29 January 2007

None so Blind as Richard Dawkins

While driving this weekend, I tuned into NPR and caught a bit of a program about science and religion. It was biologist Richard Dawkins declaring that the question, "What is the meaning of life?" is no more worthy of an answer than, "Why are unicorns orange?"

I was struck by the realization that debating Richard Dawkins on religion would be like debating a congenitally blind skeptic on the reality of color. Dawkins appears unable to have anything resembling a religious experience, and therefore to doubt that anyone else does. Further, he seems to believe that there is in principle a completely naturalistic (or materialistic) explanation of any such experience.

Well, let's get really scientific about it. As a physicist, I can tell you that there is no such thing as color. There are different wavelengths of light, and specific retinal and neural responses to them. But the experience of color is entirely subjective. It's all in your mind.

Dawkins might object to my analogy because there is a neurophysiological explanation for color perception (but not, I hasten to add for its subjective experience). Yet there are also neurophysiological correlates of religious experience - specifically of Western-style experience of mystical union with God, and of Eastern-style experience of oneness with Everything, as documented in Why God Won't Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief. The authors take pains to explain that all experience is "all in your mind," and that the absence of an identified sensory organ does not make that experience any less real. Perhaps the brain itself is the sensory organ of religious experience.

Now Dawkins would argue that if there are neurophysiological correlates of religious experience, then religious experience is entirely neurophysiological - no supernatural ingredients required. But just as I cannot prove that there is a supernatural ingredient, neither can he prove that there is not. The only scientifically tenable position is agnosticism - because if your are an agnostic then you can prove that you do not know whether God exists by the methods of unaided reason.

Dawkins' argument that the supernatural cannot exist is equivalent to the argument that everything that exists can be apprehended by the methods of science. But that is something which science itself has known to be false ever since Goedel's Theorem of 1925, in which Goedel proved that within the confines of any finite, non-trivial, non-contradictory set of axioms, it is possible to construct a statement whose validity can be neither proven nor disproven. Therefore, Dawkins' insistence that any question which cannot be answered by science be declared inadmissible is his attempt to turn his erroneous assumption about the universality of science into a kind of Orwellian NewSpeak in order to make all sensibilities become as stunted as his own.

But I have to admire the Religious conviction with which he pursues his mission to make all nations disciples of his atheism.

27 January 2007

What is Church, anyway?

I feel moved to say a few words about bricks-and-mortar churches vs cyberchurches. But first, a few words from our Sponsor:

And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. - Matt 16:18 KJV

For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body.

For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church:- Eph 5:23,29 KJV

When I was a child, I thought church was a place you went on Sunday, because that's where people were supposed to go. It was the right thing to do, part of the proper way to be a person. I was shocked out of this way of thinking by my church's deafening silence after my father died. But its residue led me after 20 years to join another church, until a conflict among its members drew me in. After it was over, I became a wanderer, visiting many churches, joining none, and not going every Sunday. While I was still a regular churchgoer ("churched," they call it) I became a Stephen Minister. As an extension of my ministry I even started a cyberchurch, the Virtual Church of the Blind Chihuahua, of which this blog is a part. So again, what is Church? Am I still a part of it, and is cyberchurch really church?

Objectively, Church is the social network of all the believers, the clergy, and God (who, according to Church doctrine makes Himself available to the Church as a person - any and all of three persons to be exact). In the medieval Catholic way of thinking, the Church as social network formed an acyclic graph. Each person is represented as a node (like a Tinker Toy connector for you old folks), and each link represents an association or connection from one person to another (like a Tinker Toy stick). The graph starts with God, with links going from God to the Pope, from the Pope to the Cardinals, from the Cardinals to their Bishops, from the Bishops to their Priests, and finally from the Priests to the congregations of their People. The Protestant innovation was to make the network cyclic by positing a direct connection between every node (person) and the network hub (God). From a Social Network/Graph Theoretic perspective, the old Wars of Religion between Catholics and Protestants in Europe were over a change in topology.

Being a Protestant, I believe not so much that I keep up my connection to God through prayer, but that God keeps up God's connection to me, without my deserving the favor. This implies that I am still connected to the Church social network through its hub, through God. But there is more to Church than that.

Church has always meant communal worship. Not online, not in front of your TV, but in the physical presence of one another, the entire community of the faithful gathered together. A huge part of the love that Jesus commanded us to have for one another is attachment, a term which refers to the way mammals in close proximity influence each others' metabolic and neural (especially limbic system) rhythms. This occurs through postural cues (body language), gesture (including touch), and lots of other ways, including even the sound of each other breathing. This communal limbic resonance and limbic regulation is probably responsible for the statistic that regular churchgoers are healthier and live longer than the unchurched.

Perhaps the staid nature of worship in the mainline liberal Protestant denominations explains their decline in membership. We mammals crave limbic togetherness, which is mediated by our rhythms. Would it really diminish our neocortical liberalism if we had a little shoutin' and foot stompin' in the pews? But how much more would it revive the church if we took on the task of actually caring for one another?

Church is not only in your rational neocortex, but also in your emotional, soulful limbic body-mind - not only in your head, but in your heart. Cyberchurch cannot replace physical congregation. The Virtual Church of the Blind Chihuahua is merely an add-on, a sop to those of us who live too much in our heads, and a source of provocative ideas for those of us who don't.

Of course, there is infinitely more to Church than I have mentioned here. I have not even touched on the spiritual dimension, what it means to be a servant of God in community with other servants, the vulnerability of Church to the shadow-side of human organizations, etc. I've written about some of that elsewhere. For the rest, you might try asking your pastor.

[1] For more on social networks see Albert-Laslo Barabasi, Linked.
[2] For more on attachment, limbic resonance, and limbic regulation see Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini and Richard Lannon, A General Theory of Love.

23 January 2007

Search Sucks, Too

While we're at it, search sucks, too. Sure, once you've got the hang of using a computer, it's easy to type search terms into, say, Google. But finding what you're really looking for? That's hit and miss. Partly it's because there is no agreement on standards for making content findable.

But a huge part of it is because search engines don't really understand the language of the documents they are searching. This is about to change. Cognition Technologies has designed and built a search architecture that actually understands language, and that has been initialized for several subject areas in English. Stubs exist to initialize it for a wide variety of languages and subject areas.

But if someday we could put all the pieces together - standards for findability, natural language query and understanding, and learning the intention of the searcher (the shared computer-user state space of yesterday's article) we might actually have a search capability that finds what we're looking for.

Of course, that may doom VCBC. Most people find us by accident. In other words, we have a growing audience because search engines turn up unintended stuff. Oh, well. Nothing we do lasts forever.

22 January 2007

Why Personal Computers Still Suck

We have had personal computers for over a quarter century, and they still suck. Yeah, I know, they can play music and video now, and that's cool, but think about all the little steps you have to go through to get a computer to do what you want. Point here, click once there, double click that, drag down this menu which, by the way, is completely different from what it was before you did that other click...

What you are doing is navigating the large, but finite internal space of states that the computer can be in so that you can finally get to that last command that triggers the desired response. You do it using that part of your brain that lets you navigate through familiar and unfamiliar real spaces, like shopping malls, and lets you find your car in the parking lot when you're done shopping. If you have a stroke in your right vertebral artery, which keeps this region alive, you may be able to walk and talk, but you won't be able to use your computer. At least not until after a long period of retraining.

Which makes me wonder: why after all these years are we still navigating the computer's state space? Don't computers now have the processing power to start navigating our state space? After all, there are only a finite number of commands you can give a computer. Therefore, there are only a finite number of commands you can want to give a computer - at least from the computer programmer's point of view.

Why do we have to remember where to find the obscure command that formats the margins the way we what, or go through three click-and-drags to get a Greek letter? Computers now have keyboards, mice, microphones, and cameras. It's time for operating systems programmers to make computers that understand typing, points, clicks, scrolls, and some words and gestures - and that use those inputs to figure out what we want them to do.

It's time for the computational burden of learning and remembering the shared computer-user state space to shift from the user to the computer.