15 August 2011

Theodicy Part 1. All Things Dull and Ugly

I've allowed myself to be seduced into thinking about our (US, world) dysfunctional politics and going off the main topic of this blog: Religion, Science, and Society. Of course, as a theoretical physicist, I'm arrogant enough to think I have something worthwhile to say on almost anything, but I actually participate in those three things. So, to get back on topic, I'll let the dysfunctional politics remind me of theodicy - also known as the Problem of Evil.

Specifically, how can believers claim that God is the sole Creator of everything that exists, is all-knowing, is always present everywhere, and is also completely and uniquely Good — when there is so much Evil in the world?

The problem is thousands of years old, but I think the most entertaining statement of it is given by Monty Python in their memorable parody of the Christian children's hymn, All Things Bright and Beautiful:

Whatever else you can say about living in this Universe, it is simply the case that sh_t happens. You can even classify religions according to their Hermeneutics of Fecal Occurrence. Evil, in its natural (e.g., disasters, diseases, pain) and moral (e.g.,violence, crime, discrimination) varieties is woven into the fabric of our reality. If God is the ultimate source of everything that exists, isn't that ultimately God's doing? Does the existence of Evil mean that either God is not completely Good, or that God does not exist?

Having stated the Problem, let's make some observations from which we can ground our reasoning. The first one that I can think of is that it is possible for atheists to lead enjoyable and fulfilling lives, and die peaceful and dignified deaths. You can get through your entire life in this Universe without reference to any God, gods, supernatural influences or religious experiences of any sort.

Three hundred years of modern science backs this up and takes it a step further: All the progress science has made thus far has come about by scientists (even those who have been religious believers) avoiding the hypothesis that God is the immediate cause of this or that, and proposing some other immediate cause instead. Not only is the hypothesis of God unnecessary — in some contexts, it's a hindrance.

We might therefore accept as an axiom that the Universe is such that we are free to live our lives without reference (or deference) to any concept of a God, gods, or divinity.

For religious believers, this appears to be God's Will. On to part 2.

08 August 2011

Deja Vu

I became a supervisor at Bell Labs around the time the AT&T telephone monopoly was broken up in 1984. IBM had fought off a similar lawsuit, but the AT&T management agreed to settle their suit by divesting the Bell Operating Companies — their only direct connection to their end customers. The AT&T guys figured they were bright enough to compete and win in the computer business. After all, the No. 5 Electronic Switching System was just a big computer, wasn't it? The Unix operating system was invented at Bell Labs. Piece of cake, right?

Wrong. AT&T had been a regulated monopoly for 100 years. The senior managers didn't have a clue as to what competition was about. And they pushed out any new senior manager brought in from the outside to show them. They simply intensified their internal power struggles to the point that any information from outside the company was treated as noise, unless it could be used as a tool in the incessant maneuvering. Reality, the profit motive, didn't matter anymore. The company had gone into a collective neurosis.

Eventually, AT&T failed, and was bought out by Southwestern Bell (one of the former Bell Operating Companies) which promptly changed its name to at&t. And Bell Labs died.

When I reflect on Congress' past months of debate, and the lame compromise that raised the debt ceiling, I see the same pattern. Incessant wrangling for position and power, manipulation, and trying to make the other guy look bad to the voters. Any information from reality is ignored, unless it can be used to hurt the other party. The rulers of our ship of state are in collective neurosis. They are fighting tooth and nail over the arrangement of the deck chairs, while the ship of state is sinking.

So you heard it here, folks. The downgrading of US debt by Standard & Poor's, however superficial, will probably be seen years from now as the definitive point at which US power, influence, and standard of living began to decline. Our leaders are incapable of doing what it takes to reverse it, and the voters won't force them.