One of the laboratory procedures we teach to first-year general chemistry students involves measuring the wavelengths of the visible emission spectra of several elements including hydrogen, helium, neon, and mercury. I begin my class with a short, non-conventional lecture that includes the trailer from The Matrix. It is fitting to introduce the basic principles of quantum mechanics with this bit of wisdom from Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), as he explains to Neo (Keanu Reeves) what the Matrix is: “The Matrix is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.” As Neo awakens to this horror, Morpheus adds, “Welcome to the real world.”
We end this lab with a discussion about electrons, photons, and the uncertainty surrounding their behavior. Are they particles or waves? How do electrons jump from one energy level to another?
Werner Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle would remind us of the futility of being certain of anything at this level of granularity. The eminent physicist Richard Feynman has famously said, “I think I can safely say that nobody really understands quantum mechanics.”1 And Erwin Schrödinger, whose elegant wave equation describes the wave-like nature of the electron, when asked to explain the particle-like nature of matter, replied, “I am as little prepared to answer that as to tell you where Sancho Panza’s second donkey came from.”2
The simulation portrayed in The Matrix was a computer program developed by a race of AI machines that ran amok and wiped out much of humanity in the ensuing war. Those humans that remained were living in a computer simulation, deceived into believing it was the real world when in fact they were in incubators, supplying electrochemical energy to the AI machines. Though the movie is entertaining science fiction, in our own lived reality truth is often stranger than fiction. The idea that we are living in a simulation is one that has been seriously kicked around by some philosophical heavyweights, long before this movie appeared on the big screen. And it makes for a beautiful faith integration.
Perhaps the oldest and most famous simulation hypothesis is Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, in which the philosopher expounded on the nature of belief versus knowledge.
The allegory begins with prisoners who have lived their entire lives chained inside a cave. Behind the prisoners is a fire, and between the fire and the prisoners are people carrying puppets or other objects. These cast shadows on the opposite wall. The prisoners watch these shadows, believing this to be their reality as they’ve known nothing else.3
One conclusion we can derive from this allegory is that “…[E]ach human being perceives a physical world that is but a poor imitation of a more real world.”4
Some 2,000 years later, Rene Descartes proposed his Evil Demon Hypothesis which gave him reason to believe a demon with “utmost power and cunning… employed all his energies in order to deceive me.” He says:
I shall think that the sky, the air, the earth, colours, shapes, sounds and all external things are merely the delusions of dreams which he has devised to ensnare my judgement. I shall consider myself as not having hands or eyes, or flesh, or blood or senses, but as falsely believing that I have all these things.
And, more recently still, Frankfurt Institute Research Fellow Sabine Hossenfelder characterized the simulation hypothesis as “having been coded by an intelligent being,” suggesting:
[W]e are part of that computer code. The opinion that we live in some kind of computation in and by itself is not an outrageous claim. For all we currently know, the laws of nature are mathematical, so you could say the universe is really just computing those laws. You may find this terminology a little weird, and I would agree, but it’s not controversial. The controversial bit about the simulation hypothesis is that it assumes there is another level of reality where some being or some thing controls what we believe are the laws of nature, or even interferes with those laws.5
Read any introductory chemistry textbook and you will learn that atoms, and hence matter, are mostly empty space. Electrons occupy orbitals termed wave functionsthat are relatively distant from a very dense nucleus. Mass is the result of the interaction of an electromagnetic field—the Higgs Field, with Higgs bosons—relatively large sub-atomic particles that themselves have wave-like properties. Discovered in 2012 and dubbed The God Particle, “without . . . the Higgs boson and the Higgs field . . . no particles would have mass. That means no stars, no planets, and no us—something which may help warrant its hyperbolic nickname.”6
Last semester, as my students were leaving the lab after a wrap-up discussion of quantum phenomena and the nature of reality, one stopped by my desk to continue the conversation. She finally said matter-of-factly, “I believe that we are living in a simulation.” Given the tenuous nature of reality at the quantum level, a reality that we experience and interpret with sensors that themselves operate at the quantum level, I found it hard to argue with her.
As a scientist, I know our eyes receive photons in the visible region of the electromagnetic spectrum. A subsequent cascade of biochemical reactions and the phenomenon of quantum mechanical tunneling is then responsible for what we call vision. Similarly, our ears interpret disturbances (sound waves) in the atmosphere and our noses detect odiferous molecules when they alight on olfactory cells and produce electrical signals interpreted by the brain. In the same fashion, the nerves in our skin determine such parameters as shape, wetness, force and heat, itself another electromagnetic wave.
My student’s characterization of reality as a simulation reminded me of a verse, quoted here from the New Living Translation: “We now have this light shining in our hearts, but we ourselves are like fragile clay jars containing this great treasure. This makes it clear that our great power is from God, not from ourselves” (2 Cor 4:7). Depending on which version of the Bible you read, we humans are characterized as wayfarers, strangers, aliens, foreigners, temporary residents, sojourners, exiles and pilgrims. Indeed, we are beings with eternal souls inhabiting complex, biochemical machines of flesh for a brief moment in time.
The Bible teaches that the Earth in its current form is not as it was originally intended, having been cursed by sin, nor is it as it will be in the future when transformed into a new heavens and Earth, (Revelation 21). And, behind the Earthly curtain of this present age is an unseen spirit world, inhabited by angels and demons: “Principalities, Powers, and Rulers of Darkness,” (Ephesians 6:12).
What we term reality—the visible things we see and hear and touch—are characterized by the Bible as temporary, a façade, things that will pass away. That said, it is important to note that this is not deliberate deceit, since the Bible distinguishes between the visible and the invisible, the temporal and the eternal, the things of this world and of the world to come.
If you find all this difficult to wrap your brain around, you’re in good company. The New Testament for Everyone explains, “For at the moment all that we can see are puzzling reflections in a mirror,” (1Corinthians 13:12). The Message puts it like this: “We don’t yet see things clearly. We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist.”
Jesus Christ entered into this world as a trans-dimensional being. He assumed human form miraculously through a virgin birth in a process termed the incarnation. He told his followers that His kingdom was “not of this world… but… from another place,” (John 18:36). He made good on this claim when his tomb was found empty three days after his death and subsequently during the next 40 days, when he was seen by over 500 eyewitnesses (1 Corinthians 1-11). It was reported that during this time, He spoke to people, carried on conversations (Luke 24: 13-35), ate with His disciples (John 21:1-17), and possessed the ability to suddenly appear out of thin air or pass through solid matter (Luke 24:36).
As I have attempted to practically demonstrate in the above discourse, The Collaborative and Interactionist View of natural science and biblical faith states that “both the natural sciences and theology have something to say about the universe. There is no intrinsic contradiction between them insomuch as they are properly articulated.”7 Therefore, as leaders in Christian institutions of higher education, it is our God-given responsibility to affirm this harmonious view of the marriage between natural science and our faith. For those within the hard sciences, this may mean entertaining the types of questions and discussions raised herein, but the bigger lesson is for all educators in all disciplines. As we look for opportunities to integrate faith into the courses we teach, it is equally important that we articulate them properly, even if “we’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist.”
Welcome to the Real World.
1 Sean Carroll, “Even Physicists Don’t Understand Quantum Mechanics,” The New York Times, September 7, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/07/opinion/sunday/quantum-physics.html.
2 Erwin Schrödinger, “What Is Matter?” The Scientific American, Nobel Prize Winning Authors Volume II, (This article was condensed from a lecture entitled “Our Conception of Matter,” given by Professor Schrödinger in 1952 at a conference in Geneva organized by the Recontres Internacionales de Geneve.)
3 Mike Bedard, “Plato’s Allegory of the Cave — Summary & Meaning Explained,” Studio Binder, May 15, 2022.
4 Anam Lodhi, “Education and Plato’s Allegory of the Cave,” Thoughts And Ideas, June 21, 2017.
5 Sabine Hossenfelder, “Is This Real Life? Do We Live in a Computer Simulation or Not?” Literary Hub,August 11, 2022.
6 Robert Lea, “Higgs boson: The ‘God Particle’ explained,” Space.com, June 30, 2022.
7 David Haines, “Does Science Conflict with Biblical Faith?” The Comprehensive Guide to Science and Faith, Harvest House Publishers, Eugene Oregon, 2021, p. 68.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by the Christian Scholar’s Review on September 12, 2022 and is republished here with permission.
Image: denisismagilov, Adobe Stock