Eighteenth in an ongoing series on the nexus between religion and technology. The previous essay is here.
The reason, perhaps, that Professor Nick Bostrom’s demonstration of the probability of God’s existence has received so little attention and notice (especially as compared to the stir and commotion caused by his demonstration of the probability that we live in a simulation, and despite the fact that both conclusions are entailed by the exact same line of argument) is because readers have failed to note the connection between Bostrom’s simulator and God. Bostrom himself, as we have noted, connects the two only offhandedly and without overmuch conviction. The average exponent of the theory, we may assume, pictures the simulator as some kind of transdimensional hobbyist staying up late at night cooking up simulated worlds on his new desktop computer, and not as a white-bearded man on a cloud (or whatever image of God he or she holds).
If we look at the simulator’s actual characteristics, however, they seem uncomfortably close to those that religions have traditionally ascribed to God. “Ominpotent” by virtue of being able to tinker with the program, and “omniscient” by virtue of being able to read out every detail of the simulation on a control panel are two of the traits that Bostrom admits his simulator would have, divine attributes if ever there were ones. But one major difference stands between the simulator and God: God, under nearly every conception, is a supernatural being, and Bostrom’s simulator is purely naturalistic.
Or is it? Perhaps the most useful definition of “naturalistic” is “bound by physical laws.” There are known and knowable laws of physics, and as far as we know, they hold universally, without exception. Obedience to those laws is what gives rise to the phenomena we know as material existence, and obedience to those laws is what defines something as naturalistic. Under that definition, it is entirely possible to conceive of a wholly naturalistic “deity” of a sort.
In fact, there is even already a naturalistic deity who holds a significant position in contemporary discourse (although not in the sense of anchoring a major religion or attracting much in the way of worshipers). Her name is “Gaia.” The Gaia hypothesis was first proposed by chemist James Lovelock and microbiologist Lynn Margulis in the 1970s. Although the theory came well-drenched in a 7'0s New Age mysticism, there is essentially nothing mystical, supernatural, or intrinsically religious about it. At root it is just the idea, shocking at the time, but dramatically less so today, that the Earth might, in some ways, function as a single large organism.
At one time, and for a long time, we tended to think of the world as divided into discrete entities. Each person was a single, unbroken and indivisible whole, as was every animal and every plant. These foundational, atomic entities could be organized into larger groups, tribes, races, herds, species, forests, etc., but the essential demarcation line was the one around the individual.
As time passed, creatures were found that challenged this tidy picture of the world. Lichen, for instance, looks, and for all the world seems to be a single, plant-like species, but in actuality is two very different kinds of organisms, an algae and a fungus, living in close symbiosis with each other. Slime molds, on the other hand, are generally found in the form of single-celled, individual organisms, but can, under certain circumstances, aggregate together to act as a single multicellular organism.
Such creatures were ones thought to be freaks of nature, but as our understanding has advanced, we have found that symbiosis is actually more of the rule than the exception. Even human beings are, looked at from a certain point of view, colonies containing millions upon millions of symbiotic microorganisms without whom we could not exist, from the mitochondria to the gut flora.
It is also the case that there are colonies of closely related animals, chiefly social insects like ants and bees, that function and reproduce largely as if they were one single, vast creature, contained in many different little bodies, like the distributed slime mold, or like the cells of our bodies (if they could move independently from each other, and without being in immediate physical contact). Stanford professor Douglas Hofstadter, the poet of artificial intelligence, even speculated that such colonies, if large and complex enough, could be hosts of a type of collective intelligence and consciousness, not present in any given ant, but only as invested in the patterns of the colony as a whole.
This is a deeply emergentist idea, one that is wholly naturalistic, yet committed to the concept that more complex and irreducible patterns and phenomena, such as consciousness and intelligence, can spontaneously supervene on lower-order purely physical substrates. And it is a variant of this idea that made the Gaia hypothesis notorious.
There is nothing very hard to believe, in this day and age (especially knowing that the human body itself is most properly viewed as an ecosystem, not just an entity), in the bare concept that larger ecosystems, such as a swamp or a desert, function, in some ways, much like a single organism, and include bio-feedback mechanisms that help them self-regulate and maintain their integrity. Nor, having raised things to that level of scale, is it that much of a stretch to believe the entire earth also acts, in some ways, like a single huge organism. It might be a little injurious to our sense of self-worth as a species to reenvision ourselves as one of many symbionts inside a larger entity called an ecosystem inside a larger entity called the earth, and containing other smaller ecosystems inside ourselves in places such as the stomach and the colon, but no more so, arguably, than learning that our sun is one of many stars in a great big galaxy inside a great big universe. What makes Gaia notorious is none of this, however, but rather the idea, that like Hofstadter’s ant colonies, Gaia herself might be conscious or intelligent, and perhaps even have her own volition.
The easiest way to justify this is to say that we, ourselves, the human species, are in some way Gaia’s brain, the seat of her intelligence. Our libraries are her memories, our conversations are her thoughts. In as much as we are conscious of her, she is conscious of herself. In as much as we act collectively, we are expressing her volition.
That is an easy enough way to construe Gaia’s intelligence, but aside from the raw poetry of it, it fails to make a great deal of sense. For one thing, with our destructiveness and internal quarrels, it seems simply false to describe us as acting as agents of Gaia in any significant way; a more apt metaphor might be an aggressively metastasizing cancer.
On the other hand, perhaps Gaia has other ways of thinking and sensing, “vaster than empires, and more slow,” patterns laid in the bedrock beneath mountains, in the growth of ancient forests, in the swelling of massive underground fungi, in the wheeling flight of flocks of birds, and the unseen migrations of Hofstadterian ant colonies. Perhaps—and indeed, as we might expect, if the emergent theory of consciousness, that it can spontaneously spring into being in a complex enough matrix of any kind, is true—Gaia is conscious in ways entirely beyond our ken. Again, there is little, beyond the raw poetry of the idea, to believe this is in any way true. But if it were, then Gaia might well and truly be considered a naturalistic deity of a sort.
Bostrom’s simulator, however, is not like this at all. In fact, his simulator is wholly and demonstrably supernatural, despite all Bostrom’s efforts to cover this over with the fig leaf of naturalism. The reason is this: Naturalism is not a quality that can be preserved across the borders of a simulation. Within the simulation, everything may be utterly naturalistic, obedient to the natural laws laid down in the core parameters of the simulation itself. But those laws are not the same as the laws that operate outside the simulation, even if they are fashioned in imitation of those laws. The ball that bounces on the computer screen is not acting in obedience to the laws of physics, but to a simulation of the laws of physics. There may be a law of gravity in effect on the screen, but it is not the same as the law of gravity in our world, it is a simulation of it. We can tweak it as we choose, to make it as heavy as if the ball were on Jupiter, or as light as if it were on the moon. We, in comparison to the ball, are supernatural forces, by definition. We are outside (“super-”) what passes for “natural” within the simulation’s context. And any entity outside the simulation we exist in must, by definition, be supernatural in relationship to us, no matter how natural we might assume it to be in relationship to its own world. Any entity that can rewrite our reality at will cannot be considered naturalistic from within any frame of reference that includes us inside it. If you find Bostrom’s argument compelling, therefore (and again, it is difficult to avoid assuming a purely physicalist world) then you are tacitly acknowledging the probable existence of an omniscient, omnipotent, supernatural creator, whether you choose to call it God or not.
But is there any possible or probable relationship between a simulator god as thus construed and God as popularly understood by any of the great religions of the world? As we mentioned all the way back in the fourth installment, it is surprisingly easy to picture the simulator god as God the Father described in the Old Testament, a patriarch who communicates fitfully and mysteriously with His creation, who gets frustrated with it partway through and erases much of it, only to start over again (post-Flood). Or, conversely, we could see the simulator as the Deist God, who puts a great deal of time, effort, and artistry into designing the universe, only to leave it to run entirely by itself, either out of scientific principle, or perhaps distraction by some other task. We can also picture Jesus, either as the simulator’s literal son (perhaps sneaking downstairs to try out the simulation in the middle of the night!) or as the simulator itself, entering the simulation in the form of a player-character.
It seems suspiciously easy, however, to map each of these religious scenarios to the simulator hypothesis. It is also, for example, easy to picture the ancient Greek pantheon as a team of researchers working together on the simulation, while quarreling and having affairs. Or to see the simulator as the Hindu deity Vishnu, playing through many of the world’s infinite scenarios by taking on multiple avatars in the simulated environment. In the end, all this may tell us is that the simulator scenario is a black box, easy to imagine in any form whatsoever, because we do not know any of its actual characteristics.
Papineau, David, "Naturalism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, December 21, 2016.
Lovelock, James, Gaia, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2016.
Yong, Ed, I Contain Multitudes, Ecco, 2016.
Hofstadter, Douglas R., Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, Basic Books, New York, 1999.
LeGuin, Ursula K., “Vaster than Empires and More Slow,” The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, Bantam Books, New York, 1979.
Marvell, Andrew, “To His Coy Mistress”, London, 1681.
Bristow, William, "Enlightenment", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, September 21, 2017.