God

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Of course, that isn’t to say that it’s impossible to even imagine how an actual deity might exist (or at least how something similar enough to be a functional approximation of a deity might exist). Nonbelievers will sometimes talk about how they can’t even conceive of such a thing even being theoretically possible, but I suspect they just aren’t giving it enough thought. There are all kinds of imaginary scenarios you can come up with to explain how a deity could hypothetically exist, if only as a fun thought exercise if nothing else.

Like for instance, maybe Nick Bostrom’s simulation hypothesis is true. If you haven’t heard of this idea, here’s the basic premise:

Many works of science fiction as well as some forecasts by serious technologists and futurologists predict that enormous amounts of computing power will be available in the future. Let us suppose for a moment that these predictions are correct. One thing that later generations might do with their super-powerful computers is run detailed simulations of their forebears or of people like their forebears. Because their computers would be so powerful, they could run a great many such simulations. Suppose that these simulated people are conscious (as they would be if the simulations were sufficiently fine-grained and if a certain quite widely accepted position in the philosophy of mind is correct). Then it could be the case that the vast majority of minds like ours do not belong to the original race but rather to people simulated by the advanced descendants of an original race. It is then possible to argue that, if this were the case, we would be rational to think that we are likely among the simulated minds rather than among the original biological ones.

Bostrom does point out that this argument makes a few assumptions that might be considered questionable; for instance, it’s far from clear that it would be logistically feasible (or even physically possible) for a future civilization to simulate an entire universe with perfect fidelity without running up against hard computational limits, even if their technology were extremely advanced. (Cool Worlds also provides an interesting Bayesian argument against the simulation hypothesis here.) Still, if such simulations were possible – and if our own universe happened to be one of those simulations – then you might say that whoever programmed our universe could be considered its “God” (or at least its designer/creator).

And if you were willing to go even further, you could even use this idea to explain things like the problem of suffering. After all, just because someone has the power to create and control an entire simulated universe doesn’t mean that they’ll necessarily be a perfectly benevolent being; maybe the creator of this universe just wants to see what happens when things are allowed to play out naturally and the universe’s inhabitants are allowed to suffer. Maybe God exists and (at least to some extent) wants us to suffer. Maybe God is still a novice programmer who hasn’t yet figured out how to remove suffering from the universe (or is just too lazy to be bothered). Or alternatively, maybe we aren’t even on God’s radar at all; maybe he (or she, or they) designed this universe for some reason completely unrelated to earthly affairs, like seeing how black holes formed or something. Maybe this universe’s sole function is (say) to simulate microbes, and intelligent life-forms like humans are just an incidental by-product that God doesn’t really have any interest in. Or maybe God’s grand master plan for the universe is some completely different thing that doesn’t have anything to do with the happiness or suffering of sentient beings, which we can’t even imagine.

Stephen West explains Voltaire’s thoughts on this possibility:

[Voltaire] compares the universe to a ship that was built by [a] king. […] He says God is like the king; […] he built this ship that we all live on, and we as humans are like rats in the lower deck of the ship, drowning in puddles or starving to death. Yes, we are a part of God’s creation. Yes, God may even be consciously aware of our existence. But he didn’t create the ship just so that rats could scurry around on the lower deck of the ship. No, he built the ship for some greater purpose, like sailing him around the Mediterranean – a purpose that the rats could never fully comprehend. So when these rats get stuck in these puddles underneath, is the king […] concerned about that? Is the king […] bothering himself, running around, trying to save every single rat, or maintaining that the rats exist in the best of all possible ship decks? No, the king […] doesn’t even think about it.

At the other extreme from this “indifferent God” idea, another possibility is that God might be deeply concerned with the experiences of sentient life-forms, and that’s precisely why he allows for the existence of suffering – because he wants to see what those experiences are like. After all, just being able to run a simulation of a universe doesn’t necessarily mean that you already have perfect knowledge of everything that’s going to happen in that universe; your whole reason for wanting to run the simulation in the first place might be that you don’t know what its inhabitants’ experiences will be like, and you want to find out.

I mean, just imagine if you had godlike powers yourself (but weren’t omniscient). How might you use those powers? Well, the first thing you’d probably do is live out all your wildest fantasies, create a perfect utopia, and so on. But after you’d done that a few billion times (assuming you had the ability to give yourself the subjective equivalent of countless eons of simulated time), you might start to get a bit bored of it and decide to try something else just to add a little variety. You might try living out the life of someone whose experience was less than perfect, just so you could know what it was like. (For authenticity’s sake, of course, you’d want to temporarily wipe your memory for this span.) Then you might try living out the life of someone whose experience was even worse, just to understand what that was like. After a few eons of this, you might eventually become so bored of living out relatively decent lives that you start trying out more harrowing ones. And after that, you might try living as every kind of non-human organism you could think of – seeing what it’s like to live as a starfish, or an oak tree, or an amoeba. Eventually, you might to decide to just go all the way with it; as commenter brotacular11 suggests, you might “want to live every possible outcome the universe has to offer in order to reach the absolute meaning of life.” And in fact, if you weren’t all-knowing from the start, maybe this exact process would be the method by which you’d ultimately achieve omniscience – by going through every single possibility in the universe directly, until you’d learned it all by heart. It’s not like you’d have anything else to do with your countless eons of time, right?

One of my favorite short stories, Andy Weir’s “The Egg,” provides a wonderfully imaginative variation on this idea (and de Pony Sum describes another variation that includes the consent of the participants):

You were on your way home when you died.

It was a car accident. Nothing particularly remarkable, but fatal nonetheless. You left behind a wife and two children. It was a painless death. The EMTs tried their best to save you, but to no avail. Your body was so utterly shattered you were better off, trust me.

And that’s when you met me.

“What… what happened?” You asked. “Where am I?”

“You died,” I said, matter-of-factly. No point in mincing words.

“There was a… a truck and it was skidding…”

“Yup,” I said.

“I… I died?”

“Yup. But don’t feel bad about it. Everyone dies,” I said.

You looked around. There was nothingness. Just you and me. “What is this place?” You asked. “Is this the afterlife?”

“More or less,” I said.

“Are you god?” You asked.

“Yup,” I replied. “I’m God.”

“My kids… my wife,” you said.

“What about them?”

“Will they be all right?”

“That’s what I like to see,” I said. “You just died and your main concern is for your family. That’s good stuff right there.”

You looked at me with fascination. To you, I didn’t look like God. I just looked like some man. Or possibly a woman. Some vague authority figure, maybe. More of a grammar school teacher than the almighty.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “They’ll be fine. Your kids will remember you as perfect in every way. They didn’t have time to grow contempt for you. Your wife will cry on the outside, but will be secretly relieved. To be fair, your marriage was falling apart. If it’s any consolation, she’ll feel very guilty for feeling relieved.”

“Oh,” you said. “So what happens now? Do I go to heaven or hell or something?”

“Neither,” I said. “You’ll be reincarnated.”

“Ah,” you said. “So the Hindus were right,”

“All religions are right in their own way,” I said. “Walk with me.”

You followed along as we strode through the void. “Where are we going?”

“Nowhere in particular,” I said. “It’s just nice to walk while we talk.”

“So what’s the point, then?” You asked. “When I get reborn, I’ll just be a blank slate, right? A baby. So all my experiences and everything I did in this life won’t matter.”

“Not so!” I said. “You have within you all the knowledge and experiences of all your past lives. You just don’t remember them right now.”

I stopped walking and took you by the shoulders. “Your soul is more magnificent, beautiful, and gigantic than you can possibly imagine. A human mind can only contain a tiny fraction of what you are. It’s like sticking your finger in a glass of water to see if it’s hot or cold. You put a tiny part of yourself into the vessel, and when you bring it back out, you’ve gained all the experiences it had.

“You’ve been in a human for the last 48 years, so you haven’t stretched out yet and felt the rest of your immense consciousness. If we hung out here for long enough, you’d start remembering everything. But there’s no point to doing that between each life.”

“How many times have I been reincarnated, then?”

“Oh lots. Lots and lots. And into lots of different lives.” I said. “This time around, you’ll be a Chinese peasant girl in 540 AD.”

“Wait, what?” You stammered. “You’re sending me back in time?”

“Well, I guess technically. Time, as you know it, only exists in your universe. Things are different where I come from.”

“Where you come from?” You said.

“Oh sure,” I explained “I come from somewhere. Somewhere else. And there are others like me. I know you’ll want to know what it’s like there, but honestly you wouldn’t understand.”

“Oh,” you said, a little let down. “But wait. If I get reincarnated to other places in time, I could have interacted with myself at some point.”

“Sure. Happens all the time. And with both lives only aware of their own lifespan you don’t even know it’s happening.”

“So what’s the point of it all?”

“Seriously?” I asked. “Seriously? You’re asking me for the meaning of life? Isn’t that a little stereotypical?”

“Well it’s a reasonable question,” you persisted.

I looked you in the eye. “The meaning of life, the reason I made this whole universe, is for you to mature.”

“You mean mankind? You want us to mature?”

“No, just you. I made this whole universe for you. With each new life you grow and mature and become a larger and greater intellect.”

“Just me? What about everyone else?”

“There is no one else,” I said. “In this universe, there’s just you and me.”

You stared blankly at me. “But all the people on earth…”

“All you. Different incarnations of you.”

“Wait. I’m everyone!?”

“Now you’re getting it,” I said, with a congratulatory slap on the back.

“I’m every human being who ever lived?”

“Or who will ever live, yes.”

“I’m Abraham Lincoln?”

“And you’re John Wilkes Booth, too,” I added.

“I’m Hitler?” You said, appalled.

“And you’re the millions he killed.”

“I’m Jesus?”

“And you’re everyone who followed him.”

You fell silent.

“Every time you victimized someone,” I said, “you were victimizing yourself. Every act of kindness you’ve done, you’ve done to yourself. Every happy and sad moment ever experienced by any human was, or will be, experienced by you.”

You thought for a long time.

“Why?” You asked me. “Why do all this?”

“Because someday, you will become like me. Because that’s what you are. You’re one of my kind. You’re my child.”

“Whoa,” you said, incredulous. “You mean I’m a god?”

“No. Not yet. You’re a fetus. You’re still growing. Once you’ve lived every human life throughout all time, you will have grown enough to be born.”

“So the whole universe,” you said, “it’s just…”

“An egg.” I answered. “Now it’s time for you to move on to your next life.”

And I sent you on your way.

We can actually go even further than just imagining a divine being living through every individual life within our universe’s history. After all, if it was possible to simulate a universe, the creator could just as easily simulate a whole slew of them – so that they could not only see every detail of one particular universe’s timeline, but could see every possible timeline for every possible universe. And that could offer yet another explanation for problems like the existence of suffering and the presence of design flaws in our biology. If God were simulating every possible experience within every possible timeline of every possible universe – the theological equivalent of the various “multiple universes” theories in physics – then it’d be no surprise if some of those experiences and some of those universes contained their share of suffering and imperfection. A collection of all possible outcomes would necessarily have to include those things.

Alexander’s “Answer to Job” is another great short story in this vein:

Job asked: “God, why do bad things happen to good people? Why would You, who are perfect, create a universe filled with so much that is evil?”

Then the Lord spoke to Job out of the whirlwind, saying “WHAT KIND OF UNIVERSE WOULD YOU PREFER ME TO HAVE CREATED?”

Job said “A universe that was perfectly just and full of happiness, of course.”

“OH,” said God. “YES, I CREATED ONE OF THOSE. IT’S EXACTLY AS NICE AS YOU WOULD EXPECT.”

Job facepalmed. “But then why would You also create this universe?”

Answered God: “DON’T YOU LIKE EXISTING?”

“Yes,” said Job, “but all else being equal, I’d rather be in the perfectly just and happy universe.”

“OH, DON’T WORRY,” said God. “THERE’S A VERSION OF YOU IN THAT UNIVERSE TOO. HE SAYS HI.”

“Okay,” said Job, very carefully. “I can see I’m going to have to phrase my questions more specifically. Why didn’t You also make this universe perfectly just and happy?”

“BECAUSE YOU CAN’T HAVE TWO IDENTICAL INDIVIDUALS. IF YOU HAVE A COMPUTATIONAL THEORY OF IDENTITY, THEN TWO PEOPLE WHOSE EXPERIENCE IS ONE HUNDRED PERCENT SATURATED BY BLISS ARE JUST ONE PERSON. IF I MADE THIS UNIVERSE EXACTLY LIKE THE HAPPY AND JUST UNIVERSE, THEN THERE WOULD ONLY BE THE POPULATION OF THE HAPPY AND JUST UNIVERSE, WHICH WOULD BE LESS GOOD THAN HAVING THE POPULATION OF THE HAPPY AND JUST UNIVERSE PLUS THE POPULATION OF ONE EXTRA UNIVERSE THAT IS AT LEAST SOMEWHAT HAPPY.”

“Hmmmmm. But couldn’t You have made this universe like the happy and just universe except for one tiny detail? Like in that universe, the sun is a sphere, but in our universe, the sun is a cube? Then you would have individuals who experienced a spherical sun, and other individuals who experienced a cubic sun, which would be enough to differentiate them.”

“I DID THAT TOO. I HAVE CREATED ALL POSSIBLE PERMUTATIONS OF THE HAPPY AND JUST UNIVERSE AND ITS POPULACE.”

“All of them? That would be…a lot of universes.”

“NOT AS MANY AS YOU THINK.” said God. “IN THE END IT TURNED OUT TO BE ONLY ABOUT 10^(10^(10^(10^(10^984)))). AFTER THAT I RAN OUT OF POSSIBLE PERMUTATIONS OF UNIVERSES THAT COULD REASONABLY BE DESCRIBED AS PERFECTLY HAPPY AND JUST. SO I STARTED CREATING ONES INCLUDING SMALL AMOUNTS OF EVIL.”

“Small amounts! But the universe has…”

“I WAS NOT REFERRING TO YOUR UNIVERSE. I EXHAUSTED THOSE, AND THEN I STARTED CREATING ONES INCLUDING IMMENSE AMOUNTS OF EVIL.”

“Oh.” Then: “What, exactly, is Your endgame here?”

“I AM OMNIBENEVOLENT. I WANT TO CREATE AS MUCH HAPPINESS AND JOY AS POSSIBLE. THIS REQUIRES INSTANTIATING ALL POSSIBLE BEINGS WHOSE TOTAL LIFETIME HAPPINESS IS GREATER THAN THEIR TOTAL LIFETIME SUFFERING.”

“I’m not sure I understand.”

“YOUR LIFE CONTAINS MUCH PAIN, BUT MORE HAPPINESS. BOTH YOU AND I WOULD PREFER THAT A BEING WITH YOUR EXACT LIFE HISTORY EXIST. IN ORDER TO MAKE IT EXIST, IT WAS NECESSARY TO CREATE THE SORT OF UNIVERSE IN WHICH YOU COULD EXIST. THAT IS A UNIVERSE CONTAINING EVIL. I HAVE ALSO CREATED ALL HAPPIER AND MORE VIRTUOUS VERSIONS OF YOU. HOWEVER, IT IS ETHICALLY CORRECT THAT AFTER CREATING THEM, I CREATE YOU AS WELL.”

“But why couldn’t I have been one of those other versions instead!”

“IN THE MOST PERFECTLY HAPPY AND JUST UNIVERSE, THERE IS NO SPACE, FOR SPACE TAKES THE FORM OF SEPARATION FROM THINGS YOU DESIRE. THERE IS NO TIME, FOR TIME MEANS CHANGE AND DECAY, YET THERE MUST BE NO CHANGE FROM ITS MAXIMALLY BLISSFUL STATE. THE BEINGS WHO INHABIT THIS UNIVERSE ARE WITHOUT BODIES, AND DO NOT HUNGER OR THIRST OR LABOR OR LUST. THEY SIT UPON LOTUS THRONES AND CONTEMPLATE THE PERFECTION OF ALL THINGS. IF I WERE TO UNCREATE ALL WORLDS SAVE THAT ONE, WOULD IT MEAN MAKING YOU HAPPIER? OR WOULD IT MEAN KILLING YOU, WHILE FAR AWAY IN A DIFFERENT UNIVERSE INCORPOREAL BEINGS SAT ON THEIR LOTUS THRONES REGARDLESS?”

“I don’t know! Is one of the beings in that universe in some sense me?”

“THERE IS NO OBJECTIVE COSMIC UNEMPLOYMENT RATE.”

“Huh?”

“I MEAN, THERE IS NO MEANINGFUL ANSWER TO THE QUESTION OF HOW MANY UNIVERSES HAVE A JOB. SORRY. THAT WILL BE FUNNY IN ABOUT THREE THOUSAND YEARS.”

“Let me try a different angle, then. Right now in our universe there are lots of people whose lives aren’t worth living. If You gave them the choice, they would have chosen never to have been born at all. What about them?”

“A JOB WHO IS AWARE OF THE EXISTENCE OF SUCH PEOPLE IS A DIFFERENT JOB THAN A JOB WHO IS NOT. AS LONG AS THESE PEOPLE MAKE UP A MINORITY OF THE POPULATION, THE EXISTENCE OF YOUR UNIVERSE, IN ADDITION TO A UNIVERSE WITHOUT SUCH PEOPLE, IS A NET ASSET.”

“But that’s monstrous! Couldn’t You just, I don’t know, have created a universe that looks like it has such people, but actually they’re just p-zombies, animated bodies without any real consciousness or suffering?”

“ . . . ”

“Wait, did You do that?”

“I AM GOING TO PULL THE ‘THINGS MAN WAS NOT MEANT TO KNOW’ CARD HERE. THERE ARE ADVANTAGES AND DISADVANTAGES TO THE APPROACH YOU MENTION. THE ADVANTAGES ARE AS YOU HAVE SAID. THE DISADVANTAGE IS THAT IT TURNS CHARITY TOWARDS SUCH PEOPLE INTO A LIE, AND MYSELF AS GOD INTO A DECEIEVER. I WILL ALLOW YOU TO FORM YOUR OWN OPINION ABOUT WHICH COURSE IS MORE ETHICAL. BUT IT IS NOT RELEVANT TO THEODICY, SINCE WHICHEVER COURSE YOU DECIDE IS MORALLY SUPERIOR, YOU HAVE NO EVIDENCE THAT I DID NOT IN FACT TAKE SUCH A COURSE.”

“Actually, I do have some evidence. Before all of this happened to me I was very happy. But in the past couple years I’ve gone bankrupt, lost my entire family, and gotten a bad case of boils. I’m pretty sure at this point I would prefer that I never have been born. Since I know I myself am conscious, I am actually in a pretty good position to accuse You of cruelty.”

“HMMMMMMMM…” said God, and the whirlwind disappeared.

Then the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before, and healed his illnesses, and gave him many beautiful children, so it was said that God had blessed the latter end of Job more than his beginning.

Granted, this is another idea that’s based on some debatable assumptions, to say the least (like the computational theory of identity, or the idea that omnibenevolence would require an aggregative approach to happiness) – but that’s not really the point; this story was mostly just for fun. The point is simply that if you imagine God creating multiple universes rather than just this one (maybe for reasons other than omnibenevolence), it could give you yet another clever solution to the problem of suffering.

And the “multiple universes” idea isn’t just a creative way of resolving problems that might come up if we took it for granted that a God already existed and was already creating universes. It could also give us another way of imagining how a God (or gods) could come to exist in the first place. After all, if there really were multiple universes – even if we assumed that these universes weren’t themselves created by some higher power – it might be reasonable to expect that at least some of them could contain beings that would be considered godlike. Maybe, even if there isn’t a God in our particular universe, there could be some parallel universe out there somewhere that was identical to ours in every way except that some kind of invisible cosmic overlord did exist. For that matter, maybe there could be a universe that was identical to ours in every way (including Christianity apparently being false), except that Jesus really did rise from the dead, and all the apparent errors in the Bible really were just hugely improbable coincidences, and all the fossils were just red herrings designed to test our faith, so on. And maybe there could be still another universe in which all the stories from Islam were completely true, and another in which the stories from Hinduism were true, and so on. Maybe, given enough universes, it’d be possible to find near-perfect approximations of every religion’s doctrines within some universe or another, just by sheer statistical probability.

Of course, it’s worth noting that some religious ideas might not be possible even if there were infinite universes. Just because there are an infinite number of values between 0 and 1 doesn’t mean that one of them is 2; and just because there might be infinite universes doesn’t mean that they must include every imaginable event – they could only include every possible event. Each universe would still have to obey its own laws of physics – so if there were no possible way that the laws of physics could allow for a deity that had no material form, for instance (which I think is a fair assumption), then that kind of deity couldn’t exist in any universe. If there were no possible way that the laws of physics could allow for Adam and Eve to have been created on the same day and on separate days, then that story couldn’t be true in any universe. And so on. (This might even mean that most of the universes we can imagine can’t actually exist.) Still though, these kinds of ideas are fun to play around with in your imagination if nothing else, regardless of your religious beliefs.

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