Astronomy and The Omnipotent Deceiver

By Clark M. Thomas
Copyright 2005

Everybody has some knowledge of astronomy; but few have heard of The Omnipotent Deceiver. Astronomy blazes before us every clear night, but the idea of an Omnipotent Deceiver is truly alien to us. We are growing comfortable with an alien in the flesh, but we are not comfortable with the idea of being deceived and not knowing it.

Historically, Rene Descartes in the 17th Century was the first to flesh out this idea. He intellectually proposed that there could be an Omnipotent Deceiver of whom we would not know, and who would for whatever perverse reasons proceed to deceive us into thinking that we know what we do not know. Worst of all, this Deceiver could get us into thinking that we are going to Heaven, but we go to Hell anyway. We as finite creatures would be unable to understand what is relatively infinite. The game that this Deceiver is playing would be beyond our comprehension, beyond our understanding of morality.

Descartes rejected this idea almost as quickly as he advanced it. He was a devout Catholic, and it was anathema to him to see God as being anything other than good. In the mind of Descartes God was unable to be an Omnipotent Deceiver. In other words, Descartes put limits on God's own power, effectively turning God's amoral infinite powers into morally limited powers.

Blaise Pascal, a junior contemporary of Descartes, incorporated the Deceiver idea into his Wager. He said that we humans can never know all about God, but that there are three possibilities: plus, minus, and zero. The minus god would be something like an evil Omnipotent Deceiver, and we would gain nothing from believing in such a force, since we would be going to Hell anyway. The neutral or zero god would be like a force of nature, providing no afterlife; so there would be no advantage in casting our faith in something that will not give us an afterlife. The third possibility is a positive god such as that portrayed in the Bible. Pascal said it was only with the third possibility that we could win eternal life, so it is proper to wager our faith on this possibility, even while we have no knowledge of its probability.

How does all this philosophy talk fit in with astronomy? Throughout human history the gods have been seen to mostly reside in the heavens, or among the stars, or at least on Mount Olympus. Up there and out there is above and beyond human life. Astrology was historically both a science of astronomy and a magical form of belief. It is only with the rise of modern science since Galileo and Newton, among others, that astrology has been pushed back into the realm of superstition where it belongs. But what about the "new religion of astronomy"?

More and more we are refining our knowledge of "the universe" through the scientific method. We are truly living in the golden age of astronomy. Great advances come to us so fast that we are jaded, being entertained by great news only for a few days, or hours. Perhaps only a real and permanent visit by an alien space craft would hold our attention. But soon we would try to assimilate them into our culture! Soon the really important things in life -- soap opera plots, cigarettes, and pro wrestling -- would regain their prominent place in our lazy lives. But not for scientists.

Scientists are always looking for new things, and trying to disprove them at the same time. We don't accept things on FINAL faith, only on hypothetical faith. That is where science and religion differ. Even a written scientific "bible" can be torn up and rewritten when new evidence appears that supersedes the old "truths." The religionist's holy book can never be refuted, because it is blocked from science.

However, the scientific method itself requires a regular sense of order, and a system of verifiability. Otherwise, all of our experiments would sink into the absurd. This is where the Omnipotent Deceiver intrudes into our science. No matter how tight our evidence is, we must at least intellectually allow for the possibility that all of our proof is illusion, now and in the future. To not honestly allow for this possibility is to sink into blind faith. To allow this doubt is to move science and the scientific method from superstition toward the image of God.

In final analysis, the idea of an Omnipotent Deceiver is at least a warning against scientific hubris. It is a precaution against rushing to conclusions, even when current evidence seems to be solid. For centuries people were convinced of the evidence that our Earth is flat. What "convincing evidence" do we have today that blunts our honest and highest search for Truth among the stars?