The Best Possible World

Is God perfect? Is the world perfect? If your answer to the second question is “no,” or better yet, “Hell no!,” does that tell you anything about what your answer should be to the first question?

A less than perfect God

If God was truly perfect why did it not create a perfect world, a world without pain and sadness, without birth and death? Maybe the answer is because it could not create such a world.

The other question that many believers ask themselves is if God is perfectly good why did it not create a world without evil and suffering? Again, maybe the answer is that it could not; maybe it could not create a world where pain, suffering and evil had no possibility of existing.

Maybe God did not know how to create such a world?

In physics String theory predicts a large number of possible universes. The idea is that this universe with all of its laws and physical constants is not the only possible one. Depending on the potential characteristics of a universe it may, or may not be conducive to life. It may be that a universe where all of these characteristics fall into the right values for life may be very, very improbable.

The late Sir Fred Hoyle, admittedly a controversial figure in science who derisively coined the term “Big Bang,” theorized that many constants in nature must have been “tuned” to support the existence of life. This is the idea of intelligent design.

Hoyle authored original research on how elements heavier than helium were synthesized in nuclear reactions deep in the heart of stars. Without the synthesis of heavier elements life as we know it could not exist.

One of those heavier elements so necessary to life is carbon. Before Hoyle there was not a good explanation for the huge abundance of carbon in the universe. Hoyle proposed that if the carbon-12 nucleus had a resonance of 7.7 MeV then the productivity of carbon could be a billion times greater than previously believed. This resonance, a constant in nature, appears to be necessary for life to exist in the universe.

Hoyle wrote:

Would you not say to yourself, “Some super-calculating intellect must have designed the properties of the carbon atom, otherwise the chance of my finding such an atom through the blind forces of nature would be utterly minuscule. A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature. The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question.” — Fred Hoyle, ”

The Universe: Past and Present Reflections.” Engineering and Science, November, 1981. pp. 8–12

The basic thesis is that many constants, like the one above for carbon, are required for life to exist. You may or may not accept that as evidence for the universe being the product of intelligent design. In the overall picture it makes sense to me.

The possible number of equations and possible constants are probably beyond human calculation at the present time. Perhaps the “super-calculating intellect” that Hoyle referred to came up with the best possible answer given its present knowledge?

Maybe God had a choice between an imperfect world that it could create, or a perfect world that it did not yet know how to create? Maybe it decided being in existence in an imperfect world was worth the cost and pain of imperfection? Maybe what it will learn from this universe will help it do a little better job the next time?

Maybe we, as God in incarnation in this imperfect universe, have some role in making it more perfect. Maybe our job is to improve on the original work, to be God’s agents for further perfection. I doubt though we will ever see perfect perfection. That may be too much even for God.

Copyright © 2019 Lawrence W. Kennon

The Delusion of Reason

Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) wrote that:

“Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”

Treatise on Human Nature

This is a radically different view than most of us have about thinking, reason, and how our minds work – who and what we are. I don’t know that I agree 100% with Hume, but he was definitely on to something important.

We think of our reason and our mind as being in charge of things. Hume says not really. Our mind is more like a lawyer that tries to justify and defend the desires of the passions.

Another useful analogy is that of an elephant and a rider from the work of social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. The rider is the conscious mind and the elephant is all of that below consciousness; emotions, instincts, intuitions, and who really knows what else – much perhaps the product of physical and social evolution.

The rider and the elephant

The elephant is much more powerful than the rider. The rider often uses reason not to guide our actions, but to justify them after the fact.

The rider, like a lawyer, is very prone to seeking out that which justifies the actions and beliefs of the elephant rather than trying to look objectively at all the facts before coming to a conclusion. Often our conclusions are a foregone conclusion. This is called the confirmation bias:

“Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that affirms one’s prior beliefs or hypotheses. It is a type of cognitive bias and a systematic error of inductive reasoning. People display this bias when they gather or remember information selectively, or when they interpret it in a biased way. The effect is stronger for desired outcomes, for emotionally charged issues, and for deeply-entrenched beliefs.

Wikipedia

Everyone is susceptible to some degree to the confirmation bias. In the New Testament Jesus says:

“… why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove the speck from your eye’; and look, a plank is in your own eye? Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

Matthew 7:3-5 New King James Bible

As humans we are very good at seeing the defects in the reasoning of others. Because of the confirmation bias we are not so good at seeing the defects in our own reasoning. If people can work together respectfully and be willing to accept constructive criticism this negative can be turned into a virtue. The collective reasoning can be used to find the flaws the individual often cannot see.

This is how science is supposed to work (but sometimes does not!). Even well-trained scientists are susceptible to confirmation bias. This is the purpose of rigorous peer review in science. When many minds with different biases look at the same problem the weak conclusions are winnowed out and the collective view that emerges is more likely to mirror reality.

Jesus is right that we need to find the “planks” in our own eyes. It is difficult and will take some time to re-train the elephant!

This is where I disagree with Hume. He was absolutely right that we have a strong tendency to use reason to justify our passions. What I don’t think he allowed for was that we can change and the rider can learn to have much greater influence over the elephant. I didn’t say that would be easy, did I?

Copyright © 2019 Lawrence W. Kennon

Human Beings

Human beings were social beings before they were human. For most human beings the mental apparatus for social connection appears to be “wired in” to the brain. Some scientists believe that as the neocortex in the human brain evolved it played a large part in helping humans develop more complex language and social skills. Those skills facilitated connecting with other humans on higher and higher levels of complexity. 

Human Beings
Early humans

Being social beings has it upsides and its downsides. One of the more important social skills is detecting deception in others. The modern field of evolutionary psychology has shed light on just how much of our mental resources have evolved to evaluate and predict the behavior of other human beings. In a world where cooperation and trust are important factors in our dealings with other human beings, being able to reliably predict the behaviors and motivations of others is a critical life skill.

There are some really important upsides to being social beings. For one, and as our pre-human ancestors obviously figured out, you are likely to be a lot safer in a group than alone. On the open savannas of Africa a group of hunters together were safer from predator attack than one alone. The ancient Roman symbol of the Fasces perfectly symbolized this.

Roman Fasces symbolized the strength of the group.

The meaning was that the sticks individually could be easily broken, but bound together (or as humans cooperating together) the collective bundle was strong and very hard to break. There are other nuances of this symbol too, but for now let us just focus on this idea of strength through collective binding into groups. 

Primitive hunter gatherers like our ancient ancestors did not have the great differences of material wealth that we see in many modern societies. In societies like these not tied permanently to a piece of land (like farmers later on) you had to carry all of your wealth with you so extreme disparities were not very practical. Most likely you wouldn’t have seen any of those folks carrying around heavy bags of gold.

There were almost certainly differences of rank and stature in those early groups, but from outward appearance the differences would have probably looked fairly small to modern humans. In reality there almost certainly were real differences, for example, the more powerful members almost certainly got more sex with desirable mates than the less powerful.

Hunter gatherers were probably closer to a form of Socialism than just about anything that has existed since. Communal living, sharing resources like food, and common defense seem to be the hallmarks of these societies. When you consider how close they lived to nature and the relatively small size of their bands that probably shouldn’t be too surprising. Life was hard and you had to stick together for safety, both from human and animal predators, and individual shortages.

Think on this. Human beings and their immediate ancestors have been hunter gatherers for perhaps a couple million years at least. Farming and more advanced societies have been around maybe 10 thousand years. Why is that important?

If you accept the idea of human evolution then what we inherit from hunter gatherers, both physically and mentally, is probably a lot more important than what we inherit from the farmers and city builders who were late comers in human evolution. Living in the modern world of airplanes, automobiles, computers, and vast metropolitan cities a lot of our mental tools may still be more tied to those hunter gatherer societies than we know.

If we feel some alienation from this modern world perhaps it has its roots in our ancient hunter gatherer minds, minds adapted to very different world than we live in now.

Copyright © 2019 Lawrence W. Kennon