Saturday, November 12, 2011

Truly Big Ideas

"So you don't believe in anything?"

All too often, that's the reaction that atheists get when they say they don't believe in God, or spiritual beings, or the afterlife. How (theists ask) do we go on living without believing that an almighty yet loving omni-being is always at our side? Aren't our spirits crushed at the notion that there's no guardian angel watching over us? Why bother to get up in the morning without the prospect of an eternal trip to Disneyland tacked onto the end of our lives? These are the sorts of "big ideas" that provide comfort to Christians—such great comfort, in fact, that they wonder how anyone can function without them.

But when it comes to creating big ideas, Christianity cheats by slapping the descriptor "infinite" onto its god and its afterlife. This forces people to assign them infinite importance, so that the rewards that reality promises can't hope to compete. Yet Christianity's infinitely wise and powerful creator, its promise of an infinitely lengthy stay within the confines of its pearly gates... these concepts ring hollow upon closer inspection. They turn out to be hopelessly shortsighted: mired in the culture they were thought up in and rife with unintended consequences. If we really stop to think critically about God and the afterlife, we may find that they aren't so comforting after all.

I talk about God a lot, so I'll take heaven as my example. The most vivid description we find in the Bible is in the final chapters of Revelation, but the cultural presumptions of the author are evident. Heaven is supposedly surrounded by walls, and "its gates shall not be shut at all by day (there shall be no night there)." Walled cities were common in ancient times, but if everyone who isn't in heaven is in hell, why does it need walls and gates at all? Who are they trying to keep out? Then there's the fact that the author seems bent on cramming heaven with as much gold and as many precious stones as possible—sapphires, emeralds, you name it. Each gate is made out of one giant pearl. I'm sure that sounds like heaven to an impoverished man exiled on the barren isle of Patmos, but that sort of garish decor would lose its novelty in just a few years. (He also says that "the city was pure gold, like clear glass...and the street of the city was pure gold, like transparent glass." Not sure how that one's supposed to work.)

The author cheerfully reports that "there shall be no more death, no sorrow, no more pain," which sounds nice enough. But wait... no sorrow? What about remembering those who are suffering in hell? Is God going to make us incapable of sorrow? Is he going to remove our memories of those we lived with—friends, parents, children, spouses? My memories of those I've spent time with are a crucial part of my identity, and taking them away is in a very real sense taking away a part of me. The author also portrays heaven as a place of constant, eternal worship. I challenge even the most ardent Christian to tell me sincerely that endlessly praising God is really their idea of a good time. Finally, he says that heaven will be a place free from sin. But what if a few billion years down the road I happen to tell a white lie to one of my fellow worshippers? Sin seems inevitable... unless we've somehow been made incapable of it. How could God prevent sin without removing my free will to sin?

And so heaven, which sounds so lovely on the surface, turns out to be a place where people are made into artificially happy, groveling, sinless robots. Once the veneer of peace and joy is stripped away, it's revealed as just another totalitarian dystopia. Christianity's "big ideas" on the afterlife fall flat. In his article "31 Laws of Fun," philosopher and futurist Eliezer Yudkowsky outlines what a real utopia might look like: it should be a place of liberty and autonomy, of novelty and challenge, of excitement and discovery. It should mess with our environment before taking the huge risk of messing with our core identities. Our experience should be a social one, emotionally involved, continually improving, filled with pleasant surprises, and not overshadowed by superior beings. Heaven fails on almost all of his criteria.

So can we do better here in reality? Can humans provide a more interesting and genuine paradise than the early Christians dreamed up? I think so. How likely we are to create a utopian future is debatable, but it's certainly possible. Sufficient advances in genetics, artificial intelligence, energy production, nanotechnology and space travel could mold our world beyond anything most people have imagined. Such fanciful notions as matrioshka brains, mind uploading and friendly AI could one day become a reality. There's a very good chance that we'll never reach our goal of a future utopia, but what's exciting is that we have the opportunity to try. It starts with education. If we can teach ourselves to think rationally and value the long-term welfare of humanity, many of the obstacles we now face will eventually fade away. A carefully measured combination of science, ethics and critical thinking would pave the way for big ideas that we can truly look forward to.


  1. Good point about God having to take away our free will in heaven, so that there can be no more sin. That breaks apart the argument that he's not looking for "robots" who are compelled to worship him.

    I enjoy your blog. Thanks for writing.

  2. "If we really stop to think critically about God and the afterlife..."

    There you go. Thinking for yourself. The original meaning of the word heresy. That is the whole problem.

    Once you start doing this, such silly ideas as 'if a perfect God is going to eventually effect a perfect state of affairs, why is there an imperfect state of affairs now?' (per von Schelling), or 'if God doesn't want robots now, how will the unable to sin robots of heaven suit S/H/It?'.

    The fear of death motivates the primitive and emotional reptilian brain to overpower the reasoning brain (and believe it is reasoning as it does so).

  3. Merbie,
    Thanks for reading!

    Well put.