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!”