Is our universe a simulation and, if so, is it breaking down?

(AP Photo/Copyright Disney-Pixar)

When I read an article about an Australian woman found to have a living worm in her brain, I responded by declaring that “the simulation is breaking down.” I was (mostly) joking, but plenty of people far smarter than I have been increasingly speculating that none of our existence may be real. This could all be a simulation running on some AI system located wherever “reality” actually resides. The entire idea still sounds less like science than something that would be slurred out by some students visiting the pot-smoking professor in Animal House. But just this week, Elon Musk once again stated that he believes it’s entirely possible, if not probable.

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That’s right, Elon Musk suspects that he himself — along with you, everyone you know, and indeed the entirety of the observable universe itself — are merely simulations. He’s said as much many times throughout the years, admitting, “I’ve had so many simulation discussions it’s crazy,” during a Q&A at the 2016 Code Conference.

Taking the argument at face value leaves one grappling with some seriously heady questions. If reality is a simulation, how could we ever know? Would it render all life meaningless? And what happens if someone trips over a power cord and the whole simulation shuts off? To tease out the answers, we’ll have to take it from the top.

Serious scientists have been saying this for years. Scientific American gave it the same 50/50 probability in 2020. But if so, what would that mean? I will confess that I’m probably at least a little less sure about the firmness of reality than I was for most of my life. Reality sucks sometimes, but at least it’s real. Or so I thought. But looking around the world today, we’re seeing so many changes that just seem so bizarre that it’s easier for me to believe that we might be witnessing a glitch in the Matrix. Take for example all of the recent news about UFOs that I’ve been writing about here. So many pilots are reporting them and Congress is holding hearings about them. But why would that have any implications for the simulation theory?

Back in the late 80s, a game called Sim City was all the rage. Not to be confused with The Sims, Sim City is a game where you control a virtual city from an overhead view like a god. The ostensible goal of the game is to build the city’s civilization to the most advanced state possible. But just to keep things interesting, the player is offered a number of “challenges” that can be introduced to the residents. These range from things like fires, auto accidents, and civil unrest to increasingly strong storms and tornadoes. But at the very end of the game, you are offered the option of “aliens.” That’s when the UFOs show up and begin attacking and everything pretty much goes to hell in a handbasket.

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So has our techno-god in the “real universe” finally leveled us up to the point where we’ve mastered our existence and, having grown bored, decided to have a little fun? And perhaps even more disturbingly, what happens to us if she closes her laptop and goes to lunch? That’s the point where this thought experiment turns rather dark, isn’t it?

On the one hand, it might actually make the thought of “the end of the world” or even death itself a lot less stressful. After all, if nothing is real, including you, there really isn’t anything to lose, right? One moment we’re here going about our business as best we can and the next… nothing. There would be no regrets because there was never anyone actually “here” to regret anything.

But up until then, how would the knowledge or at least strong suspicion of our lack of reality affect society? I mean, for all of recorded history we’ve assumed that we are very “real,” with the exception of a few wackos roaming the streets in robes. But how would we collectively react if we realized that it had all been a lie? Would we just begin running wild and going on destructive stampedes because there are no actual consequences to our actions anyway? Would it mean the end of religion, or perhaps the rise of a new religion where we pray to the aforementioned techno-god and beg her to not shut down the program and perhaps order up a bountiful harvest? The idea certainly provides a lot of food for thought.

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My point is that even if we are a civilization of sims, for all of recorded history we didn’t know it. The world was obviously real enough for us and our understanding of that underlying reality is what drove us. It imbued us with an instinct for self-preservation and it drove us to procreate and eventually advance our technology and dominate the world. (Admittedly that didn’t always work out brilliantly or nobly, but here we are.) We fought to survive because everything was real and everything was on the line. Everything mattered. If that underlying, fundamental understanding of reality were to suddenly be taken away, I think we would lose something so core to our existence that I seriously doubt we could survive without it.

This all probably still sounds crazy to most of you, and perhaps it is. But consider the fact that we ourselves are already working on increasingly realistic simulated worlds and they are getting more and more alarmingly realistic now with the advent of Artificial Intelligence. We are warned on a daily basis by the creators of AI systems that we need to install guardrails against the possibility that their creation may one day “wake up” and take on a personality of its own, along with its own motivations and desires. If we keep at this for a few more decades or even a century, we might be able to build a simulated world so rich with detail that its inhabitants start to take on lives of their own. And if that’s the case, what if we weren’t the first ones to do it? Perhaps Elon Musk isn’t quite as crazy as he sounds.

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David Strom 10:00 AM | June 21, 2024
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