Closer To Truth: Theological Realms

There is an ongoing PBS TV series (also several books and also a website) called “Closer To Truth”. It is hosted by neuroscientist Robert Lawrence Kuhn. He’s featured in one-on-one interviews and panel discussions with the cream of the cream of today’s cosmologists, physicists, philosophers, theologians, psychologists, etc. on all of the Big Questions surrounding a trilogy of broad topics – Cosmos; Consciousness; Meaning. The trilogy collectively dealt with reality, space and time, mind and consciousness, aliens, theology and on and on and on. Here are a few of my comments on the general topics that cover theological concepts.

What Causes Religious Belief?

There apparently is no evidence, far less proof that any living species, apart from the human species, has or exhibits any sort of religious belief. So what exclusively causes religious belief in most, obviously not all, humans? I suspect it has an awful lot to do with the phrase “what’s in it for me?”. I mean if you thought you couldn’t personally benefit, or maybe believe that others wouldn’t benefit too as part of any hypothetical religious belief you held, then there would seem to be little point in investing a lot of time and energy (and maybe money) in believing in a religion of any kind. However, the “what’s in it for me” apple dangles just in front of a hungry you. At one fundamental level, religious belief allegedly gives you an afterlife in paradise. If you believe in the power of positive prayer and miracles, then more likely as not you want the results of positive prayer and miracles to apply to you (and selected others), after all, you’re doing all the hard work! So you pray to pass those final exams. You pray to stay free of cancer, but if that doesn’t work you pray that your cancer will be miraculously cured. Those wishes would of course extend to your immediate family as well, so not all religious belief is of necessity and exclusively for your own benefit. Still, you have a vested interest in your immediate family. Sometimes religious belief comes cart-before-horse. You would obviously exercise your horse-before-cart religious belief if a tornado was bearing down on you, but if you had no such conviction and a tornado did bear down on you and you survived, you just might then become a true believer as an alternative explanation to survival via blind luck. If you think you will benefit from a religion, or have benefited from a religion, then you will be prone to ‘see the light’, convert, and have an ongoing belief in that religion.

Can Many Religions All Be True?

I would have thought that this was a clear cut and dried issue. If people hold various belief systems that are mutually exclusive, that are polar opposites, that are contradictory, then not all of those belief systems can be correct. You cannot both believe in monotheism, and in polytheism. One or the other or neither must be the case. Some people believe there will be an afterlife. Some people believe that death is final. Both belief systems cannot be true; one must be false. Now all of that presupposes that we exist in a really real cosmos where outcomes are either/or. Now if we ‘live’ in a Simulated (Virtual Reality) Universe then anything goes. There is a software program for monotheism; there is another software program for polytheism. Christians may get a simulated afterlife in a virtual heaven; others have their software program terminate and they don’t get another afterlife software program to replace it. In a simulation, all belief systems can be catered to and all belief systems can be true.

Do Science & Religion Conflict?

One clear way that science and religion conflict is with respect to many of the events as told in the Bible. If Eve was created from Adam’s rib, Eve received male genetics and should have been a male; Adam’s clone. If Jesus was born via a virgin’s birth, then all of his genetic material would have been female in origin. Jesus should have been a woman. Noah’s flood is pure fiction since how could the flightless New Zealand kiwi bird get from New Zealand to the Middle East in time to hop on board? Where did all of that extra water come from – and go? And the Ark wasn’t nearly big enough to house two of every animal species on Earth as well as store all the foodstuffs required; plants, bushes and trees, vegetation that couldn’t survive for very long underwater, would have to be on board as well. And there wasn’t hardly sufficient manpower on board to feed and clean up after all of those critters. Did I mention that the Bible mentions unicorns? And what about all of those really, really, really old age pensioners. It wasn’t just Methuselah that lived well past his expiry or use-by date. What odds do you give that you could live inside the belly of any type of aquatic creature for three days and survive to tell the [tall] tale? Then there is this whopper – the Sun and Moon stood still in the sky at the command of Joshua. Now that would imply that the Earth suddenly stopped rotating on its axis. I’m sure anyone who is even slightly scientifically literate would know the catastrophic results that would transpire if the Earth suddenly stopped rotating and stood still. Even if that were possible how do you get it going again? So, just these few examples alone bring science and religion into conflict, or at least into conflict for those who believe that the Bible is absolutely God’s true word; literally true in every way. Unfortunately, such fundamentalist believers, creationists, haven’t yet gone the way of the dodo and appear happy to keep the science versus religion conflict an ever ongoing one.

Is This the Best of All Possible Worlds?

If this is the best of all possible worlds, then the creator of this world screwed up big time! That aside, it’s difficult to imagining best without being able to also imagine better. In some contexts one can imagine best without being able to imagine better – a perfect game pitched in baseball; a royal flush in poker; achieving 100% on an exam; winning an Academy Award perhaps, but such scenarios tend to have fixed rules and parameters. There doesn’t seem to be a rulebook for creating worlds that can be scored as 100% perfect. Can one ever create a world where one can’t go beyond best to better-than-best? In any event, best can be, and usually is, a relative term. What’s best for me is not of necessity best for you and vice versa. If this were the best of all possible worlds everybody would be equally best in everything and that of course is an absurd concept.

Do Angels and Demons Exist?

I put no stock in the existence of supernatural entities though I do subscribe to the philosophy that underneath every mountain of mythology, especially mythologies that cut across nearly all human cultures and historical eras, there is a molehill of fact. Now under the Fermi Paradox, “Where is everybody?”, it is just about certain that ET has visited, noted and logged, even explored our Third Rock from the Sun – Planet Earth – in the geological, even historical past. As Arthur C. Clarke has pointed out, any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, or the supernatural, to those less technological. So angels and demons are just run-of-the-mill flesh-and-blood mortal extraterrestrials, or ‘ancient astronauts’, mistaken for supernatural entities by ‘primitive’ humans, human cultures and human societies. Angels and demons were just part of a larger collective of extraterrestrials and not the be all and end all of ‘ancient astronauts’. Oh, and by the way, angels do NOT have wings despite all of the millions of modern images to the contrary. In the Biblical texts, only the cherubim and the seraphim are associated with wings.

Is there a Judgment?

If there is a judgment, then who judges the Judge? Where is the system of checks and balances? It seems here that God (or equivalent) has appointed Himself as Judge, Jury and Executioner. We know how well that sort of legal system works down here on Planet Earth. Why suspect it will be any better upstairs? And is there any appeal process? In any event I fail to see why I should have to answer to any deity for any and all of my actions here on Earth when I would of already had to answer for them here on Earth by and according to my peers. If you do the crime and then you do the time, why should you be tried and punished a second time by a deity?

Is This the End Time?

If I received a dollar bill for every time someone said that we were living in the end times; the end is nigh; the second coming is just around the corner; the world will end on such-and-such a date as ‘predicted’ in the Bible (because there are wars and rumors of war); that someone had a vision from God that the apocalypse or Armageddon would happen in a matter of weeks, etc., I could donate or put half of those dollar bills into the collection plate and still end up being a very, very rich man. The bottom line is that over thousands of years, each and every prediction or prophecy that the end of days, even a general one that the rapture is really close now, quite apart from those who make specific predictions as to the exact date that the end of the world will come to pass, has failed. What sort of confidence does a 100% failure rate inspire in you that the next ‘prophet’ to come along will get it right? I think it is safe to plan for your future, your children’s future and your grandchildren’s future without losing any sleep over that future being prematurely terminated as outlined by the Biblical Book of Revelation.

Do Heaven and Hell Really Exist 1?

Do Heaven and Hell really exist? Well, I start with two assumptions, the first being that Heaven and Hell are physical places since in order to experience either one you’ll need your sensory apparatus intact and that requires matter and energy. You can’t burn in eternal torment in Hell if you can’t feel anything (no physical nervous system) which would have to be a physical infra-red radiation; you can’t physically see the glory of God if you have no eyesight, if you have no physical perception-of-vision apparatus and there is no light which is another form of energy. Okay, you retain something of the physical you in the afterlife and the afterlife abode has to be a physical place. Now if I understand this correctly, and this is my second assumption, Heaven is upstairs in the Cosmos somewhere and Hell is downstairs here on, or below, Earth (which leads me to an interesting question why the universal flood, that deluge when Noah sailed the really high seas, didn’t extinguish Hell’s fire since surely every entrance to any sort of underground must have been under water and water flows downhill – but I digress). Humans have over the millennia done a pretty good job of exploring all the land-based nooks and crannies of our planet, and guess what? No Hell has been found, neither visually or seismically or any other way like as in smoke arising out of the entrance to Hell. As for Heaven, well Heaven may reside in the Cosmos but it really has to be pretty close by in order for God and/or His minions to keep tabs on what’s going on down here on Earth. That’s because of the finite speed of light limitations. If God-in-Heaven were 1000 light years away, or if Heaven were located in say the Andromeda Galaxy, then it would take a long time for prayers to reach God and just as long for Him to act on them. And by the time God could learn if you were naughty or nice you’d have long since turned to dust. No, Heaven has to be close by, say within easy commuting distance for angelic messengers. The question then arises, given the intense observational scrutiny of near-Earth space (on the hunt for dangerous Earth-impacting asteroids) as well as those regions of space in our local cosmic neighborhood (say the volume that contains our solar system out to the Oort Cloud) by astronomers both professional and amateur, how come no Heaven has been spotted? I mean it would have to be pretty large place, way bigger than a typical O’Neill Space Colony in order to house all those billions and billions of people who have already met their maker, as well as all those billions and billions yet to meet their maker, and all of those billions and billions of people not yet born who will one day meet their maker. Heaven and Hell may yet exist, but both are rapidly running out of real estate options in which to hide and avoid our scrutiny.

Do Heaven and Hell Really Exist 2?

There is another possible answer to the question regarding the actual existence of a Heaven and/or a Hell. That possibility centers on the notion that our reality might in fact be an artificial or fake reality. We might in fact be ‘living’ out our lives as virtual beings in a Simulated (Virtual Reality) Universe. Now if we are ‘living’ our lives as a simulation, then it is possible that we might ‘live’ our afterlives, assuming the concept of life after death has been programmed into the overall simulation, in a virtual Heaven or a simulated Hell. Now the interesting thing about that scenario is that all possible versions of Heaven and Hell as conceived by human cultures and societies could be catered for. There would be a Christian Hell; an Ancient Greek Hades; and a Norse Hel, as well as all other hellish versions too that humans have conceived of. The same applies to Heaven or any other version of paradise that human cultures have accepted as their home once they shuffle off of this mortal coil and kick the bucket. Of course that doesn’t give actual reality to a Heaven and/or a Hell, but if you are a virtual being in a virtual Heaven the real nature of that reality as far as you are concerned is a moot point.

Is Life After Death Possible?

Life after death is possible in one scenario at least. That scenario is that we exist as virtual beings in a Simulated (Virtual Reality) Universe. Just as our virtual reality ‘life’ is controlled by a software program, when that program terminates (our virtual reality ‘death’), it can be replaced by a virtual reality ‘afterlife’ software program. Since the odds are pretty high that we do indeed exist as virtual reality, the odds are reasonable that that virtual reality includes a virtual reality life after death. Apart from that scenario, I don’t hold out much hope that you will have an afterlife. If you want to have consciousness or awareness in an afterlife you will need your sensory apparatus intact as well, along with all of the neurological infrastructure that supports sight, sound, etc. In short, you need your mind intact and for that to exist you need your brain intact, but as we are all too well aware of, at death, your brain, your mind and your ability to perceive sights and sounds, all of which contributes to your awareness and consciousness goes down the sink-hole. So, perhaps you should hope that somewhere out there there is an afterlife software program with your name on it.

Is There Life After Death?

There is a slight complication to the question of a resurrection and an afterlife. In all such philosophical and theological pondering, it is taken for granted that we (humans) are an organism (singular). Of course we are not an organism. In any accounting of the human condition one needs to come to terms with the realization that we are not one organism but a colony of billions of organisms which we call cells. If we get a resurrection and life after death then presumably all of our billions of cells get a resurrection and an afterlife. Well why should there be a life after death discrimination or distinction just for human cells? Are all cells equal but some cells are more equal than others? I think not. So, presumably every cell, every micro-organism, every bacteria, every amoeba, gets resurrected and an eternal ‘life’. That means every cell in every multicellular organism gets a resurrection and ‘life’ after death, even those cells that died before the multicellular organism died. Therefore every multicellular organism, including plants, ‘lives’ eternally. That should make pet owners happy since they will be reunited with their companion animals in the hereafter. As an aside by the way, because we are a colony of organisms, when we die not all that comprises us dies at the same time. Some, in fact probably most of our cells will outlive us by at least minutes if not hours or more!

Do Persons have Souls?

Over the course of recorded history, billions of people have passed away in the presence of other people. These independent observers have never reported any verified occurrence of the deceased emitting some sort of wispy type of ether substance that could be considered the deceased’s soul or essence or spirit or whatever you care to call it. Therefore, if there was such a wispy thing, it was undetectable by the five senses, and in some cases when present and recorded, by instrumentation such as cameras or thermometers and associated. So, those who postulate a wispy soul have to argue that an undetectable something could somehow still be substantial enough to contain the essence of a deceased person, including all of their memories and knowledge, personality, emotions, likes and dislikes, in fact a total of multi tens of thousands of bits and pieces that make up the essence of a person. Well maybe the soul is composed of dark matter or of dark energy. Maybe the soul is just a conglomeration of neutrinos or gravitons. Although those options are highly unlikely, regardless, a soul must be a thing. A soul must have structure and substance. Therefore it seems unlikely in the extreme that given the billions of people that have passed on, that no dearly departed souls have ever been spotted. If they had been, there wouldn’t be any need for this discussion.

What’s a Resurrection Like 1?

I’ll just start off my equating an afterlife with the concept of a resurrection. Now I personally think that when you kick-the-bucket that’s it. You’re dead and the value in that is that you get recycled and get a chance to live again, or at least some of your atoms and molecules do, in other life forms, even if it’s just bacteria and worms (but then birds might eat the worms and another human eat the bird, so bits of you might become human again). Anyway, while it might be theoretically to resurrect your body if your DNA remains viable, it’s very hard to see how you can be cloned if you were cremated or if your body was consumed when eaten by a shark and you are now shark-flesh. However, enough gloom and doom. There is an escape clause leading to a possible resurrection and afterlife. That clause is what if we actually exist as virtual beings in a Simulated (Virtual Reality) Universe? One can imagine the following: End software program; end subroutine biological viability of one Joe Citizen. Joe Citizen is virtually dead. Now imagine the following: Begin software program; begin subroutine afterlife viability of one Joe Citizen. Joe Citizen has been virtually resurrected and is a happy camper in a virtual Heaven. Now the really interesting thing about that scenario is that you could get the type of afterlife that was part and parcel of the afterlife concept held by your society. Thus, the ancient Egyptians got an ancient Egyptian afterlife (albeit in virtual reality); the ancient Greeks got an ancient Greek afterlife (ditto); the Vikings got a traditional Viking afterlife (ditto again), and so on.

What’s a Resurrection Like 2?

There’s another form of resurrection that we ‘enjoy’ over time. When we sleep we dream. When we dream we exist as ourselves in our dreams even if only as a passive observer. Now what happens when the dream concludes, or when we wake up? Our dream self ‘dies’. However, although you ‘die’ when your dream concludes, or when you wake up, you get resurrected again in your next dream! And you don’t need the intervention of any supreme deity to make it so! I’ve often wondered whether this might be one of the observations or mechanisms that when theoretically elevated one level up might not have led to the possibility of people considering a real post-death resurrection.

Eternal Life is Like What?

Eternal life is like what? Eternal life is like boring, very, very, boring. Oh you might be occupied for the first million years or so learning all about your new eternal existence, the rules and regulations, the do’s and do nots, catching up with old previously departed friends and family, digesting the contents of the heavenly library of books and CDs and DVDs (or whatever passes for entertainment upstairs), puttering around in your heavenly garden, learning some new skills like playing the harp and how to polish your halo, maybe even do a bit of shopping every thousand years or so (would there be shopping malls in heaven?). But eternity is forever. Eternity is infinity. So will you still be eager to get up-and-at-things, jump-start the day out of your heavenly bed instead of sleeping in (I assume that you will still sleep) after a billion years has passed and heaven becomes a bit of ho-hum – the angels aren’t going to give yet another concert featuring 1000 repeats of the “Hallelujah Chorus” are they; and if I have to attend any more bingo games I’ll go nuts! And wouldn’t it be nice to get some rain for once here in Camelot, oops, sorry, Heaven. But wait, there’s more. There’s trillions of years yet ahead of you yet in which you will need to occupy your time, and that’s just beginning to scratch the surface of what eternity means. Look, let’s face it. Humans have a hard time fully occupying their time constructively here on Earth for three score and ten years, especially once they hit those golden years and retire. What hope will there be that you can fill in trillions upon trillions of years of available idle time in your everlasting ‘life’ after death in any sort of meaningful way? The other factor to take into consideration is that you may have to spend eternity not only with loved ones, but your former nasty neighbors, that cranky old boss of yours, politicians you never voted for in a pink fit, your mother-in-law, as well as a host of the great unwashed you couldn’t abide when down here on Earth! But if eternal life is what you want, and eternal life is what you get, well don’t come crying to me when you find yourself totally bored to ‘death’.

Imagining Immortality and Eternal Life?

Few of us want to die, but none of us have any say in the matter. The next best option, since we have a hard time coming to terms with our non-existence, is an afterlife or life after death. So it is not surprising that we would jump on any bandwagon that gives us that option. However, be careful what you wish for. People don’t usually want just an afterlife, they want an eternal life after death. You can’t have immortality in this reality, but in the next reality, a supernatural realm, immortality is often promised. However, the Big Question is what the heck do you do in your afterlife? You’re going to begin to get a bit bored after having read every heavenly issue of “The Readers Digest” and “The National Geographic” thirty times over. And how many reruns of “I Love Lucy” can you stand? I am assuming that one way of passing your eternal existence is akin to the way you passed your time in your living reality. Still, for the first several million years or so you are a happy little camper in Heaven, but what about after several billion years then several trillion of years, and that’s just for starters. Eternity is a very, very, very long time – infinitely long in fact. But a finite afterlife means you have got to face ‘death’ and non-existence all over again. Actually sooner or later, be it in a Big Crunch or a Heat Death or a Big Rip, the cosmos will come to an end or die an energy death, and then where will you be? I do assume that your afterlife is spent somewhere in the cosmos. Perhaps it is better to just fade away at the end of your biological life and be thankful that of all the possible unions of eggs and sperm that could have been, the one that was turned out to be you. On the plus side, personally I like to think of post-death as like being the same as pre-life – peaceful and tranquil and tax-free!