briefing, Albert Mohler

Thursday, August 22, 2019

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

It’s Thursday, August 22nd, 2019. I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

Could the Cosmos Just Be a Computer Simulation? The Threat of Meaningless Existence vs. the Sure and Certain Hope of Biblical Realism

Sometimes Christians need to step back and watch the world ask the biggest of big questions, the questions about origins, and existence, and truth, and meaning, and value. That’s exactly what we confront in an article that was published in Sunday’s edition of the New York Times. The headline of the article: “Are We Living in a Computer Simulation?” Now, before we even look at the article, let’s just consider the neighborhood. I’m holding in my hand the print edition of the New York times. The article at the bottom of the same page is entitled “The Unfulfilled Promise of E-Commerce.” On the reverse of the page is an editorial entitled “A Punishing Poll Tax in Florida.” Then there are two columns of letters from the public responding to an editorial by columnist David Brooks, all of that on just one page of newspaper.

That’s what we need to note when we consider that article with the headline asking the question, are we living in a computer simulation? The point I’m making, if we are indeed living in a computer simulation, or if we’re even considering that we just might be living in a computer simulation, doesn’t that appear to be an article with outsized importance that really doesn’t belong buried on page seven of the review section of the Sunday edition of the New York Times? If we are actually non-existent, at least in terms of the human beings we think ourselves to be, wouldn’t that be just a little bit more important than a poll tax and e-commerce? The author of the article is Preston Greene, identified as Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

He begins, “Since the 1990s, researchers in the social and natural sciences have used computer simulations to try to answer questions about our world. What causes war? Which political systems are the most stable? How will climate change affect global migration?” He goes on to write, “The quality of these simulations is variable since they are limited by how well modern computers can mimic the vast complexity of our world, which is to say not very well.” But then he begins to ask the interesting question, “But what if computers one day were to become so powerful, and these simulations so sophisticated that each simulated person, in the computer code, were as complicated, and individual as you or me to such a degree that these people believed they were actually alive?”

And then he asked the biggest question, “And what if this has already happened?” That’s another way of asking the question in the headline, “Are we, are all of us, actually living right now in a computer simulation?” Which means, we’re not actually real, at least not real in the sense we mean real.

He points out that the issue was first raised in 2003 by the Swedish philosopher, Nick Bostrom. He made what was described here as an ingenious argument that we might be living in a computer simulation created by a more advanced civilization. As Greene goes on to write, “He argued that if you believe that our civilization will one day run many sophisticated simulations concerning its ancestors, then you should believe that we are probably in an ancestor simulation right now.”

His reasoning? “If people eventually develop simulation technology, no matter how long that takes, and if they’re interested in creating simulations of their ancestors, then simulated people with experiences just like ours will vastly outnumber unstimulated people.” The turn comes when the argument continues, “If most people are simulations,” Professor Bostrom concluded, “the odds are good that we ourselves are simulations. Our world would just be one simulation of many, perhaps part of a research project created to study the history of civilization.”

He goes on, “As the physicist and Nobel Laureate, George Smoot, has explained, ‘If you’re an anthropologist historian, and want to understand the rise and fall of civilizations, then you will need to make very many simulations involving millions to billions of people.”

Some people, and some rather unsurprising people have taken this theory, and run with it. One of them is techno entrepreneur, Elon Musk who has said that the odds that we are not simulated are, “One in billions.” Exactly how he knows that, no one knows, including of course, Elon Musk.

We’re told that Professors Smoot, the Nobel Laureate, “Estimates that the ratio of simulated to real people might be as high as 10 to the 12th power to one.”

We’re hardly a third of the way through the article, but at this point Professor Greene goes on to argue that there’s actually evidence that we are right now in a computer simulation. What would the evidence be? Problems with the simulation, but if you’re wondering about this circular argument, here it goes.

If you did have a simulation, it would probably not be a perfect simulation. So, if in our experience of what we think is this world, we can see anomalies, glitches in the software, then following this circular reasoning, that means that we probably are simulations. Now, as tempting as it would be to file this entire question in the realm of ridiculous questions that we can ask, but never answer, it does demonstrate the extent to which the human psyche wants an explanation for our existence, or in this case for at least our simulated existence, but there’s something else here, and that is that we’re not even to the most interesting part of this story. We’re not yet to the most interesting part of the analysis. That comes when Professor Greene warns us that if we are indeed in a computer simulation, we ought not to find that out.

He says, “I am indeed writing to warn that conducting these experiments,” those are experiments to prove that we are a simulation, “Could be a catastrophically bad idea. One that could cause the annihilation of our universe.” Now, let’s pause again for a moment.

If indeed we are threatened with the annihilation of our universe, this would seem to be a rather important question, a rather important reality. It would be the most urgent threat ever faced by human beings. Again, if it’s taken seriously, and you would think the New York Times would take it seriously if they run the article in their newspaper. The question is, if it is serious, how can it be put on page seven of the print edition? But we need to look more closely at Professor Greene’s warning.

He says, “As I argue in a forthcoming paper in the journal at Erkenntnis, if our universe has been created by an advanced civilization for research purposes, then it is reasonable to assume that it is crucial to the researchers that we don’t find out that we’re in a simulation. If we were to prove that we live inside a simulation, this could cause our creators to terminate the simulation, to destroy our world.”

Professor Preston Greene ends his article by asking the question, “Is it really worth the risk?” And the “it” in this case is the experimentation that we are told just might prove conclusively, we’re promised by modern physics, that we are indeed merely living in a computer simulation. We are ourselves computer simulations, because if the intelligence that created us knows that we now are in on the secret that we are a simulation, they might just end the entire experiment, and the cosmos as we know it would simply disappear.

So, what are Christians to think about this? Well, again, first of all, it shows this, that being made in the image of God, as we know human beings to be, we are driven by an urge, an inevitable urge, an insatiable urge to ask these questions. Questions about our origins, questions about the meaning of the cosmos, questions about the meaning of our own lives. Of course, it’s not very satisfactory to argue that we are living in a simulated cosmos, and that we are actually simulated persons living simulated lives, but you can understand that in an age of such high technology, and indeed artificial intelligence, and real simulations — how’s that for an ironic phrase? — being conducted by human intelligence, you can see how someone perhaps in a flight of science fiction fantasy might ask these questions. You can understand why immediately upon pondering these questions, there would be very deep philosophical issues that are invoked, the very issues of the meaning of life and the meaning of our lives, my life, and your life.

But here we notice something else that Christians need to understand. That is that every single conscious, thoughtful human being has to operate from some theory, even if it is an unarticulated theory, of the origin of the cosmos, and the origin of ourselves. We can’t live without some kind of operational theory.

Here’s where when you look at the old Testament, you come to understand that all of those various forms of idolatries found in the ancient world tried to answer, in their own way, the question of the origin of the universe, and the origin of our own lives. Seen in that light, the proposal that we just might be living in a giant computer simulation is just an updated form of one of the ancient theories that the entire cosmos was actually on the back of a giant turtle lumbering slowly along.

But another dimension is the sense of threat in this article. Clearly, Professor Greene is concerned that if we are in a computer simulation, and we know that we are, or demonstrate that we are, and those who are conducting the experiment know that we know, then there’s no reason for them to continue the simulation, and life as we know it, the cosmos, would simply disappear.

But then we have to ask the even more terrifying question, and that is this: If we are merely a computer simulation, why would it matter anyway? That’s the most fundamental issue Christians need to see in confronting this particular news story. It’s the issue that if it is true, then nothing is meaningful, nothing is real, and at least in terms of our lives and our experience, there’s literally nothing to it other than a giant computer simulation being run by an intelligence somewhere else, someone else. Frankly, it’s really hard to know how to order off of a lunch menu if you believe that that’s true. It’s hard to know what you would do when you get up in the morning other than be determined to greet another day in your simulated life in a simulated cosmos, with your simulated self, and your simulated experiences, talking about a simulated truth, and experiencing a simulated reality, loving with a simulated love, and hoping with a simulated hope. Oh, and don’t forget to pay your simulated mortgage.

But the sense of threat is real, and it comes to every one of us. There is a dread within every one of us. It needs to be explained. What is that threat? What is that dread? The Biblical worldview tells us that that dread, rightly understood, is the consciousness of a judgment that is to come, a judgment by a holy God, the fact that the creature will be judged by the Creator. And of course there are real threats in the actual real world. The Christian worldview is based upon a fundamental biblical realism. That’s one of the terms we would use for the biblical worldview. The Bible presents the world as real, really real, as Francis Schaffer might say it, when he coined the phrase true truth. We’re talking about real reality, not as simulated reality. We’re talking about every single one of us being real, our lives real, and having real significance, a significance that cannot plausibly be undergirded by any worldview that holds that we are unreal.

The sense of threat, by the way, that is articulated by professor Greene reminds me of the sense of dread and threat that was articulated by the late scientist Stephen Hawking, himself very famously a skeptic if not outright an atheist. When it was announced that scientists would be putting together a great array of radar signals in order to be sent out into the universe to try to communicate with whatever alien intelligence might be out there, Stephen Hawking warned that we ought not to do that because the likelihood is greater that the intelligence is A) hostile, and second, more advanced than our own. That, he said, was a recipe for planetary doom. Again, everyone has a sense of dread. Everyone has a sense of doom. The question is what does your worldview imply ought to be the understanding of that dread and the reality of that threat.

Of course, Christians understand that individually there is also the pressing reality of the threat of death, and the threat that our lives turn out in the end to be basically meaningless. That, perhaps more than anything else, is the really great fundamental threat behind all of these kinds of hypotheses and arguments and worldviews about cosmology and simulations or any other explanation, including contemporary evolutionary theory that claims to tell us how the world came to be and what it means or doesn’t mean and can’t mean.

The article never addresses how we’re supposed to live our lives right now. That is those of us who are non-scientists, not running these experiments, against which professor Greene warns. It raises the question, if we are merely simulated selves, in a simulated world, why would we do anything, or care at all? And the answer would almost assuredly come back, as it does come from some who are materialist and naturalist in their worldview, that even though there is no real meaning to live, we ought at least to live as if there might be. That “as if,” by the way, is an extremely flimsy and insubstantial hope, and those who articulate it know it is, which is why it comes back so hollow. This is where again, the biblical worldview undergirds the fact that we believe in a real reality, in what the Bible calls a sure and certain hope.

Part II

Leading Scientists Claim We Live in a Subjective Reality: Are We Gripped by a Collective Delusion about the Material World?

But next, while we’re talking about reality, I want to go to a recent cover story in the New Scientist magazine. The cover story headline: “Reality: The Greatest Illusion of All.” The subhead, “How Evolution Has Blinded Us to the Truth About the World.”

Now, you notice the word “truth” is right here in the article. The word “reality” is right here in the article, but the other word that cries out in this article in the headline is “illusion.” It’s right here, right on the cover.

The author of the article is Donald Hoffman, identified as a Professor of Cognitive Sciences at the University of California Irvine, and the author of a recent book on human perception entitled The Case Against Reality. Now, Christians should be immediately interested in a title like that, The Case Against Reality. What kind of case? Against what kind of reality? In the article, Hoffman writes, “Life insurance is a bet on objective reality, a bet that something exists even if I cease to. This bet,” he says, “seems quite safe to most of us. Life insurance is accordingly a lucrative business, but,” he continues, “while we are alive and paying premiums, our conscious experiences constitute a different kind of reality, a subjective reality.”

He says that, “We are programmed intellectually to believe that reality is perceivable and real.” He says that, “I’m inclined to believe that when I see a cherry there is a real cherry, whose shape and color match my experience, and which continues to exist when I look away.” He even understands, “This assumption is central to how we think about ourselves in the world.”

But then he asked the question, “But is it valid?” He then continues with these words, “Experiments my collaborators and I have performed to test the form of sensory perception that evolution has given us suggest a startling conclusion. It isn’t. It leads to a crazy sounding conclusion that we may all be gripped by a collective delusion about the nature of the material world. If that is correct,” he continues, “it could have ramifications across the breadth of science or how consciousness arises to the nature of quantum weirdness to the shape of a future theory of everything. Reality,” he concludes, “may never seem the same again.”

Well, that’s because according to this theory, reality isn’t reality. I pause again to point out that we’re only discussing this on The Briefing, because this article appeared as the cover story in the New Scientist magazine. This wasn’t published in a supermarket tabloid. This doesn’t come from some kind of science fiction source. This is supposedly modern empirical science. What Hoffman is arguing for is what is philosophically defined as a form of anti-realism, but he raises the question, why are we programmed to assume reality and to presume reality? He goes on to argue that evolution has to be accountable for this, because evolution has to explain everything. He goes on to explain that evolution has actually programmed into human experience two different strategies. One is a truth strategy and the other is a payoff strategy.

A truth strategy turns out to be a strategy in which reality is important for our survival as a species. It turns out that a payoff strategy is a strategy that is used by evolution that doesn’t depend upon the assumption of reality being actual. It doesn’t have to be real, and so he’s basically arguing that what we know as life is more of a payoff strategy than a truth strategy. It works for evolution. It doesn’t really matter if it’s real or not.

Ironically, using the phrase “objective truth,” he says, “The objective truth I started seeing a decade ago in simulations” —there they are again, I point out — “conducted together with my graduate students, Justin Mark and Brian Marion, at the University of California Irvine, is that evolution ruthlessly selects against truth strategies and for payoff strategies. An organism that sees objective reality is always less fit than an organism of equal complexity that sees fitness payoffs. Seeing objective reality will make you extinct.”

He explains, “Going back earlier to human experience, if you were on the plains of Africa, and you saw a lion, you merely thought you were seeing a lion, and if the other people with you also think they’re seeing a lion, it’s because their consciousness has been pre-programmed to see the very same unreal lion and to respond to the threat of that unreal lion.” So, although with irony, he uses the phrase “absolute truth” to argue that our experience of reality is not absolute reality, but rather an interface with it.

He acknowledges that this would be a radical redefinition of evolutionary theory. He cites evolutionary theorist, Robert Trivers, who put it, “Our sense organs have evolved to give us a marvelously detailed, and accurate view of the outside world,” but Hoffman argues it actually doesn’t, not at all. So, as we’re thinking about big issues today that are current in scientific discussion, and also in our culture, we need to recognize these really are the big questions.

Is reality real? Does anything actually exist? Am I real? Are you real? Is our consciousness real or is it merely some kind of artificial experience? When we think we see a lion and we think the lion is objectively real, are we actually just interfacing with an objective reality, rather than experiencing and perceiving an objective reality?

Here again, Christians should take great comfort, and satisfaction in knowing that the biblical worldview begins with the assertion of real reality. It is God’s reality. God is un-contingent reality. That is to say he’s uncreated reality. He’s preexistent eternal reality. All other reality is contingent. It’s created. It’s dependent. It’s dependent upon God, the Creator. The Bible begins with the words, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” A real God, creating a real world, and for that matter, creating real human beings, really made in his image, with real consciousness, and also real lions and tigers and bats, so that when we think we’re seeing a lion, we begin with the understanding that the world is real, and we are real, and lions are real too.

But as Christians are pondering these two massively important articles, we also have to understand there’s something else going on here that ought to have our attention, and that is that if you’re going to argue against reality, objective reality, if you’re going to argue that we’re just merely in some kind of computer simulation or we actually have no direct understanding or engagement with objective reality, we can’t know it and it’s unknowable, then guess what? Morality becomes absolutely variable. The entire moral equation becomes nothing more than a contemporary negotiation of whatever you can get away with.

There’s no ultimate meaning. There’s no ultimate reality. There’s no ultimate truth, so there’s no ultimate right or wrong, and let’s be honest, that really does help to explain how so many in the civilization around us have come to such ridiculous and insubstantial moral opinions and worldviews. If we’re just a computer simulation, and if there’s no objective reality or objective truth, then marriage can be whatever you want it to be, sexual morality can be redefined, however you want to redefine it.

The experiment can be pushed forward by rejecting what you could call the gender binary. You can just turn the entire world upside down, because it really doesn’t exist, and perhaps turning the world upside down, morally speaking, is just a part of the experiment of which we are all parts.

Part III

Are You Prepared for the Cataclysmic Eruption of the Supervolcano in Yellowstone National Park? The New York Times Thinks You Should Be

Finally, I want to turn to another article that appeared just in recent days in the New York Times. This one is by Bryan Walsh. The headline: “A Giant Volcano Could End Human Life on Earth As We Know It.” Again, something to worry about — a big fear, a big threat. What kind of giant volcano are we talking about and where would it be? Well, it turns out that Bryan Walsh is concerned about a super volcano beneath Yellowstone National Park. That’s pretty close.

He writes, “If you’re planning to visit Yellowstone National Park this Labor Day weekend, I have good news. It is very, very, very unlikely that the super volcano beneath it will erupt while you’re there.”

He continues, “The Yellowstone supervolcano, an eight out of eight on the Volcanic Explosivity Index, has erupted three times over the past 2.1 million years.” Again, I’m reading from the article, “Most recently, 640,000 years ago. A Yellowstone eruption,” he says, “would be like nothing humanity has ever experienced.” He goes on to explain what might happen if this super volcano were to erupt, but he concludes by citing a 2015 report on extreme geo hazards for the European Science Foundation that defines such a volcanic eruption as, “The greatest catastrophe since the dawn of civilization.” Let’s just say that would rank right up there.

Bryan Walsh continues, “Super volcanoes like Yellowstone represent what are known as existential risks, ultra-catastrophes that could lead to global devastation, even human experience. They can be natural,” he says, “like super eruptions or a major asteroid impact of the scale that helped kill off the dinosaurs or that can be human-made like nuclear war or an engineered virus. They are by definition,” he says, “worse than the worst things humanity has ever experienced. What they are not, however,” he says, “is common, and that,” he says, “presents a major psychological and political challenge,” which is to say, that psychologically and politically, he’s arguing, we’re not preparing ourselves for the likelihood or at least a possibility of the eruption of a super volcano in Yellowstone that would mean the end of civilization.

He gives us a little math writing, “The probability of a super eruption at Yellowstone in any given year is one in 730,000.” Roughly speaking, we might add. Walsh goes on to compare the relatively few number of persons who die in aircraft accidents, and says, look, we spend hundreds of millions of dollars every year trying to prevent aviation accidents. In fact, he says, $7 billion a year. Why aren’t we spending even more money in order to be ready for this explosive, cataclysmic volcanic eruption that just might happen anytime, though in any given year, the odds are again, one in 730,000, he tells us?

Again, this reminds us that everyone’s worried about something, and in this case it gives us all something new to worry about, but again, Christians understand that we actually do know that the cosmos, or indeed our civilization on this planet is not going to end by a massive volcanic super eruption under Yellowstone National Park. It’s going to end, but that’s not how it’s going to end, but at the same time, I’ll make an admission to you. I’d kind of like to see that run in a computer simulation, but only in a computer simulation.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

These big questions remind me once again of the urgency of the Christian worldview and of a Christian education unquestionably grounded in the Biblical Christian worldview. That’s why I’m so proud of Boyce College, and why I want to remind you of Boyce College preview day coming up on Friday, October the 11th.

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I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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