Living in 2020 has been an adventure. Some problems like climate change, wealth inequality, and systemic racism have traceable human causes. But others, like COVID-19, seem to come completely from left field. If you’re wondering if we’re living in a computer simulation, you’re not the only one. Scientists and philosophers have tackled this issue for centuries, trying to figure out whether our reality is truly “real.”
Questioning Reality for Centuries
“Humanity has always seemed to have a healthy distrust for the nature of reality,” says tech writer and designer Donovan Alexander. Zhuangzi, a Chinese philosopher who lived in the fourth century B.C.E., described a vivid dream of being a butterfly. When he awoke, he wasn’t sure if he was a human dreaming of being a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming about being human. Vedic philosophy talks about Maya, or the physical world as a super-immersive illusion. Then there’s French philosopher René Descartes, who said, “It is possible that I am dreaming right now and that all of my perceptions are false.”
The Basics of Simulation Theory
If you’ve ever seen any of “The Matrix” films, you’ve witnessed simulation theory. These works by the Wachowski sisters have contributed to the long tradition of questioning reality. Games like “The Sims 4” would have seemed like far-off dreams in 1990, but we play them now to pass the time or escape our pandemic reality. Simulation theory posits that we’re living in a super-advanced version of something like The Sims’ world. Proponents point to several probable pieces of evidence: subatomic particles behaving strangely, quarks that contain computer code, strange events such as the 2017 Oscars envelope mix-up, and the like.
But if we are indeed in a simulation, who’s running it? Vox writer Sean Illing mentions Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom, who proposed that advanced civilizations could create extraordinary simulated realities. In his 2019 book “The Simulation Hypothesis,” computer scientist Rizwan Virk speculated that we may be living in a simulation now and we’re remarkably close to creating simulated realities ourselves. Maybe the creators are humans living in a far-off future, recreating their past. Perhaps the programmers are extraterrestrials, incredibly advanced artificial intelligences, or a capricious omnipotent being like Star Trek’s Q.
The Skeptics Weigh In
We can’t prove we’re in a computer simulation, so it’s natural to find some skeptics. These aren’t garden-variety naysayers, however. Built In mentions Harvard University physicist Lisa Randall as a prominent opponent. The theory focuses mostly on humanity, which Randall finds suspect given the preoccupation with our species. Why would anyone running a high-level simulation bother with simulating humans, she asks, when there’s so much more interesting stuff in the cosmos?
There’s also the problem of data storage. Physicists Zohar Ringel and Dmitry Kovrizhi experimented with simulating quantum particles and discovered that it’s currently impossible to simulate an entire quantum computer. Doing so “would require a computer memory that would physically require more atoms than exist in the universe.”
Bigger Questions and Ethics
In the “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” episode “Far Beyond the Stars,” Captain Benjamin Sisko has a vivid vision of himself as Benny Russell, a writer in racially segregated 1950s America penning stories about Deep Space Nine. At the end of the episode, Sisko quips, “For all we know, at this very moment, somewhere far beyond all those distant stars, Benny Russell is dreaming of us.”
Even in simulated realities, our actions have consequences. As a Black person, the pain Sisko as Russell suffered from discrimination and police brutality was very real. Yet Russell fought for what he believed in: his vision of a future that included multiple cultures and genders. Just as those around him couldn’t imagine a Black starship captain, perhaps we can’t yet imagine what lies beyond our limitations.