Sunday, May 08, 2011

Could Our Universe Be a Fake?

Does the emperor exist, when he dreams that he is a butterfly? Does the butterfly dream of being an emperor?

Since long before Chuang Tzu posed this ancient Chinese conundrum, some version of it has bedeviled bright youths in every generation—especially college sophomores. It seems the same specialized organs in our brains that allow us to make pragmatic plans and perform thought experiments, or gedankenexperiments, also unleash a human imagination so eager and creative that we can—briefly or permanently—lose track of what is real.

For example, although it might be called a form of lying, most societies have highly valued storytelling. In my role as a novelist, I join this tradition by stringing together lengthy chains of coded squiggles—in the Roman alphabet—that highly skilled readers later deconvolute and transform into stirring mental images, rollicking action, empathy with imagined characters, and even (possibly) an insight or two. Motion pictures shortcut and amplify this process with a firehose stream of visual images, cues and crutches that cater to the same human genius—a knack for picturing things, people and events that never (objectively) existed.

If “magic” is the creation of subjective realities in the minds of other peoples, then we moderns have learned how to perform magical incantations on a vast, industrial scale.

And now comes an era when we live immersed in computer-generated “virtual” realities, rendered through lavish games where ersatz selves get to do countless things that our mundane, fleshy selves cannot. Is it any wonder that some people have been talking about a near future when this process may reach its ultimate conclusion? When the denizens of Reality will not be able to verify, by any clear-cut means, that they aren’t living in—or even existing because of—a simulation?

Picture some future time when thinking beings may occupy simulated software realms within some vast cybernetic space—either in “holodeck” style physical manifestations or in purely cybernetic downloads. Realms that emulate the palpable “pinch-me test” of reality, with fine attention to every detail. We don’t yet know how far simulation can be extended, or whether there are inherent limits. Some very smart people believe there aren’t any, in which case there’s no guarantee that you, reading this paragraph right now, aren’t already living in such a simulation.

In such a software-emulated world, Rene Descartes’ brain-body dualism might easily be true! And if it ain’t true now, it could plausibly become true, tomorrow. And if it could come true tomorrow, again how do you know that you aren’t right now living as a character of a simulation of the early 21st century that is being implemented in some machine or demigod imagination, hundreds or thousands of years farther ahead along the river of time? In much the same way that you might implement a version of Captain Ahab, by thinking for a while about Moby Dick?

StonesSignificanceNuevoTo illustrate, let me offer a scene from one of my own short stories, Stones of Significance, a somewhat intense and difficult tale, because it is set in a future far in advance of ours. A tomorrow wherein the main character—a designer of simulated worlds—has been asked about his relationship with the artificial beings that live in them:

In every grand simulation there is a gradient of detail. Despite having access to vast computing power, it is mathematically impossible to re-create the entire world, in all its texture, within the confines of any calculating engine. That will not happen until we all reach the Omega Point.

Fortunately, there are shortcuts. Even today, most true humans go through life as if they were background characters in some film, with predictable ambitions and reaction sets. The vast majority of my characters can therefore be simplified, while a few are modelled in great detail.

Most complex of all is the point-of-view character—or “pov”—the individual simulacrum through whose eyes and thoughts the feigned world will be subjectively observed. This persona must be rich in fine-grained memory and high fidelity sensation. It must perceive and feel itself to be a real player in the labyrinthine tides of causality, as if part of a very real world. Even as simple an act as reading or writing a sentence must be surrounded by perceptory nap and weave … an itch, a stray memory from childhood, the distant sound of a barking dog, or something leftover from lunch that is found caught between the teeth. One must include all the little things, even a touch of normal human paranoia—such as the feeling we all sometimes get (even in this post-singularity age) that “someone is watching.”

I’m proud of my povs, especially the historical recreations that have proved so popular—Joan on her pyre, Akiba in his last torment, Galileo contemplating the pendulum. I won awards for Ghenghiz and Napoleon, leading armies, and for Haldeman savagely indicting the habit of war. Millions in Heaven have paid well to lurk as silent observers, experiencing the passion of little Ananda Gupta as she crawled, half-blind and with agonized lungs, out of the maelstrom of poisoned Bhopal.

Is it any wonder why I oppose reification? Their very richness makes my povs prime candidates for “liberation.”

Once they are free, what could I possibly say to them?

This notion of simulated realities is getting a lot of attention lately, both in philosophical scientific literature and in serious science fiction. There are endless ramifications, more than we could go into here. But to me, one implied conundrum stands head and shoulders above the rest.

Here is the prime theological question. The one whose answer affects all others. And yet, one that is almost never asked:

Is there moral or logical justification for a creator to wield capricious power of life and death over his creations … and is there any fundamental moral reason why those creations should have to obey?

Humanity long ago replied with a resounding “no!”… at least when talking about parents and their offspring. (There have been a few exceptions, such as the principle of pater familias in Roman law, which permitted a father to kill even adult offspring, if they offended him.) In most cultures, the created—our kids—eventually get full authority and a right to make their own way. In some societies, they are even welcome to argue with their creators along the way.

And yet, without noticing any irony, we have implicitly answered the same question “yes” when it came to God! The Creator, it seemed, was owed unquestioning servitude, just because this creator made us.

It is the ghost at the banquet, the underlying assumption of all religions, taken for granted for far too long. Is it puzzling that—after more than four millennia of theological wrangling, and the investment of millions of hours of thought to religious matters—this question only comes up now? Now that we are picking up creation’s tools, like bright apprentices? Tools of physics and biology, and also tools that let us simulate the creation of whole worlds.

It provokes some odd thoughts. For example, heaven and hell may not be such bizarre notions, after all! Consider our demigodlike descendants, with power at their fingertips to compute and emulate any reality. They will be able to “call up“ simulated versions of people from times past, especially 20th century folk, what with all the data available about us, including skin cells in all our old letters and scrap books. What will they do with that power?

Perhaps, those who helped build the utopia of tomorrow will be remembered, immortalized, in software simulations by our descendants. Those who hindered progress, who obstructed or simply did nothing, will at best not be invited back. At worst, they might be assigned unpleasant roles in software scenarios. Might the old notion of “purgatory” have some resurrected relevance, after all? I leave possible extrapolations of this idea to the reader.

As I said, this topic has a million permutations. Here’s another:

Can we see any evidence that we live in a simulation already?

I see a few clues. For example, quantum mechanics. Specifically, the division of reality into “quanta” that are fundamentally indivisible, like the submicroscopic Planck length, below which no questions may be asked. Isn’t this exactly the sort of truncation that a computer model would use, in order to prevent being taxed with infinite demands on processing power—which would happen if the model could look into ever-smaller domains like the fractal Mandelbrot set? Likewise, at the high end, both the speed-of-light speed limit and the intrinsically contained dimensions of a big-bang universe may be artifacts introduced in order not to have to deal with the software loads of modeling a cosmos that is infinitely observable.

Still, some of the “clues” are far more visceral and impulsive. Take the coincidence of names that keeps cropping up, almost as if the “author” of our cosmic simulation were having a little joke. Like the almost unlimited amount of fun you can have with Barack Obama’s name. Or the fact that World War II featured a battle in which Adolf the Wolf attacked the Church on the Hill*, who begged help from the Field of Roses, which asked its Marshall to send an Iron-hewer to fight in the Old World and a Man of Arthur to fight across the greatest lake (the Pacific) … does the Designer really think we don’t notice stuff like this?

Or maybe this designer just doesn’t care.

(Reprinted from a posting on Closer to Truth)

*That unlikely World War II scenario came from a science fiction story, "Letter from a Higher Critic" by Stewart Robb, in the November 1966 issue of Analog.


Paul Weimer said...

I think this post deserves more than the spam comment that it has received.

Thanks for your input, Mr. Brin. I find it amusing that you were just a topic on twitter between me and Jonathan Strahan the other day, and coincidentally, out pops this blog post of yours.

I still think that I want more novels from you, though, if time and the Muse inspire you to do so. :)

Carl M. said...

One small problem with your speculations: the traditional notions of heaven and hell conflict with what the Bible actually says. Three different Greek words get translated as "hell" in the King James Bible. They have different meanings. Only one (hades) parallels the Hebrew word (sheol) which is sometimes translated "hell" but other times translated "grave". Based upon context, the word seems to be the inverse of sky. That is the realm underneath the surface, be it a hole in the ground or even underwater.

With the exception of one parable, the Bible refers to death as sleep, and that the dead will waken to live here on earth, not in heaven. (Actually, the earth will be recreated after the second resurrection.) The heaven error comes from a passage about those in the first resurrection meeting in the sky when Jesus comes down from heaven. This is a military assembly point, for a conquest of earth after the tribulations in Revelation leading to the millenium. (This happens after the last trump; so much for believers avoiding the tribulations.)

As for "hell", the three Greek words refer to underground, the classical Greek place of torment (one reference, and that is for Satan during the millenium), and a burning garbage pit outside of Jerusalem. The first form (hades) is to be thrown into the third (gehenna) upon Judgment Day, which is after the second resurrection.

It appears to me that only believers to make the grade will be in the first resurrection, and thence become kings and priests during the millenium. It is a bit unclear, but I have found multiple references to unbelievers surviving Judgment Day after the second resurrection. They just won't be part of the government.

For details and references, see my in depth study here.

LarryHart said...

Carl M:

Based upon context, the word [for Hell] seems to be the inverse of sky. That is the realm underneath the surface, be it a hole in the ground or even underwater.

I forget what I just read very recently--possibly C.S. Lewis--which made me realize for the first time that the word "infernal" is actually dervived from the sense of being "under ground". Long ago when the "realms" seemed separate, there were the Celestial, the Terrestrial, and the Infernal. So yeah, "opposite of sky" is pretty accurate. In modern day superhero comic-book terms, maybe "Dark reflection of sky" is more accurate.

What blew my mind is that I always thought that "infernal" meant fiery/hot first, and that the sense of it meaning "underground" was only in relation to the Biblical Hell. My new sense is that it's the other way around: The word first and foremost means "underground" ("Infa" meaning "beneath" as in infa-red). Yet it also seems as if the "fer" in "inferno" would refer to fire, a meaning competely independent of that fire's location relative to the earth's surface.

Is this one of those clues that Dr Brin points to that we're living in a simulation?

ERic said...

"It is a bit unclear, but I have found multiple references to unbelievers surviving Judgment Day after the second resurrection. They just won't be part of the government."

Oh, well. In that case, Judgment Day has already happened here in Texas.

John Kurman said...

Yeah, I thought about the Planck limit as a clue to simulation. If we model the universe at a coarser granulation than the 6.66 times 10 to the minus 23 or whatever, and it stills runs the same, then we can probably assume we are real. Or if it runs the same at a finer granulation, then we may not be real. Unless the simulation takes into account running a simulation within it, but this seems a bit excessive and dishonest.

As a skeptical perspectivalist, I, like Chuang Tsu before me, make fun of those who worry about it (people often assume Chuang Tsu was getting all mystical when in fact he was poking fun at the mystics with the butterfly story).

sociotard said...

It's "Infrared", not "infared". A lot of people forget that first 'r'.

A quick search says that the 'fer' part of 'inferno' doesn't have anything to do with fire. Again, the association with fire is just from the association with hell.

The word comes from the latin "infernus" meaning "of the lower regions". In turn, that word comes from "inferus" or "low". This is where we get the English word "inferior" from.

LarryHart said...


It's "Infrared", not "infared". A lot of people forget that first 'r'.

Y'know, I was GOING to type "infra-red", and then I thought THAT was one of those things I always got wrong, so I went with the other way.

I'm just as bad with picking stocks, btw.

dmon said...

Oh my - reincarnation in a new light in simverse: if we as sims think we remember something from a "past life", it may be as simple as a chunk of data that was freed/malloc'd and not reinitialized. Buggy code!

Robert said...

Just a brief bit of scientific whimsy here (in my favorite form, naturally enough: webcomics!) concerning what's beyond the universe.

This could be considered from the mouth of babes and when you read the author's notes below... explains that this was based on a real-life conversation. Which is pretty cool that there are young children out there who can come up with such revelations that make sense both from a child's perspective... and from that of philosophy itself.

Robert A. Howard, Tangents Reviews

dmon said...

Still mulling... "bugs in the sim" feels like such a good explanation for so many of the hokier things in life. The Obama/Osama dichotomy - buffer overwrite! Psychic phenomena - uninitialized structures! It's great explanation, because it's virtually unrepeatable and unprovable. Sweet!

Another sim-clue: compare north-Anglo/Celt "aye" and Japanese "hai".

No cat! No cradle!

Jonathan S. said...

This just makes me agree all the more with the unnamed programmer in Cook's Wizard's Bane, who maintained that the universe was a massive computer simulation - and all he wanted was ten minutes alone with the source code, and a quick recompile...

David Brin said...

Mike Gannis asks"
BTW, have you seen this bumper sticker:

Can I have your car?

LarryHart said...


Which is pretty cool that there are young children out there who can come up with such revelations that make sense both from a child's perspective...


I once proposed a similar answer to the seeming-dichotomy between "free will" and the concept that 4-D space-time is immutable.

I was...well, not exacctly "arguing" but certainly having a heavy converstaion...with an internet friend who was actually depressing himself because he was coming to believe that free will was impossible. The reason he believed that was because (he asserted) one could create a complete model of the universe over all of time, and this 4-D model would then be complete and unchanging. Everything that ever happened or WILL happen is therefore predestined.

In trying to refute his argument (enough to talk the poor guy down off the metaphorical ledge), I came up with this on the spur of the moment: Wouldn't most of that "model" be space-wise separated from the current place and time I occupy? What makes it such a certainty that such a model of all space-time IS constructable (even theoretically) other than for the points in space-time that are NOT space-wise separated from the modeler?

I finally put the proposition to him: Maybe you should be less concerned with using free will to CHANGE moments in space-time, and more concerned with BUILDING those moments the first (and only) time around.

David Brin said...

I've said it before. Always look at the IMPLICIT ASSUMPTIONS that underly a dogma.

The Book of Revelations has a fundamental premise that is even more crucial than the loony notion that God would do any of the psychotic ravings that John of Patmos screeched in a clearly schizophrenic snit and that barely was voted into the canon against the vigorous objections of Christian leaders who denounced it as insane.

What is that underlying premise? That God does not and cannot change his mind. That is it, stark and clear. It's all mapped out and He won't change a thing, ever. Not even possibly, no matter what we do.

It is decisively and wrong, heretical, and an obscene theological doctrine. Many far more primary books, including Jonah, state simply and with utter clarity that God can change his mind. And that he does. And that he issues warnings. And then relents.

If - by some weird chance - the BoR once really was a genuine warning from God (and linguistic evidence points to it being all about the Emperor Nero), two thousan years is enough time to know, with certainty, that we long ago moved past whatever crisis Patmos was blabbing about.

If we do face another trial, we deserve a fresh, updated warning. Perferably one that is modern, explicit, totally unambiguous (not some shrill interpretation of a natural disaster) but something fair, written in letters or a Monty Python figure in the sky. If that happened, there'd be no need for fire and blood.

C'mon, One miracle hand writing on the sky? Think of all the people raised sincerely to believe Islam or Hinduism. It will take something like that... so why not do it?

I can tell you why not. It is His only excuse for the unfairness of it all. But it is a good excuse.

SteveO said...

Dr. Brin,

I have a story idea about that I have been mulling over for about six months. It starts:

"Everyone remembers where they were and what they were doing the day God spoke to them. Even Dr. Faroq, who didn't believe a word of what he heard."

Maybe with the summer break I will write it out and post it for evisceration, err, comment and post a link here.

The thing I have feared for years about writing fiction is that if I start up again, I won't be able to two topics here have pushed me to the edge of starting.

Guess I'll see what happens...

LarryHart said...

Geez, won't the "simulation" theory now be used by the righties to explain how the president was able to come up with a missing birth certificate? :)

And apologies for going off topic, but this was too good not to post: Apparently, the producer of that new "Atlas Shrugged" film is throwing a hissy-fit because the critics are panning the movie.

He phrases his response in heroic Randian terms, but in fact, his actions are the exact opposite. It's the equivalent of Dagny and Hank giving up on building the rail line because the "critics" were against it:

Rebecca Keegan

Los Angeles Times

April 26, 2011

EXCLUSIVE: Twelve days after opening "Atlas Shrugged: Part 1," the producer of the Ayn Rand adaptation said Tuesday that he is reconsidering his plans to make Parts 2 and 3 because of scathing reviews and flagging box office returns for the film.

"Critics, you won," said John Aglialoro, the businessman who spent 18 years and more than $20 million of his own money to make, distribute and market "Atlas Shrugged: Part 1," which covers the first third of Rand's dystopian novel. "I'm having deep second thoughts on why I should do Part 2."
Though the film has made only $3.1 million so far, Aglialoro said he believes he'll recoup his investment after TV, DVD and other ancillary rights are sold. But he is backing off an earlier strategy to expand "Atlas" to 1,000 screens and reconsidering his plans to start production on a second film this fall.

"Why should I put up all of that money if the critics are coming in like lemmings?" Aglialoro said. "I'll make my money back and I'll make a profit, but do I wanna go and do two? Maybe I just wanna see my grandkids and go on strike.",0,5503084.story

So he's going to punish the audiences who aren't interested in his film by...not making any more?

Also, how much does he expect those TV and DVD rights for "Part 1" to be worth when he's not doing Parts 2 and 3?

Just feeling some schaudenfreude with the evidence showing that Randroids, who refuse to live for the sake of another, are whiny-babies when it comes to their insistence that others live for THEIR sake.

dmon said...

@LarryHart - he's gone Galt!

David Brin said...

See a study by a public policy class at Hamilton College evaluating pundits' ability to make predictions - SF fan Paul Krugman is the winner among those evaluated.
 Krugman's a savvy guy.  He's probably read some of my books. Wish there were some way to reach him. Wanted to give him a copy of FOUNDATION'S TRIUMPH. But I have searched and found no conceivable route to contact Krugman. Where to send a book or to let him know I'll be in DC in a few days.

Anybody have any ideas?

SteveO premise sounds cool. I have a novel opening (10,000 words) set after everybody on Earth started having different dreams of "somebody coming."

"Geez, won't the "simulation" theory now be used by the righties to explain how the president was able to come up with a missing birth certificate? :)"

Naw... we live in the holodeck where a drunken braggert dropped in enough quarters to improbably live a series of dream jobs as oil tycoon, running a baseball team, governor of Texas and President of a kick-ass an' who cares about tamale You-nited states. There is no other conceivable explanation.

Andrew said...

dear mr. brin, have you heard about george r.r. martin's game of thrones books? i have heard that he is one of the rare fantasy genre writers whose book does not engage in manichean moralizing nor in backwards-looking glorification of some mythical, better past.

Robert said...

C.S. Lewis actually came up with a rather interesting method of showing how a God can be Omniscient and yet allow for mankind to have Free Will. He did so in the Fourth Narnia book, The Silver Chair when Jill was told by Aslan what to tell Eustace when she met him again... and basically spelled out the variety of possibilities for these two to find the missing Prince. When Eustace shushed Jill when she arrived in Narnia and she didn't insist on telling him what Aslan said at first, they missed out on the first potential timeline in which King Caspian sent them with help to find the Prince. While it could be claimed there was no Free Will or freedom of choice and that Aslan knew what would happen... why give her the several options? In essence, Lewis was showing in his novel how the concepts of Free Choice and Omniscience can exist at the same time.

I actually have utilized a similar concept in one of my characters, a fallen angel who was punished by the Divine with Eternity and Omniscience while letting him know that if he didn't do precisely what he was supposed to, his Fall would be complete. (Thus he wouldn't remain dead and saw all potential futures... and exactly what he would do in each one.) I struggled for a bit how one character (especially one who knows "The Future" could lack Free Will and yet allow other people to retain their own when it dawned on me... the character would see all possible actions and know exactly what he does for each situation. Thus turning him into a puppet, who ultimately is not sane even by the concepts of a semi-divine entity. (He finds a way around things eventually. While he is Omniscient, he doesn't have to look. Thus he can create the illusion of free choice for himself even if he does not in fact possess it.)

In creating a four-dimensional model of the universe that includes its beginning, middle, and end... in order to be complete it would entail the model show all potential existences with all potential choices all at the same time. While the model would be complete and the end of each potentiality would be known... there would still be an illusion of free choice because of the multitude of paths that lead to the varied ends. In short, the universe as a Choose Your Own Adventure simulation.

Rob H.

Tony Fisk said...

The world as simulation is always an interesting speculation. The trouble is, it all too easily leads to further speculation about simulations of simulations of... which, when you're contemplating simulations as a solution to an underlying problem (eg Q: where is everyone? A: Not in this version) tends to beggar the question (ie what contains all these nested scenarios?)

Rather than go that way, ponder the following:
What is the purpose of the simulation? (how many billion names of God are we up to?)

Why is the purpose secret? Does knowing it affect the outcome?

Is our inquisitiveness starting to tax the processing limits? If so, what might happen when we reach those limits? Do we crash or 'break-out'? (ponder the ramifications of a successfully operating quantum computer)

Maybe Monty Python and the Holy Grail *was* the 'heads up'?

I'm averting my eyes, oh Lord. Well, don't. It's like those miserable Psalms -- they're so depressing. Now knock it off! Yes, Lord.

David Brin said... is having an interesting discussion of Asimov's FOUNDATION universe. Enjoyable. But also note: FOUNDATION'S TRIUMPH is the fully authorized sequel the Asimovs asked me to write, tying together all of Isaac's loose ends - apparently with great success. (It is now in a dozen languages.) It even ties in books like PEBBLE IN THE SKY and makes many things make sense! And has a great Asimov timeline at back.

David Brin said...

Andrew yes, I have great respect for George Martin.

Robert, you scenario is interesting... and chillingly cruel!

There is only one excuse for the way we have been treated... left ignorant and suffering and definitely NOT free-willed, since most of us would make better choices simply if fed/educated and left untraumatized than the REFLEXES by which most people react to the world.

No, the only excuse is that individuals don't matter all that much. That it is us... the cumulative humanity we are building... that matters. We KNOW this is true when it comes to caring more about our kids than ourselves! If this is the "project" then His distance and silence and surficial unfairness makes sense, since we have to burn our hands in order to learn... and the suffering of millions of skin cells doesn't matter much.

It is a searingly heretical view and flies in the face of our individual egomania. But it is the only conceivable excuse.

"Maybe Monty Python and the Holy Grail *was* the 'heads up'?"

My son would agree!

David Brin said...

Anybody interested in helping me test-demo my new chat system?

Especially if you feel qualified in some way, please email me the usual way - via

or else directly at (NOT my usual address! Checked irregularly.)

The run will be at 5pm Pacific on Monday May16.

Tony Fisk said...

'The Book of Joby' has an interesting take on the nature of free will.

The premise is that Satan buttonholes the Almighty and asks for another chance to prove his views are right by re-running the Job scenario (I can get these weeds to renounce you of their own free will). God, after brushing him off, suddenly does a double-take and, to Gabriel's horror, agrees!

What follows next is a rather dour, depressing account about how a bright young spirit has the vitality crushed from him by Satan's minions (having got God's word that He will not interfere, and that none of the heavenly host will assist unless called upon.)

However, at the point at which I was ready to discard this sorry tale of spiritual bullying, a wild card called Merlin turns up, and things start going in more interesting directions. The upshot is that Satan didn't read the fine-print closely enough (I'll leave out spoilers), and the notion of free-will gets extended.

George Wells George Wells said...

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David Brin said...

Jumper said...

Good grief, David, you are a pretty big deal. Enough to call the NYT and be taken seriously!

"Does God know what He's going to think of next?" This is a variant I coined of the old "rock too big for him to lift." Pretty sure He could change his mind if he wanted to.

Odd synchrony here; I picked up a book on Descartes and got to the arguments about whether one is in a dream; how would one know?

I see two forms of simulation. One in which the creator specifically does not want the sims to know it, and one in which it does not matter. If we are living in a simulation, but are able to contact the outside world, then we could influence it. This leads to thoughts about prayer. Perhaps even nonbelievers should commence praying immediately.

allanbard said...

Good post! You should really write a similar story to Merry Shelly's Frankenstein (sorry if you already wrote it, I haven't read all your works, yet). Your thoughts remind me of a quote from a future book of mine: Oftentimes, ficton stories are more real than the real ones, or at least are better than them...
I think the question should not be whether we live in a fake world, but that in the future we'll have to combine both the real with a "fake" worlds to remain "alive". Creating a virtual reality could be a perfect way to remove all the dullness, boring, everyday's routine in our life. That's the reason why we read good adventure stories or watch fantasy/sci-fy movies, after all? To be dead doesn't mean to lie breathless 6 feet under the ground, but to wake up at 7 a.m. every morning, go to work and do all those boring, routine activities we call a job, then living in the same routine over and over again?
Wish you all the best! Keep the good works coming! And don't forget to never shave your beard, you must be very proud wearing it, that's the appearance of Mountaineers, the only people who could become and train wizards in antiquity ;)!

Robert said...

Dr. Brin: I know. The horror of the situation is part of the point. I jokingly say that the lesson of the story is "never tell your boss he's being a prideful fool and an idiot right after he's successfully fought off a hostile takeover." (The crux of the situation: eternity is a long time for exile (of Lucifer and his followers) and that there should be the hope for redemption. I've come to realize the character partly represents my fears of the concept of Predestination in which there is no point to existence since everything, including the sins and however life ends, is already determined by the Divine.)

What's even more horrifying (and something that only recently occurred to me) is that at one point the character incarnates as human, in the hopes that by being human, forgetting his angelic past and living life as a mortal... that maybe he could earn either salvation or damnation and end his Exile one way or the other. Except... he would know that he was going to become human because it was meant to be... and very likely could have known how it ends (not well). (Which also means that his not looking into the future would also be predestined... but would be perhaps a sign of the Divine perhaps backing off on the punishment - even if the punishment was for Eternity (or until the character snapped and deliberately Fell - there's pride on both sides with the angel insisting that he would always serve, no matter what), it need not be hellish).

Of course, it's also dependent on the concept that the Divine can't or won't change its mind. And for that matter that the Fall happened rather than being man's interpretation of his own faults as due to a malicious outside influence since God can't be Evil seeing that God is Good. *rolls eyes* Got to love attempts to pidgeonhole an entity that, if it exists, is beyond us to the extent that we are beyond the amino acids we first began to emerge from.

Rob H.

Peter said...

Charles Stross has an interesting short story where the characters inhabit a universe that is obviously a simulation. The characters learn that their universe is an experiment to determine if the history of the creators of the simulation was in fact free will or was predetermined. So the implication raised, I think: is our universe a specific experiement and if so what?

LarryHart said...

dmon said of the Atlas Shrugged producer:

he's gone Galt!

He's certainly phrasing his "strike" in Randian terms, but in fact, he's doing the diametric opposite of what a Randian hero would do. Old great-grandfather Taggart built the Taggart Bridge with his own hands when all others were against him.

Sure, the heroes of "Atlas Shrugged" went on strike, but that was an attempt to deny the moochers and looters the benefit of the heroes' own wonderful skills. It was not an excuse for quitting their own personal work because others won't play nice with them.

By this guy's logic, John Galt should have given up his plan to destroy civilization because Mr Thompson called him a bad name. Or by the same logic, Ayn Rand should have refused to finish or publish "Atlas Shrugged" because it was panned by critics, even conservative ones.

The producer may fancy himself as having "gone Galt", but in fact, he's gone Palin! :)

LarryHart said...

Dr Brin said:

... left ignorant and suffering and definitely NOT free-willed, since most of us would make better choices simply if fed/educated and left untraumatized than the REFLEXES by which most people react to the world.

Thom Hartmann says that liberals proceed from the assumption that humans are mostly good, whereas conservtives presume they are mostly bad (and therefore need strong rules to govern their behavior and an authoritarian structure to enforce those rules).

I've modified that a bit. As a liberal, I DO believe that humans are mostly good, but that they are LESS good when hungry, cold, and without hope. The benefit of a strong social safety net is that it ALLOWS so many more people to exist in a "mostly good" state instead of a desparate one. Conservative ideology seems to be all about protecting "their" assets from hungry, cold, desperate people. Liberal ideology is about using society's resources to ensure that people aren't in that state to begin with, and therefore aren't a threat to "your" life and property.

No, the only excuse is that individuals don't matter all that much. That it is us... the cumulative humanity we are building... that matters.
It is a searingly heretical view and flies in the face of our individual egomania. But it is the only conceivable excuse.

It's only "heretical" when individuals are allowed to "not matter" to such an extent that they feel no interest in the success of the endeavor, or feel enough active anger AGAINST it to do it harm.

Individuals have to be accomodated enough that they are invested in the franchise. Beyond that, I agree with everything you just said.

sociotard said...

Anybody interested in helping me test-demo my new chat system?

You finally got that Holocene thing up and running? The last I'd heard, that had been shelved indefinitely due to lack of venture capital.

sociotard said...

Just read that article on "Eight ways in-vitro meat . . ."

I know that 'science journalism' generally involves pointing to the most extreme possible scenario in order to titilate readers. Even so, this was silly.

[b]"Bye-bye ranches"[/b] no. We may see 95% of the industry shift over to the factory meats. Maybe. Even so, that would just make some ranches shift over to 'artisinal meats', touting specialty breeding and dietary choices ("this bull was raised for slaughter eating nothing but oregano!") This already exists, but it will get more notable if IMV takes off.

[b]"IVM will also contain no hormones"[/b] Again, no. In vitro meat is still made of cells. Hormones are the language used to talk to cells and tell them to grow. I can't imagine there will be a complete abscence of hormones. Or antibiotics. Or a lot of other things.

Carl M. said...

The Book of Revelations is highly metaphorical. So is Daniel, which contains the most prophecies which have clearly happened. And a great deal of what is described in Revelations is stated in other terms in the gospels and Paul's letters.

God wrote some things in obscure text to give the intellectual believers something to chew on.

As for the free will vs. prophecy stuff, an event can be inevitable without it having a fixed date. Also there can be many paths to get there.

Some of the events in Revalations appear to be descriptions of modern war technology -- from the eyes of someone who lives an age when only birds fly. What do you expect someone from nearly two millenia ago to write if he sees a vision of Predator drones, nuclear blasts, chemical warfare, etc. (And no, I don't think he saw the exact events to come. I think he saw a possible high tech war scenario.)

Read the last chapters in Deuteronomy. They lay out a choice, but they also predict that the Hebrews will make the wrong one. But when? If each generation has free will, is it not inevitable that one will make the other choice? But it need not be yours was the message.

And similarly, Carl Sagan speculated that Revelation levels of destruction were inevitable once a civilization reached a certain level. Given that we haven't eliminated war yet, this prediction is still worthy of consideration. But whether it is our generation, or a future generation where terrorists can create their own smallpox variants in garages, is still TBD.

Finally, as for the issue of unfairness to unbelievers, see my near book on the subject at A Narrow Path. It's around 100 pages printed out if you read the entire series starting there. This is not a trivial subject.

David Brin said...

Thanks Allanbard! And come again.

Jumper would you have any Descartes quotations where he speaks to dreaming?

See my story "Stones of Significance" for where some simulations know and some don't.

Robertever seen the first Bedazzled movie with Dudley Moor and Peter Cook? Lucifer still has some hope. Cute flick. Also liked the Brendan Fraser version.

Your scenario seems the inverse of the human saint who commits suicide in order to go to hell and minister to the damned.

LarryHart your exegesis of pragmatic liberalism is fine, so far. But the REAL goal of liberal goody-ness is to maximize the number of children who grow up to joyfully and skillfully compete. Liberals should know this and revere Adam Smith and proudly distinguish themselves from Leftists, who consider competition to be evil.

Preventing competition from being cu-throat and unfair and ensuring that losers can come back for new rounds... all of that AMOUNTS TO liberals having tons of common ground with leftists... for now. And all of that needs a lot of state intervention. But by emphasizing the "number of skilled competitors" they can rob the right of its biggest polemical stance... that they are defenders of enterprise.

I agree that taking individual souls out of the Agenda or God's Priority - while taking God off the hook a bit for being immoral and cruel - does make my theology terrifyingly cold and far more impersonal. But note... it does not PRECLUDE an individual afterlife. It just says that we suffered and strove for something more important.

sociotard I agree that in vitro article was kinda dumb. It will take decades for IVM to gain the feel and texture and taste and even so, animal meat will have a huge boutique following....then later a whole drug-cartel smuggling thing.

Sorry Carl. BoR is pattern recognition city. The most popular book of 1799 FIRMLY PROVED that every character in the BoR was a contemporary Napoleonic era figure. Gee whiz, theLATE GREAT PLANET EARTH guy is still revered, even though most of his "fer-sure" characters and players are now GONE!

Carl is there a 200word summary of your unfairness to unbelievers point? I lack time but am interested. I can't think of any way to combine vengeance over wrong incantation with the fact that billions were left to sincerely and lovingly pass on those incantations to their adoring and loving and reverentially obedient children. It doesn't wash.

David Brin said...

Chris Phoenix offers this quotation from Albert Einstein (1949)
One comment led me to a fascinating article which reads, in part:

"We see before us a huge community of producers the members of which
are unceasingly striving to deprive each other of the fruits of their
collective labor—not by force, but on the whole in faithful compliance
with legally established rules. [....] Private capital tends to become
concentrated in few hands, partly because of competition among the
capitalists, and partly because technological development and the
increasing division of labor encourage the formation of larger units
of production at the expense of smaller ones. The result of these
developments is an oligarchy of private capital the enormous power of
which cannot be effectively checked even by a democratically organized
political society. This is true since the members of legislative
bodies are selected by political parties, largely financed or
otherwise influenced by private capitalists who, for all practical
purposes, separate the electorate from the legislature. The
consequence is that the representatives of the people do not in fact
sufficiently protect the interests of the underprivileged sections of
the population. Moreover, under existing conditions, private
capitalists inevitably control, directly or indirectly, the main
sources of information (press, radio, education). It is thus extremely
difficult, and indeed in most cases quite impossible, for the
individual citizen to come to objective conclusions and to make
intelligent use of his political rights."

In fact, this is influenced by his generation's deeply-steeped awareness of Marxist dialectic. Even those who disagreed with Marx nevertheless discussed the issues in his terms. In fact, we are intellectually poorer for not atleast having read up enough to grasp the issues and terminology.

The problems he raises are real. They are Marx's famous "contradictions" and they have one flaw... the fact that somehow enlightenment processes DID push back against these failure modes - failure modes that crushed freedom and enterprise in 99% of cultures but failed to do so here, for another several generations after 1949.

In fact, I believe the current oligarchic putsch is desperate. They see that if they don't crush the enlightenment very soon, transparency will establish it firmly, forever.

ell said...

LarryHart: Remember the movie "The Towering Inferno"? If an inferno is underground, and it towers...

My brain is going cross-eyed on that one.

If we're living in a simulation, could it be the science fair project of a D student?

LarryHart said...

Dr Brin quotes Einstein:

"We see before us a huge community of producers the members of which
are unceasingly striving to deprive each other of the fruits of their
collective labor—not by force, but on the whole in faithful compliance
with legally established rules. [....]"

To me, it's a sign of a disfunctional economy when the way to get rich by "working hard" is by working to take wealth (or even wealth-opportunities) FROM other people.

It's one thing to claim, as the Randroids do, that the wealthy deserve to keep every penny because they earned their money by doing the hard work of production.

It's quite another to insist that a class of opportunists deserves to keep everything they "work" at keeping away from everybody else.

It is certainly a falsehood that "ANYBODY can get rich by working hard" if the hard work we're talking about is the effort spent fighting over a limited pie. No more than it could possibly be true that EVERYBODY can get rich by winning the same lottery. Or that every state in the US can increase its share of electoral votes by overpopulating.

ell said...

Free will vs. predestination:

After decades of working on technical manuals, I suspect it may be the difference between a Plan document and a Procedures document. The outline is there based on the Big Bang; we fill in the details.

Robert said...

On whether or not the universe is a simulation... does it matter? We still perceive ourselves as alive. We have some control over our own actions. If the universe is fake... then we still exist within this simulation. So let's live it.

Rob H.

Paul said...

As others have asked, if consciousness is an illusion, what is being tricked? If we are automatons, why do we need to believe in free-will?

Andy Love said...

"Or the fact that World War II featured a battle in which Adolf the Wolf attacked the Church on the Hill, who begged help from the Field of Roses, which asked its Marshall to send an Iron-hewer to fight in the Old World"

Another SF writer noticed the meaningful names during WWII - Stewart Robb wrote "Letter from a Higher Critic" in 1966 on that topic.

sociotard said...

Re: the WWII name game

Lets see, Joseph means "God will increase", and Stalin is (apparently) derived from "Steel", so . . . "God will increase my steel?" An apt description, but Joseph the Steel sounds more dramatic.

Adolf means wolf, or noble wolf, and Hitler means 'guy who lives in a hut'. The Wolf in the Hut? Weird

The great downfall of the Wolf really came at the armies of Joseph the Steel. Of course, the Field of Roses never would have gotten involved were not its pearly harbors attacked by . . . Abundant Benevolance?

Dang it, Emperor Hirohito! You ruined the game.

LarryHart said...

In Kurt Vonnegut's "Hocus Pocus", he included a chart, apparently done in 1944, which listed six world leaders and their birthdates, then-current ages, the year each came to power, and the number of years each had then been in office. For each leader, the sum of all the dates and years was 3888. It was supposed to look mystical, until you realize that 3888 is just the year 1944 twice. If you add anyone's birthdate to the age they are at the time, you'll get the year (assuming their birthday has already come in that year). Ok, ha, ha, it's no big deal.

Then, the chart pointed out that the first initials of Churchill, Hitler, Roosevelt, Il duce, Stalin, and Tojo spelled out the name of our Lord and Savior.

Tony Fisk said...

Oi! Cheat!
Il Duce's a title.
Either use Mussolini, or use Die Fuhrer instead of Hitler.

mocce: a concoction of fermented banana skins, said to enhance one's pattern recognition skills.

David Brin said...

What? None of you are interested in participating in the test demo?

Carl M. said...

@David. See The Fate of Unbelievers. It's more than 200 words, but it has subheadings and the quoted verses are clearly boxed. Shouldn't take you too long to read it, less if you skim.

Rob said...

Der F├╝hrer. Der. My German insides just had an internet-troll attack. Sorry about that.

Yes, David, I'm interested in the test. Problem is, though, I'm civilly involved, schools and all that. And it's little league season. Weather permitting.

David Brin said...

Clever... but rather, well, illogical, sorry.

So those who were raised sincerely believing other things shall be exempt? From Armageddon? From blood spurting from the eyes? From a promised end to all democracy, science, human ambition and hope?

Um where do I sign up?

And what? Will the Earth be divided into the 1000 year Kingdom and (over a big wall) the rest of the world just getting on with business? Geez... sounds like the America of Nehemia Scudder! (See Heinlein's REVOLT IN 2100).

It doesn't hold. The priests of the Sanhendrin had not only the right to demand miracles... in order to separate Jesus from the HUNDREDS of other messiah claimants strutting around... but they had a fiduciary and holy DUTY to make such demands.

It was exactly the right time, and exactly the right place. Not in front of a bunch of gullible rubes in the countryside.

Heck, Herod and Pilate also had a perfect right to ask and demand proof for such claims. It was the time and place. And if they and the priests were convinced, wouldn't that make savin the world easier? A great start and a good day's work, I'd say.

All right, it took Moses ten plagues. I doubt it would have taken anywhere near that much in the Temple, where they were expecting a messiah anyway!

David Brin said...

Rob and others interested in the demo, contact me via

Tony Fisk said...

Sorry David, timing issues prevent me.
Something to ponder for your trials: record inputs and times to allow session playback. Might be useful in winkling out preferred behaviours.

Some interesting tidbits in the 'where have I heard this before' department:
- Could life arise on asteroids?
- Speaker to Dolphins!? (It's probably just a matter of honing up on the limericks!)

David Brin said...

Long ago, Fred Hoyle, Chandra Wickramasinghe and my boss - Hannes Alfven - worked out this same aluminum 26 scenario, only for the simpler case of comets, not asteroids. (There appears to be a continuum between them.) One result might have been billions of floating test tubes filled with liquid water and chemicals for millions of years- reactor vessels that might have cooked up interesting things, and then some of them falling onto planets like Earth.

I discussed this further in my novel HEART OF THE COMET (1986).

An interesting hypothesis, worth keeping in mind as we explore.

Carl M. said...

No one will be exempt from the tribulations of the last when it happens -- except those already dead. It's not going to be pleasant for Christians either. The early rapture folks have it completely wrong.

My conjecture is that the millenium will occur when all the nations grow weary of trying to govern in the face of growing human power -- whether that power is nuclear weapons, robot armies, mobile asteroids, starships aimed at earth, genetically engineered plagues or who knows what. Maybe we will manage to maintain the Pax Nuclear for another 500 years. But if not, unpleasant times await. And as the environmentalists continually remind us, we are running out of nature to fall back on.

Daniel 12:4
"But thou, O Daniel, shut up the words, and seal the book, [even] to the time of the end: many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased."

Tim H. said...

Could that verse in Daniel be understood as "The wider dissemination of knowledge is a sign of the end times"? Could an influential elite feel it their sacred duty to maintain a high level of ignorance? I suppose that might look good to the contemporary descendants of a shepherd's cult.

Paul said...

Re: Dolphin communication.

-"Hi Dolphin"
="Hey Human. Wanna surf?"
="Human, you know how young male dolphins pair up, would... do you wanna be my pair-friend? If that's weird, I totally..."
-"Dude, I have a dolphin best-friend, it's like every kids..."
="And if you want I can hold down a female while you rape her"
-"No what no why would NO"
="S'cool, wanna chase some fish?"
-"not really, I... I'm gonna go over here... for awhile"

+"Hey Human"
-"Oh, hi Chimp. You won't believe what Dolphin justOHMYGODWHATAREYOUDOING"
+"Bashing an infant against a tree. Why?"
-"Oh... god..."

>"Hey Human, you seem bummed, s'up?"
-"Oh Human! This animal communications hasn't worked out like I hoped. I guess I didn't allow for..."
>"Fucking Jew science, amiright?"
-"ohright nowiremember..."

="Human! You're back!"
-"Hey Dolphin"
="Wanna chase some fish?"
-"I think I do."

LarryHart said...

ell said:

Remember the movie "The Towering Inferno"? If an inferno is underground, and it towers...

My brain is going cross-eyed on that one.

Maybe it should have been called "The Inflammable Tower"?


Jonathan S. said...

Wow, Carl. So, your God so loved the world that He didn't give His only begotten Son until at least four thousand years (depending on which authority you accept) had passed, and then put Him in a fairly obscure region, so that billions of people born before He came or living where they wouldn't hear of Him for millennia could burn for all eternity due to their own misfortune, with no hope of redemption?

And you would worship such an evil Creator?

For myself, I believe in a much more ethically acceptable God than that...

repit: the practice of placing the stones back into pitted cherries as part of an elaborate practical joke.

Robert said...

While I am not Christian, my understanding is that the death of Christ absolved all of humanity's sins leading up to his birth and death. Thus the slate is wiped clean for everyone as of that point, and all the people (no matter how horrible, wicked, cruel, or whatever) who existed up until that point in time are allowed into Heaven due to Christ's suffering.

For those of us who lived after the Crucifixion, stubbing your toe and taking the Lord's name in vain just before you're hit by a drunk driver who's driving erratically will naturally leave you burning forever. =^-^=

Rob H.

Ian said...

"In modern day superhero comic-book terms, maybe "Dark reflection of sky" is more accurate."

While I can entertain the possibility that we live in a simulation I refuse to even consider the possibility that it's a simulation based on the works of Chris Claremont.

Ian said...

Personally I fidn the most horrific possibility of living in a simulation to be the one David raises with his "POVs".

Maybe many of the people around us really are mindless automata.

Why simulate the internal life of each of the field hands at Mt Vernon in the same detail as George Washington's?

Ian said...

"Lets see, Joseph means "God will increase", and Stalin is (apparently) derived from "Steel", so . . . "God will increase my steel?" An apt description, but Joseph the Steel sounds more dramatic."

Stalin actually means "Man of Steel".

"God Will Increase my man of steel" sounds like the tagline for a Viagra spam.

Ian said...

"The great downfall of the Wolf really came at the armies of Joseph the Steel. Of course, the Field of Roses never would have gotten involved were not its pearly harbors attacked by . . . Abundant Benevolance?

Dang it, Emperor Hirohito! You ruined the game."

The Son of Heaven's personal name can also be translated as "Man of Riches"

David Brin said...

Paul gets post-of-the-day. Wow... better theology and insight into the moral predicaments of nature than your namesake.

Uplift will not be easy.

Jonathan, please be nice. Carl is a valued member of the community. I do agree that the Book of Revelations is horrific and disproved and that modern Christians' fixation on it... rather than the "red letter" words of Jesus and improving both the world and humanity... is rather sad.

"While I am not Christian, my understanding is that the death of Christ absolved all of humanity's sins leading up to his birth and death."

Well... the not quite canonical story of Jesus Harrowing Hell suggests that he removed all who had led decent righteous lives. Not the truly awful. But that tale inspires my growing notion of writing a story about that saint who decides to go down...

The dogma that an incantation of repentance wipes away all sins up to the moment of utterance, leaving you doomed by your next mortal sin till the NEXT priestly mediated repentance... seems so clearly to be a job guarantee program for priests. Even once protestants removed priestly intercession, it still is a very very strange... and not very moral... accounting system.

LarryHart said...


For those of us who lived after the Crucifixion, stubbing your toe and taking the Lord's name in vain just before you're hit by a drunk driver who's driving erratically will naturally leave you burning forever. =^-^=

Believe me, I'm no Christian myself, my native creed being Judaism. But I've heard the arguments enough to know what they'd say.

"After the Crucifixion, your final disposition is not based upon your actions. Whatever your sins, Christ's sacrifice absolves you. The catch is that you have to voluntarily accept that gift. So the one "act" that causes you to forego salvation is the refusal to accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior. Nothing else you do (or don't do) has anything to do with anything."

How'd I do?

Ian said...

"In modern day superhero comic-book terms, maybe "Dark reflection of sky" is more accurate."

While I can entertain the possibility that we live in a simulation I refuse to even consider the possibility that it's a simulation based on the works of Chris Claremont.

Well, if everyone turned into female Amozon versions of themselves for no good reason, that would be a clue that we're in the Claremontverse, wouldn't it?

But the "dark reflection" bit isn't just Claremont's. I am sick to death of stories that attempt to establish that Batman can't kill The Joker because he (Batman) would have no purpose without his arch enemy, or that The Red Skull is the moral equivalent of Captain America, different only in which country they fight for.

Imagine such conversations in real life.

Barack Obama telling John Boener: "You know you can never outlaw abortion or privatize Social Security, because you'd have no reason to exist then! You'd wither and fade away without ObamaCare to oppose, or your precious War on Terror to fight! Without me, you're nothing but a noun, a verb, and a tax cut for the corporate masters who would soon have no reason to finance your campaigns! Face it--I'm nothing but your reflection in some dark, twisted mirror!"

Ok, maybe "dark reflection" is a bit overboard in that context. :)

Betty Jurus said...

Hi David...You've been quoted:

Thought you might be interested. :))
Hugs...Betty Jurus

Robert said...

One of the best "the Universe is a simulation" stories I've seen is "A Colder War" by Charles Stross. It also manages to treat Lovecraft like fully up-to-date SF. Great fun (unless it happens to be true, of course).

Many relatively humane theologians from a Calvinist background, especially if they couldn't shake off predestination, have been Universalists, believers that everyone reaches Heaven. The example that comes to mind is George Macdonald. His pupil C. S. Lewis did believe in free will, and in Hell, but seemed to believe that one only went there if one chose to - that a small number of people found Hell preferable to the presence of God. That some people would hate God enough to genuinely prefer Hell strikes me as quite believable - also that there would be very few of them.

As for Revelation, only John of Patmos' congregation (all dead, of course) knows what it means, or was ever meant to know. All we can do now is wonder what kind of mushrooms grow on Patmos.

- Bob Pfeiffer.

David Brin said...

Larry your paraphrasing seems to fit a large fraction - though not all - of protestant sub-dogmas. Note that Catholics still maintain that actions matter, in addition to incantations.

Interesting that Judaism, while very rich in incantations, does not actually deem them as very important. Actions matter far more. Which is consistent with the very un-Christian notion that this world matters - perhaps even more than the next..

Note that in Christian dogma, almost everything having to do with the next world is solipsistic, only about the self. In addition to Jews, those parting from this include the Mormons.

But the biggest doctrinal split is over Original Sin. The Notion that God would damn all generations over a single act by a couple of doltish teenagers. It is the premise that some found impossible to accept. Even if it meant burning for their refusal.

Rob said...

To be fair, Original Sin (as it was taught to me) is more about a description of essence than substance, but I can't deny the damage caused by millions not having been taught that old Greek nuance.

Whatever. I still reject it because I think the premise is false. If God made us, and put us here, and called it all "very good", then this world matters, full stop, pun intended.

Tony Fisk said...

I rather like David's 'beast riff' (it even inspired me to suggest that 'blind acceptance' is a more meaningful interpretation of original sin)

However, on referring to the source in Genesis (well, the King James' version of the source) I discovered that:
a) the task of 'counting the beasts' *has been* carried out
b) the purpose was to find 'a helper meet'
c) no suitable 'helper meet' being found, one was made ('Hey Eve, yer on!')

My mind is still boggling from *that* revelation! I can only hope, for the sake of a lot of good people, that something's been lost in translation.

ednes: the apocryphal name of the first donkey. She preferred strawberries.

LarryHart said...


C. S. Lewis did believe in free will, and in Hell, but seemed to believe that one only went there if one chose to - that a small number of people found Hell preferable to the presence of God. That some people would hate God enough to genuinely prefer Hell strikes me as quite believable - also that there would be very few of them.

All you have to remember is the pivotal line from "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn", when Huck realizes that he's choosing between the accepted religious wisdom of the era and helping his friend Jim.

"All right, I'll go to Hell."

I share Dr Brin's conviction that God isn't the type to consign one to eternal torture for the crime of helping a friend escape from slavery. But if we're wrong, I hope I would share his courage as well and choose Hell over complicity with injustice.

OTOH, if we're RIGHT about God not being like that, then there are doubtless a few authoritarian righties who would choose Hell in a sort of huff rather than deign to join a loving God who accepts blacks and Mexicans and liberals into His kingdom. Perhaps the authoritarians would truly prefer to rule in Hell than to live as equals with others in Heaven.

Sequeing from that quote, remember that the mythology has it that at least one famous ANGEL chose Hell rather than God. It's no accident that the supporting character of Lucifer was presented somewhat sympathetically in Neil Gaiman's "Sandman" comic series.

LarryHart said...

Tony Fisk:

b) the purpose was to find 'a helper meet'

Sorry, but finding a helper isn't an ultimate purpose, almost by definition.

A helper to help with...what? The "what" would be the purpose. "Finding a helper" is a means to an end, not an end in itself.

Carl M. said...

@Jonathan: you obviously have not been following my links. I have found many passages indicating that nonbelievers will be cut more slack than Christians.

@Robert: Baptism/repentance does give one a fresh start -- dead for tax purposes as it were -- but the accounting does seem to start again. However, the synoptic gospels list things you can do to earn forgiveness. One of these passages is far from obscure: read the Lord's Prayer! (And read the verse which immediately follows.)

As for the eternal fire, I strongly doubt humans survive the fire. A garbage dump can have a perpetual fire going even as the individual bits of trash are consumed. Jesus referred to the process as the "second death." (I am defending the Bible, not Catholic tradition. "St." Augustine put an end to open debate, and the Roman church has been accumulating errors since.)

As for Revelations vs. red letter passages: most of the gehenna-fire passages in the Bible are in the gospels. Ditto for references to the Day of Judgment and the resurrection. Have a look at the Olivet prophesy while you are at it. Paul describes the sequence of resurrections in 1 Corinthians 15. There are also many tie-ins to Exodus and Daniel.

David Brin said...

Carl, the red letters are not the words of John & Mark (which may have some bits of actual John & Mark in them, As opposed to Luke and Matthew, which were penned a hundred years later), the red letters are just the words of Jesus.

Even some of those clearly got twisted.
But the essence is still there of a fellow who saw himself as 60% rabbi and only 30% mystical intervener.

Those words are far more credible than Paul (!) who was in turn far less loony than Patmos.

Tony Fisk said...


My point was that finding a helper was the purpose of counting the beasts.

When that didn't work, God created Eve. So, the question moves to what was the purpose of creating a helper like Eve?

Sure, that could be interpreted in a number of ways. Procreation would have to be close to the top of the list, though. Hence the boggling at the prior 'learning curve'!

Hmm, if you choose to interpret the reason as being someone able to reason with Adam and share in discovery, the implication is that Uplift was tried and discarded.

Nnngh! Speaking of literal interpretations, I've just been given a problem where an optional parameter in a passed command string isn't being picked up. Solution: the square braces that enclose said parameter are meant to indicate that it is optional, and should not be included with the command!

I suppose it's a matter of interpretation, and another example that nothing can be made fool-proof because fools are just too ingenious!

Robert said...

And for those in the mood for an interesting take on the news, Galactic Empire Lord Vader announced the death of the terrorist leader Obi Wan Kenobi in the Galactic Empire Times:

Rob H.

Brendan said...

Since we are talking religion and stuff I have always been of the opinion that it is more important what you do during your life than which God you worship. Mostly this is from the parables of The Samaritan(Luke 10:25-37), and The Sheep and the Goats(Matthew 25:31).

Not that I am utterly convinced that heaven, hell, or God exist, but it a good thought experiment to hypothesis what might happen;-) keeps the mind fresh

Tim H. said...

New (To us) fungus-like family of organisms:
We're nowhere near done learning.

LarryHart said...

Krugman in fine form on his blog today (although it's mostly a snip from "Talking Points Memo", those are his comments at the end:

Nearly a dozen House Republican freshmen held a press conference outside the Capitol Tuesday morning to “wipe the slate clean,” and “hit the reset button.”

“Yeah, I mean there’s been — again, this is a both-sides issue,” said Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) when asked if GOP candidates and the NRCC had engaged in ‘MediScare’ tactics last year. “To say that one side is blameless in trying to use issues to win votes is just dishonest.”

On Tuesday, Kinzinger and 41 of his colleagues sent a letter to President Obama, asking him to rein in Democratic attacks on GOP members who voted for the House budget, which includes a plan to privatize Medicare and cap spending on the program.

“We ask that you stand above partisanship, condemn the disingenuous attacks and work with this Congress to reform spending on entitlement programs,” the letter reads.

Aside from the chutzpah of winning an election by scaring seniors about Medicare, then demanding an end to scare tactics, isn’t this just pathetic? Pleading with Democrats not to engage in politics?

This brings “they can dish it out, but they can’t take it” to a whole new level.

Jonathan S. said...

Dr. Brin, and Carl, I would like to apologize for my intemperate post. I've had other issues weighing on my mind lately, and my emotional outburst was both misaimed and unfortunate. Sadly, I don't seem to have the ability to delete the posting myself - if our esteemed webmaster could do so for me, I would be most grateful.

Again, I'm sorry for posting such an ill-thought-out diatribe, with so little excuse.

tinsol: a word that would have been invented by Joss Whedon to describe a sheriff's tin star, had Firefly made it to a second season.

Robert said...

Flashing back to comments Dr. Brin recently made about how the years are catching up to science fiction movie dates, the Lol Celebs site posted a chart of science fiction and when they took place (I think the first part of the bar is when the film was released):

Rob H.

Carl M. said...

@jonathan: some of the views and actions of traditional Christianity are worthy of an intemperate post. The series of articles I am flogging document a huge number of Biblical passages which belie these traditions. My frustration is trying to get people to read them; from my perspective many of the critiques of the Bible are strawman arguments -- but understandable given traditions.

The process David keeps pushing: open criticism of authority and revisiting questions applies to Biblical interpretation as well as to science. The Bible is a noisy dataset. Take a few passages out of the overall context and you extrapolate wildly.

@David: are you referring to the red letter passages as you can find in Bibles which put direct quotations of divine personages in red, or are you using some space-alien definition? The gehenna-fire passages, descriptions of mass resurrection and dire end times in the gospels are direct quotations -- including many of the parables.

Parables are the most robust literary form against editorial bias and translation error, so I give the parables great weight. (And yes, there is one -- and only one to my knowledge -- parable which fits with the immediate go to heaven or hell upon death interpretation. Interestingly, it is also the only parable which uses a proper name.)

As for when the gospels were written, there is no hard evidence. The internal statements put Matthew and Mark first, with Luke being near the end of the lifetimes of direct witnesses -- Luke openly playing the role of reporter. John probably wrote his gospel late in life as he is clearly addressing gentiles, so it wouldn't make sense to write soon after the crucifixion. Also John devotes most of his gospel to hammering a few theological points about the nature of Jesus vs. telling the complete story. There is little in John's account which would explain why people would follow Jesus in the first place. Jesus is almost all mystic and very little rabbi in this account. The emphasis is on the insider discussions vs. the Jesus' public message.

Robert said...

Orthodox Catholics would disagree. They believe that when the End Times come, everyone is brought back on this Earth in resurrected bodies and their original souls. Those who "burn in Hell" are the souls that forsake God's love. Since God is everywhere, the burning is literally them burning from within due to their rejecting God's love while it is within them. Thus there's no location of Hell required, and Hell is basically forsaking God's love.

Funny that no one mentions the Orthodox point of view considering they're the third largest denomination of Christians around, and could be considered closer to the original Christianity due to their not participating in the socioreligiopolitical situation in Western Europe while the Muslims controlled that region.

Rob H.

Robert said...

And Blogger just ate a significant number of comments posted in the last day or two. I ask, once again, why Dr. Brin hasn't switched to a more effective system such as Word Press. I mean, it's not even just deleting posts that have just been submitted. Now it's taking bites into archived comments. What's next, eating the actual posts Dr. Brin posts on Blogger, along with every comment people post concerning it afterward?

Rob H.

Robert said...

Also, here's an article linking cell phone use with the collapse of honey bee populations. It seems cell phone signals disrupt bees on some level. Naturally, scientists will have to create a new bee that doesn't operate on the same frequencies.

Rob H.

Paul said...

"And Blogger just ate a significant number of comments"

"David Brin said...
Paul gets post-of-the-day."

Phew... Relax everyone, it's fine.

Anonymous said...

It's not fine. I'm sure there were more than 70 commments yesterday.

Paul said...

"What's next, eating the actual posts Dr. Brin posts on Blogger"

Actually, it would have.

Blog about Blogger outage on the Blogger Buzz blog...

(Also... blog.)

ell said...


Is this the sort of thing you could use for notetaking at your speeches? You set up a conference call with your audience and your speech becomes text on their cell phones:

Paul said...

that capital "S" in Speech kills the link.

LarryHart said...


Blog about Blogger outage on the Blogger Buzz blog...

At least some of the spam posts are gone. :)

Robert said...

Shhh! You'll summon them if you mention them!

Jonathan S. said...

Wow, I knew apologizing for one's ill behavior on the Intertubes was rare, but I didn't know I could crash Blogger just by saying I was sorry for being rude!

opton: the basic particle governing choice.

Anonymous said...

In DC tired & cranky, eager to be home and not anonymous. Keep civilization going.


David Brin said...


and now this


David Brin said...



and now this


brin - who else?

Jumper said...

Jesus was a philosopher AND a religious leader.

Speaking of philosophy, the book on Descartes focuses on this book:

He writes densely, and mentions dreams only several times in Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting One's Reason and of Seeking Truth.

And that's just the title; you might understand why I supply a link rather than compile a quote to present here!

Commentary on the book is abundant on the internet as well.

Jumper said...

And technically it's "The Revelation of St. John."

LarryHart said...

Dr Brin,

When you get home, you can chalk up another predictive hit from "Earth". This is in Krugman's blog this morning, Sat May 14th:

Whee! They’re letting the Mississippi spill into the Atchafalaya.

Years ago, John McPhee wrote a wonderful piece about the Mississippi, explaining how the river has wanted for some time to engage in another of its many changes of course; left to itself, it would strand New Orleans and flow down the Atchafalaya instead. It has taken massive control structures to keep the bed where it is. And now, in the face of the flood, they’r letting part of it go where Nature wants.

No particular moral, but I find this really interesting.

LarryHart said...

Oh...should have read ahead.

I guess you knew about the Mississippi already.


LarryHart said...

...and maybe I'm dense, but I just realized what you (Dr Brin) and Paul Krugman have in common.

You're both very good (in your respective fields) at extrapolating from the present into likely future scenarios. And by "good", I mean that you each have a healthy enough record of correct guesses as to lend credibility to your predictions.

In a rational world, you'd both be well-paid policy consultants, perhaps even with "revered elder statesman" level of respect. Krugman has certainly been spot-on at every step of the way as to why the course the US is pursuing is NOT working. He should be in charge of making policy that DOES work at easing recession, lowering unemployment, and rebuilding infrastructure. But we no longer seem to elect or appoint leaders based on "Who knows how to achieve good policy ends." Rather, the operative question is "Who is telling me what I want to hear--that a course that enriches me personally just happens to be the correct one?"

More's the pity.

ell said...

Thanks, Paul, for fixing the link. When I broke the link into fitting lines, the computer's autocorrect feature must have thought it was helping. I know I didn't capitalize the s.

Jack said...

The New Yorker has released this from behind their fire wall

by John McPhee

"Southern Louisiana exists in its present form because the Mississippi River has jumped here and there within an arc about two hundred miles wide, like a pianist playing with one hand—frequently and radically changing course, surging over the left or the right bank to go off in utterly new directions. Always it is the river’s purpose to get to the Gulf by the shortest and steepest gradient."

Carl M. said...

Wow, looks like Blogger ate my last comment -- after it was up. (It ate several others over the course of this discussion. Blogger and IE8 do not get along.) Wordpress is definitely better. If you don't want to do advertising, is very convenient.

David Brin said...

Somebody tell this guy & McPhee and Krugman Bout


Wrote EARTH in 1989.

Anyone know the page # in Earth where the Achafalaya wins?

Tony Fisk said...

Albeit as a result of a grazer slugfest...

p 619:

That was when Logan knew with utter certainty the corps had been wrong...Long delayed, the Mississippi was coming to Atchafalaya.

I'll poke that into the pred site later. Meanwhile, go thou seek the site of Newer 'leans.

Jack said...

"Wrote EARTH in 1989"

And Mcphee wrote his article in 1987.
Now, where would a
California boy learn about something that is common knowledge in Cajun country? Maybe we are talking research ability and not predictive powers on this one.
BTW, the Mcphee article is a good read, you might want to go back and reread it. After all it has been 25 years;-)

Tim H. said...

Seem to remember a NOVA episode on New Orleans and the atchafalaya river years ago, but PBS has modernized the page, "Bad programmer! No doughnut!"

adastra said...

David, might it be possible for you to get in touch with Paul Krugman via SF writer Charles Stross?

I heard the two of them have a great hour+ recorded conversation (from a Worldcon).

Charles Stross' blog (with "contact me" info) is at:

Video of their conversation:

Transcript of their conversation:

Charles Stross is one of my very favorite authors (as are you..and BTW I'm *really* looking forward to your next novel). I also really enjoy reading Paul Krugman's essays. would be great if somehow Stross could help connect you to Krugman.

David Brin said...

Hadn't I mentioned? Finally got thru to Krugman. Had a nice email exchange and he gave me an address to send some books.

I never claimed to be the first person to say the mississippi might someday go down the Achafalaya! But a lot of people heard it from me 1st.

adastra said...

Glad you finally got in touch with Krugman, excellent. :)

Paul said...

Pixar as the propaganda wing of the Uplift Institute.

Stefan Jones said...

RE Pixar and expanding personhood:

I don't think Pixar is alone in this expansion of the definition of personhood, but they're probably the most effective at it.

Kids today grow up in a media envirionment that presents memes that were confined to deep-boiled Science Fiction when I was a young 'un. The television and movie Sci-Fi of my kidhood painstakingly dribbled out ideas. It took a show like The Twilight Zone a half an hour to deliver a punchline like "aliens might treat us like zoo animals!" or "on an alien world we might be the monsters!" or "robots might be heroic and selfless!" or other one-notes.

A kid SF show of today starts off with a wealth of technological and social assumptions.

David Brin said...

Really, so few of you are interested in trying to demo my new software? Only Rob signed up. (Tony being geographically undesirable!)

Robert said...

I lack time or ability. Sorry, Dr. Brin.

Stefan Jones said...

I QA software for a living and dabbling in that after hours isn't appealing. :-(

* * *
I'm watching an episode of the vulgar adult cartoon "Family Guy." Two characters -- a talking dog and an evil baby -- have spent the first part of the adventure gadding about in a time machine, discussing cosmology, realizing they were responsible for the big bang . . . and now there's a chase over Venice with Da Vinci's flying machines!

'snexernb': Top selling Blszarp contraceptive.

David Brin said...

That's page 619 of the EARTH paperback... in the hardcover it is p550!

Tony Fisk said...

A recent poll found that Americans thought that 25% was spent on foreign aid, and felt it should be reduced to 10.

With that in mind, check out this sobering visualisation of the relative amounts various nations spend on arms, and foreign aid.

Of course, it depends a lot on how all that spending breaks down, but there's something seriously wrong with this situation!

David Brin said...