Are We Living in a Simulated Reality? Would We Even Know If We Were?
Tell me if this situation has actually happened to you or if you just thought it did.
You’re at a bar. You see some trendy people talking each other up. It’s no surprise to hear one of them quote the only thing they remember from their freshman year philosophy class:
“Something about Plato doing shadow puppets in caves, I think. Whatever, I’m smart. So how ‘bout that Insta handle?”
But there is a reason we do that – it works. The idea of questioning the perception of reality is not new. Humans have been discussing it, in one form or another, for over a millennium. It’s not so much multiple ideas conflicting with each other as it is a continuing dialogue. The main idea that has been traipsing around the bottom floor of intellectual intrigue is that reality and all that we know is actually a simulation, or at the very least a distortion from the norm.
Think of Joseph Cambpell’s “Hero with a Thousand Faces”, but instead of myth and story giving way to “Star Wars”, it’s the questioning of reality giving way to “The Matrix”.
Us repeating what we know isn’t just from a need to sound smart, but the construction of a theoretical foundation. Just because the discussion of simulated of reality has many takes, doesn’t mean the approach is universal.
Not the first to question reality, but the first to be quotable, having laid down the classic: “I think, therefore I am.”
In his “Discourse on the Method”, the French philosopher breaks down the questioning of reality’s simple perception.
“I thence concluded that I was a substance whose whole essence or nature consists only in thinking, and which, that it may exist, has need of no place, nor is dependent on any material thing; so that ‘I,’ that is to say, the mind by which I am what I am, is wholly distinct from the body, and is even more easily known than the latter, and is such, that although the latter were not, it would still continue to be all that it is.”
Descartes elaborated on this idea in both “Meditations on First Philosophy” and “Principles of Philosophy”. He also once stated that the external world was controlled by an evil demon out to attack him.
I guess we can send that last one up as being a victim of his time.
The genesis for the modern argument came from the Oxford Philosophers’ 2003 publication “Are you Living in a Computer Simulation?”. It’s the third argument in the paper, the other two being humanity’s unlikeliness of survival to the post human age, and the post-humans running a simulation of their own past.
“But in any case, even if our estimate is off by several orders of magnitude, this does not matter much for our argument,” Bostrom said. “We noted that a rough approximation of the computational power of a planetary-mass computer is 1042 operations per second, and that assumes only already known nanotechnological designs, which are probably far from optimal. A single such a computer could simulate the entire mental history of humankind (call this an ancestor-simulation) by using less than one millionth of its processing power for one second.”
The tech entrepreneur is usually the first celebrated personality to share his opinion on the heaviest questions of the day. When it comes to Elon Musk, simulated reality has become one of his most sought after opinions.
He has become synonymous with this theory, even though his take is mostly an elaboration of Nick Bostrom’s work:
“Well, the argument for the simulation is quite strong because if you assume any improvements at all over time, any improvement; 1 percent,.1 percent, ….if you count civilization from the first writing It’s nothing,” Musk said in an interview on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast in September 2018. “So, if you assume any rate of improvement at all, then the games will be indistinguishable from reality or civilization will end. One of those two things will occur.”
Musk has entertained the silliness of the idea as well, likening it to modern video game play.
“If reality was a video game, the graphics are great, the plot is terrible and the spawn time is really long,” Musk said at the E3 Computer and Video Game convention in June 2019.
Neil deGrasse Tyson
The astrophysicist, when not correcting sci-fi movies on Twitter or, directing the educational vision for the Hayden Planetarium, broke down the hypothetical framework of a simulated reality.
“You look at our computing power today and you say ‘I have the power to create a world inside of a computer,’” Tyson said in a Larry King Live interview from July 2017. “Well, imagine in the future where you have even more power than that. You can create characters that have, for example, free will, or their own perception of free will. So, this is a world and I program in the laws that govern that world. That world will have its own laws of physics, chemistry and biology.
“Now, you are a character in that world and you think you have free will. You say ‘I want to invent a computer,’ and so you do. ‘Hey! I want to create a world in my computer!’…Then you have simulations all the way down.
“So, statistically based on that argument…it’s hard not to argue that all of us are not just the creation of some kid in a parents basement, programming up a world for their own entertainment.”
Tyson also expanded on the evidence of the theory by taking a more absurdist approach.
“Every time something weird happens in the world, some disruptive leader takes charge, I wonder if that programmer just got bored and had to stir the pot,” Tyson said. “For me, that’s some of the best evidence that we live in a simulation.”
When prompted, King asked what difference it makes if mankind knows whether or not we are in a programmed simulation and what can be done.
“I guess it doesn’t make any difference at all,” Tyson said.
It’s hard to argue against this point because you can relate to the confusion our world has devoted so much attention to. Such is the case when the news breaks about a Krispy Kreme with a glaze waterfall opening in Time Square.
The idea of “someone messing with us for the sake of messing with us” is easier to accept because it has the simplest answer. No evidence goes into it, just an assumption.
Before his passing, the theoretical physicist wrote his last paper with cosmologist Thomas Hertog, titled “A Smooth Exit from Eternal Inflation?“. It’s not Hawking’s thoughts on simulated reality (no record of that exists), but it is his belief that the universe is a hologram due to cosmic inflation after the Big Bang.
“The usual theory of eternal inflation predicts that globally our universe is like an infinite fractal, with a mosaic of different pocket universes, separated by an inflating ocean,” Hawking said in one of the last interviews to occur before his death in March 2018. “The local laws of physics and chemistry can differ from one pocket universe to another, which together would form a multiverse. But, I have never been a fan of the multiverse. If the scale of different universes in the multiverse is large or infinite, the theory can’t be tested.”
Not every debate about reality is so cut and dry. The amount of opinions are as diverse as the human population. The perception of reality, being so subjective, doesn’t even need to be an existential crisis, a program created by a higher being, or a ripple effect from the beginning of time. It could simply be our own individual perspective chasing the way we chose to see reality.
Someone with certain ideas about their life, let’s say someone goal oriented, has a strict focus. Now, if that person wants to be a social media influencer, they would constantly be inundated with the output of other social media users. They see something they don’t have and attempt to replicate it to be their own version of success.
Then there is the flip side – a person who wakes up, goes to work, does their after work ritual and then sleeps. They casually look at social media out of boredom. But they have their own system for their lives. They may look at the wannabe influencer and pass judgement. In turn, the first person may judge the weekend warrior. Neither of them can see the point of the other because of their own perspective.
Both characters have chosen, whether they realize it or not, a way to view the world. The views may conflict with the general perception of reality, but who’s to say their reality isn’t simulated.
So, are you living in a simulation?
René Descartes was a French philosopher, mathematician, and writer. Descartes is often called the Father of Modern Philosophy, and much of early Western philosophy is a response to his writings. Descartes writing are still studied closely to this day.
Descartes was also influential in mathematics; the Cartesian coordinate system — allowing reference to a point in space as a set of numbers, and allowing algebraic equations to be expressed as geometric shapes in a two-dimensional coordinate system (and conversely, shapes to be described as equations) — was named after him.
This profoundly ambitious and original book breaks down a vast track of difficult intellectual terrain. After an utterly engrossing journey that takes us to the frontiers of thinking about the human condition and the future of intelligent life, we find in Nick Bostrom’s work nothing less than a reconceptualization of the essential task of our time (New York Times).
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Now a decade later, this edition updates the chapters throughout to document those advances, and also includes an entirely new chapter on Wormholes and Time Travel and a new introduction. It make vividly clear why “A Brief History of Time has transformed our view of the universe.