Odds are, you’ve pondered off-hand the nature of our shared and individual reality. Am I real? Is anything real? To most mature, sober adults, the consideration seems absurd. But there are some that think this a possibility not only worth pondering, but investigating. Believe it or not, many philosophers, physicists, and futurists think there’s a good chance the answer to both queries is “no.”
You may have heard of simulation theory before. It’s been most notably depicted in the Matrix Trilogy, wherein Keanu Reeves’ Neo discovers that his reality is a computer simulation created by sentient machines that control humanity. Simulation theory is basically that, but without a robotic antagonist and human bodies in pods. If human consciousness can be simulated, the theory goes, we could be all be characters in a virtual reality and never even know it.
The case for simulation
Why on earth(s) would this be the case? This is where the sci-fi element gets a bit more plausible. The first rationality is statistical. Assuming it is possible for humans to simulate reality in the future, post-humans would have the ability to run countless simulations, potentially of their ancestors (us), all at once. Statistically, then, it would be infinitely more likely to be part of one of these simulations than not.
Considering the rate of improvement in video games and virtual reality—by which we’ve gone from “Snake” to photorealistic VR in half a century—it seems unlikely that humans won’t someday reach this point. If you are a technological optimist and think humans can and will create simulations down the line, you’ll have to accept the probability that it’s happened already, and here we are. This belief also lends itself to the theory of nested realities, by which people in simulations create more simulations, forming a chain of virtual worlds.
Some scientists have equated the realization (if it could ever be proven) with Copernicus’ discovery that the Earth moves around the sun. Once you get it, everything else becomes simpler. If we are indeed part of a simulation, it may explain why, against great odds, we evolved from ooze into conscious beings. If this rare and miraculous evolution happened just once, trillions upon trillions could relive it in simulations. It could also explain why the universe is based on mathematical laws, and why objects are only measurable once they are observed.
The hypothesis was first laid out by Oxford philosopher and futurologist Nick Bostrom in 2003, but has since piqued the interest of prominent scientists. Elon Musk, for his part, thinks that there is a billion to one chance we are living in base reality. He also says we should hope we are, because if not civilization could be near its end. NASA scientist Nick Terrile agrees. “If one progresses at the current rate of technology a few decades into the future,” he tells the Guardian, “very quickly we will be a society where there are artificial entities living in simulations that are much more abundant than human beings.”
Is it possible to test such a hypothesis? Two Silicon Valley billionaires, for their part, have enlisted scientists to try and figure it out. Some things to look for would be irregularities, finite points that prove the universe isn’t endlessly expansive, or evidence of a creator “cutting corners.” But perhaps the only real solution would be to succeed at simulating reality and consciousness. In this regard, we have a long way to go.
What it would mean—and should we worry?
The greater question is, if we are to accept simulation theory (or somehow prove it), does it even matter? Is it good for the world, or bad? The revelation might inspire a sense of purpose in some, causing them to do more to make things interesting for the game-maker. This seems like a stretch—personally, I can’t imagine a collectively positive reaction in today’s day and age.
Casting a tidal wave a doubt over the world’s religious billions, for starters, would the extinguish (or at least badly damage) the moral purpose of huge portions of the population. People would question the meaning of their day-to-day lives and struggles, and be embittered by the idea of a mortal creator watching for amusement. If there were concrete proof of a simulation, humanity would doubtless attempt to make contact, or cause enough of a commotion to merit intervention. This would be a recipe for mass anarchy.
Lest I end this on a dark note, it’s worth taking a moment to realize that whether or not we are in a simulation, the odds of us proving it any time soon are miniscule. And there are perfectly good reasons to disbelieve the theory entirely. Simulations rely on physical properties, after all, and it boggles the mind to think of the time, space, and effort necessary to create a perfect, mammoth simulation that grasps the minuscule details of reality so expertly. Think of it this way: if simulated water tastes and hydrates just like water, is it a simulation anymore, or just water? Further, there is no evidence yet that computation can replicate consciousness on any level.
There will probably be no real answer to this question in our lifetime, and simulation theory is in this way kind of like religion. If believing in it drives us to be better people, and strive for an improved, advanced humanity, I may still call it creepy, but I won’t knock it.
If the concept alone drives us to mayhem, well… it wouldn’t be the first time belief in a higher power led to war.