In 2016 Elon Musk was being interviewed at the Code Conference held in California, asked if he thought we were living in a computer simulation he answered that, yes, he does believe the universe is a simulation. The statement brought the simulation theory into the spotlight as multiple media outlets reported on the statement and explained the theory to people who may not have been exposed to its ideas before.
Simply put simulation theory is the theory that our reality is the result of a simulation being conducted in another layer of reality. That everything we perceive is nothing more than computer code, and in fact our own consciousnesses are nothing more than computer code. Think “The Matrix” except for us our “real” bodies don’t exist, we’re like the programs who exist within the Matrix, it is our reality and we’ll never know any other. The primary argument for the simulation theory comes down to statistics. The argument goes that if simulating universes is possible, and there’s no real reason to think that it isn’t, then statistically we are far more likely to be living in a universe that is being simulated than one that is real. After all every “real” universe could potentially have millions of universe simulations running in parallel, and those universe simulations could be running universe simulations of their own. When you go down this chain suddenly there are billions of simulated universes for every “real” universe that exists, meaning that if you’re just going on numbers alone then the safe bet is that we’re simulated, not real.
The theory is provocative, and is a perennial favorite of secularists who are interested in these types of thought experiments, I suspect because it is a socially acceptable way of musing about the true nature of existence within those circles. After all doesn’t the idea that we’re simply computer code being executed on a higher dimensional beings laptop sound so much more scientific than the idea of God? Despite the secular tendency to embrace simulation theory while rejecting theism outright the two ideas have more in common than you think. What I’ve found is that this makes the theory a useful tool for becoming a “trojan horse” to get around the prejudice that theism faces in the modern world and get people to start thinking about ontology with a theory that presents itself as more “rational” to the modern atheist skeptic yet has many facets in common with the theistic worldview.
The most obvious commonality between the two is the idea that our physical reality is the projection of a more fundamental layer of reality, whether that be computer code or the spiritual realm of God. What this means is that suddenly the highly materialistic naturalistic outlook of the hardened empiricist is made moot. Consider that if we were in a simulation how would you determine that? If we simulated a mini universe could the people inhabiting that universe ever discover the true nature of their reality? Certainly not by empiricism, their senses are part of the simulation itself, if they axiomatically reject everything they cannot sense then they will never discover the true nature of their reality. All they can do is deduce the rules that the programmer has set into their reality, the laws which govern the way their universe works. But they can go no further. Furthermore consider that if we make two universes and slightly tweak the physics of each. Separated from each other each of the inhabitants of these universes come to the conclusion that their universes must have “naturally” formed based on the laws that govern their universes. In addition they decide that each of their universes looks like what you would imagine a natural universe to be, despite the two of them being fundamentally different. Both of them, of course, are completely wrong. Their universes are artificial constructs with laws baked into them by a creator, but neither of them can ever reach that conclusion simply by quantifying and reverse engineering the mathematical logic that determines how their simulation functions.
Simulation theory also provides a nice framework for understanding miracles, again sidestepping the naturalistic prejudice one faces when proposing these things today. The laws of a simulated universe are determined by the code of that universe, but the code is determined by the programmer. If the programmer wants to intervene in their simulated universe are they bound by the code that dictates the normal functioning of their simulated universe? Of course not, rather the programmer if they wanted to create a planet could copy and paste the planet object code right into their program and execute it and have a planet appear. To the inhabitants of the universe such an event would appear “supernatural”, breaking the very laws that they understand their reality to work by. But is it supernatural? Not really, it’s only because the inhabitants of that universe do not understand anything beyond what they perceive as their physical reality that they would consider such a thing beyond what is natural. If they understood the true nature of their reality they would know that what occurred was not supernatural at all, and what they understand as hard laws of reality are simply arbitrary lines of code implemented by the true creator of their reality.
Now there are some problems with this and it’s certainly not a 1:1 comparison. Some readers may have noticed that this more accurately describes a deistic God, rather than the God in theism, in how the clockwork of the universe is created and then allowed to function on its own with no further intervention. Rather the God of classical theism is constantly upholding and creating the universe from moment to moment. But when you’re trying to get through to a hardened atheist and make them understand the position of theists such nuances can wait until you convince them that the theistic worldview is much more than just believing in a “magical sky daddy”. It’s about understanding that the material is not all there is, that we can, and should, investigate the physical universe to the best of our abilities but just knowing how our universe functions tells you nothing about the actual nature of the universe.
There’s one last point we need to consider as well. The inhabitants of a simulated universe cannot discern that they are being simulated through empiricism since everything they can “sense” is nothing but code being fed into their consciousnesses. However a particularly insightful inhabitant might be able to discern the nature of their reality through use of reason. This brings us back to why simulation theory is so interesting and such a useful tool, because it’s a deduction made about the nature of our own reality through reason alone. There is, of course, no empirical evidence that our reality is a simulation. You can make arguments but in the end whether or not you believe we are in a simulation comes down to how compelling you find those arguments and whether you consider the premises reasonable. It does open peoples minds to a different way of considering reality however. If we can reason about whether or not our reality is a simulation why not reason about God?
This argument probably won’t convince a hardened naturalist, but it does show one important thing. Empiricism isn’t sufficient in itself to know the true nature of reality. If our universe is a simulation there is no amount of empirical data you can collect that can ever prove that, empiricism can only work within the framework of the system. You’re trapped in the Matrix so to speak. However you can you reason to deduce that maybe more is going on than meets the eye. In a world where people are obsessed with what they can see, touch and hear it might be the person who considers what we can know beyond those things who sees things the most accurately.