Reality and Simulation

I often fall back to a basic understanding of video games or simulated worlds on a computer as an analogy for our own metaphysics. I used to be a gaming addict, but since overcoming that I still remain a fan of the occasional PlayStation title. When it comes to the comparison to metaphysics, how the simulated object is generated and sustained reflects more of a Platonic quality rather than an Aristotelian quality. And further beyond even the basic metaphysics, it can provide insight into how God operates with our world.

I boot up a video game and enter the game world. Within that world, all objects are generated from code that is contained within the game’s files. This code provides the blueprint of what an object in the game is, how it is supposed to act, appear, sound, it is the very essence of the simulated object, its form. When the object is generated within the game world, it operates according to its programming which is provided by its code. And contingent upon the power of the computer system, it will attempt to generate the most perfect version of that code that it can. Now, this is a purely Platonic relationship between matter and form. Where the form is the code and the matter are the polygons or pixels that render the object. The code is not found within the generated object itself, but within the data files of the game. Therefore, that code is not immanent to the object rendered.

Aristotle argues that the forms of all things are immanently tied to their corporeal form. Yet this is not the case when it comes to the game, as the simulated object does not in and of itself provide the code to be rendered. Rather, the code is housed in a separate part of the computer which it draws from. So too does Plato argue the same for reality, where the forms of creatures are contained within a separate plane rather than contained within the creature itself. Plato proposed that there was a separate reality which consisted of pure forms, but St. Augustine further developed this idea based upon the Platonism of Plotinus and situated the realm of form within the Mind of God. And in the analogy above, this is possible, as the computer is the “god” of the simulated world as it actualizes the code into computer-generated objects.

But is this true? Or would the mind of the programmer be “god” as he constructed the code itself using the computer? The computer is thus simply the medium which renders the code. Therefore, while the code itself is not immanent to the simulated object, it is still contained within the computer itself (i.e. material creation.) As the programmer is not contingent upon the computer for his own existence, he develops the code and determines how it is to behave. He is separate from the computer-generated world, he transcends the world contained in the computer but still can act within it. Yet he does not directly interact with the digital world himself, but through the means provided by the computer. Sure, he could reach out an hit the computer or pull the plug, but this does not change the very code of the program (apart from damaging the computer which renders it.)

Console commands in the video game Skyrim

Since the programmer transcends the computer itself, he is not able to directly interact with it. He can alter the code so that the programs operate efficiently and correctly, but he does not physically enter the computer space to do so. If he sought to do this, he could create his own player character, or avatar, and enter the game world through them. The will of the programmer would be united with his actions through the avatar. Where he is the avatar within the game world, yet the avatar has its own form and is comprised of the matter of the game world; polygons or pixels. In this way he could play-test the world and determine just where the problems arise and since he transcends this world he can manipulate it through means that those within the game would not be capable of doing. He can open a debug menu and drop objects into the game, change the appearance of objects, even change the very nature of these objects so that they behave contrary to their original programming.

The relationship between the programmer and the computer-generated world is very much like that of God and creation. Where God transcends the world but can act within it. He can even take the form of one of His creatures and interact directly with His creation through that creature, taking upon Himself their form. And this corporeal form is subject to the limitations of creation, yet the Creator can suspend these limitations and operate however He so wills. He can change water to wine, raise the dead, or even cause His body to ascend into sky. Since God is not subject to His creation, He is able to act in whatever way He sees fit. The analogy just has the difference of the nature of contingency. Where the programmer has things outside of himself that he is subject to, and the computer has its own contingencies, God is the Source Himself. He sustains the medium for creation, He powers it, He directs it, He writes it.

Now, this idea has much in common with the secular theory of a computer-generated reality. And that’s because what they are proposing is essentially the same thing that theism professes, which is a Creator of this world that transcends the world. Whether we call Him a computer, a programmer, or God makes no difference in our relationship to Him. Our entire existence is directed and depends upon the form that we are given, the rules and laws of our reality, which are all determined by a Transcendent Being. So we have a choice to operate within the bounds that have been set by us, like the Commandments of God and the example of Christ, or we can act contrary to this nature and suffer the effects thereof. The difference between us and a simulated object is that we have a free will in the matter. And we can ultimately transcend the very creation itself through the Power and Majesty of God.

Holy Trinity, One God, have mercy on us!

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