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IEET > Rights > FreeThought > Personhood > Vision > Virtuality > Directors > Giulio Prisco

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The Physics of Miracles and the Problem of Evil

Giulio Prisco
By Giulio Prisco
Turing Church

Posted: Jun 30, 2012

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 to the right 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.

Make this simple experiment: Run a Conways’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.

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.


Image 1 and Image 4: A very ugly simulated reality in Half Life 2

Image 2: A Universal Turing Machine (UTM) implemented in Conway’s Game of Life, designed by Paul Rendell (

Giulio Prisco is a physicist and computer scientist, and former senior manager in the European space administration. Giulio works as a consultant and contributes to several science and technology magazines. In 2002-2008 he served on the Board of Directors of Humanity Plus, of which he was Executive Director, and serves on the Board of Directors of the Italian Transhumanist Association. He is often in Hungary, Italy and Spain. You can find more about Giulio at his Turing Church, RSS feed and skefi'a science/fiction, RSS feed.
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It seems to me that there’s quite a bit of motivated reasoning going on here. Yes the medieval philosophers were smart, but like everyone they were also motivated. They wanted to believe that God was both omnipotent and benevolent. That motivation still exists today, and as David Eubanks has pointed out (see his article under “hottest articles of the month”) motivated reasoning tends to work better in the short term than in the long term.

Certainly the problem of evil was one of the factors that made me lose my faith in e Christian belief system in which I was raised, and part of the reason for this was the one motivation that Eubanks flags as being necessary to neutralise the other motivations that constantly distort our cognitive processes: the motivation not to be fooled. That motivation remains strong.

Giulio, we agreed on another thread that logic and reason are tools, not ends in themselves, but also that they are very useful ones. At their best they can be used to elucidate otherwise obscure issues, to everyone’s benefit. At their worst they can be used to prop up false or unhelpful belief systems, in the same way that epicycles were used to resist (and delay) the Copernican revolution.

Not that any of this disproves your thesis. Sure, you can define “God” as a post-human programmer with basically good intentions, and “omnipotent” as “in charge of the simulation but still working with incompete resources and information”. Weird definitions in my view, but whatever. But it does raise for me the following questions. 1. Should we be trying to convince ourselves that there really is an omnipotent and benevolent God? 2. What does that do for us? 3. Isn’t there a risk that, in the process, we might end up fooling ourselves?

Peter, I don’t think we should frame these questions as “Should we…” They don’t require a collective answer, but personal answers. The belief systems that we adopt to better cope with life, pursue happiness and motivate ourselves are personal choices. What works for me may not work for you, and vice versa. My answer to 1., 2., and 3. is “it is up to you to make your own choice.”

I wrote this article for those who want to believe, but are blocked by the problem of evil and the mistaken notion that belief and science are incompatible. To them, I show that belief can be formulated in a way that is perfectly compatible with the scientific method and our current scientific knowledge, and that the problem of evil is a non-problem when looked at from the right perspective.

I would put this somewhat differently: it’s not that, “Should we…?” is the wrong way to ask the questions, but rather that the answers are indeed likely to vary from individual to individual. I certainly agree with that.

But that doesn’t mean that we can’t learn from reflecting on the questions collectively. Even if the answers vary, there might be some common conclusions that we can reasonably draw.

You say you wrote the article for those who “want to believe”. Different way of phrasing my first two questions in this context would then be, “If they succeed, will that make them happier in the long run, and more importantly will it increase the amount of happiness overall? What does this depend on?”

As far as the third question is concerned, the answer is always yes: there is always a risk that we end up fooling ourselves. One thing I liked about Eubanks’ article was the implication that, in the long run, happiness (both individually and collectively) is most likely to be achieved if we consciously try to reduce the extent to which we fool ourselves. This is why I think it’s important to increase our awareness of motivated reasoning, both in ourselves and others, hence my earlier comment.

But of course you’re right: what is best for one person to believe is not necessarily what is best for someone else to believe.

If one person is happier and nobody is less happy, the amount of happiness overall increases.

re “in the long run, happiness (both individually and collectively) is most likely to be achieved if we consciously try to reduce the extent to which we fool ourselves.”

I disagree. In sports, the only way to win against a better opponent is to deliberately “fool yourself” into _knowing_ that you will win. I think “winners” are those people who can easily practice this mental discipline (which is much more difficult than it sounds). And they are happier, and they make others happy too.

My belief system is based on the idea that _we_ will build God(s) and _we_ will resurrect the dead. These are tough challenges to say the least, and we need some motivation.

These goals are beyond our current reach, and the only thing that we can do is to ensure that our civilization survives, develops transhuman technologies, and spread to the stars. So, the motivation inspired by far future possibilities also extends to making the world a better place here-and-now.

Fooling yourself into “knowing” that you will win works in sports precisely because it reinforces short-term motivation. It would not work if you convinced yourself that you couldn’t lose four weeks before the event, because then you wouldn’t bother to train.

Regarding building Gods and resurrecting the dead, I would say that the main thing that gives you your motivation to promote is idea is that you like it. It’s not that you really believe it is inevitable. On the contrary, part of your motivation stems from the recognition that it might not happen. Otherwise, why do we need to make a conscious effort to ensure that our civilisation survives, develops transhumanis technologies, and spreads to the stars? It’s going to happen anyway.

Personally I’m less interested in building Gods and resurrecting the dead than in building happiness on a somewhat shorter timescale than will be required to achieve this kind of dream. I’m certainly glad that there are people like you out there promoting this kind of idea, but I still think it is important to reduce our tendency to fool ourselves.

I even wonder how accurate it is to say that successful sports competitors convince themselves that they will definitely win. My guess is that they enter a kind of hypnotic, focused state where the question doesn’t really arise in their mind. They may well have some kind of image of winning, of what it will be like, of how it might be achieved, which inspires and guides them in real time. And while they are competing they don’t actively doubt that they will win, because their whole attention is focused on achieving peak performance. But I doubt they waste mental energy convincing themselves that victory is inevitable.

Of course, convincing yourself that victory is inevitable is still a better strategy for achieving peak performance than morbidly focusing on all the things that could go wrong. But in a more general sense I’m convinced that the paths towards fulfilling our dreams pass also through those moments when we indeed consider what could go wrong, and take steps to prevent that from happening. And that, of course, requires precisely that one _doesn’t_ believe that success inevitable. Sometimes, we need to focus on the possibility of failure.

@Peter re “I doubt they waste mental energy convincing themselves that victory is inevitable.”

That’s why I say that the winner’s mental discipline is very difficult to practice. If you consciously focus mental energy to convince yourself that victory is inevitable, that means you see also the possibility of failure.

I guess winners (I am not one, so I can only guess) see victory as given, and just enjoy the process of winning. To some people, it comes natural. I am not much of an athlete, in sport or in life, but I remember some occasional episodes that confirm this.

re “the paths towards fulfilling our dreams pass also through those moments when we indeed consider what could go wrong, and take steps to prevent that from happening.”

This is not incompatible with optimism. I am cooking now and I know that the result will be delicious, but I do pay attention to using salt instead of sugar.

You know that the result will be delicious IF you pay attention to what you are doing. You also know that if you were to become so distracted, for example by exchanging comments with me, that you used sugar instead of salt the result would not be delicious.

It’s not that we should not be optimistic. Only that we should make efforts to limit the extent to which our belief systems are distorted by motivated reasoning. Optimism is, by definition, an example of motivated reasoning, and it is a distorting one. There are good reasons to be optimistic, but also good reasons to be cautious in one’s optimism.

Don’t forget that distortion creates beautiful patterns out of dull and boring repetitive shapes, art and meaning.

The athlete who considers winning as given and enjoys the process of winning is adopting a model of reality where the probability distribution of different outcomes is skewed with respect to the “objective” distribution (whatever that is).

So what? This is a feature, not a bug. What matters in the end, is that the athlete wins.

Of course your statement “we should make efforts to limit the extent to which our belief systems are distorted by motivated reasoning” is true to the extent that it is plain common sense, but we should not let it clip our wings. Optimism is useful because it facilitates positive outcomes.


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