An Impotent God

I recently finished listening to Greg Iles’s The Footprints of God. This is a fictional “spy thriller” (sort of) about a covert project by the United States to create the first conscious computer brain.

Amidst all the double dealing, anarchy, and assassination attempts was a fun take on what it might be like when we reach the so-called “Singularity” when computers are to surpass humans in cognitive ability.

I am fascinated by Artificial Intelligence and anyone that has read my epistemology posts knows I favor a computational view of reality. (For my purposes, this means that to explain something is to be able to break it down into an algorithm and be able to simulate it. If you can’t do that, you don’t really fully comprehend it yet.) Iles’s book asks some philosophically fundamental questions that I would love answers to. Of course it also supplies numerous questionable and entirely fictional answers to these questions… but, hey, it’s fiction, right?

But then at the very end of the book the author had a short afterwards that leaves no doubt that he intended the book to be both entertainment and also serious philosophy. So it is in this light I want to take a look at the Impotent God of Greg Iles.

I must warn readers that spoilers abound. So if you are thinking of reading the book, don’t read this post.


The Problem

Our hero, David Tenant (Isn’t that Doctor Who?), is working with the NSA to create a thinking computer, called “Trinity.” The goal of the project is to copy a human brain into a simulation. (Note: there is a real project trying to do this in real life – queue Twilight Zone music here.) Within the fiction of the story, this brain then runs at much fasters speeds then a normal brain and, when connected to the internet, has access to the sum total of all human knowledge. It can even quantum decrypt any encoding and thereby ‘hack’ any computer in the world.

Greg Iles gets his science wrong on so many points that I lost track. He gets just enough right, however, to not turn this into an unintentional spoof. For example, the idea of being able to quantum crack computer encryption is real enough. Using Shore’s algorithm, a quantum computer will be able to decrypt even our best encryption within a very reasonable amount of time. (Probably minutes.)

On the other hand, the idea that even our best super computers can run many times faster than a human brain is pure nonsense as of this date. But, perhaps, we can assume they had a future technology or something that we don’t currently have. Also, Iles seemed rather confused about what type of computer Shore’s algorithm could actually run on. (Hint 1: only a quantum computer. Hint 2: You’d know if your computer was a quantum computer or not. You’d not have to guess.)

God as Consciousness

At the climax of the story David Tenant realizes that “God” (or what Iles calls God) is trying to contact him. “God” is actually a confused child-like consciousness that sits outside of space and time that accidently kicked off the big bang. Though it didn’t know it at the time, it created the universe in an attempt to evolve conscious beings and thereby understand itself. 

“God,” in Iles story, is entirely impotent. It can watch things happening in the universe, but can’t interfere. It doesn’t care about lesser animals and only became interested in the universe when it saw human’s arrive on the evolutionary stage. It desperately watched, helpless of course, as our evolutionary impulses overwhelmed us in violence and destruction. Despite our consciousness, evolution is a poor process by which to teach us compassion. (Actually, I agree with his science on this point.)

So “God” accidently concentrated on us for so long – desperately wanting to help us over come our evolutionary violence – that it accidently found itself born into a human baby named – you guessed it – Jesus.

So it would seem that the Christians were right about one thing (and only one thing): that Jesus was in some sense “God.” Jesus, as God, then went about trying to teach us compassion and performing faith healings. No miracles were performed as those were just later additions by the Church.

Unfortunately, we human animals failed to learn the lessons of Jesus, and when he died and he despaired as he was forced back outside space and time. There was no bodily resurrection, of course. It seems that this was just made up by later Christians along with the other miracles. [1]

When God sees the creation of “Trinity” it realizes this is the next step in the evolution of consciousness, and one that – if handled correctly – will free us of our evolutionary roots. So God, again, takes a hand in things (the second time in history apparently) and this time joins with David Tenant to teach him how to save humanity from “Trinity.”

The end result is that David Tenant shows up and has a talk with Trinity. David then convinces Trinity to not enslave humanity (Isaac Asimov would not be pleased!) by explaining to it the truth about the evolution of consciousness.

David then explains what “God” says the future will be. It seems that eventually consciousness will engulf the whole earth via “DNA computers” or something like that. Then, when the sun absorbs the earth, consciousness will engulf the sun. Then the sun will explode and consciousness will fling itself through the galaxy. Finally the big crunch will happen [2] and consciousness will then cease to be part of the physical universe, thereby finding itself a confused child-like being outside of space and time without a sense of self any more. [3] In other words, our “God” was actually the echo of a previous eternal round of creation and consciousness. Then the whole process starts over.

“Trinity” then realizes what it must do. It does not enslave humankind and finally agrees to go off line and instead load up a ‘man/woman combo’ version of itself that will mix the best traits of both genders, thereby side stepping the problems of evolution. This, then, will over come our evolutionary roots.


I confess, I love corny stuff like this. And parts of it aren’t that corny. Iles does get a number of things right. For one thing, I find the idea of the “Singularity” quite intriguing. Who knows what the future holds? And the idea of combining a man and a woman into a single consciousness to over come evolutionary roots was a clever solution to the problems presented.

In the end, though, I felt disappointed by Iles “God.” For one thing, it’s a completely useless God. It can’t do anything and knows basically nothing. And, in the end, the universe was just as purposeless as an atheistic view of the universe. Yeah, consciousness exists until the bitter end. And, yes, in a sense, it exists after that as a poor little confused and scared “God.” But I felt cold and uninspired by this ‘fate’ for humanity. We deserve better in my opinion.

If I’m going to choose to have faith that there is more to reality than our science can currently see, I’m certainly not going to settle for Iles Impotent God. I’m going to dream far bigger and grander and imagine a far more hopeful scenario. In short, I found Iles depressingly unimaginative when it comes to theological beliefs.

Still, there are many intriguing ideas here worthy of discussion and I did enjoy the book. Two and a half stars out of four.


[1] No mention is made as to how to explain the empty tomb or why suddenly out of the blue a whole religion came into existence over a nice man that died but was never resurrected. This is, after all, just a fictional book. Not a comprehensive attempt to explain all the facts. Or was it?

[2] Yes, I know, there is no big crunch. Please stop telling me this. I assume the book was written before Inflation became popular.

[3] Of course computational/mental activity outside of a substrate is a violation of our current understandings of science. And, naturally, Iles does not even attempt to address this fundamental violation of physics. But, hey, it’s just a book. I just point this out because, naturally, this means we can’t claim that Iles view of reality is somehow closer to our current scientific understanding then existing religions. It is not. It either purely fictional or else as large a leap of faith as orthodox Christianity or any other religion. Therefore, Isles’s God have no explanatory advantages over the Christian one.

8 thoughts on “An Impotent God

  1. I read your post and got me thinking, it is a fact that as soon as we asuume our free agency, GOD is it is IMPOTENT to what we chose to do…IF HE word impotent HAS THE SAME MEANING IN SPANISH (my mother languague) as in ENGLISH.

  2. How different is Iles’ God from the traditional Christian God? The Unmoveable Mover, “without body, parts and passions” (Westminster Confession of Faith), who will randomly choose whom he will save (Calvin/TULIP version), who no longer allows miracles or the working of the Holy Ghost (Church of Christ), who has a dual nature (Council of Chalcedon) in order to be human and God, etc?

    Perhaps the key difference is Iles’ God is impotent and child-like, while the God of Calvinism intentionally chooses whom he will save and will damn all the rest. Iles’ God seeks to improve the process of nature, but cannot do it on his own, at least not in this cycle of existence. However, with the help of a computer, perhaps he can help mankind skip over evolution and go directly to something better.

    Which is worse: a caring but impotent God, or one who intentionally sends innocents to hell?

  3. enrique,

    I’m not sure “impotent” is the right word in this case. When you can do something but choose not to for moral reasons, you probably wouldn’t normally call the person impotent. But I guess you could.

  4. Bruce – somewhat related to your thought, I recall Rex E. Lee saying real power was not found not in the exercise of power, but in the restraint of exercising power. The Savior’s life exemplifies this.

  5. who will randomly choose whom he will save

    To be fair, God in Calvinism does not arbitrarily choose who he will save, rather he decreed which of his creations will be saved from the beginning. Potter’s clay, vessels in his hand, some to honor, and some to dishonor.

    There is nothing random about it. He dictates all events according to his will. He “moves in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform, he plants his footsteps on the sea, and rides upon the storm”. That is classical Calvinism for you.

    The stereotype of randomly being saved or not more appropriately belongs to Mormon determinism, where every individual is on a fixed and immovable course to eternal life or eternal death due to nothing other than some cosmic accident, a fate independent of the will of anything or anybody.

  6. Mark D,

    I honestly don’t see the difference between “random” and God choosing from the beginning. Linguistic difference aside, the seem to me to quantum collapse to be one and the same.

  7. It occurs to me, Mark D, that you mean it’s not random in the mathematical sense. This is certainly true.

    I was reading Ram in the common sense. If I am walking down a road and I ‘randomly’ pick a fork in the road, it does not usually imply I stopped and used a randomizing device.) Most likely it means I made a choice that had no rational basis. For example, I didn’t choose because one path took me to a certain goal and the other did not.

    Besides, if the many world interpretation of quantum physics turns out to be true, the there is no such thing as ‘random’ at all. Instead, randomness is just our sense of ending up in one of the many worlds. So me ‘randomly’ picking a path and me rolling a die work out to actually be the same thing because in fact I take both paths and the only difference is the quantum collapse (or my preception of the collapse).

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