Video games have always been a huge part of my life. I spent countless hours in front of my television as a kid, reveling in the glory of each cleared level and groaning in frustration at each defeat. I was also insanely competitive and easily fired up about my own performance. I actually had this funny (and disturbing) habit of hurling my character off cliffs or ledges over and over again whenever the frustration of getting stuck on a level became too great.
That kind of behavior isn’t a big deal though, right? They’re just video game characters after all- the culmination of code, appearing on a screen for our enjoyment. What if they weren’t though? What if they were conscious beings? What if each time we held a controller in our hands and plotted the decisions and movements of a character, we took the reigns over a person who thought themselves to possess free will? What if they were simply living inside a simulation that we built around them? To take it a bit further, what if we were the characters?
Obviously I’m not saying that the characters in our favorite video games possess consciousness. We didn’t program them to be sentient after all. I only introduce this idea to make the theory we’re about to discuss a little more easily digestible. If you put yourself in the shoes of a video game character, the simulation theory starts to be a little less daunting. After all, that’s what the simulation theory is all about: we are, in a sense, the video game characters.
The Simulation Theory Argument
In 2003, University of Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrum suggested that a civilization much more highly evolved and technologically advanced than us would likely use their knowledge to run simulations of their ancestors- us. If these highly advanced beings wanted to set up such simulations, Bostrum explained, they would likely also have the ability to run many simulations at once. In doing so, most of the minds within those simulations would be “artificial” leaving very few minds distinguishable as their “original” ancestral ones. If you take this into consideration, the probability that our minds are “original” is pretty miniscule.
Does your brain hurt yet? That’s okay, so does mine. It should be said that nothing you’re going to read here is going to be the best description of this theory. I mean, the simulation theory is HUGE and my highest level of education thus far is an associate’s degree, dude. That being said, if you’re much smarter than me and think you can suffer through a good migraine I recommend you check out Bostrom’s original paper on the subject.
Are you rolling your eyes at the mere mention of the simulation theory? Okay. Let me just say that if you can get through the initial knee-jerk reaction to disregard the idea of existing within a kind of computer program, the simulation theory is actually wildly interesting. You may even start to look at the world around you a little differently.
A “One in Billions” Chance
I adore Elon Musk. Let’s go ahead and get that out there. The man is a genius in my eyes. He wants to put humans on Mars by 2025. He coded his own video game at the age of 12. The dude sent a car into space. Oh, and he believes in the simulation theory.
In 2016, Musk said that he believes there to be a “one in billions chance” that we’re not living inside a simulation, or, that we currently exist inside base reality.
“The strongest argument for us being in a simulation is the following: 40 years ago, we had pong, two rectangles and a dot,” Musk said. “That is what games 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, augmented reality, if you assume any rate of improvement at all, the games will become indistinguishable from reality.”
Elon Musk isn’t the only public figure to give the simulation theory public recognition- Neil Degrasse Tyson isn’t ruling anything out either. During the 2016 Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate, Tyson stated that the chances that our universe is simulated reality is “50-50”. He went on to note the “intelligence gap” between humans and our closest DNA match in the animal kingdom, the chimpanzee. Despite sharing a 98 percent DNA overlap (and not taking anything away from the intelligence of chimpanzees here, I promise) there is a notable difference in base intelligence. Under those same terms, Tyson argues that a being with greater intelligence than us could not only exist but possess the potential to run their own simulations.
James Gates, a physicist at the University of Maryland, also brought his own argument for the simulation theory to the Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate- his discovery of error-correcting codes found within equations of supersymmetry. If your head is hurting again you aren’t alone. Check out Gates’ talk below. It’s incredibly interesting.
Is Any Of This Real?
Depending on how you feel about the simulation theory, seemingly supportive findings can be a little disconcerting. What is perhaps more disturbing? If we are in fact living inside of a simulation, even with “evidence” such as the findings presented by Gates, the existence of a super advanced computer holding the fabric of our reality together would likely be impossible to prove. If our universe is a simulation, it would be the greatest kept secret that our minds could ever begin to process. In saying this, it would also likely be impossible to prove that our universe is real because any “evidence” we discover could be part of the program itself.
The human race is infinitely curious with an innate need to always discover, to always embrace the transition into the next frontier. I believe this is what makes the simulation theory so widely controversial. If we exist within a simulation, the philosophies of humanity that have guided our presence within our own universe are called into question.
There are those that argue that the simulation theory is a convenient excuse set to alleviate us of any responsibility for our actions. There are others that say simulated reality can be neither proven nor disproven so the conversation isn’t worth having. I personally love the simulation theory for exactly what it is- a theory. After all, whether through way of religion or science, I think we all want to know what this thing we call life is all about. Why are we here and where are we going?
As with any interesting theory on the origins of our reality, I enjoy peering through the simulation-theory-colored glasses every now and then to marvel at the world around me. You have to admit- if this is all just a simulation, it’s equally terrifying and beautiful.