What do we live in: the only universe that exists, or an elaborate computer simulation of a universe? The question would have fascinated Isaac Asimov, and that presumably counts as one of the reasons the Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate took it as its subject last year. Though the so-called “simulation hypothesis” has, in various forms, crossed the minds of thinkers for millennia, it’s enjoyed a particular moment in the zeitgeist in recent years, not least because Elon Musk has publicly stated his view that, in all probability, we do indeed live in a simulation. And, if you can’t trust the guy who hit it big with Tesla and PayPal on the nature of reality, who can you?
Well, you might also consider listening to the perspectives of New York University philosopher David Chalmers, MIT cosmologist Max Tegmark, and three theoretical physicists, James Gates of the University of Maryland, Lisa Randall of Harvard, and Zohreh Davoudi of MIT. They, with moderation by Neil DeGrasse Tyson, dig into the simulation hypothesis for two hours, approaching from all different angles its origin, its plausibility, and its implications. Davoudi, who has done serious research on the question, brings her work to bear; Randall, who finds little reason to credit the notion that we live in a simulation in the first place, has more of an interest in why others find it so compelling all of a sudden.
Whether you believe it, reject it, or simply enjoy entertaining the idea, you can’t help but feel a strong reaction of one kind or another to the simulation hypothesis, and Tyson contributes his usual humor to knock the discussion back down to Earth whenever it threatens to become too abstract. But how should we respond to the possibility of living in computed reality in the here and now (or “here” and now,” if you prefer)? The Matrix proposed a kind of simulation-hypothesis world whose heroes break out, but we may ultimately have no more ability to see the hardware running our world than Mario can see the hardware running his. “If you’re not sure whether you’re actually simulated or not,” says Tegmark, “my advice to you is to go out there and live really interesting lives and do unexpected things so the simulators don’t get bored and shut you down.” In these unreal times, you could certainly do worse.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.