Are We Living in a Computer Simulation?: A 2‑Hour Debate with Neil Degrasse Tyson, David Chalmers, Lisa Randall, Max Tegmark & More

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Are We Liv­ing Inside a Com­put­er Sim­u­la­tion?: An Intro­duc­tion to the Mind-Bog­gling “Sim­u­la­tion Argu­ment”

Richard Dawkins and Jon Stew­art Debate Whether Sci­ence or Reli­gion Will Destroy Civ­i­liza­tion

David Byrne & Neil deGrasse Tyson Explain the Impor­tance of an Arts Edu­ca­tion (and How It Strength­ens Sci­ence & Civ­i­liza­tion)

The Phi­los­o­phy of The Matrix: From Pla­to and Descartes, to East­ern Phi­los­o­phy

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.

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  • Stephen Gunther says:

    While the peo­ple involved are high­ly intel­li­gent I believe they could have spent the time more con­struc­tive­ly by dis­cussing how the Coy­ote could cap­ture the Road­run­ner with ani­ma­tions of course.

    To me this whole debate is akin to the medieval dis­cus­sion “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” Both are inter­est­ing points but hard­ly worth two hours.

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