The New Statesman asks prominent atheists why they don’t believe. The answers are insightful but unsurprising, and around the internet it has generated the usual debates where people dig in their heels and yield no quarter on the issue.
I propose examining the question backwards. Let’s say there is no God, no afterlife, etc. Assume the atheist’s positions are entirely correct.
Could we create those things? With another 100 or 1,000 or 100,000 years of future technological and scientific development, could we create an afterlife, a system in which at the moment of death people’s thoughts, memories, personalities, psychology, metal patterns and the like are uploaded into some Matrix-like machine simulation in which a conscious existence can unfold unbounded by the limitations of the flesh? And what if the simulation does not simulate the world in which we live to day, but rather simulates 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 a further simulation within it that did simulate the real world, and the entirety of human life from birth to death within it. A literal virtual Heaven around a virtual world, accessible to the real world through some interface.
Furthermore, assume that the people or programs or whatever that operate this system can check the state of your thoughts at any moment, alter the simulation, and even alter your thoughts as they are stored in the machine. Wouldn’t they be considered omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent relative to the people inside?
In fact, the more you believe that all that makes us human is the grey matter between our ears, the more plausible this scenario should be. So while there may not be a God, Heaven or afterlife now, there ultimately could be ones of our own making. This suggests an odd situation in which that which isn’t true by virtue of the fact that there is no Creator becomes true when we ourselves assume the role of creator. We would make the God of the Bible (or any other myth) real, simply by applying it to a different universe.
So if we could make these things, would we want to? Would this be the model we would use? Would we want a common Heaven for everyone? Or would everyone get a customized uniquely tailored one? Would we create a virtual and eternal simulation of Hell to serve the same punitive and penal functions as the imaginary one?
So how do you know this hasn’t already happened? How would you know if the universe is actually a natural phenomenon rather than a phenomenon that mimics a possible natural universe exactly? What would the evidence be that demonstrates 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?
Considered in this way, what passes for the magical parts of the Bible are all just a science fiction cast in the metaphors of antiquity about a future too distant to see even for us in the present. Genesis becomes a story not about the creation of this world, but the creation of that virtual world yet to be launched.
Consider the role of the myth or the story in informing the creation of this simulation. I think we have have always and in every culture told ourselves these stories of the metaphysical realm because to some degree we have always known that our world–the one we perceive with our sense and apprehend with our post-simian mind–isn’t real, but that there is nonetheless a real one out there but unreachable and invisible.
Many of the atheists quoted in the article are fond of saying that they don’t believe in God just like they don’t believe in fairies, magic, goblins, etc. A very fine point. But adults still write stories for children and adults alike that feature fairies, magic, goblins and the rest. Perhaps the stories, regardless of their truth, have a function that is important and real. They communicate that single fundamental message: Your world is not real.