Are we living in a computer simulation? This computer scientist says world religions might have the answer

Serious academics have been speculating whether reality is a sophisticated, computer-generated simulation. Writer Rizwan Virk says religions around the world have long held the key to understanding how that might work.
(LEON NEAL/AFP via Getty Images)

Computer scientist Rizwan Virk believes that all of humanity lives in a computer simulation and, as far-fetched as it sounds, he's not alone. 

Serious academics have come to similar conclusions, including Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom and a German computer scientist, often called the "Father of Artificial Intelligence", Jürgen Schmidhuber. 

While few agree on the exact nature of the simulation, they all agree that it's more likely than not that what we perceive as the world is not real. 

Instead, they believe we live in a universe more closely resembling the movie The Matrix or the video game The Sims — a world that feels real to the characters living in it and fundamentally indistinguishable from a "real" reality. 

At the end of that we accumulate a set of tasks that we have to do in the future. It's called karma.- Rizwan Virk

Author of The Simulation Hypothesis, Virk told Tapestry's Mary Hynes that though these researchers might be coming to this conclusion recently, religion has long held the key to understanding the nature of a simulated reality. 

Riz Virk (submitted by Riz Virk)

"In the Qur'an … they say there's two angels that are writing down all of your deeds and that there's something called the scroll of deeds. And so you have to review it after your life," said Virk, comparing that accounting to a final score in a video game. 

Though Abrahamic religions like Judaism, Islam and Christianity have theological parallels to how a simulation might work, Eastern faiths have long held onto the idea that reality is a kind of illusion.

"Explicitly in Hinduism and Buddhism they tell us that the physical world around us is 'maya' or illusion or what the Hindu Vedas call the Lila or the grand play and that we play a role in this stage play," said Virk. 

"At the end of that we accumulate a set of tasks that we have to do in the future. It's called karma."

Virk argued that religion might be the result of people peeking beyond the physical world to see its simulated state. 

"My contention is that most religions started when somebody peeked outside the simulation, they saw what was out there," Virk said. "They came back and used whatever terminology they had at the time to try to describe what was going on." 

All of this precludes that it is possible to build a simulation so advanced that it is indistinguishable from reality. That may not be possible in the short term, but Virk argues that 100 years from now it might be. 

A search for the real world

Skepticism about the nature of reality goes at least as far back as ancient Greece, in the Western tradition. Plato, for example, developed the allegory of the cave which tells the story of people who are imprisoned from birth in a cave and only know reality from shadows on the wall.

Many scientists disagree with the thought experiment at the simulation argument's core. As of yet, it's impossible to test if reality is simulated by any empirical measurement, and therefore impossible to prove. 

It's like the scientific argument against God. A lack of empirical evidence doesn't disprove that God exists, but it also can't prove He does exist. All a person can have is faith. 

Simulation as religion

Whether or not you believe in the simulation theory, you can still benefit from the thought exercise.

Virk said that over the last few years he's come to embrace the simulation argument more and more, partly because it allows him to ask bigger questions. 

For example, why does the simulation exist? Virk said that the exact nature of the simulation could have hugely different outcomes. 

"Some people think the point of the simulation is to see what will happen like — Will we destroy the planet? Or will we destroy ourselves?" said Virk, adding in this model the simulation is more like a weather forecast, trying to predict the possible outcomes for a species. 

Virk said he believes in a different vision of the simulation, one where most people are not simulated, but are instead avatars — like playable characters in a video game. In that case, there might be people playing outside the simulated world. 

Determining the purpose of the game could help guide a person in their life or guide humanity towards a better future. Virk said it's a question he often poses to himself. 

"With modern video games, we have different quests and different roles to play," said Virk. 

"So I would ask people to think about 'What is your quest?' What are the difficulties that you're facing? And what are the things that you feel called to do that are uniquely you that other people don't necessarily feel called to do?"

Yet, if reality isn't real and if life is more like a video game, some might respond with nihilism — that nothing actually matters. 

Virk argues that this isn't the case. Just because life is a simulation, doesn't mean people can shirk  their responsibilities.

And if there is an after-simulation, a person's score, good deeds or karma within the simulation could have a lasting impact. 

Virk likened it to an athlete being on and off the field. The game might not matter for the nature of reality, but whether the athlete wins or loses can have a material impact on their life. 

"They become champions of the league. It affects their financial position. It affects what they're going to do next in their careers. And it's kind of like that — just because it's simulated world doesn't mean it's not real from our perspective."