A haunting alienation | WORLD
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A haunting alienation

When atheists start to think about God—or at least a simulation

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As a child, I remember having what might be described as brain glitches. Déjà vu is sometimes called a “glitch,” but it wasn’t that. It was a strong suspicion that I wasn’t myself; that I didn’t know this person with my name and might actually be someone else. This might be common enough, but the few people I shared it with had never experienced anything like it. These jarring disconnections lessened over time and disappeared by my early 20s, perhaps because I was more settled in my own skin.

The human brain is a mysterious thing. As my ­husband’s dementia progresses, I’m saddened and ­distressed—but also intrigued. How is it that he has trouble putting words together, but can often spontaneously spell them? What causes the anxiety that disturbs his placid disposition and makes him ask over and over, “What am I supposed to be doing?” This is normal for Alzheimer’s sufferers, but I wonder if he’s touching the live wire of alienation that seems common to humanity.

Thoughtful humans have wondered about their ­relation to reality at least since Plato speculated that we all live in the equivalent of a cave, viewing projections of an ideal world beyond our comprehension. Later philosophers played with variations on the theme that “reality” (whatever that means) is a projection of our minds, and may not even exist at all.

No other creature that we know experiences anything like human consciousness and alienation. They are anomalies, of the kind philosophers and technocrats today seize upon to support their theory of the universe as a giant computer simulation. Elon Musk may be the most prominent true believer, but legitimate physicists have glommed on to the theory, as well as science ­popularizers like Neil deGrasse Tyson. Since 1999, when The Matrix and The Thirteenth Floor raised the question in the popular mind, to a groundbreaking essay in 2003 by philosopher Nick Bostrum (“Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?”), the idea has gained serious traction.

What’s the evidence? It depends on who you’re talking to. Consciousness is an elaborate kind of software, says cosmologist Hakeem Oluseyi, who goes on to project that hypothesis onto the universe. Fouad Khan, in Scientific American, draws his conclusion from computer science. Digital processing requires one constant, and that’s processor speed. The equivalent of a constant in our universe is the speed of light, thus we know the one requirement for a giant computer simulating what we call “reality.” Physics professor Melvin Vopson proposes a “second law of infodynamics” theorizing that the loss of information, or energy, in the universe must be balanced by a surplus outside it.

At least, that’s the best I can summarize what these men think; no doubt their theories sound much more convincing when they explain themselves. But haven’t we had a better explanation all along?

In a playful but serious Wired essay, Jason Kehe quotes Australian philosopher David J. Chalmers, author of Reality+, a book-length examination of simulation theory: “I’ve considered myself an atheist for as long as I can remember. Still, the simulation hypothesis has made me take the existence of a god more seriously than I ever had before.” That doesn’t mean this super­being is moral, or righteous, or anything at all. “For all we know,” writes Kehe, “it’s some little xeno-kid banging away at their parents’ keyboard.”

We can know this: that ever since humans came into being, they’ve been haunted by Something Else. This is their Creator, breaking through the veil of creation to reach them. The solidity of atomic bonds and molecular structures is no illusion, for “in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17). Our universe is as real as a snow globe, but a wider Reality holds it, and will one day shake it. We see from inside the globe, as though through smoked glass, but then face to face. Then I and my husband and our brothers and sisters in Christ will finally know ourselves, as we are fully known.

Janie B. Cheaney

Janie is a senior writer who contributes commentary to WORLD and oversees WORLD’s annual Children’s Books of the Year awards. She also writes novels for young adults and authored the Wordsmith creative writing curriculum. Janie resides in rural Missouri.


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