The Non-Coexistence of Skepticism and Atheism

Are we sure we exist? Skepticism is the doubt of knowledge, it states that we cannot know for sure about the things that we think we are sure of. The hypothesis that we are living inside a simulation is one of the purest forms of skepticism, because if we are living in a simulation then we cannot know anything — we cannot know whether the tree we are looking at exists or not, neither we can properly question our very own existence, and when we start to doubt our very own existence, then we know nothing about this world.

We are living in a simulation” is a claim we cannot win an argument against. Hence if we cannot argue against it and we cannot prove that this claim is false, this implies that this claim is true (until proven false). This gives rise to skepticism — a theory that certain knowledge is impossible.

Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh

There are many reasons why we cannot argue against the proposition “we are living in a simulation”. First, we can say “We are not in a simulation because we can feel things or see things”. To this, a skepticist can reply “That’s because the simulation was designed in such a way”, and the skepticist can use this argument against anything we put against that claim. What if we say “animal brains are a complex system that cannot be designed by any creature?”. To this, the skepticist can zoom out and say “a million years from now our brain structure will be so advanced that our current brain structure will look simple in front of it. Hence it will be easier for us to design such a system”. So these two tools can always help a skepticist to win any debate against non-simulation believers.

Now let’s zoom in to our current life and question our existence. The question of our existence was highlighted in the Enlightenment period. Kant’s famous phrase Sapere Aude (dare to know) kindled the philosophical spark to start questioning everything, including our existence, before accepting it. Dare to know.

Bringing Nietzsche into the picture, the two-thousand-year-old spiritual and philosophical foundations of Christianism started to give way to cracks during the Renaissance period, when scientists started to question daily phenomena and their findings turned out to be quite contrary to the prevailing beliefs. This was further intensified a century later during the Enlightenment period when we started to look inside ourselves to question beliefs that prevailed in the society outside. “Dare to know” we pursued and shattered many religious dogmas. With Nietzsche’s claim “The God is Dead”, religious philosophies in decline and no higher concrete philosophical ledge to hold onto, this gave way to the rise of Nihilism. As we started to disbelief in many prominent things, we became unsure of what we knew. Hence Skepticism became a prominent product of Enlightenment. Skepticism enjoys a remarkably strong place in Enlightenment philosophy, given that confidence in our intellectual capacities to achieve systematic knowledge of nature is a leading characteristic of the age.

This brings us to the next part — what is Atheism? To clearly define Atheism, we must define what Atheism is not, i.e we must start with the definition of Theism. Theism is the proposition that God exists, not the psychological condition of believing that God exists. So the ‘a’ in Atheism is the negation of the proposition made by Theism. Therefore, Atheism should be construed as the proposition that God does not exist. By God here, I am referring to a supreme being, the creator and controller of our universe who is omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent.

So far we have defined Skepticism (in the light of the hypothesis that we are in a simulation) and Atheism (God does not exist). If we take Atheism on one hand and the hypothesis of simulation and try to combine them, then it becomes impossible to do so. Because if we look at the Atheism considering the hypothesis that simulation is real, then it negates the very principle claim that atheism makes i.e, there is no God, by giving us a God in the form of the creator of this simulation! This creator can be anyone, not necessarily Jesus, or Allah, or Shiva, but it can be a highly intelligent alien or a human with near to infinite computation power. I find this position to be quite exciting — someone who is an Atheist should not believe in the existence of simulation and someone who is a believer in simulation should not be an Atheist.

But the hypothesis of simulation doesn’t come without its own philosophical challenges. Considering Atheism is false in this perspective (that there is a creator of worlds), a crucial challenge is to answer whether we are obliged to obey the orders of this God? If we are the product of the creator of this simulation, then it can be argued that we are obliged to obey the orders passed down to us by the superior almighty because we owe our existence to him — to him we are nothing but beings analogous to robots. The only difference between us and the robots in this scenario is that we have a consciousness which robots lack and our consciousness is so complex that to delineate it in the form of an algorithm is impossible. So like we expect our robots to obey our orders without question, God can expect us to obey his orders no matter how gruesome they get.

But we are conscious beings, so do we really have to obey the orders of the creator of this simulation? Wouldn’t that be something akin to the slavery of the whole of mankind?

To support this, we can think of ourselves as animals. We consider them inferior beings just because they don’t have the prowess of thinking like us — they cannot do maths, draw out complex algorithms, etc. Let’s say their “degree of thinking” is lesser than ours, hence this gives us the jurisdiction to make decisions with their lives, meanwhile disregarding their consciousness. In this case, we being the “higher beings” owing to our higher degree of thinking expect them to obey our orders and punish them when they do not.

Applying the skepticist’s tool of zooming out to this scenario, the higher being will definitely have a higher degree of thinking. So it can be possible that if there is such a higher being with a greater degree of thinking than us, this gives him the authority, or us the obligation to obey his orders. And the creator of the world definitely will be having a higher degree of thinking than we do because he created this whole simulation in the first place.

Hence from his standpoint, we are lesser beings due to our comparatively minor degree of thinking and this gives him jurisdiction to dictate our lives and gives us the obligation to obey him.

To this, we can also add that the Bible, Gita or Quran are just instructions passed onto us by the creator, just like we pass arguments to a function in programming. After all, if we are in a simulation, then our existence is nothing significant but just a successful function call.

The Scream by Edvard Munch

What do I believe in?

I certainly don’t believe in the existence of God because there is no scientific evidence that can support the theist claim that God exists. For the many existing supernatural phenomena that people claim are evidence of the existence of God, they are just mysteries that are waiting to be unfurled, for the theist populace of 16th century the attraction of objects to the surface of Earth may have been a supernatural phenomenon until Newton gave the theory of gravity.

As far as the hypothesis of simulation goes, I cannot give a concrete argument against it. I do not want to believe that we are in a simulation but as of now, we do not know that. So I consider it best that we act like we are not in a simulation because from our perspective, life is real and it exists and it is beautiful.

There are two arguments I can make against the simulation hypothesis. Firstly, simulating weather accurately requires way too much computational power and it is near to impossible in the present scenario. Add to this the cost of simulation of thousands of such weather, lives of 7.5 billion people, a 100 billion or more animals and birds, and trillions and trillions of microorganisms and even more number of atoms, and how all of these things are intricately coupled together and how everything affects every other thing, and add to its degrees of randomness and uncertainty each thing can be under and the amount of memory it would take to store data and process things. And do not forget that Earth is not alone. There is a whole freaking universe out there! This is such a scenario whose complexity we cannot even fathom and no matter how much I think about the future generations of humans (considering further evolution of our species, possibly in a symbiotic relationship with AI), it cannot possibly be part of a computer program. Our whole existence and the form we are in right now is only possible with millions of years of evolution of life on this planet and 13.8 billions of years of evolution of the whole universe starting from The Bing Bang.

Secondly, the fact that I can question my own existence has a certain degree of assurance of my own existence. If we have to question something then we must be sure of its existence. If we consider a kid who has not seen or heard of Disneyland and ask him how the experience of his visit was, he would not know what to answer. He will be perplexed by the question and by the word Disneyland because to him at that moment Disneyland does not exist. Corollary to this, we can question our existence because we are sure of it — we know it exists.

So the answer to the question — “Are we sure we exist?”. Yes, we know we exist. And it is always the right time to behave as we exist.

The Scream and Starry Night are two of my favourite paintings. They do not have the finesse of da Vinci but they have a mystic fierce energy to attract the soul. And this article was not an excuse to use them :)

PS- I am not an art critic.

A flaneur, sharing my journeys through technology, philosophy, life and literature.