Archive for May, 2010


Friday, May 21st, 2010

Hello again. Yes, this is unexpected. I keep trying to post more often, but the timing is always driven more by ideas than schedules. After thinking about my most recent post, I had some more ideas and decided to express them before they got crowded out by later arrivals.

I have said that scientists look askew at the idea that things can be created out of nothing. But there may be exceptions to this rule. I have realized that, as usual, the moment I put things down in black and white and think I have covered all the bases, reality squirms on me and I realize belatedly that there is infinitely more to the subject than my few pretentious remarks.

Our world is full of mysteries. For example, take the paragraph above. It began as a thought in my head, became a pattern of fingers prodding a keyboard, was visible in my browser, was submitted as a series of on-and-off pulses across perhaps a thousand miles to the server, was stored as patterns of magnetic fields on a hard drive, was reread and transmitted again as ones and zeroes to your browser, and was displayed on your screen as characters.

But it didn’t end there. Your eyes perceived a pattern in the photons spewed out of your monitor. This coaxed the Broca’s area of your brain to assemble the funny curved black thingies on a white background into letters, words, sentences, until you heard something like a voice in your head telling you my thoughts.

What a weird world we live in! My thoughts, coded and recast numerous times, end up in your head. It is exactly like you are reading my mind, with an arbitrary time delay controlled by when you loaded the page and looked at it and processed it. We have never met…but you hear my thoughts.

The wonder of it makes me rethink the idea of creating something from nothing. Verbal communication is an act of creation. We hear sounds, or see symbols such as lettes, and then we re-create someone else’s thoughts inside ouw own heads. Sound waves do not think. Letters do not think. Ones and zeroes do not think. yet we interact with them, sift them, categorize them…and end up with something the same or very close to what some other person has thought. We re-create thoughts someone else has had.

This is so amazing that we manage to accept it as normal and never notice what we are doing. Did you know that a human baby born anywhere on the face of this planet can be taken any where there are humans, and it will, seemingly effortlessly, learn the local language — learn how to decode the thought-encodings of whatever group of humans it finds itself among? It is an innate heritage, this human ability to learn language. A baby born in Spain, if moved to France or, say, China, will grow up naturally learning to speak French or Chinese. We all take this for granted, passing over the wonder and mystery of it. All the different lanuages of our planet…and any child can learn any of them. Some people learn more than one. Some can think in more than one language. Wonders and mysteries.

Sorry, I got sidetracked there for a minute. Verbal communication blurs the boundaries of what can be created and re-created. I do not know how to create a computer; I took electronics course and solid state theory while completing my degree in Physics, but I am no computer-maker. But I can create sentences. There I go, stringing together words we both know until I have fashioned sentences and paragraphs that you will hear and understand. I have no idea how I do it. I have no idea if anyone knows for sure. But I can do it.

My point is, creation does not have to be creation of solid matter. We can arrange things to create patterns. Any painter knows this; they can take canvas and pigments and create a portrait that we recognise as Aunt Ethel. The pattern in the paint did not exist until it was assembled. Now it does, and we can recognize it. Of course this is a trick that large portions of our brain are geared for: the recognition of faces. Babies will stare at anything that even looks a little like a face.

Now for the tricky part: do these patterns exist anywhere other than in our minds? Oh, sure, Aunt Ethel’s face has been rendered in paint…or charcoal…or pastels…or pixels on a screen. But a spider or a preying mantis would not see her face. It is meaningful only to those who can re-cognize it as a human face. Literally, to “re-think” it as a face. It fits a template in our head: two eyes, nose, mouth, hair. Amazingly, we recognize photos of other people from almost any angle, as long as there is enough data to finagle a pattern match with one of our stored templates.

Patterns can be created. You can get around the e=mc squared limitation when you are dealing with patterns. We watch a movie, and see a succession of still patterns of color or light and darkness, and we create in our heads a moving picture. A theatre marquee flashes a grid of lights on and off and we see still or moving letters. No “matter” gets created. No humongous quantities of energy have to be transformed into atoms and molecules. But there is creation happening, nonetheless.

A write creates a book. A composer creates a symphony or a rap song. A general creates a battle plan. All of these seemingly come from nowhere, from nothing. We create them. Long ago there was something called the Manichean (sp?) heresy, which claimed that God created Good things, and the Devil created Bad things. It was considered a heresy because the prevailing belief was that only God has the power of creation. But we have it too, it seems. We cannot wave our hands and make a gold brick appear out of thin air. But we can create a book, a sculpture, a song, a theory, a map, a design for a tool, and so on. If you made a plan for your day, isn’t it “real”? You created it.

Mathematicians create things. People argue all the time whether Calculus was created or merely discovered. But I can imagine an array consisting of the names of my brothers. I just created it. Did I discover it somewhere? In programming languages such as C and Java you can “create” a copy of something, an “instance” of it, with something like: “string MyName = new string();”. The computer parses the statement, allocates a region of storage to hold the data of the string, assigns it a name MyName, and for all intents and programming purposes the string MyName “exists” in its imagination and can be used.

Maybe I’m rambling, but I am amazed when I stop and think of what thought can do. A man named Hollerith had a thought….and created a company that later became IBM. Thoughts create other thoughts. They create patterns which can be materialized (with work) as products, inventions, policies, designs, stories, governments, and everything else we make as a species.

It seems that everything begins as a thought. I wonder what you are thinking. On days when I am inclined to believe in the existence of God, I sometimes think of the entire universe as existing in the Mind of God. Maybe the difference between Gods and Humans is a matter of levels of thought. God imagines me, I imagine a character in a book, and my character comes up with a plan. Is reality fractal? Are all the levels similar and all “real” in some sense? We talk about our favorite books, movies, and TV shows and their characters as if they really existed. Someone I used to know said that soap opera characters become our adopted extended families. Watch a soap long enough and you feel you know these people and can predict how they will act. Captain Kirk and Spock are “real” to trekkies, as dictinct entities from William Shatner and Leonord Nimoy. We describe things we saw on Star Trek as real events and remembering them guides our perceptions of later episodes and movies.

The process of creation never stops. Are you creating? Will your thoughts enter my reality as things or stories? Go for it. –MRK

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In the beginning was the Word

Thursday, May 20th, 2010

Sometimes new technology gives us a new perspective on old things. Ever since our species learned to use shaped grunts as symbols for things and actions, we have been talking about the meaning of life and where it all came from.

So I cannot really avoid the topic of religion, even though I dread being hammered with comments informing me of the correct one and how I should belong to it.

I am not here to tell you who or what to worship. Indeed, although some will tell you otherwise, one of the principles my country was founded upon was the idea that religion is something you cannot force on people. Back them when there was no actual Constitution, there was so much concern about the ability of a strong central government to suppress individual rights that a set of guarantees had to be written and appended to the Constitution before it could be ratified. This set of guarantees is called the Bill of Rights, but it is actually not a bill at all — it is the first ten Amendments to the Constitution — added to make representatives more comfortable with signing the document on behalf of their States. It’s basically a list of things the government is NOT allowed to do to reduce human liberty.

It is sad and funny that decades ago someone went around New York showing an unlabelled copy of the Bill of Rights to people trying to get them to sign it as a petition, and were told that no one wanted that kind of “commy stuff.” Many Americans do not realize that freedom of religion is not just a concept — it is specifically guaranteed by the First Amendment. It is that important.

Back to virtual space and religion. Many religions (no, not just Christianity) have contained the idea of one or more Gods entering our world as one of us. Sometimes it is done to travel about incognito and see how we are doing, sometimes it is for some kind of intervention. One of the words used for this kind of incarnation is, of course, “avatar”. I am no expert, but I believe that in India there are numerous depictations of gods and goddesses who are actually avatars of a few gods. Apparently, a god can wear many hats….or bodies. Sometimes these different versions of the God are called “aspects” or manifestations.

Early on in cyberspace the term avatar was, therfore, appropriated to mean the incarnation of a user in the virtual realms. You log in and control the actions of your avatar, and the words you type are “said” by it to the other avatars there….and read by their human creators. This was used in the movie Tron in an even more extreme way, in which the hero Flynn was a human sucked into the computer and incarnated there as a virtual denizen of the virtual habitat.

In a way, proponents of Christianity and other faiths might be indebted to the new medium of online virtual worlds, because it finally gives people an easy way to visualize how God might decide to incarnate in our world as “one of us”.  Making an avatar in World of Warcraft or some other online game gives you a seemingly godlike ability to insert yourself into the scenenery without all the questions evoked by a virgin birth, etc. Indeed, I believe I am not the first or only one to wonder if our world is God’s video game. The word “avatar” has come full circle. There is even a video game of the same name, based on the movie.

Online games have gotten sophisticated enough to step out of the “black-and-white” thinking of pure good and pure evil. For example, in the World of Warcraft, the human-led Alliance fights against the Orc-led Horde….but the Horde is not actually evil, by any means. Oh, there is evil in the game: the Burning Legion of demons who at one time manipulated the Orcs. But the Orcs rebelled and freed themselves of that control. They are different from the Alliance, but not evil, no matter what Alliance players will tell you. I have played on both sides, and I can tell you that either side can look pretty evil when they gang up on you for an easy kill. But the honest truth is that different does not equal evil. It’s a good lesson for us here in the Real World, now that we have grown beyond the simplistic demonizing of the “Evil Empire”, as one of our presidents characterized it.

Virtual worlds offer numerous metaphors for religious concepts. Objects and people can be “created” from nothing. Well, not nothing, obviously…they take up memory space in the computer and fills records in databases. But you know what I mean. The scientist in me rebells at the idea that something can come from nothing. But as a player I know if I click a certain button, I can make something appear that was not there before. Skeptics have asked how a God could make things appear from nowhere. Physicists know that extra energy involved in a particle collision can appear as a new particle that was “not there” before. You smack a speeding proton into one coming the other way and you end up with extra stuff you didn’t have before. But while we see this happening in accelerators, many scientists have trouble with the idea of, say, loaves and fishes appearing out of nowhere, because of the incredibly huge quantities of energy needed to create all the particles that make up the atoms and molecules of this created food. (E = mc squared) Where was this energy before it became food? they will ask.

I’m not here to contradict or to support Scripture. I’m just saying that in virtual worlds we can see the sort of things happen that used to be only referred to in the realm of religion. In Warcraft and other games, your avatar can be killed…and brought back to life. He or she can be wounded in battle…and healed by a priest or shaman. Things can be created. Spirits and demons can be summoned. And so on. it gives us, therefore, a new way to experience things that heretofore we could only read about in religious literature. Anything that can be imagined and rendered on the monitor can be yours to experience.

Does this easy access to virtual miracles water down the uniqueness of religious experience? Or does it help make descriptions of miracles and resurrections easier to visualize – and thus easier to believe? I am sure some religious speakers would complain about the time people spend in virtual worlds, since time is a finite resource, and time spent playing is not spent praying. But I will bet others have seen how cyberspace expands our ability as humans to minister to each other. It is a good and worthwhile thing to visit the sick and the infirm to relieve their isolation and loneliness. And now we can “visit” people far away in the click of a mouse. There are even ecclesiatical websites and virtual churches where people can go for inspiration and fellowship without hopping in a car and burning gasoline. if I ever get put in a nursing home (er, sorry, I mean “assisted living” residence heh), it damn well better have fast Internet access — because TV isn’t enough for me anymore.

There are those who say who say this veil of tears is watched over by a God. That “all the world’s a stage” where we act out our roles, and hope for a good review. I’m not here to tell you what to think or believe. But I hope you do think about the meaning of it all. Victor Frankel said that the most fundamental psychological need is a need for life to have meaning. He survived a concentration camp in WWII and observed first hand that prisoners without hope sickened and died, and that those who still had hope held out far longer in the cruelty of the camps.

Those who consider gods unlikely have to find another way for life to have meaning, or face the horror of a pointless life in an uncaring universe. I’d like to think that there is meaning. I’d like to believe that Someone cares. Because I do. –MRK

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