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Answer to Job

(with apologies to Jung)

Job asked: “God, why do bad things happen to good people? Why would You, who are perfect, create a universe filled with so much that is evil?”

Then the Lord spoke to Job out of the whirlwind, saying “WHAT KIND OF UNIVERSE WOULD YOU PREFER ME TO HAVE CREATED?”

Job said “A universe that was perfectly just and full of happiness, of course.”


Job facepalmed. “But then why would You also create this universe?”


“Yes,” said Job, “but all else being equal, I’d rather be in the perfectly just and happy universe.”


“Okay,” said Job, very carefully. “I can see I’m going to have to phrase my questions more specifically. Why didn’t You also make this universe perfectly just and happy?”


“Hmmmmm. But couldn’t You have have made this universe like the happy and just universe except for one tiny detail? Like in that universe, the sun is a sphere, but in our universe, the sun is a cube? Then you would have individuals who experienced a spherical sun, and other individuals who experienced a cubic sun, which would be enough to differentiate them.”


“All of them? That would be…a lot of universes.”


“Small amounts! But the universe has…”


“Oh.” Then: “What, exactly, is Your endgame here?”


“I’m not sure I understand.”


“But why couldn’t I have been one of those other versions instead!”


“I don’t know! Is one of the beings in that universe in some sense me?”




“Let me try a different angle, then. Right now in our universe there are lots of people whose lives aren’t worth living. If You gave them the choice, they would have chosen never to have been born at all. What about them?”


“But that’s monstrous! Couldn’t You just, I don’t know, have created a universe that looks like it has such people, but actually they’re just p-zombies, animated bodies without any real consciousness or suffering?”

” . . . ”

“Wait, did You do that?”


“Actually, I do have some evidence. Before all of this happened to me I was very happy. But in the past couple years I’ve gone bankrupt, lost my entire family, and gotten a bad case of boils. I’m pretty sure at this point I would prefer that I never have been born. Since I know I myself am conscious, I am actually in a pretty good position to accuse You of cruelty.”

“HMMMMMMMM…” said God, and the whirlwind disappeared.

Then the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before, and healed his illnesses, and gave him many beautiful children, so it was said that God had blessed the latter end of Job more than his beginning.

[EDIT: According to comments, this was scooped by a Christian philosopher five years ago. Sigh.]

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339 Responses to Answer to Job

  1. Nestor says:

    And that’s why I’d rather the atheist position is correct, I’d rather blame random physical laws for my troubles than some creator.

    It’s kind of like the difference between a ticket machine malfunctioning and a person behind the counter being obstreperous. At least you don’t take it personally when it’s a machine…

    • Airgap says:

      This doesn’t immediately appear to make any sense. I suppose if you lose your your computer, you’d feel silly, whereas if you found out that I had stolen and sold your computer, you’d be angry with me and want to retaliate (like you could ever find me, chump!). I don’t think this really extends to Theology though.

      An actual being that could create the universe, space, time, and the random physical laws that we have to deal with would basically be like Cthulhu, only even more alien and powerful. To say that the Creator caused you to lose your computer and to blame Him seems like a category error. The Creator, though vaguely agent-like, doesn’t have what you understand as mental states, let alone emotions. You aren’t going to establish Malice Aforethought if you can’t establish malice or thought in general.

      In this vein, I prefer to to steelman Christian claims about the benevolence of God and such by treating them as extremely loose metaphors (e.g. “The Creator’s incomprehensible actions* redound to our benefit. We hope.”)

      *Or whatever you call them.

      • In this vein, I prefer to to steelman Christian claims about the benevolence of God and such by treating them as extremely loose metaphors

        This is in fact what actual Christian theologians have been saying for hundreds of years, though the question is more often approached from the opposite side, asking what is actually meant by God’s “wrath.” The following excerpt from St. Anthony the Great (c. 251–356) illustrates:

        God is good, without passions and unchangeable. One who understands that it is sound and true to affirm that God does not change might very well ask: `how, then, is it possible to speak of God as rejoicing over those who are good, becoming merciful to those who know Him and, on the other hand, shunning the wicked and being angry with sinners.’ We must reply to this, that God neither rejoices nor grows angry, because to rejoice and to be angered are passions. Nor is God won over by gifts from those who know Him, for that would mean that He is moved by pleasure. It is not possible for the Godhead to have the sensation of pleasure or displeasure from the condition of humans, God is good, and He bestows only blessings, and never causes harm, but remains always the same…. It is not that He arbitrarily becomes angry with us, but that our sins prevent God from shining within us, and expose us to the demons who make us suffer. If through prayer and acts of compassionate love, we gain freedom from our sins, this does not mean that we have won God over and made Him change, but rather that by means of our actions and turning to God, we have been healed of our wickedness, and returned to the enjoyment of God’s goodness. To say that God turns away from the sinful is like saying that the sun hides itself from the blind.

      • RCF says:

        Any metaphor that loose is too loose to base a religion on. Religious people clearly intend their claims to have meaning, yet they take refuge in claiming metaphor whenever that meaning is shown to be incoherent.

        • Ptoliporthos says:

          Any metaphor that loose is too loose to base a religion on.

          1700 years of history begs to differ. St. Anthony isn’t holed up in the motte. That’s the the bailey of christian orthodoxy. You’ll read similar things in Augustine, Boethius, or C. S. Lewis.

          • RCF says:

            The point is that that’s not what the religion is based on.

            “St. Anthony isn’t holed up in the motte.”

            I don’t understand what your point here is. The motte would be Airgap’s steelman. So you saying that St. Anthony isn’t holed up in that motte supports my position.

        • Airgap says:

          Which might be a problem if I was trying to found a religion. As it is…

        • Everybody falls back on metaphor when explaining complicated ideas, The Big Bang wasn’t literally an explosion…

          • Luke Somers says:

            It seems to me to have literally been an explosion. Everything in it got further from everything else in it very quickly.

          • anon says:

            I know next to nothing about the Big Bang, but to me it seems like scientists just observed that entropy is increasing and stuff is spreading out as time passes, and took that to mean that if we reverse time, we would observe stuff gathering back up until it’s all in the same place at the start of time. And then when we play forward from that point the huge ball of stuff radiates outwards like it does even now and looks like a huge explosion.

          • James Picone says:

            That’s not quite what’s going on, Anon. For starters, it wasn’t the observation that stuff is moving away from each other, it was the observation that space itself appears to be expanding – if you have two objects at rest in each other’s reference frames, distance T from each other, and wait a while, they’ll be distance T + delta away from each other. That one reverses much more sensibly into a big-bang like state.

            There are other observations that suggest it, too – the cosmic microwave background being the principle one, and proportions of light elements match up very well with big-bang predictions up to lithium, where there are still some bugs to be sorted out.

            If you go back to t = 0 + tiny delta, you wouldn’t see a huge ball of fire expanding outwards, you would see a tiny universe that was 100% full of some form of energy, and then the universe got bigger and the energy got more diffuse.

            It’s worth pointing out that ‘Big Bang’ was intended as a pejorative – the physics establishment at the time thought it was kind of a ridiculous theory that smacked of creationism (those sneaky Jesuits!) and so there was an element of mockery.

          • @Luke

            Then maybe you could take up the cudgels against the people who argue that an ordered universe couldn’t have originated from an explosion, because explosions destroy things.

    • Shenpen says:

      TIL a word. Obstreperous. Sounds a bit like a German dude repairing fruit.

    • Nestor says:

      I can’t remember where I read the phrase “God cannot avoid creating the world” but I just figured out what it means after reading this.

      God is omniscient, therefore he can predict what will happen when he creates the world.

      But from inside the mind of god, since it is pefect, there is no difference between being a figment of god’s imagination and being “real”, QUED god cannot help but create the world.

      • Irrelevant says:

        Yep. The equivalent human-scale question is how many games of chess are played in the course of resolving one chess match. Perfect knowledge renders the distinction between simulation and reality meaningless.

      • Deiseach says:

        QED god cannot help but create the world.

        As far as I understand it, this argument is not accepted in Catholic theology. This would seem to be an argument of necessity. But St Thomas Aquinas was there beforehand:

        Article 3. Whether whatever God wills He wills necessarily?

        …Hence, since the goodness of God is perfect, and can exist without other things inasmuch as no perfection can accrue to Him from them, it follows that His willing things apart from Himself is not absolutely necessary. Yet it can be necessary by supposition, for supposing that He wills a thing, then He is unable not to will it, as His will cannot change.

        Objection 6. Further, whatever God knows, He knows necessarily. But as the divine knowledge is His essence, so is the divine will. Therefore whatever God wills, He wills necessarily.

        Reply to Objection 6. As the divine essence is necessary of itself, so is the divine will and the divine knowledge; but the divine knowledge has a necessary relation to the thing known; not the divine will to the thing willed. The reason for this is that knowledge is of things as they exist in the knower; but the will is directed to things as they exist in themselves. Since then all other things have necessary existence inasmuch as they exist in God; but no absolute necessity so as to be necessary in themselves, in so far as they exist in themselves; it follows that God knows necessarily whatever He wills, but does not will necessarily whatever He wills.

      • name says:

        So God being omnibenevolent and omnipotent, wouldn’t it follow that he’d destroy himself so that he doesn’t keep knowing and creating things that fall short of benevolence?

  2. Nonnamous says:

    Would the p-zombies thing imply that it is ethical to kill unhappy people?

    • Jeff says:

      If it were possible to prove that another person were a p-zombie with no conscious experience, then you could begin to make the argument that there’s no ethical objection to destroying them.

      But you can’t prove that they’re a p-zombie. So it’s kind of a hazardous path to wander down; one could see a Hitler taking that idea and running enthusiastically with it.

      There’s a paradox in your question, though, depending on how literally it’s taken: if a person is in a meaningful, internal experience, sense ‘unhappy’, can they still be a p-zombie?

      • If it were possible to prove that another person were a p-zombie with no conscious experience…

        “… Next up, I will call up as an expert witness, Dr. Counter Factual, a doctor of philosophy who has examine the body of the individual whom my client supposedly murdered. So tell, Doctor, what have your tests revealed about this body?”

        “None of the tests show anything out of the ordinary. The results are exactly the as if the body came from a real person being killed.”

        “And how does this square with hypothesis the the supposed victim was actually a p-zombie?”

        “It fits perfectly with that hypothesis. That’s exactly how a p-zombie is expected to behave under the tests. Why, never in my whole career have I seen results more suggestive than this of someone being a p-zombie!”

        “Thank you, Dr. Factual, you may take a seat.”

      • Deiseach says:

        Is the p-zombie question something similar to how we should treat animals question? If you can imagine people who don’t have true consciousness/self-awareness and so cannot “really” suffer (even if they react to pain-stimuli), then aren’t we more or less describing animals?

        And therefore, if it can be ethical/permissable to kill p-zombies, it can be ethical/permissible to kill or exploit animals, given that we (for the sake of the hypothesis) are “real” persons possessing true consciousness and so a superior order of being?

        • Irrelevant says:

          You’d have to extract an agreement on the nature of animal experience before it could be determined whether p-zombies were the same as animals. They’re closer to robots, except that if robots get that good you’re going to have the same argument over whether they have real experiences.

        • suntzuanime says:

          What makes a stimulus a pain-stimulus other than the internal experience of the stimulated?

    • Who wouldn't want to be anonymous says:

      I am going to just say that being a p-zombie hard determinist is real fun at the kinds of parties philosophy students go to. If they don’t stop inviting you.

      • Airgap says:

        As a P-Zombie, I can confirm this, although I’m a compatibilist.

      • I disagree, it’s not fun at all. I generally encourage people not to invite p-zombies to parties at all, because you can be sure they’re not enjoying it.

        • Decius says:

          Of course you’d say you’re having fun; you might even believe it.

          After all, if you weren’t going to have fun, you wouldn’t have came, right? But if you would come if you were going to have fun, but you don’t come if you weren’t invited, then you wouldn’t have fun if you attended a party.


    • Rowan says:

      Since it’s the subset of unhappy people that are so unhappy that they’d prefer not to have been born, it’s already at least as ethical to kill them when they’re sentient as it is when they’re p-zombies – the only difference is between terminating suffering and having no effect, and all the external effects like social disruption and fear are the same.

      • Creutzer says:

        Only if you think that a preference to never have been born entails a preference do die. I don’t think that’s the case.

        • Yxoque says:

          Not always, at least. “I sometimes wish I’d never been born” does appear on a lot of checklists for suicidal thoughts/behavior.

  3. Alejandro says:

    Philosophers of religion have not overlooked this solution to the problem of evil. See e.g. “Theism, Possible Worlds, and the Multiverse“. (pdf).

    Of course, your version is much more fun to read – I laghed out loud at the cosmic unemployment rate joke.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Well, darn. And here I thought I was being original.

      I guess it was too much to hope for that once people got a decent theodicy they’d start using it and abandon the whole “moves in mysterious ways” bit.

      Okay, how about this. Has anyone ever tried to justify the purity laws (eg no homosexuality) by pointing out that God establishing a bunch of random laws gives a lot more bits of randomness to create different universes out of? That is, if God tells one universe they can’t be gay, and another universe that they have to be gay, then He’s creating twice as many universes? And so if we ignore those laws we’re dooming an entire universe of people to nonexistence?

      • Steve Johnson says:

        Okay, how about this. Has anyone ever tried to justify the purity laws (eg no homosexuality) by pointing out that God establishing a bunch of random laws gives a lot more bits of randomness to create different universes out of?

        Sexual purity laws against sodomy are God pointing out that disordered sexual behavior makes you miserable and likely kills you.

        It’s a helpful hint about the actual nature of the universe that we live in – it’s not an arbitrary rule.

        Could there be a universe where this wasn’t the case? It’s a meaningless question. Maybe there’s a bunch of behavior that we don’t even think about that is amazingly self destructive in some other universe.

        If you belong to an old religion then the rules are pretty good guides to living life well because religions with bad rules eliminated their believers – like the Shakers.

        If you belong to a new religion (like the cult of the singularity) then the rules are likely to be convincing seeming ways to fleece the members of the religion for the benefit of the leader or leaders.

        • > Sexual purity laws against sodomy are God pointing out that disordered sexual behavior makes you miserable and likely kills you.

          Where’s the anti smoking commandment?

          • Steve Johnson says:

            Probably found with groups that actually had exposure to tobacco.

            Oh look –


            Tobacco had already long been used in the Americas, with some cultivation sites in Mexico dating back to 1400–1000 B.C.[4] Many Native American tribes traditionally grew and used tobacco as an entheogen. Eastern North American tribes carried tobacco in pouches as a readily accepted trade item, and often smoked it in peace pipes, either in defined sacred ceremonies, or to seal a bargain.

          • Susebron says:

            @Steve Right. So why did God not tell them not to smoke?

          • Randall Randall says:

            @Susebron Because smoking doesn’t kill you fast enough for meme selection to work?

          • Susebron says:

            @Randall Neither does homosexuality.

          • Steve Johnson says:


            So why did God not tell them not to smoke?

            Because smoking ceremonially and not continually likely isn’t damaging to health and through hormesis is likely healthful. Notice that smoking isn’t something you’re supposed to do as a habit all the time but is something to be done as part of ceremony and at specific times.

            Europeans – who didn’t have religions that developed traditions around smoking – turned it into something that is very damaging of health.

            In addition, sodomy is far more destructive of health barring some really historically unusual circumstances that are only likely to hold for a short period of time.

          • Airgap says:

            @Steve: Your point, while arguable, is off-topic. Save it for when purity/homosexuality is the focus of the discussion rather than an example picked at random.

          • Unique Identifier says:

            [misthreaded, removed]

          • Susebron says:

            It seems like bad form to make controversial, vague claims without explaining what specifically you mean. What are the destructive consequences of homosexuality?

          • Earl says:

            Allow me to introduce you to the Mormons 🙂 :-p


          • Nornagest says:

            I hate to come down on Steve Johnson’s side, however minor the point, but the Mormons are probably not an old religion for these purposes — the LDS Church was founded in the mid-1800s. They’re old enough for political and practical considerations to have eroded away some of their initial weirdness, but not old enough for that process to have reached an equilibrium.

            Of course, just about every religion’s gone through some major changes since the 1800s.

          • Vorkon says:

            Doesn’t it follow, then, that if something like smoking under strictly controlled circumstances is okay, then sodomy under strictly controlled circumstances (such as with modern protection, which the people to whom the purity laws originally applied to didn’t have access to, or within the bounds of marriage, gay marriage being a thing that never occurred to the people to whom the purity laws originally applied) is similarly okay?

            (Note: I apologize in advance if carrying on this conversation is objectionable to anyone, and please, feel free to delete this comment if you don’t want it to go on, but since Scott didn’t say anything about Steve’s comment specifically, and I strongly disagree with the “don’t engage with people with objectionable views” meme that seems to be floating around in this thread, I figured I’d give it a shot anyway.)

          • szopeno says:

            Rates for STD are something like thirty to forty times higher for homosexual males. That is: homosexual practices are “destructive” in the same sense “smoking” is destructive or “drinking too much alcohol” is destructive. They expose you to additional risks, which may lead to shorter lifespan.

            Note I answer only to “what are destructive consequences of homosexuality”, not to endorse original Steve’s post.

          • James Picone says:

            Rates for STD are something like thirty to forty times higher for homosexual males.

            Is that still the case if you control for promiscuity and safe-sex practices, though? Do gay men who have about as much sex as most heterosexual people and wear a condom when appropriate get STDs at higher rates than heterosexuals?

          • Jaskologist says:

            How did this thread go on so long without anybody pointing out that Progressivism is the religion which treats smoking as sinful? Come on, people.

          • Jesse M. says:

            @szopeno “Rates for STD are something like thirty to forty times higher for homosexual males. ”

            You don’t cite any source for this factoid, but the study at suggests you’re badly mistaken–for example, homosexual men are about 1.5 times as likely as heterosexual men to have early syphilis and about 3.2 times more likely to have gonorrhea, but on the other hand heterosexual men are 3.9 times more likely than homosexual men to have genital herpes, and 4 times as likely to have genital warts, among the various examples listed (none involve a disparity of anything close to 30-40, in either direction).

        • RCF says:

          Your bigotry is not contributing anything useful to the discussion.

          • Airgap says:

            True, although it was Scott’s fault for inviting bigotry.

          • Airgap: Not really. One should be able to mention the existence of homosexuality without obnoxious neo-reactionary trolls coming out of the woodwork to make the same tiresome points they make every time?

            Has anyone ever noticed that this type of poster despises writing coherent arguments all at once? Like, Steve Johnson here says “disordered sexual behavior makes you miserable and likely kills you”, but doesn’t actually provide any rationale as to why. He wants someone to “take the bait” and ask him why, so he can explain his reasoning in another long pointless hateful post, probably with a little more “bait” in it, and the cycle continues. This is how Jim managed to be such a maestro at derailing all conversation, and also why it’s proper to refer to these guys as trolls and not legitimate intellectual agents.

          • Airgap says:

            It wasn’t a serious point. Anyway, drop it.

          • Konkvistador says:

            @RFC: I strongly disagree.

            His position has important points. And declaring certain examples off limits based on preconceived ideological notions biases the discussion in invisible ways.

            It is a fact that homosexual sexual practices lead to shorter lifespans and entail different sociosexual arrangements than those of heterosexual couples. Does this mean I want to outlaw homosexuality? No. It doesn’t even mean I will say anything mean or hurtful or not be friends with them.

            But any discussion where that class of scared cow poking fact can’t be stated is slanted, the bottom line has already been written, the question is only whether it was written by an Ayatollah or a Harvard professor.

            Homosexuality is in fact an excellent example to use precisely because it cuts to the heart of the matter, rather than skirt clutching by picking something like “thou shall not kill” that Progressivism inherited anyway from earlier theistic forms of Christianity. Successfully defending the latter with the same principles wouldn’t reach the Progressives true objection. It is dishonest to pretend it would or even could.

            This is related to my notion that theorizing is best done in a way where one makes bold, elegant, strong but fragile theories theories that fail clearly. One should then update and try again based on the information.

            Is there actual fears that the souls of SSC readers are in danger and they will become raging homophobes beating up people? No. The reasoning is much more primal and not at all conventionalist.

            Invoking “Hate” is a thought stopper, that is its entire function. Especially if explaining the object level example used is *defined* as trolling and derailing. Though I do concede that considering the strong evidence that escaping theocracy is impossible, one should recognize that any viable orthodoxy must have some thought-stoppers, otherwise problematic heresy reefs will keep crashing ships sailing across its idea sea, and possibly create bad outbreaks of memetic sickness.

            Those who think Jim is bad don’t realize how routine far left abuse and bad faith arguing is on the SSC board. Fish don’t detect water. They notice fire elementals of course. And I of course fully except to overall be too charitable to right wing posters by default. Despite my own recognized bias, I firmly believe and am willing to argue that a harsher standard of moderation is applied to right wing posters for intellectually comparable quality of arguments.

            The obvious retort to this is some extended variant of “well of course this is correct because the Right is evil”. Maybe I am evil. I certainly don’t feel evil. I would prefer to not be evil, maybe good arguments or evidence will fix me. What about you?

            I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.

          • Airgap says:

            If any of the properties of homosexuality were relevant to the point Scott was making, I’d agree with you. They aren’t. Scott grabbed the first example of “Banned-by-God” that came to mind. Just drop it. Homosexuality will come up in a relevant way soon enough.

          • Konkvistador says:

            Assertion is not argument. I can argue for why I think it actually is relevant, if you want. But based on the comments upthread I don’t think anyone here actually wants me to.

            It used to be okay to build and argue, sometimes quite extensively, even for very unpopular things or question very popular notions among rationalists. If this wasn’t the case I wouldn’t have amassed north of 13 000 karma (87% positive) on LessWrong.

          • Cauê says:

            It could be more on topic, but it’s relevant in that it’s saying that the thing Scott’s trying to explain is already adequately explained. We can say we disagree without saying it’s irrelevant.

            (I agree with Konkvistador on the meta issue, and although I probably agree entirely with gbn and RCF on the object level, their reactions here make me nauseous)

          • Airgap says:

            I can argue for why I think it actually is relevant, if you want.

            Please don’t.

          • Konkvistador says:

            This is effective rhetoric on the object level, but you are making my point for me on the meta level. And I don’t care very much about the object.

          • Unique Identifier says:

            Thanks for writing these posts, Konkvistador.

          • Mark says:

            Konkvistador, I for one am perfectly comfortable with people drawing homophobic conclusions provided that they’re backed by polite arguments made in good faith. Steve Johnson’s comment, however, screams “purposefully incendiary.” If someone as thoughtful as you wishes to steelman him, I’ll patiently listen, but let’s not be too eager to sacrifice norms of civil discourse in the name of ideological diversity.

          • Deiseach says:

            If part of the pro-gay rights argument is that LGBT people suffer more from mental health problems and are at highter risk of sucidied, etc. then either everyone gets to argue about why this is (anti-LGBT social bigotry causing suffering versus innate less healthy/more likely to develop such problems association with whatever genetic/developmental factors code for not cis/heterosexual), or nobody gets to use such data as propaganda, not even for “and this is why we must strive for LGBT rights”.

            general butt naked, you can’t at the same time say “this bigot presents no rationale for his bigotry” and “do not provide him with an excuse to argue for his bigotry”.

            Either you want reasons for why someone holds a position, or they are so ritually unclean that their words hold no merit at all and should never be permitted utterance.

            Can we drop homosexuality as an example in this, because in the Leviticus list of sexual conduct rules, there are many more pertaining to straight than gay behaviour, e.g. “you can’t have sex with your sister, daughter or step-mother”?

          • suntzuanime says:

            I think it’s reasonable, if there is some controversy over the arbitrariness of the divine command against homosexuality, to note that when the divine command against homosexuality is used as an example of an arbitrary divine command.

            I certainly would not expect you to stay silent if the divine command against homosexuality were used off-hand as an example of a well-founded and sensible divine command.

          • Alexander Stanislaw says:


            If I understand you correctly: Steve is being unfairly silenced by the left for invoking truths that go against leftist beliefs.

            Sorry I don’t agree. Compare:
            1: “Gay men have lower life expectancy than the general population” to
            2: “Certain homosexual practices lead to lower life expectancy in certain environments” to
            3: “Homosexual practices lead to lower life expectancy”
            4: “Homosexual behaviors are disordered and will make you miserable and likely kill you”

            1 and 2 are true and I would not bat an eye if someone were to make those claims. Indeed in the LGBT health field, these points are well known and priorities for improving health in the LGBT community. 3 (your claim) is hardly a fact. And Steve’s claim is simply wrong on its face. Come on, do you really expect me to believe that Steve’s comment is coming from a place of benevolence – a desire to make known the health challenges s of LGBT people and improve things? Or does it come form a desire to justify discrimination and abuse?

            I’m not allergic to facts, but I am allergic to bullshit. And I’m extremely allergic to bullshit that is used to make people’s lives worse.

          • Unique Identifier says:

            A.Stanislaw: If you’re first going to write a multi-paragraph post, can you please re-read the actual content of S.Johnson’s post, and quote an actual claim he made which is ‘wrong on its face’?

          • Whatever happened to Anonymous says:

            >and quote an actual claim he made which is ‘wrong on its face’?

            given his post, I’d say he considers “Sexual purity laws against sodomy are God pointing out that disordered sexual behavior makes you miserable and likely kills you.” to be such a claim.

          • Alexander Stanislaw says:

            Claim 4 (Steve’s claim) is false.

          • Airgap says:

            This is effective rhetoric on the object level, but you are making my point for me on the meta level.

            Just for that I’m going to have Mike NJP you, you little punk.

          • RCF says:

            It would take a lot of work to extract a coherent assertion from Steve’s comment. Such terms as “sodomy” and “disordered sexual behavior” are highly biased terms that send the message that the speaker isn’t interested in having a civil discussion, and putting things in terms of “God” shows that the speaker is trying to make it seem that they are making a coherent claim when they in fact are not.

          • RCF says:

            “If part of the pro-gay rights argument is that LGBT people suffer more from mental health problems and are at highter risk of sucidied, etc. then either everyone gets to argue about why this is (anti-LGBT social bigotry causing suffering versus innate less healthy/more likely to develop such problems association with whatever genetic/developmental factors code for not cis/heterosexual), or nobody gets to use such data as propaganda, not even for “and this is why we must strive for LGBT rights”.”
            Given how many celibate gay people have committed suicide, it is sheer sophistry to claim that the position that homophobia is dangerous, and the position that homosexual behavior is dangerous, are on the same footing. Homophobia clearly exists. Allegations of negative effects of homosexual behavior are purely conjectural and are the effect, rather than the cause, of homophobia. Inventing some speculative hypothesis to explain away what is perfectly explicable in terms of established forces are the actions of someone absolutely determined to rationalize of their bigotry. One cannot completely rule the possibility out, but it belongs in the same category as claiming that retrovirals degrade the immune system, and the reason people who are HIV-positive have health problems is because doctors convince them to go on retrovirals, and not because they have AIDS. We are not obligated, every time a problem with a commonsense cause comes up, to have an extensive discussion of possible alternative explanations.

          • Konkvistador says:

            @Airgap: “Just for that I’m going to have Mike NJP you, you little punk.”

            I had to check urban dictionary for what NJP means, it seems it means ” Non-Judicial Punishment”.

            I’m certainly not enlisted in any army. So I must assume you mean something else. I don’t know who the “Mike” you are referring to is, I assume one of your friends I am supposed to know about, that you are invoking to be an internet badass.

            I don’t appreciate being threatened. I don’t appreciate being insulted as a “little punk” by a random newcomer. I think I’ll be leaving and not coming back if the level has fallen so low on rationalist blogs.

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            @ RCF
            Homophobia clearly exists. Allegations of negative effects of homosexual behavior are purely conjectural [….] Inventing some speculative hypothesis to explain away what is perfectly explicable in terms of established forces [….]

            Willhelm of Ockham compliments your clarity, and wishes borrow this the next time sexism is dismissed as the most likely cause of gender disparity, in favor of some speculative hypothesis.

          • Irrelevant says:

            Agreed, though with the caveat that broader male trait variation is also an established fact, and should usually be considered as an explanation before the speculative hypothesis “this specific subgroup of people is more sexist than normal.”

          • Deiseach says:

            Allegations of negative effects of homosexual behavior are purely conjectural and are the effect, rather than the cause, of homophobia.

            Oh well, I’d better inform our Department of Health about that so, (our Minister for Health is both a qualified doctor and has recently come out as a gay man) because they don’t need to bother with campaigns or surveys such as this to find out why “For the Republic of Ireland, in 2013 about half the persons newly diagnosed as infected with HIV were men who have sex with men.”

            It’s easy: it’s all down to homophobia! That’s why there are no differences between Durban and Ireland, or why the health campaigns, gay rights campaigns, and easier access to condoms and contraception in Ireland seem to be having no effect as far as education and prevention goes!

            Possible high-risk or risky sexual practices? No, don’t be silly! Homophobia in the air, the water and the ground is why!

          • Nita says:

            @ Deiseach

            Promiscuous anal sex without condoms is a high-risk behaviour regardless of your sexual orientation.

          • Airgap says:

            @Konkvistador You have no idea who “Mike” is? Here’s a hint: He writes for a blog called “More Right.” Before that, he had another one called “Accelerating Future.” Hopefully, the joke is now clear.

          • Susebron says:

            @Airgap: I’m not involved in NRx, so there may be some reference I don’t know about, but I certainly don’t get the joke even though I know who Mike is.

          • Konkvistador says:


            Ah, that clarifies it! Calling me a “little punk” is still not cool, but now at least I know you weren’t threatening me with violence.

            The reason I missed it is because I don’t quite understand why you have any authority over Michael Anissimov or why you think he has it over me.

            Were you just name dropping associations you know of? What you hoped to achieve with the comment is murky and all plausible reasons I can see are poorly thought out:

            “Ha ha here is a name of a person from the blog you sometimes write at and link to ha ha “

          • Airgap says:

            I don’t quite understand why you have any authority over Michael Anissimov

            So the existence of the NRx Shadow Council is still secret? Good. I was worried briefly.

            or why you think he has it over me.

            Don’t front, Samo. We both know you’re still only Master Gunnery Sargeant in Phalanx.


            It just occurred to me that Samo may be a bit neuroatypical, and not taking this all in the intended spirit. If so, I apologize for fucking with him and will try to be more sensitive in future.

      • DanielLC says:

        Purity laws are not random. They are sentences that actually mean something in the prophet’s native language. If God was creating as many universes as possible, then it would include every piece of noise that can exist, and it would be interpreted as the universe being indeterministic. The only clue that a god is involved would be that happiness seems to just happen to outweigh suffering.

      • CalmCanary says:

        That’s exactly the problem with it from a theistic perspective. Since creating all possible worlds includes giving them all possible revelations and interventions, this theodicy implies that we should expect all religions to be noise. Since most people trying to address the problem of evil are trying to argue that some religions is actually true, it’s unsurprising that they would handwave about mysterious ways rather than giving a perfectly reasonable explanation which effectively reduces to deism.

        Although it also seems to me that any theodicy strong enough to work is also strong enough to destroy religion. A god who would create this world might well resurrect Jesus even though the theological claims of Christianity are false.

        • Jeff says:

          Alexander doesn’t say, in this fable, that God is creating “all possible worlds”, just that God creates all possible worlds that contain more happiness than suffering. It doesn’t necessarily follow that this requires worlds with instances of “all possible revelations and interventions”, such that all religion becomes noise. It might be that the filter of “worlds in which happiness > suffering” removes some or enough of the static of random interventions to leave religion some genuine signaling power.

          • CalmCanary says:

            It might be, but it almost certainly isn’t. Any religion which isn’t so horrible as to ruin the entire universe should be able to pass through the filter, regardless of truth. If God has a strong preference for humans having true theological beliefs, rather than being a hedonic utilitarian as he is in this dialogue, then we should expect more true religions, but given how many humans have false theological beliefs, there is a limit on how strong this preference can possibly be.

        • Daniel Keys says:

          It’s actually much worse than that. Scott’s God had to go to the Truman Show hypothesis towards the end. This seems inescapable if we want to imagine a loving super-intelligent Creator without sophistry worse than pretending P=NP.

          So it looks like God wants me to be an atheist. This whole conversation is therefore wrongheaded and/or against the will of God.

      • there is very little that is original, especially in the liberal arts. Thousands of years, thousands of philosophers..pretty much everything important has been covered, although importance is relative in that what is important or novel now may be taken for granted later

      • Muga Sofer says:

        Ooh, this is Relevant to My Interests.

        Pretty sure purity laws are justified by purity, in the naive sense of the word. Cleanliness. Historically, “lying with a man as you would with a woman” or eating shellfish or whatever tended to be bad for you in a folk-medicine sort of way.

        Now, whether God helpfully gave us a manual for personal hygiene (wasn’t there something about washing your hands, too?) or we instinctively know certain things or people learned by trial and error with “X dies of plague” being interpreted as “the Powers Than Be were offended and squished him” is left entirely as an exercise for the reader.

      • endoself says:

        > And here I thought I was being original.

        Will Newsome cited that paper (or maybe a similar one?) on Less Wrong a few years ago. Also, Leibniz’s solution to the problem of evil is extremely similar.

        Kraay thinks that he’s improving on Leibniz in the linked paper, but really he’s just working out the implications of Leibniz plus a certain naive reading Kripkean modal logic (I doubt that Kripke or many other philosophers would think that this is a valid use of modal logic). I would go so far as to say that Leibniz had a better understanding of this solution to the problem of evil in the 17th century than Kraay does today, and that he would easily understand modal logic if it were explained to him, easily see the problem with this application of it, and easily see how to correctly express his argument in the language of modal logic.

        • Scott Alexander says:

          I thought Leibnitz’s solution was very different, saying that God created this world because it was the best of all possible worlds, in the sense of involving the most complexity (or something). That seems very different from saying God created all good possible worlds and this one is merely not bad enough to make the chopping block.

          • endoself says:

            Leibniz meant “world” in the obvious sense of everything that exists. If there are a lot of some type of thing, that type of thing should not be called worlds.

            If we think of the world as being composed of many self-contained world-fragments, whose moral values are independent of each other, then God will create all the net-good world fragments and none of the net-bad ones, as you and Kraay describe. We don’t really have any reason to believe that God’s options when creating the world have this form though. Kraay obscures this issue by calling the world-fragments “worlds”, but Leibniz would know better.

          • Scott Alexander says:

            Do you think this is what Leibniz actually believed? I never got the impression that, for example, he thought there were world-fragments that were much better than ours, or that our world-fragment was evil to prevent metaphysical collisions with better ones.

          • endoself says:

            Leibniz would not “think of the world as being composed of many self-contained world-fragments, whose moral values are independent of each other”. Thinking of the value of different parts of the world being independent appeals to some modern utilitarian intuitions, but this mostly isn’t how people think about morality.

            For evidence that Leibniz was really thinking along these lines, he says for example “the universe is only a certain kind of collection of compossibles; and the actual universe is the collection of all possible existents, that is, of those things that form the richest composite”. His compossibles are I believe much smaller pieces of the world than the world-fragment that Job thinks of himself as inhabiting, which includes everything that he can causally interact with. To me, analysis in terms of the smallest pieces rather than maximal causally interacting pieces seems most natural. (I should point out that I’m not confident in my understanding of Leibniz’s ideas on causality, and that whenever I talk about causality in this comment I am using it in the modern sense.)

            Regarding the specific questions you ask, if you think of world fragments as being small rather than large, it is obvious that some are much better than others, since we can see, for example, some people who have much better lives than others. I can’t recall anything that suggest a position on the question of whether there are large world-fragments, not interacting with ours, that are much better.

            The concept of “metaphysical collisions”, as you put it, is exactly Leibniz’s principle of the identity of indiscernibles. He definitely thought in terms of each individual thing either existing or not. You can ask whether two things are compossible, but you can’t ask for more than one of a particular thing, since if two things have all the same properties, they are the same thing.

            (It feels weird to write this long comment without mentioning that we were at the same HPMOR wrap party yesterday, so… I’m mentioning it.)

          • Creutzer says:

            But if you think in terms of small world-fragments, you’re left with the problem that you could just leave out the world fragments with negative utility and improve the overall result thereby. You need larger units to make the point that the overall utility is still positive, even when the utility in a fragment, say, an individual life, is negative.

            I’m also generally not sure that you can have a conception like Scott’s without the concepts on which utilitarianism rests – which Leibniz didn’t have.

      • kaninchen says:

        There are vastly more options that “all gay” and “all straight”. There’ll be an “everyone must be gay, except for Steve” universe, a “Bangladeshis are all to be gay, everyone else is to be straight” universe, and a whole host of more complicated moral laws. We should then be very surprised to find ourselves living in a world with such a consistent moral law.

        • Susebron says:

          Perhaps we’re living in a universe where the moral command is “Jews don’t have gay sex, but it’s okay for everyone else.”

      • RCF says:

        There are quite a few problems with that. A universe in which the are rules against homosexuality, but we ignore them, is different from a universe in which they don’t exist at all, so this isn’t an argument for following them. Also, your argument would work equally well for saying that a universe in which Hitler tries to kill the Jews is different from one in which he doesn’t, so we shouldn’t try to stop him. And those are just the two problems I find most prominent.

        • Airgap says:

          If the balance of evidence suggests that doing something about killing the Jews is the right move, we must be in the universe where we save (some of) them. Otherwise, the evidence would be different or we’d interpret it differently.

          • RCF says:

            By that logic, if the balance of evidence is that we should ignore the command against homosexuality, does that mean that we’re in the universe where we ignore the command?

      • Nick says:

        If you wanted to be original then your mistake, clearly, was mentioning p-zombies.

      • Neuralon says:

        But surely our ignorance of those laws is factored into the Creator’s model of us. Ie, it’d create one universe where it told us to obey those laws and we did, and another where it told us to and we didn’t, maybe manipulating how convincing their case was. Really, it’s impossible for our actions to affect the number of universes at all, because they’ve already been considered in the final analysis. Might as well boost the total utility level by a fraction via not worrying about it.

      • Decius says:

        That creates an interesting anthropomorphic problem; taking that all priors (about which universe we are in, conditional on it being one in which total awesome {as measured by the Creator} will be greater than total suck, and future awesome will be greater than future suck…

        We have no reason to believe that the Creator is the same entity as the God that talks to us. In fact, since there is only a finite number of universes in which the entity that explains the reason for suck differs from the Creator by X bits, and an infinite number of universes in which it differs by more, it’s almost certain that God differs from the Creator by more than X bits, for all X, assuming that the universe will exist for infinite time.

        -However-, that assumption is unsound or irrelevant; we only care about how much God has diverged from the Creator in the finite time available, and because quantum space and time, there are finite divergences possible.

        So, given that all courses of action for God are equally likely, how much should we expect His actions to date to diverge from an omnipotent omnibenevolent Creator?

        • Deiseach says:

          We have no reason to believe that the Creator is the same entity as the God that talks to us

          I believe you have just re-invented Gnosticism (or at least one of the variants under that umbrella term) 🙂

      • Sarah says:

        I’m pretty sure there’s a Jewish interpretation (don’t know about the Christian ones) whereby some of the biblical commandments explicitly have no human-interpretable rationale. They’re not obviously moral, or obviously prudent, they’re just because God said so. IIRC, the Red Heifer is a canonical example.

        Those work fine with Scott’s many-worlds theory.

        • Irrelevant says:

          There’s also, of course, the possibility that those commands are the divine equivalent of teaching a dog not to poop on the rug, and exist for reasons beyond their target’s comprehension but which are blindingly obvious to the lawgiver.

        • Jaskologist says:

          Christian tradition divides OT rules into moral, ceremonial, and civil law. Moral law would correspond to natural law, with negative consequences for anybody who ignores it. This stuff would therefore be generally applicable, and is knowable through reason, and as expected, other societies tend to have very similar such moral rules.

          Ceremonial law is what you’re talking about. These rules exist to set the Jews apart from everybody else. In this case, being arbitrary can actually be a feature, but there may also be an aspect of fiddling with things beyond your comprehension, as Irrelevant mentioned. Christians are explicitly not bound by these rules.

          Civil law would be rules specifically for how the nation if Israel way back in the day was to be run. These grow out of the other two categories, but are not necessarily applicable to other nations either.

          It is worth noting that the OT itself makes no distinction between any of these.

      • If you’re looking for novelty, the suitability of all these universes for acausal trade hasn’t been explored. Going by Kraay’s endnote 36, he isn’t aware of it, at least as of 2010:

        One might try to object that the creation of universes which are unworthy of creation might somehow serve to make the entire world better that it otherwise would be ([aesthetic nonsense]). But it’s difficult to see how such an objection can be sustained, given that universes are causally isolated.

        Perhaps Job can find solace in his universe’s comparative advantage in suffering. /人◕ ‿‿ ◕人\

      • aguycalledjohn says:

        The universe in which people obey the anti-gay commandments up until time t then stop is an equally valid and unique universe for god to hav created, and from inside we have no way of telling if we are in the “anti gay for all time” universe, the “anti-gay until t” universe, or the “anti gay until t+1” universe. So we might as well do whatever seems like a good idea at to us.

    • Anonymous` says:

      I came up with this too about a year ago after reading Permutation City. I’m not a theist, though.

    • Shenpen says:

      If there was justice in _this_ universe, everybody could think about religion what they want but people who find that mother of all horrible puns funny should be declared heretics and be burned at a suitably non-lethal but itchy and embarrassing stake sprinkled with glitter.

  4. Vanzetti says:


    JOB: Let me introduce you to the mathematical concept of an infinite set…

    • Anon says:

      … What? Even infinite sets don’t can’t contain more than one “1”. Do you mean multiset?

      • Vanzetti says:

        I mean a set that contain elements. You can define a number as a set of one’s. They are all the same.

        • tailcalled says:

          A set that can contain multiple copies of the same element is called a multiset or a bag.

        • Pseudonymous Platypus says:

          You still only have one concept of the number one, though; you just have multiple instantiations of that concept.

          • AlexC says:

            Not even multiple instantiations. More like multiple pointers to the same (abstract) memory location. Multiple bitpatterns that are all decoded to the same platonic Number One.

          • LJAK says:

            Unless you subscribe to something like the mathematical universe hypothesis, where our physical reality is part of a mathematical structure.

    • I agree I think that’s the definitive refutation of this as a solution to the problem of evil.

      Even if we assume you can’t increase hapiness by creating identical universes, you can still create increasingly, in fact infinitely small variations on perfect universes in order to remove the need for somewhat evil universes.Create perfect universe P, then create almost perfect universe, AP, with arbitrarily small amount of evil, and then just do infinite variations, an infinite set, between those boundaries. No need for world’s a messed up as ours 😛

      • Izaak Weiss says:

        Unless “amount of evil” isn’t infinitesimally divisible, in which case there aren’t infinite numbers of universes between a evil and 0 evil, unless a->infinity.

      • Decius says:

        He did that. He created all of them. And there were still more to create.

        He can make infinitely-meta recursions of infinite recursions, and then make them well-ordered.

    • Irrelevant says:

      My own nitpick was that storing two identical copies of the same concept, differentiated only by physical location, is probably a thing our brains could do.

  5. gwern says:

    If anyone is curious, the modal realism theodicy seems to originate with Donald Turner’s “The Many-Universes Solution to the Problem of Evil”.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      How about McHarry 1978? or at least Forrest 1981?

      • Parker says:

        I was always under the impression that all of this originated with Leibniz in the early 1700s (here). Am I mistaken?

        It’s not quite the same as these later philosophers, and Leibniz didn’t argue that actual instances of other worlds exist, but at its core, it seems to be argument from modality.

        • Douglas Knight says:

          They seem wildly different to me. The only thing that they have in common is that they affirm the claim that this is the best of all possible worlds. And maybe Leibniz endorses the existence of a collection of worlds, but it isn’t relevant to his theodicy. They both explicitly address the concern that the world does not appear, at first glance, to be perfect. Their answers distinguish them. Leibniz rejects the claim, responding that we have little grasp on the logically necessary consequences of small changes, and they would produce non-obvious evil. The modal theodicy accepts the claim, but says that while small changes really are possible, they lead to better neighborhoods that already exist, and there is no value in redundancy. I suppose that you could classify redundancy as “non-obvious evil,” but (1) at some point specificity becomes a new theory and (2) I’m pretty sure Leibniz means logical consequences, not metaphysical consequences.

  6. Carl Shulman says:

    Christian philosopher Klaas Kraay has written a lot of recent theodicy in this vein:

  7. Jon Miller says:


    This is a crucial assumption, and it seems false. It seems like there could be multiple instantiations (tokens) of the same type of universe. So the supremely benevolent deity should just create endless tokens of the perfect-type universe.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      If there’s a computational theory of identity, then all of the entities having exactly similar experiences in all of those tokens would just be the same entity, with really high measure. I wouldn’t expect that to be very satisfying to God.

      • Jon Miller says:

        “If there’s a computational theory of identity”: Yes, that seems like the key assumption. And it seems false! If, per your example, it is possible for there to be two qualitatively identical but numerically non-identical red wooden cubes, it seems it should be possible for there to be two qualitatively identical but numerically non-identical persons, or universes containing such persons. Applying this theory of identity only to persons and not to red wooden boxes seems arbitrary. Stacking the deck in favor of the hypothetical Almighty, as it were.

        • Zakharov says:

          In the example, the cubes are not identical, they have different locations.

        • Airgap says:


        • Paul Torek says:

          This. Moreover, we have a better theory of identity available, outlined in a series of posts by Manfred on lesswrong. I don’t recall him giving a name for the theory, but I’ll call it the causal continuity theory. It follows the causal thread of agency and experience over time. It allows us to say reasonable things about branching, fusion, and other puzzle cases. I am not saying it’s the best theory, just far and away better than computational identity.

      • Jon Miller says:

        Also, it seems that, even on computational theories of mind, there could still be a coherent distinction between type-identity and token-identity. It seems at least conceivable that the same computation-type mind could be instantiated in more than one token mind.

        You could make a separate, additional argument that token-identity collapses into type-identity, but it seems as if such an argument could be made on other theories of mind as well, so that the computational theory of mind isn’t doing any of the metaphysical work here.

    • J says:

      Let’s say I have a program on my computer that instantiates a happy person. Now I want to run another identical copy to create twice as much happiness. Modern operating systems let two instances of the same program run their instructions from the same pages of memory rather than loading the same thing into memory twice. The execution of the code isn’t affected; it just saves on RAM.

      But these programs are truly identical- they’re not flipping truly random coins to go down different paths. So there’s a technique called memoization (note lack of an “r” in that word) that says when we run the same deterministic procedure twice, we always get the same result, so you can just use the same answer again if it’s the same question, rather than doing the math again. (Imagine if I asked you what’s 223*967, then asked you again. You’d just repeat the same answer rather than punching in the numbers to your calculator again)

      So we can start memoizing parts of our code to save on computation. But that trick works at every level for our completely identical universe. So when you go to run the second copy, the OS can just point you at the first copy and say “Here you go, and in fact we already have a head start. You’re instantly caught up with the other copy! And it didn’t cost any more RAM and CPU!”

      If that doesn’t sound right to you, then you have to figure out what level of optimization you are okay with. Is all the meaning lost if we share even a single page of read-only RAM? Why? If not, then how much optimization can we do before the meaning is lost?

      • Jon Miller says:

        Thanks for the quick lesson!

        If God wanted to create as much happiness as possible, it seems like he would create multiple tokens of the same-type universe containing the maximum conceivable happiness. This would optimize for quantity of happiness, rather than for efficient use of memory–that is precisely what God’s omnibenevolence causes him to do. (Luckily, God is infinitely powerful, so he doesn’t even need to optimize for efficient use of memory in the first place!;))

    • Airgap says:



    • anon says:

      The universes exist in idea-space. They don’t have an actual physical location, they don’t exist in a meta-universe where maxHappy-1 is to the left of maxHappy-2. With nothing to differentiate the idea of ‘1’ from the idea of ‘1’, ‘1’ and ‘1’ are the same idea.

      God doesn’t have to actually be running them on a machine with memory where he initializes tokens of universes. That’s how we’d do it, but that’s how our universe works, not how a system that’s explicitly not an universe has to work.

  8. Michael Powell says:


  9. If all this is true we should be more optimistic about the future than otherwise because God would not have created a universe where things get so bad it would have been better for none of us to have been born.

    • Lightman says:

      It’s a big universe. Maybe we suffer tremendously but Tralfamadorians have it pretty good.

      • Jeff says:

        Assuming utilitarianism, and that there’s sufficient interaction between our existence and that of the Tralfamadorians to make it necessary to their happiness that we and our suffering exist.

        • Susebron says:

          They don’t have to be mutually necessary. Our suffering just has to distinguish this universe from the others.

          • Jeff says:

            You’re right, I was already assuming that there had to be some more particular necessity to our suffering than simply that it distinguishes otherwise identical universes. Which means that for every happy population in every possible universe, there can be a near-infinite set of instances of not-quite-offsetting miserable populations whose sole purpose is distinguishing otherwise identical universes.

            That just seems grossly inelegant to me – but I’ve never been fond of utilitarianism, to begin with.

          • Ghatanathoah says:

            I was under the impression that having miserable people exist had to change the experiences of net-positive people in some way in order to prevent them from counting as the same people. So I think the Tralfamadorians would at least have to observe us.

      • True, but it’s more likely that we are in the group that doesn’t suffer tremendously because this group is bigger.

      • RCF says:

        We would expect the set of people who have it good to be larger than the set of people who don’t (since the pleasure of the former must be larger than suffering of the latter), thus we can still expect ourselves to be in the set of people who have it good. Moreover, if God wanted something to distinguish universes, shouldn’t He prefer simply different configurations of nonsentient matter to suffering sentient matter? Also, for our suffering to distinguish universes for the Tralfamadorians, would our suffering have to be in their light cone?

        • Susebron says:

          Well, presumably God would have exhausted the set of universes which can be distinguished by nonsentient matter.

      • Airgap says:

        For God so loved the world [which?], that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

    • Seth says:

      That follows iff we accept the premise that increasing net happiness is morally good even at the expense of decreasing average happiness. To me, this post just points up the absurdity of that premise. Actually, even if we do accept it, it’s scant consolation to those who are suffering in order to distinguish the universe. Worse: it means that they are suffering because the universe has been stacked against them, and also that any effort we might make to alleviate suffering on a large scale would likely be futile.

    • Dale says:

      And the worse the universe has been up until now, the more optimistic we should be!

    • Roxolan says:

      If all this is true, we should expect the universe to dissolve into MOSTLY PLEASANT random noise any nanosecond now, as such is the fate of most of the 9.4*(10^(10^(10^(10^762)))).

  10. atrasicarius says:

    This kinda reads like something out of the Principia Discordia.

  11. Dave says:

    So God is Derek Parfit? I always suspected he was too smart to be human…

  12. Nick says:


    So say you have a universe where those people had never existed. God replies, I already made such a universe, and making an identical copy would only fall prey to my previous objection.

    This seems to imply that a universe with some number happy people is distinct from a universe with that same number happy people plus some sad people. But why couldn’t God just add more happy people to make it distinct? You’d never run out of happy people to add — the first universe could have a billion, the next a billion and one, then a billion and two, and so on. Hell, have a force that acts at a distance and each universe could be made to be even more minutely distinct.

    I don’t know enough physics to discuss Planck lengths or whatever, but it also seems like if there are any genuinely stochastic processes, then there’d also be infinitely many real numbers a probability value in that process could take between 0 and 1.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I think I may have explained it poorly in the original. It’s not just that universes need to be different, it’s that conscious experiences need to be different. If you have exactly the same life as someone living in a universe that’s twice as big, you’re still only one person (as long as the other person can’t see the bigger universe and have life experiences relating to it like seeing twice as many stars in the night sky or something).

      Of course, now the objection is “Can’t God just create a universe where all beings have bliss level 1,000, another universe where all beings have bliss level 1,001, and so on…”

      • Jon Miller says:

        “If you have exactly the same life as someone living in a universe that’s twice as big, you’re still only one person.”

        I’m still having difficulty with this conception of identity (I made some additional posts about that above), but let’s take it as given that your conception of identity is correct. If God is optimizing for happiness, though, it still seems like he could create an infinite number of universes each with an infinite number of identical, perfectly happy people. Even if the _persons_ are identical and therefore only count once, the _happiness_ is not identical, and therefore is increased by adding additional universes of perfectly happy people. Right? In any case perhaps some clarity is needed with regard to the question: What is God optimizing for in this thought experiment?

        Also, regarding your conception of identity: as pointed out by another commentator above, generally type-identical token persons in different universes might still be non-type-identical, just in respect of being in different universes (assuming universe-membership is part of type-identity).

      • Airgap says:

        You seem to be assuming God is an Effective Altruist. Why is that? Narcissism?

      • Decius says:

        If we assume that bliss numbers have some degree of quantum granularity and some cap, that objection dies.

    • Clockwork Marx says:

      God could do both (and if God is a utilitarian, God would be obligated to do so). Creating an infinite series of [+1 happy person] universes wouldn’t prevent God from also creating an infinite amount of [happiness>suffering] universes.

      • Scott Alexander says:

        That seems potentially right, but also very confusing. Wouldn’t God be ethically obligated to create each imperfect-but-happiness>suffering universe into a perfect universe as soon as He had created it?

        • Seth says:

          Sure, if we suppose that God is obligated to eliminate suffering in general, but according to what you’ve written here, they aren’t. If God creates the set of all possible 100% happy universes, then converting an imperfect universe to a perfect universe would necessarily result in a duplicate, as well as the nonexistence of a possible imperfect-but-acceptable universe, and both of those results go against this version of God’s goals – as would neglecting to create the set of all possible 100% happy universes.

          • Protagoras says:

            God’s goals are a little murky here. If it’s possible to have infinite happiness (which seems like it ought to be possible for an omnipotent God), then it becomes unclear why adding anything imperfect helps anything; adding anything to an infinite quantity doesn’t actually increase it (unless you add an infinity of higher cardinality, in which case the original infinity is what stops mattering). Perhaps we’re not engaged in consequentialism, but then what is the reason for all this universe maximizing?

            That problem is of course solved if possible variations are finite (then the goodness maximizer would want to make all of them that had any positive goodness), but that assumption seems oddly incongruent with the supposition that we can have a God with infinite attributes.

          • Seth says:

            I completely agree. My point was that taking the OP as given (despite the holes in it, and with the exception of the part about there being a finite number of 100% happy universes), Clockwork Marx’s suggestion does work.

      • Nick says:

        Yep, agreed. I was mostly commenting on the “IN THE END IT TURNED OUT TO BE ONLY ABOUT 9.4*(10^(10^(10^(10^762))))”, though that was unclear. And maybe also that just adding unhappy people doesn’t work to distinguish universes, so they shouldn’t be created.

        I think it ultimately boils down to what sort of utilitarian (if any) God is, which is ultimately something of an arbitrary question. I’m also not sure if the idea of “maximizing utility” is meaningful for functions that can and do increase without bound. I suppose God’s Utility Function could have terms that are bounded from above, but I don’t think plugging in “infinity” or “infinity + infinity” would yield different results (or different sorts of infinity, or if cardinality or bijection or whatever are concepts that can be applied to universes).

    • Jaskologist says:

      God isn’t trying to maximize happiness, he’s trying to maximize goodness. And not along one axis, either; there are many Goods to materialize. Courage, perserverance, triumph over evil; all of these are Good things which require a certain amount of non-good to exist.

      • Well put. This comes closes to what I actually believe about the real world (as opposed to what I argue for when presented with amusing philosophical just-so stories).

        • Cauê says:

          Hm. I thought Scott’s theodicy is a lot better than this, and the first I ever heard that doesn’t make my “motivated thinking” alarm go crazy.

          (it covers natural disasters! and suffering without good consequences!)

          (granted, I don’t go out of my way to search them)

          I suspect our different opinions come from divergences several levels down, which would probably be very interesting to understand but I don’t even know which questions to ask.

        • Jaskologist says:

          I should also point out that Biblically, God seems to weight good far, far more heavily than evil. Abraham is able to bargain God down to saving the entire city of Sodom if only ten righteous people are there, which I assume has to be somewhere south of 1% of the population. Similar sentiments are found elsewhere. It seems very likely that God’s calculus would find a universe which is overwhelmingly bad to be still worth making, for the sake of the few good.

          Put another way, Mao’s great evil does not mean that I should be disappeared from existence, even if he is really, really, really bad.

      • Nita says:

        All those things seem good in an aesthetic sense rather than / more than in a moral sense.

        • Irrelevant says:

          All of God’s preferences would be necessarily aesthetic. He doesn’t have needs.

          • Nita says:

            I don’t see what needs have to do with this. But more importantly, why should I interpret these preferences as “goodness”?

          • Irrelevant says:

            Most human preferences are rooted in necessity, at some lesser or greater level of directness. Aesthetic preferences, depending on how coherent you think aesthetics are, are either those preferences that we can’t parse to a necessity (and would unravel as a category if we had perfect knowledge of ourselves) or the group of preferences which are rooted in a collection of specific and in some way similar arbitrary attributes of our mental processes. They are in either case defined in contrast to instrumental desires. God has no instrumental needs, which makes all of his preferences aesthetic, and aesthetic in truth, not merely difficult to parse. You can pick your emotional context for the realization, but honestly, what did you think “God is Love” meant?

            This makes your question rather odd. Firstly, you’re contrasting aesthetics and morality, when those are very related subjects. A good sense of aesthetics, i.e. the well-developed ability to appreciate things for non-instrumental reasons, is classically considered to itself be a moral virtue. Secondly, because the alternative is to interpret “goodness” as a category error.

          • Nita says:

            what did you think “God is Love” meant?

            I’ve no idea. I suspect people can intend to express a variety of different things by this vague statement.

            A good sense of aesthetics, i.e. the well-developed ability to appreciate things for non-instrumental reasons, is classically considered to itself be a moral virtue.

            And the heart is classically considered to be the source of emotions. That doesn’t make it true.

            Aesthetics seem to be mostly about things that we find pleasant to contemplate. I’m pretty sure you’ll agree that “pleasant” is not always related to “good”.

            For instance, a lot of Nazi and Soviet propaganda is full of pleasant things like “courage, perseverance, triumph over evil”. That doesn’t make it morally praiseworthy.

            the alternative is to interpret “goodness” as a category error

            Uh, no? I suppose it depends on your premises. To me, a [something]-maximizing God can be amoral, bad or good in any given situation, depending on what [something] is. Just like any other maximizer, basically.

          • Irrelevant says:

            Oh, I think I see the issue: you’re holding out on omniscience.

            “Pleasant” is only disjoint from “good” to the degree that cognition fails to properly interpret the state of things. If you have perfect perception, the two concepts cease to be differentiable, just as belief and truth do. If a [something]-maximizing omniscient being is maximizing something that is not Goodness, “Goodness” is inconceivable.

          • Nita says:

            So, pleasure and goodness converge at infinity? That’s an interesting thought, but I don’t see why we should treat it as fact. Infinity is a slippery concept, and I’ve only seen it behave well when applied to absolutely clear, formally defined mathematical objects, not nebulous ideas like “goodness”.

            [note: the next part might be rude to some worldviews, sorry]

            Similarly, I think the only minds we can currently draw hard conclusions about are minds enacted by physical systems, such as brains or computers. An abstract, platonic mind is so underspecified that all our thinking about it is practically baseless speculation.

          • Irrelevant says:

            So, pleasure and goodness converge at infinity? That’s an interesting thought, but I don’t see why we should treat it as fact. Infinity is a slippery concept, and I’ve only seen it behave well when applied to absolutely clear, formally defined mathematical objects, not nebulous ideas like “goodness”.

            Yeah, you’re still holding out on omniscience. “Nebulousness of good” doesn’t apply here, because an omniscient entity understands every factor and their relative importances. If goodness is a real attribute that holds ultimate value, then an omniscient entity knows that it has ultimate value. If goodness is not a real attribute, but simply a description of relative preferability between options, then an omniscient entity also knows that, and has done all the calculations required to know which things are relatively preferable correctly and completely.

  13. J Daniels says:

    Average utilitarianism seems to work better in these cases, from my point of view. I would much prefer a universe where 10 people experience 1000 utility than one where 100 people experience 100 utility. Similarly, I would much prefer one universe of high utility than many of varying utility.

    • So in this hypothetical you would choose to destroy our universe because it is below the average of level of happiness so destroying it would increase the average utility?

      • J Daniels says:

        Possibly. In my mind, it definitely seems worse to destroy an existing universe of relative low utility than to not allow one to come about, but that seems arbitrary/non-consequentialist, unless you introduce dis-utility from destroying existing prefs.

        • Seth says:

          The method of destruction makes a consequentialist difference. Make it an instantaneous, painless transition to nonexistence, and I’d be all for it.

          • Izaak Weiss says:

            I still don’t bite that. I’d rather have never been born than to be painlessly and unknowingly killed. Death != 0 utility != never existing in the first place.

        • Ghatanathoah says:

          There’s a simple consequentialist way to consider destroying the universe to be worse than not allowing it to come about. When you are determining the average utility, simply have every universe that has ever existed count as part of the average, regardless of whether or not it currently exists.

          This makes more sense anyway. Imagine it on the personal level. You tell an average utilitarian there is a man being tortured to death, and we have to save him. The average utilitarian replies that he knows, but the man being tortured will die later today, and he doesn’t plan on calculating the average until tomorrow, at which point the man will be dead and cease to “count.”

          That’s obviously silly. If we’re going to average everyone’s utility we should average the utility of everyone who has ever existed, even if they’re dead now.

          • Seth says:

            Counting dead people as still being extant is also obviously silly. You don’t need to do that to fix the logical flaw in arbitrarily choosing a discrete time at which to measure the average: moral patients contribute to the average while extant, and the average is integrated with respect to time.

      • Ghatanathoah says:

        Unless the future of our universe is going to mainly be suffering, destroying it would decrease the average utility much more than allowing it to continue.

        Suppose we have three universes. Our universe, at the present has a net utility of 100. Two other universes have a total utility of 200. If we allow the universes to continue existing, each one would accumulate 100 additional net utility.

        If we allow our universe to continue, the average utility will be (200+300+300)/3= 266.7.

        If we destroy our universe the average utility would be (100+300+300)/3=233.3

        You seem to be under the impression that destroying our universe would make it cease being part of the equation (in other words, it would make the equation 300+300/2). I don’t see how that makes any sense. Utilitarianism usually sums a person’s utility over the course of a whole lifetime, not over any particular moment. Why would averaging utility be any different? Once a universe exists it should count as part of the average forever.

        • Seth says:

          “Utilitarianism usually sums a person’s utility over the course of a whole lifetime, not over any particular moment. Why would averaging utility be any different?”

          It shouldn’t. And so, once a universe is gone, it shouldn’t be counted any more. What you’re proposing is analogous to counting dead people as still existing with zero utility.
          EDIT: And a more recent comment from you (see above) makes it clear that that’s exactly what you meant to suggest. I’ve replied to that as well.

          • Ghatanathoah says:

            Replying to both your comments:

            I am not suggesting counting dead people as still being extant with zero utility. I am saying that when you are calculating average utility you should add up the total utility of every person who has ever lived, and divide it by the total number of people who have ever lived. I think this makes way more sense than any other way of doing it. You’re not pretending dead people are still alive, you’re just taking a timeless perspective when you do the math.

            That isn’t counting dead people as still existing with zero utility. It is counting them as having however much utility they had accumulated at the time of their death.

            This solves the problem of killing unhappy people to bring up the average. Killing them will only bring up the average if the rest of their life will contain much more misery than happiness, in which case they would likely want you to kill them anyway. If their life below average, but still positive, killing them is bad because it lowers the average.

            Trying to fix the problem by suggesting some kind of non-consequentialist restraint on killing is what’s silly. It suggests that you should be hoping that all the below-average people die in accidents, since you aren’t allowed to kill them. This is silly. The death of those people is a bad consequence, it is bad by consequentialist standards. It is bad no matter how it happens.

            Richard Chapelle makes the same point in more detail here:

          • Seth says:

            Apologies for the delayed reply, but I needed some time to process. That’s pretty close to what I had been thinking when I suggested integrating over time above; I just misunderstood your previous comments. Chappell’s post seemed like a compelling argument at first, but I now see that it creates a problem that’s as bad as the one it solves: it suggests a moral obligation to methodically bring about the extinction of most sentient species, with the end goal of maximizing the product of the average life expectancy and average instantaneous utility among remaining moral patients. I’m now trying in vain to find a way to reconcile that.

            Back to your original point about treating the universes the same way: we shouldn’t, even if we find a solution to the above reductio ad absurdum. I say that because universes themselves are not moral patients; only the sentients in them are. Even in the OP, God is only creating more universes as a means to the end of creating more net happy consciousnesses. Suppose God creates an empty universe on a whim. There’s now one more universe, but no additional utility, which brings the average down, making it an immoral act according to your math. That seems wrong from a consequentialist perspective. There are no bad consequences (or good consequences, for that matter) to the act of creating an empty universe, and our moral model ought to reflect that.

        • J Daniels says:

          Ah, this helps. Thank you for clarifying.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I’m a fan of average utilitarianism in the real world, but I don’t think that’s the decision God is facing here. When I hear average utilitarianism, it tends to be in decisions like:

      “Would you prefer a universe with 100 people who are 100% happy, or 1,000 people who are 60% happy?”

      God’s decision is:

      “Would you prefer a universe with 100 people who are 100% happy, or a multiverse consisting of both a universe with 100 people who are 100% happy, and 1,000 people who are 60% happy?”

      The latter is a much easier sell for me than the former.

      • Seth says:

        That second question is equivalent to:

        “Would you prefer a universe with 100 people who are 100% happy, or 1,100 people who are almost 64% happy?”

        Except for the fact that bringing a second universe into being (presumably) has no effect on the existing universe. But we can also create that condition in a single universe. We can take that universe with 100 100% happy people and add 1,000 60% happy people, isolated so that their suffering will have no effect on the existing 100. Is that net good? I say no. There’s no moral value inherent in bringing new sentients into being, and this act would create an unjust imbalance.

        Say… If God’s so obsessed with quantity, why can’t they just focus on making the one high-quality universe infinitely large and infinitely populous?
        EDIT: I see I’m not the first to suggest that, and Scott has already replied.

        • Decius says:

          “Would you prefer a universe in which 100 people were 100% happy, or one in which 700 people were 100% happy and 400 people were 0% happy, or one in which 100 people were 100% happy and 1000 people were 59% happy?”

    • endoself says:

      I don’t understand why people think it’s reasonable to endorse simple models of morality based on how they perform on a few examples. I’ll explain what I mean, and hopefully someone who thinks it’s reasonable can explain why they think that.

      Some people might think of some simple moral axioms that they are convinced are right, or approximately right. These people can then derive a bunch of things from those axioms and subscribe to the resulting moral theory. Other people might not believe any such axioms, but have moral intuitions about many particular cases. These people can piece together a complicated moral theory by trying to reconcile different, maybe conflicting, intuitions. These two perspectives can be combined in many ways. Maybe Alice starts out endorsing a bunch of moral axioms, but realize that they contradict each other, so she uses intuitions about particular cases to choose which axioms to throw away.

      What I don’t understand is how people get simple moral theories, like average utilitarianism, from just examples and no simple axioms. If you don’t start with simple axioms, it just seems unrealistic, given what I know about humans think about morality, to end up with a simple theory. Can someone who believes something like this help me out?

      • Nita says:

        I don’t understand is how people get simple moral theories, like average utilitarianism, from just examples and no simple axioms.

        You should probably read some introduction by an actual philosopher. But, on the level of lay speculation, here are a couple of nice (and very simple) axioms:
        1. Suffering is bad.
        2. Injustice is bad.

        • endoself says:

          I’m not saying that I don’t understand average utilitarianism. I’m saying that I don’t understand how people get to any simple theory without simple axioms. I used average utilitarianism as an example because J Daniels seemed to be endorsing it on the basis of how it works with examples rather than axioms. (Maybe they weren’t but people do this sort of thing at least sometimes.)

          • Irrelevant says:

            You mean reverse-engineering? You run (exhaustive) tests, measure outputs, then come up with the simplest model of the internal machinery that fits the outputs.

            On the ethical side, people are usually trying to come up with a model that preserves some of the outputs while disregarding or changing others, of course.

  14. The number of people who judge their own lives to not be worth living is pretty small, by all reports. The number of people whose lives are judged by others to not be worth living is a little larger, but still much less than 50% of all lives lived. That suggests that we’re not very close to the bottom of God’s multiverse. You may take that as comforting or horrifying, as you will.

    • Seth says:

      Precise phrasing is rather important here. I’d expect those results if people were asked, “Is it worth it for you to go on living?”, but I’d expect the proportion of people who say “No” to be higher if they were asked, “Would it be better for you to have never been born in the first place?” The latter question is the relevant one here. But let’s assume arguendo that almost all people say “Yes” to that one as well. I’d hypothesize that a large contributing factor to that statistic is a tendency to fail to give the question due philosophical consideration, and instead go with a gut reaction based on (falsely) equating nonexistence with death. And I’m much more confident that there’s a tendency to answer based largely on one’s own happiness, and fail to account for one’s net impact on others.

      • Nisan says:

        Indeed, it’s extremely difficult to experimentally detect whether someone prefers not to have been born, because it’s not like you can make them choose between getting $X and having not been born.

        To really do the experiment properly, you’d have to give the subject the opportunity to reward their progenitor, assuming their progenitor is a good predictor and created the subject because the progenitor predicted falsely that the subject would reward the creator.

  15. Sam King-Walters says:

    Why do people try and understand a supposedly omnipotent deity with reason and logic? If the deity is truly omnipotent, then they can overrule logic at will, while if the proposed deity is limited by logic, they aren’t actually omnipotent.

    Seems to me like the whole exercise is designed to enhance the social status of people skilled at reasoning. Or is that unfair?

    • Jaskologist says:

      Whether God is subject to logic is a matter of debate. Christianity has largely said that He is (or more accurately, that reason is part of God’s nature); Islam has said the opposite.

    • arthur somethingorother says:

      Seems to me like the whole exercise is designed to enhance the social status of people skilled at reasoning.

      In the sense that the whole purpose of people is to produce carbon dioxide.

  16. Scott Alexander says:

    Followup questions:

    1. Is there anything this God could do in a Tegmarkian universe where consciousness is inherent in mathematical structures? It would seem to me that there isn’t, since He presumably can’t change math, but maybe I’m just not being creative enough.

    2. Is this model incompatible with us living in an orderly universe run on simple physical laws? Wouldn’t most distinct consciousnesses not be like that? Is there any way to get a rule like measure = simplicity-of-underlying-laws without adding new idiosyncratic preferences to God?

    3. If true, what would this tell us about an afterlife? It would seem unlikely that this God would let beings dissolve into oblivion, and very unlikely that He would condemn them to infinite suffering in Hell. Would it make sense for Him to give us infinite bliss after we died?

    4. How much of this depends on whether a being, once made into a genuinely original being by having a different world-history, remains always a genuinely original being, or can “merge” with other beings if its experience converges to theirs? For example, if you and I have different pasts, but both of our presents are perfect bliss, are we one or two beings? How would God’s design for the universe or the afterlife change as a result of this problem?

    • Roxolan says:

      3. That only works if God ignores afterlives when it comes to distinguishing universes (i.e. if “our world + eternal bliss afterlife” == “our world + kind of bland afterlife”). If He does, then yeah, eternal bliss is a freebie. Everyone would do well to kill themselves in that case.

      One also wonders if God counts blissy afterlives when He does His utility calculations (which He really should, since life/afterlife is an arbitrary distinction). If He does, then EVERY universe in which sentient beings experience a finite amount of suffering before dying is worth creating, even if that amount is -3^^^3 utiliton for 3^^^3 years. So uh even if you life sucks NOW, don’t be too optimistic just yet. But hey, the math works out in the end, right?

    • 1. If mathematics is constant throughout the Tegmark, then either mathematical structures are conscious or they aren’t, and it makes no difference which universe you’re in. If mathematics isn’t constant, then God can change math, so “math creatures” become just another one of the things that God has to play with.

      2. I don’t think it’s incompatible, but it does suggest a strange kind of anthropic problem wherein the universe is comprehensible only because we live in a universe simple enough for us to comprehend it. Maybe intelligence can only arise in universes with relatively straightforward laws. Or maybe what it means to be “intelligent” scales with the environment, so that all intelligent creatures find themselves in a world which is just barely comprehensible.

      3. Intuition check. On what basis do you assert the two “unlikely” things above?

      4. God, with an eternal view of the timeline, can always distinguish two beings which have different histories for any part of their timelines, even if a large portion of their timelines are identical. From God’s POV there is no “merging” or “converging”.

      • Airgap says:

        1. Also, if math isn’t constant, then what the hell do we mean? I’ll grant that the word is a bit shorter than “fundamental particles,” but I wouldn’t have thought this was a major concern given the price of paper.

    • Jaskologist says:

      I don’t know if it counts as changing math, or would be relevant to Tegmark, but presumably God could create universes with different geometries from our own.

    • Airgap says:

      1. I can’t tell from this whether I’ve misunderstood you, you’ve misunderstood Tegmark, or Tegmark’s an idiot.

      2. Most universes aren’t orderly, but maybe you can’t put distinct consciousnesses in sufficiently disorderly universes. I mean, you can, but they keep getting killed by flying chunks of entropy.

      3. The concept of the afterlife as eternal bliss in a cloudy holiday camp is comparatively new and weird, at least in lay circles. Originally, we were all going to climb out of our graves and be judged by Christ when he returned (kind of Dawn of the Dead meets traffic court). Now people generally don’t believe this, although whether this represents theological progress or modern decadence is a question for someone who knows that stuff.

      4. In a sense, all of it. If such merging took place, presumably my z-axis could merge with my x-y plane, and I’d have to lie even more about my height on OkCupid. Also, other logical problems might come up.

    • Jonathan Paulson says:

      3) Isn’t this totally orthagonal to your post? I don’t see how afterlife-related issues differ at all between your model + our standard assumptions about the world.

      4) I think the “standard” reply is that we only count current mind-state, not history, but current mind-state is very large and heavily influenced by history (but there are “hash collisions” because there isn’t enough space in our minds to store everything that has happened to us, which would be a problem for God in this model). “Hash collisions” would also occur in “normal life”, not just the afterlife. Maybe God can magic up enough space to store the whole history inside every being and the problem disappers?

    • endoself says:

      1. Compatibilism! We humans can change math. You just need a being (namely God) to exist who (1) is very powerful in the straightforward compatibilist sense of the word ‘power’, and (2) is benevolent. Leibniz’s God has the power to decide what mathematical structure is real because ontological argument, and is benevolent because ontological argument. The ontological argument is wrong, but Leibniz’s version of it makes fewer mistakes than most.

      • Nisan says:

        In particular, if God is a mathematical structure, then outcomes in some mathematical universes can logically depend on God’s decisions, just like outcomes in our universe logically depend on humans’ decisions.

        • Scott Alexander says:

          Wouldn’t this require God to be within the universe – ie God is just another form of entity described by the math of a particular structure, albeit a very important one? I can see how this would mean a particular universe’s god could affect it, but it doesn’t seem compatible with a God outside the entire multiverse who can reach in and change things.

          • endoself says:

            Yeah, if you’re assuming Tegmarkian metaphysics then you only have local gods. This is exactly the argument that lead to me realizing that my theism was a rationalization and deconverting. (This was all years before I found LW.)

    • Irrelevant says:

      Has anyone mentioned Prime numbers yet? No? Cool.

      3. If true, what would this tell us about an afterlife? It would seem unlikely that this God would let beings dissolve into oblivion, and very unlikely that He would condemn them to infinite suffering in Hell. Would it make sense for Him to give us infinite bliss after we died?

      3. The concept of the afterlife as eternal bliss in a cloudy holiday camp is comparatively new and weird, at least in lay circles. Originally, we were all going to climb out of our graves and be judged by Christ when he returned (kind of Dawn of the Dead meets traffic court). Now people generally don’t believe this, although whether this represents theological progress or modern decadence is a question for someone who knows that stuff.

      4. How much of this depends on whether a being, once made into a genuinely original being by having a different world-history, remains always a genuinely original being, or can “merge” with other beings if its experience converges to theirs? For example, if you and I have different pasts, but both of our presents are perfect bliss, are we one or two beings? How would God’s design for the universe or the afterlife change as a result of this problem?

      I’m a former adherent to a faith that takes the original view Airgap mentioned, and it does create interesting dichotomies with the mainstream. No immortal/immaterial souls, implying all the value God finds in us has to be perceived in our physical lives. There’s no Hell, “being saved” is a process you continuously execute and that’s synonymous with self-actualization, and the afterlife can’t be eternal unchanging bliss either.

      Going further into the reaches of mathematical analogy, which is the only way I’ve ever been able to approach the concept, humans from the perspective of God are something like a class of algorithms that can converge to truths. The convergence failures are allowed to stop executing. The convergent are given the energy to run forever, attaining better and better approximations of their answer. I believe this offers an answer to the merge question, since even if you take a concept of “finding truth” that’s as rare as prime numbers are out of every possible number, there are infinite truths, and even if there are multiple humans that converge to the Jobth Prime, the function can be different, and even if the function were the same, the initial guess can vary and mean the approximation is different at every step. The only way you would get a “merge” in that sort of approximation is when you hit the decimal limit of the calculator the algorithm’s running on, which you could solve by continuing on a better calculator.

      At which point I step out of my analogy and try to figure out if it actually corresponds to anything anyone thinks on the “revealed truth” side, and am pleased to note that the doctrine’s idea of the afterlife involving physical recreation on a New Earth in which we are still ourselves but perfectible maps reasonably to it.

      My main issues with this view are that there’s no room for free will and that viewing humans as discrete entities starts becoming very strange. But I haven’t solved those problems with the changes to my views I’ve made since either.

    • Charlie says:

      These seem like questions, not about an objective truth of the matter, but definitely about Her (constant masculine pronouns grate after a while) preferences. If She is creating universes rather than just simulating all possible worthwhile experiences (as implied by the fact that I remember a lawful universe rather than a jumble of experiences), this implies some sort of preference over universes. But it is totally allowed either to consider universes with different histories followed by identical states as the same, or as different, to care about giving individuals an afterlife or not, etc.

      If we’re ignoring Solomonoff for the sake of this discussion, then I think the motivating force behind positions on what She is anthropomorphism. “If I were an approximately benevolent deity, I would surely do X Y and Z, therefore that’s how it is.”

    • 3. If true, what would this tell us about an afterlife?

      The timeless incorporeal beings contemplating perfection are all the more satisfied by their memories of of temporal corporeal life.

  17. Held in Escrow says:

    Why are we limiting the number of perfectly happy universes? If God is all powerful, then he can keep creating different versions of them. Putting a limitation on the number of perfectly happy universes is putting a limit on his power.

    • Izaak Weiss says:

      Presumably, happiness in this metaverse isn’t infinitesimally divisible.

    • Dennis Ochei says:

      There could be an infinity of them and God could create them all. God should be capable of completing supertasks

      • Held In Escrow says:

        So God makes more. This whole line of thought is falling prey to the old God and the Microwave Burrito issue (Omnipotence paradox). Unless you put forth a solution to that first then this whole thought experience doesn’t work.

  18. Azure says:

    It’s by no means obvious to me that a maximally happy universe must be timeless. Nothing says you can’t have an angle of pleasure as well as a magnitude.

    • Gbdub says:

      Indeed I have been assured that magnitude is irrelevant, compared to the angle of application.

  19. Vegemeister says:

    Utilitarianism is only a locally consistent approximation of many people’s values. Moral realism is poppycock. Things like this, the repugnant conclusion(s), and veganism are the result of trying to use a small-signal model to make large-signal civilization design decisions.

    • Seth says:

      What is the large signal if not a summation or average of small signals?

      • Well, you can’t arrive at equality by summing list if individual qualities, since it takes at least two to be equal or not. I suspect the same applies to liberty and fraternity.

        • Nita says:

          Well, you can’t arrive at equality by summing list if individual qualities

          Yeah, but you can arrive at one by summing a list of equalities.

          Still funny, though.

    • Nick T says:

      What’s the optimization target of civilization design?

    • Utilitarianism is not neccessarily for or against morally realism. Do you mean deontology? Also, if I may ask, why should anyone care about an approximation? Utilitarianism often is used to indicate people should maximise happiness, not just that they do, so wouldn’t you agree that it’s more than an approximation in many cases?

  20. RCF says:

    If the number of universes scales exponentially with how much evil there is, doesn’t that mean that we should expect to be in a universe with as much evil as possible while still being net good? Also, doesn’t this make the whole concept of a just God not pay rent? After all, this applies just as well to an Evil God. “Why didn’t you make even more evil?” “I already made a maximally evil universe, but I wanted to distinguish this one from that.” Plus this leads to Boltzmann brains.

    • Airgap says:

      Justice != right. To be just, God would only have to promise that evildoers would be punished when He returns. Since he promises that plus a real life zombie movie with a happy ending (or “Resurrection of the Body”), the question is whether we think he’s good for it.

  21. Jon Miller says:

    Has anyone mentioned issues surrounding the cardinality of different types of infinity yet?

    Based on my (limited) understanding, if God creates a universe with an infinite amount of goodness, then the total amount of goodness is not increased if he creates additional universes, unless the additional universes have a larger cardinality of infinity.

    For example, let us take the case of an infinity of aleph-null cardinality. If God creates an aleph-null cardinality infinite amount of goodness in a universe, the amount of goodness is not increased if he creates another identical universe. The amount of goodness is still aleph-null. So too if God created a universe with cardinality c infinity amount of goodness.

    Scott’s original post and the previous comments seem to be working with infinities of cardinality aleph-null, but this hasn’t really been specified yet. Either way it seems that creating additional universes might not actually increase the amount of good (or happiness, or whatever is being maximized).

    • Airgap says:

      if God creates a universe with an infinite amount of goodness, then the total amount of goodness is not increased if he creates additional universes

      God, being infinitely wise, has come up with a compelling refutation of Bostrom’s idiot paper. And being infinitely patient, bothered to.

    • endoself says:

      Integration is a much better fit to our intuitive notion of the quantity of goodness than cardinality is. We can, with a lot of care, generalize integration to deal with infinite quantities.

  22. Ghatanathoah says:

    I’ve thought about this in a different context, namely, what if the Singularity goes obscenely well? What if I end up an immortal superhuman with unlimited access to resources (maybe we find a way to strip-mine uninhabited Everett branches or something). In my constant quest to have new experiences, would I create versions of me who didn’t remember being transhuman, so that they could have some new experiences as an ordinary human before being merged with the main me again? And if those experiences involved suffering, should I allow that to happen, or would it be better to give my other selves false memories of suffering that would inform their unique new experiences?

    I’m not sure if I would or not. I’m not ruling the idea out entirely though. Maybe the current me is actually an offshoot of my main transhuman self with temporary amnesia.

    Of course, I can’t feel too much existential anxiety about the idea. Because if I had too much anxiety, my transhuman other self wouldn’t have spun me off at that particular time. He would have spun me off after I overcame that anxiety, and then given me false memories of having had it.

    • Izaak Weiss says:

      As a current non-transhumanist person, I would simulate versions of me that experience more suffering than real me would. I think that this will continue to apply even as my real me’s suffering -> 0.

    • Deiseach says:

      In my constant quest to have new experiences, would I create versions of me who didn’t remember being transhuman, so that they could have some new experiences as an ordinary human before being merged with the main me again?

      Diane Duane’s Star Trek novel “The Wounded Sky” takes a look at this explanation for ‘why pain and suffering if an all-powerful creator can make a perfect universe?’

      As for non-Christian theodicy, some well-meaning Westerners who incorporate Buddhism or Hinduism into their pot-pourri of spiritual beliefs got (and get) into trouble by invoking karma as an explantion; Glenn Hoddle got into very hot water back in 1999 for this and amusingly, given that in the story he’s speaking of re-incarnation and karma, he is described as a ‘born-again Christian’. Er, no, good old Grauniad, those are not generally held to be Christian beliefs!

  23. Jonathan Paulson says:

    Imagine that the universe is running quantum many-worlds and God just cuts off all the sufficiently horrible branches… This is the first theodicy I’ve read that has a decent answer to “What about natural disasters?” Well done.

    • Dennis Ochei says:

      This adds too many epicycles to be a live idea. This is the definition of a convoluted, contrived idea, designed to mesh a theory to a reality it doesn’t comport with. An analogy is me saying there’s a dragon in my garage, but it’s invisible. And when you suggest we just throw flour in there so we can see it i say, “it’s permeable to flour.” I can keep adding additional epicycles so observation matches the ever cumbersome theory, so i can mantain that there is an undetectable dragon in my garage, or an undetectable normative perfection to the universe.

      But mostly, the idea that gratuitous suffering is miraculously not experienced is just too romantic to be believed.

      • Deiseach says:

        Honey, if you’re going to raise objections, at least be original. We all know about the invisible dragon, the invisible teapot, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Either acknowledge your sources or invent your own examples.

        • 27chaos says:

          They’re good objections, though.

          • Deiseach says:

            Not particularly. They’re on the level of “fairies at the bottom of my garden” and insist on treating (let’s be frank about it) the Christian God as an element of the universe or contained within it or arising out of it, whereas classical theology defines God as pure existence and not within, arising out of, ‘preceding’ or anything else the material universe.

            I can argue about dragons in the garage, but that’s nothing to do with God.

          • Marc Whipple says:

            The weird part is, you seem to think that a rational person would consider this an argument for your side. “There’s an invisible dragon that’s not in my garage” does not seem to me to be an improvement in the evaluation of the matter.

          • Deiseach says:

            I’m not arguing for dragons anywhere. The “invisible dragon in the garage” notion is where the “no such things” side cannot wrap their heads around the notion of anything existing outside the material universe (or multiverse if they want to be up to the minute).

            So that God is simply a bigger stronger wiser more powerful yadda yadda yadda human, or is bound by the rules of the material universe, or arises out of the universe. I mean, Dawkins thinks it’s very clever to go “So who made God?” and that is completely missing the damn point.

            Outside of time and space. Non-created. Perpetually existent. Not human in any way, but still a Person. Sometimes the bloody via negativa is the only way to work, since trying to say “no properties of anything existing in our plane of existence that we can imagine, no matter how crazy” does not get through, and we end up with “Aw, you’re just saying the dragon is invisible!”

            Scott’s multiverse idea is nice, but it’s completely not necessity, though I do give him credit for at least attempting theodicy.

            I don’t know what God is. I have a fair idea of what God is not, having shed so many of my own notions that I imposed on the idea to try and wrap my brain about it. That’s why I get pissed off at the “invisible dragons in garages” malarkey, because it’s not even on the level of being in the general area of wrong. Frankly, Lovecraft’s idea of screaming terror in the face of the unknowably Other is – even though he was a strict materialist atheist – something I can work with as a position, not nodding and winking at the audience about how sophisticated you are with the reduction of the idea of God to something on the same level as the Easter Bunny.

            Even Blake’s Old Nobodaddy has more texture, more heft, more something there to work with or against as a challenge, than the mushy nothingness of invisible teapots and dragons.

          • James Picone says:

            “None of these objections make sense because the… entity? thing? phenomenon? I’m arguing for has certain special properties that are found nowhere else, are mutually exclusive with several other claims people tend to make about the same thing (you are still a Christian, right?), and might not even be logically coherent”

            Flour-permeable dragons don’t even begin to describe what’s going on here, Deiseach.

          • Marc Whipple says:

            Actually, in the “All Mimsy Were the Borogroves” sense, I can accept a position which essentially says, “Logic is required to show that logic is required.” If God isn’t subject to logic, then attempting to logically “trap” God in a flour-filled garage is of course nonsensical.

            However, I would then object to any attempt to in any way describe God’s motivations, actions, or “desires,” if God could be said to have such, in a way which is comprehensible to humans. You don’t get to pick and choose. If God isn’t required to partake in the material world, yet can influence it in any way God chooses, your argument, in my opinion, immediately and irretrievably collapses to Last Thursdayism.

          • Irrelevant says:

            However, I would then object to any attempt to in any way describe God’s motivations, actions, or “desires,” if God could be said to have such, in a way which is comprehensible to humans.

            I disagree that aesthetic preferences are a concept that’s incomprehensible to humans. (Though they do exist in that fuzzy space of things WE might not actually have.)

          • @Marc Whiple

            Who do you think said God is beyond logic?

          • Deiseach says:

            God wants us to be happy.

            If you don’t realise that is the most fucking terrifying thing possible, you’re not going to get what we’re arguing about.

            Also, I will not be impressed by “flour-permeable dragons” as a slap-down to us irrational theists when there are people who think the Dust-Speck Question is an absolute killer “Huh? Huh? Watchoo think now, huh?” notion of posing a problem in ethics.

            I used to get het-up about things like “invisible dragons” arguments (you think this is me being grumpy, you have no idea), but now they’re not even UNinteresting to me, they have so little to do with anything approaching the idea of God.

            It’s like listening to babies gurgling and laughing after a bottle feed, then considering – well, whatever Big Math Question (see comments above in this long thread for all kinds of mathematical conundrums) you like 🙂

            might not even be logically coherent

            And my immediate reaction there was “You think logic is the be-all and end-all, aw, how quaint – I haven’t seen such a good old fashioned 19th century conviction in a long time”. I have an awful feeling I’m starting to become a mystic in my old age, something I hated when younger because yes, I always preferred reason over feelings. But mysticism is not feelings. 🙂

          • Deiseach says:

            If God isn’t required to partake in the material world, yet can influence it in any way God chooses

            Finally we are starting to approach something! See, this is what I mean – the non-theists are hung-up and stubbornly stuck on the idea that God is part of the material creation, or needs it, or arose/evolved out of it, or in some way is entangled with it.


            To speak in metaphors and parables (because you say rightly when you say)

            On this point there have been three errors. Some have affirmed that God is the world-soul, as is clear from Augustine (De Civ. Dei vii, 6). This is practically the same as the opinion of those who assert that God is the soul of the highest heaven. Again, others have said that God is the formal principle of all things; and this was the theory of the Almaricians. The third error is that of David of Dinant, who most absurdly taught that God was primary matter. Now all these contain manifest untruth; since it is not possible for God to enter into the composition of anything, either as a formal or a material principle.

            To speak in such a fashion of indirection and examples, if we say that God is required to enter into the material world is to say that unless there is a character called “William Shakespeare” in the play “Hamlet”, and this character interacts with the other characters, and makes them do as he wills, and they likewise can see, touch or throw flour over him, then there is no such being, entity or person as “William Shakespeare, author of ‘Hamlet’ who can make Hamlet kill Polonius or not, marry Ophelia or denounce and abandon her, be reconciled with his uncle or seek vengeance on him, depending on his will to do what he will with the characters and plots”, and all such notions are Last-Thursdayism (whatever that may be).

            Everything that is, all of us included, are contingent reality, in other words.

            Damn it, I should be writing my meditation for Holy Week that I promised a religious discussion blog, and not arguing with you lot!

            I love you all, though my words may seem unpleasant and hostile. Kisses! 🙂

          • Marc Whipple says:


            My mind read your Shakespeare example and converted it to this sentence:

            “God is the author. The universe is the story.”

            I am ashamed to admit that while I have probably heard that or a similar metaphor before, it hadn’t really clicked as a way to understand how God can be totally outside the universe, in fact in a way unable to be inside the universe, and still entirely control it. It doesn’t get rid of the Last Thursdayism problem, but it’s a very nice metaphor and I thank you for it.

            It also provided me a little insight, inasmuch as a human could have such insight, as to how God might look at free will. I write. A lot. And sometimes I know everything is going to happen to the characters and write the story as I imagined it and sometimes they do things that completely surprise me. Now, everything they do comes, ultimately, from my mind. In the end they cannot have any idea or perform any action which I do not first imagine, nor can they do anything which, in hindsight, I do not understand. Yet at times it really feels that way. Again, this doesn’t actually give my characters free will – my subconscious came up with whatever they did to “surprise” me. And so, in the end, it fails as a complete metaphor that provides an explanation of free will reconciled with omniscience. But I think I may have a little understanding I didn’t have before.

          • James Picone says:

            And I’m unimpressed by the Courtier’s Reply, Deiseach. We can be mutually unimpressed by each other, I guess.

            If someone told you that the dragon in their garage was pure existence, not within, arising out of, ‘preceding’ or anything else the material universe, you would probably not conclude that their dragon existed. That they also claimed it to be inside their garage while also being separate from the universe would just be the icing on top. I’m sure you can come up with aspects of Catholic theology that fit nicely into that bit of the simile – say, the belief that you know anything about God combined with simultaneous belief that logic doesn’t apply here.

            It doesn’t help that I don’t think the concept of ‘pure existence, not within, arising out of, ‘preceding’ or anything else the material universe’ makes an iota of sense. I don’t think there’s any semantic content in the sentence. This is why you see atheists mostly ignoring this kind of thing – how do you even argue with Jabberwocky? Why bother considering whether the the borograves are mimsy?

            Straw-manning Dawkins should be beneath you. He’s not the most sophisticated presentation of atheism, but I’d be very surprised if he made that statement in any context that wasn’t a) a direct reply to the first-cause argument (with the note that the special properties attributed to god that mean it doesn’t need a cause are special-pleading), or b) a direct reply to a particular complexity-ladder argument used by creationists sometimes.

          • One shouldn’t expect to understand Sophisticated Theology at first glance. You wouldn’t respect a these who rejected QM as Jabberwocky.

          • Marc Whipple says:

            TAG: I totally would. It’s completely counterintuitive. My intro physics textbook even comes right out and says, “What we’re about to tell you isn’t going to make a lot of sense based on your experience in the human-scale world. Please just have an open mind, follow the logic, and bear in mind that every bit of it has been tested experimentally for decades, and it has never failed to work.” (This is for the intro to special relativity, but same basic problem.)

            The differences here are:

            1) When you follow the logic, you do arrive at a position which can be used to make testable predictions.

            2) If somebody comes up with a better theory, which makes better predictions, physicists will abandon QM and adopt the new theory.

            One could make some sort of analogy to, say, New Testament Christianity being the QM to Torah Judaism’s classical mechanics, I suppose, but it seems a little strained.

            In any event, I have no problem with people who challenge QM, QED, QCD, or any other exotic physics acronym of your choice. What I have a problem with is people who think that common sense is more important than experimental observation. This particular distinction leaves most theology out in the cold.

          • James Picone says:

            It doesn’t take much expertise to recognise Schroedinger’s Equation as a testable prediction about reality (and therefore about as far from Jabberwocky as possible). I actually agree that a lot of the verbiage surrounding QM ‘interpretations’ is getting dangerously close to meaningless, and I have a lot of respect for the shut-up-and-multiply PoV. So yeah, wrong on the object level.

            On the meta-level, ‘making testable predictions about reality’ is a great way to not be shuffling around meaningless verbiage, and is conveniently pretty easy to understand. I can’t think of a single such prediction coming from Sophisticated Theology that carries through. Most of it seems to be ways of reconciling ways the universe contradicts Simple Theology (for example, theodicies).

            I suspect a professional theologian would say that making testable predictions isn’t the point, and/or point to ‘an ordered universe’, ‘the existence of the Good’, ‘first cause’ or the like as phenomena explained by their stuff. Which ignores that all of their ‘explanations’ are homunculus. Their explanation for an ordered universe and a first cause relies on an ordered and uncaused thing that then orders/causes the rest of it, but has special properties that mean its orderedness and uncausedness don’t have to be explained. You can get a simpler explanation by taking the special properties, putting them on the universe instead, and getting rid of the entity – they explain nothing. The ‘existence of The Good’ in some profound teleological sense has a different problem – the only people who think it’s a problem that needs to be explained are Theologians (mostly Sophisticated) to begin with.

            I can’t think of much else that Sophisticated Theology could claim to explain or predict that isn’t entirely located outside the universe.

            Honestly, I have a sneaking suspicion Sophisticated Theologians would fail an academic turing test – give one an extract from a work of theology they’re unfamiliar with, and an extract written by someone familiar with the style of academic theology (or generated by a Markov chain, with extract size and Markov chain length chosen to hide that it doesn’t flow over long periods of time) as a parody, with no real meaning, and I don’t think they could tell them apart.

          • Susebron says:

            Sophisticated Theology is usually pretty much pure logic (+textual analysis), though. In theory, perfect theology would be self-evident to anyone who actually understood it.

            Whether such theology exists or not is left as an exercise for the reader.

          • Marc Whipple says:

            I have pretty much the same response HARLIE did to the question of sophisticated/internally consistent Theology.

            “Okay, there are still some flaws. They’re working on it.”

            “They’ve been working on it for two thousand years. Not impressed with your rate of progress.”

        • Dennis Ochei says:

          I was actually counting on familiarity to do most of the legwork for me.

          At any rate, it’s a cumbersome metaphysic that claims the world is morally perfect despite all appearances to the contrary. It is designed to ignore the evidence. The analogy was just there in an attempt latch my point onto an existing meme. Forget I made the analogy if you’d like.

          If you want to argue that God exists and has human wellbeing as a perogative, you have to base it on empirics about our universe or and least argue from uncontroversial premises. You can’t blanket reality with this crazy interpretation and call it a day.

          • Deiseach says:

            Who is claiming perfection here? I’m a Catholic, I believe in Original Sin! But also that matter is not intrinsically evil 🙂

            If you think I’m arguing the world is morally perfect or whatsit, then no, definitely not! Creation is broken, this is a fallen world.

  24. FullMeta_Rationalist says:


    Scott, are you familiar with the hyperoperation sequence? It’s the stuff of nightmares.

    (I wanna participate, but I don’t have anything more interesting than this. I feel like there’s way too many unknowns to productively attack the Problem of Evil. But maybe that’s just me.)

  25. Illuminati Initiate says:

    I’m not sure I buy the “identical universes do not both exist” thing- if God is above the universes such that he knows about their existence, then that seems to show that they are both real- unless they literally rather than metaphysically merge together or delete each other, but then you’re just making stuff up, and denying God’s omnipotence. If the idea is that patternistically identical people are the same for moral purposes- well, that is not something all people will agree on.

    Also, things are so much easier if you don’t put any value on “potential people”.

  26. Landru says:

    The Lord spoke to Job out of the whirlwind, saying “I KNOW YOU’RE UPSET BUT THAT’S DIFFERENT FROM STRUCTURAL OPPRESSION” (h/t @simulacrumbs)

    Actually, you’d think that being picked on personally by God would be the ultimate form of structural oppression! Really, how does it get any better than that?

    More to the OP: It’s been a while since I’ve seen the original Matrix movie — an endless font of philosophical speculation — but if I recall correctly there’s a bit of exposition to the effect, that the first rev of the matrix depicted a tranquil and pleasant world, but that somehow didn’t “take” with the inhabitants who couldn’t maintain that illusion. The implication, then, is that humans simply cannot believe in a world that is fully, perfectly happy and just. No matter what situation we are presented with, no matter how nice, we will either be compelled to spoil it, or to find terrible injustice in it somewhere. One would wonder, then, not so much about the Creator’s choice of our environment as to why Ze made us with this particular compulsion.

    Lastly: The idea that some kind of creator is trying out different Universes, and then monitoring each one to see what grows up there, is explored a bit in the “Rama” sequels by A.C. Clarke and Gentry Lee. Minor spoiler: written toward the end of his life, Clarke’s judgement on humankind in these books is that we’re not exactly one of the bright spots of this particular Universe.

  27. James Picone says:

    The obvious objections:

    1 – This is the repugnant conclusion as theodicy. Any arguments against the repugnant conclusion apply here as well.

    2 – If you lived in this multiverse, why be ethical? You know that God ensures that all universes come out to pleasure > suffering and therefore if you’re not prevented from beating up a hobo, it’s consistent with that condition, and there’s definitely a universe where it happens. Why not make it this universe? That’s obviously not inconsistent and wouldn’t be a problem for a lot of people, but I can’t imagine theologians would be comfortable embracing nihilism to avoid the problem of evil.

    3 – It seems to me that there should be an infinite number of universes that are pretty damn happy. Lets assume that perfectly-happy lotus-eater universe has only one differentiable conscious experience, that’s fine. But as you descend the ladder you should come to a position where you can just expand the ‘size’ of the mind indefinitely while still keeping it pretty damn happy, and get an infinite number of permutations of thoughts held at once. There’ve been several comment threads over the last several posts discussing problems dealing with infinity conscious beings in a utilitarian sense – it’d be interesting to work that into it.

    • Dennis Ochei says:

      Your first two objections saved me from having to write them, but the third one doesn’t comport with God’s omnipotence. God would exhaust all possible lotus-eaters even if they are infinite in number and still get around to realizing us. Basically, God can complete supertasks

      • James Picone says:

        I don’t mean to complain that an omnipotent entity couldn’t make an infinite number of universes, just noting that summing utility over an infinite number of universes in an additive way (as God seems to be doing here) is a nontrivial problem that might suggest mere addition is not a good way to combine utilities.

        • Dennis Ochei says:

          I dont’t think God is doing a summation here. It seems more like God is on a hedonic treadmill, imo.

          God just wants more of it, whatever the function it’s monotonic

    • onyomi says:

      Why be ethical? Why be anything? It doesn’t sound like there is any room for free will in this formulation.

  28. The Lord spoke to Job out of the whirlwind, saying “IT’S MY UNIVERSE AND IF YOU DON’T LIKE IT I’LL TAKE IT AND GO HOME.”

    • Isn’t this more or less the actual ending of the book of Job?

    • Alex says:

      I pretty much agree with God there. It seems tough to complain that God is bad, unless the universe contains many beings who would actually prefer to die or at least not to have been born. Why is the multiverse thing necessary?

      By the way, has anyone ever done a poll asking the question of whether folks would prefer to have been born?

      • Airgap says:

        I pretty much agree with God there.

        I mean, I’ll probably burn in hell for enternity for saying this, but…

        By the way, has anyone ever done a poll asking the question of whether folks would prefer to have been born?

        NRLC tried this in the 80s, but ran into some issues getting their surveys back. It’s too bad because it probably would have been a great talking point for them.

      • James Picone says:

        The argument isn’t that God is bad, it’s that God isn’t omnibenevolent, where omnibenevolence is a pretty common attribute people claim God has.

        That said, I think if you gave the average human omniscience and omnipotence they would improve the world – that is, the average human is more ethical than God at the first order.

        • Irrelevant says:

          I think if you gave the average human omniscience and omnipotence they would improve the world

          I think if you gave the average human omnipotence they would instantly destroy the universe, while if you gave them omniscience they would do nothing.

          • Clockwork Marx says:

            I think giving someone omniscience would be more likely to cause suicide.

          • Irrelevant says:

            Also plausible, but since that doesn’t imply a contradictory ∞/∞ outcome if you give them both it ruins my joke.

        • What does “at the first order mean”? Do you think a massively enhanced human, who could figure out exact consequences, would stick to run of the mill morality, or start strangling the Hitlers of the future in their cradles?

          • James Picone says:

            Perhaps ‘more obviously ethical to human observers’ might be a better way of saying it. I’m just ignoring the “this is the best possible world because of obscure benefits you get from having evil” theodicy.

            A summary:
            – The argument isn’t that god is bad, it’s that he’s not good enough
            – That said, god seems kind of bad, in that I’d expect a powerful/knowledgeable human to at least /try/ to prevent whole classes of stuff that happens and doesn’t seem to be prevented.

            I would expect an average human who suddenly became simultaneously omnipotent and omniscient to a) have a hard time coping and b) very quickly approach a not-optimal-enough singularity bad ending – one of the ones where things are great, but not as amazing as they could have been. I would also expect a small measure of tyranny – people who they feel wronged them at some point in their life to date would probably get some kind of retribution, for example.

            If you limit them to merely becoming Superman, I would expect that they would try doing superhero things for a bit – stopping crimes – and/or come up with the idea of intervening in ongoing wars / natural disasters.

            The big takeaway is that I’d expect them to be /active/. They would use their newfound abilities, and they would almost certainly use them in a way we would recognise as a struggling attempt at improving the world.

          • Irrelevant says:

            That’s “if the Chinese are humans why do they just make weird noises instead of talk?”-level reasoning. Do I really need to remind someone on this site that the human judgment of “obviously ethical” is completely broken?

          • “God is objectively bad” is an interesting claim, which you have not defended. “God appears bad or incomprehensible to humans (because of human limitations)” is an uninteresting, standard claim.

            ” The argument isn’t that god is bad, it’s that he’s not good enough”

            That He actiually isnt, or that He seems not to be? The worthwhileness of the discussion hinges on this.

            ” That said, god seems kind of bad, in that I’d expect a powerful/knowledgeable human to at least /try/ to prevent whole classes of stuff that happens and doesn’t seem to be prevented.”

            How do you know that He is not already making and acting on the correct consequentialist considerations….given that you cannot calculate consequences exactly, but only approximate them?

            Why should the correct answer be deemed wrong because it differs from an approximation?

            ” I would expect an average human who suddenly became simultaneously omnipotent and omniscient to a) have a hard time coping and b) very quickly approach a not-optimal-enough singularity bad ending – one of the ones where things are great, but not as amazing as they could have been. ”

            I can’t make sense of the claim that an omnipotent being would have a failure to cope, or the claim that an omniscient being would make a mistake.

            “The big takeaway is that I’d expect them to be /active/. ”

            As opposed to what?

          • Deiseach says:

            Do you think a massively enhanced human, who could figure out exact consequences, would stick to run of the mill morality, or start strangling the Hitlers of the future in their cradles?”

            It is ethical to kill a baby because he will grow up to commit horrible crimes? Or at least, you forecast with near-perfect assurance that he will commit horrible crimes? So you kill him.

            Then go out to the projects and sink estates right now and initiate Project Herod and kill all those babies who will otherwise grow up to be the underclass, mired in crime and poverty, and who probably will be murderers and drug dealers and rapists.

            Discuss. Also: that the future is fixed and immutable so estimating that baby Hitler will grow up to be adult Hitler and nothing can be done about it, therefore strangling him in his cradle is all that can be done (and likewise for Project Herod) – yes, no?

          • I was assuming consequentialistm. A consequentialist superhuman or super .AI would be as deontologically unacceptable as a consequentialist deity.

            You might think that deontological rules are binding on God, but it seems to me that the OT contains many counterexamples.

          • Marc Whipple says:

            Deiseach: No.

            In the first case, I “know,” in a practical sense, that Person X will do bad things. In the other, I know that it’s LIKELY that Person X, as a member of Group Y, will do bad things. However, I can’t know that Person Z, also a member of Group Y, won’t grow up to do something so good that it more than makes up for all the bad that Person X will do, or possibly even all the bad Group Y will do, so I am not justified in killing X or Z since I can’t tell X apart from Z.

            I find the underlying metaphor unsatisfactory anyway, since there’s no way to tell that X wouldn’t do something bad to A which would prevent A from doing something much worse to B, or inspire A to do something much better to B. Let’s-Kill-Hitler stories where killing Hitler ends up causing global thermonuclear war between the US and the Soviet Union or analogous factions, or something even worse, are pretty common. If our UberMentat can calculate the destinies of all human beings an indeterminate way into the future, including simulations showing the outcomes of their interventions, then maybe this becomes justifiable. Otherwise, it doesn’t work in the first place.

          • James Picone says:

            I’m aware that obviously ethical to human observers isn’t the be-all and end-all for ethics, that’s why I said it as ‘more obviously ethical to human observers’ (whereas if some theodicy goes through, God is less obviously ethical to human observers, but is ethical).

            ‘seems’ in the second part, is intended to carry the implication of “this is just a surface-level impression”.

            Alex, above, was saying “God hasn’t made an utterly terrible universe, so why complain?”. I was trying to explain that the standard problem-of-evil argument isn’t that God is the worst, it’s that he just doesn’t meet the criteria for omnibenevolence.

            Then I noted that in my opinion, creating a universe like this one appears pretty terrible, with the implication that if there isn’t a clever theodicy that goes through God is kind of a jerk.

            I’m not quite arguing for what you think I’m arguing for here.

      • houseboatonstyx says:

        By the way, has anyone ever done a poll asking the question of whether folks would prefer [not?] to have been born?

        ISTR Freud saying something that involved ‘scarcely one in a hundred thousand’.

        • Alex says:

          Maybe. A more interesting question might be, Would you rather undo your birth or die now? I would currently pick the former.

  29. Anonymous says:

    Imagine living in the world where every sentient being, throughout all of history, is only just happy enough not to want to die. That would suck (although obviously not that much)

  30. onyomi says:

    This to me is a good illustration of the non-equivalence of different individuals’ happiness, and a failure of utilitarianism. If I happen to be one of the individuals fated to have a life not worth living but whose life somehow enables a slight variation on a person happier than myself to exist, then I will still think God is a cruel bastard. The happiness of many does not make right the suffering of a few.

    • Alex says:

      > The happiness of many does not make right the suffering of a few.

      Hardcore utilitarians would disagree on that assertion. I don’t subscribe to utilitarianism defined as such, but I think part of the argument here is the assumption that God is.

    • Anonymous says:

      Different kinds of utilitarianism give different answers to population ethics problems like this one.

  31. Decius says:

    The reasonable conclusion of this line of logic is that I am a Boltzmann Brain.

  32. Eli says:

    Fuck you, Utilitarian God. And your lotus thrones, too.

  33. Dakta Green says:

    Oh God why are you making life so difficult for me at the moment..?
    Is it because I am an atheist?

  34. Alex Godofsky says:

    And the Lord said to Job, “just keep this quiet and give me a good review on Yelp and the gravy train will keep on rolling”.

  35. Peter says:

    Somewhere along the line:


    Job: “Had…”


    Job: “I didn’t expect them all to die horribly.”


    At this point this comment splits into two versions:

    Version 1 Continues:

    Job: “…”

    Version 2 Continues:

    Job: “Wasn’t there a commandment about being frutiful and multiplying? I hadn’t really seen it as my choice.”

    God: “…”

  36. Tibor says:

    Nice argument. I think there are at least two problems, one of which has to do something with calculus of infinity and the other one with God’s supposed omnipotence.

    The first problem is that the really big number (10^MUCH) is not really justified. One can change the parameters of the universe on a continuous scale, each of which consists of a tiny weeny difference in the existence of Jobs (including Steves). That change can be entirely meaningless, such as speed of light in that universe varying by the factor of 1 nanometer per hour (as long as one has a continuous universe and distances in spacetime are in fact continuous…but God could surely create such universes, even if ours is not one of them). Just by varying that parameter, God can create not just an infinite, but also uncountable amount of Jobs whose total bliss/utility is infinite. Creating additional “not-so-perfect-but-still-net-positive” universes does not increase the total utility anymore. Infinity plus one is still infinity (also maybe a good band name). One could probably get around this by going from infinity to higher order infinities, which are in a sense “bigger” (such as there are “more” real numbers than there are rational numbers even though there are infinitely many of each). Then the original argument would apply (but I would not be that sure anyway…the number of universes would be bigger, but the function that maps the universes to total utility maps them to a real line and there you just have the infinity and that is it…maybe one could find a clever workaround, but would probably have to stop counting utility on a line, making it an infinitely dimensional object instead). There are infinitely many totally blissed Jobs, infinitely many Jobs thar are slightly worse off and so on until the total bliss/utility of a universe is just infinitesimallly larger than 0.

    The second problem is that if God is omnipotent, he is really not bound by trivialities such as laws of logic so the problem of two identical Jobs not being possible should not really be a problem for him at all. Then again, one probably needs to make sense of what omnipotent really means (or rather is supposed to mean).

  37. JME says:

    Somehow, I feel like I’m reading SSC, the Bible, and Dinosaur Comics at the same time. Now I wonder how Dromiceiomimus and Utahraptor would have done in the role of Bildad, Eliphaz, and Zophar.

  38. onyomi says:

    If the goal is maximum net happiness, doesn’t that imply happy people are obligated to have as many children as they can raise without making those children unhappy?

  39. Pingback: Weekly Links | Anarcho-bohemianism

  40. 27chaos says:

    Job A in the perfect universe is happy in one way. Job B in the crappy universe is happy in a different way. Because they are different people, their experience of happiness is not identical, but the good aspects of that experience are identical nonetheless. So nothing good is actually added. The context of the experience is changed, but there’s no reason given to care about context other than “distinctiveness”. But it’s not explained what distinctiveness means or why it is valuable. The actual goodness of their experience is not distinctive, and isn’t that all we care about?

    Analogously, if I have a Platonically perfect rock that I put in a blue basket and also have a Platonically perfect rock that I put in a red basket, the rocks are still identical despite their different contexts.

    Suppose I value the color red. If one rock smears when put into the blue basket, either I don’t value that rock at all or I consider it valuable insofar as its purple color approximates redness. But if I’m viewing every rock’s hue as though it’s approximately red, then distinctiveness is already an impossible quality for me to see in the rocks.

    Similarly, saying that basket 1 and basket 2, both red but of different sizes, are distinct from each other, will not make any sense to me. They’re not distinct in any morally relevant way. They are distinct in a morally arbitrary way – but I could also make morally arbitrary distinctions between platonic rock 1 and platonic rock 2, so the size and shape of the basket is not really necessary or important.

    I suppose this could possibly be resolved if God were some kind of relativist who considers goodness to be highly contextual – Happy Job A is good for reasons entirely different than those for which Happy Job B is good. Red is not good in and of itself, it’s color combinations like blue-red that really matter. But that’s incompatible with other aspects of the presentation, I feel.

    Another possibility might be that goodness is always necessarily multidimensional and involves value tradeoffs, or something similar. This would kind of fit with how God seems to want to minimize sin as well as to maximize virtue. But it defies the idea that there’s any single Platonically perfect universe, or a Platonically perfect God – for that example idea to work, sin and virtue would have to be somewhat mutual and overlapping concepts, which clearly doesn’t match the Bible’s ideas.

    God says that perfect universes are Platonic concepts. But you can’t alter a Platonic concept in any way, it is what it is. It doesn’t make sense to me to say that the flawed universe adds value beyond what the Platonically perfect universe provided – otherwise the first universe wasn’t actually Platonically perfect. You’re kind of mixing utilitarianism with Plato here, and I suspect those are incompatible at some deep level. Plato is vaguely about satisficing, while utilitarianism is maximizing. Thus, of course you are able to justify ridiculous conclusions.

    So, although I’m entertained by the idea you present here, I think it falls short even if we ignore ideas such as Occam’s Razor.

    Lots of words here, sorry if any of this is unclear. These concepts are somewhat confusing to work with, I’m grasping at their edges.

    • Alexander Stanislaw says:

      Ooooooh, I think I get it. This is a very clever objection, and its much sturdier than many of the other objections (objections which try to suggest ways of getting more or infinite good universes without adding evil).

      Mackie mentioned the theodicy in which the additional good achieved by adding evil to the word is dependent on evil (second order goods like persistence in the face of adversity). You hinted at this and I agree that the multiverse solution doesn’t seem to add much to this theodicy. “God already exhausted all the maximally good worlds” doesn’t answer the question of “what does adding evil to this world achieve, that couldn’t be achieved without it?”

      • Alexander Stanislaw says:

        It occurs to me that this theodicy places a stronger requirement on the universes that God could allow to exist. It isn’t enough for the good to outweigh the evil. It needs to be the case that the additional good that could only exist in the presence of evil outweighs all of the evil. (The first order good in a universe has already been realized in some other universe so it doesn’t “count twice” when deciding whether to make this new universe with evil).

        • Marc Whipple says:

          Technically this is a spoiler for the movie “Constantine,” but it’s been out a while, so tough noogies:

          This is the motivation of the main villain of the movie “Constantine.” They wish to hasten Armageddon on the theory that humans without real obvious evil to fight tend to act in rather banal ways which end up making them evil, but if they had an army of demons marching on them, most of them would rise to the occasion and at least die trying. It’s the cynical version of “humans are at their best when things are at their worst.”

    • 27chaos says:

      (This was originally intended to replace the above comment, but I failed to delete that comment on time. But, as this is a less confusing description of the idea I’m trying to get across, I am posting it anyway.)

      Why is it better to have 2 happy people than to have 1 happy person? The two people might be distinct, but the happiness itself is the same experience. If it is true that copying the ideal universe would not create any more people, it must also be true that when one person has the same experience as another person no new happiness is created. Either God should be content with one sole instant of perfect happiness, or he should be willing to copy the perfect universe repeatedly.

      Scott might object that no two experiences are alike when the person involved in them is different, but this would still allow for arbitrarily different happy people. Even if, for some reason, the difference between two people’s experience must be a moral one rather than an arbitrary one, that still means God’s using some hidden standards here other than happiness itself which let him decide that this happy person counts as distinct from that other happy person in a morally relevant way. Therefore, the answer given here is insufficient.

      Of course, it now occurs to me that God could just challenge the burden of proof, just as he did in the Bible. It might be true that he had no good reason to not copy the ideal universe, but that doesn’t mean he had any compelling reasons to avoid doing so.

    • anon says:

      But we already know that two times happiness doesn’t count twice – at least as long as we assume that God has the same utility function as us, and if he doesn’t, there’s not much point to talking about him being good or evil.

      I take the argument to mean that two >universes< which are the same are interpreted as one universe. Universes don't exist in a meta-universe, or at least not one which has time and space in it, so they're only differentiated by their properties. If one universe has the speed of light at n, and another has the speed of light at n, they're the same universe cause how can they be different?

  41. arthur somethingorother says:


    This is the point where theodicy breaks down.

    God is omnipotent, therefore he can totally create identical universes, by deciding he can. Then he keeps creating infinite identical lotus-throne-perfect-bliss universes forever.

    • Ialdabaoth says:

      God is omnipotent, therefore he can totally create identical universes, by deciding he can.

      This is, incidentally, the same process by which God decided that He exists and is omnipotent.

  42. tbosburn says:

    If this were the kinds of stories that were told in church, I think I’d consider going–

    scratch that: there’s no way I could keep myself from going if /this/ were the kind of material that was being spoken.

  43. Marc Whipple says:

    I can’t believe that this got this far without a mention of James Morrow’s Blameless in Abaddon, so I’m mentioning it. I’m new around here and I don’t know how much his books have come up, but I found them rather cynically hilarious and like to recommend them. Blameless in Abaddon is the sequel to Towing Jehovah, and is about God being put on trial for crimes against humanity. The novel feature of the book is that the defendant is actually present for the proceedings, although He doesn’t actively participate.

  44. Chuck says:

    Yeaaaaaaah, I mean the problem is that this very clever and clearly thought-out presentation only works within a utilitarian framework of suffering as a pleasure/pain spectrum. There’s way more meta-ethical discussion to consider first, such as the role and necessity of suffering in creating virtue–see C. S. Lewis’ problem of pain on that. Here is my own take on the basic Jobian narrative, which, really, is a lot more about narrative than any sort of hedonistic calculus.

    • Susebron says:

      Scott’s theodicy can be adapted for nearly any positive definition of “good” that you want. As long as this universe isn’t perfectly optimal, there’s still a question that needs to be answered. When virtue is taken into account, I would see it as going something like:
      1. An omnibenevolent God would create an optimal universe.
      2. Therefore, if the universe is not optimal, God cannot be omnibenevolent.
      3. If something is not obviously optimal, then for the universe to be optimal there must be something to offset this.
      3.1 For example, free will is often cited as the reason for suffering, since the benefits of free will are considered to outweigh the costs.
      4. Since God created the universe and sustains it, the universe must always be perfectly optimal.
      4.1 If something is not required by free will, or some other beneficial factor, it must not be morally negative. Furthermore, if something is required by free will or another beneficial factor, it cannot cease to be without the beneficial factor changing to no longer require it.
      5. For God to be omnibenevolent, all suffering must be caused by factors that are a net improvement to the universe, such as free will and the promotion of virtue.
      6. Is all suffering required by beneficial factors?

      I would say that it is not. Not all suffering is caused by free will. (See: smallpox.) Overall suffering has presumably decreased over time. (See: smallpox.) So either the universe has been improving in a way which implies that it has not always been optimal, or some factor has required less suffering over time. Maybe humans are becoming more naturally virtuous?

      There are potential responses to this, of course. I’m almost certainly not acquainted with all of the potential beneficial factors that have arisen in 2000 years of theology, so there are probably plenty of kinds of suffering that are covered by those. On the less abstract side, smallpox probably arose from contact with domestic animals, and as such could be considered a result of free will. Although you would think God would have mentioned it if He doesn’t like domestication.

      • James Picone says:

        The theodicy here is a bit deeper than that – the argument is that there’s an optimal /multiverse/, where the utility function is the sum over all universes of net utility, which requires the creation of all universes that have net utility > 0. That will necessarily involve creating some where there’s suffering, outweighed by the good, but not as outweighed as it could have been, and without any necessary causal links between the suffering and the good.

        • Susebron says:

          Right. Scott’s answer is that yes, there is a beneficial factor, in the form of the multiverse of all positive-sum universes. This multiverse requires some suffering in order to distinguish the universes.

  45. david freemont mccready says:

    Think on this… the Universe is in a state of multiples beyond our imagination. We as soul creatures are strung along from one universe to another like paper dolls hanging from an endless cord. As we pass away in one universe our soul will move on to the next paper doll – manifest in the new universe as commanded to exist.