Crashing God's computer

It's good to have a hobby. One of mine is theology – which may be seen as an extreme form of ham radio, another fondness of mine – and I'm always on the look-out for new thinking in the god business.

It's good to have a hobby. One of mine is theology – which may be seen as an extreme form of ham radio, another fondness of mine – and I'm always on the look-out for new thinking in the god business. It's rather distressing that there is so little innovation in theology, and that what there is is so often a rehash of something said with a great deal more elegance and precision by a lice-ridden monk after ten years of silence in a third-century Syrian cave. More of today's great thinkers should investigate that option.

So it was with some delight that I fell upon a recent post in the unspellable Paleojudaica blog. An arcane palace of constant delights run by an academic from St Andrew's, it touches on such esoterica as the authenticity of ivory pomegranates from Solomon's temple, the politics of Middle East archaeology, the joys of ancient manuscripts and so on. Recently, it alighted on the Simulation Argument – something that's been bothering me ever since I read about it a few months back, and which is busy heaving itself into the public arena.

The Simulation Argument is the brainchild of Nick Bostrom, an Oxford academic. Briefly, it says that the odds are either that humans will go extinct, or we'll evolve into a post-human state of such technological skill that we'll be able to run simulations of our ancestors (ie, us). And when that happens, Bostrom concludes, it will be a trivial matter to run many such simulations – so many, in fact, that there'll be thousands or millions of simulated us, apparently living in our present times, for every one of us that really existed. So by probability, we (that's the me writing this and the you reading it) are probably in a far-future simulator.

This bothers me because it feels uncomfortable but the logic is appealing. I can rationalise my dislike of it by saying that Bostrom has far too generous a view of the computer industry's messianic potential. I can also have ideas above my station concerning the physical limitation of how much computation can actually be done in the physical universe, and what you might more usefully do with what there is. But you certainly can't prove the idea wrong.

Aha! Ideas that can't be proved wrong? That sounds like theology to me – and right on cue, up come the suggestions, including one that the Simulation Argument implies a Gnostic religious sensibility. Gnosticism says that God isn't good but rather has good and bad attributes, and the world of men is basically a battleground between the two. It already sounds like a video game, and slots nicely into the simulationist implication that our creators are about as interested in us as individuals as a bacteriologist is in the individual cells in their petri dish. Not only do they not want to interfere on an individual basis, they cannot, without losing (what we imagine is) the value of the simulation.

Personally, I've put the argument into the same box as free will versus determinism. It's undecidable and not very useful, but still intriguing. I'll even forgive it the Matrix.