God and game theory, part 2


Flickr photo by angelofsweetbitter2009
Flickr photo by angelofsweetbitter2009

In the last post, I argued, or at least implicitly suggested, that given a Christian conception of God, we would not expect to exist in a physical world — i.e. one of a different substantive class than God, which is governed (for all we can tell) exclusively by natural laws and where we have little to no direct experience of the divine.

More specifically, game theory suggests that a rational God, desiring, above all, to be in relationship with “his” creatures, would create us in a way that is most conducive to our relating to “him.” But as physical creatures, we are hopelessly entrapped and severely limited by our physicality. For instance, we depend heavily upon our ability to gather sense data and take measurements. Furthermore, our physicality makes us highly subject to error and malfunction. After all, it is even held on the Christian view that God is incomprehensible to us finite, physical beings. We don't even know what “spirit” is supposed to be. It would seem, then, that the better, and hence expected, course of action would be to make us of the same “kind” as God, namely spirit beings, and it is quite suspicious that, instead, we reside in a world where the “spirit realm” is completely unobservable.

Now, so far, this is not a devastating critique. One could still maintain there is some reason for God to want a physical world, especially if “he” is going to somehow remedy our disadvantage. Nevertheless, it is still problematic and opens the proverbial door to more powerful critiques.

Of course, none of the forthcoming critiques would have much force if it were simply believed God was the sort of being to run experiments and then gather everyone together for a post life review and perhaps another go around. Instead, the Christian position is to have one believe God is especially concerned to have a relation with everyone now. Furthermore, it is essential to be in this relationship within this life, after which awaits eternal punishment for those who fail to achieve it. Is this what we would expect? I think not. Why should a God with no temporal limitations care when the relationship begins so long as it does begin? And even if there is some need for afterlife punishment, what purpose could there be to it being eternal?

Even so, one might argue that if these things are known up front, then everyone has fair warning and no excuse not to choose God by the time this life ends. But apart from the bizarre, unsavory nature of such a response, it is manifestly false that this is something which people know. This world is full of confusion and God, if there is one, remains hidden. Given any period of relevant history, the majority of the human population has been non-Christian. Thus, on the Christian position, this means that the significant majority of humanity is ending up in Hell, never to be in relationship with God.  Even more troubling is that this is not due to some fiendish rebellion or desire to reject God, but merely for not possessing the correct beliefs. Millions sincerely believe, contra Paul, the existence of God is not evident in nature, but rather find there to be compelling arguments and evidence for naturalistic theories.  Billions more are sincerely convinced of a myriad of other ideas all of which are mutually conflicting and radically differ from the Bible. Is this what we would expect? I think not. 

In summary, if God were to exist, not only would we not expect to exist in a physical world, we would not expect to exist in a world where God remains hidden, yet expects a relationship to be achieved within this life time on pain of eternal punishment. We would not expect such a God to allow the amount of confusion that exists in light of the importance of this relationship. We would not expect there to be rationally convincing and justified naturalistic theories.  Even more, we would not expect there to be so much religious confusion. For good measure, we also would not expect the amount of gratuitous pain and suffering in the world, which often leads people away from believing in a benevolent God.

So, examining the world and finding it in the state that we do,  the very likely conclusion is that God, as conceived by Christians, does not exist.

Readers, what do YOU think? Leave a comment below!


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Laura Kipp

Not many people really believe that you will burn for eternity if you don’t find God now. Christianity is actually about redemption and second chances.

You have asked before what my Mormon view on hell is. Mormons study the Bible which obviously talks of hell, and so does other Mormon scripture. I have looked into the translation and interpretation and perspective of hell and have many thoughts about why it is portrayed the way it is. The fire and brimstone in the New Testament WAS symbolic and based on a mass grave. Anyway, Mormons view hell more as a separation from God. We believe punishment is at least partly the guilt you will feel after meeting your maker if you have anything to feel guilty about (you can repent.) We absolutely believe every soul will have the chance to accept the gospel and Christ, if not in this life, in the next. In 1 Corinthians 15:41 it mentions the three glories. Modern revelation from prophets tells us that there are three “sections” of heaven, the three glories, referred to as the celestial, terrestrial, and telestial. There is also a hell referred to as outer darkness. In the highest glory of heaven, celestial, you get to be in the presence of God always, and that is what He wants for all His children. Even the lowest degree of glory, telestial, for extremely sinful people, is much, much better than life is now. It is said it would be like being in a perfect world. Outer darkness is only for a very, very few who have known God without a trace of doubt, and for some reason rejected him anyway. Most people aren’t capable of this kind of evil. They would have to have known God a way very few people ever would in this life. We can conclude everyone goes to the appropriate place for them, where they are most comfortable. That being said, Mormons do believe in repentance, we don’t believe it’s just easy and there won’t be any problems dying a sinful person. You will miss out and suffer I’m sure, just probably no brimstone.

Ryan Downie

Laura – I would argue with your interpretation of the Bible, but I cannot say much for the Book of Mormon. Suffice it to say, your position on the matter of hell is much more commendable than most. I say “most” because, contrary to your opening statement, a significant amount of Christians DO believe this! I know this from personal experience and contact with many Christians and this sort of teaching.


I agree with Laura. There are many varieties of Christians who do not hold to your view of hell. Your views are primarily fundamentalist, and not in keeping with theologians from the more prominent schools of thought.

Laura Kipp

Interesting. So does it personally offend you when someone tells you they believe you are headed for hell?

Ryan Downie

Bruce – It is true that there are many varieties of Christianity, but I would still maintain that a great many of them hold this sort of view of hell (or something similar), even prominent schools of thought. Some of the most preeminent apologists (e.g. William Lane Craig and Norman Geisler) would defend such a view. Nevertheless, you are correct that my criticism is heaviest against the fundamentalists.

Ryan Downie

Laura –

To some extent it is offensive, but only because of how silly, shallow and vulgar the notion is. It is a belief that stops a conversation before it can even get started. Who can win against the argument, “you’d better just believe because you’re going to burn”?

Ryan Downie

Bruce – I am also curious about how you react to your heros Aquinas and Augustine in their view that not only is hell a literal place of eternal fiery torment, but that part of the joy of heaven will be in the suffering of the damned.

Laura Kipp

It’s really sad that people have been so rude as to threaten you with their beliefs. I mean that. They were not respecting you, and your beliefs. But frankly, I think you come down to their level by calling their beliefs silly, shallow and vulgar, especially in this forum. 🙁

Ryan Downie

One does not descend to a lower level simply by pointing out when an idea or belief is silly, shallow or vulgar. Some things must be pointed out as such. Beliefs do not deserve respect merely because they are believed. Do you respect the beliefs of the KKK, or like most people do you see them (the beliefs) as ignorant and, well, stupid?

Ryan Downie

As a quick note, I was not attempting to compare anyone here to the KKK, it was merely an example to illustrate that we often have reason to severely criticize certain beliefs.

Laura Kipp

Ryan, not a lower level, the same level. They don’t show respect for your beliefs, you don’t show respect for theirs. Nothing good comes of that. The KKK is associated with violence. Christianity is not out to get you.

Ryan Downie

Even if the KKK were not associated with violence (and not all are) their beliefs would still be stupid. Beliefs do not deserve respect unless they have merit.

Laura Kipp

Merit defined by who? Would you tell a child their invisible friend was stupid? Maybe the child’s friend is part of their cognitive development, maybe they are lonely, and maybe they are actually hallucinating, but it’s not stupid. And maybe the world is round, and we find out we are wrong and invisible friends are real. Tee hee. Actually I don’t associate racism with a lack of intelligence at all! Plenty of intelligent people are racist! It is a prejudice. Are you prejudice against Christians?

Ryan Downie

Judging the merit of a belief is not arbitrary. I find it strange that you think every belief is by default equally valid. Notice that we don’t hold children to the same standard because they are not rationally capable. Furthermore, you seem to be confusing the notion of a stupid person with a stupid belief. I never claimed that racists were categorically stupid. Rather I said the belief that one race is superior to all others is ignorant or stupid.

You also make a leap in logic by asking me if I am prejudice against Christians. I do oppose certain beliefs held by Christians, but how you get to prejudice is beyond me. Prejudice is:
(1) an unfavorable opinion or feeling formed beforehand or without knowledge, thought, or reason.
(2)unreasonable feelings, opinions, or attitudes, especially of a hostile nature, regarding a racial, religious, or national group.

Notice that critiquing a belief is contrary to this, since it is a rational assessment.

Laura Kipp

I am aware that you didn’t say all racists are stupid, nor did I mean I necessarily believe you have a prejudice (I actually think every person has prejudices.) And I have met so many adults that are for some reason much less rational than kids. Sometimes it is easy to feel bad for these people. I find it amazing that you don’t think all beliefs deserve respect. Beliefs are cherished parts of people, and people deserve respect. Calling someone’s most dearly held beliefs stupid, is so not a “rational assessment.”

Ryan Downie

Calling a belief “stupid” can be founded upon or the conclusion of a rational assessment. So, you actually think that the beliefs of the KKK deserve respect? Interesting. Do you also believe that the Westboro Baptist beliefs that God kills soldiers deserve respect? Under your position we should never seek to educate people because we might disturb their cherished beliefs.

Laura Kipp

Education does not disturb beliefs! The person receiving the education can use it to add to their beliefs, or they might change their beliefs.
I did not say I supported the KKK beliefs, I do not at all.
Calling something stupid isn’t rational, name calling is emotional. If someone said “you’re going to hell,” and you replied, “My rational assessment is that I disagree,” that is totally different than replying, “how stupid!” Stop dirtying my original good point by throwing around examples of really hateful beliefs, that’s not playing fair. I’m not saying telling everyone they are going to hell isn’t hateful, it could be, and I disagree with it, but I still think this is an inter-faith website and it’s a bad idea to demean a religious perspective. And I’m still sorry people have used Christianity in a mean way towards you, that is truly awful.

Ryan Downie

When we educate people we seek to change erroneous beliefs. One could argue that this is not to respect such beliefs because we are saying they should not be believed.

Why isn’t calling something “stupid” rational? I agree that it is not always rational, but it may often be accurate, not just name calling.

Why am I not playing fair? You specifically said, “I find it amazing that you don’t think all beliefs deserve respect.” By using the word “all”, I merely took it to its logical conclusion. So, do you think all beliefs deserve respect or not?

Just because something is a religious perspective does not mean it gets a free pass. The KKK perspective is often situated on religious beliefs and yet they still do not deserve respect.

Laura Kipp

You have a bizarre definition of education. I doubt that’s in Webster.
Yeah, when I said the “all beliefs deserve respect” comment, I was building on when you said, “I find it strange that you think every belief is by default equally valid.” I should not have phrased it that way. I suppose… that I believe all beliefs deserve respect unless they are hateful, but I don’t like to have qualifiers because who gets to decide what is hateful? Also we would have to define the word respect.
“Why am I not playing fair?” Actually I have noticed you use the words “Hitler” and “rape” when arguing, when those words aren’t relevant, which is a common thing and usually to me is an automatic lose 🙂 Leaning too hard into extremes… it shows weakness 🙂 Like being on a first date and someone brings up how much money they make… right then you know they have nothing else to offer 🙂 I’m kidding of course… but yeah. I’m positive you understood my point. Tossing around irrelevant extremes is distracting, and therefore not fair.
No members of the KKK religion have been chosen to share their beliefs on this site… for obvious reasons… so they are more than irrelevant to the argument.
And again, I think racism is despicable.

Ryan Downie

” I’m positive you understood my point.”

Well, no, not really. When you say “I find it amazing that you don’t think all beliefs deserve respect.”, especially in the context of arguing with me, how else would you expect me to understand your point.

“I suppose… that I believe all beliefs deserve respect unless they are hateful, but I don’t like to have qualifiers because who gets to decide what is hateful? Also we would have to define the word respect.”

I agree that one should define what is meant by “respect”. I’m not sure, however, why you are opposed to making qualified statements. If you always try to couch everything in universal terms, you get yourself into trouble. We have to make qualified statements. Who gets to decide what is hateful? Well, no one in particular. As humans, we are all perfectly capable of recognizing unfounded, hateful ideas.

“Actually I have noticed you use the words “Hitler” and “rape” when arguing, when those words aren’t relevant…”

huh? I used “rape” as part of a post about the death penalty in a factual context. I used “Hitler” in the same post about Hell to express my view that not even someone like that deserves eternal punishment. How were those not relevant?

You seem to have an improper view of extremes. Extremes are often very useful and necessary tools for exploring ideas and setting the boundaries of a concept or idea. In mathematics, extremes are indispensable. Again, the extremes I used were hardly irrelevant, but were meant to test your universal statement.

“No members of the KKK religion have been chosen to share their beliefs on this site… for obvious reasons… so they are more than irrelevant to the argument.
And again, I think racism is despicable.”

Hardly irrelevant, the KKK serve to make my very point. They have not been chosen to share their beliefs on this site precisely because such views do not deserve respect or an audience! Also, how is calling racism “despicable” any different from calling it “stupid”?


OK, so this conversation went from the belief in hell to rape, Hitler and the KKK. Seems pretty standard to me as these things go.

I want to throw down with a total change of subject. specifically, I want to look at the nature and quality of beliefs. I am noticing an assumption made by most everyone in this discussion that the purpose of a belief is to hold a true statement about the nature of reality.

That is to say that the reason people believe in hell is because it is true that hell exists. This is clearly a false assumption. People believe in hell (or anything else for that matter) for all kinds of reasons. This is actually pretty well established by social science research. So rather than exploring the meaning of the existence of hell, what are the costs and benefits that belief in hell offers us?

To put it another way, what function or functions does belief in hell serve?

I want to offer a few suggestions to answer this question, and please note that I am NOT discussing the actual existence of hell, I’m ONLY talking about the functions served by the BELIEF in hell. So here we go:

1) To frighten us into behaving in a way that we and others would consider “good”
2) To help us to feel a sense of justice in the universe – i.e. suffering comes to the wicked after death even if they get away with it in life – this helps us to feel that the world is predictable and safe.
3) To create a sense of community privilege (members of OUR church are special and are going to heaven – those OTHER people are going to hell)
4) They help us to identify ourselves as people who are likely to behave in ways that other people will want to work with/relate to – i.e. If I know you believe in hell then I might suppose that you are a “good” person, and won’t screw me over, since you believe you will be punished if you do. This increases trust between group members (known as “social capital”).
5) To help us to avoid eternal damnation – note however that this ONLY applies if the belief is TRUE.

Maybe you can think of some more.

I find that if I look at the function of some beliefs, it becomes immediately apparent that the actual validity of the idea (whether it is true or false) has NO BEARING on whether or not it is effective in changing people’s behavior.

Just for the record, I think that this same analysis can be made for ALL the supernatural claims of Christianity, and every other religion on the planet, and for most secular ideologies as well – these beliefs may or may not be true, but they serve social functions.

And THAT’s why we believe them.


How’s that for “game theory?”

Ryan Downie

Interesting thoughts. I agree that having a belief can serve several functions, but I reject your suggestion, on the basis of the very definition, that beliefs are not held for the purpose of being true. In fact, I don’t see how any of your suggestions 1-5 have much force, if the purpose of the belief is not also to be true.

Ryan Downie

I, for one, am not primarily concerned with the utility of a belief as I am about truth. I want to maximize the number of true beliefs I hold and minimize the false ones.


Thanks for your response Ryan, while I agree with you that most of us hold our beliefs as true, we may not do so for the reasons that we think we do.

Most of us believe that we hold our beliefs BECAUSE they are true, but in fact the evidence suggests that we are often unaware of all of our motivations.

Let me give you an example. In the following clip:


In this Neal Degrass Tyson is talking to the head of GM about climate change. I have no doubt that both men believe in their positions, the difference is that Lutz had strong opinions that were not supported by data, but that WERE supported by his social motivation – for example, if he said: “you’re right global warming is something I and GM should care a lot about!” there would be huge political consequences for him & his company.

This is a phenomena called “motivated reasoning.” Human beings don’t think like scientists (at least not without special training). Instead we think like lawyers – we constantly work to rationalize and justify our behavior and beliefs to ourselves and to anyone who will listen. Our beliefs don’t have to be true for us to believe them, but they can still have a huge effect on our behavior.

We tend to ignore our social motivation for our belief, and then rationalize and justify our beliefs instead. We then think that we “have good reason” to believe what we do.

The idea of hell is an example of this phenomena – obviously none of us has actual first hand experience that hell exists (or we’d be dead), but we have lots of socially supported MOTIVATION to believe that hell is real. I think that if we are honest with ourselves we may recognize that this is ALL WE REALLY KNOW about hell, heaven, God, Jesus and the whole project of spiritual growth and development. We have good motivation to believe but no real evidence.

If you accept this position (and I hope you do) then you may be disturbed to realize that we are not really who we think we are. We tend to think we are the main character in the story of our lives. In fact we are the story-teller. As a story-teller, we are HUGELY biased toward writing ourselves as a hero, and we don’t even notice that we are doing it. Not all the events and characters that we use to write our story have any basis in reality at all, rather, they are resources that we as authors use to make our hero look good.

I find that if I do practice noticing that I am doing this stuff, I feel pretty satisfied that this “counts” as spiritual growth and development (in a zen kind of way). Personally, I don’t find the idea of hell useful.

Ryan Downie

Paul –

Thank you for your interesting input.

[“while I agree with you that most of us hold our beliefs as true, we may not do so for the reasons that we think we do.

Most of us believe that we hold our beliefs BECAUSE they are true, but in fact the evidence suggests that we are often unaware of all of our motivations.”]

I would agree with this. The only modification I would make is that everyone holds their beliefs as being what they consider to be true at the time of their holding to them. This comes from the very definition of “belief”. However, this is not incompatible with your suggestion that our beliefs are highly motivated and often not true.

[“The idea of hell is an example of this phenomena – obviously none of us has actual first hand experience that hell exists (or we’d be dead), but we have lots of socially supported MOTIVATION to believe that hell is real. I think that if we are honest with ourselves we may recognize that this is ALL WE REALLY KNOW about hell, heaven, God, Jesus and the whole project of spiritual growth and development. We have good motivation to believe but no real evidence.”]

I can agree with this, though, what do you mean by “good motivation”?


“good motivation” = motivation that supports our survival, prosperity, community relationships and – if you want to be Darwinian about it – opportunities for finding fit mates.

And yes, this list is fairly self-serving (more or less) but that’s my point. We tend to cling to beliefs that serve our interests. No where is this more true than in the areas of religion and politics.

Just for fun:

Remember the last time you really kicked butt in a religious, moral or political argument? Remember how you laid out an incredible argument backed with facts and un-impeachable defenses for your position?

Remember how your opponent in that argument said: “wow! that’s a good point. You are right and I am wrong! I have totally changed my mind on this issue!”

What? You’ve never had that experience?

Neither have I.

So what really happens? You lay down your argument and your opponent just doubles down doesn’t he? He may even start shouting or fighting dirty, or BS’ing his way through the situation.

Why? Motivated reasoning, that’s why! This is a feature of human psychology. It’s pretty cool once you notice it going on. It explains so much. Even why people fight wars of ideology and whatnot.

We are most prone to this kind of thinking when it’s in defense of our in-group. We are a tribal species after all, so we get kind of bonkers when it comes to defending our tribe. One way of looking at religion is that it’s a way of extending the boundaries of our tribal identification. This is why the truth claims of religion are so much less important than the emotional power of those claims – they speak to our tribal identity, NOT our rational mind.

Of course we all realize that the OTHER guy’s religion is irrational. The idea that Lord Krishna could lift a mountain over his head is silly, but the idea that the torture and murder of a rabbi has the power to save you from eternal damnation makes perfect sense, right?

This is how religion works. It works by using metaphor, symbolism and (above all) social pressure to program our unconscious psychological processes into accepting specific narratives as reasonable, normal, moral and true. But this is an innately irrational and unconscious process, which is why most religions are spread by cultural indoctrination and not by rational argument. This actually helps people in the process though, because it creates strong communities. Human beings function better with communities than without them.

This is also why most people of faith think that atheists must not be moral – after all they don’t believe as “we” believe. In fact atheists score HIGHER on psychological measures of morality than any other religious group, and they are VASTLY underrepresented in the populations of America’s prisons, so apparently they commit less crimes as well.

Religion doesn’t make you a good person, rather religion takes credit for the good person that you already are, and gives you a support system that helps you along the way (and keeps you in-line to boot).

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x