Chip and Charles are hanging around Chip’s basement man cave, each on his own couch as usual. On the table between the couches are a couple of beers, a basket of Doritos, and a bowl of melted Velveeta, Chip’s favorite snack food, which Charles can barely stomach. The modest flat panel TV is showing a NASCAR race with the sound off.
Charles has brought the first draft of his Aleister chapter and Chip is intently reading. As always, Chip doesn’t quite know what to do, so he starts wandering around the basement. Everything is Nebraska-themed: the Big Red N throw rug, the football posters and framed pictures of Chip in his lineman’s uniform, the cups and glasses on the dry bar in the corner, even the treads on the stairs to the first-floor feature red Ns.
This dude is obsessed, Charles thinks, peering closely at the photos on the wall. Look at this one, he thinks, examining a picture of Chip dressed up as the Cornhusker mascot in overalls with an ear of corn jutting from the hip pocket, wearing an oversized red cowboy hat, and cradling a football in one arm while giving the OK sign with his left hand. He’s the spitting image, Charles thinks. Did they use him as the model for the mascot?
After a while, Chip looks up and says, “Jeez. A lot going on here. Are you really saying Aleister Crowley is the Anti-Christ?”
“Well, first off, I never say it’s Aleister Crowley,” Chip says with a smirk.
“Oh, come on! Thelema? Hello?”
“Well, anyway, to answer your question, the protagonist in this chapter is a servant of the godhead of his universe. So, he would be the Christ, if anything.”
“Yeah, tricky way to deal with the problem of evil: Make it the problem of goodness. Very fancy. But I gotta say, you butchered Crowley’s story pretty badly.”
“Like I said, it’s not Crowley. Yes, there are similarities . . .”
“Similarities?” Chip snorts. “You rip him off verbatim in places!”
“Well, I didn’t expect you to know your Crowley so well, being a pious preacher and all.”
“Har de fuckin’ har, you so funny! Yes, I know Crowley and a dozen other religious charlatans. It’s my biz, after all. From time to time I get church members who have just stumbled into Thelema, or Scientology, Santeria, or, fuck, or even Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth or the Creativity Movement. They are often either really confused at being confronted by another worldview, or gung-ho for the shit. Sometimes takes a while to straighten ‘em out. Sometimes it doesn’t work, and we lose them to a crackpot religion. I’ve even participated in efforts to deprogram some of these folks. So anyway, back to the crux of the biscuit, you got some of the Aiwass and the Law stuff pretty much verbatim, but you cut out a lot of stuff.”
“Right. I just needed enough to set up the logical consequence. I was interested in asking, what if, instead of Crowley the Buddhist being initially horrified and disturbed by The Book of the Law, to the point where he put it away and even forgot where it was for years, what if Aiwass was a bit more directive and asked him to set up a religion? What if Crowley then evangelized amongst the dissolute hipsters of early 20th century London, and the thing caught on? What if on his many travels, he spread Thelema throughout the world of the one-percenters, and evangelized the libertine lifestyle implied by ‘Do what thou wilt?’”
“Yeah, I can see how, with some effort, it might have spread through the privileged class. I expect it would have taken over the Ayn Rand crowd a few decades later. Thelema, in some interpretations, is pretty close to the laissez-faire capitalism Rand espoused—the heroic man with happiness as his purpose and achievement his god.”
Charles nods. “Achievement! Reminds me of The Big Lebowski. Perhaps I can work the anti-Dude in there somewhere, or the Little Lebowski Urban Achievers or, let’s see, like ‘Men who are unable to achieve on a level field of play. Men who will not sign their names. Weaklings. Bums.’ But, to your point, yes, Thelema is tailor-made for the Objectivism Homo Superior crowd. That’s why I have it becoming, like, the state religion of Vulture Capitalism.”
“And they run roughshod over the 99 percent, ruining the Earth, bringing pestilence and war and stuff like that.”
“Yes, I think that’s taking it to the logical conclusion, despite what Thelema’s adherents would say, and I’ve seen some pretty tortuous verbal machinations by Thelemites on YouTube trying to explain that ‘what thou wilt’ doesn’t mean ‘anything goes.’ Also, as I quote in the chapter, the Book of the Law says, ‘I am the Snake that giveth Knowledge & Delight and bright glory and stir the hearts of men with drunkenness. To worship me take wine and strange drugs whereof I will tell my prophet, & be drunk thereof! They shall not harm ye at all.’ Party on, Wayne!”
“Party on, Garth!” Chip grabs a Dorito, loads it with Velveeta, and thinks for a moment. “Yes, I can see that even if Thelema caught on with the proletariat, they’d take it as an exhortation to party. An underclass of wastrels.”
“Great band name, that,” says Charles and the two men lean across the table to high-five.
Slamming back into the couch and crossing his legs ankle on knee, Chip turns a few pages back and forth, rereading sections. “OK,” he says. “This whole upside-down universe business—the Creator is really the Destroyer—I don’t think it’s quite all there yet. If the Devil builds a universe, why is there good in it? Oh, wait . . .”
“Gotcha!” Charles says. “Ya burnt!” Chip uncharacteristically turns a little red. Charles pounces on the point. “The problem in an evil universe is that there is still good. Thus: ‘How could there be a God if there’s good in the world?’”
Chip frowns and pauses to regain his composure. Chip pops another cheese-laden chip in his mouth and downs it with beer. “Yes, but the universe you created here is obviously being taken over by evil. Wouldn’t it start evil, in the Wasteland of Eden, and good would be the threat?”
“That’s right,” Charles says. “The parameters of this universe aren’t internally consistent. But there’s a reason for that.”
Chip is stumped. He goes silent and rubs his stubbly beard with one hand as he reads and re-reads the chapter until finally, he says, “Aha! I’ve got it! It’s a virtual reality game! The Creator talks about a game, like this is his entertainment, a sporting event. He needs Yahweh as an opponent. The world is set up relatively balanced between good and evil and the two players duke it out!”
“Yes, Padawan,” Charles says, hardly able to contain his delight at turning one of Chip’s put-downs around on him. “Patience you must have my young Padawan.”
Chip explodes in laughter. “You got me, asshole, this time! But watch out! Paybacks are a bitch.”
Charles smirks at his friend. It’s not often he gets the upper hand with Chip when it comes to insults. “So anyway, yes, it’s an artificial game universe. The Creator says he cast out Yahweh, but that could just be part of the game script, the parameters of the game world. I like to think Yahweh was doing his master’s bidding up until the whole Jesus thing, where he went off script. The whole Old Testament could be viewed that way. Lots of suffering believers in that book, and don’t get me started on Leviticus. The game universe was set up to reward evil, and Yahweh thought he’d change things up and try to get more points for good via Jesus. Nonetheless, it’s obviously not a perfect analogy.”
“Well, good on ya for skewering the Popes, by the way. As a good Protestant, I have to applaud.”
“Hmmm. Maybe the next chapter should feature Luther as the anti-Christ?” Charles says.
Chip makes a face, dips a Dorito in the Velveeta and tosses it at Charles. Charles turns his head and the chip smacks him in the side of his face and sticks there.
“You bastard!” Charles yells, grabbing a rag and wiping his face. He glances at the rag, and it turns out to be a dirty pair of Chip’s underwear. “Ew! You’re not only a bastard, you’re a filthy bastard!” Charles whips the offending garment at Chip, who ducks, and the missile flops to the floor behind the couch. “What the hell was that doing on the couch?” Chip grins, makes an empty fist, and shakes it up and down in the universal sign of masturbation. “Oh, double-ew!” Charles sticks his finger in his mouth in the gag sign.
After a minute to calm down, Charles continues the conversation. “You know, you onanistic old fool, there’s a theory out there that our universe might actually be a video game or a simulation kinda like what Descartes was saying about ‘I think, therefore I am’ not necessarily proving anything more than that he exists; he could easily be a brain in a vat.”
“Of course,” Chip replies, “all that ‘trust in God’s fairness to not deceive us’ business Descartes proposed was sort of weak, and, in your Thelema universe, it’s clear that the Creator is a deceiver.”
“Right. But some physicists use the infinite timeline argument to postulate that, given infinite time, some species somewhere will simulate our universe, and we could be in that universe. I remember reading a book—did you read Simulacron 3?”
Chip shakes his head no. It’s not often that Charles references a book that bibliophile Chip has not read.
“Oh, man,” Charles says. “You gotta read it. I read it in high school, and it blew my mind. Basically, it’s the story of a virtual environment inside a computer—kinda like the Matrix—designed to do, of all things, marketing research. The premise, which I thought was kind of weak, was that real people don’t like to respond to opinion polls, so they built this simulation machine. Somehow the creators of the machine can simulate human beings so completely that when surveyed, they give real-world results.”
“Yeah, that’s kind of bullshit, right?” Chip says. “If you can simulate a human, or different kinds of humans, then you can run your fucking marketing and advertising ideas by the simulation without going to the trouble of creating the whole environment.” Chip digs into the Velveeta and holds up the cheese-coated chip, waving his hand seductively over it, Vanna-like. “Buy Velveeta! No, buy this chip! Hell, buy me!”
Charles snickers and says, “Gee, Vanna, you’ve put on weight!” Chip batts his eyes, tilts his head, and smiles broadly. Charles continues, “Anyway, the weird and interesting thing is that in this virtual reality, the populace is required to answer surveys, and the more elite you become, the fewer surveys you need to answer, with the one-percenters not having to do any of them. I loved that part, even if it doesn’t make any sense. Certainly, advertisers would also be targeting the rich. So anyway, the virtual people have their own consciousness; they are self-aware and otherwise normal, except that, of course, they are unaware that they are only electronic impulses in a computer.”
“Like the Holodeck, but you can’t leave.”
“Exactly, so the protagonist watches a guy vanish right in front of him, which freaks him totally out. Eventually, he figures out that his world is not real, and, yada, yada, yada, he finds a way to escape into the real world.”
Chip laughs and says, “But is it the real world? Or is this just fantasy? Caught in a landslide, no escape from reality.”
“Yeah, you’re obviously easy come, you wanker! Anyway, yes, it could be a simulation of a world that built a simulation because people kept escaping from the simulation, and there are maybe infinite levels. Neal Stephenson wrote a book, Anathema, based on the alternate universes theory proposed by string physicists.”
“Yeah, I read that book. Really slow going in the beginning, but pretty interesting in the end. I love the master who, at the end, is trying to move his friends into a universe in which they all survive.”
“Right. And the fact that he must pick one in which he dies makes him a messiah.”
“I’m glad you said that, not me,” Chip says, pulling a face.
“So anyway, as I was saying, physicists posit that we are indeed in a simulation due to some discrepancies involving cosmic ray particles. I obviously don’t understand the physics . . .” “Obviously, since you’re a friggin’ English major,” interjects Chip. “. . . but there appears to be a seemingly arbitrary limit on the amount of energy cosmic ray particles can have, which physicists say looks suspiciously like a limit in simulation.”
Charles glances at Chip, who seems intently interested. He continues, “Neil DeGrasse Tyson has a thought experiment, kind of like Descartes’: If we accept that it is possible to simulate a universe, then we have to assume that, given infinite time, somebody, somewhere, will simulate the Universe. Sorta like that meme about the infinite monkeys eventually typing the Bible. So, if a perfect simulation of the Universe is possible, perhaps we live inside just such a simulation. And, what’s to say that this couldn’t just go on and on, with an infinite number of simulations arising from an infinite number of civilizations?”
“That’s pretty mind-blowing,” Chip admits, crunching loudly on a mouthful of chips.
“Yeah, no shit. So, the way this story goes is, since at the quantum level there is an infinite number of paths between one object and another, it’s impossible for a finite computer to model them all. Therefore, we see the limit on the power of cosmic rays because that’s just as good as the computer that contains us can do, given limited power and limited time.”
Chip raises both hands beside his head and makes the brain-exploding motion.
“Yup. Pow! Anyway, since cosmic rays are the highest-energy particles in the Universe—we can’t even generate them in the laboratory and they actually pull the fabric of the Universe—thus they would probably be difficult to simulate. Another relevant point: Physicists took a look at the relationship of the energy and momentum of these particles and found discrepancies. So, something’s off about cosmic rays. And thus, we might be in a simulation. What should we or could we do about that? Cosmologist Max Tegmark proposed a rational approach. He said, assume we’re in a simulation, so go out and lead very interesting lives and do unexpected things so that those in charge of the simulation don’t get bored and shut you down.”
“Good advice no matter what,” Chip says. “Well, I don’t hang out with physicists and I’m not a geeky physics fanboy like you, but, like you said in that quote war we had a while ago, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. It doesn’t sound like there’s extraordinary evidence in this case. Just because we can’t reconcile some unexpected results with exotic particles doesn’t mean we’re in the Matrix. And anyway, if this hypothesis is valid, doesn’t it open the door to resurrection—a reboot—eternal life and, for God’s sake, faith and religion?”
Charles hadn’t thought of this angle and it knocks him for a loop. It’s his turn to mime his brain exploding. He had assumed his argument would disprove the divine. He grabs some chips and munches glumly for a bit. “Yeah, imagine if you could just fiddle with a few parameters until things work out: You get the girl, become a billionaire, solve world hunger. Which reminds me of a joke.” Chip groans. Charles is not renowned for his joke-telling prowess.
“OK, here it is. It’s kinda long.” Chip groans again. “No, no, no. It’s worth it, I promise. A young man walks into his chemistry classroom to take his final exam. He must get a perfect score to get into the college of his choosing. The teacher passes out the tests, and the young man blazes through, knowing every answer with certainty. He then arrives at the final question, which reads, ‘How many electrons are in an atom of hydrogen?’ The young man breaks out in a sweat, realizing that he doesn’t know this one for sure. In a lapse of judgment, he puts down ‘3’ for his answer and turns in his test. A few days later, he gets his grade back: an entirely perfect score except for the last question. He doesn’t get into his college, and he decides to take a depressed walk on the beach to try to clear his head. While walking, he trips over a magical lamp. He rubs it and a genie billows forth. The genie tells him he can have one wish. The young man eagerly replies, ‘I wish I’d gotten that question right!’ The genie nods and says, ‘It is done.’ And then the Universe explodes.”
“Well, I must say, you’ve told worse,” Chip says with a small chuckle. “But if the owners of the machine were simulating humans, do you think they’d come up with this miserable lot?”
“Bugs. We’re bugs in the program. The real action is light years from here, maybe at Proxima Centauri B.”
“What’s that? A Nissan?”
“No, it’s the closest star system that might have a Goldilocks planet.”
“. . . which is?”
“Not too cold, not too hot, just right for life.”
“With an ocean made of porridge, I’m sure,” Chip says. They both laugh.
“Well, anyway,” Chip continues, “that’s an interesting idea, humans being a bug in the system. I read a sci-fi novel once about an advanced civilization that, against the Prime Directive or whatever, had to jettison their waste while passing Earth. After eons, that waste becomes us, and the offending ship captain, having been required to return to the scene of the crime and sterilize the Earth, shows up, and moral questions abound.”
Charles says, “Ex luto rather than a Domino, eh?”
“Two years of high school Latin finally comes in handy! It means ‘from the mud rather than from God.’ Perhaps, though, more accurately, it would be ‘de stercore non est de Deo.’ Stercore is shit in Latin.”
“How do you say shithead in Latin?”
“Well you fuckin’ irrumator, Latin is one of the gaps in my education for sure. I took Greek. Don’t,” Chip puts up a warning finger, “say ‘It’s all Greek to me!’ Been done.” Charles, having opened his mouth to say just this, pops it shut again and smiles.
Charles says, “Well, if you really want your mind blown . . .” Chip interrupts, “I’d rather get my dick blown.” “. . . Dr. James Gates, Jr. claims to have found computer code inside the math that supports string theory. Not just stuff that looks like computer code, but some error correction code identical to that created by the father of information theory, Claude Shannon, in the ‘40s. Gates has created visuals of the codes that he calls adinkras.”
“You’re a dink, brah!”
“So mature! I’m talking heavy physics and you’re regressing to high school.” Chip blows him a raspberry, spattering Velveeta all over the front of his Jimi Hendrix T-shirt, and shoots him the bird.
“Anyway,” Charles continues, “the very existence of error-correcting codes—which are in our browsers, our phones, our computers—embedded in the current models of the Universe—well, that’s exactly what we would expect to see if we were living in a simulation.”
“Yeah, that could mean something, or nothing,” Chip says. “I mean, just because the laws of our universe are set up so that there is a consistent way to do a thing, no matter the context, doesn’t mean squat. You can expect the Universe to rhyme.”
“Oooh, I like that! But let me take a different tack: why dark matter? Physicists think that there’s six times as much dark matter in the Universe as, um, real matter. So, what’s the point, if this is a simulation? It greatly increases the complexity of the simulation, and, if we theorize that the cosmic ray thing is a hack to avoid having to overtax the simulation machine, then what’s up with that?”
“So, you’re arguing the other side now?”
“Not at all,” Charles says. “You seem to assume I believe in the Matrix thing. Like a lot of things regarding religion and reality, I’m an agnostic. I find this sort of thing fascinating, but not convincing.”
“So, you’re making my head hurt for no reason?”
“Just giving you an education, initiate!”
Chip erupts in laughter. “Yeah, that’s what I need. More education!” Chip has three masters’ degrees, including his divinity degree. He often says that he’s too educated for his own good.
Chip says, “But anyway, all this multiverse talk puts me in mind of one of the weirdest, most misunderstood verses in the New Testament. Jesus says, in John 10:16, ‘I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.’ I’ve studied on this verse a lot over the years. When the Jews heard it, they interpreted it to mean that Gentiles and Jews would become one flock, and they were truly pissed, and ready to stone Jesus. But what if Jesus meant he would go on to his next gig in another universe once his work in ours was done? What if the verse implies the vastness of the multiverse?”
Again, Charles gives the exploding head sign. “Wow. I never thought I’d find physics and religion being so cozy. That’s pretty weird.”
Chip says, “Hey, speaking of blasphemous interpretations of the Bible, here’s one of my favorite jokes: Thomas Aquinas walks into a bar in Belfast. ‘Barkeep, make me a Virgin Mary,’ he says. ‘Sorry,’ says the barkeep. ‘If He couldn’t make one, neither can I.’ ‘I know, right?’ Aquinas says. ‘Just give me a tomato juice.’”
Charles puzzles over the joke for a moment and says, “I don’t get it.”
“Of course not, Mr. ‘I’m an expert on theology.’ You see, Thomas Aquinas did not believe in the Immaculate Conception, and was against the Church declaring it dogma. And Protestants typically don’t believe in it. And Northern Ireland is Protestant.”
“Well,” says Charles, “If you have to explain it, it’s not funny!”
“If you have to explain a joke to a moron, he’s still a moron! Enough of this pondering of the Universe. We’re out of beer. Time to start drinking wine! Oh, that reminds me of the other day. Trixie and I were sitting around sipping wine when she said, ‘I love you so much, you know. I don’t know how I could ever live without you.’ I said, ‘Is that you or the wine talking?’ She said, ‘It’s me talking to the wine.’” Chip breaks into maniacal laughter. “Gotcha!”
Charles just shakes his head sadly.