Paul P. Mealing

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Thursday, 14 May 2009

Socrates, Russell, Sartre, God and Taoism

An unlikely congregation, but bear with me and it will all become clear. Earlier this week I received 2 new books from Amazon UK: The Mind’s I, by Douglas R. Hofstadter and Daniel C. Dennett; and Fundamental Forces of Nature; The Story of Gauge Fields, by Kerson Huang.

Huang is a Chinese born American, now Professor of Physics, Emeritus, at MIT, and 79 years old when he published this book in 2007. The book covers all of physics, in a historical, therefore evolutionary, context, from Newtonian physics (F= ma) up to QED (quantum electrodynamics) and beyond, though it doesn’t include String Theory. The presentation is very unusual, with equations kept deliberately minimalist, yet he manages to explain, for example, the subtle difference between Faraday’s equations and Maxwell’s (an extra term effectively) that led to the prediction of electromagnetic waves propagating at the speed of light. He also introduces mathematical concepts like Lagrangians and Hamiltonians early in his treatise; an unusual approach.

Its relevance to the title of this post is at the end, where he quotes a Taoist poet, Qu Yuan (340-278 BC) who wrote a series of questions called Tian Wen (Ask Heaven):

At the primordial beginning

Who was the Reporter?

Before the universe took shape.

How could one measure it?

(Huang also provides the original Mandarin.)

Then he quotes Russell on mathematical beauty:

A beauty so cold and austere, like that of sculpture, without appeal to any part of our weaker nature, without gorgeous trappings or painting or music, yet sublimely pure, and capable of a stern perfection such as only the greatest art can show.

He follows this quote with the following rumination of his own:

Physics is truth. It sails down a trajectory in the space of Lagrangians, when the energy scale shrinks from that set by the Big Bang.

I sometimes think that God is in the mathematics; I’ll explain myself at the end.

But the subject of this post really comes from an essay written by Raymond M. Smullyan (in Dennett’s and Hofstadter’s book) titled, Is God a Taoist?. It’s very cleverly written in the style of a Socratic dialogue between God and a mortal, who wants God to relieve him of free will. It reminds me of Sartre’s seminal essay, Existentialism is a humanism, with its famous quote: ‘man is condemned to be free’. I once wrote an entire essay founded on that quote alone, but that’s not the subject of this post.

Smullyan manages to cover an array of topics, including free will and morality, in which, via a lengthy Socratic dialogue, he concludes that the real virtue of free will is that it mandates responsibility for the infliction of suffering on others. In other words, you know when you’ve done it, and you will feel guilt and remorse as a consequence. This is not a verbatim interpretation, just my own summary of it. The dialogue effectively gets the mortal to admit this when God offers to free him of all guilt associated with his ‘free will’. So the choice then of allowing God to rid him of free will, and its consequences, becomes a moral choice in itself, therefore turning the moral dilemma back on itself.

But it’s the particular Eastern references in this essay that appealed to me, in which Smullyan incorporates the idea of God as a process. (A concept I’ve flirted with myself, though Smullyan’s concept is more Eastern in influence.)

To quote Smullyan’s God character in the dialogue:

My role in the scheme of things... is neither to punish nor reward, but to aid the process by which all sentient beings achieve ultimate perfection.

Then to elaborate:

…it is inaccurate to speak of my role in the scheme of things. I am the scheme of things. Secondly, it is equally misleading to speak of my aiding the process of sentient beings attaining enlightenment. I am the process. The ancient Taoists were quite close when they said of me (whom they called “Tao”) that I do not do things, yet through me all things get done. In more modern terms, I am not the cause of Cosmic Process. I am the Cosmic Process itself.

Smullyan, then (as God) quotes the Mahayana Buddhists:

The best way of helping others is by first seeing the light [in]oneself.

He also addresses the issue of personality (of God)

But the so-called “personality” of a being is really more in the eyes of the beholder than in the being itself.

I hope I haven’t been too disparate in this rendition of someone else’s essay. Hofstadter provides his own commentary at the end, with particular reference to the role of free will which he describes thus: ‘a person is an amalgamation of many subpersons, all with wills of their own.’ He says: ‘It’s a common myth that each person is a unity.’ I assume he’s talking about split brains, but I won’t explore that issue here, as Smullyan’s essay has other resonances for me. (I admit I'm not doing justice to Hofstadter, but I don't want to get distracted; maybe another post.)

I’ve said in previous posts that God is an experience, which is one reason I claim religion is totally subjective, because it’s an experience that can’t be shared – it’s unique to the person who has it and only they can interpret it. The essay by Smullyan makes only passing reference to this idea of God (when he discusses personality). I believe he’s referring to a more universal concept, but in an Eastern context rather than a Western one.

I can’t help but make a connection between Huang’s book and Smullyan’s essay, because they both relate to 2 of my lifelong passions: science and religion. Mathematics has given us such extraordinary insights into the physical processes of the universe, at every level, and the idea of God as the process itself, in which we play a very small part is an appealing one. And calling it the Tao, effectively rids it of human personality.

Most people would make no connection between these 2 ideas, but I sometimes think I am a Pythagorean at heart. Mathematics is such a magical medium that one cannot dissociate it from God, especially if God is the Tao, and Tao is ‘the scheme of things’.


The Rambling Taoist said...

The idea of God as mathematics or pure logic goes all the way back to Baruch Spinoza in his seminal work, The Ethics. I'm just now starting to read it.

I love Smullyan -- great writing style. Another example of a conversation with God that mirror's his comes from God's Debris by Dilbert creator Scott Adams. Talk about a book to make one rethink the basic underlying assumptions of life!

Paul P. Mealing said...

Thanks Rambling Taoist for your references. Both of those books sound worthy of exploration.

Another book, in the same vein, is Terry Lane's, God The Interview.

Terry Lane is a broadcaster with the ABC (Australia's equivalent to the BBC). He was once a clergyman, but describes himself on the back cover as: 'a secular, rationalist, pessimistic psuedo-Marxist.'

But don't be put off by that, it's a very good book.

Regards, Paul.

The Rambling Taoist said...

I wrote my Master thesis on "The Concept of Democracy Within 2nd Generation Marxism". So, someone calling themselves a pseudo-Marxist is not a put-off in the least! :)

Thanks for the book recommendation.

PK said...

Hi Paul,

I'd never seen Smullyan's essay, but of course, given my own spiritual preoccupations, I found myself captivated by your description, and managed to find it on the web. (Google keywords: Smullyan God)

Wherein I fail to identify with the mortal in the essay is not in his desire to be disencumbered of free will, but in his motivation. I think Smullyan, being essentially moral and not a malicious sociopath, projects those traits onto his Everyman. But *every man* (or person) doesn't have them. At least 5% of us (by statistical accounts) are sociopaths, and they're the ones who run the world. I wrote in a blog post, just a few months ago:

"For the record, I'd give up 'free will' -- or at least the freedom to harm others -- in a nanosecond, if it would disempower the sociopaths who make all our lives hell. It seems to me an insufficiently gratifying form of compensation. I, for one, have no desire to exercise the option to trample and torture other humans in a demented quest for wealth and power, or just for the "fun" of it. People who do have that desire tend to become CEO's or talk radio hosts.Why not simply deprive us of the ability to harm one another?"

So if I'd been the mortal party to that discussion, I'd have asked God to disencumber us of just this one, particular, infinitely and horrifically pernicious freedom. (Which I believe would be a constraint that would apply vacuously to most of us, but would shackle the vicious, Schadenfreude-obsessed sociopaths who really *need* constraining.) The thing I find most objectionable about the world is not that I *could* sin if I wanted to (which I don't), and that I'm therefore obsessed with fear of guilt (which I'm not, because I feel absolutely no inclination to murder anyone), but that sociopaths are immune from guilt in any case, and they *do* have that inclination, and that, accordingly, as with the most pernicious of organisms in an artificial life simulation, they come to dominate the ecological niche. I'd have been more interested in God's conversation with a Morlock than with an Eloi. But then, perhaps Smullyan fancies himself a *potential* Morlock, but I just don't see it.


Paul P. Mealing said...

Hi Peter

I guess I have a less pessimistic view of humanity in general.

If kindness be considered your virtue you have attained your purpose completely. My favourite quotation from the Richard Wilhelm/Cary Baynes translation of the I Ching.

I still believe real evil doesn't come from individuals but groups - I remember Koestler writing about it in The Ghost in the Machine. It starts with an ingroup outgroup mentality and it escalates from that; doesn't take a sociopath, believe it or not, just ordinary people, politicised and propagandised.

Regards, Paul.

PK said...

Hi Paul,

I very much like your quote from the I Ching, which has a kind of reassuring resonance.

I don't think I'd characterize myself having a "pessimistic view of humanity," since, not unlike Anne Frank, I still do believe that "most people are good," or at least natively benign and well-intentioned. You seem to have an almost eerie, "temporally inverted prescience" about my current thinking since I do believe very precisely that groups ARE the problem, and wrote a blog post to that effect exactly back in late February. (see evil ) What I'd say, relative to the "ingroup/outgroup mentality" is that it's not so much a native, atavistic proclivity for most people, but that it's deliberately fostered by the sociopathic ones, since relegating others to "outgroup" status and susceptibility to exclusion and persecution feeds and gratifies their narcissism (it almost doesn't matter *which* others, but it's almost invariably the least powerful). Absent this deliberate nazi-like unification and gathering of "insiders" and identification and anathematization of "outsiders" by instigating sociopaths, though, I don't personally think that all that many non-sociopathic people would do it naturally in the course of things. Of course, I might be wrong. I'm not a sociologist, but like you, I tend to proceed from personal experience and observation, and an attempt to find plausible explanatory hypotheses. We're absolutely of one mind on the "group" problem, though.


Paul P. Mealing said...

Hi Peter,

Yes, I had read your post, but I read it again. We say very similar things (I'm referring to my own post on Evil, which you've read).

In particular, I also make the point that the person who takes a stand is the extreme exception rather than the rule. I also agree that a deep narcissism is what drives the real megalomaniacs who have so often steered history, which is one of the strangest evolutionary anomalies of humanity.

Regards, Paul.