From Deists to Computer Simulationists: Elon Musk Sparks a New-Old Debate
Elon Musk has been much in the news of late. From reusable rockets that promise to reduce the cost of space travel more than 200-fold and settle a million people on Mars, to his revolutionary electric car company that already rivals the size of Ford and GM, to his concern that strong Artificial Intelligence could destroy the human race (which is likely to be true), Musk daily demonstrates better than anyone that worldly success provides a powerful platform to reach the world with ideas.
One of those ideas is both startlingly new and unwittingly old, requiring our interaction even while proving that there is nothing genuinely new under the Sun.
Musk has come to believe – and to say, often – that we are living in a computer simulation. His argument, more or less, is that we have seen in just 40 years a progression in technology from Pong to photorealistic simulations that are virtually indistinguishable from reality, and at anything close to that rate of change, actual indistinguishability is just over the horizon. Ergo, an even slightly more advanced society could create something like The Matrix or a Star Trek holodeck, those within it would have no obvious way to know they were inside it, and the number of such simulations would be at least as great as the number of video games and movies available today.
Musk states that the chance of our being the actual base reality, as opposed to characters in such a simulation, is “one in billions.”
While my movie references make clear that this is not an entirely new idea, it is indeed new for it to get such broad, heavyweight support. When Musk speaks, lots of very serious people listen. You are very likely witnessing the beginning of a sort of religion.
That’s not an entirely bad thing, for reasons I’ll shortly describe. But it’s certainly older than The Matrix. And like any good movie, it has a twist.
Historically-minded readers will recognize Musk’s position as being very similar to the favorite religion of Enlightenment elites, 250 years ago: deism. Deists asserted a belief in God – it was grossly unpopular at the time to do otherwise – but a very different sort of God than the Christian God worshipped by most of their countrymen. The deist god was, in the early years of the Industrial Revolution, imagined as a great clockmaker. He was a master machinist, he created the Heavens and the Earth, and then having wound up his creation, he walked away.
This is the central belief in deism: a creator, yes, but one who does not interfere in his creation once established.
Deism became prominent among Northern European and some American intellectuals, virtually all of whom had been raised as Christians. Not wishing to fully abandon their belief in God, they nevertheless had become disenchanted with the church, with organized religion in general, and with such orthodox ideas as the Trinity, the supernatural (never mind their assertion of a supernatural creation), and revelation, particularly of an inerrant Bible (because clearly a God who created the Heavens and the Earth could not manage to preserve His Word in a book).
In short, they kept enough religion to sooth their consciences and to remain respectable at family dinners, but none of the parts that demanded anything of them. And this is the crucial point: the old deists were in fact believers making apology for their apostasy.
Over time, most of the deists gave way to their more-apostate progeny, new generations who rejected even the remnant of belief their fathers had maintained. They were actually the more logical: if a God is great enough to create the Heavens and the Earth, how can He not have a claim on His creation? And why would He walk away from it after taking so much trouble? These were questions the deists answered poorly if at all, gaping logical holes through which their children walked.
Which brings us back to the new Simulationists, and that promised twist.
Unlike the old deists, who lived as rebels in an age suffused with faith, the Simulationists are children of Postmodernism. They do not assume a God, or the necessity of creation, or even the need to placate their parents at Thanksgiving dinner. These mostly-young Silicon Valley technologists come at the world from a diametrically opposite place.
They are not holding to some part of God while denying His authority. They assume the nonexistence of God, and yet are grappling with the ever-more-copious evidence of creation.
And that is precisely what the Simulationist position entails. Instantaneous creation ex nihilo. One or more creators who entirely determine the parameters of the world in which we live, and who can change those parameters, in whole or in part, at will. The very real possibility of a beginning and an end, on terms that are not determined within the system itself, and for purposes that are not only outside our control but not perceptible to our senses.
Like Descartes, they find themselves reasoning back to God even while ignoring His own testimony. Because the evidence contained within creation of its origin is overwhelming apart from a corrupted interpretive process.
Still, the most essential deficit which Musk and the old deists share is this: the question of why the creator(s) would not reveal themselves, or at the very least, why He or they would walk away from something in which so much effort had been invested. That lack of revelation and involvement was not merely essential to the deists’s position: it was their raison d’etre. But while both suffer from the same sin nature that keeps all men in bondage to deceit, Musk’s position is not only more honest generally, it leaves open the possibility of asking the question.
The answer, of course, is that the Creator is intimately involved in His creation; that He has become flesh, and lived among us; atoned for our sins; and made possible our adoption as His own sons and daughters.
We, like Elon, know not why. But we do know Who, not through any merit or greater understanding but entirely by that revelation which an earlier generation of deists denied (without explanation) was possible.
The Simulationists are likely to ask the question. And in their asking it, there is at least as much opportunity for the Gospel as there was on Mars Hill.
Originally published on RodMartin.org.
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