“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Most science fiction fans know this quote by Arthur C. Clarke. It speaks to the idea that, to a caveman, far removed from ideas like electricity and the Internet, an iPhone would seem like magic. Likewise, if a photorealistic hologram of a T-Rex dancing in New York appeared, it would seem like magic to us. The dinosaur may be an expected marketing stunt for ‘Jurassic World 10’ in the future, but that’s the point. Context is key and the context in this case is the level of sophistication of the technology’s observer. Clarke’s quote comes up in discussions of fiction and science, certainly, but it also has application in the realm of theology as we can highlight with a philosophical problem named after a Star Trek character.
Imagine we have two people. There’s Peter, who believes that the rapture is coming, and Thomas, who does not. Tom reads a lot of Arthur C. Clarke. These two find themselves going about their business one Saturday afternoon and are suddenly met with a biblical experience. They see the dead rise, folks ascending, the second coming—the whole nine yards. Peter, who already believed the rapture was coming, immediately believes that he is finally witnessing it. Tom is skeptical. One could argue that Tom’s disbelief is unreasonable here. How could even the most confident atheist deny the overwhelming evidence that the events foretold in the Bible are coming to pass? Blame Arthur C. Clarke.
The miracles attributed to God, both in this hypothetical rapture and in the Bible, can be understood as divine magic. The mechanisms behind how they occur, and whether there are mechanisms at all, are beyond our current ability to understand. It must also be recognized that sufficiently advanced technology is similarly beyond us and is,therefore, an alternative possibility to a divine source of these miracles. Instead of a holographic T-Rex, we could have a holographic Jesus.
This is called the Q Problem.
In ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation,’ an alien called Q can do practically anything we might attribute to God while remaining distinctly non-divine. However Q does it, we can say his work is natural while God’s is supernatural; yet the outputs are indistinguishable. This leaves us with an extreme sense of uncertainty. Anything we observe that seems to purposefully violate physics could now be the will of deity or Q or Mxyzptlk or someone lightyears away from us both physically and mentally. There is no way of knowing. There isn’t even a way to determine probability. What is more likely: an alien looking at one of our religions and simulating prophecized events…or that God as described in the Bible actually exists? There is no honest answer. If either are true they are so outside common experience that we have no data to determine probability. No numbers to run.
Where does that leave us? Business as usual, at least until we see the rapture or some other qualifying event. If and when we do our options will be what they always have been: faith and skepticism.