Infinity in the Palm of your Hand

Featured Image: “The Last Judgement” by Jehan Cousin the Younger (1585). Courtesy Wikimedia COmmons

The penultimate episode of NBC’s critically acclaimed The Good Place presented a heaven of endless milkshakes and peak experiences populated by a benumbed Elect. Their finale gave us a happy ending when Michael (Ted Danson), a demonic tormentor turned tutor, offered a Final Solution to the Overstimulation Problem — a ticket to oblivion “Whenever You’re Ready.” Once hymnals promised grieving loved ones they would be together in God’s kingdom forever. Today’s writers can only offer an exit from the Simulation once you grow tired of playing. For the modern world Eternity evokes neither suffering nor bliss so much as tedium.

Creator Michael Schur, whose earlier work includes Parks and Recreation and The Office, credits his inspiration for The Good Place to a Starbuck’s visit:

Several years ago, Michael Schur went to a Starbucks and pondered the human condition. He had purchased a cheap coffee and waited until the barista turned toward him to toss his change into the tip jar, realizing immediately how silly it was that he wanted recognition for such a small act. Stuck in traffic later on, he mulled over his “corrupt and bad” motivations — only to have his thoughts interrupted by another driver pulling into the breakdown lane to speed past everyone else.

“Well, if someone is keeping track,” Schur … recalls thinking, “that guy just lost 25 points.”

Schur took a highbrow approach to situation comedy, with nods to Aristotle, Plato, Bentham and Kant. But he made a conscious choice to focus on moral and ethical philosophy and downplay any theological questions. In the opening episode Michael tells protagonist Eleanor (Kristen Bell) that each religion got the structure of the universe about 5% right, though a Canadian stoner got it 92% right while high on mushrooms. As Tara Isabella Burton of Vox put it, “It’s a show about heaven and hell, but it’s also incredibly, tellingly secular.” And in a Hollywood Reporter piece Joanne Ostrow warned:

A tip: Don’t use the R-word in discussing the show with its creator, and don’t ascribe even quasi-religious underpinnings to its premise. “Spiritual and ethical is how I thought of it,” Schur says…

Not that Schur himself hasn’t read and absorbed both philosophy and religion. He’s glad to chat about the individual sects he’s specifically not writing a comedy about. “Jews have a lot of rules for behavior, but you don’t start out in a hole. In Hinduism, with karma, you’re slowly working your way up a chain,” he explains. “That’s all in the background.”

This secular approach made The Good Place accessible to a wide audience. By avoiding theology, show runners avoided accusations of blasphemy or of favoring one creed over another. And in the age of virtual reality, it’s much easier for most to envision the Afterlife as an enormous game designed by a dysfunctional studio than as a winner-takes-all battle between dueling religions. But it also missed the chance to draw upon many insights which mystics and monks won long ago.

For Plato the mutable, temporal world was an imperfect reflection of eternal Forms. Those unable to perceive the Forms were like men chained in a cave watching shadows on a wall. He wrote The Republic to help mold Athenian society toward the eternal Form of Justice. And centuries after his death Neoplatonist ideas on the nature of the immortal soul would help shape the ideas of St. Augustine and other Church Fathers. The division between Spirit and Body — and its resolution in the Incarnation and Resurrection of Christ — would become a hallmark of Western theology and philosophy. In 1641 René Descartes postulated an “Evil Demon” who deceived individuals like Plato’s shadow puppeteers: he could only find bedrock when he announced with certitude, “I think, therefore I am.”

René’s Evil Demon is today’s Simulation Hypothesis, though David Chalmers is a bit more hopeful about the “programmer in the next universe up,” saying “[H]e or she may just be a teenager, hacking on a computer and running five universes in the background… But it might be someone who is nonetheless omniscient, all-knowing and all-powerful about our world.” And while Descartes wanted to find his way to truth, Preston Greene argues against prying too closely in an August 10, 2019 New York Times opinion piece:

[I]f our universe has been created by an advanced civilization for research purposes, then it is reasonable to assume that it is crucial to the researchers that we don’t find out that we’re in a simulation. If we were to prove that we live inside a simulation, this could cause our creators to terminate the simulation — to destroy our world…

As far as I am aware, no physicist proposing simulation experiments has considered the potential hazards of this work. This is surprising, not least because Professor Bostrom himself explicitly identified “simulation shutdown” as a possible cause of the extinction of all human life.

In 2003 Nick Bostrom released a paper entitled “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?” Bostrom argued that future generations might run their own hyper-realistic versions of our Sims games with the simulated entities achieving sentience. “It is not an essential property of consciousness that it is implemented on carbon‐based biological neural networks inside a cranium: silicon‐based processors inside a computer could in principle do the trick as well.” A generation weaned on Neuromancer and The Matrix had little trouble accepting the idea. As Joshua Rothman explained in a 2016 New Yorker article:

The simulation argument is appealing, in part, because it gives atheists a way to talk about spirituality. The idea that we’re living in only a part of reality, with the whole permanently beyond our reach, can be a source of awe. About our simulators, one can ask the same questions one asks about God: Why did the creators of our world decide to include evil and suffering? (Can they change that setting in the preferences?) Where did the original, non-simulated world come from? In that sense, the simulation argument is a thoughtful and expansive materialist fable that is almost, but not quite, religious. There is, of course, no sanctity or holiness in the simulation argument. The people outside the simulation aren’t gods—they’re us.

St. Ann’s Church and Shrine, Buffalo, New York

Most today conflate “Eternal Life” with “living forever.” The Catholic position is more nuanced and complicated. The human soul, like all created things, is sempiternal: it has a beginning but no end. Our universe winked into being 13.7 billion years ago with a Big Bang. (The Jesuit who introduced this theory, Msgr. Georges Lemaître, also calculated the rate of expansion to give us what is called today the “Hubble-Lemaître Constant“). The immortal human soul springs into being from the moment of conception. After death it will continue forever in God’s presence, which we call Heaven, or in God’s absence, which we call Hell. This almighty and ever-living God is the Creator of both Space and Time. As the Christian philosopher Boethius explained in his Consolation of Philosophy :

[E]ternity is the possession of endless life whole and perfect at a single moment… For whatever lives in time is a present proceeding from the past to the future, and there is nothing set in time which can embrace the whole space of its life together. Tomorrow’s state it grasps not yet, while it has already lost yesterday’s; nay, even in the life of today ye live no longer than one brief transitory moment. Whatever, therefore, is subject to the condition of time, although, as Aristotle deemed of the world, it never have either beginning or end, and its life be stretched to the whole extent of time’s infinity, it yet is not such as rightly to be thought eternal. For it does not include and embrace the whole space of infinite life at once, but has no present hold on things to come, not yet accomplished.

As creatures cast into Space and Time, we are bound by Space and Time. Our physical bodies have physical limitations: our vision of what was and what will be is foggy at best. It is easier to focus on the sensible world (that which we experience directly through our senses) than on the intelligible world (that which we can ascertain using reason, instinct, morality and relevant data). Finite resources inevitably lead to fighting for resources. And while we are born with the knowledge of good and evil, we are constantly tempted to cut corners and make excuses.

One way we can avoid momentary temptations is to focus on the Eternal. This allows us to step outside the here and now and see past our personal needs and desires. Instead of atomized individuals left to seek distraction, we become part of an ongoing Process which was old when our ancestors were young. Instead of animals seeking our place in the pack, we become sparks of a divine light with a divine purpose. Instead of a herd moved by sudden stimuli, we are participants in our own redemption. As the great English Catholic G.K. Chesterton put it in Heresies:

The anchorite rolling on the stones in a frenzy of submission is a healthier person fundamentally than many a sober man in a silk hat who is walking down Cheapside. For many such are good only through a withering knowledge of evil. I am not at this moment claiming for the devotee anything more than this primary advantage, that though he may be making himself personally weak and miserable, he is still fixing his thoughts largely on gigantic strength and happiness, on a strength that has no limits, and a happiness that has no end. Doubtless there are other objections which can be urged without unreason against the influence of gods and visions in morality, whether in the cell or street. But this advantage the mystic morality must always have–it is always jollier. A young man may keep himself from vice by continually thinking of disease. He may keep himself from it also by continually thinking of the Virgin Mary. There may be question about which method is the more reasonable, or even about which is the more efficient. But surely there can be no question about which is the more wholesome.

Michael Schur can envision a celestial hierarchy ruled by bureaucrats, but not a Creator worthy of worship. He can imagine life prolonged until it becomes an intolerable burden, but not life outside of time. He understands humanity’s inability to live up to our ethical standards, but not our need for salvation. Schur is a child of his time: most today would consider such ponderings silly. But it is telling that his philosophy, like other Godless modern philosophies, leaves us with a paradise whose residents want for nothing but an escape.

Notes From The End of Time 3: Inside the Simulation

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