The twenty-third and final installment of an ongoing series about the intersection between religion and technology. The previous essay is here.
Welcome to the final installment of our series, Saints & Simulators. All along we've been exploring the overlap between modern high technology, traditional religion, and all the contested philosophical battleground in between. Today, however, we're going to directly see the two head-to-head. How does the modern technology-based transhumanist "religion" of the simulator and the singularity compare against traditional religion?
Of course, if we talk about "traditional religion," we need to clarify which one. If there is no consensus religion, affirmed universally, nor yet a compelling synthesis of all religions, acceptable to all, is there at least a majority religion, practiced by most? Here, at least, there is an unambiguous answer. The majority of the people in the world are religious, the majority of the religious people belong to one of the monotheistic Abrahamic religions descended from Judaism, and the majority of those people are self-identified Christians. In terms of actual percentages, Christians make up just over 30% of the world’s population, which is no majority, but is a plurality. There are more people who identify as Christians than identify with any other set of religious beliefs, including none at all. (The second largest religion is Islam, which counts just under a quarter of the world as adherents.)
Plenty of ink has been spilled over the centuries, both attacking and defending Christian beliefs, and some of the biggest controversies have been internal, such as the unhealed schism that split the church universal into Protestants and Catholics. It is worth, however, revisiting some of the arguments both for and against Christianity, as reevaluated in the light of modern technology. In particular, as directly compared to the belief in a simulator, does traditional Christian belief make for a stronger or weaker case?
One of the most direct and widely influential lines of attack against not only Christianity but religion in general, is that religion is simply harder and harder to take seriously in the light of modern science and technology. According to this account, all religions reduce to worship of “God of the Gaps,” which is the name of a line of argument that “God” was always and only a placeholder explanation for all kinds of aspects of the natural world that we used never to understand properly. Now that science has demystified everything from the cosmos to biology, those gaps have largely been filled in, and we can see religion for what it really is, a collection of superstitions and fairy tales. As evidence for this, advocates for this viewpoint (which traces most directly back to the British historian David Hume, and includes many of the most vocal of the so-called “New Atheists,” such as biological theorist Richard Dawkins and journalist Christopher Hitchens) point in particular to the miracles scattered throughout the Biblical narrative. These suspensions of natural law, as manifestations of supernatural intervention, are held up to ridicule as being particularly scientifically implausible.
It is ironic, perhaps, that this promising line of attack is the one most directly invalidated by simulator hypothesis. If one grants the plausibility of the simulator, then it is clear to see that the production of miracles on our level of existence would be child’s play for anyone at the simulator’s level of existence. Even something as counter to all natural law as freezing the sun in place might be as simple for a simulator as pressing a pause button. Similarly, as we explored previously, even as great a disparity as the billions of years between the apparent, scientifically measured age of universe, and the seven-thousand-year span allotted to it by Biblical literalists is not outside expectations for a simulation. In fact, under the Yudkowsky concept that we might be individually simulated millions of times in order to predict our reactions, it might not be uncommon for a simulated universe that seems billions of years old to have existed only for a few minutes. In short, we must grant that miracles and other supernatural interventions are no less probable than a simulated reality.
A better objection, therefore, is against internal factual inconsistencies in the Bible. For even if we want to grant that a deity or a simulator might be able to do anything, including suspend natural law, and even though that might mean that any given event might have happened as described Biblically, we still most likely do not want to grant that the same event could have happened in two contradictory ways. For instance, Genesis has two entirely different, and not wholly compatible stories about the creation of the world (the “Seven Days of Creation,” and “the Garden of Eden”). In the first story, God creates the animals first, and human beings, male and female, last (which matches our scientific understanding of the order of things) whereas in the second story man is created first, then the animals, and then woman. While the simulator hypothesis might make us more willing to accept any given account of the creation of the world as theoretically plausible, it surely is a bridge too far to accept two different accounts as both literally true. Similarly, the New Testament gives us, in the Gospel of Matthew, as compared to the Gospel of Luke, two different and incompatible genealogies for Jesus through Joseph. This it itself might not seem like such a big deal, but it is an oddly visible inconsistency for a document supposed to be infallible (not to mention a lot of effort taken for the lineage of a person presented only as Jesus’ adoptive father).
There is also an undeniable strangeness to many Biblical stories when we try to read them literally, as though they were stories from the daily newspaper. For example, if we return to the Garden of Eden, there are things in it that it is hard to wrap the mind around as fact-based reporting. There is a talking snake in the story, an angel with a flaming sword, and a mysterious apple that somehow holds the key to all knowledge. It reads like a fairy tale, much closer to the myths and stories of other cultures from around the world than to a historical text.
On the other hand, the discomfort this raises among modern believers is almost certainly more of a reflection on us than upon the Bible. In the modern world, we recognize only things that are “true” (or in other words, factual) and “false,” a binary, Boolean world that echoes the on-and-off switches of the logic pathways in our computers. The Neoplatonic concept of things that are more true than fact has been entirely lost. And yet, even the most literal reader of the Bible demonstrably acknowledges the presence and the power of myth within the Bible. For example, the parables of Jesus, the stories he told to illustrate religious and psychological points, are not believed to be “factual”—they are never presented as factual. Yet Christian believers still have faith that these stories hold a truth that surpasses factual reality. Similarly, not even the most fundamentalist, Bible-thumping preacher ever gives a sermon that takes the erotic poetry in the Song of Solomon literally. It is always taught, when it is taught, as metaphor and myth.
Even the concept of literal truth and fact-based history is a bit of a modern invention, and an anachronism when applied to a document as ancient as the Bible. There is little evidence that the ancient Israelites interpreted their Scriptures in a strictly literal manner. If they had, surely someone would have noted the inconsistencies and removed them. The fact that they let them stand as is offers a clear hint that they were willing to read them symbolically; that stories like the Garden of Eden, or the story of Job are to be read as parables, not histories. Similarly, the genealogies in the New Testament were probably understood as purely symbolic when first compiled, it was only later generations of literal-minded theologians who made them into a stumbling block to wrestle against. As Jesus himself said: “I tell parables so they may ‘see without perceiving, hear without understanding,’” which itself is an echo of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “you have seen many things without noticing them, heard many things without understanding them.”
Let us grant then, that many of the stories in the Bible are not, and never were meant to be read as conveying literal truth, but rather psychological or spiritual truth. Yet a religion is composed of more than stories. The Old Testament in particular is known for its wide range of laws and rituals, many of which seem entirely incomprehensible. For example, Deuteronomy 22 is often cited by critics of religion as an example of a collection of particularly laughable prohibitions: Thou shalt not plant two kinds of seeds together; Thou shalt not plow with an ox and a donkey yoked together; Thou shalt not wear clothes woven with threads of two different types of materials. Is God really against Jews wearing polyester blends? And if so, why?
One explanation religious scholars have crafted for many ancient prohibitions is that they often had practical significance visible only in context. A putative example is the once common, but now increasingly controversial religious prohibition against homosexuality, found not only in the ancient Jewish tradition, but in many other traditional cultures. It was formulated, so runs the argument, under entirely different conditions than today’s overpopulated world. In a time where maximizing reproduction conveyed significant advantages to a culture, anything that countered that goal was severely stigmatized, from homosexuality to simply remaining childless. (And in fact, the prolific fecundity of the ancient Israelites was what transformed them, at least according to the Biblical account, from a single expatriate family living in Egypt at the end of the Book of Genesis into the mighty nation seeking release from bondage at the beginning of Exodus.) Similarly, practical reasons of health and economy have been crafted to explain dietary prohibitions such as those against pork and shellfish.
Practical reasoning is less straightforward to apply to the strange prohibitions in Deuteronomy. There is no easily discernible practical reason that blended cloth is out, for instance. Yet no matter how individually baffling they are, it is hard to miss that they have a certain parallel structure when considered as a group: Each one is a ban on mixing unlike things together, a similarity also shared with the kosher law that meat shalt not be mixed with dairy.
Once we perceive this commonality, it is not so difficult to match it to a practical psychological reason. Symbolically, such rules echo the religious concept that the ancient Israelites were a special people, a priestly family, set apart, unique, and not lightly to be mixed or assimilated into other peoples and their cultures. This ritually reinforced self-image is arguably what helped maintain a distinctive Jewish culture across multiple centuries, as well as through lengthy exiles in many different countries across multiple continents. As with the communities we looked at earlier (in the section on the “broken windows” theory of policing) the physical details and rituals become the metaphorical flesh of the community that its spirit can inhabit. Even today, many people who would consider themselves non-religious in their beliefs still place a high value on maintaining their cultural Jewishness, and accordingly on observing the age-old rituals and prohibitions.
Where Christianity and Islam are religions of professed beliefs, Judaism is largely a religion of culture. And the result is hard to argue against. No other group that has remained so tiny as a percentage of the global population has consistently had such an outsized impact on the world over such an extended period of time. High and popular culture, commerce, politics, religion, science, philosophy, and world affairs all have been, and continue to be, heavily influenced by all the far-flung, self-identified descendants of this one single Middle Eastern family.
If embracing a symbolic interpretation of religious rules answers one set of questions, however, then it does so at the cost of raising a host of new ones. If something like the prohibition on homosexuality has a practical meaning, for example, then are we free to discard it in light of new practical realities, such as overpopulation? If cultural traditions, such as not eating pork, are found to have predated the religious prohibitions against them, then in what sense are we attributing them to God? And if God is either the all-perfect eternal being described by the Neoplatonists, or the Creator deity described at the beginning of the Old Testament (or even the cosmic simulator described by Bostrom), then why is [He] micromanaging us? Why gift us a religion invested in the form of such a lengthy and oddly specific set of rules?
Although it may not seem like it, this, and all the other questions we have considered thus far are really the “easy” objections against religion, not because they are necessarily easy to solve, but because they are peripheral to the core value of religion, that it teaches us how to live a good life, and how to be good people, and how to be good to one another. It is for daily meaning that people have turned to religion for millennia, and because of the strength of religious communities that people have been willing to overlook all the little inconsistencies.
The more significant stumbling blocks for a serious student of the Bible, therefore, are not what read as factual inconsistencies and scientific or psychological conundrums, but rather what read as moral inconsistencies and metaphysical or spiritual conundrums. These are the Biblical puzzles and paradoxes that are harder to explain away or overlook.
It perhaps goes without saying that there is a great deal in the Old Testament of the Bible that the average modern reader, whether religious or not, would likely find morally questionable, at the very least. Even leaving aside apparent moral crimes by the ancient Israelites that the Bible does not endorse, but merely records (such as the deception-based slaughter of the Shechemites by Simeon and Levi in Genesis 34) there are a wealth of hard to stomach things the Old Testament presents as directly ordered, endorsed, or enforced by God. These, in addition to such things as a mandated death penalty for adultery, homosexuality, and cursing your parents also includes the wholesale and merciless slaughter and genocide of other ancient tribes, including men, women, and children. There are even places where the ancient Israelites are punished for being insufficiently cruel and heartless toward their enemies; overly peaceful, and (like Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita) too unwilling to fight.
Of course, given a gap between a Biblical standard of morality and a modern standard, some might argue that we do wrong to assume our standard is superior. Given that there is no one universal system or set of morals that all human beings agree upon, and given that even people within a single country such as America, sometimes even within a single family, can have wildly different moral intuitions about things such as (for example) abortion and the death penalty, how can we justify preferring our foundationless human standard of morals against the divine standard represented by the Bible?
The problem with this line of argument is that there is demonstrably no one Biblical moral standard. Moses, the great prophet and leader to freedom of the Jewish people, was married to a woman (or possibly two different women) described at one point as a “Midianite” and at another point as a “Cushite” (a sub-Saharan black African). When his brother and sister-in-law condemned him for his mixed marriage, they were punished by God for their presumption. Yet Moses himself later went to war against the Midianites, and then condemned those of his men who entered into marriages with them. This same ambiguity on the subject of ethnic mixing is demonstrated time and again in the Old Testament, as sometimes approved, and sometimes as forbidden and harshly punishable.
There is a similar ambivalence toward other tribes in general. Often the Israelites are commanded to slaughter their neighbors without mercy, but occasionally a foreign leader (such as the Persian king, Cyrus the Great) is praised as more godly than the Israelites themselves. The entire book of Jonah, in fact, is about God showing mercy to the much-hated Ninevites in opposition to the prophet Jonah’s ethnocentric prejudices. Similarly, in Numbers 14 God is depicted as visiting vengeance for the sins of the fathers on their children for generations, whereas in Ezekiel 18 and Jeremiah 31 this is directly and explicitly contradicted. Even in cut-and-dried instances of blasphemy and worshiping strange gods, universally condemned throughout the Bible, the worst offenders are sometimes inexplicably spared all punishment during their lifetimes, while their more righteous descendants are punished harshly either for their ancestor’s crimes, or for minor peccadilloes of their own.
The sharpest moral discontinuity in the Bible is between the Old and New Testaments. The forgiveness, mercy, and universal brotherhood preached by Jesus, which does largely compose a consistent moral standard of its own, is often diametrically opposed to the punitive ethnocentrism of the Old Testament. The two, however, are unbreakably bound together. While Jesus often seems to be bringing an entirely new and different message, he does so clothed in the language, the stories, and the traditions of the Old Testament; he clearly presents himself as the fulfillment of that religious tradition, rather than its negation.
Part of what makes this possible is a transition that takes place within the Old Testament itself. If Jesus’s preaching is worlds away from the ancient books called the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament) it is much closer in spirit and message to the great Jewish prophets whose books make up the latter part of what Christians conceptualize as the Old Testament. With messages that often emphasize social justice, forgiveness and mercy, and redemption and salvation, prophets like Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Amos anticipate, and from the Christian point of view, make preparation for Jesus. In fact, the central theological justification for the transition is found in Jeremiah 31, where God is depicted as promising the advent of a “New Covenant” that will replace and perfect the covenant established in Genesis. (From the standpoint of orthodox Christian theology, the Old Testament covenant was between God and a certain family, whereas the New Testament covenant is between God and all people.)
The New Covenant is the great theological concept that makes the religion of Christianity, as we know it, even possible. But it does lead to two additional conundrums, one situational, the other metaphysical. The situational conundrum is that much of what even Christian believers continue to seek in their religion is Old Testament morality, or at least a portion of it. Therefore, believers, both liberal and conservative, often “cherry-pick” the Old Testament, taking from it what they want and discarding the rest. And although this in itself might not necessarily be a bad thing, it does raise the question of how much the religion is actually guiding choices, rather than merely certifying preexisting moral commitments.
The metaphysical question cuts quite a bit deeper. If God as understood by Christians and Jews, is also the eternal, unchanging, perfect ideal of good understood by the Neoplatonists, then how can a single religious tradition shift so dramatically over the years and still be valid? We understand, of course, that religion is not God—it is a human institution, practiced by human beings. We know that its rites and rituals are for human benefit, even if their purposes are to bring us closer to God. We know that religion is a culture organized around a theology, and inevitably carries along with it things that are not found in or inspired by that theology, nor even necessarily in accord with it. Yet, with all that said and done, if a continuous religious tradition can promote genocide at one end, and universal brotherhood at the other, then in what meaningful sense can it be described as continually relating to the same eternal God?
More to the point, is it in fact the same God? Muslims consider themselves to be worshipers of the same God described as God the Father in the New Testament, and as the God of Israel in the Old Testament, but neither Muslims nor Jews accept the divinity of Jesus. Muslims consider Jesus (known to them as “Isa”) a divinely inspired but entirely human prophet, while Jews generally consider Jesus as just one in a long series of misguided Messianic pretenders. Both consider the doctrine of the Trinity to be a dangerously blasphemous transgression against monotheism; the idolatrous elevation of a human figure to equality with God.
The problem is one we encountered before in a different context, the problem of specificity. Compared to the general, universal descriptions of God in Islam and Judaism, Jesus is very, very specific: Male, human, Jewish, Semetic, born in a particular year, in a particular place, on a particular blue-green planet, third from its unexceptional sun in a universe overflowing with stars; and dying thirty-three years later, by the hand of the Romans, in roughly the same geographic location. Why? If God did choose to come into the world, why with this level of specificity?
Interestingly enough, however, as it turns out, if our purpose is to test the simulator hypothesis against religious belief, it is only in the specifics that we can easily distinguish between the two. The Deist God, who creates the universe, and then leaves it to run entirely on its own, is not easily disambiguated from the hands-off simulator. One might well call them one and the same. Similarly the Platonic ideal of good, which remains removed and remote in eternal perfection while the demiurge creates the world in imitation of it, needs not change at all if we choose to think of the demiurge as working with pixels and electrons rather than with primal matter. Such abstract, philosophical conceptions of God are general enough that even a shift as dramatic as reconceptualizing reality itself as a simulation can be integrated relatively easily. It is more of a challenge, however, to reconfigure the simulation hypothesis in order to yield the specificity of Christ.
Although it may not seem like it, this is, in some ways, another face of the problem of evil. For God to enter the world as we know it, in any real and significant sense, entails a certain measure of suffering, because death and decline, and pain and betrayal are all unavoidably present in the weave of the world; to truly live is inevitably to experience some combination of these. But even to create the world as a vital and living place, with novelty and surprise, also entails a certain measure of suffering. If everything was all equally good, every part of it would be indistinguishable from every other, just as no shapes can be discerned in a single point of bright light. It is the areas of darkness, where the light is dimmer, that give it structure and extension. So the problem of why the world is specific is isomorphic to the problem of why the world is not purely good.
Superficially, the problem of specificity is avoided by the strict and uncompromising monotheism of Islam, the world’s second most populous religion, which has a more consistently Neoplatonist outlook than Christianity. Islam discards the Old Testament stories that seem to imply the existence of multiple gods, denies the divinity (although not the prophethood) of Jesus, and draws a strict and unbreachable line between the divinity of God and the mortality of human beings. But even beyond the immediate specificities of Islam (including the uniqueness of the Quran, the acknowledgment of the uniquely efficacious prophethood of Muhummed, and the unique sacredness of the Arabic language), this still leaves us with the same problem in a more stark and direct form: How and why could an all-perfect deity create the world in the first place? Can the perfect ever create the imperfect? If the evil in the world really exists, how could a perfectly good God have created it? And if it is just an illusion, how could it arise from a God of perfect truthfulness and absolute reality?
Surprisingly, however, this problem of specificity is not just a problem for the religious. Even scientific theories that deal with the origins of the universe wrestle with its oddly specific nature. The universe is a strangely lumpy and bumpy place to have supposedly originated with the perfect unbroken singularity of the Big Bang. Other things have an odd specificity to them as well. Why, for example, is π, the number that governs the dimensions of circles, a number of such specificity that it requires an infinite string of decimals just to name it? Why is ϕ, the golden ratio, a completely different but no less infinitely specific number? And how is it that other constants exist that seem impossibly fine-tuned for our existence? Michael Rees (the Astronomer Royal of Britain) popularized in his book, Just Six Numbers, the idea that there are six fundamental universal constants which together define and shape our universe (the ratio of the fine structure constant to the gravitational coupling constant, the amount of mass converted to energy in a fusion reaction, the density of the universe, the cosmological constant, the energy needed to break up galactic superclusters, and the number of dimensions of the universe). Had any one of them, he claims, been just a little different, they would have produced a dead and inert cosmos, “if any one of them were to be ‘untuned,’ there would be no stars and no life.”
So we see that even science itself must wrestle with this same problem of specificity. Yet the situation is not equal. The universe may be oddly specific, yes, but it has the anthropic principle on its side. We do not know why the universe is specified the way it is, but its specifics are demonstrably real (at least within the context of whatever it is that composes our reality). We know that the universe is, in fact, built—how, and for whatever reason—around the odd constants that it is built around because we can observe them, and measure them. They are evident, even if they are not self-evident. But what is there in the world that attests to the odd specificity of Jesus? Ultimately, only the testimony of believers, speaking sometimes directly and empirically out of their own personal experiences, and sometimes accepting the experiences described to them by others.
Yet here, once again, we see a point of equivalence with the simulator hypothesis. We all have reached a point of agreement that our world was likely to have been crafted by someone. Why picture that, however, as a computer hobbyist rather than a deity? Conversely, what makes it more legitimate to believe in Kurzweil’s technological heaven rather than a religious paradise? Religion at least has the testimony of direct religious experience and revelation to call upon. Simulationists and Singularitarians, on the other hand, are explicitly filling in the unknowable with the contents of their imaginations and preconceptions.
So, does Bostrom’s theory in fact prove God? Yes and no. If you believe in a real, solely physical, non-theistic universe then it must be possible to construct consciousness. But if it is possible to construct consciousness, then it must be possible to build a simulation. If it is possible to build a simulation, then it must be possible that we might be in a simulation.
If we are in a simulation, however, then there must be a simulator, and the simulator must stand in a godlike role in relationship to us. Furthermore, the simulator is, by definition, “supernatural” with regards to our world, even if it is naturalistic within its own reality. And unless there is a being more worthy of the title “God” there is no reason to deny the simulator, a supernatural, all-powerful creator entity of the universe, that title. So if we start from the assumption there is is no god, we end up with the conclusion that there might very well be a god, and with at least the same level of probability as that we exist within a simulation. So in that sense, Bostrom’s theory does prove at least the probability of God’s existence (if not actually the necessity of God’s existence).
On the other hand, is this God as traditionally conceived of by religion? We found that many ancient and traditional religious arguments were actually directly applicable to the simulator. By the same token, however, so were many longstanding religious objections. In the end, Bostrom’s theory is no substitute for religion. At best, it only establishes the legitimacy of idea of religious belief, the content of that belief remains a matter of faith.
“The Changing Global Religious Landscape,” Pew Research Center, April 5, 2017.
Hume, David, “On Miracles,” An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, in Classics of Western Philosophy, edited by Steven M. Cahn, Hackett Publishing, Indianapolis, 1977.
Dawkins, Richard, The God Delusion, Mariner Books, 2008.
Harris, Marvin, Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches: The Riddles of Culture, Vintage/Random House, New York, 1989.
Cohen, Steven M., “Can You Pass Down Cultural Judaism Without the Faith?” Forward, February 21, 2015.
Wade, Nicholas, “DNA Backs a Tribe’s Tradition of Early Descent From the Jews,” The New York Times, May 9, 1999.
Wade, Nicholas “Studies Show Jews’ Genetic Similarity,” The New York Times, June 9, 2010.
Clark, Laura, “People Ate Pork in the Middle East Until 1,000 B.C. — What Changed?” Smithsonian, March 18, 2015.
Armstrong, Karen, A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, Ballantine Books, New York, 1993.
Rees, Michael, Just Six Numbers: The Deep Forces That Shape the Universe, Basic Books, New York, 2000, pp. 3–4.
The Song of God: Bhagavad-Gita, translated by Swami Prabhavanananda and Christopher Isherwood, Mentor, New York, 1954.
Leviticus 20, Deuteronomy 7:2, Judges 2, Exodus 2, Numbers 12 and 31, Ezra 6, Isaiah 42:20 and 44-45, 2 Kings 21 and 23, Matthew 5:18, Luke 8:10