We’re All Living in a Simulation

The Simulation Hypothesis is an idea that has gained a lot of publicity in the latter half of 2016, despite having origins at least as early as 2003. Its cause is bolstered by high profile voices like those of Neil deGrasse Tyson and Elon Musk, with outlets like the Guardian and Scientific American covering their contributions to the discussion.

Those articles have done a good job of covering the ins and outs of the hypothesis, so I’ll just stick to a brief recap. These people are saying that there is a high chance that we are living in some kind of computer civilisation run either by future humans or some other kind of ‘higher being’. So why believe this? There are a number of reasons (as far as I can tell):

  • If you had the ability to run a lifelike simulation, you would. Technology has progressed far enough and fast enough that such a thing is not impossible at some point in the future.
  • There is a significant gap between human and chimp intelligence, despite 98% shared DNA. As Scientific American puts it, ‘somewhere out there could be a being whose intelligence is much greater than our own’.
  • The universe is based on mathematical laws that resemble computer code.
  • The universe is constructed out of discrete ‘blocks’ in the same way that we would construct a video game out of pixels.

Objectively speaking, there is a chance that the Simulation Hypothesis is true. As James Gates, a theoretical physicist at the University of Maryland says, “You’re not going to get proof that we’re not in a simulation, because any evidence that we get could be simulated”.

Now we start getting to the irony in the theory: this ‘in vogue’ idea, supported by scientists and tech wizards, sounds exactly like Christian creationist apologetics repackaged in a godless shell.

One of the criticisms levelled against Christian apologetics is that there is no way to disprove their claims, therefore they can’t be considered in a scientific manner. And yet here is theoretical physicist James Gates saying that there is no way to disprove the Simulation Hypothesis. If it is not falsifiable, how can it be called a hypothesis?

The arguments for the idea are also strikingly similar to the Christian arguments that have been widely dismissed by those outside (and even some inside) the faith. Let me repackage the above four arguments into creationist/intelligent design terms:

  • If there was a god with the power and desire to create a universe, it would.
  • There is a significant gap between human and chimp intelligence, despite 98% shared DNA. This suggests that humans have been set apart by their creator.
  • The universe is based on mathematical laws that resemble computer code.
  • The universe is constructed out of discrete ‘blocks’ that interact in such a way as suggests intention and design.

From what I’ve read, much of what would constitute evidence for the Simulation Hypothesis could also be taken as evidence for God. Sure, there are areas where they differ – people looking for simulation evidence might look for evidence of the creators making shortcuts in their code, just as Christian apologists might look for evidence of the miraculous.

I think the idea that we’re computer simulations is simply more palatable to many people than the idea that there is a creating God out there. But there is still a big leap of faith needed to actually believe in technology powerful enough to achieve a simulation this realistic. The theory also fails to speak to the origins of whatever beings created the simulation, simply deflecting those questions in the search to decide whether or not our world is artificial.

I think it’s worth looking at popular ideas like this critically. With so many reputable and popular people speaking out in their favour, it’s easy to overlook what you might perceive as a flaw in a less fashionable theory, like creationism/intelligent design.

If you laugh at creationists, yet consider this theory, I would like to ask why. There may be a good reason, but if it’s simply what is more palatable to you, that’s not particularly helpful.

For me, the bottom line is that there is no reason to seriously consider this theory at the moment, and spending a lot of time looking for evidence seems pointless. As someone who once put a lot of energy into apologetics and arguments for intelligent design, I think that there are more valuable ways for a lot of people to spend their time.

It is important to be informed, and assured in what you believe, but my experience with apologetics led to me being closed-minded in my approach to my own life and faith, and I was blind to many of the problems with my approach. I can see the same risks in clinging to something like the Simulation Hypothesis.

Perhaps one day it will prove to be true, but at present, I don’t see much reason to take the Simulation Hypothesis seriously.


3 Comments Add yours

  1. John Nelson says:

    Hey Ben, I was intrigued by one of your last comments: “… my experience with apologetics led to me being closed-minded in my approach to my own life and faith, and I was blind to many of the problems with my approach.” I think this will resonate with many of us who have dealt with apologetics. Why do you think this is? In my experience, it is because I want to prove every aspect of my faith, yet find myself incapable of doing so- perhaps even incapable of making a very good argument for it. I want to be ‘objective’, and yet to know the difference between subjective and objective I would need some kind of meta-perspective-I would need to be God himself! Would you be able to tease out what you meant by this?

    1. bengarry says:

      Hey John, I’m not surprised you picked up on that bit! Similarly to you, I think my struggles with apologetics came from the need to prove everything. For me, this led to a need to find an argument for every little point, regardless of how good the argument was, and being unnecessarily shaken when I I was forced to face a flaw.

      For example, I remember writing enthusiastically about Michael Behe’s contribution to Lee Strobel’s ‘The Case for a Creator’, only to be shaken by another Christian’s comment that Behe’s ideas are not particularly well respected in scientific circles. I think the root of the problem is that there were points where my faith was grounded in apologetics, not God.

      Looking back, I can also see the arrogance of my position, and the arguments that led to a semi-conscious belief in my own intellectual superiority, despite the naivety of much of what I was saying. With all that in mind, I think apologetics can be done well, I just don’t think I’m the one to do it.

      I’m now in a stage where I welcome a bit more mystery, and am more willing to listen to challenging ideas than ever before. Whereas in the past such openness might have weakened my faith, I now find that it helps me to be more honest with myself and with God, and to love him more freely and joyfully. Sorry for the long winded response – feel free to ask me to elaborate if you can take any more!

      1. John Nelson says:

        Thank you Ben, that’s really helpful. “knowledge puffs up” hey! I am just at a very irritating stage where none of the apologists I am reading seem to engage with what I consider the strongest arguments of non-Christian scholars of the Bible. I think I too am in some sense welcoming the mystery of it all- the “seeing dimly as through a glass” – but this is frustrating for the rationalist within me. I don’t want to sink into a sort of relativistic morass where little of what I hold true can be shown true; that I have my truth and others have theres. But I think this is somewhat inevitable, as I mentioned earlier, due to a lack of meta-perspective. We have to be content with the knowledge of God that we are given, and act on those deep convictions.

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