Monday, February 27, 2012

The God We Would Expect

Our surprising God?
A couple of weeks ago I showed that if we assume the classical Christian God exists, we would expect him to create a very different universe than the one we actually live in. But then it occurred to me: why not try exactly the reverse? If we assume for the sake of argument that God exists, but then remove any prior assumptions we have about him, what would we expect him to be like based solely on what we know about the universe?

Let's find out.

What God Is
The universe as we know it is physical. Therefore, in the absence of any strong reasons to think otherwise, the immediate assumption is that God would be physical as well. It's probably not even meaningful to talk about a spiritual realm: to my knowledge, there's no real definition of what "spiritual" even means. Besides, if God was spiritual, then as I argued in the counterpart to this post, he would have no obvious reason not to make the universe spiritual as well.

If we don't start out by assuming Christianity, we would never in a million years expect God to somehow consist of a "Trinity"—of three "persons" composed of the same divine "substance." This convoluted idea of three entities that are somehow both distinct and unified may not even be coherent, let alone a reasonable prediction based only on our current knowledge. No, without good arguments to the contrary, we would expect God to be a single being—perhaps a very complex one, but certainly not one with some theologically sophisticated split personality.

While we're at it, we might as well dispense with the assumption that God is a "he," or even that "he" has a gender at all. Unless there's more than one of his kind, it would make little sense for him to have an identity as a male or a female. (Regardless, I'll still refer to him as "he" for the sake of clarity and convention.)

What God Wants
What might we expect God's goal to be in creating this universe? Contrary to what most religions of the world believe, we shouldn't necessarily assume that God particularly values humanity—or even life of any kind. If life was the goal, we would expect the universe to be teeming with it in every nook and cranny, yet Earth is the only planet we know of that has any. God seems to love dark matter and black holes more than any living creature, and of the little life that does exist, insects, plants and bacteria seem to be much higher on the divine priority list. Evolutionary biologist J.B.S. Haldane was on the right track when he observed that "the Creator would appear as endowed with a passion for stars, on the one hand, and for beetles on the other."

As I noted in the other post, we arose through a lengthy and inefficient process of cosmology and evolution. Why would God want to use such a roundabout process? Maybe we should think of him as a cosmic tinkerer, testing out various starting conditions for the formation of the universe—or even as a scientist running simulations. Philosopher Nick Bostrom's simulation argument addresses this directly, and it's probably the best argument for the existence of "God" that I've ever heard. Here's his own summary:
At least one of the following propositions is true: (1) the human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a "post-human" stage; (2) any posthuman civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history (or variations thereof); (3) we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation. It follows that the belief that there is a significant chance that we will one day become posthumans who run ancestor-simulations is false, unless we are currently living in a simulation.
The idea is that if posthuman civilizations run a lot of detailed computer simulations involving sentient beings, it's far more likely than not that we're in one of those simulations. Both David Chalmers and Bostrom himself assign a 20% probability to this idea. While a simulator probably wouldn't meet the classical "omni" definition of God, they would certainly be one in the broad sense of a highly intelligent creator who wields virtually limitless power over their creation. So what would be the motivation of these demigods? Bostrom has some speculation on that as well:
[P]erhaps future historians would create a Matrix that mimicked the history of their own species. They might do this to find out more about their past, or to explore counterfactual historical scenarios. In the world of the Architect(s), Napoleon may have succeeded in conquering Europe, and our world might be a Matrix created to research what would have happened if Napoleon had been defeated. Or perhaps there will be future artists who create Matrices as an art form much like we create movies and operas. Or perhaps the tourist industry will create simulations of interesting historical epochs so that their contemporaries can go on themed holidays to some bygone age by entering into the simulation and interacting with its inhabitants.
As fanciful as this conjecture may seem, I think it's far more reasonable and grounded in real-world experience than any of the major religions.

Is God Good?
Given the massive amount of suffering in the world—both in human society and in nature—there's no reason to expect that God desires to minimize that suffering. In fact, philosopher Stephen Law has observed that given what we know about the world, we could argue the propositions "God is perfectly evil" and "God is perfectly good" with roughly equal effectiveness.

There are several setups that are more consistent with the amount of evil we observe. One possibility is ditheism: two gods who are equal in power, one good and one evil, battling for control. Or maybe there exists a single God who experiences wild mood swings, creating humanity on a good day and sending natural disasters to wreak havoc on a bad one. But these ideas seem needlessly complex, as a single God who's merely indifferent to our suffering explains our situation just as well. Another option is that God is in fact good, but lacks either the power or the knowledge needed to set things straight in our world.

The existence of countless conflicting religions can actually be construed as evidence that God is something of a sadist. If he's capable of revealing himself to us, he could easily resolve our disputes and unite the world's belief systems. Since we instead find the opposite, perhaps we can predict that God enjoys creating religions and setting them against each other to cause needless confusion and conflict. Granted, it's not the most parsimonious explanation for the inconsistent faiths of the world, but I think it's certainly more consistent with the data than what theists have come up with.

A Suprising God
So what have we learned about our hypothetical God from our observations of the world? Based only on the known facts, we might predict that God (if he existed) would be...
  • Physical, not spiritual
  • Unitary, not triune
  • Genderless, not male
  • Fond of dark matter and lower life forms
  • A cosmic experimenter
  • Indifferent to our suffering
The predictions are somewhat broader than last time around, perhaps because the very concept of God can be interpreted so broadly: from a vindictive monster to a loving father to a clinical tinkerer, or even a pantheon featuring all of the above. With enough tweaking we can get any number of deities to be consistent with our universe. Even so, some gods are clearly more likely than others, and the idea of God we get from viewing the world with an impartial eye is very different from the one we get when we're biased by Christian dogma.


  1. A physical God raises a problem. If you were to make, say, dough, as in bread dough, you don't make it from other dough, right? To make dough, you use other, non-dough ingredients (flour, water, yeast), otherwise you didn't make anything, you just expanded it. So if God is physical, then the world would be an expansion of God (ie: pantheism). This would also limit God to being uni-present, rather then omni-present. This would also mean that, technically, we could fly out there and touch him (but he's just hiding really well?). The point is that for something to be created, it needs to not already exist, and there needs to be a creator. The creator conjures up the dough. Now the water, flour and yeast are all created, and so are their molecules and so on. I think this fairly eliminates a physical God. Along the same lines, we also have time, space, relationship, energy, mind, logic, abstract reasoning, life. These are all a type of "dough". They come either as an extension of God, or creation of God, but are not God. Thus if God is the baker or time, space and morality, what kind of baker is bound and limited by his bread? Can't he shape it as he pleases, and it eat or sell it under equal terms? What obligation does the baker have to the dough?

  2. Just a note: someone linked to this post on reddit, so there's quite a bit of discussion going on there.

  3. I've seen apologist books try to force Jesus as the creator because of the vastness or the fine-tuneyness of the universe. This usually involves a equivocation in "all powerful" as "very powerful" versus "all capable", or a jump from "pretty smart about planets or cells" to "all knowing". All galaxies look similar and obey the same physics. The thing that created our universe wasn't very imaginative. Look also at atoms - every atom of a given element is identical. The creator seems to have been working with off the shelf components. Likewise the 6-day creator who made animals seems to have been stuck with the skeletons he could find at the store or merely twiddled the fur and feathers settings on a kit he was given for Giftmas. There's not a lot of specially new and unique things in our universe at any scale.