Beyond the Reach of God (Spoken Word Version)

This essay is an abridged version of Eliezer Yudkowsky’s work, Beyond the Reach of God. Eliezer originally wrote it in the context of Artificial Intelligence, as part of a broader argument. But it had a core idea that seemed very important to me: a discussion of the problem of evil, not meant to persuade theists that God isn’t real, but to help atheists understand exactly what kind of world they’re living in.

It is trimmed down, in part to focus on the most universally applicable aspects of the essay, as well as to make it read better as a speech:

I remember, from distant childhood, what it’s like to live in the world where God exists. Really exists, the way that children take their beliefs at face value.

In the world where God exists, he doesn’t swoop in immediately to fix everything. God won’t make you a sandwich. Parents don’t do everything their children ask.

But clearly, there’s some threshold of horror, awful enough that God will intervene. I remember that being true, when I believed in the fashion of a child. The God who never intervenes – that’s just making excuses. The beliefs of young children really do shape their expectations. If you them tell there’s a dragon in their garage they honestly expect to see one. They have no reason to imagine a loving God who never saves anyone.

No loving parents, desiring their child to grow up strong and self-reliant, would let their toddler be run over by a car.

But what if you built a simulated universe? Could you escape the reach of God? Simulate sentient minds, and torture them? If God’s watching everywhere, then of course trying to build an unfair world results in the God intervening. Stepping in to modify your transistors. God is omnipresent. There’s no refuge anywhere for true horror.

Life is fair.

But suppose you ask the question: Given such-and-such initial conditions, and given such-and-such rules, what would be the mathematical result?

Not even God can modify 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 either happen, or don’t, because of mathematical rules? And where those rules don’t describe a God that checks over each state? What does the world of pure math look like, beyond the reach of God?

That world wouldn’t be fair. If the initial state contained the seeds of something that could self-replicate, natural selection might or might not happen. Complex life might or might not evolve. That life might or might not become sentient. There might be conscious cows, that lacked hands or brains to improve their condition. They might be eaten by conscious wolves who never thought that they were doing wrong, or cared.

If something like humans evolved, then they might suffer from diseases – not to teach them any lessons, but only because viruses happened to evolve as well. If the people of that world are 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 can murder a million people, and laugh, and be rich, and never be punished.

Who would prevent it?

And if the Khan tortures people to death, for his own amusement? They might call out for help, perhaps imagining a God. And if you really wrote the program, God would intervene, of course. But in the what-if question, 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 did, someone would 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. That is the answer to the what-if question.

Is this world starting to sound familiar?

Could it be that sentient beings have died, absolutely, for thousands of millions of years… with no soul. 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.

Once upon a time, I believed that the extinction of humanity was not allowed. And others, who call themselves rational, may yet have things they trust. They might trust “democracy,” or “capitalism,” or “technology.” They believe these things are sacred. Democracies won’t ever legalize torture. Technology has done so much good – that there can’t possibly be a black swan that breaks the trend and undoes all the good we’ve ever done.

And if this all just sounds pointlessly depressing… that’s okay. You don’t have to dwell on this overmuch. But I’m speaking now to those who have something to protect.

What can a stone-age tribesman do to save themselves from tuberculosis? Nothing. Nature’s challenges aren’t always fair. When you run into a challenge that’s too difficult, you suffer the penalty; when you run into a lethal penalty, you die. That’s how it is for people, and it isn’t any different for planets. And anyone who wants to dance the deadly dance with nature needs to understand that they are up against absolute, utter, exceptionless neutrality.

And knowing this might not save you. It wouldn’t save the stone-age tribesman, if they knew. If you think anyone who fully understands the mess they’re in, must be able to figure out a solution – well, then you trust rationality.

Nothing is sacred. The universe is not fair.

But I don’t want to create needless despair, so I’ll say a few hopeful words at this point:

If our future unfolds in the right way, we might be able to make our future fairer. We can’t change physics. But we can build some guardrails, we can put down some padding.

Someday, maybe, minds will be sheltered. Children might burn a finger or lose a toy, but they won’t ever be run over by cars. To a sufficiently advanced intelligence, death would just be one more problem to be solved.

The problem is that building an adult is itself an adult challenge. That’s what I finally realized, years ago.

If there is a fairer universe, we have to get there starting from this world – the neutral 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.

What does a child need to do, to solve an adult problem?