What is simulation theory?
Question: "What is simulation theory? Is all of reality actually a simulation?"
Answer: Occasionally, a philosopher or scientist will suggest our reality is not “real.” While this is a common theme in science fiction and fantasy, some propose it might be true in the actual world. Their claim—or at least, their question—suggests that all of reality is actually a simulation, that what we think of as “real” is something artificial and only part of a larger existence. The suggestion comes in many different forms, united through basic components, loosely described as simulation theory. All such claims are heavily flavored by solipsism, which suggests our observations are untrustworthy. Any simulation hypothesis or simulation theory has to contend with the weaknesses inherent in solipsism itself.
As it turns out, Scripture indicates that our earthly lives are only part of a larger whole, and there is a “real reality” above and beyond what we experience on a day-to-day basis. The Bible says our “reality” is created and designed. And yet, most who support “simulation theory” reject the idea of God, an afterlife, or other spiritual concepts. This is not dissimilar to how many atheists attempt to use evidence for the Big Bang Theory against biblical views, despite the fact that concepts like a “beginning” were once seen as antithetical to atheism itself.
Ultimately, theories suggesting that reality is simulated are either irrelevant or support the basic claims of theism. These theories typically come from one of two sources: philosophical reasoning or scientific observations.
Philosophically, arguments about reality being a simulation hinge on possible advances in technology. A common approach suggests that, if technology could ever be capable of simulating reality, then we are most probably living in a simulation right now; if we are not, such technology is most likely impossible. This assumes that a civilization capable of making simulations probably will make them, and the number of such simulations will probably become extremely large. This, in turn, would create a scenario where simulated minds far outnumber “real” minds, meaning any given mind—including our own—is statistically more likely to be part of a simulation than “actual.”
Scientifically, observations of the universe suggest a certain “resolution” to space and time. Below that, it seems, there is no possible division. Quantum physics gets its name from the idea that components of the universe are not infinitely divisible—they are measured in fundamental, discrete quanta, which are the smallest possible “bits” of those things. Quanta somewhat correspond to the pixels on a computer screen or the binary language used in most programs. This approach to simulation theory raises the question of whether our perceived reality is simulated, analogous to the way the pixels on a TV screen combine to “simulate” an actual scene.
By definition, those who see evidence of the “simulation” of reality are literally arguing for a designer. This makes the simulation hypothesis, in a sense, an argument for Intelligent Design, because it posits that the very nature of the universe suggests deliberate, intentional arrangement. Likewise, the simulation hypothesis would strongly support the possibility of miracles, since a simulation could be adjusted by whoever is in control of it.
The Bible directly tells us our universe was created (Genesis 1:1). It indicates that God thinks and functions in a way “above” our own (Isaiah 55:9). Scripture makes it clear that God is not subject to the laws that govern the “natural” universe (Exodus 4:21). Mankind, according to the Bible, has a destiny that extends beyond the reality we currently know (Hebrews 9:27), and there is a “spiritual realm” somehow distinct from the realm we ordinarily perceive (1 Corinthians 2:14). Scripture also indicates that we are more than physical (2 Corinthians 5:8) and that there is something “more real” than what we see or experience on earth (Hebrews 9:11; 9:24).
Ultimately, the claim that all of reality is a simulation is something that cannot be proved, at least not in philosophical or scientific terms. This is mostly due to the self-defeating nature of solipsism: the more sure we are that our experiences are false, the less we can trust those experiences—including the experiences that lead us to believe in solipsism!
Further, if we can interact with something “outside” our simulation, then both the “outside” and the simulation are part of the same “reality.” If we can’t interact with this “outside,” then it’s no different from something imaginary, so we have no reason to think it’s real, let alone claim it to be real. Interestingly, various forms of the simulation hypothesis also support the idea that human knowledge might, in fact, be limited. The fact that something is beyond our normal set of rules does not make it unreal. Rather, such questions become matters of spirituality. Literally, they are super-natural concepts: they describe something beyond the “natural” universe we experience.
Biblically, the question of reality being a simulation comes down to terminology. Debating over whether or not reality is “simulated” or “created” is somewhat like debating whether a piece of clay was “formed” or “shaped.” Or whether or not Pluto is a “planet.” Ultimately, both terms, simulated and created, imply that the universe we experience was purposefully arranged by something beyond our own reality. Christianity teaches that there is a higher form of existence than our universe and that the world we live in was purposefully arranged by God. By definition, any meaningful evidence of “simulation” in reality would prove an intelligent designer (Psalm 19:1; Romans 1:18–20).
Recommended Resource: Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview by William Lane Craig & J.P. Moreland
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What is simulation theory? Is all of reality actually a simulation?