Simulation Theory is a Religious Belief System

gauguin.sermonI find simulation theory – in essence, the possibility that we’re living in a artificially generated reality – philosophically interesting, even though there really isn’t much evidence to support the idea. Then again, it’s not really needed.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the theory, at least from a cultural perspective, is that it is at this point a religious belief system. As the bronze age myths of gods and heroes have increasingly failed to address in any convincing manner humanity’s perennial existential woes (“Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going?”), we invented technological ones to replace them.

To a greater or lesser degree, the various branches of the Abrahamic faiths have at least at one time considered Earthly life to be illusory, transient, and even sinful; a transitional state of being on the path to the godhead. In the tech-friendly world of Simulation theory, Earthly life is once again illusory: An artificial construct created by powers unknown who might as well be gods.

Mortality is also addressed in Simulation theory, although we may not like the answers. Physical death may be the equivalent of “logging out” of that illusion and returning to the “real” reality (which may or may not also be a simulation), or it might just be the extinction of the self – presuming that the sense of “self” implies some sort of personal agency rather than an externally engineered state.

The religious myths posited that we were here to serve the gods in some fashion: to love them, or wage war, or toil as their faithful servants. One possibility of the Simulation theory is that we’re part of a computer model that will allow our unseen “gods” to learn more about the past, or perhaps experiment with life itself in a safe manner. In any way, we’re serving the gods again, and they’re no more knowable than Jehovah. Certainly, positing that were here as part of an experiment is no less logical than that we’re here to serve a codependent divinity’s need for love, and it’s far more palatable to a 21st century human’s existence than verses about burnt offerings and sacred oils.

The problem with religious belief systems of any sort, and this includes Simulation theory, is that they offer very simple answers to extremely complex, interrelated problems. They’re self-contained, self-supporting systems that enable circular thought patterns to develop that attack and defeat external ideas much like white blood cells devour viruses and bacteria. (“How do we know the Bible is correct? Because it’s the word of God. How do we know there’s a God? Because the Bible says so. Don’t question this; faith is the essence of belief. Doubt is the Devil tempting your faith.”) As nature abhors a vacuum, so does the human mind. The empty space of moral and philosophical ambiguity is made soft and comfortable by the warm quilt of religious belief, be it technological or mythological.

As Simulation theory is ultimately unprovable (at least as we understand it), those who embrace it must take it on faith. With that in mind, perhaps “Why is this an attractive belief system?” is a better question than “Is it true?”.




31 Comments on "Simulation Theory is a Religious Belief System"

  1. Interesting part of that belief system is the hints that we can hack physical laws if we understand the code. Equivalent of magick in more conventional belief systems?

    • The Well Dressed Man | Aug 1, 2013 at 1:33 pm |

      I was wondering how they were able to get those “bullet-time” scenes in the Matrix on camera… 😉

      • A whole bunch of carefully placed cameras and CGI. There are some good articles on it, try google.

  2. Ted Heistman | Jul 29, 2013 at 4:50 pm |

    Maybe its attractive in terms of making life into a game?

  3. DanielGene | Jul 29, 2013 at 4:55 pm |

    “Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going?” are practical philosophical questions that should keep you grounded and sane so you don’t drop into fairy tale land. My question is if people cannot get this and cannot differentiate between a thought experiment and the actual real day-to-day reality, where are we heading at as a species…?

    • They are important questions, sure. Practical, they are not. Neither are they easily answerable.

  4. BuzzCoastin | Jul 29, 2013 at 5:00 pm |

    > there really isn’t much evidence to support the idea

    anything consisting of tiny particles
    vibrating at 10 to the 26th power a second
    is a simulation, at best

  5. I saw the whole concept of simulation theory as bunk as soon as i heard the holographic defense. People were amazed that you could manipulate data in a 3 dimensional plane onto a 2 dimensional hologram. because then obviously you can do the same process to make a 1 dimensional hologram, or maybe go backwards and say “reality is a 3 dimensional hologram of a 4d universe”.

    The problem is you’re not really doing anything, when 3d data is pushed onto a 2d hologram, you still have 3 dimensions of information, the third being the angle at which you are looking at the hologram.

    Its almost the same thing as people taking the frequency domain transform of data and saying “OH MY the universe is just vibrations!!!”.. oh wait people do that too…. It all breaks down when you realize information could be carried in a Chirp signal.

    Just because you can change the way you look at things doesn’t mean you’ve found THE way of looking at things, there’s still value in the old perspective.

  6. jimpliciter | Jul 29, 2013 at 6:16 pm |

    I’ve often wondered that if this is a simulation, what is it that is the real thing to which we compare the simulation to? In a world where there are only counterfeit Rolex watches and no genuine ones it’s obvious that by “Rolex watch” one means what ever it is in the world that we call a “Rolex watch”- that it’s a replica is neither here nor there. I think simulation theory derives from the nature of mathematical modeling. Modeling has become so good, that there is a hint that if you had a one to one (isomorphic) model, you’d have something indistinguishable from the thing being modeled.

  7. jimpliciter | Jul 29, 2013 at 6:20 pm |

    Another issue with cosmology whether scientific or religious, is that it amounts to an attempt to have information about something you can’t and in all likelihood will never be able to interact with. Can you think of a situation where a human is interacting with the beginning/s or end/s of the known universe? You just don’t need information about something you can’t interact with- it’s a waste of time.

  8. Surely the idea that perception perfectly equals some kind of objective reality is as much of a faith claim as the idea that it bears no relation?
    Does that lead us, if we want to share in the unexamined “common-sense” tone of this article, to believe that we are experiencing a combination of both extreme views – some form of simulation based on reality? But to what extent is it real and what extent is it simulation?

    Furthermore do we have to buy into the hierachy that says real is “better” than simulation? Eg. if we are “really” just chemical soup bags simulating culture – I choose culture.

    On the other hand maybe we should treat “reality” with an apriori and existential status of importance. It seems deeply ingrained in us (and me) to do so.

  9. atlanticus | Jul 29, 2013 at 9:02 pm |

    I mean no offense, ’cause I like ya’ Matt (I was unsure about the podcast switch-over, but you’ve grown on me), but was this really in question?

    I mean…I only skimmed Buddhism and Gnosticism and many other “isms”, but weren’t these ultimately the original sources of simulation theory, whether or not it is now backed up with fancy-pants-math-i-don’t-understand?

    Just seems like more “ideas I had while tripping”…so, you know, fun, but meh…I for one am completely comfortable with the idea that no one knows shit. It makes it all that much funnier.

  10. The universe doesn’t resemble a simulation, simulations are by definition resemblances of the universe. It’s like painting a tree and then surmising that the tree is a painting.

    • hagbard23 | Aug 1, 2013 at 11:52 am |

      You’re backwards, though. If it resembles a simulation, it’s more like we’re in the painting, looking at the painted tree, and thinking “oh what a nice tree!” We would have no idea what the “real” tree is like.

      • I disagree. If there is no tree, there is no simulation of a tree.

        • True, it wouldn’t be simulation. But if you were in a virtual world, and it had major differences from the real world- you still wouldn’t know it. To you it would be real. Thus, argument is about semantics.

  11. InfvoCuernos | Jul 29, 2013 at 10:43 pm |

    It all comes down to the same question: if this is a simulation, then who made the programmers? -same as asking who made god, what started the big bang? People can’t help but think about these questions. We all learn the answer soon enough, no rush on my part.

  12. What this theory gets us is that unlike religious belief systems so far, it might be testable, and if true, perhaps the simulation algorithm might be derived and even become hackable (analogous to magick in occult and some religious belief systems.)

    Is the theory true? Not enough data to form an opinion. Perhaps we’ll have more in a few years.

  13. Hey Matt,

    Indeed this idea is explored a bit in the late Iain M Banks’ sci-fi book ‘The Algebraist’. It is set in some galactic civilisation where the dominant religion involves the belief that the universe is a simulation and that if a state can be achieved where enough people in the galaxy actually believe it’s a simulation then the simulator has some reward in store!

  14. Virtually Yours | Jul 30, 2013 at 12:13 pm |

    “I find simulation theory…philosophically interesting, even though there really isn’t much evidence to support the idea” Have to admit that I find the discovery of computer code which is embedded within the equations of String Theory to be rather compelling…

    “As Simulation theory is ultimately unprovable…those who embrace it must take it on faith” But if the code is there (check); and if it has been observed and confirmed by others (check); and if there is no other plausible explanation for it being there (…) then shouldn’t it qualify as evidence of some sort? If not, why not? If so, then faith would appear to no longer be a necessary part of the equation…

    This article is fun and, even though it was written a few years ago, it raises a few thought-provoking points:

    • String Theory was invented by the same species and same scientific establishment that invented computers, so it doesn’t seem to me that similarities between the two imply anything beyond that.

      • Virtually Yours | Jul 30, 2013 at 2:11 pm |

        “String Theory was invented…” Invented or discovered? Mathematicians have been arguing and discussing that point for quite some time 🙂

        “…by the same species and same scientific establishment that invented computers” Computers, on the other hand, almost seem like an inevitable outcome of our having accepted the “truth” of the mathematics upon which they are based.

        “it doesn’t seem to me that similarities between the two imply anything beyond that” Except that we aren’t talking about some random similarity…what Dr. Gates has discovered is alarmingly specific: it is called doubly-even self-dual linear binary error-correcting block code, and it seems somewhat unlikely that it would be there coincidentally or by accident…

        • String Theory is a map, not the territory.

          I don’t mean to suggest the resemblance is accidental or random at all, but that Simulation Theory has it backwards. “Doubly-even self-dual linear binary error-correcting block code”s work because of the mathematical and logical nature of the physical universe, not vice versa.

  15. The key to any reality belief system is a group consensus on the parameters of the belief system. Even though my own belief system is a highly specific one that probably doesn’t have many analogs out in the wild, it’s built upon all of the other belief systems I’ve encountered (like Simulation Theory) and is solidified by the knowledge that may others are struggling with this whole consensus reality problem. If left to my own sensory input it would be really easy to believe that everything I am experiencing is some sort of simulation where I’m the only real subject and everything else is illusion. When I see people on the streets with that maniac grin talking to themselves and responding to unseen actors I imagine those are the people that have followed that lonely path to it’s conclusion.

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