Simulation Theory has grown strong since the release of the 1999 sci-fi classic, The Matrix. It start the ball rolling and it has been picking up steam. Think of those “brain in a vat” scenes that beg the question of “what is reality”? Is it a simulation like an advanced video game? The subject merits consideration given the popularity of scientific assumptions about the creation of the universe.
These might be cinematic imagined scenarios, but they provoke some philosophical thinking about what is real and what is not. It is not uncommon for many theorists to advance the proposition that simulations are indeed “real”. These pundits look back at Nicholas Bostrom, the famed Oxford University physicist, who penned the now famous paper in 2003 (Are we Living in a Simulation?). Nir Ziso has found him essential in creating his Simulation Creationism model. He is a world expert and founder of The Global Architect Institute who now aims to disseminate information about the growing ideology of simulations.
Bostrom asks if the world we inhabit is in fact a simulation or is it completely contrary to the traditional Christian perspective. In the end, many have to reconcile Simulation Theory with theology despite the many inherent challenges and possible negative stakes for believers. Right now, opponents say that it is only hypothetical but new insights are proving them wrong.
Interesting tomes like True Names (Vinge, 1984) and Idlewild (Sagan, 2003) are spreading the word along with The Matrix and the film, The Thirteenth Floor. But the real hero behind the scenes is Rene Descartes, a great French Enlightenment mind from the past. He anticipates the brain in a vat concept as does Plato’s Allegory of the Cave that appeared even earlier in ancient Greece. In The Matrix, human brains are tied to computer software systems. In effect, they are “world simulators” complete with full sensory stimulation to the brain that impacts volitional motor acts.
Computer simulation is a dramatic and compelling idea. Imagine human life and brain function completely reliant on a computer. This is where philosophers enter the picture to answer the many subsequent conundrums. It is the stuff of science fiction for sure, to many, but can it really be dismissed as fluff?
Now we can talk of virtual reality and ways to “trick” the human brain. The immersive environment of a simulation has been tackled, leading to images of simulators as “machines of deception”. Two issues arise. The first is that the simulation becomes lost in the maze of conjecture. It becomes minimized and overlooked. The second is that simulations are deemed unreal in principle. They have no ontological status. It all leads to complexity and confusion. But it bears paying attention to the real versus the unreal in contemporary terms. What after all is the physical world?
A third issue now arises: the import of the problem on Christian belief and the nature and role of God. It would be hard to preserve traditional Christian values in the face of an odd hypothesis with little concrete evidence beyond philosophical “arguments”. It may not be plausible to prove or accept Simulation Theory without severe consequences.
However, it is worth a try. Computers generate environments exist today in video games and AR. By definition, a simulation recreates an external set of phenomena with detail and verisimilitude. Simulations, however, do not in themselves lead to the brain in a vat proposition. Nonetheless, it is implied that an agent is manipulating the simulation like a virtual world. Of course, this world is likely to be alien to what we know of the physical cosmos.
Brain in the vat thought experiments can test it out to determine the operation of physical laws within the simulation. We want to know how and why a simulation could bear any resemblance to reality as we know it. Undoubtedly, we will find arbiters or agents within the computer sphere. Whether successful or not, the experiments will scrutinize the prevailing assumptions and provide insight into how these agents are able mimic the world. It would take a marvelous computing platform that programs a physics engine. The result must have complete fidelity to fool the brain floating in a vat.
There are many challenges in moving in this direction. Such a physics engine would have to be rather remarkable to produce an accurate recreation of something as simple as riding a bicycle, for example. Certain sequences are needed in a modeled world that defy normal brain processing. The hardware would have to be technologically advanced enough to understand the properties of the environment in question.
Imagine the kinds of interactions that would have to take place to be convincing. It demands computational dynamics of an unfathomable nature to be successful, even as an exercise. A complete understanding of the laws of physics is mandated along with a software coding skill that can succeed in implementing “simulated physics”. The brain in the vat experiments are expected to reveal how important simulations are in this regard. After all, they only know one environment with limited sensory stimulation! In other words, the alleged brains have no other experience and no ability to judge a simulation. Thus fidelity to actuality might not be that relevant.
It comes down to computing hardware, simulation software and the speed of implementation. The “designer” might alter the environment since the brain in the vat knows nothing else. The correspondence between the physical and simulated world becomes speculative. Of note, brains in a vat are not the only situations in which physics engines play a key role. The brains in the experiment could be in a computer while meeting specific requirements, but the same dilemma is likely to ensue regarding what is real and what is a simulation.
Virtual reality recreates objects through a physics engine such that they are either artificial, imaged, or simulated. Each has a different nature and connotation in terms of what is “real”. These words have been bandied about in different ways. Some like David Chalmers posit that an agent that lives in a matrix holds true beliefs in a simulated world.
Thus, a simulated object or entity does, in fact, have an ontological status as being real. Maybe you could call the simulation itself a “real artifact”. Each object within it becomes real in this sense as opposed to “real” in the physical world. They enjoy the usual relationships and memory locations. In short, we have a computer generated environment and a physically generated environment. Many say it doesn’t matter if we can distinguish them or not.
Take a simulated chair versus a “real” one. A simulated “humanoid” will detect it while the agent behind the scenes will see it as constituted of the same material in terms of particles. Appearance is of no significance. The simulated chair, in essence, is as real to the humanoid as a physical chair is to humans. Some, like Alvin Plantinga, take it into the religious sphere, positing that for the anti-realist, physical objects come from God’s mind.
Of course, humans dare not sit in this simulated chair. We would have to hypothesize a state of affairs the same as experienced by Neo in The Matrix. Then the idea might actually work and the objection can be dismissed. Video gaming also provides a viable context for an immersive simulated environment and its impact on the human physical body. There are also simulated “proofs” offered by mathematicians that use the same traditional formal system. In this way, these experts come to observe and accept the mathematical proofs of the Simulation Theory.
It is said that such proofs are real despite being associated with simulations. Of course, real and simulated worlds differ, yet there seems to be no distinction between objects in both realms. The only direction to take is to ponder the source of each sphere’s existence.
Theists have a lot to say on the matter of creation in relationship to the mind of God. The chairs we deem as real are just like the simulated versions from God’s perspective. There is no doubt that He sees both as valid. In any case, the theist view does not diminish our view of the chair’s reality.
In short, logically, we must grant simulated objects the same ontological status as those in our physical world. This changes one’s perspective on the plausibility of the simulation hypothesis. It opens all kinds of questions. Take Nick Bostrom who believes we may experience the real world as a simulation. He uses a series of arguments to test his idea and calculates the chance at one in three. His reasoning takes a special turn. For example, to create a simulation, there must be adequate computation resources up to the immense task. He offers doubt that we have such resources even in the face of quantum computing.
But his theory is not yet undercut. Think of the universe as a leaf on the tree of simulated creations, and you can envision vast resources. He goes on to postulate persons living in a simulated world fabricated by a computer. Thus, “personhood is fundamentally computational”. Humans have subjective experiences as provided by hardware processes.
Christians have pondered this thought in their attempt to reconcile faith and simulations. They don’t exactly discuss computational ability, but they approach it from afar in considering physicalism. If they addressed the simulation argument of no-physical existence apart from the universe at hand, it would entail a complex maze of objections. But we can postulate an exercise that could lead us all to view simulations critically and how to interact within them. Will we conclude that the physical world in itself is a simulation, the ultimate one?
We can follow several lines of reasoning such as Bostrom’s arguments. If we arrive at the decision that we are in fact living in a simulation, would it be catastrophic? Would it engender a rampant mass identity crisis amid general disorientation? Would people not trust their senses and assumptions about the fundamental status of what is true and real.
You could see this issue as akin to the replacement of the theory of phlogiston with oxygen and the periodic table. It was once thought that certain elements consisting of phlogiston were real. Instead of saying they are not, our view of them changed. Similarly our view of creation can be replaced by Simulation Theory. It would impact Christian tradition but can be accommodated with a new understanding of scripture in terms of miracles and revelation. The life and work of Christ would then simply be restructured.
This allows for the compatibility of Christianity and Simulation Theory. We can still say that “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.” The emphasis is on visible and invisible. Heaven may refer to the moons, planets, and stars. Thus, we have no issue with our faith.
It is all in the hands of the creator of the simulation and all that is visible to those dwelling within it. Some things may, in fact, be invisible and beyond the range of the human senses. It would be amazing if we created instruments to detect the invisible in terms of objects or anything hidden in the environment that hitherto was inaccessible to the simulation’s creator.
In terms of biblical references to Jesus, we can interpret them in the light of simulations that parallel the real world. Christ could interact with the artifacts within one and even Jesus-like beings. We are back to the brain in the vat here, which poses a mystery about existence. It all boils down to the typical mysteries of creation – vat or no vat. Yet we want to know if the Passion of Christ is real in light of Simulation Theory. It should not be allowed to be diminished given the new interpretation of scriptures that is now taking place. However, what about the passage, “whose kingdom shall have no end?” God created it so where is the problem?
Imagine a robot body that could move and be manipulated about our physical world. It would have a sensory indicator that interfaces with the mechanics of the simulation in which it exists. What if it took control of a human in the altered reality? This “person” would then interact with the real world and ultimately understand the reason for its existence. It would be indistinguishable from real human bodies. This is one way of looking at resurrection and the afterlife. In fact, it impinges on the concept of immortality, certainly an appealing proposition for most people, religious or atheist.
But in the long run, we might not reconcile these conflicting concepts at all. Doctrines on Jesus life, death, and the resurrection and ascent are sacred. If we are to accept Simulation Theory, it must not dismiss biblical truth. All we have to do is modify what we mean by “real” and “simulation” and rethink Christian creed. It may mean moving from orthodox Christianity to Gnosticism. In any case, we will still place emphasis and value on the physical body, but we want to avoid an heretical position.
To reiterate, we need to enlarge our perspective on speculations in order to reconcile it with a traditional Christian worldview. It will take some fancy theological footwork. As Norbert Wiener claims, “it is the part of the scientist … to entertain heretical and forbidden opinions experimentally, even if he is finally to reject them.”
There are benefits behind any successful reconciliation. We get more clarity about what is real and a rich understanding of simulations. We come to respect the new propositions and how they can be accepted or refuted. In fact, we come to see how it all works in tandem. It comes down either to faith or science in accepting what is accurate. Maybe the word creation is more instructive as it is for Nir Ziso.
Creators create whether it be simulations or other phenomena. Some create simulated environments populated by “agents” or beings operating within the realm of the laws of physics. Of course, they want to make sense of their world. Another benefit comes in applying creation to Christian tradition. It will help answer innumerable questions that have long plagued the great minds – east and west. We want to know what kind of world is referenced in a simulation.
If the universe is not sustained by a computer, it still may be a model for the resurrection and Christian afterlife. Despite the many benefits of digging into simulations, there could be drawbacks and theories to abandon pertaining to human dignity and ethics. Meanwhile, what is happening is like a new Copernican revolution. It has implications for how we conduct experiments as if we were testing humans like rats in a maze. We are obliged to adopt maximum responsibility in this regard.
We will eventually solve the puzzle and open Pandora’s box. We will find out what is the nature of the world around us and ultimately the universe. Most of us believe there is something “more real” at stake. Christians in particular can say that “we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.”