If you haven’t heard of Elon Musk, you should read up on him. A brilliant space engineer and CEO and creator of the Tesla car, he recently put forth an interesting theory.
The man behind Tesla Motors, Hyperloop and SpaceX thinks the chance of us not being inside an advanced civilisation’s gigantic virtual reality simulation right now is “one in billions”.
IGN quotes him directly:
“Forty years ago we had pong. Like, two rectangles and a dot. That was what games were. Now, 40 years later, we have photorealistic, 3D simulations with millions of people playing simultaneously, and it’s getting better every year. Soon we’ll have virtual reality, augmented reality.
“If you assume any rate of improvement at all, then the games will become indistinguishable from reality, even if that rate of advancement drops by a thousand from what it is now. Then you just say, okay, let’s imagine it’s 10,000 years in the future, which is nothing on the evolutionary scale.
“So given that we’re clearly on a trajectory to have games that are indistinguishable from reality, and those games could be played on any set-top box or on a PC or whatever, and there would probably be billions of such computers or set-top boxes, it would seem to follow that the odds that we’re in base reality is one in billions.”
Sounds pretty crazy. An intriguing idea, made concrete and thrilling in films like The Matrix and Inception, with dreams within dreams and simulations within simulations. And in a way, eerily similar to our own theology.
Don’t see it? Let me explain with an excerpt from The Hero Doctrine:
There is something in the end of Christopher Nolan’s film Inception that is worth discussing in this light. No, not the spinning top, the endless questions of what is real and what is not—I’m talking about the scene in the airplane at the ending of the dream, when Cobb has found Saito, and all of the crew begin to wake up. If you can remember that scene, focus with me on Cobb as he opens his eyes after a lifetime lived in dreams below, as those disconcerted eyes flit madly back and forth, taking in everything he knew before, seeing “things as they really are” (Jacob 4:13). In your mind’s eye, watch as, over just a few seconds’ time, he remembers all he once knew, the life he had forgotten, the life that had led him into the dream world in the first place, to the quest to improve his existence, to complete it, all so he could ultimately return to the family he had been forced to leave long ago.
Every time I watch that film I am struck by those first few seconds of waking, when a lifetime of memory pours back into his mind all at once. I don’t think I’m alone in saying I’ve experienced something similar in waking from my own dreams, as things as they really are fly back through my fluttering eyelids.
Now, again in your mind’s eye, watch as Cobb’s gaze falls onto Saito, the man he made a special promise with—one could call it a covenant. As Saito’s eyes lock onto Cobb’s, more memories flood into their minds and we can see Saito’s near-instantaneous remembrance of their deal, the agreement that gave meaning to the whole dream experience. Immediately as Saito wakes and remembers, he makes that precious phone call that would mercifully free Cobb from the constricting binds of justice, to honor the plan that had been agreed to before the dream began.
Do you see it now? Do you see the crucial parallel with our own experience of that transition called death? My friend Korance Goodwin pointed out this little parable to me. Think of the moment when we leave mortality and awaken back in the spirit world, the realm from which we came. I think it might be very like what Inception shows us. Would it be so different from waking up in the afterlife, from feeling the veil finally brushed aside as we grasp hands with God and enter eternity, as we return to our true home? I think, as the preponderance of memory comes rushing back into our minds, our faces might look something like the faces of Cobb and Saito, eyes darting back and forth across the halls of heaven, remembering the past eternity we spent in God’s household all at once. Especially as we once more take on that eternal perspective, looking back on our mortal life in context of the pre-mortal life we descended from. We would probably think of the people we knew before, and what we know of them now; of how many promises we kept, and how many we didn’t keep; of the things we’ve done and the words we’ve uttered that we can never take back; and more importantly, of the covenants we made, and the covenants we broke. And think of that deal we made with our Heavenly Father before we came to earth, the agreement He is bound to honor if we repented and sincerely tried to follow His path.
Will we look back in the context of that agreement in horror and shame, with weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth? Will we be filled with regret? Or will we feel joy, that perfect sense of relief and peace as we remember that we gave all we had to give, did all we had to do?
Suppose Cobb had failed in his test. When that plane landed he would be instantly arrested and thrown in jail for the rest of his life. Permanent imprisonment. But Cobb didn’t fail; he did what he needed to do, and as a result he was blessed with freedom from the chains that once mercilessly held him bound.
The next time you watch that movie (which should be soon), watch with your spiritual eyes. There’s a lot there.
But there’s another aspect to this little parable, and it is what I want to focus on in this chapter. Still bearing in mind that same parallel, in which waking from mortal life will be like waking from a dream, remember the whole sequence of dream levels that comprises the better part of the movie, and recall how much violence there is. Think of the shoot-outs, the fistfights, the explosions, the car chases, the bloodshed. Characters get shot, stabbed, strangled. Think of Saito being wounded in the chest, and the hosts of human-like mental projections killed, extinguished, and the massive scale of destruction in each of the dream worlds.
And then remember that they are in fact merely dream worlds. None of it is real, or lasting. The bloodshed and carnage end, and they eventually wake up in that plane perfectly intact, physically speaking. All the suffering and strife are gone, erased, and frankly only imagined to begin with. The players in this story are once again whole. The only thing that has truly changed is their minds—or we could also say, their souls.
We undergo the same kind of violence in this life. Debilitating disorders, broken bones, strokes and starvation, cancers and comas, hunger and heart attacks—all leading hopelessly to death, for each and every one of us. Truly it can be said that we live in a sphere of violence and decay. But, just like in Inception, all that pain and heartbreak, the scars caused by the inherent suffering of everyday life, is temporary, impermanent, and can and will be wiped away, and rendered significant only in how much it changed that part of us that is eternal.
Though we are not dreaming, per se, we are certainly in a world that is sectioned off from eternal reality, one from which we will one day wake up. And, as the article puts it, we are essentially “inside an advanced civilization’s gigantic virtual reality simulation.” What else is God but a spiritually and intellectually and metaphysically advanced Being who is cultivating a garden of souls in what is essentially a simulation where no harm is permanent to rise up and be like Him?
The story of 2001: A Space Odyssey (both novel and film) also posits we humans are the workmanship of the hands of advanced society that lives elsewhere in the universe. My favorite film of all time, Interstellar, depicts the same thing, except Nolan gets it closer: in his film, the advanced society is us from the future, able to reach back because time is irrelevant at their stage of existence. It’s a vision of humanity’s potential that lines up dramatically with the gospel’s.
Neal A. Maxwell:
If, on occasion, you notice the strange encapsulation we call time, you’ll understand it’s not our natural dimension. The birds are at home in the air. They don’t think about how to fly. Fish are at home in the water. They don’t think about how to swim. It’s natural. But you and I are cocooned, as it were, in this dimension we call time. And it’s not our natural dimension. So it is, we’re always wishing we could hasten the passage of time or to hold back the dawn. And we can’t do either. We’re uncomfortable with time because we belong to eternity. If we were comfortable with time, we wouldn’t have clocks on the wall and calendars and wristwatches. It is not our natural dimension, so time will whisper to you, in the words of another hymn, that you’re a stranger here.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: science gets God. They just don’t know it yet.