Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Reality vs. Simulation and the Big Question

Oh, fresh meat. Just when I was afraid this was going to become a stale blog, I had forgotten about the following story and the follow-up has given me a reason to post.

Let the fun begin.

Back on August 14, John Tierney posted on the New York Times a story about the latest twist on the question of whether we're all just imagining this universe: instead, we're sitting in a simulation (free registration required). Tierney writes:

I hadn’t imagined that the omniscient, omnipotent creator of the heavens and earth could be an advanced version of a guy who spends his weekends building model railroads or overseeing video-game worlds like the Sims.

But now it seems quite possible. In fact, if you accept a pretty reasonable assumption of Dr. Bostrom’s, it is almost a mathematical certainty that we are living in someone else’s computer simulation.

This simulation would be similar to the one in “The Matrix,” in which most humans don’t realize that their lives and their world are just illusions created in their brains while their bodies are suspended in vats of liquid. But in Dr. Bostrom’s notion of reality, you wouldn’t even have a body made of flesh. Your brain would exist only as a network of computer circuits.
Ah, all the posthumanists come out of the closet and start saying, "Yeah! We've known about this for years!" Yes, all this is just fine and dandy, except as I hinted at earlier (and as Tierney also says) this concept has been around for a long time. Lots of philosophers have asked whether we're really "here," and what "here" means.

But Tierney decided to have some fun with this. He first posted follow-up questions in his TierneyLab, and it generated enough discussion that he decided to host a contest: a Talk-To-The-Designer contest. I would have to say the winners had their tongues firmly planted in their cheeks as they typed off their entries. My personal favorites are:

8th Place:

My dad always said that “reality” is the place where you have to pay the rent.

If this is indeed all a simulation, would you be so kind as to so advise my landlord.


6th Place:

You know when you can slide the little cursor thing to the left and the video starts at the place you moved to?

Can you move me back 30 years or so?



4th Place:

To: “The Simulator, The Creator”
From: “Computer Generated Spammer”
FROM THE DESK OF MR. EGOMAH FELIX SYNTAX ERROR, LAGOS, NIGERIA, an account officer to late Mark Jones an Immigrant, who was a Businessman and Building Contractor in my Country.
On the 21st of April 2001, a customer designed and created by your simulation was involved in a Car accident along Lagos-Shagamu express road. All occupants of the Vehicle unfortunately lost their lives and were deleted from your program.
The deleted character has an account valued at USD$15.5 million, I have been in contact with his lawyer prior to locate any of his relatives for over 2 years that seems abortive. Now, I seek your consent, to present you, the creator and simulator, granting you opportunity to be presented.
We discovered an abandoned sum of diamonds worth $12,500,000.00, and Mr. Jones will states that you have claim to 25% of this sum if you give us your user name, password and the name of your favorite pet for security purposes.
Thank you for your time, and your simulation.
Awesome entries. Mucho fun. There was some serious quibbling about the winner, but that's not what I want to discuss here.

I could see having a lot of fun with this, but it doesn't address something that I find fascinating: the fact that we can have this discussion.

Think about it. If we really were in the Matrix, then Agent Smith would have already talked to us, reset our memory, and convinced us that it was all just a bad dream caused by skipping dinner for the Nth time in a row. If we were in a true simulation, then the ability to have self-referential thought within the simulation should cause a serious loop that would generate enough feedback to cause the holomatrix to start fritzing.

And yet....

We are in a simulation. We just don't call it that. Oh, most people poo-poo this idea of "afterlife" and think that Christianity is just for blue-haired ladies willing to throw their money away, but Christianity's basic tenets can be presented in Matrix-like, simulation terminology (although the Matrix was not what I would call a Christian film):
  • This world isn't reality. It's a mirror--a simulation--for what's going to come at the end. (1 Corinthians 13:12)
  • There is Someone--the Source, the Programmer--watching our every move and tweaking our lives; partially to test us, partially to answer prayer. (Philippians 4:6, Colossians 4:12, James 1:3, James 5:15-16, 1 Peter 3:12) (I'm just scratching the surface here; big theological discussions on the meaning of pain and suffering aren't going to be covered at this time.)
  • There is a reality beyond our simulation, our world. (Job 11:7-9, Job 28:23-24) (but I need a better source, as some would say that poetry is exempt)
  • While our souls are eternal, our bodies are not. (1 Corinthians 15:42-58)
  • There is a glitch in the simulation--sin. One of the residents of the simulation "broke," and his replicated progeny have this same glitch. We're like Agent Smith when he becomes a virus. (Romans 5:12-21)
  • Those who trust in Jesus Christ will receive so much: forgiveness for the "glitch" that exists inside us, new bodies, better than those we had before.
So while all this talk about metaphysical ideas of reality sounds silly or lame or cerebral, there is a kernel of Truth in it all.

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