Norman Spinrad published Deus X twenty years ago, a little motality tale about what just might be our future. In the novel climate change has already happened, but he leaps over the immediate consequences of that and talks about the world afterward, a greatly diminished world in which there’s still a civilization, but a great deal fewer people than ther are now, and much of the world is devastated. Rome still survives, but little of the Mediterranean population survies. It’s very hot there, with a lot of ultraviolet in the sun, which isn’t good for our kind of protoplasm.
The Catholic Church is a big part of this story, and so is the very human custom of digitally modeling a person’s consciousness so it can be loaded into a computer network. Such a network features various channels that one can buy acccess to. Interactive channels of adventure, sex, romance, or whatever you like. But once the modeled consciousness is there (“there” might be difficult to define) there’s no smell, taste, nor kinesthetic sense. They may or may not have human feelings, but they don’t have human senses.
The Catholic Church enters the novel because it has decided that these consciousnesses that survive digitaqlly have no souls. This has proved to be an unpopular stance, and the Church has lost a great many members. Now the Pople has decided to resolve the question. She (yes, a female Pope, just like the Tarot card) proposes to do this by modeling the consciousness of a Cardinal who has opposed the idea that digitized personalities have sould. Loading his modeled consciousness into the medium of cyberspace will allow it (or him) to report back to the Pople and various theologians who can help determine if his consciousness does have a soul or not.
The Cardinal in question isn’t thrilled with this idea (he’s dying at the time, of old age and related ailments), but eventually gives his consent. He’s loaded into a supposedly secure Vatican network, but after some conversation with the Pople and various theologians, disappears. The Vatican enlists a sort of private detective of cyber space, and we get to the meat of the book.
The first problem is, how do you define a soul? That’s a problem for most people in the real world too. Most religions declare we have them, but they have never been scientifically verified. One spiritual teacher, mentioned in previous posts, declared that none of us are given souls, but only the potential to create them. If we fail to reach that potential, we survive for a little while after death, but eventually fade away (that might not be the best description, but this is a subject in which few have real expertise). He further said that souls, like everything else in the universe, are material, but of a material so fine that science (Western, at least) has so far overlooked it. The soul of a human who has developed to his or her full potential can survive indefinitely within the confines of the solar system.
This isn’t the definition the novel uses. The detective suggests that if any of these digitized personalities can do anything recognizable as individual initiative, not provided for by the routines and subroutines of the computer modeling process, that entity has a soul. To prove it, he suggests to the computer model of the Cardinal to take a leap of faith and clasp his (its) immaterial hand with the immaterial hand of the detective. The Cardinal does.
Having done this, the former Cardinal discovers that he (it) doesn’t want to die. The detective’s job is to deliver his consciousness back to the Vatican, but before allowing the process to begin, the Cardinal (before death) had stipulated that after 90 days the digitized consciousness would be erased. That consciousness no longer wants to be erased.
The detective suggests sending back a copy of the consciousness, a Cardinal 1.1. He does, and the copy is discovered to be a fake, but in the meantime, things have begun happening. The inhabitants of cyberspace, having a consciousness without human senses are bored and unhappy, without any way to resolve their problem. The Cardinal has shown them that faith in another can have an effect. They now believe they do have souls, since they are capable of desires and actions, and begin to act on the world by curbing any human activity they consider detrimental to the planet. The detective comments, late, but better late than never.
The Catholic Church isn’t happy about this turn of events, but the detective suggests there’s nothing they can do to change it, so they might as well get ahead of the curve and make the best of it. After all, the central belief of Christianity is that God was able to download himself into a human man for the benefit of the world. Not so far away from the idea of humans being able to load a consciousness model into cyberspace, whatever the reason. And the Catholic Church’s mission is to minister to any soul on earth, corporeal or incorporeal.
Faith has frequently been jeered at, with some justification. If one has faith only in what one is told to have faith in, how real can it be? Then there’s the question of when is faith real, and not just the answer to a catechism? One author mentioned having talked to people who walk through fires, and asked them how they do it. They replied, “You have to trust you won’t get burned.” I’ve never reached that level of trust.
But there is a common human institution that calls for faith, and that’s marriage. When you make marriage vows, in my limited experience, you’re not promising to do something you already know you can do. You’re promising to do whatever is required with relation to the other person. You may not be able to totally fulfill that promise in every respect, and probably few people are able to, but you may well be surprised to find that you can do more than you thought you could. It seems to me that’s one of the aspects of faith, and another is, as the detective says, reaching out to another person. Life is contact. One author (perhaps Sartre or Beckett?) said, “Hell is other people.” That doesn’t seem right. Other people can certainly behave in hellish, demonic ways, but to be absolutely alone would be hell for most people. That’s why prisoners are held in solitary confinement.
So maybe Deus X is a simplistic fable, but maybe it’s not a simplistic as all that.