Death, the Fall, and Darwin: There are only imperfect triangles, Part 6 of 7

DSC05640Fasten your seat belts and hold on. The speculation coming may leave you with whiplash.

Take triangles. Most of us are tempted by the idea that there is some perfect realm where triangles in their formalwear are eking out an eternal existence being flawless and sitting beyond the ravages of time and circumstance.

Plato laid this out nicely with his sense that there was a world of perfect forms or ideas that stamped the shape of things that got instantiated in this world as particulars. The form of the ‘good’ or maybe ‘beauty’ stood as the form of the forms. This got taken as God. Existing up there (I’m pointing up) as the one pure being. Like the triangles, only rather than perfect sides, angles and such, he held all perfections including perfect being—sort of a really advanced trianglely sort of thing only better. And beyond time, where time is some ‘river’ that flows forward but which can be circumvented by this perfect being and who is its source rather than something embedded in it. Time is down here. With us. Not with him—the God of triangles. Oh and these perfect ideal formal triangles escape time too, just like all the Platonic forms.

This timelessness sort of being is found in everything from our science to religion. Time is an illusion. In certain denominations of modern physics the claim is that the direction of time’s arrow is sort of arbitrary, the laws of nature hold backwards and forwards depending on which direction you are facing. This makes stuff like freewill, an indeterminate world, an open universe and such a hard sale. Hence modern anxieties of those tackling the evangelical atheists on their own turf. Yeah, since determinism seems to hold in some local instances we measured a time or two it must hold everywhere and for all time! Wow. No wonder we abandoned absolutes earlier in this series. If you want to keep them, I have some oceanfront property here in Utah I’d like to sell.

Evolutionary biologists have always held that things are different depending on the scales at which they work. Determinism and fixed laws of nature have always seemed a little harder to hold onto than it does in physics. This is changing and its worth looking at some attempts by physicists who are coming around to seeing this deterministic, law-like crap doesn’t wear well in the jungle of reality. This is why the idea that times arrow can go backwards is wrong. We don’t live in that kind of universe.

I have a paper coming out in Zygon: The Journal of Religion and Science soon (It’s accepted but not scheduled so it could be anytime in the next year). The gist of it is that novelty is real, the universe is open and therefore not only is where it is heading unknown, not because a lack in our knowledge, but because novelty might appear and change the entire game being played. Why are people taking this seriously? A recent book, was just released written by a physicist that lays out the case in a nice way and I’d like to quote from it a bit because he makes a nice case for what I’m arguing for. And this has big implications for the way we read the scriptures and for Mormon Theology.

The book which came out last month is called, Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe by Lee Smolin. He contrasts the old style of thinking (which he calls thinking outside of time) with the new (thinking inside time) like this:

The contrast between thinking in time and outside time is apparent in many arenas of human thought and action. We are thinking outside time when, faced with a technological or social problem, we assume that the possible approaches are already determined, as a set of absolute, pre-existing categories. Anyone who thinks that the correct theory of economics or politics was written down in the century before last is thinking outside time. When we instead see the aim of politics as the invention of novel solutions to novel problems that arise as society evolves, we are thinking in time. We’re also thinking in time when we understand that progress in technology, society, and science consists in inventing genuinely new ideas, strategies, and forms of social organization— and trust our ability to do so.
Smolin, Lee (2013-04-23). Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe (Kindle Locations 101-107). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.”

The motivation for this kind of thinking draws explicitly on evolutionary biology:

. . . evolutionary biology is the prototype for thinking in time, because at its heart is the realization that natural processes developing in time can lead to the creation of genuinely novel structures. Even novel laws can emerge, when the structures to which they apply come into existence. The principles of sexual selection, for example, could not have come to exist before there were sexes. Evolutionary dynamics has no need of vast abstract spaces, like all the possible viable animals, DNA sequences, sets of proteins, or biological laws. Better, as the theoretical biologist Stuart A. Kauffman proposes, to think of evolutionary dynamics as the exploration in time by the biosphere of what can happen next: the “adjacent possible.” The same goes for the evolution of technologies, economies, and societies.
Smolin, Lee (2013-04-23). Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe (Kindle Locations 114-120). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition. ” (Italics mine)

If this view is right the timeless Platonic God that we inherited from classic Western thought is wrong and the God that Joseph Smith revealed as a person, situated, embodied (read has having a biology of some sort), is the a God in an open universe. This implies that there are some aspects of the universe that might be unpredictable. Smolin again:

On a personal level, to think in time is to accept the uncertainty of life as the necessary price of being alive. To rebel against the precariousness of life, to reject uncertainty, to adopt a zero tolerance to risk, to imagine that life can be organized to completely eliminate danger, is to think outside time. To be human is to live suspended between danger and opportunity. We try our best to thrive in an uncertain world, to take care of whom and what we love and now and then enjoy ourselves in the process. We make plans, but we can never anticipate fully either the dangers or the opportunities ahead.
Smolin, Lee (2013-04-23). Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe (Kindle Locations 123-127). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.

What if this applies to God too? What if we don’t have the God of the philosophers, but instead we have an exalted being who faces suffering, who weeps, who has to make plans to face the new contingencies that living in an open universe necessitates? As Smolin says:

Novelty is real. We can create, with our imagination, outcomes not computable from knowledge of the present. This is why it matters for each of us whether time is real or not: The answer can change how we view our situation as seekers of happiness and meaning in a largely unknown universe.
Smolin, Lee (2013-04-23). Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe (Kindle Locations 138-140). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.”

Where does this leave us in regards to evolution and the Fall? I think it leaves us with a sense that the universe is much more amazing and exciting than we’ve ever thought! It means that not only things, but laws themselves can evolve. It means that it might be possible to “take from these materials” and make something novel, new, and original. Universes can be opened, not just stamped out according to factory specs. I find this exciting.

In the final installment we’ll turn off all safety protocols and fly the spaceship into the heart of a nebula, just for kicks.

Comments

  1. Leonard R. says:

    Just when I think you’ve hit the high note, you jump a couple of octaves.

    Great stuff, and a book I’m adding to the reading list.

  2. Shawn H says:

    I thought Mr Smolin might make an appearance here today. I saw the Economist interview http://www.economist.com/news/books-and-arts/21578366-fundamental-physics-has-made-important-advances-where-does-it-go-here-beyond with him today and thought I needed to pick up his book. I think you, and he, are on the right track

  3. J. Stapley says:

    I like Smolin’s stuff.

  4. Hear, hear on Smolin. If you’re a real Joseph Smith Mormon, I think this is where you have to look for any real hope. Sure, some absolutes I guess, but most, like exhaustive foreknowledge need to be rewritten in new terms that don’t inherit their meaning from Plato-Augustine and 19th century physics hangers on. Keep it up bio-man.

  5. I like Smolin’s phrase, the “adjacent possible,” ripe with surprises and opportunities. I’m also thinking that there are avenues here for thinking about history, as well. Great stuff, Steve.

  6. It’s a nice theory, I do not find it to be logically flawed, but I just don’t buy it. The atonement was effective in the lives of those who preceded Christ’s performance of the atonement, God prepared and inspired the small plates to be written in preparation for the lost 116 pg manuscript, Christ was the lamb slain before the foundation of the world – and some prophets even knew specifically that he would die on a cross, Prophets like Joseph Smith and others can and did indeed prophecy of future events, etc.

    I don’t think we can have true complete faith in God if He does not know the beginning to the end like He says, if He can be surprised or tricked, or if we go so far as to say there is actual/real risk that God can error or sin and cease to be God. The world may be incomprehensibly complex to the mortal human mind, but I don’t think this is a good reason to believe that God must in some way share our limitations. And as for novelty, I’m not sure how true novelty can exist with infinite worlds before us. But to me true novelty is not what is exciting, but rather that we get to experience things novel to us and thus get to learn and grow.

  7. Peter LLC says:

    “This is why the idea that times arrow can go backwards is wrong. We don’t live in that kind of universe.”

    Yes! Suspending time in response to theological quandaries creates more problems than it solves.

  8. Sorry to be coming late but I have been thinking about this for quite some time:

    “It means that not only things, but laws themselves can evolve. It means that it might be possible to “take from these materials” and make something novel, new, and original.”

    So I take from this you are suggesting since A.) laws evolve and B.) it is possible to make something novel. Thus you seem to be concluding these laws *can* somehow be contingent on sentient agents like ourselves. I have no problem with that, but then the questions becomes:

    1. how do we as sentient agents influence these laws?

    2. Why be against the idea that God/Christ “transcended” known law when he did things such as walk on water? A common LDS response is that He violated no law hence no miracle… however from these posts I take it there is no laws to violate *and* in some sense it is miraculous because Christ has figured out how to “evolve” the laws for His will. That would be very interesting.

    Or am I reading too much into this?

  9. J. Stapley says:

    Steve, the standard response is that God need not have exhaustive foreknowledge for those things, just sufficient power to bring them to pass.

  10. “On a personal level, to think in time is to accept the uncertainty of life as the necessary price of being alive. To rebel against the precariousness of life, to reject uncertainty, to adopt a zero tolerance to risk, to imagine that life can be organized to completely eliminate danger, is to think outside time. To be human is to live suspended between danger and opportunity. We try our best to thrive in an uncertain world, to take care of whom and what we love and now and then enjoy ourselves in the process. We make plans, but we can never anticipate fully either the dangers or the opportunities ahead.”

    Apparently, Satan’s error/sin and self-condemnation in the Heavenly Council was precisely thinking outside time, in Smolin’s terms. (Many Mormons have argued this without attaching it to this idea of time.)

  11. @ J. Stapley. That may be a good explanation for positive prophecies / events, but I think it cannot work for the negative. In other words, if the Romans didn’t take the path that led to crucifixion as a death penalty, would God have used His power to alter that course to fulfill the words of His prophets that Christ would be lifted up on a cross? Or if the bulk of the Jews had accepted Christ and chose not to take the path that led them to demand Christ’s death, would God have used His power to make sure Christ was still killed so that He would in fact be the lamb slain before the foundation of the world? Or if Joseph Smith decided not to press God on the manuscript issue, would God use His power to make sure the 116 pages were lost another way so that the small plates could serve their full purpose? Or if the original colonists had made a decision to not drive the Native Americans out of their lands, would God have prepared another people to accomplish this wrongful act, because it was so prophesied?

    My examples may not all be perfect, but I think they show what I’m trying to get at.

  12. it's a series of tubes says:

    Steve, yoo’ve highlighted well why I find that explanation lacking.

  13. If the absolutists are right and God has infinite foreknowledge then they are also right that ultimately free agency is an illusion. We are in nothing but a kind of theo-drama that is set, scripted, and deterministic. I find that much less appealing than having to trust God enough that he has figured out enough to get me from point A to point B and has set up conditions that might need some contingencies managed (let’s have those small plates on hand just in case we need them). In fact, it is my faith in God’s love for me that leads me to believe that no matter what messes my agency leads me into he can find a way for me to get back to where he hopes to lead me. I find that is not a problem on an eternal journey as well. So Satan is not “part of the plan” The plan is a response to a real rebellion that required adjustment and response. I see this is how Christ working during his sojourn, working with local needs, healing those present, dealing with needs as they arose. Not scripting a play, dealing with real situations in all their situatedness.

    I think those who cannot trust God unless he knows the final act of the play, a rather inadequate faith. Knowledge is nice, but my faith is based on His Love pure and simple. And it’s the only attribute of God that is unequivocally expressed in scripture. That’s why I trust Him. Not because He built a carnival machine that he’s programed to tick-tock out the right fortune, but that he can help me no matter what arises. Not because he knows who is going to marry who, and how every decision people make is going to go, or that He’s run the simulation on a celestial computer and sees the end. I’ll submit my version of God is much more satisfying than the machinist worshiped by the absolutists/determinists. Mine recognizes that existence necessitates risk. And loves us enough to bring us into his plan to manage that risk.

    When my wife and I brought children into the world it was not because I could see all outcomes, but I did it despite the risk, knowing only one thing. They would be loved. And that would be enough to do as well for them as could be done. Risky? You bet. But never underestimate the power of love.

  14. Leonard R says:

    Oh my… well said, Steve. Not sure which line I liked the most, but these were the tops

    “Not scripting a play, dealing with real situations in all their situatedness.”

    “That’s why I trust Him. Not because He built a carnival machine that he’s programed to tick-tock out the right fortune, but that he can help me no matter what arises.”

    “Mine recognizes that existence necessitates risk. And loves us enough to bring us into his plan to manage that risk.”

    To which all I can add is big “Amen.”

  15. it's a series of tubes says:

    has set up conditions that might need some contingencies managed (let’s have those small plates on hand just in case we need them).

    SteveP, I agree with most of your comment, but I think you are giving short shrift to foreknowledge here. You view the small plates as “contingency management”, but even under that perspective, the amount and specificity of the foreknowledge required to anticipate the need for the contingency in the first place is simply staggering – particularly given that the “plan B”, the small plates, would be a suitable contingency plan for only a microscopic fraction of the myriad ways that something could go amiss WRT the bringing forth of the Book of Mormon. Statistically, it’s so improbable as to be unbelievable.

  16. J. Stapley says:

    It is improbable unless it was desirable, or auspicious.

  17. Thanks Leonard!

    Tubes, swallowing a deterministic universe at the expense of 116 pages seems like a high price to pay. (Especially when their presence may have been just some of the stuff like the sealed portion that was preserved for another purpose. As in “Wow lucky we had those small plates there too, because we can use those to replace the lost part!” Being preserved for a wise purpose does not necessarily mean “Martian Harris in the Summer of 1828 will loose the first 116 pages of the book of Mormon.” It could have been we need them for a lot of reasons. Some were earmarked for a future, but the situation demanded some creativity and were used early. To me this is swatting at multiply explainable gnats and swallowing the deterministic camel.

    J. yes. Exactly.

  18. Your position may well be correct, but I have already pointed out some major issues I see with it. I also think you mischaracterize many of the determinist/compatibilist positions from an LDS perspective (for an example of LDS compatibilist positions see the many comments from JNS, Adam G, and Jeff G at http://www.newcoolthang.com/index.php/2007/07/give-me-libertarian-free-will-or-give-me-oblivion/406/), so I wish to clarify a few items.

    1) A belief in God’s perfect foreknowledge doesn’t necessitate a belief in infinite knowledge, it could be limited to some beginning and some end of time and space, that may ever be expanding. 2) There are very good arguments why free will is compatible with determinism. And furthermore, these reasons should be given serious consideration since to my knowledge there has never been a logical solution for free will existing outside of determinism that offers more moral freedom, agency, or more ultimate responsibility than can be found in a deterministic system (since the freedom and agent responsibility found in indeterministic systems are dependent on a degree of causal determinism) 3) A deterministic system does not mean that God can or did set up / “script” the entire system. God actions could be responding to the system just as much as in an indeterministic system, but with the advantage of being able to do so well in advance and knowing the outcomes such that all His purposes can be accomplished while not infringing on the agency of other beings. 4) How would foreknowledge make God any less loving or caring of His children? Somehow added knowledge prevents empathy/love/caring? I don’t follow the logic. To me, calling God a “machinist” for having foreknowledge is just unfair rhetoric. 5) I see why risk is valuable for the growth of imperfect beings; I don’t think you lose this in a deterministic scenario. But why is personal risk of failure necessary for God who has already obtained perfect attributes and character?

  19. I think it is a stretch to believe the small plates were just a lucky happenstance solution to the lost manuscript. Of course the issue we’re discussing is far from limited to this one simple example.

  20. Sorry, until we have an account of what consciousness is, all discussion of free will is off the table. And compatibilist postions are straight up determinist with all its baggage. I stand by my distaste for a deterministic universe for the reasons given. Compatibilist postions are just small attempts to allow the pretense of free agency in a determinisic universe (a physicalist assumption). Evidence is accumulating deterministic is not the best way to describe the universe, why hold on to this philosophical baggage from neo-Platonic views? Move on. There’s new data.

  21. it's a series of tubes says:

    until we have an account of what consciousness is

    SteveP, fair enough. And given that we don’t have such an account, I’m comfortable with strong foreknowledge while at the same time not feeling like I am swallowing a deterministic universe as you describe it. How to square that circle? No idea – just very comfortable that ultimately, it doesn’t have to be done.

  22. Tubes, that’s actually fine. I don’t know if I’m right either and so I’m totally comfortable with differences of opinion here and fine if I turn out wrong. I argue for my view, but it’s not because I think I’m right, but I like testing my ideas and throwing them out to see how they fare in the marketplace of ideas, but if you pin me to the wall, I have no idea how things will turn out. I recognize completely my fallibility.

  23. I know this is tooting my own horn, but I made mention to of Lee Smolin’s book in my comment in part 3 two weeks ago (last comment there). So this sort of gave me a little validation — thanks!! (http://bycommonconsent.com/2013/05/14/death-the-fall-and-darwin-badiou-company-and-the-void-part-3-of-7/)

  24. Carey, toot away! My source came from the New York of Books, but these kinds of finds deserve wide distribution!

  25. Thomas Parkin says:

    I really love this. Before it passes away I want to note that I think there is another, more fruitful way to use Platonic forms that doesn’t contradict what you’ve said here … I just am not going to have time to write it out. :/

  26. kathleen petty says:

    I heard the late Gene England say once that he would like to think that we could surprise God.

  27. I would recommend caution in usurping the highly tentative (and probably wrong) conclusions to known paradoxes in physics in order to resolve biological, philosophical, or theological issues. The problem of time in cosmology has its roots in constrained Hamiltonian dynamics. It is worth noting that the General Theory of Relativity was published in 1915 but a satisfactory Hamiltonian version had to wait until 1962 and was done by three giants of the field.

    http://arxiv.org/pdf/gr-qc/0405109v1.pdf

    If you’re interested in working through all of the gory details, Lee Smolin devoted an entire lecture series to the issue with part of the class addressed to and taught by philosophers.

    http://pirsa.org/C08003/1

    Also worth noting from page 266 of Smolin’s book – “What is the substance of the world? We think of matter as simple and inert, but we don’t know anything about what matter really is. We only know how matter interacts. What is the existence of a rock? We don’t know, it’s a mystery that each discovery about atoms, nuclei, quarks, and so on only deepens. I would love dearly to know the answer to this question. Sometimes I think about what a rock is when I’m trying to go to sleep, and I comfort myself with the idea that there must be, somewhere, an answer to what the universe is. But I have no idea how to look for it, whether through science of another route. It is easy to make stuff up, and the bookshelves are full of metaphysical proposals. But we want real knowledge, which means there must be a way to confirm a proposed answer. This limits us to science.”

    Speculation on these issues runs rampant. A year before Einstein’s death, John Wheeler asked Einstein to speak to a group of students. Besides repeating his opposition to quantum mechanics, Einstein also made a cryptic comment: “There is much reason to be attracted to a theory with no space, no time. But nobody has any idea how to build it up”.

    Whether or not this is possible, it will most likely be done first scientifically.

    As an aside, part of what you’ve been articulating over the series sounds somewhat related to ideas advocated by David Eagleman.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Possibilianism

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