The Universe Could be a Simulation and It’s Creator Just Can’t Be God(!)

From Scientific American:

If you, me and every person and thing in the cosmos were actually characters in some giant computer game, we would not necessarily know it. The idea that the universe is a simulation sounds more like the plot of “The Matrix,” but it is also a legitimate scientific hypothesis. Researchers pondered the controversial notion Tuesday at the annual Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate here at the American Museum of Natural History.

Moderator Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the museum’s Hayden Planetarium, put the odds at 50-50 that our entire existence is a program on someone else’s hard drive. “I think the likelihood may be very high,” he said. He noted the gap between human and chimpanzee intelligence, despite the fact that we share more than 98 percent of our DNA. Somewhere out there could be a being whose intelligence is that much greater than our own. “We would be drooling, blithering idiots in their presence,” he said. “If that’s the case, it is easy for me to imagine that everything in our lives is just a creation of some other entity for their entertainment.”

[…]

But some were more contemplative, saying the possibility raises some weighty spiritual questions. “If the simulation hypothesis is valid then we open the door to eternal life and resurrection and things that formally have been discussed in the realm of religion,” Gates suggested. “The reason is quite simple: If we’re programs in the computer, then as long as I have a computer that’s not damaged, I can always re-run the program.”

And if someone somewhere created our simulation, would that make this entity God? “We in this universe can create simulated worlds and there’s nothing remotely spooky about that,” said David Chalmers, a professor of philosophy at New York University. “Our creator isn’t especially spooky, it’s just some teenage hacker in the next universe up.” Turn the tables, and we are essentially gods over our own computer creations. “We don’t think of ourselves as deities when we program Mario, even though we have power over how high Mario jumps,” Tyson said. “There’s no reason to think they’re all-powerful just because they control everything we do.” And a simulated universe introduces another disturbing possibility. “What happens,” Tyson said, “if there’s a bug that crashes the entire program?”

The problem here is simple.  If the creator was indeed God, Chalmers and Tyson would be saying the very same thing.

But according to Tyson, the creator could never be God.

How so?  From a year ago:

OK, if that god is described as being all-powerful and all-knowing and all-good, I don’t see evidence for it anywhere in the world. So I remain unconvinced. If that god is all-powerful and all-good, I don’t see that when a tsunami kills a quarter-million or an earthquake kills a quarter-million people. I’d like to think of good as something in the interest of your health or longevity. That’s a pretty simple definition of something that is good for you. That’s not a controversial understanding of the word “good.” So if Earth in two separate events separated by just a couple of years can kill a half-million people, then if the god as you describe exists, that god is either not all-powerful or not all-good. And so therefore I am not convinced.

Thar she blows.  All she’s got.  The only argument against God seems to be the Argument From Evil.  Essentially what Tyson is saying is that if God was the creator, we would all be Teletubbies!  His skepticism is quite unconvincing.

Also, see https://shadowtolight.wordpress.com/2016/01/03/neil-degrasse-tysons-new-mighty-argument/

 

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21 Responses to The Universe Could be a Simulation and It’s Creator Just Can’t Be God(!)

  1. Mr. Green says:

    The idea that the universe is a simulation sounds more like the plot of “The Matrix,” but it is also a legitimate scientific hypothesis.

    Really? But this is just universe-wide “intelligent design”. Cool — Scientific American just called ID “legitimate science”!

    Moderator Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the museum’s Hayden Planetarium, put the odds at 50-50 that our entire existence is a program

    It always amazes me how little imagination some people have. Or how little knowledge of existing work — it’s been commonplace for quite a while (e.g. Bostrom) to note that if the whole simulation deal is possible, then there could very well be millions upon millions of simulations… the odds that we’d just happen to be the top dogs living in the one “real” universe are ridiculously low. There’s simply no way to justify the arbitrary assumption that there are few or no simulations, so it’s irrational to suppose we are not simulated. (Unless, y’know, the whole idea is impossible, say, because man has an immaterial aspect that couldn’t be simulated in the first place… but who’d think that?)

    Somewhere out there could be a being whose intelligence is that much greater than our own. “We would be drooling, blithering idiots in their presence,” he said.

    (Again, he lacks the imagination to think that there could be someone right here, inside this world, in whose presence he would be a blithering idiot. But I digress….)

    “There’s no reason to think they’re all-powerful just because they control everything we do.”

    Other than, well, the definition of “all-powerful”. OK, presumably he means that they wouldn’t be all-powerful in their universe; but the programmer(s) of our world could be omnipotent and omniscient with regard to our simulation, so they’d be “gods” as far as we’re concerned. They could perform miracles, dictate revelation, fine-tune the universe for life, dole out eternal rewards and punishments (or as close to eternal as hardware lasts in their world). Quibbling that they’re “only” second-tier gods seems rather petty (not to mention eschatologically dangerous).

    if the god as you describe exists, that god is either not all-powerful or not all-good.

    Except the “gods” of our almost-certainly simulated world wouldn’t be the real God. So sure, they probably aren’t all-good. But that’s no argument against God, because there’s no longer any reason to suppose He would do anything about us. We’re just a simulation, after all — nobody argues God doesn’t exist because if He did He would have struck down Agatha Christie for being a mass-murderer, right? And on any materialist view, we can never have a good reason to suppose we’re not simulated, thus we could never have a good reason to accept the argument from evil. (Which we didn’t anyway, but, hey, it’s nice to have it proven by Legitimate Science™, right?!)

  2. George says:

    I guess you are claiming that there is a contradiction between those two Tyson quotes, but there isn’t. In the latter one, Tyson is giving a classic argument that a being cannot be omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent at the same time. In the Scientific American quote, Tyson isn’t referring to a creator that is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent — in fact his point is that the creator doesn’t even have to be omnipotent.

  3. Michael says:

    I guess you are claiming that there is a contradiction between those two Tyson quotes, but there isn’t.

    But I wasn’t.

  4. George says:

    You said, “If the creator was indeed God, Chalmers and Tyson would be saying the very same thing. But according to Tyson, the creator could never be God.” If this is not trying to show a contradiction, then I don’t know what it could possibly be. Whatever is happening here, two very different meanings for “God” are being conflated. One is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent. The other isn’t.

  5. “So if Earth in two separate events separated by just a couple of years can kill a half-million people, then if the god as you describe exists, that god is either not all-powerful or not all-good”

    “Essentially what Tyson is saying is that if God was the creator, we would all be Teletubbies!”

    Brilliant.
    Everybody knows that living in a world of vast natural disasters with hundred thousands of deaths is a necessary condition for not being reduced to a teletubby.

    Let’s build a movement on the basis of sentiments like this.
    We could call it the “New Theism”

  6. Michael says:

    Brilliant.
    Everybody knows that living in a world of vast natural disasters with hundred thousands of deaths is a necessary condition for not being reduced to a teletubby.

    As long as there is one natural disaster, Tyson can complain about that natural disaster. If you are saying the Argument from Evil allows for a certain number of natural disasters, then a) let us in on the number and b) explain how you got that number.

  7. Michael says:

    George,

    In less that twenty hours you went from a guess (“I guess you are claiming that there is a contradiction between those two Tyson quotes”) to near certainty (“If this is not trying to show a contradiction, then I don’t know what it could possibly be.”) Why do you inist on inflating your guess to knowledge, especially after I informed you I wasn’t trying to indicate some contradiction? If you need, I’ll flesh out my point (as I did write the blog entry around 6 AM), but first, I’m curious you apparent need to dig in your heels.

  8. Jon Garvey says:

    Tyson is missing the important question – why the matrix programmers have inplanted the idea that we may indeed be a simulation. Or does he somehow think the idea occurred to him outside the criteria of the simulation, as if (per impossibile) he was actually a real agent?

  9. George says:

    Michael: there isn’t any certainty in saying “I don’t know what it could possibly be”. The argument doesn’t appear to actually make any sense, from what I can see. And your probing into my internal state has nothing to do with the argument either. If you wish to explain it further then just go ahead and do so.

  10. Michael says:

    According to some leading scientists and philosophers, there is reason to think our universe was created. Tyson even acknowledges a 50/50 chance it was created.

    The leading scientists/philosophers opine about the creator. They propose a teenage hacker. But then one wonders how they ruled out God as the creator. It’s as if “God-as-creator” has been falsified in their mind, leaving us to speculate about other creators.

    Yet I have never seen a scientist or philosopher rule out the existence of God. The closest we have is the argument from evil. And as I note, that argument is quite unconvincing.

    From the Christian perspective, we’re simply left with:

    And there are other reasons to think we might be virtual. For instance, the more we learn about the universe, the more it appears to be based on mathematical laws.

    and

    Furthermore, ideas from information theory keep showing up in physics. “In my research I found this very strange thing,” said James Gates, a theoretical physicist at the University of Maryland. “I was driven to error-correcting codes—they’re what make browsers work. So why were they in the equations I was studying about quarks and electrons and supersymmetry?

    If, from the atheist perspective, this is evidence we are a computer simulation run by a teenager hacker in a universe higher up, from the Christian perspective, this is evidence for God.

  11. Dhay says:

    > Moderator Neil deGrasse Tyson … put the odds at 50-50 that our entire existence is a program on someone else’s hard drive.

    “50-50”, eh! Now if someone were to ask you, if you put on a blindfold and stride across a road, what are the chances you will be knocked down, “50-50” is the classic “either I will be or I won’t, so it’s 50-50” answer from complete and utter ignorance; a “50-50” answer to this or other questions tells us – unless it is a coin throw result under discussion, or there are other good reasons why the odds should be binary and equal – that this person is probably – and with Tyson’s history, that does look probable – is probably clueless, and is shooting their mouth off with a figure plucked from thin air instead of giving an honest “I don’t know” answer.

    Very clueless: Nick Bostrom reckons it’s not a binary 50-50 option of possible outcomes (simulated/not simulated) but a tertiary choice between the outcomes of three “disjuncts”; looks like Tyson didn’t even bother to inform himself of the basic premises of Bostrom’s Simulation Argument, else his ignorance would have led him to guess the odds at, presumably, a mere 33%; which is considerably higher than the 20% odds which Bostrom himself quotes.

    Bostrom is clear that his 20% estimate is a subjective personal opinion and is not a conclusion of the Simulation Argument, there being no strong evidence for or against any of the three disjuncts; whatever the weak evidence for and against simulation is, it is evidently mostly against, for it has led Bostrom to estimate 20%, not the tertiary-equal 33%.

    Bostrom’s 20% estimate is only valid if his Argument is based upon valid premises: Bostrom premises 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).” But if the idea that consciousness is identical to or can (even in principle) arise from unconscious physical events – if that idea is nonsense in principle, as the neuroscience and philosophy trained pundit Sam Harris has claimed, that 20% becomes 0%.

    https://shadowtolight.wordpress.com/2016/01/03/neil-degrasse-tysons-new-mighty-argument/#comment-10956

    Then there’s the question of the simulations being sufficiently fine-grained, which requires sufficient (ie enormous) computational and data-storage capacity; the top-most level computer (the real one, the countless other computers calculating nested simulated universes being simulations running on this one computer, and the entire contents of the “hard drives” containing the data for those countless nested universes being contained on the hard drive of the top-most level computer (and now there’s another… and another… and…) – I suspect that even if the top-most “teenage hacker” could somehow press every tiniest part of the whole Earth into use for computation and storage (shades of the Hitchhiker’s Guide), it would all grind to a computational halt and run out of data storage after just a few spawnings of simulated universes. It’s just not realistic.

    Of course, there are ways to limit the data and computational requirements, to a limited extent: make it an expanding universe, so that the further away from us, the slower it has to be calculated; make the expansion accelerating, so that the furthest bits progressively fall out of need for calculation and storage; make black holes swallow matter and information, so nearer bits progressively fall out of need for calculation and storage. Or model just one consciousness – obviously mine – instead of an entire universe, so that instead of calculation and storage of the universe’s entire 4-D ‘sausage’ of space-time, it’s just the very restricted ‘this, here and now’ which
    need calculation and storage; my consciousness need not map to any simulated material universe, so long as I ‘think’ it does, just set the appropriate bit or byte; reduce the demands further by giving me a birth, making me sleep, making me die.

    But my “teenage hacker” has evidently given me a wacky imagination and a keen sense of humour.

    > Somewhere out there could be a being whose intelligence is that much greater than our own. “We would be drooling, blithering idiots in their presence,” he said.

    Sloppy language, with sloppy thinking behind it: why would I drool when meeting someone or something far more intelligent than I; perhaps Tyson speaks from his own experience. And in Tyson’s scenario I’m supposed to be mere data on this superintelligent guy’s hard drive, so I can no more meet my “creator” than the ink-on-paper Emma Woodhouse could ever have met her creator, Jane Austen. Badly done, Tyson. Badly done.

    > And if someone somewhere created our simulation, would that make this entity God?

    No indeed, it’s just David Chalmers’ “teenage hacker” or suchlike. But this assumes the Simulation Argument is correct, and if so, there’s certainly a top-level universe – it’s the starting point of the Argument – which is not simulated and which requires explanation of its origin, fine-tuning and philosophical problems just as ours does; and the philosophical arguments for a creator God would apply in that universe just as we suppose they apply in our (if allegedly possibly simulated) universe.

    > … when a tsunami kills a quarter-million or an earthquake kills a quarter-million people. …

    Tsunamis, earthquakes, typhoons, mudslides, landslips, meteors, lethal radiation jets from collapsing stars, etc etc etc, are driven by plate tectonics, weather systems, gravity, high energy physics etc etc etc, so to abolish those would be to abolish physics as we know it. To abolish old age, infirmity and death means abolishing birth, or else getting very overcrowded and having to live on food that shortly there will be no room to grow – or abolishing food and perhaps (for those who can get on top) photosynthesising – either way, that last, together with abolishing lions ambushing buffalo at waterholes, means abolishing evolution; to abolish pain is to make injury certain, unless we also become extremely risk-averse. And we hurt each other, some of us, so to abolish that requires a radical change of human nature.

    All of the regularities of physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, etc etc – all the regularities we currently know and trust need to be swept away and either replaced by some very different regularities; or regularity itself swept away and replaced by whatever arbitrary capriciousness the complainer at the evils of life might choose.

    So when the complainer at the evils of life has got their way, and the world, indeed the universe, is harmless, what are we left with: ah yes, something akin to Hyperborea, or to TellyTubbyLand: seeing as there’s a Hitchhiker’s theme in this response, here’s a snippet of Vogon poetry:

    Far beyond the North Wind lies
    A pleasant land, where no-one dies,
    And no-one suffers pain, or cries,
    And no-one ever, even sighs,
    That isn’t better otherwise;
    No aching, loathing, pain or strife
    Mars that nice, phantastic life.

  12. George says:

    Michael: There are many ways that people have ruled out God as creator, but the relevant one here is how Tyson does: he argues that a being cannot be simultaneously omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent. Of course the argument is not original, being a classic unsolved problem in theology. The way you have claimed to have solved it — your Teletubbies argument — does not make any sense to me. And I find it astonishing that you so confidently dismiss what the best philosophers and theologians have anguished over throughout the history of Western civilization, with no satisfying resolution. I would refer you to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s statement on the 2005 tsunami http://rowanwilliams.archbishopofcanterbury.org/articles.php/649/the-asian-tsunami

    The question: “How can you believe in a God who permits suffering on this scale?” is therefore very much around at the moment, and it would be surprising if it weren’t – indeed, it would be wrong if it weren’t. The traditional answers will get us only so far.

    His sincere engagement with a fundamental question is admirable. What is not admirable is a facile treatment and a facile dismissal of it, which reminds me of Sam Harris’ contemptuous dismissal of whole fields of philosophy (google “increases the amount of boredom in the universe”).

  13. FZM says:

    he argues that a being cannot be simultaneously omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent. Of course the argument is not original, being a classic unsolved problem in theology.

    I’ve never personally come across an argument to the effect that omnipotence, omniscience and omnibenevolence are in themselves mutually incompatible attributes.

    And I find it astonishing that you so confidently dismiss what the best philosophers and theologians have anguished over throughout the history of Western civilization, with no satisfying resolution.

    It seems arguable that philosophers and theologians have anguished over this throughout the history of Western Civilization. In his book ‘The Reality of God and the Problem of Evil’ Brian Davies cites Richard Swinburne as making a claim similar to this one and then argues that in fact the ‘problem of evil’ in its modern form goes back to the 18th century.

    He also explains that in the context of Classical Theism our ‘problem of evil’ can be resolved and probably doesn’t make much sense in the first place, which is why philosophers like Aquinas weren’t preoccupied with it.

  14. Dhay says:

    George > His sincere engagement with a fundamental question is admirable. What is not admirable is a facile treatment and a facile dismissal of it …

    As someone prone to treat what I take seriously very lightly at times, and to be very serious about what I treat lightly, I would like to caution you against too facile a dismissal of Michael’s “Teletubbies” analogy.

    If those who complain loudest against the evils in the world could have a world which could not produce those evils — would it not be a TellyTubbyLand, or something passably similar? What would it be like? Would it be a universe of predictable physical regularities, a universe of predictable magical (but controllable, changing on demand) regularities, a universe of magical irregularities that happen unpredictably without causation, or would it be some mix of these?

    Good luck designing your alternative universe, or supporting someone else’s design.

  15. Doug says:

    @George,
    If you really want to engage the argument from evil, then perhaps you’d be willing to engage my response to it (copied from elsewhere on this site):

    Let’s construct a “tree” out of every possible world, with “morally insignificant increments”.

    Universe#0: — Everyone lives until they are eighty. They die on their eightieth birthday. No other suffering.

    Universe#{1…N}(0): — Slight tweaks on Universe#0 (indexed by 1…N for reference), for example:
    Universe#1(0): — There is a distribution of sudden death with a mean around eighty years old.

    Universe#{N+1…}(1…N): — Slight tweaks on Universe#1…N, for example:
    Universe#N+1(1): — The standard deviation of that distribution is slightly larger than in U#1(0).

    etc. until

    Universe#M(*): — the universe we find ourselves in.

    Would anyone claim that the suffering in U#0 precludes God? Let’s proceed assuming the answer is “no”. How about U#{1…N}(0)? At which U# would such a preclusion magically appear? Why that one? Why not more or less? If you don’t have answers for those questions, you don’t have grounds for the claim that the suffering in U#M(?) precludes God in the first place!

    If God can be good in the context of U#0, and God can be good in the context of U#k(i) given that God can be good in the context of U#i(*), then “by mathematical induction”😉, we have proved that God can be good in the context of any U#, including U#M(*)!

    The upshot of this is that your “classic unsolved problem in theology” becomes a “classic under-specified problem in theology”. That is, the thing that gives it teeth is the emotion that it conjures up, rather than any carefully-thought out “analysis” of an actual “problem”.

  16. Michael says:

    The way you have claimed to have solved it — your Teletubbies argument — does not make any sense to me.

    Okay, but you are the person who insisted I was trying to show some contradiction: “If this is not trying to show a contradiction, then I don’t know what it could possibly be.” And I just showed you it wasn’t about any contradiction. Maybe the teletubby argument not making any sense to you is akin to it not making any sense to you that I wasn’t trying to raise a contradiction.

    And I find it astonishing that you so confidently dismiss what the best philosophers and theologians have anguished over throughout the history of Western civilization, with no satisfying resolution.

    Given the subjective dimension to the Argument from Evil, why would you ever expect “resolution” to the satisfaction of all?

    What is not admirable is a facile treatment and a facile dismissal of it,

    As someone who has long suffered, and has thought about this issue for many, many years, I can assure you there is no facile treatment and a facile dismissal of it.

    which reminds me of Sam Harris’ contemptuous dismissal of whole fields of philosophy (google “increases the amount of boredom in the universe”).

    And like his contemptous dismissal of theism. For Harris, atheism is “obvious” because of….you guessed it…..the argument from evil. How did he phrase it for HuffPo? Oh yeah…”There is No God (And You Know It)”.

  17. George says:

    Looking at your argument again, it occurs to me that it may just be a logical mistake rather than an attempt to show a contradiction. Let’s take as premises,

    P: If the creator was indeed God, Chalmers and Tyson would be saying the very same thing.

    Q: But according to Tyson, the creator could never be God.

    Your subsequent attempt at clarification didn’t illuminate the reason for P and Q being together in the first place. These cannot be combined to arrive at anything interesting, for example there is no implication of “Chalmers and Tyson would be saying the very same thing.” Here let’s simplify it:

    P’: If A then B.

    Q’: Not A.

    It should be clear that B is not implied. Moreover, we also have “If not B then not A”, making not-B consistent with our premises. That is, it would be consistent for Tyson not to say the same thing.

    You said “one wonders how they ruled out God as the creator”, but the issue at hand is Tyson, not some vague “they”. And there’s no wondering about Tyson: he tells us how he ruled out an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent God. It is not “as if” it is falsified in his mind, it is so.

    You go on to say, “I have never seen a scientist or philosopher rule out the existence of God”. If you were talking about an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent God in that sentence, then it’s a false statement: you just saw Tyson rule it out. But, as before, you are presumably mixing up definitions of God again, with this other one not being omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent.

  18. Doug says:

    @George,
    Was Tyson really speaking as a scientist or philosopher when he ruled out “an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent God”? Or was he speaking as an ordinary Joe? If he were speaking as a scientist or a philosopher, perhaps he could have done better than the same “logic” (emotion, actually) that every adolescent boy with an IQ over 90 in the entire country has used? (no offence meant to the girls; I just can’t speak for them)

  19. George says:

    Some things are getting conflated here. First, there is the question: On the whole [wave hands in weighing motion], has religion been a net good or a net bad for humanity? As I said, an atheist could well argue that religion has been a net good. And as I mentioned earlier, an atheist could well accept that, say, Mormons have the highest level of well-being for some measure thereof. None of this would imply that Mormonism (or any such religion) is true. And, further, if religion were a net good (for some measure thereof) in our evolutionary history, that does not imply that, in our modern age, it would remain so going forward.

    And from the other side, if religion has been a net negative for humanity, that would not imply that “religion is evil”. Even the most hard line atheists will acknowledge the social benefits of a religious community, for example. The purpose of saying “on the whole” while gesturing in a weighing motion is, presumably, to emphasize that we’re weighing the good from religion versus the bad from religion. It’s completely different to say that something is evil. Yet the question and one not-implied answer for it are being treated as equivalent to “religion is evil”. It just doesn’t follow.

    P.S. TFBW: The title “The Root of all Evil?” wasn’t Dawkins’ doing, and he disagreed with it. Google this: “I didn’t like the title and fought it hard.”

  20. Kevin says:

    George,

    I understand the distinction you make between “on the whole” (queue Austin Powers joke) and “is”.

    But I believe it is inappropriate and inconsistent, at best, for someone like Krauss, who makes a living as a scientist and science advocate, and promotes thinking based on empirical evidence, to then abandon those ideals in a public forum and make a sweeping claim about such a huge category of beliefs and actions as religion, with zero supporting evidence yet backed by his reputation as a scientist and advocate of evidence-backed thinking. A casual observer might well believe the data supported Krauss’ assertion, when in fact he simply pulled it out of his rear end.

    And that goes back to one of the central criticisms of New Atheism. There are some really good scientists in the movement (gratuitous point: Sam Harris is not one of them), but they all abandon their objectivity and dependence on evidence as soon as anything religious becomes the topic. Then they simply turn to visceral emotion. And in the case with Krauss, as in every similar situation, that distinction needs to be pointed out so the audience knows exactly where Krauss is coming from and how much weight to assign that opinion.

  21. TFBW says:

    P.S. TFBW: The title “The Root of all Evil?” wasn’t Dawkins’ doing, and he disagreed with it. Google this: “I didn’t like the title and fought it hard.”

    I made that comment on a different post and will respond there.

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