Pascal’s wager

1. Blaise Pascal’s Pensées was an unfinished apologetic work. Incomplete due to Pascal’s early death.

2. I assume his sections on the wager were unfinished too. If so, the wager may represent Pascal’s brainstorming an argument rather than delivering a finished product. Like jotting down notes for an interesting idea or story, but it’s not ready for publication.

3. In addition, Pascal in Pensées presents no less than three different wagers:

“Pascal’s Wager” is the name given to an argument due to Blaise Pascal for believing, or for at least taking steps to believe, in God. The name is somewhat misleading, for in a single section of his Pensées, Pascal apparently presents at least three such arguments, each of which might be called a ‘wager’ – it is only the final of these that is traditionally referred to as “Pascal’s Wager” [i.e. #233, below].

4. Given all the above, the wager should be regarded as a flexible give-and-take discourse, an exchange of ideas, something like that. Something people can go back and forth on, tweak according to their own reasoning, try to improve on, and so on.

Continue reading


Why is there something rather than nothing?


Steve Hays notes:

Even if (ex hypothesi) the universe is eternal, it may still be contingent.

Good point! I think this is important to highlight.

It seems to me modern cosmological arguments like William Lane Craig’s kalam argument depend on the universe having a beginning. Hence the need for supplemental arguments such as arguments for standard big bang cosmology and arguments against the possibility of an infinite regress.

However, suppose standard big bang cosmology is mistaken. Suppose the universe had no beginning. Suppose it is possible to have an infinite regress. Nevertheless, Leibniz’s famous question remains: why is there something rather than nothing? Why is there an eternal universe rather than nothing?

As an aside, it seems to me it is possible to have an infinite regress at least in theory if not actuality (e.g. Zeno paradoxes).

Brain in a vat


Some atheists (among others) like to bring up the Matrix, brain in a vat, and related hypotheticals as steps in an argument against God. Or at least as steps in an argument against theistic arguments (e.g. certain transcendental arguments for the existence of God).

1. I’ve talked a bit about virtual reality simulations (in which I’d include the Matrix) in my post “Oculus Grift“. Here’s the most relevant excerpt:

[I]s it possible to produce minds like ours (human consciousness) from what amounts to 0s and 1s? Among other issues, I would think this would run smack into the hard problem of consciousness. As such, I doubt minds can be recreated from bits and bytes.

2. Similarly, is an actual brain in a vat (if that is what we are) equivalent to a human brain? Is it equivalent to a human being in our entirety including human consciousness? For example, how is a physical brain sitting in a vat of chemicals stimulated with neuroelectrical impulses equivalent to how our central and peripheral nervous system receive and process external stimuli? If a brain in a vat is not equivalent, then how can a brain in a vat have the same kinds of perceptions and experiences that a human has? If a brain in a vat cannot have the same kinds perceptions and experiences that humans can have, then the argument falls flat.

3. An obvious point is, if sentient machines, mad scientists, or demons exist, then they’re each contingent beings. As contingent beings, what brought about their existence? Who or what created these beings? Who or what created mad scientists and demons? For instance, if demons exist, then that presumes the existence of a supernatural realm, which would defeat atheism/naturalism. Hence it only pushes the question back a step.

By contrast, on Christian theism, God is a necessary being, not a contingent being. This isn’t special pleading because atheists have often argued the same for the universe itself (e.g. Carl Sagan’s “the cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be”). Likewise there are abstract objects like numbers which are arguably necessary rather than contingent.

A response is that sentient machines, mad scientists, and demons are just hypothetical beings. They’re not supposed to be real. If that’s the case, then why should anyone take the argument itself seriously since the entire argument is supposed to be a hypothetical? It isn’t supposed to be real either. At most, the argument is just for fun, but not to be taken seriously.

4. If you’re forcibly plugged into the Matrix by futuristic sentient machine overlords, or you’ve been kept alive as a brain in a vat by a mad scientist, or (reaching even further back) you’re under the spell of an evil Cartesian demon, then the following might be arguable:

a. You know you can’t necessarily trust your senses or perceptions. What you experience may or may not correspond to reality.

b. You know you exist. You know you’re real even if nothing else is real. Cogito, ergo sum.

c. You know you have some idea of “God”. The idea of God is independent of the existence of an external world. The idea of “God” is in your mind.

d. You could reason your way to the existence of this God. Perhaps you could arrive at this God’s existence via an ontological argument. As such, you know God exists.

e. You could reason your way to the kind of God this God would be. You could reason this God would have to be the greatest necessary being. You could reason this God must be all powerful, all knowing, and all good. You could reason this God must be transcendent as well as personal.

5. The Matrix and brain in a vat scenarios could grant our senses are trustworthy or reliable, but deny the trustworthiness or reliability of what’s fed to our senses, viz. the external world.

However, an ontological argument for God along with variations in the other arguments Steve mentioned (e.g. cosmological, teleological, argument from reason) don’t necessarily need to rely on our senses being trustworthy or reliable. These arguments don’t depend on the trustworthiness or reliability of our senses per se, but can still argue God exists.

6. If there are (say) subatomic particles which we cannot observe with our senses or perception, but we are justified in believing they exist and are real because of their explanatory power and scope, then perhaps the same could apply to the existence and reality of the external world given its explanatory power and scope.

7. If there are sentient machines or mad scientists who have put us in the Matrix or turned us into brains in a vat, then that would mean they would have created a faux reality that’s so well designed that we could investigate it and describe it with complex mathematical equations and scientific laws (e.g. quantum mechanics, general relativity).

Further, this faux reality would be populated by scores of what appear to be other living organisms, each of which appears to be so complex that we can’t even recreate a single-cell organism from scratch.

There’s still so much more left for us to uncover in life, the universe, and everything too.

As such, this faux reality would presumably have to be more complex than anything we are capable of achieving today. In fact, at least prima facie, wouldn’t true reality (whatever it is) have to be more complex than this faux reality in which we live since faux reality is a sub-creation? Yet our own sub-creations are nowhere near as complex as our reality (e.g. the Sims, Oculus Rift).

8. In addition, it’s not as if sentient machines would know what it’s like to be human, so they likely would not be able to properly design aspects of this faux reality that relate to humans, which is much of this faux reality. Indeed, artificially intelligent (sentient) machines in and of themselves seem quite unlikely (e.g. see Bill Dembski’s “Artificial Intelligence’s Homunculus Problem: Why AI Is Unlikely Ever to Match Human Intelligence“).

Minimally, it would take a vast team of mad scientists each of whom is a genius specialist in a particular field to design such a complex reality. That seems highly unlikely too.

9. Moreover, for this faux reality to work well enough to fool us, it would seem to have to depend on the true reality to some significant degree. Otherwise, would the smartest among us be fooled? Otherwise, wouldn’t the Newtons, Einsteins, Feynmans, and Hayses of this world detect glitches in the system? (Assuming Newtons, Einsteins, Feynmans, and Hayses are not concocted as part of the system, but like the rest of us are plugged into the Matrix or brains in a vat.) Yet, if it does depend on true reality to some significant degree, then exactly how false is our faux reality?

10. In short, the Matrix, brain in a vat, and related hypotheticals seem to have a lot more explaining to do than the more common sense belief in the existence of a real external world, especially in the context of Christian theism.

Of making many universes there is no end!


1. What is the multiverse?

The basic idea is multiple separate universes. The multiverse is the grand ensemble of all the separate universes hypothesized to exist.

Moreover, physicists Max Tegmark and Brian Greene have come up with classification schemes.

2. Where is the multiverse?

The multiverse is largely conjectural work based on scant evidence. It’s not as if we can observe and gather information from other parallel universes if they exist.

At best, it seems the evidence for the multiverse is indirect. If the multiverse exists, it should be able to make predictions (e.g. Steve Weinberg and Alexander Vilenkin’s predictions regarding the cosmological constant have had limited success). Inflation and M-theory might lend some limited support (more on this below). However, even if this is the case, the multiverse is more like science fiction than scientific fact: there is a kind of basis in science coupled with a huge dose of imagination.

In addition, there are philosophical objections to the multiverse. Take the Boltzmann brain problem, i.e., brains brought into existence by random quantum fluctuations but with memories identical the ones we have about our lives now; this is one of the most challenging problems for the multiverse. Take the fact that the multiverse itself needs to have specific finely-tuned initial conditions in order to generate baby universes. Take the fact that the multiverse itself would need an explanation for its existence since the multiverse causing itself would be incoherent (e.g. it would need to be argued the multiverse is necessary rather than contingent). And so on.

To put it another way: there’s a plethora of evidence to theorize about the multiverse when smoking a doobie, wacky tobaccy, left handed cigarette, some downtown brown, or married iguanas, but the evidence suddenly vanishes in a puff of smoke when one is not lit!

3. Multiple multiverses

That said, there are multiple conceptions of what the multiverse might look like. Multiple multiverses! Here are the main ones I’m aware of:

a. Possible worlds. Presumably the multiverse has an ancient pedigree or pre-“modern physics” basis in philosophical ideas about possible worlds.

Along the same lines, various religions arguably have something like a multiverse. Take Mormonism and pagan polytheism. Likewise, perhaps some conceptions of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism are not inconsistent with the multiverse. Although one suspects such religions may not be inconsistent with virtually anything!

Interestingly, the multiverse could arguably be well grounded in classical theism or similar, whereas the multiverse has shaky foundations on atheism/naturalism. I believe William Lane Craig has discussed this (e.g. “Is the Multiverse Dead?“).

b. An infinitely spaced universe. I suppose the most basic conception, though not strictly speaking a multiverse if the multiverse is supposed to consist of parallel universes, is that there is a single universe infinite in space with multiple large areas more or less cordoned off from one another (perhaps by local variations of physical laws).

Stephen Hawking, along with C.B. Collins, showed this wasn’t tenable decades ago. I assume most physicists had already suspected as much (e.g. the universe is finite in space), but nevertheless thank Hawking and Collins for taking the trouble to disprove it!

c. Cyclic models. Such as John Wheeler’s oscillating universe and Roger Penrose’s conformal cyclic cosmology. Our single universe expands until (say) gravitation forces the universe to collapse back into itself, contracting into a big crunch, then another big bang, only to repeat the cycle. This continues indefinitely. From big bang to big crunch. (Perhaps at some point it might move from big bang to big crunch to Cap’n Crunch. Yes, I’m talking about an entire universe filled with Cap’n Crunch cereal! One can only hope the same universe has enough milk as well. Otherwise the problem of evil and suffering may take on a newfound edge in that universe.)

Strictly speaking, however, this isn’t a multiverse either, since the universes do not run in parallel with one another. Rather the universes are in a series.

Wheeler’s oscillating universe has been been shown to have significant issues by Penrose. It’s not widely accepted among cosmologists. However, Wheeler may have had his revenge when Penrose’s own model became an object of doubt! Penrose’s model is not widely accepted by cosmologists either, and even Penrose himself acknowledges several weaknesses. Not least of which is the lack of a Cap’n Crunch cosmological constant.

d. Many worlds. Perhaps the most popular conception of the multiverse (in part thanks to pop culture: e.g. Star Trek‘s mirror universe, Community‘s darkest timeline, Futurama, Rick and Morty) is Hugh Everett III’s many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. According to quantum mechanics, a system is in a state of superposition until a measurement is taken by an observer. Once a measurement is taken by an observer, then it collapses into a single state. By contrast, Everett hypothesized that once a measurement is taken by an observer, rather than a wavefunction collapse, the system or universe splits into two or more separate universes.

The logical implication of Everett’s many worlds is every possible outcome of every event exists in its own universe. Not only can anything happen, but anything does happen. Schrödinger’s cat is truly both alive and dead, and the Einstein–Podolsky–Rosen paradox is purportedly resolved. However, Everett’s interpretation introduces new paradoxes. It has its own thorny scientific and philosophical issues. For example, if the atomic or subatomic particles in an observer’s brain are in a superposition state, then shouldn’t the observer simultaneously see both or multiple states rather than only one state? In any case, acceptance or rejection of many worlds depends on one’s preferred interpretation of quantum mechanics. Different interpretations are hotly debated among physicists, philosophers, and other relevant scholars. And what Richard Feynman once said in The Character of Physical Law hasn’t changed:

There was a time when the newspapers said that only twelve men understood the theory of relativity. I don’t believe there ever was such a time. There might have been a time when only one man did, because he was the only guy who caught on, before he wrote his paper. But after people read the paper, a lot of people kind of understood the theory of relativity in some way or other, but more than twelve. On the other hand, I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.

e. Eternal inflation. Alan Guth famously postulated and argued for inflation (along with other physics luminaries including Andreas Albrecht, Andrei Linde, and Paul Steinhardt). Inflation is widely accepted by most cosmologists today, though there are rival theories (e.g. string gas cosmology). The general idea is that the universe rapidly expanded after the big bang, then expansion decelerated. Inflation isn’t perfect (e.g. its mechanism is unknown), but it seems to fix significant problems in standard big bang cosmology, the horizon problem, why the shape of our universe seems to be flat, and so on.

There are literally scores of inflation models, but perhaps the one that’s most relevant to the multiverse is the eternal inflation model. The eternal inflation model argues bubble universes (and bubble universes within bubble universes ad infinitum!) result from different inflation rates with different parts of the universe ending their inflationary periods at different times. When a bubble universe’s inflationary period ends, a new universe with a potentially new set of laws comes into existence. In theory, some inflationary periods could be infinite.

Scientifically speaking, eternal inflation is arguably the most “plausible” (as far as that goes) conception of the multiverse. That’s largely due to inflation’s empirical support (e.g. WMAP) and its explanatory power. However, an important distinction needs to be made. Just because inflation is well-supported does not necessarily imply an inflation model of the multiverse is well-supported too. That would be to inflate the evidence out of proportion. #dadjokes

f. M-theory. Physicists are still on a quest for a theory of everything (TOE). A TOE would unite quantum mechanics with general relativity. A TOE would be able to describe the fundamental forces that operate from the very small to the very large.

At present the leading TOE contender is string theory, though there are rival TOEs (e.g. loop quantum gravity). The basic idea behind string theory is particles (e.g. electrons, quarks) are not fundamentally particles at all. Instead, particles are fundamentally the result of a vibrating “string” of energy. A different pattern of a vibrating string results in a different particle.

M-theory is an attempt to unite multiple versions of string theory into a single theory. M-theory’s main idea is our universe exists on a single vibrating superstring known as a membrane (“brane”).

If M-theory is combined with an inflationary theory like eternal inflation, then it supposedly lends support for the multiverse. Eternal inflation posits inflation creates multiple bubble universes, each of which instantiates the various possibilities of M-theory.

M-theory is favored by the likes of Edward Witten (father of M-theory), Leonard Susskind (father of string theory), and Stephen Hawking (father of jumping onto bandwagons theory, though he may have jumped onto the whole “father of jumping onto bandwagons theory” thing too, so perhaps it all devolves into an infinite regress).

However, M-theory has a lot of issues. Perhaps the most obvious problem is M-theory’s fortunes rise or fall with string theory, which is hugely contestable (e.g. Lee Smolin’s Not Even Wrong). For example, the equations involved in string theory are at best approximations and hence their solutions are at best approximations too. Many physicists argue against and even reject M-theory and string theory in general (e.g. Paul Steinhardt at Princeton).

g. Virtual reality simulations. As Paul Davies and others have pointed out, once we allow the possibility of a multiverse, then there’s little to disallow the possibility that we may live in a virtual reality simulation. The same or similar arguments, if they apply, could apply to both.

On the one hand, the gazillions of virtual reality simulations idea could be a reductio ad absurdum of the multiverse idea. On the other hand, scholars are increasingly taking the virtual reality simulation idea seriously (e.g. Nick Bostrom, David Chalmers). I’ve talked a little bit about this in my post “Oculus Grift“.

A related or perhaps sub idea is holographic universes.

Oculus Grift


I left some comments in Steve Hays’ post “Cosmic programmers” which I thought might be worth expanding then reproducing below. It’s probably necessary to read the original post for context.

1. If our entire universe is a virtual reality simulation, then our universe is fundamentally bits and bytes. Physics isn’t fundamental reality (contra traditional atheism/naturalism). Rather our physics is VR physics. Computer code is more fundamental than physics.

2. What’s more, if our universe is fundamentally bits, then that would include any gods that exist within our universe. The gods are, like us, bits and bytes. As such, they’re no more real than we are real. Everything is computer code at bottom. Yet this still leaves unexplained who or what created it all.

3. However, is it possible to produce minds like ours (human consciousness) from what amounts to 0s and 1s? Among other issues, I would think this would run smack into the hard problem of consciousness. As such, I doubt minds can be recreated from bits and bytes.

I would think it far more likely minds would have to be anchored in a reality where minds can exist. At best, it seems, our minds in this VR universe would be analogues for real minds in a more fundamental reality. Perhaps there is a connection between our VR universe and the more fundamental reality. Maybe something like James Cameron’s Avatar.

Perhaps it’s arguable only God (classical theism or similar) can create minds like ours. (In my view, polytheism at best pushes the question back a step, for who created the gods? Logically, I don’t follow how co-equal divinities could be necessary beings.) If so, then this might be an argument for God’s existence even if this universe is a virtual reality.

4. Interestingly there are some who argue information is what’s fundamental to reality. However, someone like Bill Dembski could agree, but take this as a step in an argument for the God of the Bible.

5. Edward Butler is one of the foremost philosophers who argues for polytheism. However, at least from what (little) I’ve seen, his arguments are far from persuasive.

For one thing, if the gods are co-creators of the universe, but each god has a significantly different morality from another god, then a version of the Euthyphro dilemma might in fact succeed.

6. As mentioned, I have a hard time believing the human mind could have come from bits and bytes. I’ve already brought up the hard problem of consciousness.

Another factor might be due to the difference between syntactic and semantic information. Computer code can contain syntactic information, but it can’t contain semantic information, at least not without an independent source translating or interpreting the syntactic information into semantic information for the mind to understand.

So even if one could write a program that is the mind, how is this “mind program” that’s being run by the VR simulation doing more than processing syntactic information? Indeed, how is my mind that is syntactic information able to translate or interpret syntactic information and convert it to semantic information so that a person like me can understand language and meaning and so on? If my mind is in essence a string of 0s and 1s, or an algorithm that has compressed long and complex series of 0s and 1s, then how am I able to understand and create meaningful thoughts and ideas, etc.? What’s the independent source interpreting it all for me?

I’m likely poorly expressing myself here (maybe I’m a simple minded loop!) but hopefully this makes enough sense even if it’s rough and could be significantly improved upon.