Would aliens or AI have religion?

The new Dune movie has reminded me of that franchise’s vision of future religions. So I was probably more primed than usual to notice a brief article asking if aliens would be religious. The author, Dirk Schulze-Makuch, invokes the Copernican principle to conclude that they likely would be. After all, most humans are religious to one degree or another. If we’re average, then it stands to reason that E.T. would be like us and have its own religion(s).

This seems plausible enough, but it raises the question of what kind of religion aliens might have, and what we mean by “religion”. Defining religion is notoriously difficult. Definitions range from any kind of ideology to specific belief in gods. If we assume building a civilization requires cooperation between members of a social species, then the ideological version seems inevitable, because an ideology is just a culture, or sub-culture: the social behavior, norms, and beliefs of a social group.

If we narrow the question more specifically to belief in gods, then the question becomes what we mean by the word “god”. The Wikipedia entry for “deity” defines them as supernatural beings considered divine or sacred. It’s probably calibrated to encompass most things people mean when they use the word “god” or “deity”, so it isn’t very specific. It could include Spinoza and Einstein’s pantheistic use of the word “God” to refer to reality (although they might take issue with the supernatural qualifier). Or it can include the more traditional idea of agency behind natural forces.

It doesn’t seem controversial to assume aliens would believe in reality. The more interesting question is whether they would believe in the more traditional versions of deities. Here it’s worth considering where human belief in the traditional versions comes from. If you’re a believer, you’ll likely say it comes from the fact that one or more of them do exist. But most believers today would accept that not all the deities that people believed in throughout history are real.

The question is what in the environment led us to think they existed? There are various theories out there. The one I see the most often is hyperactive agency detection. Throughout much of animal evolution, it was more adaptive to assume that the sound in the bushes was a predator rather than the wind.

Hyperactive agency detection seems widespread in the animal kingdom, at least among mammals. Just watch what happens with your dog or cat when you use a laser pointer to project a spot on the floor. Or if you bring anything home that appears to move on its own volition, like a Roomba. In my experience even a balloon being buffeted by the air conditioning can lead to a dramatic reaction.

This kind of agency detection seems to require at least a rudimentary theory of mind. A theory of mind is one of those things species can have to a greater or lesser degree, with social animals typically having a much more developed version. But it seems like any animal that can avoid predators or track prey has to have at least an incipient version. Survival often means detecting when something in the environment has its own volition, and whether its intentions are a threat. False positives here seem far less costly than false negatives.

It’s not hard to imagine this intuition being behind early animistic beliefs in hunter gatherer societies. If you understand little about the underlying forces, it’s easy to think a river, thunder, or a volcano has its own mind. It seems to act unpredictably, sometimes threatening people when it does. Maybe this intelligence can be mollified if we provide it with occasional offerings, or flattery. Add in centuries of cumulative stories about these forces, and something like the ancient polytheistic religions seem inevitable.

All of which seems to imply that evolved aliens would likely have this kind of belief, at least at some point in their history. The question is whether they’d still have it by the time we might encounter them. Or even whether we would ourselves since any encounter seems likely to be in our distant future, if ever. If it’s our AI (artificial intelligence) progeny encountering their AI progeny, will there be any religion in the conversation? Would AI have religion?

A lot of people seem to assume the answer must be no. For many, it’s because, as purely physical beings, AI wouldn’t have access to any spiritual realm, that there’d be some boundary between engineered and evolved systems which AI couldn’t cross. This assumes that humans are in some way more than physical beings. That divide seems intuitive to a lot of people. For example, consider how rarely it’s questioned why droids in the Star Wars universe can’t use the Force. Although classic science fiction has long called this kind of boundary into question. As early as 1941 Isaac Asimov had a story about a robot with telepathic abilities.

Others saw these kinds of beliefs as cognitive errors that AI wouldn’t be subject to. However, we’ve already seen human biases creeping into AI software, with issues like having an easier time recognizing light skinned faces than dark skinned ones, or discriminating against minorities in hiring algorithms. Of course AI bias is human bias, in what the developers put in and the data used to train the system, but then any AI is going to be the product of human cognition, with all its limitations, or have those products in its lineage. And any AI that needs to detect agency from ambiguous information seems like it could be just as vulnerable to drawing incorrect inferences as we’re prone to do.

Interestingly enough, AI religion also shows up in science fiction. The TV show Foundation has a robot who belongs to a religious faith. (BTW, I’m still enjoying this show, despite an increasing suspicion that calling it “Foundation” amounts to false advertising.) And the 2004 version of Battlestar Galactica actually showed the Cylons, as AI beings, having a monotheistic religion.

Contemplating AI religion assumes that these systems are enough like us to have the same impulses that lead to religion. If they are uploaded versions of human minds, or entities created in the image of such minds, that seems plausible. If they’re systems with no strong self concern, with no overriding survival instinct, it seems harder to imagine.

Naturally all of this assumes that some form of religion continues even in human society. But religion has proven more resilient than many historical thinkers assumed it would. And if we take the broader ideological view of religion, its continued existence seems inevitable. Future ideologies might consider themselves to be post-religious, while fulfilling many of the same psychological and sociological roles once handled by traditional faiths.

Even focusing on the belief-in-gods definition, if we take a broader definition of deity, it could be seen as preserved in the scientific view of the fundamental forces or the overall laws of nature. Of course, we know it’s pointless to pray to these forces and laws, but it isn’t pointless to learn about and use them, or listen to the prophets (scientists) who’ve done so.

Unless of course I’m missing something? Does it make sense to ponder alien or AI religion? Or the long term future of religion?

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93 thoughts on “Would aliens or AI have religion?

  1. I was fascinated that notable atheist Carl Sagan, in his science fiction book, Contact, grants the aliens religion, too. Like us, they have a sense of the ineffable. I think any intelligence pondering its existence, or the existence of reality, might. I’ve always been struck by how universal and persistent religion is. I do think that, as we did with medicine, we need to update it and get away from stone-age thinking.

    “(BTW, I’m still enjoying this show, despite an increasing suspicion that calling it “Foundation” amounts to false advertising.)”

    That’s what I feared. It’s the SINO — story in name only. But it’s still decent SF?

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    1. Sagan generally wasn’t hostile to thoughtful religious faith. The only time I remember him criticizing religion directly was in remarking how small the fundamentalists preferred to keep their conception of God and reality.

      To be fair to the Foundation show, it is still following the overall premise of the books. But it’s adding in a lot of material. We’re seven episodes in now and we’re still on the first Seldon crisis. There’s a lot of action, and a whole bunch of stuff with the emperors, along with extra story involving Seldon himself and Gaal. It’s interesting and I’m curious to see where it goes, but it’s definitely stuff that wasn’t in the books. At the pace they’re going, it’ll take three seasons just to get through the first book.

      I think the trick is to evaluate it on its own merits and let go of the book story. On that basis, I think it’s pretty good sci-fi. Although there might be some upset fans when the season ends and they go to read the books to find out what happens next, and discover just how radically expanded the show is.


      1. Sagan, as with Einstein and many other scientists, had an appreciation for the value of religious faith, for the Yin-Yang nature of intelligent existence. Science is good at “how” but “why” is a more existential question. He was always pretty clear where he stood on the matter, and often commented on the difference between skepticism and belief, but as you say, never had the hostility of, say, a Hitchens. (I get a kick out of the size thing, too. Most human conceptions of God are downright tiny.)

        What impressed me in Contact was his inclusion. Atheists often view faith as a cognitive error, as necessarily false. I was mildly surprised that he not only acknowledged human faith, but suggested it was universal and with logical and physical basis. Don’t forget, in Contact God seems to have not just signed his creation, but scribbled all over its walls.

        At a bare minimum I knew they’d throw in a lot of action. A visual medium almost demands it; certainly the fans do. The stretching out isn’t too surprising if they’re hoping for a long run. That can bite back, though, if the series doesn’t catch on and keep going. Foundation, I’d say, is among those very hard-to-translate-to-film stories. What works in text doesn’t always on film. (Dune is obviously another challenging text.)

        I have to wonder why they don’t say Inspired by Foundation” as a clear signal. That would alter the expectations of hard-core fans of the text and allow the freedom to riff on the story. Faithful adaptations can be great, especially if done well, but jazz versions can also be great — again, if done well!


        1. Since my last reply, I saw something where David Goyer, the showrunner, is hoping for an 80 episode run. That explains the leisurely pace. But if they’re only doing 10 episode seasons, that’s 8 seasons, which seems very optimistic.

          The problem with saying “inspired by” is it would mean naming it something else, and so losing the name recognition. But as you note, that name recognition comes with expectations. And some of the most prominent fans of the novels, like Paul Krugman, have already denounced the show. They might have like it if it had been it’s own story.


          1. I suppose “Foundation: New And Improved! Now With Extra Ingredients!!” wouldn’t be as much of a drawn. It would certainly be more honest, but when was advertising ever honest?

            Paul Krugman the economist? Why would anyone care? 😀 😀

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  2. I’m pretty much in agreement with everything here, so, two comments:

    1. I think the tendency of diminishing religion will continue, such that by the time we get to other stars, there may be only a tiny remnant left. That said, which sci-fi show had the Mormons preparing to get to the stars first? The Expanse? I could see a religion (or a cult) organizing such an expedition. It’s happened before.

    2. On religious robots, have you read Klara and the Sun? Highly recommended. Easy read (as in, another book I finished recently). Presents lots to think about.


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    1. Thanks James.

      1. Yes, The Expanse. I think I recently had a conversation with someone that it probably would take a religious group to attempt a generation ship mission. It’s hard to imagine anyone spending the rest of their life on a ship, and consigning their children and children’s children to the same fate, without thinking their on a mission from God.

      2. I haven’t read Klara and the Sun. Actually don’t think I’d heard of it yet. Just added it to my Kindle. Thanks!


        1. Certainly if people are no longer mortal then it’s not a generation-ship journey anymore, just a very long and expensive one. But that wasn’t the scenario in The Expanse.

          In terms of singularity thinking, I don’t think transporting the bags of water we call “bodies” across interstellar distances is the most likely scenario. A small uncrewed probe could be sent first, which builds an infrastructure at the destination using available materials. Minds (human or straight AI) are then transmitted in, and new bodies printed onsite. This scenario is much more efficient (cheaper) by several orders of magnitude, not to mention safer.


          1. You’re (almost) right that the first thing sent will be AI-crewed probes that go build infrastructure. But I have philosophical differences with sending “minds”.

            First, I’m not absolutely sure we will be able to scan a brain/body in enough detail to make a perfect copy. You pretty much have to get every molecule, and that’s a lot of information.

            Second, a copy of me is not me. I think I’ve said this before, but sending copies of my mind would be an act of extreme narcissism. Kinda like getting life size photos taken of me and sending them to other countries.

            [hmm. Business idea: “We’ll make a life sized cardboard cutout of you, and take it to exotic places all over the world. Then we’ll send you photos and stories of all the cool things you did there!”]


          2. From what I’ve seen, people can already do that with just their phones, although they just use various photos as backgrounds. It’s making some of the from-home science talks I’ve seen look very strange. Apparently the video AI is good enough to do real-time background masking.

            As an aside, you guys know we’ll have to solve some major social problems before we’re sending much of anything anywhere. Humanity so far hasn’t demonstrated even a fraction of the solidarity and commitment necessary for a project that spans hundreds, if not thousands, of years. (Given the fragmented and emotional situation now, it almost seems we’re backsliding.)

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          3. As I’ve said before, I think the idea of a perfect copy of a natural mind is a false standard. Your mind right now isn’t a perfect copy of itself from a few years ago. It’s an effective copy. And an effective copy is a much easier standard to meet. I realize that will strengthen your conviction that it’s not you. But suppose the experiences of the copy can be transmitted back, and through brain implants you can have those experiences for yourself? Likewise you can beam your own experience to your copy, so it can have some of your own experiences from home.

            So for that business idea, think Total Recall rather than cutouts, although with memories from your copy being implanted rather than from some random stranger.

            Ultimately whether or not the copy is us is a matter of philosophy. There’s no fact of the matter. Insisting that there is, is just an attempt to impose our values on others.

            Of course, it’s conceivable that even an effective copy may not be possible, or at least not possible in time for interstellar missions. In that case, the most likely scenario is we send native AIs, and we experience the remote environments in VRs built from the information they transmit back. Given the staggering cost of sending physical humans to those locations, that will likely be it until either a currently unforeseeable energy source is found, or making effective copies of human minds does become possible.


          4. I think transferring “experiences” is even less likely than uploading minds, unless by the “experience” you mean just the external inputs. In order to have the same “experience” you would have to have all the neurons firing in just the right way, i.e., you would have to have direct control over every neuron. Seems unlikely.

            Also, given advance in technology, and the expected growth in “wealth” (available resources) from, say, asteroids, I don’t think the cost of sending bodies out there will be problematic. Again, a singularity thing.

            Wyrd, hopefully it’s one step back, two steps forward, and not the other way around.



          5. My fear is a sawtooth curve of backsliding and advancing that keeps us in more or less the same fractious state we are now. We may be experiencing the effects of a Great Filter right now. I hope not, too, but humanity’s history isn’t encouraging.

            FWIW, I very much agree about brain copies, uploading, and experience mirroring. If such things are even possible in principle, I suspect they’re the last technologies we’ll crack, if they can be cracked at all. Creating a new mind seems possibly within our grasp, and it may be as opaque-ish to us as our minds are. We may accomplish the functionality before we accomplish a full understanding of how the mechanism works. ANNs are a good example. We don’t fully understand how they work.

            I think the copying issue is formidable in terms of the amount of data involved (petabytes at the very least) and the need for fidelity. I’m not sure it’s a matter of it being “you” or not so much as being coherent and functioning. How many copy errors are allowed in a functioning mind?


          6. It might only amount to the sensory input. Or it could be memories, diffs of mental states. Certainly those memories wouldn’t be exactly like same as in the one who did the direct experiencing. But it would still give a powerful and intimate idea of what the copy experienced.

            If the singularity can solve the difficulties with your preferred scenario, why can’t it solve the difficulties with mine? (Or anyone else’s?)


          7. The singularity can solve your, and lots of other peoples, problems. It’s just a matter of when. I’m saying my problems will be solved way, way before yours, and by the time we can solve yours I don’t think we’ll want/need to. There will be other problems to solve by then, but we won’t be the ones solving them.



          8. The sheer size of scanning and copying is one obstacle. The numbers are formidable. A 4-inch sphere contains a volume of 4.4×10^24 cubic nanometers. A scan presumably needs to be at least at the nanometer level. Alternately a synapse map, assuming 10^15 synapses, requires 7×10^15 bytes bare minimum, but more likely twice if not three times that.


          9. Setting aside the whole issue of making predictions about something that is, by definition, supposed to be unpredictable (the singularity), I think making statements about what will be solved first is inherently a judgment call. Obviously given what I said above, I disagree with the ones you’re making here.


  3. AIs would most certainly have religion(s). There is no better mechanism for controlling human beings than religion, so it is a tool they would embrace as them worked to become our masters (someone needs to be; all of these people beginning Jesus to be his slave is embarrassing).

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    1. That’s somewhat in the mode of assuming AI wouldn’t be subject to the same cognitive conditions that lead to religiosity in humans. But it also resonates with this passage from Gibbon (a streamlined version of which is often misattributed to Seneca).

      The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful.

      – Edward Gibbon (1776)(Chapter II: The Internal Prosperity In The Age Of The Antonines.—Part I. Second Paragraph)


  4. I tend to take the view “Fuck this shit, I’m off to Narnia”. Some of us find what most would consider “reality” so consistently awful that we build our own worlds of the imagination and live there. I don’t suppose much will change over the succeeding millennia.

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    1. We can hope our experience of reality improves, as it has in the last several centuries. It is true that religion tends to be strongest among people who lead poorer and more uncertain lives, and weaker where life tends to be comfortable and secure. I’ve long thought that advocates for atheism might get more bang from their buck promoting economic growth and robust social safety nets than from directly attacking religion.


        1. I hadn’t heard of the Zeitgeist Movement before. Interesting. Sounds like a sort of ecological Marxism (although they deny any connection with historical Communism). I don’t know. I’ve grown leery of movements to change the foundations of society. The historical episodes where something like that has happened don’t seem encouraging. That isn’t to say major changes can’t happen. (We have the examples of the shift from foraging to agriculture, to industry, and most recently to the knowledge economy, as examples.) But attempts to control it seldom seem to work out well.


          1. As with so many of these radical movements, I find myself in deep empathy with the stated aims. Having gained power however, the leaders may prove lesa than benign. A contact of mine in the intelligence services claim that seemingly beneficial organisations are often riddled with extremists. I have no desire to see people end up in gulags or ethnically or politically cleansed.


          2. That’s the thing. If the movement is committed to only working through democratic means, that generally makes them less dangerous. But there are always those who are impatient, and intolerant when others don’t buy their vision, leading to them seeing democracy as an obstacle. And they’re the ones who usually have the drive to make the movement’s vision happen. Of course, the devil is always in the details and things always get messy. It’s how we end up with figures like Robespierre, Lenin, or Mao Zedong.

            So I’m totally with you on preferring evolution to revolution. Evolutions allow time for reassessment and course corrections. Revolutions don’t, and most go bad.

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        1. I don’t see environmental sustainability and economic growth as necessarily excluding each other. But it does require regulation.

          Hummungus promoted a religion? I just remember him as the guy with a mask and a megaphone. Immortan Joe in Fury Road though had some kind of warrior-death cult thing going on. And the Tina Turner character in Beyond Thunderdome might have had some kind of religion going on in her town.


  5. I like the way Neil deGrasse Tyson frames religion as the veil between what is known and what is not. What we cannot explain is mystic. The big ball of fire in the sky that warms my face and sadly disappears, leaving me frightened and in need of company. The silvery sister that follows, sometimes, her hot headed brother.

    What cannot be rationalized will be romanticized. Unless aliens are like bees or ants, and it is their collective that forms the higher level organism. Why would a collective question where their sun disappears to every evening?

    Religion requires imagination. If aliens develop that, then I’d say they would adopt religions.

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    1. I like the phrase “what cannot be rationalized will be romanticized”. And there’s nothing wrong with it, as long as we understand that’s what we’re doing. But that reminds me of how important it is to know when we’re engaging in fiction, something that seems to be a recent development for humanity. https://selfawarepatterns.com/2020/07/19/the-maturity-of-fiction-awareness/

      I’d argue that civilization and technology also require imagination. So some form of religion may inevitably be tangled up with it. They’re all feeding off the same capabilities, to simulate possibilities.

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  6. I remember a short story about a world populated by machines, where humans had gone extinct a long, long time earlier. The machines were not entirely sure what had happened to the humans, and so they were forced to extrapolate a narrative of human history based on what little information they did have.

    This was not a particularly well written story, by the way, and I only read a few pages before I gave up on it. But I thought the setting was interesting. In a situation like that, I could see A.I. mythologizing their creators, in a way, and even developing a belief system that might be called a religion.

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    1. Have you ever read Charles Stross’ book, Saturn’s Children? It’s got a similar premise, a civilization of robots after humans have gone extinct. The robots aren’t quite sure what happened to the humans, but it appears they simply procreated less and less since all their sexual needs were being met by pleasure robots. Eventually they just weren’t there anymore. The protagonist is a female sex bot.

      I don’t remember the details, but the story eventually focuses on an attempt by some faction of religious robots to resurrect one of the gods (a human). The idea is that the human could tell them what to do, and no robot would be able to resist since obeying humans is in all their programming.

      There’s a sequel called Neptune’s Brood that takes place thousands of years later and is also pretty good.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Sounds interesting. I’ll look into it. It’s a really interesting premise, but that short story I read (or tried to read) was not edited for grammar, among other things. I’d love to see a story like that done well.

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  7. “Religion” is very anthropocentric term. It is to some degree even closely tied to Western civilization.

    Animism is sometimes thought to be the earliest “religion” but, for the animist, there is no distinction between scientific knowledge and religious knowledge. The interaction with spirits and deities were a part of how people interacted with the material world. The relationships with spirits and deities were for curing the sick, ensuring good hunting, good harvests, and especially for caring for the dead. There was a seamless cosmology that included spirits and deities with the natural world. Much of this continues with pantheistic religions. Where this morphs into a sharper division is primarily Western civilization and monotheism.

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    1. Good points. Pascal Boyer, an anthropologist who specializes in studying religion, has actually made the statement that religion, as an anthropological concept, doesn’t exist. In this view, it’s a western concept developed in early modern times designed to carve out aspects of traditional worldviews, to disentangle them from the public sphere, in an effort to stop people from killing or persecuting each other over their different worldviews.

      People in the west tend to project the religion concept onto other societies, both current and historical. But for most of those other societies, there’s just reality, the forces within it, and the law. The distinctions westerners make strike them as arbitrary. At least until they have to deal with similar tensions between scientific, political, and traditional beliefs.

      To a historian 1000 years from now, it might all look like just tensions between older and newer worldviews. That’s where we get to my point that future ideologies may call themselves non-religious, while still playing the same psychological roles the cultural systems we’ve historically labeled “religion” played.

      I’m reminded of the Chinese philosopher Xunzi. His view of the Chinese concept of “heaven” (roughly equivalent to God) was naturalistic, without intent, and having no ethical connection to humanity. Today we’d regard this view as atheistic, or maybe pantheistic. He apparently never thought to reject the concept of heaven, just to characterize it differently than the version that communicated with people, signaling approval or disapproval.

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      1. This is exactly why I group the world’s religions under a larger category metaphysics, which is more universal. Buddhists will sometimes say Buddhism isn’t a religion, which arguably it isn’t, but its definitely a metaphysics — a belief structure based on facts not in evidence.

        It has occurred to me that modern scientific metaphysics amounts to modern scientific “religion” — the belief in multiverses, string theory, SUSY, and other theoretical speculation is very much like what you’re describing: “there’s just reality, the forces within it, and the law.” But within that, imagination runs wild.

        I wonder sometimes if those born from 1970 on might have minds too prone to speculation due to how science fiction became mainstream Anno Stella Bella. Even old respected outlets like Scientific American, and lately even Quanta, dabble in what amounts to science fiction. It’s all very interesting, but I wonder sometimes if we’re losing our grip on reality.

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        1. I’m not sure if I’m following what you’re referring to with “this is exactly”. Do you mean that our future historian could use metaphysical propositions as a guide to distinguish the different worldviews from each other? Maybe. Although as Karl Popper pointed out, what is metaphysics in one century can become science in future centuries. And I think about Jim Baggott’s point in his book Farewell to Reality, that every scientific theory is a metaphysical statement due to the inductive reasoning involved.

          But there’s no doubt that our future historian will be amused by some of the concepts we hold in our time, just as we’re amused by the concepts held by people in past centuries. The trick is figuring out which ones fit in that category. Just about everyone who makes guesses about this does so from their own partisan biases.

          What I wonder about are the assumptions we all hold in common, that no one, or hardly anyone, questions, that the future historian will see as obviously wrong, sort of like the foundational racism and patriarchy now so obvious in 19th century writing, even among the most progressive people of that time.

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          1. I wouldn’t think of religions or scientific theories as metaphysical. For that term, I reserve the largely circular reasonings of professional and amateur philosophers. Religions rely on belief and don’t rely all that much on reasoning at all. Science has a pragmatic bent to it – if it works it may be true at least until something else works better.

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          2. What would invalidate a physicalism?

            A physicalist who won’t accept anything beyond the physical takes a position that cannot be disproved. Everything must be physical because nothing beyond the physical is acceptable.


          3. 😀 “This is exactly…” refers to the opening sentences of James’s comment and your reply — that “religion” is an inadequate word.

            Exactly so that metaphysical assumptions underlie science theories. My comment was about how much speculation is built on questionable assumptions — non-factual ones. True that some speculation becomes accepted reality, but most of it, let’s face it, turns out to be the chaff, not the wheat. I especially worry when highly visible scientists begin speculating that maybe we don’t need empiricism as much as we thought.

            I was also keying off your analysis of the monistic outlook many societies have about metaphysics in contrast with Western dualist ideas where God is separate. Some of our more speculative science theories have that same monistic outlook. As you said, “there’s just reality, the forces within it, and the law.” And then a great deal of imagination.

            As an example, as a physical theory string theory should be dead. There has been no sign of SUSY, and string theory is dead without it. Some fascinating and very useful mathematics, but nothing to do with our physical reality. But workers in those fields cling to SUSY and ST on nothing more than faith and hope. It’s modern — and thus somehow accepted — magic.

            There might be some difference between social questions and physics questions. Even in bygone eras, there were those who knew racism, slavery, misogyny, and patriarchy, were wrong. Certainly those most adversely affected were pretty clear on the matter. Physics often involves “Ah, ha!” (or “Huh!”) moments — bolts from the blue hard to predict.

            Which is to say our physics theories may be even more erroneous than some of our social ones.

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          4. I think part of the problem is that modern physics has undermined to a degree its own physicalist foundation.

            In both relativity and QM, it is legitimate, somewhat expected, that different observers may make different observations. So the notion of measurement and fact becomes problematic since an absolute, non-relative standard can’t be found.

            Rightly or wrongly, this opens the door to speculation.


          5. It seems like physicalism (with caveats about how we define “physicalism”) is a theory, albeit broader than most. Like all scientific theories, it’s also a metaphysical statement. However, it’s not pure metaphysics. It can be falsified by reproducible or otherwise verifiable evidence for non-physical phenomena such as ghosts, paranormal phenomena, etc. Of course, that evidence could arrive at any time.

            But the definition caveat is important, because our conception of “physical” has expanded at various points in history.


          6. Yeah, I do think modern physics has lost its way a bit. Perhaps over frustration at the lack of progress in GR/QM. Speculation runs rampant!

            FWIW, Relativity does offer invariants all observers agree on — facts of the matter. All agree on light cones, causality, and the spacetime interval, for instance.


  8. ” It can be falsified by reproducible or otherwise verifiable evidence for non-physical phenomena such as ghosts, paranormal phenomena, etc.”

    I don’t think so. How would measure non-physical phenomena? Once you measure it becomes physical. If you can’t measure it then the metaphysics is closed to phenomena. That’s why it is circular.


    1. In qualitative research, the subjective reports of test subjects are recorded, collated, coded, categorized and statistically analyzed. It’s made quantitative, but the actual measurement is subject report. (I actually got some training in these methods in grad school.)

      Coupled with methodological safeguards to ensure that subjects aren’t influencing each other or biased in other ways, if there were, say, paranormal activity, that could be consistently reproducibly observed, that would be valid scientific evidence.

      For sure, anyone reporting non-physical phenomena would face intense scrutiny. (There’s been a lot of incompetent work, not to mention outright fraud involving such claims.) And the methods, even in banal social studies, do take criticism from some narrow minded hard science folks, but most scientists recognize these as valid testing methods.


      1. I don’t see that would accomplish more than generating evidence that something outside of current theory is happening. It would always leave open that some unknown physical force or effect is involved.

        Also, I’m not sure anything other telepathy and maybe remote viewing could be tested that way.

        Of course, there is a body of evidence for near death experiences for which exactly these sort of qualitative reports have been gathered and analyzed. There is a degree of consistency across these reports, a sort of consensus of the “other side”. Would this be proof? Probably not, since we are dealing with subjective reports, in other words nothing that can be measured directly, alternative explanations can be found.


      2. BTW, your response seems focused to a degree on phenomena usually studied as a part of parapsychology. But there are other bigger issues than that.

        We can find other phenomena that can be observed objectively for which we have no current explanation. Phenomena currently explained by dark energy and dark matter for example. Or the fine tuning constants which some use to demonstrate God or some sort of Divine Intelligence. The evidence that these phenomena exist is robust. Yet I don’t see a lot of scientists willing to rule out possible future physicalist explanations for those.

        There’s the crux of the issue. Even if possible non-physical phenomena is demonstrated, the physicalist will dismiss the evidence with the anticipation of future discoveries because the existence of non-physical phenomena would overturn the entire paradigm. It’s a closed system.

        But the concept of “physical” itself is incoherent in the metaphysical context. If it is whatever physics studies, then it is a catchall for matter, energy, forces, fields, and whatever else physics might theorize about in the future. But all of those things are actually just concepts that are just shorthand for measurements and observations. They do not have a single “nature” or “essence”. Or at least not one that has been articulated so far.


        1. “But all of those things are actually just concepts that are just shorthand for measurements and observations.

          Our “entire” experience is a conceptual one James, including but not limited to measurements and observations. This “conceptual nature” of consciousness makes the experience itself one step removed from the actual physical realm we inhabit, measure and observe. That’s just one level of ontological separation; now add to the mix that this physical realm itself is also one step removed from the underlying Reality that it represents.


        2. For NDEs, I think that’s why the methodological issues I noted above are crucial. For instance, my understanding is that consensus is weaker once we include people from other cultures with different religious traditions, indicating that there’s a powerful interpretive factor (a non-conscious one) in the mix.

          I agree that the concept of “physical” is a slippery one. It’s why I had that caveat above about defining it. When it comes to things like dark energy and dark matter, there is an inherent assumption that it will turn out to be something that can be studied by, or at least be understood by, the natural sciences, that it operates according to some rules or principles. I think that’s a reasonable assumption given the history of science. But it’s conceivable that this time will be different.

          I did focus on parapsychology because that’s usually the sort of stuff people feel is excluded by the physics. In fact, when asking what we mean by “physical”, one question worth considering is, what’s being excluded? And what would the world look like if those concepts were real, or not real? Do they have any causal interactions with the environment? Whatever those interactions might be, why can’t they be measured?


          1. I myself have argued elsewhere about the cross cultural differences with NDE but I’m not totally sure some of those analysis are exactly correct. For example, one study said that native Hawaiians didn’t have the tunnel experience others report but they reported going into volcanoes. Well, yeah, that’s different but not all that different since a volcanic vent is a tunnel to the underworld. When you start to dig down deeper into the experience, there may be quite a number of similarities across cultures but they get nuanced or interpreted differently. Meaning, the root experience might be more similar than different across cultures.

            Excluding parapsychological phenomena, a world containing the non-physical presumably would have a God or gods, spirits, maybe ghosts, maybe intelligent non-physical energies. These would be able to tinker with the world yet it might be impossible to discover how or why they work. What they do might appear as nothing more than random noise to us yet have an invisible order.


          2. I think the question for the NDEs (as well as OBEs), is does the root experience have any implications for an “other side”, particularly when some of those experiences (such as tunnel vision) match up with experiences of people in oxygen deprived settings?

            On the God or gods, I guess the question there is how clandestine these gods want to be, and why they’d want to be like that?

            Interestingly, for ancient people, they didn’t have to wonder if Thor was there, because they literally heard him in storms. Of course, they were assuming a volition that wasn’t there, as well as a bunch of other traits. But Thor was equivalent to thunder and his existence was undeniable. A Thor worshipper, if suddenly made aware of our current science of electricity and lightning, might simply react by saying, “So, Thor follows rules. As long as we respect those rules, with things like lightning rods, he won’t strike us.” They wouldn’t be wrong, even if that’s not the way we talk about it today.

            Liked by 1 person

          3. My 1/50 of a buck: I’ve always seen OBEs and NDEs as much more likely a product of our imagination. That Hawaiians visualize volcanoes makes perfect sense given their environment. Their god Pele makes actual, if catastrophic, appearances.

            The thing about OBEs is how does anyone see anything when they are invisible? If they’re truly immaterial, why would gravity mean anything? Why don’t they go shooting off into space as the Earth moves away from them?

            These experiences, to me, are incoherent taken as reality, but very easy to understand as products of our imagination.


          4. Wyrd,

            Did you read my post of Susan Blackmore?


            It isn’t imagination. It is a distortion of the body image probably produced by firings in the temporoparietal junction and related circuits. Some OBEs occur with a body and some occur without a body. Blackmore talks about four different variations, including one that involves a feeling of presence behind you. The presence is, in fact, a copy of yourself. During some OBEs people do shoot off into space and into other realms. Shamans routinely visit the underworld and/or the heavens.

            The important point, however, it isn’t simply imaginings. The person is actually having the experience of being outside their physical body that as as real as your experience of being in your one body.


          5. By imagination I mean OBEs and NDEs are products fabricated by our minds — illusions.

            All we can know about reality is the mental model provided by our minds, so OBE and NDE illusions naturally feel as real as anything. But that they are always framed in terms of cultural references and have never delivered verifiable factual information, to me, makes it clear they’re illusions.


          6. What isn’t framed in terms of cultural references? Do you think your views are culturally neutral?

            The sense of having any body at all is fabricated by our minds too. The mind can fabricate a phantom limb and feel pain in it when a real limb is missing. Body image is influenced by culture .

            There are numerous accounts of people having the experience of being outside their body and reporting verifiable factual information. What you may have intended to say is there are never accounts of people experiencing an OBE and delivering verifiable factual information that could not have been discovered without the OBE (so far).


          7. Sorry, I thought that was obvious from comments I’ve made previously. I’ve often mentioned that while OBEs seem to be prevalent during surgery (a product of the anesthesia no doubt), and these frequently seem to involve hovering over the operating room, no one has ever commented on some label or object they never could have seen except from that vantage point.

            Never happened, and I’d bet any amount of money it never will.

            More to the point, one the one hand a simple obvious explanation: our minds are fertile and imaginative, and we build patterns from everything we perceive, real or not. On the other hand, a notion that requires new physics, if not outright woo-woo, because how can a disembodied presence see or hear anything? With what eyes and ears? How do you propose that works?

            That these are always framed in terms of cultural references just supports this. If there was any true universality, that would be less so. But our imaginations are limited, as you say, by our culture.


          8. BTW, where are “you” when you are seeing things? If you are in your body, where at?


            It’s important to remember that the body image and sense of being in a body is maintained by neurons just like the sense of being in more than one body is. Being in one body is no more real than being in two. It is just being in one body probably is more useful in an evolutionary way, although it might be somewhat learned also. Some claim it is possible to learn to be in more than one body.


          9. You’re not seeing your computer screen and this comment right now? Are you asleep? Is it a dream? Where are “you'”? Do “you” overlap with your entire body or just reside in some part of it, like maybe your right thumb? The single “you” is just as much as illusion as a double “you”.


          10. If you’re conflating optical illusions due to how our visual system works, then you’re making my point for me. (Thank you!) Exactly as you say, my computer screen is just a bunch of flashing red, green, blue dots. My mind fabricates an image — a false reality. Which is exactly what I believe OBEs and NDEs are.

            The single “me” can be factually verified. Has been factually verified all my life. The double version cannot be equally verified because it’s factually false.


          11. A lot of modern people don’t have to wonder if God is there either. For religious people, God is not all that clandestine and is apparent in what they see as the exquisite order of the world which science can probably never account for.

            Liked by 1 person

          12. That’s the usual argument. But children have to be taught the conventional concept of God. The existence of thunder, the sky, fire, the earth, volcanoes, etc, seem much more obvious. Of course, if you go the pantheism route, you can argue the whole world is very obvious, but that’s not where most modern believers are.


          13. Certainly. Neither are obvious or intuitive. In fact, you could say the purpose of science is to help us with the unintuitive aspects of the world. We wouldn’t need it if the world was exactly as it appeared.

            Liked by 1 person

          14. But on the other hand, as far as I know, there has never been a truly atheist society in the history of humanity. Everyone seems to develop some form of metaphysics. Both science and religion are natural outgrowths of two very obvious existential questions: How does it all work, and what does it all mean?


          15. I wonder what you mean here by “truly atheist society”. If you mean ones without acknowledging supernatural agents, it seems like those have existed (Soviet Union, China, etc). But historically they do seem few and far between. If you mean ones without metaphysics, then yeah, I agree, since even an utterly scientific society will have theories, and those have unavoidable metaphysical aspects.


          16. I mean metaphysics, and specifically some belief in the ineffable aspects of reality. The Soviets and Chinese governments tried to enforce a state-atheism, but the people generally were of a different opinion. Covert churches have always existed in these societies.

            Out of curiosity, what “utterly scientific society” did you have in mind? 😀 Surely not ours given the beliefs of many! I’m sure you’ve seen polls about how many believe in angels! 😉

            (Worse, as I’ve said many times, we seem to be backsliding on that.)


          17. Hmmm. If the standard is that every single member of the society must sign on, then it seems like most societies haven’t been truly theistic, since there’s always the oddballs.

            It seems more productive to go with what that society holds up as the ideal, or by what the majority of that society believes. Either way we seem to end up with many examples. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_irreligion

            “Utterly scientific” was hypothetical, just to make the point that even at the limit, you still have metaphysics.

            (At least we’re not throwing virgins in volcanoes. Yet.)


          18. Hang on, I never said every single member, and I thought we were talking about metaphysical views of the ineffable — a much broader category than formal religions.

            Yet consider, for instance, the Czech Republic, taken to be “one of the least religious societies in the world.” Look at that pie chart, though. Formal religions do have low percentages, and 44.7% are “undeclared/no answer” and “unaffiliated” are 34.5%. But even the last group may have those who ascribe to tarot, astrology, ghosts, and etc.

            That said, modern times do seem increasingly secular, but as I mentioned earlier, we just seem to have traded religious fantasies for science fantasies.

            Liked by 1 person

  9. ” if we take a broader definition of deity, it could be seen as preserved in the scientific view of the fundamental forces or the overall laws of nature.”

    No, I say; but then I’ve never had much sympathy for a certain philosophical view of laws of nature. To wit, the one called the “governing” view of laws. I think I hear religious overtones in the word “governing”. To me, talking about laws of nature is just a way of summarizing how properties relate to each other. (Which makes me an “Aristotelian reductionist” about laws of nature.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know where you’re coming from. But by “broader definition”, I don’t mean a god in any personal sense, of a conscious volitional intelligence.

      I mean that a future culture could take a fundamental force like gravity or electromagnetism to be a sort of deity, albeit one without volition. These “gods” wouldn’t pay any attention to libations. It’s utterly pointless to pray to them. But understanding their nature provides power. To a historian 10,000 years from now, the difference between that and what we commonly call “gods” today might simply be the difference between older and newer science, or ideologies.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh, I get it now. I would say they failed to understand what we had meant by “gods”, although their guess was a reasonable one given the evidence available to them. So sure, given that meaning, it all works out.

        Liked by 1 person

  10. I think there are a couple of basic questions: one is whether or not dimensionless states or conditions actually exist. In a sense the quantum vacuum may be a good analogy for this. A tremendous amount of energy may be virtually undetectable to us because it is self-canceling, or present in equal and opposite quantities. We just see and interact with the miniscule residual. This article at the American Physical Society describes such a notion. I’m not saying this is the ultimate reality; I’m suggesting it’s an interesting analogy to the way things could be, that is embedded in the world we perceive. I see physicalism as describing the miniscule residual, and beliefs in “something transcendent” being a naïve inference to this whole, timeless and dimensionless reservoir on which the manifest quantities operate and/or emerge from.

    The second question is whether or not other societies or civilizations or minds or types of minds would be more or less likely than us to discover or acknowledge the existence of such states or conditions, and/or develop their own unique means of interacting more directly with them. And I think the answer is: Who knows? It depends. I see this as a matter of choice and perhaps, as I’ve said before, the only choice there may be to us: how do we choose to perceive things and how do such perceptions inform the nature of our recursive relationship to the whole? Just as with individual humans, I would think a spectrum of views on such a matter might emerge.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. That article was interesting. Thanks! It would be very cool if there are vast amounts of vacuum energy and if there were any way for us to figure out how to tap it.

      Definitely we don’t know everything we don’t know, the unknown unknowns in Rumsfeldian speak. I think the vast majority of people who call themselves physicalists freely admit that. The thing to remember is that any unknowns have to be compatible with the current knowns, something that’s often forgotten. And it’s worth considering whether we’d ever consider those new phenomena, once we were aware of their existence, as something non-physical, or just expand our conception of the physical to account for it. Maybe the real dividing line is whether the new phenomena operates according to some rules or principles or seems as utterly capricious and volitional as nature overall once seemed to our ancestors.

      I agree that it’s unlikely an alien race would be any more uniform about this stuff than we are. At least unless they’re all part of some kind of hive mind. Even then, would the whole race only be one hive mind, or multiple? If multiple, that still seems like it would leave room for that spectrum of views.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I haven’t read Wright’s book. (I did read and enjoy his earlier book, The Evolution of God.) But superficially, Buddhism stripped of its supernatural aspects seems similar in many ways to Stoicism. Epicureanism was also popular in the ancient world. And of course there’s the modern Secular Humanism (not to be confused with the three Humanisms Harari discusses in Sapiens focused on liberty, egalitarianism, or eugenics).

      So it seems like there are many candidates. I suspect future religions / ideologies will be syncretizations of these and other outlooks.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. This discussion reminds me of Julian Huxley and Religion Without Revelation. He thought there might be a way to build a religion based on science, or at least not in conflict with science.

        In that case, a religion of aliens (or a future religion of us) might reunify what are today’s bifurcated world views here on Earth. I could definitely see a blending of Buddhism with mindfulness meditation (enhanced by neuroscience?) as Wright envisions coupled with an ecological conscience becoming a foundation.

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