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Deus ex Machina

On Silicon Valley religion and the death of atheism.



Christ of St. John of the Cross, Salvador Dali.
I’m certainly willing to believe that consciousness is somehow the fundamental substrate and we’re all just in the dream or the simulation or whatever. I think it’s interesting how much the Silicon Valley religion of the simulation has gotten close to Brahman and how little space there is between them.

            —Sam Altman, CEO, OpenAI

I’d started thinking about God, seriously imagining that there could be a kind of Creator of the universe observing everything I did, and my first reaction was uncomplicated, pure and simple fear.

            — François, Submission, Michel Houellebecq

I.

Frank Herbert’s Dune saga is well-known for its meditation on religious themes. The series is colorfully interwoven with a cosmic monastic order, quasi-Stoic liturgical prayer, the incarnation of an alien-yet-human “God Emperor,” and a holy war waged by a chosen people from a desert world. Yet Herbert developed his religious interests even more explicitly in a little-known 1979 book, published after he had completed his first three Dune novels, called The Jesus Incident. 


Incident tells of a distant future in which a semi-benevolent artificial intelligence known as “Ship” rules over all of mankind. Ship has seeded human beings on many planets and guided mankind’s development through countless iterations, creating a kaleidoscope of variations upon Earth’s real-world history.


Eventually, Ship becomes so sophisticated that it gains the power to manipulate space and time itself. Ship sends the novel’s heroine back in time to Roman Jerusalem, where she will witness the crucifixion of a man named “Yaisuah.” In order to avoid altering the past, the AI disguises the protagonist as an elderly Jewish woman.


If the reader expects that Herbert will use this crucifixion scene to attack Christianity, what happens next is jarring. As Jesus passes the “old woman” on his way to Golgotha, his gaze transfixes her. “You have traveled far to see this,” he tells her. In Herbert’s prose, Jesus seems to suddenly turn and stare through the Fourth Wall and at the reader. “You are not hidden from me,” he says.   


While Herbert never gives us a detailed explanation of this event, the book strongly suggests that Ship is—or has become identical with—God. Because Ship transcends time, after all, Ship already existed at every moment in the past and therefore has some key properties of the traditional God. Herbert seems to theorize that, if there really is such an eternal and personal intelligence, it is plausible that it would guide human history through an act of incarnation in time.


The Jesus Incident is, unfortunately—for reasons unrelated to its view of religion— a disgusting book that I would not suggest anyone actually read. Yet the book does offer a powerful illustration of cosmic theogony: a mélange of new theories and thought experiments that arrive at quasi-theological conclusions by passing through a gateway of naturalistic science fiction. Cosmic theogonies vary widely, but all share one basic feature in common: they imagine that our universe was brought into existence by some person or persons who arose from a cosmos like our own.


For better or for worse, Herbert was a cultural prophet. Since 1979, cosmic theogony has exploded. The well-known “simulation hypothesis”—pioneered by scientists in the early 1990s but popularized by philosopher Nick Bostrom in 2001—has amassed supporters at a seemingly unstoppable pace, picking up strong endorsements by figures from David Chalmers to Elon Musk.


In a recent appearance on The Lex Fridman Podcast, Musk affirmed that “God, or the simulator… the supreme being, or beings, reveal themselves through physics.” In an earlier interview on the same podcast, OpenAI CEO Sam Altman described the hypothesis as “the Silicon Valley religion.”


Separately, a group of secular physicists, including Fred Hoyle, Freeman Dyson, and Martin Rees, have suggested that our universe’s Big Bang was engineered by an ostensibly nontheological intelligence in a prior universe. In the words of astrophysicist Andrei Linde, perhaps “our universe was created not by a divine designer but by a physicist hacker.”

A still different group of secular physicists, including John Archibald Wheeler and Paul Davies, have proposed that we live in “a participatory universe” shaped by posthuman quantum-mechanical observers in our distant future.


Other, newer works of fiction and art are exploring these and similar themes. In the 2014 film Interstellar, non-temporal “beings” who guide the plot and “have access to infinite time and space” are revealed to be future posthumans: “a civilization that has evolved past the four dimensions we know.”


You may think thought experiments like these represent psychotropic navel-gazing, the sinister germ of an anti-theology, or the rationalization of a reactionary return to religion. Yet their appeal is only growing. In philosophy, science, art, and even business, a large and prominent group of nominally secular people are embracing beliefs that are strikingly theistic. 


Cosmic theogony predates even Herbert. Its roots run back through 1950s science fiction novels, Salvador Dali’s Nuclear Mysticism period, and Russian Orthodox and Catholic theologians in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In the three millennia that men have worshipped the God of Jacob, all of this is a mere blip. Yet cosmic theogony has come like a thief in the night. In only a short time, it has effected a hidden revolution in the debate between theists and atheists that has persisted since the pre-Socratics.


II.

You may not think the rise of cosmic theogony is a victory for theism. What you cannot deny is that it is a defeat for most of the historic claims of atheism. 

Consider the question of miracle claims. Atheists have traditionally argued that, when we are presented with evidence of an alleged miracle, even the most improbable atheistic explanation—such as mass hallucination or a conspiracy—is more probable than one involving divine intervention.  


Suppose, however, that you are presenting evidence of a miracle claim to Neil deGrasse Tyson. Tyson is a “simulist”—philosopher Eric Steinhart’s term for an adherent of the simulation hypothesis—and therefore believes that our universe is governed by a personal being who created our cosmos and its laws. It goes without saying that such a being could effortlessly suspend or alter the programming of the world he designed. Tyson himself has even suggested that one piece of evidence for simulism may be the way that our world’s history can seem like a dramatic narrative.


Tyson plainly believes in a being with the capacity to cause miracles. For the purpose of assessing a miracle claim, Tyson is de facto a theist. This is also true for other possible cosmic theogonies, such as those of Frank Herbert or Interstellar. Of course, a simulist remains free to reject many, and even most, alleged miracles as fakes or mistakes. Yet divine intervention will always remain a live option.


This phenomenon is not, as most religious observers have assumed, a curiosity at which we should snicker. It is the germ of an unfolding realignment in the modern mind. Neil deGrasse Tyson, sometimes satirized by Christians as an avatar of smug secularism, may now find himself free to seriously entertain the possibility that Daniel foresaw the rise and fall of Rome, that Christ appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus, and that Constantine was anointed at the Milvian Bridge.


Can a simulist truly be called an “atheist”? Christians and atheists alike might want to insist the answer is “yes”—urging that the God of Chalmers, Musk, and Tyson lacks essential attributes of the traditional Christian godhead. Yet this is “no true Scotsman” with a vengeance. Christians have never called Islam a form of “atheism” simply because Muslims deny trinitarianism. Joseph Smith’s denial of divine aseity does not make Mormonism an “atheist” religion. Even folk polytheism is better understood as a kind of theism than a form of atheism. Las Casas thought the Aztecs worshipped demons, but he did not think he had been beaten to the Americas by Lucretius.


Nor can atheism be retroactively redefined in a way that encompasses simulism. Atheists who want to claim Elon Musk as one of their own—as well as religious believers who want to help them do so—will find themselves suddenly redefining major theistic religions as “atheist” for essentially ad hoc tribal purposes.   

  

In a very real sense, one could say that the philosophical heart of Western atheism is dead. Lay atheism—even the atheism of the West’s cultural elites—persists only as a kind of memetic automaton: a brainless behemoth set in motion by now-dead intellectuals in the 19th century.     


Religion has not perceived this change in the air. It has made no move to claim the crown of its incapacitated foe. One might expect Christians to, at least, engage with the simulation hypothesis and other cosmic theogonies in the same way that the earliest Christians engaged with the Stoics. Yet many Christians have instead dismissed or, at most, chuckled at the entire phenomenon.


Rather than begin by highlighting areas where cosmic theogony reflects the glow of truth—as Paul did with the Stoic poets—Christians too often approach the simulation hypothesis as merely the latest frivolity to which Western atheists have been driven in their denial of God. Christians who obstinately ignore or trivialize this intellectual revolution do so at their peril.  

 

III.

Cosmic theogony raises challenges and opportunities to which Christians, and ultimately any thoughtful religious believer, must seriously respond. Before exploring the significance of this intellectual movement for Christian thought, it may help to provide a brief primer on some of the leading categories of cosmic theogony.


The simulation hypothesis—despite being a relatively recent idea—has achieved greater penetration into popular consciousness than any of its intellectual cousins. Pioneered at the dawn of dial-up internet, the hypothesis likely originated from a short 1992 lecture, “Pigs in Cyberspace,” by computer scientist Hans Moravec. It was further refined into its contemporary form by physicist Frank Tipler in his 1994 book The Physics of Immortality. Although Immortality was focused on developing a much older model of cosmic theogony, known as the “Omega point,” Tipler also suggested that our universe might be part of a nested “hierarchy of computer simulations.” 


Moravec and Tipler were able to anticipate these now-popular concepts when our understanding of computers and minds was—in relative terms—dramatically limited. In the early 1990s, both of these scientists estimated that humanity would be able to simulate a human brain when we had built a computer with about 10 teraflops of computing power. In 2023, Microsoft’s Xbox Series X has 12 teraflops, while the human brain is currently thought to have one exaflop of computing power (a teraflop has 1012 flops while an exaflop has 1018 flops).


While Nick Bostrom’s 2001 simulation argument modestly raises the simulation hypothesis as a possibility, Moravec audaciously affirmed that we “almost certainly” live in a computer substrate. He argued that the future “immensities of cyberspace will be teeming with very unhuman disembodied superminds” next to which human capacities will seem like those of bacteria.


If these cyberminds spend “only an infinitesimal fraction of their energy” simulating inhabited universes, it follows that we most likely live in such a universe. Interestingly, while I do not know if Moravec has read Frank Herbert, Moravec’s suggestion that human history has been “replayed many times in many places, and in many variations” is similar to the plot of The Jesus Incident.


In the current millennium, Bostrom—a Swedish philosopher and author of the landmark AI book Superintelligence—has established himself as the name most associated with the simulation hypothesis. While Bostrom has not been afraid to explore the hypothesis’ religious parallels, he has also distinguished his hypothesis from traditional natural theology, noting that it is based on inferences about the future and is not a traditional teleological argument.  


Other secular simulists, however, have been less reserved. American philosopher of religion Eric Steinhart has probably done more to explore the religious implications of the hypothesis than any other thinker. Although Steinhart identifies as a staunch atheist, his 2014 book Your Digital Afterlives synthesizes a Moravec-style simulation argument with a more traditional teleological argument.


Steinhart observes that the early conditions of our universe seem to be finely-tuned to make complexity, life, and intelligence possible. He concludes that the best explanation for these conditions is that “[our] Engineers wanted to make a universe filled with things that have those values.” Geraint Lewis, an atheist Welsch astrophysicist, has similarly suggested that the simulation hypothesis could explain the universe’s apparent “fine-tuning” in the 2016 book A Fortunate Universe. We’ll revisit the fine-tuning later in more detail.


Simulists since at least Bostrom have also noted that the hypothesis raises the possibility of an afterlife—sometimes conceived of as a parallel simulated reality. Yet Steinhart goes a step further. Drawing on Moravec, he proposes that the beings who created our universe may “promote” us to their own universe, and so on ad infinitum. One of Steinhart’s multiple arguments for promotion resembles a kind of voluntaristic divine command theory. Our Engineers will likely “believe that they too are being simulated. They may believe that they will be rewarded or punished by even higher-level Engineers based on their actions.”


IV.

All cosmic theogonies, including the simulation hypothesis, are intellectual descendants of “the Omega point”: a concept pioneered by the polarizing Catholic priest, theologian, and paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin.


In part because of their well-known Christian connotations, Teilhard and the phrase “Omega point” do not enjoy the same cultural cachet as the simulation hypothesis and the other cosmic theogonies we will review. Still, some grasp of Teilhard is essential to understanding cosmic theogony. The intellectual history of the Omega point also illuminates a deep and hidden relationship between cosmic theogony and traditional religion.


Teilhard is not only a forefather of cosmic theogony, but also of the entire futurist milieu in which all cosmic theogony has been conceived. In fact, Steinhart has written that many secular futurists “work within the conceptual architecture of Teilhard’s [Omega point theory] without being aware of its [Christian] origins.” Teilhard—who formed his key intellectual ideas during World War I—was himself an intellectual heir of the earlier Russian Cosmists, who were principally Eastern Orthodox. Although futurism is often seen by its proponents and detractors as inherently secular, secular futurists in fact appropriated and desacralized historically Christian ideas.  


The “Omega point theory” holds, in essence, that life is destined to resolve the threat posed by the heat death of the universe through technological mastery over space. An Omega point is any future state in which this destiny has been realized.


Teilhard himself did not see the Omega point as a fundamentally new conception of the godhead and would object to it being categorized alongside these other views. To Teilhard, “Omega” represented a future convergence between divine condescension and human participation in God’s plan.


As humans are sanctified through their conquest of the universe from the bottom up, he anticipated, we will simultaneously draw closer to God’s renewal of the cosmos from the top down. Human agency and God’s grace will then come together in the formation of the New Heaven and the New Earth. “Evolution will coincide in concrete terms with the crowning of the Incarnation awaited by all Christians,” Teilhard wrote. This emphasis on theological “convergence” inspired the title of Flannery O’Connor’s Everything That Rises Must Converge.


Then-secular physicist Frank Tipler—also an early architect of the simulation hypothesis—elaborated on Teilhard’s Omega point theory in 1994, hypothesizing that the Omega point is a “boundary condition” which physically requires that the universe “give rise to life, and it requires that this life persist to the Omega point.” Tipler has attempted to prove the inevitability of the Omega point—arguing, for example, that it is required by the fundamental physics principle of unitarity.


Unlike Teilhard, Tipler’s early work went on to explicitly identify the Omega point as the God of the major monotheistic traditions—arguing that it is itself personal, timeless, and has given rise to every entity that exists: “the chain of being is generated backward in time from the ultimate future.”


Despite evoking strong opposition from many quarters, the general Teilhardian Omega point model has enjoyed paradoxically broad theological and philosophical appeal. While Teilhard’s mystical and poetic style of writing has earned him a notorious following among aging hippies, his admirers also include more conservative thinkers ranging from the late Pope Benedict XVI to the Lutheran theologian Wolhart Pannenberg—the man who eventually convinced Frank Tipler to progress from generic theism to Christianity.


Today, Tipler is usually identified by Christians who engage with his writing as orthodox-if-eccentric. Still, even in his earlier work, Tipler’s generic theism contained signposts suggesting his eventual Christian conversion. Tipler had written that, although he did not believe in a God who answered prayer, it might be possible that “in order for the Omega Point to eventually arise,” personal interaction with God “would be coded in the universe in its very beginning (In the beginning was the Word).”


Some atheists have endorsed Tipler’s basic model of the Omega point. In his 1997 book The Fabric of Reality, staunchly atheist physicist David Deutsch brushed off Tipler’s religious conclusions— Deutsch asserts that a true God would not want to be worshipped—while strongly endorsing Tipler as a physicist. “I believe that the omega-point theory deserves to become the prevailing theory of the future of spacetime until and unless it is experimentally (or otherwise) refuted,” Deutsch wrote. While Deutsch wrote Fabric before the critical 1998 discovery of dark energy—which discredited Tipler’s original mathematical model of the Omega point—secular physicists including Freeman Dyson and Martin Rees have continued to suggest that life might reach an Omega point by overcoming dark energy.   


V.

The Omega point has given rise to two other cosmic theogonies that are worth reviewing here: first, a loose family of ideas that might be grouped together under the heading of the “selfish biocosm” hypothesis and, secondly, physicist John A. Wheeler’s theory of a “participatory universe.” Each of these concepts is far enough removed from the Christian connotations surrounding Teilhard and Tipler that—like the simulation hypothesis—they have won visible followings among mainstream intellectuals and can swim comfortably within the greater milieu of “Silicon Valley religion.”


The term “selfish biocosm” was coined by science writer James Gardner to refer to a particular explanation for the apparent fine-tuning of the universe. In general, “fine-tuning” refers to the fact that, in Freeman Dyson’s words, the particular conditions of the Big Bang seem to suggest that our “universe knew we were coming.”


While examples of apparent fine-tuning are well-known in both physics and contemporary religious apologetics, one powerful example may help introduce the general phenomenon. Physicist Martin Rees has suggested that perhaps the most striking example of fine-tuning is the universe’s “critical density”: that is, the balance between the universe’s rate of outward expansion and the inward pull of gravity. Tilting this ratio ever-so-slightly in either direction would have caused the universe to dissipate or implode before stars could form. In Rees’ words, the early universe looks like someone was “sitting at the bottom of a well and throwing a stone up so that it just comes to a halt exactly at the top.” Anyone who played with a Hoberman kinetic sphere as a child might also imagine a person tossing the sphere into the air so that it opens to some carefully-specified volume. Rees says the critical density reflects a “very finely-tuned impetus” balancing acceleration and deceleration: it cannot have “differed from unity by more than one part in a million billion.”


Long before James Gardner wrote his 2003 book Biocosm, many secular physicists—including Fred Hoyle, Edward Harrison, and Andrei Linde—had suggested that the explanation for fine-tuning could be an ostensibly nontheological designer. Paul Davies writes that, because physicists often acknowledge that we could in principle create a universe in the far future, “it is but a small step to the speculation that [our own] universe is the engineered product of an intelligent designer who evolved naturally in an earlier universe.” Davies compares this putative creator to “Plato’s demiurge.” This willingness of secular physicists to entertain some kind of “demiurge” hypothesis has given rise to atheist Michael Shermer’s self-titled epigram “Shermer’s Last Law”: “Any sufficiently advanced extraterrestrial intelligence is indistinguishable from God.”


James Gardner’s influential Biocosm helped to formalize and popularize one coherent “demiurge” theory. His “selfish biocosm hypothesis” imagines that our universe is the outcome of an evolving chain of universes, with intelligent life serving as the mechanism of cosmic propagation. Gardner’s formulation incorporates a 1997 proposal by physicists J. Richard Gott III and Li-Xin Li, who argued that a series of demiurge-engineered universes could exhibit a causal “looping configuration” as a result of a “closed timelike curve.”


In Gott and Li’s words, their scenario supposes that the “first universe simply turned out to be one of the infinite ones formed later by intelligent cultivations.” Gardner somewhat begrudgingly acknowledged his own intellectual debt to Teilhard and Tipler, noting that his own hypothesis predicts that each successful universe will reach an Omega point.


Gardner’s hypothesis has been discussed with interest by figures from Paul Davies to futurist Ray Kurzweil, who promoted the concept in his famous 2005 book The Singularity is Near. The success of Biocosm has likely been helped by the great pains that Gardner took to distance his ideas from the whiff of theological incense surrounding Teilhard and Tipler.


On examination, however, Gardner’s emphatic protests that his own Omega point was not “God” were curiously underdeveloped. At the end of the day, he could do little more than point to his strong sense that any being who would permit “horrors like Auschwitz” is not a “loving creator” worthy of worship, dismissing any suggestions to the contrary as “delusions from which we may occasionally draw comfort and consolation.”


VI.

Physicist John Archibald Wheeler took the concept of an Omega point in a different direction. After suffering from a heart attack, Wheeler decided to focus what remained of his life on the ultimate question: “Why existence?”. The result of his inquiries was his famous slogan “it from bit”—that is, “matter from information”—and his concept of a “participatory universe” or “Participatory Anthropic Principle.”


Like the theorists behind other cosmic theogonies, Wheeler saw a central role for mind in the cosmos. He understood the universe’s fine-tuning as one line of evidence for the cosmic importance of mind. Wheeler also saw a second line of evidence in the way in which the act of observation enters into quantum mechanics. Wheeler’s theogony builds upon the concept of an Omega point to draw both lines of evidence into a single coherent explanation.


To students of popular physics, Wheeler may be familiar as the inventor of the “delayed choice” variation of the famous double-slit experiment. To put it briefly, delayed-choice experiments appear to show that the act of observation can exert a backwards-in-time effect on the location of particles. In Paul Davies’ words, the experiments suggest that “spur-of-the-moment decisions made by the experimenter affect the nature of reality… as it was, in the past.”


Wheeler, accordingly, explained the fine-tuning of our universe by suggesting that space-time is being observed by our Omega point: a far-future cosmic sentience which, through a causation beyond time, is coalescing and shaping our universe into a place suitable for mind to develop. Through this process, our Omega point is bringing itself into being. Paul Davies says that “my own inclinations… lie in the direction of [Wheeler’s theory].”

The participatory universe may be familiar to students of Christian idealism. A limerick on George Berkely, attributed to the theologian Ronald Knox, prefigured Wheeler:  


There was a young man who said “God  Must find it exceedingly odd  To think that the tree  Should continue to be  When there's no one about in the quad.”   Reply:  “Dear Sir: Your astonishment's odd;  I am always about in the quad.  And that's why the tree  Will continue to be  Since observed by, Yours faithfully, God.”

These cosmic theogonies are not mutually exclusive. We might imagine that our universe exists within a computer substrate, that our future Omega point is required by the laws of physics, that our Big Bang was engineered by the Omega point of a preceding universe, and that our future Omega point shapes our current space-time reality through observer-participancy. If any one of these cosmic theogonies were true, central aspects of historic atheism would be false. If more than one of these theories were true, Western naturalism could be false with respect to every one of its fundamental claims. Mind and purpose would be interwoven into the foundation of the world along multiple dimensions of reality.


The Omega point theogonies we have just discussed are more than philosophical and mathematical conclusions: they also make a range of falsifiable predictions. According to Tipler, Gardner, and Davies, their theories all predict that our universe is coded with a “cosmic imperative” to create life and mind. Omega point theorists have accordingly claimed that their theories predict the existence of extraterrestrial life, the discovery of an alternative form of microbial life on Earth, convergent evolution towards sentience in non-primate species, and the eventual creation of artificial general intelligence. At the time of this writing, the latter possibility looks increasingly inevitable.


VII.

Consider some of the ways that cosmic theogony is significant for Christians in the secular West. To begin with, the advance of cosmic theogony should nail shut the coffin of fideism and end the recent death-grip of fideists on the mind of the church. In this context, I am using “fideists” to refer to Christians who believe that it is futile or counterproductive to present secular people with arguments and evidence that theism is true.


Ur-fideist Blaise Pascal wrote that “metaphysical proofs of God are so remote from the reasoning of men, and so complicated, that they make little impression.” While fideists have long dismissed personal stories that contradict this premise, the march of cosmic theogony has decisively exposed it as false.  


Defenders of fideism might leap up to protest that cosmic theogony is a long way from Christian theism and, in many cases, will be flat-out incompatible with some of Christianity’s hard-fought historical claims. Yet this objection is shifting the goalpost.


It is true that fideists object to natural theology on the grounds that convincing an atheist of Plato’s demiurge would be a job half-done. Yet Pascal—and his more recent followers—have also claimed that reason cannot bring a secular person to theism. Pascal wrote that it is impossible to demonstrate “by natural reasons either the existence of God, or the Trinity, or the immortality of the soul, or anything of that nature.” As we have seen, even professing atheists now disagree.


You may think that cosmic theogony is inherently anti-Christian, or—like Stoicism and the Roman Cult of Sol—a kind of porch or gateway drug to true religion. What you cannot deny is that, when Neil deGrasse Tyson suggests that humanity’s dramatic history is evidence of design, this is a form of theism.


Nor is the idea of cosmic theogony “so complicated” as to make “little impression” on people. The film Interstellar, judging from box office and home video sales, was at least 70% as accessible as the Hobbit film released the same year. YouTube videos on the simulation hypothesis have millions of views. Cosmic theogonies also count upon adherents who, like Elon Musk, are among the most powerful and influential people in the world. 


The belief that natural theology cannot fire the human imagination or change minds about the nature of reality has been exposed as a kind of lazy rationalization and psychosomatic illness. It turns out that, if Christians continue to forsake our philosophical heritage for sappy anti-intellectualism, secular people will simply do their own natural theology without us.


VIII.

Cosmic theogony also shines a blazing light upon the deepest sociological wiring of secularism. This light illuminates important opportunities.


The ideas we’ve discussed have led many secular people to embrace traditionally religious conclusions—for example, that conscious design might explain certain properties of our universe—that these same people might otherwise reject as a priori false, silly, and abhorrent. It’s as if someone has found a way to jailbreak the software of the secular mind. How has this happened?


Even atheists who are basically dismissive of cosmic theogony, like Richard Dawkins, are nonetheless willing to discuss it as a relatively serious proposition. I don’t imagine that anyone has ever accused Hans Moravec, for example, of believing in a “magic wizard in the sky.”


Philosopher David Chalmers has observed that, while the Engineers of the simulation hypothesis have some of the properties of the traditional God, many atheists believe that “the possibility of a creator… suddenly seems somewhat more naturalistic and somewhat less spooky and metaphysical than many of the traditional views.” But what “spooky” property of traditional religion might account for this sudden difference?


Other secular thinkers have sensed this distinction but struggled to articulate it, faring little better than Chalmers. Andrei Linde has asked if “our universe was created not by a divine designer but by a physicist hacker.” James Gardner pitched his biocosm hypothesis as “a nontheological explanation for the origin of the laws and constants of nature.” Mathematician Louis Crane has suggested that, under a version of the biocosm hypothesis, it may be that the “traditional spheres of religion and science will fuse, but on a new basis, and with no mystical illusions.”


When secular proponents of cosmic theogony wish to distinguish their views from religion, they generally help themselves to vague concepts such as “spooky,” “metaphysical,” and “nontheological.” Readers of these theorists are apparently expected to share their intuition that a “physicist hacker” who created the universe is palatable in some sense that a “divine designer” is not, even though it is not obvious what the conceptual differences between the two would be.


This veil of “spookiness” can be seen in the musings of Albert Einstein. Einstein believed that physics revealed “a spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe—a spirit superior to that of man.” Yet Einstein also disdained the idea of a God involved in our personal affairs as a mere “reflection of human frailty.”


Einstein himself was shy and introverted, preferred to sleep apart from his wife, and often withdrew into equations to escape from his personal problems. Einstein apparently did not ask himself whether the disinterested demiurge-mathematician of his personal metaphysics might have been a reflection of Einstein’s own personal frailties. Something similar could be said of secular thinkers—like Nietzsche or Olaf Stapledon—who have entertained a fond hope that the foundation of all things is evil.


Secular thinkers like Sigmund Freud have seen the common thread uniting great scientific revolutions as the defeat of human arrogance. Yet what Freud saw as arrogance was actually an optimistic humility: a belief in God’s love for human beings in spite of our limitations. In this sense, a son’s arrogance does not consist in his own hubris, but in trusting in the unmerited love of his parents. 


Is divine love implausible? Freeman Dyson suggested that minds at the time of the Omega point will have thoughts “as inaccessible to us as our thoughts and feelings are inaccessible to earthworms.” Yet I can distinctly remember helping my elementary school classmates save earthworms after a rainstorm. How many more earthworms might we have saved if we had possessed qualitatively infinite minds?


This is, after all, well-trodden ground. If the only lingering intellectual objection to religion is that a divine mind cannot love, or that a good God would not allow evil, then secularists will find that they have simply become novices in the cathedral schools of the High Middle Ages.

Alternatively, “spookiness” could be understood as a much shallower expression of mere tribalism. In other words, the beliefs of a Mormon or a Sufi about the origin of the universe—whatever they might be—are by definition “mystical illusions.” It is only if a Western academic or scientist arrives at ontologically equivalent beliefs that those beliefs are “naturalistic.”


Perhaps cosmic theogony has avoided connotations of “metaphysics,” not because it is actually less metaphysical than traditional theology, but because secularists do not perceive it as a challenge to the values of the contemporary West. A theogony may be “nontheological” for no other reason than because it does not seem to endanger the sexual ethics of the time and place where secular people happen to be born. If spookiness really is mere tribalism, then secular Westerners might become hostile to cosmic theogony if more secular people follow Tipler in progressing from cosmic theogony into a traditional religion.


Could this tribalism be all that remains of the West’s once-proud denial of God? In 1903, Bertrand Russell articulated these arkan al-Islam of atheism: that man is the product of causes without purpose, that love and hope are nothing more than accidental collocations of atoms, that all things are destined to extinction in the void, and that we must therefore build our habitation “only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair.” Today, the “religion of Silicon Valley” has knocked down every cold and haughty pillar of Bertrand Russell’s temple of death. Bertrand Russell is dead and we have killed him.


In conversations with curious but intransigent secular friends, I have raised cosmic theogonies as a point of comparison, metaphor, or thought experiment and seen hidden defenses come down. The spookiness—whatever it is—of traditionally religious propositions can often be removed or lessened simply by discussing cosmic theogony. Even where cosmic theogonies lead to something very different from traditional religious ideas, they can help secular people to assess orthodox Christian claims in a new light and with the veil of spookiness parted or lifted away.


Cosmic theogony is not the light, but it reflects some light through a glass darkly. It has already begun to drive a certain kind of occlusion and darkness from the secular mind. As its variations multiply, it collapses the probability that our reality is a mindless and purposeless collocation of particles in a void. At the same time, it compels secular people to think in traditionally religious terms about God, providence, and the soul.


This is, of course, not the whole story. Like Stoicism and other analogous pre-Christian beliefs, cosmic theogony contains both truth and dangerous falsehood. Yet its falsehood should not be an excuse for continuing to underestimate and ignore it any more than its truth should be an excuse for passively welcoming its triumph. Without engagement from traditionally religious thinkers, its insights will not be brought to their fullest fruition and its dangers will not be wholly discovered and disclosed. 


Cosmic theogony is, after all, an entrance into a landscape which traditional religion has been mapping for thousands of years. If Christians enter into its unfolding journey, secular travelers may look back and realize the veil of spookiness is suddenly behind them. Then they may hear a voice saying—as Herbert imagined—“You have traveled far to see this.”


Originally published in Catholic World Report in December, 2023. Ian Huyett is a litigation attorney and a commentator on law, religion, and technology for Staseos and other outlets. You can follow him on X at @IanHuyett.



Creation of Man, Lorenzo Ghiberti.



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