God, Design and Science

08 January 2006

Next, week's program --- assuming it isn't pre-empted by the Alito hearings --- will concern "intelligent design."  This phrase is most familiar these days in connection with the attempt by Christian groups persuade boards of education in various communities to require teaching of, or at least mention of, a theory called "intelligent design" in biology classes, as an alternative to the theory of evolution.  I'll call this the "IDM" for "Intelligent Design Movement," and use phrases like "the design argument," and "intelligent design," with the meaning that they have had for a long time in philosophy.  Many readers will want to consult the intelligent and fascinating opinion of federal judge John E. Jones, which can be found at www.pamd.uscourts.gov/kitzmiller/kitzmiller_342.pdf

Traditionally, in philosophy, the question of intelligent design is connected to the "Argument from Design."  This is mentioned by many philosophers, including Saint Thomas, but the two discussions that are the most famous are William Paley's and David Hume's.  I've been discussing Hume's Dialogues on Natural Relgion, where he discusses the argument from design and the problem of evil, in classes for about forty years, so I guess I am in favor of mentioning and discussing the theory of intelligent design in classrooms --- but not biology classrooms, unless the biology teacher wants to.

The IDA literature refers to Paley's discussion, and his famous example of finding a watch in the desert and inferring quite reasonably that someone must have designed it.  Oddly, Paley's discussion comes about a hundred years after Hume's, which is often taken to be the classic refutation of the argument.

We have to be careful in discussing Hume's Dialogues, however.  The character in the dialogue that most interpreters take to be closest to being Hume's representative is Philo.  At the end of the dialogues, Philo concludes that the most probable hypothesis about the cause or causes of order in the universe is that it or they bear some remote analogy to human intelligence.  So it seems that Hume didn't intend to refute the argument from design, but was in fact moved by it.  But this is only part of the story.  Philo's main point is that even if, as he grudgingly (and some , but not me, have thought ironically) allows, there is some reason to think that the design-like properties of the world are the result of something like a designer or designers, there is no reason whatsoever to suppose that this designer or these designers have any of the properties Christians associate with God, other than something like intelligence. There is no reason to think that the designer(s) are limited to one (monotheism), no reason to think that they are infinite, no reason to think that they are particularly person-like, no reason to think that they care what humans do, or have any rewards in store for those that behave one way rather than another, or have any concern for human suffering or human happiness, or for anything like justice.  Indeed, on these latter points, Philo thinks the evidence not only doesn't point to a caring God, but points towards powers that don't care one way or the other about human happiness; if humans are happy, fine; if they are not, that's OK too.  And so, Philo goes on, the argument from design certainly doesn't support any inferences about how people ought to be required to act, in order to please God, and doesn't support any form of religious intolerance at all.

Earlier in the Dialogues Philo considered something a bit like the theory of evolution.  The idea of survival of the fittest is formulated fairly clearly, and considered as an explanation of some aspects of the argument from design, like the fact that humans like fruit and there are lots of trees that bear fruit.  Philo and Cleanthes (the advocate of the design argument) seem to agree that a principle like survival of the fittest cannot explain a lot of things.  In particular, we seem to have a lot of attributes that are not strictly required for survival.  We have two hands, but clearly we could get by with one, for example. 

This objection to evolutionary explanations isn't very convincing in the modern setting, where the theory has been developed in such a way as to explain the propogation of even slightly incremental advantages, and not just requirements, for survival.  And at least some evolutionalists appeal to "spandrels," neat features of organisms that arise as a consequence of other features that are explained by the primary evolutionary processes.

Still, as a form of argument it is the beginning (as far as I know) of an interesting line of argument or at least of inquiry.  The scientific inquiry is:  is there anything we find in living things that can't be explained by evolutionary processes? 

Philosophically, the questions seem to me to be these:

(a) what properties does a system have to have (if there are any such properties) such that there couldn't be such things (or at least it is incredibly unlikely that there would be such things) without there being an intelligent designer involved in their creation;

(b) Can evolution account for designers, and if so what kinds of designers? 

(c) what properties would a system that meets criterion (a) have to have to pass the further test that it couldn't have been designed by an evolved designer?

Another way of looking at much of what Philo says can be put in terms relevant to question (c).  Designed things may not require as much intelligence as one might think.  The clipper ships of Hume's times would suggest some kind of genius, but, Philo thinks, when we consider the centuries that have gone into designing sailing ships, we see that the intelligence to make each incremental improvement needn't be quite so astounding.  There is nothing that calls for an infinite intelligence, as far as Philo can see.  Philo think our own world could well be the result of a amateurish early effort at world-making by a infant diety.  Gary Larson has a wonderful cartoon about this, showing an obviously disappointed god  pulling a cracked and burnt earth from an oven.  (I searched for it for a while on the web, but came across a reasonable plea from Larson that his cartoons not be posted on the net, so gave up.  Go to your local bookstore, leaf through his collections, and buy the book.  It's worth every penny.)

At any rate, it's worthwhile distinguishing the philosophical enterprize of trying to argue from design to something like a Christian God, from that of inquiring into the nature of design, and what limits, if any, there are on evolutionary theory in accounting for certain kinds of systems without appeal to designers.  To return to Paley's watch, I don't think that if I found a watch in a desert, I would imagine that it grew there, as a first-order product of evolutionary processes.  I would hypothesize a human designer.  If that were shown to be not the case, I would hypothesize a non-human designer.  If the watch were not alive, I couldn't see how it could be a product of evolution. 

But is there some more abstract property, that living systems might exhibit, that can't be explained by evolution with all of the bells and whistles and spandrels modern evolutionary theory has at its disposal?  If the various naturalistic projects going on in philosophy show that there is no property of humans --- not intentionality, not moral sensibility, not consciousness --- that can't be explained on evolutionary principles, these bells and whistles will include appeal to human ingenuity.  It's pretty clear from Judge Jones' own opinion that the "design science" appealed to by the IDM haven't found any such thing.  But that shouldn't close of philosophical inquiry.

Judge Jones takes his task to be to look at the way the resolution passed by the Dover Pa. schoolboard actually came into existence.  He does a very good job of arguing that the movement that culminated in the requirement that biology teacher read a little message about intelligent design came from institutes and thinkers that are part of the Creationist movement; apparently at the time that creationism was dissed by the Supreme Court, many of the documents used in the intelligent design movement were created by a "global replace" of "intelligent design" for "creation." 

Thank goodness, though, the Judge allows that discussion of intelligent design still has a place in the classroom, in philosophy and religion classes.  So I can keep teaching Hume.

Comments (12)


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Tuesday, January 10, 2006 -- 4:00 PM

ID theorists believe that two properties, specifie

ID theorists believe that two properties, specified complexity and irreducible complexity, are marks of intelligent design. Specified complexity is evident when a pattern is not merely complex but matches a predefined specification. For instance, a computer program can easily be contrived to generate random text in the form of sentences. Since the arrangement of letters is completely random, the pattern is complex (in that each sentence is highly unique and unlikely), but it adheres to no known specification. Indeed, our computer program may be generating beautiful Rigelian poetry, but lacking a means of verification we must assume its creations are the product of random chance rather than design. But what if the computer program began composing poetry in French or English or some other language? That's when a design inference would kick in, and we would presume that an intelligent agent (i.e. the programmer) slipped in some design.
Another way to look at specified complexity is in a game of Poker. If I draw a royal flush, you may marvel at my good luck, but if I keep drawing royal flushes, you will quickly suspect that intelligent intervention is overriding the laws of chance.
Hume's character Cleanthes, in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, uses this argument for design when He points out that if we were to hear a voice coming from the clouds, we would not hesitate to ascribe to it intelligence, and if books grew on trees like fruit, we would certainly deduce from their contents that there was an intelligence behind their design. Though this argument seems a bit ridiculous, it's worth pointing out that every cell contains within it a tiny molecular codebook titled "How To Make This Organism."
Irreducible complexity is when a system cannot function without all of its parts. The classic ID example is the old fashioned mousetrap, with platform, holding bar, spring, hammer and catch. This example has been ridiculed to death, as critics have employed partial mousetraps to serve as tie clips, tongue depressors and assorted other uses, their point being that you can evolve a mousetrap by employing existing parts serving other functions. While it is true that human inventors adapt parts from one machine to serve a different purpose on another, how do organic parts reconfigure themselves to serve a completely different purpose than was their original function? How does a molecular structure determine that it should stop being a pump and start functioning as part of a propeller? Despite the triumphal rhetoric of critics, this argument is far from settled.
Another way of thinking about design is to take a list of things and break out what is known with certainty to be the result of natural forces, what is definitely designed, and what is of uncertain orgin. Take cats, snowflakes, rocks, iPods , clouds, ferns and bicycles. We know that iPods and bicycles are designed, and the form of snowflakes, rocks and clouds is easily explained by natural processes. Cats and ferns are ambiguous, as their origins are much less certain than the other items. The hierarchy of complexity is snowflakes->clouds->rocks->bikes->iPods ->ferns->cats. The naive intuition is that cats are more akin to iPods than they are to snowflakes (even though the cat may be white, fluffy and named snowflake ;-) So, the idea that living things resemble purposeful machines has a sound basis in logic.
That life, from the ?simplest? cell (which is anything but simple) to the human brain, is masterfully conceived is beyond doubt. What?s in question is whether such intricate complexity can arise without intelligent direction. Fortunately, this idea is a testable hypothesis. All you need are some basic criteria for judging fitness, a means of testing a design, and a time compression device to condense millions of episodes of trial and error into a workable time frame. While a supercomputer would be dandy, for most design projects a PC would be quite adequate.
One scenario might involve airliner design, where computers are already used to assist in design and to virtually test proposed concepts for viability. For simplicity, let?s just say our sole criteria are speed, safety and cost. Our software automatically generates a nip here and a tuck there in the design, then tests it against these three criteria to see whether this evolution of the design improves overall fitness. Fitness, in this scenario, requires that improvement in one or several areas not seriously compromise any of our prime criteria. This approach would be literally out of the brain thinking, as no human preconceptions or self imposed limitations could corrupt the design process. ?Nature?, would be allowed to run its course, unhindered by our apish intellects and superstitious notions of intelligent design. Perhaps this is a valid approach to design, but no one, to my knowledge, is willing to invest much in it.
Trial and error, is part of the toolkit of every designer. As Edison put it ?Genius is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration." There?s a lot of truth to this, but without that one percent inspiration, human invention goes nowhere.
It?s worth noting the utter vacuity of the concept of survival as a driving force in evolution. The usual criticism is the circularity of reason that fitness is defined as whatever contributes to an organism?s survival. What survives is fit, what?s fit survives. Thus, the dodo bird, which was fit as a fiddle for millennia, became unfit the moment men with clubs descended on his paradise. Though the logic of this idea is easy to grasp, it?s empty of real meaning. Survival is just a synonym for existence. That which exists now has survived to this day. Atoms exist, because they survive the forces that would tear them apart. Stars exist, because they survive the crush of gravity, which is neither too weak to cause their substance to dissipate nor so strong as to cause them to burn out faster. Survival has no meaning as a force of causation.
We can grasp the illogic of this concept by looking at another Dodo bird, the Model T. Though fine for its time, the ?T? had to progress or perish, and thus extinct it is, its noble spirit living on in today?s lineup of fabulous Fords. Presumably, changing conditions in the cultural environment made the Model T no longer competitive, thus it had to strive to survive. Now, let?s employ a little brain drain to suck all of the intelligence out of this scenario. Inspiration has dried up, the march of civilization brought to a halt and no new ideas are appearing in the arts and sciences. Life just goes on with people working, playing and making families. Ice ages could come and go, comets might crash into the earth or tropical breezes blow in Alaska, but none of this, without a fresh flow of ideas, would budge big ?T? from its throne as the latest in auto technology.
If you think my analogy between nature and human nature is false, do the same brain drain on any typical evolutionary scenario. Erase the guy with a can of Raid, and poof go the pesticide resistant bugs. Bless the peahen with a preference for plainness, and poof go pretty peacocks. Give tigers a taste for veggies, and gazelles leap for joy instead of alarm. Blind, purposeless, unintelligent evolution just doesn?t happen. Nature is very mindful.
A final thought concerns the notion of ?The Designer.? Who designed civilization? A believer might claim that God is the ultimate architect, while an atheist would say we did it all ourselves. Heavenly Santa Claus or no, a lot of little elves gave life to imagination and manifested the world we live in now. Given that humanity is inseparable from the rest of nature, it?s not wholly unreasonable to assume that it is intelligence that created and creates the world we presently know.

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Tuesday, January 10, 2006 -- 4:00 PM

I just ask questions here, but one can probably de

I just ask questions here, but one can probably detect a point of view in them.
1. Could the orderliness of nature--or some of its more orderly parts that have impressed ID folks, like the animal eye--have been evolutionary freeloaders? I.e., could some really efficacious trait, like human brain power, have carried traits that were less efficacious through the reproductive cycle so that these orderly traits hung around, like paracites, just waiting to be praised by ID enthusiasts? The human brain has, after all, not proven itself particularly orderly, however philosophers might proscribe that the mind should behave.
2. Some ID types have also been teleologists (Chardin). Once you have found the watch and cannot give an explanation for the natural event that gave rise to it, the question arises "why did the watchmaker put it here?" Some would say it means there is a larger watch or world monitor of which we know little--except it is a mechanism leading to maker's goal. Impressed by the watch in the desert, we assume that there are more impressive things. Some might be really cool, constructed by the Coolest. But, is it not smart to think that the watchmaker who can make killer apps like the watch is not also a weapons manufacturer who is busy making real killer apps like hurricanes, earthquakes and plagues? Malaria, observed as a sly way of killing, is among the maker's best and most elusive time bombs.
3. Language-oriented theorists have thought there is a species survival trait advantage in true utterances or disquisitions over false ones. If ID partisans think evolution is "just a theory" and their theory deserves equal time--and the 2 are incompatible--then they should believe that the extinguishing of the pro-evolution-enunciating trait has a design or that it is a haphazard part of the whole the designer felt could be allowed to persist because it would have an innocuous effect on the design. Either way, why create these stealth wedges into school boards, fight for sympathetic judges and mount massive propaganda campaigns? The designer will eventually watch the withering of evolution proponents or extirpate the unhealthy weeds. Are ID friends in a big hurry to not let the intelligence of the designer decide the pace?

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Thursday, January 12, 2006 -- 4:00 PM

You will find an interesting take on the Kitmiller

You will find an interesting take on the Kitmiller decision in philosopher Bradley Monton's article IS INTELLIGENT DESIGN SCIENCE? DISSECTING THE DOVER DECISION.
ID Proponent Bill Dembski has a chapter posted on his website on Hume, Reid, and Signs of Intelligence from his book The Design Revolution.
Be forewarned that both of these are PDF files, but they are fairly small.

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Saturday, January 14, 2006 -- 4:00 PM

People these days are so rigid. Why does it have

People these days are so rigid. Why does it have to be one or the other? Perhaps there could be a melding of the two (science and religiion). I believe that our understanding of God has increased immensely through science and technology. Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, etc. The ancient thinkers of the past who propagated religion, although great thinkers, could only observe that which was observible to the naked eye. And it was those sort or 'ancient scientific observations' that gave forth to religious doctrines. Many religions that have been around for centuries prescribe remedies or ban substances/foods for reasons that can now be proven beneficial through scientific means.
Today, we have telescopes that can detect galaxies light years away from our own, and even clone animals. Our reality is similar, but very much different than that of ancient times. However, much of what is contained in religious text is still very much plausible. For example, there are religious text out there that echo the Big Bang theory and many other 'scientific discoveries.' But, we also forget that in most religions there was a concept of continuous revelation. People were always being shown new things and subsequently learning new thinigs. Somewhere along the line (I won't say where)(Rome) this concept was removed from Christianity and Islam, but has survived in many other religions.
In conclusion, religious text is vague in telling you exactly how 'life' began, but it is still accurate. On the other hand, the theory of evoloution may be very detailed but does not prove Christian nor any other creation story wrong.
It is very important to understand that even in ancient civilizations such as the afore mentioned they also had the ability to form abstract thoughts. However, since they were bound by their times, the ancient thinkers had to use what they knew to describe both what they could and could not see.

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Guest

Saturday, January 14, 2006 -- 4:00 PM

Human consciousness is so complex and so unique in

Human consciousness is so complex and so unique in nature that is must have been created by an intelligent designer, because consciousnessness cannot be derived from unconsciousness.

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Guest

Monday, January 16, 2006 -- 4:00 PM

Hi, 1. The notion of "complexity" is observer-rel

Hi,
1. The notion of "complexity" is observer-relative, dependent upon the mind of the observer. So it is incoherent to say that part of the universe is irreducibly complex. The argument never gets off the ground. Math problems that were complex to me when I was 8 were simple to me at 12.
2. Even if you accept the idea of some "objective" complexity to the universe, the argument that the complex universe must have had a designer implies that the intelligence that designed the universe must be more complex than what it created; hence it too must have a creator. So we get a circular infinite regress...
Scientific rationality has made it impossible for educated people to believe in the supernatural; yet for whatever reasons, we are left with religious cravings. ID is just another manifestation of these cravings...
Timothy Beneke

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Guest

Wednesday, January 18, 2006 -- 4:00 PM

While I agree with most of the things said by the

While I agree with most of the things said by the hosts, I think the show did its audience a disservice by not dealing with a fundamental misunderstanding that came up more than once in caller comments: The labeling of evolution as "just a theory."
More precisely, the common misunderstanding of what theory means in a scientific context, which is a falsifiable hypothesis that has been tested, which has made successful predictions, and which is backed up by enormous evidence.
It should be pointed out, as judge Jones did in his ruling, that intelligent design completely fails to be a true scientific theory. It is not even a hypothesis.
Given the nature of this show, a discussion of the meaning of "theory" would have been most beneficial. (Now, I did not hear the whole show, so I apologize if that was dealt with.)

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Wednesday, January 18, 2006 -- 4:00 PM

I must admit that I found the above notions of spe

I must admit that I found the above notions of specified complexity and irreducible complexity rather incoherent; e.g. in fleshing out the notion of specified complexity it was argued that "the arrangement of letters is completely random, the pattern is complex (in that each sentence is highly unique and unlikely)" - but all sentences are highly unlikely which would seem to indicate a rather vacuous notion of complexity. You may suspect that a sequence of royal flushes is overiding the laws of chance but you could never show it and I doubt you'd even notice the equally unlikely sequence of the same length of some "mundane" low valued hand (though I'm not trying to argue that the illusion of design is just a selection effect). And though I agree with the author that the isue has probably not been resolved re. the coherence of the notion of irreducible complexity I tend to think the triumphal rhetoric is actually quite convincing. Lastly I must say I'd love to see the notion of complexity rescued from the design debate (e.g I think something like John Perry's 3 questions can serve to frame the debae splendidly sans any irrelavant introduction of the notion of complexity). I think a number of scientists are converging on a useful notion of complexity (something like - an inherent element of uncertainty in the observation of a systems behavior resulting from strong interactions between its constituents) which is agnostic re. design arguments; but some of the utility is lost when scientists have to dig their way out of the design sludge to discuss complexity (see what those mean philosophers do to poor innocent scietists !).

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Tuesday, February 7, 2006 -- 4:00 PM

1. What is your definition of God? Throughout the

1. What is your definition of God? Throughout the world there are many forms of religion, and many have complex views of their creation and creator.
2. Is science the language of God. If God exists in all spaces, and the laws of physics are true, then how can you separate the two (this statement is dependent upon an omnipresent God).
3. Finally, if #2 is true, then could evolution then be viewed as s a tool of God used to bring about the existence of life.
p.s. who knows what the true nature of an all encompassing god is. did it create life on purpose, or perhaps just likes to watch and see what happens.

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Guest

Monday, February 13, 2006 -- 4:00 PM

All I know about God is that God is light. It is

All I know about God is that God is light. It is the source of all things, without God nothing exists. God is in another higher dimension. Dimensions are relative to the current perception you have. Everything is a mere illusion but God and that part of you that was given by God, your spirit/thought/emotion.
The whole purpose of human life is to understand God. That is to align your mind with the truth which is God, by your own will. It must do this while seeing through all the lies in the world-the illusion. It must find its way through the dark forest and find its way toward the light. There are other people in the dark forest of the world and they really dont care about finding God, but they eventually will, but it will have to be through their own will. Their own Will, will determine the time it takes.
I believe that God created life on purpose as a test, because either we failed before and he wants us to succeed in his test called life through our own understanding and will. God could have also created life on purpose not because we previously failed, but because we have to prove ourselves worthy to be in his prescence. The whole idea of having to prove yourself could also be wrong, it may just be that we have to be able to understand first, that is there must be a maturation process called life.
The processes that God uses go beyond evolution. Evolution is a term used to name a current perception we currently have of the way the world works. Science and Religion are not against one another it is just that they have to protect their institutions-there is a separation between the institution and the knowledge. They both are doing well, but they have different followers with different mentalities, and they have to appease those followers so that they can keep on seeking the truth through their methods.
Actually Islam Christianity and the Jewish Religion worship the same God.

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Thursday, February 16, 2006 -- 4:00 PM

(In response to erosirony) I believe that you a

(In response to erosirony)
I believe that you and I share some common views, but I am not sure what you mean that by the following: "All I know about God is that God is light. It is the source of all things, without God nothing exists." How can light be the basis of all things when light itself has to have a source. If anything I believe that God dwells in both light and darkness. And possibly more in darkness than in light. (end response to erosirony)
After listening to the show on the net several times, and my own personal G.O.D. search, I am just as puzzled as when I started. Perhaps what philosophy and science ultimately teach us is that we are able to truly to shape our own lives.
I also believe that it is a good thing to praise/give thanks to a God who is the creator of all things. I mean, we say thank you to people for all kinds of things. Why can we not give thanks to the processes that are responsible for not only our being, but for existence as a whole?

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Guest

Friday, February 17, 2006 -- 4:00 PM

God is a radiant energy/light. When people die th

God is a radiant energy/light. When people die they say they see a light on the other side, during near death experiences. I have seen that light/energy once. It contains all knowledge. Now you may say that I and the people who say have seen that light are full of garbage, but once you have seen it you know it is true. Socrates said that no one could know if there is a life after death because no one have come back to report, but this I think is wrong. Some people are actually allowed to see this light if they try to search for it, or see it on accident. I saw it on accident. All I can say is that those people are not liars. The only problem they have is that the majority of people have not seen it too so they cannot all agree on it. It is not in this dimension, it is in a higher dimension. This dimension that we are currently on and perceive is an illusion. That light that I call God, has been called by others the collective unconcious. It is the totality of conciousness. Maybe the whole idea of cause and effect is flawed. We think that each cause must have an effect, that each thing must have a source, but this could be wrong. Nature could be working some other way. It may be like recycling. Humans tend to thing linear, but things may be more circular like the infinity symbol. If this is an illusion then the way we are taught to make sense may also be a lie, and that is why we have not yet solved the cause without cause problem for 2300 years.
I will tell you of my experience. You may think it is junk, but I have found that people at the latest fringes of knowledge of consciousness have similar knowledge, even people of the past.
When I saw God/light I had no body all i was, was consciousness. It was blissful, I was in need of nothing and had no want-all I needed was coming from the radiance of the light. While there I saw that the light had all the knowledge of eternity, So I looked for the knowledge that I thought would be most important in our present dimension-how to create a machine that could interchange matter-I found it, it was a giant structure-like a building. Then I saw to light beings on either side of the light-they could have been what people call angels/or seraphim. One came towards me and told me that everything is an illusion except "thought and emotion". This light being did this through telepathy. I wanted to stay there because it was so blissful and everything you could ever want was there. You would not want to come back if you had a choice to stay. Before I knew it I came back from that dimension into this dimension. Going through dimensions was hard, not painful but it puts stress on your mind/consiciousness.
I am still trying to solve the whole demiurge sophia gnostic idea. I do know that this world is an illusion. And that great thinkers like Leonardo Da Vinci knew just what an illusion this place is, in fact they could mold it. The reason we can also not be able to solve the whole cause without a cause problem is because the cause of all causes of this dimension may not even be in this dimension. We may also not be able to currently percieve the cause without causes with our current technology or human perception.
All I know is that people who have seen this light are not liars. That is a good starting point.

 
 
 

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