Nineteenth in an ongoing series on the nexus between religion and technology. The previous essay is here.
In the last essay, we talked about the eerily godlike role played by the simulator in Nick Bostrom’s theory that posits we all exist only within a computer simulation, and the fact that, even so, it would be unknowable what kind of god the simulator might be. But is it truly impossible to know anything about the simulator? True, we have no hopes of seeing beyond the veil around our universe. If we do exist on a computer screen, it is a one-way view, we cannot see out, even if we can be seen; we cannot know fully, even if we are fully known. But it might be possible to intellectually apprehend something about our creator/simulator, either through an examination of its handiwork, or by the pure application of logic.
Bostrom himself makes a few fitful moves in this direction:
Further rumination on these themes could climax in a naturalistic theogony that would study the structure of this hierarchy, and the constraints imposed on its inhabitants by the possibility that their actions on their own level may affect the treatment they receive from dwellers of deeper levels. For example, if nobody can be sure that they are at the basement-level, then everybody would have to consider the possibility that their actions will be rewarded or punished, based perhaps on moral criteria, by their simulators.
As theology (or even theogony) goes, it is remarkably uninspired, not to mention uninspiring, which may explain why people’s eyes seem to have glazed over when they reached this section. But why? What is so lacking in Bostrom’s account?
The answer, perhaps, as we have alluded to before, is that there is nothing new of explanatory value in Bostrom’s simulator, or even in his chain of simulators, each one simulating the next, because each new world is so similar to the next. Not only does this entail that the entire limitless chain of simulators all be so unimaginative so as to merely duplicate their own worlds in miniature, it also defers all our questions about the nature and meaning of our existence up however many levels until one finally reaches the top (or as Bostrom would have it, “the basement”), a world no less complex, morally ambiguous, and baffling than our own.
A major part of why we accept that our ordinary world of matter supervenes on a world of chemicals, which in turn supervenes on a deeper, more fundamental world of molecules and atoms, and that in turn on a yet-deeper world of particles, is that each deeper level is simpler and easier to understand than the one that supervenes on top of it. The subatomic world has significantly fewer, more consistent laws, as well as a dramatically smaller domain of distinct types of entities. Bostrom’s vision, on the other hand, is a regress without progress; reminiscent of the old chestnut about an odd metaphysics, as retold by Stephen Hawking in his book, A Brief History of Time.
A well-known scientist… once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: “What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.” The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, “What is the tortoise standing on?” “You’re very clever, young man, very clever,” said the old lady. “But it’s turtles all the way down!”
The simulation theory, however, does not have to be turtles all the way down. For example, imagine that somewhere along the chain of simulators, perhaps directly above us (what Bostrom calls “below”), or perhaps much further on up toward the top, we reach an entity we might call the “maximally simple simulator,” an entity of pure and limitless intellect, unbounded in time (and therefore eternal), with no body at all, in a universe containing nothing else but itself, the simplest possible universe.
How could that simple, almost empty universe have simulated this one, or any other, without computers to program the simulation on, or even matter itself to build the computers from? We might picture it like this: The maximally simple simulator, being eternal, eventually becomes bored by the tedium of the eons, and finally begins to amuse itself by reciting all the digits of pi—having first, perhaps, invented non-repeating decimals, and all the rest of mathematics to go along with it. When eventually that game pales in amusement, it then goes on to picture a string of geometric patterns, perhaps spending a few blissful eternities in contemplation of every last detail of the Mandelbrot set.
After even that pleasure grows dim, the entity finally decides that these static shapes and images, no matter how beautiful, are dull, and accordingly it invents the concept of narrative, and begins telling itself stories to go along with the pictures. At this point, it concentrates briskly, and finally, in a burst of inspiration, creates the 3rd Edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (the seminal role-playing game in which people invent characters from a fantasy world, and then play a game with them, using the rolls of dice to determine the outcome of various encounters).
Being a being of infinite intellect, it is able to play as all characters, plus the Dungeon Master, simultaneously. In other words, it invents a fantasy setting for the game to take place, determines the general scenario—what goals the players are going to pursue—and then creates the characters who are going to play out the scenario—a dwarf warrior, an elven magic-user, a human priest, and a halfling thief. By consulting that same infinite series of random numbers it started out with, it is able to simulate rolling dice to numerically determine the characters’ basic traits—how strong they are, how smart, how charming, how much dexterity they have, and how healthy they are. These numbers will determine how the characters interact with their world, as well as with each other.
Again, being an entity of infinite intellect, our Dungeon Master is able to imagine each scenario vividly, as though it were really happening, with the numbers acting as a way to push the storyline along, move it in unexpected directions, and allow the characters to compete against each other. In effect, the numbers compose the physics of the world, its purely material aspects, while the Dungeon Master’s imagination supplies the non-physical aspects of the world, the consciousness of the character (borrowed from the Dungeon Master), their free will and volition, their mental and emotional states (as informed, of course, by their statistics).
Beyond the enjoyment of the campaign itself, the Dungeon Master also takes the added step of inventing players to play the characters, and of filling in a back story for each of them, and a world for them to live in themselves, when they are not actively playing Dungeons & Dragons. They are (or so the Dungeon Master decides) a group of teenagers living in a place called America, in a year they call 2003. Just as with the characters in the game, the Dungeon Master is able to bring the characters to life with a combination of numbers and imagination. Here, the simple statistics of the game are replaced by a much richer and more complex dataset simulating (mentally) every quark in every particle in every atom in every molecule in every cell of each player’s body. The basic idea, however, remains the same. The numbers are the physics of the world, generated by that same, endless stream of random digits, and imagination is its non-physical part, the stories the Dungeon Master tells about the numbers to keep itself entertained. And since it has an infinite intellect, it can also mentally keep track of the entire rest of the universe that contains the players.
In essence, this is the exact same concept as the universe on a computer, except that no physical device is needed, the entity keeps track of every “physical” interaction as part of a pure datastream, and a rule-based interpretation of that data. This forms the material part of the dualist universe. Then, via its infinite imagination, the entity brings that cold, hard data into vivid life. This forms the soulful part of the universe, the part with the mind, the free will, and the consciousness that feels and experiences things.
We could even specify that this world itself, with America and the Dungeons & Dragons players in it, could in fact be a simulation on a computer screen, in some larger world, a perhaps very different world, but one likewise contained in the mind of the Dungeon Master. Just as a storyteller can tell a story, within a story, within a story, our Dungeon Master could likewise create a world, within a world, within a world.
The advantage to this conception of the chain of simulation, is that unlike Bostrom’s, this is a regress with some progress built into it. The maximally simple simulator is a unified, conceptually simple origin for several different things that are hard to reconcile in our own world as we know it. For one, it explains a dualist universe of body and mind, with reference to a more fundamental monist universe, one in which only mind exists. This is significant because we still, after all these years of belief in a physically monist universe, lack a real theoretical basis to understand how the physical can generate the mental; yet, as we have just demonstrated, it is easy, even natural, to understand how the mental can generate the physical. The physical, at its root, is just rule-governed behavior. Even a limited human intellect can easily picture basic physical interactions mentally, it is arguably part of what our minds evolved to handle. For instance, imagine an apple falling from a tree, or one billiard ball hitting another. In doing so, you have just simulated a tiny portion of a physical world mentally.
By reducing the physical to the mental, you might say we are giving the much maligned Bishop Berkeley his delayed revenge against Samuel Johnson. Yet Berkeley might go even further, and whisper in our ears that when the Dungeon Master follows the rules, that is what we, the characters in this world, call natural law, but if it ever yields to the temptation to break them, that is what we perceive as a miracle. And if, when the game is over, the non-player antagonist characters, the ones who were just placed in the game to cause trouble for the players, are discarded and forgotten, that would be what the religious call hell. And if, when the players who were special to the entity, the ones it put the most of its own self into, are removed from the area of gameplay, they are not forgotten, but instead live on in some corner of the entity’s mind, freed now from the tyranny of the datastream that shaped them during the game, this would be what the religious call heaven.
It is a beatific vision, but it must be admitted to be a bit of a cheat itself. The problem is that it claims to be about the “maximally simple” simulator, and while this may in fact be true in a strictly metaphysical sense, the Dungeon Master seems both conceptually and morally quite complex. Conceptually speaking, to think up all the odd little twists and turns of the world, must it not be at least as complex as that world and all it contains? And morally speaking, has it not imagined worlds with a lot of horrible and evil things within them, orcs and dragons within the Dungeons & Dragons world, dictators and nuclear bombs within our own?
“Dungeons & Dragons” and “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” are trademarks of the Wizards of the Coast company.
Bostrom, Nick. “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?” Philosophical Quarterly (2003) Vol. 53, No. 211, pp. 243–255.
Hawking, Stephen, A Brief History of Time, Bantam Books, 1988.
Sunami, Kitoba, How the Fisherman Tricked the Genie, Atheneum, 2002.