And We Are Not Gods

"We are no other than a moving row Of Magic Shadow-shapes that come and go Round with the Sun-illumined Lantern held In Midnight by the Master of the Show."

-Omar Khayyam

“[Puppets] are unreal. When they are in motion, we know they are moved by an outside force. When they speak, their voices come from elsewhere. Their orders come from somewhere behind and beyond them. And were they ever to become aware of that fact, they would collapse at the horror of it all, as would we.”

-Thomas Ligotti, from The Conspiracy Against the Human Race

We were talking the other night about predestination. That is to say, fate or destiny. Predestination is the idea that our lives are planned out for us and we only think we're calling the shots. But unbeknownst to us all we're doing little more than treading the colorful threads of a grand tapestry whose design and ultimate purpose we can only guess at. Or more likely, we’re unaware a tapestry exists at all.

I think most people when they consider predestination imagine a deity, a religiously envisioned creator like the Judeo-Christian god as its architect. But that needn't be the case for predestination to be feasible. We think of god as the originator of destiny because if fate does exist then there must be an outside force directing it toward an end point with an intended purpose in mind. Designs, simple or complex, must have a designer, after all.

Enter the great and powerful deity.

But I think of it this way: imagine a video game, one of your son's games, for example. It's populated by all manner of characters traipsing through various digital landscapes. This game took teams of designers years to draw and paint and code and program and tinker-with. And that doesn't begin to address the storylines unfolding within the game—someone had to write those, too. A sprawling crew was involved in the production of, say, Halo 4. And that is but a single game in a prolific industry. Now imagine those characters are not so dissimilar from you and I. Imagine them endowed with consciousness, self-awareness, that they are plagued with an incurable sense of curiosity--just like us. And like us, they begin asking questions about their environment, and the meaning of their lives, questions about why they are so different from the creatures around them, and how they—the characters at issue—came to exist at all. Some would undoubtedly conclude there must be an unseen god behind it all who fashioned them from unformed clay and breathed into their fragile bodies the magic of life. And maybe the skeptics in their ranks scoff, and laugh at them for fools, and say: "You're so stupid. We evolved from primordial goo that bubbled beneath the earth for eons untold, till one day we stood erect, and walked, and fornicated, and demanded ten dollar cappuccinos from fashionable cafes." But all the while these digital puppets, completely oblivious to reality, are being manipulated by your son, sitting OUTSIDE their contrived environments, controller in hand, making these characters bob and weave and parry and thrust.

And here's the point of this talk: We know your son is not a god. He knows it, too. But the characters in the game?--they know nothing of the kind. And if they could construct a magic window into his world they would undoubtedly see him as a superior being. And they would be right. But they might also make other assumptions about him. They might conclude, for instance, that he must be a god. But we know he's just a kid playing a game. We also know the game they inhabit was brought about by professionals who design many such games, and that they do so only for the profit they bring. The game's designers care not for their digital creations. Not in any personal sense as, say, a mother would love her child. Their creators may value the game for the artistic challenge its fulfillment offers, for the intellectual satisfaction of fabricating something so technically demanding. But love? What's that got to do with it?

So, I'm using video games to illustrate how predestination could be feasible without a deity. By an outside force the gaming characters in this scenario are being directed toward a predetermined goal. Their lives are not their own. And, of course, we know that the characters populating the game?--they are not real. Or at least not real in the sense they think they are. Binary code is real in that it’s a thing that exists. Programming codes are real, too. It’s simply digital information strung together into a coherent and usable form. But digital information is not alive. Not like you and your son are alive (?) And the complex information employed in creating these worlds and characters is fashioned by intelligent designers—beings like us. And we are not gods.