by Chef2 min read24th Jul 201432 comments

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Personal Blog

I recently stumbled upon an article from early 2003 in Physics World outlining a bit of evidence that some of the constants in nature may change over time. In this particular case, researchers studying quasars noticed that the fine-structure constant (α) might have fluctuated a bit billions of years ago, in both directions (bigger and smaller) with significance 4.1 sigma. What intrigues me about this is that I’ve previously pondered if something like this might be found, albeit for very different reasons.

Back in the 90s I read a book that made a case for the universe as a computer simulation. That particular book wasn’t all that compelling to me, but I’ve never been completely satisfied with arguments against that model and tend to think of the universe generally in those terms anyway. Can I still call myself an atheist if I allow the possibility of a creator in this context? A non-practicing atheist maybe?

If this universe is a computer-generated simulation, programmed by another life form, perhaps the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) should be expanded to include life forms beyond our universe. It sounds nonsensical, but is it?

If I was to design and code an environment sophisticated enough to allow a species of life to evolve in that environment, I am not convinced that I would have many tools at my disposal to truly be able to understand and evaluate that species very well. Sure, I may be able to see them generating patterns that indicate intelligent life within my simulation, but this life form evolved and exists in an environment completely alien to me. I might have only limited methods at my disposal through which to communicate with them. They would exist in a place that to me is not exactly real and vice-versa.

I’ve always imagined it would be more like evaluating patterns and data readouts or viewing cells through a microscope more than say something like, The Sims.  Having designed and implemented the very laws of their universe though, the fundamental constants of the universe could act as a sort of communication channel – one that allows me to at the very least let them know I existed (assuming they were intelligent and were looking). I could modify those constants in such a way over time in much the same manner that we might try to communicate with the more local and familiar concept of alien.

I realize this is all just rambling, but because the alpha is so closely related to those parts of nature that allow for our own existence, it made me take notice, and wonder if this could be some sort of alpha mail. The thought of being able to communicate with an external intelligence is thought provoking enough for me that I decided to write this as my first post here. Who knows? If it ever was confirmed, perhaps we could turn out to be the paper clip maximizer, and we should start looking for our ticket out of here.    

http://www.phys.unsw.edu.au/astro/research/PWAPR03webb.pdf

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Can I still call myself an atheist if I allow the possibility of a creator in this context?

Sure. Theism is best defined in terms of an attitude toward a being, not about it's existence, what it has done, or what it is capable of doing.

I wholeheartedly agree. I had a professor (a former priest) who thought it was absurd that I was willing to use the term creator but unwilling to admit a God. To his dogma they are one and the same. But for me, even if a creator has the power to pull the plug on this experiment, my current thinking doesn't allow omnipotence in the sense used by most theists. And I can't imagine that a creator in this context has the ability to hear our thoughts, respond to daily minutia, or has any interest in dictating morality to a bunch of bits in a hard drive.

From your reply, I don't think I was clear enough about what I meant.

I'm a theist, or not, dependent on my attitude to a purported God, not on a purported God's attitude toward me, and not on anything the God does, intends, or wants.

Let the usual All Powerful Celestial Psychopath actually exist. Knows all, sees all, and will judge all in the end. Let me know it, not just believe it. No faith. Overwhelming evidence.

Knowing that still doesn't make me a theist.

I think modern day theism is best characterized as a belief in an unchosen obligation to be an adoring slave.

I saw the best (and most horrifying) example while driving past a church one day. I'm still kicking myself for not taking a picture. If anyone can place the phrase, as I'm guessing it is some quote or allusion, please provide the reference.

"Though I burn in the flames of Hell, I will Love the Lord my God."

I don't think it's quite enough to simply have a particular attitude to a God to be a theist. It has to go both ways.

the·ism noun belief in the existence of a god or gods, especially belief in one god as creator of the universe, intervening in it and sustaining a personal relation to his creatures.

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I think modern day theism is best characterized as a belief in an unchosen obligation to be an adoring slave.

I think your definition of theism is filled with disutility.

My ex-wife has been watching Neil DeGrasse Tyson's Cosmos. She remarked that it was impossible to watch it without believing in god. I told her Tyson was a rather famous atheist. She was puzzled. I suggested to her that the God that Tyson didn't believe in is a different god than the one that she does find evidence for in the power and beauty of the universe.

It would be better if we could unpack the terms. If your definition of theism as "as a belief in an unchosen obligation to be an adoring slave" was common usage, then it would make sense to use the word that way. But despite the prevalence of the judeo-christian-islamo white haired god with a personality who demands worship and picks winners and losers, this is not at all an obvious definition to anybody who grows up outside those traditions. One would expect a great amount of value to be unlocked, a great number of arguments to be converted to discussions, if those who hate theism as you defined it were able to understand that a significant fraction of the time, the people they are talking to have no idea that that is what they are talking about.

But despite the prevalence of the judeo-christian-islamo white haired god with a personality who demands worship and picks winners and losers,

Despite those 3.8 billion people? I think my definition applies to the vast majority of theists in the world.

If you just want to be a deist, and say that you think the natural order implies some intentional Creator, fine. I agree that that is a very different thing than what I've described. I also think it's poor inference, but that's an entirely separate matter, and really insignificant, compared to people who think we're all justly slaves, that they know what our Master wants, and think it's their duty to satisfy his wants.

Keep in mind that the theists were busy lumping deists like Thomas Paine in with atheists. My definition is based on what I consider not just the common feature, but the distinguishing feature of theists. Deists don't really have it.

I suggested to her that the God that Tyson didn't believe in is a different god than the one that she does find evidence for in the power and beauty of the universe.

To be clear, Tyson doesn't believe in your wife's deistic Creator God either.

p.s. I don't know why people had to downvote you. Your thoughtful reply was appreciated by me.

But despite the prevalence of the judeo-christian-islamo white haired god with a personality who demands worship and picks winners and losers,

Despite those 3.8 billion people? I think my definition applies to the vast majority of theists in the world.

There are many people who believe in god who are not primarily interested in being an adoring slave. You can argue with me that they are irrational or aren't understanding the implications of their professed faith, but the point of a good definition is not to enable one side or the other to score rhetorical points without doing heavy lifting, the point is to actually mean the same thing to broad swaths of people on various sides of the debate.

Keep in mind that the theists were busy lumping deists like Thomas Paine in with atheists. My definition is based on what I consider not just the common feature, but the distinguishing feature of theists. Deists don't really have it.

It is common in arguments that the one side excuses its own poor choices and irrationalities by citing the similar poor choices and irrationalities of the other side. I don't think this is the best we can do, as rationalists.

p.s. I don't know why people had to downvote you. Your thoughtful reply was appreciated by me.

Well thank you! Of course, for me, a net downvote of 1 (my current status) is doing pretty well, but I definitely appreciate a kind word.

Cheers, Mike

God or gods aren't necessarily omnipotent in all religions.
Just because you don't believe in textbook Catholicism it doesn't mean that you are an atheist.

Sure, but if I believe that aliens in a multiverse outside of our own happened to create a simulation that is our universe, does that constitute God in any sense intended by religion? Theism requires that the God has an active role in the creations lives, not simply a belief in a creator - omnipotent or not. The only religion I can think of that mention aliens in doctrine is Scientology. And while I'm sure that most people would allow for Scientology as a religion, I'm pretty sure that with a hundred thousand people arranging the following list of religions based on best to worst religious beliefs, my bet is on scientology coming in dead last.

Christianity, Jainism, Sikh, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Scientology, Judaism, Zoroastrian, Shinto, Wicca.

Which doesn't say anything about the actual validity of those religions, just that the majority of people would probably view a religion steeped in aliens to be less like a religion than the others.

Aliens from other planets are one thing, the sort of thing weird low-status UFO cultists believe.

"Aliens" from outside our universe, who happened to have created it, and maybe even want to have a personal relationship with us (otherwise why would they try to send messages encoded in alpha?) are gods under another name.

..., Hinduism ...

Do you know where the word "avatar" comes from?

Agreed, simply calling a creator an alien is simply redefining alien to mean god. I gotta give it to you LWers, conversations on here have certainly proved already to be quite a bit more interesting than with my old line cooks.

Parsimony.

Even if the fine-structure constant can indeed vary (which is something I intuitively find unlikely by anthropic reasoning, as it would pretty much screw up chemistry as we know it), god (or "intelligent designer" or "simulation programmer", if you prefer) isn't the simplest explanation for it.

Just so we are clear...I don't believe in God in any religious sense. I think that increasingly science views the universe in terms of information and so we should examine the idea that information built into our universe may contain clues to or a communication channel for other life trying to communicate. I personally can't think of too many ways that life outside of our universe could communicate with us but find the idea to be interesting if not a stretch. I do understand it's a slippery slope as evidenced by things like the Bible Code where recursive search yields anything we want to find. We could then just use all kinds of banal natural processes as evidence of God (intelligent design).

I don't believe in God in any religious sense.

You sure?

It seems to me that there are people who profess religious beliefs but are effectively atheists when it comes to beliefs revealed by their behaviours, and conversely people who profess atheism but buy into to various religious-like ideas and ideologies.
This isn't necessarily due to deliberate dishonesty: religious beliefs (or lack of thereof) often become signals of allegiance to social groups.

I personally can't think of too many ways that life outside of our universe could communicate with us but find the idea to be interesting if not a stretch.

I dunno, pulsing gamma bursts according to a sequence of prime numbers encoded in binary?

Anyway, the point of science is finding the simplest hypotheses that explain our observations. Intelligent gods (designers, programmers, etc.) are complex hypotheses. Thus we don't resort to them unless we ruled out everything simpler.

The thought of being able to communicate with an external intelligence is thought provoking enough for me that I decided to write this as my first post here. Who knows?

Very good post, but I'd suggest you remove Who knows? from your argumentation arsenal. It opens the door to treating your favorite hypotheses with undue weight.

Duly Noted. Those were both very good reads, thanks for that.

You might be a practicing but non-believing atheist.

Good point about creations not necessarily being comprehensible to their creator.

Communicating by changing physical constants strikes me as even worse than trying to use words. Of course, I'm living on this level, but even if the local creator is getting comprehensible changes in physical constants from It's next level up (I find this unlikely, but I could be wrong), that doesn't mean we could be communicated with that way.

Changing the physical constants strikes me as a good way of breaking the whole experiment, but people do that sort of thing all the time.

So what does the absence of evidence of this kind of thing indicate?

If I were trying to communicate with a simulation, I'd be more overt. I suppose that it's possible that things like light are so much more complicated than we imagine that whoever's running the simulation wouldn't be able to just make light, but it seems unlikely. Just set up some kind of broad-spectrum broadcast all over the universe that shows some simple math puzzle, and look for a place that solves it.

You might want to make the signal hard to find. If it's your test for intelligence, the harder it is to find the alpha mail and construct a response, the higher the level of intelligence it would select for.

Maybe no puzzles are seen from our perspective simply because we aren't on the order of magnitude of the level of intelligence that any who have the power to simulate a universe like ours would be looking for.

This is what I was thinking also. Not only would it be important to be selective but also attempt to minimize disruption as much as possible. Shining a light through a universe might make some life forms uncomfortable.

Depends on the simulation, IMHO. If we (or our simulators) were to simulate the universe using space/time coordinates (i.e. "grid" and "ticks"), then I can imagine a plausible way of communication by creating unphysical objects - e.g. perfectly rigid letters with zero gravitational but infinite inertial mass. Though they might get the scale wrong - there could be a whole encyclopedia embedded inside a pebble somewhere in Earth's crust, or the Boötes void is a dot over an i.

If, however, the simulation is neither time nor space based - e.g. the universe appears inside Fourier transform of some simulation parameters, then not only intelligent agents, but even large scale activities inside the simulation might go unnoticed by the simulators. Similarly signals being sent into the simulation could remain unnoticed by the inhabitants.

I find it implausible that a being with enough power to create a universe has a hard time understanding the life-forms that arise in it.

back in uni I was playing around with artificial neural networks and genetic algorithms.

I'd found the AI classes interesting and wanted to play around with some of the methods.

I created some agents, a little 2d environment, a fitness function and a framework for breeding.

I left it running overnight and came back to little agents merrily trundling round my 2d environment and performing extremely well.

I had no idea how they were achieving it, I just knew that they were.

I could see the state of every node in their ANN but that didn't mean I could easily decode the states and weightings to figure out their "thought processes".

And that was just a little ANN with about 100 nodes.

Even if you can create something and see all it's constituent parts doesn't mean you understand everything about it.

This is precisely the type of simulation I'm taking about. I was also playing with genetic algorithms when I started thinking about this. So let me ask you this, if you got to a point where it was evident that your agents were conscience, intelligent, and examining their own environment, what sort of methods can you devise to communicate with them?

well.. it's not likely to be an issue but I imagine the kinds of protocols proposed for talking with aliens would be applicable with the advantage that you can make sure you use some method they notice.

Do you think you would have understood your creation if you had stayed to watch it grow?

only very slightly more.

I've sat watching things like that improve over generations and you still only see the results.

Perhaps if I'd examined the ANN's for every generation I'd have more insight but the important point is that merely being able to create something doesn't mean you can automatically understand everything about it.

Aside from the fact that having godly power doesn't necessarily correlate well with an ease of understanding life-forms...

The universe less like a carefully painted mural in which humans and other life forms were mapped out in exquisite and intricate detail, and more like a big empty petri dish set in a warm spot billions of years ago. The underlying specifications for creating the universe seem to be pretty simple mathematically (a few laws and some low-entropy initial conditions). The complex part is just the intricate structures that have arisen over time.

Exactly. Which reminds me of the computational irreducibility of the universal cellular automaton a la Wolfram.

I would first like to point out that your lack of understanding in what various religions view as "god" is hindering your ability to answer the question. However it's not your fault as most major religious devotees don't understand the esoteric nature of the very religion they believe in and it's certainly not expressed to people who do not follow said religion.

Firstly the exoteric understanding of the christian god has very little to do with the creation of the universe but has more to do with the design and implementation of morals, ethics and general laws for the society and planet we live in.

The Freemasons and Hindus have a good understanding on what it (god) might be, they refer to it as the Grand Geomatrician (that giant G in the middle of the square and compass) or the Grand Architect, and for the Hindus; Brahma, (who's dream we are living inside of) accompanied by his two pals Vishnu & Shiva (who are forms of Brahma himself within his dream). This is the being; beings or forces, or whatever it is that has the freedom to imagine and has designed the universe and it's laws that we exist in. Which is eternally the same principle as a super intelligent AI creating a simulation.

Whether or not we can communicate with whatever it might be comes down to how we as a consciousness can interact with the design and laws of the universe (and what is consciousness and does a soul exist?) . Like "The Sims" are our actions merely driven by the intentions of a programmer or a being in control of us? Or like "The Matrix" do we have the ability to freely interact with the code itself. If the answer is the latter then yes I believe we can interact somehow with the creator force, however if it is the former then we do not.

p.s Those of you who believe that the super intelligent AI simulation is probable, however don't believe that a creator "god" for our own universe is just as probable are naive.