Thursday, March 03, 2016

From God to Skepticism

Maybe God created the world. But what kind of god?

It seems reasonable to have doubts about God's moral character. Some religions claim that if God exists, he/she/it is morally perfect. Other religions, especially polytheistic religions, make no such claims. Even the Old Testament, if read at face value, does not appear to portray a morally perfect God.

And of course there's the "problem of evil": The fact that the world is -- or appears to be -- full of needless suffering and wickedness that one might hope a morally good God would work to prevent. God could, it seems, have given Hitler a heart attack. God could, it seems, prevent people from dying young of painful diseases. One possible explanation for God's failure to prevent evil and suffering is that evil and suffering really don't bother God so much. Maybe God even enjoys watching us suffer. That would be one reason to create a world -- as a kind of LiveLeak voyeurism on human misery.

Similarly, it seems reasonable to have doubts about the extent of God's power. Maybe God really wanted to stop the Holocaust, but just couldn't get there in time, or was constrained by non-interference regulations enforced by the Council of Worldbuilders, or was so busy stopping other bad things that this one slipped through the net. Maybe God would have liked to create human teeth sufficiently robust that they did not decay, but had to compromise given the resources at hand.

Here's one way gods might work: by creating simulated worlds inside their computers, populated by conscious AIs who experience those simulated worlds as real. (Imagine the computer game "The Sims", but with conscious people inside.) I've argued that any manager of such a world would literally be a god to the beings inside that world. But of course those sorts of gods might be highly limited in their abilities. Maybe we too are in a Sim. (Personally, this strikes me as a more plausible version of theism than orthodox Catholic theology.) There's no guarantee that if some god launched our world, that god is all-powerful.

So maybe God (if there is a god) is all-powerful and morally perfect, and maybe not. I think it's reasonable to have an open mind about that question. But now radically skeptical doubts seem to arise.

An imperfect god might, for example, create millions of brief universes, one after the next, as trial runs -- beta versions, or quick practice sketches. An imperfect God might require multiple attempts to get things right. If so, then maybe we're in one of the betas or sketches, without much past or future, rather than in the final product.

An imperfect god, once it/she/he has the knack of things, might just create favorite moments, or interesting moments, in multiple copies -- might create you, or your city, or your planet with a fake past, then suddenly introduce a change of laws, or a disaster, or a highly unlikely stroke of good fortune, just to see what happens. Why not? If you're going to create a world, you might as well play around with it.

An imperfect god might create a universe as a project that runs for a while, but which will be shut down the moment God gets bored or receives a passing grade from the other gods or fails to pay the utility bill.

It was crucial to Descartes' famous (and famously unsuccessful) argument against skepticism that he establish that God is perfect and, specifically, not a deceiver. Descartes was right to emphasize this for his anti-skeptical aims. If you admit that God might have created the world but then don't put substantial constraints on God's behavior, then you are imagining a being with the power and motive to create worlds who really kind of might do anything -- and who (if we use human psychology as our best-guess model) seems reasonably likely to do something other than create a boring, stable, predictable, one-shot universe of the sort we normally think we inhabit.



  • Reinstalling Eden (with R. Scott Bakker; Nature 503: 562, Nov. 28, 2013)
  • Our Possible Imminent Divinity (Jan. 2, 2014)
  • What Kelp Remembers (Weird Tales, Apr. 14, 2014)
  • Out of the Jar (Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Jan/Feb 2015)
  • 1% Skepticism (Nous, forthcoming)

  • [image source]


    howard berman said...

    How does the purpose of our sim bear on the sim's creator's lack of omnipotence?
    If it is an experiment, then that would be the point wouldn't it? If our sim were an arena like in Roman days that would be the point, wouldn't it?
    If computers can acquire consciousness and power than maybe we can as well and rise up(I know I should keep this to myself) our indifferent overlords.

    G. Randolph Mayes said...

    We just finished your 1% in my naturalism seminar, thanks for making it available pre-publication. It's a great example of how to naturalize a question traditionally thought to have no empirical significance.

    The only thing I couldn't completely relate to is the agnostic turn you mention at the end. It's mostly semantic, I suppose. I don't know, e.g., if we could get self-described atheists like Dawkins or Dennett to commit to specifiying a particular subjective probability for the existence of a creator God (inclusive of a sims God.) But most of the time I think we associate agnosticism with the view that it seems as likely as not. Whereas 1% skepticism, which seems to entail only at most Pr(.006) that some creator God view is true, still seems like atheism to me.

    Shimon said...

    Interesting. For some relevant computational (including verification- and cryptography-related) considerations, see my 2011 paper, Regarding reality: some consequences of two incapacities, which opens with Descartes and ends with the Buddha (and one of the reviewers).

    Pilot Guy said...

    An interesting piece of work I did last year in undergrad involved automating the Iterated Prisoners' Dilemma (IPD) with a rudimentary learning program. It seems that two learning computer opponents will come to a basic set of moral tenets after playing each other many times.

    This led me to hypothesize that maybe some basic moral laws are built into the universe's structure and that this is what we call God.

    Callan S. said...

    Occasionally I consider avoidance of paternalism as a plausible modus operandi

    Perhaps large chunks of misery can be removed by us? What would it be if some god keeps fixing it all up - poking its nose into our lives over and over to do so? We'd complain about lack of freedom - even complain about the lack of freedom where we might use that freedom to do nothing to stop a Hitler like figure.

    God be damned if it do and damned if it don't.

    Plus, hey, it's waiting for the actual true gods children of the planet to emerge >:) It's not like we're them - we're just advanced dolphins or chimps or octopus, intellectually!

    Eric Schwitzgebel said...

    Sorry for the slow turnaround, folks! Family stuff, then distracted by my LA Times piece that came out on Sunday.

    Howard: Good questions -- a skeptic like me can leave them open!

    Randy: I'm glad you liked the 1% Skepticism paper and used it in your naturalism seminar! It's obviously a vague-boundaried thing, but I'm inclined to think that >= 2% credence in a god is sufficient for the label "agnostic", though I can also see how some people might hear is as 50/50. I'd say that my own credence is currently around 2%-10%, with some of that coming from about a 50/50 credence in a god conditional upon some skeptical scenario holding, some more of that coming from some credence in similar non-skeptical scenarios (e.g., large-scale sim scenarios, non-orthodox benign-God cosmological scenarios), and more coming from my recognition of peer disagreement and other evidence of my possible irrationality and overconfidence in my philosophical preferences (which I've come to more vividly appreciate via both skeptical and cross-cultural reflection).

    Pilot Guy: Certainly there are some evolutionary conditions that favor cooperative strategies; but there are also others that appear to favor violent, destructive, dishonest strategies. It's highly speculative which type of strategy is more fully in line with the overall structure of the universe.

    Shimon: Thanks for the link. It looks very interesting. Printing it out now!

    G. Randolph Mayes said...

    Eric, I like that answer a lot. Once we crossover into relating our confidence in a more granular way, then whether we characterize view as P(A) = .95 or P(T) = .05 is all a matter of framing. Not all that very long ago I would have found the attempt to achieve this kind of granularity with respect to our subjective probabilities kind of pointless, but not today. Philip Tetlock also provides empirical support for it. Apparently it's one of the main attributes of superforecasters, and their Brier score tends to improve the more granular they get. This seems like a great epistemological/educational frontier to me.