One of the more intriguing notions that has insinuated itself into the public consciousness in recent years is that we all may be living in a computer simulation. It’s getting increasingly hard to think otherwise.
The conceit that human perception may be nothing but a dream is as old as Plato and as popular as H.P. Lovecraft, whose horror fiction includes a creature that dreams the universe into being. In Hindu theology, the deity Mahavishnu lies down to dream multiple physical realities. So it’s not surprising that with the rise of sophisticated video games, CGI, and quantum computing, the more mechanistic notion that what we perceive as reality may be a vast computer simulation, devised by an advanced civilization, perhaps our own base-reality descendants, for education, research or amusement, would become the modern version of this ancient conjecture.
Perhaps the most popular recent vehicle for this idea was the classic 1999 sci-fi movie The Matrix, in which Keanu Reeves discovers that all of humanity are really prisoners of an alien race and being used as energy generators, asleep in endless racks of artificial wombs and fed a continuous mass-program that we believe to be reality. It’s at once a dystopian fantasy of an alternative reality, and a concrete demonstration of how filmmaking can create an alternative reality.
In 2000, sci-if master David Brin published a wonderful short story, “Reality Check”, whose premise is that we are all bored gods who have taken refuge from our boredom inside a simulation that, unlike our perfect, boring lives, is full of challenge, conflict, drama. Three years later, an Oxford philosopher named Nick Bostrom made a stir with a paper suggesting that we might be inhabitants of an “ancestor simulation” being run by our future descendants.
Elon Musk evidently believes that the odds that we’re not living in a simulation are one in billions. There are multiple Reddit chat rooms devoted the question. Serious scientists believe that they can test the premise by detecting “glitches” in our reality, such as the fact that the universe is expanding more quickly than physics suggests it should, or the apparent existence of an undetectable source of mass called “dark matter.” Other less scientific inferences include earth’s improbably perfect position in the solar system, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, and the election of a preposterous tabloid personality to the presidency of the United States.
Then there’s the Covid-19 pandemic, which really does seem to be another surreal variable that might be introduced into a computer simulation of human life on earth at some otherwise placid point in its progress, just to see what happens.
So let’s see: in the midst of relative peace and unprecedented plenty, human society is turned upside down by a virus. And this happens while Donald Trump is president.
The programmers may have finally overplayed their hand. It’s getting a bit too obvious. But let’s all continue to play dumb, lest they realize we’re on to them, and turn the damn thing off.