Are we in a simulation? Materialist and theist approaches

The idea that the world is nothing but a “simulation,” akin to that in the Matrix films, has cropped up over the last few years in serious academic papers, in many YouTube videos, and even in comments by Elon Musk. And now it has reached the popular press in the form of this Daily Mail article.

The physicist behind this article, Melvin Vopson, starts from a particular “information first” view of the universe. Whether his theory that collider experiments could prove we are a simulation by generating information entrapped in particles is open to doubt. But he also points to phenomena like the fixed speed of light (which he attributes to the clock speed of the simulators’ processor), the mathematical laws of the universe, and the disconnect between quantum mechanics and the macro-world, as evidence.

Unlike the Matrix films, such speculations usually seem to assume that we ourselves are generated by this simulation, rather than being living souls plugged into it. Accordingly they are rather quiet about the nature of consciousness and will. “I think, therefore I am an algorithm” really does not computeā€¦ because it carries meaning to a conscious “I.”

What nobody seems to consider is what this proposed simulation is a simulation of. If there is a “real” world of nerds out there who are playing us on their computers, are they not likely to find their own world has similar limitations implying that they are in a simulation, and so on ad infinitum and ad absurdam, in an infinite regress?

Strangely, the conclusion of a ridiculously complicated infinite reality seems to crop up wherever naturalistic materialism probes the boundaries. The arbitrariness of the fundamental forces leads to string theory and multiple universes. The discovery of the strange quantum world (likened to pixels in Vopson’s scheme) leads to the idea that the world of daily experience is just an illusion generated by the reality of waves and particles. And as I have explored quite often here, the conclusion that our consciousness and free will are “illusions” produced by matter (whatever that actually is) undercuts not only our sole experience of the world, but the very mental processes that they used to reach that conclusion.

In retrospect, all this mystery has rather crept up on the materialist worldview that was supposed to remove inscrutable complications like “God” and enable us to master the whole universe. Let me expand.

Although many of the early scientists were Christians, their project was to leave God out of science by investigating only material efficient causation. Miracle and providence apart (a rather major omission in a Christian context), in principle this process ought to make the whole material world fully comprehensible to man. Underlying this unspoken conviction (it would have seemed entirely hubristic to claim openly that man could understand everything) was a rather quaintly simple concept of the world.

Francis Bacon refined the idea that the running of the universe was based on relatively few divinely ordained laws, whose expression in mathematical equations increasingly proved to be possible. To seventeenth century atomists like Robert Boyle, these laws operated on atoms that were not only the absolutely fundamental components of matter, but also entirely passive and simple. Ergo, if you can describe the whole set of laws and uncover the properties of the atoms, the material world is reduced to its simplest operations and becomes fully comprehensible.

This idea tended towards Deism early on, because a clockwork universe was conceived to comply fully with such a simple mechanistic model understandable not only to God, but to mankind created in his image. But a closed cosmos ultimately lays the ground for the practical atheism of modern science, that is to the naturalistic materialist view of reality. On the scientific assumptions shared with the early scientists like Bacon, if the universe is all there is, then listing the laws and the properties of atoms should give access to the sum total of all possible knowledge.

But as we all know if we think about it, the universe turned out to be much less simple, and a lot less predictable, than the scientific project originally bargained for. This is so in any area of study, and I’ll mention just a sample. Atoms, for instance, turned out not only to exist in over 100 separate varieties, but to consist of a whole zoo of component particles – or were they waves? – that behaved less and less intelligibly the further down one went. The very concept of “matter” has become a problem.

Not only that, but it turned out that when atoms combine to form molecules, the resultant properties can’t be entirely predicted from the properties of their component atoms. Understanding atoms doesn’t lead to fully understanding higher levels. In fact, such “emergence” looks remarkably like the arbitrary changes in the behaviour of virtual worlds when you win the magic key to the next level.

Life was thought to be essentially simple too, seeing that it spontaneously generated in whenever food was left lying about. But then it was discovered not only that spontaneous generation was a myth, but that the closer you look at life, the more astonishingly complex it becomes, and its origins in matter (whatever that is), after centuries of investigation, are still totally beyond our understanding or ability to reproduce.

The simple billiard ball behaviour of atoms under the various laws of motion turned out to be complicated by mysterious waves, fields and a mystical entity called “space-time continuum,” which made neither space and time solid realities on which you could lean much weight.

In summary, what I am saying is that the phenomena which lead people like Elon Musk and Melvin Vopson to cry “simulation” are actually phenomena that tend to falsify the materialist worldview. If the physical world is all there is, and it produced us, we ought to be able to unpick all its workings, and we can’t. That, and the realisation amongst an increasing number of thinkers that information is non-material, but is prior to matter (“it” comes from “bit”), makes speculations that we are in a simulation unsurprising. But as I suggested earlier on, such speculations themselves are problematic for materialism, for if we are computer simulations, then the computers are in another material world as well, and there seems no reason why that world should consist of simple laws and billiard-ball atoms when ours is much more complicated. We face yet another infinite regress, and if materialism requires infinite regress, it must be false.

On the other hand, consider the biblical world-view. God exists in a mysterious, but supremely simple, world of Spirit. By his powerful Word he has created other beings which, the Bible tells us, are also capable of finally sharing the world of Spirit with God – and so they are at least in part “Spirit” as well. But for now they have bodies in a created world that, being perishable, is although good, inferior to the eternal world of Spirit. We are told it will soon pass away.

We are also told that God faithfully sustains it, and all it contains, moment by moment, and that its “vast array” demonstrates both his goodness and his power. This tells us that there ought to be some kind of interface between the world in which we live, of trees, flowers, food, stars and so on, and the mind of God that sustains it.

Therefore, biblical theism, unlike materialistic naturalism, would predict limits to the comprehensibility of the world. The cosmos, that is the material creation, is the communication medium between the Spirit of God and the spirits of man created in his image. It’s certainly real enough for all our daily lives require, because God is infinite and faithful. So we don’t find that if we pass a “Keep Out” sign on a building site we come across a blue screen. Neither do there appear to be non-playing characters around us (though a remarkable number of us act that way until God wakes us up).

Yet just as examining an image on Zoom closely reveals that our mother’s face actually consists of pixels of coloured light, and we can discover that her simple expressions of love reach us across a bewildering array of incomprehensible electronics, so we might very well expect, as Christians, that scientific examination might take us into a weird scientific reality rather different from the earthy one that really matters to us. We don’t expect to find the meaning of the universe within the universe, because we don’t expect to find God there – though whatever wonders we do encounter are fully compatible with his wisdom and power.

I’m a fan of George Berkeley, who came to similar conclusions to what I have been outlining three centuries ago, by philosophical and theological, rather than scientific exploration. What is this article in the Mail actually saying, other than that there is a world beyond the one we inhabit, which is what Christians have always claimed, and what materialists have always denied? Only we’re not in a simulation, but in a good Creation, and beyond it are not nerds playing Nintendo, but God the Father.

Avatar photo

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
This entry was posted in Creation, Philosophy, Science, Theology, Theology of nature. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply