Prayer and Resource Management

February 8th, 2008

Prayer is probably a waste of time in the same way that playing the lottery is a waste of money. It’s a resource management question. I’m not saying it’s a waste of time because God doesn’t exist. I really don’t know. I’m saying that even if he does exist, the chance that he’ll answer your prayer seems virtually nil. Your time would be better spent trying to solve your problems yourself.

However, to keep in the spirit of philosophical speculation, I will admit the possibility that devote faith might allow you access to the favors of a supreme being or maybe even access to some power of your own mind (that might be misinterpreted as divine intervention). It may be that your thoughts are able to influence activity on a quantum level (see my post on Free Will) and, through delicate direction of infinitesimal forces, coax seemingly impossible events into reality. Or it may be that you are just the astronomically lucky recipient of a spontaneous and total remission of your cancer or runny nose. I just don’t know, but when people say God answered their prayers I think of this ancient anecdote:

A Roman general once lost a city to one of Rome’s many enemies. It was later retaken by a different Roman general, but the general who had lost it insisted that his previous administration of the city had played a key role in its successful recapture. The newly victorious general replied, “Yes, of course. If you hadn’t lost it, I would never have been able to retake it.”

Yeah, maybe God cured your cancer, but he probably gave it to you too.

Is Free Will an Illusion We’re Incapable of Disbelieving

January 31st, 2008

There is a logical inconsistency between believing that all things are explainable in terms of science and believing that we have free will. Suppose for some reason you end up in a situation where you are very angry and have a loaded pistol pointed at another person. What will decide if you pull the trigger? Well, ultimately, it is a neuron firing that sends a signal down your spinal cord to twitch your finger. Well, what causes that neuron to fire? There’s a storm of memories and emotions in your head at the moment, all of which have been accumulated over a lifetime and all of which have been encoded in your brain. You could go further if you wanted, down to the atomic level and look at yourself as a computer, but I think my point is clear. Do you have a choice in whether to pull that trigger? If you accept that you’re just a tangle of bio-circuitry or a system of chemical reactions, then the answer is, no. If you believe you do have a choice, then from where is your ability to choose coming? When you follow your actions back as far as they will physically go and get to that final electron on the fence, you have to ask yourself what made it fall to one side rather than the other? Was it pure randomness? Is that then what we’re calling free will? Random fluctuations? Or is there something that is you, some soul, some mind, some consciousness, that gave it a little nudge.

Maybe free will is something analogous to surfing, being carried along by the powerful waves of the universe, but staying on your board and enjoying the ride, doing a few tricks for your own amusement and that of the crowd on the shore. Or maybe it’s just a beautiful illusion–an illusion we are logically incapable of disbelieving. But if it’s not an illusion, if free will truly exists, then at some very primitive level, some elemental level, we must be capable of breaking free from the strict laws of physics–and that has great implications as to the nature of the universe. It would not be unreasonable then to ask, what else there is beyond the physical universe. However, if free will is just an illusion, if all my behavior is governed by the inescapable and unforgiving laws of nature, well, then I apologize for this post, but I just couldn’t help myself.

Maybe Reincarnation is Memory Transfer in a Telepathic Mesh Network

January 28th, 2008

If you think reincarnation is not a belief held by atheists, then you are forgetting one very large exception: Buddhists. Most Buddhists are atheists, but one of the core beliefs of Buddhism is reincarnation.

At the University of Virginia there was a doctor of psychiatry (Dr. Ian Stevenson–he died in February 2007) who had been collecting cases of possible memories of previous lives since the 1950s. He accumulated over 3700 cases. In the cases, the memories almost always emerged in children between the ages 2 and 5 and by age 8 the “memories” were completely forgotten. In his research he examined the children, their parents, the families of the “previous personality”, and police and medical records to try to corroborate the stories. By his own admission, he did not have a firm belief in reincarnation but he said that “a rational person, if he wants, can believe in reincarnation on the basis of evidence”. You can learn more about Dr. Stevenson and his research from the University of Virginia’s Division of Perceptual Studies.

What I want to propose for consideration was inspired by something Carl Sagan wrote in his book “The Demon-Haunted World”:

At the time of writing there are three claims in the ESP field which, in my opinion, deserve serious study: (1) that by thought alone humans can (barely) affect random number generators in computers; (2) that people under mild sensory deprivation can receive thoughts or images “projected” at them; and (3) that young children sometimes report the details of a previous life, which upon checking turn out to be accurate and which they could not have known about in any way other than reincarnation. I pick these claims not because I think they’re likely to be valid (I don’t), but as examples of contentions that might be true.

Here’s my wild speculation: Perhaps, what we call reincarnation is simply phenomenon number 2 above: that people under mild sensory deprivation can receive thoughts or images “projected” at them. Perhaps a dying person can somehow project his memories onto a fetus (which would definitely be in “sensory deprivation”) and/or maybe human minds form some kind of mesh-network that allows memories to be transferred, perhaps unconsciously, from one person to another. I’m introducing the mesh-network idea to try to explain how the memories “travel” because if this projection is possible it seems to be geographically and temporally limited. In many of the seemingly credible reincarnation cases, there is close proximity between the previous personality and the newly “reincarnated” personality in both time and space–the previous life was not too far away and not too long ago. Maybe the memories are projected to one person, lie dormant for a time, are later projected to another, and so forth (Could they be projected to multiple people simultaneously? Nah…too weird). However, now that the human race is much more mobile, perhaps the “memory carriers”could transport the “past lives” to anywhere in the world. Maybe that’s why I like authentic Chinese food so much–or maybe it’s just because it’s so darn tasty.

Old lady sitting in the grass

January 25th, 2008

Last summer I saw an old woman sitting alone in the tall grass and looking out over the lake. It was hot, cloudless, bright. I wondered what she was thinking and why she was alone. Was she remembering a happy life? She seemed content now, but does that say anything about the life she’s spent? She was sitting near the path so maybe though she wanted to be alone and reflect, she also wanted people to see her and wonder. She looked happy, so I think I’ll choose to believe she lived a happy life. I’ll choose to believe that also about her recently deceased husband of 40 years, even though I have no idea if she has one—deceased or not. Oblivion. I don’t know if it exists. I thought about how one day either I or my wife will be sitting alone like this, maybe at this same lake, and remembering the other. I want those memories to make her content. I once wrote that “Death is the punchline of life” implying that life is a joke. Maybe. Probably. But hopefully it’s a good-natured joke that all of us can laugh at.