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Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Simulation Hypothesis and the problem of natural evil, part II

by David Kyle Johnson

[This post belongs to a four-part series that Rationally Speaking is running with one of our podcast guests, Prof. David Kyle Johnson of the Department of Philosophy at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, PA. Kyle's philosophical specializations include logic, metaphysics, epistemology and philosophy of religion. His publications include “God, Fatalism, and Temporal Ontology” (Religious Studies) and “Natural Evil and the Simulation Hypothesis” (Philo). He also teaches and has published extensively on the interaction between philosophy and popular culture, including a textbook (Introducing Philosophy Through Pop Culture) and two edited volumes in the Wiley/Blackwell series (on Christopher Nolan’s Inception and NBC’s Heroes). He maintains the blog Plato on Pop with William Irwin for Psychology Today, and hosts a podcast.] [go to part I]

I am in the midst of arguing that many theists are committed to believing that we live in a computer simulation. Last time I defined the simulation hypothesis and showed why it is more likely than you would suspect. Now I'm going to show that the problem of natural evil is misunderstood and clearly define how it presents itself to the modern academic theist.

The logical problem of natural evil is often misunderstood. Alvin Plantinga suggested that it is merely a seeming logical incompatibility between these two premises:

(1) God (an omnipotent, omniscience, omni-benevolent being) exists.
(2) Natural evil exists.

Since it is a seeming logical incompatibility, to solve this problem, all one needs to do is tell a logically consistent story in which both (1) and (2) are true. Plantinga’s suggestion? Demons did it! According to Plantinga, the story in which demons are actually the cause of calamities such as earthquakes and hurricanes, and the evil they bring about, is one in which both God and natural evil co-exist. According to Plantinga, it is logically possible that God would not prevent the evil actions of free agents, and since demons would be freely acting agents, it would be logically consistent for God to allow demons to cause such calamities. And since Plantinga is only trying to resolve a logical incompatibility, Plantinga need not actually endorse the “demon did it” theory in order for this solution to work.

There are a number of problems here. Not everyone, for example, agrees that it is logically coherent for God to allow moral evil. Hitler’s ability to freely choose to exterminate the Jews, for example, just isn’t that important. More importantly, however, the story Plantinga proposes is not one in which (1) and (2) are actually true together. Plantinga is taking “natural evil” and “calamities” to be synonymous, and so he thinks a story in which earthquakes, hurricanes and God co-exist is a story in which natural evil and God co-exist. But if such calamities are caused by moral agents, such as demons, then the evil they produce is not natural evil — it is moral evil. Thus Plantinga’s story is not one in which God and natural evil co-exist; it is a story in which there is no natural evil, and God and moral evil co-exist.

I am not just splitting linguistic hairs here. The logical problem of natural evil is not merely a problem of how God and calamities can co-exist. Truth be told, the mere existence of such calamities has never posed much of a logical threat to God’s existence. Humans have come up with many ways to not fault God for tornadoes, earthquakes, and hurricanes: Aquinas suggested they were punishment for sin — perhaps Adam’s, perhaps our own. The Gnostics suggested  they were the work of the imperfect God of the Old Testament; the world of the New Testament God would be perfect. Others blamed… you guessed it… demons. If Plantinga thought he was presenting an original argument, he apparently hadn't done his homework. Such solutions had already functioned perfectly well to protect theistic belief for centuries... until science came along.

Science originated as a quest to find the laws that govern the universe. The assumption was that, if God had created the universe, then it must be orderly, and so we set out to find that order.  When we did, we discovered something we didn’t expect — an explanation for calamities, such as earthquakes and hurricanes, rooted in these newly discovered laws. It took a while for some of those explanations to mature, but we discovered that tornadoes are the result of a complex interplay between cool, dry air and warm, moist air in thunderstorms. Earthquakes are the result of tectonic plates slipping and releasing vast amounts of energy that build up as they press together.  Hurricanes are the result of (roughly put) water vapor hovering over low pressure areas in the ocean. Diseases and mental disorders are the work of viruses, germs, genetic anomalies, chemical imbalances and brain injuries. The natural laws are such that given certain inevitable initial conditions, such calamities are a necessary consequence. Thus they acquired the label “natural disasters.” And since natural disasters cause massive amounts of suffering and steal life without discrimination, frequently and at random — and since, according to theism, God is the one who designed the universe, and its laws — well, as you can see, this is major problem for theistic belief.

I have a small yorkie named Alex. Suppose I designed into the blueprint of my house puppy killing machines, embedded into the walls, that randomly, and without warning, reach out with sharp picks and saws to kill any puppy within reach. Suppose I then made my dog Alex live in my house. I could hardly be said to be a loving master. Even if he is lucky and is never in the wrong place at the wrong time, I’m one lousy bastard. Yet this is exactly the kind of universe that God has designed for us to live in — one that can, and does, reach out, without warming, randomly, and kill anyone within reach. If someone did design our universe, they don’t seem to be loving and caring masters.

So, instead of expressing it as an incompatibility between the above statements (1) and (2), we can more accurately express the logical problem of natural evil as a logical incompatibility between (1) and two other statements. Thus, we could say, the problem is that the academic theist is committed to all three of the following:

(1) God (an omnipotent, omniscient, omni-benevolent being) exists.
(3) God is the creator and designer of the physical universe, including the laws that govern it.
(4) Natural disasters, and the evil they cause, are a direct byproduct of the laws that govern our universe.

Notice how irrelevant Plantinga’s “Demon’s did it” solution is to this problem. It would entail that (4) is false, but it is not a story in which (1), (3) and (4) are true together. So, unless Plantinga is willing to deny the findings of modern science, and instead maintain that demons actually do cause natural disasters, and thus deny (4), the “Demon did it” hypothesis is a dead end.

This problem of natural evil is one that theists have yet to adequately address. It is not a problem of why God would allow natural disasters, but how he could ultimately be the author of them by authoring what necessities them: the laws of physics.

How might theists try to solve this problem? It is to that question I will turn in the next entry.


  1. Last time I defined the simulation hypothesis and showed why it is more likely than you would suspect.

    No, you didn't. You used bogus reasoning, and we can't make any reasonable conclusion about how likely the simulation hypothesis is, based on what we currently know.

    1. Instead of reasserting criticisms of the last entry, you might want to look the response I already posted to this claim in the last entry and the discussion that ensued.

  2. I grew up never knowing what/who “God” was. I only learn about the strange "concept" of God After coming to US. I don't mean to offend anyone. Suppose there was such an almighty being, I imagine him like “Q” in Star Trek who tries to do Piccard a favor in nasty ways.

  3. Hm. If (1) is true, the omnipotent being could have created demons that cause things that to the mere human are indistinguable from laws that govern the universe.

    In your example, the demons would be the puppy killing machines.

    1. God is extremely inefficient in that case--instead of just setting up the world so that it behaves according to the laws, he makes demons who then then make it behave in regular ways. The strong nuclear force doesn't hold nuclei together--demons do it! This is not a simple theory and thus not a preferable theory.

      But even if it were true, it would not solve the problem. Instead of wondering why God created laws that guarantee natural disasters, one just wonders why God created demons that guarantee natural disasters. Both are incompatible with omni-benevolence.

      Of course, if the demons have free will--well, that is just Plantinga's solution. But then our universe is not governed by laws--by regularities--like we know that it is.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. You seem to be arguing under the assumption that human logic is a uinversal principle that works the same way even outside our reality/simulation. Maybe it is, but you can't have it both ways, - either logic is a general principle, or an omnipotent being exists.
      If an omnipotent being exists, none of the logical arguments matter anymore. (Which makes it weird that theists even try to argue from logic.)

      In any case, the simulation programmers are not (or don't need to be) omnipotent, so I am really curious where this is going... ;-)

  4. Maybe I should clarify: in the simulation hypothesis - whether ancestor or monster simulation - the programmers won't generally be omnipotent. While it might seem that way to us as the simulated, they will be bound by the rules of their simulation environment. Their omniscience would probably restricted to something like "all-seeing", i.e. they can read any actual state, but only know future states in probabilistic terms. (If they actually were omniscient with regard to things in the simulation, there would be no point in running the simulation.)

    Once you introduce actual omnipotence, all bets are off as (our) rules of logic no longer apply. Including agents inducing what we perceive as natural laws.

    1. [Still no edit button, sorry for the multiple posts.]

      Which refers back to my comment on the part I: the programmers are not deities in the Western religious sense (or at least don't need to be).

  5. God controls the weather when he deems necessary, otherwise it runs its natural course. He can withhold rain, create a global flood, bring hailstones down on us at will, and generate earthquakes on people who are evil by nature. Are natural disasters God's way of punishment? For what reason, only God knows.

    1. That is contrary to the way we know things work: all natural disasters are a result of the physical conditions that give rise to them. If things are like you suggest--where God sometimes controls the weather-- then there would be weather events that defy the laws of physics and are thus inexplicable--hurricanes that form over land, tornadoes that form in small rain clouds, etc. (Besides, explaining the unexplained with the supernatural is a fallacious appeal to ignorance--the "mystery therefore magic" fallacy.) Saying that "God sometimes controls the weather" is not an option for a modern academic theist trying to keep in step with the findings of science.

      You can jump back a few centuries and say that weather is caused by demons or God's wrath, or you can accept that it is a result of the natural laws. But you can't mix the views--no more than a doctor can think that sometimes infections are caused by bacteria, but other times their caused demons.

  6. Is Plantinga's argument so pervasive and compelling that it needs to be refuted before establishing another logical explanation? I wouldn’t have thought so. Why devote an entire post to it?
    "This problem of natural evil is one that theists have yet to adequately address." That seems more than a little dismissive. Isn’t that an essential part of the case you are trying to make here? Perhaps you feel that you are preaching to the choir so you don’t need to present a more balanced case.

    1. Al--amazingly, it is. Although you and I obviously don't find it compelling, most theist philosophers I know do, and they dismiss the logical problem of evil because, in their own words, "Plantinga already solved it." It is very pervasive in theist circles. And knocking down Plantinga's argument is a nice way to set up what the problem actually is anyway--and so that is why I took this approach.

      The reason I say that "THIS problem of natural evil is one that theists have yet to adequately address" is because, as far as I know, I am the only person to put the problem in these terms (an incompatibility between (1), (3) and (4)). Add that to the fact that no theists have really been dealing with the logical problem of natural evil since they think that Plantinga already solved it--and yeah, they have not adequately addressed the problem I raise here.

      Some have said a few things about natural evil (not this particular version of it however) that could be applied to the problem I raise here. But I will talk about those posts in the next entry, so I am not just dismissing those arguments.

    2. Thanks for your reply. I had supposed that there have been numerous attempts to address the issue of theodicy and that many of these have starting points that are similar to yours - that there is an omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good creator and the existence of natural disasters represent some sort of evil thus yielding an apparent contradiction.

    3. I have to keep coming back to the omnipotence assumption. The "full theist" argument would go
      (1) God is omnipotent
      (2) Everything else follows

      The logical consistency of anything within (2) is part of the omnipotency package, so any theist who feels the need to argue theodicy logically is implicitly rejecting omnipotence...

    4. I've got both a physics-based defense and a rebuttal of Plantinga's argument.

      The defense: one might argue that a demon tweaked some atom at some Planck scale, and then allowed the laws of physics to take over, using a "butterfly effect" that eventually results in a tornado. Thus, seemingly, demons can be at work, even without breaking known laws of physics.

      The rebuttal: We know the differential equations of fluid dynamics. We know that such equations have solutions that include the spontaneous creation of tornadoes out of nothing. If tornadoes never occurred (because God always stopped them), we'd have a mathematical conundrum: in the space of all possible solutions to the differential equations, tornadoes occupy a certain finite portion of that space; the scientific effort to explain why that part of the solution space was blocked would be... interesting. The demon rebuttal is a kind-of converse to the above argument: if demons are causing tornadoes, then how does one explain that the solutions to differential equations have tornadoes in them? Have the demons altered mathematical (Platonic) reality, causing equaitons to be not equal? Changing the value of pi while we're not looking? Bleh...

  7. chbieck - you seem to be assuming that God's existence somehow negates the rules of logic, or that if God exist the rules of logic don't apply to him, or something like that. You present this dichotomy above "either logic is a general principle, or an omnipotent being exists"-- but you don't have to choose between these to things. I can have it both ways.

    Here's the thing...the rules of logic do apply to God. Now, it's true that God might be able to understand things that we can't even comprehend--but that's different. Whatever we say is true of God must be logically consistent; nothing can be true of God that defies the laws of logic. Even theists admit this; God can do anything that is logically possible, but that which is logically impossible is not within God's power--not becuase God lacks some power, but because making a logical contradiction true is meaningless--it doesn't make sense. Whatever we say about God is expressed in language, and whatever is expressed in language must make logical sense if it is to mean anything. Again, there might be things true of God that we have no way to express--but those things are not illogical. But whatever we CAN say about God must be logically consistent.

    Let me explain it this way (this will actually be important to understand for the next entry). Question: Can God make the following proposition true:

    "ouwboasuh bubroe qowur z,cmv, wobgub iere"

    No, of course not--becuase it's gibberish. It doesn't mean anything. (You could invent a language where that does mean something, but that is not what I am asking about. That statement as it stands, is gibberish). Does that mean God is not all-powerful? To not be all powerful, there would have to be some THING that God cannot do--but "ouwboasuh bubroe qowur z,cmv, wobgub iere" is not a THING, it's meaningless. So the fact that God can't do it doesn't mean he is not all-powerful.

    Take this statement:

    "Wall key for bark neat Google stunk wheat jump"

    Can God make that true? No. Again, it's meaningless. Sure, each word has a meaning, but taken as a whole, the statement is meaningless. It is not a THING, so the fact that God can't make it true does not entail that is is not all-powerful.

    Now, take this statement:

    "There is a square circle."

    Can God make this true? No. But not becuase he is not all powerful, but becuase it makes no sense. A square is a four sided object with four corners, a circle is an object with no sides and no corners. That statement means "There is a four sided, four cornered object with no corners and no sides." That makes no sense. It's like "Wall key for bark neat Google stunk wheat jump". Each word make sense, but taken as a whole it makes no sense--it is meaningless. So God can't make it true, but it's not a THING so that doesn't effect his omnipotence.

    The same is true for any logical contradiction:

    "A is both true and false" "The pen is on the table and it is not on the table."

    God can't make anything that defies the laws of logic true, but not becuase he is not all-powerful, but because logical contradictions are meaningless. The same would hold for any computer programer of our simulation as well.

    1. Kyle, that is exactly my point - the essence of the statement "God is omnipotent" IS that it makes the whole following logical discussion moot and meaningless.
      We can only grasp/discuss the part that actually conforms to logic, the rest makes no sense to us.

      Put it differently: Could an all-powerful being put a pen on the table and not on the table at the same time? If it is all-powerful, yes it can - but not in a way that has any meaning (to us. It would have to change the rules, first.). So I actually agree with all of the above statements - God can't make any of them true in a way that makes sense to us because we live within the rules. But that's not the point: by starting with the assumption "God is omnipotent", the discussion is over anyway. (Ever had anyone say "God works in mysterious ways" and then walk away? ;-))

      Simulation programmers aren't omnipotent, so different discussion. (Would a Sim - from the computer game - in its limited worldview come up with same rules of logic as we do?)

    2. Another rebuttal is that, perhaps, God could alter our awareness and memories of perceived events. Perhaps, for you, the pen was on the table; for me it was not. It is unlikely that we would discover such an inconsistency, and if we did, we could immediately discount it, given what we already know of the frailty of the human mind.

      To restate: perhaps God is bound to mathematical truths as we currently understand them. But an omnipotent God could certainly mess with our minds, our recording devices, our memory prosthesis.

  8. OF course, the next "gambit" is, in such cases, the "inscrutability of God." But, that then leads to what I call "the problem of psychological evil." How can an omnipotent deity not explain himself clearly to sentient creatures about how apparent evil leads to actual good?

    1. Yes, but that is more an issue with the whole (Western) theistic concept of God - inscrutable doesn't mean impossible, but it also doesn't make a lot of sense. (Which is what I am trying to say above.)

  9. Can someone please link this post to part III (and link part I to part II)?

    I found part I via someones comments, and assumed that part II hadn't been written yet. I almost gave up; only some clever googling on my part got me here.


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