Tuesday, February 22, 2011

FQXi Question: Is Reality Digital or Analog?

The latest FQXi Essay Contest – “Is Reality Digital or Analog” attracted a large number of submissions. As in past contests, there will likely be some insightful “diamonds in the rough”. I’ll be looking for these.

My own view is that the right answer is ‘both’, and that the two processes of quantum mechanics give us a clue to this. I would say that concrete reality is discrete (so “digital”), since it consists of a network of distinct measurement events (I think space-time is not fundamental, but emerges from the distribution of events). But events are actualized possibilities. So, reality also includes possibilities or propensities (like quantum systems between measurements), and it appears that these have a continuous (or analog) nature.

In addition to being inspired by an interpretation of QM (such as I’ve discussed many times before), this sort of view comports with a Whitehead-style metaphysics. I’ll mention again here a recent blog post by Stuart Kauffman which covered some of this ground in a nice way.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Americans Unwilling to Bar Heaven’s Gate

Before leaving the topic of American Grace, I should mention the authors’ notably upbeat conclusion. They argue that despite the substantial religious divisions among Americans (both by denomination and between the most and least religious), the vast majority of Americans are very tolerant of each other.

They say the source of this high degree of tolerance is (simply) the high level of diversity among our extended family and friends. Due to a high degree of intermarriage and religious mixing (outlined by survey data), they surmise most people know an “Aunt Susan” or a “Neighbor Al” who is an undeniably good person of a different religious affiliation.

Admirably, Americans are very generous in allowing that people who don’t share their faith can still go to heaven. Putnam and Campbell report the percentages by affiliation of those who believe “people of other religions can go to heaven”(p.535): evangelicals affirm this 83% of the time, whereas all other groups are at 90% or more (Mormons are the highest at 98%).

But the authors note that this question could be ambiguous with regard to what the respondent conceives of when he or she hears “other religions”. So they asked Christians whether people “not of my faith, including non-Christians, can go to heaven”(p.537): Mormons stayed at 98%, Mainline Protestants and Catholics drop from the 90’s to the low 80’s, and Evangelicals drop to 54% (still much better than one might have guessed).

Friday, February 04, 2011

No Basis for Spirituality as a ‘Bridge’

In an effort to improve the dialogue between scientists and science writers on the one hand and religious folks (who are sometimes science skeptics) on the other, it has been suggested that emphasizing a common spirituality might help. This would be possible because even in the case of atheists, the universe inspires feelings of awe and wonder which might be considered “spiritual”. Science journalist and author Chris Mooney made this case in a recent op-ed titled “Spirituality can bridge science-religion divide.”

Some of the religious survey data I’ve been looking at suggests this is not a well-founded recommendation.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

The ‘Impersonal Force’ is a Popular Choice

In its Religious Landscape Survey, Pew asked Americans the following: “Do you believe in God or a Universal Spirit?” Then, for those who answered affirmatively, they asked this follow-up question:

“Which comes closest to your view of God? ‘God is a person with whom people can have a personal relationship’ or ‘God is an impersonal force’.”

I found the results here surprising. The 92% who replied yes to the first question broke down this way: 60% personal God, 25% impersonal force, 7% other/both. Here’s some of the breakdown by affiliation: 19% of Protestants believe in God as an impersonal force (13% of evangelicals); 29% of Catholics agree, as do 50% of Jews. It would appear many folks are not fully on board with their official theology. 35% of the nones believe in a God who is an impersonal force (representing half of those who reported a belief in God or a universal spirit).

As a check, I looked at data from the ARIS report, which is somewhat less dramatic. Here they asked a different question – no “impersonal force” option, per se. 70% affirmed a belief in a personal God, while 12% selected the option “there is a higher power but no personal God.” This question elicited a bit more in categories called “I’m not sure” and “don’t know/refuse” compared to similar options in the Pew survey (6% each).

Still, as someone who is broadly in the impersonal force/higher power camp, I was interested to learn I might have so much company.