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Reality Check: Could our world be a simulation, like in 'The Matrix'?


Reality Check: Could our world be a simulation, like in ‘The Matrix’?

Come on, someone has to be responsible for this.

Ever since I watched The Matrix, I wondered if any of it could be true. Not the thing about machines growing human beings to use as energy sources (which violates the First Law of Thermodynamics). I was intrigued by the film’s main point, that what we perceive as reality – everything we experience or think we know – could just be a simulation in a very advanced computer.

Of course, the speculation that there’s more to reality than we can experience wasn’t introduced to the world by the Wachowski sisters in 1999. The concept is at least as old as ancient Greece and Plato’s allegory of the cave, and has shown up in modern times in the James P. Hogan novel Entoverse (1991), Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles (1994 – 2000), the films Dark City (1998) and Inception (2010), and even on the TV series St. Elsewhere (as was revealed in the 1988 series finale).

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Around the time of the release of The Matrix, I was enjoying the PC game SimEarth, in which players were able to create an entire planet and, with god-like power, vary its atmosphere, temperature, landmass distribution, and then create different life forms to inhabit the planet. I’d started to learn modern computer programming at the time, and one of my class projects was to code a program in Java we called Sim Jungle.

matrix simulation

The point of this assignment was to teach us how to code in a modern object-oriented programing language where each part – each object – was an independent entity with its own characteristics and behaviors. The completed program allowed a user to populate a virtual world with several types of user-selectable life forms (including humans) that would compete for resources. At birth (“instantiation”), each organism was endowed with a range of assigned values for characteristics such as its gender, lifespan, number of offspring per mating, and aggressiveness.

Once created, each individual existed in a separate “process thread,” with its actions being fully independent of all others. Each entity also had decision-making code to live its life by. “Do I want to eat now, or search my environment for a mate?” Due to randomness, each run of the simulation would have a different outcome, even if nothing was changed at the start. If things didn’t turn out well when running a simulation, I’d tweak the program and run it again.

Early on, all life eventually died; the simulation failed. But eventually, by observing the Sims’ lives, I could make beneficial changes and rerun the simulation, and I’d routinely get a stable environment, one that survived hundreds of generations without a population collapse. This tweaking mimics a revelation made to Neo in The Matrix Reloaded — that the current Matrix was not the only one, and previous versions had been terminated due to failure.

What if achieving the goal of sims who can actually think was just a matter of having much more computational power? We obviously aren’t there yet (and hitting the wall of Moore’s law has slowed our advancements in cramming more circuitry into smaller places), but what if there are other, older, more technologically advanced civilizations elsewhere in the universe? That would magnify the likelihood that eventually one or more of them would have accomplished this.

And of course, that leads to the uncomfortable thought that, rather than being one of the few (or only) civilizations in the “real” universe, we may inhabit one of these many simulations. What if each of us is just one computer programing object, operating per its coded instructions in a vast, unimaginably advanced computer?

It might seem ludicrous, but some modern philosophers take it seriously. This notion, which would come to be called the Simulation Hypothesis, was described formally in a 2003 paper by Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom, which included this introduction:

Many works of science fiction as well as some forecasts by serious technologists and futurologists predict that enormous amounts of computing power will be available in the future … One thing that later generations might do with their super-powerful computers is run detailed simulations of their forebears or of people like their forebears.

Because their computers would be so powerful, they could run a great many such simulations. Suppose that these simulated people are conscious (as they would be if the simulations were sufficiently fine-grained and if a certain quite widely accepted position in the philosophy of mind is correct).

Then it could be the case that the vast majority of minds like ours do not belong to the original race but rather to people simulated by the advanced descendants of an original race.

One could argue that Bostrom’s musings were only philosophical speculation, and ask, “But what scientist would take this crazy idea seriously?” Well, in 2016, at the annual Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate at the American Museum of Natural History, a panel of scientists, including physicists and cosmologists, discussed the concept. The moderator, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, put the odds at 50-50. A few years later, Tyson famously told NBC News, “I wish I could summon a strong argument against [the Simulation Hypothesis], but I can find none.”

Reality Check: Could our world be a simulation, like in 'The Matrix'?

Would such an argument even be possible? Can the Simulation Hypothesis be tested? And importantly, is it falsifiable? Falsifiability is a key concept in the separation of science from pseudoscience, and concepts that are just not scientific. If it’s not testable and falsifiable, then the hypothesis has to remain in the realm speculation.

One idea for a test is to see if the “programmers” of our reality may have used shortcuts to allow the simulation to run more easily, and if we can detect those anomalies. Physicist Zohreh Davoudi suggests that our simulators may have made spacetime out of discrete points to save on computing resources, rather than creating an entire continuum. If so, cosmic rays should have a preferred direction of travel. No such pattern has yet been observed.

In a 2017 paper in the International Journal of Quantum Foundations, On Testing the Simulation Theory, four authors, two from Caltech and two from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, detailed another possible experiment. The abstract reads:

Can the theory that reality is a simulation be tested? We investigate this question based on the assumption that if the system performing the simulation is finite (i.e. has limited resources), then to achieve low computational complexity, such a system would, as in a video game, render content (reality) only at the moment that information becomes available for observation by a player and not at the moment of detection by a machine (that would be part of the simulation and whose detection would also be part of the internal computation performed by the Virtual Reality server before rendering content to the player). Guided by this principle we describe conceptual wave/particle duality experiments aimed at testing the simulation theory.

The paper goes on to give suggestions on how to test the Simulation Hypothesis using unique variations of the classic double-slit experiment, which showed the dual particle/wave nature of light. The tests are still pending, so for now, the appropriate position to hold is probably the simplest one — that our reality is reality.

But what if future results point to the Simulation Hypothesis being correct? In a 2019 New York Times article, philosopher Preston Greene suggested it may be best to not find out. He reasoned that if our programmers discover we know the truth, that would invalidate the simulation, and give them reason to hit the reset button. That’s certainly what I did whenever my Jungle sims behaved in unexpected or undesirable ways. Game over, man!

Reality Check: Could our world be a simulation, like in 'The Matrix'?

So just in case you’re starting to think that the Simulation Hypothesis is true, and it turns out it really is true and “they” are monitoring us, in the interest of excess caution please, please, please read this aloud: “This is not a simulation; we live in the real world. This is not a simulation; we live in the real world. This is not a simulation; we live in the real world.”

Thank you for your cooperation. You may have just saved our universe.

Every February, to help celebrate Darwin Day, the Science section of AIPT cranks up the critical thinking for SKEPTICISM MONTH! Skepticism is an approach to evaluating claims that emphasizes evidence and applies the tools of science. Every day this month we’ll be highlighting skepticism in pop culture and skepticism of pop culture.

AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.

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