Below is the full address preserved the way I first read it in 2005. ALthough it's been 20 years since it's origin. It is as true today as when it was given. It's no longer available on the original site.
Technology and Theology
Tihamer "Tee" Toth-Fejel
Toth-Fejel earned his Masters Degree. from the University of Notre Dame, in the Department of Electrical Engineering. His master's thesis was on Self-Test: From Simple Circuits to Self-Replicating Automata. He is a Senior Associate of the Foresight Institute, where he has been a member since 1987. He was Secretary of the Molecular Manufacturing Shortcut Group, a special interest chapter of the National Space Society.
The following is the full text of an Address give to Ann Arbor Catholic Men's Tuesday Breakfast. Though this was given on December 17, 1996, the thought and content are both as fresh almost ten years later as they were then. Toth-Fejel dedicated this Address to the loving memory of Eric V. Liepa (February 14, 1961 - August 11, 1997), who, he says, �enjoyed this talk, and now knows how much of it is true, and how much of it is fluff.�
I really owe Leo Simon a debt of gratitude for asking me to do this talk. As I was getting it together, I discovered that I had actually been working on it for the last twenty years. I don't know if that will make it better or just longer.
Science has seemed to clash with the Catholic Church in the past, and while some would say that an uneasy truce exists today, it might be more accurate to say that our current knowledge of creation, from the Big Bang to the emergence of humans on Earth, gives us more insight in the glory of the creator than ever before. Technology, which is closely related but different from science, is increasingly offering our Catholic faith new challenges. These challenges start in earnest in the next twenty years, with the advent of molecular nanotechnology, which is when we will start controlling the placement of individual atoms in commercial products -- this is already starting to happen in limited artifacts in labs around the world. Next we will be faced with what is called the Singularity, the hyperacceleration of technological knowledge to the point where our current science is so obsolete that we can't make any meaningful predictions about the future. But there are some hints of our future even past that point, and they culminate in Tielhard de Chardin's Omega Point, when all the matter and energy in the universe is one living, intelligent entity.
How are we different than first-century Christians? We live in a secular society that is indifferent or hostile to God. We inhabit a fallen world, we are blinded by original sin, and further blinded by our own personal sin. There is thievery and murder in the streets -- even in our hospitals; there are heresies taught in our schools (and even in some of our churches), and the evening news is full of war and rumors of war. Our brain size is the same as our forefathers in faith, we have the same intelligence, and the same senses. We are born by the painful labor of our mothers, as children we eat by the sweat of our father's brow. We live in joy, sorrow, and doubt for three score and ten years, and then we die. There is nothing new under the sun. Well, maybe a little thing. Nothing really of significance. Well, two little things -- science and technology. It's rather strange, because in some ways, science and technology have little to do with theology, or with our religious faith. But on the other hand, (let me put on my prophet hat on) engineers like those in this building, and all around the world, are going to give us power. We're going to get lots of power. We're going to get so much power that if we haven't given our whole heart, mind and soul to God, well, we're going to be dead meat. Worse than dead meat. We're going to be exposed to so much temptation that if our ethics and morals aren't in line with the ones our loving God formed in our hearts, and in the underlying mathematical structure of the universe, then we're going to be such depraved carcasses of undead meat that, well, we'd be better off if we were diseased and dying peasants during the Black Death. But... we don't get that choice. We're going to get heaven or hell, and there's no middle ground. C. S. Lewis claimed that the chasm between good and evil has been widening ever since the Fall, and today I hope to show in a little detail how science and technology are playing a significant role in this widening. I should warn you that the things I'm going to be talking about today are, well, pretty unbelievable. I had to beat my head against my assumptions many, many times before I came to accept them. When I finally did, I became angry, confused, depressed, and mostly frighted. If, after I finish today, you don't feel that way, then I've done a lousy job of making myself clear.
But first a caveat: The Church has not said much about science and technology per se. A few years ago at Notre Dame, at one of the preliminary conferences on the Bishop's pastoral on economics, I raised the issue of advanced technology with some of the theologians. They just blew it off. "So robots build other robots?" they said, "So what?" I was just a lowly grad student, and I wasn't able to clearly articulate to them some of the coming technologies and their consequences -- consequences that present significant moral dilemmas, some of which are too strange to understand (I've been beating my head against some of these issues since 1976 with no clear answers). Anyway, I don't know what the Magisterium will say in a hundred years about some of my claims. When I raised some of these issues at Notre Dame, a lot of people, both liberals and conservatives, were pretty upset at me. But none were able to answer my questions.
Science, Technology, Theology, and Faith
How is science is different from technology? In the Notre Dame Engineering School, they had a banner that captures the spirit of the difference: "Scientists discover what is. Engineers create what has never been." Well, the hubris of that statement should make it obvious that Notre Dame is not really a Catholic Univerisity, but be that as it may, while engineers don't really create ex nihilo, from nothing, they do rearrange atoms and bits in new and interesting ways. New to us, anyway.
Both science and engineering have spiritual traps. Scientists can make the quest for truth into a false god, forgetting that Jesus Christ is the personification of Truth. Meanwhile, engineers can get so wrapped up in bending Mother Nature to their will that they forget that they are not in control; God is. Science can blind our eyes of faith, or it can make our eyes of faith see much farther. Technology gives us the ability to multiply loaves and fishes, heal the sick, walk on water, and build a stairway to the heavens. But it can puff up our pride in our power to accomplish great deeds, and as Satan, and Adam and Eve showed, pride goes before the fall.
Today I'm going to gloss over how science has affected our Christian faith, both in the past, and barely touch on how it affects it in the present. Then I'll talk a little about how technology can have a significant impact on our faith in the near and distant future.
History of the Church and Science
Aristotle, Socrates, Plato, and the pagan philosophers contributed much to the foundation of modern science, but the Church basically ignored them as pagans for over a thousand years. Then Thomas Aquinas applied his genius to reinterpreting the Greek philosophers from a Christian point of view. In fact, he was accused of "paganizing the Church in his attempts to Christianize the pagan philosophers." But he succeeded in adding to the pagan Greek philsophy that became science by giving it a God-centered purpose -- to give glory to God's creation. And he humanized what became technology by giving it a God-centered purpose -- to serve the needs of every individual human being - who was made in the image an likeness of God. The Chinese, who were technologically far ahead of the Europeans, did not have these crucial philosophical concepts, and generally their inventions languished in the Emperor's palace, solely for his amusement. In my opinion, it is Thomas who has made Western Civilization what it is.
The enemies of the Church have made much of the Church forcing Galileo to recant under threat of torture. But the true story is much more complicated. After all, Galileo had been drawn to the priesthood early in his life, and most scientific work at the time was supported by the Church. Copernicus dedicated his most famous work, On the Revolution of the Celestial Orbs, in which he gave an excellent account of heliocentricity, to Pope Paul III. Ten years prior to Galileo, Johannes Kepler published a heliocentric work which expanded on the work of Copernicus.
As a result, Kepler was persecuted by Protestants, who deemed him a blasphemer, and he fled for protection to the Jesuits, who were commonly known to have great respect for science. Unlike Copernicus, however, Galileo lived just after the Reformation, when Luther basically told the Church how to interpret Scripture, and the Church was fighting back when Galileo tried to reconcile his findings with Scripture by reinterpreting it. Galileo could have prevented the whole thing by saying something like "These are my observations. I don't know why it seems to contradict scripture. Can you help me?" But he was very well known as sharp wit -- to put it less diplomatically, an irreverent and obnoxious lout. He was very smart (and the smarter we are, the more easily we are tempted by pride) but he was wasn't very diplomatic. The hierarchy foresaw some of the theological implications of his ideas, but was foolish for getting sucked into a battle of wills, and as John Paul II wrote recently, should have handled the situation better. By God's grace, and I do mean that literally, because most of the scientists of the day would have supported them, the Popes did not commit the Church to a geocentric universe. On the other hand, I think the whole episode gave us a better understanding of what the deposit of faith means to us, helping us differentiate between tradition and Tradition. And to keep the philosophy of the day out. A priest named Niccolo Lorini sent a letter to the Inquisitors-General in Rome expressing his concern that the followers of Galileo "were taking upon themselves to expound the Holy Scriptures according to their private lights,...that they were trampling underfoot all of Aristotle's philosophy....I believe that the Galilieans are orderly men and all good Christians, but a little wise and cocky in their opinions." Although the conflict focussed on interpretation of scripture, it was the underlying philosophical foundation of the interpretations that produced the conflict. In this case, the official Church doctrine was aligned with the philosophy of Aristotle. It was the conclusions drawn from Aristotle's view of cosmology that Galileo challenged and not the biblical view. But nobody realized it at the time.
One of the interesting things about the infallibility of Church teaching is that it does not guarantee answers to all the issues of the day. It only guarantees that if an answer is given, then it will be correct. The Baptists are still fighting the Evolution vs. Creationism battle, rather fruitlessly, aimlessly, and foolishly, I think. In her wisdom, the Church has seen this issue as a tempest in a teapot that diverts us from the real issues. Depending on your point of view, Darwin was either an ardent atheist, bent on the destruction of outmoded superstitions, or he was a nominal Christian trying to understand how God created the plants and animals on this planet. Personally, I think that Genesis description: "God fashioned Adam from the clay" is a poetically perfect way to describe our emergence from primordial slime, just as "Let there be light!" is a poetically perfect way to describe the creation of the Universe. The Church has little to say about the scientific details of how God fashioned Adam from clay -- whether it was the work of a single afternoon or the result of billions of years of chemical and biological selection. We are made up of atoms, and we haven't been around forever, so obviously we had some earthly origin. As one Christian palaeontologist put it, "Fossils show us that species appear, and they show that the species disappear. Everything else is conjecture." Mike Behe has done some interesting things with irreducible complexity, trying to show how God works through evolution, but personally, I think that God is more elegant than that. I think that the engineering disciplines of software engineering and Artificial Intelligence will eventually show us exactly how God fashioned us by processes that seem to us, random. Once we understand these processes, we will have no choice but to worship God - He is that elegant. The important thing is that God created us, that evil came into this world through the action of the first man, and that we are all tainted by this original sin. The Garden of Eden story describes the essential nature of human beings, and that is vitally important and true. It explains our daily experience, the evening news, and the course of history, pointing out our need for a perfect redeemer.
About five years ago, fundamentalist defender Dr. Hugh Ross predicted that scientists would claim to find life on Mars, or elsewhere in the cosmos, and that it would proclaimed as proof for "godless evolution." While I reserve judgment on the claims of the discoverers, and on some of Ross's counterclaims, there is no question that people are trying using this evidence to disprove the Bible. This is because if they can disprove the Bible, they can disprove the existence of God and then can ignore His objective moral law. But you already knew that.
So where are we now? Well, as J.B.S. Aldine put it, "Not only is this universe stranger than we imagine, it's stranger than we can imagine." So what we can do is follow St. Paul recommendation: "Embrace what is good". Let's embrace it now.
The Big Bang
In 1929, Edwin Hubble discovered that the universe is expanding, much to the consternation of steady-state advocates. As agnostic physicist Dr. Robert Jastrow publicized in God and the Astronomers, atheists found it very disturbing that the universe had a creation (10 to 20 billion years ago). They fought the theory tooth and nail - scientists were yelling at each other at conferences -- over a theory. Well, the fighting's over. In 1965, Penzias and Wilson proved that the universe started with a big explosion by discovering the 3oK background radiation, the cooling remnants of the Big Bang, and the steady state universe hypothesis was laid to rest. Other findings since then are even more interesting. They show that if the Big Bang would have had very slightly different initial conditions, we humans, and in fact, any life, could not exist. I suspect that atheists are becoming even more disturbed.
The Anthropic Principle
In his play Candide, Voltaire spoofed the idea that "We live in the best of all possible worlds". But what seems to be emerging from our scientific understanding of the Universe is that not only do we live in the best of all possible worlds, but that we live in the ONLY possible world. More precisely, cosmologists and lay persons alike have been struck by the fact that our existence depends on a very delicate balance between a wide-ranging set of highly interdependent phenomenon, ranging from atomic nuclei to stars. First defined 25 years ago by Brandon Carter, the Anthropic Principle seeks to link aspects of the local and global structure of the Universe to conditions necessary for the existence of thinking observers.
In their book, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle (Clarendon Press, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1987 ISBN 0-19-851949-4), John Barrow and Frank Tipler further developed the Anthropic Principle and define three versions it: WAP, SAP, and FAP. The weak version of the Anthropic Principle (WAP) is not controversial, since as a self-selection principle, it is a restatement of Bayes' theorem of probability, and hence undeniable:
"The observed values of all physical and cosmological quantities are not equally probable, but they take on values restricted by the requirement that there exist sites where carbon-based life can evolve, and by the requirement that the Universe be old enough for it to have already done so."
While this may seem like a powerless tautological statement, the WAP can predict the improbability of the continuous creation theory (now disproved by the three degree Kelvin radiation left over from the Big Bang). In addition, it can predict the size and age of our universe, for if it were too old, too young, too big, or too small, we would not exist to observe that fact.
The strong version of the Anthropic Principle (SAP) is more controversial:
"The Universe must have those properties which allow life to develop within it at some stage in its history."
Obviously, one interpretation of the SAP (Strong Anthropic Principle) is that our one possible Universe was designed with the goal of generating and sustaining observers, one of the classic arguments for God's existence.
The Final Anthropic Principle (FAP) is very bold:
"Intelligent information-processing entities must come into existence in the Universe, and, once they come into existence, they will never die out."
Teleology is the study of purposes and causes. In the last century or so, modern science soundly rejected the use of teleology because when it was applied to small domains, it degenerated into vitalism. But when applied to large contexts, it's predictions have been correct. For example, in 1899, Thomas Chamberlain used evolutionary time scales, which are really WAP constraints, to predict that the Sun is fuelled by non-chemical energy.
The main problem science has with teleology is that the Second Law of Thermodynamics, by predicting the Heat Death of the universe, makes it seem that the Universe is dysteleogical. There is evidence that a civilization restricted to Earth will become extinct in a mere 100 million years, even though the growth of scientific knowledge and economic growth has no limits. Therefore, a human-derived civilization can probably survive past 10^^10^^26 years (yes, that is quite a big number, and it assumes that we live in an open universe, or at least a very large closed one). But compared to eternity, such a civilization is just the clanging of a loud gong, signifying nothing. Just one more vanity of vanities, a chasing of the wind. Or is it? God never contradicted the builders of Babel, who were going to make a name for themselves. He just scattered them.
The WAP predicts that the interaction of the fundamental forces of strong and weak nuclear forces, electromagnetism, and gravity, will result in carbon-based life-forms, because our existence imposes a stringent selection effect upon the type of Universe we could ever expect to observe. Specifically, their ratios make possible the formation of nuclei, atoms, molecules, planets, and stars. However, the WAP does not explain why even though it is very easy to conceive of many universes in which the fundamental forces are slightly different, it is extremely difficult to postulate a way in which of any kind of life could survive in them, much less emerge from processes of chemical evolution. There is no explanation, except SAP, as to why the universe seems so coincidentally habitable to us, while it seems so inhospitable to any life form not based on carbon. One way to think of this curious asymmetry is to compare it to a symmetric example: Imagine if your parents would have conceived a month earlier than when they conceived you. It's pretty easy to imagine siblings never born, and its very conceivable to imagine them wondering about you. Wouldn't it be rather weird to think that none of your imaginary siblings could have the capacity to ever make the same thought experiment? That is the situation we're in.
The First Three minutes
About 10^^-43 seconds after the Big Bang, X particles appeared, and at 10^^-35 seconds, they and their counterpart X antiparticles started decaying at different rates into quarks and anti-quarks. The final ratio was ten billion and one quarks to ten billion anti-quarks. This extremely finely unbalanced ratio is very important, for when the universe cooled down at one millionth of a second to the point at which, in terms of energy, the rest mass of protons became equal to the temperature (i.e. Brownian motion became non-relativistic). So what happened was that the ten billion quarks and anti-quarks annihilated each other to form photons, while the extra quarks out of each ten billion combined to form protons and neutrons that are collectively known as baryons, and we ended up with the present ratio of billion photons per baryon. During the next second, the protons and neutrons transformed very rapidly into each other to keep the number of protons and neutrons approximately equal. In the next three minutes, the nuclei of light elements formed.
There is no stable nucleus of atomic weight 5, so almost all the neutrons ended up in helium-4 (26%), while the rest of matter formed hydrogen (one proton and one electron), with trace amounts of deuterium (one proton, one neutron, and one electron), and Helium-3 (also called tridium - one proton, two neutrons, and one electron). The early universe ended up with an "interesting" quantity of Helium-4 (I think it's interesting because with ten billion quarks flying this way, and ten billion anti-quarks flying the other way, you don't expect a flipped coin to land on its edge). There is something called the fine structure constant (Ke2/hc=1/137 where K=1/4pe0) which is dependent on the strong nuclear force. If the fine structure constant would have decreased by 9%, then deuterium would not have been able to bind, while an increase by 3.4% would have made diprotons possible, and an increase of only .3% would have made dineutrons possible. In the first case, no elements heavier than hydrogen would have formed at the time. This actually would have been OK, because they could have formed later in fusion reactions. In the latter two cases, however, everything would have formed directly into helium. In the consequent hydrogen-less universe, we wouldn't have had water (the importance of water is covered later), but more important, we wouldn't have had stable stars, because helium burning stars can not last long enough for life to evolve.
But even an ideal mix of elements is not enough to let stars (and planets) form. The mass of typical stars is in the narrow range between blue giants (with short lifetimes) and red dwarfs (too cool to support life). This mass is a consequence during stellar formation of the relative strengths of the electromagnetic and gravitational forces. If these relative strengths change by more than a few percent, then again it becomes impossible for stable, sun-like stars to exist.
Anyway, from 3 minutes to 1 million years, during the radiation era, the photons at first kept atomic nuclei from joining with electrons to form atoms, and later huge radiation pressure kept protostars from forming. It is at this point that the "Let there be light!" can be said to apply.
Open or Closed
The ratio between the potential energy of the universe (gravity between all the masses in the universe) and its kinetic energy (movement of all the expanding particles) is called W0 (Omega-null). If W0 is greater than 1, then the universe is closed. In other words, gravity is strong enough to counteract the kinetic energy of the expanding matter, stopping it and reversing its direction, resulting in a Big Crunch. Depending on how much greater W0 is than 1, such a universe may not last long enough to let life evolve (or even atoms or stars form), before it returns to a singularity.
If W0 is less than 1, then the universe is open. This means that in a universe with weaker gravity, the expansion would never stop, and in most cases, the expansion would have occurred to quickly for stars to condense. So life can only arise in conditions in which W0 is close to 1. We can easily imagine universes in which it is not equal to 1, but life as we know it, NOR AS WE CAN IMAGINE IT WITH ALL THE LOGICAL AND SCIENTIFIC TOOLS AT OUR DISPOSAL, cannot emerge in it. What is also peculiar is how close our experimental measurements of W0 are to 1. Why? Nobody knows.
To really see the peculiarity, we should do a thought experiment, and try to imagine a life-form, or even just a dumb calculator, that operates without using atoms. It's hard. Without chemical bonds, all you have is a type of ionized plasma. The only way to store a bit of information with a neutron star by setting it's spin in one direction or the other. But that is rather subjective, depending on which way you're pointing. A less relative method would surround the star with a smaller mass of plasma, orbiting either in the same direction or in the opposite direction. To switch from a zero to a one, or vice versa, would take the gravitational effects of a closely passing star. But how dependable would cosmic billiards be in making a switch? It would take a galaxy to put together a human brain equivalent, and it would have enough time to think, "I think, therefore I am." And then the protons would decay.
The Necessity of Carbon
Biochemists generally feel that any form of life which descends from a simpler form, and which in turn came into existence through chemical evolutionary processes, must be made up of C, H, O, and N, with a little help from water, carbon dioxide, ammonia, and methane.
Carbon is so important to life because it can form long chains and remain metastable. Silicon, which is just below it on the periodic table, also has valence of 4 (electrons), but cannot form double bonds. This means that CO2 is a gas which is very soluble in water, thus enabling it be removed from the body with ease. On the other hand, when silicon combines with oxygen, it forms SiO4, or quartz, which is not very soluble in anything. Most carbon compounds are poised between two stable extremes - the fully oxidized forms of carbon, and the fully reduced forms, and the energy needed to get between these metastable states is relatively low. Carbon has more free radicals than any other element, so there is a huge variety of carbon compounds, some of which are exothermic, others of which are endothermic, making it possible for many reactions to occur, enabling the molecular evolution of life to take place.
Attempts in theoretical biochemistry have been made to base life on other elements, but they have met with failure. One future exception might be the self-replicating silicon-based robots that we will certainly be building in a few years, but because of the extremely high stability of silicon compounds, those life-like machines would not be able to emerge from the primordial slime of a planet.
The Fluke of Carbon
Good old carbon. This is where I was completely floored by the elegance and fine-tuning of the universe.
When a star starts getting old, it starts running out of hydrogen, so it starts "burning" helium in a fusion reaction. The gravitational contraction of the star helps make this fusion possible by keeping the environment at 10 million degrees Kelvin, at a density of 10^^4.5 grams/cm, or about a half a ton per cubic inch). In fact, this fusion process is how all the heavier elements are formed, up to iron. (Fusion after iron absorbs energy instead of producing it, hence the heavier elements are produced as a star goes nova). The nuclear reaction for three helium atoms with an atomic weight of four each (two protons and two neutrons) combines to form a single carbon atom with an atomic weight of 12, with two energetic gamma rays left over. The shorthand way of writing this nucleosynthetic reaction is:
3He(4) --> C(12) + 2gamma
What is really happening (in slow motion) is that three helium atoms are not fused all at once, but that two helium atoms fuse to form beryllium. Inside a star, the lifetime of beryllium (10^^-17 seconds) is long enough for the following to occur.
2He(4) + 99KeV --> Be(8) + He(4) --> C(12) + 2gamma
Hoyle looked at these equations and realized that the equations had to be resonant, because the amount of carbon produced in a star would be to negligible to explain our existence. (Note that nuclear resonance is just a complicated way of saying that nuclei can have distinct, non-continuous, energy levels, and that neutrons and protons can undergo transitions between high and low energy levels to emit or absorb radiant energy). Sure enough, a few years later, experiments found that the 7.6549 MeV of C(12) is just above the energy of Be(8) plus He(4) (7.3667 MeV) so that the thermal energy inside the star allows the resonant reaction to occur. But there's more. The addition of another He(4) nucleus to C(12) would fuse it to oxygen. But O(16) has an energy level at 7.1187 MeV, while C(12) + He(4) has a total energy of 7.1616 MeV. This is much closer, but since kinetic energies are always positive, the oxygen formation energy level is below the carbon reaction, so resonance cannot occur. If it was above it, any carbon created would quickly be fused into oxygen. So again, the existence of carbon-based life is due to the fact that the ratio of the strengths of the nuclear and electromagnetic forces falls within a narrow band. The narrowness of this band, on both sides, is awesome.
Getting the Carbon Out
In order for the carbon get out to the planets, a nova must explode the atoms into interstellar space. A nova begins when the hydrogen supply is exhausted in the inner layers of a large star, and it starts imploding. The gravitational energy is released in a rush of neutrinos. These neutrinos react with matter very, very weakly (they can travel unimpeded through light-years of lead) via the mechanism of the weak force, but they do interact, adding kinetic energy to the stellar material and exploding it violently into space. If these neutrinos reacted more strongly, their energy would be absorbed earlier by the star, and this would make the star energy supply last longer. But there would be no nova, and the carbon would stay in the star. If they reacted any less, then they would just leave the star without moving any material, and again the carbon would remain in the star (instead of becoming us).
The Theology of Water
Despite our commonplace familiarity with it, water is one of the strangest things in the universe. Its specific heat, surface tension, heats of vaporization and most of its other properties have values anomalously higher or lower than those of any other known material. The fact that ice is less dense than liquid water is virtually unique among compounds. If this last fact were not true, we would have runaway glaciation on any planet on which any ice could form (as would happen with ammonia oceans, for example). Water also has a very high specific heat, allowing it to stabilize the temperature of the environment. And since water has a higher heat of vaporization than any known substance, then it makes it the best possible coolant by evaporation. Both the high surface tension and high dielectric constant of water speed up chemical reactions, making it an ideal solvent. The hydrophobic effect of water, caused its bipolar shape, is largely responsible for shaping enzymes and nucleic acids into their biologically active forms. Looking at the alternatives, it seems that life would be impossible without water. It turns out (the refrain is becoming familiar) that water's strange properties are dependent on the ratios of electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces.
These properties of water constrain the location and atmospheric pressure of any life-bearing planets. Earth is the only planet in our solar system in which significant amounts of water exists in all three forms: water vapour, ice, and liquid.
The Evolution of Cooperation
For those of us with scientific training, and with the faith of Thomas the Apostle, it is comforting to find that the Design Arguments outlined by Thomas Aquinas are being supported by modern science. On the other hand, it is a long step from a non-personal force that created the universe to Jesus dying on the cross for each of us. But where physics and biochemistry end, the social and artificial sciences pick up.
Computer scientists, political scientists, and biologists have found recently that cooperation is built into the mathematical structure of the universe. For example, working with a variable-sum mathematical game called the Prisoner's Dilemma, Robert Axelrod ("The Evolution of Cooperation", Basic Books, 1984) discovered the mathematical basis for the biblical axiom "An eye for an eye" and for forgiveness. Coincidentally, (yeah, right, another coincidence) the conditions for the utility of forgiveness are similar to those predicted by Eric Drexler in "Engines of Creation" and "Unbounding the Future" (Morrow, 1991). Barrow and Tipler cover Axelrod's work because they claim that the basis of mathematical game theory shows that the spontaneous formation of a cooperative social order actually requires a very strong teleology to be acting at the individual level. I suspect that Axelrod would disagree since the optimal "tit-for-tat" strategy can emerge in non-conscious entities such as bacteria by the process of natural selection. On the other hand, the purposeful selection of future expectations over immediate ones is a very teleological action.
Another example is Humanae Vitae vs. the Pill. The Pill was supposed to prevent divorce; it was supposed to prevent child abuse; it was supposed prevent abortion. Logically, if you don't know the whole picture, it should. But why didn't it? As my mentor in Artificial Intelligence told me, the best test for intelligence is the ability to accurately predict the future. What does the Catholic Church know that the world does not? But its not just the Catholic Church -- Mahatma Ghandi, Theodore Roosevelt, Luther, Calvin, and Sigmund Freud (of all people!) have spoken forcefully against contraception. There is something that they knew, that my generation has forgotten, and is painfully relearning. Specifically, that separating the unitive and procreative aspects of sex is intrinsically disordered. More generally, we are learning that ethereal theological issues are embedded in the underlying mathematical structure of the universe, and they guide the rising and falling of nations.
The Omega Point
Earlier, I mentioned that science is dysteleogical, with a minor exception being some interesting implications arising from the one-way direction of time. In contrast, engineering is profoundly teleological -- every engineering project has a final goal. This is why even though he was a scientist and a priest, Teilhard de Chardin's teleological perspectives give humanity a huge engineering project. But let me back up and explain his terminology. Just as the non-sapient life covered the Earth to form the biosphere (plants, animals, soil, oceans, atmosphere), so the human race covers it with what Tielhard calls the "noosphere", or cogitative layer. At present, the noosphere is only roughly organized, but it's coherence is growing as human science and civilization develops. De Chardin predicted that at the end of the universe, the noosphere, the sphere of human consciousness, will extend to the end of the Universe, resulting in the Omega Point. At this point, when all of the mass and energy of the Universe comprises a social, personal, thinking, and loving entity -- possibly 10^^1024 years from now -- then the kingdom of God will be at hand. This sounds close to the hubris of the Tower of Babel builders, but on the other hand, we are God's hands, just as when we feed the hungry, or give to the poor. Recently, physicist Frank Tipler examined this Omega Point from the point of view of quantum mechanics and cosmological physics. Surprisingly, his discoveries caused him to drop his atheist materialism, and to accept beliefs in a God of love, resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. Teilhard claims that in the far future, information and spiritual energy will become totally dominant over matter and energy, and in fact independent from it, and the noosphere will coalesce into the Omega Point. Speaking as a Catholic priest and mystic, Tielhard identified the Omega Point as the second coming of Christ. Speaking as a scientist, his description of the Omega Point allows some analysis of its properties, the key of which is that, in contrast to the dysteleology of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, it MUST allow mankind to finally escape the Heat Death or the Big Crunch. This conclusion fits in well with Barrow and Tipler's FAP. The strange thing is that the Omega Point is a singularity, similar to the Big Bang, because scientific laws break down at that point.
Vernor Vinge's "Marooned in Real Time" (Baen Books, 1986) has popularized the term "The Singularity", entertaining the notion that humanity's escape from the "Universe as We Know It" may be much sooner than we suspect. It looks like the human race will encounter a situation which Vernon Vinge has termed "The Singularity".
Human history has been characterized by an accelerating rate of technological progress, caused by a positive feedback loop. A new technology, such as agriculture, allows an increase in population. A larger population has more brains at work, so the next technology is developed or discovered more quickly. In more recent times, larger numbers of people are liberated from peasant-level agriculture into professions that entail more education. So not only are there more brains with which to think, but those brains have more knowledge with which to work, and more time with which to devise new ideas. Most of the world's population is still in the transition from mostly peasant-level agriculture, so the fraction of the world considered "developed" is constantly expanding. It is reasonable to expect the rate of technological progress to continue to accelerate because there are more and more scientists and engineers at work. In Vinge's vision, the pace of progress will hyper-accelerate when computers gain the raw power of human brains, and when they are as expensive to manufacture as to fund a Ph.D. candidate. At the current rate, which has been constant for about twenty years, this will happen around 2035, given that we also have to write the software run them, and speaking as a software engineer, this is new science -- not engineering, so I'm really going out on a limb. But right now, computers have the raw brainpower between a grasshopper and a mouse, so of course they're stupid and do exactly what you tell them.
Assuming that the doubling time of any technological capability continues shrinking, then our civilization's capabilities will soon thereafter transcend physical limits as we know them (speed of light, all the power of our Galaxy, etc.). Just as the laws of physics break down in the singularity of a black hole, our current scientific knowledge of the world will break down in The Singularity. When every morning brings a change as shattering as the transition from the neolithic to the electronic age, we will not longer be able to say anything useful about the future, and The Singularity will have arrived. Vinge envisions that soon afterwards (a month later, perhaps?), homo sapiens will become transhuman, and then a few days later, ascend to the next level of existence or something, thereby explaining the Great Silence (the Great Silence is a three hour discussion, so we won't go into it right now). The only way to find out what happens during the Singularity, he claims repeatedly, is to live through it.
Will we make it to the Singularity? I don't know.
Especially noticeable since the 1940s, technology can give us additional capabilities faster than humans can reproduce. In terms of physical achievement, one of the biggest milestones was done by IBM when they built the world's smallest billboard -- 35 xenon atoms laid out on a very small piece of nickel to spell out IBM. But it was predicted many years earlier. In 1978, I was in Washington, DC, lobbying for the Space program, and at a party afterwards, I ran into another grad student, some guy name Eric Drexler, who was talking about building robots from individual atoms, make copies of themselves, and using them to do in vivo cellular repair. I thought he was crazy. No, I was sure he was crazy. But he was right. He laid the conceptual groundwork for molecular nanotechnology, the tools and methods that will give us exact, inexpensive control of the structure of matter: "A place for every atom and every atom in its place."<26> With the capability to build and control self-replicating nano-robots, many seemingly impossible tasks could become commonplace. For example, a handful of middle-class individuals could easily provide all the inoculations and vitamins necessary to keep alive the 8.1 million children per year that die from preventable diseases. Alternatively, they could build settlements on Mars, re-forest the Sahara Dessert, or take advantage of all the pleasant and mind-numbing luxuries a technologically advanced civilization can provide (this latter option has the advantage of presenting the fewest legal hassles). Molecular nanotechnology will enable you to get an atomically precise copy of the Mona Lisa, possibly even with a clone of Leonardo himself, if he left enough skin cells on his masterpiece. It would give us the power to turn water into wine (with only a little cheating), and to repair internal cellular damage (i.e. cure the common cold, cancer, and old age). But it does not promise happiness, nor a solution to evil. It can't let you fly a magic carpet, beam up to a starship, or raise the dead. It can't even get you a date for Saturday night (So what good is it?).
Well, take corpuscles, for example. People are freezing their heads in the hopes that nanotechnology will be able to revive them. I consider this a rather extreme form of experimental surgery, but if human memory is really encoded in the structure, and flooding your blood with antifreeze before you get dipped in liquid nitrogen will preserve those memories, then you'll be fine. But what if there is some damage that needs to be repaired. Well, we do brain surgery now, but how much damage can be repaired for you to still remain you? How much will you be you if all electrical activity in your brain stops and is restarted? We haven't done any PET scans of people having a near death experience, so we don't know. Of course, one of the early developments of nanotechnology is a permanently implanted PET scanner for many people, along with holographic lenses in your eyes, a cell phone in your ear, and a direct connection between your cerebral cortex and the web.
Needless to say, there will be many serious ethical dilemmas that we will face with the emergence of such power. I can't decide it's better if just one person has this power, or if everyone has it. I mean, with this technology, I can build a nuclear bomb in my basement without a problem. How are we going to deal with it? Is this going to be the excuse the government needs to use mind control on everyone. Because that will be possible too. But there's some good news.
Science fiction writer Isaac Asimov was an ardent proponent of halting population growth. He pointed out that in one or two thousand years, the entire Solar System would be converted into a spherical mass of human flesh, expanding at the speed of light. Actually, Asimov's parody is in some ways not so far from what will probably happen. Josh Hall recently predicted that entire planets (not just the surface, but the volume as well) will be transformed into "Utility Fog" -- arrays of micron-sized supercomputers into which quadrillions of humans can "upload" their minds.
Ralph Merkle has calculated that with molecular manufacturing technology, Earth has enough energy to support a trillion people on its surface. The Sun puts out 2.2 billion times more energy than the Earth intercepts, so we have enough energy to support around ^^21 people in our Solar System.
But it takes more than energy for life to flourish -- it takes matter also, in the form of the elements that make up organic molecules, toasters, automobiles, and computers. There is enough material in the solar system, in the form of asteroids, to build Earth-like space habitats with 3000 times the land area of Earth.<40> When we learn how to do controlled fusion on an industrial scale, we could take apart the gas giants (storing the excess energy in the form of antimatter), and multiply the land area of Earth by a factor of 1.2 billion, either in the form of many O'Neill space colonies or possibly a Dyson Ring. Coincidentally, this calculation also results in a possible Solar System population of around 10^^21. So at current population growth rates, overpopulation will not be a problem for over a thousand years. In addition to energy and matter, communications bandwidth and heat dissipation also set limits on human population, but we won't have to worry about any of them for a long time.
However, surviving the major dislocations that will occur in the next two decades will not be easy. Will we survive the Revolution? Well, it depends on exactly how we approach it, how lucky, flexible, and wise we are, and how much suffering we can bear. When Utility Fog, self-replicating assemblers, and other products of the nanotech revolution are misused, they can make a full-out nuclear war looks like a Sunday afternoon picnic, and the horrors depicted in Revelations jump sharply into focus. Then again, with mature nanotechnology, two weeks after a full-out nuclear exchange, everything can be back pretty much to normal -- though the concept of normal will have little meaning in a world in which the need for money has almost disappeared, every human institution is obsolete, people posses eternal youth and godlike powers, and the concept of Homo Sapiens itself is distorted beyond recognition.
Unfortunately, technology brings power, and power corrupts. Therefore, as our technology increases, the chances of a socially induced catastrophe are undoubtedly increasing also. Is there any way to face this insurmountable opportunity that threatens to destroy us? I believe that what lies before us is similar to the situation that Lucifer faced. Either we bow in humility and gratitude before the love and truth of God, and the stars will literally be our playtoys, or we arrogantly make our own way, and end up in a loveless and empty hell of our own choosing. Is it a privilege or a curse to live at a time in human history when such a momentous decision will be made? I cannot say. All I know is that we live in the best of times, we live in the worst of times, but we do live in interesting times.
The Church has reacted in to some of these issues. For example, she says that we should respect life. But what is life? If it moves; if it processes information, material, and energy; if it reproduces; and if it contains subsystems that help it keep homostatic against entropy in various environments, then I think it's alive. And what if it calls you "Daddy"? The Church has said that humans are made in the image and likeness of God, so Louise Brown and her clones and xeroxes are human. But what about knowbots, that we send out on the web on our behalf? If they make decisions on our behalf, without being specifically told, are they human? The Church has said that we should be stewards of the world, but does that mean just Earth, or should we subdue the whole Universe? Why? Why not? Should we bring back the dinosaurs? Should we save the snail darter? Or just back it up on disk somewhere? I don't know. I've got a lot of questions. And if you got answers, let me know. Thank you.
Q. What kind of people are working on this? What is their motivation? Are they just scientists, or are they hoping to make a profit?
A. Yep, all of the above, plus there is a strong motivation to live forever. A lot of them are scared of death.
Q. What is the difference between the story of Babel and today?
A. Nothing, and of course, that is the warning for us. Whenever we try to replace God with something else, we're on a highway to hell, and I'm not talking about Hell, Michigan. But that is the never ending temptation. Let's say someone starts talking to you about evolution. The thing you have to realize is that people want to disprove the Bible because they don't want to listen to God. And where the rubber hits the road is in moral teaching. For example, I think Luther had good intentions in his idea of private interpretation of the Bible, and there were abuses happening within the Church that he was legitimately complaining about, but this private interpretation stuff has really gotten us into big trouble. For that reason, I think that within another generation or two, (but because everyone is going to be jacked into the web in less than that, it will happen much faster) the Protestants will reunite with the Catholic Church -- or disappear. And the reason is that like the fundamentalists, she teaches the Truth about morality, but in addition, has a well-founded theory to back it up. Of course, it helps to have the keys to heaven.... so anyway, when you're arguing with someone about evolution, whether Christian fundamentalist or secular humanist, it's a red herring. The real issue is about morality, and whether or not it's objective.
Q. You've talked about people building atom bombs in their basement, and this is going to happen all over the world. What can we do about it?
A. I....DON'T....KNOW. I wish I knew. I've been banging my head against the nanotech revolution for a long time, and the answer I used to give was to quote Linus -- "There is no problem so big and so complicated that it can't be run away from." My parents were immigrants. They ran away from a problem -- the Russian Army -- that was too big and too complicated to face. I expect to do the same, once we can drop launch costs to a reasonable amount. But more important, because we've had Berlin Walls, and I wouldn't be surprised if paranoid Earth governments try to control access to Space. So we have to trust in God, we have to trust that He gave us the Church to be led by the pope -- we have to listen to what the pope says, read his encyclicals. We all have to beat our heads against the dangers of the nanotech revolution and think about the possibilities. Now, I've been warped by Star Trek and science fiction, and because of my father gave me theology lectures instead of bedtime stories, I can sit up and notice when the producer slips in an error, say about the nature of evil. I'm trying to do the same thing with my kids, kind of lead them, and inoculate them by playing the devil's advocate. And young people today need that foundation. When I was at Notre Dame, I noticed that when these Catholic kids get away from their parents, they go wild -- and they don't understand their faith, even though they usually get "warm fuzzies" when they roll downstairs to their Sunday evening dorm masses. People need to understand the foundations of their belief, and how those foundations shape the Church's moral teaching on current issues -- because that is what we will use to determine the best moral position on future positions. One of the things that I found gratifying was a discussion I had with Eric Drexler, when I specifically asked him, "What are the moral implications in determining what it means to be human?" Eric's answer, coincidentally enough, was similar to the original Catholic justification against abortion: "If there is any question on an entity's humanity, then we should give it the benefit of the doubt."
In other words, if it acts human, and thinks like a human, then we should treat it like a human, because we don't know. Only God knows. So we start with divine revelation on what is (eg. what is a human being), and what ought to be (eg. thou shalt not murder). And then, based on your situation, be it androids, or clones, you trace a solid path between the two.
Q. Are they any people in the Church looking at this technology?
A. In molecular nanotechnology, no. Fr. Jaki has looked at Artificial Intelligence and declared it a big nothing, but even if he is also Hungarian, and the pope's physicist, he and I don't see eye to eye on a number of things. Some of his theological insights are brilliant, but from some of his comments, I'd say that he hasn't done enough computer programming. He thinks that computers will never become as intelligent as humans, while I am convinced that eventually they will. I think this is a case in which Clarke's law applies: ie. If an elderly scientist says that something is impossible, he is probably wrong. If a young scientist (well, I'm not that young any more) says something is possible, he is probably right. My real reason for claiming to be right is that we're made out of atoms. All we have to do is figure out how to arrange them correctly. Hey, Thomas Aquinas said that God cannot create a man without a soul. But we're not creating anything. We're just rearranging atoms, whether it's the old-fashioned way of conceiving a child, or the new-fangled and ill-begotten way of using a test tube, or of growing one made of silicon. It's God, in His awesomely elegant way, who somehow gives that collection of atoms an immortal soul.
Q. Isn't it wrong to use technology to dominate life?
A. Yes, but that doesn't mean that we should be Luddites, for the Church tells us that our work should enhance life. So we need to get into the details of whether a technique does one or the other. And sometimes that can be very difficult to understand.
Q. But isn't the difference in those details the difference between going to heaven or hell?
H. Yes, I think your are absolutely right.
Q. Does this series of revolutions lead to a geocentric view, or do you think there is life elsewhere in the universe?
That is a three hour discussion, which we unfortunately don't have time for, since this is the last question, but the issue is important because the Strong Anthropic Principle becomes the Final Anthropic Principle if we are the only intelligent life forms in this Universe. At that point, humans are really slam-dunked to the pinnacle of creation, in a way never imagined by our ancestors.
Sagan, Drake, and other astronomers and physics advocate the existence of ETI (Extra Terrestrial Intelligence), while most evolutionary biologists, like Ayala and Mayr, contend that Earth is probably unique in harbouring intelligent life. But while the biologists base their opinions on the number of improbable steps in the evolution in Homo Sapiens, there are two more arguments. The first has to do with the WAP observation that it has taken about four billion years for the emergence of life, and that ten billion years from now, such an emergence would become impossible when the Sun exhausts its nuclear fuel supply, becoming first a red giant and then a white dwarf. Given that these two numbers are of similar magnitude, and given the amount of time required by each step in evolution, it seems that the emergence of intelligent life on Earth so quickly was improbable.
The second, more compelling argument, is the space-travel argument. First raised by Enrico Fermi, it is based on a number of concrete observations, and goes as follows:
Life expands to any and every niche available to it.
Humans have built rockets that have not only landed on other planets, but have even left the solar system. At the rate technology is increasing in power, it is reasonable to expect that within a 100 years, we will able to build self-replicating robotic starships (possibly with humans aboard) that can visit, develop, and populate every star in the Milky Way within a few hundred million years - a very short time by cosmic standards.
By the Principle of Mediocrity, which maintains that there is nothing special about humans, our local, or our epoch, it seems unreasonable to expect that we would be the first space-faring race, and reasonable to expect that some ETI would have already done so, because technology is not racist in any way.
So where in the world are they? They should be here!
There is no shred of evidence of ETI in this solar system (ignoring UFO conspiracy theorists), nor is there any trace of them elsewhere. A radio dish such as Arecibo could pick up an ETI version of "I Love Lucy" from across the Milky Way. Whenever something travels at relativistic velocities, it emits Cerenkov radiation. So a fleet of starships would light up the sky with Cerenkov contrails. Dyson spheres, built by alien civilizations in order to capture every watt of energy from their home star (Earth only intercepts a billionth of the Sun's energy), would hide every star, making them detectable only by the faint infrared radiation that they would leak.
There are reasons any one alien race would not expand into the surrounding galaxy (lack of tools, for example), but there is no universal reason that would explain why all of them remain silent and invisible.
Q: But if they didn't suffer from original sin, then they would be far superior to us.
A: Yes, that was C.S. Lewis's opinion, as he expressed it in his Space Trilogy. His belief was that the rest of the Solar System was populated by races that were in a state of grace.
Q. If they are sinless, then maybe it's our job to temp them, to play the part of Satan.
A. Now that's a scary thought, but first I think our job is to test ourselves, examine our hearts every day.