This post is the introduction to a new series here on the Partially Examined Life blog: “Saints and Simulators,” a look at cutting-edge modern technology, and its implications for both religion and philosophy. We’ll be both beginning and ending the series with a deliberately provocative question: Did Nick Bostrom, professor of philosophy at Oxford University, provide the first convincing modern proof of the probable existence of God?
At first glance it seems more than unlikely. Bostrom—best known for his notorious theory that the world exists only on a giant computer—isn’t a notably a religious man. What’s more, philosophers and theologians have argued for thousands of years as to whether God exists; whether the existence of God can be proven; and whether demonstrating proof of God’s existence is something we should even try to pursue. Despite all this, in the year 2003, when Bostrom published a new theory detailing the strong probability that God does in fact exist, next to nobody noticed.*
This was not because the paper itself languished in obscurity. It was cited affirmingly by respected scientists, and billionaire entrepreneurs, and its line of logic was even certified by the presumably sober-minded analysts at the Bank of America. Yet the headline-grabbing claim that made it famous was seemingly not about God at all, but rather about the likelihood that our entire universe exists only as a simulation on a cosmic computer.
Perhaps this was because the claim about God was tossed off by Bostrom as a casual aside; or because it seemed irrelevant to his largely atheistic, technology-minded audience. Nevertheless, the implications about God are arguably the most interesting and important parts of the theory, because (a) they serve as the foundation of an entirely new and original defense of religious belief, and (b) because they are closely tied to assumptions about the universe that are consistently cited in defense of atheism.
If you’d like to read the original paper, it’s here: Are You Living in a Computer Simulation? All you have to do is blink, however, and you’ll completely miss the theological content—or perhaps just find it less than compelling.
Accordingly, the first part of this series will comprise a layman’s introduction to the simulation theory itself, and shows how, as ridiculous as they may seem on the surface, its core conclusions follow logically from some of the most commonly accepted assumptions of today’s modern scientific worldview; and how its conclusion, accordingly, is far more difficult to escape then one might assume. The next part of the series will introduce the closely related idea of the “technological singularity,” a time predicted for the near future when the power of technology grows without limit. It explains the fears and concerns people have for the concept, including Bostrom’s own shockingly plausible fear that the human species could be wiped out by the unintentional creation of killer robots.
The series will conclude with Bostrom’s admission that his simulation theory necessarily entails a godlike figure (the simulator), and with a demonstration that both the simulation theory and the concept of the technological singularity unexpectedly lead toward belief in something strikingly similar to God as described in the major traditional religions of the world.