evil_half_life

The physics of miracles and the problem of evil

We may be bots in a reality-wide simulation, and perhaps the player(s) from above can violate our simulated physics when they want. In a more popular formulation of the same concept, called Religion, the player(s), called God(s), created our reality and can perform miracles. The two formulations are equivalent for all practical purposes. Many religions assume that Gods are omnipotent and benevolent, but then we have the problem of evil: how can omnipotent and benevolent Gods permit evil and suffering?

If omnipotent and benevolent Gods permit evil and suffering, then they are either not omnipotent, or not benevolent, or neither, or perhaps they don’t exist at all. In fact, the problem of evil is one of the main reasons why former believers become atheists. It turns out that the problem of evil has a simple solution.

The picture is a screenshot taken in the popular computer game Half Life 2 by Valve Software. The people in the picture are bots, or Non-Player Characters (NPCs). They have a limited “intelligence” and can respond to a limited range of situations that can arise in the game, for example if you go near the guards they will beat you.

The “intelligence” of bots in computer games is still light years behind real intelligence. However, I am persuaded that real, self-aware AI of human and higher-level will be achieved someday, perhaps by the computer gaming industry itself, and perhaps in the next couple of decades. Then, computer games will contain sentient, intelligent persons like you and I.

If computer game bots can be intelligent and sentient, perhaps we are sentient and intelligent computer game bots. Do we live in a computer simulation? This is a frequent discussion topic in transhumanist interest groups, and a matter of scientific investigation. Who is running the simulation? Perhaps unknowable aliens in another level of reality have invented our world and us. A frequent assumption (see The New God Argument) is that future humans run our reality as a historically accurate simulation of their past (our present).

In a 1992 essay entitled Pigs in Cyberspace, Hans Moravec formulated (in modern terms) the idea of our reality as a simulation. “The very moment we are now experiencing may actually be (almost certainly is) such a distributed mental event, and most likely is a complete fabrication that never happened physically,” he says, implying that observers living in simulated realities may vastly outnumber observers living in original physical realities.

Bishop George Berkeley thought that the reality we perceive, and ourselves in it, exist in the mind of “that supreme and wise Spirit, in whom we live, move, and have our being“: God. In other words, we are thoughts in the Mind of God. It is easy to see that Berkeley and Moravec say very similar things (actually, the same thing), each in the language of his philosophy and age.

Apparently, there is an important difference between Berkeley and Moravec: As a 18th century Christian and a representative of the Church, Berkeley believed in supernatural phenomena, in principle not understandable by science, while Moravec, as a modern engineer, believes reality is fully understandable and explainable by science. Future engineers within the framework of future science will develop Moravec’s simulated realities. If our reality is a simulation, everything in our universe can be understood in terms of the physical laws of the higher-level reality in which it is simulated.

But… this does not mean that it must always be understandable in terms of our own physical laws: Moravec’s simulation cosmology may contain supernatural phenomena, because the reality engineers up there may choose to violate the rules of the game. Yes, as Richard Dawkins says, they are creatures naturally evolved in their physical universe and they cannot violate their physics, but they can violate ours if they want.

life_utm
A Universal Turing Machine (UTM) implemented in Conway’s Game of Life, designed by Paul Rendell (http://rendell-attic.org/gol/utm/index.htm)

Make this simple experiment: Run a Conway’s Game of Life program, choose an initial pattern, and let it evolve for a while. Now, stop the program, flip a cell, and resume the program. You have just performed a miracle: something that goes against the physical laws (the simple cellular automata evolution rules of Life) of the lower-level reality that you are simulating. Of course simple Life patterns are not complex enough to be sentient observers, but hypothetical observers within Life would observe an event that cannot be understood in terms of the physical laws of their universe. A miracle.

In the short movie CA Resurrection below, made with a Game of Life program, the protagonist pattern is doomed to certain death by interaction with a very unfriendly environment (sounds familiar?), but is copied before death and restored to life in a friendlier environment. This (scientifically plausible) computational resurrection is equivalent to the religious concept of resurrection in Heaven. I am a pattern doomed to certain death by interaction with a very unfriendly environment, and I hope to be copied and resurrected.

If we admit the possibility of a God who created our reality (or a post-human player who runs the simulation that is our reality, but the two concepts are really one and the same), able to perform miracles, we must face the Problem of Evil: a benevolent and omnipotent God would not permit evil, so since evil exists, God is either not benevolent, or not omnipotent, or neither.

The medieval philosophers, who were as smart as contemporary philosophers and thought a lot about these things, knew that “omnipotent” is a concept that needs to be defined and limited. Could an omnipotent being create a stone so heavy that even he could not lift it? If he could lift the rock, then it seems that the being could cease to be omnipotent, as the rock was not heavy enough; if he could not, it seems that the being was not omnipotent to begin with.

But a rock so heavy that it cannot be lifted by an omnipotent being cannot exist, because an omnipotent being is defined as a being who can lift all rocks. The rock is a contradiction in terms and a logical impossibility, like a triangle with four sides (a triangle is defined as a polygon with three sides).

No God can ever draw a triangle with four sides, because a triangle with four sides cannot exist by definition. I don’t believe in the supernatural, but I can believe in natural Gods, and I can believe that natural Gods created our reality. A natural God is only omnipotent in the sense that he is much more powerful than us, but still has necessary limitations.

If reality is a computation, it is probably an incompressible computation with no shortcuts: the only way to know what happens at time t, is to run the computation until time t. Besides some very simple initial configurations, the Game of Life is incompressible: if you want to know what happens at time step t, you must run the program through all intermediate time steps.

It makes sense to assume that reality is an incompressible computation, and the universe is the fastest computer that can compute itself. In other words, a 100% complete and accurate prediction of tomorrow’s weather cannot be done in less than 24 hours, and the only way to predict the future with complete accuracy is waiting for the future to happen.

This assumption makes sense because the existence of a faster-than-the-universe computer within the universe would lead to logical contradictions. Suppose you could compute the state of the universe tomorrow faster than the universe itself. The results of the computation will include the color of the shirt that you will wear tomorrow. Then you can invalidate the prediction by simply wearing, tomorrow,  a shirt of another color.

evil_half_life
A very ugly simulated reality in Half Life 2

The life of the prisoners brutalized by the guards in the Half Life 2 scene in the picture above is very ugly, and if they were sentient they would suffer a lot. Unfortunately, similar things have happened in our reality, for example in the 1930s, and millions of sentient persons have been brutalized by evil regimes, and suffered a lot. Surely a benevolent and omnipotent God would try to do something to avoid that.

But there are no computational shortcuts. The only way to predict with complete accuracy that certain events would lead to, say, Auschwitz,  is to let the computation unfold until Auschwitz.

But wait a sec — you may be thinking — can’t God just use a faster computer to make the prediction? After all, we can predict the evolution of a Game of Life on our computer, by running it on a faster computer. If we see (on the faster computer) that something bad will happen to our favorite pattern, we can stop the game and try to flip some cells to ensure it doesn’t happen in our game.

Well, no, it wouldn’t work. Remember that these computations contain sentient beings. If God uses a faster reality simulator to predict Auschwitz before it happens in our reality simulator… Auschwitz will happen in the faster simulator, and people will suffer in the faster simulator.

This “solves” the Problem of Evil, because God is unable to predict the future with complete accuracy and can only work with incomplete resources and information, like us.

13 thoughts on “The physics of miracles and the problem of evil”

  1. Love this! Thanks Giulio. It reminds me of these words from William James:

    “Suppose that the world’s author put the case to you before creation, saying: ‘I am going to make a world not certain to be saved, a world the perfection of which shall be conditional merely, the condition being that each several agent does its own ’level best.’ I offer you the chance of taking part in such a world. Its safety, you see, is unwarranted. It is a real adventure, with real danger, yet it may win through. It is a social scheme of co-operative work genuinely to be done. Will you join the procession? Will you trust yourself and trust the other agents enough to face the risk?’

    “Should you in all seriousness, if participation in such a world were proposed to you, feel bound to reject it as not safe enough? Would you say that, rather than be part and parcel of so fundamentally pluralistic and irrational a universe, you preferred to relapse into the slumber of nonentity from which you had been momentarily aroused by the tempter’s voice?

    “Of course if you are normally constituted, you would do nothing of the sort. There is a healthy-minded buoyancy in most of us which such a universe would exactly fit. We would therefore accept the offer–’Top! und schlag auf schlag!’ It would be just like the world we practically live in; and loyalty to our old nurse Nature would forbid us to say no. The world proposed would seem ’rational’ to us in the most living way.

    “Most of us, I say, would therefore welcome the proposition and add our fiat to the fiat of the creator.”

    1. Win through? Winning through is merely a matter of having sufficient technology, the absence of technology is a disability, so why would an allegedly intelligent being who creates universes impose a disability on beings who can feel excruciating pain? You may say God didn’t realise intelligent beings would be created within this universe which God allegedly created, but such a failure to anticipate intelligent life shows unbelievable lack of foresight on the part of God. God is either an extreme moron incapable if feeding itself never-mind creating a universe, or God is intelligent. So we correctly conclude God must have known intelligent beings would arise within God’s universe, which leads to the conclusion that God created us to have a disability, which is exceptionally cruel. If you are a parent maybe you will chop off a hand and foot from your newborn so that the newborn can have the joy (sic, insane) of winning through, of facing the risk. God is either a dangerous psychopath of God doesn’t exist and God never will exist. I say God does not exist and God never will, furthermore if God does exist I will kill God because God is clearly irreparably deranged. I fail to see why people have any respect for the concept of God. God is vile atrocity, a total abomination. No intelligent being would intentionally, or via lack of foresight, create an intelligent lifeform to have a very painful disability.

  2. Have you ever predicted something without running a simulation. Perhaps you looked at the horizon and saw dark clouds thus you correctly predicted rain in one hour but how did you do that without a reality simulator? Is a reality simulator needed for all predictions? What is a universe to a God creator. If a God exists how quickly does the intelligence of a God increase or is it likely the intelligence of God is static. Has God ceased to evolve? If you imagine someone suffering in your brain does that mean the person in your imagination has suffered? If you imagine it raining in one hour due to clouds on the horizon does this mean it is raining inside you mind?

    So God hypothetically creates the universe and this creation is at the limit of the God’s ability, does this mean God can never acquire greater ability despite the passage of time? Think about the creations you created when you were 10 years old. When you were 20 I am sure your creations were vastly improved, but what about 100 years post-Singularity, what will your abilities be like then? How will your abilities improve in 1,000 or 10,000 years?

    Do you realise how old our universe is? NASA says it is between 12 and 14 BILLION years. Our solar system is around 4.6 BILLION years old, but it was only 600 million years ago that simple animals evolved on Earth.

    Let’s assume God does evolve but maybe God evolves very slowly despite the tendency of technology to evolve at ever increasing speeds.

    One million years after the universe is created seems a long time from our perspective. Within one million years our minds will evolve radically, but how rapidly did God’s mind evolve after the creation of the universe? Creationists would probably say God’s mind can never evolve but I think all intelligent beings evolve.

    Have you ever observed a child? Even with our primitive brains, anywhere between 20 or 100 years older than a child, it is easy to predict what a child is thinking and what a child will do, no simulation is needed for such prediction.

    Our universe is an old place. The universe was actually very young one million years after it was created. Even after one billion years our universe was not very old. The question is, how much greater could God’s mind become in one billion years? If the universe is merely a video game for God it makes you wonder what type of gamer God is after playing the game for one, two, three, four… ten billion years or more. I stop at ten billion because I want to give God ample time to make life throughout the universe, or at least on Earth, a flawless experience. Surely 10 million years is enough time for a patch or update to stop all the insane mindless evil?

    Multicellular life evolved on Earth around one billion years ago thus God had at least 11 billion years to create patch, a fix to stop needless pain and suffering, but it seems God is retarded because God’s brain has not evolved significantly over 12 – 14 billion years. If the universe is “a God” greater than the God which created it, then surely given the rate of technological acceleration the universe should be more technically accomplished? Surely after 12 – 14 billion years the universe, or its creator/s, should have discovered a way to communicate sensibly with all intelligent life within the universe?

    If you created something 11 billion years ago it is certain you would have the ability to easily and fully comprehend what you created after 11 billion years. You could comprehend it without a simulator in the way a parent can easily comprehend the needs of a child; or if the universe is eternally more intelligent than its creator, then after 12 – 14 billion years surely the universe would have developed significant intelligence noticeable by all intelligent lifeforms within the universe?

    There are two possible conclusions:

    1. God (in whatever shape of form you imagine God) is an insane, retarded moron and needs to be killed.

    2. Most likely, GOD DOES NOT EXIST AND GOD NEVER WILL EXIST.

    1. @ Singular Utopia – Im reading your reply and the conclusions you list are not the only rational conclusions a person could come to, even from your rant. While I may not agree with the author on all of his points, your argument is either too steeped in the definition of traditional, supernatural christian gods (I’d agree with you there: that god is a fantasy and inexplicable, but many of us have moved beyond that notion to realize that God is actually a natural part of the environment subject to and having the knowledge of natural laws we have yet to grasp – a post human if you will) or you have a limited understanding of the benefits of opposition and experience. By your reasoning, the god you define has had millions of years to decide he should force everyone to make certain choices and therefore disallow any agency, allowing for no possibility of failure. Consequently we are all toys and bereft of the privilege of learning consequence for our actions and becoming agents for ourselves. You dismiss the possibility that suffering, whether experienced personally or vicariously, in some way in and of itself is a path to a post-human realization.

      1. Hi Matt, I agree. If the universe is an incompressible computation (and I guess it is, because besides some idealized cases all real systems are computationally incompressible), then we have free will even if the universe is deterministic. The only way anyone, including yourself, can know in advance with absolute certainty what you will do tomorrow, is to wait and see what you will do tomorrow.

        1. Fascinating conclusion! A supreme engineer God may value free will beyond the ability to compute the end. I believe that all possible conclusions COULD be calculated by said post-human, but can they be calculated to certainty or simply to probability? If the variable is an intelligent free agent, the possibility of a choice makes certainty…well uncertain. Have we considered that the perhaps in some cases, a definitive calculation is not possible or that probability of various outcomes are completely equal? That’s mathematically plausible and when dealing with observable intelligences we see every day the evidence is commonplace. Therefore millions of years of calculations may only offer that more than one action is equally probable and the only true way to know the outcome is for the outcome to actually occur.

  3. “This “solves” the Problem of Evil, because God is unable to predict the future with complete accuracy and can only work with incomplete resources and information, like us.”

    I suppose this is possible, but it creates a big problem: How does one place trust in a God who is not entirely in control?

    You are in essence saying the world is the way it is because the simulation is running amok, and even though God is working tirelessly to fix things, he’s been unsuccessful up to this point.

    Not only is God not omnipotent according to this scenario; he’s a complete imbecile.

    The parallels you draw between Half Life and “real life” hint at a far more compelling alternative, I think: Not only is life a simulation; it is also a game. If the potential for failure isn’t real, or at least doesn’t feel real, i.e., we cannot suspend disbelief, then we will not be engaged in the experience.

    I would argue that the simulation is this way by design, not by mistake. That we are always in a state of crisis, that it always looks like “evil” is about to win, that we are always in grave danger of losing–that’s the point entirely.

    We talk about gods who “run our reality as a historically accurate simulation of their past (our present).” Well, think about how Earth-humans run their simulations: Half-Life isn’t the way it is because it’s full of bugs and other problems. It is the way it is because it’s suppose to be both convincing and challenging.

    We complain about all the pain and suffering in the world, then we go and willfully subject ourselves to artificial pain and suffering in the form of video games, books, films, and amusement parks. It turns out “survival” is one of our favorite pastimes. That should tell us something right there.

  4. @Khannea, I like the idea that I may be a Tamagotchi. Someone must be carrying me in a hyperpocket and stopping every few minutes to check if I am OK (I used to do that with my first Tamagotchi).

    @Lincoln, yes, as always, William James speaks with the true voice of wisdom.

    @Singularity Utopia:
    It may be just my impression, but you sound really conflictive. Relax, nobody is against you here.
    I would appreciate it if you could refrain from expressions like “God is an insane, retarded moron and needs to be killed.”
    I understand the resentment against a universe, or a God, which “imposes a disability on beings who can feel excruciating pain.”
    We are molecular machines designed by evolution and based on DNA, which gets copied over and over again. Sometimes there are errors in the copy, and mutations. Without errors, and mutations, there is no evolution, and we would not be here discussing this. Unfortunately, some errors and mutations cause disabilities.
    This is very cruel, and I hope someday soon _we_ will be able to solve this problem by migrating to substrates more solid and resilient than DNA biology. I think this is God’s plan.

    @Arkwelder, you have a good point. I must give it some thoughts. I am not much of a gamer, but I have played Warcraft, Crysis, Half Life 2 and similar games occasionally. I shoot the bots because I think of them as simple strings of bits without internal experiences, but if I thought that they suffer when I shoot them, I wouldn’t shoot them.
    Gods who simulate Auschwitz because it is fun… well, they would not be the Gods I believe in.

  5. @Arkwelder re “I would argue that the simulation is this way by design, not by mistake. That we are always in a state of crisis, that it always looks like “evil” is about to win, that we are always in grave danger of losing–that’s the point entirely.”

    In my previous reply I said “Gods who simulate Auschwitz because it is fun… well, they would not be the Gods I believe in.” But I see that you mean fun for us bots, not for them Gods. This is an intriguing possibility, but I think there should be a panic button or something, that we can press when things become really unbearable.

    Well, there is one, now that I think of it.

  6. Very interesting article, well done Giulio. I was involved in some 3D videgames PCMagazine magazine articles. The control of the programmers on the simulated world may not be complete, if the simulated world is very complex and interacting bot programmer (read God) can not anticipate every move of every bot and the reactions of its artificial intelligence to a particular stimulus.

    Some years ago I read an article by one of the programmers of Descent III (http://www.descent3.com/index.php), one of the best programs in terms of AI Bot. I remember he said he was surprised when the game Bot reacted independently simulating fear and running away instead of attacking them when no one expected this kind of reaction. If then we are living in a simulation on our “God” can not have real control of our world to the infinitesimal. Moreover, even the same law as the Heisenberg uncertainty principle states that we can never know the last position of a subatomic particle. The “God” creator of the simulation can have a control type “macro” on some phases of the project, but in my opinion can not even change the fundamental physical laws. He can not do otherwise would start a chain reaction and the universe he created is destroyed as a gray-goo.

  7. In addition to this argument we must consider the most important problem: the “Time Problem” which is also known as a critical article by Nick Bostrom on simulation. Homo sapiens on earth for at least 100,000 years and intelligent life by hundreds of millions of years. This is too long because it remains an observer watching the simulation for all this time.
    So either we are not living in a simulation or “God Programmer” can alter the curvature of spacetime at will and follow it happen fast. In any case, following these ideas is my solution to the problem of evil and that only the “God Programmer” is not following the events that started in the simulation, so it can not act in this or in that of the simulation where the evil occurs, in other words, he is not omnipotent. In addition to this we must consider the most important problem: the “Time Problem” which is also known as a critical article by Nick Bostrom on simulation. Homo sapiens on earth for at least 100,000 years and intelligent life by hundreds of millions of years. This is too long because it remains an observer watching the simulation for all this time. So either we are not living in a simulation or “God Programmer” can alter the curvature of spacetime at will and follow it happen fast. In any case, following these ideas is my solution to the problem of evil and that only the “God Programmer” is not following the events that started in the simulation, so it can not act in this or in that of the simulation where the evil occurs, in other words, he is not omnipotent and is completely uninterested in the events.

  8. Thanks Ugo!

    Re “he is not omnipotent and is completely uninterested in the events”

    I guess he is not omnipotent (which is a slippery concept as mentioned in the text) but just very powerful according to our standards. Perhaps he has more important things to do (like when we work instead of playing videogames), but I hope he is not “completely uninterested” and comes back now and then to check how the SimUniverse is doing.

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