Is Reality a Simulation?

Virtual reality simulates the world, typically attempting to mimic the real world. Can a simulation be so good that is looks exactly like reality? Can our reality itself be a simulation? Image from NASA Goddard Photos and Videos.

In my last post, I showed how the conservation of energy and the conservation of momentum can be used to create a simulation of the collision of two objects. The simulation included a pair of arrows, showing the motion of the objects before the impact and after the impact. This visual representation is rather simple, but one could make a much more sophisticated simulation that shows images of objects colliding and ricocheting off each other. Such a simulation would actually look like real life, right down to following actual physical laws. Which raises a question: is it possible that our reality is nothing more than a really complex simulation?

While this question may seem ridiculous, it is actually a question that has been considered by scientists and philosophers.[1] I do not believe that this simulation hypothesis is widely accepted. The truth is, everyone acts as if life is real rather than a simulation. But, can we show with reasonable assurance that reality is real?

The problem with demonstrating that reality is not a simulation is that it is impossible to prove one way or another. Consider how we perceive reality around us. We do so with our senses. Yet, since our senses are also part of reality, they must operate within the limits of that reality. If reality is real, we can sense the world around us, but we cannot sense anything beyond that reality. Thus, we cannot confirm that there is no grand simulation behind it. On the other hand, if reality is a simulation, then our senses are confined to the simulation. We cannot “peak behind” reality to check and see if it is actually a simulation. Thus, using our own observations, we are incapable of determining whether or not reality is a simulation.

What if we used some sort of statistical test? Would the behavior of a simulation differ from the behavior of a real reality? The problem here is that we have no idea how complex, or how simple, a simulation of reality can be. Sure, a simulation like the one presented in the last post is pretty simple, but how large of a “computer” would be available for a “reality simulator?” How complex could such a program be? We don’t know, because we are, once again, limited in our understanding of simulations set in the reality in which we live. We have no idea what could, or could not, exist behind reality.  Without knowing the limitations of a hypothetical reality simulator, it would be very difficult to tell whether our reality acts like a simulation or not. Once again, there is no way to test whether or not reality is a simulation.

Now, I have said a couple times that there is no way to tell whether reality is a simulation. However, you may have noticed that I made an assumption when making that statement: I assumed that the only way we can determine whether or not reality is a simulation is by using our senses. I assumed that the only way we can understand the world is through our own abilities. As Christians, we should know that this is not true. After all, God stooped down from His throne in Heaven to communicate with humans. Whether it was walking with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, giving Moses the stone tablets on Mount Sinai, speaking through prophets, or coming down to Earth in the person of Jesus Christ, God does exist outside of reality and He has told us plenty about this reality that He created.

First and foremost, we are told in Genesis 1:1 that “In the beginning, God created the Heavens and the Earth.” Unless God was lying when He revealed this truth to Moses, then we should assume that reality exists. In a similar vein, John 1:1-3 tells us that

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.

If all things were made through Christ, then reality should exist as surely as Christ exists. Further, we know that Christ came down in the form of a man, as explained in Philippians 2:5-8:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

If reality is a simulation, then Christ could not have taken on the form of a servant. He could have programmed a simulation of himself, but to actually take on the form of a servant, He Himself would have had to enter the simulation. Being in the simulation indicates that the simulation is, in fact, a reality, and not a simulation at all.

We have other evidence that reality is real when we look at the nature of humans. One of the first things God commanded Adam after his creation was to forbid him from eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (Genesis 2:16-17). We also know that when Adam disobeyed this command, it affected all of creation (Genesis 3:17-19), but also the final destination of humans. As said in Romans 5:18-21:

Therefore, as one trespass [Adam’s sin] led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness [Christ’s sacrifice] leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

If eternal life is the contrast to the consequences of Adam’s sin, and eternal life has consequences in not only this life, but in the next, then we can also conclude that Adam’s sin had effects not only in this world, but also beyond it. Now, if life were a simulation, then Adam’s sin, which took place in the simulation, had consequences outside of that simulation. A simulation having consequences outside of itself implies that the simulation itself is real, as opposed to being a mere simulation.

Thus, if we look at the Word of God, we can see that we should expect reality to be real, as opposed to a simulation. Notice that to reach this conclusion, we have to first assume that the Word of God is true and that God Himself exists in reality. If we attempt to test the simulation hypothesis using our own understanding and senses, we are simply stuck. We have to look outside of our own understanding to have any assurance that reality is real.

Thoughts from Steven


[1]Khan, Fouad (2021) “Confirmed! We Live in a Simulation” scientificamerican.com, retrieved from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/confirmed-we-live-in-a-simulation/ on April 28, 2022 and Bostrom, Nick (2003) “Are We Living in a Computer Simulation?” The Philosophical Quarterly 53(211): 243-255

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