Thursday, October 26, 2006

God’s iPods

Obvously I wrote that because it rhymes, but that's not the only reason. As a metaphor it in fact works pretty well. I don't know where you're reading this, or when, but an iPod is little electronic gadget popular in the early 21st century which takes digital files consisting of strings of 1s and 0s and turns them into music you can hear. And that's what you do. So do I. Stick with me for a bit and I'll explain properly. Of course, we may not in fact be God's iPods. If there isn't a God then we're just iPods, ownerless ones. Still there's something about being an iPod which I think is of interest enough by itself whether God comes into or not. The universe is analogous to that string of 1s and 0s and the only way to gets sounds and sights from it is through our perceptions of it. So the universe that we see doesn’t exist except in our seeing of it. I’m not saying the universe doesn’t exist, of course it does. It’s just that what exists is really nothing like what we see. No more than a collection of 1s and 0s is like music. However before I go further I need to get over some apologies and disclaimers and the like.

These are in no particular order. OK, here goes. I'm going to refer to God throughout as if It was masculine. If I was going to make an excuse I'd say that doing this made it easier for me to write this and for plenty of other people to read it but that's so lame that I won't bother. I'll just say I know that I'm wrong, and I'm sorry, and I've done much worse things. Next, I'm going to apologise for wasting your time. What I'm going to say is completely obvious. There's nothing subtle, esoteric or obscure about it. You may very well be completely familiar with the point I'm going to struggle to get across. Feel free to speed-read ahead and if it's plain that I'm telling you nothing new then we can happily leave things right here. Likewise, I apologise if somebody else has already said what I'm going to. I'm not aware that they have but I’m not very well read. I do know that bits and pieces of what I’m going to write are similar to things others have communicated but I don’t think they’ve said exactly the same thing as me. For the bits which have been said before, I’m not going to acknowledge my sources. By and large, they’ve been said many times and amount to common knowledge. Next, I’m going to apologise for talking a lot about seeing which may not be very helpful for those of you who can’t see. Be assured though that what I have to say applies to every way in which we perceive the universe, not just to sight. I will touch on other senses but I think that the point I want to make has the most emphatic meaning when we consider what we see and what exists, and how they differ. I’ll apologise to atheists who find mention of God annoying and I’ll say that I hope you’ll nevertheless find something of value in what I say, if you can just ignore the irritating religious stuff. And I’ll apologise to the non-atheists who may take offence at something I may say about God or the universe or anything else. If I think of any more apologies I’ll add them in later.

The universe doesn’t look like that

The point which I really want to get across is that the universe as we see it doesn’t exist. A number of things may follow on from that and I may try to illustrate my theme in different ways to try to be sure that I’m making myself clear but that’s basically the point I’m trying to make.

Let me start by saying that there is nothing weird or mystical about this. I’m not talking tao of physics or zen or philosophical or arcane. It’s modern, orthodox science such as a 15 year old child would be taught at school. Basic biology and chemistry. Not even quantum physics or relativity. Nothing controversial as far as the main thesis goes, though there’s plenty to discuss round the edges.

So, to crack on, let’s take a concrete example. I’m telling you there’s no such thing as red flowers. Not “out there” in the universe. Yes, you can see red flowers. And yes, there is something out there in the universe which results in your seeing a red flower and if it wasn’t there you wouldn’t see it but the red flower itself isn’t there. The only place the red flower exists is in you. In your brain or in your mind (that’s a controversial bit) but definitely in you and not anywhere else.

Part of this you know perfectly well already. You know that when you “see” a red flower what this really means is that an image of red flower forms on your retina, this stimulates some rod and cone cells in the retina which send an electrochemical signal up fibres of the optic nerve into your brain where some other processing happens until some cell or cells in your brain light up for “red” and “flower” and you (your mind or your brain) know that you’re seeing a red flower. That bit’s pretty easy. The bit to think about for a minute, though, is: what is it that’s out there? What is it that actually exists in the universe out there which leads us to have the perception of seeing a red flower? My case is that most of us probably go around thinking that there are red flowers out there that look pretty much like the ones we see with our eyes and brains. I’m telling you now that that’s not true. Just give it a little thought for a moment and you’ll see that I’m right. There are no red flowers anywhere outside ourselves. And if we didn’t exist there’d be no red flowers at all.

Here’s what I mean. Suppose we could “see” the universe directly, without using eyes and brains and things. Suppose we could see what the universe was “really” like. One way to put this into words is to say, suppose we could see the universe as God sees it. What I’m going to say works just as well whether there really is a God who could look at the universe or whether we just use this as a metaphor for thinking about the real world. So, when God “looks at” the universe, what does He see? Well, clearly this is a question which we’re not going to be able to give a very full answer to. But we can go some way towards answering it and when we do we’ll quickly discover that there aren’t any red flowers for God to see.

Let’s come from the assumption that God’s capacity to perceive and comprehend every tiny aspect of the material universe is limitless. It doesn’t matter if this assumption is wrong, if He sees less than all there is, He still isn’t going to be seeing any red flowers. Now, we know a bit about what the material universe is actually like distinct from what we see with our eyes. We know that matter is made of atoms consisting of electrons around nuclei, that these combine to form molecules, that light consists of electromagnetic waves and so on. We know that there are subatomic particles and that they appear and disappear and mass interchanges with energy and a whole lot of other stuff. For the sake of this argument though, we don’t even have to consider the subatomic stuff and relativity and we need to draw the line somewhere. It’s a fair bet that things get more complex, maybe indefinitely complex, but all we need to think about to agree that there aren’t any red flowers for God to see is just those atoms and molecules and light. Kid’s stuff.

So, just confining ourselves to a fairly superficial understanding of the universe, what does God see when he looks at the thing which looks to us like a red flower? Let’s start with the flower bit. Right now, have a look at something in front of you and try to make out the smallest speck you can see. How big is it? A tenth of a millimetre or so? OK, bear that speck in mind. It gives us a ballpark idea of the size of a biological cell, such as flowers are made of. It’s a fair bet that if God was looking at the flower thing He’d be able to see all the cells. So, what’s in a cell? A cell contains thousands of complex molecules, organic chemicals which need to carry out all the functions of life. For a start, a cell contains chromosomes. Chromosomes consist of strings of DNA molecules arranged in a particular order, the order providing the instructions to build all the thousands and thousands of different proteins which are needed to have a living organism grow, survive and reproduce. Each DNA molecule is relatively simple, just a couple of dozen atoms. However every human cell contains chromosomes which consist of three thousand million DNA molecules strung together. Every cell. Take a look at the back of your hand. Look at a speck. That speck contains three thousand million molecules of DNA, strung together in a code which provides all the information to grow a human being just like you. In fact, exactly like you, as it’s your genetic code. Now that flower’s DNA may be a bit simpler than yours but it’s still pretty complicated. The chromosomes in every cell of a flower might contain around four hundred million DNA molecules. These are the kind of numbers we are thinking about. The DNA doesn’t just sit there either. It’s there for a purpose and that purpose is to provide the blueprint to make any protein which may be required in any part of the plant or animal in order for it to grow, survive and reproduce. Everything. In a human being that means having code for some thirty thousand different proteins, every one of them an organic molecule containing some hundreds of atoms arranged in a complex fashion which couldn’t be made in any other way except using the molecular factories which cells contain. Although the whole genetic code exists in every cell, not every one of those proteins will be manufactured. But a good many of them will be. Every cell will contain many thousands of different complex molecules, all interacting with each other and performing chemical reactions and moving about in ways which we can barely conceive of. We’ll assume that God could get it, though. He would see all that if he looked at a flower. I haven’t reminded you that every atom in those molecules consists of a nucleus with electrons around it, orbiting in complex patterns and forming bonds between atoms which hold each molecule together. There’s a whole lot of stuff going on with subatomic particles too but I said we’d ignore those and I’m hoping the point is made. Imagine the most complicated machine you can. Something with hundreds or thousands of moving parts, complicated electronics, state-of-the-art engineering, I’m thinking probably a passenger jet. Suppose you could look at and take in all the detailed plans for that plane and then could actually perceive the plane itself in all that detail down to the last rivet. Well, that’s something like what a single cell of this flower would look like if you could see it properly. And there are millions of cells. It’s a fair point, isn’t it? If God looked at a flower He would see something fantastically complex, awesome, alive, subtle and glorious. But He wouldn’t see those curves with those ridges and lines and bulges which we see. That thing we call a flower isn’t there to be seen at all.

I said the flower was red. The flower which doesn’t exist. The thing which looks like a flower when we see it has a quality to it which makes it look to us like a red flower. What do we mean by that? For us to see “red” the light falling on our eyes from a particular direction needs to mainly consist of waves of a particular wavelength which stimulate the nerve cells in our retinas which are evolved to detect red light. The thing which we see as a red flower has certain qualities which lead to us seeing it as red. Light consists of electromagnetic radiation which can be conceived of as waves which travel through space. The waves can vary in terms of the distance between each peak. If the wavelength is such that the human retina can detect the light then it is said to be “visible”. Radio waves have longer wavelengths and X-rays have shorter wavelengths. The types of light which we perceive as having different colours vary in terms of their wavelength within the visble spectrum. Objects which we see as red reflect light of the red wavelength and absorb light of other visible wavelengths – green, yellow, blue, whatever. If we conceive of light as consisting of little packets of waves called photons then each photon will contain a certain amount of energy depending on the wavelength. For example, a photon of red light will contain a bit less energy than a photon of blue light. The electrons orbiting atomic nuclei can exist in one of a number of distinct orbits at different distances from the nucleus. Moving from an orbit close to the nucleus to one further away requires the electron to absorb energy and if a photon carrying just the right amount of energy to bump an electron up to a different orbit arrives then the electron will absorb it. If not, the photon ends up being reflected. The available orbits for the electron depend on the structure of the molecule and a molecule whose electrons can absorb visible light of all wavelengths except red will reflect only red light. The flower has evolved to contain molecules which do this, so that when photons from a mixture of different wavelengths strike the flower mostly red ones are reflected.

The thing to understand really clearly, though, is that there is nothing “red” about that light. There is no quality of “redness” outside of our own brains and minds, and those of other animals with colour vision. Consider one of those thermal imagers used for detecting people in rubble after earthquakes. It contains some kind of heat sensor which sends an electronic signal which gets converted to an image which the operator views on the screen. The machinery is set up so that different temperatures get displayed as different colours. Typically, green might be cold, yellow warmer, white hot and so on. However it’s obvious that there is no imperative for the temperatures to be displayed according to this scheme. It’s not as if the temperatures really were those colours. I could equally well build a thermal imager which displayed hotter areas as green, or blue, whatever I chose. Or consider one of those images of brains showing different metabolic activity in different areas. More active areas are maybe coded white, less active ones green. Of course that doesn’t mean that if we looked at the brain itself those bits would actually look whiter or greener. And again I could just do the coding in a different way. Maybe make the most active areas brown. How about those images produced by radiotelescopes from the most distant parts of space? The ones that say they show the origins of the universe, with swirly purple blotches. Again, you can bet that those far-off places are not really purple. Somebody set a machine up to detect radio waves and put purple bits where the waves were strongest, or something. I remember people were a bit disappointed when they learned that the universe didn’t really look like those purple clouds, that it was just a manufactured image.

But here’s the thing. Everything we see has been colour-coded. Those colours we see with our eyes don’t exist. The universe is no more coloured than temperatures are and it no more looks like how we perceive it than a real brain looks like one of those images coloured and white and green that an MRI scanner produces, probably less so. The images we see of the world with our eyes are artificially constructed just as those produced by those electronic imaging devices, which is fair enough, but a lot of us tend to go around thinking that the images we see are similar to how the world “really” looks. If we think that, we’re wrong. Light consists of electromagnetic radiation of differing wavelengths and our visual apparatus can apply a colour-coding algorithm which maps some wavelengths onto “red”, some onto “green” and so on. But out there, there aren’t any colours at all. And no red flowers.

Other senses

Let’s briefly touch on the other senses before moving on.

Firstly, taste. Quite a straightforward one. When particular molecules interact with specialised nerve cell endings in our tongues an electrochemical signal gets sent up fibres from those nerve cells into our brains where we can experience tastes such as salty, sour and so on. Most of what we know as flavour actually comes from smell rather than taste. Here, if molecules with a particular size, shape and electrical charge pattern come in contact with nerve cell receptors at the top of our noses then likewise they will send signals to the brain which will be experienced as particular smells.

So what is the relationship between the universe as it is compared to how we experience it? Suppose you have a grape in front of you. One question to ask is, does that grape have a flavour? Does the flavour of the grape exist? Or, another way to put it, does God know what the grape tastes like? There are qualities which the grape will have which will determine how it would taste: water concentration, texture, sugar concentration, presence of other molecules which would produce a particular odour. Those kind of things. It’s hard though, isn’t it, to think that the flavour of the grape is manifest any time other than when somebody bites into it and finds out what it tastes like. And, by the way, if nobody does that then eventually the grape will just rot away and by then it might be fair to say that its flavour never existed at all.

Touch. There are again specialised nerve endings in the skin that are stimulated by different physical environments: heat, coldness, mechanical pressure. Others when tissue is injured and chemicals are released from damaged cells – these can detect painful stimuli. As we remember, heat and coldness are just molecules vibrating more or less quickly. Some receptors are stimulated when molecules vibrate more rapidly and they will then generate a signal which gets transmitted up the nerve cell fibres into the brain, to be experienced as what we call heat. We experience coldness when the receptors stimulated by molecules vibrating more slowly are activated. Some nerve cell endings generate a signal when they are physically squashed and when these signals arrive at the brain they can be perceived as touch.

Sound consists of vibrations in air pressure. The pressure rapidly gets higher and lower and how quickly this happens, the frequency of the vibration, determines the pitch of the sound. The air molecules bump into each other so that pressure changes can be passed on and sound gets from one place to another by travelling in waves. When a sound wave arrives at the ear the vibrations in the air are mechanically passed on to a part of the ear called the cochlear. Here there are nerve cell endings which are stimulated by mechanical vibration. Some are activated by rapid vibration and when they produce a signal it is transmitted down the acoustic nerve to the brain, leading to the creation of a perception of a high pitched tone. Nerve cell endings which are activated by slower vibration produce a signal in other fibres and result in the perception of a low pitched tone. The process of hearing sounds introduces an additional complication which we haven’t come across before – memory. At any one point in time the nerve cells of the ear are detecting a collection of tones like a chord played on a keyboard, although the tones may differ in their loudness. However, we usually perceive sound as a sequence of these tone patterns, for example if we hear a snatch of a tune or birdsong or a word. Our perception of a sound is actually spread across time, which implies that at some level we must be remembering the sequence of tone patterns we have just heard in order to make sense of the auditory stimulus happening now and to be able to put together the sound in its entirety.

We can perceive other kinds of sensations as well, again all transmitted to the brain along nerve fibres. We can sense the positions of our joints, which way up we are, whether we are moving and some information about internal organs, such as whether they are damaged and painful or whether we are short of breath.

A personal view

To summarise, as we all already know, the human sense organs and nervous system provide an apparatus by which certain phenomena in the universe are detected, such as light of a certain wavelength, air vibrations of a particular frequency, certain molecules which can be tasted or smelt. Then the information from these stimuli is processed by the brain and somehow transformed to build up a representation of the world. The thing we may sometimes forget is that the unverse does not really resemble this human representation of it. Our perception of the universe is a construct which occurs inside ourselves and the universe does not in fact contain any colours or sounds as we would recognise them. I am not at all saying that the universe is not real. Nor am I suggesting that our perception is necessarily inaccurate. I am saying that if things are the way modern science tells us they are then the universe as we see it does not exist. Except in ourselves.

In fact, although we may think that the universe we do see is quite rich and complex, our view of it is actually remarkably simplified. Consider what happens when I see a red triangle. To me, a red triangle is a fairly simple perception. However if I draw one on my computer screen then the number of binary 0s and 1s it takes to represent it (before I do any data compression) is six hundred and thirty thousand. The number of photons entering my eye when I’m indoors consists of about three million million per second, so if the red triangle occupies about 1% of my field of view then there are thirty thousand million red photons every second arriving from the universe, being focussed on my retina, leading to a signal being transmitted up my optic nerve to be processed in my brain where I will have the perception “red triangle”. Likewise if we consider sounds. Just take the word “word”. For me, quite a simple perception, recognised without conscious thought in a fraction of a second. But if I record it and store it in a digitised file on my hard disk then that file contains slightly more than one million 1s and 0s, just to be able to play the word “word”. The evolution of our sensory system allows us to see a swirl of colours and shapes which does not exist in the universe but which represents the universe in such as way as to allow us to interact with it in a fashion which keeps us alive and reproducing.

So, everything that I see is a production of my own brain responding to signals transmitted from sense organs but those colours and shapes do not exist anywhere outside of myself. Except in other people. Maybe that gives us something in common with each other.

I’m going to move on now. Hopefully nothing I’ve said so far is particularly contentious but nevertheless if you haven’t thought of things in that way before it may still make a difference.

God’s iPods

So far, I’ve really just been talking about the difference between the universe as it really is and the world which people see. Now I’m going to bring God into things so I’ll again apologise in advance for any offence I’m unavoidably going to cause. Just to set out my own position so you know where I’m coming from without necessarily expecting you to agree with it: I think that probably there is a God who created the universe, perceives the universe and continues to take some kind of on-going interest in it. There may be more, but that’s all we need for now. (Incidentally, when I say “created” I aim to describe a process entirely in accord with orthodox scientific thinking regarding the beginnings of the universe, development of solar systems, origins of life and evolution.)

My proposal is that although God created the universe and although He can perceive it, He can’t see it. He can’t look at the universe and see anything which we do. He doesn’t have an eye which focuses an image onto a retina. Or rod and cone cells in a retina responding to stimulation by photons if they have a wavelength corresponding to visible light. His perception of the universe might be of those molecules containing electrons jumping between orbits generating electromagnetic radiation packaged into photons of particular wavelengths. No coloured shapes though. Nor sounds, nor smells.

To take an analogy, consider a skilled composer writing music on a computer. He can write a MIDI score for different musical instruments, maybe write the a whole symphony scored for a whole orchestra. When he’s finished he can have his composition program output the whole work as a digital sound file consisting of one of those strings of 1s and 0s representing all the sounds of different frequencies which would make up the music. But that file doesn’t look like music and it doesn’t sound like music and so far the composer can’t hear the music. He can look at his score and imagine what he thinks the music would sound like, or he can look at that binary file, probably as a string of little dots, and if he has a vast intellect he will be able to mentally reconstruct what that string of 1s and 0s would sound like if they were converted into sound. But that’s not really the same as hearing the music. To hear the music he needs a digital music player - a program on his computer that will read that file off the disk, interpret it and send signals to the speakers which will make them produce vibrations which can be transmitted to the air so that they can reach his ears. That’s when he’ll really know what it sounds like. Or, he could copy the file onto and iPod and play the music with that.

So maybe the real universe is analogous to that digital file – fantastically complex and containing nothing like our own human representations of it as constructed by our brains and minds. It’s only when we “play” that raw material through our sensory systems that things like colours and tunes really become apparent. If I’m right so far then one possibility would be that God really doesn’t see any of the universe, not the way we see it. Never sees a candle flicker or a beautiful face, hears a catchy tune or birdsong or laughter, nor tastes a pear. I don’t believe that. I believe he does see things but then the only way he can see things the way we do is actually in our own seeing of them. If there is a red flower out there then God can’t see it unless a human being sees it. Has the image focus on their retina, send signals up their optic nerve, arrive in their brain and be processed in some way which generates the representation which we see as a red flower. (Maybe this could work with an animal too, or maybe they see things differently.) I suggest that God does see sights and hear music but that He sees them by experiencing people’s perceptions of the universe. Without people the universe contains a complex and quite possibly fascinating morass of molecular and electromagnetic phenomena. With us, sights and sounds appear that have no existence outside of orselves. Like a digital player converting a binary file into audible music, people convert photons and air vibrations into sights and sounds which can be be perceived by God.

If correct, this has some interesting implications. Probably it’s best mainly just to leave you with the idea and consider it for yourself but I can’t resist mentioning just one or two. For example, if God only sees something when you see it then you can show Him what you want Him to see. Do you think he’d like to see that red flower, that tree? What about that pattern in the wall-paper, or the curve of somebody’s hair? Would He like to taste that grape, or hear that music? Do you have a friend He’d enjoy meeting, hearing them chatter through the evening? Maybe it’s not only good stuff either. Is there something wrong in the world that you’d like to complain about? A child dying of illness, an earthquake? You can show Him those things too.

Another suggestion I’ll bring is that if I’m right perhaps there is something desirable about seeing new sights. If nobody’s been up a particular mountain then nobody’s seen what it looks like so the first person up there is actually showing God what the view from the mountain looks like. And one could wonder whether that would apply to other ways of producing innovative views of the universe. If a butterfly’s wing looks fantastic when seen through a microscope then God won’t see that until somebody builds a microscope and looks down it. Maybe it’s more fun for God if you look at new stuff that not everybody else is looking at. Still, the main point is that you get to choose what He can see.


Taking things a little further, I wonder if what I’ve said only applies to raw sensory perceptions. For one thing, can God tell if a joke is funny? Let’s assume it’s written down in a book and He can read it. Does he get it? What if one person tells it to another so He actually gets to hear it? Does He know if it’s funny then? Does it make him smile? I wonder if what’s important is the listener’s own reaction. I don’t just mean that God can deduce the joke is funny if the listener laughs but that perhaps it is the listener’s own perception of the humour that is in some way directly experienced by God in the same way as I’m assuming He must be able to perceive the sounds of the words as they are generated in the listener’s brain.

To think of it differently, consider a photo. What I’ve said so far is that when we look at something then God sees what we see as we see it, maybe like a photo of what we see. But if I look at a photo of somebody I know then a lot more happens. Maybe it’s a child’s birthday party and I’ll remember the child and the party and have a whole complex set of emotions and memories which I’ll experience directly as I’m viewing the photo. So, does God only experience my visual perception or does He experience my emotional, aesthetic and intellectual response to it as well? Does He see what I see as just the photo, or does He simultaneously experience everything else I bring to it? Does He hear the joke as I hear it or does He also get the joke as I get it?

I wonder whether we not only allow God to see the universe but also to appreciate it, or at least to appreciate it in the way that we do. That not only do we let Him see the image of the red flower but also in our experience of it give him the experience of it being pretty or not. That He enjoys jokes as we find them funny, that His appreciation of beauty or joy is ours. Just something to think about.

I will add one last little thing to consider. Suppose you like singing in the shower and when you sing to yourself you very much appreciate doing so – that you enjoy the words and your timing and your tuneful twiddles and so on. If I’m right then even if actually everybody else agrees you’re a terrible singer God will still enjoy your singing just as much as you do.

Finishing up

There’s lots more I could say but I’ve tried to be as brief as possible to give you space to draw your own conclusions. The world as you see it doesn’t exist except in yourself and in other people. And so God can’t see the world except in our seeing of it. Bear those two thoughts in mind now and then and I think you’ll find you look at things differently.