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#10 of Our Top Stories of 2016: Tyson Says Chances of Intelligently Designed Universe "May Be Very High"


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The following was originally published on April 26, 2016:

That's right, but of course he was referring to the odds that the universe is an artificial computer simulation by advanced aliens. And that, as opposed to picturing an intelligent designer in more traditional terms or (as ID theorists prefer) simply leaving open the question of identifying the designer, makes the hypothesis compatible with science? It seems so.

Tyson spoke in the context of a debate on the question, "Is the Universe a Simulation?":

[A]strophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who was hosting the debate, said that he thinks the likelihood of the universe being a simulation "may be very high."


Tyson points out that we humans have always defined ourselves as the smartest beings alive, orders of magnitude more intelligent than species like chimpanzees that share close to 99% of our DNA. We can create symphonies and do trigonometry and astrophysics (some of us, anyway).

But Tyson uses a thought experiment to imagine a life-form that's as much smarter than us as we are than dogs, chimps, or other terrestrial mammals.

"What would we look like to them? We would be drooling, blithering idiots in their presence," he says.

Whatever that being is, it very well might be able to create a simulation of a universe.

"And if that's the case, it is easy for me to imagine that everything in our lives is just the creation of some other entity for their entertainment," Tyson says. "I'm saying, the day we learn that it is true, I will be the only one in the room saying, I'm not surprised."

Fellow atheist P.Z. Myers is appalled, fretting that "We have a term for that, Neil deGrasse Tyson: Intelligent Design":

That really is an intelligent design creationism argument: I can imagine a superior being outside our universe, therefore, it is highly probable that there is a superior being outside our universe, and furthermore, it cares so much about us personally that it created this universe simulator so it can watch us for millions and billions of years.

But no. While a simulated universe would indeed be intelligently designed, by definition, Myers has not correctly identified an ID argument.

In simplest terms, the case for ID is twofold, negative and positive. First, all known theories of undirected origins fundamentally fail to makes sense of the scientific evidence. Second, a theory of directed origins makes good sense of the evidence, conforming to what we already know about the operation of intelligent causes. Therefore as a provisional matter, we're justified in inferring design as the best explanation, the best available explanation, of what we see. There could be another, but no one has proposed it yet.

If Tyson had said: Theories of the universe as non-simulated fail while theories of simulation succeed -- then that would be reminiscent of arguments for ID. Of course he would need to suggest some ways his idea could be tested.

P.Z. congratulates Harvard physicist Lisa Randall, another participant in the debate:

Lisa Randall is the voice of reason who says she thinks the question is only interesting if we have a way to test it. You go, Lisa Randall. That's how a scientist should think, and she finds the whole argument hilarious.

And she's right. In the context of ID, despite atheist counterclaims, the fact that the design hypothesis is testable is one thing that makes it of intense scientific interest.

Image credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.