Pareidolia: Deleted Chapter (Interview)

From my upcoming novel Pareidolia.
(See the Free Samples page for the premise and other goodies.)

(I decided to nuke this chapter because in the end it didn’t seem too important to delve into Van Zorn’s worldview. He lurks in the background and has few lines. Plus in this chapter I make him a lot more intelligent than I ultimately needed him to be.)

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PTS Airdate: October 5, 1999

MELISSA HENRY: Hi, I’m Melissa Henry, and welcome to Cancel Bedtime, your favorite book club on TV. Today we’re talking with author Ford Van Zorn, whose new book, Thucydides Was Wrong, is stirring spirits and raising hackles with audiences both scientific and religious. It’s a bizarre foray into the worlds of mathematics, philosophy, higher-dimensional consciousness, and the nature of humanity’s stormy relationship with our gods. It’s also currently number five on the New York Times Best Seller list. Welcome, Ford.

FORD VAN ZORN: Thank you. It’s great to be here, Melissa.

MELISSA HENRY: You have a very unique worldview. Tell us about it.

FORD VAN ZORN: I’d be happy to. It all started when I was a boy, about five or six. I was home one evening watching a television show with my parents, I forget which one. It was a sitcom, your standard ‘50s fare. These characters were going about their lives in some American city, going to work, having friends over for dinner, getting into arguments with their spouses, and so on. I don’t know why, but suddenly it struck me that if this show was somehow real, I mean really real, then these characters would be able to tune in to channel so-and-so on such-and-such a night at what-have-you o’clock, and they could watch themselves on television watching themselves on television watching themselves on television, and on, and on, and on, down this rather delicious rabbit hole of impossibilities. I realized—I suppose everyone realizes this at some age or another—that there had to be some bizarre middle ground where we, the viewing audience, tell ourselves a story about how this impossibility can be avoided. We say—and of course this isn’t just television, this is all storytelling down through the ages—we say, “Sure, this could be happening right now in some American city, maybe Los Angeles or Chicago, and sure, these people could really be doing these things right now. Let’s pretend they are, so we can follow their story, but it can’t be too real, otherwise the bubble will collapse.” In effect the audience creates a temporary parallel universe in their minds where these characters exist, so that if the characters on the show happened to be watching television on the same night, channel, and time as the show they’re on in our universe, they wouldn’t see themselves; instead they would see some other show that must by definition exist entirely outside of our universe. Sort of an inverse entertainment. And I found myself wondering, what the hell was that show? Why can’t I watch it? Where does it exist? Who are the actors? And so on. This was my first encounter with a paradox: not the suspension of disbelief, but the hole of unreality that these stories have to dance around to prevent a division by zero, if you will, or an infinite hall of mirrors that swallows itself in a kind of recursive black hole. So that was the beginning. What was this strange thing I’d stumbled onto, I wondered, that was so unlike anything else I’d seen in my short life? Even questions of life and death seemed to pale in comparison.

MELISSA HENRY: So a paradox was the seed of your current belief system.

FORD VAN ZORN: Yes, it sounds very funny when you say it out loud like that, but it’s true. My entire worldview, everything I know to be true and hold dear, is based on an impossible rip in logic and reality found deep within some arcane detail of a ‘50s sitcom.

MELISSA HENRY: I hope it was I Love Lucy. [LAUGHS] Where did this fascination with paradoxes lead you?

FORD VAN ZORN: I first went to mathematics for answers. I thought, if anything can explain these impossibilities, it’s numbers. Mathematicians have been struggling with impossible outcomes and bizarre implications for millennia, and these structures are all based on air-tight logic. So there was my first clue that I was on the right path, this direct mapping between the building blocks of simple arithmetic and paradoxes beyond comprehension. My God, Gödel’s incompleteness theorems ripped to shreds the notion that we can ever develop a formal axiomatic foundation for all of mathematics. He proved that there are unprovable truths. If that doesn’t fry your bacon, nothing will. [LAUGHS] And his proof was built out of simple pieces, all easily verifiable, mundane even. So this was a telephone line of sorts, a connection between realities that I hoped to explore.

MELISSA HENRY: Yes, but how did you get from a fascination with paradoxes and mathematics to…

FORD VAN ZORN: To Jesus Christ? That’s usually where the next question goes. I’m not a Christian. Let me be very clear about this. I am not a Christian. I’m much closer to science than I am to religion. I test, you see. I form hypotheses, I gather data, I reevaluate my assumptions. I take the practices of the scientific world and extrapolate them out into the psycho-spiritual zeitgeist, which happens today, in the West, to be Jesus Christ.

MELISSA HENRY: Ford Van Zorn: a saint to some, a heretic to others, but he just calls himself a curious voyager. The son of an immigrant Dutch banker, Van Zorn first made a name for himself as a rising star in the popularization of space science. That is, at least until his theories on inter-dimensional shifting and higher intelligence turned off his peers. Now he is the author of seven books, the latest of which, Thucydides Was Wrong, just made it to the New York Times Best Seller list, and I’d say he’s doing pretty well for himself these days.

FORD VAN ZORN: [LAUGHS] I’d say the last couple of years have been very good to me, yes.

MELISSA HENRY: You know, you could have had a career as an actor. You’re very charismatic, and… you’re kinda cute! [LAUGHS]

FORD VAN ZORN: Well, I don’t know about that. [LAUGHS]

MELISSA HENRY: No! You’ve got that silver fox thing going on.

FORD VAN ZORN: There’s snow on the roof but a fire in the hearth? Is that what you’re thinking? [LAUGHS]

MELISSA HENRY: I’m not going to tell you what I’m thinking. [LAUGHS]

FORD VAN ZORN: You’re too kind.

MELISSA HENRY: Let’s get back to your story. Give us more on your family’s history.

FORD VAN ZORN: Well, our story is very familiar by now I think. My parents fled the Netherlands during the war, like many thousands of Europeans, and made a new home for themselves here in America. They came here, bought a house, and had me. Ta-dah! [LAUGHS] They named me after the iconic car maker.

MELISSA HENRY: Your parents named you after Henry Ford. That’s amazing.

FORD VAN ZORN: Yes. That, for them, encapsulated the American spirit, that this would be the land of hope and riches and a better future for their family than a war-torn Europe.

MELISSA HENRY: And did your parents support you in your pursuit of the academic life?

FORD VAN ZORN: My father wanted me to go into banking, not so original, but my mother wanted me to do whatever made me happy. And eventually my father came around. So I was very lucky in that respect. I suppose he thought numbers were close enough, that I could later be brought around to work in the actuarial sciences, at least.

MELISSA HENRY: Did you think you’d spend your life as a professor? Or what did you see for yourself?

FORD VAN ZORN: In my mind I was so dazzled by the mysteries of the universe, you know, and how I could have a hand in unraveling them, to make nature give up her secrets, and so on. But then of course it just turned into another job. Show up, punch a clock, do your work, go home to watch the game. [LAUGHS] I started to lose that sense of wonder. It was replaced by—not boredom, I wouldn’t say—but everything sort of leveled out. Got flat. You know, “This is how we do it, so you must do it like us,” that sort of thing. “No imagination, please.” [LAUGHS]

MELISSA HENRY: You were a doctoral student at Caltech when a guest appearance on a public television show caught fire.

FORD VAN ZORN: Yes, I was only twenty four. It was quite accidental, this appearance. One of those right place, right time situations. Imagine my horror, standing in front of that camera, explaining the inner workings of a black hole. Something which was very popular at the time, you know, Stephen Hawking and all the rest. And just sweating myself into a puddle.

MELISSA HENRY: But you must have done well, because you were asked back.

FORD VAN ZORN: Yes, and then again, and again, and I was offered my own show by 1980.

MELISSA HENRY: Which you turned down.

FORD VAN ZORN: Which I turned down, yes.


FORD VAN ZORN: Because already I could tell the producers wanted me to go in a certain direction, one I didn’t agree with.

MELISSA HENRY: So you started your own show.

FORD VAN ZORN: Yes, and by this time, I should point out, I had completely given up on my doctorate, which never would have happened anyway.

MELISSA HENRY:  Your doctorate, which was in theoretical…

FORD VAN ZORN: …theoretical astrophysics, yes.

MELISSA HENRY: And this was because your research was taking you in some weird directions.

FORD VAN ZORN: Yes, could say they were starting to go over the top. [LAUGHS]

MELISSA HENRY: But you didn’t talk about this on the show, which by the way, was called…

FORD VAN ZORN: It was called Space Safari. We were a bad knockoff of Carl Sagan’s much better Cosmos, a show I adored, by the way. We were aiming for a younger audience.

MELISSA HENRY: Tell us about your research.

FORD VAN ZORN: Well, the… you mean the weird stuff, right? [LAUGHS]

MELISSA HENRY: The weird stuff, yes. But not too technical! Some of us never made it out of pre-calc. [LAUGHS]

FORD VAN ZORN: Sure. Well, I was fascinated by stars. I loved how they followed the rules of classical physics to the letter, you know, very straightforward, very predictable. You literally could set your watch to some of them. But when they run down, you suddenly find that you must deal with quantum phenomenon—many, many orders of magnitude down from the mass of a star to the mass of a subatomic particle. You find yourself face-to-face with something called a gravitational singularity. That means a point, if we can call it that, with no volume and infinite density, a literal impossibility for the human mind to wrap itself around. This is the heart of the black hole.

MELISSA HENRY: Ah, that sounds right up your alley.

FORD VAN ZORN: Yes, the old dividing by zero again. Here we have a physical paradox, the most powerful and destructive paradox ever produced by nature, at least that we’ve found so far. And what is beyond these things, if anything? What do they mean? How do we grapple with something so utterly alien, so out of touch with anything we’ve ever encountered as a civilization thus far? Are these the physical limits of our reality? Are we butting our heads up against the ceiling of what is, or are they natural phenomenon of a higher order that can be easily explained away, just as we now easily explain away things like germ theory or radio waves or transistors, things that were impossible for the human mind to grasp just a few hundred years ago? These are the questions I started exploring.

MELISSA HENRY: And this is when you started frightening the horses, so to speak.

FORD VAN ZORN: Yes. This foray into experimental epistemology scared everyone’s pants off. Suddenly I was too hot to handle, too controversial, too soft-sciences. The keepers of the realm do not gladly suffer fools, and I was ultimately relegated to the humanities. They were like, “Here—you deal with him!” [LAUGHS]

MELISSA HENRY: Our guest is space scientist turned philosopher Ford Van Zorn, and his new book is Thucydides Was Wrong, an exploration into the higher dimensions of existence. Ford, in your book you spend a great deal of time exploring the meanings and implications of Kurt Gödel’s work. Tell us more about how Gödel influenced your worldview.

FORD VAN ZORN: Well, the significance of Gödel’s work…

MELISSA HENRY: …I suppose we should explain to our viewers who that is.

FORD VAN ZORN: Yes, of course. Kurt Gödel was an Austrian mathematician and logician who flourished mainly between the two world wars, and is best remembered for his Incompleteness Theorems that led to, among other things, the creation of the first computer in the 1940s.

MELISSA HENRY: Right. Thank you. Forgot to dot that particular i.

FORD VAN ZORN: You’re welcome! So the significance of Gödel’s work cannot possibly be overstated. He absolutely revolutionized modern logic, and this had a direct impact on the holy grail of the time in mathematics—a kind of unified field theory, if you will—that would underpin and support all possible mathematical proofs without fail, a theory which was in shambles at the time. There were horrors like an infinitely large number of infinite sets.

MELISSA HENRY: Infinite sets.

FORD VAN ZORN: Yes, sorry. A set is nothing more than a basket of things, like when you go to the market and you fill up your basket with apples and oranges. Mathematicians fill up their baskets with things like the all of the counting numbers, for instance, or all of the primes, and so on. Now some of these sets can be infinite, for example the counting numbers: zero, one, two. We’ve known for millennia that there are an infinite number of counting numbers, so the set of all counting numbers is an infinite set.

MELISSA HENRY: And Gödel found an infinity of these infinite sets.

FORD VAN ZORN: Well, here comes the supporting cast. It was the German mathematician Georg Cantor who unveiled the infinite kinds of infinite sets, and it was English leading light Bertrand Russell who had shown that set theory itself was inconsistent. Remember, this was the best candidate for a foundation of axiomatically rigorous mathematics around the turn of the century, and it was going down like the Titanic. This is why the mathematicians of the day were running around with their hair on fire.

MELISSA HENRY: …on the Titanic. [LAUGHS]

FORD VAN ZORN: Yes! [LAUGHS] To mix our metaphors. So Gödel didn’t waltz in and fix everything. He pointed to a fundamental flaw in the approach of using a consistent foundation to underpin mathematics in the first place. In effect, what he said was, “Well, there’s your problem right there!” [LAUGHS] He was like, “Guys, you can’t have your cake and eat it too. Either you have an internally consistent axiomatic system to underpin all of mathematics, or you can avoid paradoxes. Pick one!” [LAUGHS] And so, of course, we learned to live with the paradoxes, to fold them into our work as mathematicians and computer scientists and theoretical cosmologists, in order to have a solid foundation upon which to build everything else. I dedicate an entire chapter in my new book to the physical paradoxes of gravitational singularities as direct analogues of the unprovable truths of Gödel’s incompleteness theorems. His later work with Einstein is even more fascinating, particularly the Gödel metric, which is an exact solution of Einstein’s field equations. He proved that, given a number of specific (and perfectly legal) conditions, it is impossible to disprove time travel. This is not just some wild theory—it is a direct consequence of general relativity. And we all know what kinds of bizarre impossibilities go along with time travel. Again, all of this is built on carefully structured logic that can be traced back to simple arithmetic and geometry. It’s stunning, absolutely stunning. This is a living example of the kind of thing I longed for as a child. Some unbreakable cord between our universe and the universe that lies behind the rainbow of the unknowable that Gödel proved must exist.

MELISSA HENRY: That’s fascinating. Now your first book, Tomahawk Of The Sun, was not a commercial success.

FORD VAN ZORN: No. I was trying to say too many things at once. I was still finding my voice.

MELISSA HENRY: You didn’t tackle religion at that point.


MELISSA HENRY: Then in your second book, The Moral Relativist, you dropped what one critic referred to as “the J-bomb”.

FORD VAN ZORN: I don’t talk about Christ specifically in that book. This is a common misconception.

MELISSA HENRY: But it marked a turning point in your career.

FORD VAN ZORN: Yes, The Moral Relativist was my coming out book, if you will. This was the book I had dreamed of writing since I was a teenager. Sadly, it was not much better received that my debut. I don’t think anybody got the pun in the title.

MELISSA HENRY: This is when you first start writing about paradoxes and their connection to what you call trans-dimensional beings.

FORD VAN ZORN: Yes. The crazy talk begins! [LAUGHS]

MELISSA HENRY: Right! Let’s talk about these beings. Would you consider them to be extraterrestrials?

FORD VAN ZORN: Yes, I suppose I would, but it would be a trivial distinction. Some of them are from other planets in our universe, but, more importantly, some of them are from other universes altogether. But before we talk about them, let’s talk about us. Let’s say you’re an ant.


FORD VAN ZORN: It is silly, I know! But just for the sake of argument. Now—and I take pains to show that this is at least theoretically possible in The Moral Relativist—you are an ant, and you are exploring a blade of grass.


FORD VAN ZORN: Now imagine a space shuttle flying overhead, built with things like calculus and physics and mechanical engineering and chemistry, tracing its way across Earth’s orbit.


FORD VAN ZORN: Now take the ant off the blade of grass and put it on the space shuttle. What does it experience?


FORD VAN ZORN: Exactly. It experiences the impossible. It experiences things like zero gravity and powerful accelerations and the traversal of enormous distances, things that its tiny ant brain can’t possibly comprehend. But the humans, the humans on the space shuttle are doing fine, relatively speaking [LAUGHS], and they just get on with their work, with their day. How can humans do all of these things that an ant can’t possibly comprehend? What is the thing that bridges this gap? Well, it’s billions of years of evolution, for starters. But it’s a sea change, you see, between the two. And in The Moral Relativist I posit that there is no way to prove this gap doesn’t exist between us and other, even higher beings. To them, we are the ants. All we have seen, up until this point of our existence, is our version of the blade of grass. And somewhere out there is their equivalent of a space shuttle.

MELISSA HENRY: Wow. But you also talk about physical limits, that this can only scale up so far.

FORD VAN ZORN: Right, but this is to defend myself against attack! [LAUGHS] I suspected this would be one of the chief complaints that my critics would hurl at me, and indeed so it was. My goal was to take that weapon out of their hands and use it against them by showing that it portends an even bigger leap in understanding between humans and higher beings, and it is this leap that brings us beyond advanced alien species and into something even more fantastical, even more advanced.

MELISSA HENRY: And this is where the trans-dimensional beings come in.

FORD VAN ZORN: Right. So the idea is that you can only climb the evolutionary ladder so high before you run out of steam. Your technology as a species can only get you so far. You run into limitations of resources, of labor, of time. Ultimately it’s physics that decides how far you can advance as a species. So it’s hard to imagine how you could evolve, given all the time in the universe, into something greater than what humans have done so far, give or take a few thousand years. But we’ve already seen that this isn’t the case with the ant and the human, distant cousins on the tree of life of a single ecosystem, the result of four billion years of natural selection. Ants have spent all that time becoming the best ants that they can be, just like we humans have done our best. Now imagine the difference between civilizations of different ecosystems utilizing even higher dimensions of space and time. My goodness, entire new laws of physics and math come into play when you increase the number of spatial dimensions by one. The fact that we can’t quite manage to wrap our best minds around the broken connection between large-scale and small-scale physics (like the black hole) is likely only one example of our ant-like species trying to understand life on some superior race’s space shuttle, made with unimaginably complex tools and technologies.

MELISSA HENRY: Whew! [LAUGHS] Ford Van Zorn’s new book, Thucydides Was Wrong, has only been out for a month, and already it’s one of the most talked-about non-fiction books in recent memory. You lay out some pretty crazy theories, only now it’s helping your career instead of hurting it.

FORD VAN ZORN: I think I needed to throw off the yolk of traditional science in order to pursue the work I wanted to pursue. Once I’d done that, once I’d cast aside any aspirations to play nice with the keepers of the realm, [LAUGHS] then I was free to make inquiries which no one else was making, but had to be made. Had to be made. And, let’s face it, if traditional science won’t have me, I’d have to find some other way to pay the bills. [LAUGHS]

MELISSA HENRY: And you openly invoke the name of one of the most controversial figures in all of human history.

FORD VAN ZORN: That’s right. The “J-bomb,” as you called it. [LAUGHS] I knew confronting religion would earn me as many enemies as abandoning traditional science. Talk about jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire. I had to hire body guards, and at one point a private investigator. I have an employee who does nothing all day but handle my mail. It’s been quite the firestorm.

MELISSA HENRY: And you walked into this firestorm with your eyes open.

FORD VAN ZORN: Oh, absolutely. I had to.

MELISSA HENRY: What led you to Christianity? I’m sorry, I know you’re not a Christian, but you deal with Christian mythology very specifically. Why? Why not Muslim mythology, or Buddhist, or Celtic?

FORD VAN ZORN: I knew this fellow, a neuropsychologist, who described in great detail the science behind the light at the end of the tunnel during near-death experiences, as well as sleep disorders such as night terrors and paralysis which are commonly associated with ghosts and alien abductions. This was the inspiration for this book, and it eventually led me to an adaptation of Christian mythology, primarily because it’s the only truly influential mythology left in modern Western culture. We experience things, my friend explained to me, which are utterly impossible to categorize or fit into our lives, and so we do the best we can to wrap them up in a story that does make sense: I was abducted by aliens. I had an out-of-body experience. Jesus told me to forgive my parents. And so on. All of these things are possible to explain from an outside perspective, yet every single one of them is impossible to explain on a subjective level. These phenomena wholly transcend the common human experience, no matter the culture or the era. But today, here in America, this is Christianity. This is Jesus Christ.

MELISSA HENRY: Are we talking about seeing Mother Theresa in a cinnamon bun here, or…

FORD VAN ZORN: Well that’s a bit easier to explain, sort of like always noticing a certain random thing happening against your will on a regular basis, which is a phenomenon explained by something called the confirmation bias. It only rains when I forget to bring my umbrella to work, that sort of thing. [LAUGHS] Our brains are hard-wired by hundreds of millions of years of evolution to pick up certain patterns in the static and perceive them in ways that are sometimes illusory. When it works, it’s great. It can help us recognize human faces when we’re babies, for example, something very important to our survival. But it’s when it doesn’t work that the silly behavior starts, your nun in a bun. What’s also important to note here is that these experiences are often associated with much more influential ones, like seeing a face in a weathered wall, but it’s not just any face—it’s the Virgin Mary, and she’s come to tell you that everything is going to be all right, that you are loved and should stop worrying about your earthly problems, and you should dedicate your life to the poor. Those are the kinds of experiences that make believers out of atheists, and can be particularly problematic if combined with other emotionally potent elements like social injustice and geopolitical strife.

MELISSA HENRY: But you’re saying these things can be explained, only it’s not what we think they are.

FORD VAN ZORN: Precisely. So when our brains encounter something like these terribly pesky ghosts in the machine, we’re immersed in something wholly outside the realm of the human experience. We weren’t built to experience these things, and we perceive them incorrectly. We are the ants on the space shuttle, at least for brief moments of time, and we lose it. We couldn’t give an accurate account of what happened if there was a gun to our head. Our circuits short out, and neuroscience says, “Oh, there—right there. We can see that the brain is producing such-and-such chemicals in the what-have-you region of the brain, and that’s why Joe here thinks he was having an out-of-body experience.” Only this describes physically what happened. It doesn’t, and can’t, describe experientially what happened. And so we turn to the impossible for explanations.

MELISSA HENRY: Something tells me we’re going to talk about those other dimensions again.

FORD VAN ZORN: I’m afraid so. When a twentieth century physicist is confronted with a gravitational singularity, his whole world collapses right in front of his eyes. But, I ask you, how can you categorically deny that this isn’t exactly the same experience as the ant on the space shuttle? You can’t. And so of course we must ask ourselves, why not? It might not be true, but we mustn’t assume it’s false, and thus it must be investigated. It would be terribly irresponsible not to. It’s like the flat world populated by the great English writer Edwin Abbott: A member of a two-dimensional world doesn’t know what to make of a three-dimensional sphere. Or rather it does, but it experiences the sphere incorrectly. That is the key. The two-dimensional creature stands before the three-dimensional sphere just as twentieth century man stands before a black hole, or a paradox, or the concept of infinity. Somewhere out there, higher beings might be moving their version of a sphere through our world. But probably it’s not something as simplistic as a higher-dimensional equivalent of a sphere. Maybe it’s something else. What if it were a life form? This could partially explain religious phenomenon. Interestingly, it could also speak to Fermi’s paradox, that little problem of, if there is intelligent alien life anywhere then it should be everywhere, and so where are they? The fact that we can’t perceive them with our three-dimensional senses only tells part of the story. They could be all around us, and we’d never know it.

MELISSA HENRY: Huh. So I’ve got to ask: why was Thucydides wrong?

FORD VAN ZORN: He was wrong to entirely cast off gods in the pursuit of knowledge. Science is invaluable, but we make a grave mistake when we trade in mythology for technological progress. Myths are technically incorrect, of course, but they point to a realm beyond the physical world that we can perceive around us. It’s important to continue with science, but we must not lose ourselves in our finite physical reality. We must look beyond what we cannot measure, just as we had to leave the cave and cross the seas and blast off into space. Science will get us there, eventually. Physics is the closest, mathematics is already there. It scary stuff, but we mustn’t be afraid of our myths. They point to our future, albeit imperfectly.

MELISSA HENRY: Speaking of gods, at one point you introduce the concept of super gods, which was my favorite part. Tell us about that.

FORD VAN ZORN: This is where I have to be very careful [LAUGHS] because I get into trouble with both sides. Here, nobody is happy! [LAUGHS] I take pains to show that this is all highly speculative stuff, that I am just extrapolating out from well-established theoretical models into the unknown, right? So there’s no way I’m putting my foot down and saying this is how it must be. No. I am saying we have a very good reason to suspect that this is how it could be, and here is why, and so let’s go find out if we’re right. Again we must talk about the work of Gödel and Cantor. What we have are the foundations of computability theory, really an extension or an implementation of logic theory, ideas that Alan Turing and others ran with to create the first computers in the 1940s, computers used of course to help defeat the Germans in World War II. So, in this framework, in the DNA of this framework, we have the profound paradoxes and impossibilities that we discussed earlier. Here’s how it plays out: In the nitty-gritty details we have a hierarchy of systems that can do more and more complex things. These were the first computers. They existed only on paper, and were used only for theoretical purposes, but they do exactly the same things computers do today, just at a very atomic level. It gets terribly complex very fast, so suffice it to say there are simple machines that can do certain simple tasks, then slightly more complex machines that can do slightly more complex tasks, and so on, until we reach a point where the tasks contain so many difficulties and bizarre features, that the most complex machines that can exist, based on this rigorous logical foundation that Gödel laid out, these complex machines reach their limit, and there is this body of tasks that no machines can do. These are called Turing machines by the way, and I won’t get in to how they work. Just know that these are the early ideas of what computers could be. The thing about these machines is that they are incapable of deciding if their own internal instructions are free of contradictions. So simple machines can decide simple instructions, but they can’t decide if their own instructions are valid. More complex machines can decide if the less complex machines’ instructions are valid, but they can’t decide if their own instructions valid. Here comes the leap: Religious people are encouraged to stop trying to figure out their own lives. They are told they cannot, and that only God can do it for them, because He is more powerful than they are. This is a striking analogue. I believe this implies that God is not capable of figuring Himself out, because, as with the hierarchies with the machines, power flows only downward, and doesn’t include itself. Here’s an old example, dating back to I want to say the twelfth century: Let’s assume for the sake of argument that God is omnipotent, can do anything. Let us then imagine that God makes a rock that is so heavy that no one can pick it up, not even God. This produces…


FORD VAN ZORN: Indeed! You are getting the hang of it now! [LAUGHS] This produces a paradox that in turn disproves the existence of an omnipotent God. The next implication is that, if humans can only be saved by God, as lesser theoretical machines can only be understood by more complex machines, then a truly omnipotent god can only exist in the presence of something even more powerful than that god. Call this a super god. This super god could make a rock so heavy that no one could pick it up, including God, without provoking a contradiction. Problem solved! But then a super-super god would have to exist to allow this super god to be omnipotent, and so on. There could never be an end to this line of progression. Or, if there were, the god at the top of the super god heap would have to be non-omnipotent, as the Turing machine is incomplete, in that there must be some things over which it has no control, as there are tasks which are provably beyond the reach of any computer that can ever be built. Given these circumstances, if the analogy holds, there can never be an all-powerful god, there will always be tasks that cannot be accomplished by anyone, deity or otherwise. This does not mean that gods cannot exist! On the contrary, you can have as many gods as you like, up to a point, and whichever god winds up on top will be, paradoxically, the least powerful. We run around, asking each other questions like, how can there be a god if Hitler and Stalin were allowed to kill all those innocent people? Or, why is my life so terrible, why is God testing me? The answer is always the same: “That’s how God works, don’t ask any questions.” It’s like God is this giant machine in the sky, grinding Its gears, and It can solve all of our problems, and we can never comprehend It. But this extension of Gödel’s theorems into spiritual territories opens the door to strange consequences for the god that can figure out humanity, but can’t understand its own nature without finding fundamental inconsistencies that disprove its own all powerfulness, thus reducing its stature as a god. It needs beings of higher dimensions and higher complexity in order to survive. It’s either that, or we learn to live with gods that are not all powerful, just as science and mathematics have learned to live with Gödel’s paradoxes.

MELISSA HENRY: Fascinating stuff. The man is Ford Van Zorn, the book is Thucydides Was Wrong, available now everywhere. Check it out. We’ve gotta go, but catch us next Tuesday on Cancel Bedtime, when we’ll talk with Rachel Harrington about her new historical novel, Catherine’s Favourites. For Public Television Seattle, I’m Melissa Henry. Good night.


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