Floating around the Internets this week was an article about a group of scientists who are seeking to test if we exist in one big simulation of another being’s creation. While the ‘test’ is beyond my comprehension, the theory from the article is intriguing:
The theory basically goes that any civilization which could evolve to a ‘post-human’ stage would almost certainly learn to run simulations on the scale of a universe. And that 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.
The simulation question was posited by the mega-hit science fiction movie The Matrix (1999) whereby humanity had been overtaken by machines and attached to a computer that simulated the world around us. All of reality was just electrical impulses fed to us by computers who harvested our body heat as an energy source. The savior figure Neo breaks out and joins forces with other renegades to defeat the machines and find a new way for humanity to survive.
In The Matrix, reality is a computer simulation that is meant only to make us content. It seems far-fetched but to scientists above, it is theoretically possible. But I believe that we follow this philosophy in everyday ways without thinking.
When I was younger (and occasionally still today!), I would often wonder if I was in a simulation and, like Santa watching if I was naughty or nice, if every person I met was a test.
- Was a person who passed me by crying a test of my compassion?
- Was the person on the train tentatively reading a bible a test of my evangelism?
- Was that person who looked like a childhood friend a test of my memory
or a glitch in the Matrix?
- Is my 12mo daughter testing me by seeing if I pay more attention to her or to The West Wing reruns?
- Am I in a simulation and does my every interaction become a test to see if I am rewarded at the end?
This philosophy has biblical and pop-culture support. It stems from the Matthew 25 passage where the people at the end of time ask “when did I see you hungry, thirsty, naked, or in prison?” and Jesus responds “whenever you care for the least of these, you cared for me.” There’s also the Guideposts regular section “His Mysterious Ways” that shows spooky coincidences or whatnot that prove God is sending Angels to watch out for us and give us support. Are we are in a simulation and can never tell if the person in front of us is human or an angel (or a computer, I guess)?
While one can easily say “I don’t believe it is possible” I think the strongest philosophy that leaves this computer simulation question open as a possibility is Process Thought. Process Thought states that each instance, each moment of life, is connected to the next. So whether we are in a computer simulation of another super-human race or merely wandering the landscape as the pinnacle of the universe, we act as though our actions are connected to the future and the past.
As I wrote before:
Process Theology has really helped me realize that every moment I have an opportunity to seek the best possibility that God is placing before me. Holding open a door for the next person, answering that phone call when I’ve already closed the office door, tipping a server, smiling at the clerk even when I’ve had a rough day, saying hi to the gas station attendant…all those are opportunities to offer the best possible moment to the person in front of me. And now that I know it, it’s ever-present in my mind.
Whether we are in a simulation or in reality, whether angels walk among us or there are many happy coincidences, whether that irritating youth is asking honest questions or a simulacrum sent to torment you, my hope is that we all act as though we believe our actions are rooted in our past and impact the future, and we take careful consideration of how we might use each and every moment to better the world around us. In doing so, no matter what cosmology we are a part of, we’ll have lived faithfully and well and be ready for whatever glitches in the Matrix might come our way.