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Oct 13 2013

The Simulation Hypothesis and Religion: Part 2 – The God Module

In Part 1 (Animism) of my series on the Simulation Hypotheses and Religion I explored some means by which a simulated world, containing Artificial Intelligences called ‘humans’, might exhibit the characteristics of Animist belief; including ‘spirits’ and ‘supernatural connections’ between things.

(If you haven’t read part 1 yet, go and read it now. If you haven’t also read my essay ‘The Consequences of The Simulation Hypothesis‘ you might want to start there.)

Here in part 2 I am going to explore a significant difference between believing in spirits and believing in gods. In fact I think there are at least two major differences and they boil down to ‘side-effects versus intent’ and ‘reason versus faith’. I also think those two differences combine into a third factor I call ‘the god module’.

In the case of side-effects versus intent, a simulation exhibiting some of the consequences of spirits and other supernatural forces might come about by accident, as a side-effect of the way the simulation is implemented. (Details in part 1.) In this case I am saying it is possible the supernatural was not intended by the designers of the simulation, but exists in the simulation with real consequences nonetheless.

However, although it is possible gods might exist as a side-effect it seems unlikely such a significant bug would escape the designer(s). In fact gods have such a immense effect on human societies I cannot believe gods would be anything but an intentional part of the simulation; whether we are talking about a ‘god game’ or some other type of simulation.

In the case of reason versus faith, you might come to believe in spirits because observation combined with experimentation might lead you to connect the local causes to non-local effects via such supernatural conduits. In other words, you might believe in spirits not so much out of faith as out of direct experience; even when that experience is not always something you receive immediately through the standard five senses. This even fits into the scientific method to some extent: you develop a hypothesis (things have spirits) and come up with a way to test it (asking the favor of the deer spirit before the hunt) and, if it works, you continue to use ask that favor and believe in that spirit even though your hunting success might have been coincidental. (Humans have a problem with that.)

What I am saying is that you don’t need faith to believe in a spirit. That, in fact, it should be possible to reason your way into a belief in spirits. That, if you are in a simulation exhibiting some of the consequences of spirits and other supernatural forces, no matter what the reason, it is perfectly reasonable and rational to have that belief because you have solid evidence backing it.

But for gods it is more difficult to have a direct experience. Certainly human mythology includes many instances of humans interacting with gods, but take a closer look at those stories. How many of them feature a god doing godly things right in front of a human audience versus how many feature a god pretending to be a human or other animal when among humans? (Often for prurient reasons.) If you can’t answer my question, take my word for it: the numbers do not even compare.

This means, in the one documented reality we have (assuming this reality is a simulation, which is not a given), the operant rules are such that gods do not generally stride about in full view of the human population, slinging thunderbolts and generally acting, well, like gods. They can perform reality-alterations in real time (miracles) and clearly have enormous power. But they seem to also have limitations, most likely imposed by the simulation, that reduce the chance humans would come to a belief in gods through reason alone.

You could argue that a belief in gods is simply an extension of animist belief, via ancestor worship, to a supernatural form of humans. And this argument makes sense if we do live in a purely physical realm. But it doesn’t account for one other factor: the god module.

The god module is my name for the part(s) of the human brain that create a religious experience in human beings. This religious experience is difficult to define, but is quite real for those capable of it. This experience is often arrived at through prayer or meditation, but may also be invoked by certain drugs. Some humans appear to be more talented at this than others and can have this experience even in mundane settings with no preparation. Others appear to have no talent at all and never have this experience.

At this point I am going to abandon my usual supercilious/pedantic manner and make a confession: I have experienced the action of the god module myself! I know what it feels like and I know that it is not just a euphoria or bliss. It definitely involves a feeling you are connected to something greater than yourself; something both non-human and compassionate. Something you could describe as God or a god and not be outside the common definition of such.

In fact I have had this experience multiple times in multiple settings and I can attest it is is difficult to believe there is not some kind of god after you have been to that mental place. Whether you are connecting to ‘the all’ in a pantheist sense or to a singular god (be it a monotheistic god or one selected from a pantheon) or to alien grays in a flying saucer is a matter of personal belief. But there is no doubt that this experience reinforces your faith in that belief. In my opinion, the ‘god module’ experience is the source of the non-rational kind of faith that persists even in the face of a reality that doesn’t otherwise support the underlying belief.

In other words, humans have actual brain structures that reinforce a faith in godly beings. I don’t know about you, but it leads me to ask why? I accept that it might have occurred by accident, through the action of evolution in a physical reality. But, if you postulate that our reality is a simulation and that the simulation features gods, then you are immediately taken back to the question of ‘intent’. You have to ask if we are designed to have faith in gods.

(Once again, let me stress that this is me riffing on a cool idea. I am neither expressing a personal belief nor intending that you should believe it yourself. Please do us all a favor and start from a firm grounding on a physical reality entirely explainable by science. Seriously!)

(I should also point out another belief you can entertain after having a ‘god module’ experience: that a neurological phenomenon, induced by drugs or self hypnosis, can cause you to feel as though you are connected to something that doesn’t exist. That the experience is a special case of hallucination and probably best avoided.)