Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Conway's Game of Life, God, Science, and "The Lawgiver".

This is not going to be a rigorous scientific post. (Sorry about that) But it is in response to my fellow scientists who keep trying to prove to me things like Dr. Conway's Game of Life implies God isn't needed.   Or the line of reasoning of Sean Carroll which states that if the laws of the universe are able to explain everything we observe, the intelligent thing to do is to get rid of God.  My conclusion is that such scientists are falling victim to issues discussed here plus more I discuss below.

Now, I'm not going to try and prove God is exists, but only show that Conway's Game of Life may actually demonstrate the opposite of what atheists are hoping for.

Watch the video above.  Dr. Conway decided to see if diverse complexity can arise from simple rules.  He decides to program a computer game with simple rules and see what pops out.  Interestingly, he gets exactly what he was hoping for: complex creatures that appear lifelike.  (Watch the video).

To the game: So let's assume it took Dr. Conway ~6 days to come up with his simple set of laws, and on the seventh he rested from his rule making labors and decided to now let the game run and do it's thing.  :)   This is what would happen:
  1. As more and more time goes by, more and more complex creatures would form.
  2. Some creatures may become so complex they exhibit intelligence.
  3. Some of these intelligent creatures may be so intelligent they realize that through science they can uncover what all the laws of the universe must be.
  4. Some creatures may develop further hubris and claim: "Through science we can discover all the laws, and from these laws the universe and all its complexity we observe can be sufficiently explained by the laws alone.  And therefore, it is pointless to think an external sentient being was needed because the laws are good enough, and the only creatures that think an external sentient being is needed are deluded, brainwashed weak-minded creatures.  I mean, we can measure the laws, and know they are real, and they can explain everything we observe so a belief in an external sentient being is both unneeded and absurd!"
  5. And yet others may conclude that the elegance and rationality of the laws may hint at a sentient source.  They might say: "I admit science is awesome and has helped us uncover all the laws one by one and the laws are really magnificent and can form galaxies, create complexity, etc... on their own.  True.  But shouldn't the existence of such rational and magnificent laws imply a rational and magnificent lawgiver?"
  6.  I'm sure there are other conclusions to be drawn but I will stick to #4 and #5. (You can come up with your own conclusions in the comments.)
In this case, #5 would have to base their belief solely on faith and aesthetics but the interesting thing is (in this case) #5 are the creatures that are correct!

Conclusion: None of this proves God exists!  That's not my intent. But I hope this shows two things:
  1. Just because the laws we uncover with science can explain everything observed, and therefore are "good enough" in this sense, does not imply a sentient lawgiver is an unintelligent thing to believe in.  In fact, in the very example the atheists use when discussing Conway's Game of Life, a sentient lawgiver is the correct conclusion.
  2. The fact that there are such laws in our own universe: rational, elegant and having the richness to create all of the magnificent complexity we see should allow us to wonder (without too much ridicule): Could such laws really exist without a Lawgiver with similar qualities: rationality, elegance Who through small and simple means (simple laws) bring about great things (complexity)?  Do the laws really just coincidentally exist this way (end of story) or are we allowed to think that perhaps there is more?  
Anyways, I am not going to sit here and say atheists are obviously wrong.   I admit living in such a Dr. Conway world, #4 may seem like a very tempting conclusion.  However, I also think that people who ridicule the #5 creatures walking the earth today are very pre-mature and presumptuous in their ridicule.  (In Dr. Conway's world, the #5 creature are right!)

So, I think there are intelligent reasons to believe the elegant and rational nature of the laws, that I and my scientist colleagues uncover each day, in fact hint at a very elegant and rational source.  


  1. Joseph Smidt said...
    I just want to add how much I love the quote at the end "That in this rational universe, there is no need for a Creator!" How ironic, given his game was an intelligent creation!

    To get what he wants he has to intelligently design a game, and then after doing so, concludes "well then the real universe needs no designer *either*". Where does this either word come from? Last I checked Conway's game is intelligently designed.

    Proving an intelligently designed game can match our universe does not imply the universe *isn't* intelligently designhed! (In fact it may hint at the opposite! One could argue this proves it takes some sort of intelligent design get something that has the properties of our universe!)

  2. Joseph, this is interesting to make analogy between our world and Conway's game. Here's a question. Just because the #5 creatures were right, aren't the #4 creatures right in that since Conway makes his game, sits back and does his thing the creatures might as well assume he does not exist. Even though he exists for them so what? What do the creatures gain from knowing Conway constructed the game other than being right?

  3. John,

    You bring up a good point: how are the creatures benefited if they conclude Conway created their laws? All I will say for now is demonstrating that the knowledge of God is beneficial is not the purpose of this post.

    The purpose of this post is just to show that Conway's Game gives us an excellent example of why stating "since the laws are all you need to explain all known observables God probably doesn't exist" may be wrong. Because in Conway's case, there would be no such set of rational laws that were "good enough" unless Conway was around to be a rationally construct them.

    I will leave the question about why such knowledge is beneficial for another time.

  4. interesting.

    but couldn't "god" be us as being the ongoing conscious active ingredient as the eastern mystics and some scientific theories would claim?

    we see what we want to see.

  5. Joseph, if you are saying that since there are laws, there must be a lawgiver. I think that is a lot like saying, if there is rain, there must be a 'raingiver'. It seems things like rain
    and laws just happen.

  6. Robert,

    Thanks for the comment. As with my comment above to John, I don't want to add more to my definitions than needed so as to avoid arguments I'm not trying to make.

    All I am saying is that I think it isn't an unintelligent stretch to think rational laws may imply a rational Lawgiver, even if the laws are so "darn good" that they alone can explain every observable. And Conway's game is an example of this.

    Now, what is the nature of the Lawgiver and whether we ourselves could be such a Lawgiver as you sugest I'm not trying to say. However, if you have some interesting reasons for believing this may be the case don't feel too shy to share as I am always interested in interesting ideas. :)

  7. Dino,

    Thanks for your comment as well. The rain clouds are the rain givers. :)

    I see your point that it may be possible for some things to just happen. (Effects without causes) And it is possible that is the case here and I won't deny that.

    In fact, I think that is the only other justifiable position:
    1. Either rational laws have a rational source:
    2. Or: The laws just exist and happen to be rational and elegant and that's that.

    But, from my experience thus far #1 is easier to swallow. Most things that have causes and rational things come from rational sources. (Shakespeare's play are more likely to have come from an intelligent creature than an un-intelligent one.)

    *Note*: People may say I am incorrectly making the watchmaker argument which has been debunked by evolution. But in this case, since I am talking about the laws of the universe, there is last I checked there is no evidence that the fundamental laws of the universe arose from anything like Natural selection. The laws just seem to exist and not be changing or evolving do to natural selection so the "watchmaker-type arguments are bad" idea coming from evolution doesn't apply to the laws of the universe.

    For example, the speed of light being constant for all observers may be a real law of the universe. (We don't know for sure but it looks like it.) Now, did that law arise by natural selection? I don't think so!

    Or take string theory which some believe is a theory that explains everything. Did that arise by natural selection? I don't think so! So here we have a *very* elegant set of laws that many scientists marvel over their elegance and beauty and I have to ask, like my Shakespeare example, is it unintelligent to muse that such an elegant set of laws has an elegant source?

  8. "o get what he wants he has to intelligently design..."

    Joseph, you almost sound like an IDer! =:)

    Is this an example of the Fine Tuning argument?

  9. Stan,

    Thanks for chiming in. It doesn't have to be a fine tuning argument. For example, Dr. Conway was not fine tuning his laws to create any special creature. However, Dr. Conway *was* fine-tuning his laws to get complexity that resembled life of some sort. So in that way Conway's Game is fine-tuned so good point.

    So I don't know. All I know is rationality begatting rationality seems to be easier to swallow than any of the alternatives. (Unless it turns out the laws of the universe just happen to exist in the rational way they do for no reason at all which is just wired!) As to whether a rational source implies fine-tuning I will admit I'm not sure other to admit in Dr. Conway's case there was some level or fine-tuning in a way.

  10. i can see your point here about how it is possible to think of a intelligent designer.
    i happen not to think so but would have to say that this is an unknown and could be either way.

    but you state that natural laws couldn't evolve.
    i don't know much about how the universe was formed more than a layperson's knowledge of it but from what i do understand i feel that these laws could indeed have selectively evolved during the early breakdown of symmetry when these laws came into effect.
    or not.

    you state that there is no known evidence for this but so there isn't for a designer either other than our speculation that there is one.

    all in all i feel there is justification for both sides of this argument with neither being able to convince the other.

    but if there is an intelligent designer i feel that we may discover at some point that it is us...

  11. Joseph-
    I assume you knew I'd chime in. You're making a great point. Personally, I don't find either Conway's or your point particularly compelling since I view God entirely different than most. To me, believing in God is ENTIRELY based on the benefits which you are not discussing. Whether or not God is needed to literally explain our universe is a moot point for me. I simply don't care.

    Having said that, I have a few thoughts on your thoughts, admitting upfront that I'm not a philosopher.
    1. Here's what bothers me the most, and I suppose it's a perspective issue. To me, I just don't view the world as rational, cohesive, or adhering to any rules. The world is what it is, chaotic, and random. We come up with APPROXIMATIONS to that chaos and randomness, call them "rational" and sell them as a tidy package that describes the universe. I simply don't buy it. I can't buy it because the world I observe around me, the one in which I design machines to function, DOES NOT obey the laws of physics with exactness. In fact, sometimes it's not even close!! But maybe I'm ignorant. Maybe there are equations out there of which I'm unaware that perfectly describe the world. Please enlighten me if that's the case.

    2. However, even if I did buy it, I have no concept of what "rational" would mean outside of the mathematics and logic that we apply to the world. How can I speculate on the nature of the rationality of a prospective sentient being without even a framework in which to operate? Is it possible that our rationality is God's chaos? I don't know, and it's not worth speculating on, but to me, neither is it worth speculating on God's existence based on our ability to APPROXIMATE the world around us.

    In any case, I do appreciate your point, which is a great one, and I read the post you linked to (which was good).

  12. re robert hand ferry
    "but if there is an intelligent designer i feel that we may discover at some point that it is us..."
    That is beautiful, and that would be a very satisfying answer for me.

  13. robert,

    A few things:

    1. You picture is great! I need one more like that.

    2. It is true things like symmetries broke but the fundamental laws didn't change. Again, pretend string theory is true just as a place holder for whatever is true. Even though symmetries were breaking and things like this as time evolved, untimely, string theory was still the underlying law throughout the process.

    3. "but if there is an intelligent designer i feel that we may discover at some point that it is us"

    I agree with jmb275. This would be really interesting!

  14. jmb275,

    I appreciate your thoughts, especially since you seem to be are more skeptical about whether the laws are real. I think that is healthy as scientists always need to be kept in check. :)

    I'll just say this without launching into a page long comment: I think there are reasons to believe that there really are laws to the universe beyond just randomness. There's my thorough debunking your your #1. :)

    As for your #2, I will just say to avoid getting trapped trying to define tricking things fraught with issues: There is a reason Brian Greene's best selling popular science book is titled "The Elegant Universe". Many scientists (especially physicists) believe the deeper they dig the more elegant, unifying, symmetrical, etc.. the laws become.

    How to define and quantify this elegance, beauty and rationality? I dont know. But many people who study these laws in great depth are captivated by it and I for one think it is captivating because there is something about the laws that appeals to rational minds.

    And it is the strong appeal to rational minds that makes these laws to me rational. Whether you are discussing the cosmos or sub-atomic particles, something about the laws at every level appeals to to the human mind.

    You could say evolution is responsible for this. (like, humans find water beautiful because we have evolved to know water is good) But even the laws of atomes and of universes exhibit a structure and beauty that appeals to rational minds. Evolution can't account for that since we knew nothing about these things until recently! And the laws are completely different from the types of laws that describe the every day things we evolved around so naively there is no reason to think we should find these laws so appealing rationally. But we do! And I have a hard time knowing why naively that should be unless the laws are tied to something rational.

  15. It is a good post and more tolerant than what some persons who pretend to be more tolerant can explain.

  16. Okay, here is what I would like to know. Is there a generic rule of inference that is being applied in this case that might be applied in cases without "hidden variables" whose reliability we could check? If there are, then we could make an empirical argument for or against your #5 position by appeal to the success or failure of the relevant rule of inference in testable cases.

  17. Cartesian,

    Thank you. I appreciate it.


    Interesting question. I'm not sure other then to say there isn't any evidence for hidden variables in our universe. (Bell' Theorem.) Are you suggesting that Dr. Conway constitutes a hidden variable in the world of his creatures?

  18. Jonathan,

    Again, I think you ask an interesting question because it may put #5 on testable footing which would be nice.

    The only thing I fear is that, I believe without being an expert on hidden variables, are that hidden variables are unknowns that affecting your system. In Conway's case (I believe) after creating rules sufficiently intelligent enough to suit his purposes, he lets the rules do all the "affecting" why he no longer affects the system. Therefore, I don't know if he gets to be treated like a hidden variable or not. (Maybe he does in the creation of the rules in the first place?)

    Now, in Dr. Conway's case, especially if he wrote a runtime program, he could alter his source code mid-game and in that way effect things. But then the creatures would detect a rule-change I believe so it still in some ways isn't hidden.

    Though it is possible I have no idea what I am talking about. :)

  19. Re Joseph
    "I'll just say this without launching into a page long comment: I think there are reasons to believe that there really are laws to the universe beyond just randomness. There's my thorough debunking your your #1. :)"
    Perhaps you and I need to have a long chat about this, because for me this REALLY is a sticking point and I would really like to understand your viewpoint. I see absolutely no rationality in the claim that there really are laws to the universe. I don't know of any experiment that has verified any law without error. Probabilistically I have no problem admitting that Newton's laws hold on average, but I've never seen them (or any other law) hold EXACTLY. Ergo why would I naturally draw the conclusion that there really are exact laws? To me it's a faith issue on your part as a physicist. I don't mean that as an insult or anything.

    Perhaps this really warrants a post discussing how I view the universe and humanity's insistence on making laws (even contradicting ones) to govern every aspect of our lives. Religion, politics, science, etc. all assume that laws are an appropriate mechanism for addressing our world. More than anything I think this satisfies our built-in desire for order, reliability, and certainty. Such laws certainly have benefits and I don't advocate a lawless (religious, political, or scientific) society, but I think we should keep them in their proper perspective.

    I dunno, I'm probably ignorant of much of physics.

    "Many scientists (especially physicists) believe the deeper they dig the more elegant, unifying, symmetrical, etc.. the laws become."
    Yeah, this doesn't surprise me. That's precisely why y'all leave the details to the engineers. Don't wanna come to the realization that your equations don't actually work! Scientists didn't put man on the moon, engineers did!!! I'm kidding here...well mostly ;-) .

  20. jmb275,

    I appreciate your comment again because again it keeps us in check and also you are brutally honest! Also, I also think engineers deserve more respect especially since they actually make science do stuff helpful for society in a more immediate and concrete way. (Although, I think they get more compensation monetarily so maybe it all works out.)

    We should talk about this more in depth but here is my short answer;

    I admit physicists sweep issues under the rug with spherical cows and frictionless surfaces and no wind resistance etc... and there are often many approximations. But the reasons I don't give up on the existence of physical law beyond randomness is:

    1. The approximations seem to be approximating something real. For example, we think gravity obeys an inverse square "law". Now is it approximate? Does it have some error? I'm sure it might. (Although, it has been verified now down to the level of micro-meters)

    But, even if it is an approximation, it appears to be approximating something real. It's always attractive. It always obeys something akin to an inverse-square law at least down to the level of micro-meters. Can pure randomness always exhibit these properties if there is no extra constraints beyond being random?

    If so, why doesn't gravity sometimes behave like the strong force or the electro-magnetic? If there is no real constraints beyond randomness, what is preventing each force from behaving however they want to: sometimes attractive, sometimes repulsive, sometimes not-inverse square, sometimes etc...

    So, though it is an approximation, these approximations *to me* seem to be approximating something real beyond randomness. (How does randomness know that it should behave one way of there is mass with a charge versus a mass where there is no charge unless there is some real rule or constraint?)

    2. Related to #1, assuming the laws are real, we get testable predictions which, to certain levels of error, are verified. I don't know what the predictions of pure randomness with no laws or constraints would be, but I know what the prediction of an inverse square law is and, though there is error, the predictions are verified fairly well. Thus believing there is a law that is something like an inverse square law seems to be the only justifiable position to take. *Foe me*.

    Now, perhaps you believe there is law, just our version is just a gross approximation and therefore not the real thing. In that case fine, but I'd still like to know where those laws cam from. :)

  21. Joseph,

    I should have known better than to go with the "hidden variable" metaphor. I questioned using that phrase when I wrote the first comment but decided to go with it in the end.

    What I had in mind was whatever stands in the role of Conway: a lawgiver or rational source or "Powerful Goodness" (to borrow a phrase from Benjamin Franklin).

    What bothers me here is that we are imagining a case where we postulate something that (by hypothesis) does not have any consequences outside of the phenomena on which we are basing our postulation. My proposed way out was to think of the inference here as a member of a class of inferences that are generally reliable. Then, even if we don't have an independent way to check the reliability of the inference, we still have some reason to think that it is reliable and hence to accept its conclusion.

  22. Jonathan,

    I think you are asking good questions and I applaud that you are coming up with some possible methods to check reliability. I would like it is someone could find a way to determine the reliability.

    "What bothers me"

    Yes, my analogy with Conway's game is that it probably is a very weak analogy of whatever is actually happening. I admit this, and I admit that that being a poor analogy it probably leads to a lot of philosophical problems.

    I apologize for this. I just hope the analogy was enough to convey the idea that if a Being did come up with a very interesting set of laws, like the ultimate Dr. Conway, it may produce a world that looks and feels a lot like the one we find ourselves in: One where laws seem to be able to account for all observables on one hand, and on the other, the laws did have a rational Lawgiver.

    Now, this could be 100% false. I completely admit this. But Dr. Conway's game is an example, *to me*, that it could also be a reasonable possibility. And for those who feel the need to say "But God has a purpose!", I will just point out that Dr. Conway also designed his laws around a purpose and so these are not mutually exclusive ideas.

  23. I hate to bring up the Bible but doesn't it say that in the beginning was The Word. Couldn't The
    Word be thought of as a form of Law(s).

  24. Aga,

    That is an interesting thought, especially since it goes on to say the Word was God. (Also, scientists would believe the laws are responsible for the creation of the universe which is also a feature of the Word.)

    I mean, again, I am straying into speculation but since we have come this far... what the hey. :)

  25. Joeseph, not sure, but, if you mean by law that, whenever
    we encounter repeated, predicable patterns in nature, that
    this suggests external intelligence, how does that follow?

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