Is The Universe A Computer Simulation?

Por Evan Minton

Some atheists, in an attempt to avoid the conclusion that The Big Bang origin of our universe was caused by a spaceless, timeless, immaterial, uncaused, powerful, supernatural Being (i.e God), have posited that perhaps our universe and everything in it is just a computer simulation being run by aliens in a laboratory. The Big Bang was the launch of the program and the development of the universe by its finely tuned laws were all a part of the program-universe’s code.

COMPUTER SIMULATION

If you think I’m making this up, check out this quote from Neil deGrasse Tyson in his award-winning book Astrophysics For People In A Hurry:

“Or what if everything we know and love were just a computer simulation rendered for entertainment by a superintelligent alien species?” [1][2]

I also saw this idea flushed out in a cartoon where a couple of aliens were at this massive particle accelerator. The aliens were your typical little green men, with no hair, giant black eyes, and silvery space suits. And the picture depicts our universe as being the result of an experiment the aliens were doing with the large particle accelerator/collider.

Are these atheists right? Was The Big Bang the result of aliens messing around with a particle accelerator in their universe?[3] Or are we just a simulation in a program by beings more advanced than we are? Refuting this proposal is the aim of this blog post.

ANY UNIVERSE OF ALIENS CREATING A COMPUTER SIMULATION MUST HAVE A BEGINNING

First of all, even if we conceded this idea (which even Tyson only throws out as a bare possibility), it wouldn’t get rid of God. It wouldn’t eradicate the conceptual analysis of The Kalam Cosmological Argument. Why? Because in the universe in which the computer simulating ours exists, that universe must be enduring through time. If this universe is enduring through time, then it must have a beginning and therefore a transcendent cause.

How did I reach this conclusion? From one of the same philosophical/mathematical arguments that lead me to conclude that our universe had a beginning. First of all, we know that these aliens would have to be enduring through time because the aliens are living in a world of cause and effect, of before-and-after relationships. There was a time before these alien scientists were born and a time after they were born. There was a time before they got their degrees in computer engineering and a time after they graduated. There was a time before they built the computer which caused our simulated universe and a time after they ran the simulation. Before-and-after relationships are impossible without time. According to the description of this theory, our alien creature creators are temporal beings. This leads me to my next point.

1: It is impossible to traverse an actually infinite number of temporal moments.

2: If it is impossible to traverse an actually infinite number of moments, then the present moment cannot be reached.

3: The present moment has been reached.

4: Therefore, we have not endured through an actually infinite number of temporal moments (i.e the universe had a beginning).

This is a logically valid syllogism. If the premises are true, so is the conclusion. So, are the premises true? I think they are.

Let’s look at premise 1. If the universe of our alien creators were eternal and beginningless (unlike the universe they simulated), then that means their world endured through an actually infinite number of moments to reach the point in time in which they caused their simulation. Before the day of the simulation, the day before the simulation had to dawn. And before the day before the day of the simulation could dawn, the day before the day before the day before the simulation could dawn. Before that day could dawn, the day before it had to dawn. Before that day could dawn, the day before it had to dawn, and so on and so forth. As you can see, the day in which the alien scientists caused their universe simulation could never have arrived, because there would need to pass an infinite number of prior moments. In fact, no moment in their universe at all could dawn. Before each day in the infinite series of days, there would always have to be a day that had to dawn first.

Getting to the present moment while having to first cross an infinite number of past events is analogous to jumping out of a bottomless pit, or causing a bottomless coffee pot to overflow. No matter how much coffee you pour into the cup, it will never fill up to the brim.

But if an infinite past could not be crossed, then that means the day of the start of the simulation could not arrive. And that means our present day could not arrive. The start of our 14 billion year history could never have occurred (this is premise 2). But clearly, the present moment has arrived (premise 3). We’re here. You’re reading this blog post right now. It is self-evident that the present has arrived. This means that the universe of our alien creators could not have endured forever, but must have a beginning. And since everything that begins to exist must have a cause, it follows that the universe of our alien creators must have a cause.

BUT MAYBE WE’RE IN A SIMULATION THAT’S INSIDE A SIMULATION
At this point, the atheist might respond “Okay, but maybe the universe of our alien creators is a simulation as well. We’re in a simulation that’s inside a simulation. Just like how a nesting doll can be inside of another nesting doll”. This doesn’t solve the problem. It only pushes it back a notch. Are those aliens subject to time? It would seem so if they evolved, were born, grew up, went to universities to get degrees in computer programming, and then created a universe-simulation that would have a universe-simulation within it. In that case, you run into the same problem. That universe must also have a beginning.

But perhaps the atheist could say “Well, perhaps we’re a simulation within a simulation within a simulation?” Again, the same problems apply.

What happens is that in this alien-scientist-creating-a-universe-simulation scenario is that you get thrown into an infinite regress of aliens creating universe simulations which themselves contain aliens that create universe simulations which themselves contain universe simulations with themselves contain universe simulations ad infinitum.

As already explained above, traversing an actually infinite number of things is impossible. Our own simulation could never have arisen if a past infinite number of universe simulations had to come into being first. Before the aliens could simulate our universe, their universe had to be simulated, and before their universe could be simulated, their universe had to be a simulation, and so on ad infinitum. No simulation could ever come to past, and ergo the present simulation (and present moment within the simulation) could never come to be.

WHAT DOES THIS ALL MEAN?

It means that even in a scenario which posits super advanced aliens creating a computer program of a universe, you eventually get traced back to a universe that is not a computer simulation, but nevertheless contains super advanced alien creatures and (wait for it….) had a beginning. In this scenario, we must come to a first universe, the first beginning, and therefore, the first cause.

But what properties would this cause have? It wouldn’t be a team of super advanced aliens since this first-universe is not itself the result of a prior team of alien scientists. The cause would transcend all physical reality, all of space and time, and therefore be immaterial and uncaused. In other words, God rears His holy head again.

God is exempt from the problems the aliens creators would have. He had no beginning and is uncaused, and therefore needs no prior cause to explain Him. God being beginningless wouldn’t imply that He endured through an actually infinite number of moments because God, sans creation of time, existed outside of time. There was no time. Once God flicked the first domino, time began. This is a bit of a heavy subject, and Christian philosopher William Lane Craig has devoted an entire book the to the subject,[4] but I just wanted to point out that being timeless sans creation, God avoids the problems associated with being beginningless in a temporal manner.

CONCLUSION 
Unfortunately for the atheists, this alien computer simulation idea only forces God to go upstairs at most. It doesn’t get rid of Him. The conceptual analysis of The Kalam Cosmological Argument still stands.

Notes 

[1] deGrasse Tyson, Neil. Astrophysics for People in a Hurry (Kindle Locations 170-171). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

[2] Don’t let this wild idea deter you from getting Tyson’s book by the way. He only mentions the simulation idea in this one place. Astrophysics For People In A Hurry It is a fantastic introductory course in astrophysics. Tyson does not put forth wild theories like this throughout, and he only shows his atheistic sleeve a total of two times. The first in this part of the book, and the second, in the final chapter. It’s an overall religiously neutral work. I recommend anyone who loves science (and is especially not well read in science) to pick up the book.

[3] By the way, this happened in a Doctor Who episode (titled Extremis). I won’t describe what happened in the episode. Watch it yourself. Watch the whole series in fact. It’s an awesome show!

[4] The book is called “Time and Eternity: Exploring God’s Relationship To Time”.

 


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8 replies
  1. jcb says:

    Some atheists do say some false things. However, “God” is not usually defined as just a space-less, timeless, immaterial, uncaused, powerful, supernatural being. And, nothing we know actually fits that description. Almost all of those characteristics are in the negative: they say what the thing is NOT. Not material, not caused, without time (whatever that means). Yes, the cause of the universe was powerful enough to cause it. Yes, the thing that caused it is not any known natural thing and is thus “supernatural”, if that’s how you define it. Those truths don’t show that such a cause is probably intelligent, all powerful, loving (let alone all loving), knowing (let alone all knowing), etc.
    Most atheists are wise enough to realize that we don’t know what caused the Big Bang. Atheists don’t need to claim that we are part of a computer simulation, which, as far as we know at the moment, we are not. But theists claim to know what caused the Big Bang. They do not. They would be right if they worshipped Something (i.e., said that “something” caused the universe). Yes, “Something” caused the universe. We know virtually nothing about that something is, except to say what it is not. It seems not to be you, or me, or anything we know of. It doesn’t follow that it is God: an intelligent, all knowing, all powerful, all loving being. It doesn’t follow that the direct cause of our universe was an unmoved mover either.
    As an additional point, the author quotes NDT as saying, “what if everything we know and love were just a computer simulation rendered for entertainment by a superintelligent alien species?” That’s a question, not an assertion. So NDT is not claiming that we are in a computer simulation. But it is possible, so he is right about that suggestion.

    Reply
  2. Andy Ryan says:

    “Some atheists have posited that perhaps our universe and everything in it is just a computer simulation being run by aliens in a laboratory.”
    .
    Who? You only have NDT addressing the idea/addressing a ‘what if’. Who is actually offering it as an answer ‘to avoid the conclusion’ that there is a God?

    Reply
  3. John B. Moore says:

    I think it was Nick Bostrom’s idea originally. If you guys want to know more about the simulation hypothesis, here is the Wikipedia page:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simulation_hypothesis

    It wasn’t proposed as an alternative to God. In fact, some atheists worried that the maker of the simulation seems too similar to the God concept. The atheists are fully aware of the problem of the infinite regression. They mostly accept the idea that there must have been a first creator who started the cascade of simulations.

    The whole simulation hypothesis rests on the realization that we are very unlikely to be the original creators.

    Reply
    • Terry Lewis says:

      Good point!

      I’ve often used the game The Sims as a similar example. If we could give the Sims free will and human-like intelligence, how would they ever know of us without revelation? Their “universe” was created from nothing that exists in their universe (“ex nihilo”), and so on….

      As a software engineer, I don’t believe granting them such abilities is possible; but it makes a fascinating thought experiment.

      Reply
      • TGM says:

        Good example Terry. Now if we were to give the Sims free will and human intellect, does it follow that we are gods? Are we morally perfect, all powerful, all knowing. Of course not.
        .
        Now let’s put ourselves into the Sims’s place. Suppose we are presently in a simulation. What about this simulation requires that the master simulator is all powerful, all knowing and all perfect? Possibly nothing. Therefore even if our universe did have a creator, nothing requires that it possess the qualities of “God”.
        .
        I think you’ve done a nice job crushing any argument for God, actually. Thank you. Have you considered becoming an atheist?

        Reply
  4. TGM says:

    Minton makes a big mistake when in his article when he says the reality beyond our putative simulation would be subject to the same factors as ours. He claims that our logic (and philosophy in general), time, and the Kalam would be valid in the “real” universe outside of ours and thus the arguments for God would still be valid. How can he possibly know this?? How do you rule out a “real” universe that functions under utterly different philosophy and that our logic, math etc. are only valid in our universe? Please don’t assert what you cannot possibly know.
    .
    Here are the big questions… if you cannot distinguish between living in a simulation and living in a God world, then how can you rule out being in a simulation? And since you cannot rule that out, how can you ever believe in God?

    Reply

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