The Future of God

By Kosko, Bart | Free Inquiry, Summer 1995 | Go to article overview

The Future of God


Kosko, Bart, Free Inquiry


The idea of God is one of the great ideas of human culture. It often acts as the limiting case of some other idea or thing. Some have seen God as infinite power, love, mind, matter, energy. Freethinkers have seen God as a social reflex, opiate, or outright fiction. Almost all have seen God as an object of religious or philosophical thought. That helps explain why the idea of God has changed little over the last few centuries. There have been few research breakthroughs in religion and philosophy.

I want to argue that God has a proper place in the speculative thought of the future. That place is not in religion or philosophy. It is in science fiction.

A science fiction author can push the principles of science beyond the known bounds of fact or of what one can hope to test. The author might cast God as an advanced alien or as an optimizing agent that acts before the Big Bang or after the Big Crunch. Then the author must work out how much such a God shapes our web of cause and effect. The result may be a new way to view man's place in the cosmos or just the mental delight that comes of reading a good fresh tale. The result might also give the irrational spur that leads some dreamer to put forth a new theorem or physical theory.

Consider two recent examples from freethinkers. Carl Sagan invokes a math god in his 1985 novel Contact. The heroine, Ellie, ends up in the arms of an advanced alien who has helped combine the mass of many star systems in the region of Cygnus A as "an experiment in [cosmic] urban renewal." The alien tells Ellie that they have approximated the irrational number pi (the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter) to enough decimal places to find a message from God in the string of 0s and 1s. This dumbfounds Ellie:

"You're telling me there's a message in eleven dimensions hidden deep inside the number pi? Someone in the universe communicates by . . . mathematics? But . . . help me, I'm really having trouble understanding you. Mathematics isn't arbitrary. I mean pi has to have the same value everywhere. How can you hide a message inside pi? It's built into the fabric of the universe."

"Exactly."

Arthur C. Clarke and Gentry Lee wrote three Rama novels that end up with God running universes from bang to crunch as something like massive computer simulations. Their God is not the Mathmaker since math bounds Him. The third 1994 novel, Rama Revealed, ends as the alien machine intelligence Saint Michael explains that God wants to learn which universe seeds will grow into harmonious universes:

Imagine that this coordinate system I have drawn is a symbolic, two-dimensional representation of the available hypersurface of parameters defining the creation instant, the moment that energy is first transformed into matter. Any arrangement or vector representing a specific set of initial conditions for the universe may be depicted as a single point in my diagram. What God is, and has been, searching for is a very special closed [sic: open] dense set located on this mathematical hypersurface. This special set He is seeking has the property that any of its elements - that is, any arrangement of conditions for the instant of creation chosen from within this set - will produce a universe that will eventually end in harmony.

And Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick invokes the science fiction method to discuss God in his 1989 book, The Examined Life:

Simply being the creator is not enough alone to constitute being a God. Consider the science fiction situation of our universe being created by a teenager living in another dimension or realm, as the equivalent of a high school science or art project.

Nozick is clever here but wrong. Most people would count such a teenager as God, and doubly so if he could unmake our world or us at will. Might would make right with the teenage God just as it has with the great shepherding Gods of the past. Action x is wrong if and only if God will punish you if you do action x. …

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