A Euclidean theater of misery

As winner of the Best Umeshism Contest (remember that?), Peter Brooke earned the right to ask me any question and have me answer it on this blog. Without further ado, here is Peter’s question:

If it is assumed that God exists, what further, reasonable, conclusions can be made, or is that where logical inquiry must end? Reasonable means in the light and inclusive of present scientific understanding. Defend any assumptions and conclusions you make.

At least Peter was kind enough not to spring “Is there a God?” on me. Instead, like a true complexity theorist, he asks what consequences follow if God’s existence is assumed.

Alas, Peter didn’t say which God he has in mind. If it were Allah, or Adonai, or Zeus, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, then I’d simply refer Peter to the requisite book (or in the case of the Spaghetti Monster, website) and be done. As it is, though, I can’t assume anything about God, except that

  1. He exists,
  2. He created the universe (if He didn’t, then it’s not He we’re talking about), and
  3. He’s a He.

(Note for Miss HT Psych: the third assumption is a joke.)

So the only way I see to proceed is to start from known facts, and then ask what sort of God would be compatible with those facts. Though others might make different choices, the following facts seem particularly relevant to me.

  • About 700,000 children each year die of malaria, which can easily be prevented by such means as mosquito nets and the spraying of DDT. That number will almost certainly grow as global warming increases the mosquitoes’ range. As with most diseases, praying to God doesn’t seem to lower one’s susceptibility or improve one’s prognosis.
  • According to our best theories of the physical world, it’s not enough to talk about the probability of some future event happening. Instead you have to talk about the amplitude, which could be positive, negative, or even complex. To find the probability of a system ending up in some state, first you add the amplitudes for all the ways the system “could” reach that state. Then you take the absolute value of the sum, and lastly you take the square of the absolute value. For example, if a photon could reach a detector one way with amplitude i/2, and another way with amplitude -i/2, then the probability of it reaching the detector is |i/2 + (-i/2)|2 = 0. In other words, it never reaches the detector, since the two ways it could have reached it “interfere destructively” and cancel each other out. If we required the amplitudes to be positive or negative reals rather than complex numbers, there would be some subtle differences — for example, we could just square to get probabilities, instead of taking the absolute value first. But in most respects the story would be the same.
  • From 1942 to 1945, over a million men, women, and children died in one of four extermination complexes at Birkenau, or “Auschwitz II” (Auschwitz I was the smaller labor camp). Each complex could process about 2,500 prisoners at a time. The prisoners were ordered to strip and leave their belongings in a place where they could find them later. They were then led to an adjacent “shower room,” containing shower heads that were never connected to any water supply. Once they were locked inside, guards dropped pellets from small openings in the ceiling or walls. The pellets contained Zyklon B, a cyanide-based nerve agent invented in the 1920’s by the German Jewish chemist Fritz Haber. The guards then waited for the screams to stop, which took 3-15 minutes, depending on humidity and other factors. Finally, Sonderkommandos (prisoners who were sent to the gas chambers themselves at regular intervals) disposed of the bodies in the adjacent crematoria. With the arrival of 438,000 Hungarian Jews in 1944, the crematoria could no longer keep up, so the bodies were burned in open pits instead. Besides those killed at Auschwitz, another 1.6 million were killed at the four other death camps (Sobibor, Belzec, Treblinka, and Chelmno). In the USSR and Poland, another 1.4 million were shot in front of outdoor pits by the Einsatzgruppen; still others died through forced starvation and other means. Judged on its own terms, the extermination program was a spectacular success: it wiped out at least 2/3 of Russian and European Jewry and changed the demography of Europe. The Americans and British declined numerous opportunities to take in refugees, or to bomb the camps or the train tracks leading to them. Most of the perpetrators, except for a few top ones, returned to civilian life afterward and never faced trial. Millions of people today remain committed to the goal of a Judenrein planet; some, like my friend Mahmoud, are working to acquire nuclear weapons.
  • According to our best description of space and time, the faster an object is moving relative to you, the shorter that object will look in its direction of motion, and the slower time will pass for it as observed by you. In particular, if the object is moving at a fraction f of the speed of light, then it will contract, and time will slow down for it, by a factor of 1/(1-f2)1/2. This does not mean, as some people think, that concepts like “distance” have no observer-independent meaning — only that we were using the wrong definition of distance. In particular, suppose an observer judges two events to happen r light-years apart in space and t years apart in time. Then the interval between the events, defined as r2-t2, is something that all other observers will agree on, even they disagree about r and t themselves. The interval can also be defined as r2+(it)2: in other words, as the squared Euclidean distance in spacetime between the events, provided we reinterpret time as an imaginary coordinate. (This is known as “Wick rotation.”)
  • When I was younger, my brother and I went to an orthodontist named Jon Kraut. Dr. Kraut was a jovial guy, who often saw me on weekends when I was home from college even though his office was officially closed. He was also an aviation enthusiast and licensed pilot. About a week ago, Kraut was flying a twin-engine plane to South Carolina with his wife, Robin, their three kids (ages 2, 6, and 8), and the kids’ babysitter. Kraut reported to the control tower that he was having problems with his left engine. The plane made one approach to the airport and was coming back to try to land again when it crashed short of the runway, killing the whole family along with the babysitter. On the scale of history, this wasn’t a remarkable event; I only mention it because I knew and liked some of the victims.

Now, based on the facts above, plus many others I didn’t mention, and “in the light … of present scientific understanding,” what can we say about God, assuming He exists? I think we can say the following.

First, that He’s created Himself a vale of tears, a theater of misery beyond the imagination of any horror writer. That He’s either unaware of all the undeserved suffering He’s wrought, or else unable or unwilling to prevent it. That in times of greatest need, He’s nowhere to be found. That He doesn’t answer the prayers of the afflicted, or punish evildoers in any discernible way. That He most likely doesn’t intervene in human affairs at all — though I wouldn’t want to argue with those who say He does intervene, but only for the worse.

Second, that He apparently prefers complex numbers to real numbers, and the L2 norm to the L1 norm.

64 Responses to “A Euclidean theater of misery”

  1. Robin Says:

    An excellent, unflinching analysis. Not at all controversial.

    In fact, what I find particularly interesting has to do with the separation of your conclusions into “God as philosopher,” and “God as mathematician.”

    I’d say that most mathematicians and theoretical physicists sort of agree with God — complex numbers are more elegant than reals, and the L2 norm is more elegant than the L1 norm (although I suspect the information theorists and probability folks are going to flame me on both counts).

    Very few theologians, however, seem to agree with God. Well, maybe the Spanish Inquisition guys.


  2. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    I’m not convinced that this is framing the question in the right way. The discussion mixes questions of science and causality with questions of morality and emotions. Of course some people use that disconnect to argue that science and religion are compatible and don’t intersect. My feeling is that science is just fine and that the disconnect is within religion itself: it mixes oil and water (that is, morality with causality).

    I think of morality as a very specific high-level structure within the natural world. It is a subtopic of human behavior, which is a subtopic of human biology, which is a subtopic of biology in general, which is a subtopic of chemistry, which is a subtopic of physics. If we take as a premise that God exists, then I can’t make it past the outer three contexts to even begin to discuss the innermost one.

    For example, if God exists, then “He” must like hydrogen and helium much more than higher elements. On the small planet Earth, “He” is inordinately fond of beetles. “He” also likes to be called “He”, at least by people, even though no one has suggested a use that “He” might have for genitals.

    That last one suggests an alternative explanation for what kind of God exists, assuming that we are allowed to revise the definition of “God” and “exists”. That is, “He” could be a cultural extrapolation of biological fathers, as in “God the Father”. After all, the Greeks had “Zeus Pater” and the Romans had “Jupiter”. And did you believe for a time that your parents were not just strict, benevolent, merciful, just, and mysterious, but also omnipotent and omniscient? That was my impression, until about age 7.

  3. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    On the other hand, I do not quite agree about L1 and L2 norms. For the reasons explained above, I have trouble attributing either norm, or for that matter quantum mechanics at all, to the preference of dieties. So to rephrase the question, I am not convinced that L2 is more fundamental in quantum information theory than L1. I would say rather that one is po-tay-to, while the other is po-tah-to; they are both correct.

    Of course the usual L1 norm on a measure space is off the mark in quantum information theory. However, it is perfectly reasonable to define a quantum state as a mixed state or “density operator” from the get-go. Its natural norm is the spectral L1 norm, a.k.a., Kolmogorov trace distance. You can then ask what kinds of operations on states are permissible. They should be real linear (by the classical superposition principle), they should be completely positive (because no one wants negative probabilities), and they should be trace-preserving (because classical probability is conserved).

    Theorem: Any such map on density operators is a unitary composed with partial trace. So the L2 norm and complex amplitudes follow from L1-norm assumptions, together with the belief that the convex region of states of a system might not be a simplex, but something slightly more complicated. (Namely the Bloch region of trace-one positive Hermitian matrices.)

    Admittedly, in high-energy physics, reversibility seems to be fundamental. Maybe there, complex amplitudes and L2 norms are the only reasonable axioms. It is not so in quantum information theory.

  4. Scott Says:

    Greg: I agree, it’s a funny idea that the same deity should run the cosmology and human-affairs departments! Indeed, the only reason it figures at all in my post is that tens of billions of people have found it as obvious as its negation is obvious to you.

    I only take issue with one thing you said: in discussing malaria, the Holocaust, etc., my goal was to avoid “questions of morality and emotions,” and stick to facts that are as agreed-upon by serious people as the facts of relativity and QM.

  5. Scott Says:

    Greg: Yeah, God also seems to like theories that can be formulated in many mathematically equivalent ways, using different assumptions as starting points. πŸ™‚

  6. Scott Says:

    Robin: Thanks for the comment!

    “Very few theologians, however, seem to agree with God.”

    On the contrary, many theologians say something on the order of “God works in mysterious ways” — i.e. all suffering is ultimately for the best, even if we with our tiny brains can’t understand how. That, of course, raises the question of why anyone should try to prevent suffering.

  7. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    The Holocaust is inevitably an emotional topic. Unfortunately this means that most people turn off most of their brains when they consider it, and use it to confirm their prior political and religious beliefs, whatever they may be. It’s still too recent. It is easier to think rationally about the Mongol invasions, for example.

    My perspective on the Holocaust is that I lost many distant relatives to it on one side of the family. At a personal level, the Holocaust was a tremendous but banal period of loss and grief, and an undying political distraction. It didn’t make anybody a better person. I used to only see it as my duty to learn about and truly understand the Holocaust. I do not really disagree with that, but now I see that there is less to learn from the Holocaust than one might think. With the best of intentions, the museums and history books and so on end up glamorizing this historical abyss.

  8. Anonymous Says:

    This discussion about L_1 norms vs. L_2 norms (which I have heard brought up, at various times, by both Scott Aaronson and Adam Smith) is really unsettling. How much do you care about rotational invariance? Or spectral theory? Or, say, inner products? Or the fact that those are all the same question?

    Here is a natural way to get L_2:
    Take the “intersection” of all L_p spaces (p between one and infinity).
    Every L_p space contains an isometric, isomorphic copy of L_2.
    This doesn’t single it out for you?

    Greg: We could agree to use any norm as long as you do something silly like only admit some bizarre subset of all possible states.

    No, you are only confused if you think that Hilbert spaces themselves are not fundamental to quantum mechanics.

  9. Anonymous Says:

    Come on, we all know that happiness is relative. I am very pleased to be safe and warm right now, but perhaps only relative to the fact that I am not choking to death in a gas chamber. Who knows… maybe this universe maximizes relative average happiness by being exactly at the suffering equilibrium?

    Oh shit… maybe it’s the L_2 norm of happiness that should be maximized.

  10. Scott Says:

    Greg: I’m a bit puzzled by what you’re responding to. I didn’t say that the Holocaust is easy to think about rationally, or that it made anyone a better person, or that it had no historical antecedents.

    On the other hand, people have often said things about God and human nature that tell me that they don’t “grok” the Holocaust (or the Mongol invasions, or the Armenian genocide, or the destruction of the Aztec Empire), even if they know the facts just as I do. Their worldviews just don’t seem big enough to fit the historical reality into.

    Regarding “museums and history books and so on,” one should keep in mind that about 20% of Americans say they’re unsure whether the Holocaust happened. In most cases, the reason seems to be that they’re ignorant, not that they’re anti-Semitic.

  11. secret milkshake Says:

    I always found interesting that all religions insisted their God is paying close attention to what we were doing (and not doing), reading human mids, answering the prayers, intervening personaly or sending prophets and saviours etc. Universe is pretty large place and I don’t think we are all that interesting part of that experiment.

    On a related subject: A guy comes to Hell and devils are taking him on a tour. It is a large warm place, lots of relaxed folks playing cards, guzling beer and watching soccer. And then they hear suddenly terrible, blood-curdling shreeks from behind the door. “What’s behinnd the door?” asks the guy. The devils open the door – and sure enough, behind all fumes of burnig sulfur, wats full of hot oil and unfortunate folks being fried in. “You know, the catholics” mumbles the devil sheepishly. “We realy tried to talk them out of it – but they insisted.”

  12. Nagesh Adluru Says:


    “That, of course, raises the question of why anyone should try to prevent suffering.”

    I think proabably because GOD wants us to work in detached style without craving for absolute control. This is because detachment to results helps us focus more objectively on work. Time convinces us that objective efforts are more effective and useful.

  13. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    Scott: I’m not completely sure what I’m responding to either. It was late. πŸ™‚

    Indisputably I was partly responding to some imaginary phantom. However, one relevant comment is this one:

    In discussing malaria, the Holocaust, etc., my goal was to avoid “questions of morality and emotions,” and stick to facts that are as agreed-upon by serious people as the facts of relativity and QM.

    Okay, but you are not avoiding morality and emotions all that well in a post whose theme is human misery in the world. You are bringing a lot of facts to the table, but the significance of these particular facts is largely emotional rather than analytical. The Holocaust in particular.

    If 80% of Americans know that the Holocaust happened, that’s actually a very high figure. For example, only 90% of Americans (at least those in the age range 18 to 24) can identify the United States on a world map, according to a National Geographic poll. I am not sure that 80% can name the President of the United States. I am sure that rather less than 80% can name a number between 3 and 3.1.

    If the question were any other historical genocide — say the Armenian or Cambodian genocide — then I bet that on the order of 20% of Americans have heard of it. According to the same National Geographic poll (taken in 2002), only 1/7 of young adult Americans could identify Iraq on a world map.

    I remember at the time that there were many polls about whether the United States should invade Iraq. I think that the question should have been, “show me on this map which country we should invade.”

  14. Miss HT Psych Says:

    LOL! Ahhhh… how well you know me! While my public self tries her darndest to practice religious tolerance (within reason), my inner self is not always so saintly. If you had honestly meant point #3 “He’s a He”, my inner self would have said “Oh no no no no! He’s a he?! ACK!” However, my public self would have said something more like “I respect your belief in a single-gendered deity, so long as you have adequate arguments to back up your position.”

    All this discussion reminds me of 2 things.
    First: a book by Neil Gaimen and Terry Pratchett called “Good Omens.” It’s a satire about the apocolypse… one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. I highly recommmend.
    Second: most of the comments (and Scott’s original entry) remind me of an idea in Social Psych called “Just World Theory.” It basically holds that people believe that this is a just world… good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. When we see evidence to the contrary, we have to deal with it somehow. Therefore, the rape victim asked for it, the homeless person is lazy, etc…
    Just World Theory can actually be (and has been) used to justify both sides of the question “does God exist?” Those who say no claim that an omnipotent God wouldn’t allow bad things to happen to good people (as we so often see, and wonderfully illustrated by Scott). Those who say yes reply any number of responses including “the suffering only provides us with more chances to be divinly good.” My ex used to study Just World Theory… I just thought it was so interesting to finally see it so eloquently displayed.

  15. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    Anonymous 1:32AM: No, you’re missing my point. “Fundamental” is slightly the wrong word for what I was saying. Of course the L2 norm will appear sooner or later.

    My point is, do you need the L2 norm to define quantum mechanics? No. You can define quantum mechanics by saying that life is a C*-algebra. A C*-algebra has an axiomatic norm, but it is not the L2 norm. Rather, it is a spectral L-infty norm. The states on the C*-algebra have a spectral L1 norm. Whether “God” has truly selected the L2 norm over the L1 norm is debatable.

  16. Scott Says:

    Milkshake: Thanks! I’d never heard that one. πŸ™‚

  17. Scott Says:

    Miss HT: Thanks! That was one of your most interesting posts. I’d never heard of the “Just World Theory”, but it strikes me as having a great deal of explanatory power.

  18. Scott Says:


    “You are bringing a lot of facts to the table, but the significance of these particular facts is largely emotional rather than analytical.”

    I don’t know what that means. One could equally well say that the “significance” of relativity and QM is largely emotional rather than analytical. After all, the universe doesn’t care if we find these ideas worth discussing or not. It’s we who are struck by their elegance, explanatory power, and so on.

  19. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    Scott: What I mean is that if you discuss disease, genocide, and indifference, and especially all three at once, you’re inviting a lot of strong emotions. The emotions may or may not come at the expense of reason. It’s a human statement, not a philosophical one.

  20. Scott Says:

    Greg: OK, no argument there.

  21. wolfgang Says:


    assume that God created the earth and the universe in the same sense an author or movie director creates a story.
    God could be the Steven Spielberg of a meta-universe and we are just the actors of some tragic-comedy.

    Thus, our suffering might not be as real to God as it is to us.
    By the way, I think it was Schopenhauer who observed that life in the long run is always tragic (because it ends with death) but on a shorter time-scale it is a weird comedy. Therefore, God must be truly evil, since not only did he create suffereing for us, but also took away our dignity.

  22. Who Says:

    One idea would be to define God as He from whose existence no logical consequences can be drawn.

    that would take care of Peter Brooke.

    I was looking at Brooke’s original request and the word that came to mind was FALSIFIABLE. It seems to me that Peter is asking a phenomenological question. Derive a testable conclusion from the theory that God exists so that one could imagine checking empirically, and if it was not observed that would refute the theory.

    Here the quote again:
    If it is assumed that God exists, what further, reasonable, conclusions can be made, or is that where logical inquiry must end? Reasonable means in the light and inclusive of present scientific understanding. Defend any assumptions and conclusions you make.

    To answer one should be able to say “Here is something which you will NOT see happen, assuming such and such specific Deity to exist” And then if you see that happen it falsifies the Deity and show that it doesnt exist.

    Well you can define a falsifiable Deity who is ethically neutral and guarantees the laws of physics.
    This God consistently declines to intervene and perform miracles (which are flagrant explicit violations of the laws of physics or something like that). The God is very protective of the laws of physics and is able to prevent any other agency from violating them.

    So now we have a God which we could imagine falsifying empirically. All we have to do is set up experiments where there can be a clear violation of the laws of physics by some intervenor. If we observe a violation we can reasonably conclude that God doesn’t exist. That specific God doesn’t.

    But another kind of God, a Goofy God who likes to intervene in events and violate physical laws, might still exist—you have to specify.

    Anyway if Peter Brooke was asking for you or someone to come up with a falsifiable Divinity hypothesis then I congratulate him because that would be handy and would greatly advance the discussion and besides give experimentalists something to do.

  23. Scott Says:


    “Anyway if Peter Brooke was asking for you or someone to come up with a falsifiable Divinity hypothesis then I congratulate him because that would be handy and would greatly advance the discussion and besides give experimentalists something to do.”

    I think experimentalists have enough to do as it is. πŸ™‚

  24. John Baez Says:

    Greg Kuperberg writes:

    For example, if God exists, then “He” must like hydrogen and helium much more than higher elements.

    That’s why helium is called “He”.

    But seriously, if we’re going to do amateur blog-theodicy, we should consider the possibility that God likes higher elements and indeed all sorts of complexity, but also likes a kind of elegance that requires that this complexity arise from very simple initial conditions. In our universe, this requires having lots of hydrogen and helium around, which then collapses into stars, etc..

    Even more seriously, I find it very hard to guess what God likes, even assuming that God exists (which I doubt) and that we understand much about where the universe is actually heading (which I also doubt).

  25. Scott Says:

    John: Welcome to my blog! My comments section is always open to millennia-old ethico-philosophico-theological debates.

    If you’re new here, you might want to check out this post, which was inspired by a comment of yours on Peter Woit’s blog.

    PS. Alas, the only way I found to purge the astrology from my Blogger profile was to remove my birthdate. Being a Gemini and all, I can’t stand having anything to do with that garbage.

  26. geoff Says:

    For millennia, man has told stories, which are more compelling when there is an element of evil and danger present in the narrative. I don’t understand why so many people find it hard to believe that God is telling a heck of a story. Can you imagine a universe filled with puppies and helium balloons and candy canes that don’t cause tooth decay for all eternity? God is showing off his creativity and power, and the story’s not over yet.

  27. wolfgang Says:

    > God is showing off his creativity and power, and the story’s not over yet.

    This is similar to my remarks, but I wonder why the story is so lame?
    I mean, it really is like an implausible mixture of soap opera and reality tv. Not subtle at all …

  28. wolfgang Says:

    PS: And the ‘science’ is not very good in this story too.
    Strings moving around in 10d spacetime. Puhlease!

  29. Anonymous Says:

    Is God universally a He? In many places the Virgin Mary is as highly regarded as God. Let’s not forget that in the Christian religion she’s the mother of God so she’s one up over him.

  30. Scott Says:


    “I think it was Schopenhauer who observed that life in the long run is always tragic (because it ends with death)”

    Well, it’s not always tragic. From The Onion: Millions Of Americans Succumbing To Sudden Elder Death Syndrome

  31. Miss HT Psych Says:

    Anonymous (3:17pm):

    It is only in certain parts of Christian theology where the Virgin Mary is considered the Mother of God. Protestants refuse to accept this position, even parts of the Roman Catholic/Eastern Orthodox churches refuse to accept it. Also, just because she is considered the Mother of God, that does not make her God. I was not aware of any Christian sects which would make this leap in logic (although, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t any… I’ve just never heard of one. So please, if you know of one, I’d love to find a link with the info for my own interest’s sake). In fact, the added emphasis on Mary in the scriptures only started as a way to gain converts from pagan religions, especially those that worshipped Brigid (the Celts). Prior to the Middle Ages she lacked much theological significance at all.

    Secondly, God is ALMOST universally considered to be male. I know that the United Church will allow priests to refer to God with female terminology, but I’m pretty sure they’re alone on that front. The Orthodox religions (monotheistic) tend to be united in their belief of a male God. This is why Neo-pagan religions, such as Wicca are often referred to as Goddess religions: they don’t necessarily deny the existence of a God, but they are defined by their acceptance of the feminine aspect of the Deity.

  32. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    God is ALMOST universally considered to be male.

    Is there any reason for that other than the traditional authority of father figures?

    I have trouble thinking of religion as much more than an evolved meme. To be sure, if a belief is proven and useful, then those can be seen as survival traits in the world of memes. Calculus can be seen as a meme which happens to be mathematical truth. But there are also many survival traits for memes other than truth. Religions seem to be heavy on these other traits and light on the proven truth trait.

  33. scerir Says:

    Is there a difference, FAPP, between God and a Great Simulator? Is there a difference between the uni-verse (or the multi-verse, or whatever) and a great quantal simulation?
    The only difference I see is that religions usually speak of a “creatio originans” plus a “creatio continuans”, while in terms of simulation you should only have the “creatio originans”.

  34. Anonymous Says:

    Calling morality a subtopic of *human* behavior removes interesting and informative data from the discussion. For example, seeing Bambi get eaten strikes us as wrong – young mammalian forms are so cute, aren’t they? – but if Bambi never gets eaten, all those little wolf pups and lion cubs will starve, and they’re pretty cute, too.

    But why does God create a Universe with predators and prey? Well, how smart are trees? Photosynthesis isn’t efficient enough at creating energy, it appears, to allow the evolution of intelligence. You want smarts, you gotta have beings that eat other living things to obtain their energy. When the genetic inheritance that tells us to kill the Other makes it to humans, it’s kind of late in the day to complain.

    God has created a Universe where the upside for intelligent life is not capped (i.e., it evolves, which necessarily includes at least the appearance of free will – behaviors that remove one from the gene pool are allowed), and we are at a point in that evolution where we and the technologies we create are far from perfect. Thus, plane crashes, car accidents, etc., will certainly occur.

    This does not preclude at all my feeling sorry for your loss, and that of others who knew and loved Dr. Kraut. My condolences.

    So – Holocaust or a planet of slime molds? Plane crashes or a Creation of unchanging, incredibly boring, static perfection? If one truly wishes to discuss God in the context of present scientific understanding, these sorts of questions should be considered.

  35. Scott Says:

    > So – Holocaust or a planet of slime molds?

    I’ll take neither — which is what we would have had (to a greater or lesser degree) if Hitler lost the election, or the US adopted a different immigration policy in 1924, or the Allies declared war earlier, or Israel was founded earlier, or the Jews had slightly better intelligence-gathering, etc.

    If we accept these things as inevitable, then what’s the point of trying to prevent them?

  36. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    My understanding is that Hitler never did quite win an election before he came to poewr. (Maybe he held sham elections afterward, I’m not sure.) The Nazis did win many seats in the Reichstag, but not a majority, and Hitler twisted the arm of Hindenburg to be appointed Chancellor. I’m not sure what Hindenburg was really thinking.

    It is true that the Nazis had a slim majority in coalition with another right-wing party. Is that what you mean? It is not clear whether they would have gotten from there to dictatorship without semi-legal maneuvering.

  37. Scott Says:

    Sorry — I meant “if Hitler hadn’t gained power,” by some combination of arm-twisting and winning seats in the Reichstag. The question of how legal it was doesn’t particularly interest me.

  38. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    The question of how legal it was doesn’t particularly interest me.

    Fair enough, although it is politically significant in these times. There is a liberation theology in Washington that democracy solves everything. Part of this ideology is to ex post facto cast suspicion on certain elections with the wrong outcome. In any case the historical case of the Nazis is not quite a counterexample. It’s very close to a counterexample because of the 1933 elections. But not quite, because by then Hitler was already Chancellor and the state media was biased.

    The Hamas victory, on the other hand, is an absolute contradiction in the Republican universe.

  39. Anonymous Says:

    >> So – Holocaust or a planet of slime molds?

    >I’ll take neither….If we accept these things as inevitable, then what’s the point of trying to prevent them?

    Again there is a difference between the general view and the particular. In place of the Holocaust one could have mentioned the Crusades, the Armenian genocide, Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia, Darfur…. The latter 3 occurred with the historical example of the Holocaust there for the world to see as a possibility if swift action was not taken, and in each case action was not swift or was lacking entirely.

    While in the general view such occurrences may be inevitable, this is certainly not an argument for failing to try to prevent particular ones. (One can be justifiably proud of the New York Times advertisement taken out by Jewish groups and individuals urging our government and others to stop the Bosnian ‘ethnic cleansing.’) There are various ways of characterizing the attempt to do good even in the face of powerful forces that seem to be moving in the other direction – sticking it to the man; blows against the empire; think globally, act locally; or, from a Jewish point of view, attempting to perform as many of the 625 mitzvot (do I have the number right?) as possible every day.

  40. Scott Says:

    Anonymous: There are 613 mitzvot, not all of which I advocate keeping. (#199: To keep the Canaanite slave forever. #66: That an Ammonite or Moabite shall never marry the daughter of an Israelite.)

    Preventing genocide would seem covered by #27: Not to stand by idly when a human life is in danger. But that’s not why I advocate it. If religion didn’t tell us to do such things, so much the worse for religion.

  41. geoff Says:

    Regarding the masculine God: As C.S. Lewis said, compared to God, we are all feminine.

  42. Bob Hawkins Says:

    If we consider God as the Great Simulator, i.e. a computer programmer, we can conclude that He is writing for a system that is memory-limited.

    For example: the re-use of a few easily computed constants, like pi, in completely unrelated contexts. Holography — electromagnetism in a 3d space requires only specification on a 2D surface. Folding up most of those 10 dimensions.

    I’ve done simulations on an Amdahl 470 with 2 meg RAM. I know a cheap programming trick when I see it.

  43. Lantern Bearer Says:

    So then what we are left with is that George Bush is created in the image and likeness of a bumbling ineffective manifestation of a 2000 year old malicious myth. Math has some substance and is reflected in nature. The malicious Roman myth is a contruct by committee and is a long lasting pork barrel project.

    Lantern Bearer

  44. Anonymous Says:

    > If religion didn’t tell us to do such things, so much the worse for religion.

    Exactly, though religion does. (Yet another formulation of the ‘Think globally, act locally’ and ‘Not stand idly by when human life is in danger’ idea that I particularly like is ‘Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire.’)

    George Harrison said a lovely thing to an interviewer who asked him about his religious beliefs: ‘I believe in the God in people.’ The concept of an all-merciful, loving deity is meaningless except as it’s expressed in people’s deeds.

    The other side of this coin is the use of religion in what I like to call Chevy Chase mode. During the first year of Saturday Night Live, Chevy Chase introduced the Weekend Update segment (a network news parody) with ‘Good evening. I’m Chevy Chase – and you’re not.’ For many religious adherents, the most important aspect of their religion is the opportunity to say ‘I’m [insert name of religion here] – and you’re not.’ From there, it’s unfortunately a short, slippery slope to calling forth the instinctual reaction to the Other. (Instinct, of course, is not one-sided. To the extent we’re able to consider the rest of humanity as Us instead of Them, our instincts will move us to help humanity, and individual humans, survive.)

    So, circling back toward the original question, it appears that regardless of whether people believe in God, they can be motivated to genocide or the opposite. An atheist might say it would be better not to believe, so that one wouldn’t have the excuse that ‘God is on our side;’ a believer might say that true belief in God precludes such evil acts.

    Getting all the way back home, it seems to me that if God is assumed to exist, considered in light of current scientific understanding, the difference it makes is exactly nothing. Whether God exists or not, when aerodynamics fails, planes fall from the sky. It is important that people act as if they were motivated by an all-merciful God, whether or not that is true. As Kurt Vonnegut said: ‘You are what you pretend to be. So be careful what you pretend to be.’

  45. secret milkshake Says:

    Bob: He probably likes renormalization a lot. “It is not great universe but it works. You cannot expect miracles, not on obsolete machine like this”

  46. Miss HT Psych Says:


    “Is there any reason for that other than the traditional authority of father figures?”

    Yes… if you consider the topic more generally. Certainly the father figure is part of it, but it represents the more wide-ranging authority of males in general.

  47. Miss HT Psych Says:


    “Regarding the masculine God: As C.S. Lewis said, compared to God, we are all feminine.”

    Hmmm… are you simply quoting here, or do you actually believe the statement? The quotation implies that women/feminine things, are weaker, more sinful, and generally inferior to men/masculine things. Is this what you were intending? If not, perhaps you might chose your quotations more wisely. If so, frankly I find it insulting and demeaning.

  48. Peter Brooke Says:

    Thanks for answering my question; it was asked in order to see if it was possible to have any sort of non-emotional, rational debate between theists, atheists, and agnostics. If nothing else, at least there have been more than zero comments to Scott’s post! Rather than pick at the plethora of comments, I thought I’d join in the and comment (as an amateur blog-theodist) directly on the original post.

    If all that’s assumed is that God exists, it does not necessarily follow that (s)he (won’t make the same gender discriminating mistake twice) created the universe. In fact, the OED does not define God as necessarily a creator, but merely as a “spirit worshipped as having power over nature”. If we take the premise that God by his (or her) very nature is perfect then what need would such a complete being have to create? So, I’d now claim that God is somehow not perfect in a completeness sense; (s)he wants more than merely to exist. Does anyone agree with this statement, or, as usual, have I missed a glaring logical hole?

    It would be nice to have a list of statements that begin with the (admittedly strong) assumption that God exists, but from there are broadly agreed upon.

    Another small point is that theologians normally distinguish between natural evil (that which arises through no fault of humankind) and moral evil (that which is a direct result of an act of humanity). Evangelical christians blame natural evil on the proverbial fall of adam and moral evil on the free will of humanity. I can agree with the statement about moral evil, but any rational scientist (or person for that matter) would disagree with that origin of natural evil. I would probably go so far as to disagree with the statement that natural evil should even be classed as a type of evil, but that is for another discussion …..

    Although flattered to be compared to a true complexity theorist, I’m afraid I’m only a humble (apprentice) theoretical physicist ;-).

  49. Scott Says:

    Peter: Thanks again for asking such a “divine” question. Walk among the physicists you may, but the fire of PSPACE burns within you.

    My first challenge was to figure out what you meant by “God.” My apologies if a hypothetical entity responsible for creating the universe, and for choosing to make it one way rather than another way, is not the God you ordered.

    I confess that whether a perfect God would have to augment His perfection by creating the universe is not a question I’ve spent many brain cycles on. I don’t even know what “perfect” means here. What objective function is being maximized?

    “Natural” and “moral” evil have always struck me as posing the same theological dilemma. If you’re shot on the way to work, that’s not your choice any more than if you’re hit by lightning. So what does a just, omnipotent God care that it was someone else’s choice?

  50. Peter Brooke Says:

    I also haven’t spent many brain cycles on this sort of question either; this was another reason I was interested in your opinion.

    I’ve always seen the distinction between moral and natural evil resulting from the existence of free will. The only way that I can think of that allows for the possibility of the existence of God is that he is not actually omnipotent in the traditional sense: he has chosen to limit himself in some manner. Then responsibility for moral evil rests as much with God as with the distant parents of said naughty person. So, although both might care, both were not able to act.

  51. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    Scott: I don’t even know what “perfect” means here.

    That God equals the sum of His proper divisors?

  52. Anonymous Says:

    I’m not sure I’d agree that omnipotent = all-controlling, or that an omnipotent God couldn’t decide to keep hands off to a certain extent. However, I can see no benefit to an omniscient God failing to exercise control, since an omniscient being would know how things are going to turn out anyway.

    Explaining a bit more: A friend of mine in the defense industry tells me that aiming systems for defensive installations are now controlled by algorithms that to an extent are evolved rather than designed. These algorithms function better (faster, more accurate) than those that are completely the result of design input by human creators. But what if the human creators were smart enough to see all the endpoints of the evolutionary process? There’d be no benefit in allowing the process to take place.

  53. Anonymous Says:

    >”Not to stand by idly when a human >life is in danger.”

    As an illustration why it’s better to keep such rules in themselves, and not as part of religious dogma, tt should be noted that there are jewish religious schools that interpret “human life” here (and in other places) as pertaining for Jews only.

    There was an incident a few years ago in Israel where one of the religious parties (I believe but not sure it was “Agudat Israel”) threatened to disband the government for sending a rescue mission to Turkey after an earthquake. The reason was that the mission left on a saturday and the religious party
    claimed that saving the life of non-jews is not a reason to violate Shabat.

  54. Anonymous Says:

    p.s. the mission did go, and the government did survive- fortunately, that party does not reflect the opinions of all the jews, maybe not even the opinions of all their voters.

  55. Scott Says:

    “it should be noted that there are jewish religious schools that interpret ‘human life’ here (and in other places) as pertaining for Jews only.”

    Yes, I know. The people who think that way are scum-sucking, knuckle-dragging putzes. Were its focus limited to them, anti-Semitism would be entirely justified.

  56. Helger Says:


    OBJECTIVE: The serotonin system has long been of interest in biological models of human personality. The purpose of this positron emission tomography (PET) study was to search for relationships between serotonin 5-HT1A receptor density and personality traits. METHOD: Fifteen normal male subjects, ages 20–45 years, were examined with PET and the radioligand [11C]WAY100635. Personality traits were assessed with the Swedish version of the Temperament and Character Inventory self-report questionnaire. Binding potential, an index for the density of available 5-HT1A receptors, was calculated for the dorsal raphe nuclei, the hippocampal formation, and the neocortex. For each region, correlation coefficients between 5-HT1A receptor binding potential and Temperament and Character Inventory personality dimensions were calculated and analyzed in two-tailed tests for significance. RESULTS: The authors found that the binding potential correlated inversely with scores for self-transcendence, a personality trait covering religious behavior and attitudes. No correlations were found for any of the other six Temperament and Character Inventory dimensions. The self-transcendence dimension consists of three distinct subscales, and further analysis showed that the subscale for spiritual acceptance correlated significantly with binding potential but not with the other two subscales. CONCLUSIONS: This finding in normal male subjects indicated that the serotonin system may serve as a biological basis for spiritual experiences. The authors speculated that the several-fold variability in 5-HT1A receptor density may explain why people vary greatly in spiritual zeal.

  57. Anonymous Says:

    Sorry about the late post but I just had to comment here…

    Scott: “I don’t even know what perfect means here. What objective function is being maximized?”

    So assuming that God exists and that intrinsically is supposed to be “perfect” would imply to me that God is incomparable and so thinking about “perfect” in terms of maximizing an objective function wouldn’t make sense.

    Peter: I agree that if you assign God a “need to create” then that doesn’t sound like a perfect God.


  58. Anonymous Says:

    Late comment here, too:
    Given an omniscient God, incidents which to us seem evil and unexplainable could be the only possible route to some end result in the future which is desirable to the creator of the universe.
    This would not necessarily be in conflict with the concept of free will, but would imply “destiny” on the macro scale at least.

  59. Anonymous Says:

    WHY does God allow suffering?
    Why does he allow so many people to die?
    Why does he make it rain here, but not there??
    Completely valid questions.
    We rejected Him. Not just once….I mean He took human form, and we nailed Him to a tree for telling people to love each other.
    We fear what we don’t understand.
    How can we with our finite minds picture how LONG it too to create all of known matter?
    I don’t agree with the Christian denominations that say our planet is 6,000 years old.
    I mean how do we account that a star that is BILLIONS of light years away is shining in our sky at night?
    If a star several billion light years away just suddenly winked ON, it would take more than 6,000 years for the light to travel to where we would see it at night no??
    Speaking of all known matter….like charges repel one another.
    What keeps our matter all around us held together? Cosmic super glue?
    WHY don’t we detonate like nucelar bombs?
    There is an answer…it can be found in the chapter of John in the New Testament.
    Its my belief that the various sciences and religion were to go together hand in hand.
    Everything living has an intelligent design.
    Look at the veins in a leaf….observe how the human body produces ATP for energy.
    I dunno about you….but I never get tired of seeing it.

  60. Anonymous Says:

    And what I meant about the two going together….they prove one another.
    Just to clear it up

  61. Anonymous Says:

    “If God is God He is not good, if God is good He is not God; take the even, take the odd…”

    — Archibald MacLeish, “J.B.”

  62. Anonymous Says:

    RE the last creationist rant by Anonymous…

    You posit ‘if god created”… btw: your creation would likely also assume creation of all relevant state vectors (if you’re going to create the stars in the heavens, then you’ll likely also create all the photons that pretend to come from them)

    In general, your rant shows the lack of rigor and credibility of all creationists (whether ‘6000 years’ OT specials or psuedo-science ID wingnuts).

    next time ensure that you are
    a) matching fact to fact
    b) aligning your thesis with supporting argument
    c) excluding irrelevant comment

    although — being a creationist — you’ll likely find that complying with these simple rules to a legible post will be beyond you & your in-bred kin! (proof of evolved reinforcement of non-survival-based recessionary traits — the religious right!)

    yours in perpetuity


  63. Anonymous Says:

    Perhaps the God that would satisfy your analysis is the God of PanDeism — here is a definition of a PanDeistic God extrapolated from Warren B. Sharpe’s “Philosophy for the Serious Heretic: The Limitations of Belief and the Derivation of Natural Moral Principles” (2002):

    God didn’t create the universe, but God became the universe. Then he forgot that he became the universe. Why would God do this? Basically, for entertainment. You create a universe, and that in itself is very exciting. But then what? Should you sit back and watch this universe of yours having all the fun? No, you should have all the fun yourself. To accomplish this, God transformed into the whole universe. God is the Universe, and everything in it. But the universe doesn’t know that because that would ruin the suspense. The universe is God’s great drama, and God is the stage, the actors, and the audience all at once. The title of this epic drama is “The Great Unknown Outcome.” Throw in potent elements like passion, love, hate, good, evil, free will; and who knows what will happen? No one knows, and that is what keeps the universe interesting. But everyone will have a good time. And there is never really any danger, because everyone is really God, and God is really just playing around.

  64. Shtetl-Optimized » Blog Archive » The Fable of the Chessmaster Says:

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