Serious Question: Are You and I Living Inside a Computer Simulation?
It's a serious question... but that doesn't mean it's a good question.
Atheists and skeptics keep trying to take out Christianity. They keep failing.
A leftist activist named Ed Krassenstein posted a list of challenges to Christians on Twitter a while back. I covered the first one already, and found some bone fide kookiness in it. You might think his second one is crazy, too:
2. How do you know that we aren’t living in a giant simulation created by entities in another dimension, universe, or planet, and that they are the real “God(s)?”
Kooky? Draw your own conclusions. On the fringe? No, not this time. This one’s actually serious. It was birthed at the University of Oxford, it’s been developed by thinkers around academia, and it has surprising support behind it. Elon Musk says odds are “billions to one” in favor of its being true, even though it would make our world less real than The Matrix.
Pardon Me, But Are You Real? Am I?
If they’re right, then you aren’t really human, you’re not even really real. You’re some advanced civilization’s heavily programmed SimCity character. It has all this support behind it, because on the surface it’s a pretty good answer — if you ask the wrong question, that is. The question they’re trying to answer is, “What’s really real? Where did we all come from? What’s our purpose? Apart from God, since we know there is no God.”
Sometimes bad questions can lead to bad answers. I’m going take us on a quick tour to see why some people think this makes sense anyway. It’s actually quite entertaining, if you ask me, with a neat little setup and a fascinating twist at the end.
Then we’ll take it one short step further, and see how it isn’t just a bad answer, it’s one of the world’s all-time worst answers. I’m keeping this brief, I assure you. None of this takes long at all. And at the end I’ll have an even shorter, quicker, easier answer to Krassenstein’s challenge, an answer that will make him think he’s got me beat — until I smile and turn it around back at him.
So here’s how Nick Bostrom, philosopher at the University of Oxford, came to think we’re living inside a computer simulation.
He starts with today’s computers their realistic role playing games. Computers keep getting more powerful, so he expects someday in a “post-human” world, they’ll be able to run role playing games that are truly realistic. They’ll model everything. Everything. All the way from the nano scale of subatomic particles, up to galaxies and galaxy clusters.
These computers will be “peopled” by virtual inhabitants that look, and act, and feel like real people. And they’ll run vast numbers of these simulations — “billions” of them, according to Musk, and I think Bostrom would agree.
With large numbers like that, it turns into a numbers game. Let’s suppose there’s exactly one billion of these simulations. That would make exactly one-billion-and-one (1,000,000,0001) “worlds” with “people” in them who “think” they’re real. Almost every one of them would be wrong: all of them except the ones living in the “base” world, the one that contains all these computers running these programs.
That’s a lot of wrong “people!” You could pick any one of those billion-and-one worlds at random, and what are the odds you’d be choosing the one that’s real? Pretty bad. No, really bad. It’s a billion to one against you. Which also means that if you’re one of the “people” inside this scenario, you would think and feel that you are perfectly real, but it’s a billion to one that you’ve got it wrong, and you’re a simulation yourself. If you actually knew that was the way the world was, you would have to bet the odds. It would be irrational to think you’re real.
But why would the programmers let the “people” in these simulations know that whole story? They could just program them to think their world is real. And it would work — until one day a philosopher from Oxford says, “What if computers could simulate billions of universes?” And then asked, Is there any reason to think that isn’t the case?
His conclusion: If computers can conceivably make billions of “universes” worth of simulated “people,” and if they all “think” they’re real, don’t the odds say we’re probably in one of those simulations ourselves?
The Problem Isn’t the Answer, It’s the Question
Does that make sense to you? If not, you can go to the source: Bostrom explains it more thoroughly, naturally. But there’s another reason it might not make sense, too. You might just be just stuck at the beginning, wondering why anyone but a science fiction writer would think up anything so crazy. These people take it seriously. Why would they do that?
I’ll tell you why, in fact I already have: They’re committed to solving the mystery of our existence, and solving it without God. Ask a bad question and you get a bad answer. And you’re about to see how unbelievably bad it is. Ironically, it’s in a Scientific American article that pronounces the simulation hypothesis “confirmed.”
Case in Point
Fouad Khan, the author, is a highly respected scientist and policy analyst. You’d think he should know what he’s talking about. In this article, among other things, he brings up the “mystery” of human consciousness. Science can’t explain it. There’s no evolutionary reason for it. So why do we have it?
Khan’s “only reasonable explanation” for humans’ conscious experience it is that it’s a computer interface. It’s like the the computer monitors we use to display the characters in a role playing game. If the whole thing happened inside the computer chips, what would be the point of it? Khan thinks the post-humans who run these super-supercomputers would have the same issue: They would need an interface into the simulation, a link into it, so they could experience what’s going on in here. And that interface, my friends, is our consciousness.
That is — I repeat — his “only reasonable explanation.” I am not trying to make him look foolish. He accomplishes that well enough on his own.
The World’s Worst Answer
In order for that to be true — This isn’t hard, folks! — the explanation needs two things. It has to be reasonable, and it has to be the only one that is.
So, how reasonable is it? Let’s hear Khan’s own conclusion. (How he missed the problem this creates, I cannot understand.)
We must not forget what the simulation hypothesis really is. It is the ultimate conspiracy theory. The mother of all conspiracy theories, the one that says that everything, with the exception of nothing, is fake and a conspiracy designed to fool our senses. All our worst fears about powerful forces at play controlling our lives unbeknownst to us, have now come true. And yet this absolute powerlessness, this perfect deceit offers us no way out in its reveal.
Everything — everything! — is fake, he says. That’s “with the exception of nothing.” If so, then we’ll have go back through this very article of his and erase everything: every piece of data, every line of reasoning, every single thought. It’s all fake! You can’t trust one billionth of it! So how does he trust the conclusions he reaches?
His answer here is so bad, it wipes out every bad answer, it obliterates every good one, and it even puts a knife in every reason anyone has ever given for an answer. It is truly one of the world’s worst answers ever.
Why Go There?
So why go there? Why settle for such absurdity? And for goodness’ sake, why go public with it? The clue is in the word only. He says it’s the “only … explanation.” I’m sorry, but no. Jews, Christians (probably Muslims, too) have said for centuries that humans are created in God’s image. Reasonable men and women have made a reasonable case for it, many, many times over. Not everyone agrees, obviously, but isn’t it at least more reasonable than an answer that kills every possible answer?
And yet he won’t allow for it. God isn’t on his list of possible explanations. The whole point of the simulation hypothesis is to explain where we came from without God. Maybe someone, somewhere does it better than Khan, but he at least should be asking, “If casting God aside forces me to such an absurd conclusion, wouldn’t it be a whole lot more rational to think God might be real after all?”
Answering Ed Krassenstein
That’s how I know it’s irrational to think we’re all living in a simulation. If I were face to face with Ed Krassenstein, though, I’d take a much simpler approach. He’s asking how we know there’s a God, and we aren’t living in a computer simulation. I’d simply say, “The reason we know aren’t in a computer simulation is because we know there’s a God.”
He would see me making a big mistake there, and he would think he had won. He would sputter back at me, “But Tom, you’re arguing in circles! That’s the exact question we’re trying to answer! How do we know there’s a God?”
And I would smile. I would thank him, very sincerely. I’d say, “Wow! What a great question! What a relief! I would be so happy to talk with you about good questions like that one. I sure am tired of these crazy ones.”
And the good news is, his challenge number 3 is actually is a good question, for a change. I’ll be back for that one soon.
Tom Gilson (@TomGilsonAuthor) is a senior editor with The Stream and the author or editor of six books, including the highly acclaimed Too Good To Be False: How Jesus’ Incomparable Character Reveals His Reality.