Is This The Real Life? Or Just a Fantasy?
Thoughts on theology, survival, and The Simulation.
“Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?” Those aren’t just lines from “Bohemian Rhapsody,” but a serious question for many. And maybe they should be a bigger question for others.
The question is: Are we living in real life, or in a computer simulation? Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom has been raising that possibility for years. In principle, you can simulate anything with a digital computer that’s powerful enough. And, as Edward Frenkel wrote in The New York Times, “If such simulations are possible in theory, (Bostrom) reasons, then eventually humans will create them — presumably many of them. If this is so, in time there will be many more simulated worlds than nonsimulated ones. Statistically speaking, therefore, we are more likely to be living in a simulated world than the real one.”
And, as Frenkel also noted, scientists have detected small anomalies in some computer simulations, anomalies that if discovered in the real world, could indicate that we actually are living in a simulated world. There are also aspects of the physical world – chiefly certain quantum effects – that have suggested to some that our universe is simulated. Digital, not analog.
Even Elon Musk has weighed in, saying that in his opinion, the odds that we’re not living in a simulated universe as opposed to a real one are “one in billions.”
Culturally, references to “the simulation,” which used to be limited to a tiny coterie of uber-geeks, have now entered into popular discourse. I remember during Covid when people were saying that the “murder hornets” were a sign that the simulation’s controllers had relaxed the probability limits and the like, or wondering if simulations have the equivalent of “sweeps week.” (And maybe they do; more on that later.)
But so what? What difference, as Hillary Clinton might ask, does it make whether we’re in a “real” or a “simulated” universe?
In one sense, it doesn’t matter at all. If you stub your simulated toe against a simulated end table, the simulated pain will seem quite real to you, as I can (simulatedly?) attest.
But when I was teaching First Amendment law in my Constitutional Law class this year, we came upon the subject of “Intelligent Design” theory versus evolution, and when Simulation Theory came up, it got interesting. Generally speaking, when people have talked about Intelligent Design, they’ve meant design by a Creator, and by Creator they mean a supernatural God. The cases reflect this, with Intelligent Design being treated as just a slightly denatured version of Christian creationism.
But if we’re living in a computer simulation put together by future humans (or superhumans) or by aliens of some sort, you can have Intelligent Design, and even a Creator (or Creators) but without a supernatural God. Or you can have a simulated God, and/or a simulated Satan, or any other deity or supernatural entity you can imagine: If it can be added to the code, then it can be added to the universe. (In James Branch Cabell’s classic novel Jurgen, Jurgen meets Jehovah in Heaven, but discovers that Jehovah was added by the real ruler of the Universe, Koshchei The Deathless (who “made things as they are”) chiefly to put an end to the demands of Jurgen’s grandmother.)
But that’s the thing about a digital simulation: You can put anything in the code. This kind of blows things up for many sectors of the religion/atheism debate. In fact, in a simulated universe, I’m not sure that those terms have any meaning. If you live in a “real” world, you can apply reason and knowledge of physical laws to conclude that the supernatural has no place. (Or that it does). But in a simulated world, all bets are off.
Silicon Valley geeks who endorse Simulation Theory generally have some degree of contempt for classic Intelligent Design theory. But in fact the two are not so far apart, except that the classic theory is generally pretty sure Who the designer is, though Intelligent Design writers don’t always say so.
And the classical atheistic arguments against intelligent design fail in the context of a simulation. Anyone who’s played The Sims knows about cheat codes, so claims that miracles, etc., couldn’t happen because they violate the laws of physics or causality fall flat in a digital setting. You can put anything in the code. (In fact, any supernatural phenomenon becomes fair game as a cheat code – or perhaps, in the case of things like clairvoyance, telepathy, or precognition, as bugs in the software that sometimes allow information to leak across barriers that are usually impermeable.)
Evolution? We might be designed to evolve. Or maybe to look like we did. Either way, there would be no way to tell which was real.
The God of the Simulation might be like the God of the Deists, setting things up and then letting them run on their own. Or the God of the Simulation might be an interfering God, constantly tweaking things and affecting people’s behavior. (Again, think of The Sims.) And our Intelligent Creator, the programmer of our simulation, might just be the future equivalent of a bored 12-year-old playing The Sims.
And what about religious and moral duty? If you live in a simulation, but within that simulation is Jehovah, is worshipping that simulated Jehovah the same as if you were worshiping a non-simulated Jehovah in a non-simulated world? If one is a moral duty, is the other? (After all, ex hypothesis, Jehovah may only be a simulation – but under those circumstances so are we.)
For that matter, if we live in a simulation, do we have moral duties to our fellow Sims? At one level, none of it is “real.” But at another level, sadness, suffering and – as far as we know – death are just as real to our fellow simulations as they would be if they were actually “real.” (And even if Heaven and Hell don’t exist in the outside “real” world, they can certainly exist within the simulation. So if you believe in Simulation Theory, you can’t rule out God and the Devil -- “If He exists, Me too.” -- or Heaven and Hell. Or sin and judgment. At least, not unless you’ve thoroughly inspected the code.)
Hi! Welcome to the Simulation!
So where does this leave us? Good question. Although in principle it’s possible to simulate anything in a sufficiently powerful digital computer, there’s one inescapable difference between being simulated and being real. If we’re real, we just exist. If we’re simulated, we exist only so long as the simulation runs. And since, presumably, the simulation will run only so long as whoever is running it finds it useful or interesting, if we’re living in a simulation, it behooves us to be interesting.
Fortunately, that’s something we’re pretty good at. Which has a bright side. Being a bourgeois, classically liberal kind of guy, I mostly wish that people would just get along, treat each other well and live in peace. And this seems like it would be pretty good though it also seems kind of unattainable given human history. But maybe that unattainability provides a clue in itself.
Because the thing is, if we’re living in a simulation that’s there for entertainment purposes, living in peace and harmony would also be fatal. People getting along and treating each other well are boring. And if we’re boring, the most likely result would be that whoever is running the simulation would shut it down, leading to the end of the world, at least as we know it.
What that means is that if we’re in a simulation set up for the entertainment of some sort of superintelligent aliens, or super-advanced humans, we want to be like a long-running telenovela — action-packed with conflict, betrayal, disguises, sudden reverses of fortune and so on.
And if that’s the case, then humanity is doing pretty damn well, and all the nastiness and disorderliness and conflict that generally upset me about human life aren’t actually bugs — they’re features! By keeping things entertaining, they’re actually keeping humanity going. So there’s your takeaway.
Stay interesting, my friends.
[UPDATE: I had somehow managed to miss this interesting essay by Robin Hanson from 2001 — yes, that long ago — on How to Live in a Simulation.]