I'm sorry, but the argument at the link is mistaken. It is plausible (at least) to think that, if God exists, God is a necessary being. (That's part of the concept of God - we can give arguments for why it should be a part of the concept (the concept perfect being would be incomplete without it) - and it doesn't appear to be in tension with any of the other parts of the concept of God (perfect goodness, maximal knowledge and power, etc.). But necessary beings explain themselves. To wit, if it is necessarily true that God exists, then it is necessary that it is necessarily true that God exists. And so on, ad infinitum. Hence, nothing is left unexplained. (There is no more full or complete explanation for P than that it is impossible that not-P.)

But it seems extraordinarily counterintuitive to think that a particular event such as the Big Bang, or a very large physical object such as the cosmos, could have happened/exist of necessity. Indeed, we know of no other events that happened of necessity, and of no other physical things that exist of necessity. (Note that all or almost all non-physical things/things outside of spacetime, like numbers, triangles, properties, etc. exist of necessity. So it is not unnatural or implausible to think that God exists of necessity as well.) Hence, the proposition that it is necessary that if the Big Bang occurred, it was necessary for it to occur has much less going for it than the proposition that if God exists, it is necessary that God exists. This despite the fact that the proposition that the Big Bang occurred has a lot more going for it than the proposition that God exists.

I'm not arguing here that the cosmological argument is compelling. I'm just pointing out that this particular (and common) criticism of it is misguided.

Expand full comment

It would be rather entertaining to see someone try to defend this claim.

Expand full comment

*Switch "and" and "but" in that last sentence.

Expand full comment

One reason you might not be able to give trillion to one odds against at least any statements about the local near future (like "will this random number I generate between 1 and 1 trillion be 189,234,859,124") is if the probability that you're in a practical-joke simulation where the first thing that you assign tiny odds to will happen is >>10^-9 and >>the probability of being in a simulation where it's guaranteed not to happen.

I might be able to assign a probability to a "normal, reasonable concept of 'God'" if I knew what that meant, but I agree that simulators aren't part of the common-language concept, and I really don't know what people mean when they say they believe in a "universal spirit" or "impersonal force", if they're even expressing a proposition at all.

Expand full comment

Unknown, I think you're making a false distinction. I'm very interested in reading the input of others about this.

Expand full comment

See my added above.

Expand full comment

HA: I think you need to distinguish between calculated probabilities (i.e. in effect frequency calculations) and humanly calibrated probabilities (i.e. subjective estimates.) Robin and Tyler are talking about the latter, and odds of a trillion to one for a subjective estimate are indeed absurd.

Expand full comment

Hal, thanks for your reply. I'm more interested commentary on the first, second, and last sentences of my last comment. (The other stuff has been done to death, and in my opinion encourages dialectical stupidism, much like whether blacks have lower IQ than whites, whether women are underrepresented in elite science positions because they have less extreme IQ variability, and whether the answer to all our political problems is less government regulation and lower taxes.)

Expand full comment

Hopefully A, many people describe their believe in God as a rather vague sense of spirituality. For example a report came out this week about a Pew Forum survey of American religious belief. Page 26 of chapter 1 finds that 92% believe in "God or a universal spirit". Page 27 then delves into conceptions of God and finds that 60% believe in a personal God (that one could have a conversation with, apparently), while 25% see God as an "impersonal force" and 5% say other/both. It seems that this idea of God as a "universal spirit" is rather more common than many nonbelievers' perceptions of how religious people think. I don't know how this fits in your category of a "normal, reasonable" concept of God.

While obviously not many people believe that we are literally living in a simulation created by our descendants, sometimes you'll hear it said that we are dreams in the mind of God, which is not so different from a simulation in the mind of a future AI. See also Tipler's notion of God as the Omega Point at the end of the universe, when infinite computational resources become possible and all possible pasts are re-created. All these ideas blur together and make it hard IMO to rule out the more general notions of Intelligent Design. I agree however that the more specifics you layer on that general idea, the less probable it becomes.

Expand full comment

What can we plausibly give trillion or one or lower odds to? It seems to me we can to lots of things.

As for people redefining a normal, reasonable concept of "God" to whatever created a simulation that we may be a part of, it's hard to call that anything more than intellectual cheating. I don't think it's worth my energy to explain why. It seems to me that the odds of the existence of a normal, reasonable concept of "God" would be on the order of smaller than 1 in a trillion, and much, much lower than 1 in a hundred, based on comparing the concept to things that have reliably been calculated to have 1 in a trillion or smaller odds. But I'd like to see this concept more rigorously hashed out (as a general way of being able to reliably give things odds this low in informal mental estimations and sortings).

Expand full comment

Zubon: Nick Bostrom suggested that the three possibilities were roughly equally probable.

Personally, I would think both human extinction and a human future without any simulations are more probable than the simulation hypothesis, leaving perhaps a %10 chance of a simulation.

Expand full comment


of course it depends on which people you are talking to: if you talk to ill-educated people, you should tell them to agree with most of the stuff they read in the next science book: it will be an improvement to their previous knowledge. (Of course, even better were to teach them critical thinking, but that is a time consuming process.)

My comment was, as you conjectured, addressed to scientists on scientific issues (or to OB readers :-)).

I am not so optimistic that these cases of wrong dissent are so rare. Most people work in a system (and paradigm; with system I mean to include their social connections/authority relations/career issues). And a system/paradigm is always more stupid than a single critical thinker, because a paradigm is fixed, not so flexible when presented with new evidence and new ideas.

You will probably learn more of the real problems in a field by hallway discussions in scientific conferences than by the current published papers: why that? Because here people speak their true opinions, and about stuff that they simply dare not publish yet because it's not backed up by enough evidence to topple the reigning paradigm or which contradicts some "well-known" assumptions.

Take String Theory for example; physics has been dominated by this approach for the last decades, and dissenters (read: grad students) were actively discouraged from pursuing other avenues (I do not want to take a position on the String Theory issue: it is just an example). That kind of behaviour is not conducive to scientific progress.

So if we start encouraging the only people who try to do critical thinking (scientists, intellectuals etc) to go with the crowd, that would be reinforcing the wrong side. A critical thinker is by nature _uncertain_ in his beliefs. This uncertainty is an achievement, still too sparsely sprinkled among humankind to already start paddling in the other direction again.

Of course, Tyler in the interview above says we should be less certain about things (the dissent thing was only a secondary point); so isn't he paddling in the right direction?

Maybe he and I would find that we agree when discussing things out carefully in person; but I only have access to the interview, and responding to that, I think he is moving in the direction of self-defeating skepticism: if you start being _too_ uncertain, then "anything goes". ESP? Spaghetti Monsters? and what have you... (see his proposed massive reduction of uncertainty in the atheism question) Why fund scientific education and not some New Age festival when we are so uncertain?

I always try to be open to new arguments, which probably implies that I am very "uncertain" of my knowledge. But that does not preclude me from saying that other propositions are probably even less likely to be true (sometimes even if they be current mainstream; that does not mean that I have a better answer, only that I think some assumptions are premature/biased by our human form etc).

So what I am trying to say is this: being uncertain is ok and good, but not if it lets you fall into some kind of general "anything goes" skepticism (which I have often witnessed happening in people when skepticism is adopted).

I think the approach offered by critical rationalism is a fine heuristic, and evades the problems of extreme skepticism; and probably the idea that "extreme skepticism is a good thing" is only a belief in belief; and that it is in practice actually only used to shoot down novel theories (as in: "I don't believe these theories of yours are right, they contradict my intuition and my 30 year old education") versus being used to shake up belief in some deeply held conviction (that would be a good thing, so seldom seen!).

And in practice, we should adopt those stances which are most conducive to progress.

Expand full comment

Matthew C, I recommend to you the rest of that sentence, along with the link therein. I think a great many Westerners would be comfortable taking the position "the Abrahamic God is a myth" as a statement of atheism, even if one went on to offer the possibility of some other First Cause. See the old saw about atheists' just believing in one god fewer than theists. Without brawling about definitions, one might note weak atheism ("there is no reason to believe in the existence of a deity") and strong atheism ("there is reason to believe in the non-existence of a deity").

Unknown, are the three prongs of the Simulation Argument equally likely? It is a sobering moment when you realize that taking the Simulation Argument seriously means giving a fairly high p to some form of intelligent design. I will differ with US's contention that it would explain nothing; I take from Eliezer's story the notion of us as the AI that gets out of the box, but also there are so many philosophical and theological questions that have intuitive answers if you view the universe as a big version of The Sims with a bored, not terribly empathic player.

Expand full comment

"The argument that Eliezer has written up in Einstein's Arrogance is relevant here." Probably somewhat less than you think. It's true that if you calculated a probability based on all of your evidence, it would usually be something extreme one way or the other. But the fact is that you don't calculate a probability, and when you feel "very certain", you don't have a distinct criterion that distinguishes between cases when you have a lot of evidence, and cases when you are just very biased. Because you can't distinguish these cases, you can't give a calibrated estimate which is nearly as extreme as a calculated probability would imply. And generally, Tyler is right; if you're talking about significantly disputed questions, you will rarely be able to give a calibrated estimate of better than 95%, even though you might often have much more evidence than that. For at least in one case in 20, you will simply be so biased that you believe that you have a lot of evidence, even though you actually have a lot of contrary evidence.

Expand full comment

Gunther, do you believe it is the case that for MOST PEOPLE, "if you find yourself disagreeing with 95% of people on a subject, this is probably because you are familiar with often very counter-intuitive results of a highly specialized field - and the information has not gone public yet"? In other words, for most people who disagree with 95% of people on a subject, it is for this reason? I would be skeptical, because I imagine there are many people out there with unusual beliefs.

Or were your comments only supposed to apply to scientists, or to scientific issues? Even then I would find your proposition a little hard to accept. Certainly there are cases where it is true, but wouldn't they be rare and not last long?

I do agree that we are largely "evolved to agree", but we are also evolved to make a show of disagreeing, fluffing our feathers and showing off our fine intellectual plumage.

Expand full comment

The argument that Eliezer has written up in Einstein's Arrogance is relevant here. It is very improbable that the amount of evidence that people obtain for compex beliefs is just right to keep the probability around 50%. Much more likely, it is off the scale for the most such beliefs, in one or another direction. Mostly, only beliefs for which there is little evidence (I have no idea what weather is in New York right now) and few possible alternatives (coin toss) remain within 5%-95%. The problem is in systematic errors which add separate influence that can eat up all of the evidence and skyrocket the belief, probably in the wrong direction, but it doesn't apply everywhere. The problem with this particular excerpt is that Tyler emphasizes exactly such cases where bias strives.

Expand full comment