Really . . . What’s Real?

The Rev. Joshua M. Pawelek

Earlier I read an excerpt from Nick Bostrum’s 2003 article, “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?”[1] To be clear, he does not prove we are living in a simulation (had he proved it, I suspect we’d all be aware of it by now and waiting to meet our maker— or, umm, programmer). What he proves is that it is rational to think we are living in a computer simulation. Or, in the very least, he proves one can argue it is rational to think we are living in a simulation.

Simulation

One can also argue that while it might be rational to think we are living in a computer simulation, it might not be rational to preach about it. And if the minister decides to preach about it anyways, it would be rational to think it might be one of his less useful sermons. Of course, this is the same challenge I accept every year when I put a sermon up for bid at the UUS:E goods and services auction. As most of you know, every year our beloved Fred Sawyer wins a sermon at the auction and challenges me to preach on a topic or question residing at that murky yet evocative crossroads where science, philosophy and theology meet. “Are you living in a computer simulation?” is no exception.

The Truman Show

I’m not sure, in the end, that answering this question is all that useful. But the fact that some scientists, philosophers and theologians take this question seriously; the fact that there are scientists proposing experimental means to answer the question (even if they’re doing it partly for fun); and the fact that this idea that reality is not the same as what our senses perceive shows up again and again in literature and cinema—in everything from the Bible to Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Whoto The Matrix films to The Truman Show—tells us something about human nature which I suspect is meaningful. [And whether or not it is, it is certainly rational to the come to the auction next Saturday evening, February 9th, from 5:30 to 9:00. It’s great fun. It’s an important fundraiser for the congregation. As always, a sermon or two will be up for bid.]

Horton Hears a Who

Imagine today isn’t February 3, 2013. We think it is, and everything we’ve ever been taught tells us that it is. But imagine today is actually a day far in the future. And imagine that some future society—Bostrum calls them “posthuman”—has developed powerful computers that can run programs that simulate human evolution. Bostrum calls them “ancestor simulations.” They would be so fine-grained that the people in them would have consciousness and would not realize they are living in a virtual reality.[2] Again, Bostrum wants to show it is rational to think we live in such a simulation. To do this he says at least one of three propositions must be true.

First proposition (what I call the gloom and doom proposition): “The human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a “posthuman” stage.” If this proposition is true, if human beings will become extinct before developing this level of computing power, then we cannot be living in a computer simulation, and today must be February 3, 2013.

Second proposition (what I call the ethical proposition): “Any posthuman civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history.” Imagine that human beings do not become extinct and successfully develop the capacity to run very fine-grained ancestor simulations. Then imagine that, despite having such capacity, they refuse to do it. Why? Doesn’t it seem logical that if it could be done, it would be done? We already run computer simulations for all sorts of things. We track the paths hurricanes; we train astronauts. Simulations are part of every industry that uses computers. We even have computers that simulate computers. If we could simulate human evolution, we could learn so much about ourselves. We wouldn’t do it for moral reasons. An advanced human society would, we hope, have an advanced morality and would recognize that in creating virtual yet conscious people, it would also be consigning them to a life of potentially great suffering. An accurate simulation would include genocides, wars, holocausts, slavery, nuclear explosions, terrorism, racism, anti-Semitism, gun violence, poverty, famine, starvation, disease and so on. It would be sadistic, morally objectionable and highly unethical to create virtual people who would have to experience these things. Hence, it would be prohibited, even illegal. If that’s true—if every advanced society with this level of computing power prohibits ancestor simulations—then we cannot be living in a simulation. Today must be February 3, 2013.

Third proposition (what I call the what’s really real? proposition): “We are almost certainly living in a computer simulation.” That is, if the first proposition is false—human beings don’t become extinct; and if the second proposition is false—advanced societies don’t establish prohibitions against running ancestor simulations—then we are almost certainly living in such a simulation. Today is likely not February 3, 2013.

To understand why this might make sense, consider that Bostrum assumes it would not be just one society that develops this computing power. There would be multiple advanced societies, all of them running multiple simulations at once. And furthermore, at some point in the course of any such simulation the virtual people in it would themselves develop the computing power to run their own ancestor simulations. As Bostrum puts it, “we would have to suspect that the posthumans running our simulation are themselves simulated beings; and their creators, in turn, may also be simulated beings.” It could go on indefinitely.

Simulated Simulators

Michael Rundle, Technology Editor for the Huffington Post, UK, summed up the argument in an article this past December: “any civilization which could evolve to a ‘post-human’ stage would almost certainly learn to run simulations on the scale of a universe. And…given the size of reality—billions of worlds, around billions of suns—it is fairly likely that if this is possible, it has already happened. And if it has? Well, then the statistical likelihood is that we’re located somewhere in that chain of simulations within simulations. The alternative—that we’re the first civilization in the first universe—is virtually (no pun intended) absurd.”[3]

My gut response to all this? I think it’s absurd (no pun needed). It can’t be true. It doesn’t feel right. Something’s missing. It’s too circular. It’s a trick. But I don’t have a rational counter argument. Is it just that I’m so used to thinking I’m an original human in the original universe, that I’m deeply and irrationally attached to this assumption? After all, I’ve never been invited to seriously think otherwise until now. If we assume humans will not become extinct and will one day have the computing power to run ancestor simulations; and if we assume that advanced societies would not prohibit such simulations, then on what basis can we argue we are not now living in a simulation? We wouldn’t know it if we were. It doesn’t feel rational, but it certainly looks rational on paper.

Simulated Cosmic RaysOne rational response to Bostrum is to look for actual evidence. In a recent paper entitled “Constraints on the Universe as a Numerical Simulation”[4] German physicist Silas R. Beane and colleagues discuss how one might approach this problem. He says in any computer simulation there are “observable consequences” of that simulation. There are certain constraints or limits on the laws of physics within any simulation and they leave a signature. The signatures are very slight, but they ought to be observable within the simulation if one knows how and where to look. So they suggest that we begin with the assumption that our universe is a simulation and then ask: What known phenomena are there in the universe that mirror the kinds of observable consequences we would expect to find? Beane names the Greisen-Zatsepin-Kuzmin—GZK—cut off, the outer limit of the energy in cosmic ray particles. What accounts for this cut off? Why does this limit exist? He proposes this limit could be an observable consequence of a computer simulation. I haven’t had time to figure out whether he and his colleagues are just doing this for fun in their spare time or if this is their main research area. Either way, their paper, like Bostrum’s, has a wide popular following. The suggestion that what is real is not the same as what we perceive is a potent one.

Fred was interested in what Bostrum’s theory might say about God and ethics.  It says a lot. Some of you may already be making theological connections. Bostrum said, “it is possible to draw… loose analogies with religious conceptions of the world…. The posthumans running a simulation are like gods in relation to the people inhabiting the simulation: the posthumans created the world we see; they are of superior intelligence; they are “omnipotent” in the sense that they can interfere in the workings of our world even in ways that violate its physical laws; and they are “omniscient” in the sense that they can monitor everything that happens.” This makes sense. If we are living in a computer simulation, it is fair to say that the programmer plays a similar if not the same role in our lives that many feel the God of the Bible plays. Even the idea of resurrection is plausible in a computer simulation. If the programmers don’t like that someone ‘important’ has died, they can just re-insert the file back into the simulation. Or think about incarnation—the divine taking human form. A programmer could place a file of themself into the simulation and walk among us virtual folk, speaking to us of the errors of our ways. To us it would look like incarnation—spirit-becoming-flesh. The programmer would experience it as flesh-becoming-data. But do you see what I’m getting at? This question—“Are you living in a computer simulation?”—is not a new question. It uses modern concepts. It wears the clothing of science. But it’s actually an ancient question, an ancient thought process. Because we can’t explain our origins, we conclude there must be a Creator who exists in another realm.[5]Whether God or programmer, the net effect is the same. We live at the mercy of an all-powerful entity.

Zeus

And whether we’re talking about an all-powerful God or programmer, the problem of evil and suffering remains. This is also an ancient human question, the question of theodicy: How do we explain evil and suffering if God is all-powerful? What about genocides, wars, holocausts and slavery? Why does an all-powerful God allow these things to happen? Why? There’s no good answer. Some will contend God’s purposes are inscrutable and should not be questioned, but that’s never been acceptable to me. So what justification would some future computer programmer have in creating people who feel pain in so many ways, who are exquisitely conscious of their own suffering and that of others; people who are fragile, flawed and know they must, some day, die. It seems sadistic. It makes sense that an advanced society with an advanced morality would prohibit it.

Except that if it turns out we are living in a simulation, I wouldn’t want it to be turned off. I wouldn’t want life just to end in the blink of an eye, without a chance to say goodbye to the people I love, just like I don’t want life to end any other way—though I know it must. Computer simulation or not, I still recognize in me, in you, and in so many of earth’s creatures a fierce and beautiful will to live. No matter what’s real, we’re here and these are our lives. Whether it’s 2013 or some future day, we’re here and these are our lives. And even if our lives are illusions, they feel real. As far as we know, they’re the only lives we have. The point of living has never been to avoid evil and suffering, but rather, when it happens, to respond to it as best we can: to find our sources of resilience, to remain hopeful, to bring love to bear. Regardless of what’s really real, I can find no excuse to live our lives as if they have no consequence.

In case you’re wondering, I don’t believe it. I don’t believe in an all-powerful God or an all-powerful programmer. I believe today is February 3, 2013; our bodies are real flesh and blood bodies; and we are among the first people in this universe. That’s what I believe, but I also an open to and curious about any opportunity to connect with a reality greater than or in some way beyond this one. I recall those words of the Apostle Paul, his reminder to the Corinthians to “Look not at what can be seen, but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, what cannot be seen is eternal.”[6] I recall those words of the Sufi poet, Hafez, speaking to the Beloved Presence: “Veil yourself with every enchantment and yet I shall feel you…. You are the breathing of the world.”[7] I’m reminded that from time to time we catch glimpses of something else—some other world, some other realm. Maybe we don’t see it with our eyes—we feel it, we imagine it, we dream it. Maybe it comes to us in our quiet, peaceful moments— our mountain top moments, our walking-at-low-tide-moments—moments when we lean back from our daily lives and suddenly realize we’ve become available to something else—or something else has become available to us. Maybe it comes to us in our moments of great celebration or exertion—moments when we’ve danced, sung, run, whirled or stretched our bodies so far beyond their normal positions that somehow we’ve become available to something else—or something else has become available to us. Reality is not always the same as what our senses tell us.

So many religions, folkways and spiritual practices; so many prophets, gurus, teachers, poets, guides and spiritual leaders; so many scriptures, myths, stories and dreams hint at the existence of something else: some Heaven, some Olympus, Elysium, Valhalla, Zion, Sheol, Shangri-La, Shambhala, Svarga Loka, Nirvana, some celestial sphere, some great oneness, some kingdom coming. But our glimpses are always fleeting. We may never know what’s really real. Given this, what seems most rational to me is staying open and curious. And what really matters is not whether a proposition is ultimately true or false, but whether it keeps us resilient in a hurting world, keeps us hopeful, and keeps love overflowing in our hearts.

Curiosity

Amen. Blessed be.


 


[1] Bostrum, Nick, “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation? “Philosophical Quarterly(2003) Vol. 53, No. 211, pp. 243?255. (First version: 2001). For a detailed exploration of the various debates sparked by Bostrum’s article, go to http://www.simulation-argument.com/.

[2] Bostrum argues that, though it is controversial, a common assumption in the philosophy of mind known as “substrate independence” suggests that computers should be capable of consciousness. He writes: “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.”

[5] I recommend Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s description of ‘The Cosmological Argument’ for the existence of God in 36 Arguments For the Existence of God (New York: Pantheon Books, 2010) p. 348. In my view this is possibly the most common and most ancient argument for the existence of God. Goldstein convincingly dismantles it.

[6] Second Corinthians 4:18.

[7] Shams Ud-Dun Mohammed Hafiz, “Beloved Presence,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #607.