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philosophy, Religion, science

“Natural God”?

With apologies to Nick, who is certain that he has the secret to The One True and Irrefutable Version of God, Specifically As It Relates To His Son, the Certainly Resurrected Jesus, Who Is the Same As Him™, I’ve recently come to realize that there are some theists who would like to avoid the incoherency of a “supernatural” god and suggest that modern theories of cosmology allow for the possibility of a natural entity that would qualify as a god.  I must preface my thoughts on the matter by saying that I am not even remotely qualified to discuss cosmology, but I think that I can address this assertion adequately without the need to delve into any actual physics.  As always, if someone is genuinely qualified to correct me on a point of cosmology, I’m happy to learn.

Let’s begin with an entity that closely resembles the Christian God — that is, a being who literally knows everything, and is responsible for creating our universe.  Obviously, such a being must predate our universe in order to have created it, so we must concede that there must be more to reality than just our universe.  Let’s run with that for a moment and suppose there’s some kind of multiverse.  What kind really doesn’t matter too much, except that our hypothetical being must inhabit some existing part of the multiverse prior to our Big Bang.

Next, let’s examine the concept of “knowing everything.”  I’ve heard it suggested that perhaps there is no such thing as a random event.  It is possible that at a fundamental level every movement of every particle could be accurately predicted, given complete knowledge of the Big Bang.  In other words, perhaps the universe really is completely pre-deterministic, in the sense that even the most apparently random actions are necessary consequences of previous actions, all the way to the Big Bang, and a sufficiently knowledgable entity could, in fact, predict each and every particle’s motion from the Big Bang to total heat death.  Let’s suppose that this is true.  What, then, can we say of a natural entity who would do such a thing.  First, it would have to be a computer.  By that, I mean, regardless of how it was sentient, it would have to be capable of processing data.  That is the simple definition of a computer — a thing which processes data.  (We animals are computers.)  Second, since processing data requires work of some kind, our being is going to require energy of some kind.   Obviously it can’t use energy from our universe, since the second law of thermodynamics refutes this notion.

Let’s give our being a very simple task — let’s have it predict what I will do immediately after typing this article.  In order to do this, it will need to have total information about me.  My body is estimated to have between ten and fifty trillion cells.  Let’s go with thirty trillion to split the difference.   As a rough estimate, each cell is made up of approximately 10.4 * 10^10 atoms.  To begin with, our being would have to have dynamic, instantaneous knowledge of the exact physical location of every atom in my body.  (Let’s not even get started with subatomic particles!)  That’s at least four bits of data – X,Y,Z, and T (time) for each atom, so we’re multiplying 4 x  (10.4*10^10) x (3.0*10^13).*   That’s how much data our being would need to simply know with certainty my exact location at one instant in time.  Now, consider that I am governed by a genome, which contains approximately 20,000 – 25,000 protein coding genes, each of which is a string of base 4 code.  That is, unlike binary, where there are two discreet units of information, a 1 and a 0, there are four uints – A, G, T, and C.   Genes can vary greatly in length, but on average, they are thousands of letters long.  When all is said and done, there are approximately 6 Gigabytes of information in the human genome.  These six gigabytes are unique to me among all six and a half billion people living, and to the trillions of humans who have lived, and the prehumans, whatever their numbers might have been…

But I digress.  In order to predict my behavior from birth, our being must also have compete dynamic and instantaneous knowledge of the exact state of 6 Gb of data — in each of my thirty trillion cells, for solar radiation, transcription errors, and other factors sometimes cause changes in the DNA in my individual cells.   Let’s assume, for simplicity, that our being is working with thousandths of a second intervals.  (I know it’s not a small enough interval, but it will do for the moment.  At this instant, I have lived for approximately 1.1 * 10^12 thousandths of seconds.  In order to have complete knowledge of my genome since conception, our being would have to process (1.1*10^12) x 6Gb of information, in addition to having to process 4 x  (10.4*10^10) x (3.0*10^13) x (1.1*10^12) bits of information detailing my exact physical location since conception.  For the time being, we’ll just ignore the fact that my DNA is only a tiny tiny bit of each of my cells, and our being would need to know completely accurate dynamic information for each individual part of each individual cell, so just for shits and giggles, let’s say that we can at least raise our last number by another ten or twelve powers to account for a detailed account of each cell at each thousandth of a second.

Is your head starting to spin yet?  The thing is, my environment since birth must also be completely known.  Since I first opened my eyes, photons have been hitting them constantly.  In my waking hours (all two hundred and two thousand of them) I have been perceiving millions of photons per second.  In addition, my ears have been responding to the vibrations in the air around me, processing the movement of quadrillions of atoms per second.  My olfactory center has been processing information about quadrillions of atoms I have inhaled per second.  The billions of nerve endings in my body have been processing tactile information from quadrillions of atoms per second.  My tongue has perceived the taste of quadrillions of atoms every time I have taken a bite of food, or opened my mouth while standing next to the sea, or been within several miles of a fire.   All of these sense perceptions have been passed through my neural network, which is made of approximately 100 billion neurons.

Of course, I have interacted with hundreds of thousands of people in my life, and each, as part of my environment, would need to be known just as completely as I must be known, so whatever astronomically large number we’re at by now must be multiplied by hundreds of thousands to include complete knowledge of all the humans I’ve encountered.

Of course, I have a cat, and have encountered probably a few hundred cats in my life, and perhaps a few hundred dogs, quite a few fish, some chipmunks, assorted lizards, snakes, spiders, ants, and the occasional salamander.  I’m sitting on a chair, at a desk, on which sits a baseball cap, a CD case, an unopened bottle of Mill Creek 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon, an empty bag of those crunchy things the Chinese restaurant gives you to put on your egg drop soup, a mini bottle of hand lotion from some hotel or another, stero speakers, a webcam, a half used tube of chapstick, my cell phone, a glass with a few grains of undissolved vitamin supplement drink mix, and perhaps two dozen pieces of assorted paper.  The bookshelf above me has perhaps thirty books which I regularly consult, as well as a phone book and an artificial plant someone found at a thrift store.  I can’t remember who.

I could go on, but certainly my point has been sufficiently made.  In order to have knowledge complete enough to predict something as simple as my next action after finishing this article, our hypothetical “natural god” would have to process more information than could be processed by an earth-sized supercomputer.  Now, if we multiply that astronomically large amount of data times six and a half billion, we can predict with accuracy what all the humans on earth will do in the same instant.

Of course, that’s just humans.  There are approximately 1*10^17 ants in the world.  Bacteria are far more numerous than ants.  There are estimated to be between 5 and 100 million types of organisms on the planet.  That’s just the life on the planet.  The earth is made up of a staggering number of nonliving “things.”  Earth is but one planet in a tiny solar system in a tiny galaxy, one of perhaps 500 billion galaxies.

We can see that all the energy in the universe would be woefully insufficient to process even a fraction of the data necessary to predict the universe with certainty, even if such a thing is possible.  From whence does this energy come?  Even if we suppose a multiverse, doesn’t each universe in the multiverse need its own energy?  We’re talking about the energy of multiple universes devoted to predicting one universe.  If this doesn’t strike you as immediately absurd, I don’t think there’s much hope for you.

Oh, and we haven’t even begun to discuss the energy requirements necessary for such a being to interact with this universe — only to have complete knowledge of it.  Now, let’s ask ourselves another question.  Supposing we can toss aside the howling absurdity of this being’s scope and energy requirements, what in the universe would lead us to believe that a deity with that much knowledge would care to predict the action of a single ape out of six and a half billion, on one of trillions and trillions of planets in this immense universe, where it is almost certain that there are also other planets with their own life?  What possible purpose could such a being have for doing the equivalent of a human scientist expending the entire energy of our sun to learn the exact location of a single subatomic particle at a single instant?

No, the concept of a natural version of an omniscient deity is absurd beyond all comprehension.  We do not need any specific cosmological knowledge to discard the idea entirely.  I don’t think it’s even necessary to spend any time trying to deal with any of the Christian god’s other qualities as they would apply to a natural being.  This brings us to the next obvious question.  If there is a “natural god,” and it certainly doesn’t resemble the Christian god, and certainly doesn’t have intimate knowledge of each of us, and certainly wouldn’t have any reason to try to learn… what would such a god be, and why would we call it a god?  Why would we care?**



* For you science types, I’m sorry if these figures are off by a power or so.  I just grabbed these figures from a quick web search.  In any case, the discrepancy will not be particularly relevant to my point.

** Incidentally, after completing this article, I leaned back in my chair, and in the process, brushed a painful blister on my ankle against the corner of my desk.  I cursed aloud, rubbed my ankle, looked at it to see if there was any damage.  During this process, my cat, who had been asleep on the desk in front of me, woke up, stretched, looked at me and meowed.  I scratched him on the neck for approximately ten seconds before deciding to check my email.



7 thoughts on ““Natural God”?

  1. Abandoning a supernatural creator for some kind of natural one would be like someone out in the middle of the ocean, treading water, thinking he’d somehow swim better with a 60,000 pound anchor.

    I can’t imagine that any theist would really want to make that trade. Abandoning an argument which can’t be proved or disproved in favor of one that can doesn’t help if your new argument is so hopelessly impossible that you might as well be trying to swim with the anchor to the Dwight D. Eisenhower chained to your leg.

    Posted by Ian | October 26, 2010, 6:25 am
  2. What if we assume God is not omniscient, though. That traditional Christian dogma has it wrong?

    Back in my theist days, I postulated that if humans have souls (a presence, perhaps, in a dimension beyond the 4 we can detect), then all a “deity” would need would be some sort of extradimensional telepathy in order to predict human behaviour with a great deal of accuracy.

    Such a God might not be omnipotent either, but just an over-powered egotist. Such an alien, having a bird’s eye view of humanity, might even be worth listening to.

    I also wondered if such a being might feed on souls, using faith as a metaphysical access point…

    Fiction is fun. 🙂

    Posted by Peter | October 26, 2010, 1:45 pm
  3. What if we assume God is not omniscient, though. That traditional Christian dogma has it wrong?

    Hehe… furthermore, what if God believes he’s omniscient, and is wrong?

    Posted by hambydammit | October 26, 2010, 3:03 pm
  4. Hypothetically, I do not find it beyond belief that at some point in the far future, our processing capabilities will be high enough to run a simulation of an artificial reality. For all we know, we’re in such a simulation now, and “God” is simply the creator/administrator of that system.

    I like this theory, it allows me to hope that eventually I’ll be able to make my own little paradise and play “God”. I’m pretty sure I’d do a better job of it than this idiot.

    Posted by Alex Hardman | October 27, 2010, 9:49 am
  5. Of course, he could be having tons of fun playing both sides against each other, little things in history to “prove” he exist, but fully functional laws that don’t require him to. Perhaps that’s the game, and he’s not an idiot, but just really sadistic…

    Posted by Alex Hardman | October 27, 2010, 9:51 am
  6. “Let’s begin with an entity that closely resembles the Christian God — that is, a being who literally knows everything, and is responsible for creating our universe.”

    If you think about it, this christian God created a universe and knew he had to wait 14.7 billion years in order to impregnate a virgin so that is son could be born and redeem every human on earth.

    Science is ridiculous// sarcasm off.

    Posted by LM | October 31, 2010, 2:56 pm
  7. If you think about it, this christian God created a universe and knew he had to wait 14.7 billion years in order to impregnate a virgin so that is son could be born and redeem every human on earth.

    If someone introduced the Creation —> Salvation narrative today, it would be laughed off as ridiculous for exactly this reason. The thing is, it was born when the universe consisted of the earth and the heavens which surrounded it — a very, very small universe. It actually makes a decent amount of sense in that context. (Apart from the quirky moral implications.) If earth is all that exists, then it makes arguing for intelligent interest in humans much more plausible. But with a universe so vast, and the probability of billions of earth-like planets growing by the day, it becomes a bit ridiculous

    Posted by hambydammit | October 31, 2010, 4:47 pm

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