Simulated Worlds and Harmonizing the Age of the Earth

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Elon Musk believes that we live inside of an advanced computer simulation. Spoiler alert: we don’t. However, the concept of the simulated universe is a useful tool, perhaps the tool, to drive the next leap of theological advancement. See my related posts here, here, and here.

This is not dissimilar to other secular origin theories that have arisen out of skepticism and dissatisfaction with traditional Darwinian evolution, Big Bang cosmology, and philosophical naturalism that can actually be leveraged in favor of Christian creation theories. For example, Directed Panspermia is a theory that early lifeforms were deliberately transported and planted on Earth by advanced beings (extraterrestrials). Compare this to the Christian concept of life being purposefully created on Earth by an advanced being (God). Another example, The Black Hole at the Beginning of Time theory basically argues, “that our universe may have emerged from a black hole in a higher-dimensional universe.” Compare this to the Christian concept of matter and energy appearing in nothingness, originating from a higher-dimensional source outside of our physical universe.

But I digress. The age of the Earth is a point of Christian contention between Old-Earth Creationists and Young-Earth Creationists and, at times, between Christians and non-Christian scientists. In my current thinking, the only two coherent arguments that have been advanced which satisfy evidence found in both General and Special revelation is the Day-Age Theory and the Ideal-Age Theory (or Apparent-Age Theory) of creation. The Day-Age Theory states that each day or “yom” of creation is really a period of time, so that creation is then completed in six periods of time or stages rather than literal 24-hour days in a calendar week. The Ideal-Age Theory states that the universe was created with all the hallmarks of age: Adam had the body of an adult male, trees had rings, distant stars as well as the light particles between them and the Earth were created simultaneously, etc. For a good discussion from Wayne Grudem on this debate, go here. Both views have adamant advocates and detractors, and neither are without difficulties.

Using the concepts of Simulated Worlds or Simulated Universes, we can actually harmonize these two conflicting views. Let’s look at the world generating process of the computer game, Dwarf Fortress. I am pulling the next section whole cloth from Wikipedia:

The first step in Dwarf Fortress is generating a playable world; only one game can be played per world at a time. The player can adjust certain parameters governing size, savagery, mineral occurrences and the length of history. The map shows symbols representing roads, hills, towns and cities of the various civilizations, and it changes as the generation progresses.

The process involves procedurally-generated basic elements like elevation, rainfall, mineral distribution, drainage and temperature. For example, a high-rainfall and low-drainage area would make a swamp. Areas are thus categorized into biomes, which have two variables: savagery and alignment. They have their own specific type of plant and animal populations. The next phase is erosion—which the drainage simulates. Rivers are created by tracing their paths from the mountains (which get eroded) to its end which is usually an ocean; some form into lakes. The salinity field defines oceans, mangroves or alluvial plains. Names are generated for the biomes and rivers. The names depend on the area’s good/evil variable (the alignment) and though in English, they are originally in one of the four in-game languages of dwarves, elves, humans and goblins; these are the four main races in any generated world.

 After a few minutes the world is populated and its history develops for the amount of in-game years selected in the history parameter. Civilizations, races and religions spread and wars occur, with the “population” and “deaths” counters increasing. The ticker stops at the designated “years” value, at which point the world can be saved for use in any game mode. Should the player choose to retire a fortress or gets defeated, this world will persist and will become available for further games.

So, here you have an example of a simulated world that does not pop up instantly, but rather develops algorithmically and procedurally. But this process, which covers an incredible stretch of in-game time, takes only a few minutes of outside-game time or real time. To put it another way, in our higher-dimensional world, we experience the acceleration of lower-dimensional time for a set period, and then a more normalized lower-dimensional passage of time when the world generation ends and the game begins.

So, a harmonization of the Day-Age and Ideal-Age theories of Christian creation might be as follows. During the process of creation, the universe did not appear pre-fabricated, but rather developed procedurally. For example, light emitted from distant stars had to travel through the vacuum of space, the Grand Canyon slowly eroded, etc. However, all of these events occurred at an accelerated pace. We might say that a higher-dimensional measure of time (the Transcendent Time’s Arrow? Multiversal Standard Speed?), was increased, while all the processes remained at the same relative speed to one another within the physical universe. For example, the speed of light stayed the same relative to other physical processes, such as radioactive decay, but all were greatly accelerated relative to a measure of time external to this physical universe.

In this way, you could have what would ordinarily take millions of years accomplished in a much shorter period of time, and the higher-dimensional acceleration would go unnoticed in the lower-dimensional world because of in-universe relativity. I am not saying that I personally hold to this view, but hey, if an old PC running Windows 98 with 256 ram can do it, why not God?

Video Game Theology

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In a previous post I argued that humanity directly reflects the image of God when we engage in creative acts – when we bring something good into existence out of “nothing,” we are intentionally or unintentionally imitating the work of the ultimate Creator. This divine reflection reaches its apex when our art involves worldbuilding.

We find worldbuilding in visual mediums such as film, television, and graphic novels, but these are ultimately static worlds, and the audience members are passive participants. Worldbuilding in nonvisual literature is more dynamic, forcing the readers to actively visualize the world in their imaginations. Still, worldbuilding in video games is the closest parallel we have to the creativity of God.

Picture this: a brilliant Programmer designs a self-contained ‘reality’ in which other freewill agents (players) can interact. There are clear design parameters to this game world and limits to what the players can do within the world. That being said, the players can do anything they want within those parameters. Following the Programmer’s design, there are goals or intended ways of playing that lead to success in the game. Some players, despite taking diverse and individualized paths, seek to achieve these intended goals, and their creative ways of doing so may delight the programmer. Some players love the experience so much that they send fan mail to the Programmer and celebrate the good creation, even as they seek to exercise mastery within in.

Other players may ignore or violate the design and purpose of the game, resulting in mutual frustration for the Programmer and players. Perhaps the players grief and harass other players, try to undermine the integrity of the program itself, or otherwise violate the terms of service. Such players, if not willing to come around, may receive permanent bans from playing the game. Even if a fantastic new game update or expansion is released, the permabanned players will likely not be able to enjoy it. For all types of players, although experiencing the game world through their digital avatars, there is a clear sense that the players exist beyond the confines of the game world, that their consciousnesses will endure regardless of what ultimately happens to their in-game avatars.

Even the Programmer, preexisting the game world and being separate from it, can interact with the program on multiple levels, even through the use of an avatar (likely with certain advantages). The Programmer can interact with other players in a “meta” way, or in the game itself through the avatar. Having full knowledge of the game world, the Programmer’s actions serve as an example of how the game is meant to be played and what other players are truly capable of accomplishing. Regardless of the level of interaction chosen, the Programmer has the right and ability to change and suspend the rules and “physics” of the game world whenever desired, for whatever reason. God mode, anyone?

If any of this seems interesting to you, I highly recommend checking out The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos by Brian Greene (2011); the discussion of simulated universes in Chapter 10 is worth the price of admission alone.

Theology truly is a science, and theologians should act more like scientists. One problem is that theological theories have seldom been testable. Simulated worlds can change that. Interactive simulated worlds have the capability of being laboratories for testing philosophical, existential, ethical, and theological propositions in ways that have not been possible in generations past. This is especially true for simulated worlds that allow for emergent behavior or emergent gameplay, like Second Life, Minecraft, EVE Online, Dwarf Fortress, and other examples.

Are we not all players in the structured sandbox that God designed?

The Psychological Need for Aesthetic Beauty

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Sometimes it is hard to reconcile the natural beauty of creation with the spiritual call to not love the world or the things of the world, and to instead long for a heavenly country. Now, not to say anything about natural disasters, corrupt civilizations, or human depravity and suffering, there is within most of us a deep reaction to the remaining beauty of the created world: a breath-taking sunset, autumn colors at their peak, the vista from a mountaintop, etc.

In the creation story found in Genesis, what God created at the beginning of human history was good. More than that, it was “very good” (Genesis 1:31). As part of God’s original design, he “planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed” (Genesis 2:8). Sometimes we assume that this was a wild, sprawling rain forest – we picture Adam being fully in touch with primordial nature like Tarzan. However, cultural studies of the Ancient Near East indicate that such concepts of Paradise have more in common with walled-in private (even botanical) gardens. Indeed, being left out alone in the wild of our planet as we know it today is not usually a pleasant experience – it is a struggle for survival against the elements.

Rather than untamed jungle in the Garden of Eden, we see the intersection of Nature and Design. “And out of the ground Yahweh Elohim made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food” (Genesis 2:9). The Creator not only provided physical nourishment for the first humans, but also aesthetic pleasure – perhaps we could consider this psychological nourishment. Research does indicate that colors can affect our mood. The concept behind ‘seasonal affective disorder’ is that seasonal changes such as cold, gray, short winter days can impact our emotions and behaviors. Whatever the case may be, scripture notes that God specifically chose flora “pleasant to the sight” to be in the Paradise of his design. There is a human need to experience beauty.