Theologians often warn that in the absence of God, alternative deities will inevitably swoop in to fill in the void. Humans, they say, need something to worship. Perhaps more than that, they need a grander story, something that puts their own lives in a broader context and which makes sense out of a sometimes strange and contradictory world.
So far as I can tell, the biggest contender in the aftermath of the collapse of Christianity is… Christianity.
Paganism they say is growing too, but I suspect that it will plateau after a certain point (much to my own chagrin). The moral defaults of our society are too firmly set for any dramatic, cultural shift to happen in that direction. At least not in our lifetime.
But there is a new worldview that is taking hold among the internet-intelligentsia crowd — including the likes of Scott Adams, Elon Musk, Neil Degrasse Tyson (and possibly Joe Rogan and Logan Paul). It is called “simulation theory.”
Originally argued by philosopher Nick Bostrom in 2003, the idea is that is is far more likely than not that we are living in a simulation. We are approaching a point in technology where we can essentially live digital lives in simulated worlds. In a world in which such technology was more refined, then these simulations would feel like real life… not that it would matter, since if you only ever lived in the simulation, you wouldn’t know what “real life” was. In such a world, there would only be one “real” world, but many — perhaps infinite — simulated worlds. Thus, our own experience of life is statistically far more likely to be a simulated world than real.
The only necessary premise is the belief that technology to produce a believable simulation could exist.
As entertaining as the theory is, I don’t feel interested in — or able to — address it directly. Rather, I’d like to look at the mindset — the “spirit” — that prime someone to be open to such a belief. After all, even if it was true, it is a very difficult thing for people to truly believe that none of the things that their own senses tell them are happening are actually happening.
I think that it would take a particular and unusual state of mind simply to be open to simulation theory.
What state of mind might that be?
For starters, I think that if you feel as if your body isn’t really you and life isn’t really real, that might be a primer.
I wrote about depersonalization and derealization syndrome(s) a couple years ago, as they relate to internet usage and the increasingly digital experience of life that we live.
(Quick summary: “depersonalization syndrome” describes a pathology in which the subject feels as if their body isn’t their own; “derealization syndrome” is when the subject feels as if the world around them isn’t real.)
But whether or not internet usage is related to the experiences of depersonalization and derealization, I think the latter pair (derealization in particular) might connected to the belief that we are living in a simulation. After all, the world feels like a simulation already… if you are experiencing this pathology.
Derealization syndrome seems to exist on a kind of scale, wherein you can experience the feeling sometimes, or persistently; vaguely or strongly. If we assume that internet usage has some relationship with derealization, then we would expect increased internet usage — particularly video games, social media, and other “simulated life” applications — to correspond with increasing experiences of derealization in the public, as well as increased intensity of the experience for those who perhaps already had it.
But in addition to the internet, I would like two throw in three additional hypothetical causes for derealization, which correspond with modern living and the emergence of simulation theory:
I have only hallucinated once in my life, and it was after intense sleep deprivation when I was in my early teens. I was walking to school and literally saw space marines in a nearby park. I knew they weren’t really there, even as I saw them, and the vision disappeared after about 15 seconds, but sleep deprivation would also — like the internet — tend to break the experience of continuity and causation in our day-to-day life, and cause us to go about our affairs feeling as though things are just “happening,” which would make the world feel strange and dreamlike. Even “unreal.”
The use of mind-altering drugs is an ancient and almost universal human practice. But the 20th and 21st century brought populations together and spread a wide variety of drugs to a broad range of users. Suddenly, drugs were no longer just one thing (every tribe had their own drug — perhaps mescaline, perhaps weed, perhaps just tobacco) but a grocery aisle of options for how to fuck with your brain in different ways. And with this change in variety and accessibility, drug use became recreational. Hallucinogens like psilocybin, LSD, MDMA, and dissociatives like PCP, ketamine, and salvia give temporary trips, but the memory of those trips, or how those trips made the psychonaut feel, can last much longer. The feeling of unreality, or that the world before the trip was unreal (or perhaps of losing track of which is which) is exactly the sort of experience that might prime someone later to be open to simulation theory.
Digital porn is a fascinating and insidiously terrifying development, in terms of the internet and its impositions upon the human brain. Sexual arousal is a physical phenomenon, but it is triggered by psychological association. More time spent getting that stimulus from the internet associates that physical reality (one’s lived experience) with the digital space, making it “more real.” Tragically, this often comes at a cost in terms of being able to feel that arousal in real life (i.e., erectile dysfunction), making real life feel “less real”… at least so far as the body is concerned.
Between these three distinctly modern habits and internet usage in general, we have a recipe for more and more people experiences more frequent and greater degrees of derealization. This increasing feeling of separation from reality would prime people to be more open to the world just being a simulation, because it would confirm what their body had already been experiencing.
So far as I can tell, our collective cultural susceptibility to belief in the Simulation is a symptom of our disconnected and over-digitalized modern lifestyle. Perhaps it is a symptom of derealization syndrome.
Simulation theory could be correct, but perhaps it would still be unhealthy to believe in it… and wouldn’t that be a less fun way to enjoy the simulation anyhow?
Wouldn’t it be better to embrace it entirely, rather than to have the distant eye of the critic or the analyst?