Astrotheology: natural Gods

NPR Cosmos & Culture has a good article by Marcelo Gleiser on “Astrotheology: Do Gods Need To Be Supernatural?” The best answer, discussed also in the last post (and others), is: no, and there are probably “natural Gods” out there.

Gleiser notes that some futurists are convinced that within a few decades we will get to such a deep stage of hybridization with machines that we will not be able to pull apart from them anymore, and wonders where we will go from there. Perhaps transcendent evolution has already happened elsewhere:

“[Imagine] that in some corner of the galaxy, other intelligent creatures also discovered some version of science. But they did so, say, a million years before us, which, in cosmic time, is not much. These creatures would now be machine-hybrids, completely different from what they once were. As Arthur C. Clarke once wrote, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” a theme myself and co-blogger Adam have been focusing on these past few weeks.

“Perhaps “they” are only information, free-floating in coded energy fields spread across space. Perhaps they have, much beyond anything we can presently contemplate, the power to create life, choosing its properties at will. They could, for example, have created us, or some of our ancestors, as part of an experiment in their version of evolutionary genetics, or as a test bed in a study of the relation between intelligence and morality. They could, perhaps, be observing us, as we observe animals in a zoo or a laboratory. These entities, immaterial but living as self-sustaining bundles of information, could have been our creators. Would they be gods, even if not supernatural?”

My answer is yes, they would be Gods relative to us.

Richard Dawkins (yes, Dawkins, the leading atheist thinker) says that “It’s highly plausible that in the universe there are God-like creatures.” In his book, “The God Delusion,” he writes:

“Whether we ever get to know them or not, there are very probably alien civilizations that are superhuman, to the point of being god-like in ways that exceed anything a theologian could possibly imagine. Their technical achievements would seem as supernatural to us as ours would seem to a Dark Age peasant transported to the twenty-first century.

“Imagine his response to a laptop computer, a mobile telephone, a hydrogen bomb or a jumbo jet. As Arthur C Clarke put it, in his Third Law: ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’ The miracles wrought by our technology would have seemed to the ancients no less remarkable than the tales of Moses parting the waters, or Jesus walking upon them. The aliens of our SETI signal would be to us like gods . . .

“In what sense, then, would the most advanced SETI aliens not be gods? In what sense would they be superhuman but not supernatural? In a very important sense, which goes to the heart of this book. The crucial difference between gods and god-like extraterrestrials lies not in their properties but in their provenance. Entities that are complex enough to be intelligent are products of an evolutionary process. No matter how god-like they may seem when we encounter them, they didn’t start that way. Science-fiction authors . . . have even suggested (and I cannot think how to disprove it) that we live in a computer simulation, set up by some vastly superior civilization. But the simulators themselves would have to come from somewhere. The laws of probability forbid all notions of their spontaneously appearing without simpler antecedents. They probably owe their existence to a (perhaps unfamiliar) version of Darwinian evolution…”

These natural Gods would share the most important attributes of the Gods of religion. “Supernatural” and “omnipotent” are abstract concepts (I think both are a contradiction in terms). In philosophy and mathematics there are definitions of infinity, but in physics and engineering, and in practical life, infinite just means very big (much bigger than other factors). I think some civilizations out there may be Godlike in this sense, and powerful beyond our understanding and even imagination. Seen from our current point of view, these civilization would be like Gods.

  • I often wonder how it is that this view is not more popular. The logic is sound. This natural God idea should be motivating enough to get humanity focused and off its ass.

  • Giulio Prisco

    @James – so do I, but perhaps a more interesting and useful question to ask is: what can we do to make it much more popular?

  • René Milan

    “These natural Gods would share the most important attributes of the Gods of religion” – of course. And in that case why talk about Gods instead of gods or better something like elders or pioneers (of course they may have antecedents too) ? Ancient astronaut proponents, their (varying) credibility notwithstanding, have talked about this for decades. Esoteric traditions hold that instruction and training in mental techniques can enable adepts to produce effects only conceivable by the uninitiated in terms of magic.
    The memes are and have been out there for ages. What we need to do is apply rigorous analysis to filter out the nonsense. This may not “make it much more popular” with the uninformed majorities, but still put it on solid foundations.

  • David Ellis

    The idea has been pretty pervasive in SF for a long time. 2001. Babylon 5. The Night’s Dawn Trilogy. At least half of my favorites have a strong strain of this meme running through them.

  • Giulio Prisco

    @Rene’, I thought you didn’t like the Raelians! ;-) ;-)

    I prefer to think of natural Gods that may exist elsewhere in space-time, perhaps among the stars, or perhaps in the future, evolved from our civilization and/or other civilizations. I don’t rule out the possibility that such Gods may be able to influence our world here and now, by using yet undiscovered science and “magic” technology in the sense of Clarke’s 3rd Law.

    @David, nearly all my favorite SF authors use this meme, also Stapledon, Clarke, Sagan, Anderson, Simak, and more modern authors like Egan, Stross and Rucker (in a more tongue-in-cheek way).

  • David Ellis

    On this theme, I highly recomment the short story “Radical Acceptance” by David W. Goldman:

  • Giulio Prisco

    Thanks David, seems a great story. More after reading.

  • David Ellis

    On a related note, I recently read the Iain M. Banks novel SURFACE DETAIL which dealt with the battle to abolish the institution of virtual hells in the upload afterlives of galactic civilizations.

    Anyone know of any other novels dealing with virtual hells that they would recommend?

  • Giulio Prisco

    @David wow thanks, I didn’t know of Surface Detail. Just got it, looks great.

    Re “other novels dealing with virtual hells”

    Well, of course there is Niven’s Inferno, but it may not qualify as “virtual hell” because… it is the real one!

    In the Takeshi Kovacs universe of Richard K. Morgan (Altered Carbon, Broken Gods, Woken Furies) there are many scenes of virtual torture of upload copies, often for military interrogation. See my review:

  • David Ellis

    It does seem to be largely unexplored territory. I haven’t found anything besides SURFACE DETAIL yet after searching for a while for books on the same topic.

    I hate both the INFERNO books. In many places it reads more like an apologectic for the doctrine of hell.

  • Giulio Prisco

    I didn’t know Inferno had a sequel. It is not one of my favorite books, but suggesting that you can escape from hell doesn’t seem to me “an apologectic for the doctrine of hell.” The whole Christian mythology of hell is built on the idea that you cannot escape.

  • David Ellis

    ” It is not one of my favorite books, but suggesting that you can escape from hell doesn’t seem to me “an apologectic for the doctrine of hell.” The whole Christian mythology of hell is built on the idea that you cannot escape.”

    It implied, pretty strongly, that the practice of subjecting most of humanity to degrading torture that may continue for decades, centuries, eons, or forever is morally acceptable.

    Including a possible escape hatch doesn’t make torture OK. The sort of God who would create a hell like this is all too reminiscient of Jigsaw from the SAW movies (whose rationale for what he does strongly reminds me of the soul-building theodicy).

  • Giulio Prisco

    @David, yes, the sort of God who creates a hell to torture people forever would not be a good God. I hope we will meet/build/become a better one.

    • David Ellis

      That’s not my point. My point is that a God who builds a temporary hell is also an evil God. Torturing people for a decade or a century may not be as evil as torturing them forever but it’s still horrendously evil. And that’s why I find Niven’s INFERNO morally appalling. It seems this hell as morally acceptable.

      But when was anyone spiritually uplifted by being tortured and degraded for decades? The idea underlying the story is simply sick.

  • Giulio Prisco

    David – yes, of course, even torturing a person for one minute is horrendously evil.

    I don’t think that all the Gods that we will find out there are nice guys. There will be nice gods, and evil demons, probably transcended civilization with sensibilities and value systems radically different from ours. I hope our descendants will manage to make friends with gods and stay away from demons.

  • René Milan

    @Giulio – “I thought you didn’t like the Raelians! ;-) ;-)” – har har. Like most religions Rael’s nonsense is based on “information” received during unverifiable encounters and embued with “divine” authoritiy, like the bush (no, not that one) talking to moshe or gabe to the epileptic.

    Ancient Astronaut proponents arrive at their conclusions by examining the archeological and archeoastronomical records largely in pursuit of explanations of OOPARTs and myths, which leaves their conclusions open to scrutiny.