A ‘Model’ of the Supernatural

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In a previous article called ‘The supernatural is a logical implication of Naturalism’ I introduced the idea of being able to create a virtual universe with intelligent entities in reference to which we as humans will be supernatural.

I want to elaborate a little further on this idea since I will be referencing it time and again in other articles. One of the biggest problems with discussions about the supernatural is that the supernatural is something we have no way of relating to. There is nothing in the natural world we can use as an illustration of what the supernatural is like. We each create our own mental picture of what we mean when we use the term and then have debates contrasting one person’s imagination against another’s. In my opinion, while this problem might have been understandable back in the middle ages, it is no longer acceptable today in the computer age.

Most people these days are familiar with video games and have seen the elaborate virtual worlds that video game designers are able to create. However, the kind of game where a person uses a joystick to move an avatar on the screen is not exactly what I am talking about here. If one avatar were to dissect another one, they would see nothing that would explain why an avatar looks and acts in a certain way. They are simply cartoons animated on a screen.

Instead, I am talking about a virtual universe that was engineered to function as a product of several fundamental forces. Our own universe can, for the most part, be boiled down to four fundamental forces (Electromagnetism, Gravity, Strong and Weak Nuclear) which can explain virtually everything else we observe.

I could be wrong but I believe we have the technology today to create a virtual universe that is programmed to follow a set of basic laws that we come up with which can be either similar or very different than the fundamental forces of our own universe. It might take some trial and error to calibrate these forces so as to prevent this virtual universe from collapsing in on itself. And, there’s probably a limit to the complexity such a universe would be able to reach with our current technology. But the potential here is limitless and it definitely makes for a good Theoretical Model to use in our discussions about the supernatural.

When it comes to the human mind, science still has a long way to go before it can fully understand how the mechanics of the brain account for our ‘personhood.’ But, even this is something it likely WILL figure out someday. And, when it does, we will be able to reverse engineer the brain and create similar machines in the real world or the virtual. And, if by that time we have managed to develop a stable version of the virtual universe described in the previous paragraph, these virtual personoids might be able to exist in their own virtual environment.

There is one key element I must emphasize if this Virtual Universe is to be an adequate Model for our supernatural discussions: the personoids mentioned above would need to be developed based on the same fundamental forces their universe functions under and as a direct continuation of these forces rather than like the Avatars in today’s video games. They would need to have organ-like structures which in turn are made of cell-like structures, etc. going all the way down to the fundamental level and all their capacities would need to be a product of these forces.

Now I must clarify I am not here suggesting that the God or the Supernatural most people believe in is exactly the same as we would be in reference to the virtual universe we create. This is simply a model that we can use to evaluate our methodologies for thinking about the supernatural.

For example, say a personoid we created was suddenly self-aware and discovered itself within its virtual environment without any recollection of us creating it or any further interference from our side. If this personoid was to start asking questions about its universe and how everything works, its ability to discover this will depend on the limitations of its senses and the speed with which it could develop technology to enhance those senses. It will also depend on how quickly it figures out the scientific method. And of course, the more complex this virtual universe is, the longer it will take to figure it out.

But how will it go about learning anything about the non-virtual or our universe? Its senses, its technology, the research methodology itself would all be based on the fundamental laws that we developed into its virtual universe. If it creates something like a telescope to observe distant objects, this telescope would rely on those same virtual forces to produce its results and therefore the results will be composed of VIRTUAL objects and not of anything in our realm. Thinking through these types of questions will help us evaluate our own methods and their capacity to provide insights into the question of the supernatural.

Another reason this model is important is because many atheists feel that the chance any kind of supernatural exists is so small as to not even be worth considering. The fact however that we are almost advanced enough to create something like this ourselves, shows that the idea of the supernatural is nowhere near as far-fetched as some make it out to be.

Now in case someone feels that my virtual universe analogy makes for a poor illustration for the supernatural, I am not the only one that has thought of it. Take a look at an article I linked to in an earlier post called ‘Fascinating Article about Methodological Naturalism’. Especially look at the second to the last paragraph before the start of section 5 – ‘Discussion and Conclusion’ where a very similar analogy is used.




  1. jonP  February 1, 2014

    You asked for my opinion on this topic. There are two things you are discussing: spiritual supernatural realm, and computer simulated reality. I have never thought about it like this before, but I want to start by addressing my opinion on both matters separately. For this comment I will discuss my opinions on the supernatural.

    I want to call out two sentences you wrote. I will attempt to use the cite tag. I don’t think I’m quote mining, because I will keep them in their original context.
    We each create our own mental picture of what we mean when we use the term and then have debates contrasting one person’s imagination against another’s.

    I believe there is reason we have our own mental picture when we use supernatural, and why our debates don’t converge on common set of beliefs (I could go further and say that they will never converge). I believe what we are doing is exactly describing our own imaginations. What we call the supernatural realm is really our imagination space. I think this is also related to dreaming and our perceptions of consciousness.

    I can create a space in my mind. It is a structure with 3 spatial dimensions and time dimension, just like reality. It can be as big or small as I want, but there are limits: upper and lower boundaries to the size of the space. The limits of our imagination are probably due to the limited experiences we get when our bodies interact with reality. I see no reason why we can’t, in principle, imagine hyper-dimensional spaces. We just don’t know how, because we’ve never experienced it.

    A thought experiment: Imagine a musical note, or a tone, or your voice shouting, or any other noise. Try to imagine it as a whisper that gradually gets louder. There is a limit to how loud it can get. It doesn’t go to infinite loudness. Mine stops at an upper boundary. The limit is probably related to the maximum volume your hearing can tolerate. We’ve never experienced louder, so we can’t imagine it.

    On to dreams. I have very vivid dreams that are almost entirely visual. There is sound, but the only thing I ever remember hearing are voices of the people who populate my dream space. I only know english, so they all speak english. Almost without exception, my dreams involve me socially interacting with other people. Sometimes I’m not in the dream; like watching a movie, I get a 3rd person perspective.

    I get exactly the sensation of being confined within a 3D+time D space. Just like reality. Sometimes I realize this in my dreams (I’m an extremely lucid dreamer). I can almost always fly in my dreams (it’s like swimming), and I have tried to determine how big the space is by picking a straight line and going as fast as I can. The size limit is how far I can get within the allotted time. I do mean literal size. I don’t have measuring instruments in my dreams so I can’t quantify it.

    Another thought experiment. Imagine yourself floating high in the clouds. You can look down to see the earth below. Imagine holding a ball of some sort. Now imagine a large meter stick. Larger than a meter of course, and stretching down to the ground. Imagine that this has tick marks equally spaced, like a real meter stick. Now step back, drop the ball, and watch it fall next to the meter stick.

    If we had the capacity to create reality exactly in our imagination, it would be possible to 1. Have the tick marks equally spaced, 2. Count the number of tick marks the ball passes, 3. How far it is to the ground. Theoretically we could use this information to calculate the velocity and acceleration as well. It would be in arbitrary units based on how far apart you imagined the ticks.

    We can’t hold all this in our minds; we must therefore have some other limitations to our imagination.

    When it comes to the human mind, science still has a long way to go before it can fully understand how the mechanics of the brain account for our ‘personhood.’

    Yes, that’s what I like about neuroscience. There’s still a lot to do. I believe that the imagination is implemented by the physiology of our brains.

    By the way, what is the first color that you imagine this ball to have, and how big is it relative to your body? As an interesting test, we can compare answers. We need a way to reveal the answers simultaneously so that we can be certain we are not cheating.

  2. jonP  February 1, 2014

    A preface:
    I didn’t notice your “Read before you comment” link until a moment ago. I always read this to learn the bloggers personal rules to be polite. I immediately thought “Oh no! I just jumped in with comments before reading that!”

    I laughed when I clicked on it and it said.

    (If you were invited here to continue a conversation this does not apply to you.)

    Phew, I’m off the hook. I haven’t read your linked article yet. I will comment first so that I can feel like I’m presenting my own ideas, rather than repeating those from that article. I am probably making some of the same arguments, but I don’t know yet.

    This is definitely my favorite post of yours so far. At first I thought it might be a little far out, but then I reread it. You are missing punctuation marks; that’s what makes it a little difficult to read.

    OK computer simulated reality, or “virtual reality” as it was called in the 90’s. Creating 3D spaces and animations is one of the best things about computers.

    This is simply a model that we can use to evaluate our methodologies for thinking about the supernatural.

    This wowed me. This is a very careful and well thought conclusion. Before getting to my thoughts on the simulation concept (which I am a little familiar with), I want to go back again to the supernatural. This word is begging for a precise definition. The word itself has too many different meanings, and there is a risk of equivocation.

    Does the space in my dreams “exist”? I can feel objects, see people, do stuff. Sometimes it’s real enough that I don’t realize I’m dreaming. Likewise, does the computer simulated space “exist”? It’s not really the computer hardware, or software. The software is only the instructions for implementing the computational algorithms. Do computers have something beyond hardware and software?

    If one avatar were to dissect another one, they would see nothing that would explain why an avatar looks and acts in a certain way.

    We could probably create a world where the avatars had simulated biology. They could cut themselves open and determine how they function by careful study of their internal parts. We could possibly create simulations of brains that had the exact same thoughts that we have.

    We could probably simulate very realistic physics in which the avatars would be able to make there own computers and simulated realities. They would be able to use their own models of simulated reality to investigate the true reality of the world, just like we are trying to do.

    If we made the simulated universe “perfectly”, and started it from a beginning, just like our world. With the same rules, matter, energy, forces, etc., we wouldn’t need to reverse engineer brains. They would emerge as a consequence of the physics of the simulation.

    • Unapologetics  February 2, 2014

      I want to go back again to the supernatural. This word is begging for a precise definition. The word itself has too many different meanings, and there is a risk of equivocation.

      Precisely. Very good. This is exactly the elephant in the room no one seems to notice. I actually wonder if there is EVER a theist/atheist debate where equivocation isn’t a problem.

  3. jonP  February 1, 2014

    Unless perhaps we were a “special creation”, something added into our reality after we got to this point.

    Our simulation would almost certainly be deterministic. Fiddling around with the values of the parameters would allow us to end up with the precise reality that we wanted. I will refuse to go so far as admit that this is evidence for the “fine-tuning” argument. We still have no way of testing it for ourselves. But we might be able to test it with the model.

    I set up a simulation of the laws of physics. I determined the initial conditions of our universe, and began the virtual universe at that point. I fiddle until hydrogen starts to form. I fiddle some more to get fusion. I fiddle with the fusion until large molecules form. I keep fiddling with parameters until stars form galaxies with solar systems. I keep fiddling and eventually I end up with an earth. Is this as far as I can go with the parameter fiddling before I can no longer simulate our reality? I have planets, but no life.

    I first need a way to get organic molecules onto my planet. I know they are theoretically possible, because those are composed of the necessary atoms that were part of the simulated physics. I may actually be able to fiddle more to get stars that go supernova, distributing the large atoms throughout the universe. Molecules and chemical reactions are consequences of the model physics. I would have the stuff, but I do not know if I can get enough of it onto a planet for life to work. This is the first point at which I may need to intervene divinely.

    I may be able to get the necessary material onto the planet, or I may need to sprinkle a little via “magic” by manipulating my software to add it into the model without being a consequence of the original physics parameters. Would I be able to do this without messing up the simulation? Probably, because I would only need to do it on one planet (at the minimum, which because of computer limitations, may be a preferred optimum). The rest of the universe would hum along just fine as particles, and atoms, and molecules, and stars, and planets, etc. But would I need to intervene again for abiogenesis, or would the molecules form on their own as a consequence of the model physics. If not, would more fiddling work to form these molecules? Would I be able to fiddle mid-simulation, or do I need to start all over, for there to be a universe with exactly consistent physics? Probably, because the molecules formed under those conditions. Changing the conditions now may destabilize the atoms, molecules, etc.

    It’s either game over, my simulation is impossible; or, I can find some way to get abiogenesis. It wouldn’t matter how. Could I get molecules to replicate? Could I get them to form nucleic acids, and viruses, and single cells, and multicellular organisms? The easiest way would probably be evolution. Descent with modifications would require a way for the replication process to introduce errors. Either this needs to be random, and we need a non-deterministic universe, or we would have to manually adjust the DNA in order for our organisms to develop. The manual adjustments at this point only apply to that one sets of things, the rest of the model could still be deterministic.

    Could I get ecosystems, and animals, and plants, and the exact same things we observe in our universe, or do I need to add those in too? Either way I end up with a non deterministic universe. It’s either I let random chance evolve my creatures, or I need to somehow place them there. I am only a mere human (no, really!). I do not have complete knowledge of the past. I would never be able to add things in a way to get the exact same environment that we have. That is, there would be uncertainty in the outcomes from my perspective, because I would only be able to guess at what really happened in the past. There would also be uncertainty if I left it up to random chance and evolution, because I, the computer operator, would not be in control of the output at this point.

    I conclude at this point that the task of recreating myself, with all my thoughts and feelings, is not possible to create via a computer simulation. There is too much uncertainty, and there are too many inputs. The life I created would end up having properties that would not be predicted by the physics model. Game over.

    • Unapologetics  February 2, 2014

      Lol. Very good. I’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking through many of these scenarios as well. For now I mostly look at it like this:

      The following process will be done this way for primarily two reasons:

      1) Because there is no reason to put time and energy into manually creating the entire universe exactly how you want it when you could set up forces that will create it for you.
      2) Once everything is as you want it, you don’t want to have to keep tampering with the system to keep it running. You want to have it in such a way that it will continue working on it’s own for a good while.

      So we set up the initial fundamental physics, i.e. assuming that we are trying to be as close to our universe as possible (which isn’t necessary), the precise relationship between strong/week nuclear forces, gravity etc. and we provide the initial “big bang.” I also think that we HAVE to add an indeterminate element from the start for reason #2 above.

      We then speed up the game time and let the forces do their thing. By game time I mean that we create an internal clock for the game according to which particles behave and we can speed up or slow down this time, although from the perspective of someone inside the game, it would not be noticeable. If scientists are correct that gravity can account for the formation of planets, solar systems and galaxies after the big bang, then we should soon enough have planets of our own.

      We could then either create a life sustaining planet or look for one that happened to form on its own. I suppose it’s possible to go through the entire life cycle of a universe and never end up with a life-sustaining planet but you can always have the same simulation running on several computers (multiverse) until such a planet happens to form in one of them.

      After that we either speed things up to see if abiogenesis eventually happens or we introduce the first self-replicating cells ourselves. We could then again speed up the system if we need anaerobic organism to convert the atmosphere to one that can sustain more complex life forms (high oxygen levels) etc.

      With evolution we either speed up the clock to see how far we get (I’m of the opinion that evolution would not take the same path twice and might not, in most cases, produce intelligent organisms), or we, every now and then, jump in and contribute genetic info, artificial selection etc. to the system and then let it run again. As far as intelligence, if it evolves on its own, great. If not, we would need to have reverse-engineered the human brain by this time so we could figure out how to replicate it. I suppose we could also just cheat and copy the human genome into the germ cells of some higher mammal.

      Anyway, this is fun to think about. But the real purpose of having this is so we could then ask questions like:

      – if we as creators don’t reveal ourselves, how would these beings discern our existence?
      – if they learn to use the scientific method, how would they go about using it to answer questions about whether a reality beyond their virtual universe exists?
      – if we wanted to interact with their simulated reality, would we need to use an avatar and follow the same process to make changes to their environment as they would or could we also make changes to the programing such that, for example, we could make a stone appear out of nothing in the middle of the road?
      – if we wanted to heal a virtual organism that was say, dying of cancer and we decided to do it by making a change to the program, at what point would that change become part of their natural process of healing? Would it be distinguishable to their doctors from a random but completely natural healing event?

      And we can go on and on with this list. Keep in mind also that while we are calling these “simulated” beings, they actually see themselves as real persons, have real feelings and desires, feel pain and experience all the same mental processes we do. I think they are different in this sense from people in a dream who might be more comparable with cartoons that are made to look like they are expressing emotions.

    • Unapologetics  February 2, 2014

      I don’t know how far you got reading through my old posts, but this also brings up questions applicable to my Amalekite discussions. Incidentally, I am pretty embarrassed about those posts, even thought of taking them down, but I would definitely take a different approach if I had to do it over.

      So I had a mini-debate/exchange with Justin Schieber in which I told him that, before debating the Amalekite question, he should take some time and explain first under what circumstances a creator should be allowed to kill period. I even asked him what he would do when it comes to personoids in a simulated reality.

      So in the situation we have been thinking about, with virtual beings in a computer-simulated environment, when would it be ethical to take a “life”?

      – Would it be ethical to program these beings to grow old and die when you have the ability to make it such that they don’t?
      – If you don’t program natural death into these beings and they have the ability to live indefinitely, what do you do when one of them decides to go on a rampage and hurt or kill everyone else (assuming it is not insanity but intentional)? Do you force them into indefinite isolation (similar to the eternal hell concept) or do you just destroy the organism altogether (assuming there is a prior commitment not to tamper with their individuality )?

      Also, a question I did not think of asking Justin last year but, if, as he says, what makes it unethical for god to kill humans is the fact that they have feelings and desires, are self aware etc., how is this compatible with the lack of Free Will argument? Should those feelings and desires matter to a creator who knows them to be the result of determined chain of events?

    • jonP  February 5, 2014

      you can always have the same simulation running on several computers (multiverse) until such a planet happens to form in one of them.

      The require so many simulation runs, with so many galaxies and stars, etc. That finding that one planet with life on it (or the life that we want) is essentially impossible. This is not a good approach.

      If the question is to create a model to try to answer the questions regarding ethics/morality, and free will, we don’t need to simulate an entire universe. We only need to simulate the development of humans. We start with sperm and egg (I would use my DNA, because I’m like that). It wouldn’t be possible to set up the exact circumstances that led me to this precise conversation, but I could give it a model for human development: embryogenesis, fetal growth, infancy, childhood, adolescence, adulthood, personal experiences, etc. That should lead to a reverse engineered brain. I could create a whole population of these people and set them in any environment I wish.

      if we as creators don’t reveal ourselves, how would these beings discern our existence?

      I could set them up with some basic knowledge to create a simulation just like mine. But just like me, they would not be able to determine if they were in a simulation. The best that they can do is to create a simulation to determine that the people in the simulated simulation can not know about them. The universe could be an infinite regression of simulations.

      Would it be ethical to program these beings to grow old and die when you have the ability to make it such that they don’t?

      I think these ethical questions will lead ultimately to nihilism. Nothing will matter to them, because after the simulation ends (or they “die”), then they will be personally unaware of what happened to them. There would be no reason not to torture them for fun. Is it ok to torture someone in your imagination? Yes, because no one is really being tortured.

      how is this compatible with the lack of Free Will argument?

      1. How would we know the simulated people had free will?
      2. How would we know that we had free will?
      3. How would god (i.e. the programmer of our simulation) know that we had free will?

      We may not be able to determine if our simulation was non-deterministic. It may not be possible to use a digital computer to create true randomness needed for non-determinism. The problem is the limited memory capacity of the computer. We could create the entire set of all possible simulations. This would be a finite number. Whatever outcome we wanted for our simulated people (cancer, murder, whatever), the set of all possible outcomes could be known, and we could choose the one we liked. Deterministic. If we choose the outcomes for our simulated people, would they really have free will? Do the outcomes exist, even if we don’t run all the simulations? The only way that we could possibly have non-determinism is if the set of all possible simulations is infinite, and the simulation is run a finite number of times.

      I conclude that the simulation would be fun to play with. It could be useful for answering mechanistic questions regarding how our universe functions. It would not, even in principle, be useful for determining anything about the meta-reality of existence, or ethics/morality.


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