Saturday, January 10, 2015

Ship in a Bottle

Many years ago, atheist Bernard Williams wrote a celebrated essay on the tedium of immortality. He argued that immortality would be an interminable bore.

No doubt some Christians wonder the same thing. We take it on faith that eternal life won't become a crashing bore, but it's hard to imagine how we'll pass the time. 

I'll discuss this from an apologetic standpoint. Admittedly, what I say will be speculative, but the objection is speculative. Moreover, Christian metaphysics has nearly limitless metaphysical resources. There's almost nothing an omnipotent God can't do. And God's imagination is immeasurably vaster than ours. So, if anything, the danger is to underestimate the live possibilities, not overestimate the live possibilities.

i) In this life we only skim the surface. There are lots of places it would be interesting to see, but due to the brevity of life, we only get to see a tiny sampling.

There is, moreover, a difference between visiting a place and staying there long enough to really get the feel of the place. 

ii) In addition, there are many fascinating sites and events in the past that we never had a chance to see because we didn't live at that particular time. In this life, human existence is severely restricted by time as well as space.

Some natural wonders exist in the past, but not the present. Take a supernova. Or a spectacular waterfall which, due to erosion, no longer exists. 

I'm not suggesting that in the world to come, the saints could physically travel back in time. But God could enable us to experience the past. An immersive experience. As if we were actually there.

iii) Same thing for space exploration. 

iv) Same thing for possible worlds. 

In principle, there are literally an infinite number of interesting things which the saints could do. Things to keep you occupied forever. 

v) However, let's approach this issue from the opposite perspective. One of the regrets we experience in life is that we can't repeat the past. We can never experience the same event  more than once. 

For instance, there are parents who lament the fact that their children grew up too fast. Likewise, there may be particular days we fondly remember. It would be fun to repeat them. 

Even if we can repeatedly do that kind of thing, we can never repeat that exact experience. And even if we can repeat that kind of thing, the element of surprise is lost. It's no longer a discovery. 

As you age, there are fewer pleasant surprises. You know what to expect. 

That can be good in a different way. We look forward to some things precisely because they're familiar. Predictable. Expectation and surprise can both be distinctive goods, but they are mutually exclusive. 

There's a paradox about hearing your favorite musical numbers. Because these are your favorites, you'd like to hear them more often, but the more often you hear them, the less you enjoy them. We get tired of hearing the same piece of music. The charm wears off. So we have to space it out.

There's an episode in Millennium ("A Room with No View") where captives are subjected to the very same song. "Love is blue" plays on a loop-tape. As soon as it ends, it starts right over again–ever few minutes–hour after hour, day after day, week after week, month after month.

That alone is enough to drive you bonkers. Even if you made your escape, you'd still hear it in your head. Any silence would be filled by that tune playing in your head. You'd have to play other music to counter it. 

In his old age, my great-grandfather moved in with my dad's parents. My grandmother used to bring him books from the library. I think they were murder mysteries. Maybe by the same author.

Problem is, the local library had a very limited supply of murder mysteries. So her solution was to rotate the same dozen books. He'd read through the same dozen books in the same order, then start over again.

Because he was forgetful at that age, he never quite caught onto the fact that he had done this before. For him, rereading the same murder mystery for the fifth time was just like reading it for the very first time. Just as intriguing. Just as surprising. 

vi) Apropos (v), suppose, for the sake of argument, that you'd find the first 500 years of the afterlife sheer bliss, but after that it would begin to pall. It would't be possible to sustain the same level of interest indefinitely.

In that event, suppose that God gave you a blissful 500-year experience which he repeated every 500 years. At the end of 500 years, you went to bed, forgot it all, and woke up the next morning 500 years earlier. Even if you did it a billion times, it would be new to you because you didn't remember having done it before. 

I'm reminded of an episode in Star Trek: TNG ("Ship in a Bottle"):

TROI: You mean he never knew he hadn't left the holodeck?
PICARD: In fact, the programme is continuing even now inside that cube.
CRUSHER: A miniature holodeck?
DATA: In a way, Doctor. However, there is no physicality. The programme is continuous but only within the computer's circuitry.
BARCLAY: As far as Moriarty and the Countess know, they're half way to Meles Two by now. This enhancement module contains enough active memory to provide them experiences for a lifetime.
PICARD: They will live their lives and never know any difference.
TROI: In a sense, you did give Moriarty what he wanted.
PICARD: In a sense. But who knows? Our reality may be very much like theirs. All this might be just be an elaborate simulation running inside a little device sitting on someone's table.
In principle, you could push the rewind button, and they'd experience the same thing all over again, never knowing the difference. 


  1. I like Spurgeon's picturesque language describing diving into the bottomless, shoreless ocean of God's Being and never getting tired of bathing in His infinite mercy, grace and love.

    This is not to be confused with the Eastern mysticism of "all is one" and "becoming a single drop of water in the infinite ocean of being" drivel.

  2. It's common for atheists to say what Williams said. I suspect they do so for various reasons:

    - To justify their rejection of theism or Christianity in particular.

    - To console themselves by thinking that even if a theistic afterlife exists, they aren't missing anything worthy of longing for.

    - To console themselves of the envy they have toward "deluded theists" who in their fantasy (as atheists perceive theists) can have peaceful deaths. They don't want to admit it, but from their perspective the old saying is very true, "ignorance is bliss." Believers in an afterlife have a hope which no atheist can have. For the atheist, every passing second is closer and closer to their personal extinction and disintegration. The older they get, the closer they are to their deaths; and the more fearful it is for them. That's why they often busy themselves with distractions, or commit suicide, or try to secure a comfortable death, or drown their despair in alcohol or drugs.

    - Because of their lack of imagination. And (more importantly) their sinful suppression of their imagination because they don't want to contemplate the possibilities so long as it requires a god or the Christian God to enjoy an afterlife. Yet, inconsistently they charge theists of a lack of imagination when theists claim that the fine-tuning of the universe strongly suggests intelligent design. They will say theists don't know all the possible ways in a multiverse universes can develop to produce conscious observing agents. It's a lack of imagination on the part of theists. That might be so, since God might be able to to create other kinds physical universes. The point is, they appeal to unimagined possibilities and/or charge theists with a lack of imagination to justify their atheism and to attack the evidence for theism. Yet contradictorily suppress their imaginations when contemplating a theistic afterlife. Interestingly, they employ their imaginations in enjoying or creating science fiction. It's a way of trying to have the pleasures of theism without God.

    This reminds me of a quote from Luther's Bondage of the Will:

    These things, I say, being temporal, may be endured with less harm than inveterate evil ways, which will inevitably ruin all souls that are not changed by the Word of God. If the Word were removed, eternal good, God, Christ, and the Spirit, would be removed with it. How much better, then, is it to lose the world than to lose God, the world's Creator, who can create countless worlds afresh, and is better than infinite worlds! For what are temporal things beside eternal?

  3. Steve: Because he was forgetful at that age, he never quite caught onto the fact that he had done this before.

    In his memoir “The Spooky Art: Thoughts on Writing” (New York: Random House, 2003), Norman Mailer writes about this sort of thing:

    There’s nothing glorious about being a professional. You become more dogged. You probably relinquish the upper reaches of mind in order to be able to do your work each day. That means you are ready to endure a certain amount of drudgery. But your mind is, obviously, not enthralled by such dull conditions. Professionalism probably comes down to being able to work on a bad day …

    I wrote longhand with a pencil and I gave it to my assistant, Judith McNally. She would type it for me and next day I would go over it. Since at my age you begin to forget all too much, I would hardly remember what I had written the day before. I read it, therefore, as if someone else had done it. The critic in me was delighted. I could now proceed to fix the prose. The sole virtue of losing your short-term memory is that it does free you to be your own editor (pp. 102-103).

  4. I recently read a fascinating essay on this very topic over at Desiring God Blog.
    Here is the link on why Heaven will not be boring.

  5. Great article Kent, thanks for sharing the link! Edwards remains a towering redwood among the forest of theologians.