The odds that we are in base reality is one in billions.
Reality just feels so…real.
I am in Delhi Airport’s Terminal 3. It’s a happy day because things seem to be going, mostly, according to plan.
As I walk on the carpeted floor, sunlight streams in from the massive windows on either side. In front of my eyes are planes, people, kiosks and fine fragments of dust dancing in the golden light.
There is just no way this isn’t real!
I have 30 years of memories to prove my existence. My human ancestors have walked the earth for a million years before me.
I am also confident that, far from my field of vision, are billions of stars and planets whizzing through the universe. That there is a subatomic world of protons and electrons all around me.
So, why does Elon Musk say that it’s all fake—that we are living in a computer simulation?
The answer to that question is the most bizarre thought experiment that you can imagine: The Simulation Hypothesis.
The Simulation Hypothesis
Musk loves talking about the simulation hypothesis. But its most famous analysis comes from Nick Bostrom.
Bostrom is a philosopher at Oxford where he has a fun job— thinking about the future. His argument goes something like this:
Today, we are already trying to simulate reality using virtual reality technology. In the far far future, as computers become faster and better, we may be able to create simulations that are indistinguishable from reality.
And we could choose to run billions of such simulations. This leads us to a very tricky situation…
Because if we run billions of simulations, then the number of unsimulated people (who get to live in physical reality) would be much lower than the number of simulated people (who get to live in computer simulations). Therefore, it is highly probable that we happen to be among the simulated people!
(If our world is simulated, then we aren’t in the 21st century right now. Maybe it’s really the 51st century or something. And we just happen to exist in a simulation of the past.)
The bottom line is this: If you believe that humans will one day run realistic simulations on a large scale, then we are probably in a simulation right now.
Implications of the Simulation Hypothesis
I know, this has been very dry (disturbing?). But stay with me because now it’s time for the fun stuff.
We are going to explore the mind-bending implications of this thought experiment.
What if, one day, the people in the simulated world created their own simulation? This would mean reality has layers—simulations within simulations within simulations and so on.
If this were the case, there would be no way for the creators of a simulation to know whether they themselves are in someone else’s simulation. Ultimately, it would be impossible for any conscious being to be certain that they do indeed exist in physical reality.
Also, with each new layer, the simulated worlds would move further and further away from the laws of physical reality. So physical reality may actually be very different from the physics of our world.
Another funny thought—since our creators would have complete power over our world, they could choose to put us in some bizarre situations.
For example, they could create mini-simulations. These are simulations where only one or a few people exist.
Maybe you are alone in your universe. And everyone else you interact with is not really conscious. They may be simulated only to the extent required to convince you that they are conscious.
Our creators could also play with our memories. Perhaps you came into existence 10 seconds ago and all your memories are false.
One last, ultra-weird, thought experiment: maybe you have been living the last 2 minutes of your life on repeat for the last 2 million years.
The Search for Truth
How can you prove whether at this moment we are sleeping, and all our thoughts are a dream; or whether we are awake, and talking to one another in the waking state?
You are probably questioning the nature of reality at this point.
Let’s say you decide you want to get to the truth. You don’t want any more brain-scrambling philosophies or mathematical probabilities. You simply want an answer to a simple question:
What is real and what is fake?
It’s a fair question. Sadly, there is no answer. The problem is not the simulation hypothesis. The problem lies in how we perceive things.
Let’s talk about how we see stuff. Our eyes simply capture light and convert it into electrochemical signals. These signals are sent to the brain which analyses them.
In this way, anything you’ve ever seen is just a translation of electrochemical signals. You have never directly seen what is out there. All your life, your brain has shown you representations of what is out there.
I am not the first person to point this out. Philosophers have been discussing our second-hand experience of reality for a long time. (Descartes talked about it in the 17th century.)
What if there is a problem with how your sense organs collect information? Or, what if your brain is making errors in its analysis? Could a powerful entity be misleading you by feeding you a false reality?
Maybe. Maybe not. There is no way to find out.
Or, maybe there is a way to find the truth.
Jed McKenna—who happens to be my favourite writer—suggests we might find our answer in Advaita Vedanta. That’s an ancient school of thought from India. Advaita tells us that truth exists and we can find it.
It reasons that everything you believe may be incorrect and your world may be a lie. But, if you have thoughts and feelings then you are certain that there is a you. You may be wrong about the details of your existence but you are 100% sure that you do exist.
From this perspective, the only truth of existence is “I am/ I exist.”
This makes I-Am the beginning and end of all knowledge. However, anything beyond I-Am is merely a belief that can never be proven.
This same idea was captured by Descartes with the Latin phrase Cogito, ergo sum: “I think, therefore I am”.
I understand that I-Am is not a very satisfying truth. There is certainly nothing cheerful about it. Yet according to some philosophies, it’s all we have got.
Living in a Dream
Row, row, row your boat,
Gently down the stream,
Merrily merrily, merrily, merrily,
Life is but a dream.
We’ve come very far with this thought experiment. I think it’s time for a quick recap!
Are we living in a computer simulation?
It is a possibility.
Can we trust our perceptions of the world?
We don’t perceive the world directly. Our brains only interpret electrochemical signals. Hence, reality may or may not align with our perceptions.
Is there a truth we can be sure of?
I am/ I exist. Everything beyond that is a belief.
Awesome. But how do we continue living our lives knowing that our world may be a lie?
Bostrom himself gives us the answer, “[The simulation hypothesis] Should have no tendency to make us ‘go crazy’ or to prevent us from going about our business and making plans and predictions for tomorrow.”
I agree with Bostrom.
It doesn’t matter if I and my burger are lines of code in someone’s computer. As long as the burger tastes real to me, it is real. Put another way, my world may not be true. But whatever I perceive to be real is real to me.
So there is absolutely no reason to quit our jobs and walk off into the wilderness. The simulation hypothesis doesn’t change anything.
How does one live in a dream? The same way we’ve lived all of our lives.
Over to You…
There is a lot more to the simulation hypothesis than what I’ve covered here. But I will give you the resources to continue your investigation into this thought experiment.
If, like me, you love watching movies, then you’re in for a treat. Because there have been a bunch of amazing movies that question the nature of reality.
Here is the list:
If you’d prefer a book, I’d recommend Jed McKenna’s Theory of Everything.
What are your thoughts on reality?