Would It Matter If We’re Living in a Simulation?
The nature of the world is in God’s hands, as it has always been.
A reader writes:
My good sir, a baptized Catholic who is away from the Faith asked me at work this week: “How do we know we are not living in a computer simulation? What is wrong with Elon Musk’s simulation hypothesis?” What do I say in reply?
What the Simulation Hypothesis Is
Currently we use computers to run simulations of many different kinds of scenarios. For example, physicists use them to run simulations of how different kinds of subatomic particles interact.
The basic idea of the simulation hypothesis is that as computers get better and better, we will be able to run better and better simulations, and one day we could arrive at a stage where computers would allow us to run detailed simulations of the natural world as we experience it.
We might then choose to run simulations about the past and learn about what our ancestors did. Or we might run simulations just for fun, like a supercomplex, universe-sized Tamagotchi toy.
We might, in fact, run many, many simulations. Or if we don’t, aliens on other planets might.
If a very large number of simulations exists, each of which is indistinguishable from the natural world as we experience it, then how do we know we aren’t living in such a simulation?
This idea—as far out as it may sound—is being seriously entertained by some philosophers and scientists.
It’s essentially a modern variant of an ancient question: How do we know that the world we experience is as it seems? Could reality actually be very different?
As Wikipedia explains, in 2003 the philosopher Nick Bostrom published a paper in which he argued that one of three propositions is very likely to be true:
- “The fraction of human-level civilizations that reach a posthuman stage (that is, one capable of running high-fidelity ancestor simulations) is very close to zero,” or
- “The fraction of posthuman civilizations that are interested in running ancestor-simulations is very close to zero,” or
- “The fraction of all people with our kind of experiences that are living in a simulation is very close to one.”
Bostrom himself does not consider any of these three to be especially more likely than the others, but some have definite preferences.
Option 3 is favored by industrialist Elon Musk, who has said that the thinks the odds are billions to one in favor of us living in a simulation, while astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson has put the odds of us living in a simulation around 50/50 (source).
Others have put the odds vastly lower.
Option 1 has been favored by those who have argued that there are insurmountable physical limits to the kinds of computers that can be built even by an advanced civilization, and these would prevent the kind of detailed simulations needed.
One might support Option 2 by arguing that any advanced civilization capable of creating such simulations would have progressed past the point of needing them—either for research or entertainment purposes (an electric wire connected directly to the pleasure center of the brain would be vastly more entertaining, just like Tamagotchi toys proved to be much less entertaining than other options we have).
Some have also challenged the whole trilemma—for example, by noting that we experience consciousness, but patterns of information in a computer do not. The fact of our consciousness means that we are not living in a simulation.
In other words, “the faction of all people with our kind of experiences”—i.e., consciousness—would be exactly zero (Option 3 is false), and computers cannot simulate experiences of our kind (making the kind of ancestor-simulations envisioned in Options 1 and 2 impossible).
And there are other objections, yet.
The simulation hypothesis is thus far from established. However, let’s consider what the implications for the Christian Faith would be if it were true.
The Christian Worldview
The Christian worldview contains three essential elements that are relevant to our discussion, and they are encapsulated in the Creed, when we profess our faith in “God . . . maker of heaven and earth”:
- God, the infinitely perfect Creator of everything is obviously essential to the Christian worldview.
- “Heaven”—i.e., the spiritual world which includes our souls, is also essential.
- “Earth”—i.e., the natural world as we experience it, is the final component.
What would we conclude about these three if the simulation hypothesis were true?
The Existence of God
Philosophical arguments prove that there is an infinitely perfect Creator outside of all Creation. Therefore, God exists.
The simulation hypothesis does not affect the existence of God. Even if we’re living in a computer simulation, that simulation exists within a computer somewhere in a higher universe.
That universe might itself be a simulation, so you could posit any number of worlds within worlds that you might like.
It doesn’t matter, for eventually there would be some final, created world (or set of worlds in the case of a multiverse) containing the computer(s) that run all the simulations.
That final world (or worlds) still needs an explanation, and that explanation is God.
The Physical World
People have wondered for a long time about the nature of the physical world that we live in.
According to the classical element theory, the natural world was made of four (or five) elements: air, earth, fire, and water (and maybe ether).
According to the modern atomic theory of matter, the natural world is made of patterns of subatomic particles that form atoms.
According to the simulation theory, the natural world is made of patterns of information that exist in some unknown computer medium that form simulations of atoms.
Either way, the natural world we live in exists. It’s just a question of what its fundamental components are—whether subatomic particles or patterns of information.
The fundamental nature of our world is an interesting subject, but it doesn’t change anything from a religious perspective. The natural world still exists. Whether it’s made of four/five elements, subatomic particles, or patterns of information, it’s still real.
So, the only thing the simulation theory would do is add at least one additional layer to creation—i.e., the layer containing the computer in which our natural world exists.
The Spiritual World
That leaves us with the question of the human soul and the larger spiritual world.
A key point of evidence for this is our subjective experience of consciousness. Although one can assert that consciousness is explained by subatomic particles (as materialists would) or by patterns of information in a computer medium (as simulationists would), one cannot prove this.
In fact, we have no scientific hypothesis at all explaining how consciousness could arise from these things. That is, nobody has produced a testable hypothesis that would account for how non-living things like subatomic particles or information could give rise to consciousness.
This is known in scientific and philosophical circles as “the hard problem of consciousness.”
Yet our consciousness remains as a brute fact that is unexplainable in scientific terms.
One is therefore entitled to set aside assertions that consciousness arises from physical phenomena and propose what our experience indicates—that there is something non-physical (a soul) that, however closely it interacts with our bodies, is responsible for consciousness.
The simulation hypothesis can’t explain this any better than the atomic theory of matter does. Therefore, the simulation hypothesis changes nothing with respect to the third component of the Christian worldview—the soul.
If the atomic theory is true, then our souls interact with the patterns of subatomic particles that form the base layer of the natural world.
If the simulation hypothesis is true, then our souls interact with the patterns of information simulating our bodies in the computer system that resides in the base layer of reality.
If one finds it implausible that souls would interact with such data patterns, that would give you reason to reject the idea that we’re living in a simulation, but it wouldn’t give you reason to reject either the existence of the soul or the existence of a natural world.
The End of the World
The Christian Faith holds that, at some point, the physical world in which we live will be renovated and replaced by a “New Earth,” where we will have a place for all eternity.
The simulation hypothesis would not prevent this. If our present physical world is a simulation, God might put us in a new, similar world—or he might put us in a base level reality and have our souls interact with that. Ultimately, that’s up to him.
Either way, whether the present world we experience is a simulation or a base reality doesn’t matter. The Creator who exists outside the entire created world—however many levels it may contain—has made contact with us, here, and told us that one day we will live in a new world.
The nature of that world is in his hands, as it has always been.
I thus don’t see how the simulation theory changes anything from a faith perspective. We still have the same three elements—God, the spiritual world, and the natural world—and all three interact.
The natural world used to be explained by the classical element theory, it is presently explained by the atomic theory, and if we ever get actual, robust scientific evidence that we’re living in a simulation then it would be explained by the simulation theory.
But all these theories do is shed varying degrees of light on the nature of the physical world as we experience it. They don’t change anything from a religious perspective.
Learning that the physical world as we experience it is contained in a larger, meta-world would be interesting, but it doesn’t alter the need for us to have a right relationship with the Creator, who is responsible for both the spiritual and the natural world—whatever the specific components or structure of the latter turns out to be.
Neither does the simulation hypothesis stop us from needing to live our lives in the world as we find it.
I’d note that it certainly hasn’t stopped Elon Musk from living his life as an entrepreneur and industrialist and undertaking all kinds of projects.
It hasn’t caused him an existential crisis, and neither should it us.