Monday Musing: We Don’t Exist

Tobias_ET / Pixabay

Okay, I confess, the blog title is a lie. We do exist. (I do, at least.) It is, however, quite in style to wonder if maybe, really, we don’t.

All sorts of super-smart tech people, like that eccentric inventor Elon Musk, wonder if we aren’t just simulations in a giant computer, a la The Matrix.

If you’ve ever spoken with a moody, introspective teenager (or if, perhaps, you were a moody, introspective teenager), you’ve heard the question: What if this is all a dream?

Is it not strange that we can even conceive of such questions? Why on earth would a living creature doubt that he is truly living? Some might say, Aha! The fact that we can imagine being other than we are–an illusion, a fancy of some alien consciousness, a string of zeroes and ones–means that it is at least possible that we are.

I, however, as a Christian, take the same observation and conclude, How utterly broken we are, to conceive of being less than we are!

Let me put it another way. You can focus on certain material aspects of our being. You can say that we are just cells, just DNA, just neurons firing, just a sack of flesh with an organic computer inserted in a bone container. You can look at these things and say, I am not what I think I am. The fact that I matter, or my friends and family matter, that my decisions mean anything, is a lie. I am just a collection of natural processes. The soul is an illusion.

This is what you might call dreaming down. We look at an aspect of the processes that make up life, or make us, and say, Well, that must be what we are–that and that alone. In the case of the matrix idea, we look at what we’ve created and say, That must be the end of our intelligence. What we can create must by the answer to what we are.

There is another type of dreaming, however. I recently finished reading The Silver Chair by C. S. Lewis to my kids, which is a close second for my favorite Narnia book and features the best Narnia character of all time, Puddleglum. (Sorry, Reepicheep fans.) At the climax, our heroes are trapped in Underland, a lightless, joyless underground kingdom. The Queen of this land is enchanting our heroes to believe that the world above never existed, that it’s all just a dream. Large chunks of the chapter are worth quoting, but I’ll limit it to Puddleglum’s final speech:

Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things–trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black bit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia.

Puddleglum dreams “upward,” using a cat to prove the existence of a lion and a lamp the existence of a sun.

Those who believe we live in a simulation believe in a “play world” like Puddleglum, but it’s less than the real world, not more. Their dream makes the world more hollow, not more glorious.

To dream “up” means to believe there is more meaning and reality in the world than meets the eye, not less, to believe that creation is not just natural, but supernatural, that the body holds not just synapses but a soul. Even if I entirely ignore the compelling arguments for such a reality, I’d much rather live in a world where humans are not just biological computers but moral beings created with inexpressible worth. And, honestly, most people inherently live more in the second reality, at least as concerns their own well-being, than in the first.

If we don’t exist–and live like it–we won’t much live at all. The danger to dreaming down is that you eventually become what you believe.

But if everyone lived as if life were real and precious and right, well, I think the world would be a pretty swell place to live.

A man can dream, can’t he?

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