Atheists have two basic arguments for the non-existence of God(s). The first is the problem of evil. God is omnipotent, omniscient and all good. If God as such exists, how can we explain the existence of evil? A good God would not create evil, an omnipotent God could erase evil and an omniscient God would find the evil wherever it tried to hide. After all, what sort of God would let my grandma or son or pet fish die? The religious thinker explains this by concluding that evil is secretly good (but should still be punished?), which if you squint hard enough and invest heavily in tequila, becomes only 70-80% ridiculous.
The second argument is that God is an unnecessary hypothesis. The sky might have been purple before the first bacterium evolved, but purpleness is not a requirement for the theory of evolution and is thus not included in Darwin’s hypothesis. This applies to God as well. After all, we can know everything with science (or can we?) and don’t need a bearded man fond of smitings to make the universe work.
Adherents to the Abrahamic religions strike back with two basic arguments of their own. The first is that science requires an assumption of causality. If you don’t believe in cause and effect, science is of no use at all. Unfortunately, the existence of second causes (everything we see in nature) presupposes a first cause. The problem for the pure empiricist then becomes “how can I explain the first cause, which was caused by nothing” – a problem he mostly solves by ignoring. The atheist’s inability to deal with the unmoved mover, in my opinion, makes the unnecessary hypothesis argument collapse in on itself.
(In case you want to explore this problem more, I just gave you the Thomas Aquinas version of Aristotle’s unmoved mover problem.)
The second compelling theist attack on the atheists comes in the form of the “finely tuned universe.” The mass of an electron, slightly higher or lower, makes the formation of stars impossible. The strength of gravity, nudged just slightly higher, gives us a universe of black holes and not much else. A little lower and we have glowing brown globs of dust. Dark energy as well, making it just a tiny bit stronger and our friendly universe is sitting just above absolute zero. There is no apparent reason for the strength of gravity or the mass of electrons to be exactly as they are. In fact, the probability of such values lining up perfectly to make our friendly universe is effectively zero. This, the theist argues, implies design. Many theists attempt to stretch the implication into proof, but that doesn’t work for a variety of reasons.
Perhaps there’s a solution to the problems posed by both sides.
Storytelling might be a defining trait of humanity. At least, it’s very old – certainly predating the historical era. In a story, we create whole new people and put them in entirely novel worlds. We invent titans and set the sky upon their shoulders. We capture monkey gods and send Gilgamesh questing after immortality. These characters, these simulated people, are things we’ve made since our time in caves and recorded since the dawn of writing. They are present in every known culture.
As technology developed, our simulated people have changed form. They’ve gone from flat, heroic propaganda pieces like Heracles or Moses to more sophisticated people like Hamlet. They moved from clay tablets to paper and then to mass produced books. In the digital age they’ve gained a bit of independence, like the NPCs (non-player characters) you will find simulated in any video game. It might not be long before our simulations achieve what can realistically be called artificial intelligence.
And if they do, would it be surprising if we found our simulations, our characters, making their own simulations? If simulation building is a property of intelligent beings, and it seems to be, there would be no limit to the number of simulations possible. Just think about it, amazon.com currently stocks millions of simulations – books, video games, movies, model building programs. In a sufficiently advanced setting, you would expect there to be trillions of simulations for every “real” civilization.
And if there are so many trillions of simulations per real civilization, what is the probability that we, human beings, are real? What are the chances that we aren’t somebody else’s simulation. Not very high.
If we are simulations, the big attacks on theism more or less melt away. The problem of evil suddenly becomes easy. When I simulate a world in my novels, I don’t go out of my way to make my characters happy. I give them cancer. I blow them up with missile strikes. I cripple their family members. I don’t do so because I’m evil – or at least, not only because I’m evil – but because putting my simulated people into a state of placid happiness is both boring and useless. There’s simply no imperative that I’m all good when I run a simulation. It’s the same with omnipotence and omniscience. I don’t need to be able to program C++ to play Sim City and I don’t have to understand Chinese to read the works of Lu Xun. Why would it be different for the people simulating our universe?
Simulation also gets rid of the finely tuned universe problem. What would you do with a simulation that collapses into nothing? I would reset the values until I got something self-sustaining and interesting. I would keep tinkering until I got life and death and rebirth because that’s the stuff you learn from. That’s the stuff that’s interesting. And when I got it right, it would probably begin in a big bang, for no reason at all, from the perspective of my simulated beings.
All the theist needs to do is strip God down to the person or thing doing a simulation. Get rid of the omnipotence and the perfect benevolence. Hell, get rid of the perfection all together. Do away with the moral imperatives and the certainty and the fluffy cloud heaven. Get rid of those things and the atheist really doesn’t have anything on you except, of course, to wonder what such a God means to us. To answer that question, I’m afraid you’re very much on your own.
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