Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Asking the God question backwards

Surely, to an atheist, the question whether god exists is meaningless. At least, I’m an atheist, and it strikes me as meaningless.

Considering all the weird-ass crazy ideas people have been murdered for in the last 200 years, “god” is not exactly high on the list. I realise 9/11 is very recent, but if you’re making arguments about time and eternity, you ought to have some perspective.

There are basically two kinds of Christians in the US: Unitarians who don’t believe in God or Hell or original sin and “born-again” Trinitarians who do. Historical denominations are meaningful for some of the latter and very few of the former. Of course, I generalise. 

Since the Unitarians, as previously mentioned, control basically all the institutions of power transmission, it seems a little strange for any self-professed rationalist to spend most of his time fretting about the relatively defunct Trinitarians. Again, it implies an unusual concern with this “God” thing relative to other confusions, which may be more potent or pertinent.

Note to anti-Catholics: the power of the Pope has been declining monotonically for oh, only about the last 500 years.

Note to anti-Protestants: the only First World country in which there is any significant relic of Protestant religious indoctrination is the US, and this assumes a very generous definition of “significant.” Born-again Christians in the US have the numbers, but they don’t have the power centres and they never will. All real power in the US is in the universities, the media and the civil service, and the representation of born-again Christians (no, Jimmy Carter doesn’t count) in these organisations is miniscule. Nor is it increasing.

And I’ve said before how suspicious I am when progressives say they aren’t religious. I’m not sure exactly who we have to thank for this, but whoever got their slogan “Say no to racism” on the World Cup logo seems pretty damned evangelical to me. Yet “evangelicalism” is a confusing term because it means something different in every century. Methodists, for instance, used to be the epitome of “evangelical.” In its dictionary definition, it refers to a tactic, not a denomination. So it certainly applies to progressives today.

But if you ask atheists why they don’t believe in god, you’ll get a different answer for everyone in the room. So, I propose examining the question backwards. Let’s say there is no god, no afterlife and assume the atheist’s position is entirely correct.

Could we create heaven? With another 100 or 1,000 or 100,000 years of future scientific development, could we create an afterlife, a system in which at the moment of death people’s thoughts, memories, personalities, psychology and mental patterns are uploaded into some Matrix-like machine simulation where a conscious existence can unfold unbounded by the limitations of the flesh?

What if this simulation does not simulate the present world, but rather what most people would say resembles the conventional idea of heaven? One where there are no laws of physics to bind us, where communication among the “dead” is instantaneous and at-will, and in which we would be able to flit about within the simulation instantaneously, altering our own perception of it to give us maximum happiness and do impossible things.

In it, we could speak to everyone who died after the simulator was constructed, even if those people died before we were born. Perhaps there would be an interface through which we could speak to people outside the machine who haven’t yet died. Or perhaps the simulator would have another simulation inside that replicated the real world and the entirety of human life from birth to death. A virtual heaven around a virtual world, accessible to the real world.

If the people or programs operating this system can check the state of your thoughts at any moment, alter the simulation and even change your thoughts stored in the machine. Wouldn’t they be considered omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent relative to those people inside? In fact, if you believe all that makes us human is the grey matter between our ears, the more plausible this scenario becomes.

Which means, while there may not be a god, heaven or afterlife today, there ultimately could be ones of our own making. It’d be an odd situation where although it isn’t true that there is a creator, it becomes true when we ourselves assume the role of creator. We would make god real simply by applying it to a different universe.

But if we could make these things, would we want to? What model of heaven would we use? Would we want a common heaven for everyone? Or would everyone get a customised uniquely tailored heaven? Would we create a virtual and eternal simulation of hell to serve the same punitive and penal functions as the imaginary one?

The thing is, how do you know this hasn’t already happened? How would you know if the universe is really a natural phenomenon rather than a phenomenon mimicking a possible natural universe? What would be the evidence to demonstrate that the perfect simulation is still a simulation? And what would the evidence look like that points to what it is that is being simulated?

If every sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, how advanced would technology have to be to create the ultimate magic: an afterlife and an all-seeing, all-knowing, ever-present deity to control it?

I guess in this light what passes for magic in the Bible is just science fiction cast in the metaphors of antiquity about a future too distant to see even for us in 2018. Genesis becomes a story not about the creation of this world, but the creation of a virtual world yet to be launched.

I can’t shake the idea that myths are precisely what will lead to the creation of the simulation. I think we have always and, in every culture, told ourselves stories of the metaphysical realm because to some degree we’ve always known our world isn’t real, yet there is nonetheless a real world out there even if it is unreachable and invisible.

Many atheists say they don’t believe in god like they don’t believe in fairies, magic, goblins and hobbits. Ok, good point. But adults still write stories that feature fairies, magic, goblins and the rest. Perhaps these stories, regardless of their truth, function to communicate a single fundamental message:

Your world is not real.

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