Summary: Neil deGrasse Tyson and leading scientists debate whether the universe is a complex simulation. But what, or who, made the simulation? We identify the chief engineer as God.
Imagine an ultra-sophisticated computer simulation in which intelligent characters are walking about a virtual world.
Given enough time and curiosity and intelligence, the characters begin to investigate their surroundings. They look at their world, study their universe. They figure out how things work, how to make useful tools, and machines, and they begin crafting their own technology.
One observant virtual researcher discovered in his polygonal world the Law of Collision: “If an object collides with a 3d polygonal object at angle X, the point describing his new position can calculated by the cross product of his velocity vector along the impacted surface of the polygon.”
The more the virtual characters studied the laws of their world, they found all of them to be mathematically sound.
Unbeknownst to the virtual characters, the programmer of the simulation knew the laws were mathematical and rigid. He coded them to be that way; his intelligence shines through the algorithms. His cohesive design is encoded throughout the virtual world.
But the characters in this little world are all discovering this for the first time.
And they’re amazed, and puzzled.
They begin to wonder, “Why is our universe like this? Why is there math and rigidity and fine-tuning behind our world? It’s almost like this universe was engineered to support life.
The most daring and freethinking asked, “Is there some greater intelligence – perhaps an advanced civilization or intelligent species above our own – that put these laws into place? And are we merely living in its simulation?”
Scientists at Harvard and MIT ask, “Are we living in a simulation?”
As a lover of science and cosmology, my interest was piqued by Scientific American’s recent article, “Are We Living in a Computer Simulation?”
It admittedly sounds more sci-fi than science.
But as Scientific American notes, it’s a legitimate scientific hypothesis pondered by researchers, astronomers, and cosmologists as an answer to some of the cosmos’ most puzzling questions.
The more we learn about the universe, the more it appears to be based on mathematical laws. Perhaps that is…a function of the nature of the universe we are living in. “If I were a character in a computer game, I would also discover eventually that the rules seemed completely rigid and mathematical,” said Max Tegmark, a cosmologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). “That just reflects the computer code in which it was written.”
Several observations of the natural world drive this theory.
First, scientists note that the laws governing our universe are mathematical. The universe appeared to be based on mathematical laws and their cohesive algorithms, often elegantly so.
Why is this?
Moreover, the laws of the universe appear finely tuned to support life. A little variation in any direction and life couldn’t exist.
- Matter: If the initial explosion of the big bang had differed in strength by as little as 1 part in 1060, the universe would have either quickly collapsed back on itself, or expanded too rapidly for stars to form. In either case, life would be impossible. One scientist notes an accuracy of one part in 1060 can be compared to firing a bullet at a one-inch target on the other side of the observable universe, twenty billion light years away, and hitting the target.
- Nuclear force: Calculations indicate that if the strong nuclear force, the force that binds protons and neutrons together in an atom, had been stronger or weaker by as little as 5%, life would be impossible.
- Gravity: Calculations show that if gravity had been stronger or weaker by 1 part in 1040, life-sustaining stars like the sun could not exist. This would most likely make life impossible.
- Subatomic particles: If the neutron were not about 1.001 times the mass of the proton, all protons would have decayed into neutrons or all neutrons would have decayed into protons, and thus life would not be possible.
- Electromagnetic force: If the electromagnetic force were slightly stronger or weaker, life would be impossible, for a variety of reasons.
Here we are studying the natural world and we’re discovering something amazing: patterns and mathematical designs and fine-tuning behind the laws of the universe.
We are like the characters in our computer simulation, awestruck at the intelligence and beauty of the algorithms describing our universe. And we’re questioning why they’re like this.
“In my research I found this very strange thing. I was driven to error-correcting codes—they’re what make browsers work. So why were they in the equations I was studying about quarks and electrons and supersymmetry? This brought me to the stark realization that I could no longer say the people [who hold to this theory of universe-as-simulation] are crazy.”
-James Gates, theoretical physicist, University of Maryland
Last week, a summit was held at the American Museum of Natural History, where noted physicists discussed the universe-as-simulation hypothesis.
Neil deGrasse Tyson, the much-beloved pop science speaker and atheist, moderated the discussion.
Tyson put the odds at better than 50% (!) that our entire existence is a simulation, saying “I think the likelihood may be very high.”
Tyson goes on to say,
[I]t is easy for me to imagine that everything in our lives is just a creation of some other entity for their entertainment.”
-Neil deGrasse Tyson
Some scientists argued against this possibility, citing the insignificance of humans in the grand vastness of the universe.
“We mostly are interested in ourselves. I don’t know why this higher species would want to simulate us.”
Lisa Randall, Theoretical Physicist at Harvard University
Her argument is essentially that humans are self-centered and this universe-as-simulation theory is merely a reflection of our vanity.
Why would anyone want to create a simulation with us as the focus? In the broad expanse of the universe, why us?
She’s not the first to ask this question.
King David asks it in Psalm 8,
When I consider the universe, the work of Your fingers,
The moon, the stars, all which You established—
What is man, that You are mindful of him?
What is the son of man, that You care for him?
Why would the chief engineer of the entire universe concern itself with humans? Surely in the billions and billions of other planets, there must be life elsewhere, life that’s older and more advanced and more intelligent than us humans, right?
Back to our imaginary computer simulation.
After a thousands of years gazing at the grand scale and magnificence of the sky above them, the characters in our computer game create technology that enables them go to the moon.
Decades later, they travel to other planets!
Centuries later, to other galaxies!
But what they find is both sobering and puzzling.
Instead of vast civilizations of alien life waiting for them, as their sci-fi movies led them to believe, they find among the uncountable billions of planets not a single soul.
No colonized worlds. No primitive life. Not even simple single-celled life! All the galaxies were void and barren wastelands.
Billions of planets, some scorched, some frozen, some habitable. But not a single one with life.
The characters develop theories to explain this.
“Maybe our earth is a one-in-a-quintillion; a truly unique thing in the universe.”
“Perhaps there was life elsewhere”, theorized another, “but it always died out at a certain level of civilization.”
Still others speculated, “Maybe…we’re in a simulation of some kind.”
The programmer, of course, knew there was life only on that one planet; the rest of the universe was made for beauty and discovery and enjoyment, but he made life only in that place.
This statistical impossibility, this 1-in-a-billion-billions planet puzzled the characters.
So it is in our universe, in the real world.
Why is it that there seems to be life only here on Earth? This question is known in cosmology as Fermi’s Paradox.
It goes like this:
- In the universe, given there are ~500 quintillion (billion-billion, 5x1020) stars like our sun,
- And given there are ~100 quintillion (billion-billion, 1x1020) planets like the earth,
- And if only .000000001% of those earth-like planets have life on them,
- There should be ~1 billion earth-like planets with life on them, and thousands of advanced civilizations in our galaxy alone.
- …and yet, it appears there’s no life anywhere but earth.
It’s a science-y way of saying, “Where the heck is everybody?”
Think of it this way: There are more earth-like planets in the universe than there are grains of sand on all the beaches of the world.
Surely some of those planets must contain life, scientists reason.
Mathematical probability leads us to believe that life almost certainly exists on other planets. (Especially if one holds to the evolutionary materialist view of the universe, where life naturally emerges from non-life.)
And yet, as far as we know, life only exists here. Why is that?
SETI, a scientific organization dedicated to searching for life in the vast universe, has for 32 years now been sifting deep space for radio signals, lasers, and other forms of communication that would hint at intelligent life on other planets.
And yet, despite 3 decades of searching, SETI has found nothing. Zilch. Zero.
Every other galactic grain of sand is a lifeless void. It appears the little blue dot we call Earth is the only place where life exists in the entire universe.
This historic photo, dubbed the Pale Blue Dot, was the final photo snapped by Voyager 1 as it left our solar system in 1990. It’s the most distant from earth photo ever taken, some 3.7 billion miles from earth, revealing the earth to be a tiny pale blue dot in the vast expanse of space.
That’s Fermi’s Paradox in a nutshell: the universe is so utterly vast, with an uncountable number of earth-like planets, and yet, life appears to exist only here.
How can that be?
Scientists have proposed a few possibilities:
- No, we aren’t alone: we’re just the first intelligent species in the entire universe, and we will eventually find simple life elsewhere.
- No, we aren’t alone: civilization always dies out at a certain point (war technology?), thus preventing long-distance space travel and possibly destroying said civilizations.
- No, we aren’t alone: we’re just rare. Life is extremely rare, and intelligent life even more so.
- No, we aren’t alone: but life elsewhere is so advanced, it’s beyond our study, beyond our comprehension.
- Yes, we’re alone: we’re totally unique in the universe, and there’s something we’re missing that explains that virtual impossibility.
- Yes, we’re alone: we’re living in a simulation of an advanced intelligence above us.
As a person who believes God really does exist and is responsible for the universe’s existence and the existence of life itself, I welcome any of these answers.
However, there’s reason for people of faith to believe that the truth lies in a combination of #6 and #4.
#6: Yes, we’re living in a simulation. This explains why we haven’t found anyone else; there’s nobody else in this universe. It also explains why the universe is mathematically-describable with rigid and cohesive laws finely tuned for life.
#4: Yes, there is life elsewhere, but human intelligence is insufficient to comprehend it.
Let’s examine #4. One thinker sums it this way,
Let’s say we have an anthill in the middle of the forest. And right next to the anthill, they’re building a ten-lane super-highway. And the question is “Would the ants be able to understand what a ten-lane super-highway is? Would the ants be able to understand the technology and the intentions of the beings building the highway next to them?”
Explaining the highway to the ant is a futile cause.
But even if you could somehow communicate, it’s still futile: The ant has insufficient neurons in its tiny brain to comprehend who built the highway or why it exists or even what a highway is. In fact, the ant’s brain lacks the capacity to think and reason about ideas and higher order concepts altogether.
You could talk to that ant until you’re blue in the face, but it will never be able to understand highways.
So it is with us and the superintelligence above us.
The things the superintelligence does are incomprehensible to lesser intelligences.
Our tiny little brains don’t have enough neurons to even comprehend the superintelligence. Our brains lack the capacity to grasp its ways, our intelligence insufficient to understand its thoughts.
“My thoughts are not your thoughts,
Nor are your ways my ways.
This is my declaration of truth”, said the Superintelligence to humanity.
“For as the galaxies above are far beyond earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways,
and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.
-Words of the Superintelligence to humanity, circa 750BC
(With apologies to Isaiah)
The superintelligence that made the simulation is not biological. It is a thing beyond biology.
Nor is it an artificial intelligence; the superintelligence above us is beyond any AI that has existed or ever will exist.
The thing that made our universe is so far beyond our own intelligence, it cannot be comprehended or even studied by humans.
We are the ant.
The superintelligence that made the simulation is what humanity has worshipped for all of human history.
The master engineer, the advanced intelligence above us that made this simulation has a name: God.
And the puzzling reality of earth’s uniqueness, its housing the only life in the vast universe, and the finely tuned laws governing our universe are explained through God and his design which shines through the algorithmic laws of the universe.
It explains why science can’t study God: science is the study of the natural world; God is outside of biology, outside of nature.
But it’s even further than that: God exists outside of our universe; there isn’t a location we can go to find him.
Beyond that still: our tiny human brains and limited neurons can’t comprehend God anymore than the ant can comprehend a superhighway; we lack the physical capacity to understand God.
Intelligent species, advanced AIs, or God?
Modern scientists are reticent to say “God” or “creation”; it’s fallen out of favor. But many have no issue suggesting that a superintelligence outside our means of investigation may be responsible for our existence and even the existence of the universe itself.
In truth, it’s hardly a leap from God and a created universe.
If we’re willing to imagine, and even place a probability on, that we exist in a simulation built for “some other entity’s” entertainment, as Tyson said, is it not possible that “some other entity” is what we’ve been calling “God” all this time?
Tyson suggested the universe may be a simulation created for the entertainment or research of a superintelligent civilization.
What if, instead, the universe was created not for entertainment, but for the sake of creative act itself; not unlike how humans create art, and music, and programs and simulations of our own?
Scientific American notes that Neil deGrasse Tyson and the scientists at the conference did indeed contemplate something spiritual behind all this.
Some [of the physicists present] were more contemplative, saying the possibility [of a simulated universe] raises some weighty spiritual questions. “If the simulation hypothesis is valid then we open the door to eternal life and resurrection and things that formally have been discussed in the realm of religion,” Gates suggested. “The reason is quite simple: If we’re programs in the computer, then as long as I have a computer that’s not damaged, I can always re-run the program.”
I smiled at that statement. Humanity’s best scientists, many of them agnostics and apart from God, contemplating the possibility of resurrection and eternal life outside the realm of nature and science. Ha!
It’s as if they’re finding natural implementations of supernatural prerogatives.
The Scientific American author address the elephant in the room:
And if someone somewhere created our simulation, would that make this entity God?
Neil deGrasse Tyson answers with a contradictory statement:
We don’t think of ourselves as deities when we program Mario, even though we have power over how high Mario jumps,” Tyson said. “There’s no reason to think they are all-powerful just because they control everything we do.”
Here Mr. Tyson errs: if the superintelligence above us controls everything in our universe, then by definition it’s all-powerful in our universe; omnipotent.
While humanity doesn’t see itself as “god of the Mario universe” or any other simulation we’ve made, we do rightly see ourselves as creators of that universe.
Unlike Mario and his universe, human beings have consciousness. We’re self-aware, we have been given intelligence far beyond Mario or any creation of humanity, such that we can reason and introspect about our universe and its creator.
We have freewill: unlike all other life, humans have been given the choice to follow the creator’s life-multiplying designs or rebel and go our own way.
- And for a creator so intelligent that he can make conscious beings with freewill and intelligence of their own,
- And for a creator so compassionate and mindful of the things he made that he intervenes and communicates into his universe, guiding his creations in life,
- And for a creator above and beyond all intelligence that is and ever was and ever will be,
…such a creator is rightly called God.