By Will Nelson
Hello again, viajeros de los libros! It is I, your intrepid (i.e. vain) guide through the world of books. Last column we looked at the effects of death, or a lack of it, on human society with The Risen Empire. For this month’s column, I want to take it in a different, but slightly related direction: God.
Yeah- big topic huh? Ironically enough, even though science fiction stereotypically deals with technology, a lot of writers actually delve deeply into the meaning of God. The short story I want to talk about today, The Last Question, is from one of my favorite authors, Issac Asimov, of I, Robot fame.
The Last Question, written in 1956, deals with the themes of computers and divinity. When Asimov first wrote his story, computers were rare, expensive machines that took up entire buildings. Most people had never seen a computer, and writers thought they might one day do extraordinary things.
The Last Question is a story written in this vein, but with parallels to our own time. In the story, mankind creates a sophisticated computer, Multivac, that can answer any question. As Multivac progresses, it develops god-like abilities, even re-creating the universe after the last star has gone out. By creating a super-computer, mankind creates God.
I find this intriguing because it mirrors my understanding of science and religion. Science is a way of organizing knowledge about our world, and people say it’s the antithesis of religion. Yet, this was not always the case. In ancient times, astronomers developed astronomy not in opposition to religion, but to support it by ritually tracking the stars. Aristotle, who contributed greatly to the development of science, also wrote about the gods. Even Pythagoras, better known as the bane of high school math students, started a cult based around his theorems. Rumor has it they sacrificed a cow after discovering the 47th theorem.
Cow sacrifices aside, the Last Question shows another way to synthesize science and religion. As we advance in knowledge, our ability to manipulate the world increases. While Asimov’s vision of a supercomputer becoming God might seem far-fetched, who knows what the future might hold? At that point, if a computer, created by people, could bring new worlds into being and re-create stars, would it not resemble the Biblical God? This implies that it’s possible to create God, not just worship him.
If this is true, what does it mean for us? Is all that we’ve been taught about religion wrong? If we get tired of traditional religion, should we just build our own God? Can a machine God care for people like a human God would? The beauty of Asimov’s story is that it forces you to confront these questions. Regardless of whether you believe or not, The Last Question is certainly worth reading.
Until next time,