Accidental Proof that God Does Not Exist

Accidental Proof that God Does Not Exist

An old post that I’m bumping back up to the top because of the interest it has generated…

In finishing up my new science fiction novel I went through a lot of research on Laplace’s Demon. In the process, I stumbled onto the computational limit of the universe. Based on the minimum amount of time you need to move data across the Planck length, at the speed of light, there’s a limit to the computational power of the universe that’s about 10-to-the-power-of-120 bits (actually 10^120 operations on 10^90 bits of data). Anything needing more data can’t be computed in the fifteen billion years or so that the universe has existed so far. Calculating the location of every atom in the universe would require more than 10^120. Ergo, omniscience is impossible even for a computing organism the size and age of the universe.

The most fundamental definition of God, as conceived in all religions, is (1) omniscience and (2) prime mover who created everything out of nothing. To this, some religions add (3) omnipotence and (4) benevolence. But omniscience is by far the most universal of God’s attributes, including even the less religious and more spiritual interpretations such as a universal consciousness.

If omniscience cannot exist, then for intents and purposes God (to the extent the word has a shared day-to-day meaning), cannot exist. QED

I’m not interested enough in the atheist-believer dialogue to read any of the books such as The God Delusion, but I’ve never come across this simple proof of God’s nonexistence. As a child, I was always told you can’t prove a negative. And I guess a true conception of God would be without attributes whatsoever, not even ones such as existence and nonexistence, in which case, no, you couldn’t prove anything.

But I’m wondering, has anyone ever applied the computational limit of the universe to disproving the regular-old God whom people worship as though he were an entity listening to their prayers, etc? Or is there some glaring flaw in my logic that I just can’t see?

(Originally posted 19 May 2009).

16 comments to Accidental Proof that God Does Not Exist

  • Please publish your blog that explains why fear was the wrong way to respond to 9/11. It’s great, but I’m not a computer geeks and don’t know how to create a buzz. You are bloggers and dhould go for it. That’s one of the best blogs, I ‘ve read. The link to it only mentions Cheney because that was the lead in story.

    Get that blog out to the world! Sorry I did not discuss God, although many view God as one of the greatest perpetrators of fear.

  • Thanks for your kind words, Danielle!

    The Opinionator blog comment was an adapted excerpt from a full article on fear that I have coming out in the July issue of C-Arts Magazine. After the article comes out in print, I’ll have full secondary rights to blog about it at length. Which your comment made me much more eager to do.

  • atlasfugged

    I too was drawn to this site via the link on the Opinionator Blog. Browsing through some of your posts, I decided to bookmark you, which I do for any of the hidden gems I come across while browsing the web.

    Anyway, the post above presumes that the deity(s) – whatever he/she/it may be – obeys the laws of Nature, in particular, that the deity’s omniscience is constrained by the laws of Nature. Most religions (in fact, probably all religions) conceive their respective deities as somehow transcending Nature, and thus not subject to its laws and limits. If a deity must be subject to laws of Nature, then I’d be inclined to believe your assertion that he/she/it cannot be omniscient. (The notion of omniscience – the notion that something can know everything, that it has some infinite capacity for information – is itself incompatible with the laws of Nature, as nothing in the universe can be infinite). If, on the other hand, the deity is – as in most religions – arbitrarily defined as transcending Nature’s laws, then the physical limits on computational capacity and computational speed are irrelevant. After all, a creator of something can limit his/her/its creation to a subset of the rules and limits he/she/it is bound to, if that creator is bound by any rules and limits at all. Thus, the arbitrariness of the concept of a god precludes its disproof and, likewise, its proof. One either chooses to believe in a god, and therefore eschews the requirement for a logically sound rationale to justify that belief, or one chooses not to believe, choosing instead to forgo what is essentially an irrational leap of faith.

  • Thanks atlasfugged — though I’ve brought it up twice in my blog now, I’m actually not a big believer in debating belief. But I did spend eight months in Tennessee and found the standard conception of God a bit confounding. When I do think about a God entity, I guess I go either with Osho’s definition (an entity beyond dualities, even that of existence vs nonexistence, which all believers are fragmenting when they assert He exists), or with Aristotle’s (that God is defined by the physical laws of the universe.)

    In this latter conception, God can be “seen” in the law of gravity, in E=mc2, etc., and a study of science is itself a study of God. For the (probably small) subset of the population who define God this way, the limits on computational capacity and speed are relevant.

    It’s historically quite a new thing to leave the rational mind behind when studying God. Aristotle, the Scholastics, Thomas Aquinas, approached God with rational tools. I think most theologians still do. (I had some friends at the Harvard School of Divinity, and they definitely did not have a faith-based anything-goes approach.)

  • Freedom

    I like this excerpt – your attempt to objectively circumvent the impossibilities of proving a negative – and look forward to reading your complete article.

    A caveat preceding the following: I’m not very familiar with either your data or the theories you selected.

    That said, while I accept that there are very useful theories attending Einstein’s observations regarding the speed of light, I’m not sure these will not be subject to modification (“clarification” ?) some future number of times. Your thesis seems also to accept that our computational powers are immutable; they will never improve.

    If I have a sufficient grasp of your data and theories, I don’t accept the inevitability of your conclusion. This doesn’t mean that I think you’re wrong, just that your case is weak.

  • Freedom — these limits on computational power are a simple mathematical consequence of two of the most stable observations in physics: the speed of light in a vacuum and the Planck length (the smallest distance/size about which anything can be known, and the minimum distance through which information can travel and remain discrete).

    I absolutely agree that no theories are absolute. But in terms of my case being weak, it’s weak only when compared to theoretical absolutes or purely mathematical proofs that aren’t grounded in phenomenological observations. But it’s extremely strong when compared to, say, a personal experience of God, meeting Him, having lunch with Him, going to Heaven and hugging your lost loved ones, etc. The probability of hallucinating a moment of faith is far higher than the probability of Einstein being wrong about the speed of light or Planck being wrong about the Planck constant — given decades of the smartest people on the planet trying very hard and failing to prove them both wrong. Thus, even if God came and spoke to me, I’d still not believe in him.

  • Tom Paine

    Since when is God a computer?

    There are (at least) two unstated premises in your argument, both of which are debatable:

    1. Minds are digital computational entities.
    2. God has a mind like we do, only more powerful.

  • From where do you pull out the issue of digital vs analog information? Or the whole computer notion?

    Neither of the premises you list are necessary for the “dis-proof” to work. The only assumption necessary is that God obeys the laws of the universe, at their most expansive.

    All information requires movement. In terms of the human body (which is not digital) sound, smell and taste all consist of vibrations, which require movement. The brain is only able to process vision by virtue of the eyes’ saccades, and a similar thing is true for touch.

    There’s a strong argument being made in physics right now that time doesn’t exist as its own dimension, but is simply the brain’s way of processing movement — which is why time travel backwards is nonsensical, because there’s no such thing as negative movement. But that’s a tangent, except to the extent it illustrates your premises do not apply: 1. nondigital information still requires movement; 2. I do not expect God to live in time the way we do (mind like ours, but more powerful), but I do expect Him to require movement in order to process information.

    My dis-proof here is based on the nature of information, since omniscience is an awareness of all information in the universe. Information has to be processed, not digitally, but in some way or another, and it can only be processed through movement, which implies a speed and a distance. The minimum possible distance is the Planck length and maximum possible speed is the speed of light.

    Now you’re right in that I’m assuming that God is bound by the laws of the universe. This seems a logical assumption, since the universe is infinite, and the best God could do is to be co-infinite along with it. Again, in Aristotle’s terms, God is defined and manifest by the laws of the universe that he created. You look at the speed of light and you’re looking at God’s left arm. You look at the Planck length, and you have his ear hairs. And so on. He chose the parameters, I’m just following them. In other words, God is the universe.

    Now there is another “way” of looking at God — sort of the way a six year old looks at ghosts. You start with your conclusion — “the ghost is there, daddy!” — and logic or the rules by which ghosts would conform to our physical laws is all meaningless, because you’ve already decided based on primitive emotional impulses.

    That sort of belief is valid only on a purely personal level. If you’re going to throw out all evidence-based systems and common knowledge (and nothing we have is as common as the limit of c or h-bar), that’s fine, but there’s no point in writing books, bibles or blogs about it, because it’s a purely subjective experience. The moment someone writes a bible, opens a church, etc., they need to accept a certain set of common rules, such as the laws of physics.

    The fact that most people don’t follow this limitation, doesn’t disqualify the limitation. Something like 50% of people believe in ghosts. In this sense, God, ghosts, and leprechauns sit on a spectrum of social acceptance — but you’ll excuse me if I consider anyone who believes in leprechauns as being intellectually stunted. (Trolls, of course, are very different. I like Trolls, especially the grumpy one who lives under my bridge.)

    I’m not a Platonist, but there’s an element of truth to Platonism when it comes to abstract mathematical rules. John Tierney quotes the puzzle-maker Martin Gardner in yesterday’s Times, saying “If all sentient beings in the universe disappeared, there would remain a sense in which mathematical objects and theorems would continue to exist even though there would be no one around to write or talk about them. Huge prime numbers would continue to be prime even if no one had proved them prime.”

  • Mark Jackson

    I got home today and the first thing I had to do was google “god does not exist” – a 1st time for me. Stay with me on this, I think I’ve found a logical explanation for the existence of God – rather than the ole rely on faith and personal experiences, etc.

    Let’s start with GOD DOES NOT EXIST – that means that the Bible was written by mere men.. i.e. they were not writing from God’s divine revelation, it was all made up stuff – myths, some stories, anecdotes, etc. enough stuff to start a religion – a club, so to speak. Therefore, Sexual morality doesn’t exist – i.e. there are no sexual morals from God, since we’ve agreed that he doesn’t exist.

    Leviticus Chapter 18 (which I read today) does nothing but list all the people you can’t have sex with! (bummer) That got me thinking… what mere man would limit who we could have sex with! I mean if my sister in-law is hot.. I wanna do her.. yes, of course, her willing… same thing goes with my father’s new wife, or my father’s new wife’s daughter… etc etc. NO MERE MAN would have written Leviticus 18!

    Ok, maybe some mere man who is a nut job… but remember, this mere man wants to start a religion… how many converts or new memberships do you think he’s gonna get!? Remember, since God does not exist — there are no sexual morals that we have to abide by… again, no mere man who wants to start a religion/club is going to write Leviticus 18!

    hmmm… maybe a woman wrote it…. (I know how you atheists think!)

  • what mere man would limit who we could have sex with!

    Huh? Taliban is all about banning sexual morality, as is any man past his prime who already has a younger wife and is scared she might find someone better looking, better in bed, etc. We men have sperm the sole function of which is to kill the sperm of any other men they encounter rather, than to reach the egg. Our biological impulse is not just to procreate, but to beat out others in doing so — without that competitive function there’d be no evolution. Sexual morality is just a manifestation of that.

    So, your argument here would allow a possibility other than divine inspiration: that the bible was written by sexually insecure men.

  • Himangsu Sekhar Pal

    God is said to be spaceless, timeless. If someone now says that God does not exist, then the sentence “God is said to be spaceless, timeless” (S) can have three different meanings. S can mean:
    a) Nothing was/is spaceless, timeless in this universe (A),
    b) Not God, but someone else has been said to be spaceless, timeless here (B),
    c) Not God, but something else has been said to be spaceless, timeless here (C).
    It can be shown that if it is true that God does not exist, and if S is also true, then S can only mean C, but neither A nor B. If S means A, then the two words “spaceless” and “timeless” simply become meaningless words. If S means A, then by the two words “spaceless” and “timeless” we cannot indicate anyone or anything, simply because in this universe never there was, is, and will be, anyone or anything that could be properly called spaceless, timeless. Now the very big question is: how can some scientists find meaning and significance in a word like “timeless” that has got no meaning and significance in the real world? If nothing was timeless in the past, then time was not unreal in the past. If nothing is timeless at present, then time is not unreal at present. If nothing will be timeless in future, then time will not be unreal in future. If in this universe time was never unreal, if it is not now, and if it will never be, then why was it necessary for them to show as to how time could be unreal? If nothing was/is/will be timeless, then it can in no way be the business, concern, or headache of the scientists to show how anything can be timeless. If no one in this universe is immortal, then it can in no way be the business, concern, or headache of the scientists to show how anyone can be immortal. Simply, it is none of their business. So, what compelling reason was there behind their action here? If we cannot find any such compelling reason here, then we will be forced to conclude that scientists are involved in some useless activities here that have got no connection whatsoever with the actual world, and thus we lose complete faith in science. Therefore we cannot accept A as the proper meaning of S, as this will reduce some activities of the scientists to simply useless activities.
    Now can we accept B as the proper meaning of S? No, we cannot. Because there is no real difference in meaning between this sentence and S. Here God is replaced by some other supernatural being. So, if S is true, then it can only mean that not God, but something else has been said to be spaceless, timeless. Now, what is this “something else” (SE)? Is it still in the universe? Or, was it in the past? Here there are two possibilities:
    a) In the past there was something in this universe that was spaceless, timeless,
    b) That spaceless, timeless thing (STT) is still there.
    We know that the second possibility will not be acceptable to atheists and scientists. So we will proceed with the first one. If STT was in the past, then was it in the very recent past? Or, was it in the universe billions and billions of years ago? Was only a tiny portion of the universe in spaceless, timeless condition? Or, was the whole universe in that condition? Modern science tells us that before the big bang that took place 13.7 billion years ago there was neither space, nor time. Space and time came into being along with the big bang only. So we can say that before the big bang this universe was in a spaceless, timeless state. So it may be that this is the STT. Is this STT then that SE of which mystics spoke when they said that God is spaceless, timeless? But this STT cannot be SE for several reasons. Because it was there 13.7 billion years ago. And man has appeared on earth only 2 to 3 million years ago. And mystical literatures are at the most 2500 years old, if not even less than that. So, if we now say that STT is SE, then we will have to admit that mystics have somehow come to know that almost 13.7 billion years ago this universe was in a spaceless, timeless condition, which is unbelievable. Therefore we cannot accept that STT is SE. The only other alternative is that this SE was not in the external world at all. As scientist Victor J. Stenger has said, so we can also say that this SE was in mystics’ head only. But if SE was in mystics’ head only, then why was it not kept buried there? Why was it necessary for the scientists to drag it in the outside world, and then to show as to how a state of timelessness could be reached? If mystics’ sense of timelessness was in no way connected with the external world, then how will one justify scientists’ action here? Did these scientists think that the inside of the mystics’ head is the real world? And so, when these mystics got their sense of timelessness from their head only and not from any other external source, then that should only be construed as a state of timelessness in the real world? And therefore, as scientists they were obliged to show as to how that state could be reached?
    We can conclude this essay with the following observations: If mystical experience is a hallucination, then SE cannot be in the external world. Because in that case mystics’ sense of spacelessness, timelessness will have a correspondence with some external fact, and therefore it will no longer remain a hallucination. But if SE is in mystics’ head only, then that will also create a severe problem. Because in that case we are admitting that the internal part of mystics’ head is the real world for the scientists. That is why when mystics get their sense of timelessness from their brain, that sense is treated by these scientists as a state of timelessness in the real world, and accordingly they proceed to explain as to how that state can be reached. And we end up this essay with this absurd statement: If mystical experience is a hallucination, then the internal part of mystics’ head is the real world for the scientists.

  • Wow, Himangsu, you just gave me a headache with that amazing chunk of sophistry that dangles precariously off ambiguous commas and Tao-of-Physics level physics. Let’s start with your A, which I read as saying “Nothing was/is spaceless AND timeless in this universe.” You drop the AND, however, and proceed to show that the words spacelessness and timelessness become meaningless if something can’t be both spaceless AND timeless (STI), and if scientists go to the trouble of showing time doesn’t exist, then it must follow that something STI can’t exist, because otherwise they’d be wasting their time and the fact that scientists have wasted their time on an attempted proof would undermine all science. Huh? Even within your own example, scientists have wasted massive amounts of time figuring out the laws of time only to “prove” that time doesn’t exist as they’d conceived if it. Back to that later.

    Spacelessness by itself (call it ~S) could be a valid concept, worth studying. Timelessness (~T) could also be a valid concept, also worth studying. And yet it could still remain true that no entity possesses both qualities ~S and ~T. That’s just the first pure logical flaw in your argument. There are also substantive flaws. When scientists argue about time not existing, they are discussing it as an independent dimension akin to length, width, height, and positing it its place an application of the Laws of Thermodynamics. You are partially right in that the emerging consensus is that Time as an independent dimension doesn’t exit, that it is in fact merely movement. But it doesn’t follow that anything is timeless.

    To summarize the physics: Basically, scientists now say time is fictitious, unobservable and undefineable. A second is nine billion or so periods of radiation of the caesium atom. A period is defined as wavelength over velocity. Wavelength is a distance, and all our distances, say a meter, are defined by how far light travels in a given fraction of a second. Velocity is distance divided by time. So the definition of a second requires three instances of a second to define it. In other words, it’s completely circular. Not only is time undefineable, tautological, but it’s also unnecessary. Apparently, every single law of physics we have works as well if time ran backward as it does if time runs forward. I’m told Einstein destroyed the notion of Newton’s absolute time that flows on its own clock, and that something called the Wheeler-DeWitt equation integrates quantum theory with special relativity, but only if we take the very counterintuitive step of saying time doesn’t exist. But that’s true of the universe, of you and me, not just God. And it doesn’t mean that there is no flow towards entropy, or movement, or whatever we macroscopically describe as time. The surface of the water doesn’t have a discrete line at the molecular level — the appearance of a surface on any glass of water is merely part of the ‘macroscopic appearance’ of reality. But that doesn’t mean there is no distinction between the water and the air.

    Similarly, the clock pendulum has motion and energy flow towards entropy, and time is simply a human-created marker of the location of the pendulum. The clock is not measuring time. Our concept of time is a way to talk about where the clock is. Time measures the clock, not the other way around.

    Nevertheless…I’m drinking coffee from a large mug as I type this. I drop the mug on the floor and break it, the mug will never jump back on the table and fix itself — not because of Apollo’s arrow of time, but because of the second law of thermodynamics, that everything moves towards entropy. Or, alternatively, if time is not a dimension we travel in the way we travel in space, but rather simply a marker of motion, then the idea of going ‘backwards in time’ would require negative motion, which is nonsense. You can’t have negative motion.

    So you may not have time as an independent factor in physics, but you still have time-like behaviour at all levels of the universe, because the universe is always in motion. Thus, studying timelessness gives great insights into the nature of the universe, even as timelessness itself is impossible (i.e., the universe cannot stop). I’m guessing, but pretty sure the math could all be flipped so that everything is both spaceless and timeless — if time is motion, then, according to quantum mechanics, both space and time exist as quanta, discrete fragments that can present as waves. And waves have the odd property that an infinite quantity of them can exist in the same spot. All the quanta of the universe might be piled on in a single dimensionless point. All the quanta of the universe living on top of one another without being immersed in either space or time.

    So basically you’re left with two possibilities: your A (nothing is both spaceless and timeless; which could also be flipped that nothingness is spaceless and timeless, and it is the only thing that is spaceless and timeless; if per your definition God is spaceless and timeless then God is nothingness; if nothingness/God is spaceless and timeless, then He cannot exist except in an infinitely short duration and infinitely small size, which is functionally equivalent to non-existence; ergo God does not exist; but I’m just teasing to show how easy this type of sophistry is), and a possibility you didn’t present, which is that everything is both spaceless and timeless. The choice between the two becomes semantic and metaphysical, and thus uninteresting, but the important point is that there is no independent entity (God) who can be both spaceless and timeless within a spaceful and timeful universe. At best, you can define God as synonymous with Universe (one which encompasses both existing and nonexisting, bridging even that duality — this is Osho’s nonconcept of God), but even then, He is a blind and unconscious God, incapable of being aware of his own body parts. It is up to us to catch glimpses of little slices of Him and project meaning onto Him…and that is what scientists do, study something that doesn’t exist.

    And the fact that scientists waste their lives studying things that cannot exist is precisely why I do have faith in science. Because they don’t take their assumptions as facts. Even gravity is just a theory (and one that nobody seems capable of proving except when their mug falls off the table.)

  • kiran

    When God was hiding dinosaur bones to test your faith he was also throwing a monkeywrench into your math problems. This is also to test you faith you silly silly scientist.

  • So perhaps I was a little too snarky with that comment. After reading some of the other comments, let me try a more serious more reasoned comment;

    From the earlier comment by Mark Jackson about “why would man create laws about sex”.
    A- Because man needs laws about sex.
    You believe in God, but you have to look at human kind are realize that if God did not exist, Man would have to invent God. Therefore perhaps the God that you believe is one that Man did invent?

    Other options include:
    – The God that you believe in is the one true God, the ones that most other people believe in (no matter what your religion is, most people have a religion different than your own), so the God that most others believe in is made up or false.
    – Somehow all religions are right (except Atheism), somehow by some logic that defies our logic, religions that both contradict eachother are somehow both right.

    If the former is true. How do you know that you have the right one? I mean you know, you feel it in your heart it must be the right one. But so do the followers of other religions. So really how do you know?

    If the latter is true, why bother? Why not just do what you want to do, and then shop around for the religion that matches it?

    I mean there is a good reason for religion to exist. We don’t want our existence to end. We have evolved the ability to understand that our self will end, and we also had evolved prior the innate need to survive, to have our self not end. We existed because we had the very useful quality of being terrified of death on various levels of our consciousness.

    We also want there to be an objective right or wrong, and what better than a supreme being that knows better than us what is right or wrong that can lay down the law. For if Bob tells me what is right or wrong, well fuck Bob, maybe i know something that he doesn’t. But God? no I can’t know more than him, so right and wrong is immutable.
    But right and wrong is an abstract concept that changes over time, and changes from religion to religion, and changes within the same religion over time and between communities. If God really dictates what is right and wrong then the religious fanatics, the crazy ones that interpret their holy books as it is written. The people that all of us rational people despise in every religion, those crazy fucked up people are the only ones that really follow the right and wrong of God.
    If you are a Jew, Christian, or Moslem then your real right or wrong was dictated by middle eastern savages that commanded to women who lose their virginity before marriage.

    That said, and this is neither here nor there, but maybe relates to some of my other discussions with the moderator. Democracy, a religion of sorts to some modern day liberals, is also not a dictator of what is right and wrong.

  • admin

    Just parking some text here, please ignore:

    All evidence in the end is circumstantial. I can’t disprove God, but I can prove that under our current understanding of the laws of physics omniscience is impossible. And omniscience seems to be the primary characteristic of any of the various Gods people believe in, even the new agey “universal consciousness” types who get away from the Bearded Man.

    Based on the minimum amount of time you need to move data across the Planck length, at the speed of light, there’s a limit to the computational power of the universe that’s about 10-to-the-power-of-120 bits (actually 10^120 operations on 10^90 bits of data). Anything needing more data can’t be computed in the fifteen billion years or so that the universe has existed so far. Calculating the location of every atom in the universe would require more than 10^120. Ergo, omniscience is impossible even for a computing organism the size and age of the universe. (More here:

    I do understand that our knowledge of physics is limited – which is what makes my disproof circumstantial — but it’s a knowledge that the smartest people in the world are doing their best to destroy (and thus improve). I don’t feel I have to disprove God. All I have to do is examine the mechanism by which science works – scepticism, attack, self-interest, ego, relativism – and the mechanism by which religion works – faith, agreement, doctrine, totality, fiat — and draw a logical conclusion of which mechanism is likely to be self-correcting and which is likely to hold on to error. Just as I trust an adversarial legal system to come to more “correct” conclusions than, say, the Spanish Inquisition approach, so I trust science to come to more correct ontological conclusions. And unless God is redefined away into meaninglessness as a concept independent from just saying “Universe,” then there is a clash between the scientific and religious approaches. Since I understand the mechanism of science (though not necessarily E=MC2, etc.) and trust it with my life every time I go to the doctor, this creates heavy circumstantial proof that in a clash of conclusions between science on the one hand and religion on the other, I side with science. And to unpack what religion means to an atheist, it’s really just someone saying “there’s a consciousness in the sky that wants us to worship it and the proof is in this old book, and you should believe what the book says because the book says it.”

    If I’m playing pure defence, then sure anything can be deconstructed, including science. But if I’m looking at both with the same level of scrutiny, there’s no contest. As with a jury convicting based on circumstantial evidence, I’d say I’m certain “beyond a reasonable doubt” that there is no God. That doesn’t have to be 100% in order to call myself an atheist.


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