Friday, 27 March 2015

The indifferent mind of God

It was interesting to see how the recent Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything tackled the most famous quote from A Brief History of Time ('If we do discover a theory of would be the ultimate triumph of human reason—for then we would truly know the mind of God'). In the film, the reference to God came across as a concession by Hawking to the Anglican faith of his then wife, Jane.

But here's what Hawking himself actually said about that 'mind of God' phrase; 'What I meant by "we would know the mind of God" is, we would know everything that God would know, if there were a God. Which there isn't. I'm an atheist.'

Well, as somebody once said, that just about wraps it up for God. What is interesting, though, is the way that Hawking's disciplines of the physical sciences and mathematics do get us closer to something god-like than anything else I can think of. And you don't have to be a Stephen Hawking-level cleverstick to see something akin to 'the mind of God' implicit in the most basic mathematical concepts.

Take Orwell: 'Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.' Although by the end of 1984 Winston Smith is so broken down by the system that when his interrogator holds up four fingers he can make himself see five, even the Party's terrifying power to create its own reality is still subjective.

Even if the whole population of Oceania was to be intimidated or indoctrinated into subjectively believing that two plus two equalled five, there would still be higher truths, omnipotent objective realities, including two plus two actually adding up to four and there'd be nothing that even the most powerful worldly authority you could imagine could do to alter these sort of realities.

In the real world, the residents of Indiana discovered this in 1897:
In 1894, Indiana physician and amateur mathematician Edward J. Goodwin (ca. 1825–1902) believed that he had discovered a correct way of squaring the circle. He proposed a bill to Indiana Representative Taylor I. Record, which Record introduced in the House under the long title "A Bill for an act introducing a new mathematical truth and offered as a contribution to education to be used only by the State of Indiana free of cost by paying any royalties whatever on the same, provided it is accepted and adopted by the official action of the Legislature of 1897"
In the event, the bill (which would have implied that, in Indiana at least, pi would henceforth have the nice, round value of 3.2, instead of being one of those pesky irrational numbers with an infinite number of digits after the decimal point), 'was nearly passed, but opinion changed when one senator observed that the General Assembly lacked the power to define mathematical truth.'

Mmm ... the source of ultimate truth, a higher authority, which controls the universe, immaterial, yet all-powerful, infinite and ultimately unknowable (as in the case of pi), the source of infallible truths to which mere mortal humans can only submit and which they'd be foolish to reject. Does that remind you of anybody? In that sense, even a mathematical ignoramus like me can see how underlying mathematical truths and constants have a lot in common with what religious folk say about God, or whatever spiritual reality they happen to believe in.

Still, however god-like these characteristics are, they don't quite add up to God, at least in any sense that I understand the word (although, heaven knows, there are more than enough of senses of the word).For a start, God is traditionally supposed to be a sentient being, not just a set of underlying constants, however all-powerful. Although, come to think of it, at least one famous scientist, science populariser and science fiction author has played with the idea of a mathematical constant being the 'signature' of a god-like higher intelligence, but that was a work of fiction and any resemblance to real deities, living or dead was purely coincidental.

And for seconds, most believers seem to believe in a moral being who wants you to do certain things and not to do others (although you have the free will to ignore His wishes at your peril):
For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
Romans 13:9.

Unlike the mathematical rules of the universe, these moral ones aren't inescapable - you can't change the value of pi, but you can flout any of the Thou Shalts and Thou Shalt Nots He came up with and some humans have been energetically flouting His rules for thousands of years. Even moral precepts as basic as 'Thou shat not kill', which goes back to Moses and Exodus. And not only have people been breaking these rules in a way they can't break the inescapable dictates of mathematical reality, but the rules themselves have none of the elegant consistency of underlying reality.

The injunction not to kill, for example, gets waived, the majority of people think, rightly, in hard cases (a motorist smashing into a single motorcyclist head-on, when an avoiding swerve would mow down twenty people in a bus queue, killing an armed maniac who is preparing to murder innocents, or soldiers defending against an invading army) and even the Bible implies that the not killing thing is more of a context-dependent suggestion than a rule as such (it doesn't seem to have applied to the Chosen People's, sometimes genocidal, wars of conquest, nor were the faithful expected to refrain from killing those who'd made sacrifices to any god but the true God, or the worshippers of Baal, or false prophets, or necromancers, or blasphemers, or adulteresses, etc, etc).

And, unlike mathematical reality, such moral laws are changeable over time (whatever the Old Testament says about punishment, most real churches these days have harmless things like flower-arranging rotas, not stoning-of-adulteresses rotas like the ones Terry Pratchett's fundamentalist Church of Om organises in his novel Small Gods).

In short, the moral rules have none of the inescapable nature of the mathematical ones. Rather than being inhumanly universal, they bear all the hallmarks of the messy, fallible, exception-laden, frequently-broken, sometimes inconsistent, changeable rules that humans make when trying to govern themselves.

Yes, there is a higher power to which humans must submit - it's called reality and it won't change to accommodate our whims. But that level of omnipotent, objective reality seems to be non-moral and, as far as anyone knows, it's not sentient. When it comes to the messy, complicated business of human morality, fairness and justice, these things have none of the universal, unchangeable qualities of underlying reality, but seems to be changeable, contingent, negotiable, subject to power relations, and fashion. Just what you'd expect, in fact from something created by humans.

If you want to call the universal, inescapable rules to which we must all submit "God", then it seems to me that God cares a lot about things like the sum of two plus two, or inviolably irrational numbers, or the impossibility of four-sided triangles, but is pretty much indifferent to whether we keep the sabbath holy, eat fish on Friday, dress modestly, shun or enjoy sexual relations with people of the same gender, make graven images, believe in Him (Her? It?), commit adultery, go around killing one another, or whatever.

That sort of stuff, He/She/It apparently leaves for mere mortals to work out for themselves as best they can.