Saturday, March 06, 2010

Anathem, Omnipresence, Omnipotence, and Friendship

Now the finale: part three (1, 2) of my Anathem posts for today. Spoilers ahead...

(If you have not read the book, then I recommend Kaedrin's nice review before proceeding.)

The setting is a very rich world. You can use it as a springboard to discuss all sorts of real-life issues. But not recipes. Although math appears in abundance, that would lead to dreadfully long and boring blog essays that few readers would enjoy. So I turn to theology.

Recall from my previous blog post that the setting includes a polycosmic "multiverse". The individual timeline a normal individual experiences is nicknamed a Narrative.

One character, Fraa Jad, can manipulate Narratives. He does this by chanting to entering a trance that allows him to be commonly self-aware more than one Narrative. (Using the novel's own vocabulary, he can extend his consciousness to view the polycosm with more than one flashlight.)

For example, imagine Jad was leading a group hiking. But they got lost. Now their trail forks but they do not know which way to go. Jad could use his trance state to experience living out the first few minutes or hours along both alternatives. Then he would return to a moment shortly after he entered the trance to give advice to his companions.

Actually, that last, italicized sentence is a lie. How Jad "uses" his ability to expand his consciousness is too complicated to summarize. But it will be a useful enough understanding to continue this discussion.

Once we understand Jad's ability, it's a short thought experiment step to think about God.

In particular, in the Anathem understanding of a configuration space polycosm, being omnipresent means being self-aware everywhere: experiencing all the polycosm instead of using one or more flashlights. Yet being omnipotent means precisely the same thing.

Within the novel, the characters debate whether God exists. But the theors among them would all agree that if an omnipresent being exists it must be a one-and-only God.

Astute readers will have noticed that I've skipped all analysis about why Jad's effort matters, considering all futures are equally and inevitably "real" within the polycosm. The answer is about friendship: Jad wants the people he cares about to have a good future together; their bodies will progress through the configuration space in prescribed ways, but for each person the consciousness (flashlight) is not part of the configuration space! In a similar way, within the novel if God exists he must value relationships, for these alone make choices matter.

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