Humans as Finite State Machines

Have you ever heard of an infinite state machine? It’s a theoretical concept of a machine that is large enough to hold all the information in the universe, under the assumption that the universe is infinite, of course. What we have in modern computers are finite state machines, devices that are finite in nature and can only hold so much data.

For monotheistic religions like Judaism, Christianity and Islam, God could be described as an infinite state machine. However, we take the concept further. Not only is there something that is able to hold all the information in the universe, this something also created the universe.

What does this say of human beings as we try to understand the universe around us? People grasp for truth and knowledge and, quite often, claim to have found universal truth.  Religious and non-religious people alike have a tendency to proclaim these things they believe as absolute truth, eschewing the beliefs of the people around them.

I’ve heard it said that the human brain can hold about ten terabytes of information. I don’t know if this information is correct but we do know that the human brain can hold a finite amount of information at one time. In fact, the human brain does not store and retrieve information the way a computer does. The things we learn must be learned by repetition; the brain categorizes what is important to remember by frequency of repetition. Those things that are repeated often and in large quantities can be readily and accurately remembered. It is said that college students retain, on average, about 25% of the things they learn in their classes after leaving college, retaining those things they use constantly on the job but forgetting those things they don’t use on a daily basis.

This information draw some very interesting conclusions about the relationship humans have with religion. The first thing is that people, in their finite state, do not have the facility to judge other people and the beliefs they have. What we learn is largely based on experience and we rely on repetition of those things that are important to our survival. Individual human experiences may have commonalities but there are so many things that are singular that we are best able to judge others only in general terms. We do not know the hearts and minds of others and, outside general observation, we are not well equipped to judge specifics of individuals.

This applies not only to religious people but to the non-religious as well. In Christianity, my religion, we are forbidden from judging others. For instance, it is not my place to judge whether an atheist is going to hell for not believing in God. How could I, when I know so little of that person’s motivation? On the other hand, the atheist, or even more to the point the anti-theist, has no place judging Christians, lumping all of Christian experience into the conservative, literal view often expressed by that group as the whole of religion. Likewise, people from different religions are not well-suited to judge each other. Because our ability to know and understand becomes more generalized as we move farther from our particular experiences, we cannot hope to understand the specifics of another’s feelings and motivations. Each person decides what is important based on different situations and circumstances, their brains retaining that which is oft repeated. This includes what they choose to feed into their brains as well as the experiences outside their control during formative years and the lasting impression they have.

This article serves as an admonishment to me first, then more generally to others. Not only is it forbidden in Christianity to judge other people past a certain point, it is scientifically improbable that I can do so with any substantial degree of certainty. It is within my realm to judge what contact I should have with that person, based on what I value and what that person brings to the table. However, beyond that, I must take a more general approach when passing any kind of lasting judgement on another human being, just as others should take a more general approach when drawing conclusions about me.

Like Adam and Eve in the second Genesis story, people put themselves in the position of God. Perhaps the real sin in knowing good and evil is that we assume, incorrectly, that we have the ability to use this knowledge wisely in our relationships with others.


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