Letter to Peter

Chapter 5: People and Beings

As Interpretations?

What does it mean to say I believe you exist (or you believe that I do)? It is partly true to say that I believe you exist because I can prod you with my pencil, but only partly. What I prod with my pencil is chemistry. If you wave at me I could explain how your muscles, contracting around the rigid frame of your bones, made your arm move. If you shouted, I could understand the mechanical vibration in your voice box. If I were an eccentric scientist, who decided that to find Peter we must find an example of your limbs (or brain) not obeying the laws of physics and chemistry, I would look for a very long time.

It is true that your body is alive, in a medical sense. However, that there is life in these chemicals I have found, does not mean I have found Peter. I only find Peter if I look for him using my "human level" skills. "Peter" is a human level interpretation (or description) of your body. It is a very good interpretation, and probably the truest. Yet I can look hard and miss" Peter" if I am searching through an electron microscope. It is also true that you are linked, in some intricate way, with your physical body, and it is difficult to see how you could do without it. Unlike computers, where a drive for standardisation (and perhaps competition law) led to separating hardware, software and data, in our brains all three are mixed up, so it is hard to imagine booting "you" up on another piece of kit.

So how do you, or I, conclude other people exist (by which I mean their body is also coupled with a conscious being)? We do it by inferring they are conscious by comparison with ourselves. Are they the same as us, in the sense that they decide, think, suffer, are conscious etc.? The answer to this may seem familiar: when we try to treat them as if they were, we find it seems to give us understanding or perhaps explanatory power. The description of the world, which we build up around "other people being like us", is powerful. Therefore, the imagery must either have some fundamental underlying corresponding reality, or there must be some other bizarre reason why this interpretation should appear true, without being true. Life is too short to find the bizarre explanations, so it is better to assume that "other people being like you" is the underlying truth, rather than that you are a brain in a box, being manipulated by someone who finds it amusing to make you believe that there are other people, similar to you. You should just note, though, that our belief in other people is not proven. Whether it is "falsifiable" depends on what theory you are testing it against; there is no test that could ever tell you that you are not a brain in a box.

It is this element of "being conscious like us", which gives us a definition of a being existing; but the very definition gives us difficulties in ethics in deciding what beings we must respect (monkeys? dogs? whales? fish? rats? flies? worms? neural nets?..). It is hard to judge objectively what creatures are conscious; already with cuddly toys we see children instinctively trying to relate to them in human terms, and we are likely to be biased towards things we want to hug, more than on behavioural proofs. It also gives us difficulty in theology, since we are stretched to suppose that a "God" might be "like us".

Are people predictable like robots?

Do we have "free will"? Can we be predicted and does this matter? We have to be a bit careful because a person is an extremely complicated system, that we could not practically ever predict. We could talk about an "in principle" predictability by some sort of super-being.

Free will is, like "understanding", not a scientific term but a human one. This means the way we express our intuitive unease about the question may completely mismatch with any rigorous definition adopted by a philosopher. For example, perhaps the intuitive question in our mind is driven by the idea of "free" as opposed to "enslaved". Are we free to do what we want? Could we meet a super-being that could look into our brains and tell us what we will do, leaving our conscious feeling liked a drugged spectator to the process? This is not likely : you can simply decide to do the opposite of any prediction (this works mathematically too). There is no obvious reason to worry that science might make you into a reluctant slave.

There is a distinction between the question of whether you obey the laws of physics and whether you are predictable. It is possible the brain has the potential to amplify even quantum effects to an everyday scale. This would make us only predictable in a statistical sense. I could end up able to say "the probability Peter will eat the chocolate is 35%, provided you do not tell him this prediction": not a great threat to your self-esteem.

If people are statistically (or absolutely) predictable, does this logically affect the fact that they are people? Not directly, as the two ideas belong to different levels of description, but somehow the juxtaposition of the two makes us uneasy. Before we waste more time on this, remember if you are very worried, your starting point saves you. If you conclude that this predictability (even if only statistical) would negate the realness of your decision-making, then since your decision-making is a starting assumption way back in Chapter 2, you can be sure that one way or another your decisions are real. You can happily jump straight to the next section (Do we have a meaning?) without worry.

If you want to think about the issue a bit further, another illustration brings our uneasiness more into focus. It is sometimes called the "Chinese box paradox" (I think it is the box, rather than the paradox, which is Chinese). It runs as follows:

A super-being analyses your brain before you go into a sealed room. When you arrive there, he has left you two locked boxes and a letter. The letter says: "You can keep everything which is in the boxes which you carry out of this room, but I have already analysed your brain and know what you will do. If you take one, I will have known which one, and put £10 in the one you take and £1000 in the one you leave behind. If you take both, or try to open them, I will have predicted this and both will be empty". Do you decide 1) to take one box and have £10 as the predictor will be right or 2) that whatever you do now the contents of the boxes will not change and so you have nothing to lose and might as well take both. This is an apparent conflict between common sense and analysis, but whether this proves anything, (some people think it does) depends on how you have rationalised the problem in the first place. Note that, unlike in the earlier example, you are not told what the super-being has predicted you will do: so prediction is not impossible for the reason it was last time.

This "paradox" is only interesting if you think that we could only be predictive in an absolute non-statistical sense. Some people believe it shows that consciousness, as we know it, is not compatible with people being determinable.

Another problem with "beings" comes from considering the continuity of consciousness, although most of the concern expressed about this comes from people who are not comfortable with computers. The question is, how do we know that we are really the same conscious person from one minute to the next, and not a substitute who is being fooled by memories in your brain. Since we do not really know what "we" are, how can we be sure that the "person" who woke up this morning was the same one as the one who went to sleep last night? Of course, your memory tells you that you are the same person, because it is stored in your head, but how can you know it is not a new consciousness that comes and takes over?

These problems with continuity worry some people, but they have never worried me. When I think of "me", I really think about the story of my past, present and future life and the way I see "myself" inside this story. My own view is that any being who shared this perspective on this story perfectly would be me. My thoughts, memory and outlook are me. I think these ideas take a little while to get used to, it may help to think it through in stages: for example (1) You are dying and we can only save your brain, is that you? (2) You can keep your whole body intact but the only treatment has to wipe your memory clean absolutely; is that you? (3) What would you say in a video to your brainwashed new self to try to make it you? Of course, if you were put into another body, I would take some convincing that it was you, especially if the new version came out looking quite handsome (by contrast). However, once I was convinced, your change of body would be a side issue. Reminiscing about your lives with someone is a very good way to get to know them. Although we have a strongly programmed self-preservation instinct, over our physical bodies, I do not find this instinct philosophically profound.

It is interesting thinking through related questions when considering the possibility of duplicating machines making perfect copies of people: Are they both you? Is the perfect copy deceived by the memories copied from your brain? What if you are duplicated and then the original is instantaneously destroyed? If identical copies of me were made, I think they would both be the "me" of my past narrative, and would be starting two different narratives that would start to become differentiated. You may disagree, depending on how you think of yourself. With us, the hardware, software and data are muddled up, however we could still in principle be re-booted up. "Cloning" (making another copy of you from your DNA) would, by contrast, not produce you; any more than identical twins are the same person.

Do we have a meaning?

I have no idea if you could say you have a meaning, since people mean many different things by the words. I believe I have a meaning. What we mean by "have a meaning" depends on who says it, and with whom they have the habit of discussing such concepts. Many people mean something along the lines of "Are we important?" "Do we have a value" or "Are we of significance?" but this begs the question "To whom?" Some people mean "Do we have a purpose?" Others mean "Is there a context in which our lives makes sense?" Others again mean rather precisely "Do I carry on after I die?", and others "is there anything which will cut through my unhappiness".

Personally, I am no stranger to depression, in a rather self-indulgent kind of way. Funnily getting married seemed to cure it for me. As a student, I spent a lot of time listening to depressing music through headphones (especially "Famous Blue Raincoat" by Leonard Cohen) and moping about. It is easy to dismiss this kind of behaviour as if the person doing it was in control and had a real choice. Sometimes even if they do, they may not realise that the choice exists. This paragraph reads like a poor attempt at continuity broadcasting by a disc jockey leading up to: the next poem (groan).


I've eaten something bad -- feel sick,
It ebbs my stomach in a tide.
Draining blood from round my head,
Arms feel floppy -- cold inside.

I've eaten nothing bad -- I lied.
I've eaten something ... did no good.
Eat and fast, both I tried
They didn't help me like they should.

Tired, but sleep will never come,
Feverish, without a bug,
Simplest tasks just won't get done ...
Headache running down the plug.

Talk to someone -- they will hear
From far away, and then I'll go
Wanting someone to be near --
Pathetic thing, as well they'll know.

"He! Complained how bad life is!
With a job, lives on his own...
Owns lots of things -- the car is his,
Certainly no right to moan!"

Mountain to get out of bed.
Tummy aches when I toss there.
Get up! Get dressed and get fed!
A free young man without a care.

I will not even try to guess your definition of "meaning" and answer the question about whether your life has one, but I will try to give you some ideas to help you find your own answer. Unless, of course, you are lucky enough not to be worried by the question, in which case just skip this section.

The question "is there a context in which our lives makes sense?" is the basic question about religion. It is the question which opens the door to "understanding" ourselves and our relationship to the world, and might be the glue which sticks on a whole portfolio of additional beliefs, to the scientific ones we already have. Later we discuss morality from a "first principles" basis, but there may be a whole host of other considerations (other than good of the community) which give us a different moral perspective. Alternatively, the same question may be the glue that sticks illusion and confusion onto our worldview, to the point that other people cannot recognise what we do as being rational, or even sane.

First, would the fact that someone only exists for a finite time mean that his or her existence is meaningless? Intuitively, when confronted by the grief of someone’s death, only the present, from which they are absent, seems to matter. On reflection, although there is an issue, it is not really to do with whether they had a "meaning".

Should my life be meaningless because it did not exist in 1950? No. Then why meaningless because it may not exist in 2050? Tomorrow seems no more important than today. Will the music ever stop? I believe that today, as yesterday and, I hope, tomorrow, there are people on the world that are as real as I am. What we do, with all the consequences are real. Torture is real, evil is real, love is real. What has eternity got to do with whether this can be true or not?

If this is a concept you need to chew over, try the following chain of thoughts: It is also not difficult to construct eternity in a meaningless way. You do not want to be forgotten, so you construct some tremendous memorial giving future generations insight into who you were. The memorial is constructed to last until the Earth disappears. Is such a memorial meaningful, if all the people who see it die afterwards? If not, is even existing for eternity, amongst transient people, of any meaning (have you seen Highlander?)? So let us add a second immortal, some depressing spotty guy, who you don’t like, but who happens to be immortal. Does this suddenly mean your life has a meaning? So what does it take to reach a meaning: Someone eternal you like? Someone to love? Someone to hurt? Alternatively, do we flip it back to front and say the important thing for you to have a meaning is not you being immortal but the immortal person to whom you matter? Maybe they do not even have to be immortal.

None of this, of course, answers the question on what our meaning or purpose is.

Beings which are not simply a person or an animal

I digress, again, to talk a little about my middle brother. As you know, Rob is ill and has been ill for about eighteen years. He has a form of schizophrenia, which is now partly controlled by medication mixed with alcohol. When in his late teens, it became clear that he was not as academically inclined as the rest of the family. He left school and took up a series of manual jobs working long hours, where he was teased for his background.

My opinion is that Rob then had a nervous breakdown, driven by work stress and failing to come to terms with what he was. We certainly did not help. As a way of trying to change what he was, and his feeling of failure and powerlessness, Rob started getting involved in the occult, casting spells and trying to relate to "devils". The first time he was admitted to hospital (when I was twelve, or so), he had all the trappings of paranoid schizophrenia; but after six months he came out of hospital and started to relive a "normal" life. He got more involved in the occult. A few months later he went into hospital, much more ill and more violent. This time he became convinced he was possessed by a devil, with whom he had been trying to deal. The devil was torturing him by "turning whatever he started to eat into his own flesh". The presence of the devil was real for him and on several occasions he burst into speech, in a thoroughly unpleasant but incomprehensible language, which he said afterwards was the "tongue" of the devil possessing him. Finally, he reached a pact with the devil possessing him; that the devil would leave him if he caused himself enough pain. After stubbing cigarettes out all over his arm (insufficient apparently), he escaped from his ward and climbed up onto the bungalow roof. He repeatedly threw himself off, each time on to a different limb. He broke successively his back, wrist and ankle until, he said, that the devil left him in exchange for the pain. Afterwards he was much calmer and happier, despite the pain of burns and broken limbs.

Now, at the time, my father's approach was to say that, whatever we did, we should not do anything to imply to Rob that his "delusions" were real, since he must logically realise they were not. My question (after years to ponder) however is this: even if I did not believe in anything supernatural at all, might I believe that this devil existed? This position is defensible, without any belief in anything beyond science. Certainly, that there really was a devil was a powerful explanation of whatever Rob was going through, but might the "devil" have been conscious as well? Brains are complicated things, we do not really understand how they can be occupied by one being, so why might they not be occupied by two? Stranger things are well documented when brains are damaged for example , and split personalities seem to exist? If a witch doctor in Africa can frighten a healthy man to death, why should it be inconceivable that a priest in England might frighten to death (exorcise) a being that was parasitically living in someone else's brain? From a dry scientific perspective, the origin of the second consciousness must be something to do with the first one, of course. The only additional step before accepting that this devil was as real as anyone else is that, with people, I can reason about their existence, by close analogy with my own. With the devil, I cannot do this so easily, but I am unable to dismiss that there could be a second (even conscious) being occurring in someone's mind. As a person who related to Rob, when this was happening, the explanation certainly gave a sort of insight. Why should people be indivisible?

What do I think an exorcist would have done? My guess is cured the crisis but not solved the underlying problem, but you never know since the underlying problem was partly perpetuated by the series of crises. Anyway, we never tried. One of Rob's psychiatric consultants did mention to me that most of the serious schizophrenics he saw did seem to have had some contact with the occult. A symptom, perhaps, of instability, or is the occult a powerful, symbolic, language capable of profoundly screwing up people's minds? The image of infecting your computer with a virus by running infected software comes to mind.

Question of the week: if you cure someone with a genuine multiple personality, is it the same as, say, killing half of a Siamese twin?

What does "God exists" mean?

John Robinson caused upset (as an Anglican Bishop in the sixties) by raising the simple question: "If God cannot be found in a form where he can be prodded with a pencil, what does it mean to say that God exists?" (My paraphrase). According to this "pencil" definition, God does not exist. For people who base their security on dogmatic phrases, which they regard as absolute, playing with words in this way can be distressing.

Other people might go further. What the authors of the Bible "had in mind", when they said God existed, was that God could be physically found above the clouds (in accordance with their contemporary views of the world). Therefore, these people might conclude the authors were wrong when they said that God existed, since God did not exist in the way they supposed. The use of "wrong" is very harsh justice. If I say my brother is coming in his car, am I wrong if he has bought a new model without my knowing? Certainly, "in his car" does not fit with all my preconceptions of what this means. The conclusion, that "they were therefore wrong to say God existed", does not follow with our understanding of what "truth" is. The question should be not what they "had in mind" when they wrote the text, but whether they would stand by what they said, given a complete understanding of the relevant reality. If Robinson’s guess at this reality (God is "out there" not "up there") is right, I think the people who said "up there" would have agreed that it was what they had meant.

John Robinson (reference ) defined God as "the ultimate reality" (quoting Tillich’s definition of God as "the ground of our being"). His argument then ran, from this definition, that there was no discussion about whether God existed, simply about what (or who) God was. That all sounds too easy to me. Personally, I do not think that it can be taken for granted that there is any ultimate reality, or that our "being" has any "ground".

I would like to have a quite go at defining what we might believe about God. Compared to the Creed, it is bound to sound unimpressive, because it is describing something using the "wrong" level of description. It is only worth bothering because of a question about how the levels of description inter-relate. When we talk of God existing, I think we may mean three things:

First, "God is in our heads" ("there is water in the sponge"). As well as any other ways we have of interpreting our world, there is one in which there is a God. In the same way, there are ways of interpreting what I do with and without reference to "me". The "God model" should have an explanatory power to help us to arrange things we already know into a coherent framework.

Secondly, "God is in our heads and also in the world" ("there is water in the sponge and the sponge is in the bath"). The interpretation is powerful, not for some bizarre reason (i.e. we are not a brain in a vat controlled by a super being who is amused to make us believe in God), nor because of a tendency in ourselves to believe in God, but because there is a reality behind it which makes our belief in God "true". This reality is God.

Thirdly, "God is in our heads and in the world and alive!" We probably mean (at any rate from a traditional Christian perspective), that God is "conscious like us", is a person (obviously not a human) who exists rather than being like "the force" in Star Wars.

At least based on the above, we know what "God not existing means", which is an impossible target in Robinson’s world. The "God model" may be the best way of interpreting our relationship to the world as a whole, but is probably not the best way of interpreting everything we see in it. I believe that, when Kepler said he imagined the planets moved in orbit because there were angels to push them, he had a less impressive perspective than Newton.

We have not considered the question of where God exists in all this. This is a bit delicate. If there is room in the statistical uncertainty of your brain to allow a conscious being (you) to exist, there certainly may be enough room in the statistical uncertainty of the whole universe including all our brains to allow there to be a God.

So does God live in the universe and control it in the same limited sense you live in and control your body? Even suggesting that God's own being is "supported" in this way, in the universe he "created", would cause sucking of breath between some sets of teeth. So does God die when the universe ends? We are left entirely free to believe whatever we like, since it is inherently untestable. No claim relating to outside or after the universe could ever be tested from within it (as far as we can tell), so we should believe whatever makes more sense, or have no opinion. Finally, do not forget that the question "Is there a God?" is a question about which only God himself could know for sure.

I insert a (surprising, given he is agnostic) poem written by your Uncle Mike:

Pitch your tent from the main camp, and gaze at the night sky
Are a billion billion stars less miraculous
than food for five thousand?
Are the inner workings of a single cell less strange
than that the lame should walk?
Is the beating heart of a man, three days dead,
more shocking than that of a child, three days alive?
To less believe the stories is more to make them true.
Ask not do you believe in God; does God believe in you?

What is an act of God?

Is God all-powerful and responsible for the world’s suffering?

In some primitive cultures, "God" or "gods" were looked on as an explanation for anything not easily attributable to any other explanation (hence disease, weather etc.). This "God of the gaps" interpretation gave a reducing need of "God" as an explanation, as man's understanding of his environment improved. Belief in "god of the gaps" could be roughly expressed as:

"Science explains what it can, ever increasing the area where it is valid, as it pushes back the frontiers of disease, knowledge of the beginnings of the universe and so on. "God" is left as the sandy island which the sea of science has not yet covered, and is gradually disappearing under the waves."

In the next Chapter, we discuss a little more the way that, historically, religion has rightly given way to science, as a preferred description for some situations. Some people, however, visualise a God who merits our worship and could never be in retreat in front of anything, let alone boffins with test tubes. We should not be afraid of the truth. However, the logic that God will disappear under the scientific ocean does not ring true. The perspective is unimpressive because, when applied to a person, we end up throwing out the baby with the bath water. If "Peter" were reserved for bits of you we cannot explain in scientific terms, you would be a disappearing "Peter of the gaps" too. It is an error of reductionism to say that everything you do is "nothing but chemistry", and that your humanity is disappearing in the face of science. The same is true when talking of God.

What do Christians believe God is responsible for?

Some Christians like to think of everything as a deliberate act of God, to present an interpretation of the universe where a deliberate act of God is the truest explanation. There are several perspectives given on God in Christianity. Perspectives where God is frustrated with people, or even thwarted by them, sit along side poetry about a God, the limits of whose power we cannot conceive. We have to be very careful to recognise that these images were put alongside each other. We may not "construct" a theory based on words, as if they were data rather than narrative. Constructionists look at the Biblical images and try to solve the riddle that God apparently could do anything, but does not always "act", and allows human and other evils. They conclude God must have abdicated a part of his power to man.

Anyway, what does all-powerful mean? Science is relatively new. Pre-science, would someone have thought that all-powerful meant that someone was literally capable of thinking about and controlling every atom in the universe against the will of any other being? Alternatively, was this military imagery of someone whose armies were so powerful he could win every battle but not without casualties (comparable with the US ability to win any war, but not without land troops)? Even the most extreme poetry of the Psalmist, and the bulk of the more serious Christian thought, stops short of a God who is "all-powerful", in the pedantic, very literal sense; of having power to do anything imaginable, specified in precise detail. For some reason, Thomas Aquinas comes to mind as the first person to recognise this explicitly; but my memory could be deceiving me.

If, because we think the psalmist was trying to write a science textbook, we insist on describing God as responsible for every single atom in detail, people will reasonably infer God would necessarily be at least partly evil. The better imagery is of a conflict between good and evil; God and the Devil if you will; where God is sure ultimately to triumph (but with real losses on the way). Of course, if you take a constructionist approach to the Bible (as say, Calvin did), deducing an all-powerful God from the Psalms is just the start of a slippery slope.

Can we use our human analogy further to define an act of God? What is a deliberate act of Peter? Of course, the answer is anything that is best interpreted in human terms as such. We allow that your body might knock something over accidentally, of course, or someone might be testing your reflexes. We are helped by a tendency of such things to be limited to a strict locality.. Not that you are necessarily the only being in your locality; you might have worms! I do not demand evidence that you can overcome the physical laws which govern your body, in order to believe you are a real person. Equally, I do not believe God has to be inconsistent (meaning not keep to the physical laws which represent how he usually behaves) in order to acknowledge his existence. This still leaves us the question: "Does God exist?"

Letter to Peter next chapter

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