Overview

We can talk about probabilities all day, but in the end, there is no way to prove or disprove the simulation concept. That limitation has never stopped humans from trying to gain favor from unseen and unproven creators, and to force belief in their existence on others.

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You’ve likely heard of simulation theory—the idea that the world we live in isn’t actually real but was created by hyper-intelligent beings for their own ends.

If this is a new idea for you, also know that the theory is taken very seriously by some very serious thinkers.

Adherents of the theory usually argue that in the future, humans will create supercomputers with the ability to simulate the physical universe and house artificial consciousness. In the process, we would quickly create artificial beings who quickly outnumber the real beings outside of the supercomputer. Eventually, there would be many magnitudes more artificial beings than real ones. At some point, it’s reasonable to expect that 99% or more of all beings would be artificial.

If this scenario is plausible, say adherents, and we accept that there are likely to be billions of civilizations in the universe more advanced than we are, all creating simulated universes, then it’s far more likely that we are among the vast number of beings in those simulations than among the relatively tiny number of actual beings.

(Are you okay? Maybe you should get a glass of simulated water.)

If we are simulated, there are two possibilities: Either humans have agency and can make their own decisions, or humans do not have agency, and our thoughts, actions, and all of our behaviors are determined by the hyper-intelligence that created the simulation.

Think about playing The Sims, a computer game where you control the lives of digital beings that you create.

You can either let your creations make decisions based on their own artificial intelligence, or you can make their decisions for them. This is the same for either version of simulation theory, the key difference being that our “simulated” beings would be sentient and believe that all of their decisions are their own. 

Simulation theory has picked up some high-profile believers in recent years. Tesla head Elon Musk and Binance cryptocurrency mogul Changpeng Zhao have both made public statements affirming their belief in the concept. Having high-profile adherents helps to spread the word about the theory, allows it to gain acceptance. 

Detractors of simulation theory usually argue either that it is not possible to build the supercomputers necessary to develop an accurate simulated universe, or that we have no way to calculate the odds of living in a simulation. They suggest that we’ll never be able to deduce whether we live in a simulated reality no matter how many simulated consciousnesses our descendants generate. There will never be a conclusive way to prove it, one way or the other.

I’m partial to the no-possible-evidence position. But missing from the current debate is the fact that belief in simulation theory shares striking similarities with belief in traditional religions. 

Assume that we live in a simulated reality, and there is a hyper-intelligence that shaped and controls this reality and controls us—how is that different from the human conception of God? That hyper-intelligence could theoretically reincarnate us, or send us to a simulated version of heaven or hell, based on whether our actions within the simulation pleased them or not. The hyper-intelligence could change conditions here on Earth, based on who is in or out of their favor. They could give certain people in their good graces wealth, power, and happiness. Even if the hyper-intelligence is indifferent to us, their power over our lives, and this very reality, is so great that it would necessitate an effort to gain their favor to produce better outcomes for us. 

Sound familiar?

Think back to The Sims. People who enjoy playing with certain Sims often keep their digital humans alive for longer, or even bring them back from the dead. If you were playing the game and had a Sim you liked, you might give them great benefits that others do not receive.

If Sims were sentient, wouldn’t it behoove them to find a way to get in, and stay in, your good graces? 

That’s where I see a danger in simulation theory. Taken to its logical end, it is potentially a new religion. That religion would be dressed up in New Age, technological clothes, but in reality it would be the same concept—other people telling you how to live, which actions are acceptable, and which behaviors and rituals you must practice in order to please the hyper-intelligent overlords. Others who don’t share in your religious practice are to be shunned at best and destroyed at worst. What is the difference between the Christian church demanding you follow the words of Christ and the Church of Our Simulation demanding that you follow the words of the hyper-intelligence who created us? 

There’s no scientific proof that any of our current religions are real, and no physical proof is possible. There’s also no scientific proof that simulation theory is real, and likewise no way to prove it. 

So why does it matter? Why should we let the idea affect our lives? What is more interesting then simulation theory itself is to consider how real humans use psychology and rewritten history to get other real humans to adopt certain worldviews. These worldviews can be based on falsehoods, such as the idea that COVID was a hoax or vaccines are tools of the global elite to enforce a world order. Or it could be the Lost Cause Confederacy apologia that casts the American South as the good guys in the Civil War who were wronged by the Union

Humans create false histories and narratives all the time to advance political or social narratives, to elevate certain groups and to harm others. There are millions of Americans who live in these sorts of false realities, believing in a fake set of facts that others pushed upon them for their own reasons. I think the real human beings living out worldviews based on falsehoods are a lot more interesting and important than the theorized fake human beings living in simulation theory. For one, we can actually interact with them and might be able to change their minds. With simulation theory, we can never actually reach out and talk to our supposed creators. We’re asked to take the leap of faith, and believe that everything that is happening on Earth is the result of a hyper-intelligence that knows what it is doing.

That is no more or less dangerous than any other evidence-free faith.

Marcus Johnson

Marcus Johnson is a political commentator and a political science Ph.D. candidate at American University. His primary research focus is the impact of political institutions on the racial wealth gap.