What's Really Important

I am a computer programmer, with some successful commercial products (see TinyBasic, AutoBlack, CompileIt!, PowerFPU in my notes page) and a fairly large number of embedded systems that I probably shouldn't talk about. Because most of this work was as a self-employed independent software developer or contractor, I had a relationship with my work that salaried and hourly people generally don't experience: If it didn't work, I didn't get paid.

Like everybody else in this industry, when I first write a program, it's full of bugs. It doesn't do what I want it to. It doesn't do what the customer is willing to pay me for it to do. Until that program does what I want, it's worthless. Fixing the problems is called "debugging" and most of what we programmers do is debugging. It doesn't much matter how much fun the program is having, nor what it thinks about me or its computer, all that matters is that it does the job I programmed it for.

In grad school I learned a very interesting fact: the human DNA is a computer program, coded in binary bits just like my programs, only a lot bigger and more complicated. Who is the Programmer? What purpose am I programmed for? That's an interesting question, and I think it has a logical and interesting answer.


As a computer programmer, it is necessary that I think logically, or my programs would never work. This logic tends to spill over into the real world. It makes me into a "nerd" but this same logic sometimes helps me understand what is going on before other people do. Logic is like that. Some people don't like it, which is why Spock was generally not the hero in Star Trek.

Mathematics is a part of logic. I majored in math as an undergrad, and one of the courses math majors were required to take was symbolic logic. The course was taught in the philosophy department, and it was also required for philosophy majors. The class was half math majors, and half philosophy majors. The math students got all A's and the philosophy students got all C's. I thought it humorous at the time.

All of math is the manipulation of formulas by a fixed set of logical rules. You start with a small set of (unproved) axioms, and everything else is proved from them by logic. Some people believe that everything in life can work that way, except they often have hidden axioms in their formulas. Here I try to do a little bit of the same thing, but without hidden axioms. Let me know if I succeed (or fail).


1. "Cogito ergo sum" ("I think, therefore I am" in Latin). With this axiom, Rene DesCartes recognized that we are thinking rational beings, capable of reason and correct logic. It is an axiom, because I cannot prove that I'm not just somebody's pipe dream. But there are no interesting results from assuming any such alternatives, so at least from a pragmatic point of view, it's reasonable to assume that I am a real person and I can think correctly and logically. Not that I always succeed at it, but it's possible.

2. There is a real world out there. I didn't invent it nor imagine it. What I want to happen mostly doesn't happen unless I take an active role in moving the molecules of that physical world around to make it happen -- and sometimes it still doesn't happen. This is again an axiom: I cannot prove that I did not imagine my own surprise at finding what I did not want nor expect, but again that is not very interesting. So I assume without proof that there is a physical universe out there that is separate from me, and I am subject to its laws and rules, not the other way around. A part of this axiom (with #1 above) is that my senses are mostly reliable in reporting what is out there in my immediate vicinity.

We can go a long way on these two axioms. Logic and math derive entirely from axiom #1. Science adds the inferences that derive from observing the physical universe, axiom #2, and logically deducing natural laws from it. There is no logical reason that there should be regular natural laws, but there they are. That is itself an interesting observation, which I will come back to.

Other people exist, and are similarly capable of rational thought. This is a direct consequence of applying axioms #1 and #2 to what I see out there. Some of those people are smarter than I am (that is, they make fewer logical mistakes, or can correctly infer things I cannot get to, or something like that), and a lot of those people are smarter than they act most of the time. I sometimes (perhaps more often than I care to admit) do dumb things too, so at least I can infer by analogy what might be going on inside their heads. It mostly works, except for documented personality differences.


The world turns out to be far bigger and more complicated than any one person can understand. But other smart people have spent the time to think clearly about the phenomena they see in their little specialty, and they write down honestly what they observe and infer, and still other people run the same experiments and get the same results. The personal aspect of this is that I ran some of those same experiments (in high school and college science labs) and got the same results too. This allows me to infer with a large degree of confidence that what people call science really is true inferences about the world, even if I didn't repeat all their experiments. This confidence is starting to break down in our post-modern world (see Post-Modernism).

Science has come a long way in the last 500 years. The invention of the two-lens telescope/microscope opened up whole new vistas of knowledge about our world and the cosmos surrounding it. With a long-focus lens (or mirror) at one end and a short-focus lens at the other end, the telescope helped us understand classical mechanics unified by a single law of gravity. With two short-focus lenses, the microscope led to the discovery of microbes, which in turn made modern medicine possible. The discovery of DNA and subsequent genetic engineering has exciting (and more than a little scary) implications, because we are now the hackers in somebody else's computer program (see Copyright in the Notes).

Electronics, particularly the invention of the transistor, made modern computers possible, and we have a whole science devoted to studying the implications of information and computability. I have a degree in that science. Quantum physics is now going places where logic misbehaves. I'm not so sure I want to believe all they are coming up with, but nobody has a better explanation. Yet.

The most profound scientific discovery, at least with respect to this present discussion, happened slowly. It is entropy, the Second Law of Thermodynamics, and we still aren't really clear about all of its implications. The November 1987 Scientific American had a very good article discussing all the different ways people thought they could beat the 2nd Law, and why those ideas don't work. In my first year of grad school, I took a course on the mathematical foundations of computer science, and we learned about the Shannon Switching Theorem, which essentially established how information obeys the same mathematics as energy. This means that the 1st and 2nd Laws work in the information domain in much the same way they do in the energy domain. You don't see this in textbooks, and you don't see research like that reported in the Nov.87 SciAm article following this up. I think I know why (see Entropy in the Notes). The DNA has a Programmer.

Cosmology, combining observations of the physical universe with mathematical calculations, has come down conclusively on the side of entropy: the universe had a beginning, and it's winding irreversibly down. Besides (or maybe because of) that, the laws of physics don't work at T=0, the instant of the Big Bang. Something outside the system got it started. As unpalatable as this may be, this conclusion is consistent with the Goedel Incompleteness Theorem, and the Shannon theorem extends that to the information domain. The cosmos is not all there is or was; we are forced by axioms #1 and #2 and the facts of physics to acknowledge some kind of supra-natural, something outside the system. This brings us to axiom #3.


3. That Something outside the system, the supra-natural who at the very least started the Big Bang, and who is smart enough to program the DNA, I assume that Something might want to communicate with us. That's all there is to this axiom. The existence of that external Intelligence is logically inferred from the evidence; it's a given. I don't even assume anything about that Supernatural. This axiom only refuses to rule out in advance that God (or gods) might want to say something to us.

Naturalism takes the opposing axiom here, that there is no god, or if there is (after all, we have no other explanation for the Big Bang, and if we think about it clearly enough, for the DNA), then at least there is no contact between that god or gods and the people in this universe. That is still axiomatic, we cannot prove one or the other, but the naturalistic axiom (let's call it Axiom 3x) runs into logical problems (see Atheism).

Once you acknowledge that God (or gods) might want to communicate with us, you have a moral obligation to investigate any credible claims pointing to such communication. There are a number of candidates, but most of them founder on lack of self-consistency or consistency with the facts of the universe as we presently understand them. The eastern religious traditions don't fit the laws of physics: their world is eternal and violates entropy. Christianity and Judaism (and to a lesser degree, Islam) have a creation story in Genesis that has some recognizable problems, but not as many as its detractors claim, and certainly not as many problems as there are facing naturalistic cosmologists and biologists with their own creation story. But all of these problems with origins are relatively unimportant.

If there is a God who wants to communicate with His creation, how could He reliably do that? That turns out to be harder than it looks. If God just forced Himself on us, so that we could not ignore it the way we can choose to ignore each other, would that not make us less than human? How can He allow us to think our own thoughts, and choose to communicate back (or not)?

It makes the most sense if God uses our normal means of communication (spoken or written words in natural language) to speak to us. If they are nothing but thoughts in our heads, how do we know they aren't our own thoughts masquerading as God? Sounds in the air, several people can hear them. Words on a page, anybody can read them. But where do these sounds and words come from?

God must violate the laws of physics to communicate, and there must be laws of physics to violate, so that we can know it was God who did it. If there is no violation of entropy or other physical laws, then there is no communication, only the events of nature. Maybe there is a message in that, but not much. If nature is not driven by natural laws, then how can you tell if they are violated? If everything is random, then nothing is intentional. Communication is necessarily intentional. That was Shannon's point.

But there are laws of physics, as we observed earlier. And one document collection explicitly claims an occasional violation of those laws. I include in this document collection the Jewish Tenach and the Christian Bible, with the possible addition of the Muslim Qur'an (see Islam) and the Book of Mormon (see Moroni) and assorted other church documents, all of which implicitly or explicitly affirm the first two. Are there any other candidates? I know of none.


By their very nature, miracles (the intentional violation of the laws of nature/physics by a supernatural being) must be rare. Otherwise they just become a part of the fabric of nature. This means that most people probably won't see any in their lifetime. Some pious people like to label any fortuitous but unusual event as "miracle" but I think that degrades the term. Miracles are miracles precisely because they are extremely rare. That also means we need to examine the claims very carefully and very skeptically.

Considering now the most significant claims for miracles in recorded history, we see them clustered around two brief periods of time (validating respectively the founders of Judaism and Christianity), with a very few others scattered about elsewhen. I will focus on the second cluster, those surrounding the life and death of Jesus Christ, with particular emphasis on the single resurrection miracle. I approach this report with all the skepticism due any treatment of miracle, but without slipping into the atheistic Axiom 3x which insists that miracles don't (for they cannot) happen.

The Historical Resurrection

There are numerous books and arguments supporting the Resurrection, and you can find them among any collection of Christian apologetics materials. The most credible of these arguments are the books written by former atheists who set out to disprove it and found they could not. There are also numerous books and arguments debunking the Resurrection, but all of them (as far as I know) are based on recent deconstructionistic revisions of history and a refusal to give any credit to the contemporaneous eyewitness reports. The best and earliest historical documents we have unequivocally affirm the Resurrection, or in one isolated case report it as an undisputed rumor.

Are the eyewitness accounts forged? Let's consider that alternative. First you have to show who would pull off such a hoax, and why. Then you would have to show evidence to the contrary. This part is easy to deal with: there is none -- other than Axiom 3x. If there was an historical Jesus who was crucified, it should have been easy enough to produce his dead bones. Nobody has ever done so.

Who would want to fabricate a resurrection hoax, and why? Certainly not the power structure of the church, for there was no church with any kind of power structure for several centuries after the fact, long after copies of the eyewitness documents were spread all over the civilized world and translated into many languages, making it impossible to completely eradicate the unaltered versions. What about those original eyewitnesses? They were a ragtag bunch of fishermen and other mostly middle-class people (more than 500 of them by one report) whose lives were on the line for their outrageous claims. Any one of them could have saved his own skin by denying that it happened as reported, yet none of them ever did, and most of them were executed or tortured for this claim. This is not the way people behave in real life.

Even more significantly -- and I have not seen this argument anywhere else -- the Christian church teaches a message of absolute Truth. How is any body of people going to pull off a hoax of this size with a straight face? At what point do they tell everybody that the eyewitnesses (or their written records, which everybody has a copy of) were untrue and the new "truth" is this different story? They would be laughed out of court! There is a modern analog in Joseph Smith's story about the Book of Mormon, but -- this is an important distinction -- there were no contemporary eyewitnesses to the violation of any physical laws (see Moroni). The Mormon church has done an excellent job of suppressing the evidence of changes in their foundational texts, but extant early copies still remain. They did much of their work in isolation (in Utah), but the first-generation Christians were scattered all over the civilized world, carrying their story with them.

Recent archeological findings continue to turn up ever earlier copies of the Christian texts, and ever more corroborating details, but never any evidence of any hoax. The only differences (even in the early translations into Coptic, Syriac, and other languages) are minor transcription errors.

The Message

Given that God really did do a miracle in the Resurrection, what is the point? For that we must go back to those same historical documents that tell us about the resurrection, to see if that very remarkable person gave us any clue. He did. He affirmed the entire body of writings that came before him (the Jewish Tenach, aka the Old Testament to the rest of us) as authoritative, and pointed to himself as the unique communication link to God. It took his followers hundreds of years to figure out the implications of that, and we still argue a lot about it.

One thing is clear: God has standards of behavior for people, and we have a moral obligation to follow them. Unlike some of his alleged followers, God is less interested in past mistakes than in getting it right from now on. There is such a thing as justice (it's a moral absolute), but God took care of that on the Cross. Karma is cancelled for those who accept the path of Life. It's more complicated than that, but not by much. Don't take my word for it, read it yourself (see below).

Moral Absolutes

It's very clear that Jesus taught a message of moral absolutes. God demands (and as Creator, deserves) absolute moral perfection from his creation. That's not all that different from my programs, which must be bug-free before I get paid, except that God's creation was initially perfect. OK, sometimes I miss a bug, and maybe the customer misses it too, so I get paid with this bug lurking in the program. When it finally is discovered, I have to fix it (at my expense). God did that too: The fix was the crucifixion. The proof that it worked is the resurrection.

It's easy to show that there are such things as moral absolutes. Just ask yourself, "When do you want to be lied to?" Not when do you want to tell a lie, because you have a conflict of interest in that question, but rather, when is it acceptable for another person to deliberately tell you what is not true? Never. There may be good reason to tell you nothing, like when knowing military secrets would put your life in danger, but even if you are dying in the hospital, even if you don't want to believe it, you still want to know the truth. That's the same for everybody. Truth is a moral Absolute. When do you want to be treated unjustly? Never. Justice is a moral absolute. When is it OK for somebody to refuse to give you a second chance, so you can try again and get it right? Mercy is a moral absolute.

When has any one of us been absolutely honest, absolutely just in giving everybody their due (even if it costs us something), absolutely merciful in letting another person off the hook when they want to make it right? "None of us is perfect," we glibly say, as if that makes it OK. It doesn't make it OK. People get hurt. Don't do that. Never. But if you screw up, God has made provision for it, on the cross. God is merciful. Accept that Jesus paid the penalty, then as Jesus said, "Go and sin no more." You can do it, but only with God's help, doing it God's way. This is the Christian message.

People don't like moral absolutes. We want wiggle room. We want to be able to do things that we don't have to account for. That's where Axiom 3x comes in: If there is no God to answer to, then there are no absolutes. But we cannot live that way. Nobody can. What most of us really wind up doing is wanting other people to live up to God's moral absolutes, but not have to do so ourselves. It's a lie.

The alternative is destruction. A just God cannot allow us to continue doing bad things to each other, so the misfits must be removed. I don't quite understand why (it probably has something to do with justice, one of those moral absolutes), but apparently the process is painful. Don't go there.


Today you have a choice: You can live the Lie, or you can turn to the Truth. God paid for the past, so you start the future on a fresh page, but you have to want to. Life or Death. Choose Life.

If you made a decision today, I would like to hear about it. If you decided I'm wrong, I would like to correct my mistakes. If you want to start doing things right, there are resources among all the religious noise out there to help you do that. Because there is such a thing as Absolute Truth, it's not my opinion that matters, but only the Real Truth. Read that. It's called the Bible. There are a lot of translations, all of them pretty accurate, so get something modern that you can understand. Start with the Life of Jesus, in the New Testament. I will be happy to answer honest questions.

Tom Pittman




Rev. 00 Dec.20