Rational Religion

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Faith as Algorithm


A professor named Daniel Dennet, strongly resistant of any notion of a Prime Mover, sees the entire 3.5 Billennia of evolution as a series of self-inventing patterns.


Life, he says, pretty much created itself out of the same sort of “natural” physical patterning that makes a snowflake six-sided or turns carbon into diamonds under the influence of heat and pressure.


He allows that the odds against organic life were pretty long, at the outset, but figures that a billion years of random patterning might very logically have produced at least one entity which was capable of reproducing itself.


It might have been only one, given the uncanny relatedness of everything we call life on the planet, now.   On the other hand, it might have happened a lot of times, with the new “organisms” either succumbing to extinction, or fortuitously combining with others to produce the ancestors of our own DNA.


In any case it was a pretty slow process.  The first probable single-celled “fossils” we have ever come across evidently arose when our 4.5 billion year old Earth was only a billion or so years old.   Then, nothing much happened for three billion years until the “Precambrian explosion” when all of a sudden (over maybe 15 or 50 million years) a lot of multi-celled creatures showed up to start eating each other and leaving their traces for us to find.


And started evolving faster and faster until they became us.


Nothing had to “start” it, he says.  After an original accident, or series of them, the patterns, themselves, were enough to keep the process going.


In the modern idiom we, and Dr. Dennet, call those patterns “algorithms.”  The first ones can be pretty simple; have to be pretty simple.  But under the influence of Darwin’s Natural Selection they build, one on top of another, to create fantastically complex organisms.


And by the logic of Natural Selection, every element of a complex organism has its own history of algorithms; linked mathematical patterns extending back into the primeval slime.


Modern bio-physics has given us a pretty good way to think about our algorithms; they are written in code, in our genes and chromosomes.


If some trait or structure has demonstrable “survival value” and it is shared by many or most of the creatures in a given species, it is pretty much an out bet that it has a genetic basis and those genes are the result of all those billennia of accumulating algorithms.


A conscious, thinking, reasoning organism, capable of assessing its environment and its existence within that environment, is going to be subject to some very heavy vibes.  


Beyond a simple, “Why am I here?” looms a much more ominous “What the hell do I do about it?” and an absolutely scary, “What happens to me afterwards?”