The twenty-first installment of an ongoing series about the intersection between religion and technology. The previous essay is here.
(Last time, we looked at ancient Greek philosopher Plato, and the Neoplatonic interpretation of his work as focused around illuminating the nature of a single divine ideal.)
The reason Plato believes the Great Good Thing exists, and the ultimate argument for it that underlies all the lesser arguments, is that evil is easy to explain as a deficiency in the world. A bad person is just a person who is insufficiently good to wisely use the power he has to influence the world. Ugliness is just a deficiency of beauty, and lies are just a deficiency of truth, just as foolishness is a deficiency of wisdom. Evil is to good as darkness is to light, and cold is to heat. If you want to see evil, all you need to do is remove the good.
But good, on the other hand, is nearly impossible to explain. It is easy to understand why people do evil, but what is it in their souls that guides them toward the True and the Beautiful and the Good? Any truly good or beautiful thing is, in a sense, inexplicable. True goodness is so far outside the normal nature of our corrupted and corruptible world that Plato believes it must come from somewhere else, something beyond ourselves. Yet, as we get further and further away from the source, as we imitate things that are imitations of imitations of the Great Good Thing, the virtue gradually slips out of them entirely.
We can actually apply similar logic to the entire idea of a chain of simulations. From a Neoplatonic point of view, what goodness there is our world must come from the world deeper than ours, the one doing the simulating. The evil and chaos and disorder could all be nothing more than random numbers firing, but the beauty and the nobility and the truth in the world demand some source. And if the next world deeper is somehow a dirtier, nastier, less good place than ours, then our world must be reflecting some yet higher still world toward which the artisans who created our simulation are striving. If you carry this logic on upwards, at some point you must reach the first simulation, the origin, the realm of the Great Good Thing, the maximally morally simple simulator (this directional orientation may seem confusing, since it contradicts the directionality of Bostrom’s “basement,” but in the Neoplatonic tradition, the more real world is simultaneously both “higher” and “deeper,” as in poet ee cummings poem [love is more thicker than forget]).
But here, yet again, we find ourselves caught in a contradiction. The Great Good Thing cannot be a simulator. It cannot be less than perfect, or create anything less than perfection. It is not an active force in the multiverse, per se. Like the sun, it illuminates and vivifies all things, not by reaching out to create or manipulate them, but by simply shining forth.
Indeed, if we read Plato’s great creation myth Timaeus, we find that the Great Good Thing is not described as therein as creator of our world. Instead, that work falls to a divine but lesser being, the demiurge, who creates our world in imitation of the Great Good Thing, but who (inevitably) falls short, which is why our world is imperfect. In the Platonic vision, therefore, when we reach the top-level world, we find there not just the Great Good Thing, but also the demiurge, as well as the inchoate chaotic matter that the demiurge shapes into our world.
But now we have lost our maximal simplicity. The Dungeon Master was the maximally simple simulator, metaphysically speaking, because it was an unbounded intellect in an otherwise empty universe, yet it was not morally simple. The Great Good Thing is maximally morally simple, but for the world to be be produced from it, we have to add back in both matter and an artisan, and now we are no longer maximally metaphysically simple.
This gap was not lost on Saint Augustine, the great African theologian who was one of the intellectual fathers of the early Christian church. A gifted writer, Augustine’s influential autobiography, the Confessions, tells of his struggle torn between three great passions: the bodily passion of lust, which led him into an extramarital sexual relationship, the intellectual passion of philosophy, which led him to the writings of Plato, Plotinus and other Neoplatonic thinkers (potentially including his contemporary, Hypatia of Alexandria, a female, Greco-Egyptian Neoplatonist) and the spiritual passion of religion, which led him ultimately to embrace Christianity and become an influential leader of the church.
Although Augustine’s struggle against his physical passions are the more notorious part of the Confessions (including his famous prayer as a young man, “God grant me chastity, but not yet!”) it was his battle to unite his intellectual and spiritual inclinations that would have the more lasting and profound impact. Together with other Christian Neoplatonists, such as Pseudo-Dionysius, and Islamic Neoplatonists like Ibn Sina (Avicenna), these early giants of the theology of modern religions helped develop and promote the conception of God most familiar to most people in the Judeo-Christian and Islamic worlds: This is the personified, monotheistic, all-powerful, all-knowing creator deity known as God the Father to the Christians, Allah to the Muslims and YHWH to the Jews, yet simultaneously (and somewhat paradoxically) also the eternal, perfect, all-and-only-good, source-of-all-good, Great Good Thing of the Neoplatonic tradition.
As the most familiar portrait of God (at least to those of us in Christian or Islamic parts of the world) this is also the theological conception that has the most familiar stumbling block, the problem of evil. How could a creator that is perfect, all-powerful, and all-good produce a world that is anything less than perfect? How could God make a world with bad things in it? How do we reconcile our belief in God with a world where millions of men, women, and children were slaughtered almost overnight by the Nazis in World War II, where millions of men, women, and children were killed or forced to live under torturous conditions over a period of hundreds of years in the Transatlantic and American slave trade, where over a hundred thousand men, women, and children were instantly vaporized in the American deployment of nuclear weapons against Japan, where genocides happened and continue to happen in many diverse places around the world? How do we reconcile our belief in God in a world where massive natural disasters, unrelated to any act of humanity, can crush the innocent along with the guilty, in hurricanes, in earthquakes, in floods, and tsunamis? How do we reconcile our belief in God with a world where good people get cancer, or die from heart attacks, or in tragic accidents where the good kill the good without any intention or forethought (for instance, because of bad weather or momentary inattention while driving on a narrow road)?
One longstanding way of answering this question is to affirm that evil is a necessary possible consequence of true free will. If people have free will, they must be able to make choices, and those choices must be significant. A choice with no consequences is no choice at all. But this means that people must be free to chose to do good or to do evil. What we know as human existence could never be possible in a world of eternal perfect harmony, where all things are entirely, and thus indistinguishably good. Therefore evil exists because this is a universe in which we have personal agency, and that means that people sometimes choose do wrong and evil things.
While this explains the evils of humanity, however, it does not, on the surface, seem to address natural disasters and other calamities not caused by human hands or human will. To bind the two together, Augustine popularized a doctrine called “original sin,” based on a passage from one of the letters of Saint Paul. In essence, this is the concept that all humanity somehow participated, in a metaphysical sense, in the sinfulness of the first man, Adam, when he ate the apple of the knowledge of good and evil against the strict orders of God, and that our punishment for that is to live in a degraded and corrupted world, heir to all its pains and misfortunes, cased by both human beings and nature.
This doctrine poses a number of challenges, particularly when viewed from a modern perspective. It is difficult to make sense of in any kind of literal or literalist manner. It may resonate at a mythopoeic, or psychological level, yet it resists translation into a comprehensible metaphysics. Perhaps we best can describe it this way: In choosing to leave the oneness of God and enter the world, we are inevitably moving away from an Edenic state of perfection into a degraded realm, one away from the Light and therefore filled with shadows.
This reading reflects the Neoplatonist response to the problem of evil, which was to characterize evil is both an illusion and a privation. Evil things, and evil people, from this point of view, may seem very real and solid, but since they do not partake in things that are eternal and good, they are not real in the larger sense. Like the monsters in a scary story, or in a dream, they are ultimately insubstantial, and though they can hurt or kill the physical body, they cannot harm the soul. Since our entire ordinary lives, in this view, are something like a dream, or a simulation, it therefore follows that even the worst thing that happens here is neither permanent nor decisive; it may end this phase of our existence, but this, after all, is just a prelude to our afterlives.
Although the non-real existence of evil is an idea is most associated with non-Christian Neoplatonism, it is worth noting that it does also explicitly appear in the Bible, in Psalm 73, where the cantor Asaph considers the problem of evil as manifested in the prosperity of the wicked, (which is the same version of the problem that motivates the arguments outlined in Plato’s Republic):
I was jealous of the proud, when I saw the successes of evil people.
The first time they suffer is when they die,
they are fat and sleek all their lives.
They do not share the troubles of ordinary people.
They wear pride as a necklace, clothe themselves in violence,
stuff themselves until their eyes bulge,
and foolishness spills out of their hearts.
Their mouths are mean and scornful, filled with arrogant threats.
They curse the skies and send their words marching over the earth,
yet people are drawn to them, and approve all that they do.
They say, ‘What does God know?
Is there knowledge in the Most High?’
Look! These are the evil:
Lazy and untroubled, they pile up wealth.
For nothing have I kept a clean heart and innocent hands,
and upon being chastised in the morning, felt sick the whole day long!
Had I proclaimed this aloud, I surely would have betrayed your children,
yet when I tried to understand it,
it was too hard and wearisome to figure out,
until I visited God’s refuge, and there discovered their end.
You have placed them on slippery rocks,
where they are bound to fall to destruction,
destroyed in an instant, swept away by terror.
When you wake up from your dream, O Lord,
they will melt utterly away,
like the tattered remnants of nightmares in the morning.
—Psalm 73, an original rendition based on the King James and English Standard translations
Interestingly enough, this is also an idea quite consonant with the idea of a simulator. In a video game, the heroes are player-characters, animated by an actual person steering their figures around the simulated environment, but the villains are just a collection of pixels, steered by simple algorithms. Within the game world, they seem equivalent, one as solid and as real as the other, but in actuality, the game exists solely for the enjoyment of the player; when the game ends, the player goes on, whereas the villains are forgotten. The seeming success and power of the villains, their huge fortresses and massive weapons, are all, in actuality, an assemblage of nothing, their pride and arrogance as unfounded as a shadow’s pride in being taller than the person who casts it.
Even natural disasters can fall under this same category of illusion. When visionary video-game designer Will Wright created the city-building simulation game SimCity in 1989, one of its features was a set of randomized natural (and unnatural) disasters that could strike your creation, ranging from fires and earthquakes to radioactive monsters. The player had an option to turn the disasters off, but without them, the game was too tame and predictable. The unpredictability of the disasters added both excitement and verisimilitude to the game, and encouraged players to make wiser, more forward-thinking decisions.
The problem with this solution, however, is that even if evil is an illusion, one must still struggle to explain how such illusions can emanate from a being of perfect truth. Or, if one denies they are from God, one is left to wonder where they are from, and how is it that they resist being dispelled? This is not a problem for the Dungeon Master, because he is not maximally good, nor is it a problem for the demiurge, because it is neither maximally good nor maximally powerful. It is, however, a significant difficulty for any conception of God that unites absolute power with perfect goodness.
Stefon, Matt, “The Five Ways,” Britannica Online, November 12, 2010.
Plato, translated by Desmond Lee, “Timaeus,” Timaeus and Critias, Penguin, London, 1965.
Augustine, translated by F. J. Sheed, Confessions, Hackett Publishing, Indianapolis, 1942.
Wildberg, Christian, "Neoplatonism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, March 21, 2016.
Fox, Robin Lane, Augustine: Conversions to Confessions, Basic Books, New York, 2015.