Sunday, March 30, 2014

God May be a Vestigial Organ

There is a principal in science that also seems to work well for life in general. It's called Occam's Razor and, in its simplest iteration, says that the best way to describe how something works is to use only what's needed, nothing more. That means if something is not needed to solve a problem, then don't invent it. Don't go looking for cures for which there are no diseases. It's an anti-Rube Goldberg principle. It's not a law of physics, such as gravity or inertia, but it can't be ignored as it generally turns out to be true.

But I can almost hear some people asking, "But what about vestigial organs?" It is true; many animals have vestigial organs - parts of their body that have no use or that play only a minor role in anatomy. Some snakes have hip bones; so do whales. Humans have muscles to move the ear, but most humans can't do that. We also have a coccyx and wisdom teeth. So what's up with that?

The thing about vestigial structures in animals is that, although they may not have any use now, they once did. Our apelike ancestors, for example, had an elongated mouth and those wisdom teeth fit in there quite nicely. Without them, there would be too much gum space. The hip bones in snakes and whales obviously means that the ancestors of those animals had legs. So vestigial structures weren't invented by nature just to jam us up. They once had important uses, but are now in the process of being evolved out of the anatomy.

But Occam's Razor works just as well on a cosmological level. Astrophysicists and cosmologists have been working on the big picture for a long time. And they have come up with a number of plausible scenarios that would get us to where we are right now using only the laws of nature and physics. The debate now is over which of these scenarios best fits our observations of reality and which one is the most mathematically consistent. But what all the theories of our existence have in common is that none of them posits that God created the cosmos in six days, or even billions of years. There is simply no need to bring in God to accomplish what nature can do on its own just by doing what it naturally will do.

So, to bring God into the equation is unnecessary. It doesn't prove their is no god, but if there is a god, it violates the principle of Occam's Razor. There is simply no need for that hypothesis. So if in fact God does exist, I guess that makes him a vestigial structure in the cosmos. Except that, unlike our vestigial organs, he was never needed.

Sometimes we have to have a vestigial organ removed. Our wisdom teeth are usually the first to go. But if, say, an appendix gets infected, it needs to be cut out as well. When God becomes more trouble than he's worth, it's time to resect him as well. God has become the wisdom tooth of the universe. He causes people to act nutty and believe foolish things. In and of itself that doesn't affect the whole of society, but when the God believers become too nutty, they often affect policy in a negative way, such as when it takes away the rights of others or prevents certain rights from becoming established. In 2014, in America, it is finally time to remove that last vestige of our society - God. He is no longer needed to explain anything at all.

Monday, March 03, 2014

What Puts the I in Me?

I've been pondering consciousness again. So, consider this: One of the most intriguing sci-fi tools used on Star Trek is the transporter. It uses the equivalence of matter and energy to send people and objects between the ship and the planet below. It converts the matter of a person's body into pure energy and then beams that energy to the the planet. It then reconstitutes the matter from the energy stream using the information contained in the signal.

But on one episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, a transporter malfunction produces two Commander Rikers because an energy surge in the unit on the planet caused the energy stream to produce a Riker on the ship, where he was actually going, and a copy on the planet. But neither Riker knew about the other until years later when they encountered each other on the same planet, where the duplicate Riker had been stranded.

But here's my question: Which one was the "real" Riker? If both Rikers were created from the same signal, that means they were not only identical genetically and physically, but also with regards to brain chemistry. Every neuron was equivalent in every way. They had the same thoughts and the same memories. Yet, when they met each other, they just treated each other as though they were twins. They had separate personalities, owing mainly to the fact they they had lived in separate environments for a few years.

So let's suppose a normal transport. Is the reconstituted person on the planet really the same person as the one climbing aboard the transporter pad on the ship, or is he an identical twin, like Riker? And if he's not really the same person, which of course he wouldn't be because matter is not being transported, only the energy that the matter produces, then does that mean every single transport destroys one human and produces another identical one? Isn't the destroyed one now actually dead?

Of course in practical terms, it makes no difference to the people who are not being transported. They just see what looks and acts like the same guy. He has the same memories and is on the same mission. But, in reality, the pre-transport human being is no longer around.

I'm using the Star Trek transporter as an analogy to what may eventually be likely to take place. In the future (and maybe the not-so-distant one) there will be a means of transferring the mind of any human into an android or a computer brain. The transferred mind will have the same sense of humor, the same personality, and all the recollections of the original human. It will be conscious. But will it possess the SAME consciousness as the human donor? Just because it might become possible to transfer a mind into an android or even an artificial organic brain doesn't mean it was actually a transfer. It might be just a copy. If so, the original mind is still going to be gone. It won't matter so much to the loved ones because for all practical purposes, the donor's mind is still intact. It also won't matter to the deceased mind because, well, he will be dead. But you can't really call it immortality because the original mind has been lost. If I were an identical twin at death's door, it wouldn't bring me any peace knowing that my twin could carry on in my place, even if he had had all the same experiences and memories as me. It still wouldn't BE me.

This leads to much deeper questions about what it is that actually makes up the "I" in me. What is my consciousness anyway? Is it a soul that is somehow cosmically connected to the universe? Or is it just organic neurons in my brain arranged in a manner that is unique to me? It's a question that has puzzled scientists, philosophers, and theologians for centuries.