Elon Musk, the billionaire inventor and entrepreneur, the twenty-first century’s answer to Howard Hughes, believes we are living in a computer simulation. The chances that we exist in ‘base reality’ are billions to one, he says.
Last week he told an audience of Silicon Valley tech evangelists:
‘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.’
His argument - that, given the increasing pace of progress in computer technology, we will eventually be able to synthesise reality and consciousness - is an abbreviated version of a 2003 paper by Nick Bostrom, a philosophy Professor at Oxford.
The paper suggests that if we aren’t living in a simulation, civilisation will end before we are able to reach the ‘posthuman’ age. The detail and the terminology isn’t important; the idea is bunkum, the sort of thing that’s fun to think about on psilocybin, but not much use otherwise.
What’s interesting is the way in which atheists are embracing the idea - or at least the possibility - of creationism. If we are living in a simulation, someone or something had to create it. True believers regard Bostrom’s trilemma with the same reverence thirteenth-century seminarians treated Thomas Aquinas’s Five Proofs.
Seven hundred years later, the Summa Theologica is no longer considered proof of anything. Perhaps one day progress in computing will reach a barrier that is currently impossible to foresee, and the idea that we are living in a simulation will seem as ill-informed.
It is a tired argument, but Atheists are increasingly behaving like members of a religious sect. There is factionalism and infighting amongst them. They have icons; Spinoza, Darwin, Dawkins (and something close to a martyr in Christopher Hitchens). And now they can choose to believe in a creator.
A prominent academic who had a public debate with one of the Four Horsemen tells me that enthusiastic supporters were bussed in to the event. They were told when to applaud and what questions to ask. This sort of monastic discipline is rarely seen outside the context of organised religion.
Atheists don’t believe in a God, but they believe we are gods, or have the potential to be. In Homo Deus, Yuval Harari's sequel to 2014’s international bestseller Sapiens, he argues that humans of the future will overcome death. Or, as the cover strapline puts it: ‘What made us sapiens will make us gods’.
If atheists are embracing Gods and creationism, the transformation from movement to religion is complete. But since the word atheism literally means ‘without God’, a neologism is required. Agnostic doesn’t quite fit. Neither does Unitarian. Toby Young suggests ‘Creathiest’. If you can do better, leave a comment.