There have been several articles on Medium in recent months discussing Simulation Theory, as formulated by Nick Bostrom, and brought to mainstream public attention by the film The Matrix, the idea that the ‘reality’ we experience might be some kind of computer simulation. The latest one that I have come across (click here), although not recent, is by scientist and philosopher of science Massimo Pigliucci, who argues strongly against the theory, describing it as “nonsense from modern pseudo-physics”. His specific target is an article by Klee Irwin, Marcelo Amarai, and David Chester, who have developed the theory further than Bostrom.
My intention here is not to argue with Pigliucci from a scientific or philosophical perspective; he does a good job of criticising the article from those standpoints. Instead I want to comment primarily on one striking sentence. He says that the simulation hypothesis “claims that there is a high probability that we are not physical beings (all appearances to the contrary notwithstanding), but rather simulated beings, ‘alive’ inside a gigantic simulation set up by unknown higher beings (which, according to Bostrom, are likely themselves to be simulated, and so forth, almost ad infinitum)”.
What interests me here is that this is precisely what religions and spiritual traditions have been saying for centuries, albeit in different language. For ‘unknown higher beings’ read ‘gods and goddesses’. For ‘simulated almost ad infinitum’ read ‘emanate from the infinite Divine Consciousness’. Pigliucci thinks the theory sounds like “a thinly disguised pseudoscientific notion of God”. Indeed it is, which might be a good reason to take it more seriously. He wonders “whose thought was the trigger for the self-simulation of the universe?” He may have already answered the question; it was this Divine Consciousness, otherwise known as God, or Brahma in Hinduism, En Sof in Kabbalah, and other terms in various traditions.
Even Genesis 1 agrees, since the Hebrew word Elohim found there, (mis?)translated as ‘God’, suggesting monotheism, is plural, and therefore possibly represents the ‘unknown higher beings’ referred to in the Simulation Theory. And doesn’t our best scientific understanding agree with the theory when it says that we are not physical beings? At least since Einstein mass, thus matter, has been perceived to be a form of energy. Pigliucci appears to insist that we are physical beings, but does not say what he actually means by this. Science seems to suggest otherwise.
It is not only the ancient religions that understand the universe in this way. It is also the viewpoint of esoteric, secret societies down the ages and up to modern times, as described by Jonathan Black in his important book The Secret History of the World. Here is a sentence from Pigliucci’s article, which is intended as criticism of the Simulation Theory: “ ‘The all-encompassing thought that is our reality’ offers a nested semblance of a hierarchical order, full of ‘sub-thoughts’ that reach all the way down to the base mathematics and fundamental particles. Human beings themselves are ‘emergent sub-thoughts’ and we experience and find meaning in the world through other sub-thoughts”.
Compare that with this passage from Black: that the physical universe is “a series of thoughts emanating from the cosmic mind. Pure mind to begin with, these thought-emanations later became a sort of proto-matter, energy that became increasingly dense, then became matter so ethereal that it was finer than gas, without particles of any kind. Eventually the emanations became gas, then liquid and finally solids… Emanations from the cosmic mind should be understood in the same way, as working downwards in a hierarchy from the higher and more powerful and pervasive principles to the narrower and more particular, each level creating and directing the one below it… At the lowest level of the hierarchy… these emanations… interweave so tightly that they create the appearance of solid matter”¹.
Stanislav Grof, transpersonal psychologist working with LSD as a therapeutic tool, says that in altered states of consciousness his patients experience visions of deities, archetypal entities, but they never take these beings to be the ultimate principle, thus that they are unknown higher beings which have themselves been simulated. Or, as the ancient traditions said, they were emanations from the higher levels.
I would suggest therefore that, even if Simulation Theory does not stand up to strict scientific and philosophical scrutiny (Pigliucci certainly finds the authors’ arguments unsatisfactory), it is at the very least an excellent metaphor for the process of creation, thus the nature of the universe. My only complaint might be that the theory is an attempt to express in too modern language what is said better in the words of the ancient traditions.
The computer is a useful analogy for this creative process. The hardware is pointless without the software, and software cannot exist without a programmer. And obviously the hardware did not come into existence out of nowhere; it started as an idea in the mind of its creator. The combination of hardware and software allows images to appear on the screen.
The equivalent of the software in the cosmic scheme is what Carl Jung called the archetypes, meaning literally the blueprints, thus the transcendent plans, for life at the ‘material’ level. These are often called divine ideas by commentators (although I’m currently engaged in a conversation on Medium with Mitchell Diamond, who is attempting to persuade me that this is not the case).
Pigliucci quotes David Chester, one of the authors of the article he is criticising: “While many scientists presume materialism to be true, we believe that quantum mechanics may provide hints that our reality is a mental construct”. By saying ‘hints’, Chester is possibly being over-cautious, because what he says was certainly the firm view of the early quantum physicists:
- Werner Heisenberg: “The smallest units of matter are not physical objects… They are forms, structures, or — in Plato’s sense — Ideas”². Ideas in what mind we might reasonably ask.
- Sir James Jeans: “The universe is looking less like a great machine, and more like a great thought”³.
- Max Planck: “There is no matter as such! All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force which brings the particles of an atom to vibration and holds this most minute solar system of the atom together… We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent Mind. This Mind is the matrix of all matter”⁴. This statement would not have seemed out of place in a Kabbalistic text.
- Sir Arthur Eddington: “The external world of physics has thus become a world of shadows. In removing our illusions we have removed the substance, for indeed we have seen that substance is one of the greatest of our illusions”⁵. If substance is an illusion, then it must be something other than matter, perhaps a thought.
Chester may also be being cautious when he says that the theory “is compatible with ancient Hermetic and Indian philosophy.” That is, of course, the point that I’m trying to make in this article. One could argue, on the contrary, that it is actually in complete accord with these ancient worldviews.
Pigliucci thinks that “none of this actually connects to science as we understand it”. That might just be a problem for science rather than Simulation Theory. It seems that we have to choose between the viewpoint of modern science and that of the ancient wisdom that has been around for thousands of years. I prefer the latter. Perhaps science needs to expand its understanding of how the universe works.
1. Quercus, 2008, p39–40
2. quoted by Ken Wilbur, Quantum Questions, Shambala, 1984, p51
3. The Mysterious Universe, Cambridge University Press, 1947, p137
4. lecture given in Florence, quoted by John Davidson in The Secret of the Creative Vacuum
5. The Nature of the Physical World, J. M. Dent & Sons, 1935, p10