Friday, October 5, 2007

Santa Clause, Fate, and Purpose

Let me get this out of the way first. 42.

So in doing some research for work I rediscovered a website by the Washington Post that proposes to be a forum for some of the more public members of the community in regards to religious topics.

And somehow this lead me to draw the comparison of religious bickering to the belief in Santa Clause. Think back to the days when the question was alive in your head, "Is he real?" and all of the rationalizations that came about. Attempts at justifying how it would be possible for a single man to distribute gifts to (some of) the world. There are just so many holes in the myth that we don't see as a child. In the end what changed? The presents we received didn't magically disappear, simply our understanding of the origin of them changed. It's almost amusing to think about kids on the playground going 'Nu-uh' to claims of family members being responsible. Yet somehow that skepticism eventually wins out.

Granted it's a bit different with religion. There's still many people going 'Nu-uh' (and in much more dramatic ways), but there is no authority figure to go to and ask directly. Or more to the point, no person to fess up to being the cause of the events that occur in our lives (people giving presents).

But there is science. It shows the how of things happening, but for some reason we consistently ask 'why?'. Some would argue that there is an ultimate design (purpose) to the universe and there may very well be, however, the universe is an awfully HUGE and complex thing and as such any purpose that incorporates the entire universe is going to be HUGE and complex as well.

There are some theories that our brains are hard wired to see all things as having 'intentionality' and we can certainly see the merits to it from an evolutionary (science) stand point as from a primitive level we weren't so much at odds with nature as we were other animals who had intentions (mainly surviving by an means necessary).

You can start making arguments that by the universe evolving intentionality it has intentionality, but it's entirely possible that the universe evolved two very different intentions and so the 'Purpose of Life' could, essentially, have two answers. Not really the point I want to address, but lots of fun thought experiments there.

Back to the whole religion vs. science thing. Questions like 'Why do bad things happen?' become irrelevant in science as 'bad' is a label that is assigned on individual basis. The question in science is, 'How did X happen?'. You can do some averaging over all people to come up with a 'collectively bad' label, but in the end the label still isn't universally applicable.

We are told that present giving is done by Santa and until we start to learn about the world, we are none the wiser. We start to ask questions like 'How does Santa fit down the chimney?' or 'Why doesn't Jack or Jill have a Christmas tree and presents?' and we discover that Santa Clause is not a universally applicable thing.

It's the scientific method and it works. Sure the facts get jumbled sometimes and there's conflicting figures, but the universe is a HUGE and complex thing. In fact the universe could very well be as infinitely small as well as infinitely large. In either case, there's a logical contradiction that you can't know everything possible in the universe. That being the case, we will always have a chance to get things wrong. More interestingly though, we will always have a frontier to explore and that ultimately means we will always have a purpose to find and that we can never prove one universally applicable purpose.

Shifting topics, there is a great book by Scott Adams (freely available online I believe), called 'God's Debris' that is a very nice thought experiment into the nature of "God" (generically not Christian/Buddhist/etc...). Mainly, asking the question 'What purpose or reason does "God'"have for existing if he/she/it can accomplish any task possible and know any result of a task? We see the question of purpose becomes void when there are no questions to be answered. It is by asserting a single question that suddenly the proposed deity does anything. And that simply is, 'What if "God's" ominpotence didn't extend to the results of his/her/its own destruction?'

I highly suggest it for reading, but the question itself brings into question humanity's ultimate fate. What if we somehow came to learn everything? What then? Do we run across the same question and destroy ourselves? If you look deeper you eventually see this is a very similar question as 'If a tree falls in the woods and no one is around to hear it, does it still make a sound?' aka 'Can you answer a question that you have no way of verifying?'

Logically we say no, but something burns in us to want to answer that question anyways.