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We Need to Find out If We Are Living in a Simulation
There’s a case to be made that this world is one big role-playing game
Are we living in a simulation?
The question seems to be gaining in popularity this year, the 20th anniversary of the release of the most popular incarnation of the simulation hypothesis, the iconic movie, The Matrix. Just this week, a new sequel, called The Matrix 4 for now, was announced with stars Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss reprising their roles.
Philosophy professor Preston Greene recently wrote an op-ed in the New York Times proposing that if we are in a simulation, it is better not to find out. I disagree.
First some background. Today’s versions of the simulation hypothesis are based on our recent advances in video game technology. Oxford professor Nick Bostrom popularized the idea in his 2003 paper, “Are You Living In a Computer Simulation?” Since then, Elon Musk, among many others, have advocated for this argument, which claims that if any civilization can ever get to the Simulation Point (the technological ability to create a virtual world as realistic as the physical world), then it’s probably already happened.
This means that there are probably many more simulated beings in virtual worlds than there are “real” beings in base reality. After all, the simulators can just ramp up a new server and create a billion more simulated beings. Since there would presumably be no simple way to tell whether you’re a simulated being or a “real” one, sheer numbers would suggest we are more likely to be inside a simulation than not. This line of reasoning is broadly referred to as the simulation argument, and it’s what led Musk to speculate the odds we are not in a simulation is “one in billions.”
But this concept is really the modern equivalent of a very old idea. It goes back thousands of years to Plato’s Cave and the Eastern religions, such as Buddhism and Hinduism, which explicitly put forth the idea that we are living in an illusory world called maya. The concept is also tied to the Judeo-Christian religions, which tell us that our good and bad deeds inside this world are being watched by “recording angels,” and we will be judged based on a viewing of these after death.
Today, not only is our video game technology getting good enough that we might be capable of building our own simulated worlds soon, but our scientists and technologists are proposing new experiments and interpreting findings of existing experiments that reveal that we may, in fact, already be in a simulation.
Should this research be pursued aggressively?
The implications of the simulation hypothesis stretch well beyond any one field, which is why philosophers, scientists, technologists, and theologians are all weighing in on this important question. We should take all of these perspectives seriously when considering whether we should pursue research into whether or not we’re in a simulation.
First, is it even possible to figure out whether we are in a simulation?
Some have argued that the simulation hypothesis is non-falsifiable, meaning it can’t be disproved definitively. Thus, it isn’t “scientific” at all and should just be ignored. However, simply because something can’t be proven wrong doesn’t mean we can’t find evidence that it is true. Once upon a time, scientists thought that meteorites that fell from the sky were mythological, based only on anecdotal evidence. The prevailing model of reality at the time didn’t allow for this possibility — and therefore they insisted that this phenomenon did not exist. Eventually, in addition to the anecdotal stories of rocks falling from the sky, scientists found hard evidence, which eventually led them to change their model of how the universe works. Like all paradigm shifts, it took many years before this new model was accepted as better conforming to reality.
A number of researchers, including Nobel prize-winning physicist George Smoot and Stanford’s Leonard Susskind, believe that physics is already showing us evidence through quantum effects that we are in a simulation. In my book, The Simulation Hypothesis, I argue that unexplainable quantum phenomena (notably quantum indeterminacy and quantum entanglement) don’t make sense in a material world, but they make much more sense when viewed through the model of a simulated, information-based world. Other physicists believe that the pixelated nature of space, and potentially, time, both lend credence to the idea that we are in a computer engine-based simulation.
Former NASA physicist Tom Campbell, along with Caltech’s Houman Owhadi, proposed a series of experiments based on quantum phenomenon that would prove that we are in a video game-like reality. They raised money on Kickstarter and I was fortunate to see the beginnings of these experiments, already underway. The experiments attempt to show that one of the biggest mysteries of quantum physics, the observer effect, requires a conscious observer, and not just a measurement device. The conclusion is meant to demonstrate that the physical world is only rendered when there is a “player” observing it, as in a video game. Famous hacker George Hotz (founder of self-driving car company Comma.ai) gave a controversial presentation at SXSW where he suggested that we try to “hack” out of the simulation. YCombinator’s Sam Altman said that he knew of several billionaires who were funding their own ways to hack the simulation.
Given how quickly this concept is progressing, it’s possible that within a decade, we’ll be able to find hard evidence that we are living inside a simulation.
This brings us back to the question of whether we should.
Greene’s argument was really a technological version of Pascal’s wager: even if you’re not sure if there is a God, it’s better to behave as if there is, just in case you’re wrong. Greene argued that if we are in a simulation it could be a research project, and research projects rely on the subjects not knowing about the research. If we were to do experiments and show that we were in a simulation, the simulators might shut us down! In that case, it’s better not to find out, since it could result in the shutdown of our civilization and world. Nick Bostrom, who popularized the simulation argument, also has expressed reservations about trying to prove we are in a simulation, because the simulators may not like it.
A related question I’ve been asked often since my book came out is why we should care if we are in a simulation? Although the reasoning here is different than Greene’s wager (in this version, since it makes no difference to my life, why bother?) the conclusion is the same: it’s better not to know.
I think the answer to this question is contained within an overlooked aspect of simulation theory. Namely, that there are two versions of the simulation hypothesis that can best be understood through the lens of video games.
1. The NPC version. In one version, all of the entities inside the simulation (that would be us, btw) are actually like nonplayer characters (called NPCs) in video games — simulated artificial characters who do not exist outside of the game. Bostrom’s simulation argument relies on the fact that there would be many more of these than “real” beings in the base reality that launched the first simulation. Smoot estimated that the ratio of simulated to real beings could be as high as 10¹² to 1.
2. The RPG Version. In this version, which is the model suggested by the world’s religions, we exist as conscious entities outside of the simulation and are simply playing a “role” or taking on an “avatar” (we might call it a “body”) inside the simulated world. This is not unlike the situation in the Matrix: Neo (Keanu Reeves) and Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) both existed outside of the simulation and inside the simulation.
These two versions aren’t mutually exclusive. A video game like World of Warcraft, for example, has both player characters as well as NPCs. But it brings us to an important, if not well-understood, aspect of our existence, what NYU’s David Chalmers called “the hard problem of consciousness.” It stands at the crux of why this isn’t just a scientific question, but one that affects philosophy and religion as well.
If we are RPG characters in a simulation, that means that most of us exist as conscious entities outside the simulation already.
Whether we are NPCs in a simulation run on a computer, or role-playing entities actively participating in the simulation, makes a very big difference in whether we should proceed with this research.
If we are NPCs inside a game only, then there may be restrictions that prevent us from understanding that we are inside a video game. In this scenario, if we did discover we were in a simulation and the simulators did not want us to know, they could simply “rewind” the simulation and erase those memories, instead of shutting it all down.
In fact, if we assume we’re in an NPC simulation then we can also assume this has probably already happened, perhaps more than once — we just don’t remember it.
Yet, we are still here, so this by itself doesn’t mean that the simulation won’t be able to continue. Philip K. Dick believed that this has already happened multiple times and wrote his novel, The Man In the High Castle, because he claimed to have remembered an alternate timeline where the Nazis won WWII, a timeline that was “rewound” by the simulators.
If we are RPG characters in a simulation, that means that most of us exist as conscious entities outside the simulation already. As in The Matrix, we’re unaware of this fact because the simulation is so good that it’s indistinguishable from reality. Like Neo and Morpheus, shutting down the simulation would simply mean “waking up” from the delusion.
Here’s why it makes sense to find out if we’re in a simulation, looked at through several different lenses:
- The RPG/video game argument. If we look at it through the lens of a video game, every modern game has achievements and quests to guide the character. Understanding that you’re in a game is a first step to understanding how to achieve the desired results of the game. If we are inside a game like Grand Theft Auto, for example vs. Fortnite, the things that our characters do next would be radically different. While the nature of the game and the corresponding achievements is unclear at the moment, learning we are in the game would be the first step to focusing on the “right” outcomes. In fact, the point of the whole game might be to see whether we can recognize we are inside it.
- The Matrix argument. If we are inside an RPG like The Matrix, then not only will we not stop existing, but we may be able to escape the simulators. If we are in a simulation, we might be slaves to some master race, and the first step to freeing ourselves would be to know that we are inside a game. In this context, “ending the simulation” would be the desired result, as opposed to “continuing the simulation.”
- The religious argument. In a reversal of The Matrix argument, and in-line with the video game argument, most of the world’s religions express the idea that we are here for a purpose and that we are being monitored and recorded (via karma in the Eastern traditions and the Book of Life and the Scroll of Deeds in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam). Knowing that we are inside the game would not end the game. In fact, you might argue that all of the world’s religions started because someone peeked outside the simulation and came back to tell us what the nature of the game is. This not only did not end the game, but enhanced it for those players still to come.
- The science argument. The goal of science is to understand the nature of the world around us. Discovering the rules of physics may in fact be just discovering the rules of the physics engine which governs our simulation. Science has, in some ways, abandoned the big questions of why we are here and why things work as they do. In my book, I argue that the reason we are baffled by quantum phenomenon is that we don’t understand their purpose or context, but the simulation hypothesis provides a framework for why things work the way they do. The entire goal of all science may, in fact, be to determine if we are in a simulation or not. In this case, it doesn’t make sense to not pursue scientific research of this question.
Although I could expand on each of these arguments, I think they collectively express the reasons why we should proceed with simulation research. The goals of religion, science, and philosophy are more similar than each field might admit: to understand the nature of the world around us.
Finding out if we are in a simulation is the crucial question that underlies all of these fields and might be the only way for all of these fields to advance and truly understand reality.
So, when it comes to doing experiments to figure out if we are in a simulation, I say: Full speed ahead!
Rizwan Virk is the founder of Play Labs @ MIT, a video game accelerator, and the author of The Simulation Hypothesis: An MIT Computer Scientist Shows Why AI, Quantum Physics and Eastern Mystics All Agree We Are In a Video Game