I met God the other day.
I know what you’re thinking. How the hell did you know it was God?
Well, I’ll explain as we go along, but basically he convinced me by having all, and I do mean ALL, the answers. Every question I flung at him he batted back with a plausible and satisfactory answer. In the end, it was easier to accept that he was God than otherwise.
Which is odd, because I’m still an agnostic and we even agree on that!
It all started on the 8:20 back from Paddington. Got myself a nice window seat, no screaming brats or drunken hooligans within earshot. Not even a mobile phone in sight. Sat down, reading the paper and in he walks.
What did he look like?
Well not what you might have expected that is for sure. He was about thirty, wearing a pair of jeans and a “hobgoblin” tee-shirt. Definitely casual. Looked like he could have been a social worker or perhaps a programmer like myself.
"Anyone sitting here?" he said.
"Help yourself," I replied.
He sits down, relaxes, I ignore and back to the correspondence on genetic foods entering the food chain…
A train pulls out and a few minutes later he speaks.
"Can I ask you a question?"
Fighting to restrain my left eyebrow I replied ‘Yes’ in a tone which was intended to convey that I might not mind one question, and possibly a supplementary, but I really wasn’t in the mood for a conversation...
"Why don’t you believe in God?"
I love this kind of conversation and can rabbit on for hours about the nonsense of theist beliefs. But I have to be in the mood! It’s like when a Jehova’s witness knocks on your door twenty minutes before you’re due to have a wisdom tooth pulled. Much as you’d really love to stay… You can’t even begin the fun. And I knew, if I gave my standard reply we’d still be arguing when we got to Cardiff. I just wasn’t in the mood. I needed to fend him off.
But then I thought, "Odd! How is this perfect stranger so obviously confident – and correct – about my theism?"
If I’d been driving my car, it wouldn't have been such a mystery. I’ve got the Darwin fish on the back of mine – the antidote to that twee Christian fish you see all over. So anyone spotting that and understanding it would have been in a position to guess my beliefs. But I was on a train and not even wearing my Darwin “Evolve” t-shirt that day. And "The Independent" isn’t a registered flag for card carrying atheists, so what, I wondered, had given the game away.
"What makes you so certain that I don’t?"
"Because," he said, "I am God – and you are not afraid of me."
You’ll have to take my word for it of course, but there are ways you can deliver a line like that – most of which would render the speaker a candidate for an institution, or at least Prozac. Some of which could be construed as mildly entertaining.
Conveying it as “indifferent fact” is a difficult task but that’s exactly how it came across. Nothing in his tone or attitude struck me as even mildly out of place with that statement. He said it because he believed it and his rationality did not appear to be drug induced or the result of a mental breakdown.
"And why should I believe that?"
"Well," he said, "why don’t you ask me a few questions? Anything you like, and see if the answers satisfy your skeptical mind?"
This is going to be a short conversation after all, I thought.
"Who am I?"
"Stottle. Harry Stottle, born August 10, 1947, Bristol, England. Father Paul, Mother Mary. Educated Duke of Yorks Royal Military School 1960-67, Sandhurst and Oxford, PhD in Exobiology, failed rock singer, full time trade union activist for ten years, latterly self employed computer programmer, web author and aspiring philosopher. Married to Michelle, American citizen, two children by a previous marriage. You’re returning home after what seems to have been a successful meeting with an investor interested in your proposed product tracking anti-forgery software and protocol and you ate a full English breakfast at the hotel this morning except that, as usual, you asked them to hold the revolting English sausages and give you some extra bacon."
"You’re not convinced. Hmmm… what would it take to convince you? May I have your permission for a telepathic link?"
"Do you need my permission?"
"Technically, no. Ethically, yes."
Might as well play along, I thought.
"OK – you have my permission. So convince me."
"Oh right! Your most secret password and its association."
A serious hacker might be able to obtain the password, but no one else and I mean NO ONE knows its association.
So how would you have played it?
I threw a few more questions about relatively insignificant but unpublicised details of my life (like what my mother claims was the first word I ever spoke – apparently “armadillo”! (Don’t ask…)) but I was already pretty convinced. I knew there were only three possible explanations at this point.
Possibility One was that I was dreaming, hallucinating or hypnotised. Nobody’s figured out a test for that so, at the time I think that was my dominant feeling. It did not feel real at the time. More like I was in a play. Acting my lines. Since the event, however, continuing detailed memories of it, together with my contemporaneous notes, remain available, so unless the hallucination has continued to this day, I am now inclined to reject the hallucination hypothesis. Which leaves two others.
He could have been a true telepath. No documented evidence exists of anyone ever having such profound abilities to date but it was a possibility. It would have explained how he could know my best-kept secrets. The problem with that is that it doesn’t explain anything else! In particular it doesn’t account for the answers he proceeded to give to my later questions.
As Sherlock Holmes says, when you’ve eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.
Good empiricist, Sherlock.
I was forced to accept at least the possibility that this man was who he claimed to be.
So now what do you do?
Well, I’ve always known that if I met god I would have a million questions for him, so I thought, ‘why not?’ and proceeded with what follows. You’ll have to allow a bit of licence in the detail of the conversation. This was, shall we say, a somewhat unusual occurrence, not to mention just a BIT weird! And yes I was a little bit nervous! So if I don’t get it word perfect don’t whinge! You’ll get the gist I promise.
"Forgive me if it takes me a little time to get up to speed here, but it’s not everyday I get to question a deity."
"The Deity," he interrupted.
"Ooh. Touchy!" I thought.
"Not really – just correcting the image."
Now that takes some getting used to!
I tried to get a grip on my thoughts, with an internal command – "Discipline Harry. You’ve always wanted to be in a situation like this, now you’re actually in it, you mustn’t go to pieces and waste the opportunity of a lifetime."
"You won’t," he said.
Tell you! That’s the bit that made it feel unreal more than anything else – this guy sitting across the table and very obviously accurately reading my every thought. It’s like finding someone else’s hand inside your trouser pocket!
Nevertheless, something (other than simply having given my “permission”) made me inclined to accept the invasion, I had obviously begun to have some confidence in his perception or abilities, so I distinctly remember the effect of his words was that I suddenly felt deeply reassured and completely relaxed. As he had no doubt intended. Man must have an amazing seduction technique!
So then we got down to business…
"Are you human?"
"Were you, ever?"
"No, but similar, yes."
"Ah, so you are a product of evolution?"
"Most certainly – mainly my own."
"And you evolved from a species like ours, DNA based organisms or something equally viable?"
"So what, exactly, makes you God?"
"Seemed like a good idea at the time."
"And your present powers, are they in any way similar to what the superstitious believers in my species attribute to you?"
"So you created all this, just for us?"
"No. Of course not."
"But you did create the Universe?"
"This one. Yes"
"But not your own?"
"This is my own!"
"You know what I mean!"
"You can’t create your own parents, so no."
"So let me get this straight. You are an entirely natural phenomenon."
"Arising from mechanisms which we ourselves will one day understand and possibly even master?"
"Subject to a quibble over who 'we ourselves' may be, but yes."
"Meaning that if the human race doesn’t come up to the mark, other species eventually will?"
"And how many other species are there already out there ahead of us?"
"Surprisingly few. Less than fourteen million."
"And how many at or about our level?"
"Currently a little over four-and-a-half billion"
"So our significance in the universe at present is roughly equivalent to the significance of the average Joe here on planet Earth in his relation to the human race?"
"A little less. Level One, the level your species has reached, begins with the invention of the flying machine. The next level is achieved when a species is no longer dominated by or dependent upon its own primary – your Sun. They are able to prosper away from their own, or indeed any other, stellar system. Humanity is only just into the flying machine phase, so as you can imagine, on that scale, the human race is somewhat near the bottom of the level one pack."
"Do you mean we will one day control our own Sun like Kardashev and Asimov talk about?"
"Quite the opposite. Those are the visions of an evolving mechanical species who imagine that bigger machines are better and stronger and that we will always need more and more energy to achieve mastery of the universe. The truth is the exact opposite. The more advanced we become, the less energy we require and the less impact we make on our environment. You manipulate matter, which requires enormous amounts of energy. We manipulate energy, which requires none. As a consequence, you would not, for example, even recognise a level two species as a life form unless it chose to let you."
"All these evolving species; they are your 'children?'"
"I like to think of them that way."
"And the point?"
"At its simplest, Life Must Go On. My personal motivation is the desire to optimise the intelligence of the Universe. In your own terms, I strive to maximise pleasure and minimise pain. A great deal of pleasure, however, arises from communications between separate entities. Once you’ve achieved my level, we tend to cease to be billions of separate entities and become one ecstatic whole. A single entity that cannot die unless it loses the will to live. Advanced and self-contained though I am, or perhaps, more accurately, because I am so advanced and self-contained, one of the pleasures we lose along the way is that simple joy of meeting new and unpredictable minds and either learning from or teaching them. Thus, in large part, the point of the exercise is to provide company. I am the first eternal in this Universe. I do not intend to be the last"
"So you created a Universe which is potentially capable of producing another god like yourself?"
"The full benefit will be temporary, but like most orgasms, worth it."
"This being the moment when our new god merges with you and we become one again?"
"Don’t play it down, that’s the ecstatic vision driving us all, me included – and when it happens the ecstasy lasts several times longer than this universe has already existed. Believe me, it really is worth the effort."
"Yes, I think I can see the attractions of a hundred billion year long orgasm."
"And humans haven’t even begun to know how to really enjoy the orgasms they are already capable of. Wait till you master that simple art!"
"So it’s all about sex is it?"
"Sexual ecstasy is merely a reward for procreating, it is what makes you want to do it. This is necessary, initially, to promote biological evolution. However once you’ve completed that stage and no longer require procreation, you will learn that ecstasy can be infinitely more intense than anything offered by sex."
"Sounds good to me! But tell me, how direct is your involvement in all this? Did you just light the fuse which set off the big bang and stand back and watch? Or did you have to plant the seeds on appropriately fertile planets?"
"The first significant level of the intelligent self organization of matter is the arrival of the organic chemistry which forms the precursor for biology and the first primitive life forms. That chemistry evolved, mostly, in deep space, once the stars had created enough of the heavier elements, and purely as a result of the operations of the laws of physics and chemistry which your scientists have already largely understood. All I did was to set the initial conditions which triggered the bang and essentially became dormant for nearly five billion years. That’s how long it took the first lifeforms to emerge. That places them some eight billion years ahead of you. The first intelligent species are now four-point-three billion years ahead of you. Really quite advanced. I can have deeply meaningful conversations with them. And usually do. In fact, I am as we speak."
"So then what?"
"Do I keep a constant vigil over every move you make? Not in the kind of prying intrusive sense that some of you seem to think. Let’s say I maintain an awareness of what’s going on, at a planetary level. I tend only to focus on evolutionary leaps. See if they’re going in the right direction."
"And if they’re not?"
"Usually species evolving in the wrong direction kill themselves off or become extinct for other reasons."
"There have been one or two cases where a wrong species has had the potential of becoming dominant at the expense of a more promising strain."
"Let me guess. Dinosaurs on this planet are an example. Too successful. Suppressed the development of mammals and were showing no signs of developing intelligence. So you engineered a little corrective action in the form of a suitably selected asteroid."
"Perceptive. Almost correct. They were showing signs of developing intelligence, even co-operation. Study your Troodons. But far too predatory. Incapable of ever developing a 'respect' for other life forms. It takes carrying your young to promote the development of emotional attachment to other animals. Earth reptiles aren’t built for that. The mammals who are, as you rightly say, couldn’t get a foothold against such mighty predators. You’ve now reached the stage where you could hold your own even against dinosaurs, but that’s only been true for about a thousand years, your predecessors didn’t stand a chance sixty-five million years ago, so the dinosaurs had to go. They were, however, far too ubiquitous and well balanced with the ecology of the planet, and never developed technology, so they weren’t going to kill themselves off in a hurry. Regrettably, I had to intervene."
"They were a beautiful and stunningly successful life form. One doesn’t destroy such things without a qualm."
"But at that stage how could you know that a better prospect would arise from the ashes?"
"I didn’t. But the probability was quite high."
"And since then, what other little tweaks have you been responsible for in our development?"
"None whatsoever. I set an alarm for the first sign of artificial aerial activity, as I usually do. Leonardo looked promising for a while, but not until the Montgolfier brothers did I really begin to take an interest. That registered you as a level one intelligent species."
"If the sign is “aerial activity”, how do you identify technological bird species?"
“Same way. Intelligent flyers rarely become technologists though. They tend to evolve into adaptors rather than manipulators but the few exceptions develop flying machines rather more quickly than species like your own because they have a natural understanding of aerodynamics.”
"But why would a bird need a flying machine?"
"That’s like asking why would your species need cars and other forms of mechanical transport. The technology lets you carry heavier loads, faster and for greater distances than just relying on your own physical abilities."
"OK, so what about our more famous 'prophets;' Jesus of Nazareth, Moses, Mohammed…"
"Hmmm… steps in the Divine plan. I am not here to act as a Guide or ethical dictator for evolving species. It is true that anyone capable of communicating with their own cells will Convey their connection to me – and all other objects in this universe – through the quantum foam, but interpreting that vision as representing something supernatural and requiring obeisance is somewhat wide of the mark. And their followers are all on the right plan. It’s no fun being worshiped once you stop watching. Having said that, it’s not at all unusual for developing species to go through that phase. Until they begin to grasp how much they too can shape their small corner of the universe, they are in understandable awe of an individual dimly but correctly perceived to be responsible for the creation of the whole of that universe. Eventually, if they are to have any hope of attaining level two, they must grow out of it and begin to accept their own power and potential. It’s very akin to a child’s relationship with its parents. The awe and worship continue into understood truth in adulthood. Respect is not so bad as long as it’s not overdone. And I certainly respect all those species who make it that far. It’s a hard slog. I know. I’ve been there."
"So, you’ve been taking more interest in us since the Montgolfiers, when was that? 1650's?"
"Well, if you’ve been watching us closely since then, what your average citizen is going to want to know is why you haven’t intervened more often. Why, if you have the power and omniscience that goes with being a god, have you sat back and allowed us to endure such incredible suffering and human misery in the past few centuries?"
"It seems to be necessary."
"Without exception, intelligent species who gain dominance over their planet do so by becoming the most efficient predators. There are many intelligent species who do not evolve to dominate their planet. Like your dolphins and most of the intelligent flyers we were just talking about, they adapt perfectly to the environment rather than take your course, which is to manipulate the environment. Unfortunately for the dolphin, theirs is a dead end. They may outlive the human race but will never escape the bounds of planet earth, let alone your solar system – not without your help at any rate. Only those who can manipulate the world they live in can one day hope to leave it and spread their seed throughout the universe.
"Unlike the adaptors, who learn the point of cooperation fairly early on, manipulators battle on. And, once all lesser species have been overcome, they are so competitive and predatory that they are compelled to turn in on themselves. This nearly always evolves into tribal competition in one form or another and becomes more and more destructive – exactly like your own history. However this competition is vital to promote the leap from biological to technological evolution.
"You need an arms race in order to make progress.
"Your desire to dominate fuels a search for knowledge which the adaptors never acquire. And although your initial desire for knowledge is selfish and destructive, it begins the development of an intellectual self-awareness, a form of higher consciousness, which never emerges in any other species. Not even while they are experiencing it, for example, can the intelligent adaptors – your dolphins – express the concepts of Love or Time.
"Militarisation and the development of weapons of mass destruction are your first serious test at level one. You’re still not through that phase, though the signs are promising. There is no point whatsoever in my intervening to prevent your self-destruction. Your ability to survive these urges is a crucial test of your fitness to survive later stages. So I would not, never have and never will intervene to prevent a species from destroying itself. Most, in fact, do just that."
"And what of pity for those have to live through this torment?"
"I can’t say this in any way that doesn’t sound callous, but how much time do you spend worrying about the ants you run over in your car? I know it sounds horrendous to you, but you have to see the bigger picture. At this stage in human development, you’re becoming interesting but not yet important."
"Ah but I can’t have an intelligent conversation with an ant."
"Actually, you can; I do."
"Hmm… as you know, most humans won’t like even to attempt to grasp that perspective. How can you make it more palatable?"
"Why should I? You don’t appear to have any trouble grasping it. You’re by no means unique. And in any case, once they begin to understand what’s in it for them, they’ll be somewhat less inclined to moan. Eternal life compensates for most things."
"So what are we supposed to do in order to qualify for membership of the universal intelligentsia?"
"Yes, but how?"
"Oh, I thought you might have got the point by now. 'How' is entirely up to you. If I have to help, then you’re a failure. All I will say is this. You’ve already passed a major hurdle in learning to live with nuclear weapons. It’s depressing how many fail at that stage."
"Is there worse to come?"
"Genetic warfare, for instance?"
"A distinct possibility."
"And the problem is… that we need to develop all these technologies, acquire all this dangerous knowledge in order to reach level two. But at any stage that knowledge could also cause our own destruction."
"If you think the dangers of genetic warfare are serious, imagine discovering an algorithm, accessible to any intelligent individual, which, if abused, will eliminate your species instantly. If your progress continues as is, then you can expect to discover that particular self-destruct mechanism in less than a thousand years. Your species needs to grow up considerably before you can afford to make that discovery. And if you don’t make it, you will never leave your Solar System and join the rest of the sapient species on level two."
"Fourteen million of them."
"Will there be room for us?"
"It’s a big place and level two species don’t often get there."
"And, for now, how should we mere mortals regard you then?"
"Like a God. Of course I have acquired more knowledge and wisdom than you have. Of course I’m more powerful than you are. I’ve been evolving much longer and have picked up a few tricks along the way. But I am capable of wiping you out... so stay on my good side."
"So we’re obliged to 'please' you and follow your alleged guidelines or anything like that?"
"Absolutely. I have issued a single guideline in the lifetime of this Universe. Have to find your own way out of the maze. And one early improvement is to stop expecting me – or anyone else – to come and help you out."
"I suppose that is a guideline of sorts, so there goes the habit of a lifetime!"
"Seriously though, species who hold on to religion past its sell-by date tend to reach enlightenment and understand the spiritual nature of the universe. They spend so much energy arguing about my true nature, and invest so much emotion in their wildly erroneous imagery that they end up killing each other over differences in definitions of something they clearly can understand through meditation. Ludicrous behaviour, but it does weed out the weaklings."
"Why me? Why pick an agnostic of all people? Why are you telling me all this? And why now?"
"Why you? Because you can accept my existence without your ego caving in and grovelling like a naughty child. Can you seriously imagine how the Pope would react to the reality of my existence?! If he really understood I had physical form, or if I appeared 'live' simultaneously on half a dozen tele-evangelist propaganda shows. Pat Robertson would wet himself if he actually understood who he was talking to. I can see you’re already thinking about publishing this conversation on the web where it could sow an important seed. Might take a couple of hundred years to germinate, but, eventually, it will germinate.
Why now? Well partly because both you and the web are ready now. But chiefly because the human race is reaching a critical phase. It goes back to what we were saying about the dangers of knowledge. Essentially your species is becoming aware of that danger. When that happens to any sapient species, the future can take three courses. Many are tempted to avoid the danger by avoiding the knowledge. Like the adaptors, they are doomed to extinction. Often pleasantly enough in the confines of their own planet until either their will to live expires or their primary turns red giant and snuffs them out. A large number go on blindly acquiring the knowledge and don’t learn to restrain their abuse. Their fate is sealed somewhat more quickly of course, when Pandora’s box blows up in their faces.
The only ones who reach level two are those who learn to accept and to live with their most dangerous knowledge. Each and every individual in such a species must eventually become capable of destroying their entire species at any time. Yet they must learn to control themselves to the degree that they can survive even such deadly insight. And frankly, they’re the only ones we really want to see leaving their solar systems. Species that haven’t achieved that maturity could not be allowed to infect the rest of the universe, but fortunately that has never required my intervention. The knowledge always does the trick."
"Why can’t there be a fourth option – selective research where we avoid investigating dangerous pathways?"
"There is almost no knowledge which is completely 'safe.' As you can see from your own limited history, the most useful ideas are also, nearly always, the most dangerous. You have yet, for instance, to achieve the appropriate energy surpluses required to complete this phase of your social development. When you’ve mastered the relevant technology, it will eliminate material inequalities and poverty within a generation or two, an absolutely vital step for any maturing species. Your potential paths to this bonanza include the control of nuclear fusion – which you only began to explore in the context of potential mass extinction weapons and nano engineered solar energy harvesting or hydrogen cycling. And already your leading military scientists are looking for ways to develop equally dangerous weapons based on the same technology. And they will find them. You may not survive them.
Similarly, you will shortly be able to conquer biological diseases and even engineer yourselves to be virtually fault free. Your biological life spans will double or triple within the next hundred years and your digital lifespans will become potentially infinite within the same period: If you survive the potential threat that the same technology provides in the form of genetic time bombs, custom built viruses and the other wonders of genetic and digital warfare. You simply can’t have the benefits without taking the risks."
"I’m not sure I understand my part in this exercise. I just publish this conversation on the web and everything will be alright?"
"Not necessarily. Not that easy I’m afraid. To start with, who’s going to take this seriously? It will just be seen as a mildly amusing work of fiction. In fact, your words and indeed most of your work will not be understood or appreciated until some much more advanced scholars develop the ideas you are struggling to express and explain them somewhat more competently. At which point some of those ideas will be taken up en masse and searches will be undertaken of the archives. They will find this work and be struck by its prescience. You won’t make the Einstein grade, but you might manage John the Baptist!
This piece will have no significance whatsoever if humanity doesn’t make certain key advances in the next couple of centuries. And this won’t help you make those advances. What it will do is help you recognise them."
"Can I ask what those advances may be?"
"I think you know. But yes – although you are at level one, there are several distinct phases which evolving species pass through on their way to level two. The first, as we’ve discussed, is the invention of the flying machine. The next significant phase is the development of the thinking machine.
"At your present rate of progress, you are within a few decades of achieving that goal. It marks your first step on the path of technological evolution. Mapping the human genome is another classic landmark, but merely mapping it is a bit like viewing the compiled code in a dos executable. It’s just meaningless gibberish, although with a bit of hacking here and there, you might correctly deduce the function of certain stretches of code.
"What you really need to do is ‘reverse engineer’ the DNA code. You have to figure out the grammar and syntax of the language. Then you will begin the task of designing yourselves biologically and digitally. But that task requires the thinking machine."
"You say you avoid intervention. But doesn’t this conversation itself constitute intervention – even if people alive now completely ignore it?"
"Yes. But it’s as far as I’m prepared to go. Its only effect is to confirm, if you find it, that you are on the right path. It is still entirely up to you to navigate the dangers on that path and beyond."
"But why bother even with that much? Surely it’s just another evolutionary hurdle. We’re either fit enough or not…"
"In many ways the transition to an information species is the most traumatic stage in evolution. Biological intelligences have a deeply rooted sense of consciousness only being conceivable from within an organic brain. Coming to terms with the realisation that you have created your successor, not just in the sense of mother and child, but in the collective sense of the species recognising it has become redundant, this paradigm shift is, for many species, a shift too far. They baulk at the challenge and run from this new knowledge. They fail and become extinct. Yet there is nothing fundamentally wrong with them – it is a failure of the imagination.
"I hope that if I can get across the concept that I am a product of just such evolution, it may give them the confidence to try. I have discussed this with the level two species and the consensus is that this tiny prod is capable of increasing the contenders for level two without letting through any damaging traits. It has been tried in three-hundred-and-twelve cases. The jury is still out on its real benefits although it has produced a twelve-percent increase in biological species embracing the transition to information species."
"Alright, so what if everyone suddenly took it seriously and believed every word I write? Wouldn’t that constitute a somewhat more drastic intervention?"
"Trust me. They won't."
"And so it’s still the case, that, should another asteroid happen to be heading our way, you will do nothing to impede it on our behalf?"
"I’m confident you will pass that test. And now my friend, the interview is over, you have asked me a number of the right questions, and I’ve said what I came to say, so I’ll be going now. It has been very nice to meet you – you’re quite boring!" He twinkled.
"Just one final, trivial question, why do you appear to me in the form of a thirty something white male?"
"Have I in any way intimidated or threatened you?"
"Do you find me sexually attractive?"
"So figure it out for yourself..."