Deus ex Machina: if there is no God, Heaven, or afterlife, could we create them?

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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.  

Related posts:

  1. The Uncanny Valley Is A Cliff
  2. Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life is one of the greatest films ever made.
  3. Newstweek: if only they understood philosophy they way the understood technology

55 Responses to Deus ex Machina: if there is no God, Heaven, or afterlife, could we create them?

  1. zozo says:

    Amusingly enough, one of the New Atheists (Dawkin) has already addressed this point:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BtV22JPjmsk

  2. zozo says:

    Sorry, “Dawkins.”

  3. zozo says:

    Scratch that–upon actually watching the clip, it’s an intelligent design clip. Never mind.

  4. BHE says:

    I’ve always argued that we ARE Gods already, in a sense. We are beings who can predict the future with amazing accuracy (If I let go of this ball it will fall to the ground) and based on our predictions of the future alter the universe that we see fit. We create, we destroy. What could be more powerful?

    • Sfon says:

      To a rat, are we not like gods even if living in caves? Is it possible for our gods to wonder if there are gods, or their gods to be meaningless or not directly useful to us? Not everyone has chosen to equate patron deity with creator or all-powerful entity.

      “God” is meaningless. A title like King, it is not a quality of self but a perception of others. Do we become kings if we have more than some king did, with all our fancy technology? There is no solid meaningful answer, except maybe “do people call you a king?”

      Same for God. Something is a god if others say it is and see it as one. Otherwise it is not. That God has qualities beyond that is simply an assumption of Christians because they have a hard time seeing religion/God as it truly is instead of linear with them on one end and atheists/Satan on the other.

  5. Fifi says:

    Um, you may need to read/watch more scifi Pastabagel. In this case I’ll refer you to the TV series Caprica.

    • Pastabagel says:

      You tell me to read more sci-fi, and the suggestion you give me is Caprica? Not JG Ballard, not PKD or even China Mieville, but Caprica?? I could barely tolerate the thinly veiled Mormon theology of BSG, I wasn’t going to sit through a prequel.

      • zozo says:

        Did it offend your atheism?

        • Pastabagel says:

          No, it offended my sense of good television. And to prove my other point I actually stuck through the whole BSG series, despite not liking it after episode 7.

          • zozo says:

            Wow. I have to admire your open-minded tenacity. I gave up after 3 episodes. To be fair, I gave Thin Red Line a proportionally larger amount of time.

      • Fifi says:

        I suggested Caprica because in it they create an artificial heaven just like you’re proposing here so it was relevant. I suggested more scifi in general because you keep posing all kinds of questions that scifi writers grapple with as if they’re entirely original. Too bad your religious prejudices kept you from enjoying a work of fiction…funny that, considering you dedicated a while blog post to your hate on for some strawman imaginary bigoted “new atheists” because you believed that it must be anti-religious prejudice that caused them to leave the theatre and not watch the movie.

      • HeXXiiiZ says:

        Thats funny. It’s true, BSG is totally veiled Mormon theology. No less, the final episode of the series was a comically obnoxious, pathological attempt to ham-handedly force a religious ideology down the throats of so many people who thought that they were just watching a space-travel war drama. At least they had the decency up to this last episode to viel this motivating plot perversion enough to give themselves the benefit of the doubt. Yeah, I have heard better things about JGB and PKD than Battlefield Earth, Utah edition.

    • EvelynTremble says:

      or there are two Iain M Banks books which address this: “Look To Windward”, wherein a civilization has partially “sublimed” i.e ascended to a higher plane of existence and created an actual existant Afterlife. The second one would be “Surface Detail” which concerns an ideological conflict over the rights and wrongs of virtual Hells (used to scare people into line) which are created on enormous computer networks.

      • Fifi says:

        Evelyn, thanks for offering up these suggestions, I’m going to have to check them out. I’m a big fan of Banks’ writing though I haven’t check out any of his scifi for a long time I now realize . He’s certainly someone who takes on all kinds of things related to reality and perception in both his regular and science fiction.

  6. Fifi says:

    “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.”

    Actually, myths and fairy stories have a variety of functions but essentially they’re a means to codify information in a way that’s easy to remember and/or about providing explanations for things that people find frightening and, like religion, they often offer an (illusory) means of placating and/or controlling forces clearly outside of one’s control without magical means. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the real European fairy tales but most of them are cautionary tales about evil stepmothers and shitty husbands – both rather real concerns at the times they originate. (Historically even fairies are pretty nasty little creatures that you need to appease). In cultures that don’t employ writing, stories passed along verbally are also a means to codify information and a memetic device to ensure that important knowledge is passed along and preserved. Just to say, you seem to have back engineered your ideas about myths and fairytales to suit your purpose here rather than looking at what purposes they actually serve/served for the people who created them.

    And, just because anything is possible it doesn’t mean that everything is probable.

    • Fifi says:

      And science fiction isn’t like the bible because it’s pretty explicit that it’s fiction (nifty how they do that by calling it “science fiction”). I go back to my suggestion that you may need to read more scifi – I think you’d quite enjoy it because there is a lot of metaphysical musing in scifi (particularly more contemporary scifi). That said, scifi is responsible for one of the sillier (if pretty troubling because of their plans for world domination by any means necessary) religions – Scientology.

      • Pastabagel says:

        The Odyssey wasn’t explicitly fiction for the first thousand years of its existence either.

        And the fairy stories I was talking about are Harry Potter, Twilight, LOTR, i.e. the new ones written today.

        But it is interesting how you cling to such a bright line between science fiction and fantasy, which many of the stories in the bible would fall into if they weren’t already classified as religion. This is precisely the line that is artificial and that I’m trying to blur here with this thought exercise. If you assume god etc. Don’t exist, that doesn’t mean the bible disappears. It’s a book. So what do you do with the story in that book? The same thing you do with every fantasy and scifi book, ask the question “what if this were real?”

        • Fifi says:

          No, I don’t ask “what if this were real” when I read a book . I am not you, even though you keep assuming your subjective experience is everyone else’s experience too.

          “If you assume god etc. Don’t exist, that doesn’t mean the bible disappears. It’s a book.”

          Well knock me down with a feather, I never would have guessed that a physical copy of the bible didn’t simply vanish in a puff of smoke if someone doesn’t believe in god. The stories in the bible are more likely to be filed under mythology or historical fiction than under “science fiction” – you know, while we’re making silly things up and playing make-believe. (Scientology, coming first from an actual scifi story before becoming a pseudoscience healing scam and then a religion, is really the only scifi religion that I’m aware of…well, them and the Raelians.)

          • Guy Fox says:

            “Sarcasm: the last refuge of modest and chaste-souled people when the privacy of their soul is coarsely and intrusively invaded.”
            -Fyodor Dostoyevsky

          • Fifi says:

            Guy Fox, in this case sarcasm was the refuge of the frustrated (and I’d hazard a guess that a lot of people find me neither chaste nor modest). It just seems a bit like reaching to try to compare the bible to scifi or an epic poem when the bible has been the prescriptive tool of institutional power for so long. There’s a big difference between telling a (true or otherwise) story in an epic poem and between a book that contains stories but is actually intended to prescribe reality (one is passive, the other is active) and is actively rewritten to do so by people who also use the book as grounds for killing people.

            True, I would have been better off trying to patiently explain my frustration and why I find this proposition irrational and reality-avoidant. The bible already exists, it’s an artifact of reality (object) that already exists entirely independently of any actual god. (You don’t need to “what if?” here at all.) It’s not like any book dematerializes – stops physically existing – simply because the characters aren’t real (if, as Pastabagel proposes, we’re going to treat the bible like any old work of fiction and not one that’s been given special status as non-fiction then why create some issue of magical disappearance of physical objects as if the object’s reality is linked the the fictional characters reality or lack thereof). It seemed to me (and I could be wrong and am open to other perspectives) like Pastabagel was still giving the bible special status, despite asking everyone else to consider it as any old work of fiction, and then proposing something that just seems ludicrous to me and was once again engaging in magical thinking instead of treating the work as non-special work of fiction. All while trying to associate himself with atheists like Dennett and Dawkins – people he sees as authorities on being rational, is the impression I get – who I’ve seen be quite harsh on people who are engaging in the kind of “god of the gaps” and quantum acid metaphysics going on in this and the Tree Of Life post. This seems intellectually dishonest to me – I’m not sure how intentional it is on Pastabagel’s part (because he does seem to be in a bit of an existential crisis that touches on identity) but it’s eroding my respect for him. Just to be clear, it’s not the crisis, or even this being new intellectual territory for him (if it is), that I’m finding frustrating. It’s the intellectually dishonest way it’s being handled.

            For what it’s worth, not being religious I don’t buy into the idea of having a “soul”. It’s a useful metaphor for people’s sense of self at times, and I use the word in the sense of something being soulful (meaning emotional, honest and meaningful in a moving way) and in a poetic/metaphorical sense but I don’t think there’s any good evidence for some entity separate from my body that exists eternally (and, no, I don’t consider my own subjective ecstatic or super nifty meditation experiences to be evidence of anything but the neat shit brains do when you know how to manipulate them – there are better explanations for these experiences than “god” at this point in our collective knowledge – though I do very much understand how religious explanations came into being for these experiences).

  7. dimly says:

    UBIK in not so many words.

  8. Fifi says:

    UBIK is indeed a good suggestion and apparently within the taste range of Pastabagel.

  9. Adrian says:

    People hear thunder, are scared by it and assume is produced by Zeus, after couple of millennia people are able to create thunder, are they Zeus?

  10. JockRocket says:

    I also immediately thought of BSG, in particular the resurrection ships. Amusing irony: the Cylons who did create their own afterlife were also monotheistic.

    I think it could be achieved in some sense, I suppose. But without leaving some extension of the deceased in the observable world, how would we know that it works? Let’s call the total collection of mental patterns, memories, etc. a person’s Essence. Unless we have some physical body with a physical body to download the Essence into, and then measure EEG/fMRI output, how can we know that the Essence is doing and not just existing in a data store?

    I have a hard time believing that the sum total of all my experiences could become self-aware if serialized to a hard drive somewhere.

    • Or says:

      It sounds like you’re questioning whether qualia could be manifested in digital circuits, or if your consciousness transported into a machine would simply be a philosophical zombie. We know next to nothing about qualia in the first place; any talk about where qualia could “live” is, IMO, pure speculation, and may always be. Let Captain Picard explain how difficult it is: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3PMlDidyG_I

  11. operator says:

    The quasi-scientific term for this potential macro-engineering development (such a simulation would need to be powered by the collapse of the universe in order to run into simulated-eternity) is a Tipplerian Omega Point.

    The tenets of an Everettian multiverse would suggest that this simulation is (perhaps in the playful sense of Schrodinger’s paradox) already happening/not-happening … so, if the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics suits your fancy, you may as well accept that you are probably existing within a simulation.

    You can stress-test your brain with the possibility of a necessarily-acausal recursive simulation (which might explain some of the odd things about this existence … but, pending any serendipitous breakthroughs in quantum computing, the issue of whether or not we exist in such a simulacra is moot; if we are unable to communicate between instances, existing in a multiverse is just as good as being forever alone.

  12. statelymulligan says:

    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.

    I’m not sure I agree. Metaphysical beliefs function as comforting explanations for things we know are real but cannot explain- both physical phenomena and existential conditions. The problem of subjective perception is actually addressed by science, where logic and multiple observations provide a method for increasingly fine triangulation of real physical facts.

    Like many metaphysical discussions of the sort, this one lacks cohesive definitions for “god”, “real”, and “supernatural”. Kind of makes it hard to comprehend exactly what you mean.

  13. CubaLibre says:

    Can’t post images? Feh.

    At any rate, I don’t think this thought experiment holds much interest for the theologian (or the little theologians in all our brains you allude to in your last paragraph). Simulations inside simulations inside simulations, whether they exist or not, are going the wrong way down the regression. The theologian’s interested in going the other way, to finding whoever is running the first simulation: He who is not simulated.

  14. Guy Fox says:

    Sure, a lot of the mediated world isn’t real. But carrots and bullets and viruses and border guards are real enough, even if the reasons for them, in the case of bullets and border guards, might not be. Still, a Guy’s gotta deal.
    Thinking of a post-modernist trying to deconstruct territoriality to a Burmese border guard brings to mind an old friend’s saying: “Be born with scales, fins and gills. Contest your identity as a fish. Walk, and you will suffer.”
    If even the invented bits are real enough for enough people, they become real for the rest. Do I think that’s air I’m breathing? Well, if the bloke next to me read in a book somewhere that people who don’t breathe are witches, and witches must be burned, it doesn’t really matter, does it? Reality isn’t just something that happens to other people, at least not for long.

  15. Cythraul says:

    I. First, some background that may actually be a tangent.

    This (“an afterlife”) is not that (“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”).

    The latter is essentially about producing a record of a person – a replacement for that person after that person is gone.

    An afterlife is about what “gone” means.

    Look at it another way:

    A piece of software may be made up of many components. Each component will exhibit particular behaviours based on what stimuli it’s fed. The set of all valid stimuli and the behaviours they elicit is called the component’s “interface”.

    Now, if I’m writing a piece of software, and I want to make use of a component, in most respects I don’t care *which* component, as long as it implements the right interface. This is where the concept of the “black box” arises – I don’t care what’s going on inside the component, as long as I can feed the same stimuli into it and get the expected behaviours out of it. It’s a black box.

    When you talk about uploading Bob’s mental details into the Matrix, you’re not talking about preserving Bob. You’re talking about building a black box that implements the Bob interface. For Bob himself, the difference is crucial – because in your model, Bob himself still *ends*.

    II. The self and AI.

    There’s a concept for which religions have a plethora of terms – most commonly “soul” and “spirit” – but for which I’ve only ever been able to find one term that I liked that didn’t carry religious baggage: “self”. It’s still a slippery concept, but at least the word’s not so loaded.

    The self is what does the cogit-ing in Descartes’s assertion that “cogito ergo sum”. If all of reality were to turn out to be a hallucination, the self is what’s experiencing that hallucination.

    I walk around convinced I have a self, though this point is up for debate. R. Scott Bakker, one of my favourite fantasy writers, makes emphatic (if clumsy) use of this concept in his first non-fantasy work, Neuropath.

    I walk around with the assumption that all other humans have selves.

    Can an AI have a self?

    If I have a self, and an AI can’t have a self, then I know I’m not an AI.

    • Or says:

      If you have a self, and an AI can’t have a self, and you know you have a self, then you know you’re not an AI. But perhaps you merely believe you have a self.

    • Pastabagel says:

      You are misunderstanding the thought experiment. It does no simply record “Bob.” It preserves everything about Bob’s brain and let’s Bob’s thought processes etc continue in the machine. Bob continues to live, without a body.

      • Cythraul says:

        Are you familiar with the Ship of Theseus paradox?

        You’re suggesting that we’re dealing with the same ship (the same Bob), even though you’re talking about replacing all the planks at once?

      • Fifi says:

        You seem to be asking about metaphysical “souls” more than “brains” because you’re still proposing that “Bob” exists within a physical system (a body for all real purposes, even if it’s just an artificial brain with no limbs to manipulate) that perfectly replicates and functions as his brain. So, the existence of “Bob” would still actually be contingent upon the physical to exist. The other very massive problem with your question is you say “the brain still exists” while totally ignoring that the brain is connected to other bodily systems that are integral to its function (once again, this is why it looks like you’re really talking about “souls” and not “brains” because you’re ignoring neurobiology in favor of some “brain” that you believe exists separate from the rest of the body. All in all, you’re proposing that the brain isn’t part of the body (or using “brain” when you mean something else).

        • Cythraul says:

          Exactly.

          Now, I labeled the bit about black boxes as potentially a tangent because the question of continuity of identity is potentially irrelevant to the idea that this is a virtual world whose manipulators are “God”.

          If an AI can have a self, then I might be an AI. Whether I was created from scratch as an AI, or I’m patterned after a fleshy original, I might be an AI.

          IF (((I have a self) AND (an AI can have a self)) OR (I don’t actually have a self)) THEN (this world might be virtual).

          • Fifi says:

            Well there’s that and there’s this as well… Talking about the “self” as if it’s a discreet and permanent object is once again really referring back to the idea of a “soul” and approaching this from a (perhaps unconsciously) religious perspective.

            If we look at this from a non-religious perspective and talk instead about “the self” not as a discreet object but as an experience we have (a concept of self) then it is indeed possible that that AI could be developed that has a concept of self (we’re already working on it). Of course, what we’re discovering is that we’re not the only animals that seem to have a concept of self, which obviously lends another angle to any philosophical musing about AI and concept of self.

  16. Fifi says:

    “I propose examining the question backwards. Let’s say there is no God, no afterlife, etc. Assume the atheist’s positions are entirely correct.”

    Technically, that’s not looking at the question “why don’t you believe in god?” backwards or even dealing with that question. While it’s perfectly legitimate to use something as a jumping off point and to ask “what if?”, your question isn’t really related to the one asked about why people don’t believe in God. Pastabagel, as someone who’s been reading your posts for a while, I get the impression (rightly or wrongly, I’m certainly open to clarification) that you’re having a bit of an existential crisis from both The Tree Of Life post and this one. They both seem rather confused (and not up to your usual standards) and you seem to be trying to rationalize something or to, as the saying goes, find god in the gaps. I don’t actually have any issue with you believing in a god if you want or need to, it’s the attempts to rationalize and how you keep trying to make this about atheists and not your own beliefs (either attempting to align yourself with Dawkins and Dennett as a super rational intellectual that you imagine shares your own beliefs or defensively belittling some seemingly imaginary atheist bogeymen, er bogeygirls, as stupid and close minded because they don’t agree with you). The way you’ve been trying to use atheists seems intellectually dishonest to me, though I can accept that you may not be fully aware of how you’re doing this since you do seem to be going through an existential crisis of some kind. You can believe in god or gods and be perfectly rational about other things (or be an atheist and be quite irrational about some things), the question seems to be becoming one of identity for you (self perception as super-rational accompanied by an odd identification with Dawkins and Dennett that misrepresents them, the highly defensive strawman defense of The Tree Of Life). Or I could be totally wrong, it happens all the time. If you are having an existential crisis, you have my sympathy but, because I have respect for you because of your other writing, I felt it was worth the risk of ensuing hostility to point out some things you don’t seem to be aware of, like searching for god/s in the gaps and creating strawmen. Trying to rationalize faith (which by its very definition is believing in something despite a lack of evidence) always causes some form of cognitive dissonance from what I’ve seen (maybe because it’s so much about identity). People who simply believe in a god on faith (rather than trying to rationalize their faith) don’t seem to have this kind of issue from what I’ve observed (nor do they seem to take issue with atheists). Of course, that may just be my personal experience with people and not universal. Take what you will from this (or ignore it completely), it’s offered in the spirit of helpfulness and respect not hostility.

    • TheDevastator says:

      FWIW, I thought this comment was very insightful. I don’t know if you’re right either, but it gave me a lot to think about.

      Also, it made me think of this xkcd: http://xkcd.com/774/ For maximum lulz, make sure to read the alt-text.

    • Pastabagel says:

      I promise you I’m not having any such crisis, nor do I have any ulterior motives in present this thought experiment. In fact, I asked explicitly if the biblical model of heaven would be the model to use if we were to create some quasi-afterlife.

      “It seemed to me (and I could be wrong and am open to other perspectives) like Pastabagel was still giving the bible special status, despite asking everyone else to consider it as any old work of fiction, and then proposing something that just seems ludicrous to me and was once again engaging in magical thinking instead of treating the work as non-special work of fiction.”

      This is what you are missing: culture is not created anew with each generation, it is path-dependent. The Bible deserves special status even if no one believes it. First, parts of it are exceedingly old, secondly it has had an enormous influence on European and American history and culture over the last 2000 years.

      All I did here was introduce a thought experiment that assumed that the book was a work of fiction, and then introduced the questions of “could we eventually make real through technology what is presented in the book” and would this be the model to use. I asked these to get to the point that he Odyssey, like so many stories of both antiquity and the present rely on the assumption that the world we live in, experience everyday, is somehow not the entirety of it.

      But what you just did in the statement “treating the [Bible] as non-special work of fiction” is completely wrong. In fact, if no one was religious and everyone was an atheist, I contend more people would be reading the Bible as part of literature and English classes in high school (the same classes where they read The Odyssey, Oedipus the King, Gilgamesh, Beowulf, etc.). What prevents that book from being given that treatment are sensitivities that teaching the Bible blurs the line between teaching religion. But if no one is religious, no one is worried about blurring the line.

      But it will never be the case that the Bible is treated as a non-special work of fiction. It has played too central a role in the history and literature over the following 20 centuries for that to happen. If it’s just a work of fiction, it is the most important work of fiction ever written.

      But now that you say that, and this is the first time I’ve ever considered this, I ask the question – is this the objective of some atheists as a social/political movement? To marginalize the book, or the stories in it? That is crazy and silly. It amounts to saying “I don’t like what the book says, so no one should bother reading it.” I’m not a muslim, I have never been, and never will be. But does that mean to me Koran is just another work of fiction?

      I’m not trying to rationalize faith, because I don’t really have any. To summarize. The Bible isn’t true, but it is nonetheless monumentally important and influential. I actually think a lot of atheists acknowledge this, because it is their atheism that drives them to read at least parts of it to understand what people are believing.

      • Fifi says:

        Well good to know you’re not having an existential crisis, I’ll put the compassion aside then.

        So what’s up with how you keep making assertions about atheists without any actual basis in evidence? You’ve misrepresented Dawkins and aligned yourself with him (in a way that reveals you’re not actually that familiar with his work or that he’s considered a figurehead of New Atheism), you’ve misrepresented the Skepchick blog, you’ve made up imaginary “New Atheist” strawmen (while quite hilariously trying to propose that Dawkins isn’t one) and on it keeps going. (Even more pernicious is how you just keep speaking for atheists while revealing your ignorance about atheists.) Now you’re making claims about “lots of atheists” and “the bible” on no evidence to try to suit your own purposes (while ignoring the fact that there is no “the bible” but many different Christian bibles).

        To address some of the erroneous nature of these claims…
        1. It’s very common for atheists to have grown up with religion (meaning they’re familiar with the bible already). In fact, this is true for the vast majority of other atheists I’ve met. People often come to atheism via science education (I know more than one woman who went to Catholic girls school who went on to become both atheists and neurobiologists, this is anecdotal of course but it’s still more evidence than you’ve offered for your ongoing claims about atheists).

        2. Even people such as myself who were raised godless and outside of religion still get exposed to religion and the many stories contained in the many versions of “the bible” just by virtue of living in a Judeo-Christian society. Our culture is permeated by religion in many ways that people who weren’t raised outside of it don’t notice (we don’t notice the water we swim in if we don’t recognize we’re in a pond).

        3. European and North American history is dominated by the Christian churches, whether it’s Catholic or Protestant, you can’t really learn any history or culture without becoming familiar with Christianity and it’s beliefs (and the continual rewriting of the bible to serve political ends). This is also true for the history and religion of the ancient Greeks and their gods.

        4. Dawkins is commonly considered one of the figureheads of New Atheism (you’ve been dancing pretty hard to try to redefine “New Atheist” to suit your own personal purposes, while trying to ignore the fact that Dawkins is considered one!). You seem to think you’re aligned with him simply because he says one can’t prove a negative (and this misuse of Dawkins and apparent misunderstanding of the scientific method looks an awful lot like looking for “god in the gaps”). Dawkins has a whole foundation dedicated to promoting his views and agenda as an atheist, you might want to check it out (rather than just abusing his name and misrepresenting him in a way that looks an awful lot like you’re trying latch on to some of his authority for yourself – argument from authority by proxy).

        5. Um, you’re making my point for me about why saying “pretend the bible is just a scifi story” is silly.

        6. If you want to know what particular atheist organization’s agendas are all you have to do is go read what they say their agendas are. Dawkins created a whole foundation to promote his, there’s the American Atheist organization who seem to have a pretty clear agenda, etc. Individual atheists will, of course, have their own personal motivations and agendas. Most are pretty practical – more science education, keeping church and state separate, promoting evidence based social policy. You don’t have to keep fantasizing about the public agenda of atheist organizations – well unless it’s serving some purpose for you doing so but that’s ultimately being intellectually dishonest and creating strawmen.

        • Fifi says:

          And, obviously, if you want a real world example of “a bible” as a scifi story you have Scientology, which is quite literally based on a scifi story. All you have to do is change “bible” to “Scientology texts” and, presto, you’re thinking about someone’s bible/written doctrine and creation stories as scifi.

  17. posterZero says:

    Mitch Heisman predicts the omnipotence of machines, the Singularity as he calls it, in his 1900 page suicide note.

  18. Sfon says:

    “We would make the God of the Bible (or any other myth) real, simply by applying it to a different universe.”

    If what is generally accepted about the nature of the universe from a scientific viewpoint is correct, our universe is finite even if we are not quite sure how yet. Thus it comes down to delaying the inevitable, even for universes we create and control. Ultimately as meaningful and reliable as eating healthy. Our universe will end, and thus so will theirs even if tragic accidents are avoided. The god of the Bible and his eternal life, as most Christians see them, does not have this limitation. Thus we cannot create them.

    Even if we can create a universe with a more modest god, it must be less complex than our own universe. Just as any universe ours exists as a simulation within must be more complex.

    “And what would the evidence look like that points to what it is that is being simulated?”
    Perhaps many things we experience every day. Unless we can see beyond the simulation somehow, we have no way of knowing what those things are.

  19. slug says:

    If I accept your “simulated heaven” premise as possible, does that make me at least an agnostic?

  20. TheDevastator says:

    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.

    I would like to understand this part better. If the world is a perfect simulation, where does our suspicion come from? It seems like you are saying that our myths come from a perception or a feeling that “something is not quite right” but shouldn’t the simulation-builders, with their sufficiently advanced technology, be able to create a world that is above suspicion?

    Unless they designed in some flaws to make us question our reality. But that scenario doesn’t match the Bible anymore. According to the Bible, heaven and Earth are both quite real, so if I wanted to simulate a universe where the Bible was true, I would not want to inhabitants to suspect that they are living in a simulation. Right?

  21. Cythraul says:

    Fifi:

    Awww. We seem to have hit the site’s thread-depth limit. I can’t even response to your comment to tell you I’ve picked up the thread down at the bottom!

    Well there’s that and there’s this as well… Talking about the “self” as if it’s a discreet and permanent object is once again really referring back to the idea of a “soul” and approaching this from a (perhaps unconsciously) religious perspective.

    The religious implications of “self” as something discrete and nonphysical are what keep me hovering somewhere in agnosticism, rather than making the move to atheism. I know too much about AI, and potentially about biological evolution (though I know that one more by osmosis, so there’s more likelihood of misinformation) to see *room* for the creation of any kind of noncorporeal self in them. And yet I perceive myself to *have* one. – Yes, this might just be another God-of-the-gaps argument, but it works for me.

    (It occurs to me to compare conscious-seeming behaviour in systems where I can see all the moving parts to centrifugal force – what’s called a /ficticious force/. I don’t know if that gains us anything we don’t already have in the discussion.)

    If we look at this from a non-religious perspective and talk instead about “the self” not as a discreet object but as an experience we have (a concept of self) then it is indeed possible that that AI could be developed that has a concept of self (we’re already working on it). Of course, what we’re discovering is that we’re not the only animals that seem to have a concept of self, which obviously lends another angle to any philosophical musing about AI and concept of self.

    A self other than one’s own can’t be proven. (Okay, my own self potentially also cannot be proven, but I have more reason to accept its existence than I do the selves of others.) You can show that, if an other exists and has roughly the same properties as your senses claim they have, then they seem to implement the interface of someone who has a self.

    Likewise, you can’t prove to me that anyone besides myself “experiences” the world around them. Oh, they take in data and react to it, and they do so in a fashion similar enough to my own that it’s reasonable to infer that they work the same way I do, but they’re still subject to the Matrix-hallucination problem in a way that one’s own self is not.

    • Fifi says:

      Well we really get into issues of defining what “the self” is and the unreliability of subjective perception. Like many of these things when discussed philosophically it often comes down to defining what are, in many ways, hazy concepts. Even outside of any hypothetical matrix, we’re all still prone to hallucination problems to a great or lesser degree both as individuals and collectively (there’s the whole issue of confirmation bias when it comes to our internalized and collective models of the world). It occurs to me that in some ways we’re simply externalizing our own internal “matrix”, as well as externalizing and objectifying our sense of self (or self concept) into something we call “a soul”. Schizophrenics, for instance, can experience internal thoughts as a disembodied external voice (once most commonly attributed to gods, angels or demons, now in our more secular culture the voice is often attributed to aliens).

      “And yet I perceive myself to *have* one. – Yes, this might just be another God-of-the-gaps argument, but it works for me.”

      If agnostic works for you, it works for you. I don’t assume everyone should or will perceive or understand the world just like I do – in fact it’s part of what makes like interesting and it’s also why I’ve dedicated a lot of my life so far to working in the arts and culture. Art is often very much about the tension between the subjective and the objective, about communicating across this gap (er, in my subjective perspective ;-)

      And, sure, most people’s arguments for “a soul” come down to their subjective experiences of themselves as somehow separate from their body, as solid and eternal. I certainly understand why people believe they have eternal souls (after all, it’s a narrative that explains our sense of ourselves, as well as addressing our fears about non-existence…the ultimate form of ego annihilation). I’m curious, does your belief you have a soul effect how you live your life? What are the practical repercussions for you? Does your belief in a soul mean that you believe this soul will endure beyond the death of your body? Do you make choices and actions based upon what you believe will happen to your soul once your body has died?

      For a very interesting example of an entirely different conception of the world and how language defines our conception of the world, let me introduce you to the Piraha tribe…

      http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/unlocking-the-secret-sounds-of-language-life-without-time-or-numbers-477061.html

      Interestingly, it also led to the missionary who went to live with them becoming an anthropologist and then an atheist. Everett’s original mission was to translate the bible into Piraha but his interactions with the tribe changed his worldview (or concept of the world/reality) instead of the other way around.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daniel_Everett#Religious_beliefs

      In many ways my childhood was very privileged in terms of education and exposure to the world and different theories of the world, as well as being taught the scientific method and about subjectivity, I recognize the advantages this has given me (including the ones it gave me when I was in art school). I recognize the importance of both subjectivity and objectivity (both on an individual level and a larger social/collective one), and research (both scientific and artistic) in exploring ourselves and the world. While I’ve come to understand some of the reasons why more people don’t – and the ongoing academic battles (ahem, ego battle) between the hard sciences and soft sciences, and the hard sciences and culture related disciplines – I still find it a bit weird that some people can’t see the value in both in terms of understanding ourselves and the world.

      • Fifi says:

        Sorry Cythrall, went on a bit of a tangent there and I’m not sure if I actually addressed anything you raised. If there’s a particular point I missed addressing that you’d like me to try to address, let me know. Though I may well just have to answer with “I don’t know”.

  22. lemmycaution says:

    The ironic thing is that an artificial hell is profoundly immoral. No person or government would be allowed to do such a thing. What crime could justify eternal torment? God is kind of a dickhead.

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