Mohammed receiving his first revelation from the angel Gabriel

Religious experiences and miracles

The Jewish people still exist after 2,500 years, while they did not have a homeland for most of the time. That is a remarkable feat, most notably because the Jews are supposed to be God’s chosen people. It is also a bit of an enigma that Christianity replaced the existing religions in the Roman Empire. Somehow the message of personal salvation through Christ caught on. A pivotal moment was the conversion of Emperor Constantine to Christianity in 312 AD. He made Christianity the favoured religion in the Roman Empire. A few centuries later, a small band of Arab warriors created an empire stretching from the Atlantic to India, spreading a new religion called Islam. Is it a realistic scenario that the illiterate camel-driver Muhammad became a crafty statesman after he had seen an angel? We only know this world, so we cannot answer that question. Jews, Christians, and Muslims worship the same deity. Our universe could be a simulation, and the fates of Judaism, Christianity and Islam could be implausible historical developments. In other words, God might be the best explanation. Only, we do not know whether or not these events are plausible.

When Islam arrived on the scene, there already was widespread monotheism as Christians and Zoroastrians in the area believed in an all-powerful creator. Muhammad had met Jews and Christians on his travels, so he was familiar with these religions. Before that, Christianity had faced an uphill struggle. While the Roman state suppressed this religion, pagans left their gods behind and accepted the Christian God as the only true God. And they did so in large numbers. That begs for an explanation, even though the conversion to Christianity was a gradual process that took centuries. The number of Christians increased at an average rate of 2-3% per year between 30 AD and 400 AD. Each Christian may have converted just one or two persons on average, but over time, exponential growth made Christianity grow from 30 followers in 30 AD to 30 million in 400 AD. There appears nothing supernatural about this process until you realise that the most often cited reason for conversions were stories about miracles Christians did.1

An early miracle was Jesus appearing to a few of his followers after his crucifixion. Christians believe that Jesus appeared in the flesh, but perhaps his disciples had visions of him. The New Testament also accounts for some miracles the disciples allegedly performed. These stories may have been exaggerated, but miracles are a consistent theme in Christianity, even today. And so, there may be more to it than science can explain. On message boards, people tell stories about prayers heard and miraculous healings. Chance is not always a plausible explanation. And it seems unlikely that Christians consistently lie about these matters. I also have a tale to tell, even though it is not as spectacular as some of the stories you can find elsewhere.

At the final secondary school exams, I had the highest average grade in my class. I was good at every subject. There was one notable exception, explaining literature. It was about guessing the hidden intentions of authors. My scores were consistently poor, probably the poorest of the entire class on average. I considered guessing other people’s motives and decoding hidden messages in texts a waste of time. Authors often marvelled at what literature experts found out about their intentions from the books they had written. And I was not good at it. With the exams nearing, I began to fret. I asked my teacher to give me some additional practise exams. A teacher could only dream of such a fanatic pupil, so he was helpful, but the grades remained as poor as before.

Before the final exam, I prayed to God that the grade would not be too bad. My result on the exam turned out to be the best of everyone, only matched by a girl who flaunted her interest in art and literature. My teacher was amazed and suggested that the extra lessons had made a difference. Another girl became curious about this peculiar feat and said to me, ‘You have a mysterious way of winning in the end.’ I was too embarrassed to tell her about the prayer. It was selfish to pray for a higher grade, and I did not need it to pass. Starving people in Africa needed God’s help much more than I did. It could not be that God granted my wish, or could it? I was a Roman Catholic but unwilling to accept religious interpretations when other explanations suffice. When I was doing the test, the questions appeared more concrete than usual, so it was easier for me to answer them. And so, coincidence seemed more likely at the time.

Many people have seen the Virgin Mary. She appeared several times in Venezuela. In 1976, she showed herself to Maria Esperanza Medrano de Bianchini, who received special powers. She could tell the future, levitate, and heal the sick. In Egypt, Mary had appeared at a Coptic Church between 1983 and 1986. Muslims also have seen her there. There have been many more Virgin Mary appearances. The most notable one was in Portugal at Fatima on 13 October 1917. The sun spun wildly and tumbled down to earth before stopping and returning to its normal position, radiating in indescribable beautiful colours. More than 50,000 people witnessed the miracle. They had gathered in response to a prophecy made by three shepherd children that the Virgin Mary would appear and perform miracles on that date.2

Jesus also appeared from time to time, but less frequently than the Virgin. An intriguing account comes from Kenneth Logie, a preacher of the Pentecostal Holiness Church in Oakland, California, in the 1950s. In April 1954, Logie was preaching at an evening service. During his sermon, the church door opened, and Jesus came walking in, smiling to the left and the right. Then he walked through the pulpit and placed his hand on Logie’s shoulder. Jesus spoke to him in a foreign tongue. Fifty people have witnessed the event. Five years later, a woman gave testimony when she suddenly disappeared, and Jesus took her place. He wore sandals and a glistering white robe and had nail marks on his hands. His hands were dripping with oil. After several minutes, Jesus disappeared, and the woman reappeared. Two hundred people have seen it. It was on film as Logie had installed film equipment because strange things were going on.2

In virtual reality, this is possible. When it appears that God has heard your prayer, that could be part of the script. In that case, God did not listen to your prayer. Instead, you were supposed to pray, and the fulfilment of your request was supposed to occur. It is like a meaningful coincidence happening. Many prayers are in vain, so a wish fulfilled does not prove the existence of God. But some stories are incredible, and mere chance seems a poor explanation. And in a simulation, there is little difference between the appearances of Christ, the Virgin Mary, deceased loved ones, UFOs, angels and ghosts.

Feature image: Mohammad receiving his first revelation from the angel Gabriel. Miniature illustration on vellum from the book Jami’ al-Tawarikh, by Rashid al-Din, published in Tabriz, Persia, 1307 AD. Public Domain.

1. The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World. Bart Ehrman. Simon & Schuster (2018).
2. How Jesus Became God The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher From Galilee. Bart Ehrman. HarperCollins Publishers (2015).

Explaining the unexplained

The paranormal has been a subject of controversy. The evidence is often problematic. Take, for instance, psychics. Scientists have investigated their abilities. In experiments, psychics fail to do better than guessing. In a controlled setting, a psychic is isolated so that others cannot supply the psychic with information. Sometimes psychics make stunning guesses, but not in controlled experiments. That may often be due to fraud or manipulation, but perhaps not in every case. The same is true for the paranormal in general. Many paranormal incidents could be natural phenomena or the result of fraud or delusion, but a large number remains without explanation.

Thinking that science will give all the answers is a belief too. It can become like a religion once you begin to discard evidence to the contrary. Evidence for the paranormal does not meet scientific criteria. Science requires, for instance, that we can use a theory like the existence of psychic abilities to make predictions that we can subsequently check. If a psychic does not do better than guessing during an experiment, there is no such thing as psychic abilities, at least from a scientific perspective.

And yet, there are countless testimonies of people who have witnessed unexplained phenomena. The total number of these incidents is impossible to guess, but it could be billions. In the early twentieth century, Charles Fort collected at least 40,000 notes on paranormal experiences. These notes were about strange events reported in magazines and newspapers such as The Times and scientific journals such as Scientific American, Nature and Science. Millions more might exist in other journals and diaries.

Strange things also happened to me. In December 2010, my wife Ingrid and I were sitting at the kitchen table. She was discussing her late mother and father. Her mother had outlived her father for more than three decades. She then recalled that her mother had once asked her father to contact her as a spirit if he was to die first. She then remembered her mother later saying that he had never made himself noticed, ‘not even by stopping a clock.’

Just after my wife had finished speaking, a gust of wind blew a flower pot over the balcony. It made a loud noise. Even though it was windy, the blow suddenly came out of nowhere. It was a bit eerie. The next day she noticed that a clock and an alarm clock were both back one hour. One was connected to the power grid while the other ran on a battery.

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So, did my wife’s father make himself noticed from the other side? Or were the wind gust and the clocks being back just bizarre coincidences caused by natural phenomena? Or did my wife made it up to have a good story to tell at birthday parties? I do not think that she did. Given the number of strange incidents in my life, I do not doubt it either. It is unlikely that she was mistaken, as she could only have noticed that these clocks were back by looking at other timepieces. And if she was wrong and did not find out about it, it still is a remarkable coincidence.

In virtual reality, the laws of nature do not have to apply. So clocks can stop for an hour, and elephants can fly. So far, we have not seen elephants fly, but it is possible in virtual reality. Psychic abilities may exist while the scientific method cannot certify them. And Jesus could have walked over water and revived dead people even though these stories may have been made up. Alternatively, the laws of nature could apply in an arrangement suggesting that someone is pulling the strings. The wind gust was already peculiar. The incident with the clocks made it even more mysterious.

Fat cat

The mystery of being

Why do we exist? Findings from science suggest that life on this planet emerged without intent and serves no purpose. We are inclined to see ourselves as unique, so we might delude ourselves by thinking that this universe is there for us, so that it must have a purpose, and therefore, a creator. The odds appear stacked against us being here, so our existence might appear a miracle. But if humans had never arrived on the scene, all the other species would still have roamed the planet, and no cat or fern would ever have wondered why it is there.

Once you reverse the argument, it becomes clear what is wrong with it. My existence depends on my parents having met each other. My parents would not have lived if my grandparents had not married. They, in their turn, depend on the many generations before them. According to chaos theory, small changes in the initial conditions of complex systems can have dramatic consequences for future developments. For instance, a butterfly flapping its wings in Texas might cause a hurricane in China.

So, if one of my forebears had done only one small thing differently, for instance, getting up ten minutes earlier on 17 September 1462, I might not be here. The probability of my existence is so close to zero that I could believe that it is a miracle. Similarly, the odds of humans appearing in the future when dinosaurs were still living, and living creatures on this planet appearing later on when the galaxy was emerging, were negligible.

In a similar vein, people argue that it is unlikely that this universe emerged by chance. The laws of physics and the values of physical constants are fine-tuned for life to exist. But if that had not been the case, we would not be here to notice this. There could be an infinite number of universes or big bangs that failed to create universes with different laws and constants. This universe might be just right by accident.

Intelligent design proponents claim that undirected evolutionary processes cannot explain the living creatures on this planet. They argue that life on Earth is a miracle that requires a creator. Indeed, the odds for life to emerge in the way it did, were zero from the outset, and still, we are here. But evolution is an organising principle that requires no intelligence. Given ample time, the possibilities are endless, and anything could happen. Scientific findings indicate that life on this planet had four billion years to develop.

The mystery of being is not a mystery at all. So many things could have happened but didn’t, but something had to happen, and that’s what happened. That’s why the future is unpredictable. And there is not much more to it than that. Many people find it difficult to accept that their life has no purpose. And so religious people may contend that our existence is a miracle and proof of God. Their argument leaves open questions like why does God exist and how did God come into being? The simulation hypothesis does not come with these issues. It does not consider our existence as a miracle but as the product of advanced technology.

Latest revision: 9 May 2022

Post-human motivations

We may find out that we live inside a simulation if we can notice that our reality is not realistic, at least in some aspects. To see why we can look at the possible motives for post-humans to run simulations of human civilisations. Even though it is not certain post-humans might have similar motivations as we have. Modern humans attach great value to their inner selves, so we may not change our human essence once we can. Hence, the motives of post-humans might well be similar to ours, and they might run simulations of human civilisations for research or entertainment.

Research could be about running what-if scenarios. So what if a giant meteor hits the surface of the planet? What if China never became unified? Alternatively, what if there never were religions such as Christianity and Islam? Or what if a deadly infectious disease breaks out? Countless scenarios are possible. Post-humans might be interested in running them to see how humanity will cope. These simulations are likely to be realistic.

Possible entertainment applications are games or dream worlds to make your imagination come true. Such a simulation may not be realistic in some aspects as it reflects the rules of a game or someone’s imagination. Chaos theory states that small changes in the initial conditions of complex systems can have a dramatic impact on future developments. For instance, a butterfly flapping its wings in Texas might cause a hurricane in China. And simulations of civilisations are complex, so to guarantee a particular outcome, you need control over everything that happens. This requirement does not apply to games. Unpredictable developments make games more interesting.

Our understanding of human nature suggests that the number of simulations for entertainment likely vastly outstrip those run for research, at least if sufficient resources are available. Hence, if we do live inside a simulation, we should expect it to be for entertainment. The owner or owners may use avatars and appear like ordinary human beings to us. If reality is unrealistic in some aspects, this suggests that our purpose is entertainment as a simulation run for research is more likely to be realistic. Furthermore, evidence of control further indicates that the purpose of this simulation is not a game but implementing someone’s imagination.

If the beings inside the simulation were sentient, that can raise ethical questions like whether or not they have rights the creators should respect. Considering how humans treat each other, it is not a given that these rights would be respected even when the creators acknowledge them. In a realistic simulation, bad things do happen to people all the time. And in the case of control, the beings inside the simulation are not sentient. They do not think and do not have a will of their own. Hence, we might have no intrinsic value to our creators.

Simulation argument II: adding information

Simulations could be realistic in many ways while not being realistic in some aspects. If that is somehow noticeable, then we might find out that we do live inside a simulation. Instead of speculating about us living in a simulation by guessing the probability of the existence of post-humans and their abilities, resources, and possible motivations, it seems more illuminating to look at the available information about our universe. Perhaps there is a more conclusive argument to be made. It may go like this:

  1. If this universe is genuine, we cannot be sure that it is. A simulation can be realistic and come with authentic laws of reality.
  2. This universe may have fake properties, but we cannot establish this because we do not know the properties of an authentic universe.
  3. Breaching the laws of reality is unrealistic in any case. If it happens, we may have evidence of this universe being virtual.

It follows from (1) and (2) that we cannot use the properties of this universe reflected in the laws of reality to determine whether this universe is real or a simulation. And it does not matter whether the laws of reality are genuine or not. If they are authentic and breached, this universe is a simulation. If they are fake, this universe is a simulation anyway. Science can establish laws of reality or properties of this universe, but science cannot determine whether they are real or fake.

According to science, this universe kicked off fourteen billion years ago with a big bang. Ten billion years later, life on this planet began to develop out of chemical processes. It took another four billion years for life on Earth to evolve into what it is today. According to science, there is no evidence of an intelligent creator, the laws of physics always apply, and we are biological organisms made out of carbon and water.

Hence, the following properties of our universe have been certified by science. They are among the established laws of our reality, reflecting what scientists believe to be realistic:

  • The laws of physics always apply inside their realm, for instance, Newton’s first law of motion, which states that a change in the speed or direction of the movement of a body requires a force.
  • The universe started with a big bang. Life on this planet emerged from chemical processes, and evolution shaped it. There is no evidence of a creator.
  • We are biological organisms, and our consciousnesses reside in our bodies. There is no spirit or soul.

Evidence to the contrary might indicate that we do live inside a simulation. Meaningful coincidences suggest there is an intelligent force directing events. The paranormal defies the laws of physics from time to time. Evidence for reincarnation indicates that we are not biological organisms. But meaningful coincidences can materialise by chance. And there may be laws of reality we do not know. And there is plenty of evidence of the consciousness residing in the body while only a few people remember a previous life. A convincing case for us living in a simulation requires clarification as to why it is the best explanation for our existence. The clarification might consist of the following parts:

  • Our existence is not a miracle that requires a creator, but this universe can be a simulation.
  • The possible motivations of post-humans may allow us to establish that we do live inside a simulation and what our purpose is.
  • Science cannot determine that his universe is a simulation as we do not know the properties of a real universe.
  • Alternative explanations for strange phenomena seem less plausible as they run into logical inconsistencies.
  • Evidence suggestive of reincarnation might suffice to conclude that our consciousnesses do not reside in our bodies.
  • Evidence suggestive of ghosts, premonitions, and alien abductions might suffice to conclude that the laws of physics do not always apply.
  • The distribution of meaningful coincidences could indicate that an intelligence coordinates events in this universe.

Establishing that the distribution of meaningful coincidences is not the outcome of chance requires information about probabilities. Meaningful coincidences can happen by accident, and it is impossible to determine the odds of them materialising. Still, there are arguments to be made to certify that mere accident is not so likely. For that, we may consider the following:

  • Some types of meaningful coincidences are less likely to occur than others. The more elaborate the scheme, the less likely it is the result of mere chance.
  • Mere chance is also unlikely when elaborate meaningful coincidences surround the most important historical events.
  • If meaningful coincides are not distributed evenly across people and time-frames, and some people are heavily affected, it suggests interference and perhaps even destiny for those involved.