No God to Save Us

Losing my belief in God was rough at first, because I’d been taught that without God there was no value, no purpose, no joy, no love—just atoms bouncing around.

Later I got all those things back. Everything is made of atoms, but that doesn’t mean there are “just” atoms. The fact that value, purpose, joy, and love are made of atoms is what locates them in reality. After the scientist unweaves the rainbow, the rainbow is still there, and all the more beautiful in its detail. I had learned to take joy in the merely real.

One thing I didn’t get back was the security of living in a world ruled by an all-powerful benevolent being.

Of course, I had never believed that God would optimize everything and grant all my wishes. That theory is too easily falsified:

But clearly, there’s some threshold of horror awful enough that God will intervene. . . . No loving parents, desiring their child to grow up strong and self-reliant, would let their toddler be run over by a car.

But now, suppose we ask a different question:

Given such-and-such initial conditions, and given such-and-such rules, what would be the mathematical result?

Not even God can change the answer to that question.

What does life look like, in this imaginary world, where each step follows only from its immediate predecessor? Where things only ever happen, or don’t happen, because of mathematical rules? And where the rules don’t describe a God that checks over each state? What does it look like, the world of pure math, beyond the reach of God?

That world wouldn’t be fair. . . . Complex life might or might not evolve. That life might or might not become sentient. . . .

If something like humans evolved, then they would suffer from diseases—not to teach them any lessons, but only because viruses happened to evolve as well. If the people of that world [were] happy, or unhappy, it might have nothing to do with good or bad choices they made. Nothing to do with free will or lessons learned. In the what-if world, Genghis Khan [could] murder a million people, and laugh, and be rich, and never be punished, and live his life much happier than the average. Who would prevent it?

And if the Khan tortures people to death, for his own amusement? They [may] call out for help, perhaps imagining a God. . . . [But] there isn’t any God in the system. The victims will be saved only if the right cells happen to be 0 or 1. And it’s not likely that anyone will defy the Khan; if they [do], someone [will] strike them with a sword, and the sword would disrupt their organs and they would die, and that would be the end of that.

So the victims die, screaming, and no one helps them. . . .

Is this world starting to sound familiar?

Could it really be that sentient beings have died, absolutely, for millions of years . . . with no soul and no afterlife . . . not as any grand plan of Nature? Not to teach us about the meaning of life. Not even to teach a profound lesson about what is impossible.

Just dead. Just because. 1

This is, in fact, the world we live in: the world of math and physics.

I once believed that human extinction was not allowed, for God would prevent such a thing. Others might believe human extinction isn’t allowed because of “positive-sum games” or “democracy” or “technology.” But in the world of math and physics, human extinction is allowed, whether or not we reflexively flinch away from that thought.

That said, we can make the world somewhat safer, if we choose to make the right preparations:

We can’t change physics. But we can build some guardrails, and put down some padding.

Someday, maybe, minds will be sheltered. Children may burn a finger or lose a toy, but they won’t ever be run over by cars. . . .

[But] we have to get there starting from this world . . . the world of hard concrete with no padding. The world where challenges are not calibrated to your skills, and you can die for failing [those challenges].

We are often weak and stupid, but we must try, for there is no god to save us. Truly terrible outcomes may be unthinkable to humans, but they aren’t unthinkable to physics.

* * *

1Minor grammar and spelling changes were made to this quote.