Say what you want about the entire trilogy and the upcoming sequels, most would agree that the Matrix is one of the best science fiction films in history. Earning $463 million from worldwide ticket sales after its release on March 31, 1999, the Matrix became a pop culture phenomenon. The film's plot, action, writing, cinematography, and perfectly cast actors make this film an enjoyable ride from start to finish.
However, one of the most memorable takeaways from the film, aside from Keanu Reeves, is the idea about the true nature of reality, posing the question, what if life is simply just a simulation? Though fans of the Matrix will not deny some of the film's heady philosophy, this question has plagued philosophers and scientists for millennia. And, the thing is, you actually might be living in a simulation.
Humanity has always seemed to have a healthy distrust for the nature of reality, with philosophers leading the charge in this mind-melting territory. Yet, believe it or not, there is a group of scientists from leading institutions like MIT and Oxford who have a lot to say about our reality and the idea that we may all be living in a computer simulation. Now, before we jump any further into simulation theory or the simulation hypothesis, it is good to mention that this is more of a thought experiment rather than cold hard facts.
There are some compelling arguments out there for simulation theory, but that is because the overarching idea is unfalsifiable. This means that you are confidently asserting that a theory or hypothesis is true or false even though the hypothesis cannot possibly be contradicted by an observation or the outcome of any physical experiment, usually without strong evidence or functional reasons. So until you find out you are the One like Neo, do not try anything too crazy.
What if I told you that physical reality is an illusion, and we all live in a computer simulation?
The idea of simulation theory can be attributed to the prominent Oxford University philosopher Nick Bostrom. In a paper aptly dubbed, "Are you Living in a Computer Simulation?," the paper argues that one of the following assumptions are true: (1) the human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a "posthuman" stage; (2) any posthuman civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history; (3) we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation. In short, the paper argues that we can not know for sure if any of these are 100% likely to occur without a doubt.
However, according to the paper, the third option is probably the most probable outcome. In short, our great great great great great great grandchildren will probably have the computing power needed to run evolutionary simulations of humanity. Why would they not? And, how would you know that you are not currently part of that simulation? Ponder that for a second.
"Many works of science fiction, as well as some forecasts by serious technologists and futurologists, predict that enormous amounts of computing power will be available in the future. Let us suppose for a moment that these predictions are correct. One thing that later generations might do with their super-powerful computers is run detailed simulations of their forebears or of people like their forebears. Because their computers would be so powerful, they could run a great many such simulations," says Bostrom.
"Apart from the interest, this thesis may hold for those who are engaged in futuristic speculation; there are also more purely theoretical rewards. The argument provides a stimulus for formulating some methodological and metaphysical questions, and it suggests naturalistic analogies to certain traditional religious conceptions, which some may find amusing or thought-provoking."
Bostrom is not the only person that believes that we are living in a simulation. MIT Developer and Play Labs's Executive Director Rizwan Virk expanded on Bostrom's ideas in his book The Simulation Hypothesis, describing what he calls the "Simulation Point," or the moment at which we could realistically build a Matrix-like simulation. In an interview with Digital Trends, Rizwan Virk describes his interpretation of simulation theory stating, "The basic idea is that everything we see around us, including the Earth and the universe, is part of a very sophisticated MMORPG (a massively multiplayer online roleplaying game) and that we are players in this game. The hypothesis itself comes in different forms."
Simulation theory goes way back
The French philosopher René Descartes once said, "It is possible that I am dreaming right now and that all of my perceptions are false." As mentioned above, the nature of reality has been pondered by philosophers for millennia. In fact, some of the ideas presented in the simulation theory parallel some of the overarching ideas presented in history's most significant philosophical lessons. Though Plato or Descartes were probably not thinking about the Matrix, many people have noted that simulation theory is a modern iteration of Plato's Allegory of the Cave or Descartes's evil demon hypothesis.
Simulation theory is gaining steam
This is probably not the first time you have heard about simulation theory. The hypothesis about our reality has made its way into pop culture, appearing in everything from popular subreddits to tv shows and films. More notably, Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and Elon Musk have both welcomed and embraced the theory. In an interview with NBC News, Neil deGrasse Tyson expressed that there is probably a better than 50-50 odds that the simulation hypothesis is correct, stating, "I wish I could summon a strong argument against it, but I can find none." This also echoes a similar sentiment that Musk shares toward the nature of our reality.
At the Code Conference in 2016, Musk stated, "Forty years ago we had Pong – two rectangles and a dot. That's where we were. Now 40 years later, we have photorealistic, 3D simulations with millions of people playing simultaneously, and it's getting better every year. And soon we'll have virtual reality, we'll have augmented reality," said Musk. "If you assume any rate of improvement at all, then the games will become indistinguishable from reality."
"If one progresses at the current rate of technology a few decades into the future, very quickly, we will be a society where artificial entities are living in simulations that are much more abundant than human beings." However, not everyone fully embraces the idea of simulation theory. In an interview with the Guardian, Max Tegmark, a professor of physics at MIT stated that "Is it logically possible that we are in a simulation? Yes. Are we probably in a simulation? I would say no."
"In order to make the argument in the first place, we need to know what the fundamental laws of physics are where the simulations are being made. And if we are in a simulation, then we have no clue what the laws of physics are." Nevertheless, Tegmark went on to state that recognizing that, we are probably living in a simulation is as game-changing as Copernicus realizing that the Earth was not the center of the universe.
Those who have jumped down the rabbit hole have pointed to various scientific phenomena, claiming that these are visible signs that we are living in a simulation. So, what are they?
The idea of simulating the universe is not too crazy of the entire universe
This is the most obvious. You have probably played games like Sid Meyer's Civilization or even Sims. These games allow us to simulate human life on a global scale or within a small neighborhood. As mentioned above, at the rate at which computing power is growing, what is stopping humans from simulating their history? As a nineties or eighties baby, you have watched games evolve into these photorealistic 3D renderings of reality. Computing power in just the next 50 years will be millions of times more powerful than it is today. Harvard's Odyssey computer can already simulate 14 billion years in just a matter of months.
Where are all the aliens? The Fermi Paradox
Do you ever wonder why humans have not come in contact with aliens yet? In the vast, unimaginable size of the universe, why are there not more signs of intelligent life out there? Welcome to the Fermi Paradox. Named after the Italian-American physicist Enrico Fermi, the Fermi Paradox is the apparent contradiction between the lack of evidence for extraterrestrial civilizations and various high estimates for their probability, ie, the Drake Equation. Perhaps there are no aliens in this simulation? In this current reality, the easiest thing to do for the people behind the simulation is to simply simulate life in just one place in the universe. The universe might have just been created for us.
Maybe we will never be able to prove we are in a simulation
Scientists like Nuclear physicist Zohreh Davoudi and NYU David Chalmers have made it very clear that the chances of us living in a simulation are most likely very low. Even more so, how would you go about proving that you live in a simulation? As David Chalmers simply puts, "You're not going to get proof that we're not in a simulation, because any evidence that we get could be simulated."
Yet, there could be examples of the simulation all around us
Do you ever experience something and think to yourself, "This can't be real." To some people who have bought into the notion that our reality is currently being simulated, there are examples all around us, that demonstrate glitches in the Matrix. Deja Vu? Ghosts? The Mandela Effect? These could all be direct examples of flaws in the simulation. Some have simply pointed to the most recent events in history as proof that we are currently living in a simulation. Could the Coronavirus be an indication that we are living in a simulation?
There is some "scientific evidence," and it's creepy
MIT Theoretical physicist James Gates has made a discovery that allegedly caused Neil deGrasse Tyson to sit down in shock. Now for the uninitiated, superstring theory is a concept that could unify all aspects of physics if proven right. While working on his superstring theory, he made an odd discovery. Gates claims to have identified what appears to be actual computer code embedded in the equations of string theory that describe the fundamental particles of our universe. In short, he found "error-correcting codes," the same error-correcting codes that you might find on the web browser you are using right now.
The red pill or the blue pill?
So if we are currently living in the universe that is being simulated by some highly intelligent individuals, should we care? No, not really. Life continues to go on. You will continue to work, eat, sleep, and worry about COVID-19. Simulation theory is a fun thought experiment that tackles a question about reality that has plagued us since humanity existed.
As Nick Bostrom so aptly put it, "If we are living in a simulation, then the cosmos that we are observing is just a tiny piece of the totality of physical existence… While the world we see is, in some sense' real,' it is not located at the fundamental level of reality."
Nevertheless, Douglas Adams in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, perfectly states, "There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened."
What do you think about simulation theory? Do you think that it is plausible?