Do we live in a simulated universe? Yes, but not one created by aliens.
You may have heard the new quandary being shared over the internet about whether we are inside some sort of computer simulation. This may be the ultimate “first world problem”. If you are capable of convincing yourself that you don’t live in reality, you have quite possibly attained a level of privilege in which you have almost no direct interface with the hardships faced by the majority of humans on a daily basis. Nevertheless, they are correct in the conclusions that we live in a simulation, rather than direct, unmitigated reality.
First the gobbledygook. BBC Earth did a fairly thorough presentation of the topic here, or if you’d prefer a short, punchy video, this one will probably do.
And let me pause to recall one of my “sculpture” classes in which the teacher, Charles Ray (rather famous in the art world) read for the duration of the class from a book on artificial intelligence, which was, probably crappy teaching, but reasonably interesting information I could have read on my own. I don’t remember what precisely he was interested in, but it wasn’t what I thought at the time were the more substantive or reasonable claims of the material he was reading from. He must have espoused some sort of Solipsism, because I got annoyed, and said, “So, we can all be the dream of a fish in an aquarium somewhere”, which he substantiated rather than dismissed.
I also once went to a lecture on the “multiverse” in Manhattan, back when I lived in NY, and before I disappeared into Asia for over a decade. I probably had my arms and eyes crossed through most the lecture, and afterwards challenged the speaker with something along these lines: “Are you saying that if I pick up a slice or pizza on the way home, a whole universe is created for that option, and another is created for the alternative of getting Tex-Mex”? Again, confirmed. A whole universe created for every decision I make. Ludicrous.
The argument that we live in a computer simulation starts with our current ability to create virtual reality, and the likelihood of us making completely convincing virtual environments in the future. This part, I rather think is true. People already freak out when they wear an Oculus, and navigate some virtual realm. I can imagine a scenario in which a person goes to sleep, is outfitted with the best gear, and wakes up in a virtual world and doesn’t figure it out right away.
We then can extrapolate that if it will be possible to create a thoroughly convincing artificial virtual reality, we may already be in one. Some would say, “You can’t prove you’re NOT in one”. This neglects for the moment that there’s no evidence that we are in one.
The argument goes further. Because the universe is infinite, it would be enormously arrogant for us humans to presume we are either the most intelligent life form in the universe, or the most technologically advanced. Therefore, according to Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, the odds of us living in “base reality” are “a billion to one”.
His argument reminds me of one I used to make a decade ago about time travel. I argued at the time that it was impossible because we’d have already come back from the future if we were to ever invent time travel in the future. Since nobody had ever come back from the future, we could safely conclude we will never produce the technology. I just point this out as the kind of logic an artist can cook up. It’s not a conclusion based on scientific research.
There are some major holes in Elon’s argument. The first one is that we don’t just exist in an established virtual world in which there is no other, more persuasive explanation for our existence. We live in a world with a biological history of evolution, the greatest achievement of which is the human brain, or rather the conscious mind that it makes possible. One could argue, glibly, that all of that was just programmed in, but it doesn’t negate that there is a hugely complex, and proven process of how we modern day humans came about organically through evolution. We also know that our ability to create virtual worlds is a consequence of our own biological evolution, in which case we might logically conclude that any other life form which created our supposed “computer simulation” also originally evolved organically.
The next problem in this scenario is what we are. In movies like “The Matrix” we are humans, harvested by aliens or machines while convinced we live in a universe which was actually artificially created by the other beings. We are, in those scenarios, as we are now, physical, sentient beings. Even if we could create a completely convincing virtual reality, we are leaving out the much more difficult part altogether. We would also need to be able to create self-aware, thinking avatars within such a computer simulation.
It wouldn’t be enough to just make “Grand Theft Auto” several levels of complexity more convincing. We’d have to be able to populate it with characters that possess self-awareness, and at least the entirely convincing perception of free will. We’d have to crack artificial intelligence first.
How close are we to creating artificial intelligence, as in a conscious computer or robot? I’m not about to make any breakthrough in that area myself, obviously, so I couldn’t tell you. It would be hard to determine the difference between a convincing simulation of consciousness, and actual consciousness. As I recall the Turing Test posited that if a computer can convince us that it is conscious, than it is conscious. That, of course, is no real measure. It only shows at one point we can be fooled. It’s like saying that if a wax sculpture of Elvis convinces us it’s Elvis, than it is really Elvis. It’s easy to imagine a computer being programmed with enough responses to appear human, say in a chat over the internet, without it having any subjectivity. Deep Blue, the Chess computer that beat Garry Kasparov, didn’t even know it was playing Chess. It was programmed with scores of the best Chess games. A similar computer geared to have conversation could probably be devised that would easily fool the average person, while not knowing itself if it were even plugged in or not, or, anything at all.
Consciousness appears to be a biological phenomenon, rather than just one of intelligence. It is the sense of being alive and existing. A dog can’t beat anyone at Chess, but it is aware. So, it’s not just a question of making a computer that is intelligent enough to be conscious, it’s the ability to create non-biological, and even non-physical life. They left that little tidbit out of the equation.
If we are a part of a grand computer simulation, we are also non-biological, and non-physical. Thus the measure of the possibility of creating the kind of universe in a computer simulation we are talking about is NOT our ability to make a convincing simulation of physical reality, but to create artificial life with artificial intelligence within such a simulation, and on a scale where there are billions of such artificial intelligences, and they are capable of writing the novels of Dostoevsky and the late Beethoven string quartets.
There’s that guy again: “That can ALL be simulated”. Theoretically yes, but we can’t argue that we are anywhere near doing it. How near we are to doing that is how near we are to being God. We are talking about creating artificial, highly intelligent, self-aware life forms, and placing them in an artificial infinite universe.
As I said in the beginning, this contemplation, if believed, is the luxury of mental masturbation reserved for those separated from reality by a bubble of privilege that functions as a force-field.
So why did I say we live in a simulation. Well, that’s already been established. The human brain creates a simulation of reality in our heads to allow us to navigate in the physical world. We don’t perceive reality directly, but rather it is filtered via our brains into something comprehensible. The best example I can think of to prove this is dreams. Within a dream our brains, outside of our control, create seeming whole worlds which encompass us and fool us into thinking they are real. Here we can see the brain projecting a simulation of reality on the inner screens of our consciousness. Certainly dreams are simulations of reality.
In waking life the same sort of process goes on, but the simulation is in response and in accordance to actual physical reality. We are still witnessing a projection of the brain on the inner screens of our consciousness, but it’s a projection of what’s out there. Dreams are just an example of the brain’s capacity to do such a thing.
Our mental experience is an intermediary interpretation of reality. It’s different than the octopuses experience of reality. It is a simulation. But it doesn’t exist in a vacuum.
In short, this shit is real (epithet of choice)! Deal with it.