Saturday, December 15, 2018

Miracles and the Great Programmer in the Sky


I stopped believing in magic sometime around the age of 16. During a conversation with my mom about spirituality, I remember simply telling her this flat out. It was difficult for her to respond. But I was being honest. I believed I had grown out of that sort of thing.

Six years after this I had the most intense mystical experience of my life, and to use a clichéd expression that does it no justice: I was shaken to the core. After that, though I wore the trappings and attitude of an atheist, if you asked me whether I believed in God I would tell you that I did. It made me feel like a fool to admit it, but I’ve always valued hard-nosed honesty.

A fundamental tension had appeared in my beliefs. As a scientist I was fairly certain (1) that reality operated according to blind, mechanical laws, (2) that it was devoid of magic and miracles, and (3) that it was free from meddling from higher beings or spiritual forces. At the same time, I could no longer deny (A) that there was a Higher Power of a personal sort, (B) that we all have a divine Destiny, or (C) that our destiny lies in Eternity.

Until recently, A, B, and C were secret convictions. The bizarre thing about them is that they originated long before my first mystical experience. They even lasted through my “atheist” phase. But I had to keep them secret even from myself. I had to bury them in layers of wishful thinking and rationalization.

Who doesn’t dream about things like fame or fortune, despite their being so extremely unlikely for most of us? And who stops there? Who doesn’t dream about immortality, or learning what our reality is really about, or finally confronting the designer of our world and getting a few answers about what is going on? I’m sure some of us (myself especially) spend more time on these daydreams than others. But pretty much all of us have them at some point. (In fact, it seems to be good for us to think about the meaning of life. It seems that those cultures and individuals who have thought about these things—the Greeks, the Jews, the philosophers and prophets—have had a disproportionally large and positive impact on human culture and social evolution. But I’m getting ahead of myself.) In any case, I liked thinking about these things, though I found few fellow scientists who were not unspeakably embarrassed to discuss them.

So these thoughts got buried. I did what I could to stifle them, until after years of denial they finally burst out. And I spent three days in a mental hospital.

My spirituality easily could have died. In fact I would say that while I was at Caltech working towards my physics degree, my spiritual beliefs very nearly starved to death. They scraped by on a meager diet. Reading Plato, and (surprisingly) Nietzsche did something to feed them. But there were also the books of the physicist David Deutsch, which discussed what is called the “Omega Point Theory.”

In his book The Fabric of Reality Deutsch worries about the fate of the universe, in a way that only a physicist can. According to several theories of cosmology, the expansion of the universe is being slowed by gravity, and might eventually reverse. If this occurs, there will be a “Big Crunch”—everything in the universe will collapse back to a single point. And all life in the universe will go extinct. On the other hand, if the universe kept expanding forever, stars would burn out and it would eventually become too cold for life to survive.

But Deutsch believes that there may be a way for life to survive a Big Crunch, and even encourage a Crunch rather than an endless expansion. Calculations first done by another physicist, Frank Tipler, show that, theoretically, it would be possible for a universe-spanning civilization to use chaotic fluctuations in space-time to cause the universe to collapse rather than expand, and then shape the collapse to happen in a lop-sided way. They could cause oscillations in the collapsing universe that could themselves store and process information. And these oscillations would happen faster and faster, and ultimately infinitely fast as you approach the final crunch, meaning that life could survive eternally.

Frank Tipler’s book on the subject is The Physics of Immortality, and it’s an interesting read. At the time I read Deutsch, who takes it all with a grain of salt, and for a while I avoided reading Tipler because he had a reputation for practicing that flavor of witchcraft known as “pseudo-science.” But his book is actually pretty reasonable.

The idea stuck with me, and along with it, a little of Deutsch’s Platonism. By Platonism I mean the idea that forms and essences may exist more completely in higher levels of reality. It’s an idea that modern scientists like to scoff at as “unfalsifiable.” In other words, how could you falsify (disprove by experiment) any notion of a higher reality?

It’s hard to. But David Deutsch, in his seductive way, tries to demonstrate the notion logically. Take any ideal concept you like, say a “perfect circle.” According to Plato, a perfect circle really does exist—in the realm of Ideas. According to Deutsch, Plato is pretty much right, and you can prove it by running an advanced-enough virtual reality simulation. When virtual reality technology has finally become so good it becomes indistinguishable from real reality, then perfect circles, perfect squares, the perfect chocolate cake, and any other perfect concept you can think of will become so real you will be forced to say that they do exist.

This is actually another notion that you find in Frank Tipler’s writings. According to Tipler, as our world approaches the Omega Point, our civilization will approach infinite complexity and power. That means it will become so powerful and godlike it can resurrect the dead and put them in a perfect virtual reality heaven if it wants. And, according to Tipler, it will do this, because if we assume that civilization continues to progress, it will be too humane and merciful not to resurrect the dead. In essence, Tipler believes that you can prove the existence of a God and an afterlife using physics.

When I found this out I did what any good scientist or atheist was supposed to do—I scoffed. I moved on. Obviously, there were a lot of assumptions put into Tipler’s model. Most importantly, just because civilization could survive and advance forever, didn’t mean that it would. In fact, to this day I still disagree with Tipler’s (and Deutsch’s) progressive assumptions. So I’ve always had a convenient excuse to discount their ideas.

But a seed was planted in my mind. I knew the progressive assumption wasn’t really necessary to the argument. Life has evolved toward more and more complexity since it began. It still seemed likely, or at least possible, that this trend would continue. And if so, you might have virtual worlds created in the future that could be as convincing and elaborate as you want. I even started conceiving a number of science fiction stories based on the idea of virtual worlds, and some of the earliest sci-fi I wrote (back in college) was in this vein. And of course I’m not the only writer who’s been intrigued by these sorts of possibilities—virtual reality has been a staple of sci-fi novels and movies for decades.

As you fantasize about what a virtual universe would be like, you start to see some interesting parallels with religion. What if you could upload yourself into a virtual world and live out entire lives in it, maybe so quickly that it would seem that no time had passed in the real world. Maybe you even forget your original life while you’re in the simulated one, and then eventually you wake up and the knowledge from all your lives, real and simulated, comes rushing back to you. It would seem that more real realities, as you wake up, will be more and more complex. The reason for this is that a virtual world has to be much simpler than the reality it was made in. Just compare any of our computer games with our actual universe. Waking up from a universe in this way would be like going from 2-D world to a 3-D world, being transformed suddenly from animal to human, growing up instantly from child to adult, or better yet being born from the womb. From whatever point of view you think about it, if there is a reality outside ours it must be complex in ways we can’t begin to imagine. Waking up would be a lot like dying, at least as dying is understood by all major religions and most ancient philosophies.

All of these thoughts crossed my mind. But as they could not be confirmed by experiment, I suppressed them.

***

As a matter of fact, I continued to suppress these thoughts even after my 2004 mystical experience that convinced me of the existence of God. It isn’t that they weren’t part of that mystical experience. I felt that I had seen the Omega Point. But I was not in a stable place, mentally, until years afterward, and as part of my effort to maintain sanity, I avoided almost all speculations on higher realities.

I even avoided these speculations after my conversion to Christianity in 2009, which involved several additional revelatory experiences. If you’re a Christian yourself, I don’t expect you to be surprised that the possibility that we’re in a virtual reality simulation didn’t enter into it. However, if you’re a believer in science I do expect you to be surprised. Because you’re probably wondering how someone could swallow an old superstition like the idea that Jesus was born of a virgin and rose from the dead to ascend into heaven, and discount off-hand Tipler’s scientifically plausible if somewhat outlandish theory that we’ll live on in virtual reality after we die.

The answer to the question of how I believed in one and not the other is Darwin’s theory of evolution. Part of what I had realized by 2009 was the utter universality of natural selection. Natural selection isn’t something that sometimes works on you if you happen to have DNA. It’s actually more like gravity—it is constantly working on everything, culling and reshaping all variable populations of persistent traits of any kind. Including culture. Including even religion. From this point of view it was a no-brainer to accept Christianity and reject Omega Point theory. True, Tipler was a Christian, but of a very heterodox kind. His theory was not that God had created reality, but rather that humans would create God. In all important essentials Tipler’s theory, I knew, was Gnostic. And as I had been studying late antiquity for years trying to understand the fall of Rome and the rise of Christianity, I knew enough by then to say for certain that Gnosticism was an evolutionary dead end.

But that realization didn’t make it any easier to swallow the miracles in the Bible. Nor the realization that in antiquity, those who admitted that Jesus was a great teacher but refused to call him divine, very quickly lost out to those who believed in all the miracles of the New Testament. I knew from history that to reap the benefits of Christianity you had to believe in all of it.

I knew that I had to believe, but I couldn’t. Not completely. I still found it hard to swallow that Jesus had walked on water and raised Lazarus from the dead. I still found it hard to believe that he came back to life and floated into heaven. But I did the best I could to have faith. I told myself that the teachings of Jesus were the closest thing you could get to pure Goodness. And I reasoned this out as the natural result of evolution, that the New Testament had evolved toward perfection and that the result was a story about God being incarnated that was so close to what it actually would have been like as to be 100% true—at least spiritually, if not literally.

If you’re Christian you’re probably saying, “But that’s not Christianity.” Maybe it isn’t. But it was the best I could do. I went over and over what was miraculous in the Bible. I even prayed about it. But I didn’t get any definitive answers.

That isn’t to say I received no answers at all. I had a series of intense dreams that hammered into my mind that God was infinite and ungraspable, and that no single religion could contain Him. I had powerful feelings of identification with Christianity. I was told that faithful members of other religions were “saved.” But I got nothing on the miracle question. And I didn’t even ask about any afterlife, or what it really meant to be saved. At the time I was more interested in evolutionary fitness, which was a very Old Testament concern, I well knew, but I couldn’t help it. I just couldn’t believe in anything more.

I’m too honest with myself. I’m too skeptical. It’s what led me out of secular humanism in the first place. For 2500 years secular humanist philosophy, going back to the Greeks, had lost the evolutionary race again and again to theism. What had dawned on me was how gullible all those atheists are who think that this time it will be okay, that this time they will magically convince everyone that they are right, and we can live our scientific-logical-socialist utopia without religion or war. Maybe realizing the futility of all this sounds more like the logic of a deserter than of a true convert. In fact that’s exactly what it would have been if I had not had those dreams and revelations.

Ah, but hold on, you say, if you didn’t believe in miracles how could you believe that God was talking to you? Well I don’t know exactly. I sort of guessed it was my subconscious combining symbols and finding new local optima for my neural patterns, and that powerful tingling, those irresistible waves of goosebumps that made my hair stand on end, I guessed those were natural physiological responses to the enormous amount of correlation going on in my neural pathways. Right? And these patterns, since they reflected higher patterns of (very evolutionary fit) virtue, which were pieces of the theoretically highest-possible-virtue, or Good, also known as God, why shouldn’t I have said that they came from the Most High?

Anyway, at some point, I knew, I just had to go with it. I had read books by plenty of mystics and I knew they weren’t crazy. In fact they were the opposite of crazy.

Which reminds me. I almost forgot: in 2009 I stopped taking my anti-psychotic medications (which I had been on for years), I stopped seeing counselors, and I stopped having attacks both of mania and depression. This was after five years of being told by doctors that I had an incurable psychosis known as manic-depression or bipolar disorder and a 30% chance of committing suicide at some point. But after I started praying and earnestly reading scriptures: gone. For almost ten years now. If you’re religious you might call that a miracle. If you’re not religious you might call that very interesting indeed.

For most of the last nine years I’ve been the sort of Christian I just described. What you might call a “philosophical” Christian. I believed that Jesus’ teachings were as close to perfection as you could get. Whether he actually performed miracles or not I dismissed as immaterial, though I knew better. I knew it was important, but the fact was, I just couldn’t believe.

***

You’re probably thinking I’m going to start talking about some miracle that I experienced that I couldn’t explain scientifically, thus finally breaking the spell of materialism and ushering me into the gullible fold of True Believers.

I am in the fold of True Believers now, but not because I have directly witnessed or experienced any big miracles. Sure, I’ve had plenty of small miracles since my conversion—being cured of bipolar disorder, having powerful revelatory dreams and feelings, meeting my amazing wife, having several amazing children, finally finding a voice to express myself as a writer—but nothing earth-shattering. No angels coming down from heaven, no voices speaking out of a cloud, no walking on water. Nothing that defied the laws of physics or might convince a true skeptic.

What finally convinced me that miracles are real, is ... logic.

Let’s go back for a moment to this notion that we are in a simulated reality. Just for the sake of argument. Say you had one or more very powerful beings in a reality more complex than ours, and they decided to make a universe. And they made ours. But why did they make it? I mean, most of it is empty space and hydrogen atoms, right? You think they like watching hydrogen atoms collide in empty space like a bunch of mindless billiard balls? Of course not. What’s the most interesting thing in the universe? Well as far as we know, us.

Assuming our universe was created by someone, then whoever created it probably did it because they wanted to create something like humans. (Unless there’s a more intelligent and interesting organism somewhere out there, but let’s set this possibility aside for now.) And in fact, they did a great job creating humans because as it turns out, our universe is incredibly fine-tuned for life. The forces are balanced just right to create stars and planets and useful organic molecules that can join in so many interesting ways. By contrast, the vast majority of possible physical constants give you universes filled with just gas or just black holes or stars with no planets or planets with no organisms. Ours was perfectly done. It was a good bake.

So whoever is sitting outside our simulation watching it grow is surely very pleased with themselves. Or are they? What about all the suffering, evil, and injustice against innocents? In short, what about all the starving children? It would seem that our creator, as the old Epicurean argument goes, is either not all powerful or not all good.

I discuss this in more depth in my post on Boethius. And actually Boethius himself discusses it still more thoroughly. The answer to the question of why our world was created with evil in it boils down to this: if there is anything good at all, there must be something less good, which is to say, evil. And if things can be more or less evil, then you will certainly have things that are the most evil. And if there are sapient beings in your world, they will be bothered by this.

So evil must exist. But must innocents suffer? Well, again, if there is justice there must be injustice. And if there are things that happen by intention, there must be things that happen unintentionally. Bad fortune must be part of the world, or else we’d live in a place without good or evil, without chance or intention, and without justice or injustice. In short, you’d have a place not much different from a bunch of hydrogen billiard balls bouncing around in space.

If there were nothing challenging about reality, or if we could just mechanically do the right thing always and always get our just reward, how could there be any superbly good specimens of humanity? On the contrary you’d have a drab monotony of mechanically good people. (It’s ironic that the same people who complain that our reality is too harsh also like to say that heaven sounds boring and pointless.) In any case, it stands to reason that whoever made our world let bad things arise in it on purpose so that humanity could exist.

And here’s another thought. Why let all those good, innocent, heroic humans go to waste? So many good people die, but why let them die forever? Why not do what computer programmers do and write a “save game” function? Or rather maybe, a “save soul” function? Why not take whoever does especially well and, as a reward, promote them to a more pleasant reality and maybe even give them more responsibilities? Maybe even let them be agents in your own reality for a while, build them “heavenly” bodies so they can experience life outside their narrow simulation? Or even give them the ability to intervene in the world below as you yourself do?

So maybe, in a higher sense, justice could exist for innocents who suffer and die. They could have their reward in a life after death, or what some might call “an afterlife.”

Sounds nice doesn’t it? Maybe a little too good to be true? That’s what I thought myself until very recently. In fact, I had a friend come to me a couple years ago and cite this viral argument going around that we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation. It goes like this: assuming that civilization continues to advance, we will continue to build more and more virtual reality worlds of higher and higher sophistication, until they are as convincing as actual reality. Over the life of the universe you’d expect at least billions of such simulations to be created. But from this it follows that the probability that we are in the base reality is one in billions. (Elon Musk is a famous proponent of this argument. Headlines were soon announcing that he had hired a team of scientists to break us all out of the Matrix.)

After my friend sat me down and told me this over a beer, I just sort of chuckled at him and gave him a dose of his own medicine. For years he had been giving me this skeptical spiel about how people (especially theists) don’t think critically about anything and need to be more scientific. So I told him straight off that there was absolutely nothing scientific about this theory, because if you can’t tell the difference between your reality and a simulation, then we’re talking about something you can’t measure. You can never gather any scientific evidence for it. I said even if it was true, it didn’t matter, because obviously whoever wrote our simulation made it basically identical to base reality, so we might as well act as if it was reality.

Of course, maybe they wrote the program with some bugs in it. If we could find these bugs, we might be able to unravel what is going on and “break” out, as Musk would have us do. But I went on to say that this was probably foolish, as whoever designed our reality was so powerful we’d have no chance in a war anyway.

Despite my skeptical take, he was insistent that the logic was bullet-proof, and didn’t back down. I also tried the anti-progress rebuttal, pointing out that it was a huge assumption that civilization would continue getting more complex and never suffer a collapse, as most civilizations had in the past. But he was already so in love with the religion of progress that he wouldn’t budge on even this.

Nevertheless, since that conversation I’ve given this line of reasoning more and more thought. And suddenly a couple of weeks back it clicked with my historical and metaphysical researches in a way that has left me reeling, distracted, and elated. And with a steadier faith than before.

I started by asking myself this: how can I simultaneously be so in doubt about miracles and yet so certain that Christianity is true? I went over and over my thoughts from 2009 and realized that my rational certainty was based mostly on historical evidence, coupled with the theory of natural selection. The teachings of Jesus won out in a brutal competition with Paganism, Platonism, Stoicism, Epicureanism, and a thousand polytheistic cults. It stood its ground against Manicheaism, Gnosticism, a thousand heretical splinter groups, and is now held by 33% of the world’s population, and growing. This was the evidence that finally convinced me, at least rationally.

I asked myself: how can I quantify this certainty scientifically? So a couple weeks back I did a calculation. Christianity rose to predominate in the Roman Empire between 0 and 400 AD, that is, in about 16 generations. About 4.5 million people, give or take a million, lived in the Empire in those centuries. Assuming that each person chooses a belief system at random (that is, based on preferences unrelated to natural selection), the chances against Christianity rising this fast are less than 1 in a googol to the googol. (That’s a 1 with ten thousand zeroes behind it.) That’s our confirmation that Christianity was evolutionarily more fit.

Some may object that Christianity came to dominate through force. This may have happened after about 400 AD, but it couldn’t have happened before because the early Christians were mostly pacifists, even when they were being persecuted and killed for their beliefs.

Others may object that Christianity came to dominate through unusually persuasive rhetoric. This may be true but it can’t be the whole story because we know that Christians had more children than Pagans too. So all this means is that Christians were both biologically and culturally more fit than the competition. But that’s everything.

Or almost everything. You might say that their cultural fitness was superficial, that it is a lot of great sounding ideas but that in reality they don’t give you any real philosophical truth. But that can’t be right either, because it was primarily Christians that engendered the Scientific Revolution. It was primarily Christians (and some Muslims) that kept Greek philosophy alive through the Dark Ages. Isaac Newton was a Christian, and Charles Darwin was too (at least as he was raised). I’ve met physics professors at Caltech who are Christian, and there are many books out there (including Tipler’s) by scientists who are of the faith. Because if you think about it logically (as we’re doing right now) all those metaphysical claims that Christianity makes that supposedly can’t be confirmed by scientific experiment wouldn’t be able to be disproven either. So even though they are not confirmed by science, they are at least consistent with science.

But actually Christianity’s metaphysics are confirmed, because history demonstrates that they help people lead more productive lives.

You can’t claim on the one hand that Christianity can’t be proven wrong but at the same time that it creates gullible minds. If it really did create gullible minds it would have died out a long time ago. The fact of the matter is that Christian culture (the West) has produced some of the most fruitfully skeptical minds the world has ever seen.

Christianity must be incredibly fit in a very universal way; it has grown steadily now for 2000 years through booms and busts of civilizations, through ages both golden and dark, through persecution, war, peace, prosperity, and on every continent among extremely diverse peoples. This is not bad for a religion whose core teaching is merely that you must love God with all your heart and mind and soul, and love your neighbor as you love yourself.

It should also be kept in mind that most of the stories in the Bible have undergone very powerful selective forces. The Old Testament books have been around longer than the New, and are thus still better tested (at least by natural selection). But the books of the New Testament were also chosen by very powerful selective forces. Early on there was no clear rule about which books were part of the Holy Word and which not. But over time this rule, or canon, was selected and refined, and now there is virtually a universal agreement on the New Testament canon, despite there still being a few Old Testament books different among Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and various Protestant branches. My point is that the stories of miracles in the New Testament have been tested again and again, and have been confirmed. The last 2000 years have seen Christian culture and philosophy flourish. And as the belief that Christ performed miracles is essential to Christianity, it is essential to Western Philosophy too.

The Epicurean and Stoic philosophies of ancient Rome were both skeptical and materialist. They existed in direct competition with Christianity. And they lost. But most of the everyday virtues they taught were the same. A Christian, Stoic, and Epicurean would agree on most questions of morality. What they differed on was metaphysics, spirituality, magic, and miracles. Where an Epicurean would counter demonic possession with at best a long explanation of how it wasn’t possible, a Christian would simply go ahead and exorcise it in the name of Christ.

Who had the correct theory? There’s a central principle in modern scientific philosophy called pragmatism. It states that the theory that is most useful is true. It is obvious that the success of Christianity was far better than chance. It amounted to a 3% advantage per generation even while it was being opposed by the Emperor of Rome, most respected philosophers in Greece, and the high priests of Judaism. That’s a huge advantage. And the greater portion of the advantage was due not to the ethical theory of Christianity, which was largely the same as that of ancient philosophy, but due to its metaphysical theory. If the two had been equivalent, it would have been one in a googol to the googol chance of early Christianity being so successful against the odds it faced.

Hold on! say my skeptical readers. Not so fast! Am I saying that just because it gives you an evolutionary advantage to believe that Jesus walked on water, that Jesus did walk on water? Isn’t that still a bit of a leap?

Maybe. So let’s back up a little bit. The fact of the matter is that Christianity is not alone. It’s one of several very ancient, very complex religions that are passed down from one generation to the next by very well-educated priests. In the entire world only 16% of people are non-religious, and of these non-religious only half are non-theists. That means 84% of the rest of the world hold to a religion, and 92% believe in a higher power and things like the afterlife and other supposedly unprovable metaphysics. Most believe in demons or angels, a God or gods, and some form of magic or miracles.

But, you ask, even if the vast majority of people believe in things like angels and miracles, aren’t most of these people uneducated? Maybe only a small proportion of the world’s population is atheist, but among the educated isn’t the percentage much higher, and for good reason?

It’s higher because people who read a lot tend to doubt tradition more. But theists are not non-existent, even at the highest levels of intellectual culture. Let’s mention a small portion of the most famous of these. Theistic physicists have included the likes of Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, Johannes Kepler, Copernicus, and James Clerk Maxwell. Maxwell was probably the greatest physicist of the 19th century and a devout Christian. Mathematicians have included Georg Cantor, Kurt Gödel (called the greatest logician of all time), Nicholas of Cusa, Blaise Pascal, Rene Descartes, Gottfried Leibniz (who invented calculus along with Newton), Leonard Euler (a name I became very familiar with as a physicist, and who wrote apologetic essays), Maria Agnesi (who became a nun), Bernhard Riemann (also still very famous), Charles Babbage (who invented the first progammable computer and published arguments defending the possibility of miracles), Lewis Carroll, and Alonzo Church (a pivotal 20th-century computer scientist). Christian philosophers have included Ludwig Wittgenstein, Søren Kierkegaard, Ralph Waldo Emerson, C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, Francis Bacon, Immanuel Kant, Desiderius Erasmus, Edmund Burke, St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, John Locke, Simone Weil, and Roger Scruton, to name just a handful. Among Christian writers we’ve had Leo Tolstoy, T.S. Eliot, J.R.R. Tolkien, Rainer Maria Rilke, Annie Dillard, Robert Jordan, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, W.H. Auden, Oscar Wilde, Wendell Berry, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. I haven’t even listed all the thinkers and writers I consider most brilliant, as I’m going more for name recognition in this list.

For 8% of the world to completely disbelieve in God is actually very unusual, historically speaking. Through most of human history this number has been more like 1%. Modern materialistic philosophies are mostly to blame for the rise of atheism, and they maintain their hold primarily through mass-media, government-mandated public education, and a university system dominated by the anti-religious. Even then, the percentage of nonreligious is actually shrinking, especially since the secular dogma of zero population growth is sold more easily to nonbelievers.

My point is, why would evolution have favored minds that tend to believe in miracles? It’s very puzzling on the face of it. People are taken in all the time by conmen and charlatans. That means there has to be some advantage so powerful that it outweighs the disadvantage of gullibility. But what on earth could it be?

Let’s come back to the Great Programmer than coded our world. What the heck was he thinking?

To begin with, it’s certainly very hard to be a Great Programmer. I know this because I have participated in artificial life research, which means I’ve tried to create rules that lead to interesting forms of evolution. What I found was that it’s actually really, really hard to do. Most of the time your computer programs will tend to evolve to triviality, getting shorter and shorter, for example, so they can copy themselves faster. If they can they’ll usually go viral and mooch off other programs, refusing to evolve any interesting solutions themselves. Natural selection—and this is a point I’ve made elsewhere—does not guarantee interesting evolution. By itself it does not guarantee that you will get the kinds of organisms you are trying to get.

You have to put in the right forces of natural selection from the get-go. Not just any world with life will evolve sapient life. But ours did. Our world is extremely well-constructed for it.

But how does the Programmer go about putting selective forces into his program? For example, say he wants to evolve kind creatures. How does he do this?

It’s actually a myth that evolution can only lead to selfishness. Scientists have discovered a variety of simulations where altruistic programs—programs that actually sacrifice themselves to help other programs—can evolve. I’ve written programs like this myself. It usually involves tweaking the parameters so that self-sacrifice still pays off in the long run, by helping other altruists do better. This is sort of like in reality when Christian martyrs gave their lives to help the Church as a whole. It was a strategy that worked, at least in our world.

How would you tweak the parameters of our world? Well, you could mess with the laws of physics. Or you could play around with how things were at the time of the Big Bang. But neither of these are very efficient ways to do this. You would end up changing everything, the whole history of the world.

Imagine that your Programmer somehow bungled things up. (This is what the Gnostics believe by the way, and it’s wrong, but humor me for a second.) Half-way through the simulation he realizes that everything has gone wrong, and he forgot to put in certain conditions that let his creatures evolve kindness. So maybe he decides to enter the simulation for a second, so he can teach his creatures how to be kind, and then send them on their happy ways, to forge a new evolutionary path producing more of the kinds of souls he was going for in the first place. This would be way better, because now he doesn’t have to restart everything, and he can sort of fine tune it as it goes along, maybe performing miracles now and then to guide history to where it should be.

When you’ve got a created world, in other words, there are going to be cases where you need to go in and fix things by hand. And it should be clear that this is basically what we mean by miracles.

Assuming this is correct, why then would Jesus have to be sent at all, unless God messed up? Why didn’t he just put in the right conditions for humans to evolve kindness in the first place? Why didn’t he make it so that philosophies like Epicureanism and Stoicism work best, so everybody can just be atheist and happy?

Ah. Whoops. There’s the reason. Because God is good and would never deceive us this way. Why would he want us to be atheists? On the contrary, being perfectly honest, he wants us to know we’re in a simulation.

Okay, so here’s another question for you. Why then doesn’t he use miracles to give starving children something to eat? Why should anything bad ever happen, where everything’s perfectly fine and there are no challenges?

Ah. Whoops. We talked about this. Because He was creating an interesting reality with good and evil to challenge humans and evolve heroism. The vast majority of the time he’ll leave in place the normal rules of the game, physical cause and effect, so we can learn what we are here to learn.

All right, but what about demons? Why did He allow any lesser programmers in on the party? Why let them deceive humans and lead them astray?

This is actually an interesting question. But if you think about it, once again God is being perfectly consistent. If there must be evil in our world for it to be interesting, there must also be evil in any higher worlds for them to be interesting. Of course, not all worlds need to be “interesting” in the sense I’m putting it, but you get what I’m saying. You could easily have heavens where nothing bad happens, but that’s obviously not what our world is, because eternal reward is not what our world is for. You could also easily have higher worlds with evil, because maybe God is evolving beings on those higher levels. In fact the story of the fall of Lucifer makes sense in this light. So you really could have demons outside our reality, at least conceivably.

Here’s another question. If demons exist, how do we know that a particular religion was founded by the true God, and not a deceiver? Well, the short answer to this is that we don’t. If St. Augustine was right that the Roman Pantheon was actually a league of demons (see City of God), then in fact people have been led astray by rogue cosmic programmers before. But this, too, seems to be the sort of challenge that God wishes to face us with. There will always be the possibility that we will fail in it. In any case, as He can see our hearts, we must have faith that we will get what we truly deserve in the afterlife, even if we are led astray now and then while we are here.

How do we know which religion is true? Up until a couple of weeks ago the best answer I could give is that I have been brought up in a Christian society, so I need to be faithful to my society and join its religion. Perhaps other religions are different because they are adapted to their particular society. And mixing, religions, I realized, was almost certainly foolish, because you would ruin the exquisite adaptiveness of each to its own society.

But now this whole line of reasoning, however valid, is preempted by a more basic question. If it is generally true that there is an external reality, outside our “simulation,” and that humans can contact higher beings, and that these higher beings can meddle in our affairs, and that our religions are successful precisely because they acknowledge this fact, then the question becomes—among Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, Krishna, Socrates (yes even Socrates claimed to be in touch with a “daemon”), Moses, Zoroaster, Mani, and other religious and philosophical leaders—who was contacting a demon, who an angel, who the Almighty God?

Now the first and most obvious test is whether the religion founded by a given prophet thrived or not. Because if it didn’t thrive, it is likely that it was inconsistent with the evolutionary goals set down by the Programmer of our universe.

Hold on a second though. Here’s an even more fundamental question. How do we know the Programmer of our universe was God and not some demon? The answer to this is fairly simple, actually: because if our reality is too fine-tuned for life to be the result of chance, then any reality fine-tuned enough to evolve angels and demons capable of creating our reality will be in need of a still higher programmer to be explained. And that reality will need a still higher creator, and so on to infinity. And that is what we mean by God, the one truly infinite being, the First Mover at the top powerful enough to create realities of any complexity.

How do we know that God is good? Because God is all-knowing, and evil is simply a lack of understanding. Since God lacks no understanding, he lacks no good qualities.

So even if our reality was, in an immediate sense, created by a demon, this demon would be finite, and would thus be just as weak before God as we are, and subject to his laws. Imagine if you and I gained powerful enough technology to go create our own world. And we decided to make it a world that evolves purely evil beings. Or perhaps a world of slaves that would do our bidding and who would be merely our playthings, suffering endlessly for our pleasure. Surely this would displease our Maker. Surely he would have the ability and desire to interfere. Perhaps he would simply go down and save the poor souls we had created from slavery and then make us slaves in some kind of hell as punishment.

As an arena for the evolution of good by the struggle against evil, our reality seems to be well-designed. Many good and heroic people have arisen in our reality, and surely these souls have been greatly exalted in the realms above. True, evil has arisen as well, but it has been necessary to make our world a challenge, and villains will surely get what they deserve in the life to come.

So it appears that the Programmer of our world was, on the whole, good. Either an angel or the Almighty himself.

By angel, of course, we mean a higher being who answers to God’s will. By demon, we mean a higher being that defies it. You would expect the line between good and evil to be sharper the higher you go, because knowledge about the layered structure of reality would become more sophisticated, and the conclusion that there must be a God at the highest layer would be more clear. So to do evil would be a more blatant defiance of His will in higher realities.

Let’s get back to the question of how to tell which religious founders were inspired by angels and which by demons. Mani, the great Gnostic prophet of antiquity, whose religion Manicheaism flourished for only a couple of centuries, and whose philosophical ideas die out again and again, was almost certainly possessed by a demon. The 10,000 religions that have died out over the course of human history were likely mostly the work of demons, or at least unenlightened humans. Ancient Paganism is now regarded as the work of demons by most, and this would make sense, as they demanded human sacrifice in gladiatorial games, and lewd, pornographic displays at the theaters. (See Augustine’s City of God for more discussion of these.) Whatever gods demanded human sacrifice of the Aztec and Mayan empires were likewise certainly demons.

The question becomes more tricky when talking about the major world religions of today: Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. As these are all long-lived, they must each contain mostly true doctrines. This stands to reason, as all these religions teach kindness, charity, honesty, humility, and good works. If you read for example the Koran, which states in the first chapters that you must give to the poor and bow to Jews and Christians because they worship the same God and are saved, you will see that much of the conflict between religions is due to their politicization and the manipulation of the devout by malign leaders.

But even if they are each mostly true, there is still the question of why they conflict. There are several plausible sources of interference: (1) perhaps as the founder of the religion was listening to God or His angel, a demon sneaked in a word here or there that appealed to the prophet’s vanity; (2) perhaps the founder (or his demon god) used an existing true religion as a model, knowing the power that true religion had to gain converts, but added certain flourishes out of pride or greed; (3) perhaps the original founding of the religion consisted of pure doctrine, but this was subsequently warped by corrupt leaders over time. Any or all of these could have played a role. And here again we see how this reality tests our virtue, how perfect honesty and humility will benefit us, and how selfishness and pride can lead to corruption and eventual downfall.

The centuries to come will tell us which religion is the most true. But I think still more can be said, especially about Christianity.

Christianity is unique because its founder, Jesus Christ, showed perfect humility during his time on earth. He obviously did not start the religion to become a great conqueror or a wealthy man. He remained humble throughout his life and died before becoming famous. It is clear that Jesus was not possessed by a demon.

But didn’t he claim to be God? Isn’t that somewhat insane? How could it be true?

If Jesus was not possessed by a demon, then he was on the side of the Almighty. And if so, he could not have been insane or a liar. If the words of the New Testament are true, then he was telling the truth when he said he was God.

And we know that the New Testament is true, because it has been selected to come down to us out of all the many thousands of beliefs there have been. And as the Almighty designed our reality, he would not design it to naturally select scriptures that were false.

In fact, during one period in the history of the Church there were two factions, the Trinitarians and the Arians. The Arians did not believe that Jesus was God, but that he was created by God. For a time the Arians rose to predominate, but eventually the Trinitarians (who held to the original view taught by the Apostles) came back to dominance. There was some violence between members of each camp, especially among barbarians, but if you study the history of this conflict in detail you will learn that the Trinity won its most decisive victories through rational debate, philosophical contemplation, and democratic voting. It was a selected doctrine, not imposed from above by corrupt leaders. So it is astronomically unlikely that Arianism is more true, especially as it has risen again and again during the course of history (there are Arians even today), but has in most centuries comprised a very small portion of the faithful.

So what we have is a certain religion, Christianity, which appears to be the work of the Highest Creator. He incarnated Himself to share with us what the whole point of this “simulation” is. And this is exactly what you would expect of a benevolent Programmer who does not wish to deceive his creations, but to help them.

As I realized this, everything started to fit together.

The doctrine of the Trinity states that you have one God who is three persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. The Father is the Most High Creator, of course. We use the term Father for tradition’s sake, though being infinite He is obviously beyond gender. The Son is Jesus, the incarnation of God for the purpose of sharing with us the meaning of life and suffering Himself to save our souls. How fair would it be for God to create this hard reality for us and not come face the worst of it Himself, and tell us that it will all be okay? Finally, the Holy Ghost is what allows us to feel the will of God when we pray. It is ever present so that we never have to be alone in this difficult reality.

And seeing this, I came to realize that all along it had been the Holy Ghost that had gently been guiding me toward the truth. Just as humanity was not ready for Jesus until the Jewish and Greek cultures had been led gradually closer to the light, I was not ready for the Truth until I had been led gradually closer to the light.

The fact of the matter is, my mystical experience in 2004 that shattered everything and landed me in therapy was the result of seeing the truth before I was ready. I recall surfing the web for statistics on world hunger and child mortality in the third world and on realizing the truth breaking down into a fit of weeping, unable to sleep for days. I recall scouring the library for books on mysticism trying to understand the visions that I had begged for but couldn’t comprehend. I remember one night sitting up in bed to have a waking vision of a light from God that penetrated me to my inmost desires, even the most secret and despicable ones, and being utterly humiliated. I remember seeing with full vividness the Eternity I would lose if I couldn’t piece things together. But things kept falling apart. I felt pretty sure that madness would result.

There is a good reason that God, who is incomprehensibly higher than we are, never showed his face to Moses. Nor did He even come close to showing His face to me. But as a well-trained, dogmatic atheist, even the slightest peak at the Truth nearly destroyed me.

I was not destroyed, however. And the thing that got me through was the realization that there was a Higher Power, because I had seen Him and had realized that this Power wanted what was best for me. And that was all I was ready to accept at that point, after my first experience. I clung to this bit of truth like a drowning man to a bit of wood.

I’ve come to see that God has a purpose for all of us, if we would only heed His guidance. But before all else, He wants us all to have our freedom, because we are, being created in His image, ourselves creative beings. He would never force us to do anything. Hellfire is reserved not for those who go their own path, but for those who interfere negatively in the paths of others. For my whole life I’ve seen myself as a seeker after truth. So after 2004, recovering my wits and a form of sanity, I left physics for graduate school in philosophy, to continue my search for truth on my own terms. Not only was I following my dreams, but I was following a path God knew would prove fruitful for me. Sure, he had given me a mystical vision, but his purpose was not to send me off to become a priest, a prophet, or a religious leader. That wasn’t where I was needed. I was needed in philosophy – the heart of modern atheism.

I actually made fast friends with several fellow students who were Catholic. But these friendships didn’t last long. In one conversation someone brought up angels. I said, “You believe in angels?” He said, “Yes.” I replied: “That’s stupid.” End of conversation.

I hung out more with the sort that I was meant to hang out with. The brilliant skeptics who, like me, believed in almost nothing but physics. And I came face to face with real stupidity. A fixation on the material world so laser-like that they couldn’t even admit that biology was a real science. (Why? Not enough math in it.) And though I was a jerk, at least I was an honest jerk, and when I saw the holes in their logic I was as merciless with them as I’d been with believers. When I decided that the truest position was emergentism—the doctrine that physicists hate because it states that not all sciences are reducible to physics—I chuckled to myself because it sounded so dumb and mystical. With glee I imagined the looks on everyone’s faces as logic showed that physics was not the highest form of knowledge. And this selfish arrogance led me to develop my first important theory, a mathematical proof of the limits of physics based on Gödel’s theorem.

Of course, it had been done before. Papers along the exact same lines had been published quietly in academic journals for decades. But this was going to be different. I was going to wave it in people’s faces until their world fell apart.

But that never happened. And the way it never happened was the most disappointing outcome you could have expected. Nobody proved me wrong. Nobody even tried (very hard). They would discuss it for a bit, but before anything was decided someone would change the topic and we’d all go home. I would argue with half-hearted professors in their office until they told me to maybe “choose a different topic.” Email chains would fizzle out before they even got good. And that was when I realized that reason and logic meant nothing in modern academic philosophy. In the end, it was politics. It was all about sounding more scientific than the next guy. And Emergentism, that laws of nature can emerge that physics can’t predict, is the least scientific-sounding theory you could have.

It didn’t dawn on me at the time, but I was getting a dose of my own medicine. Just as I had, for years, dismissed spiritual ideas outright as unworthy of my thought, my own philosophical ideas, despite being logically provable, were being dismissed offhand.

Jaded and dispirited, I again faced extinction. This time it wasn’t as a mental hospital patient, but as a mindless cog in the academic machine, churning out paper after paper on uninteresting, interminable arguments. They told me to choose a narrow topic so I could “just get my Ph.D.” making it clear that getting what might be considered the highest academic credential on the planet, a doctorate from the best philosophy school in the U.S., was just a matter of sitting quietly and doing busywork for a couple of years. It actually didn’t sound that bad. Why throw away such a certificate, a guarantee that I’d get whatever book deals in the years to come that I wanted? And so I buckled down and started becoming that cog.

But then, in 2008, the Holy Spirit returned and did me another favor. One night, in a waking nightmare I saw the utterly empty abyss that lay before me, the total extinction of my soul that awaited in the inanity of hypocrisy. It was so terrifying that I nearly overdosed on my anti-psychotic meds to get it to go away. But the nightmare still didn’t go away until, sluggish and numb through all my limbs and thoughts, numb even to the tip of my tongue with the synthetic chemicals coursing through my veins, urinating every seven minutes, I called my Dad and told him I needed a break from school and was flying home—and my two-year sabbatical began.

I read more books during those two years than probably in the entire rest of my life. But when it was all over I readily admitted that the best one of all, the one that had changed my life in the biggest and most positive way, was the Bible. At the end of it, after a series of significant dreams, was when I started calling myself a Christian.

Still I didn’t believe. Still I doubted that anything in the Bible had really happened. I had read it like fiction. Even as fiction it was more valuable to me than any other book.

But why? Why didn’t God just send an angel down on a cloud to explain: “Hey there buddy, you’re awfully close to the truth so here it is. You’re in a simulation and the Great Programmer wants you to know it. He’s sent prophet after prophet and miracle after miracle, and he even came in person to chat with you all and heal the sick to show how powerful and nice he is, but you guys still don’t seem to get it, so let me just tell you straight up. Consider yourself in the know.” Heck, that’s what He did with Paul and half the other saints.

Why have I been forced to work this all out logically? Because that’s what I wanted all along. That was my path. To develop my cosmology philosophically, logically, and in-depth. To find out analytically that, yes, we live in a rational universe where miracles are exceptions that (quite literally) prove the rule. And now I can share it with you all without having to tell some far-fetched story about an angel on a cloud.

As for all these snarky Frequently Asked Questions when it comes to Christian beliefs:

Q: Why send Jesus to one place and time and neglect earlier times and other civilizations? Why should God have only appeared in Isreal 2000 years ago?

A: I can’t think of a better place and time to appear than when He did. He had centuries of vetted scriptures of Judaism to work with, and this gave people a background for understanding why He came. Greek Platonic philosophy had matured, and played a huge role in understanding and explaining the gospel. (In fact the New Testament was written in Greek.) Jesus came soon enough to spread his word to the Roman Empire, and from there to all of Europe, and from Europe, as is happening today, it is spreading to the rest of the world. The Bible even says He will come again. And I don’t think He did neglect earlier times and other civilizations. They have received portions of the truth, enough to produce many good souls in every era of history.

Q: Why did Jesus have to come at all? Why not have designed good-enough laws of natural selection to make people naturally kind?

A: For two reasons. (1) To not pre-program us, but rather to let us have free will. (2) To show us with certainty that there is a Higher Power who cares. As a perfectly good being, He would clearly want us to be both free and undeceived.

Q: What about inconsistencies in the New Testament?

A: As the New Testament was written and passed down by finite humans, it is likely that some errors have crept in. But we can be sure that the best version has in most cases been selected, the version that best preserves His original message.

(POSTSCRIPT: During the week after writing this essay, I happened to pick up Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ. I’ve found that much more can be said about the validity of the New Testament. Where most myths, legends, and religious biographies develop over the course of centuries, it took mere decades for the New Testament to be written down. Contrary to popular opinion, Jesus’s biography is one of the best corroborated—internally, externally, and archaeologically—in history. Scholarship has also shown that most of the so-called gospels that didn’t make it into the New Testament canon were first written down centuries later. So unlike most other holy biographies, the New Testament sprang into existence fully-formed. Within decades a significant fraction of Jews had converted, most of the rest had radicalized, and an angry Roman emperor came and demolished Jerusalem and dismantled its temple, just as Jesus, and Daniel before him, had prophesied.)

Q: How is it possible that Jesus did things like walk on water and cure the blind?

A: He coded our reality and He can change it at will.

Q: What about the Old Testament? Why is it so different from the New Testament? Why did God suddenly change His mind?

A: He didn’t change his mind at all. Humans had to evolve until they were ready. Prior to Jesus’s time the Jews were even less ready for what he had to say than they were when He came. He had to prepare the way with miracles, the Ten Commandments, and prophecies or else the arrival of the Christ would have been too confusing for everyone. As it was, enough Jews were just barely ready enough to get what was happening, learn the gospel, and go evangelize.

Q: Why did God play favorites with the Jews?

A: He had to set them aside as a chosen and holy people so he could teach them and prepare them to receive the messiah. When he saw them dying out in Egypt he went and saved them. When he saw them go astray he sent prophets to admonish them. He certainly didn’t make them into some world-dominating Empire, as He could have. They hadn’t shown themselves ready for the responsibility. He kept them just alive enough and wise enough to prepare the way to come down and explain everything to us.

Q: What about the creation story in Genesis? Why didn’t he just tell Moses that we all evolved over billions of years?

A: Even if He had told him this the ancient Hebrews wouldn’t have had the slightest clue what He was talking about. They got the basic outlines well enough: first there was a void and then an empty world with land and oceans, and then the sky cleared to give it light from the sun, then living things appeared (it even states that ocean life appeared first), then land animals, and finally humans. Pretty close to the real story, right? He even told Adam he was made from dust, and any modern astronomer will tell you yes, indeed, we are made from stardust. You can’t expect natural selection to keep alive an orally-passed, technically-correct story of evolution through all the centuries in a way that a modern biologist or cosmologist would find at all interesting. As it was He did pretty well in explaining. Most polytheistic creation stories are much more nonsensical.

Q: What about the Fall of Adam and Eve? Did that really happen or what? And if it did, isn’t it ridiculous to punish them and all their descendants for a little curiosity?

A: Even St. Augustine admitted that this story was almost certainly an allegory. Many Jews will tell you the same thing. It actually makes a lot of sense if you meditate on it. He tells them not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Why? Because if they do they’re going to know enough to corrupt them. They’re going to know enough to give God the responsibility of teaching them what true Goodness really is. They’re going to make a choice to inhabit a reality of both joy and suffering, knowledge and deception. It seems much more fair to give them this choice and warn them they might regret it than to just plunge them into this reality without any choice or warning whatsoever. I believe that all of us made this choice at some level in the very act of attaining consciousness. Genesis is more a story of the genesis of human moral consciousness than anything else, and I think those of us wise enough to contemplate this fable have already eaten of the Tree ourselves.

Q: What about when God destroyed most of the world with a flood? Was that fair? Is that even supported by archeology?

A: Archaeological and genetic evidence shows that the last common ancestor of all humans lived about 50,000 years ago. Even if the flood happened that long ago, the distribution of land species on our planet is inconsistent with the idea that they all disembarked from an ark at any one time after the appearance of humans.

Some have said that the Biblical flood might have been the flooding of the Black Sea, which does appear to have destroyed some early civilizations. Or perhaps, as most religions and mythologies contain some mention of a flood, maybe the story has some deep allegorical meaning. My opinion is that the story of Noah, and along with it the story of the Tower of Babel (which is told right after it in the Old Testament) are dim records of the destruction of earlier civilizations that, due to human waywardness, were too violent, arrogant, or fickle for receiving God’s teachings of kindness. But I don’t know for sure. We’re still talking about only the first 10 pages of the Bible, and this is probably an example of oral traditions that are so old they could not help but be compressed into allegory. For an Old Testament about 700 pages long, the story of Noah comprises only 2 pages, so it’s less than 0.3% of the entire narrative.

Q: If our universe was created for life, why is there so much empty space?

A: We actually have no idea whether there is other life out there. For all we know the rest of our universe is teeming with life. SETI researchers have only been able to reliably search out to about 200 light years away from Earth, and our galaxy alone is 100,000 light years in diameter. And even then they’ve only scanned a relatively narrow range of frequencies for brief moments of time. Even if the universe is empty, there is no saying what God intended for it. Maybe it’s meant as a virtually unlimited field for space colonization by humans. Or maybe He wanted to allow life to arise spontaneously, and that much space was needed so that there would be a high enough number of earth-like planets for this kind of creativity to happen.

I’m not saying I have all the answers. I’m just saying that a lot of things start making a lot more sense if you take the idea seriously that our reality was designed. And I’m saying that a cosmology including miracles and angels and demons and a Highest God is a lot more coherent than modern intellectuals might have you believe. In fact, given the evidence, it’s the best metaphysical theory we have.

We live in a special time. Human knowledge has never stretched out deeper, wider, or higher. There has never been such a wide field of ideas for a philosopher to consider. And—as our reality is a fabric woven from both positive and negative aspects—this incredible breadth of education has led many of our most brilliant thinkers astray from the truth. Our power has given us arrogance, and I have suffered myself from this arrogance for much of my life. But somehow my honesty got me through. It is honesty that is needed most today, perhaps even more than faith, as it is the only way to true faith. God teaches us in many ways. As C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity:

He works on us through Nature, through our own bodies, through books, sometimes through experiences which seem (at the time) anti-Christian. When a young man who has been going to church in a routine way honestly realises that he does not believe in Christianity and stops going—provided he does it for honesty’s sake and not just to annoy his parents—the spirit of Christ is probably nearer to him then than it ever was before. But above all, He works on us through each other.

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