Statistical Theology

Verbatim extract from Chapter 46 of Arthur C. Clarke’s classic SF novel “The Songs of Distant Earth”. I highly recommend buying a copy and going back to it often:

‘What is God?’ Mirissa asked. Kaldor sighed and looked up from the centuries-old display he was scanning… He let his eyes wander to the glade outside the library window and the silent – yet so eloquent! – hulk of the Mother Ship looming above it. Here human life began on this planet; no wonder it often reminds me of Eden. And am I the Snake, about to destroy its innocence? But I won’t be telling a girl as clever as Mirissa anything that she doesn’t already know – or guess.

‘The trouble with the word God,’ he began slowly, ‘is that it never meant the same thing to any two people – especially if they were philosophers. That’s why it slowly dropped out of use during the Third Millennium except as an expletive – in some cultures, too obscene for polite use.

‘Instead, it was replaced by a whole constellation of specialized words. This at least stopped people arguing at cross-purposes, which caused ninety per cent of the trouble in the past.

‘The Personal God, sometimes called God One, became Alpha. It was the hypothetical entity supposed to watch over the affairs of everyday life – every individual, every animal! – and to reward good and punish evil, usually in a vaguely described existence after death. You worshipped Alpha, prayed to it, carried out elaborate religious ceremonies, and built huge churches in its honour…

‘Then there was the God who created the universe and might or might not have had anything to do with it since then. That was Omega. By the time they’d finished dissecting God, the philosophers had used up all the other twenty or so letters of the ancient Greek alphabet, but Alpha and Omega will do very nicely for this morning. I’d guess that not more than ten billion man-years were ever spent discussing them.

‘Alpha was inextricably entangled with religion – and that was its downfall. It might still have been around right up to the destruction of the Earth if the myriads of competing religions had left each other alone. But they couldn’t do that, because each claimed to possess the One and Only Truth. So they had to destroy their rivals – which means, in effect, not only every other religion but dissenters inside their own faith.

‘Of course, I’m grossly simplifying; good men and women often transcended their beliefs, and it’s quite possible that religion was essential to early human societies. Without supernatural sanctions to restrain them, men might never have cooperated in anything larger than tribal units. Not until it became corrupted by power and privilege did religion become an essentially antisocial force, the great good it had done being eclipsed by greater evils.

‘You’ve never heard, I hope, of the Inquisition, of Witch Hunts, of Jihads. Would you believe that even well into the Space Age there were nations in which children could be officially executed because their parents adhered to a heretical subset of the state’s particular brand of Alpha? You look shocked, but these things – and worse – happened while our ancestors were beginning the exploration of the Solar System.

‘Fortunately for mankind, Alpha faded out of the picture, more or less gracefully, in the early 2000s. It was killed by a fascinating development called statistical theology. How much time do I have left? Won’t Bobby be getting impatient?’ Mirissa glanced out of the big picture window. The palomino was happily munching at the grass around the base of the Mother Ship, and was clearly perfectly content.

‘He won’t wander off – as long as there’s something to eat here. What was statistical theology?’

‘It was the final assault on the problem of Evil. What brought it to a head was the rise of a very eccentric cult – they called themselves Neo-Manichees, don’t ask me to explain why – around 2050. Incidentally, it was the first orbital religion; although all the other faiths had used communications satellites to spread their doctrines, the NMs relied on them exclusively. They had no meeting place except the television screen.

‘Despite this dependence on technology, their tradition was actually very old. They believed that Alpha existed, but was completely evil – and that mankind’s ultimate destiny was to confront and destroy it.

‘In support of their faith, they marshalled an immense array of horrible facts from history and zoology. I think they must have been rather sick people, because they seemed to take a morbid delight in collecting such material.

‘For example – a favourite proof of Alpha’s existence was what’s called the Argument from Design. We now know it’s utterly fallacious, but the NMs made it sound totally convincing and irrefutable.

‘If you find a beautifully designed system – their favourite example was a digital watch – then there must be a planner, a creator, behind it. So just look at the world of Nature – ‘ And they did, with a vengeance. Their special field was parasitology – you don’t know how lucky you are on Thalassa, by the way! I won’t revolt you by describing the incredibly ingenious methods and adaptations that various creatures used to invade other organisms – humans especially – and to prey on them, often until they were destroyed. I’ll only mention one special pet of the NMs, the ichneumon fly.

‘This delightful creature laid its eggs in other insects, after first paralyzing them so that when their larvae hatched out, they would have an ample supply of fresh – living – meat.

‘The NMs could go on for hours along these lines, expounding the wonders of Nature as proof that Alpha was, if not supremely evil, then utterly indifferent to human standards of morality and goodness. Don’t worry – I can’t imitate them, and won’t.

‘But I must mention another of their favourite proofs – the Argument from Catastrophe. A typical example, which could be multiplied countless times: Alpha worshippers gather to appeal for help in the face of disaster – and are all killed by the collapse of their refuge, whereas most of them would have been saved had they stayed at home.

‘Again, the NMs collected volumes of such horrors – burning hospitals and old people’s homes, infant schools engulfed by earthquakes, volcanoes, or tidal waves destroying cities – the list is endless.

‘Of course, rival Alpha worshippers didn’t take this lying down. They collected equal numbers of counterexamples – the wonderful things that had happened, time and again, to save devout believers from catastrophe.

‘In various forms, this debate had been going on for several thousand years. But by the twenty-first century, the new information technologies and methods of statistical analysis as well as a wider understanding of probability theory allowed it to be settled.

‘It took a few decades for the answers to come in, and a few more before they were accepted by virtually all intelligent men: Bad things happened just as often as good; as had long been suspected, the universe simply obeyed the laws of mathematical probability. Certainly there was no sign of any supernatural intervention, either for good or for ill.

‘So the problem of Evil never really existed. To expect the universe to be benevolent was like imagining one could always win at a game of pure chance.

‘Some cultists tried to save the day by proclaiming the religion of Alpha the Utterly Indifferent and used the bell-shaped curve of normal distribution as the symbol of their faith. Needless to say, so abstract a deity didn’t inspire much devotion.

‘And while we’re on the subject of mathematics, it gave Alpha another devastating blow in the twenty-first (or was it the twenty-second?) century. A brilliant Terran named Kurt Godel proved that there were certain absolutely fundamental limits to knowledge, and hence the idea of a completely Omniscient Being – one of the definitions of Alpha – was logically absurd. This discovery has come down to us in one of those unforgettable bad puns: ‘Godel Deleted God.’ Students used to write graffiti on walls with the letters G, O, and the Greek Delta; and of course there were versions that read: “God Deleted Godel”.

‘But back to Alpha. By mid-millennium, it had more or less faded from human concerns. Virtually all thinking men had finally come to agree with the harsh verdict of the great philosopher Lucretius: all religions were fundamentally immoral, because the superstitions they peddled wrought more evil than good.

‘Yet a few of the old faiths managed to survive, though in drastically altered forms, right up to the end of the Earth. The Latter Day Mormons and the Daughters of the Prophet even managed to build seedships of their own. I often wonder what happened to them.

‘With Alpha discredited, that left Omega, the Creator of everything. It’s not so easy to dispose of Omega; the universe takes a certain amount of explaining. Or does it? There’s an ancient philosophical joke that’s much subtler than it seems. Question: Why is the universe here? Answer: Where else would it be? And I think that’s quite enough for one morning.’

‘Thank you, Moses,’ Mirissa answered, looking slightly dazed. ‘You’ve said it all before, haven’t you?’

‘Of course I have – many times. And promise me this –’

‘What is it?’

‘Don’t believe anything I’ve told you – merely because I said it. No serious philosophical problem is ever settled. Omega is still around – and sometimes I wonder about Alpha…’

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