The Simulation Hypothesis




All of a sudden, we are living in a simulation.

Granted, Philip K. Dick said so in 1977, and Plato a little earlier. But ever since the first Matrix film, the simulation hypothesis has been gathering momentum. This month it sprang out at me like a Jack-in-the-box, mentioned again and again in newsletters, articles, even a novel a friend lent me (The Anomaly, by Hervé Le Tellier).

If the criterion is a creator who designed our system and built in its constraints, most world religions have been there all along. What is different about today’s simulation theory is its technological form: unlike a rocky, gassy cosmos stuck together with energy, a program can simply shut down. This is even scarier than Nietzsche announcing the death of God, because the implication, then, was that we could outlive the Creator we had mythologized. If we are only a simulation, we do not live at all.

In Nietzsche’s time, Modernism was killing off traditional ways, replacing religion with existential humanism. Cut loose from both, our is a time of AI and VR. These are our latest technologies, and metaphors for the mind have long taken their shape from technological innovation. When civilizations traveled on and through water, we thought of humors; with the telegraph, nerve impulses made more sense; with computers, our brains became computers. Now, VR lets us create entire worlds that pretend to be real. What better time to decide that we, too, are a simulation?

Or maybe the conditions are right because we live in an increasingly disembodied way, hermetically sealed into climate-controlled pods, cut off from the outside world and from our senses. During the pandemic, especially, life did begin to feel a little…engineered, a little surreal. Much of our interaction was remote and therefore felt stilted and artificial, bloodless, a kaleidoscope of pixels. I found myself reducing people to the ideas they held that I disagreed with, rather than seeing them as whole, living, laughing, struggling humans.

Technology makes perception even more slippery; the capacity for deepfakes has erased our trust in what we see. Meanwhile, our increasing awareness of other cultures leaves us feeling that truth is so relative, there is no such thing as “the real world.” The trickery of our sensory perceptions suggests there is no such thing as a common reality. And then there is the metaverse, in which people are only lively avatars, encourages such thoughts. Maybe video games and all the gamification of capitalism make us feel like the world itself is one big game? That is, after all, a happier thought than seeing life, with its succession of catastrophes, as something as solid and heavy as mud.

The simulation hypothesis might also appeal because it wipes away all those pesky questions we still cannot answer, like the origin of the universe, the mystery of consciousness, the paradox of a loving God who allows horrific suffering. (Instead, we have given ourselves a lousy programmer, which feels more emotionally neutral.)

Maybe the old optimistic Christian notions of a purposeful creation and a blissful afterlife do not wash in such a broken world. Or so many of us have shaken off traditional religion that we need an alternative. Disgusted with how the human race has evolved, we need a way to blame someone besides ourselves.

Or maybe we are so scared of death, we would rather be shut down with an Escape button—or hope we will be allowed to play another round.

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson shocked a lot of his fans when he gave the simulation hypothesis fifty-fifty odds of being true, adding that it was hard to argue that we were not in a simulation. Which brings us to David Chalmers’ new book, Reality+, his term for the universe of virtual and nonvirtual worlds. (Notice that we now define the “real” world as the negation of the virtual world?) Chalmers insists that we can live a meaningful life in virtual reality—and maybe we already do. Picture a tree, he suggests, and remember that its rough, solid bark and soft leaves are, at the subatomic level, mostly empty space. Physically, we are barely here anyway; we are only a field of probabilities.

“After reading and talking to Chalmers, I’ve come to believe that the coming world of virtual reality might one day be regarded as every bit as real as real reality,” writes a reviewer. That would just require a redefinition of “real.” But the bolder idea, that real reality is already virtual, and what we experience is only a digital figment? Tell that to a woman in labor. A sky-diver. A kindergartener.

Or me, because I still cannot wrap my squishy gray brain around a world as thin as a hologram. Will I ever see a simulated reality as being every bit as valid as a physical one? Again, that depends on what “valid” means. But for the time being, my mind persists in seeing the physical as superior, and I am not even sure why. Surely it is cooler to be made of ones and zeros than of clay and saltwater? To be somebody’s idea, and not destined for the worms after all. In a virtual world, coincidences and synchronicities and even déjà vu would make more sense, not to mention the unspeakable weirdnesses of quantum physics. Maybe we would be more real, because we would exist twice, once in this framework and once in the programmer’s head.

T.S. Eliot called the assumptions we once took for granted “the old dispensation”; Wordsworth wrote of creeds outworn. My brain is so hopelessly concrete, I used to be scared that cash would vanish; I could not imagine surviving without that touchstone, those green paper markers. When I was a teenager, “life on the internet” would have sounded like science fiction. Now, I rarely carry cash, and what alarms me is VR—because it seems to pull us away from full participation in the “real” world. But if the “real” world is virtual, too? My fear would make no sense. Unless, of course, it has been programmed into the game.

Whatever the reason, we are all immersed in what the philosopher Edmund Husserl called a Lebenswelt, a lifeworld. The only sensible response is to make the most of it. Perhaps that is how we are meant to play the game. Lord knows, we will never win by sitting around muttering that this is just a game.

Besides, we have to keep the great programmer happy. In more than one past job, I used to worry, when colleagues griped, that if we were all too demanding and discontent, owning us would cease to be fun, and the owner would sell, and we would lose our jobs. Now I wonder if we need to somehow amuse or placate whoever, whatever, programmed our simulation.

All I know to do is play on. At least the simulation hypothesis beats hellfire. That, you had to face alone. We are all in this together.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.