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Clay Farris Naff

Clay Farris Naff


Sims, Suffering and God: Matrix Theology and the Problem of Evil

Posted: 07/26/10 07:30 AM ET

"O," cries Hamlet in the depth of angst, "that this too, too solid flesh would melt / Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!"

The Prince o' Danes should'a stuck around. Today, he would have been relieved to find that science, achieving ever finer resolution, has indeed turned solid flesh into dew. Quantum dew. And not just flesh: any solid, we now know, is nearly all emptiness, and the few bits of matter within its atoms, when you get right down to them, are, well, bits. That is to say, the electrons and subatomic nuclear particles (or strings, if that's the you swing) are elusive little buggers who can only be pinned down via quantum numbers.

Now, there is a lot of superheated woo-woo wackadoodle written about quantum physics these days, some of it right here in these esteemed pages. (For a hint about why the linked essay is moonshine, go here.) As a science writer I decline to add to the steaming heap, so let me pledge here and now to make no quantum claim before its time. Here's the rub: Quantum theory is incomplete. It predicts physical behavior with exquisite statistical precision, yet it lacks a settled explanatory framework -- especially one that coheres with that other great physical theory, general relativity. So, let's put QM back on the ontological rack for now.

But hang on, Hamlet. Maybe there is another way to escape the flesh. And, lo, from the pen of New York Times columnist John Tierney, it doth appear:

Until I talked to Nick Bostrom, a philosopher at Oxford University, it never occurred to me that our universe might be somebody else's hobby. I hadn't imagined that the omniscient, omnipotent creator of the heavens and earth could be an advanced version of a guy who spends his weekends building model railroads or overseeing video-game worlds like the Sims.

But now it seems quite possible. 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.

Bostrom, I should note, is at once more serious and less confident about this conclusion than is Tierney. Bostrom rates its probability at about 20 percent. All the same, his idea is catching on. The, ahem, philosophers who have had the greatest success in spreading the Gospel of the Sims are the Wachowski brothers. Their trio of Matrix movies lofted razzmatazz sci-fi into a kind of pop theology, with Keanu Reeves as its messiah. Even as I write, new "papers" are being published on Matrix theology -- though somehow I doubt this example went through peer review.

The Demurrage [sic], the creator, is in the shadow land, the world he created, his own personal matrix. In the gnostic tradition, the savior comes from the real world, into the darkness, then returns to it. This is the largest gnostic idea in the film: two worlds, one being a mear [sic] reflection of the other. ...

The truth can be a frightening thing, especially dedendingon [sic] the nature of the truth. When comes to our perception of everyday activities, it seems to be so real. The truth is, we don't know what's out there, but how things will turn out, or how that began.

Deep thoughts, to be sure, marred only by a certain lack of orthographic integrity. If only Spellcheck were not so expensive! Damn you, Microsoft!

But let us take this idea that we are Sims seriously for a moment and while we're at it compare it with the more traditional Judeo-Christian idea that we are soul-studded creations of a supremely perfect God. It turns out that they suffer from the same defect.

Bostrom neatly sums up his argument in the conclusion to his paper:

A technologically mature "posthuman" civilization would have enormous computing power. Based on this empirical fact, the simulation argument shows that at least one of the following propositions is true: (1) The fraction of human-level civilizations that reach a posthuman stage is very close to zero; (2) The fraction of posthuman civilizations that are interested in running ancestor-simulations is very close to zero; (3) The fraction of all people with our kind of experiences that are living in a simulation is very close to one.

If (1) is true, then we will almost certainly go extinct before reaching posthumanity. If (2) is true, then there must be a strong convergence among the courses of advanced civilizations so that virtually none contains any relatively wealthy individuals who desire to run ancestor-simulations and are free to do so. If (3) is true, then we almost certainly live in a simulation.

Got that? The biblical argument for our existence is, I trust, too familiar to need repetition here. Now, the case against traditional theism has many arrows in its quiver, but here I need draw only one: theodicy, better known as the problem of evil. A more accurate way of phrasing this, in my view, would be the problem of pointless suffering.

There are too many examples to cite, but I offer you one to stand for them all: progeria. God, we are told, loves little children, yet he afflicts some of them with this absurd genetic disease that causes them to age at a fantastic rate, wither away and most often die before enjoying a day of adulthood.

Defenders of traditional faith, whose craft is known by the delightful term "apologetics", swoop in to reassure us that this is not a problem at all. (If you ever want an example of rationalizing to contrast with reasoning, you cannot do better than to look at apologetics of theodicy.) Their arguments typically center on two ideas: that suffering results from sinful choices, and that suffering is part of a hidden greater good known only to God.

The first idea stumbles on the general hurdle that a perfect God could easily have created beings who, even with free will, would not have made choices that lead to the kind of suffering we see in the world. It then falls flat on its face when you look at specific instances: did the parents of Ashley make a sinful choice in conceiving her? And even if so, did Ashley deserve to suffer the consequences? It's a patently ridiculous idea.

But what about a hidden greater good? After all, we humans don't know everything, do we? Of course not. But if we are to have rational discourse leading to a common understanding of the world we share, we cannot resort to "God moves in mysterious ways" arguments. If God acts irrationally (or beyond rationality, if you prefer), then anything is possible, including the falsity of all theology. Maybe the devil reigns, and just sets up the idea of God to torture believers all the more at the end. Game, set, and match to madness.

And that brings us back to the Sims. How can know whether we're simulations in some superduper computer built by posthumans? Some pretty amusing objections have been raised, such as quantum tests that a simulation would fail. It seems safe to say that any sim-scientists examining the sim-universe they occupy would find that the laws of that universe are self-consistent. To assert that a future computer could simulate us, complete with consciousness, but crash when it came to testing Bell's Inequality strikes me as ludicrous. Unless, of course, the program were released by Microsoft. Oooh, sorry, Bill, cheap shot. Let's take it for granted that we could not expose a simulation from within -- unless the Creators wanted us to.

But the problem of pointless suffering leads me to very different conclusion. Recall Bostrom's first conjecture: that few or none of our civilizations reach a posthuman stage capable of building computers that can run the kind of simulation in which we might exist. There are many ways civilization could end (just ask the dinosaurs!), but the one absolutely necessary condition for survival in an environment of continually increasing technological prowess is peace. Not a mushy, bumper sticker kind of peace, but the robust containment of conflict and competition within cooperative frameworks. (Robert Wright, in his brilliant if uneven book NonZero: The Logic of Human Destiny, unfolds this idea beautifully.)

What is civilization if not a mutual agreement to sacrifice some individual desires (to not pay taxes, for example, or to run through red lights) for the greater common good? Communication, trust, and cooperation make such agreements possible, but the one ingredient in the human psyche that propels civilization forward even as we gain technological power is empathy.

Of course, ants presumably lack empathy yet manage to organize their own version of civilization, but the degree of freedom our brains and hands confer on us requires a much stronger kind of social glue. Over the last several centuries, we've tried out facism, communism, and various kinds of religious and secular totalitarianism. They've all failed. We're not a species that takes kindly to anything less than kindness. What I suggest, then is that any civilization that emerges from the brawl of 21st century global unrest will surely be peaceable and empathetic.

To imagine that they would turn around and simulate their past replete with all the agonies of genocide, slavery, oppression, and countless acts of senseless suffering inflicted by natural disaster is, to me at least, unthinkable. If they really wanted to revive the past, surely they could -- and would -- just switch off the consciousness module. We would no more suffer than a Halo 3 shooting victim. Unless, of course, all this suffering is part of a hidden higher good...



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