Category Archives: Theology

Simulation theory is a new theism

This article titled ‘Is our world a simulation? Why some scientists say it’s more likely than not’ describes an intellectual movement, including Elon Musk, which holds that we live in a computer simulation.

I’ll leave to the side the arguments for such a position (including arguments about the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness), and focus on what the position is. They are positing that the universe was created by an intelligence (or intelligences). It’s a kind of theism (my impression is that many advocates seem unaware of this – it is irrelevant that the creator is a ‘posthuman civilization’ or what have you), and generates similar problems to ones Judaism or Christianity attempt to answer (do we get an insight into the creator’s mind or purposes in seeing the universe? how does the creator effect the universe? can we interact with the creator? is the creator something like omniscient in this universe? omnipotent? and so on).

It is not surprising that a powerful aspect of technology (computer simulations) would be applied to create a new form of theism. It is similar to the historical movement to think of the universe as a precisely tuned machine (such as a clock), when machines like that became common several hundred years ago (often, this form of theism emphasized something like a form of deism – the machine maker set up the universe and then let it work away).

So, developments in technology cause developments in theology.

What is the Kingdom?

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, in earth as it is in Heaven. (Matthew 6:10, King James Bible)

And when he was demanded of the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God should come, he answered them and said, The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you. (Luke 17:21-22, King James Bible)

What is the ‘Kingdom’? In contemporary terms, it is a grass-roots, metapolitical movement, which comes out of the theosis (spiritual development) of individuals and then the actions they take.

 

Antifragility and Heaven

It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. (Matthew 19:23)

An often erroneous conclusion is that, therefore, it is easy for poor people to enter Heaven. Yet, this is an error, as the answer Jesus gives to the follow-up question ‘Who, then, can enter Heaven’ isn’t ‘Poor people’ but rather

With God, all things are possible.

What is often missed in discussions of these passages is the concept of ‘Heaven’ (‘kingdom of God’). Quite often, people think of Heaven as a ‘place’ you are ‘transported to’ after bodily death.

If, however, Heaven is understood along the lines of Benedict XVI’s definition – wherever God’s will is being done (see his discussion of ‘Our Father who art in Heaven’ from Jesus of Nazareth) – then the significance of the passage changes.

If this is our understanding, then the passage becomes ‘… than for a rich man to actively align himself with God’s will.’ This comports nicely with Jesus’ teaching that a man cannot ‘serve two masters, God and Mammon’ (Mammon being a personification of material possessions). To serve is to carry out the will of, i.e., we are talking about something active.

Why can’t a man serve material possessions and God at the same time? I think Nassim Taleb’s discussion of Seneca – a Stoic – and antifragility is relevant here (Antifragile, p. 151). Seneca is a very wealthy man, one of the most wealthy in the Roman Empire. Yet he recognizes that material possessions tend to possess their owner, rather than the other way around (this is a great theme in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, where the ring of power comes to control its owner).

Yet, Seneca also recognizes that wealth can be a good (otherwise, as Taleb points out, why wouldn’t he have gotten rid of it?). Therefore, he cultivates practices which reduce the ‘fragility’ of owning a large number of material things. In particular, he writes them off in his mind. Therefore, the thought of losing them no longer bothers him, and so they lose part of their grip on him, while still retaining the good they can do for him, his family, and so on.

To connect this with the passage from the Gospel of Matthew, men who have great material wealth tend to be owned by their possessions instead of owning them, and this leads to an inability to follow God’s will. Therefore, these men can’t really ‘enter Heaven’, i.e., be part of the communion of Saints who are aligned with God’s will. Heaven is not a place you are passively transported to (a popular and erroneous conception), but a place you actively ‘go’ to, and which begins in this life (‘thy will be done’ – when? now. by whom? you.).

When Jesus tells a wealthy man to give away all he owns, and come, follow me, the man refuses, demonstrating he is, in fact, owned by his possessions instead of owning them. The proper response would be to cheerily cast off one’s possessions at that moment!

It is only if a man can do so, and is willing to do so if the right circumstances arise, that he can truly make use of material wealth for the Good – i.e., align those material resources with the will of God, which is to say that he can ‘enter into Heaven’.

Heuristic questions

Two useful questions to ask habitually are

“What can I learn from this?”

and

“How can I use this?”

To use Nassim Taleb’s neologism, these are ‘antifragile’ heuristics.

Christianity lends itself naturally to these questions, because it views the universe as essentially purposive. God has a plan for the universe -> that plan can (if we so choose) involve us -> therefore, events that occur (can) fit into this plan.

Therefore, it’s a natural question for a Christian to ask

“What purpose can God have for this?”

which leads fairly naturally to the two above questions.

If you think of God as a creative, on-going God, then you also can think of God as consistently asking himself the two above questions, and then coordinating people and things (to the extent they are willing – see process theology) in creative solutions.

The ‘Our Father’ as scriptural core of Christianity

Our Father

Who art in Heaven

Hallowed be thy name.

Thy Kingdom come,

Thy will be done,

In earth as it is in Heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread,

and forgive us our trespasses,

as we forgive those who trespass against us,

and lead us not into temptation,

but deliver us from evil. Amen.

My sense is that many repeat this prayer without thinking about what it means.

This prayer is probably the most important in Christianity.

‘Our Father

The whole prayer can be reduced to this line. The key word here is ‘Father’, which is the key metaphor Jesus uses to understand God. God is like a loving, wise Father. This leads to the central part of Christianity – a trusting relationship with God. Without this conception, much of the rest of the prayer doesn’t make sense.

‘who art in Heaven

Taken at its most basic, this is a disambiguator. We are talking of a spiritual Father, not a biological one.

Hallowed be thy name’

This doesn’t just mean that the name of God is holy, but that it shall be made so. This applies at both the individual and societal level. Hallowed means holy (which is to say, harmoniously good), and in this context means ‘recognized as such’. Recognition enables action, ultimately on an individual level (the concept is an anchor, which enables us to act).

‘Thy Kingdom come’

Key here is the nature of the Kingdom. The Kingdom will not appear in signs with ‘lo, there it is’, but rather it is ‘in the midst of you’. Which is to say, this is a Kingdom which develops out of people’s mental habits and actions. The Kingdom is the development of a good (harmonious, loving, just) society. Which leads to the next section.

‘Thy will be done’

One of the most basic practices in Christianity is ‘discernment’, i.e., figuring out what God’s will is in a particular situation. This is the way that the Kingdom comes about (us doing God’s will, where God = the Good).

In earth as it is in Heaven’

The point here is that we ought to do good things to make earth more like Heaven, i.e., to bring earth (the universe) into goodness. The point is not to wait around until one dies to ‘go to’ Heaven, but to do things here and now so as to make earth more like Heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread’

This has connections to ‘Ask and you shall receive, seek and you shall find, knock and the door will be opened unto you’. The point is that we ask. The term ‘bread’ can be misleading, as it is a richly adorned concept in the Gospels. It does not mean ‘bread’, or even ‘food’, but rather that which nourishes us (body and spirit). Nourishment is tied to growth or learning, and in particular theosis, or growing to be more like God. Daily nourishment has as its main objective spiritual growth, which in turn is one of the main objectives of Christian practice.

‘and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us’

The story of the prodigal son is apt here. God will forgive you your trespasses (alternatively translated as ‘debts’). This relates to the concept of ‘sin’, which in its essence means things which separate us from God (the good). The prodigal son becomes separated from his father (literally), but as soon as he chooses to return home his father ‘runs out to meet him’, celebrates, and forgives him.

In turn, we ought to forgive those who trespass against us. Forgiveness – in particular, letting go of negative emotions towards other – helps us. Not letting go of negative emotions gets in the way of us connecting to God. Holding on to negative emotions first and foremost negatively affects the one holding on to the emotions, as they stew in negative emotions.

‘and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil’

Evil = sin = that which obstructs our connection to God (= the good). A connection to God isn’t theoretical, it is a lived connection. Almost routinely, there are ‘temptations’, typically in the form of short-term thinking combined with wishful thinking, harsh words for loved ones, and so on. We ought to be on the look-out, in a sense, for these, and use our connection to the good to call their bluff, so to speak.

It is important to remember this isn’t so much a set of doctrines as a practice (‘How am I to pray?’) – a mnemonic for remembering and then focusing on key aspects of how one is living day-to-day and thinking it through, so as to change one’s habitual actions.

Scott Adams and prayer

In giving a guess on why certain of his affirmations seem to have been successful, Scott Adams says (How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, 2013)

I think a deep and consistent focus on what you want is all that is required.

The idea is that affirmations – repeatedly focusing on a sentence such as ‘I am a world famous cartoonist’ (one of Adams’ own examples) – causes or is correlated with a deep and consistent focus thereof, which in turn helps to create the outcome.

One thing I find interesting about this is that a deep and consistent focus is in this context more-or-less a deep and consistent belief, which is a key part of faith-in-prayer. The point isn’t to ‘repeat words vainly’, but to go into your ‘inner chamber’ and pray there.

In this sense, it seems things like affirmations are a kind of secular prayer. Like certain kinds of prayer, they are used because they seem to work, whatever mechanisms might be in operation.

Indeed, affirmations seem to have entered secular culture from Christianity (in particular, New Thought Christianity).

Coherence and prediction

Theologians seek to find a coherent account of things. That is well and good (although sometimes breakthroughs come from actively disregarding certain things – what we think we know isn’t always right, and anyone can sometimes get a breakthrough in trying to solve a problem by saying ‘what if this particular ‘fact’ is actually not the case, even though people tend to take it to be the case?’). That is to say, theologians look to figure out how certain ideas and observations can cohere.

The next step is to find relatively independent confirmation. One might have a nice theory that seems to comport with the observations – which in itself might be a significant breakthrough. Yet, it’s just the first step. Now go out and figure out how to test it, beyond the coherence.

In a nutshell, this figuring-out-how-to-test is the essence of the scientific method, to the extent there is one. To the extent theologians adopt this, they become scientists. To the extent someone does not – especially if they set up a theoretical model that seems to be able to account for any and all new observations – they are just blowing smoke.

Context matters

What is the basic perspective in Christianity, when it comes to one’s actions?

First, learning and growing both for what we are doing in this life and what we will do in the next. In Christian terms, the learning is primarily understood as part of the process of ‘theosis’ – i.e., becoming more like God. Ascetics, similarly, is about training, i.e., learning and growing (from a root word meaning bodily training, from which we also get ‘athletics’).

But that leads to what we are doing – you don’t just practice making a building, you make buildings. So second, doing things that matter. These are things that matter in and of themselves here and now, and that will build things in the next life. In Christian terms, this is called ‘building the Kingdom of Heaven’.

This dual vision – training and doing – is compatible with a typical secular viewpoint, and for this reason much of Christian reasoning or practices are shared by secularists. The difference comes in the context – Christians believe the training or doing applies not just to this life, but the next. I.e., there is meaningful continued personal existence. This does two things.

First, it amplifies the importance – we are no longer just talking about the next 50 years, but the next (eternity). This is one of the reasons that Christianity has greater motivational potential. Second, it means there might be consequences to things that we cannot see by considering only this life. This allows Christianity to answer certain moral questions that secularists seemingly cannot (such as why do good things if they don’t benefit oneself – the answer is that by doing good things you are in part creating a state of affairs in the next life). Similarly, because it coincides self-interest and actions that aren’t self-interested in this life, it also gains motivational potential when considering things that are good for people here and now.

How does God act?

How does the Christian God act?

I want to suggest an hypothesis, which is summarized as follows.

1. Miracles are marked out by (as the name suggests – ‘miraculum’ meaning wonder) their tendency to cause wonder.

2. They cause wonder because the observer notices the event seems highly unlikely to have occurred in the way it did, even though, for example, they witnessed it (hence, wonder at how it occurred).

3. What is unlikely is the coordination of things in the world.

4. These sorts of events are on-going and widespread.

Before discussing the advantages of this hypothesis, a brief aside on the supernatural-natural notion.

Supernatural vs. natural causes

Consider if someone claimed electromagnetic phenomena were ‘supernatural’ and contact mechanics was ‘natural’. OK, but in what way does that distinction make a difference in the cause-and-effect world? For the people drawing up equations and models of electromagnetic activity, it’s not clear why this kind of distinction would matter. Electromagnetic phenomena operates in a very different way from contact mechanics, but so what?

What I’m interested in here is how God (supposedly) acts, not in theological speculation about what ‘kind’ God’s acts are. Instead of theology -> theory of how God acts, I rather observation -> theory of how God acts.

Consider. The idea of supernatural causation is about a creator ‘outside’ of nature. Nature (the universe) is a creation of God. Involved in this notion of God being the creator of nature are theological ideas, such as God being necessary, unchanging, outside of time, and so on. These are all important theological topics.

That the Christian God is such a being is debatable. Christians need not look to the Old Testament to figure out how the universe came into being, but if a Christian is looking to the Old Testament, the accounts of what God did don’t seem to be a creation ex nihilo (out of nothing), even though creation ex nihilo is the standard Christian theological view nowadays. Rather, God is portrayed as shaping or ordering something – perhaps as a potter crafts clay to form pottery.

Yet, to what extent does the idea of a God existing outside of the universe impact our understanding of how God acts? For example, if Jesus healed someone, was this a natural or supernatural event? Well, it was unusual, and no one knows how it would have happened, but for all that it could have occurred within creation, i.e., without any kind of (special) outside-of-nature activity. That it’s unusual, or because we don’t have a well worked out model of how it works, doesn’t mean it’s supernatural. This is an old point, and I hope it’s obvious.

Now consider 3. If it’s right, then when looking at miracles, the ‘efficient causes’, so to speak, at least in most cases, should be findable. Yet, you don’t explain the miracle of the donkey Jesus rode into Jerusalem on, say, by saying ‘there was a donkey, and someone found it’. Instead, you have to explain the likelihood of it. It is the unlikeliness that points to God’s activity, i.e., a miracle.

This is why the Catholic church’s attempts to discern if something is a miracle are misled (and this mistake is based on their theology, and in particular the supernatural-natural distinction about God’s activity originating ‘outside’ of nature). They attempt to see if any known natural cause could account for the miracle. Being unable to find one, they conclude it is a miracle. This leads to ignoring large amounts of what Christians take to be everyday miracles, and excludes ascribing to God these miracles by definition.

Yet, when Christians talk about everyday miracles, they are almost always talking about natural causes that have been coordinated in an unlikely way. What’s key (under the theory I am here expounding) isn’t natural causes but how likely it is that those causes came together in the way they did. We can say God’s activity can be found in the ‘final’ cause, not a lack of natural ‘efficient’ causes.

Advantages of this characterization of miracles

1. It describes a large number of miracles Christians report, where there are conventional operators but unconventional coordination of them.

2. For miracles where it is not clear if it’s just the coordination of conventional operators, this is a matter of our knowledge. We don’t know what’s going on, and so it could be just a coordination.

3. It is compatible with either supernaturalism or naturalism – God can be conceived as the creator in the sense of being ‘outside’ of the universe and creating all things ex nihilo, or a creator in the sense of being ‘inside’ of the universe and creating all things as a ‘shaper’ of pre-existing aspects of the universe.