Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Sim God

If you’ve ever played a “Sim” game, you know how fun it is to try and manage and control the holistic worlds that are created within. Keep an entire city running. There’s even one of the entire earth, sort of. And as computer power continues to increase, the limits of how detailed those tiny universes are continues to expand.

My son has a Sim Zoo, which is the only one I’ve seen in full play mode in a long time. The fun in playing is that you don’t really know how to make everything work to your advantage, and you don’t know how it’ll all work out. In the mind of a 11 year old, though, sometimes the fun is in causing chaos. Like letting the lions out of their cages and seeing what they’ll do (turns out they run around and your sim-visitors scatter and give off tiny electronic screams).

About a month ago, in the NY Times, John Tierney, explored the recent philosophical musings of an Englishman named Nick Bostrom (linked by Instapundit). Bostrom theorizes that perhaps we are the product of some hyper-advanced computer simulation created by some race so far advanced that they can produce computers powerful enough to simulate the reality we live in.

Dr. Bostrom assumes that technological advances could produce a computer with more processing power than all the brains in the world, and that advanced humans, or “posthumans,” could run “ancestor simulations” of their evolutionary history by creating virtual worlds inhabited by virtual people with fully developed virtual nervous systems.

It would seem to not matter that we would all be just bits and bites, because for us everything we touched would feel like the real thing. Its interesting to think about, but fairly nihilist in that since we’re all just bits and bytes there’s no real soul and no afterlife (although he points out that if we’re interesting enough perhaps the great simulation creator will use us again in his next simulation).

Whatever, I must say. I can’t really get the enthusiasm with which the author and Bostrom carry themselves.

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.

Really. A you can mathematically predict whether or not there’s another more advanced race of people with computers powerful enough, and the spare time on their hands, and the inclination to baby-sit such a complex simulation as this one? Really.

That was the author of the article, and the assumption is that computing power will in fact get there. His only qualm is that the advanced race might not want to create the simulation. Here’s Bostrom:

Dr. Bostrom doesn’t pretend to know which of these hypotheses is more likely, but he thinks none of them can be ruled out. “My gut feeling, and it’s nothing more than that,” he says, “is that there’s a 20 percent chance we’re living in a computer simulation.”

It’s neat how we can pretend to be scientific by throwing out hypothetical numbers. In truth, this is the more fanciful side of philosophy, and, if you want my opinion, which I just know you do, one of the less useful ones.

Because you really have to accept that there’s just as good a chance (better in fact) that there’s a God and that he created this world, and that he’s so beyond our understanding and power that he has the ability to control every aspect of his big and quite real existence.

I’d say that given there’s a 20 percent chance this might all be some computer sim game, there’s a 75 percent chance that it’s actually real and God created it (I give the other 5 percent to those who don’t believe in God). Go ahead. Dispute my figures.

Having said all that, the article is interesting, and there’s even links to Bostrom’s work and some other musings on the subject. Bostrom’s article (at Simulation-Argument.com no less) is all full of equations that mean nothing really, if you look at the ridiculous things they represent.

However, if you don’t believe in God, and/or are a computer geek, this article might change your life. Have a go.

In the mean time, I’d like to take this in another direction. This article got me thinking. At one point in the article, Tierney takes the mental thread that perhaps we’re a simulation inside a simulation, ad infinitum. But at some point there would have to be an original creator of all these simulations. A Prime Designer, if you will. I think most religious and mono-theistic persons in this world can identify with that.

However, far from the limitations of a computer simulation, the universe is something far more amazing than that. It comes from something I see when I’m reading my Bible.

1. In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

2. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

3. And God said, "Let there be light," and there was light. 4. God saw that the light was good, and He separated the light from the darkness. 5. God called the light "day," and the darkness he called "night." And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day. Gen 1:1-5

You’ll notice, if you read the entire chapter this was extracted from, that God said let there be light/expanse/dark/water/etc. It’s almost like God just starts talking and the universe starts falling into place. Here’s another place in scripture that reads like that. Psalm 33:6

By the word of the LORD were the heavens made,
their starry host by the breath of his mouth.

So again, the universe was created by the words spoken by a being we can’t even begin to get our heads around. So I’m thinking about this in the context of the article I’ve just read and I get this thought. According to the Bible, and thereby according to God, we are a part of a story that God is telling. Now, the story is long and complex, and when God tells it, it becomes real. God is telling our story, and He wants us to know that He is the author, and He can relate to the participants in the story.
The thing about God is, thought, that he’s omnipotent. He knows how the story will end, and not just like an author who pretty much knows how the story will end, but has to work out the details. God knew the beginning, the details, and how it would end before he started. Unlike simulations, God isn’t wondering how it’s all going to turn out. He’s not telling the story for the excitement of controlling the action, but because it gives him glory.

Now, I’m just traveling on a train of thought here. You might think that I’m not correct or in line with other parts of the Bible. You might think that my train of thought is just as loony as Bostrom’s. Perhaps. Understand that even though having God creating a story makes it seem like each person’s life is pre-written out and they really have no choice in how their lives end up, there are parts of the Bible that say things very similar, and there is considerable debate in the Christian community regarding pre-destination vs. free will and how we’re supposed to get our heads around what God is trying to tell us in these verses.

Also, please realize that I’m not saying that God is creating a piece of fiction, which would be no more real than the simulations discussed above. Like I said a couple of paragraphs above, the power of God is that his stories become reality when spoken. It forces me to comprehend a God that is far bigger and unfathomable than I previously considered. But it also causes me to wonder at the beauty of the mind of God. That instead of the universe being something as crude as bits and bytes, or even that the uncountable molecules that make it up, that at it’s whole it’s all in the mind of God. And each one of us has the ability to shadow that power by the stories we tell and the ideas we dream up. We are in the image of God.

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