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Are we living in a simulation? Christianity vs the Simulation Hypothesis

By Arne Verster

Husband, father, actuary & lay theologian. Founder of Apologetics Central. Based in Pretoria, South Africa.

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Updated: Jan 9

What is the Simulation Hypothesis?

This Simulation Hypothesis posits that what we experience as the world could be a simulated reality, akin to a highly advanced computer simulation, in which humans are mere constructs.

This concept bears similarities to other sceptical scenarios, such as the "brain-in-a-vat" thought experiment and the idea popularized by the "Matrix" movies, wherein the perceived reality is not genuinely real but instead the output of a sophisticated computer program. The points made in this article are, therefore, equally applicable to other "Matrix" and "brain-in-a-vat" sceptical scenarios as well (perhaps not entirely without adjustment).

Elon Musk, the well-known CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, is a vocal proponent of the simulation hypothesis. In his conversation with Joe Rogan on a podcast, Musk articulated a thought-provoking viewpoint: given any degree of continual advancement, video games will become virtually indistinguishable from actual reality. He extrapolated this idea to suggest that it's highly probable we are living in a simulation. Musk has repeatedly expressed similar sentiments at various press conferences and public events, estimating the odds of our existence in a simulated or computer-generated reality to be extremely high, around 99.9%. In a 2016 interview, he even posited that there's merely a "one in a billion" chance of us existing in what he referred to as 'base reality' (that is, the reality at the bottom of a series of simulations), indicating his strong inclination towards the belief in a simulated universe hypothesis.

The rapid advancement of computer technology has been nothing short of astounding, particularly in the realm of simulation. Consider the SIMS series of games, which debuted in the early 2000s and offered a novel digital simulation of life. As technology evolves exponentially, it's entirely plausible to imagine a future where games like the SIMS achieve a level of sophistication so high that their virtual worlds are nearly indistinguishable from our reality. This leap in technological capability brings with it intriguing philosophical considerations. Suppose we can envision a future where simulated worlds are virtually identical to the real world. In that case, it then becomes a feasible, albeit speculative, notion that our current existence could itself be a simulation.

The implications of the Simulation Hypothesis extend into the theological realm as well. One of its more controversial aspects is the challenge it poses to traditional Christian views of creation. By suggesting that the world might be the product of an impersonal, greater reality - like a simulation - rather than being created by God, the hypothesis introduces a radically alternative perspective on the nature and origin of existence.

The Simulation Hypothesis can, therefore, be positioned as a challenge to Christian theism.

What does the Simulation Hypothesis assume?

At its core, this hypothesis assumes an impersonalistic foundation of reality. It posits that the fundamental principles governing existence are space, logic, mathematics, and time.

In the framework of the Simulation Hypothesis, computers are seen as vessels or mediums that contain reality as we know it. Computers are, by their very nature, impersonal objects. They operate based on processes such as electrical currents, logical operations, and mathematical principles, and they exist within physical space. The impersonal characteristic of these machines reflects the hypothesis's underlying assumption about the nature of ultimate reality.

This viewpoint aligns closely with atheistic philosophies, which often assume a similarly impersonalistic nature of reality. Atheistic thought typically posits that the universe is governed by objective, impersonal laws and principles, devoid of any inherent divine or supernatural essence. Therefore, the presuppositional arguments traditionally levelled against atheism - that it assumes a universe governed by impersonal principles - can be similarly applied to the Simulation Hypothesis with minimal modification. Both viewpoints fundamentally challenge theistic interpretations of the universe by suggesting an underlying reality that operates independently of any divine being or intervention.

Note then, that the Simulation Hypothesis is not a defeater of Christian theism any more than the mere assertion of atheism is a defeater of Christian theism. The Simulation Hypothesis can therefore be critiqued in the same way that generic atheism is critiqued from the Christian perspective.

The problem(s) with the Simulation Hypothesis

To effectively challenge the Simulation Hypothesis, it's crucial to highlight the fundamental flaws in the belief that impersonal concepts, such as logic, space, and time, are more fundamental or 'ultimate' than God. The Simulation Hypothesis presupposes a paradigm in which, if God exists, He is not the ultimate entity. Instead, He is subject to and defined by these impersonal principles. In this view, God's existence and nature are constrained in the same manner as ours, being defined and limited by the dimensions of space and the progression of time, much like any other entity within the universe. This perspective implies a version of divinity that is not all-powerful or all-encompassing but is bound by the same universal laws and principles that govern everything else.

Without God as the foundational basis for all principles, laws, and possibilities, these elements lack an ultimate grounding. This leads to significant challenges for the Simulation Hypothesis.

The problem of induction

Let's further entertain the notion that our existence parallels a complex, advanced form of a game like Minecraft, where our reality is an elaborate digital construct. In such a scenario, the fabric of our universe could be fundamentally explained through several technological and computational elements:

At the core, our universe might be underpinned by the flow of electrical currents through sophisticated processors. These processors could be executing complex simulations, with each electric pulse translating into the dynamic events and entities we experience in our reality.

Central to the operation of computers, and by extension, any simulated reality, is the principle of induction: the expectation that a specific input, like an electrical current, will consistently produce a predictable output. This principle is crucial for the reliability and functionality of computational processes.

This argument's foundation in the principle of induction highlights a significant philosophical challenge, one that David Hume famously articulated as the 'problem of induction'. Hume's scepticism casts doubt on the rationale behind our belief in nature's consistency: The notion that future occurrences will mirror the past and that established patterns will persist. One might argue that the simulation itself guarantees nature's uniformity, being pre-programmed to behave consistently. However, this contention encounters a two-pronged rebuttal.

Firstly, the simulation cannot communicate with us, leaving us without confirmation that it indeed ensures this uniformity.

Secondly, and more critically, the very computer responsible for running the simulation is not immune to the problem of induction. The reliability of its electrical currents and operational processes in its realm of existence is equally susceptible to Hume’s critique. This uncertainty extends to the simulated world it governs, suggesting that our reliance on the predictability and consistency of both the simulation and its underlying computational mechanisms may be fundamentally unfounded.

The Christian perspective uniquely asserts that Christ, a personal entity rather than an abstract concept, reigns as Lord. This view posits Christ as not only the Creator but also one capable of self-revelation to humanity. Through such divine revelation, Christianity offers a compelling response to Hume's scepticism regarding the principle of induction. This leads to a significant transcendental inference: within the Christian framework, the justification for the principle of induction - the very foundation lending credibility to the Simulation Hypothesis - is found. However, this same framework inherently contradicts the notion that our universe is merely a creation of a computer simulation. In Christianity, the universe is portrayed as a direct manifestation of divine will and purpose, far removed from the concept of a digitally simulated reality. This theological standpoint, therefore, upholds the principle of induction while simultaneously challenging and distancing itself from the idea of our existence being a product of artificial simulation.

The simulation hypothesis concept would require data storage and processing on an unfathomable scale, capable of detailing every atom and every moment in our vast universe, suggesting a computational power beyond our current scope.

Similar to the issues raised by the necessity of electrical currents for running a simulation, as mentioned earlier, the storage capabilities of the so-called 'mother computer(s)' also warrant scrutiny. The very concept of storing information within such a system hinges on the assumption that data can be archived and subsequently retrieved in the future in the same manner as it has been in the past. This presumption underlies the stability and predictability of the storage processes. However, this continuity assumes a consistency in the operational parameters of the computer system, which may be questioned in light of the problem of induction. Just as with the electrical currents, the reliability and uniformity of data storage and retrieval processes over time cannot be taken for granted, as they too are subject to the same philosophical challenges of assuming continuity and predictability in a potentially changing or dynamic system.

No significance in human experience

Our reality would be the outcome of intricate programming, a vast network of code comprising countless logical operations. Every aspect of our existence, from the laws of physics to the nuances of human experience, might be encoded in this immense digital framework.

Reflecting on our current capabilities in computer programming, it becomes clear that the complexity needed to simulate a reality akin to ours is staggeringly immense. Our world, with its intricacies ranging from subatomic particles to vast, complex biological systems, and extending to the enormity of black holes and seemingly boundless galaxies, would require an unfathomable volume of code. To approximate the scope of our universe, developers might have to heavily rely on procedural generation techniques, similar to those used in expansive video games like No Man's Sky and Starfield. This implies an acceptance of the presence of "unintended" elements or "chance" in our universe, particularly as the Simulation Hypothesis entertains the possibility of multiple simulations, each following different historical trajectories and outcomes.

This perspective, much like a traditional atheistic or agnostic worldview, challenges the intrinsic significance of human experience. If we are indeed living in a simulated universe, it raises profound existential questions: Why should we invest in endeavours like exploring Mars or any quest for knowledge, if the realities and truths we uncover might lack genuine meaning and intention? The very essence of human curiosity and the pursuit of understanding, under the shadow of a simulated reality, faces a philosophical dilemma. Should we even bother to ponder the question of our existence within a simulation? These reflections cast a spotlight on the deeper implications of the Simulation Hypothesis, questioning the value and purpose of our actions and explorations in a programmed universe.

The Simulation Hypothesis also precludes the idea of a coming divine judgement. Under this hypothesis, if our existence is the outcome of a procedurally generated algorithm, then the concept of adhering to a moral standard becomes redundant. In a simulated universe governed by pre-programmed codes and algorithms, traditional ideas of morality lose their relevance.

In such a scenario actions within the simulation are merely the results of specific code executing predetermined functions, or chance. The ethical dimension, which considers actions as morally right or wrong, does not apply to the neutral, mechanical processes of code execution. A certain piece of code leading to result X, and another leading to result Y, are devoid of moral implications in the context of a simulation. The actions and events within this simulated reality are, therefore, stripped of moral significance, reducing ethical considerations to mere byproducts of algorithmic procedures rather than reflections of higher moral truths or divine judgment. This perspective fundamentally challenges the traditional understanding of morality and ethics, casting doubt on their relevance in a world where everything is dictated by the parameters of a simulation.

Additionally, the Simulation Hypothesis significantly diminishes the perceived value and depth of human experiences and emotions. Within the confines of this hypothesis, profound aspects of human life, such as love, laughter, and self-sacrifice, are reduced to mere byproducts of impersonal code. The joy in a child's laughter, seen as a pure and beautiful expression, loses its inherent charm. Likewise, the bravery and selflessness exhibited by soldiers during historical events like the D-Day landings at Normandy, which are typically regarded with deep respect and admiration, are stripped of their nobility. In a simulated reality, these elements are rendered as simple outputs of impersonal computer code and not the result of complex, emotional, real, true, meaningful and moral human responses.

Reductionism and human consciousness

The Simulation Hypothesis inherently implies a form of reductionism in metaphysics and the philosophy of mind. This is because the hypothesis suggests that all aspects of our universe, including consciousness and mental phenomena, can ultimately be computational processes (physics). If our reality, including the complexities of the human mind, can be reduced to data and algorithms within a simulated environment, it aligns with the reductionist view that all sciences, and indeed all entities, can be reduced to and described by the principles of physics. This perspective essentially treats all phenomena, regardless of their apparent complexity or uniqueness, as outcomes of fundamental physical laws, which in the context of a simulation, are encoded in the underlying computational framework.

However, there is considerable debate (even in secular literature) about whether consciousness can emerge from solely physical structures.

Consciousness and mental properties, characterized by qualities such as subjectivity and intentionality, differ categorically from material properties and cannot be reduced to physical terms. If it is intrinsically impossible for any physical machine or structure to attain consciousness, then the Simulation Hypothesis is untenable.

That adherents of Darwinism (theory of universal common descent) tend to be reductionists is logical, given their belief in consciousness evolving from purely material processes. However, this perspective remains an unverified assertion. The rejection of Christian theism leads to an inevitable acceptance of a reductionistic view of consciousness. Yet, such acceptance does not inherently validate the truth of this viewpoint.

From the Christian perspective (and from our own experience), we are conscious, creative, have intention, self-determined, and are emotionally moved by things like courage, bravery, self-sacrifice etc. We are made to reflect our Creator to exemplify godliness.

In his insightful work, 'The Trinity and Vindication of Christian Paradox", Brant Bosserman delves into the complexities of human self-direction and choice. He distinguishes the efficient causality observed in natural processes, such as the relationship between sunlight and plant growth, and the unique mode of self-direction inherent in human beings. Bosserman emphasizes that while natural phenomena might inspire human action by stimulating our senses and desires, the choices we make ultimately originate from within ourselves. Our decisions about what, how, when, and why to pursue certain goals are not merely responses to external stimuli; they are born from the depths of our subjectivity.

Bosserman further elaborates on this distinct human ability by comparing it to the cause-effect relationships seen in mechanics. Unlike these mechanical interactions, where the cause and effect are distinct, in human self-determination, the individual is both the initiator and the recipient of their actions. This unique aspect of human agency allows us to transcend the immediate instructions or information provided by nature. We possess the ability to envision and manipulate our environment in ways that extend beyond nature's direct guidance or the sum of our existing knowledge. We can envision future scenarios, devise strategies, and manipulate our surroundings in innovative ways. This ability sets human decision-making apart from the predictable and often linear cause-effect relationships observed in mechanical or natural processes.

The creativity of human reasoning, Bosserman notes, is akin to the process of conception. Just as children bear resemblances to their parents yet possess distinct individualities, the outcomes of human thought - our 'conceptions' - are both reflective of and uniquely different from their creators. This metaphor underscores the dynamic and generative nature of human thought and decision-making. The choices we make, therefore, are not just products of our reasoning but also contribute to further defining our identity and essence.

As such, the human experience is not merely reducible to cause-effect relationships and static logical operators.

The Christian view

In contrast to the Simulation Hypothesis, the Christian worldview presents a fundamentally different understanding of existence, reality, and human life. Central to this perspective is the belief that the ultimate reality is not governed by abstract principles such as logic, time, mathematics, or space, but by a personal, sovereign God. This God is not just a concept but the Creator, in whom "we live and move and have our being." This statement emphasizes a personal and direct relationship with the divine, as opposed to the impersonal and artificial nature of a computer simulation.

From the Christian standpoint, human existence, including our actions, thoughts, experiences, and emotions, carries inherent value and meaning. These aspects of human life are not merely the products of complex code or simulations. They are genuine expressions of beings created in the image of God, imbued with purpose and significance beyond mere physical or computational processes. In this view, human life and consciousness are not reducible to algorithms or digital constructs but are part of a divinely authored narrative.

Furthermore, the Christian worldview acknowledges God as the author of nature and reality. Unlike impersonal principles or computational rules, God, being absolute and self-sufficient, communicates with authority and assurance. This divine communication provides a foundation for understanding various aspects of reality, such as the uniformity of nature, in a way that impersonal principles cannot. God's nature allows for a relationship and assurance that goes beyond what any simulation or impersonal system could offer.

The Christian worldview places God at the centre of all existence, attributing to Him the role of Creator and Sustainer of life and reality. This view contrasts with the Simulation Hypothesis, which posits a reality governed by computational rules and simulations. The Christian perspective sees value, purpose, and meaning in human existence and the universe, grounded in the nature and character of a personal, sovereign God.

The Simulation Hypothesis only seems convincing at face value because the Christian worldview is true (as in God's world, we can build computers, run simulations etc.), but the very Christian worldview that lends credibility to something like the Simulation Hypothesis ends up undermining it's conclusions and, more fundamentally, the worldview of those who tend to hold to it.

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