When People Don’t Believe in God, They Will Believe Anything!

Some people actually think it is possible that we are living in a computer simulation.
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Malcolm Muggeridge, the British journalist who was largely responsible for bringing Mother Teresa to the world’s attention, once said:

One of the peculiar sins of the twentieth century which we’ve developed to a very high level is the sin of credulity. It has been said that when human beings stop believing in God they believe in nothing. The truth is much worse: they believe in anything.
(Malcolm Muggeridge and Christopher Ralling, Muggeridge Through the Microphone, British Broadcasting Corporation, 1967, p. 44)

I couldn’t help but think of that quote when a student asked me to read Scientific American’s article entitled, “Are We Living in a Computer Simulation?

Apparently, that question was the topic of a debate held at the American Museum of Natural History back in 2016. The debate was moderated by serial spreader of falsehoods Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, who is responsible for one historian asking if it’s okay to lie about history, as long as the lies support a good cause.

According to the article, Dr. Tyson made the evidence-free speculation that there is a 50/50 chance we are, indeed, living in a computer simulation. Why? Because as Muggeridge suggested 50 years ago, when you give up belief in God, you must believe in all sorts of wild ideas in order to make sense of the universe around you.

For example, the article points out that we live in a world governed by mathematics. For many scientists, that’s a real mystery. After all, according to these scientists, mathematics is just a construct invented by people. Why in the world would this construct describe the natural world so perfectly? Of course, for the scientist who believes in God, this isn’t a problem at all. Galileo explained this fact nearly 400 years ago:

[The universe] cannot be read until we have learnt the language and become familiar with the characters in which it is written. It is written in mathematical language, and the letters are triangles, circles and other geometrical figures, without which means it is humanly impossible to comprehend a single word.

In other words, mathematics wasn’t invented by people. It was discovered by them. It is part of the language in which God wrote His creation. As soon as you reject the existence of a Creator, however, you have to come up with some reason as to why mathematics describes nature so well. Proposing that we are part of a computer simulation is one way to explain it!

Of course, there’s more to it than just mathematics. In the end, most honest scientists admit that there is a lot of design evident in the universe. If you refuse to believe in a Designer, you have to come up with some other explanation. One possibility is that we are just incredibly lucky. There is no design, but in an amazing series of astoundingly unlikely events, random processes produced a universe that just appears to be the result of design. Of course, that requires a person to ignore most of what we know about statistics, but if you really, really don’t want to believe in a Creator, you can probably ignore inconvenient details like that.

Another way an atheist can try to deal with the design we see in the universe is to come up with some other designer. That’s where the computer simulation idea comes from. If we are living in a computer simulation, our designer is just some advanced computer programmer. For some who don’t want to believe in God, this is a palatable alternative.

I, for one, think there is a much more effective explanation for the exquisite design you see in nature. Robert Boyle, the founder of modern chemistry, wrote it more than 350 years ago:

…when, in a word, by the help of anatomical knives, and the light of chymical furnaces, I study the book of nature, and consult the glosses of Aristotle, Epicurus, Paracelsus, Harvey, Helmont, and other learned expositors of that instructive volume: I find myself oftentimes reduced to exclaim with the Psalmist, How manifold are Thy works, O Lord? in wisdom hast Thou made them all!
(Thomas Birch. The Works of the Honourable Robert Boyle, Volume 1. London 1772. p. 262.)

21 Comments

  1. Eduardo says:

    50/50 means that we do not have a clue, how could that deserve a tv program?

  2. joshua says:

    One way to look at it is not so much that these folks are denying belief in God but they are actually expressing at least a potential belief in God without quite realizing it. I like to think of these things like Paul’s approach to the ‘unknown god’ in Acts: Yes, I think we are living in a designed simulation – and I think I know who the Simulator is!

    1. Jay Wile says:

      That’s a very interesting take, Joshua!

  3. John D. says:

    I remember watching this presentation ( here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wgSZA3NPpBs ) and I was actually impressed by the James Gates. It’s an interesting premise – He believes to have found “self correcting code” buried in the equations of string theory. In essence, like computers, parcels of information describing “OS UNIVERSE” are subject to glitches and therefore have been programmed with data combs to straighten out anything garbled in the fabric.

    Although I can see this working in DNA code (fallen world), I can’t help but shy away from the idea of a “fallen universe” in which God’s handiwork is subject to error.

    1. Jay Wile says:

      That seems to be the video of the debate. Thanks for posting it.

  4. Jake says:

    I don’t really have much of a problem with this, as phenomenologically all it does is suggest we think of the universe the same way we think about code on a computer – and that allows theoretical physicists to ask interesting computer-science-inspired questions that may not have occurred to them before. No serious scientist is going to talk or act as if he has a mystical understanding of the Programmer, because he knows he doesn’t have access to such knowledge. Of course, it does allow the media and “science enthusiasts” to say stupid things, and that does have an effect.

    If I had to choose, I’d almost certainly pick universe-as-simulation over the multiverse; the latter is just way too absurd.

  5. Paul Austin says:

    So. Half a millennium of scientific endeavour, and it’s still a 50/50 call as to whether the object of that study is “real”? What does that say about our capacity to genuinely “know”. Perhaps that explains Tyson’s giggles?

    Conceptually, I don’t see much difference between the suggestion of the universe as a “simulation” and Plato’s two millennium-old “Allegory of the Cave”. What is new, except now we talk about “computers” and String Theory? And empirically, what difference does it make, if we practically can not discern the difference between a singular creation and an equally sophisticated simulation?

    Possibly of more interest in this 500th year since Luther sparked the Reformation, is the question of how the Creator/Simulator so delicately discloses/disguises His/Its identity that we retain an experientially “real” capacity of choice regarding who/what we will believe. The heavens may declare, but humans remain free to hear, as we choose.

  6. John says:

    “What does that say about our capacity to genuinely “know”. ”

    “I think therefore I am.” I don’t know of of any sentence uttered outside of scripture that offer such a profound statement…and especially in so few words. I know it’s cliche but I imagine it will forever be relevant.

    On a side note…Dr. Wile, I share your dislike for Neil Degrasse. Perhaps even disdain. He’s a buffoon. I feel bad saying that… But, in addition to being a clumsy astrophysicist, he’s wholly anti-God.

  7. Bruce Rennie says:

    In some sense I would agree that mathematics is “discovered”, but in another sense, it is our way of simplifying the rules/law by which creation runs.

    We have an innate inability to comprehend the complexity of the universe around us. We are just way too small in our intellectual capacity. So we have developed techniques to describe what we see in simple ways. Mathematics provides a means where we can look at specific gross characteristics of the universe under investigation while ignoring other characteristics of that same universe.

    For example, when we look at large body attractions, we use the conceptual basis of gravity as being the force between two or more neutrally charged bodies and we ignore the electrical forces that exist between the components of those same bodies.

    In the case of gravity at galactic and intergalactic levels, we see phenomena that do not match the mathematical rules we expect from our model of gravity – this had lead some to believe that there is “dark” matter and “dark” energy. All experiments to date (as far as I have been able to determine) have failed to confirm such entities.

    What this means is that our mathematical models are both incomplete and too simplified.

    I find it interesting that though mathematics is capable of giving us useful insights and a measure of understanding of the universe around us, it can also lead us down the garden path to some nonsensical results. Especially, when we don’t keep in mind that we are trying to understand the creation (made for us by an incredibly personal God).

    Having been involved in computer programming since the late seventies, I have no doubt that a “computer simulation” of the complexity being suggested would require a “computer” and “software” of more complexity than we see in the known universe.

    A little time ago, a discussion occurred about the advances in AI and one comment that came up was about how the computer system had been designed to concentrate on a single activity (beating the human at a simple game) whereas the human was having to process a myriad of sensory inputs and outputs as well as play the game. No matter how seemingly complex our computer systems are, these system are far, far simpler than the systems they try to simulate.

    I might have additional comments to add, but that will have to wait.

  8. Francesco says:

    Dr. Wile,
    Someone asked on Quora how he could start believing in God. I’d like your opinion on the answer I gave. https://www.quora.com/How-can-I-start-believing-in-God/answer/Francesco-Scinico-1
    Thank you

    1. Jay Wile says:

      I would disagree with your assertion that a materialist view means indexicals can’t exist. Indexicals do not have to be supernatural. They can be the product of materialist brains. Also, I strongly disagree with the idea that an evolved brain can’t be one that looks for truth. It seems to me the most survivable brain is the one that is evolved to find truth. However, I think you bring up a lot of good points.

  9. Francesco says:

    Hi Dr. Wile,
    Thank you for taking the time to read my answer. I always appreciate your input.

    About indexicals and other issues related to consciousness, I’m not sure the issue is about the supernatural, as it is also advanced by atheist (non-physicalist) philosophers like Thomas Nagel: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/What_Is_it_Like_to_Be_a_Bat%3F

    From what I understand, it’s more of an issue with Physicalism, the ontological thesis that “everything is physical” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Physicalism) and that all reality can be explained by non-indexical physical facts (http://maverickphilosopher.typepad.com/maverick_philosopher/2012/02/are-there-indexical-facts-are-they-a-threat-to-materialism.html), but then why would philosophers argue that, at the same tme, indexical facts would disprove God’s omniscience? https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/omniscience/#OmniKnowDeSe

    As for the evolutionary argument against naturalism (Plantinga’s EAAN) [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alvin_Plantinga#Evolutionary_argument_against_naturalism], there’s an interesting back and forth between philosophers Edward Feser (supporting EAAN) and Eric Schiesser (denying EAAN) in the comments to this post by Feser: http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2013/01/schliesser-on-evolutionary-argument.html

    To me, Plantinga and Feser’s argument makes more sense than Schiesser’s because, ultimately, all information is filtered by our brain, and in a purely naturalistic world, truth is subservient to fitness/survival.

    Then the question becomes, does survival *always* select for truth in a way that we can deem reliable? From a materialistic standpoint, we can easily see that this is not the case in the example of religion; from a materialistic viewpoint, religion is wrong because there’s no supernatural, but we can easily see that, throughout history, the overwhelming majority of people (99% of the 100 billion people who have lived on earth) have been religious, so their brain has selected a lie, and why? Because it helps them survive and reproduce.

    If the reasoning above is correct, then materialism provides no foolproof way to trust our brain as *inherently* reliable; it might lead us to the truth, but only if the truth leads to survival. Ultimately, in materialism, survival is king.

    1. Jay Wile says:

      Thanks for your reply, Franseco, but I have to completely disagree. The very fact that atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel advances the idea of indexicals indicates that it’s not a problem for materialism. Indeed, if you read Nagel’s book, Mind and Cosmos, he makes it clear that he is not promoting anything more than materialism. He just argues that any materialist biological theory must account for indexicals. There certainly are atheists who try to explain the world with non-indexical facts, but there are other atheists who use indexicals. Indeed, as your Stanford link points out, there are some who believe that indexicals are incompatible with the idea that God is omniscient. Once again, then, indexicals cannot be used to argue for God’s existence.

      As for EAAN, I have already written about that, and I think it is a bad argument, even though I have great respect for Dr. Plantinga in general. I don’t think Schiesser’s argument against EAAN works at all, as I don’t see any teleological theory of evolution that doesn’t involve some sort of creator. As I wrote in the link above, you would expect evolution to produce brains that seek truth, since they are the most efficient at survival. To survive, one must make all sorts of decisions, and those decisions are more likely to be correct if the brain is seeking truth. If your brain doesn’t seek truth, then you have to learn each survival skill individually. If your brain seeks truth, it can learn one survival skill and then make accurate generalizations that will produce many more survival skills. A brain that seeks truth, then, provides the most efficient chance for survival, so one would expect evolution to produce such brains. So yes, natural selection should select for truth, because it produces the most survivable organism. I think Dr. Plantinga would benefit from reading more evolutionary theory.

      1. Jake says:

        I think you have to be careful with that argument against Plantinga’s evolutionary argument against naturalism, because it requires the window of available truths to be very narrow, and it assumes that the brain would use those truths like a human would (making “accurate generalizations,” whatever that means). To use your example from your old post, say our brain sees that lions are predators (a word which is probably already too full of meaning). Does it make sense to say that all lion-looking things are predators? What is the proper definition of “lion-looking”? Lions are yellowish, look like cats, and are kind of big. They have paws, tongues, fur, tails, and teeth; they live in groups, sleep, and eat. Which facts does our brain use to make “accurate generalizations”? There are just too many facts and accurate generalizations, and probably just as many inaccurate ones. If you want to say that our brain gathers multiple relevant facts into a whole, creates the predator category, and applies it elsewhere, how does it do that? I’d probably say that your argument implicitly assumes the brain is already sorting facts based on their value for survival – and that undermines it.

        Your old post also says this:

        “In the end, then, if all your beliefs are simply the result of evolution, then there is no reason to expect them all to be true. In fact, there is no reason to expect that even most of them are true. As a result, there is no reason to expect that the conclusions of science are true. Nontheistic evolution, then, argues against the conclusions of science!”

        I think it’s correct to say that we have no reason to think the conclusions of science are true. Not only is this Popperian, it also comports with what Kuhn says: that scientists stick dogmatically to what happened to work in solving the problems of the previous crisis. And the crisis occurs because anomalies pile up that say the current paradigm is false, not that another one is true. And scientists discover the anomalies for random, subjective reasons like historical events and culture. We just solve the problems that come at us with the tools at hand; that doesn’t mean our theories about those problems and tools are correct. The universe does a lot to buffet us towards the truth, but all we can do is aim for it while we stumble around.

        1. Jay Wile says:

          I will have to disagree with you, Jake. The whole idea is that natural selection will favor brains that make the right generalizations. If you generalize “lionlike” too much, you lose out on food and possible domesticated animals and are therefore less likely to survive. If you don’t generalize enough, you risk being eaten and are therefore less likely to survive. This fits perfectly well with evolutionary theory.

          The quote you give from my previous article is me trying to summarize the EAAN. The rest of the post is why the EAAN is a bad argument.

          The EAAN is definitely not in line with either Popper or Kuhn. Popper is simply indicating the limits of what science can tell us. He definitely thinks the brain can seek truth. Kuhn is saying that despite the fact that the brain can seek truth, some brains are too conditioned to do it well in specific cases. In those situations, younger brains that haven’t been too conditioned are better at seeking truth. Once again, this assumes that evolution has produced brains that seek truth.

        2. Jake says:

          I think you misunderstand both of my points. First, truth is a space far larger than just “the right generalizations.” You are already using that phrase, as well as “too much” and not “enough” generalization, how humans would use them – not how some generalized truth-seeking brain might use them. There is so much truth, and so many ways to generalize from it, that you already have to speak in terms of what knowledge is useful for survival for this truth-seeking idea to make any sense. General truth-seeking doesn’t care about whether a truth is useful for survival, because there are so many true statements. I don’t see that your argument is anything but a confusion of language.

          Second, I understood that you were explaining the EAAN in that quote; but you also framed it somewhat exaggeratedly, and later you argued that evolution doesn’t imply this. But I think it’s true that we have no reason (well, at least no natural reason) to expect our science to be true, independent of how evolution is supposed to work. Kuhn definitely does not think the younger brains are “better at seeking truth,” or at least that’s not his argument in Structure. He thinks they seek truth differently from the older generation of scientists; I imagine Kuhn would react strongly against using the word better. (Amusingly, the last time I heard someone lecturing about Kuhn, he compared Kuhn’s view of science to capitalism’s invisible hand; perhaps here it’d be better to compare it to natural selection.) I imagine Popper and Kuhn did think human brains can seek truth, but truth-seeking isn’t necessarily what our brains our doing; it’s definitely not what Galileo was doing with his Dialogues. Kuhn does a pretty good job demonstrating how the scientific enterprise strongly deviates from truth-seeking.

        3. Jay Wile says:

          Thanks for your clarifications, Jake. I agree that truth is a larger space than just the right generalizations, but in this case, we are talking about scientific truth, which are mostly built on the right generalizations. The point of the EAAN is that you can’t believe your scientific conclusions if materialistic evolution is true, and that’s quite false. You might not have reason to believe certain truths, but you have every reason to believe truths related to the natural world, because they are the ones that most influence survival, and a brain that seeks such truths is more survivable. Of course, the the hardcore materialist, truths related to the natural world are the only truths, so once again, a naturalist has every reason to believe his conclusions, even if materialistic evolution is true.

          You are right about Kuhn in the sense that I shouldn’t have used the term “better.” Nevertheless, in Structure, he indicates that each revolution represents progress towards solving problems. Indeed, in the second edition, he explicitly spells that out in his postscript. Thus, he thinks that we can rely on our brains to solve problems, which indicates that our brains are reliable when it comes to understanding truths about the natural world.

  10. Francesco says:

    Dr. Wile,
    How would hardcore materialists account for your conversion from atheism to Christianity? If, according to them, natural truths are the only truths, and a brain that seeks truth is more survivable, how would they explain your departure from the truth of naturalism into the lie of Christianity? After all, you were not brainwashed into it in your youth; it was a conscious decision you took as an adult, based on your misunderstanding of the evidence for design in nature and its misattribution to a non-existent deity. And it’s not like you are the only scientist that has done so, so they can’t blame you of being the lone, irrational oddball.

    Another interesting philosophical question for the naturalist; what happens if a lie, rather than truth, benefits survival? I came across this post yesterday https://evolutionnews.org/2017/08/the-universe-has-no-purpose-but-we-can-pretend/ in which naturalist philosopher Joseph Carter is quoted as saying that, even though evolution has no purpose, we humans benefit from a (false) belief in purpose because it helps produce more offspring. Another related example is religion, which benefits survival more than the nihilistic truth of materialism.

    What do you think a naturalist would say to that?

    1. Jay Wile says:

      From an evolutionary point of view, adaptation is the key. It works both across generations and within generations. When an organism can easily switch food sources, it is more likely to survive than an organism which can’t. I would expect that a materialist would explain my conversion as an adaptation. At first, I could handle the truth and was therefore an atheist. However, something in my life happened, and I couldn’t deal with the truth about God anymore. To keep my mental health, then, I ended up becoming a Christian. Evolution would favor a brain that can adapt like that. This is why I told Jake that the truths an evolution-produced brain would pursue deal with truths about the physical world. While survival might be more likely if you believe lies about love, purpose in life, etc., believing lies about the PHYSICAL world would not benefit survival.

  11. Bruce Rennie says:

    Good morning Jay,

    In reading the responses above, an underlying idea is being shown. People want to know that they are right. The idea of God, a god, or gods existing means that there may be a standard or rules that dictate how one should be living. For those that do not believe God, a god or gods exist then they are at liberty to dictate what is the appropriate rules that one should live by.

    In the later case, people can then make the judgment that they cannot be judged over how they live their lives. So, ideas like evolution are then able to be used to back up that view. A relatively self-consistent worldview can be developed to support the premise that they are okay in what they do (no judgments allowed of their personal choices).

    To believe in one God, creator of the Universe (God the Father, Jesus Christ the Son and the Holy Spirit), a personal God who has spoken to men, women and children over millennia requires a recognition that we don’t set any standards for living. In essence, this means that God sets the standards and since those standards are so high that they are not achievable by man, we are not okay. People, as a generality, don’t like this situation. The good news is that He has also set up the way for us to live freely in Him that does not depend on anything that we can achieve by ourselves.

    Of course the above is not as simple an straight forward as that because there are people who want gods that will allow them to live the way they have chosen. They want gods who have rules that are easy to live by or will justify their life-style.

    If we get back to your original article, those who who have no anchor in God (Father, Son and Spirit) have to create an anchor of their own imagining so that they can feel good about themselves with no recriminations. The funny thing it that Jesus gives us a life with no recriminations if we but live in Him by His power, His love, His peace, doing in us what we cannot do by our very nature. It doesn’t make us perfect but we live in hope, peace and love. This is available to all, no matter what one has done or lived by. It doesn’t matter what you were, whether mass murderer, prostitute, pedophile, slaver, slave, drug addict, thief, self-righteous, homosexual, bisexual, transsexual, satan worshiper, moslem, atheist, capitalist, communist, politician, scammer, spy, goody two shoes, good person, honoured businessman, sportsperson, artist, music and film star, religious, irreligious, racist, etc., etc., etc., everyone has an opportunity in Jesus to be free in Him. No past is too bad or evil or too good or nice to be forgiven, none.

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