The Simulation Theory Explained In Three Animated Videos

The idea that we are soft­ware ema­na­tions in a vast, unimag­in­ably com­plex com­put­er sim­u­la­tion may car­ry more dizzy­ing philo­soph­i­cal, eth­i­cal, and psy­cho­log­i­cal impli­ca­tions than any oth­er meta­phys­i­cal assump­tion. It is not, how­ev­er, quite a new idea, even if machines sophis­ti­cat­ed enough to make worlds are only now con­ceiv­able. We see ancient sages spec­u­late that sol­id mat­ter is no more than some sort of graph­i­cal (tac­tile, etc.) user inter­face orig­i­nat­ing from the mind of a mas­ter coder.

We see a sim­i­lar idea in the imma­te­ri­al­ism of 18th cen­tu­ry British empiri­cist George Berke­ley. And where would sci­ence fic­tion be—especially the hal­lu­ci­na­to­ry sci-fi of Philip K. Dick—with­out vari­eties of the sim­u­la­tion the­o­ry? The TED-Ed les­son on sim­u­la­tion the­o­ry, above, by Uni­ver­si­ty of Mary­land physi­cist Zohreh Davou­di (ani­mat­ed by Eoin Duffy) opens with a quote from Dick: “This is a card­board uni­verse, and if you lean too long or too heav­i­ly against it, you fall through.”

In Dick’s world, this hap­pens fre­quent­ly. But if our real­i­ty were a sim­u­la­tion, how could we pos­si­bly step out­side it to con­firm? Prov­able or not, the the­o­ry is end­less­ly com­pelling. Davou­di walks us through a cou­ple of fas­ci­nat­ing sci­en­tif­ic attempts to “fall through” by the­o­riz­ing the evi­dence we might expect to find if the uni­verse is made of code.

For one thing, there would prob­a­bly be glitch­es. To cor­rect for errors, “the sim­u­la­tors could adjust the con­stants in the laws of nature.” Tiny shifts, per­haps unde­tectable with cur­rent instru­ments, could sig­nal heuris­tic revi­sions. Oth­er the­o­ret­i­cal approach­es involve using sub­atom­ic par­ti­cles to detect the finite lim­its of the god­like computer’s pow­er.

Would find­ing shifts in phys­i­cal laws prove a sim­u­la­tion. No. And in any case, our entire species could have come and gone before any such shifts have tak­en place. We can­not pre­sume that humans are the cho­sen ben­e­fi­cia­ries of the sim­u­lat­ed uni­verse. Maybe we’re pro­to­types. Maybe our solar sys­tem is someone’s side project. Wouldn’t the sim­u­la­tors notice us fig­ur­ing it out and pre­vent us from doing so? (They would, pre­sum­ably, be watch­ing.)

And why should the great com­put­er have any­thing resem­bling the com­pu­ta­tion­al lim­i­ta­tions of our own machines, Davou­di asks. After all, if it exists out­side the uni­verse as we know it and cre­at­ed its phys­i­cal laws, it’s safe to assume that it exists in a dif­fer­ent uni­verse with entire­ly dif­fer­ent laws, which we might nev­er begin to under­stand. If your mind falls into pools of infi­nite regress when con­tem­plat­ing the idea—aided by con­scious­ness-rais­ing sub­stances or otherwise—you won’t find any­where safe to land in the oth­er sim­u­la­tion videos here, from Vox and phi­los­o­phy YouTube chan­nel Kurzge­sagt. But you might begin to see the con­cept as a lit­tle more plau­si­ble, and maybe more unset­tling, than before.

Elon Musk, for exam­ple, draw­ing on the work of Oxford philoso­pher Nick Bostrom, sug­gests that the sim­u­la­tors are not extra-dimen­sion­al beings (or what­ev­er), but hyper-sophis­ti­cat­ed future humans run­ning Sim ver­sions of their past. This ver­sion also becomes the philo­soph­i­cal equiv­a­lent of mise en abyme as ances­tor sim­u­la­tions, run on oth­er plan­ets, cre­ate their own sim­u­la­tions, ship them off­world, and so forth.…

You can go as far down this rab­bit hole as you like. Or, you can do as Samuel John­son sup­pos­ed­ly did when he heard Bish­op Berke­ley claim that mat­ter didn’t exist. Kick the near­est heavy object and shout, “I refute it thus!”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

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

Stephen Fry Voic­es a New Dystopi­an Short Film About Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence & Sim­u­la­tion The­o­ry: Watch Escape

Philip K. Dick The­o­rizes The Matrix in 1977, Declares That We Live in “A Com­put­er-Pro­grammed Real­i­ty”

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

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