Nine years ago, a Brazilian student in the Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University, where I used to lecture, came to me with what I initially took to be a tall tale. She described an obscure new cult that prayed in binary numbers (strings of ones and zeros), the fundamental elements of computer programs. The cult’s founder apparently believed that the universe was a giant computer.
After a summer vacation back home, the student reappeared with a videotape to prove her case. Cult members were dressed in voluptuous, kitschy robes that aliens might have worn in the original Star Trek. They chanted in Portuguese: Zero, um, um, zero, zero, um. . . . The video looks authentic, though I haven’t been able to come up with any independent confirmation, and if anyone could pull off a hoax of this magnitude, it would be a wily ITP student.
The first thought that came into my mind was that this cult had better be mistaken: If they were right, the universe might crash as a result of the slightest mistake in their recitations. (At the binary level, even a single wrong bit can cause a computer crash.)
My second thought was that these chanters, weird as they were, appeared to be sincere, serene, and harmless. Everyone probably believes in some nonsense, so why not this winsome nonsense? But then, wouldn’t it be better if these people, who didn’t look very well-off, got rich from learning to program real computers? Wouldn’t it ultimately be kinder to challenge their faith? It’s rude to tell other people what to believe, but it can also be derelict, even cruel, not to challenge ridiculous beliefs.
I’ve kept quiet during the past year or so of high-profile science/religion bickering because I assumed there would be no use for yet another voice in the agitated crowd. As it happens, though, the approach to science/religion questions that I prefer has remained almost entirely unrepresented, so now I will join in.
Sadly, the first question to ask about any religious practice these days is whether it’s likely to turn violent. Sure, binary cultists look cute on video, but will they be storming a data center in São Paulo in a few years?
Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett have recently led a charge against religion, and one of their main accusations is that religion encourages violence. This claim recalls similar ones that violent video games or pornography cause criminal behavior. Sometimes they might, but sometimes they clearly don’t. It’s hard to isolate causes of human violence because violence is so common.
What if religion can serve either to incite or reduce violence, depending on some details that we have the good fortune to be able to influence? Here is how I think that can work: The human species is clan-oriented. We are exceedingly concerned with who is a member of our clan or a competing clan. Democrat or Republican? Windows or Linux? It’s almost impossible for us to ignore clan passions. We are also hopelessly obsessed with the hierarchy within our clan. Listen to teenagers, or anyone else, talk about who ranks to date whom, or who deserves scorn. We care immensely about tiny differentiations in status. Gossip grabs our attention, no matter how banal it is.
Violence between people often comes about when they fight over limited resources, but sometimes there is no such “rational” explanation. In those cases, clan dynamics are almost always to blame. Intellectuals like to think that ideas are what matter most, but listen to what average murderers say. Kids who shoot other kids in the streets of Oakland, California, near where I live, usually report that it was either gang retribution or a response to being “disrespected.” The latter often involves the nasty business of sexual selection. These are the universal and tragic themes you find in the literatures of all peoples.
Religion placed immortal supernatural beings at the top of the clan, thereby reducing everyday violence between adherents. Crusades, jihads, and bloody schisms were the price paid for this improvement, though in the grim context of human behavioral history, that was probably a bargain.
The idea of God (or gods) also served in ancient times as a way to apply the clan-centric cognition of the human species to the problem of comprehending the dynamics of the world. In the Hebrew Bible, for instance, God is the “King of the universe,” so God served at least two duties: as clan leader and as explanation of reality. Thus when scientists tell believers they’re flat-out wrong, we think we’re making a point about nature, but I think we’re often heard as giving the primal message, “We elite persons reject your clan status.”
A more recent violence-avoiding arrangement, which has a promising track record so far, is for a society to support so many overlapping, ambiguous clan hierarchies that clannish perception becomes confused. This is what democratic capitalism achieves. There are many ways to achieve status and identity in modern America. You can be a Web video prankster, academic, and entrepreneur, with lots of prestige but not much money, all at once. (I know people like this.) Under this regime, it no longer feels as if each person has just one status or belongs in just one clan.
Why not approach the idea of God in the expansive way that democratic capitalism harnesses clannishness? Einstein did something like that when he spoke about God not playing dice with the universe and when he pledged allegiance to the God of Spinoza. It isn’t disrespectful to embrace God in a confusing way; to do otherwise could be seen as showing a lack of humility. A complex God is less likely to rally violent mobs. That’s why I felt comfortable mentioning God in these pages, pissing off more than a few atheist readers (see Jaron’s World: Raft to the Future), and why I think the advent of binary worship is potentially a healthy thing. When scientists absolutely reject God, we leave behind only a simpler and more dangerous God.
This optimistic assessment makes sense only so long as God is a truly big idea, not an idea small enough to be threatened by the results of experiments; not a “God of the gaps” but a God that is bigger than the cosmos. If the binary chants are expected to run as literal computer programs, then the cult is in trouble, just as it would be if it believed Earth is at the center of the solar system or that evolution does not exist.
Scientific experimentation needn’t be a source of constraints that reduce God over time. There are well-established streams of religious thought that treat science as elevating God so as to be concerned only with things too big to be framed by science. But why should a scientist show any degree of acknowledgment, much less friendliness, toward topics that are so big or mysterious that they can almost certainly never be addressed experimentally?
Some answers are: Because to pretend to be certain that such big questions don’t exist is to be dishonest. Because noticing what I’ll call “permanent mysteries” evokes wonder. And most important, because people are afraid to die, and they sometimes find hope in the unresolved status of the biggest questions. Take away that hope and you hand victory to whatever creep can give it back.
It’s mean-spirited to fight against that kind of hope. It also reinforces fears that scientists are claiming to be an immaculate, elite population. After all, scientists are also afraid to die, and we haven’t necessarily achieved some hypothetical level of perfect rationality inside our own heads. Instead of telling other people what not to hope, a more constructive approach is to learn how to be more articulate about the limits of experimentation.
My favorite example of a potential permanent mystery is consciousness. Another is the source of mathematical truth. Yet another example is the question of what happened before the Big Bang, when time had not yet come into existence. (That last one might not belong on the list, since it’s about a phenomenon that can be measured: the universe. Indeed, in Raft to the Future I described a possible new kind of explanation for the origin of time that my friend Lee Smolin and I have been considering.)
Reasonable people can disagree about whether a particular question belongs in the ranks of the permanent mysteries, but I’ve found it is hard to empty the list completely. Often, when you try to remove a particular question, it will pop up again in a different form, as if you were playing a cosmic whack-a-mole game. I’ve examined how this happens when you try to get rid of a sense of permanent mystery regarding the existence of consciousness (Jaron’s World: The Soul of the Machine). If you think of the brain as a computer, all of a sudden computation takes on a mysterious quality. Maybe the binary cult appreciates this line of thinking. After all, they could just as easily have chosen to worship an operating system like Linux, which would have put them in a lower league.
Science can declare the approximate limits of its territorial ambitions and be stronger for it. My dearly missed old friend Stephen Jay Gould framed this possibility beautifully with his proposal for “nonoverlapping magisteria.” I’ll go further and suggest that scientists should not only refrain from ridiculing people who find hope on the other side of the border but should also actively delight in a cacophonous, multicultural colonization of that far frontier so that it can’t be monopolized by fundamentalists. A workable definition of spirituality is “one’s emotional relationship with unanswerable questions.” It’s possible to find joy in them.
Of course, it’s not always easy to do this in practice. Where I live, in the Bay Area, you’re as likely to run into New Age superstition as Christian fundamentalism. In either case, the believer will often take the uncertainty of a big, genuinely mysterious question like consciousness as license to believe in something smaller like astrology, which can be disproved by experiment. Then I end up on the spot, once again telling someone else what not to believe.
And what of the binary cult? If they truly exist, they seem to have taken on the idea of a computational universe in the spirit of a “Big Mystery” instead of the kind you can study scientifically. I didn’t see anyone trying to cure a disability with a binary prayer. Therefore, I hope they thrive.