Are we living in a simulation?

The documentary “A Glitch in the Matrix” (2021) starts off with suggesting that we as humans use metaphors based on the highest level of technology of the day in order to understand ourselves. When the aqueducts were big people thought that different liquids controlled the body, and when the telegraph came we thought our nerve impulses went around the body like wires. Today we imagine our body as a computer, since the computer currently is our highest level of technology. But recently some people are not only suggesting that our body is a computer. Instead they are extending that metaphor to also suggest that the whole world is a simulation rendered by a computer. This idea is called simulation theory.

Simulation theory basically is a hypothesis proposing that all of existence is an artificial simulation. It is a theory embraced, rejected and debated by many. In 2003 the philosopher (with a background in theoretical physics, computational neuroscience, logic, and artificial intelligence) Nick Boström wrote a paper called “Are you living in a computer simulation?” published in Philosophical Quarterly. In the paper Boström basically concludes that given that the only society we know of -ours -is in the process of simulating itself, it seems likely that any technological society would do the same. Meaning that it could very well be simulations all the way. Earlier this year the techno philosopher David Chalmers published a book called Reality+: Virtual Worlds and the Problems of Philosophy, in which he, much like Boström, argues that we can’t, statistically speaking, know that we don’t live in a simulation. Hence we can presume that we are living in a simulation. Chalmers also predicts that the digital developments we are seeing right now will create VR worlds indistinguishable from the real one. And that we in the future won’t even make the distinction between “the real world” and other worlds.

It should however be noted that several heavy names in research do not support this theory. Lisa Randall at Harvard, Sabine Hossenfelder of the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies, David Deutsch at Oxford all argue that even though our perceiving brains “simulate” the world around us, there’s no such thing as a “digital physics” and the real world isn’t built on code. Still those that do find something appealing in it are trying to research it more. In order to research the simulation hypothesis further some scientists are hoping to find “a glitch in the matrix”, something that lets them see the code. Houman Owhadi, an expert on computational mathematics at the California Institute of Technology points out that if the simulation has infinite computing power, there is no way we could see whether or not we are living in a virtual reality. Hence in order to find a glitch the simulation needs to have limited computational resources. To Owhadi, the most promising way to look for potential paradoxes created by such computing shortcuts is through quantum physics experiments. A particular field of interest is quantum indeterminacy, the idea that a particle is in one of multiple states and you don’t know that unless you observe the particle. An example of how this notion could affect simulation can be seen in the game “No man’s sky” released in 2016. In this sandbox game, randomly-placed astronauts isolated from one another by millions of lightyears must find their own existential purpose. What is interesting about “No man’s sky” is the code. When the programmers created the game they made a program that allowed their game universe to create itself. Due to the game’s procedural design, its entire universe existed at the moment of its creation. But at the same time, the game will only render a player’s immediate surroundings, which means that nothing exists unless there is a player there to witness it. This is basically an example of Schrödinger’s cat, the theory the physicist Erwin Schrödinger formulated when he speculated that if a cat were to be placed in a box with some radioactive material, there would be a 50 percent chance the cat was dead and a 50 percent chance the cat was alive. Now probably we would think that the cat is already dead or alive inside the box even though we can’t see it. But quantum physics tells us that the cat is both alive and dead at the same time until we open up the box to observe it. Hence an important tenet in simulation theory is that the universe renders only that which is observed.

But if life is but a simulation then who are we? For the computer scientist, video game designer, and writer of the book “The Simulation Hypothesis”, Rizwan Virk the most important question has come to center around our place in the game. Virk in an interview from 2019 says “Probably the most important question related to this is whether we are NPCs (non-player characters) or PCs (player characters) in the video game. If we are PCs, then that means we are just playing a character inside the video game of life, which I call the Great Simulation. I think many of us would like to know this…//…If we are NPCs, or simulated characters, then I think it’s a more complicated answer and more frightening. The question is, are all of us NPCs in a simulation, and what is the purpose of that simulation?

Even though simulation theory is still debated, it is starting to be adopted by some as a way to understand life, and maybe it could even be considered a kind of religion? Because if you follow the line of thinking implicit in simulation theory you end up in theism, the belief in a creator. This is why simulation theory today is one of the strongest arguments modernists have for the existence of a godlike being. So maybe it’s just an updated form of monotheism?



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Victoria Cleverby

Victoria Cleverby


Design strategist @Kivra, Enthusiastic trendspotter and wannabe futurist