Deus Est Machina

The light drops from red to green, and I take a step into the street as a Camry speeds toward me. One more step, then reason washes back over me; I retreat to the sidewalk. That first stride into the street, questionable as it was, was a product of a sort of thought experiment I’d been conducting. I recently encountered a wealth of very convincing literature written by a wealth of very bright people who argue that our world exists in a computer simulation conducted by future humans. As I took that step into rush hour Wahsatch, I was sure that, if the car were to run me over, it would just be a simulated accident. I realized quickly enough that, even operating within the simulation hypothesis, simulated pain would soon sink in, with simulated long-term consequences for my simulated legs. There would be simulated phone calls with my distraught simulated mother, who would surely exhibit simulated confusion about why I walked into a moving car (itself simulated). I wait for the light to turn red and I walk across the street. I’d have to wait another day to stick it to my malevolent coding creator.

The simulation hypothesis, long present in the annals of science fiction, took on a degree of academic credibility in 2003, when Oxford philosopher, Nick Bostrom, wrote a paper suggesting that members of an advanced civilization with tremendous computing power may well decide to run simulations of their ancestors. Bostrom acknowledges that there is really only one “base reality,” where self-aware beings exist and are made of matter, as opposed to code. A disturbing question then arises: what are the chances we’re the base reality? Certainly low — with the ability to run many simulations, as future civilizations ostensibly will have, why limit the amount of simulations they run? Taking Bostrom’s logic further, the chances of being the original base reality are equally unlikely for the civilization programming us. Given the innumerable simulations that could be run by vastly superior computers, virtual subjects inside one simulation could create simulations of their own. So what are the chances we’re the base reality? It’s hard to say, but Elon Musk, super-entrepreneur and knower-of-things, claims it’s “one in billions.” 

Many people respond to this unsettling notion by whining about how our “reality” must be the base reality because, “I’m conscious and consciousness can’t be faked.” Bostrom coldly reminds those detractors that “it is not an essential property of consciousness that it is implemented on carbon-based biological neural networks inside a cranium: silicon-based processors inside a computer could in principle do the trick as well.”  

 At the 2016 Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate, hosted annually at the American Museum of Natural History, scholars confronted the simulation hypothesis head-on. Neil deGrasse Tyson, moderator of the Asimov debate, noted the disparity between human intelligence and chimpanzee intelligence, despite the fact that we share 98 percent of our DNA. Tyson imagines that beings who have evolved so far beyond homo sapiens that they can simulate us, “we would be drooling, blithering idiots.” Some futurists are quick to remind Tyson, though, that it won’t take a whole evolutionary cycle to be able to run simulations. Considering the current rate at which computational power is improving, it might be just 100 more years until computers are millions of times more powerful than they are today. Those computers could be powerful enough to manufacture self-aware beings in a program that have no idea they exist in a program. What would be the incentive to run such a simulation? One answer is simple enough: it would serve as “one massive diagnostic test.” Facing a rapidly approaching end of their world, our descendants might want to know where they went wrong so that they could know how to save themselves. Another answer—more succinct and equally plausible—is simply, if you can, why not?

For millennia, humans have taken the existence of organismal life in our universe for granted. We carelessly assume that it was the natural course of events for humans to pop up, conquer the earth and thrive (before slowly destroying it). But for any of that to happen, a multitude of conditions had to be precisely right. For example, the earth lies at an ideal distance from the sun (93,000,000 miles), creating a supremely habitable temperature for our planet. Our atmosphere also happens to have the perfect composition and diversity of elements. It’s almost as if meticulous calculations pin pointed the perfect outcome of all these variables in order to create a hospitable home for complex life. Either that, or it’s some sort of miracle.

 Plenty of physicists and futurists take issue with Bostrom’s proposal, like Sabine Hossenfelder, a theoretical physicist at the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies. Dissenters like Hossenfelder often cite the lack of material and discernible evidence for our existence as a simulation. But a counter-refutation is easy enough to mount: If we do, in fact, live in a simulation, and the minutiae of our daily existence are controlled, then it would be easy for our simulators to ensure that their simulated projections do not discover their simulated nature. Any effort to outwit our simulators would be futile because those efforts would themselves be programmed, as would the responses to those efforts. We question only if they want us to question. We find answers only if they want us to. We exist because they want us to exist. 

Barring the very possible imminent fiery explosion of our Earth, it seems reasonable to conclude that we very well may live in a simulated universe. Consider what this means: The magazine or laptop before you is no more than a couple lines of code. You know how to read these words because you were programmed to have that ability. You might feel like you love someone, and maybe you hate somebody else, but those emotions are fabrications—carefully calculated reactions to specific stimuli. You might call your mom later today; while it might make you feel good—seemingly an end in itself—it’s fabricated. You are a cog in the simulation’s process to move from point G to point H. If all this is true, then the only thing that’s been coded into “existence” is what you can see and sense in this exact moment. Because you exist in a simulation, everything that has happened outside of this moment in space-time is likely carefully stored away in the computer’s memory. The information is ready to be accessed when necessary, conserved in order to maximize efficiency—not unlike a video game with different “worlds” that don’t load until you enter them. And just as if we were characters in this videogame, discovering our constitutive code, the more we learn about the universe, the clearer we can see that it is dictated by mathematical, rigid laws. 

It’s been awhile since the aforementioned Camry nearly shattered my simulated fibula, but my commutes to and from class are still peppered with considerations of the simulated matter around me. For example, I wonder about a friend’s amiable greeting-in-passing. Why did my coder-creator include this interaction? Might it just contribute to a sense of normalcy—a feeling that things are going as they should? Perhaps it’s part of a larger theme that my simulator is developing for my plot. Maybe that interaction will plant an idea in my mind. Maybe it will make me want to see that person more, which could lead to a simulated relationship that leads to a simulated marriage. It could also just serve to distract me from figuring out that I’m in a simulation. Or maybe my simulator wants me to get caught up thinking about why my friend’s shoes were untied, so that next thing I know, I’m colliding with a Camry as I hurry across Wahsatch. Simulated pain, death and distraught family members ensue. My simulator, satisfied with the cleanliness of his operation, sits back in his simulated chair and pops a string of simulated jerky into his uncaring, simulated mouth. 

In fact, recently I’ve been wondering if the simulation revelation is not as existentially horrifying as it seems at first glance. If we entertain a different reaction to our lack of “true” existence—a calmer one where I don’t consider playing chicken with an ‘02 Camry—we are able to digest the hypothesis more objectively, unburdened by thoughts about the futility of our existence.

Once I reached this point of objectivity, it occurred to me that there are enormous implications of the simulation hypothesis on our conception of religion and the Divine. 

If you buy the hypothesis, you are forced to realize that God doesn’t wear flowing white robes that subtly match his bone-white beard. Rather, our Creator is just a tech-savvy coder who might also be the great-great-grandchild of someone you know. James Gates, a theoretical physicist at the University of Maryland, has reflected on these religious significations of the simulation hypothesis. Gates feels that “if the simulation hypothesis is valid, then we open the door to eternal life and resurrection and things that formally have been discussed in the realm of religion.” To spell this idea out, why could our creator not choose to tweak the part of their algorithm that concerns death? This New God—let’s call him Carl—is omnipotent and omniscient in all the ways that Old God (henceforth OG) would be. Once your life in this simulation reaches its end, what’s to keep Carl from plucking your character from this world and throwing you into a different simulation? Thus, you are reborn! Perhaps that blinding white light that people purport to witness is just the transition from one simulation to the next—the light of the next world and the next iteration of your character. 

But in this simulated world, Carl is manipulating the outcome of everything that happens to fit his own self-interest. The OG, on the other hand, would magnanimously grant or deny our wishes depending on how literally we’ve lived his 10 bullet points. So if Carl wakes up on the wrong side of the bed, I could wake up in the grill of a Camry. When you sleep on a fucking cloud, as OG does, there’s not really a “wrong side” (but OG also wouldn’t do that because he’s merciful, kind and so forth). 

Some of the more pragmatic contributors to the simulation conversation consider the implication of this proposal on our morality. Nearly all sense of morality—or any set of ethics that is divorced from utility—is couched in the threat of authority. Be it God, government, or just parents, people are not good just for the sake of being good. So, if Carl is our ultimate authority, the only real moral magistrate, do our ethics fall apart? Is there any reason to behave appropriately or according to a moral code? Not necessarily, but Carl might have his own structure of incentives to do good.  That is, he might have coded in a moral code (pun intended, but not by me). He could have created a world where better people live longer, whether through (simulated) evolutionary reasons, or more abstract moral experimentation. But Carl could just as easily be rewarding the most conniving and tyrannical among us, just to make Machiavelli right.   

Next to the religious and ethical implications, the most direct relation that the simulation suggestion has with any metaphysical debate is with the question of free will.

What does one feel at the moment one discovers their reality isn’t real? As I came to terms with it myself, I was scared. Genuinely scared. I felt helpless. I totally lost my autonomy and capacity to shape my own life. Things only ever happened to me because that was my fate—a development of events and thoughts beyond my control. I’m not even writing these words because I want to or need to or have to. My simulator’s experiments are flowing through me onto this paper. Everything I did just became part of going through the motions. It is so unnerving to discover that most people who consider the possibility seem to shield themselves with denial. There is no clear alternative, except death, but what solution does that offer? It’s an escape into what might just be static. We lose our sentience, which is too bad, even if that sentience isn’t found in “carbon-based biological neural networks inside a cranium.” 

Thus, we find ourselves at the next step of reconciling with the simulation hypothesis, and more broadly—but almost interchangeably—the argument against free will. How, if possible, can we live within an imposed structure that dictates every step of our lives? The flow of my logic was rather cyclical: our entire lives are predetermined, and thus, we are devoid of autonomy. As such, life is futile. Can we live without convincing ourselves of meaning, in what may be an infinitely and inevitably meaningless existence? The answer I landed on was, simply, no. So we beat on, blindly constructing a meaning to our existence. We can’t go on; we go on.

Retrospectively, I prefer the times that I don’t take on the Camry to the times that I see no reason not to. After all, ignorance is bliss. And although I, and now you as well, are familiar with the likelihood that our actions are inconsequential and our purpose predefined, we are left with the monumental challenge of convincing ourselves that there is meaning to be made in this life. But maybe I’m being too cynical. Maybe we hit the lottery. Maybe, just maybe, we’re the base reality. 


Part of the Obvious issue