An Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything

A friend showed me this article yesterday, and I was basically stunned.

Whether or not this guy's theory is true (the LHC will hopefully be able to test it), it demonstrates a few very interesting things (and I'm not even talking about the "surfer dude" angle).

First off, it's extremely elegant - or, in its author's words, "exceptionally simple." (That might be a bit of an overstatement, unless you're conversant in Lie algebras. But the title of the theory is actually a pun, because E8 is technically a "simple" and "exceptional" Lie group.)

In fact, elegance is the main thing it has going for it; even though some people criticize its scientific merits, a lot of people seem enamored with its beauty. One professor said, "Some incredibly beautiful stuff falls out of Lisi's theory, I think that this must be more than coincidence and he really is touching on something profound." Doesn't it sound like he's talking about a work of art instead of a scientific theory?

Paul Dirac
(an atheist) said, "God used beautiful mathematics in creating the world." What he meant was that he thought the fundamental physical and mathematical laws governing our reality were rational, simple, and elegant - beautiful.

I've often noticed this mystical (and even religious) devotion scientists and mathematicians have to their respective fields, and how they expect logical and elegant solutions to their problems. They expect the Theory of Everything to make sense, and even to be mathematically perfect. Notice what Lisi says about his theory: "This is an all-or-nothing kind of theory - it's either going to be exactly right, or spectacularly wrong. I'm the first to admit this is a long shot. But it ain't over till the LHC sings."

Why is it "all-or-nothing"? Because if it's off, just by a little, even if it explains gravity, it loses its symmetry. It loses its elegance. It ceases to be beautiful - and as Dirac noted, only beautiful mathematics were used in the creation of the world.

I wonder if he ever asked why this is the case...


Exploding Pigs

Because nothing says environmental responsibility like exploding pigs...

And yes, my friend was able to get a negative life span. Which is amazing for a variety of reasons.

And yes, the TV network producing the Flash game is state-sponsored.

And yes, the game violates the network's own code of practice.

And yes, some people are angry.

And yes...I should stop starting my sentences with "And yes."



Some good blog posts here, here, here (and, in fact, all of the "Inerrancy" posts), and here.

And We're Not Even in a Recession Yet...

The problem here is that this media coverage negatively affects consumer confidence...which negatively affects the economy.


The Myth of the Anthropomorphic God

The Baron of Montesquieu wrote, "If triangles had a god, he would have three sides."

This aphorism implicitly reverses classical theology: We are the creators, and we made God in our image. It also approaches the psychology of religion tangentially; man made God in his image. Man-made gods and religions are, after all, exactly what we would expect from superstitious homo sapiens.

(While I accept Montesquieu's statement as true, its converse is also true: If there were a three-sided god, he would create triangles. God is not anthropomorphic; humans are theomorphic.)

When it comes to orthodox Christianity, the accusation of anthropomorphism is easy to refute. After all, God is Love, God is Light, God is Spirit (cf. 1 John 4:8, 1 John 1:5, John 4:24). (Although these scriptures do not address the issue directly, but they are exemplary of broader Christian thought on the subject.) Despite artistic depictions to the contrary, and despite the human nature Jesus undertook on Earth, the Godhead itself was generally thought of as existing beyond nature, and thus beyond human characteristics. (Interestingly, this article suggests that ancient rabbis did conceive of God as anthropomorphic. Some Latter-Day Saint scriptures also hint at God's corporeality.)

But I don't think the anthropomorphic criticism is truly criticizing the idea of a corporeal God. I think the true, underlying problem people have is with the idea of a personal God. Their reservations are largely removed when they consider abstract entities, higher orders, and life forces.

I haven't really thought out the philosophical implications of a personal (as opposed to an impersonal) creator, but I do know that this aspect of God - personality - is the one which leads to such emotional reactions and thinking on both sides.

Of course, I still can't think of a better explanation for consciousness than a personal God...


Range Voting

Anyone have a reason this shouldn't be how we vote?


Oh Wait, They All Lie!

Obama lies, McCain lies, and Hillary lies. Is anyone surprised?


The Beginning of the Canon?

A lot of people, both Christians and non-Christians, share the misconception that the biblical canon was not developed until hundreds of years after Jesus died. (The more cynical among these think it was a power ploy to stamp out opposing books and doctrines.) Regardless of when the canon was formalized, the idea that certain post-Christ writings were considered sacred can be traced to the New Testament itself:
And regard the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as also our dear brother Paul wrote to you, according to the wisdom given to him, speaking of these things in all his letters. Some things in these letters are hard to understand, things the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they also do to the rest of the scriptures. (2 Peter 3:15-16, NET)
This does not answer the question of which writings of Paul (and which other works) are canonical. However, it demonstrates that the apostles (and by extension, most if not all earliest Christians) had a clear conception of "the Scriptures," a compilation of writings that included apostolic texts.

[Update: JLH points me to a similar case in 1 Timothy 5:18.]



This scares me.

We're neutering ourselves.

Rice Christians

Here's a very powerful essay. As dc Talk said, "The greatest source of atheism in the world today is Christians, who acknowledge Jesus with their lips but deny Him by their lifestyles. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable."


Bad Religion?

There is a common misconception that religion is not merely one cause of society's ills, but the main cause, a relic of a bloodier past that is bloodying up the present as well. With visceral pleasure, people list the Crusades, the Inquisition, and (most obviously) today's Islamic terrorists as examples of the evils of religion. The implication, as always, is that (organized) religion is a man-made tool used to perpetrate violence.

The insipidity of this argument is rather startling.

First of all, there is no entity named "Religion" for us to scapegoat. Different religions and different branches of religions, in different places and times, operate quite independently of each other, and to blame each individual denomination for the sins of completely different people and belief systems is ridiculous. Examples of Christian violence, for example, do not detract from the claims of Islam, and vice versa.

More importantly, examples of Christian violence do not detract from the claims of Christianity. It would literally be impossible to justify either the Crusades or the Inquisition from the New Testament. The first Christians were some of the first pacifists, at a time when Roman society was extremely militarized. Origen, one of the leaders of the early Christian church, wrote, "Nowhere does He teach that it is right for His own disciples to offer violence to anyone, however wicked. For He deemed the killing of any individual to be against His laws, which were divine in origin. If Christians had owed their origins to a rebellion, they would not have adopted laws of so exceedingly a mild character... [These laws] do not even allow them on any occasion to resist their persecutors, even when they are called to be slaughtered as sheep [emphasis added]."

But weren't the Crusaders religious zealots? A lot of them were. They were also human, greedy, belligerent, and stupid. They were severely, severely misguided. The fact that certain people use religion as a tool does not mean that religion is only a tool. People will misuse and abuse anything they can.

(And please, please, let's not pretend that the Crusaders would have been happy, peace-loving flower children if it weren't for Christianity. The Crusaders would have been pillaging, raping barbarians if it weren't for Christianity - and a lot of them were pillaging, raping barbarians in spite of Christianity.)

If we were to dismiss religion because of the actions of the worst religious people, we would also have to dismiss every other good thing. The main perpetrator of large-scale war, after all, is not religion, but technology. Science led to nuclear bombs; should we throw out all of science? No! Do we blame all Muslims for Osama bin Laden? No! Do we blame Martin Luther King, Jr. for the Black Panthers? No! Then why, why in the world do we continue to castigate any and all conceptions of God because of what some asinine Europeans did centuries ago? The vast majority of the world's population is religious; is it really surprising that they're not all picture-perfect people?

If all that weren't enough, there is one final, fatal flaw in this argument: Anti-religionists in the past two hundred years have killed millions more people than all the religious throughout history ever did.

Castro. Stalin. Lenin. Trotsky. Mao. Robespierre. Milošević. Combined, they slaughtered millions of people. Is it a coincidence that all these men were either atheists or anti-religionists? Is it a coincidence that Karl Marx, one of their main influences, called religion "the opiate of the masses"? Is it a coincidence that Stalin effectively banned Christianity in the Soviet Union while he ruled, or that China still does not allow Christians their religious freedom? Is it a coincidence that the main German opposition to Hitler came from Christians such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the members of die Weiße Rose? Is it a coincidence that Gandhi's major influence was Tolstoy, whose pacifist writings were inspired by his devout Christianity?

In a word: No.


The Myth of Freethought

(Just remember: The problem isn't thinking for yourself, but thinking that your thoughts are somehow special or better than everyone else's.)

I recently saw an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit that greatly amused me. The episode's name was "Authority," and it focused largely on a sound engineer who was campaigning against conformity and submission to authority under the slogan "No Sheep!". During the episode, he holds a rally in Manhattan that (predictably) attracts a huge crowd. The entire mass of people, goaded on by his exhortations, begins to chant, "No more sheep! No more sheep!" The irony of the situation is completely lost upon them.

Oftentimes, people operating under the guise of individualism, uniqueness, and anti-authoritarianism are the most unoriginal people you will meet. By striving to reject society's standards, they define themselves by society's standards. They tend to cluster around people who think the same way - just like everyone else does.

This phenomenon would be relatively harmless if it restricted itself to bad art, fashion, and music. (All three are prime media through which people distinguish themselves in the most superficial form possible.)

However, recently, this counter-cultural sentiment has gained such popularity that it has itself become the culture. Modern Western culture might be more individualistic than any other culture in history. (The roots of this cultural trend lie in the Enlightenment, during which intellectuals proposed a new chief principle of morality and politics: individual freedom.) We say things like "Be yourself!" or "Find the real you!", quoting Thoreau and other "freethinkers" (yes, pot-smoking transcendentalists count) in an absurdly shallow attempt to find meaning in life. I am reminded of Margaret Mead's quip, "Always remember you're unique...just like everybody else." The vast majority of today's self-styled individualists or non-conformists are deceiving themselves.

Of course, any exaggeration assertion of self-empowerment and individualism comes at the expense of traditional culture, thought, and morality. Individualism has penetrated past its inchoate aesthetic manifestations to worldviews and philosophies; postmodernism, deconstructionism, and other systems of thought all spring from its same tainted fountainhead.

The influence is most apparent in what is called "freethought," the proponents of which we call "freethinkers." The implicit assumption is that freethinkers have liberated themselves from the shackles of convention and tradition which so encumber the rest of us poor saps. (This is evidence, in my opinion, that religion's modern-day trials can be much better ascribed to a rejection of collectivism than anything else.)

People are wary and weary of organized religion, of being told what to do or what to think. (Of course, blindly submitting to authority - groupthink - is never a good thing, and religion, like any good thing, can be manipulated by individuals to their own gain.) Today, "religious" is a dirty word; "spiritual" is much better. When Nietzsche said God was dead, he really meant God was old-fashioned.

(Incidentally, the idea that organized religion is not personal may be selectively true, but it is by no means universally true. For true practitioners, I would think religion is an intensely personal experience.)

But the label "freethinker" is a complete misnomer. Freethinkers are generally just as influenced by their individualistic society as the pious are by their religious upbringing. Neither group can claim any greater objectivity, rationality, or "freedom of thought"; neither worldview is unique in any way.

The decision to adopt a particular religion can be just as personal and independent as the decision to be a "freethinker." There have been "freethinkers" for millennia, and most of them have thought along very similar lines. "Freethought" is just a new word for pride.

By all means, be fair and honest in intellectual pursuits - but don't pretend that your thoughts are better than other people's thoughts, or that new thoughts are better than old thoughts. (Chances are, the "new" thought has already been proposed and discussed centuries ago.) Rejecting, not acccepting, those assumptions is the true sign of intellectual freedom.


Russell's Teapot

So Bertrand Russell is a smart guy, but I really think this argument is a bit silly:
"If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is an intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time."
The reasoning is deceptively simple...but there's a major omission in Russell's logic.

Let me put it in layman's terms: The existence of a universe demands a frickin' explanation.

Why does that matter? Atheism, scientism, physicalism, and their other variants are at a complete loss (in my opinion) to explain the universe's existence. As Martin Rees, a renowned physicist (and agnostic), said, "The preeminent mystery is why anything exists at all. What breathes life into the equations of physics, and actualized them in a real cosmos? Such questions lie beyond science..." It is entirely more reasonable to believe a teapot created the universe than to believe the universe created itself. Furthermore, I can think of no candidate more apt for creating the universe than a timeless, omnipotent being.

Unfortunately, Russell's unavailable for comments.


Jürgen Habermas on Christianity

What Jürgen Habermas, renowned atheist and sociopolitical theorist, has to say about Christianity's cultural legacy:
"Christianity has functioned for the normative self-understanding of modernity as more than a mere precursor or a catalyst. Egalitarian universalism, from which sprang the ideas of freedom and social solidarity, of an autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, of the individual morality of conscience, human rights, and democracy, is the direct heir to the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. This legacy, substantially unchanged, has been the object of continual critical appropriation and reinterpretation. To this day, there is no alternative to it. And in the light of the current challenges of a postnational constellation, we continue to draw on the substance of this heritage. Everything else is just idle postmodern talk."
I personally think our continual secularization of the public sphere and repudiation of Judæo-Christian values will eventually disintegrate our society.

Weekly Review: April 29