Mixing science and religion usually doesn’t work out well, as Galileo discovered when his empirical verification of Copernican theory — Earth goes round the sun, not vice versa — brought him up against the prevailing Catholic belief about the supremacy of man, and therefore the centrality of our planet in the cosmos. (To the credit of the church, the Vatican finally acknowledged its error in 1992 — 359 years after persecuting the dude.)

Another more current example comes from today’s headlines, in which we find die-hard Christian conservatives still opposing Darwinian evolution despite overwhelming evidence that, as Theodosius Dobzhansky succinctly put it in a 1973 essay, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”

Lately, in our post-Matrix (i.e. since 1999) world, the notion that we may be simulated entities living in a simulation has been popularized by the media, with books by “serious” scientists, in podcasts, YouTube videos, The Simpsons, Black Mirror and the like. The time has come, it seems, for us to seriously consider the possibility that the lives we’re living aren’t the Real Thing. Isn’t this, though, another case of mixing science and religion?

The simulation hypothesis maintains that the world as we know it was created by an intelligent being, and that we’re part of that world, believing ourselves to be free agents living real lives, when we’re actually artificial, digital entities, able to be manipulated by an unseen creator. Which sounds like monotheism, doesn’t it? An omniscient creator who can control us and the world around us: think of Moses parting the Red Sea, or Jesus raising the dead. (Is our simulator herself a simulation? Was God created by Uber-God? –ad infinitum.)

The Matrix aside, the simulation hypothesis was given its current boost into scientific circles in 2003 by Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom. He put forward the argument: If there are many civilizations, and some of them run simulations of self-conscious beings (very advanced versions of SimCity entities), there will be many more simulated conscious beings than real ones. So the odds are that you and I are simulations.

Plato’s Cave. Illustration, 4edges, via Wikimedia. Creative Commons license.

None of this is new, of course. Plato anticipated Bostrom 2,500 years ago, with his “prisoners in the cave” allegory: The prisoners are chained so they only see shadows on the wall of the cave, taking the shadows to be the real world. Or the monk who wrote, “Once I, Chuang Chou, dreamt I was a butterfly. Soon I awaked, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.” Or Descartes and his evil demon.

I’ve written about the simulation hypothesis before (here, here and here), but I can’t get enough of it. A recent interview by professional skeptic Michael Shermer with philosopher David Chalmers (who popularized the easy vs. hard problem of consciousness) reignited my interest. (For Chalmers, digital entities are as real as flesh-and-blood entities, deserving of the same rights. As is Mr. Data.)

At one level, the notion that I’m a simulation is as absurd as the idea that an omniscient God hears and responds to prayers, all the while allowing untold suffering in the world. Of course I’m not a sim, I’m a free agent, choosing these words, watching my fingers magically translate them to the screen of my iPad here in Old Town Coffee on a Thursday morning. On the other hand (as if it’s a dichotomy!), I’ve been pre-programmed: input sufficient data into a super-supercomputer, run the “sim.barry” program, and consciousness just happens as an “emergent property.”

I love how New Yorker contributor Adam Gopnik summed it all up after seeing The Matrix: “…everybody could grasp the basic set-up instantly…We’re not strangers to the feeling that, for much of our lives, we might just as well be brains-in-vats…”

Nah, ridiculous. Here, I’ll show you. See this spinning top?