Fifth in an ongoing series about the places where science and religion meet. The previous episode is here.
The technological ability to emulate a convincing world is plausible in the not-so-distant future. We additionally know that the motivation to create one already exists, given the huge popularity of video games, and the amount of money and effort put into making them. A big difference, however, between a current-day video game and this potential game of tomorrow, is that the player of a current game knows she is playing a game. Could we really be in a game and not know it?
It makes no sense to imagine we could be in a video game from the moment of birth, or at least, it does not bear any resemblance to our current concept of playing a game. The video-game paradigm requires that we would have had to at some point existed in an external reality, and then to have subsequently entered the virtual reality of the game. But that implies we should remember our former lives as well as the moment of entering the game.
One possibility would be that you enter the virtual world without knowing it. In other words, there is a real world that actually exists, and you exist in it, but at some point (perhaps while you were sleeping), someone secretly transferred you to a virtual reality that resembles your original reality in all respects. This possibility can be ruled out, however, on the basis that our current technological level does not support it. That eliminates the possibility of seamless continuity between a real and simulated version of life in the late 2010s. Our descendants might have to deal with that particular paranoia, but we can safely assume it false.
The only way left to rescue the video-game scenario, therefore, is to assume that entering the game includes both an induced total amnesia and the convincing implantation of false memories. We lack the technology to accomplish this today, so it is difficult to assess its plausibility. We do, however, experience this kind of thing in dreams, where we forget our real lives, and believe in the invented ones of the dreams. Potentially, therefore, the same kind of thing could be deliberately induced, although it is hard to picture this without the attendant fogginess of dream thinking.
If we were able to perfect the amnesia-and-fake-memory combination, it would enable the deliberate realization of another favorite speculation of armchair philosophers, the idea that the entire world might have been created just five minutes ago, and that we came into it with all our memories intact but invented; that the history of the universe itself is a cleverly contrived fake.
As with solipsism, this philosophical conceit initially seems easy enough to debunk on grounds of sheer contrived implausibility. Any phenomenon powerful enough to create the entire universe at this particular moment in time would be powerful enough to create it from the beginning, so why start here? And would it take any less effort to fake an entire history than just to live it? Why do it?
But, as alluded to above, what is ludicrous on its face turns out once again to be a part of our standard nightly experience. Sometimes, true enough, we do dream of real people and real places with real histories. Just as often, however, we experience places and people who seem to possess lengthy and convincing histories (both with and without us) but who have no obvious real-life analogs. In reality, that person we dreamt we were married to, that ancient cathedral, that charming seaside town, all were created on the spot, complete with their histories, just for the benefit of the dreamer.
Stranger still, they may not have been created at the start of the dream, nor yet even in the middle of the dream: Earlier, we considered the theory that our brain weaves the dream only after waking, as an attempt to make narrative sense of a jumble of random images. If that were true, the dream would only ever exist as a memory; it would not be possible to experience it as it happens.
As with solipsism, there is a video-game analog also to this scenario. In a video-game world, there is often some back story, some history going back, sometimes hundreds or even thousands of years, that explains the scenario the player finds himself or herself in. For example, “Link,” the elven protagonist from the long-running Legend of Zelda video-game series, is a denizen of the magical land of Hyrule, which has an immense historiography leading back to a mythological origin. Of course, despite the many signs and relics signaling the reality of that past within the game, it is all made up; it never happened. It is arguably not even real relative to the game reality, since no computer ever simulated the entire history of Hyrule. It was written as a piece of fiction by the game designers, and then incorporated into the game, solely for atmosphere.
This is also a standard feature of books. The protagonist happens down an old road and meets a childhood friend he has not seen in years. They stop and reminiscence about old times for a few minutes—people they knew, trouble they got into together—and then the friend drops some crucial piece of information casually into the conversation. In reality, the friend only exists because the author needed a way to pass the information to the character. The old school days, the inside jokes, the shared memories of boyhood mischief, they were all made up on the spot, for realism, for verisimilitude. Most of that shared history never exists even on the page, it is implied in broad strokes, rather than lived in detail by the characters.
Oddly enough, modern science tells us that this very scenario, of being created with an invented past, is not just a feature of fiction, video games, and dreams. It actually describes an odd feature of our own real lives. It is known, at this point in time, that our memories, although they may seem to provide a solid, continuous, and reliable record of our past lives, are actually quite malleable and are altered and reformed each time they are recalled. So in a sense, for all of us, the person we are at any given moment is a potentially recent confabulation.
And as with the person, so with the world. If our memories can be manipulated and reformed, if our own past histories can be invented, then nothing stands in the way of the concept that the world itself might not have the history we perceive it to have. In an example of modern science bringing about uncanny echoes of ancient concepts, however, this idea of an invented past is also at the heart of one of the most controversial of all religious doctrines, creation science (also known as Young Earth Creationism, or YEC).
To be precise, creation science cannot accurately be described as either ancient or modern; it is the oft-mocked attempt to reconcile modern science with a strictly literal reading of the Bible, specifically the book of Genesis. In particular, creation science affirms that the world was created directly by God, together with all plants, animals, and other forms of life, over the course of six standard, twenty-four-hour Earth days, somewhere between six thousand and ten thousand years ago. This stands in direct contrast to the mainstream scientific consensus that the Earth is several billion years old, and formed naturally over an unimaginably vast span of time.
Creation science has been roundly rejected by the mainstream scientific establishment, and is only slightly less controversial in religious circles where it has been criticized, on the one hand for being needlessly, and perhaps ahistorically literalist about the Bible, and on the other for placing too much emphasis on scientific justifications for matters of belief. Yet what makes it most fundamentally controversial is this very concept of an invented past. The area of the most internal conflict for creation science revolves around the fossil record. If the dinosaurs did not rule the earth millions of years before the evolution of humankind, then why does the fossil record seem to indicate that they did?
One scenario that would explain the evidence, while simultaneously endorsing many of the core doctrinal claims of creation science, is if the Earth itself were a part of some kind of cosmic video game, or something that can be conceptualized as like a video game. Only the Earth itself, and some of the surrounding space and nearer space objects would actually exist in the game, the rest would be what video game designers call a "skybox," a projected simulation of objects too distant to actually interact with. Similarly, only the recent history of the Earth would have actually taken place, the rest would be backstory added for atmosphere.
The idea that the world is God’s video game seems calculated to anger both scientists and true religious believers. And yet the overlap between these two superficially disparate conceptions of reality is difficult to dismiss. In the video-game paradigm, the video-game creator is clearly in the same role in relationship to the world as that traditionally held to be occupied by God. And if we follow creation science, it seems to imply that God created the world with the same artful deceptiveness as a video-game designer.
- Hocking, Clint and Guy Gadney, “Writing Video Games: Can Narrative be as Important as Gameplay?” The Guardian, February 21, 2014.
- Loftus, Elizabeth, “Creating False Memories,” Scientific American, vol 277 #3, pp 70–75, September 1997
- De Cruz, Helen, "Religion and Science", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
- Godfrey, Laurie R., ed., Scientists Confront Creationism, Norton, New York, 1983.