Thursday, August 16, 2018

Cosmic programmers

Recently I was asked how I'd respond to this question:

Your recent discussion with the pagan brought back a question I had thought of a year or so back when Elon Musk was making all those headlines for saying he thinks reality is a computer simulation.

What would you say to an atheist who tries to reverse the transcendental argument by saying that perhaps reality is the product of something we would understand as a simulation, that way it is true that everything in our universe does indeed receive its value and commands from a “creator” or “creators” outside it programming everything. We’d never have any way of knowing these creators apart from their revelation to us.

Further, suppose that many of the arguments theists use in this universe (the moral argument, the argument from the universe being finite chronologically) are true in this universe as the creator(s) of this universe did indeed make it, but they don’t necessarily inhere within the creator(s) universe. Perhaps there is a way in their universe for it to be eternal, or for them to have objective values inherent in themselves.

Further, what if this theory is said to do more to account for our reality. What if all the gods and goddesses in this history of the world were actually where their cultures say they were doing what they were said to have been doing. Perhaps they programmed Baal to be the ancient god of the Canaanites and Buddha to live amongst the ancient Indians. Wouldn’t this account for why so many different cultures are so adamant that their gods exist?

Finally, how could we know that the Christian God isn’t part of the simulation too? Perhaps they programmed it so that the Christian God did all the things we believe he did in the Scriptures, create this universe, foreknow, predetermine, call, justify, glorify, etc. Perhaps with regard to this universe the Christian God is indeed God, but there is actually, behind wherever he exists, other creator(s)/programmers.

Sounds like a really hyper-Marcionism, I know, but I’m thinking of modern video games like God or War where there are indeed multiple culture’s deities existing side by side, or a novel like Gaiman’s American Gods where gods throughout all history exist together.

Is this one of those times where we’d just have to have faith in God’s pronouncement that He alone is God? Even if he might not have any way of knowing there is anything beyond/above Him?

Lots of moving parts. 

1. Consider the nature of transcendental arguments:

Because of their anti-skeptical ambitions, transcendental arguments must begin from a starting point that the skeptic can be expected to accept, the necessary condition of which is then said to be something that the skeptic doubts or denies. This will then mean that such arguments are ineffective against very radical forms of skepticism, which doubt the laws of logic, and/or which refuse to accept any starting point as uncontentious; and it will also mean that they may be effective against a skeptic who is prepared to accept some starting point, but then ineffective against another skeptic who is not. But neither of these features of transcendental arguments need be felt to be disabling: for the skepticism of the radical skeptics is perhaps of dubious coherence, or at least of little interest because they seem so unwilling to engage with us, while the second limitation may mean merely that different transcendental arguments are required for different skeptical audiences.

Because of the need to find an uncontentious starting point, transcendental arguments will also then characteristically be first personal, by beginning from how I or we experience, think, judge, and so on. Thus, while it is perhaps reasonable to hold that there are necessary conditions for the possibility of ‘extra-personal’ entities such as material objects, substances, the universe, time and so on, a transcendental argument which is directed against skepticism is unlikely to be concerned with exploring such conditions, as the skeptic is unlikely to admit the existence of the things to which the conditions belong.

From this it follows that an atheist can't produce a transcendental argument along the lines you hypothesize because the thought-experiment is skeptical rather than anti-skeptical. You can't produce a transcendental argument to justify skepticism since the whole point of transcendental arguments is to defend realism and common sense rather than antirealism. 

2. It would be self-defeating for an atheist to raise this objection since, if taken seriously, the thought-experiment is equally incompatible with atheism and monotheism alike. Why should this be a problem for Christians but not for atheists? If polytheism is true, that falsifies atheism as well as monotheism. 

3. Or is this a variation on ufo religions, where human encounters with ancient extraterrestrial astronauts kickstart religion? But that only pushes the question back a step: how do the cosmic programmers originate?

4. Is the idea that Yahweh is the god of our universe, but not the god of the multiverse? Each god only exists in one universe? No god exists in more than one universe?

But according to the logic of the multiverse scenario, each parallel universe corresponds to changing one variable, with whatever adjustments that requires, while leaving other things intact. In one timeline I'm raised by my parents. In an alternate timeline I'm an orphan. In another timeline I'm raised by my dad. In another timeline I'm raised by my mom. In one universe I have a brother, in another universe I'm an only-child. In one universe my hometown is New Orleans, in another universe my hometown is Albuquerque. 

However, it wouldn't be a different god for each parallel universe. Changing the god is one variable, with a parallel universe (or more) corresponding to that altered variable. But many altered variables don't entail changing the god in charge. So the same god would exist in more than one universe. Even if we play along with the thought-experiment, Yahweh will have jurisdiction over a vast number of parallel worlds. 

Just run through OT history and mentally change a variable. Suppose Yahweh calls Abraham's brother out of Ur rather than Abraham. Suppose Isaac runs away rather than submitting to sacrifice? That creates alternate timelines, but Yahweh is the same deity in those alternate world histories. 

5. If the gods are necessary beings, then they must exist in every possible world or parallel world. So does it mean that each god has jurisdiction over one universe? How does that work? Are they assigned jurisdiction by one supreme god who's above the others? But then, he's in charge of the whole multiverse. Or do they simply agree to divvy up the multiverse? If so, what prevents a theomachy? A civil war in the multiverse between competing gods? 

6. Are the gods supposed to be virtual characters in a cosmic simulation–having no reality outside the simulation–or do they represent projections of the cosmic programmers, where there's a real agent behind the avatar? Do they only exist in the world of the story, like a video game, or do they stand for the cosmic programmers?  

7. Polytheism is a part of terrestrial world history, not a part of multiverse history. So it's not like Yahweh is the god of this universe while Zeus is god in a parallel universe and Baal is god in yet another parallel universe. Rather, these are territorial gods in the same universe. Patron gods of city-states or nations.

8. Are different cultures so adamant that their gods exist? Some ancient writers are quite skeptical about folk polytheism. In addition, there's lots of syncretism where the gods of one pantheon are amalgamated into the gods of another pantheon. To that extent they're not viewed as separate individuals, but more like stock fictional characters. 

Likewise, you had people who switch gods (e.g. a wife who adopts the religion of her husband). 

9. Some theistic proofs can be extended to a multiverse, viz. teleological, cosmological, argument from reason, argument from consciousness, argument from abstract objects, moral argument, principle of sufficient reason.

10. Suppose I can't disprove a skeptical thought-experiment? So what? If I can't disprove that you're a philosophical zombie, or a virtual character in the cosmic simulation, is it permissible for me to vivisect you? It's not murder if you're not a real person. But we don't take hypothetical scenarios that seriously–for good reason. 

11. Skeptical thought-experiments are like ethical dilemmas. If you're really caught in that situation, then you just do whatever you can do without compunction since you have no alternative. It's like On the Beach, where the doomed survivors decide how to spend their remaining months of life. 


  1. A detective examines a bullet-ridden body and tells his supervisor, "I think Adam murdered Bob."

    The supervisor retorts, "No, there was no murder at all."

    "But what about all these bullet holes?" the detective asks.

    "Bullet holes can be formed by many different ways. They don't prove Adam did it. Charlie could have done so, or perhaps David did. Since we can't tell who pulled the trigger, then clearly no one murdered Bob."

    This is the level of argumentation atheists resort to. "You believe in a self-existent, omnipotent, omniscient, transcendent, personal being and you presented evidence for each of those things? Pah. You can't prove that it's not some alien programmer who created us in a simulation. Therefore, such a being does not exist at all!"

  2. If our universe is a virtual reality simulation at its most fundamental level, then our universe is fundamentally bits and bytes. Physics isn't fundamental reality (contra traditional atheism/naturalism). Rather our physics is VR physics. Computer code is more fundamental than physics.

    What's more, if our universe is fundamentally bits, then that would include any gods that exist within our universe. The gods are, like us, bits and bytes. As such, they're no more real than we are real. Everything is computer code at bottom.

    However, is it possible to produce minds like ours (human consciousness) from what amounts to 0s and 1s? Among other issues, I would think this would run smack into the hard problem of consciousness. As such, I doubt minds can be recreated from bits and bytes.

    I would think it far more likely minds would have to be anchored in a reality where minds can exist. At best, it seems, our minds in this VR universe would be analogues for real minds in a more fundamental reality. Perhaps there is even a connection between our VR universe and the more fundamental reality. Maybe something like James Cameron's Avatar.

    Perhaps it's arguable only God (classical theism or similar) can create minds like ours. (In my view, polytheism at best pushes the question back a step, for who created the gods? Co-equal divinities have other issues too.) If so, then this might be an argument for God's existence even if this universe is a virtual reality.

    Interestingly there are some who argue information is what's fundamental to reality. However, someone like Bill Dembski could agree, but take this as a step in an argument for the God of the Bible.

    1. Edward Butler is one of the foremost philosophers who argues for polytheism. However, at least from what (little) I've seen, his arguments are far from persuasive.

      If the gods are co-creators of the universe, but each god has significantly different moralities, then something like the Euthyphro dilemma might in fact succeed.

    2. EoD wrote:
      However, is it possible to produce minds like ours (human consciousness) from what amounts to 0s and 1s? Among other issues, I would think this would run smack into the hard problem of consciousness. As such, I doubt minds can be recreated from bits and bytes.

      Yes, this is pretty much the only reason that I disagree with Musk. But if one assumes materialism, then I see no flaw in his argument that it's more likely we're in a simulation than not. (Which, as I've said before, is even more problematic for atheists than theists.)

  3. Such a view would lead to the destruction of knowledge. Which would make the view self referentially incoherent.