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Excerpt from Dreams

God As Machine (p. 63)

From chapter "How Do We know?"

Or how about this? Maybe God is a machine, or at the very least He likes machines better than He likes living beings.

This isn’t as far-fetched as it seems. It’s really just an extension and intersection of the scientific and Christian perspectives. Many scientists already routinely describe the universe—the nonsentient, in their perspective, universe—in mechanical terms. Unsurprisingly, Richard Dawkins describes humans and others as “meme machines.” Seth Lloyd, in his book Programming the Universe: A Quantum Computer Scientist Takes on the Cosmos, argues that the entire universe—and everything in it, from you to rivers to anything else you can think of— is a giant computer running a “cosmic program.” You are a result of that program. So am I. This is in many ways even more pathetically and transparently narcissistic than creating a God whom you then say created you in His image: this is stating that the universe is “created” in the form of a piece of your technology. Lloyd also states that within six hundred years we could program a computer that will simulate the entire universe. So I guess, according to his logic, that this would be a computer simulation of what is essentially a, er, computer simulation. I’m not sure I see the point. But maybe in this computer simulation they could then design another simulation, and then another, and another, and keep doing this until we all die of headaches. Or we could instead take the red pill and see it for what it is. I know I’ll get accused of cherry-picking for choosing Dawkins and Lloyd as my examples, but that accusation won’t be fair, not only because Dawkins is one of the most famous and influential scientists living today, but more importantly because I could just as easily mention Jim Vigoreaux’s Nature’s Versatile Engine: Insect Flight Muscle Inside and Out, Caroline Arnold and Patricia Wayne’s Birds: Nature’s Magnificent Flying Machines, Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wantsor a near infinitude of other books. But none of that would really be necessary. It doesn’t take a Richard Dawkins or a Seth Lloyd to push a mechanistic view of the world. That mechanistic view has insinuated itself into many parts of our perception and language, from the scientific, materialist, instrumentalist (mechanistic) perspective we spoke of earlier, where the world is inhabited by what Descartes, one of the progenitors (or patron saints) of science, called “beast-machines,” to the everyday use of the word “ecosystems” (“system: instrumentality that combines interrelated interacting artifacts designed to work as a coherent entity; ‘he bought a new stereo system’; ‘the system consists of a motor and a small computer’”) to describe forests, grasslands, and so on, instead of calling them what they really are: “natural communities.” Just combine this notion of a mechanical universe (and an unwavering faith in technology not only to save us from our current ecological crisis but to eventually bring us to heaven, I mean the singularity, I mean technotopia) with an omniscient, omnipotent God, and you’ve got Seth Lloyd’s universe-as-computer fantasy.

But perceiving the possibility of God-as-machine is much simpler than this. All we have to do is ask ourselves who the real winners are of this culture’s domination of the natural world (including other humans). We find that machines are the primary beneficiaries of this culture, with these benefits to machines coming at the expense of living beings, including humans. It’s also certainly true that humans generally serve machines, more than the other way around—hell, the world is being heated and dismembered to feed machines. And both the numbers of machines and their geographical range has expanded at more or less the same rate at which biodiversity and the range of natural communities has collapsed. This relationship is causal: the expansion of one causes the collapse of the other. It wouldn’t be too much to say that machines have gone forth and multiplied (with humans as their vectors and their slaves, perhaps as hosts to parasitic machines), and that, as God commanded, they have subdued the earth.

If God were a machine, this would reframe Nietzsche’s famous statement “God is dead.” Normally that statement is understood not so much as actually saying that God is dead, but rather that God isn’t. Period. God isn’t anything, because God doesn’t exist. But maybe that’s not accurate, that is, maybe God really is dead. God is, and dead. God is dead. That would certainly explain His hatred of the earth (I’ve speculated elsewhere, only half-joking, that God hates life so much because He doesn’t have a body, and billions of years is a hell of a long time to go without an orgasm).

So, God exists, but He is not and has never been alive. He is undead, as machines are undead. For machines are the real undead, like our concept of zombies, like our concept of vampires, not alive but consuming, consuming, never giving back in the normally unceasing round of life feeding off death feeding off life, but rather turning all life to power.

Machines are dead, are undead, and they are converting the earth into their own. Perhaps the support of a dead God, an undead God, a machine God, explains their success.


I’m not saying I believe this, any more than I’m saying I believe that scientists or Christians are right. I’m not at this moment trying to present answers, but to explore possibilities, to sit with uncertainties until perhaps at least some clarity emerges.

I asked for a dream about why the dominant culture has defeated so many indigenous peoples, and why the earth has not stopped the dominant culture. Now, I fully understand how self-referential it is to ask for a dream to help me understand the relationship between dreaming and waking realities, to help me understand if the earth is intelligent, to help me explore other sides. Isn’t that precisely what we laugh at Christians for doing? How do I know God exists? Well, the Bible tells me so. And how do I know the Bible is true? It’s the word of God, isn’t it? And now I’m doing the same thing: How do I know we can get messages from other sides? Well, dreams give them to me. And how do I know dreams are from other sides? Because dreams tell me so.

But all you scientists—and remember, I was once actually a scientist too, may the gods have mercy on my soul—shouldn’t get too smug, because science does the same thing. How do we know if something is scientifically true? Well, we learn it using the tools of science. So how do we know the rules of science are valid? Why, they’re determined scientifically!

All of this gets to the heart of how we know anything. Right now, science seems to have a monopoly on what we perceive as true, what we perceive as reality. But science uses the tools of science to settle disputes concerning its own viability, its own relation to physical and spiritual truth, just as Christians use the tools of Christianity to settle disputes concerning Christianity’s viability, its own relation to physical and spiritual truth, and I am here trying to use dreams to settle disputes in my own mind concerning the viability of dreams, and their relation to physical and spiritual truths.

All perceptions of reality are and must be self-referential, not only because believing is seeing—our preconceptions often trump actual perception—but more to the current point, we can only know as much as we can know. Everything else—and even this knowing—requires a certain amount of faith.

Here’s an example. Let’s say you read in a book that George Washington could not tell a lie. You believe this. Do you know it yet? Now let’s say you’re taught in school that George Washington could not tell a lie. You’re taught it again and again. You might say it’s pounded into you. And every time you’re taught it you’re tested on it. If you write on these tests that George Washington could not tell a lie, you get points added. If you write something else, points are subtracted. This goes on for years. You believe it. Do you know it yet? How do you know? Now you read another account, that shows that George Washington consistently lied to and terrorized American Indian men, women, and children. You read a third account that shows that George Washington was quite possibly one of the most dishonest men of his time, with massive landholdings acquired so scandalously that in April 1775 the British governor of Virginia declared Washington’s land titles invalid. Of course, the governor’s findings were rendered moot by the outbreak of the American Revolution, and the new government was quick to protect Washington’s fortune. Good timing, no?

So, now you’ve read multiple accounts giving multiple perspectives on George Washington. And you really want to know what he was like. So you do more research. You even read Douglas Southall Freeman’s seven-volume biography. You weigh the evidence, and you come to some sort of conclusion as to what you believe. But what do you know? To be honest, not much.

Let’s try this again. What do you know about global warming? I obviously don’t know what you know, but I’ll tell you what I know: nothing. Sure, I can read about melting glaciers, acidifying oceans, murdered corals, methane burps, changes in bird migrations, and so on, but I know next to nothing. Because I haven’t seen the most obvious changes with my own eyes, and I’m not familiar enough with the land where I live to be able to detect—much less determine the causes of—more subtle changes. No matter whether global warming terrifies me (it does) or whether I deny that global warming exists (i.e., I am a politician), my position is based at least somewhat on faith.

One more time. What do I know about the collapse of migratory songbird populations? Next to nothing. I know that I used to hear and see birds all the time in the forest here. Now I hear and see them rarely. That is what I know. And I can read that populations are collapsing, so I can presume that is why the birds aren’t here (and further, based on reading and on talking to ornithologists I can make an educated guess that the proximate cause of this particular collapse is the West Nile virus [with more distant causes including global pesticide use, global habitat loss, and so on, and the ultimate cause being industrial civilization]). But I don’t know that. The birds could be sitting two hundred yards away. Hell, for all I know, at this moment the path between my house and my mom’s house could be entirely covered with birds, with the birds posting a sentinel who sends out a squawk every time I leave the house, whereupon all the other birds dive for cover, then sit with their wings covering their beaks to hide their giggles.

Note that I’m not saying that global warming isn’t happening, nor that bird populations aren’t collapsing. I’m simply saying that nearly any “knowledge” we have at some point requires some faith—sometimes a very small amount of faith, based on a great deal of evidence (e.g., that global warming is happening, is caused by the actions of the industrial economy, and is cause for terror); and sometimes far more faith, based on not much evidence (e.g., that global warming is not caused by the actions of the industrial economy, as both former president George W. Bush and former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin claim to believe)—because really, we can only know what we know. But of course the fact that we can only know what we know, and that nearly all knowledge requires some faith, doesn’t mean we should throw up our hands and say “Anything goes!” I’m not saying the Apollo moon landings never took place; I’m not saying there are space aliens in military hangars in New Mexico; I’m not saying that industrial capitalism could be sustainable; I’m not saying that angels dance on the heads of pins. The fact that nearly all knowledge requires some faith means it is our joy and responsibility to assemble evidence—and far more importantly (as we’ll get to), wisdom—to help inform our decisions, and to teach us how to live.

Please note also that I’m not saying we can’t know anything except that we ourselves exist. I have no interest in venturing too close to Descartes’s solipsistic “I think, therefore I am.” The real world exists, and I am capable of experiencing it. I know that I hear and see far fewer birds this year than in previous years. And I know that this—especially combined with the other changes I’ve experienced in the real, physical world, and combined also with what I’ve learned about other changes (though, keeping with the thrust of this discussion, I recognize the [minimal] amount of faith required to believe that some of these changes are taking place)—makes me angry, sad, and scared.

Which in some ways brings us to the dream I asked for, a dream about why the dominant culture has defeated so many indigenous peoples, and why the earth has not stopped the dominant culture.

I fell asleep quickly, and almost immediately dreamed that I was searching for those who could give me these answers, and who could possibly even help stop the dominant culture. Finally someone gave me the identity of not just one, but two beings who could help. I went to speak to them, but they weren’t where I was expecting, and I could find no one who knew or could or would tell me where they had gone.

I woke up, and I did what I so often do when I don’t like the implications of a dream: I ignored it and tried for another, one that might be more to my liking (perhaps a dream where the understanding of how to take down this culture would be handed to me in one powerful image so straightforward that not even I could misinterpret it, and so elegant that I would on awakening slap my forehead and exclaim, “I can’t believe no one ever spotted this before!” Sadly, life doesn’t usually work that way).

I fell back asleep. This time I went to talk to a retired environmental engineer who lives near my home. In waking reality we worked together with other neighbors to stop a developer from destroying a local forest. In the dream, he was, unlike those in the previous dream, home. I asked him for help on stopping this culture. But I soon discovered that he had suffered a stroke, one which did not affect his movement, but made it so he could not speak. His wife told me to call 911. I did, but was put on hold and forced to listen to commercials for large corporations. Meanwhile my neighbor jumped on a bicycle and pedaled away.

These dreams exemplify for me the difficulty of knowing. All I can know is what I can know. The dreams can suggest various interpretations, but no matter the interpretation there remains the question of where the dreams came from.

If scientists are right, the dreams are probably my own self dramatizing the very questions I asked. Q: Why has no one helped? A: Because they’re not at home. Q: Do they exist elsewhere? A: I don’t know. Some people say they do, but when I go where those people tell me to look, I find no one. Perhaps this suggests I’m looking in the wrong place; or perhaps this suggests I was misinformed, and these others don’t actually exist. Q: Why have those on the other side not spoken? A: Well, my perception seems to be that they’re mute (when/if they’re there at all). Q: But do they exist? A: It seems I’m not sure: someone was there, and this person was my neighbor, but the person left without speaking.

All in all it seems I answered my own question, and the answer was: I don’t know.