[Article referenced: John Tierney, “Our Lives, Controlled From Some Guy’s Couch,” NY Times, [on-line], published 14 August 2007.]
Since time began, philosophy, theology, science and other disciplines have been seeking the answers to such questions as “Why are we here?”, “Who or what put us here?”, to “What is the real meaning or purpose for all of this?” Most arguments, past and present, operate within the framework of the world as we see it, re-working theories, ideas and arguments of the past, or developing new theories to try to come up with the answer for everything. These answers ultimately argue, either directly or indirectly, for or against God or, at the least, a Supreme Being. According to John Tierney, we’ve been asking the wrong questions and operating from the wrong framework. Rather, we should be asking, “Is it possible that we live in someone’s virtual world?”
In his article, Tierney presents the idea of Nick Bostrom, philosopher at Oxford University, that we may very well be living in someone’s computer simulation. “In fact,” states Tierney, “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.” Working with this assumption, if one takes into account the rate of technological advances of today, then we could one day develop a computer that has more processing power than all of the brains in the world (well, not “we” as in the human race, posthumans will develop these computers). With this supercomputer, posthumans will be able to develop “‘ancestory simulations'” of their evolutionary history by creating virtual worlds inhabited by virtural people with fully developed virtual nervous systems.” These virtual people, however, will not be able to know that they are in fact virtual, “because the sights and feelings they’d experience would be indistinguishable.” These virtual humans would have the potential to develop “ancestory simulations” as well, thus developing more virtual worlds with in virtual worlds, ad infinitum. As a result, virtual people could probably figure out themselves the possibility of their living in a virtual world.
According to Tierney, Bostrom thinks that there is a 20% possibility of us actually living in a virtual world (this figure is his ‘gut feeling.’ Bostrom develops his argument on the possibility of a virtual world in this article found on his website). Tierney, on the other hand, likes to think that the probability of us living in a virtual world is actually higher than 20%, for, if it is indeed true, it would make such difficult questions such as “How could God allow so much evil in the world?” Tierney is correct, the reality of the virtual world would allow such difficult questions to disappear, but not all of them.
As stated above, theology, philosophy, science and other disciplines have sought for years to provide answers for at life’s most nagging questions with all of the questions centering around one basic question: “Is there a God or Supreme Being behind all of this?” This question alone would not disappear if we were in fact living in a virtual world. Instead, we would be asking whether a Prime Designer (as Tierney likes to call it) exists or not. And from this question flows many more: “Is the Prime Designer eternal, or created?”, “Is there even a Prime Designer?”, “What happens after death? Am I re-created in another virtual world, or am I through?”, “Is there right and wrong?”, “Am I at the mercy of the Prime Designer’s capricious will, or do I have free-will?” and so many other questions that we are already asking in just another context. Thus, Tierney’s hope for a (virtual) life without life’s nagging questions just wouldn’t exist; they would pop up no matter what type of world we live in. Tierney himself toys with these questions:
Of course, it’s tough to guess what the designer would be like. He or she might have a body made of flesh or plastic, but the designer might also be a virtual being living inside the computer of a still more advanced form of intelligence. There could be layer upon layer of simulations until you finally reached the architect of the first simulation — the Prime Designer, let’s call him or her (or it).
Then again, maybe the Prime Designer wouldn’t allow any of his or her creations to start simulating their own worlds. Once they got smart enough to do so, they’d presumably realize, by Bostrom’s logic, that they themselves were probably simulations. Would that ruin the fun for the Prime Designer?
If simulations stop once the simulated inhabitants understand what’s going on, then I really shouldn’t be spreading Bostrom’s ideas. But if you’re still around to read this, I guess the Prime Designer is reasonably tolerant, or maybe curious to see how we react once we start figuring out the situation.
In fairness to Bostrom, his article does not focus only on the possibility of us living in a virtual world. He acknowledges that we are more than likely not living in a virtual world. And, if that is the case, then our descendants will more than likely not accomplish the virtual world futurists dream about. Nevertheless, Bostrom’s article touches on an issue that is very relevant today. There are those who believe that technology will advance to the point where we will be able to upload our personality onto a computer and thus “live” unencumbered by a physical body.
What allows one to believe in the possibility of humanity living in a computer-simulated world? It makes sense to read ideas like this in sci-fi, but in the New York Times and academic journals? While it seems far-fetched for a PhD to posit the possibility of a virtual world, it makes sense when viewed in light of the underlying worldview.
Undergirding Bostrom’s scientific speculation is a naturalistic worldview. In naturalism, only what is material exists—there is no spiritual or non-physical aspect to reality. Thus, everything requires a physical explanation. For instance, natural phenomena (like an earthquake, tornado, etc.) are no longer explained by appeal to the divine; instead, all natural phenomena have a physical explanation for why it is and/or occurred. For Christians, we can affirm with science that natural phenomena have a physical explanation (but we still go further by affirming God’s sovereignty, creation, and will in all things—including natural phenomena). However, naturalism requires that all things require—and have—a physical explanation, including feelings, emotions, morality, personality, etc. Characteristics of humanity that have traditionally been understood as unique to humanity, and bestowed upon every individual by God himself, are nothing but effects of natural causes.
Sam Harris—a well-known atheist—has written extensively against traditional Christianity, arguing that society can move forward only through the expulsion of religion and the spread of scientific values and principles. Harris received his PhD in neuroscience where he sought to find physical explanations for humanity’s sense of morality and tendency toward religion. In The Moral Landscape, Harris sets forth his case that science can, and does, provide an explanation for one’s moral sense. (In Free Will, Harris argues that free will is but an illusion; all of our decisions, thoughts, emotions, etc. are determined by physical causes.) Harris is but one illustration of how a key presumption of naturalism (that the universe is only material) informs how one views and acts within the world.
If the universe is only material, reducible to physical causes, then it is not difficult to see how Bostrom can argue for the plausibility of a virtual world. One only needs to discover how to code an individual’s personality and character traits, and to upload this information into a computer. As technology continues to progress in its capability and power, there is no wonder for Bostrom’s optimism.
So, what are we to do with all of this? It is easy to mock ideas like Bostrom’s; on the surface, Bostrom and other futurist seem to live in the realm of sci-fi, detached from reality. However, to mock something with which we disagree is to commit the fallacy of ad hominem—attacking the arguer, not the argument. Instead, we are called to engage culture with the Truth of God, and this entails that we take seriously the claims of others, regardless of how far-fetched it sounds. Underlying every idea are key presumptions that inform one’s conclusions. By engaging one’s explicit assertions and underlying presumptions, one can then provide a biblically-informed, substantive answer.
 This claim about naturalism is a necessary generalization. There are various versions of naturalism as well as complex nuances within