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Could Life Be a Computer Simulation?

Larry Rankin weighs in on the oldest and most enduring of questions, "Why are we here?"

In the beginning....

In the beginning....

The following concept is by no means a new idea. It’s been around since the advent of computers, and on some level, its origin can probably be traced back to near the time the first human asked the question, “Why am I here?”

The purpose of this article is not to portray the computer simulation theory of life as the only true religion. In this author’s opinion, any machinations of this nature are inherently flawed. Nor is it this author’s purpose to suss out the fine points of creation, like some divine oracle—at least not all in one sitting.

Today we’re playing “What if,” a theoretical guessing game that grasps a few ideas from the infinitude of possible variants, for the sake of exploring the plausibility of our given theology, and hopefully, with helpful comments from you, gentle reader, we can kick around some interesting ideas.

Imagine the Boredom of Heaven:

A blank space. All is clean. There is no reason to hate. There is no reason to want. There is no reason to lie or cheat or steal. There is no reason to burp or fart or love or toil. Life is. You be, and it be boring. A life with all the appeal and nuance of a rock cast through limitless, empty space.

Yet within the nothingness that is you, is the limitlessness of imagination, of thought, of creation. It’s hard to imagine here where we are from our perspective, but the place I’m talking has no boundaries, no logic. Think of a thing and it exists, if not in substance than in theory, and in a place with no rules, this is enough to be.

Now imagine all these things that you have envisioned being stored in a program. It shouldn’t be hard; many of us store our ethereal ideas in a physical place like this every day.

Somewhere there is hate, which necessitates the invention of love, which necessitates confusion, and somehow someway during this process of one thing necessitating another it becomes necessary to have a platypus!

And I guess humans get mixed up in there somehow, too. I don’t know all the ins and outs, nor does anyone, but at some point we get a universe, or for the purpose of this article, a computer simulation depicting a universe.

Is this where we live?

Is this where we live?

Life Imitating Creation:

1980: enter the bespectacled computer nerd, one of the first of his kind. In a library one can overhear as his nasally voice explains to a fellow member of his breed that we might all be in a computer program right now. You scoff! A fun idea for a movie, maybe, but just a preposterous idea to those of us here in the real world.

Then we have a movie like The Matrix. Well, it certainly seems there’s money to be had in this delusion.

Video games start as crude representations of life, but over time you watch them evolve into simulations of entire worlds. With humble beginnings from programs that simulate the random nature of a coin flip, we’re now able to simulate computer societies where the outcome of events can’t be predicted. Free will!?

Then comes immersion. Virtual reality can actually puts us in the game. The continual development of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Before we know it, the games are making the games. Who is real? Who is the computer?

If we can continue developing technology at this pace and don’t hit a ceiling, some very important, very intelligent people theorize that in the very near future we will have developed a virtual world that is indistinguishable from the real one.

Does our existence being in a computer simulation still seem as crazy as it once did?

And Maybe We're all Just in a Turtle's Dream...

Are We AI or are We Real?

What are we? If we break it down and break it down and break down, the answer that bonds all, the common denominator, are molecules. Seemingly infinite numbers of molecules banging around at dizzying speeds. And what are these molecules made of? Electrons, protons, neutrons, yeah, but mainly air.

Looking at life from this lens, one might even question our existence as solid matter. If you’re anything like me, mud-fat after the holidays, it’s hard to imagine, but all of us, and everything else, as well, is mainly air.

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This whole electronic world we’ve created, in a nutshell, is 1s, 0s, and electric impulses flying through space. Is it so beyond contemplation that we are, too? Or at least some similar kind of programming.

I don’t want to rely too heavily on comparisons to sci-fi films in this article, but they do represent a common ground and a jumping off point for our current mind wandering.

Back to the film The Matrix, there is the concept that we’re all human and locked in a video game that we don’t realize we’re playing. While that’s one of many ways to see things, let’s explore another.

The film series Tron, involves the building of a computer world where the simulated beings are so complex, they represent life themselves. Following this concept, what if we are virtual beings created from elsewhere who are building virtual beings who are building virtual beings, etc.

And the response by many to this idea is often to be extremely offended. “How dare you cheapen the beauty of being a living being! How dare you tarnish the concept of free will and suggest we’re all clockwork automatons!!” To which one may respond, that’s not necessarily what’s been suggested at all.


If life is a computer simulation, then it will have certainly have used randomizing technology. Considering the size of this proposed program and the number of factors that are random, if that’s not free will, than what is?

Let’s use the human language as an example. Let’s say there are 1,000,000 words in the world. In such a scenario, the possibilities and variants for 2 random words is 1,000,000 to the 2rd power, or 1 trillion. Extending this scenario, the number of variants for a single paragraph of average length would be a number so long and silly it isn’t worth expressing here, and the number of variants for a work as long as say War and Peace could be seen for all practical purposes as infinite.

In comparison, If the trillions upon trillions of variables comingling in our existence is a simulating program, that means it could be ran to its conclusion over and over and over again and never to the same result. Not only are the things your character does random to a degree, but every other character you interact with, every creature, the environment, every blade of grass.

Even if this life is a simulation, we’re able to create systems or simulations that are infinite within it. Again, an example we can all understand is language: everyone capable of using language is using an infinite system. We can do the same with computer programs. With any of a number of finite systems we’re able to create an infinite world.

Whether we’re living creatures playing a video game, like in the Matrix, or the virtual creation of some greasy skinned computer programmer, like in Tron, we are! Even if we don’t physically exist, we’re still here and we still feel what we feel. We live simply by the virtue of being able to think.

Whatever we wind up believing the truth to be, let it free us, not enslave.

Whatever we wind up believing the truth to be, let it free us, not enslave.

Final Thoughts and Observations:

Most, if not all, organized religion requires a certain level of willful ignorance. These belief systems will wrap this “willful ignorance” up in the much prettier bow of “Faith.” In other words, not one major organized belief system, to my knowledge, can exist in the world of logic.

Conversely, our existence as a computer simulation can. This creation concept is absolutely possible from a logic-based form of reasoning. As of today, no evidence exists to debunk it.

Is it likely? In this universe of infinite thoughts and concepts and possibilities, no. This being the answer above any of the other “possible” answers is unlikely. But it is possible. And it is only unlikely because of the sheer number of logic-based creation concepts that are possible.

A more upbeat spin on the computer simulation theory would be to phrase it this way: it is a concept that is as likely as any of the other logic-based creation stories.

Whether you choose to subscribe to this concept or not is up to you. I like to kick it around in my head because it’s pleasant, to me. It represents infinite life and opportunity. It’s not one of these mean and impossible belief systems that people kill one another over—at least not yet.

It’s not static. It’s still being written. And as long as people don’t fight wars over differing ideas concerning it and nobody writes a book claiming to have all the answers regarding it, I feel like it’s a pretty good religion…also, it should never interfere with watching football.

Opinion:

© 2018 Larry Rankin

Comments

Larry Rankin (author) from Oklahoma on April 30, 2018:

Great examples.

Natalie Frank from Chicago, IL on April 27, 2018:

True - it's also what we perceive or choose to perceive at all. An environmentalist who walks by a beautiful garden by a house will stop to admire it and remember it. Someone obsessed with making money on the next big building may only perceive a place to raze and build. Someone else who is lost in thoughts of a crisis may not even perceive the garden or house at all as they pass by. So is it a beautiful garden, an annoying impediment to progress or perhaps not even there at all?

Larry Rankin (author) from Oklahoma on April 27, 2018:

Natalie: thanks for your thoughts.

Reality really is to a large degree what we perceive it to be. For example, two people that spend their lives together and share most the same experiences, yet the perception of those experiences can be very different.

Natalie Frank from Chicago, IL on April 26, 2018:

Hi Larry - Interesting article. I have given a lot of thought as well as written about the concepts of consciousness, perception and reality. My conclusion is there is not one reality as everything is dependent on perception both in terms of how we look at things as well as physiological perception and sensation. Consciousness can be seen as a variant of reality as it only has meaning in our own frame of reference and to the extent we give it meaning. I can't help but think of the movie the Matrix. I found that so intriguing as their fake lives were perceived to be as real as our "real" ones which set off a bunch of thoughts related to this whole topic. Thanks for a fascinating read.

Lawrence Hebb from Hamilton, New Zealand on March 31, 2018:

Larry

Following up from our earlier discussion, last night I sat and watched a YouTube presentation with my wife (she's studying Psychology at university at the moment) where one of the most prominent neuroscientists of today tried to explain 'consciousness'.

Their conclusion was that there are varying stages of consciousness, the plant may be at the lowest level in that it's systems can react to certain things, then the single celled animal, right on up to even the foetus (didn't get into the ethical implications) and on to adult Humans (the highest form)

But all that leads to the question 'Could it all be simply the 'software' in the simulation simply getting more complex the further up the tree we go?'

Lawrence Hebb from Hamilton, New Zealand on March 29, 2018:

Larry

Fascinating little fact for you. In the Islamic 'Salat' (their ritual prayer they're required to pray five times a day) are the words (translated from Arabic)

'In the name of God, the beneficent, and the merciful, LORD OF THE WORLDS (plural)'

Even the ancient faiths allow for the idea we might not be alone!

Larry Rankin (author) from Oklahoma on March 29, 2018:

Lawrence: I know we often come from different worlds on our ideas. I always appreciate your open mindedness as a Christian.

No, I'm not of that belief system, but I do enjoy hearing your perspective.

And the computer theory doesn't exclude Christianity. And Christianity certainly doesn't exclude the alien perspective. In such texts our creators are described as being not of this world.

Thanks for dropping by.

Larry Rankin (author) from Oklahoma on March 29, 2018:

Chris: always enjoy hearing from you. Sorry I'm so slow getting back.

I do mix a lot of perspectives rather than focusing on one. I think it makes for a fun, accessible read.

Deism to me simply says that we were created by an entity and I don't know if this creator is a deadbeat or what. It's my way of looking for an origin story.

Lawrence Hebb from Hamilton, New Zealand on March 26, 2018:

Larry

I recently watched a video that argued one of the possible explanations of the 'Fermi paradox' (why we haven't found intelligent life in the universe yet) is that alien civilizations might actually have developed their technology so much that they use computer programming and have created artificial worlds so much that they no longer even try looking into the universe for it, in other words, they're so wrapped up in their games they ain't even looking!

I've also come across Christian teachers who show that the only real way to understand how human memory works is like that of a digital recording, and as such we are nothing more than digital recordings 'in the mind of the almighty' hence the possibility of eternal life if the almighty is still thinking of us! (their suggestion, not mine, I'm still thinking that one through)

I'll leave you with a quote from a famous British Mathematician (who was also a believer in the Bible) "All of humanity, is but a mere thought in the mind of God!"

Great hub here that posed some good philosophical questions.

Lawrence

Chris Mills from Traverse City, MI on March 19, 2018:

I like the blend of philosophy, computer games, and religion. By the way, I didn't have a headache before I read this. Now I do, thanks.

I see a bit was said about Deism. At first, it was attractive to me when I read about some of the early proponents. But I have a problem worshipping a God who made me and then walked away, disinterested. Dead-beat dads is what we call the human version.

This is actually a good exercise. Questions come up in a discussion like this that would not come up if we stuck to the normal categories of science, religion and, philosophy.

Larry Rankin (author) from Oklahoma on February 23, 2018:

Linda: thanks so much for the kind words.

Linda Robinson on February 14, 2018:

This hub Larry has a lot of fascinating content. Even thought it is not a completely new concept all the way through with your excellent theories really makes you think in depth about the subject you wrote about. It is an extremely interesting hub, one that everyone would love to read You are a very talented writer. Love your hubs. Linda

Larry Rankin (author) from Oklahoma on February 12, 2018:

Arthur: of the organized religions, Budhism carries the most philosophical interest to me.

Sorry again for Being so slow on getting back to you. I value your feedback.

Arthur Russ from England on February 05, 2018:

Thanks Larry, I’ve not heard of Deism before, but reading up on it in Wikipedia I can understand its prominence among intellectuals during what’s called the ‘Age of Enlightenment’ in Europe during the 18th century; and I can see its appeal in today’s modern society.

The other things I find quite fascinating are the similarities between certain aspect of Buddhism and Quantum Physics e.g. the description of the universal force that goes through everything and connects everything in Buddhism is a good description of the universal force described in Quantum Physics (or in Star Wars for Star Wars fans).

As for “Why are we here”; Agnostics might be more inclined to wonder about the question, but I haven’t met any atheists in Britain who are bothered by that question e.g. unlike America, most people in the UK (now officially 53%) do not identify themselves as being religious, with 13% being confirmed atheists and the rest being agnostics or non-believers etc.

In Britain, to an atheist the question is irrelevant, in the same way as the question of the existence of Father Christmas (Santa Clause) is irrelevant to most people.

Larry Rankin (author) from Oklahoma on February 05, 2018:

Jo: I am always happy to hear from you, agree or disagree, because you have such a nice way of coexisting and sharing.

I find your quote interesting, but from a philosophical standpoint, I feel like though we may never know, the major guiding force of life is to try to know.

This idea is neither right or wrong, but it is still the guiding force for me.

Larry Rankin (author) from Oklahoma on February 05, 2018:

Arthur: always enjoy your feedback. Sorry I've been so slow getting back to you. My life is hectic.

Just because you were nice enough to share, I'll share my belief system. I'm Deist. Which I define as the belief that there is some creating force and whatever that creating force is, in a way that's God, even if that force is a thoughtless black hole, lol

As for Why are we here? I think a lot of Atheists do bother with that question (Icould be off base with this idea). It certainly doesn't mean you have to. I'm just saying.

The something to nothing concept, I just haven't found anything that answers that for me in science or mysticism. Maybe I'm just missing something.

Though the Big Bang gets us to the start of whatever 'this' is, computer program or otherwise, it still doesn't bridge the gap for me.

I found your comments on Neural Networks very intriguing. There's always something new to ponder in this life.

Again, I really appreciate your perspective. Thanks so much for dropping by.

Jo Miller from Tennessee on February 02, 2018:

Several decades ago my mom died of a brain disease. When I became involved in her care I began reading about the brain and how it functions and soon came to the conclusion that this organ that we as humans know with was still vastly unknown, maybe even unknowable. I am still humbled by that thought and it was at this time in my life that I developed my belief system which has changed little over the years, i.e. the first step in accepting God is accepting that we are not. For me, it has definitely been a freeing concept.