Lawrence Krauss and Richard Dawkins on real uses for science fiction in physics and biology: “Does the soul go to heaven?”

Het Denkgelag
A Passion for Science and Reason
Antwerp, January 26 2015

Excerpts from their conversation below:

Krauss: That’s why I often use science fiction in teaching physics… it’s such a… storehouse of things that are wrong… and, uh, it’s great because you grow up thinking these things, and then you remember it. You’d never remember it if it’s just written on the blackboard.

Dawkins: Something like, em, the sort of ‘Brain-in-a-Vat’ thought experiments, where, you imagine something that’s not actually possible to do, but nevertheless…

…download every single bit of your brain — or indeed your body — into a different person, by some futuristic, science-fiction teleportation system. So, at some point in time, a twin of me is created, who is exactly the same in every atom, and presumably has the same memories, the same thoughts, the same desires as I have. Um, from, at the moment of his creation, we are the same person. But then, we start diverging. Because we are no longer in the same place, we go to different places… we then — that’s philosophically interesting. It’s paradoxical. It makes you think ‘what is the nature of personal identity?’

Artificial intelligence: if… artificial intelligence is not progressing quite as fast as some people thought it would. But, there will surely come a time when a computer program, behaving like a human, is so convincing… so convincingly passes the Turing Test, it can actually have philosophical arguments. It can actually feel fear and love and amusement, laughter. Appreciate paradoxes, all that sort of thing. And you actually can have a proper conversation like we’re having…

I think that would be terribly undermining, because (the next question would be) ‘has the computer got a soul? Does the soul go to heaven?’ You know — that kind of thing — the undermining of the, of the, alleged special nature of the human soul. In a way it’s already been undermined by, by Darwin. At what point in evolution does the soul arise? But somehow, that hasn’t hit home.

Question: Why do you (scientists) not write a program that illustrates how religion will evolve, and perhaps finally die?

Dawkins: It would be very nice to do something like that; I’m not quite sure, what that would look like. It sounds from your question, as though, you’ve got some plans of your own or something…

(Audience laughter.)

I’m not quite sure. I mean, I’d… if you were to… I thought you were going to ask, ‘what further progress could be made in that sort of direction’? And I would say then, that my programs were limited to the very, em, constrained ecology of a two-dimensional computer screen. And, uh, more modern programs actually have creatures moving around in a simulated three-dimensional space with a real, uh, simulated physics, where they don’t bump into objects, and they avoid each other and they, um, uh, have a kind of ‘reality’ in which they live and move and have their ‘being’ (as in, existence or simulated life).

Now, religion? I’m not sure what it would mean, to write a computer simulation of… of religion…

Krauss: I mean, as a scientist, I’d be extremely skeptical, of someone who claimed to do that, because religion is a very, complex, human notion. I mean, life — you can build a simple… you can only answer questions that you can answer, and we don’t even understand the nature of consciousness. And people are trying to understand the evolutionary biology of why religions evolved. But all of this is knowledge that’s just beginning, and it’s such a complex question, that you, I don’t think that you could… if anyone claimed to have a a computer program that could talk about the evolution of religion, I would be very skeptical, of it, at this point, because we don’t even understand, um, in a sense, what religion is, or why it exists, in a… fundamental evolutionary perspective.

It’s a very high-level concept (reaches up to emphasize), and we’re way down here (extends down as far as his arm can reach).

Dawkins: In one sense, I think we already have it in, em, computer viruses, which are, em, well, which are programs that spread through the silicosphere. By the mere fact that the code says ‘spread me’ in one way or another — ‘pass me on’, ‘copy me’, et cetera, and they could evolve. And I think that’s probably what religions are. I think that they are a sort of ‘computer virus’ which spreads because they contain within their own code the instructions for spreading: ‘believe in me and pass it on to your children’ and that’s a powerful piece of ‘computer virus’ code. ‘Believe in me and go out and spread the word as a missionary.’ ‘Believe in me and you’ll have everlasting life.’ These are all pieces of computer code that, when passed from brain to brain, have the capacity to, make sure they’re passed on again. And over the centuries, they’ve become pretty good at it. Not surprisingly, because they’ve had a lot of time to evolve and perfect the techniques. ‘If you leave this religion, you will be executed as an apostate.’ A fairly powerful piece of computer virus code, likely to get itself, if not passed on, likely to stick around once it has infected a brain. Difficult to cure, this particular disease, when it has a weapon like that at its disposal.

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