Is this the real life?
Is this just fantasy?
—“Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen
At our current rate of technological advancement—especially in the fields of computer science, artificial intelligence (AI), and video rendering—it may only be a matter of time before humans can simulate a virtual world that’s indistinguishable from our present reality. In 1972, Pong was the pinnacle of video gaming. Now, anyone with a few hundred dollars to spare can use a virtual reality headset to immerse themselves in the sights and sounds of a world with resolution so clear that the human eye can’t perceive the difference between the virtual and the real. Our technological capacities continue to grow exponentially. Where artificial intelligence was once a work of fiction, corporations are now investing millions into AI research with growing success. Indeed, one day it may be possible to simulate a fully functioning human brain within a computer system.
Of course, any number of scenarios could prevent such a future. Not least of which are the looming climate crisis and the depletion of Earth’s resources. But if we have any faith in our ability as a species to persist into the distant future, then we must consider the possibility that we will one day develop the necessary technology to simulate a virtual world replete with billions of thinking, feeling, autonomous beings—beings that wholly believe they are real and alive. If that is indeed possible, how can we be sure that we ourselves aren’t living in a simulation?
It turns out there are many compelling reasons to believe that everything all around us—down to our beating hearts and deepest thoughts—is the product of a computer simulation run by a hyper-advanced civilization. Strange quirks of quantum mechanics like the famously confounding double-slit experiment (in which subatomic particles change their behavior under observation) might suggest that our simulated world conserves processing power by rendering only what is observable. The Planck length—the spatial limit at which our conventional understanding of gravity, space-time, and Newtonian motion falls apart—might be best understood as the limit of one pixel of our simulated reality. And certain laws of physics seem like they could have been programmed as hard-limits, such as the speed of light in a vacuum. Moreover, why can’t I ever find the pens that I drop under my desk? And why does the leader of the free world more closely resemble a cartoon villain than an actual president?
Unexplainable phenomena aside, the best available argument in favor of the simulation hypothesis was given in 2003 by philosopher Nick Bostrom in a paper that solidified the validity of the hypothesis in philosophical thought. To paraphrase a piece of his argument, if it is indeed possible to simulate a reality identical to the one we perceive, and if humans or any human-like civilization advances enough to develop that technology and chooses to use it with significant frequency, then the number of simulated individuals will likely vastly outnumber “real” individuals. In other words, there is necessarily only one “base” reality and perhaps innumerable simulated realities. So, what’s the likelihood that we drew the one real card out of a deck of billions of fakes? The odds aren’t good.
I recently went over this argument with a friend who became extremely uneasy at the prospect that everything he knows and loves might be the product of computer code; so uneasy that he wanted to stop talking about it entirely. To be fair, that’s how most of my attempts to share philosophy with friends end, but I can admit that the idea is unnerving. If you were bestowed with evidence that life as we know it is all an illusion, you might want to immediately forget that knowledge and go back to your “normal” life in blissful ignorance.
In a New York Times opinion piece published in August, philosophy professor Preston Greene argues that scientific investigation into the simulation hypothesis could be catastrophically dangerous. He argues that “if our universe has been created by an advanced civilization for research purposes, then it is reasonable to assume that it is crucial to the researchers that we don’t find out that we’re in a simulation.” He worries that if we do, our overlords may shut the whole thing down since their data would be skewed.
That’s a limiting, irrational fear. The simulation hypothesis has already garnered widespread attention, and yet, here we are. Maybe that’s proof that we aren’t simulated after all. Or maybe our overlords just don’t care if we know. Perhaps we’re simply byproducts of a larger test studying the formation of the universe—white noise amongst a cosmic data set. Or maybe this simulation is being run purely for entertainment purposes: we’re all living in an elaborate video game and our overlords are waiting to see how long it takes us to solve the simulation puzzle—maybe we win a prize if we beat the top score. The point is that the reasons a sufficiently advanced civilization might run a simulation are probably unknowable and perhaps unfathomable.
If we are simulated, it would be impossible to conclude anything about the external world with certainty based on the information we have access to in this world. The simulation hypothesis may be the key to understanding the mechanics of our universe; impeding potentially reality-shifting science based on unverifiable conjecture would be scientifically negligent. Even if Greene is right and our overlords pull the plug on us for getting too nosey, things won’t be that bad. Things won’t be that… well, anything.
Let’s assume that future scientists somehow crack the code and determine that this reality is, indeed, virtual. How should we cope? What changes? Should we do our best to forget what we learned? Do we scream out at the unfairness of the world and curse everything we know as a lie? How should I console the friend I mentioned earlier, who could barely stomach the mere thought of living in a simulation? These are tough questions to be sure, but luckily humanity has grappled with them before.
Humanists and existentialists may be particularly well equipped to adapt to the fallout of discovering we live in a simulation. Losing belief in a deity and the moral certainty that deities provide can be an equally earth-shattering experience. Losing faith can make a person angry at the world for lying to them for so long and angry with themselves for believing it. They may feel that life has lost all meaning. One could expect a similar reaction to finding out reality is actually a simulation. But humanists and secular ethicists know that meaning comes from within.
The beauty of existential philosophy tells us that when nothing matters, everything matters precisely as much as you want it to. We get to decide for ourselves what’s important. Even if we are the products of complex computer code, we’re computer code with thoughts, feelings, and experiences that are extremely meaningful to us. Ice cream is still delicious. I still love my friends and family. People still have a personal responsibility to promote the general welfare of society. In short, simulated experiences are still real experiences. Our understanding of the fundamental mechanics of the universe has never affected the day-to-day activities of most humans. It certainly has never affected the values we hold dear in any ostensible way.
If it turns out that we are indeed living in a virtual world, we each must decide for ourselves what that means to us. Will we scream and hide? Or will we live out the lives we find ourselves in as joyously as possible, committed to the things we care about. My advice? Carry on as we have been until it all goes black…