Monday, 12 September 2016

Theism And The Simulation Argument

The simulation argument is quite popular these days; Elon Musk famously finds it compelling. I don't, but for those who do, I think it has an important consequence that is obvious yet underappreciated: if we live in a simulation, then a form of theism is true. If the simulation argument is valid, then atheism is improbable.

The agent responsible for the simulation would be the God of our universe: it intentionally designed, created and sustains our universe for some purpose. (That purpose might have nothing to do with us or our pocket of the universe, but since life on Earth is the most complicated system we have observed so far, we can at least take as a working hypothesis that the purpose is connected to us.) This already implies we have at least a God of classical deism.

Furthermore, if we can use our simulations as an analogy, we should assume the simulating agent has ongoing access to the substrate running the simulation and the ability to modify its state. In other words, the agent is likely to be omnipotent (in our universe) and miracles are possible. (This is not the "can make a rock so heavy he can't lift it" straw-man omnipotence targeted by many atheists, but it's well within Biblical parameters.) It's also possible for the agent to reveal itself to us, and that it might want to.

The other two "omnis" do not seem to follow. I see no reason to believe that the simulating agent would be omniscient, even just about our universe. Likewise I see no reason to believe it would be omnibenevolent. However, being omnipotent, it could make us believe it was omniscient and omnibenevolent if it wanted to.

I don't expect to see proponents of the simulation argument in churches en masse anytime soon :-). However, they should be taking theism seriously and atheism not seriously at all.


  1. Given a Controller loving outside our substrate, they can be effectively omniscient if they so choose - our time has no relation to theirs, so they can spend as much time as they want researching something in our world while zero time passes for us, or possibly rewind/replay/branch us to see reactions without having to predict from first principles.

    (It's easiest for me to just ask "What could I do to a Sims person, assuming I had debugger access?". Alternately, "what can an author do to the denizens of their story?".)

    1. Fair point, but it's a limited kind of "omniscience". If the agent rewinds the simulation and executes forward again, then arguably, for residents of the first execution, the agent did not have foreknowledge.

    2. Sure, but having been unwound, those people don't exist at all. This also assumes that the only way to examine the system is by "playing" it in full fidelity; depending on the complexity of the simulator and the agent, a lot of things might be analyzable just by looking at the data structures and/or doing more limited varieties of stepping thru the simulation; if you can run the simulation in 10s timesteps with fudging in-between and get "good enough" answers, how much "existing" did the Sims actually do? The nature of what counts as "actually existing" when dealing with simulations gets extremely slippery/meaningless to pin down.

      Or moving away from the direct computer metaphor, authors often create their stories non-linearly, jumping in and out of timelines, revising and discarding ideas. This makes the issues even larger and more obvious. This isn't necessarily incompatible with a "simulation", either - we're automatically put in mind of a deistic "set up some variables, run the physics code"-type simulation, but there's nothing impossible about a simulation much closer to authoring - start with sketches, and then gradually refine details and fill in the specifics with greater and greater granularity. Making this back-compatible with a reasonably consistent physics is an interesting (/extremely hard) computing problem, but not insurmountable theoretically.

  2. I love when you write about this subject.
    I think they won't come in churches because of the doubts about His/Their omnibenevolence.
    Isn't it the hardest hypothesis to prove ?

    Another question is : does the agent (God) have the same kind of consciousness (soul) than us ?

    Personally, I think that we don't live in a simulation. There are not enough glitches. And that if God exists nonetheless, He's not omnipotent, but He rather struggles to achieve His purpose. But then we are fare from the classic definition of God.

  3. In my experience Christians and proto-Christians are --- and should be! --- much more concerned about Jesus and the gospel than the finer details of the nature of God.

  4. Agreed, the Simulation Hypothesis does point to an author of the simulation. We faithful people call that author "God."

    In A Simulated Universe Suggests a Divine Engineer, I showed that secular and even atheistic scientists including Neil deGrasse Tyson concede that the simulation hypothesis might mean there's a "creator." However, Tyson and others are reticent to call that creator "god" for various reasons.

    I find the hypothesis fascinating. It is one explanation of the Fermi Paradox: it explains why there appears to be life only here on earth, and it explains why the laws of the universe are finely-tuned to support life.

  5. Whether we are in a simulation or not, the question of whether we can and do interact with ultimate reality is a valid one. We may be limited in how we perceive the dimensions of existence due to our own physical limitations, and/or be limited via a cosmic quarantine (sin), etc.

    The implications of various Christian beliefs (angels, miracles, etc.) suggests a layer of reality beyond our current ability to explore.

    I argued this in a review, trying to show that science — being limited to what humans can acquire by extracting data from the universe — may be objectively inferior to the data acquired from "outside" our reality. Here is part of that thread:

    "Imagine that a computer could contain a virtual person who is actually intelligent. There could be billions of these people living inside a machine, living their own virtual lives. Some of them spend their lives trying to understand their world. However, all of their tools, and the laws that govern those tools, are also virtual. When they drop something, it falls, and it always falls at a certain rate, in a certain direction, etc. Eventually they might reverse engineer whole textbooks full of laws about how their world works, and even come up with ideas about how they got there. But they would be very limited in that pursuit, because ultimately they are out of touch with reality [that is, their laws only reflect the laws of *virtual* reality]. The true reality may have completely different laws. What if someone from the true reality were to beam in messages to help these people? Some might believe, others not. But really their only hope of understanding true reality would be to listen to those messages."

  6. If the author of the simulation is "the God of our universe" then it is by definition not the God of the Ontological Argument, as it may be one among many. So it is not God at all, and therefore not an effective refutation of atheism.

    I agree, though, that the reluctantly spiritual may flock to the simulation argument as a side door into theistic arguments.

    1. > If the author of the simulation is "the God of our universe" then it is by definition not the God of the Ontological Argument, as it may be one among many.

      That makes sense.

      > So it is not God at all, and therefore not an effective refutation of atheism.

      It depends on how you define "atheism", but I think most atheists are not just excluding the God of the ontological argument, but a broader class of potential gods. For example I'm pretty sure most atheists interpret atheism as excluding belief in the Greek pantheon. Likewise if I said "I believe in a god who hears my prayers and occasionally does miracles on my behalf, and who will ensure I obtain a desirable afterlife, but might not be unique --- and I'm an atheist too" I think people would generally consider that a contradiction :-).