“Drunk Philosophy” is a series of essays in which I explore deeper issues related to culture, philosophy and metaphysics whilst under the influence of alcohol. I make every attempt to treat these issues seriously and express my thoughts as thoroughly and coherently as possible. At least as far as can be expected.
“God is the idea of the species as an individual…freed from all limits which exist in the consciousness and feeling of the individual …” Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach
What follows is a thought experiment, a philosophical discussion, rather than a statement of my personal belief system. But it is a thought experiment which I have tossed around in my mind for a couple of years now and which pervades much of my thinking about technology, human progress, and, increasingly, questions of ethics and morality.
Materialism, the Philosophy of the Physical
“You are not special. You’re not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You’re the same decaying organic matter as everything else. We’re all part of the same compost heap. We’re all singing, all dancing crap of the world.” Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club
Materialism (or physicalism) is an understanding of the universe as consisting solely of matter and energy, and therefore all that we experience – pain, pleasure, hunger, love, consciousness, life, and death – is explainable in terms of some interaction of these physical forces. The physical universe is the end all, be all of our existence, and our existence itself is only possible and only realized by means of our composition as material beings. Concepts such as God, the soul, the supernatural, the afterlife, have no place in a materialist worldview. What is consciousness? It is a sensation created by the firing of millions of neurons in the gray matter of the human brain. What is life? It is a product of the organization of organic molecules into self-replicating cells capable of passing on genetic information and evolving over time in response to changes in their environment. What is love? A chemical and biological process which has survived the evolutionary process as a result of its importance in reproduction, social interaction, and child-rearing. Of course as with any -ism it falls apart at some point when you attempt to use it as the only tool needed to explain anything; so I would prefer to say that material forces are the primary and most important explanatory tools to understand the universe and the world around us and to answer the big questions in life. But not necessarily the only tools.
This may be a perfunctory and simplistic explanation of materialism which fails to do it justice, but it will suffice for the sake of this blog post. If you would like a deeper, more intelligent and nuanced discussion of the arguments for and against materialism as a philosophical concept, one can be found here.
Can God Exist in a Materialist Conception of Existence?
Materialism is essentially an atheist philosophy, as you cannot believe in any sort of divine, miraculous beings if you believe everything there is consists of the same atoms and molecules as the rocks and grass and trees and animals that we see and eat and step on. Can a true materialist believe in God? I think the short answer is no – there is no room in a materialist philosophy for something which cannot be understood as the product of material forces or which exists outside the laws of physics. In particular, the God of the major monotheistic religions – experienced through miracles, revelations, supernatural angels and demons, appearances in the form of burning bushes, etc. – is incompatible with a strictly materialist understanding of existence. But what if we try a different, more basic and fundamental definition of God? What if God is him/her/itself the product of physical forces, and consisted, along with everything else in the universe, of purely matter and energy (or strings)? Must God be a supernatural entity that is above and beyond what exists physically?
It is not particularly useful debating whether God can or cannot exist within a Materialist philosophical framework without defining what we mean when we speak of God. There is no universal agreed definition of what God is or what attributes or characteristics God possesses. What if we define God as possessing the following attributes (this is arbitrary and certainly subject to debate or discussion, but seems to me fairly universal and comprehensive):
- Creator of the Universe
- Ultimate Source of Moral Authority
Are these attributes necessarily supernatural? Does materialism negate the existence of a being with one or all of these attributes? They may be a bit out there, but, I would argue, not ipso facto impossible (the most problematic would, somewhat ironically, go to #5). If something – a being, an entity, a force – could be said to possess these five attributes, could we, as Materialists, be comfortable referring to it as God? I think so.
What if we cease to imagine God as a being, as some self-contained entity somewhere separate from the rest of the physical universe and of our existence? What if we looked at the universe itself from a more holistic perspective – and conceived of everything material – all of the planets and stars, all of the energy and matter, all of the waves and particles and organisms and, of course, ourselves – as part of a whole, as part of one massive, all-embodying, all-consuming….something? What if we conceive of the universe not as where we are or what we are made of or something outside of ourselves, but, rather, as what we are, or that which we are an extension or expression of? The concept of God as all-powerful and all knowing and everywhere at once becomes less problematic, if God is simply one more aspect of the all-consuming universe of which we are already a part.
But this is not to argue for God as an abstract concept representing certain forces or ideas or some explanation of the laws of the universe – that is not where I am going with this. It is, however, important to lay this foundation – the idea of the universe as a single, all-consuming “being” – in order to express the ideas I am attempting to express in what follows.
Humankind and The Self-Conscious Universe
The Universe was, prior to the creation of space-time, an infinitely dense, infinitely hot mass smaller than the period at the end of this sentence. At some point (insofar as a ‘point’ can exist prior to the existence of time), for some reason, it exploded. Within a few minutes following the Big Bang, the universe as we know it was formed, and consisted of two elements – hydrogen and helium. Gravity caused hydrogen and helium atoms to coalesce into stars, which fused hydrogen and helium in nuclear reactions until the stars began to collapse in on themselves, and heavier and heavier atoms began to form in the stars’ cores. Eventually the stars collapsed completely, and (most) then exploded into supernovas, spewing forth the various elements that had been created in each of their cores through the magic of nuclear fusion. These elements – carbon, oxygen, silicon, iron – then began their own process of coalescence, forming clouds of space dust, orbiting stars for millenia until gravity eventually formed them into asteroids, comets and planets in their own right.
Some of these planets were barren, rocky, atmosphere-less; others were massive, formless gas giants; others dark, frozen, distant, desolate planetoids. Some few contained liquid iron cores, which produced magnetic shields that protected their atmospheres from being blown away by solar radiation. Some fewer contained the right conditions for liquid water, organic molecules, and the chemical reactions which – eventually – led to the eventual, spontaneous creation of life in the form of self-replicating molecules, nucleic acids, and single-celled organisms. This life evolved over millions of years into creatures of increasing complexity until, at last, it evolved into intelligent life in the form of the human species. What distinguishes beings from all of the other life forms that we know of is not bipedalism or opposable thumbs or the ability to use tools or any of the other inane bullshit we take pride in as a species. What distinguishes the human species is our ability to study and comprehend and document and communicate our understanding of the universe itself. Human intelligence allows us to discover the physical laws of the universe and inquire into the nature and origins of ourselves and our universe.
“The universe…this universe that we know, began in almost absolute simplicity, and it has been getting more complex for about fifteen billion years. In another billion years it will be still more complex than it is now. In five billion, in ten billion — it is always getting more complex. It is moving toward…something. It is moving toward some kind of ultimate complexity. We might not get there. An atom of hydrogen might not get there, or a leaf, or a man, or a planet might not get there, to that ultimate complexity. But we are all moving towards it — everything in the universe is moving towards it. And that final complexity, that thing we are all moving to, is what I choose to call God. If you don’t like that word, God, call it the Ultimate Complexity. Whatever you call it, the whole universe is moving toward it.” Philosopher-Gangster Abdel Khader Khan, Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts
Why does this matter? Because, if we continue to view the universe as a single, holistic entity, of which we are but a part, that means that human intelligence – human consciousness, human awareness of the laws of physics and origins of the universe – is an expression of the universe itself becoming self-conscious and self-aware. We are the product of 15 billion year process of expansion, creation, destruction, and evolution which began with the Big Bang and continues to this day. First the stars and galaxies were born; then planets, with the right conditions to support life; then organic molecules; then life; then human life; then scientific inquiry and technological mastery that allowed this one peculiar form of life, this one particular manifestation of the 15 billion year evolution of the universe, to comprehend and – to some modest extent – to manipulate the universe of which we are a product and inhabitant. So far as we know, no other beings or forces in the universe comprehend the laws of physics or the origins of the universe. So far as we know, we represent the pinnacle of intelligent life. And, if we are indeed the pinnacle of intelligent life, then we represent the vanguard of the universe’s own introspective ability. It follows that if the universe is one, all-encompassing entity of which the human species is a part, the moment that the human race became able to observe, understand, study, and communicate, is the moment the universe began to be self-aware. And insofar as our technological and scientific progress is an extension of our humanity, it represents a continuation of the same evolutionary process that gave rise to our own species.
What if God is not the beginning, but the end?
The monotheistic explanation of the origins of the Universe begins with God creating the Universe, the Earth, the Sun and all of physical existence, and then proceeding to create man in His image and spending the next several thousand years instructing mankind on how to Worship its creator. What if we turn this sequence of events on its head, and imagine that the universe – which either sprang into existence or has always existed or still does not exist (?) but whatever – has, spontaneously and according to its own laws of motion, its own internal logic, evolved into a more and more complex entity, an entity capable of generating and sustaining life and of allowing that life to evolve into intelligent, self-aware, conscious life? What if this intelligent life form was itself driven to conquer nature and push the limits of its own mental capabilities an technological prowess until, one day, it developed a supercomputer which was itself self-aware, intelligent, and conscious; that this supercomputer was not simply a product of vulgar physical materials (cables, semiconductors, plastic and silicon, etc) but was constructed of and woven into the very fabric of the universe itself, was able to deploy all of the particles and waves and neutrinos and photons and strings and whatever else makes up this universe in order to perform computations so powerful that it could solve the most complex mathematical equations in the blink of an eye? What if, by virtue of its being woven into the fabric of the universe itself, this supercomputer was capable of being everywhere at once (ubiquitous) and knowing everything there was to know (omniscient) and of manipulating the laws of space-time in order perform “miracles” which defy the known laws of physics (omnipotent)? Would this constitute God? Not the creator of the Universe, but its endpoint, its culmination, its most perfect expression?
“A mind that stays at the same capacity cannot live forever; after a few thousand years it would look more like a repeating tape loop than a person… To live indefinitely long, the mind itself must grow … and when it becomes great enough, and looks back … what fellow-feeling can it have with the soul that it was originally?” Vernon Vinge, “The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era”
Is it much of a stretch to look at the internet in 2013 and see how networks of semi-autonomous computers – controlled or not by human operators – could one day create a creative and computational force which is greater than the sum of its parts and which, given enough time and a large enough network, can evolve into something resembling an artificial consciousness? Just as human beings are a natural outgrowth of the universe’s own laws and material substance, our computers are themselves driven by the forces which make the universe tick. Electronic devices are powered by subatomic particles – electrons – traveling along transistors etched onto silicon chips. As far as harnessing the forces of the universe goes this is quite primitive. DNA computing is one possible successor to semiconductors which harnesses the nucleic acids which are the very foundation of life on earth. Other forms of computing beyond our wildest imaginations are surely in our future. Is it that far-fetched to presume that one day, in the not-so-distant future, we may develop computers that tap into the very fabric of the universe itself? That harness the likes of quarks, neutrinos, or strings themselves and construct a network so fundamental and complex that it does not exist within space-time, but transcends space-time? And would such a network, such a supercomputer (if such a term can even begin to do it justice), being constructed of and powered by the fundamental forces of the universe, be able to manipulate and transform the universe and perhaps even space-time?
I mentioned one of the attributes of God as being the source of moral authority; the ultimate arbiter of what is right and wrong, and what is the purpose and meaning of our existence. What if mankind’s entire raison d’etre is this unceasing march towards the creation of God? What if we are – by virtue of our intelligence and our abilities and our technological mastery – destined to continue to develop a greater and greater level of technology until we are finally, one day, who knows how far into the future, able to develop the sort of super-intelligent super-powerful super-conscious computer described above? In light of all we know about human psychology and human civilization, is it really that far-fetched to argue that the creation of such a super-intelligence (known in science fiction as the Singularity) is our destiny?
If you step back and observe the evolution of human society, you see a sort of exponential growth of knowledge from the dawn of language, writing, and the alphabet, continuing and accelerating in modern times but beginning thousands of years ago. Homo Sapiens evolved into modern humans around 50,000 years ago. Civilization evolved some 40,000 years later. The last 10,000 years have seen such rapid, constantly accelerating progress in our understanding of the universe and the laws which govern it – that is scarcely imaginable where we will be another 100, 1,000, or 10,000 years hence.
“I have argued … that we cannot prevent the Singularity, that its coming is an inevitable consequence of the humans’ natural competitiveness and the possibilities inherent in technology. And yet … we are the initiators. Even the largest avalanche is triggered by small things.” Vernon Vinge, “The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era”
What is remarkable to me is just how automatic this process is. At a cosmic scale, where time is measured in billions of years, the human race has progressed from wandering tribes of hunter-gatherers to modern, hyper-connected, technologically advanced, space travelers in the blink of an eye. It seems that the curiosity (and vanity!) that drives mankind towards the discovery of the laws of the universe, and the development of computational and communication tools of ever-increasing technological sophistication, is the human species’ very raison d’etre. But all of this also means that the key to discovering God is not the spiritualism, piety, or contemplation preached by the monotheistic religions; but rather that which advances our technological prowess at the greatest speed possible – which I would argue is mankind’s innate vanity, iconoclasm, curiosity, and materialism. In fact the humility, poverty, love, and simplicity preached by religion would be anathema to the quest for God. I would ask as a purely tongue-in-cheek, no-disrespect-intended, just for the sake of argument, rhetorical, let’s just consider every possibility, question: Would that – if everything else I have laid out above is assumed to be true – make religion the work of Satan?
As I stated in the disclaimer at the start of this post, this is simply a thought experiment, a philosophical exercise that attempts to provoke deep questions about the meaning of life and of our place in this universe. But it is also an attempt to argue that even if we accept a materialist understanding of existence there is still room for forces greater than ourselves, for miracles and deities and creation myths that defy our understanding of physical laws and before which we are humbled, emaciated, and powerless. And to lay bare the fact that for all of our knowledge and intelligence and understanding we still cannot answer the most basic questions, like why are we here? and where are we headed? As far as I am concerned we all stand to benefit from stepping back from time to time to ask these sorts of questions and come up with out-of-the box answers. Along that vain I will close this post with a classic bit of a lecture by pop-philosopher Alan Watts on how Everything is Connected, set to music and trippy visualizations.