Christian Friend, Have You Heard the Good News About the Simulation Hypothesis?

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Why a sci-fi idea championed by Elon Musk and others is an opportunity for Christians.

In June of last year, entrepreneur Elon Musk intrigued the science and technology community with his controversial remarks about the world being a “simulation.” “The odds that we’re in base reality,” he said during the Code Conference interview, “is one in billions.” In other words, the universe we live in is probably (or is probably like) a sophisticated computer game.

This general idea has gained interest ever since the release of the popular film The Matrix (1999)—though not with much seriousness. However, through the eyes of many contemporary scientists and engineers—perhaps the most respected group of people in our age—the world is looking more and more “rigged” for life. Even a recent study debunking the theory shows that the idea is serious enough to be more than science fiction. As Musk demonstrated, it’s certainly not embarrassing to discuss it in public anymore. Oddly enough, this conversation presents a unique opportunity for Christians to present the power and validity of the biblical world-and-life-view.

Christian theology is ripe with analogies, metaphor, parable, and symbolism—all of which are contingent on the time and language of the day. This figurative speech is the primary mode in which theology works, and this is particularly true with regard to the doctrine of creation. Popular texts like Faith Seeking Understanding (Daniel Migliore) provide several analogies for creation, such as “generation,” “formation,” “emanation,” “mind-body relationship,” and “artistic expression” (where creation is like a portrait that God is painting).

There seems to be no immediate reason why “computer simulation” or “video game” is off the table as another helpful analogy (acknowledging inadequacies). In fact, given today’s culture, computer and technological analogies might actually prove to be the most helpful in describing that central topic of systematic theology—“God and creation.”

Use with caution

This is anything but a novel proposal. Countless sermons today utilize metaphors and analogies such as “following God’s Twitter” by reading the Bible, “connecting to God’s Wi-Fi” by walking with the Spirit, “decoding” passages in the New Testament, “rewiring” our spiritual lives, and so on. Limitations in talking this way are assumed, and that’s what allows hearers to get the basic point. If computer science is simply furnishing our generation with new models for describing creation, then it should be welcome.

Christianity is particularly robust in its ability to be translated and re-translated. But, if we’re witnessing another modern attempt at reductionistic metaphysics where everything is forced into an unquestionable, all-encompassing metanarrative, then perhaps it is not so welcome. Especially after the most violent century in human history, it seems the world doesn’t need another dose of Darwinism, Marxism, Freudianism, Scientism, or otherwise. It needs Jesus of Nazareth and the gospel incarnated, here and now.

As it turns out, this world-beyond-this-world idea also isn’t new. For thousands of years, theologians, religious priests, and philosophers have asserted that our immediate, visible, and experienced reality is not “all there is.” Whether one turns to the ancient Egyptians, Greek philosophers, Indian Brahmins, or medieval scholastics, the universe is always depicted as multi-dimensional in one way or another.

This world is not necessarily “ultimate” or “base” reality. It wasn’t until materialistic modernity that the world became so terribly flat. This is partly why simulation theory is so intriguing today: It is being promoted by the deeply invested, hands-on stalwarts of technological progress. It’s also interesting because specialists in this field aren’t typically encouraged to read religious texts or classic literature for their degree.

This situation is ironic because it suggests that perhaps secularism and science haven’t squashed religion after all—even within those domains where it was supposed to. Should the simulation hypothesis continue its trajectory, we can expect some interesting conversations and questions revolving around the nature of this program we’re living in.

Why, then, are we here? Who is the “architect” or “programmer,” and does this entity or person or whatever communicate with those inside the simulation? Has the Maker been revealed so that we might gain knowledge? And is there the possibility of a “new simulation” after this one in which we might take part? As you can already tell, these questions are the bread and butter of classic divinity. If only those outside the believing community might see this.

How far down the rabbit hole are you willing to go?

In the meantime, it leaves onlookers with several questions. First, doesn’t this proposal make religious belief and practice a little bit less irrational than is often assumed in the secular, scientific community? If this world really is a projection of software, it’s a brilliant piece of work. Solar eclipses. Fire. The smell of pine trees. The change of seasons. Sex. Forgiveness. The taste of fresh fruit. Memory. Why not sing a song to the one who made it all? Get together on Wednesday nights discussing “the mighty deeds of God” (Acts 2)? This is anything but “superstition.”

Second, will the computer sciences begin to develop this hypothesis, maybe even branching out into theories of origins, anthropology, eschatology, theology proper, and even doctrines of “salvation,” whatever this might entail? It’s not enough to simply say “that’s not the work of engineers,” because if the world is, in fact, a creation, then everything we do we do as creatures within what the Creator has made. Having a theology, even if it’s primitive, is everyone’s business.

Third, the simulation hypothesis (and its relatives) appear remarkably similar to well-known arguments for God’s existence, particularly the appeal to design and fine-tuning. Listening to rocket-scientists like Musk talk about simulation theory is like listening to Guillermo Gonzalez talk about astronomy and intelligent design. What really is the difference? This universe is (a) created, (b) purposeful, and (c) finite—and all of this can be known by what we see and observe (cf. Romans 1).

The limits of our language

Addressing these areas will require some serious thought, especially after the “linguistic turn” of our late or post-modern age. Words are not just passive instruments used to describe or refer but active elements in shaping the world. There is nothing neutral, for example, in speaking of the medieval period as “the Dark Ages,” or the modern period as “the Enlightenment.” Talking this way already makes a judgment and creates an impression. Philosophers and linguists have also pointed out that words can act. Saying “I do” during a wedding ceremony does not simply indicate that a kiss comes next, it establishes a bond between two people—it creates something new.

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SOURCE: Christianity Today – Jamin Hübner is associate professor of Christian studies, director of institutional effectiveness, and part-time professor of economics at John Witherspoon College in the Black Hills. He serves on the executive board of the Canadian-American Theological Association (CATA) and as the general editor of The Christian Libertarian Review.