Will you take the red pill or the blue? Is life, and the Universe, nothing more than a computer simulation?
If we are living in one, does it really matter? Could science have come full circle and re-invented god in computer code?
These are the kinds of questions we'll attempt to touch on the following article. Trust us when we say providing a complete answer to these questions is far outside the scope of this piece.
But, that being said, let's attempt to take a quick peek 'under the hood' of reality.
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Are we living in a simulation?
Are we living in a simulation? If we were, would we even be able to tell the difference?
This is not just a common theme of science fiction books and films, like the Matrix and Total Recall, but also happens to be a real scientific and philosophical theory.
Aptly called the Simulation Hypothesis, or Simulated Reality Hypothesis, it has gained some popularity in recent decades. But what is it?
The main premise of the hypothesis is that what we perceive as reality is actually a sophisticated artificial simulation. It can be thought of as a kind of extended hallucination or an elaborate computer program, or indeed, something else.
But, it has existed in some form for a very long time. Solipsism, for example, holds that we can never truly trust the data we receive from our senses.
This is a very old school of philosophy that has its origins in classical Greece. The first recorded example is the work of the Presocratic philosopher Gorgias.
But it would be fully fleshed out by later philosophers like Descartes ("I think therefore I am") and George Berkeley.
But it goes further. It also states that we can only ever 'know' that our mind exists. Everything and everyone, external to our internal mind is an illusion.
As Wikipedia explains:
"As an epistemological position, solipsism holds that knowledge of anything outside one's own mind is unsure; the external world and other minds cannot be known and might not exist outside the mind."
This school of philosophy also holds that memories are also an illusion. They are, in effect, a polished and edited save file of what happened in reality.
In this sense, the Simulation Hypothesis combines Solipsism with existing or hypothetical technology as possible explanations for the illusion.
Whether you believe that or not is a very personal matter but is there any scientific justification for it? Let's find out.
The theory of mind: How we simulate others
One area of science that may help support it is called the Theory of Mind. This involves the investigation of how we, as individuals, ascribe mental states to third-parties.
It also tries to investigate how we use those states of mind to explain and predict the actions of another person.
"More accurately, it is the branch that investigates mindreading or mentalizing or mentalistic abilities. These skills are shared by almost all human beings beyond early childhood.
They are used to treat other agents as the bearers of unobservable psychological states and processes and to anticipate and explain the agents’ behavior in terms of such states and processes." - Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
It is a school of thought that has gained a lot of traction over the last 15 years or so. And it is actually a very interesting area of study.
It has many overlaps with the Simulation Theory. One key area is that the processes we use to predict others' actions are a sort of internal simulator.
A good analogy to try to understand its basic premise is as follows.
Imagine you are telling a story to a young child, say about 3 years old. You tell them that there are two sisters, Sally and Ann.
Sally has a ball and hides it in a basket. Ann saw this but leaves the room to go to the toilet. Whilst away, Sally takes the ball and hides it in a box instead.
When Anne returns she wants to play with the ball and tries to look for it. If you asked the young child where Ann will look for the ball, they will, in all likelihood, say the box.
But you know, as an adult, that Ann will probably expect to find the ball in the basket.
In effect, you are able to empathize with the fictional character of Ann and predict her actions based on the knowledge she has at hand. The young child hasn't yet developed this ability and assumes that Ann will know that it's in the box, exactly where you told them it was.
This is called lacking the ability to attribute mental states to other people. They, in effect, cannot model or simulate, the fictional Anne in their own minds.
We effectively use our own mind as an analog model for the mind of the other 'simulated' agent. If true, then for the other individual they do, in part, live in a simulation, but in the first persons' head only.
Is the Universe a simulation?
So far so good, but could this just be an affectation of consciousness as part of a bigger game? If the theory of mind is true, then it could be argued that it is simply part of your programming as a character in the simulation.
Many prominent thinkers pondered the very question of the Universe being a simulation back in 2016. The event was moderated by Neil deGrasse Tyson and was held at the Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate at the American Museum of Natural History.
According to Neil, the chances are probably about 50-50. Especially if there is a much greater intelligence in the Universe than us.
This argument has similarities with our very real concerns about AI. Especially if the creators of the simulation have intelligence so far removed from us as we are to, say, Chimpanzees.
"We would be drooling, blithering idiots in their presence,” he said. “If that’s the case, it is easy for me to imagine that everything in our lives is just a creation of some other entity for their entertainment,” he said, according to Scientific American.
But this is, of course, conjecture without any actual testable data.
Other prominent thinkers, like Elon Musk, are also convinced that this is probably the case. But it must also be borne in mind, that this hypothesis is not without its critics.
Another reason this kind of theory has become hard to dispute is quantum physics. The more we learn about the universe, the more it appears to be based on mathematical laws rather than physical ones.
If true, then it may be the case that we are in a simulation after all. But would that be so bad?
Of course, the more we learn about the universe, and as fields like quantum physics develop, this kind of theory might be easily explained by something very mundane indeed.
But, as it stands, you'd be forgiven for thinking that this skirts a bit too close to the existence of a God. It, in effect, reinvents 'God' as the builder and controller of us, and the Universe, but in digital.
Perhaps, just perhaps, science has come full circle and made God the master computer programmer?
Whatever the truth may be, it is likely, if we are in a simulation, that we will never know. Or, of course, it could be complete bunkum.
We'll let you decide.