BACK in our philosophy studies in the seminary many years ago, we wrestled with the age-old debate on “idealism” versus “realism”, which we straddled in abstraction through such subjects or courses as metaphysics or ontology (being, existence, and reality), epistemology (knowledge, truth or certainty), and phenomenology (consciousness, experience), and other related disciplines.
On hindsight, likely as it were, from Plato’s “world of ideas” and Aristotle’s “mind-independent qualities of objects”, to Augustine and Aquinas, to Locke and Descartes, to Kant and Russell, to Husserl and Heidegger, and even down to our contemporary age of computer simulation or virtual reality – it seems that the bone of contention has remained unchanged, revolving yet on the perennial query: What is real or fundamental? Or, where does “reality” lie? In the object or physical world?
In the mind of the subject? In the “process” or “experience” of knowing? In the mind-independent “self”? In the aggregate “beingness” of interacting “realities”?
Or, is there a prime reality, a fundamental consciousness, an omniscient Being as God, influencing or “simulating” (to use the in-vogue term) humans and events in our contemporary world?
Whilst, let’s first hedge our cursory examination to our present age of computer simulation and artificial intelligence.
Hans Peter Moravec – a futurist, and faculty member at the Robotics Institute of Carnegie Mellon University (USA) – suggests that we and everything around us, in the near future, might become a computer simulation, with intelligent cyberspace swallowing all the data on Earth and with it, all human lives that emerge.
In his 1988 book, Mind Children, Moravec outlines Moore’s law and predictions about the future of artificial life, outlining a timeline and scenario wherein robots will evolve into a new series of artificial species, starting around 2030-2040.
Now, certainly I’m not out to prove or disprove the plausibility of Moravec’s prognosis.
But the crux of the matter is the fact that, with the unprecedented advancement of artificial intelligence technology, processing or “simulation of reality” is no longer the monopoly of humans, but also of computers and robots.
Thus, back to our primary query, what then constitutes reality? Technological or artificial intelligence simulation is already in the loop.
Simulated world as reality
Akin to a computer, our brain collects and processes data from the outside physical world to form a simulated reality of the world.
There are ‘circuits’ of neurons (or brain cells) connected by synapses, the neurons firing electrical pulses in systematic or logical ways.
Data received from the outside world via the senses, such as eyes and ears, are processed in various brain modules. All information are integrated to form a story, which we call our consciousness.
Although the data we have about the physical world is coming from different organs, and processed by different brain modules, somehow our “experience” is a coherent whole, which presents us with what we often call “reality”.
But this “reality”, which is our “experience” out of the processed data, is distinct from the “reality” of the outside world itself.
In other words, there are apparently two distinct realities: 1) the outside physical world itself, and; 2) our “experience” (based on processed data) which is a “simulation of the outside world”. The former is advocated by the realists, the latter by the idealists.
In a sense, like computers, our “experience” of the world is a “simulated” one.
Simulated self as a reality
So, if our experience of the world is but the “simulation of the world”, what about our experience of self?
Can awareness or consciousness of “self” be equated with the real “Me”, “I”, or “Myself”? Where does the reality of self lie? In the “self”? Or, in its own “awareness or experience”?
Hence, like the duality of reality between the “objective outside world” and the “experience of simulated world”, it behooves positing the distinction between the “simulated self” and “self” itself. Which brings us to the next level of our discussion.
Is God the prime simulator?
If what we normally refer to as “self” is but a “simulated self”, can it point to or represent a much deeper and wider reality or being, a unified “self”, whom we call God?
The term “simulation” can mean “imitation” or “representation”. If we are a “simulated self”, what “real or higher self” are we representing?
To “simulate” is to collect data, direct or guide them towards a more or less predictable result. Can this be said of God?
The plausibility that our “simulated self” can lead to God is based on the argument that consciousness (of course, self-consciousness included) cannot be without a subject or self. J. P. Moreland, a Christian philosopher at Talbert School of Theology (Los Angeles) aptly said it:
“You never find a case of consciousness existing without it belonging to a subject. If the universe begins with consciousness, therefore, that consciousness must belong to a unified ‘I’, or a subject, a prime being of fundamental consciousness, called God.”
On hindsight, the idea of simulated life, humans, and universe has its underpinnings in some ancient beliefs, philosophies, and some prominent scientists, thinkers, and poets.
In his book, “The Divine Matrix”, Gregg Braden, American scientist and New York Times’ best-selling author, puts forth the existence of a “Divine Matrix – the container that holds the universe, the bridge between all things, and the mirror that shows us what we have created.”
Maya, in Hindu philosophy, which means “illusion”, denotes a magical power with which a god can make human beings believe in what turns out to be an illusion.
Plato, in his allegory of the Cave, posited that we’re but living in an unreal world, a cave, a virtual reality – and the real reality lies outside the cave.
Edgar Allan Poe wrote that “all that we see or have seen is but a dream”.
Albert Einstein once said that reality is merely an illusion. Stephen Hawking talked about illusion in his final theory of the holographic universe.
Rightly so, the presupposition that a Divine Simulator exists can just as well substantiate the truth that God exists.
As aptly averred by Gregg Braden: “If we’re in a simulation, then there must be a simulator. So it’s comforting to know that in our simulation exercise in this life, there somebody, a base pilot, guiding us in our journey.”
In the final analysis, thus, while God from creation has already programmed us for this life, he has likewise granted us a reasonable degree of freedom (not absolute freedom, because “human freedom is not independent of God’s freedom, and God’s freedom is not dependent of human freedom”).
And, in a sublime instance, God – being the prime simulator – is continually guiding us every step from this “simulated life” towards the “real life”, a life eternal.