here.)

  115. @sigivald:

    Yes, the idea of two causal domains is there, and notionally problematic, but nonetheless this doesn’t seem to have stopped Christians from being perfectly good Physicists (or even Cosmologists!).

    If they’re perfelctly good physicists or cosmologists, then they aren’t perfectly good Christians. And vice-versa. You can’t have your cake and eat it, too.

  116. @ESR:
    ‘On the historical record, the monotheists in this hypothetical situation are the ones likely to follow “you’re batshit crazy” with an attempt to kill you. From the polytheist that’s unlikely, and from the rationalist the odds are hard to distinguish from zero.’

    Atheists claiming to be rational have killed more of their own people for thoughtcrimes and such in the last hundred years than all religious people have… ever.

    I think you are confusing rationalist with rationalist absent politics. Once you include political action, it becomes rational to kill people with differing views from you as it helps your favored policies and consolidate your power. This is particularly common in african democracies.

    In european democracies the modus operandi is to merely prevent large groups of people from being enfranchised to achieve the same effect. Which why in the 80′s most european nations removed birthright citizenship in favor of requiring that one’s parent(s) be citizens, or that one have a certain racial background to be a citizen.

  117. @Morgan Greywolf:
    “If they’re perfelctly good physicists or cosmologists, then they aren’t perfectly good Christians. And vice-versa. You can’t have your cake and eat it, too.”
    Nonsense, stop projecting your own biases into what it means to be a physicists or cosmologists. There are plenty of good Christians who are also good physicists and/or good cosmologists.

  118. I should add, physics is among the highest (in percent) of the sciences when it comes to believe in a personal God. The lowest is biology.

  119. >Atheists claiming to be rational have killed more of their own people for thoughtcrimes

    We’ve been over this. Marxists are neither rationalist nor atheist, despite pretensions to both – they’re violent eschatological monotheists, just like Christians and Muslims and with even higher threat potential. The dialectic of history, or in some versions Marx himself, acts precisely as a religious focus does.

  120. Pingback: References, references, references! « Jean-Etienne's blog

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