The Humanist Dilemma

A number of well-known atheists believe there are god-like beings in our universe. 

The universe is 13.8 billion years old, and stars have been forming for 12.8 billion years. The earth is 4.5 billion years old, with life appearing only 3.5 billion years ago. In the absence of any reason to think humanity is special, we should expect advanced life somewhere else in the vast universe.

Neil deGrasse Tyson said concerning life on earth:

It happened relatively quickly, with the most common ingredients in the universe, to now say life on earth is unique in the universe would be inexcusably egocentric.1

Advanced life would likely appear god-like to us. Richard Dawkins said:

“Whether we ever get to know them or not, there are very probably alien civilizations that are superhuman, to the point of being god-like in ways that exceed anything a theologian could possibly imagine. Their technical achievements would seem as supernatural to us as ours would seem to a Dark Age peasant transported to the twenty-first century. Imagine his response to a laptop computer, a mobile telephone, a hydrogen bomb or a jumbo jet. As Arthur C Clarke put it, in his Third Law: ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’ The miracles wrought by our technology would have seemed to the ancients no less remarkable than the tales of Moses parting the waters, or Jesus walking upon them. The aliens of our SETI signal would be to us like gods …

“In what sense, then, would the most advanced SETI aliens not be gods? In what sense would they be superhuman but not supernatural?…The crucial difference between gods and god-like extraterrestrials lies not in their properties but in their provenance. Entities that are complex enough to be intelligent are products of an evolutionary process. No matter how god-like they may seem when we encounter them, they didn’t start that way. Science-fiction authors … have even suggested (and I cannot think how to disprove it) that we live in a computer simulation, set up by some vastly superior civilization. But the simulators themselves would have to come from somewhere. The laws of probability forbid all notions of their spontaneously appearing without simpler antecedents. They probably owe their existence to a (perhaps unfamiliar) version of Darwinian evolution …” 2

In fact if there is life somewhere else in the universe then we should hope that some of it is god-like rather than all going extinct. Otherwise as a newcomer with no reason to think we are special, we will probably also go extinct. Put in argument form:

P1. There is almost certainly life somewhere else in the universe

P2. Unless some of that life is already god-like, we will probably go extinct in the near future

P3. We will not go extinct in the near future

C. Therefore some life in the universe is god-like (i.e. we hope gods exist in our universe)

P3 is a faith assumption and may not be true, but we hope it is true. If it is true then we also hope that gods exist in our universe.

This conclusion does not necessarily mean these gods are anywhere near us or interact with us, however it does tempt an exploration of what could be achievable by these gods (advanced humanity). For example, is it possible that advanced life created our world and is a God to us?

The Simulation Argument

In 2003, philosopher Nick Bostrom wrote a ground-breaking paper on this subject called the Simulation Argument (SA). The crux of the argument was a trilemma and the claim that at least one of the following is true:

(1) the human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a “posthuman” 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. 3

The simulation argument makes no claim as to which of the three statements are true, but it logically concludes that:

Unless we are now living in a simulation, our descendants will almost certainly never run an ancestor-simulation.4

The SA lays out the relationship between our own potential as humanity and the possibility that we are a creation of advanced humanity, inside their simulation. This has obvious theological implications if we conclude that we are the creation of a posthuman civilization as it means in some sense “God exists”. 

The New God Argument

Bostrom later clarified that the form of the SA could be generalized:

…the form of the simulation argument could in principle be applied more generally, but one would have to check in each case whether the necessary empirical presuppositions obtain and whether the conclusions are interesting and significant.

Likewise, one can consider a “cosmoforming argument”, focusing on the possibility that an advanced civilization with some as-yet unknown technology might be able to induce the creation of baby universes (perhaps expanding into hidden dimensions).  The transposition of the simulation argument form to this hypothesis is straightforward…The bottom line is that terraforming, cosmoforming, and “Truman-show” arguments are compatible with the simulation argument, and are parallel in terms of their logical structure.  Some of these alternative applications might be interesting.  They each have to be evaluated on their merits.5

A generalized simulation argument paved the way for the Creation Argument (CA) by Lincoln Cannon, which states:

EITHER humanity probably will become extinct before evolving into superhumanity
OR superhumanity probably would not create many worlds emulating its evolutionary history
OR superhumanity probably created our world 6

Whereas the SA does not attempt to prove which of the three parts of the trilemma are true, the CA adds two more premises as part of the New God Argument:

humanity will not become extinct before evolving into superhumanity; 

superhumanity probably would create many worlds emulating its evolutionary history 7

With these two extra premises, the conclusion is that superhumanity probably created our world. The creation type possibly but not limited to cosmoformed or terraformed worlds. 

A Potential Objection and Reformulation

One of the main challenges to theological conclusions of the SA and NGA (that we live in a simulation or creation) is whether superhumanity probably would create simulations or worlds. How would we know what they would do? Even if the technology was available it is not necessarily the case it would be used. There are many moral, social and ethical challenges, for example post humanity could find the potential pain and suffering of the created people unethical and universally ban the technology. Or maybe they don’t have the interest and don’t want to use so much energy to create worlds or run simulations. Therefore the argument tends to engage in the problem of evil debate and so forth which is not a trivial discussion. 

An alternative argument which avoids this objection is as follows:

P1. Unless we are in a created world, our descendants will almost surely never create worlds

P2. But some of our descendants will almost surely create worlds, if it’s possible and they live long enough

P3. It’s possible

P4. They will live long enough

C. Therefore we are almost surely in a created world

This is a valid deductive argument. If the premises are true then the conclusion is true.

Support for P1

P1 is simply a restatement of Nick Bostrom’s commentary in the simulation argument:

Unless we are now living in a simulation, our descendants will almost certainly never run an ancestor-simulation.8

The only reasonable objection to this would be that the original formulation of the SA allows the possibility of time existing before the Big Bang, but time began at the Big Bang so this universe could not have been created. However this begs the question and assumes we are not in a created world. A computer game character may observe that there was nothing before the game started, but he cannot use this observation to conclude that there is nothing outside the game. 

Support for P2

According to the law of truly large numbers and the infinite monkey theorem, as time approaches infinity, anything that is possible will almost surely happen. Therefore if humanity does not go extinct and it is possible for them to create worlds, then they will almost surely create worlds. 

The only reasonable objection to this premise is that after an infinite period of time, some things which are possible may still not happen. This is true and for this reason the law of truly large numbers and the infinite monkey theorem only claim that things almost surely happen rather than definitely happen. 

Support for P3

Based on current trends, this certainly seems possible, either a physical world or a virtual world. 

Regarding physical worlds, this is something believed to be possible and actively being pursued in the laboratory. 

Regarding virtual worlds, Elon Musk said:

The strongest argument for us probably being in a simulation I think is the following, 40 years ago we had Pong – two rectangles and a dot. That’s where we were. Now 40 years later we have photorealistic, 3D simulations with millions of people playing simultaneously and it’s getting better every year. And soon we’ll have virtual reality, we’ll have augmented reality. If you assume any rate of improvement at all, then the games will become indistinguishable from reality, just indistinguishable.9

It is important to note that we do not need to believe it is possible to create an entire universe, just a minimum viable one. We would not need to create a world that is actually as vast and detailed as it is appears to be, but only appear as vast and detailed as it needs to be at any given time. Chris Sunami said:

The forthcoming computer game No Man’s Sky is said to feature an algorithm that convincingly generates new environments “on demand.” The game reportedly features 18 quintillion unique planets, a number so large as to be practically unimaginable. The catch, however, is that each planet is generated only as needed. It does not exist until you visit it. The practical effect is of an explorable environment of unlimited size, yet as created with a limited set of resources. This is a magic trick comparable to producing images of the Mandelbrot Set, an object of theoretically infinite variety and complexity. No finite set of calculations can actually capture the entire Mandelbrot Set, but it takes relatively few resources to view an endless array of high-resolution images of individual segments of the Mandelbrot Set. A finite viewing engine can thus offer an infinite variety of experiences (of the set). This raises the somewhat unsettling possibility that our universe could actually be a simulation located in a reality that is smaller and simpler than our own (a room-sized universe with a computer in it, for example).10

Equally, the universe appears to be detailed at the quantum level, but not all objects need to be this detailed in a created world until observed. 

Support for P4

We hope P4 is true, we trust that P4 is true. This is a humanist faith assumption and it may not be true or likely true but rejecting this premise rejects faith in humanity’s potential. Lincoln Cannon’s faith assumption that: humanity will not become extinct before evolving into superhumanity is explained as follows:

The Faith Assumption is a proposition that humanity will not become extinct before evolving into superhumanity. The proposition may be false. However, to the extent we do not know it to be false, we may have practical or moral reasons to trust that it is true. In any case, the Faith Assumption is a common aspiration among secular advocates of technological evolution, and it may be consistent with the religious doctrine of theosis, also known as deification: the idea that humanity should become God.11

Although the faith assumption in the reformulated argument is stronger (as it claims humanity will not go extinct, rather than humanity will not go extinct only before evolving into superhumanity) the pragmatic reasons appear to be the same. We do not wish to go extinct. Of course it is not necessary to believe we will never go extinct ever, only that we will not go extinct before creating worlds. The time taken to realise anything that is possible is dramatically reduced if there is a concerted effort by intelligence to achieve the result. 

Conclusion

The SA originally posed an interesting trilemma but did not argue for any particular result. The New God Argument is a strong argument that we are in a created world as long as we trust in our own humanity but is open to some reasonable objections. The reformulated argument aims to avoid these objections and while it may require a stronger faith assumption, it seems to be based on the same principles for hoping we do not go extinct before becoming post human.

The argument boils down to two questions:

  • How long would it take for one of our descendants to create a world?
  • Do we hope humanity lives that long?

Or put another way:

  • How long do we hope humanity will live for?
  • If humanity indeed lives for that long, would anyone at all create a world?

Trusting in humanity to live long enough means also trusting that a god-like being, or beings, created our world.

This is the humanist dilemma. 

  1. Neil Degrasse Tyson. 2016. What are the odds there is life in outer space – Richard Dawkins asks Neil Degrasse Tyson. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uk0pRPIQBY4&t=1753s. [Accessed 19 February 2019].[]
  2. Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. 72-73. Print.[]
  3. Nick Bostrom. 2003. Simulation Argument. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.simulation-argument.com/simulation.html. [Accessed 15 February 2019].[]
  4. Nick Bostrom. 2003. Simulation Argument. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.simulation-argument.com/simulation.html. [Accessed 15 February 2019].[]
  5. https://www.simulation-argument.com/faq.html[]
  6. Lincoln Cannon. 2019. New God Argument. [ONLINE] Available at: https://new-god-argument.com/. [Accessed 15 February 2019].[]
  7.  Lincoln Cannon. 2019. New God Argument. [ONLINE] Available at: https://new-god-argument.com/. [Accessed 15 February 2019]. []
  8. Nick Bostrom. 2003. Simulation Argument. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.simulation-argument.com/simulation.html. [Accessed 15 February 2019].[]
  9. Andrew Griffin. 2016. ELON MUSK: THE CHANCE WE ARE NOT LIVING IN A COMPUTER SIMULATION IS ‘ONE IN BILLIONS’. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/news/elon-musk-ai-artificial-intelligence-computer-simulation-gaming-virtual-reality-a7060941.html. [Accessed 17 February 2019].[]
  10.  https://partiallyexaminedlife.com/2015/09/08/computer-games-and-the-solipsistic-fantasy/[]
  11. Lincoln Cannon. 2019. New God Argument. [ONLINE] Available at: https://new-god-argument.com/. [Accessed 15 February 2019]. []