• Allan Dyen-Shapiro

If the Witness exists, is he God, or is time the only deity: thoughts from SF television


This week's 12 Monkeys delved very deeply into philosophy, with Cole as the week's prophet. He reminisces about a boyhood scuffle when he and José shouldn't have lived--tough guys shot many rounds at them--but they did. He tells Railly that there are two explanations: either a miracle occurred, with God saving them from certain death, or it didn't. Remington makes blanks. They come in the same colored boxes as the live ammunition.

As humans, we have evolved to look for patterns. Sometimes the patterns are there, sometimes they aren't. Scientists mine data, looking for patterns, but the mantra, "correlation does not imply causality," acts as a check against spurious conclusions. Until an especially enticing correlation emerges from the data mining, and the psychological need to tell a compelling story defeats the rationalist's training.

In the 90s, the founder of Mathematica, Stephen Wolfram, postulated that life could be explained as cellular automata. In this modeling approach, simple algorithms are allowed to repeat indefinitely, creating what looks like ordered patterns. He could indeed mimic complex cellular behavior such as movement of a bacterium in this fashion. He was wrong, but ignoring the actual causes of motility because a simple repeating pattern can give a superficially similar result showed the mathematician at his most human, biased by our fundamental need to seek order.

And it was worse in earlier eras. Darwin's most laughable mistakes stemmed from the Victorian bias that the universe was human centered and constantly improving, with Britain being, of course, the most perfect place, and man (not woman so much; his views on sexual selection were extreme to the point of ludicrous) always progressing. As such, Darwin emphasized examples in evolution that could be construed as adaptation leading to perfection. Today, we realize evolutionary adaptation is highly constrained such that it doesn't usually lead to perfection. The society blind to this truth moved from producing Ozymandias to producing Ozzy Osbourne. Despite my fondness for "Paranoid," "War Pigs" and "Crazy Train," I sense this progression would challenge the thinking of even the most staunch Victorian. Society's imperfections have been all too clear to my generation and those which followed.

But back to Cole's implicit suggestion: did belief in God evolve in societies as a response to our need for there to be a pattern? The unfolding of the universe had to make sense, had to mean something, else humanity sinks into a pit of existential despair.

Does the Witness have a goal of destroying time, so all who have or will live will exist at once, à la Philip José Farmer's Riverworld? Or does Jones's paranoid mind create the illusion of this god-like, all-powerful Witness, when the Witness is only a mirage? By God, you must drink hallucinogenic tea even to see him!

There was a scene in Woody Allen's movie, Crimes and Misdemeanors, in which a minor character, a rabbi, accepts his oncoming blindness because the world has meaning for him, created through his faith in God. And yet Allen's character gets away unscathed with something he should not have. Is there any moral order in the universe, any sense? Or only if you choose to create such order? And if you create it, are you not indeed living a falsehood?

Are we in the Matrix, the pattern being created as a way to manipulate us? Or can we achieve meaning by following a prescribed set of laws, such as those Mohammed set down more than a millennium ago?

Did man create God as a way of satisfying his need for pattern? It seems more plausible than Freud's idea, set down in Civilization and Its Discontents, that proto-primates developed big brains as an adaptation to the need for hand-eye coordination to better swing between trees, the large brains being maladaptive, forcing us to confront out own mortality, and requiring a God to tell us to do things like, "be fruitful and multiply," in order to survive as a species.

And yet, the rationalists can't prove the universe isn't run by a deity. Only the cop-out of Kantian a priori assumptions allows us to ground rationalism in a knowledge that the armchair we sit upon won't become a dragon and roast us with her fiery breath in the next five minutes. The rationalist leap of faith is as arational as that of the religious person.

Pick your poison and run with it. Neither leap guarantees a moral universe. Ask Torquemada. Ask Stalin.

So who is the Witness? If the reveal harkens back to Cole's dilemma, continued excellent TV will result.

And maybe that's the answer to the bigger question: if you see a pattern, and you feel it lends meaning to your life, good for you. But if it has led you to darkness, maybe its time to re-mine the data.


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© 2016 by Allan Dyen-Shapiro

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