[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, part II, or part III]
So, finally, we come to it. Why are many theists committed to believing we live in a computer simulation? Because, even if we grant them knowledge of God’s existence, the only way to make sense of why our universe has natural evil as an inevitable consequence of the very laws that govern it, without violating God’s moral integrity, is to assume that someone else designed our universe — and the most likely alternate designer is a computer programmer.
To see why, let us return to the Caleb example. I know that Caleb cannot commit a morally heinous action, despite the fact that the evidence seems to suggest that he did. But there are two kinds of evidence that suggest that he committed a morally heinous act. One is the evidence that the cold blooded murder of the infant was carried out by Caleb; the other is the evidence that suggests that the cold blooded murder of an infant is morally heinous. Given that I know that it is impossible for Caleb to commit a morally heinous action, I must maintain that one of these pieces of evidence is faulty. Either someone else committed the crime, or the cold blooded murder of an infant is not actually a morally heinous action (i.e., it is not the kind of action that it is impossible for Caleb to commit). In deciding which piece of evidence to reject, I should clearly reject the one that is least intuitive. Thus, what we should conclude — in fact, what I am sure you had already concluded — is that someone else committed the crime. No matter how good the evidence is that Caleb committed the crime, it could never trump the reasons I have for thinking that the cold blooded killing of an infant is morally heinous.
But the theist who has been granted their claimed evidence and knowledge is in a similar situation in regard to natural evil and God’s existence. The theist has been granted knowledge that God exists, and is tri-omni; thus the theist knows that God is not capable of performing a morally heinous act. Yet, as the problem of natural evil shows, the evidence suggests that he did. Natural disasters are evil, yet they seem to have been woven into the very fabric of our universe by God’s design. However, there are two kinds of evidence here: the evidence that natural disasters are evil (and thus whoever wove them into the very fabric of our universe is not wholly good) and the evidence that God is the designer of our universe. Which piece of evidence do we have less reason to think is accurate; which notion should we reject? The answer is clear: we should reject the notion that God is the designer of our universe. Just like with Caleb, we shouldn’t conclude that the crime in question wasn’t really evil. We should conclude that someone else did it.
Why do we have more reason to reject the notion that a tri-omni God designed our universe than we do to reject the notion that natural disasters are evil? The belief that natural disasters are evil is about as ubiquitous as beliefs can get. That they are evil is why we used to think they were caused by demons. This is why we work tirelessly to prevent them and mitigate the damage they do — tornado detection, tsunami warnings, earthquake proof buildings, cures for diseases — the list goes on. Hell, just making a joke about a natural disaster can make you lose your job as the Aflac duck. If we can agree on one thing as a species, it is that natural disasters are evil! On the flip side, however, we have no reason at all to think that God is the designer of our universe. Even if we have reason to believe our universe is designed, and we know God exists, we have no reason to believe that it was God specifically that designed our universe. Even the best design arguments only point to “a designer.” In fact, the problem of natural evil gives us a specific reason to conclude that it wasn’t God.
But if I have granted the theist knowledge of God’s existence, what is the most likely scenario in which God exists but didn’t design our universe? I suppose it’s possible that, even if God exists, our physical universe still sprang from nothing — but that won’t help us solve the problem of natural evil, for it denies premise (3), another theistic conviction: that God designed the physical universe. So how could God have created the physical universe but be divorced from all moral culpability for the laws that govern ours? Simple: by our universe being a computer simulation — a simulation created by a moral agent within the physical universe (or another simulation within that universe). I’m sure we could think up some other scenarios (Descartes comes to mind), but given what I pointed out in my first blog entry, the computer simulation is the most likely one.
Notice that this solves, perfectly, the logical problem of natural evil; it is a story in which (1), (3) and (4) are all true together. God exists; he designed the physical universe; and natural disasters are a result of the laws that govern our universe. Yet since God didn’t design our (simulated) universe he can’t be morally blamed for that and can still be tri-omni. Of course, one might wonder why God would allow a computer programmer to get away with creating a universe such as ours, but since even some atheists have admitted that God could allow moral agents to perform morally heinous actions, this doesn’t present much of an obstacle. So, the theist can defend their theistic belief from the logical problem of natural evil, but the solution comes at the cost of embracing that we live in a computer simulation.
One might liken this is to granting Michael Behe his intelligent design arguments. We all know that they don’t work, but even if they did they would not provide good reason for thinking God exists. Since there are numerous flaws in our (and other species’) design, we can’t be the handiwork of a perfect being. A creative, but imperfect, alien is a much more likely explanation. Likewise, even if I grant the theist God’s existence, since there is natural evil embedded into the very fabric of our universe, it can’t be the handiwork of a perfect being. A computer programmer is a much more likely explanation.
Of course, the simulation hypothesis is not something the theist is going to want to be tethered to — and that is part of my point. The logical problem of natural evil has been ignored for a long time because of a general, unwarranted, assumption that Plantinga solved it. He did not. Theists need to return their attention to the logical problem of natural evil. Otherwise, they better start arguing that believing we live in a computer simulation isn’t crazy.