Static Violins

People claim to talk to God all the time. Some high-profile people claim to not only hold discourse with The Almighty, but to receive hand-crafted mandates from him as well. Often these mandates involve running for public office. Or perhaps the message is broadly moral, always cessationist, some awful (but not really awful) behavior stirring the wrath of a supreme being, generally expressed in a turn of the weather. This cold snap was sent because of gay marriage, for example. Everybody must halt their support of it at once, or things will only get chillier.

At first it seems the silliest part of these communications is their impenetrable certainty. It is, to paraphrase Hitchins, proud, arrogant stupidity. Surely a moment’s consideration ought to rouse them from such self-assured conviction, although it never does. And it’s hardly a new phenomenon. Yeats branded it a hundred years ago. However, this is only an annoying side-effect. I will call it meta-ignorance. It is an ignorant stance based on an even more ignorant stance, and the thing about the foundational ignorance is that it is essential to the maintenance of the religious outlook.

I have in certain moments grandly referred to this as the Problem of Reducibility. That is probably a terrible name for it, but I have used it so much that the concept is now irretrievably pinned under this label as far as I am concerned. Reducibility is the most salient problem of religious belief, and by that I mean it confounds belief, shining a light where it cannot be tolerated.

Gods and spirits are by definition supernatural. Minds without bodies. Yet we do not say they are “pure energy” (you must read that phrase in a Spock voice for best effect). A god is not a swarm of energetic particles. That would be a strange but believable kind of natural life form. No, a god has no substance at all. Completely immaterial, completely transcendent, not made of anything identifiable. In fact, every time you try to imagine the stuff of which God is made, the being you are imagining instantly becomes not-God. I cannot point to any type of thing, any substance, and say “There’s some God.” Even a pantheist thinks crude matter is somehow infused with a God-essence, and this essence is not tangible. To provide it with tangibility is to remove its divinity.

I said gods and spirits were minds without bodies. We ascribe to gods and spirits every kind of mental faculty that we possess, such as intention, memory, and a surpassing interest in strategic information (i.e., the kind of data that alters our social valuations, like “Alfred tried to kiss Irene”). In other words, we assume God has a mind, and that “mind” is separable from “body.” What this entails is a divide between information and matter. This is one of those intuitions we have about the world that doesn’t hold up well under investigation, because there is no way to have information without it being encoded materially. It helps to understand this if you know how computers work. They aren’t magic boxes. There are instructions and there are data. Instructions operate on data. Both instructions and data need to be stored somewhere, and this is handled by the arrangment of physical things, like the magnetized patterns on a hard disk. You might think the idea of an instruction can be wholly immaterial, but you would be wrong: that idea is held in your brain by the arrangement of chemical “bits” very similar to the bits on a disk. Information without a medium is not information. It’s nothing. It may help to think of it this way: Consider three violins. Obviously the violins are physical objects, but the quality of “three-ness” appears to be something I am imposing on them from the outside. The attributes of each violin do not change when their number changes. So I am tempted to think the concept of “three,” which is not represented in the physical structure of the violins, is non-physical. However, the photons that hit my eyes so that I can count the violins are physical. The impulse that travels my optic nerve is physical. The chemical response of my neurons is physical. My recognition of the pattern, and the retrieval from memory of the word “three” both involve observable, physical phenomena. No part of the informational or procedural path can be traced to a non-physical state.

A true Platonist might mount an objection of the form, “The arrangement of chemicals in your brain is only an example of the universal, non-physical form of three-ness.” It very well might be! But this doesn’t answer the dilemma, which is to ask how the knowledge of such a form can be transmitted to my physical brain so that the violins may be counted. How, precisely, does the normal, fully-traceable and fully-physical path of information intersect with the non-physical World of Forms?

There would have to be a kind of interface to mediate between the physical and the non-physical. I am fond of positivism, and so I am entirely willing to entertain that this interface exists so long as it solves the problem at hand (i.e., access to the immaterial). Thinking about this interface, I would assume that our side of it, the part that connects to our physical experience, would itself have to be physical. Except that this collapses the interface! If the near-end of the interface is physical, and therefore subject to observation, I can record what it does and infer its more remote functions. This means that the immaterial and unobservable becomes observable and, consequently, material. (It’s only immaterial if I can’t affect it, right? Well, observation is affective.)

Apply this same reasoning to a supernatural entity. If there is a cause-and-effect relationship between me and a supernatural entity, I should be able to make observations of that interaction, even if it’s only observing the near-side of an interface layer. From that data I can infer the workings of the supernatural entity, and said entity necessarily loses its prefix, because I can make all the scientific predictions about it that I make about any natural entity. Thus, the supernatural is always reducible to the natural.

The only alternative to this is to say that the supernatural does not interact with the natural. That’s fine, but it leads to one of two results. The primary result is that communication with supernatural entities is an interaction (since information must be transferred, and information is physical), and so this non-interfering universe also entails not holding discussions with the gods. The secondary result is to ask what the difference is between a universe that contains supernatural entities that do not have any interaction with the natural world and a universe without supernatural entities. There is no difference. So we can safely delete the unneeded premise that supernatural creatures exist.

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