The Simulation Argument: Philosophical and Theological Implications
Sanford L. Drob, Ph.D.
In a paper entitled “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?" http://www.simulation-argument.com/ , the Oxford philosopher, Nick Bostrom, has put forth a rather startling argument, which suggests that we may not be the biological, material beings we think we are, but computer simulated minds, existing in a digital matrix:
Many works of science fiction as well as some forecasts by serious technologists and futurologists predict that enormous amounts of computing power will be available in the future. Let us suppose for a moment that these predictions are correct. One thing that later generations might do with their super-powerful computers is run detailed simulations of their forebears or of people like their forebears. Because their computers would be so powerful, they could run a great many such simulations. Suppose that these simulated people are conscious (as they would be if the simulations were sufficiently fine-grained and if a certain quite widely accepted position in the philosophy of mind is correct). Then it could be the case that the vast majority of minds like ours do not belong to the original race but rather to people simulated by the advanced descendants of an original race. It is then possible to argue that, if this were the case, we would be rational to think that we are likely among the simulated minds rather than among the original biological ones (N. Bostrom, Philosophical Quarterly (2003) Vol. 53, No. 211, pp. 243-255).
In this brief essay, I will not address the question of whether we are indeed living in a simulated “matrix,” but will rather draw out some of the implications of the logical possibility that we are. In short, I will treat the “simulation hypothesis” as a thought experiment, and argue that such an experiment provides us with a new and powerful method for adjudicating between contrasting views in philosophy and theology—views pertaining to the essential nature of “reality,” the place of values in the cosmos, and the nature of any “God” or “Absolute” that we posit as inhering within or creating the universe.
The gist of my argument is that any proposed philosophical or theological foundation must remain valid even if it is the case that we reside in a “simulation.” For example, the notion that matter is the foundation for our personal being would not hold true for a simulation (where our conscious existence would be grounded in information), and thus matter cannot be regarded as a fully foundational onto-psychological principle. Indeed, the doctrine of “scientific materialism” would be false for the “information bound” world of a simulation—as matter itself would simply be another piece of “information” programmed into our “simulated” reality. While, one might speculate that a simulated world must be rooted in the computer hardware existing in an actual material world—this would just be a hypothesis based upon the program that directs our simulation. Similarly, the “laws of physics” would have been programmed into our simulation and thus could not be considered fundamental laws of reality. Indeed the “facts” of a simulation are actually more compatible with philosophical idealism than materialism.
The possibility that we are living in an information-based “simulation” as opposed to a material world provides a strong argument for the notion that values, which are often thought to be emotionally based ephemera that barely supervene upon the bedrock of a material world, are actually more "real" than matter itself. In a simulation or “matrix,” matter would have no real existence, but it would still be wrong and evil to cause needless suffering to conscious entities, and one would still be obligated to show compassion to entities that suffer. The possibility of a simulation provides ammunition for the view of Levinas that ethics precedes, and is more fundamental than, metaphysics and ontology. It can be further argued that a whole "firmament" of values, including beauty, justice, happiness, truth, freedom, meaning, forgiveness, hope, etc. have universal applicability to all worlds, simulated or not. Values would, on this view, be more foundational and real than matter.(We might also suggest on similar grounds that consciousness is more fundamental than matter--but this paradoxical view must await further consideration).
The possibility that we are conscious entities existing in a simulated matrix also has important theological implications. An argument against the existence of a personal creator God can be put forth on the grounds that since we have no way of knowing whether or not our particular world is or is not a simulation, (or perhaps even a second, third or "nth" order simulation in which information worlds are embedded within information worlds etc.) we cannot determine whether our “creator” is simply a finite (albeit super-advanced) being that appears to us to have the powers of a god, but who is actually an evil or indifferent “demiurge”-- perhaps even a child who created us as part of an assignment for an unfathomably advanced future school, or a massively intelligent independent computer that produced us for its own amusement. Now, if we are in such a simulation our "creator" would have the characteristics of a creator and personal god but would hardly be a god in the sense required by religion, even if, and perhaps especially if, he or she were to reveal himself in miracles, or we encountered him in heaven after our death etc. For all we know such a God would be nothing more than a “computer programmer,” no more a God than the demiurge of the Gnostics, the evil genius of Descartes, or that super-brained “kid” completing his school assignment. We would have no good reason to venerate him, her, or it, as a God. While prayer and supplication might even be effective with such a "god," this would be nothing more than the prayer or supplication we address to an our-earthly potentate.
My argument is that any conception of God or the Absolute that could turn out to be the result of “programming by a kid” is not a conception worthy of our theological or philosophical interest. It, again, follows that all, or nearly all, conceptions of a creator, commanding, miracle-making, heaven-residing, personal God, do not pass the test of the “simulation argument.” This is because the characteristics of such a God could very well simply be the result of the whim or fancy of the (super-advanced) child or computer. Thus, the narratives about God, promulgated in the Bible and other scripture, with some notable exceptions (such as God's declaration to Moses, Ehyeh asher ehyeh, "I will be that which I will be") do not seem to pass muster under this test.
There have, of course, been philosophers and mystics who in their own idiom, recognized that any God characterized by “empirical traits” cannot be the deity, i.e. the One, the Good, to use the language of Plotinus, that is required by philosophy. The simulation argument is simply a way of underscoring the futility and irrationality of defining God in empirical terms. The alternative is define God or the absolute in much broader strokes that are applicable to the entire cosmos, whether simulated or not, and applicable to all simulations, and layers of simulation that may be “above” the world we reside in. Such a conception must, in effect, be binding upon and “transcend” any so-called “God” that has merely created our world. Amongst the candidates for such a transcendent God or absolute, are "the foundation of all being," "the basis for morality and ethics," "the ground of reason," or, as I have argued elsewhere, "the infinite open-economy of inquiry, thought, feeling and experience." This is closer to the God of mystics and of philosophers who have had the vision to think beyond the limitations of our parochial "reality." This is the Plotinian “One” and “Good,” the Hindu’s Brahman-Atman, and the Kabbalist’s Ein-sof.
Now the idea that we are living in a simulation, rests on a number of unproven assumptions, not the least of which are the very possibility of creating conscious minds in a digital matrix and the existence of a super-advanced civilization interested in creating them, and one may well think that anyone who suggests it as a real (as opposed to logical) possibility is suffering from the Capgras Syndrome, the delusion that others have been replaced by identical, often mechanical or "zombie" duplicates of themselves. However, the idea that we may be living in a simulation certainly appears to help clarify some very important philosophical and theological questions.
Your comments are welcome.