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Okay, so what do I believe in? (Or not.)
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jducoeur
Today's news coverage of the upcoming Reason Rally (a big Washington hoedown for atheists) gives rise to the question, "Am I an atheist?". The answer is no -- but increasingly, I feel like it's the wrong question.
[Waxing perhaps eloquently, and pretty metaphysically, but certainly at length]
When I was a kid, I was a fairly ordinary reflexive atheist, like so many 13-year-old science fiction fans. The world should be governed by SCIENCE! and religion was just silly. It wasn't any more a considered viewpoint than that of the average parochial schoolchild -- it was simply the assumptions of the cultural milieu that I had bought into.

After college, that softened quite a lot, and I wound up with the sort of squishy intuitive Deism that I still have today. I joined the Masons (on the grounds that Deism was good enough for many of the founders of the organization, so it should still be good enough), but certainly never bought into any organized religion. For 10-20 years, when I made myself think about it, I generally identified my religion as "Minbari", which was a bit flip but mostly accurate: a vague sense that we are how the Universe learns about itself, and that "god" is really made up of the collective sentience of the Universe. That sense is still there, but is just a piece of the puzzle.

The thing is, though, that while I may still kinda-sorta believe in a demiurge, I increasingly do *not* really believe in the idea of a soul, and that's arguably the more important question. There are a lot of reasons why not, and I'm not sure I've ever unpacked all of them before.

On the one hand, there was the realization last year that the idea is not universal, and hasn't always been part of the human experience. This was really driven home by the course Religions of the Axial Age, one of my favorite-ever Teaching Company courses, which is about many of the religions of the thousand years BCE. Among other things, it traces the rise of the meme of the soul, and the surprisingly quick evolution through the logical complications, especially Hinduism's take on the notion of reincarnation (which is far from entirely benign, if you really push through the logic) and Buddism's reaction to that idea. The eastern religions wrestle much more honestly than the western with the notion that eternity is a Very Long Time, so an eternal soul is a mixed blessing.

Then there is my growing internalization of the logic of quantum mechanics, and the increasing trend for cosmology to be viewed in Many Worlds terms. I've always been intuitively attracted to the Many Worlds hypothesis, the notion that the world as we see it at any given moment is simply the sum of a lot of probabilities, one among a multitude. I know that not everyone in science buys into that viewpoint; still, with Stephen Hawking implying pretty clearly that it's how things work, I don't feel dumb in accepting it. And personally, I find it pretty wondrous, the idea that every possible outcome exists in that probability-space to some degree -- it's the IDIC principle (baked into my brain at a young and impressionable age) taken to its logical extreme.

But it's very difficult to square Many Worlds with the idea of a soul. If "I" am branching -- slowly on the macro scale, but a billion billion times a second on the micro scale -- into variant versions of "me", with different probabilities of following particular pathways of my life, how are those all "me"? And how can such a rigidly unitary notion as the soul encompass that branching probability tree?

And then there are my explorations of Buddhism itself -- not so much accepting any of the religious schools that grew out of it, as playing syncretically with the underlying philophies and ideas. One of the points that comes up from time to time goes right to this point: as one Buddhist site puts it, "According to Buddhism mind is nothing but a complex compound of fleeting mental states.":
Every moment there is birth, every moment there is death. The arising of one thought-moment means the passing away of another thought-moment and vice versa. In the course of one life-time there is momentary rebirth without a soul.
Putting it more simply, I am not the man I was ten years ago -- far from it. And I have no expectation or desire that I will be the same person in ten years. Life is continuous change, and that is a *good* thing; lack of change is stillness and death.

Within that viewpoint, a person isn't so much a unitary eternal soul as a *process* -- each moment giving rise to the next. The process is continuous, and that continuity produces a sense of identity, but that identity is momentary: a snapshot of the current state of the process. It is constantly changing and shifting, and eventually that identity comes to an end.

But -- and this is the part that I find genuinely inspiring about it -- the process doesn't end, because the identity is only a piece of it. We are more than a little isolated soul, an island lost amidst trackless seas; rather, we are part and parcel of everything around us, and that world is just as much a part of our process as our own identity. If that isn't inspiring, I don't know what is.

Moreover, this viewpoint forces me to consider the moment seriously. "I" am not something that will be summed up at the end; I can't be bad today on the theory that I'll make up for it later so that the scales balance positively at the end of my life. If all I have is now, then I have to drink that now deeply: I need to find my joys in the current moment, and be the best person I can be right here, right now.

So when I put this together, I wind up with a truly beautiful world. I am part of the world, and it is part of me, all just processes interacting. The idea of the soul is a counter-productive separation of the one from the other, and I find that I miss that idea less and less with each passing year, slowly quieting the part of my ego that fears losing it.

God is the summation of the sentience of everything in the world -- all the moments that ever have been, ever will be, and ever *could* be. All of this has to be viewed from outside time -- which, after all, is just one dimension of the giant probability structure. That viewpoint comforts and quiets the fears of opportunity cost, the desire to know and experience everything I possibly can. Somewhere in the probability tree, someone has been there and done that: the chance is not lost simply because this little shard of the universe doesn't happen to be doing it right now.

And in this grand scheme of things, I -- the collection of probability waves typing this essay right now -- am just a speck: a particular, relatively well-defined process among an infinite number of others. But everyone around me is also part of that process, and anything I can affect for the better increases the probability of states of joy in the grand array. I don't think anybody can really ask for more than that...

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I'll pose for you the question that I find myself wondering about when I navel gaze about this topic. My stumbling block on the "we are what we are" and there is no such thing as the soul question gets into the issue of non-mystical transmigration.

Given technological growth, it's not hard to envision that we will soon be able to transfer and/or perfectly replicate an individual's psyche (memories, thought-process, consciousness, call it what you will) into an artificial host.

Does that impact who we are? Does it just play into the Many Worlds concept that "I" am just one of many iterations of "I"?

Is there a difference between transferring a psyche and the existence of a soul? What if we start to create our own customized after-lifes to transfer ourselves into?

Everything we do, everything we interact with, impacts who we are. Uploading is certainly not exempt.

Each running instance of consciousness is a separate 'I'. They may start out similar, or even identical, but they will diverge. (Leaving aside consideration of possible structures of shared consciousness, which is a whole 'nother can of worms.)

"Soul" is used to mean many different things. J seems to be mostly talking about it in terms of 'survival after bodily death', whereas the psyche-transfer question is more about whether the *form* of the body makes a difference. (Which I think it clearly does, though this need not be seen as problematic.)

Yeah, I don't see uploading as problematic, just interesting in terms of naval gazing as we'll have to think about what we mean by "life after death" in a new way.

To expand on that notion a bit: Many 'Singularitarians' believe that uploading can 'solve' all the problems of an embodied consciousness, including mortality. Which is untrue. Consciousness remains embodied after uploading, it's just that the nature of that body changes dramatically. This leads to its own set of problems and opportunities, and the possibility of backups significantly extends the expected life-span. But according to current best understanding of cosmology, especially the Second Law of Thermodynamics, even the best backups can't guarantee immortality.

Yep. And the truth is, I'm gradually coming to view uploading as a Bad Idea overall: not monstrous, but misguided. Most people who think about uploading are trying to do so in order to maintain the ego as long as possible -- basically doing scientifically what most religions do mystically.

But in the no-soul model, that's kind of counter-productive, expending a lot of effort and energy in order to keep one ego going, instead of viewing the system as a whole. And in the process, you wind up increasingly wedded to the individual ego, which tends to be a recipe for dukkha, getting increasingly desperate to preserve that ego instead of valuing the moment that it is embedded in.

I'm not especially opposed to the idea, and one can come up with some reasonable arguments in favor (indeed, it's pretty easy to argue for preserving minds that positively and consistently impact those around them), but it does seem to usually miss the point...

Does that impact who we are? Does it just play into the Many Worlds concept that "I" am just one of many iterations of "I"?

Is there a difference between transferring a psyche and the existence of a soul? What if we start to create our own customized after-lifes to transfer ourselves into?


I don't think it has much to do with the Many Worlds point, but it has *everything* to do with the Buddhism point.

Remember, the key idea here is that consciousness and mind are fleeting, momentary things, with less meaningful continuity than we tend to think. "Me" of now gives rise to "me" of five minutes from now, but that's about it. In that model, uploading is simply a matter of process -- a mind encapsulated in human form giving rise to one encapsulated in machine form.

Moreover, this model renders almost irrelevant the usual argument of uploading, which is "what happens to the soul?". If I upload *before* death, so there are now two of me, the traditional conundrum is where the soul has gone; indeed, that point is often used to conclude, quite firmly, that uploading is monstrous, since it *must* be creating a mind without a soul. Whereas from my viewpoint, that's essentially nonsensical (or at least, irrelevant): one mind has given rise to two minds. So what?

The problem with the soul is the word "the". In most formulations, it is something utterly ineffable and eternal. I increasingly disbelieve in anything of the sort, and that turns out to make a lot of difficult philosophical problems simply irrelevant. (It gives rise to different ones, of course, but I've found that I'm fairly comfortable with them.)

Sounds very Taoist. (: Have you looked into that at all?

Not much yet, but you're not the first person to make the point that I should...

My own religious outlook has been hugely influenced by the ideas of Alan Moore, who manages to neatly reconcile rationality and heavy-duty mysticism. A few samples from my quote file, all taken from his lengthy interview by Dave Sim back in the day:

"As a ready example, I could cite the death of a loved one: the physical presence is gone, broken down to its constituent chemicals, its constituent atoms. That person does not exist physically anymore as a discrete physical entity. The Idea-Presence of that person cannot die, however. It hangs around and wakes you up crying at four in the morning. Five years later it taps you on the shoulder while you're doing the washing up and it makes you smile."

"...things that are more like language, or embedded codes, than they are like life, although they live. Things that are no more than an eternally reiterated acting-out of their own primal legends, things that /are/ their own stories. Which stories our own apparently individual thoughts, identities, and actions can only reiterate and repeat. Deities, or sections of the fundamental text whereby are our lives scripted, all of them. The reason that all stories are true is that there is only one story."

"...do I believe that I have actually spoken to a trans-physical four thousand-year-old entity first mentioned in _The Book of Tobit_? No. Do I therefore believe that I have /not/ truly conversed with the aforesaid entity? No. I see no particular imperative for me to believe or conclude anything. Meeting the demon Asmodeus was an apparent experience I had. Getting out of bed this morning and having breakfast was another apparent experience. I do not choose to grant either the status of 'reality.'"

"Now, the rationalist view of all magical encounters is probably that all apparent entities are in fact externalised projections of parts of the self. I have no big argument with that, except that I'd hold the converse to be true as well: /we/ are at the same time externalised projections of /them/."

"Also, to me, Magic is not a strange and alien planet that we visit, so much as a new set of eyes to look at /this/ planet through, a new language by which our ordinary lives can be expressed more luminously. For a Magician, walking down the street to buy a pack of cigarettes at the corner shop is a Magical experience. Anything from the licence plates of cars to the candy wrappers in the gutter to the casual remarks of passers-by is a potential source of information or inspiration. The Magician is reading things according to the rules of a different grammer, but he or she is reading the same book as everyone else."

Good quotes. A bit more mystical than my own viewpoint, but broadly compatible with it...

As a note, quantum-mechanical-branching many-worlds isn't actually particularly dominant in cosmological circles these days. Largely because it doesn't much impact cosmology. The multiple universes of the classic Many Worlds do not interact, and so are not interesting.

There are other multiple-universe theories out there, a couple of which still include multiple versions of a given individual, but which have potential for interaction between universes. These are the ones cosmologists care about.

Dang thing killed a chunk of my reply...

The cosmologically interesting theories that have multiple versions of you out there are relevant to this discussion, because they are statistical in nature, rather than probability splitting in nature.

Imagine there is another "you". He lives on a planet that is exactly like yours, sees a sky exactly like you see when you look up. When I say "exactly", I mean down to the quantum states of every particle of his being, his planet, and his sky - even the states of all the particles in all the stars he can see.

The branching many-worlds you is different from you in at least one quantum number, somewhere in his body. This person isn't. And, if the Universe is large enough, or the ensemble of Universes is large enough, he's statistically guaranteed to exist. The larger the Universe/ensemble is, the more of you there will be.

Everyone's a special snowflake, but if you really have enough snowflakes, they won't be unique any more...


Yep. I find many-worlds the more intriguing topic philosophically, but the infinite-universe version of things (which I *think* is what you're referring to) is its own interesting can of worms. (AFAIK, they're compatible but largely orthogonal to each other -- they're talking about very different ideas. Correct?)

What I find myself wondering about both models, though, is how probability plays into it. I'm not at all convinced that "exists" is even the right word to be using. If everything is probability waves (or infinitely large statistics), is it meaningful to speak of existence even as a binary state? Or is it more appropriate to focus on the overall probability of getting from one state to another? (More interesting question for many-worlds than infinite-universe, I think, but I hadn't been thinking about the latter before.)

I honestly don't know the math well enough to understand this one as well as I'd like, to know whether my intuition here is even mathematically appropriate -- might be a study project for me at some point. In either model, statistics and probability are driving forces, so it *seems* appropriate to incorporate them into any philosophical worldview derived from them. Hmm...

If everything is probability waves (or infinitely large statistics), is it meaningful to speak of existence even as a binary state?

Well, to start off with, that's still a bit "IF". Remember that most of what you read about quantum mechanics is interpretation - trying to read a physical interpretation of mathematics. A physicist who is being careful won't say, "Everything is probability waves." They'll say, "It is as if everything is probability waves." The two statements are far from equivalent.

Basing major philosophy on attempts to wring physical interpretation out of mathematics that may not actually have a physical interpretation is... sketchy stuff. IMHO, of course.

But, to your question - physics already has the concept of something that is there, and has real effects, but isn't really there. We have "virtual particles" - and mathematically, they behave slightly differently from "real" particles.

So, we have things that aren't, things that are, and things that are inbetween. The math does *not* reduce to "everything is imaginary".

Okay, that sounds like a useful topic for me to explore at some point. The "in-between" is more what I was thinking than simply "imaginary", so I likely should grasp that notion better. Thanks...

As to the heart of your point:
Everyone's a special snowflake, but if you really have enough snowflakes, they won't be unique any more...
A variant of that one's actually quite deeply baked into my worldview, although I hadn't brought it up here, since I've mentioned versions of it before.

I come at a similar point from a very different direction: the cliched thought-experiment of "What if the universe is a giant computer program?" Combining my programming background with the common notion that "it's all math at some level", I actually take that question quite seriously. (Taking it literally is silly, and leads to annoying "elephants all the way down" problems, but bear with me.)

That leads to the following thought experiment. Say that I have a program complex enough to simulate a universe with "life". Run it -- it plays through, beginning to end. (Maybe with quantum branching, maybe not -- not really relevant to the point.) Now, run it again. The same things happen again; in all important respects, this "universe" has occurred again, exactly the same way. Is it meaningful to distinguish between the two runs? Why?

Now, for extra credit -- based on the above, is it necessary to run the program at all? Why? In what meaningful way are 1, 2, 1000 or 0 runs different to the "existence" of the objects in the program, which are just reifications of mathematical expressions?

And taking it one step further: is it relevant to write the program down?

This leads me down some *very* mystical and odd roads, of believing at some level that the universe exists simply because it *can* -- that the mere possibility of being able to describe a self-consistent system mathematically makes it in some sense real. That's extreme enough that I'm not sure if even I truly believe it deep down, but I find it damned intriguing from a philosophical POV.

Anyway, to your point: from any number of viewpoints, I actually *assume* that I am not in any meaningful sense unique. That stopped bothering me a long time ago, on the grounds that it is true but in every sense irrelevant. Insofar as that tweaks my ego, I generally consider that a bug in my ego. I am what I am; worrying about other "me"s is just as much of a waste as worrying about maybes and might-have-beens. I find them philosophically interesting, but that's a very different thing from them *mattering* to me...

Interesting; my interaction is mainly with the popular literature, so I'd gotten a slightly different impression.

Of course, this is heavily influenced by having recently finished Hawking's The Grand Design -- which, while it doesn't say "Many Worlds" in as many words, is essentially grounded in it as an underlying assumption, far as I can tell. (Indeed, a good chunk of the book is taken up by discussing the anthropic principle, and the fact that the highest-probability versions of the universe are probably boringly uniform from our POV.)

That said, The Grand Design is a semi-philosophical work -- basically an extended refutation of the necessity of intelligent design -- so it shouldn't surprise me that it wanders a bit afield from the more pragmatic parts of the field...

You're making a sufficient amount of sense that I actively can't think about it too hard because I hate the implications and wind up retreating into "But I know people who've been in the circle and felt the gods and sooner or later I will be in a circle and feel the gods too and then I will know this isn't true!"

Well, note that that's a bit of a non-sequiteur -- the Soul thing really isn't related to the Deity one. Keep in mind that Buddhism was an outgrowth of Hinduism, so gods were an *assumption*. Everyone figured that there were gods. But the gods are simply changeable beings like anybody else, and no more truly eternal: indeed, they are just part of the wheel of being, and you could be reincarnated as a god if your karma was incredibly good, just as you could be reincarnated as an ant (or a rock) if it was bad.

And mind, I *have* had that experience of immanence at least once. I chalk it up to Jungian archetypes, personally...

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