A thought experiment poses a hypothetical scenario, often physically impossible or at least highly improbable. It attempts to set up conditions that, if we are willing to wrap our minds around the proposed situation, can help us gain some personal insights. What follows is an exercise I’ve devised and worked on myself for a number of years. You may wonder, after reading it, if I need serious therapy. But, if you’re feeling adventurous, consider the following:
God visits you (and separately, multiple others, each chosen at random) with a proposal. He will send you to a newly created world that is identical to Earth in the year 100 AD to begin to live what will become a long series of different lives eventually culminating back in the present. For each possible life He will select a few families, each of whom has a teenage child who is near death due to some illness and, without intervention, God knows would die. You would choose one of those lives to assume. Then God ‘plants’ the non-physical you into that body with all prior memory of that person’s language, culture, family history, etc. But the original person would then no longer live, you would become them. And from that point you would live the remaining life in this context, however long it might be. Upon your death God would appear again and provide the next set of possible lives to choose from. With each one you live time would continually advance through the centuries, uninterrupted. So if, for example, your 100 AD life began as an 18 year-old and you lived 40 years and died at 58, your next life would begin in the year 140, as another teen at some other place and family context. At the end of this long ‘journey’ you would return to your present life as if only an instant of time had elapsed. Of course, you would be significantly changed by all this, but those around you in this life would not be aware that anything had happened to you.
So why would God want to do this? He tells you He wants a sample of people to live through the history of Christianity, experience much more than is possible in one short lifetime, and form their own conclusions about what takes place and why God might act as He does. Consequently your options for locations throughout this timeframe would probably range from Byzantium in the East to Ireland in the West, at least until America comes into the picture. Several conditions are made clear to you at the outset. First, God is totally indifferent as to whether you agree to do this or not. There should be no sense of duty factored into your decision. It should be done or not purely by your preferences. Second, this is not some virtual reality, some brain-in-a-vat fake world like in the movie The Matrix. These will be real people you will live with who will have eternal destinies, just like you do. Third, your personal choices will continue to count in your own salvation, exactly as it is here in each of our regular lives. But it will be a nearly two millennium span, rather than just the proverbial ‘three score and ten’. Fourth (and this is tricky), while everyone including you has freedom, God will do a little steering so that the course of this new world’s history will at least parallel ours. This is so your advantage of perspective does not result in you radically altering events there. You can try to do whatever you want during these lives and will not be hindered by God. So in theory you could revolutionize medicine, invent things way before their time, etc. But somehow (I’m not privy to the details ), God will keep the future in this world roughly parallel (though obviously not identical) to our own. This is so you and the others who agree can actually experience something close to the history of our Christian era. Ok then. God tells you all this during His visit and, at the end, says He will return in one day for your decision.
Now, with a little thought you surely can find many possible holes in my setup. Everything from how could 1900 years there zip by in an instant here, to whether God can really make a random choice (if you believe He can, perhaps you are a closet Open Theist ). But be charitable. I make no pretense of an airtight story. My purpose is different, but I hope important and worth thinking about.
The central question then, is would you do it? Remember, God will not reward or punish you for your choice. It is just whether you want to, or not. So how would you decide? What might be the benefits and what could be the cost? It is for this exploration that the experiment is devised.
Certainly the more familiarity you have with history and what life might be like during these varying times would help you make a more informed decision. But you’ve been given only 24 hours. So let’s at least consider some of the more obvious issues.
First, a clear negative. There would be no modern medicine. This goes way beyond missing Tylenol. Quick death from disease or injury is the least potential problem in this situation as you would (contrary to our reality) move on to another life. But instead of dying you might linger in a chronically ill and/or painful situation for many years. And, with only (possibly) the family as a safety net, this could be compounded by poverty and malnutrition.
Then there is the issue of repeated separation. You could live in perhaps 50 or more different contexts. In many of them you would develop at least friendships if not fall in love. But you and your loved ones will die. You move on but they will not be with you. Perhaps you would find the love of your live in the sixth century. You would then carry this separation loss for at least the next 1300 years. And the more you love the more the separations will hurt. Perhaps you might then try to insulate yourself from caring, to protect yourself from the inevitable pain. And how would these loves change you and your present commitments once you finished the journey and returned to this life? Would they be irreparably damaged by the quantity of experience and baggage you would return with? Would you even be anything like the person who left?
This is starting to look very grim. Maybe you should just wait for heaven and rent the DVD. But isn’t participation more interesting and valuable than spectating? Our lives are invested with meaning when we must act and our choices really matter. And risk seems almost to be reward’s Siamese twin. Our present culture is heavily skewed toward passivity and comfort. But where is the challenge and value in that? We grow personally through action and reflection on whether we chose wisely. These are truly core values for a life well lived. And we would bring valuable perspective if placed in the past. Since our actions count and we would be living with real, not virtual people, we could make a major difference in their lives. Suppose in the year 850 you were the Seigneur of a feudal manor, responsible for the welfare of many people. What typically happened historically was that the aristocracy exploited the peasantry. But you could be different.
Now I’ve just barely scratched the surface of issues to consider in answering the ‘would you do it?’ question. You might have the option (or perhaps at times be forced) to live as a different gender from what you now are. How would that change your perspective? Is that interesting, or distressing, to you? And you should not assume your options would always include ‘high-impact’ situations. Would you take on a cloistered life? Or that of a serf? Or a persecuted Medieval Jew? But would these lives be so bad to live? You are quite likely to have privilege and comfort presently. Wouldn’t you learn and mature greatly from some living without so much of those things?
How you decide would surely depend on how risk-adverse you are. This crazy scenario can help you reflect on that. The rewards, at least the ones I’ve suggested (your mileage may vary), are fairly intangible or abstract. And the risks could turn out to involve protracted lengths of suffering or drudgery. Yet we all realize that many people are willing to endure much for these intangibles, as they can be among our deepest values.
So, I leave you the question. What would you choose? You’ve got 24 hours.
Rich Hannon is a software engineer who lives in Salt Lake City. His reading interests focus on philosophy and medieval history.