Thoughts on Dune and Messiahs

Denis Villeneuve and his team have finally begun to bring Dune to cinema in a way that is fitting. It is years since I read the book, but experiencing this film brings it back in a vivid and compelling way. I can smell it. This is a movie that you live through for its 155-minute running time. You can see, feel, and breath in the fabric of this story in a compelling and satisfying way. One of the real successes here is in taking a complex, politically woven novel, yet presenting the important themes in a clear and interesting way.

Frank Herbert wrote the original novel and it was published in 1965. He has brought together many ancient political, religious, and economic strands from the history of human civilization and woven his story through it giving his fictional world a real weight.

The Dune Wiki says that the religious themes of Dune are mainly derived from Islam, and the language inspired by Arabic.[1] The Middle Eastern influence is clear. But the life of Paul Atreides is a Messiah story that recalls the stories that are rooted in ancient Judaism and fulfilled by the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Set Islam aside for a moment. There is a lot of Christian symbolism in Dune.

Paul may be the Kwisatz Haderach, or Muad’Dib. These words identify the Dune universe Messiah figure who will lead people to true freedom and is expected by both the Fremen on Arrakis and the Bene Gessarit. In his blog, Scott Smith identifies links in Dune to the Hebrew Kabbalistic term Kefitzat Ha’derech.[2]

Paul is the son of a king (or Duke) and he comes to a people who are repeatedly abused and colonized. The Fremen of Arrakis are reminiscent of the Hebrew people, colonized by the Romans, and visited by the Messiah Jesus. Yet while the Jews expected a military Messiah, and the Fremen of Dune expected and got the same in Paul Atreides, Jesus of Nazareth is anything but a military figure. Like Jesus, Paul is expected and tested in the desert. Unlike Jesus, the people recognize him when he arrives on Arrakis. The film captures these themes really clearly.

Dune Reminds Me – We Are Looking for a Messiah

This reminds me that humanity has a history of expecting the divine. So many ancient mythologies and religions down through history have pointed to a coming deity – just like Dune does. J Warner Wallace has helpfully listed many of the characteristics of these religious deities:[3]

The deity is:

  • Predicted, like the birth of Zoroaster, and Paul Atreides.
  • Comes from royal heritage, like the Greek god Adonis, and Paul Atreides.
  • Comes from unnatural means, like the Hindu Tibetan deity, and possibly Paul Atreides.
  • Protected as a child, as the Buddah’s parents may have done.
  • Faces temptation, like Krishna the Hindu deity.
  • Is identified with shepherds, like the Egyptian god Osiris.
  • Possess supernatural power, like Quetzalcoati the Mesoamerican deity.
  • Active in engaging humans directly, like Tammuz the Mesopotamian god.
  • A teacher of  human followers, like Serapis the Graeco-Egyptian deity.
  • One who recognizes the need for a sacrifice, like Shangdi the Chinese deity.
  • One who faced a judicial death, like Dionysus the Greek and Roman god.
  • One who establishes a divine meal, like Mithras the Persian and Roman god.
  • One who has the power to defeat death, like Heracles the Greek god.
  • One who offers eternal life to their followers, like Zalmoxis the deity of Getae and Dacian.
  • One who will judge the living and the dead, like Thakur Jiu, the Santal deity.

I guess we can add Paul Atreides to this list.

Jesus is the Ultimate Messiah

There are similarities here in these deity figures between these ancient religious figures and Paul Atreides of Dune. Frank Herbert was inspired by human religious tradition, so this is expected. But even more, there are similarities between the attributes on this list and Jesus of Nazareth. Wallace observes that, rather than joining this list as yet another humanly invented deity, Jesus is different. He uniquely possesses all the characteristics found in so many ancient mythologies. He embodies and personifies mankind’s expectation of God.

This similarity with mythology was the thing that kept C S Lewis back from accepting Christianity for many years, until his friend J R R Tolkien helped him see that Christianity is not just another fictional mythology to add to the list. Rather – it is the mythology which is true, being rooted in history and real events.  Later in his life, Lewis wrote this:

“Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous different that it really happened: and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God’s myth where the others are man’s myths … Christianity is God expressing himself through what we call “real things.”[4]

I loved Dune part 1, and I recognize the power of myth. And I think it – like the many compelling fictional myths that have come before it – point ultimately to the true myth of Jesus who meets all of mankind’s needs for a Messiah. The one who finally makes us free men and women, free from the weight of mankind’s rebellion against God, free from guilt and shame, free to experience life in the future as God intends..

“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free” Galatians 5:1


[1] Religion | Dune Wiki | Fandom

[2] Scott Smith, Theology of Dune, The Scott Smith Blog, The Theology of Dune (thescottsmithblog.com).

[3] J Warner Wallace, Person of Interest, (Zondervan Reflective, 2021), 33-35.

[4] J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and the Idea of the “True Myth” | Russell’s Inspiration Daybook (wordpress.com)

The Cost of the Multiverse

Marvel’s Loki series has built an interesting narrative on the idea of an infinite multiverse. Anything that could happen (including an alligator with a great Tom Hiddleston grin on its face), has happened. This makes for a rich story telling device. It is the way ahead for Marvel’s Multiverse of Madness phase 4 storyline. But there might be more going on here. Fiction is helping to cement the actual physical idea of a real multiverse into the public consciousness. The idea of a multiverse crops up in both science and science fiction.

The multiverse is how some scientists account for the fine tuning of the universe for life – without resorting to God as an explanation. Physicists Andrei Linde, Alan Guth, and Paul Steinhardt have proposed a scientific model called Inflationary Cosmology, while other physicists have proposed String Theory. You cash out the details in different ways, but you end up with:

1 – Our universe is finely setup for life to exist.

2 – There are an infinite number of different universes.

3 – There is a high likelihood of life sustaining universes coming into existence.

4 – We are just lucky to live in a life sustaining universe.

MIT physicist Max Tegmark has gone further to say that, “all structures that exist mathematically exist also physically.”[1] If you can think of a structure that is mathematically possible, then because there is an infinite multiverse, that structure isn’t just an idea. It actually must exist! So – hello Gator Loki.

However – there is a big epistemological cost to this idea. Stephen C. Meyer points out the cost in two ways.

The Cost of Our Rationality

The infinite multiverse means that any event- however unlikely – has actually occurred an infinite number of times. One such event is the sudden appearance (through quantum fluctuations of subatomic fields/particles) of a brain with preset memories and an ability to perceive a limited universe. These are called Boltzmann Brains after 19th century physicist Ludwig Boltzmann. They pop into existence for a while – and then pop out of existence again.

If physicists posit a multiverse to explain the fine tuning of the universe for life, then this also must lead us to doubt the reliability of our own minds because it is more likely that we are Boltzmann Brains than individuals in a naturally complex and populated universe. And if that is the case – our scientific reasoning abilities, perceptions, and our basis for accepting the multiverse hypothesis are all undermined. The infinite multiverse is a self-refuting hypothesis.[2]

The Cost of Scientific Prediction

If we live in an infinite multiverse, then what can we say about our understanding of the laws of nature? Take the law of gravity for example? Well – we can say that so far – the behaviour of nature is such that the law of gravity leads us to expect certain behaviours. For example, the dropping of an apple from the branch of a tree to the ground. But because anything that could happen must happen in an infinite universe, we must also face the possibility that at some arbitrary point in the future, the natural laws will diverge and begin to behave in unexpected ways. Apple’s can start to fall up, for example. This is because for all we know, the mathematical laws describing the universe are not fully understood by us yet and are controlled by a wider and more general equation that will lead nature to behave differently in the future. We cannot rule out this possibility. But that means we can no longer confidently predict scientifically whether or not events will happen based on our experience of the past. Stephen Meyer puts it this way:

“Scientific explanation presupposes the uniformity and regularity of nature, including the uniformity of the fundamental laws of physics and the regularity of patterns of cause and effect [but] such uniformity and regularity may not characterize our universe, however much it might have seemed to do so up until this point.”[3] We might think we are experiencing cause and effect in nature. But what we don’t realise is that actually, we have been experiencing random fluctuations and nature will behave differently in the future compared to the past. Science as we know it – ceases to be helpful.

Summary

If we accept the thesis that we live in an infinite multiverse, then we must also accept two additional conclusions. We cannot be sure that we are rational, and we cannot rely on our ability to make scientific predictions.

Both of these conclusions undermine the multiverse hypothesis and the practice of science – so – I would suggest we cannot live with these conclusions. They are not logically sound. And so this is a strong reason to reject the multiverse in physics, look for another theory to explain the fine tuning of the universe.

Having said all of that – roll on season 2 of Marvel’s Loki!


[1] Stephen C. Meyer, Return of the God Hypothesis, (HarperOne, 2020), 394.

[2] Ibid., 401 – 402.

[3] Ibid., 396.

Are the Jesus Stories Originally from Egyptian Mythology?

Zeitgeist is a German word referring to both time (zeit) and spirit (geist). The spirit of the times are the popular and influential ideas that are going around. When the Zeitgeist movie was released online in 2007, it gives voice to renewed scepticism about religion in general and Christianity in particular.

It states that the Jesus story we find written in the New Testament is essentially a re-hash of earlier myths about dying and rising Gods. The Jesus of faith wasn’t a real person, rather he was an idea cooked up by people in the past. Here’s a taste of what it says:

 

“Horus … He is the Sun God of Egypt of around 3000 BC. He is the sun anthropomorphized… Horus was born on December 25th of the virgin Isis-Meri. His birth was accompanied by a star in the east … three kings followed [this] to locate and adorn the new-born saviour. At the age of 12, he was a prodigal child teacher, and at the age of 30 he was baptized by a figure known as Anup and thus began his ministry…he was crucified … buried … and resurrected.”[1]

If this story sounds like the Jesus story, Zeitgeist says you are wrong. It is actually the story of the Egyptian Sun God Horus, who’s story was supposedly repurposed by the Christian church and attributed to the later Jesus of Nazareth.

This idea has a big problem.

Actually – this IS the Jesus story which has been mistakenly applied BACKWARDS onto the character of Egyptian mythology – Horus. This would be a bit like claiming the events from Charles Dicken’s life did not happen. Rather, they were actual events from the life of Ebenezer Scrooge (the character from the book A Christmas Carol) that were passed off as events from Dicken’s life. That’s a pretty absurd claim! Right?

If you think Zeitgeist summarises the Christian story, it’s because it does. But, it does NOT properly recount the Egyptian myth, and it anachronistically and incorrectly imposes historical reports about Jesus onto a mythological Egyptian character called Horus.

 

Chris Forbes is Professor of Ancient History at Macquarie University in Sydney. He’s an expert in ancient myths. And – he has a number of interesting things to say about the mistaken claims of the Zeitgeist movie. You can find a useful interview with Chris here.

 

First – Horus is not an Egyptian sun God. He was the God of the sky. The sun God was Raa. So Zeitgeist’s play on words (sun God vs son of God) is just pointless and irrelevant.

Second – The mother of Horus was Isis, but there’s no evidence in the Egyptian sources that she was a virgin.

Third – Egyptians would not date Horus’s birth as December 25th, because they used a completely different calendar. December is a Latin month, and so a foreign idea to ancient Egypt.

Fourth – Horus wasn’t crucified and raised from the dead. He wasn’t killed at all. Rather, in this particular myth, it was Osiris who was killed by his brother Set, who dismembered him and hid the pieces around ancient Egypt so they could not be reconstituted again. Isis gathers the pieces, binds them together again with bandages, and so Osiris becomes the first Egyptian mummy that all the rest relate to.

Fifth – the Horus, Isis and Osiris events are not recorded in historical time. Rather, Egyptian mythology is understood to have happened in a kind of dream time, or mythology. By contrast, the New Testament and the reports of Jesus are clearly presented as a historical account.

Sixth – no serious historian doubts that Jesus of Nazareth existed and was crucified by the Romans in the first century. There is debate around whether the Bible’s description of him is correct. But – that he lived is beyond serious consideration. Horus, on the other hand, is a well understood myth.

Seventh – the sources used by the writers of the Zeitgeist movie are not qualified to make their assertions. For example, Gerald Massey is an English Poet and amateur Egyptologist. He’s not a professional historian. And this hurts the credibility of the film and its claims. When you actually check proper references and compare them with the claims that Zeitgeist makes, you can see that actually it is just talking nonsense.

[1] Zeitgeist: The Movie, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OrHeg77LF4Y.

1917 as a Metaphor for Christian Commission

This hits me hard. The unwavering commitment shown by Schofield and Blake to get the truth thru to the right people in time. If you are a Christian who has ever felt inadequate in the face of the task of sharing the Christian good news…this story presents a useful analogy.

 

There is truth.

Truth is real. If we say, “There is no truth,” then we are contradicting ourselves because we are making a truth claim even as those words leave our mouths. No – truth is a daily human experience. These soldiers received the truth in the form of army intelligence and the consequences it has on the lives of others.

Christianity is about receiving truthful intel from the person who is responsible for putting people in this universe in the first place. The ultimate General. If we are people who deal in the currency of truth, then he made us that way. So truth exists and must be grounded in him. God.

 

They don’t doubt how vital the truth is.

When the soldiers hear the vital news, these guys buy it. Why? Because it’s their General that’s speaking to them. Their commanding officer’s commanding officer. There’s a look of utter resignation and horror in the officer’s face as he gives them their mission. And the stakes are high. They could not be higher. There’s an urgency in the truth. And these guys are the only ones tasked with acting on it.

What’s happening is – they are being trusted as carriers of the truth. And – if they don’t get the truth through – then a lot of people are going to suffer and die. The General trusts them with this truth – this causes them to grasp the message tightly. Whether or not the General actually believes they will succeed in the mission or not – is irrelevant for them.

That’s not to say Schofield and Blake have doubts. What’s the best way to embark on this mission? What happens if there are details we have been told aren’t quite right? Should we wait for more favourable conditions, or go now?

This is like a metaphor for the truth claims of Christianity. Truth is grounded in Jesus Christ. If the Jesus-message is true, then all people’s eternal lives are at risk. Whether the conditions are favourable or not, those of us commissioned to carry the truth need to get there to explain what is really going on, and what the truthful message is. When he was teaching, Jesus was like a General. Commissioning his friends with the vital truth.

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (Matthew 7:13-14, NIV)

We’ve only got a narrow margin for error here, guys. We need to tell people to aim for the narrow safe gate. It’s the only safe way through for everyone! The stakes are high here.

“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6, NIV)

 

They don’t allow the chaos of war to make them doubt the relevance of the truth for their audience.

As soon as Schofield and Blake leave the General’s bunker, they are faced with distractions. The film beautifully captures the chaos and horror of war. I use the word beautiful not to describe what it shows, but how it does it which looks and sounds exquisite to me. War is seen as moments of boredom punctuated with periods of utter terror, hope and despair. Periods where progress is made, and times when the pain is so raw that all one can do is weep.

But the machine of war is complex. All these different teams working hard on their assigned duties. Chains of command and reporting structures between people. Yet these two young guys are commanded to cut across all of it. They are told to ignore the machine of war and get to one person who is making the bad strategic decision. Because they accept that whatever is going on, their message is RELEVANT for the survival of many people. And this means they have to do two things.

First – ignore much of the activity around them. The voices that tell them to go a different way or even stay behind and do something else. No – as much as they do work to help other people, and do what they can, they cannot stop. They have a singular mission and they must achieve it or the results will be catastrophic.

Second – they must confidently engage the right people with the right questions. They need to ask the right questions to succeed on their mission. And they’ve got to be selective about who they speak to.

There is so much churn in life around about us today. We have jobs, mortgages, and the planet is in uproar about climate change, political upheavals and the impact of terrorism. It all matters. And yet – there’s a particular truthful message that has got to get through about Jesus. The narrow way. He is the only one that will ultimately get us through. So – we’ve got to avoid letting the complexity of life confuse or distract us. Maybe there is one person who really needs to hear this vital news in our life. Today. Yes we’ve got to be sensitive to the current needs of people in our lives, and we have tasks to perform now. But the ultimately important message about Jesus has to get through to that particular person. It just has. And maybe we are involved in getting the message to them.

 

They don’t allow the confusion of the people around about to cause them to lose a grasp on the truth for themselves.

One of the characters in this story has real skin in the game. His brother is bound to die unless this message gets through. So this message has relevance. Not just for people … but for family. And there are moments in their journey that could rightfully cause them to stop and to give up. To go back the way they came and stop carrying the message. But – they don’t stop. They keep going. Because this truth isn’t just about saving others. It is vital for their own lives and futures too.

Christianity is similar. Being a follower of Jesus is about being the carrier of vital news. Whatever happens around us – this remains true. However much life has tried to blow the stuffing out of us, we remain carriers of the good news. It is in us. God himself lives within us. And so yes, we may need to rest and heal, but then afterwards we must continue our mission. It is of utmost importance that we do this.

 

They keep going even though they feel inadequate to the task.

The whole point of this mission is that it is a launch out into the unknown. No one would feel adequate in these circumstances.

Jesus Christ commissioned his friends in a similar way to the General commissioning Schofield and Blake.

“Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life, marking them by baptism in the threefold name: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Then instruct them in the practice of all I have commanded you. I’ll be with you as you do this …” (Matthew 28:18-20, The Msg)

No one would feel adequate for this task. But Jesus is better than a military General ever could be. Because he joins us on our perilous journey.

Jesus isn’t just a great teacher trying to add useful helpful ideas that people can benefit from. He has a lifesaving message that needs to get thru.

“This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life. God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again.” (John 3:16-18, The Msg)

The “Faith” of Dracula

In their new adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss have said they continued to respect the Christian themes that run through the original novel. The Count still cringes at the sight of the cross, and the church is central.  By the way – if you are thinking of watching the new Dracula series – be warned that it is not for the feint hearted. There are some very gruesome scenes in there.

I am a fan of Gatiss and Moffat. But I must say, while I agree that they have included Christian characters and situations, I don’t think they really understand what Christianity is. They may claim they are building on Christian history in this story. I’m skeptical. Tho I agree they absolutely are building on the tradition of horror cinema from the past 40 years.

One of their most interesting characters is Sister Agatha, played by Dolly Wells. She appears to be a snarky and disillusioned Catholic Nun with an analytic mind. I enjoyed the way she worked to outwit the infamous Count. The story, particularly in the first episode, is masterfully crafted by Moffat and Gatiss. BUT- I was bemused by their understanding of the word “faith.”

At one point in the first episode, Sister Agatha rolls her eyes at the seeming naivety of the other sisters in her religious order. “Have faith,” they encouraged her. Agatha’s reply is piercing.

“Faith is a sleeping draft for children and simpletons. What we must have is a plan.”

The phrase “sleeping draught” comes from Stoker’s original novel, and I think it refers to the shot of whisky or strong spirit that people may take to help them fall sleep at night. What Agatha is saying is that faith is dangerous because it lulls us to sleep. Faith causes us to lose our creative edge, and that is dangerous for intelligent people who are true problem solvers. If we are wise, we will avoid religious faith.

I would suggest that this shows a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of Christian faith. While it’s dramatically powerful to show Sister Agatha as a disillusioned Nun, to hear her confusion about Christianity is – well – rather odd. It’s the current post-Christian cultural confusion about the roots of Western society … placed into a devout character in a historical setting. That’s weird and anachronistic to me.

 

What’s Faith?

Well – it’s not a complicated or even a particularly religious idea. Faith simply means – confidence, trust and reliance.

 

What’s the Misunderstanding Today?

The problem is, our culture has swallowed the idea that there is a disconnect between faith and evidence and reason. In fact, people today (including the writers of Dracula) think faith is the OPPOSITE of reason. We get that from Sister Agatha. When we learn about something, the need for faith vanishes. But more than that, our culture dismisses Christianity because it they don’t think it contains anything knowable…the need of faith betrays the pointlessness of religion. “One needs faith in religious or moral claims because there is no knowledge that these claims are true, no evidence either way for them.”[1] If that’s the sort of religion that Sister Agatha is embroiled in, then no wonder she is disillusioned and wants to run from it. It’s pointless and, in the face of a cunning enemy, highly dangerous. But you need to know – this is not – and never has been – what Christianity is about.

Quite the opposite. If “faith” is really about confidence, trust and reliance then in those terms, knowledge is absolutely crucial. Why? Because we cannot trust something or someone we do not know anything about. Knowledge is essential in the building of that trust! Do you see the misunderstanding about faith in the words of Sister Agatha?

 

Replying to Sister Agatha

Is faith about being simple, and not knowing?

Not at all. Faith is about knowledge. The Greek word “notitia” refers to the CONTENT of faith. This is learning about how to develop a Christian understanding of the world, and what the Bible teaches. I’ve spent many years on this task, and there is so MUCH to know and contend for. In fact, it inspired this blog. The Jude in the New Testament wrote:

“I felt I had to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.”[2]

Clearly there is much to KNOW and apply in life. And more than that, we must proactively stand up for this in culture around us.

Is faith about turning off our rational faculties?

In my experience, the opposite is involved when growing in faith. Why? Partly because of “notitia,” the knowing element. But it is also because of a second element.

Faith is about agreement, or “assensus.” Personal agreement to live this way. This means that its not enough to rationally grasp and know the contents of Christianity. We also have to ACCEPT this teaching as true.

There may be very good reasons why we may not want to do that. Maybe the teaching is hard! Why? Because it challenges some deeply held patterns of behaviour in my life that are wrong, but I do not want to give up. I know its right to change. I just don’t want to. Or, maybe my prior experience has left me struggling to accept what Christianity says. If I grew up in an abusive home environment, accepting God as father may be really hard for me!

Is faith is about becoming passive and not acting?

Again – absolutely not. The Greek word “fiducia” is used to describe this in faith terms. We have to wilfully choose to commit to, and partner with God in every aspect of our lives. Christianity isn’t a set of abstract terms. Its actually an engagement with a God who we can know. And its about actually having a life that reflects what Christianity is.

 

So – does faith involve an absence of rationality, engagement and action? Absolutely not – it requires the most from us in all three areas!

 

How would I reply to Sister Agatha? “We don’t need faith … we need a plan,” she said. Can you see now that a proper understanding of faith involves gathering all the resources for approaching life and its challenges? (I’m assuming this also applies to the undead but I’ve not tried it) And even more than that, it is about facing these challenges together with God, not on our own.

 

“To trust Him is not a leap in the dark, but it is a venture none the less. It is a venture of courage and not of despair, of insight and not of bewilderment.”

P. T. Forsyth, The Creative Theology of P. T. Forsyth

 

[1] J. P. Moreland and Klaus Issler, In Search of a Confident Faith Overcoming Barriers to Trusting in God, (Downers Grove:IVP, 2008), 18.

[2] Jude 3.

 

Does the Multiverse Theorem Solve “Fine-Tuning”?

I have have been exploring the observations around cosmic fine tuning, and I’ve explained the possible explanations for it are either:

  • Natural necessity
  • Chance or
  • Design

Given the incredible coincidences that Sir Fred Hoyle observed that makes nature life permitting, seems like an incredible assumption to say either that the universe HAS to be this way, or it just happened to be this way by chance.

To increase the odds for a finely tuned universe by chance, some have suggested that perhaps there are an infinite number of parallel universes, all with slightly different configurations of cosmological constants. If that is how things are, then there are just a few life permitting parallel universes in existence, and we happen to inhabit one of them.

SO – the universe is not designed by a designer (God). Rather, we just happen to inhabit a parallel (or bubble) universe that is life permitting. It was bound to happen some time, given the infinite number of parallel universes that exist.

I love Star Trek as much as the next guy. But – I don’t buy this idea. There are problems.

First – it seems to violate Occam’s Razor. William of Occam was a Franciscan Friar who observed an important problem solving principle. “Entities should not be multiplied without necessity.” In other words, when we look at the WHOLE problem, to identify the correct solution we should not make it more complicated than necessary. We should go with the simplest possible answer that meets the conditions reflected by the whole problem.

When we posit the multiverse, we are ignoring three simple solutions (chance, natural necessity and design) and positing a much much more complex solution. An infinite number of universes, and a mechanism for generating each one.

The multiverse theory would not violate Occam’s Razor if I can show that none of these simpler options work. But I’ve heard no one prove to me that a universe designed for life is impossible. So – until that happens, I’m going to be sceptical of a solution that’s just too complicated (the Multiverse theory).

Second – the multiverse theory requires that an impossible, infinite series of events has and will occur. An infinite number of universes will pop into existence. The problem here is another philosophical one. You cannot have an actually infinite number of events in the real world, although you can have the idea of an infinite number of events in your mind. Why?

Imagine you have laid out a line of dominoes and you start them dropping, one at a time. Each one knocks the next one over until you reach domino 1, which then knocks over the final domino 0. You can actually do this experiment if the number of dominoes is an absolute number (say N). You start at N, and drop the dominoes till you reach 0. But if N is infinite, then there are an infinite number of dominoes in the line. You will never reach dominoes 1 and then finally 0, because you cannot step through an infinite number of events one at a time in nature.

The multiverse theory posits the idea that an infinite number of universes have existed, and then another one pops into existence, and then another. Like dominoes 1 and 0. This does not make sense.

If there is a multiverse, then it must have had an absolute beginning, an ultimate origin, and a particular number of parallel universes have appeared. This idea has been confirmed by the Borde-Guthrie-Vilenkin theorem which requires an absolute beginning to an expanding universe. This would apply to one universe, or a parallel set of universes.

An infinite multiverse is logically and naturally incoherent.

Third – there is absolutely no empirical evidence that a multiverse exists. It’s a very cool idea that allows the rebooting of beloved franchises (Star Trek) in the real world. But nothing more. Worse, scientific methods cannot prove or disprove it. Therefore to try to solve the fine tuning problem by appealing to a baseless assumption sounds like a really bad idea!

Fourth – a universe generator still needs to be fine tuned. Right? Because there has to be an absolute starting point for a finite number of parallel universes, there has to be something that causes these universes to come into existence. This therefore pushes us back to the original problem. Why is the multiverse generator finely tuned to produce multiple universes?

Fifth – chance and natural necessity seem unlikely explanations for the multiverse generator. But a cosmic designer seems a much better explanation. And so we are back to God as the inference to the best explanation for the existence of the universes.

Summary

I don’t buy multiverse as a solution to the fine tuning problem, though I do accept it as a solution to the cinema, TV and literature problem…how do we keep this story moving forward?

It is the Most Spiritual of All The Trek Movies

A vast cloud has been detected in outer space, and it’s heading toward Earth. Every being who has crossed its path has been lost. Admiral James Tiberius Kirk sees in this crisis an opportunity to escape a tedious desk job, and get back to his first love. Hopping galaxies in the star ship he used to call home.

So begins Star Trek the Motion Picture (TMP), which is – to my mind – the most spiritually aware of all the classic Trek movies. It’s also probably the most “Star Trek” of those films, because it touches on themes that affect us all. No, it doesn’t have “God” in it, or the famous line “What does God need with a star ship?” That’s left to the inferior Star Trek V. But the spiritual themes are more mature and deeply embedded in this first one.

During the torturous pre-production period for TMP, the Paramount Studio executives reportedly urged Gene Rodenberry to elevate the story to religious sorts of levels. They didn’t want a swash buckling Star Trek on the big screen. They wanted 2001 a Space Odyssey, a thoughtful and inspiring tale.[1] Right or wrong, I think that’s kind of what they produced.

It is forty years since TMP was released. I vividly remember going to see it in Glasgow during Christmas 1979. Of being amazed by how incredible it looked, but confused by the different feel to the TV Show I loved. Yet even as a youngster, I sensed the weighty themes at play in this movie.

So – what spiritual themes are found here? Someone might say – “It was just slow. It dragged. It was boring. Just like church is.” Well, that’s not quite what I was thinking of.

The Need to Know Who We Came From

It turns out that the cloud threat, V’Ger, is heading to Earth. But not to destroy it. Rather, V’Ger is travelling vast distances to meet with and to eventually join with its creator. Spoiler alert – V’Ger is actually NASA’s Voyager 6 probe, repurposed by a distant and advanced civilisation that made it sentient and sent it home again.

There’s a sense in which mankind’s religions have a similar aim. It is the attempt of the individual to somehow reach and to understand the greater reality, the one who is responsible for us being here in the first place or some state of ultimate spiritual fulfilment. So many people want to somehow relating to this bigger reality that has to do with where they came from. In the TV cut of TMP, Commander Decker actually says that V’Ger has done what people do, it has make God in their own image.[2]

The Need to Become, So That We Can Know

As the star ship Enterprise intercepts the cloud, V’Ger has to take the form of a member of the Enterprise bridge crew in order to engage and interact with Kirk, Spock, Bones and the rest. They lose their bridge officer, Lieutenant Ilia, only for her to return again in a slightly different form. While taking a shower. Go figure!

By using Ilea, V’Ger trying to understand and engage with the crew of the Enterprise, to learn everything it can, becoming like them so that it can know and understand more. V’Ger has to change itself, and take on something knew so it can know more.

The Need to Live a Significant Life

Admiral Kirk has been on his own quest, to recover past glories, and get back to his hearts deepest desires. Being Captain of a star ship. Yet in doing so, he finds that the Enterprise has changed. She’s not the same vessel she used to be.

Kirk has a need for fulfilment in life, of feeling that he is able to contribute in a significant way. Surely this is a longing within each of us? And it has similarities to the longings within V’Ger. Is this all I am? Is there nothing more? Kirk intuitively knows what he’s good at, and he wants to reclaim this position at all costs. Even if he must sacrifice other people to achieve it. Perhaps he realises that life is short, and in the end you need to spend the years you’ve got doing what you love, and doing something that makes a difference somehow?

The Journey to the Next Level of Life

Probably my favourite character arc is that of Spock. Kirk’s friend has been on a quest of his own for 10 years since we last saw him. His aim has been to finally purge all emotion from his life thru Kolinahr. And yet tragically Spock has failed in this quest. In an attempt to understand why, he realises that he must discover just what V’Ger is and what it’s aims are. And he uses the Enterprise and her crew to do that. But are his aims noble? Or … like Kirk may be doing … would he put his needs above those of others on the ship? It’s a fascinating tension there in the second act of the story.

Spock’s overall journey is one of abject failure which results in a reconnection with the people who had previously been his adopted family on board the star ship Enterprise. Spock finds what he needs in his interactions with V’Ger, and experiences a break thru from the failures and disappointments of the past into a new place of purpose and significance and belonging in his own life.

What about Bones? Sadly – he’s just along for the ride in this picture! What a shame.

The Need to Know and Be Known

V’Ger, has been travelling the universe learning all that can be known. Who cannot relate to the sense that there is so much that we do not know? But we have the urge to learn more. And what about so many big questions? Who am I and what is my purpose in life? I long to understand. Yet there is more. More than knowing answers, is actually being known by another. Personal intimacy is more important and vital than all the learning one can do, particularly with the one who originally created us.

 

The Themes

It turns out, Star Trek the Motion Picture is a story about knowing:

  • Knowing that you have managed to make contact with the person who created you
  • Changing to become like someone else so you can know what they are like.
  • Knowing what you want, and doing everything you can to get it.
  • Knowing that you have failed, and needing to find out whether you can move to the next stage of your life or not.
  • Coming to the realisation that knowing everything that can be known is not enough. The more important thing – is being known by the one that made you.

 

Christianity

It is fascinating for me then that, while TMP reflects human spirituality in its thematic structure, it is a very human form of religion we find there. Yet Christianity turns the tables on this very human search for meaning and knowledge. We might not realise it, but Christianity shows that it is not possible for the creature to restlessly reach for the greater thing. In the end it’s not mankind’s role to be like V’Ger, and seek to join with its creator. Actually it is the opposite. God comes looking for us instead.

Are Christians making God in our image here? Well, who would have imagined that the transcendent creator would stoop so low as to come in search of little me. It’s an absurd suggestion, it’s wonderful, it’s Christianity.

God wants to be known by me, and is willing to find us to let that happen. We are the people who have gotten lost and are in deep need of being rescued. God’s the one looking for us, not the other way around. He has the resources to become like us to find us, and to help us know what our purpose is in life. He can help us connect with him, to achieve what V’Ger, Kirk and Spock were all trying to get to. A life of true meaning, being known and loved for ever.

 

 

“The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel (which means “God with us”).” Matthew 1:23, NIV

“For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” Luke 19:10, NIV

Though he was God,[a]
he did not think of equality with God
as something to cling to.
Instead, he gave up his divine privileges[b];
he took the humble position of a slave[c]
and was born as a human being.
When he appeared in human form,[d]
he humbled himself in obedience to God
and died a criminal’s death on a cross.

Therefore, God elevated him to the place of highest honor
and gave him the name above all other names,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue declare that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. Philippians 2:6-11, NLT

 

[1] They were also confused about whether they wanted a movie or a new TV series. Eventually, Star Trek Phase II was dropped in favour of a new movie in the wake of the success of Star Wars at the box office.

[2] “In Thy Image” is actually a title for a proposed episode for a new Star Trek series which never happened, and instead was used as an inspiration for TMP.

Machines, Personhood and Sarah Connor

Contains mild spoilers.

The latest Terminator movie has stumbled at the box office. I feel that’s unfortunate because this was a genuinely fresh and interesting take on a well established story. What interested me was the philosophical article I read about it in the Hollywood Reporter.

The Hollywood Reporter suggests that, perhaps people just don’t see AI as the enemy any more? Rather, we see machines in more positive terms, convinced by the idea of a future personhood owned by machines. Yet Dark Fate tries to observe the psychological difference between man and machine. “Humans are uniquely alive compared to artificially intelligent beings because we are fated to death and decay in ways machines are not.”[1] There is a character called Grace who is part human and part machine, yet she is psychologically on the human side of the conflict. In comparison, the antagonist is a highly dangerous Rev-9 model Terminator which mimics humanity simply to make it a more efficient killing machine. This is a familiar story beat. Schwarzenegger’s Terminator in this movie has tried to emulate humanity for more positive and life giving reasons. Yet both of these machine Terminators are simply machines, unable to achieve personhood. Arnie’s Terminator “appreciates humanity and strives toward personhood, but can’t fully achieve it.”[2] So in this movie we see the full spread – human, part human and machine. The inhumanity and non-personhood is always located on the machine side. Perhaps people don’t resonate with this idea so much anymore? Perhaps “the generation raised on Wall-E is entering adulthood just as regarding robots as people becomes the onscreen norm.”[3]

If you think about it, Western society is increasingly of the opinion that people are simply biological mechanisms. There’s no soul, no spirit, just physical. We live, we break down and we die. And death is that cessation of functionality that no one in Western society likes thinking or talking about. Given that understanding of humanity, it makes sense that robots would be seen closer to us than ever before. Why do we have to portray conscious robots as the enemy, when it makes more sense to imagine that they would be our friends?

It’s a fascinating observation and – the Reporter might have a great point. But because society gathers around the idea of future, conscious AI, does not make that idea either credible or likely. Fictional stories are important, we learn a lot about ourselves and our personal development through myth and fairy-tale. Fictional stories can also lead to breakthrus in science. But sometimes the fictional idea is just going to remain a fictional idea. I think conscious, thinking and creative AI is one of those fun yet solid fictions. It doesn’t detract from my enjoyment of Terminator Dark Fate, but I’m increasingly convinced that genuinely conscious, thinking machines are impossible.

Why?

 

1 – We project our capacity for conscious thinking onto today’s AI.

It’s a way we use language and it would be misleading to someone who knows nothing about computers. AI is a cool gadget that makes my life better (self-driving car). Yet our AI of today is purely functional, following an algorithm and incapable of thinking about whether or not it wants to. It is a mechanism designed to emulate a human (hello Siri).

 

2 – We are always going to be superior to AI.

Machines may be faster and stronger than us, but we have ontological superiority. We are the ones designing and thinking here. When machines do cool things, they don’t get the praise. We do. The designers. We may not even have a metaphysical property that allows us to create thinking, creative  machines that can reproduce themselves.

 

3 – We are conscious, but we do not understand what that means.

A genuinely thinking machine would have to be conscious. But no one is doing the work to understand consciousness from a third person perspective. Part of the problem is that consciousness is something we have. It is deeply subjective and requires someone to be conscious. It is not something we can dissect from a third person perspective. Rather, it is something we experience. Thinking always requires a thinker.

We need to understand consciousness to replicate it. But – I’m not sure we’re built to understand consciousness. Just to experience it and use it to understand other things.

 

4 – Humans are of a Different Order than Machines.

Yes, we have a physical make up and the closer we look at it, the intricacy of biological mechanism is seen. But – we are of a different order to machines. Likening machines to humans is, in a real sense, comparing apples and oranges.

Whoever we are, we have the ability to navigate our way through life, following our own thoughts and ideas and intentions. We create opportunities and respond to events that occur from our own rational, creative and conscious selves. We have general intelligence. We live in our environment and we cope within it, we adjust. We establish a social network, we conduct our lives appropriately.

Machines are different order from us. They lack this general rationality. We give them rules to follow and they don’t think about it, they just do it. We are simply of a different order from them. We can build them to mimic human characteristics, but they are not thinking as they do so. They are simply following the instructions we programmed them with.

 

Final Thoughts

Yes, we are going to get better at making machines mimic human behaviour. But – I don’t think we will ever see a genuinely conscious machine. Terminator Dark Fate understands the ontological differences between us. And I think there is an important reason for doing that. Realising that we are more than biological machines is important for the future of humanity. It is a life giving perspective. As Arnie once said – “Come with me if you want to live.”

[1] Clara Wardlow, One Reason ‘Terminator Dark Fate’ Didn’t Connect With Sci-Fi Audiences, Hollywood Reporter, accessed 20th November 2019, https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/heat-vision/why-terminator-dark-fate-didnt-connect-audiences-1252112.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

 

Joker and the Cost of Nihilism

The reports were correct. For a comic book movie, Joker is unusually violent. Very violent, in fact. Yes I’ve seen it. No, I didn’t walk out. But I had to shut my eyes a few times.

(No spoilers below)

Director Todd Phillips portrays violence in the actions of his characters, but also in their uncaring, selfish and brutal attitudes towards each other. Violence is nothing new in cinema. But violence with no mitigating circumstances? Or apparent consequences? Personal pain turning into raw and unchained nihilism? It’s a tough watch. I’m grateful that Phillips clearly telegraphs the oncoming violence in his movie so that the audience has time to look away if they want to.

There is concern about the effect this film will have on culture. The tragic Aurora cinema shooting of 2012 was mistakenly linked to perceived glorification of violence in the earlier Dark Knight movies.[1] Well, Joker is a well-made and gritty homage to the Scorsese and Friedkin pictures of the 1970s. It feels like The French Connection in places. The cult status of the Joker character has caused people to worry that Aurora could happen again, a “wider cultural conversation is bound to crop up … [about] the influence these movies have on the national mood.”[2] Could the new Joker movie inspire copycat behaviour in certain types of people in its audience?

Well – I can’t speak for anyone else. I didn’t think Joker glorified or promoted acts of violence (physical + non-physical), even though certain scenes in the movie graphically show it. Rather – I think the filmmaker assumes you bring your moral sensibilities to the movie, and he spends a couple of hours facing you with a growing “sense of rage [that] pulses through Joker and makes it a compelling viewing experience.”[3] Yet it left me with a sense of utter tragedy and loss. This is the result of someone choosing to empower themselves through acts of violence. Joaquin Phoenix has said, “I don’t think it’s the responsibility of the filmmaker to teach the audience morality or the difference between right or wrong.”[4] I’m no filmmaker, but I’m an inherently moral human being. And – I think Phoenix is right about what he says.

Here’s another way to put it. The movie WORKS because we are essentially moral creatures. If we weren’t, then nihilism would be the norm. What is nihilism? It’s an idea that says that nothing is real or matters, particularly religious and moral principles.[5] Life is meaningless. So, who cares if I eliminate people that get in my way? Those acts are of no ultimate importance. Under nihilism. But this is simply wrong. Murder does matter, whatever the reason. It is because we are moral beings, that acts of unbridled violence are deeply unsettling to us. And – rightly so. Nihilism is a broken and dangerous idea.

Ideas have a big impact on people. So does nihilism. One consistent and possible outcome of nihilism is portrayed in Joker. And look at the results:

  • mental breakdown.
  • loss of relationships.
  • casual destruction of the family unit.
  • loss of life.
  • misery.
  • terror.
  • social unrest.

Will Joker impact society? No doubt. But I think it would have done its job well if it underlines the cost of any nihilist tendencies within us. Look at it. They are just not worth this cost!

There is a better way to live. One that won’t leave you always running from a caped vigilante…

[1] Untangling the Controversy Over the New Joker Movie, The Atlantic, accessed 6th October 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2019/10/joker-movie-controversy/599326/

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Nihilism, Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, accessed 6th October, 2019, https://www.iep.utm.edu/nihilism/.

Reflections on Judy

There’s a moment in this movie that just pierced the heart of it for me. The heart of who we all really are.

Judy Garland (real name Frances Gumm) is sitting in a British GP’s surgery. It’s 1968, the angry concert promoter is sick of her unreliable behaviour, and has (in his wisdom) sent her to the doctor for vitamin injections. A last ditch effort to save his future concert dates and his bank balance, not Judy’s health problems.

Injections won’t help.

Hers is a story of control and manipulation, of being at the mercy of the brutal Hollywood system. We’ve already been treated to sobering scenes of her as a younger woman making “The Wizard of Oz”. (Do I ever want to watch that movie again?) Judy has lived a life mixed through with privilege, public adoration and emotional abuse. It has led her to this point. She sits now in this doctor’s surgery. Stripped bare. Not physically. But in every other way. She’s 47 years old, but still the child that is unable to stand up against the dominating and controlling voices that have moulded her.

A middle aged doctor is staring into her gaunt face. He’s expressing professional concern about her low weight, her tracheotomy scars (“I tried to kill myself,” she admits). But he does not add to the verbal abuse she has endured. Rather, his is a voice of concern and wistfulness.

He looks off into the distance at one point. “I had a real thing for Dorothy Gale when I was growing up. She was so earnest. So concerned about doing the right thing. What touched me most was how kind she was to her dog.”

A precious childhood memory plays on his face, while a resigned, exhausted world weariness is ground into hers. The actress who had once been Dorothy.

Judy wasn’t a difficult person because she was born that way. She was nurtured and made that way. It left her permanently yearning, with the need to belong.

Reflecting on Judy, I’m struck by how fragile human beings are. I don’t mean our physical make up. I mean how delicate the thing is. The thing that is us. The Bible states that “God created human beings … reflecting [His] nature,”[1] and so this makes us valuable. Whatever anyone else says about us, God looks at us and sees someone He crafted. Our unique personality somehow reflects the attributes of God Himself. Whatever happens, we are precious to Him.

And yet – we can allow other people to crush that unique personality we’ve been gifted with. Perhaps it’s our need for affirmation and our compelling drive to please other people that crushes us. Maybe we’ve just allowed other people to blot out who we are, and gotten used to living as if they matter more than us. This is a road to frustration and loss in life. For Judy, it meant medicated pain, the relational chaos that comes from never truly belonging, and ultimately a life cut tragically short. Yet that pain is not what God has intended. His intention was for us to flourish as unique people.

As we reflect on these things, maybe we look with empathy at Judy and her life. Perhaps some of us look with recognition. “That’s me,” we say to ourselves. There will be no quick fixes for us. But perhaps the important question facing us is – will we decide to take a step in the right direction today? Consider accepting the statement I pointed to above? That God’s original intention was to make us good. Even if people and life has stripped it from us, they have no right to do so. Ask Him to give you back the goodness that belongs to you, and the life he has for us to live.

[1] Genesis 1:26 – 28, The Message translation.