The only people who absolutely disagree are, well, scientists. They need to get over themselves and join the fun.
The best theory physicists have for the birth of the universe makes no sense. It goes like this: In the beginning—the very, if not quite veriest, beginning—there’s something called quantum foam. It’s barely there, and can’t even be said to occupy space, because there’s no such thing as space yet. Or time. So even though it’s seething, bubbling, fluctuating, as foam tends to do, it’s not doing so in any kind of this-before-that temporal order. It just is, all at once, indeterminate and undisturbed. Until it isn’t. Something goes pop in precisely the right way, and out of that infinitesimally small pocket of instability, the entire universe bangs bigly into being. Instantly. Like, at a whoosh far exceeding the speed of light.
Impossible, you say? Not exactly. As the Italian particle physicist Guido Tonelli has pointed out, it actually is possible to go faster than light. You simply have to imagine spacetime, and the relativistic limits imposed by it, not quite existing yet! Easy peasy. Besides, that’s not even why the theory makes no sense. It makes no sense for the same reason every creation myth since the dawn of, um, creation makes no sense: There’s no causal explanation. What, that is to say, made it happen in the first place?
Tonelli, in his confidently titled book Genesis: The Story of How Everything Began, calls the “it” that made it happen the inflaton. It’s the mystery thing/field/particle/whatever that jump-starts the engine of cosmic inflation. (They thought it might be the Higgs boson, but it’s not. The true God particle is still out there.) Imagine, Tonelli says, a skier cruising down a mountain, who then stalls a little in a depression on the slope. That depression, the unexpected dip or hiccup in the ordered way of things, is the inflaton-induced disruption in the foam out of which the entire known universe, and all the matter and energy it would ever need to make stars and planets and consciousness and us, suddenly springs. But, again, the same question intrudes: What made the inflaton make the dip?
It makes no sense … until you imagine something else. Don’t imagine a snowy slope; it’s too passive. Imagine, instead, someone sitting at a desk. First, they boot up their computer. This is the quantum-foam stage, the computer existing in a state of suspended anticipation. Then, our desk person mouses over to a file called, oh I don’t know, KnownUniverse.mov, and double-clicks. This is the emergence of the inflaton. It’s the tiny zzzt that launches the program.
In other words, yes, and with sincere apologies to Tonelli and most of his fellow physicists, who hate it when anybody suggests this: The only explanation for life, the universe, and everything that makes any sense, in light of quantum mechanics, in light of observation, in light of light and something faster than light, is that we’re living inside a supercomputer. Is that we’re living, all of us, and always, in a simulation.
Three things need to happen, and probably in this order, for any crackpot idea to take hold of the culture: (1) its nonthreatening introduction to the masses, (2) its legitimization by experts, and (3) overwhelming evidence of its real-world effects. In the case of the so-called simulation hypothesis, you could hardly ask for a neater demonstration.
In 1999, a trio of cinematic mindfucks—The Thirteenth Floor, eXistenZ, and, of course, The Matrix—came out, all illustrating the possibility of unreal realities and thus fulfilling condition (1). Four years later, in 2003, (2) was satisfied when the Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom concluded in a much-cited paper titled “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?” that, heavens to bitsy, you very possibly are. It’s simple probabilities: Given that the only society we know of—ours—is in the process of simulating itself, through video games and virtual reality and whatnot, it seems likely that any technological society would do the same. It could very well be simulations all the way down.
As for the arrival of (3), the real-world proof of such a thing, it depends on who you ask. For many liberals, it was the unimaginable election, in 2016, of Donald Trump. For The New Yorker, it was, rather fogeyishly, the 2017 Academy Awards, when Moonlight oops’d its way to Best Picture. For most others, it was the Covid-19 pandemic, whose utter ludicrousness, pointlessness, Zoominess, and neverendingness couldn’t help but undermine, at a breathtaking scale, any reasonable belief in the stability of our reality.
So, nowadays, the result on the ground is that simulation theorists are a digitized dime a dozen. Elon Musk is their fearless leader, but just below him are eager beavers like Neil deGrasse Tyson, lending something like scientific credibility to Musk’s Bostrom-bolstered claim that “the odds that we are in base reality”—the unsimulated original world—are “one in billions.” In a way, it’s like 1999 all over again: Last year, three more movies about dudes who realize the world they live in isn’t real—Bliss, Free Guy, and Matrix 4—came out. Only difference now is, lots of regular guys (and it’s almost always guys) in “real life” believe the same thing. You can meet a bunch of them in the documentary A Glitch in the Matrix, which also came out last year. Or you can just poll some randos on the street. A few months ago, one of the regulars at my local coffee shop, known for overstaying his welcome, excitedly explained to me that each simulation has rules, and the rule for ours is that its beings—meaning us—are primarily motivated by fear. Awesome.
If that weren’t enough, this past January, the Australian technophilosopher David Chalmers published a book called Reality+: Virtual Worlds and the Problems of Philosophy, the central argument of which is, yes indeed: We live in a simulation. Or, more accurately, we can’t know, statistically speaking, that we don’t live in a simulation—philosophers being particularly prone to the plausible deniability of a double negative. Chalmers isn’t some rando, either. He’s probably the closest thing to a rock star the field of philosophy has, a respected mind, a TED talker (is that a leather jacket?), and a coiner of phrases non-philosophers might even know, like “the hard problem of consciousness” or, to explain why your iPhone feels like such a part of you, the “extended mind.” And his new book, despite its terrible title, is far and away the most credible articulation of simulation theory to date, 500 pages of immaculately worked-through philosophical positions and propositions, rendered in clean, if rarely shiny, prose.
Chalmers seems to think his timing couldn’t be better. Thanks to the pandemic, he writes in the intro, our lives are already pretty virtual. So it’s not hard to imagine them only getting more virtual, as time goes on and Facebook/Meta metastasizes, until—within a century, Chalmers predicts—VR worlds will be indistinguishable from the real one. Except he wouldn’t quite phrase it that way. For Chalmers, VR worlds will be—are—just as “real” as any world, including this one. Which might, itself, be virtually simulated, so what’s the difference? One way he attempts to convince you of this is by appealing to your understanding of reality. Picture a tree, he says. It seems solid, very there, very present, but as any physicist will tell you, at the subatomic level, it’s mostly empty space. It’s barely there at all. “Few people think that the mere fact that trees are grounded in quantum processes makes them less real,” Chalmers writes. “I think that being digital is just like being quantum mechanical here.”
Makes perfect sense to me, as well as to the great hordes of my fellow simulation theorists out there—but not, again, to the very people who study the makeup of reality. The physicists themselves, unfortunately, still hate us.
“But this is nonsense,” says the Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli. “I mean, why should the world be a simulation?”
This is typical of the flustered incredulity mustered up by the physics community whenever the subject of the simulation disturbs the learned serenity of their exemplary calculations. Lisa Randall at Harvard, Sabine Hossenfelder of the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies, David Deutsch at Oxford, Zohar Ringel and Dmitry Kovrizhin, the list goes on and on, and they all make versions of the same point: Our perceiving brains “simulate” the world around us, sure, but there’s no such thing as a “digital physics” or “its from bits”; real-world things (its) don’t come from code (bits). It’s so reductionist! So presentist! Just play out the thermodynamics! Or consider many-body effects! Even Neil deGrasse Tyson has, more recently, backed away from his Muskian metaphysics. (Though one of his counterarguments is, it should be said, highly untechnical. He simply doesn’t think far-future other-dimensional alien simulators would be entertained by beings as slow-moving and petty and cavemannish as we—in much the way we wouldn’t be entertained by the daily drudgery of actual cavemen.)
OK, but, and with all due respect to these undisputed geniuses: Maybe they should read their own books. Take Rovelli’s latest. In Helgoland: Making Sense of the Quantum Revolution, he puts forward what he calls the “relational theory” of reality. Basically, nothing exists except in relation to something else. “There are no properties outside of interactions,” Rovelli writes. So that tree over there? It isn’t just barely there. If you’re not interacting with it, it can’t be said to be there at all. Well, something is there, it seems, but that something is only and merely the potential for interaction. “The world is a perspectival game,” Rovelli concludes, “a play of mirrors that exist only as reflections of and in each other.”
Note the word he uses there: game. Reality is a game. What kind of game? A video game, maybe? Why not? Though Rovelli wouldn’t take kindly to this interpretation, isn’t that precisely how video games work? When your character is running through a field, whatever’s behind you, or otherwise out of view—trees, items, baddies, something better to do with your time—is only there, meaningfully there, if you turn around and interact with it. Short of that, the game won’t waste resources rendering it. It doesn’t exist, or exists only as a programmed possibility. Video games, just like our reality, are Rovellianly relational.
Or go back to Tonelli. When humans first thought to compare our little corner of the cosmos to all the rest, they made a remarkable discovery: It all looks and feels exactly, almost suspiciously, alike. “How was it possible,” Tonelli asks in Genesis, “that all the most remote corners of the universe, distant from each other by billions of light years, had agreed among themselves to attain exactly the same temperature at precisely the moment when scientists on a small planet in an anonymous solar system of an unremarkable galaxy had decided to take a look at what was happening around them?” Gosh, well, maybe our programmers just rushed to fill in the blanks that way? Some have even gone as far as to suggest that the speed of light might be “a hardware artifact showing we live in a simulated universe.”
In fact, once you start thinking in terms of hardware artifacts and other such indications and requirements of computing, reality really does begin to seem more and more programmed. Making the universe homogeneous and isotropic might be one smart way our supercomputing simulator-overlords, requiring operational speeds far exceeding yottaflops, planned to conserve resources. What might others be? There mustn’t be evidence of alien civilizations, for starters—too demanding on the system. Also, as more and more people are born, you’d want fewer and fewer differences between them. So they should live in the same tract homes, shop at the same stores, eat at the same fast-food restaurants, tweet the same thoughts, take the same personality tests. Meanwhile, to make even more room, animals should go extinct, forests die out, and megacorporations take over. Pretty soon, on this line of thinking, every last aspect of modernity begins to shimmer with a simulated sheen.
Quantum physics most of all. An inflaton? More like a simulaton! Or “spooky action at a distance,” wherein two far-apart but somehow “entangled” particles mirror each other perfectly? Clearly it’s just the computer halving the energy requirements—much as you running into someone you haven’t seen in 15 years at a random house party in a foreign country might be evidence of the same kind of cost-cutting subroutine by the cosmic machinery. Coincidences, concurrences, redundancies: These things must save lots of power, too.
At this, our polite physicists might finally lose their cool and go entropic on us, raging hotly. But why? Why does this kind of playful speculation so incense not only them but so many other highly intelligent people, from philosopher-historians like Justin E. H. Smith to commentators like Nathan J. Robinson? They never really say, beyond dismissing simulation theory as either illogical or out of touch, a plaything of the privileged, but one senses in their skepticism a genuine fear, an unwillingness to even entertain the idea, for to believe that our world is fake must, they seem to think, be to believe, nihilistically, and in a way that makes a mockery of their lifelong pursuit of knowledge and understanding, in nothing.
Or must it? In the years since the first Matrix came out, there have indeed been cases of young men—you meet at least one of them in the documentary A Glitch in the Matrix—who, believing their world wasn’t real, went on killing rampages. It’s appalling. It’s also, of course, anomalous, freakish, the kind of novelty that plays into a narrative urge on the part of certain hidebound intellectuals to blame new media for the worst impulses of humanity. Any idea, no matter how good, can go bad, and the simulation hypothesis is no different.
That’s why David Chalmers wrote Reality+, I think. Some will read it, cynically, as trendy, opportunistic philosophy in the service of Big Tech, designed to weaken our resolve to fight for what’s real, but that’s just the thing: Chalmers thinks it’s all real. If you’re in VR and see Spot run, virtual Spot is no less real than a physical Spot. He’s just differently real. For now, you may be able to kill virtual Spot—or lowly nonplayer characters, or your friend in avatar form—without consequences, but Chalmers isn’t so sure you should. If it’s possible that your own world, the so-called physical world, is simulated, you’re still living meaningfully, compassionately, and (presumably) law-abidingly in it, so why should the virtuality of VR change anything? In the end, Reality+ is the opposite of nihilistic. It’s a humane, anti-skeptical plea to accept any satisfactory appearance of existence, simulated or not, as sacred.
The paradox of Chalmers’ “simulation realism,” in fact, is that, once you embrace it, there does not follow from it some corollary disenchanting of reality. On the contrary, so many isms that in modern times have been dismissed as mystical, supernatural—dualism, panpsychism, animism—here find themselves reenchanted, imbued with a profound new vitality. We and everything around us become not less real but, in a way, more real, animated panpsychically by forces both here and, dualistically, there, somewhere else, somewhere, let’s say, above. This line of thinking extends, as you might have already guessed, to the ultimate ism of all, theism, the belief in a creator, and isn’t that all simulation theory, in the final analysis, really is? Religion by a new, technological name?
It’s been said that the simulation hypothesis is the best argument we moderns have for the existence of a godlike being. Chalmers agrees: “I’ve considered myself an atheist for as long as I can remember,” he writes. “Still, the simulation hypothesis has made me take the existence of a god more seriously than I ever had before.” He even suggests Reality+ is his version of Pascal’s wager, proof that he’s at least entertained the idea of a simulator. Not that he’s sure such a being deserves to be worshipped. For all we know, it’s some little xeno-kid banging away at their parents’ keyboard, putting us through catastrophes the way we might the citizens of SimCity.
But the simulator needn’t be omnipotent and omnibenevolent for us to consider the possibility of their existence. So there’s the Old Testament, where the catastrophes were more fire and brimstone. Then, maybe, the simulator matured a bit, and got slyer with age in their methods of destruction. In other words, here we are, in 2022, at the mercy of a precocious teenage simulator-god running an experiment on fear-driven Data Age humans faced with pandemics and climate change and wars and all other manner of sociopoliticoeconomic mayhem. Can we survive?
At the very least, it’s fun, and oddly calming, to think about. In the beginning, after all, God created light and darkness. Translation: The simulator created 1s and 0s.
Every so often, when I’m feeling frisky, I go outside and twist up my eyes, just to see if I can catch the quickest glimpse of the pixels making up this pure, planetary simulation we call Earth. Sometimes, and even when I’m completely sober, I feel like it’s working. Tiny squares really do seem to be blipping in and out of existence! Other times, and especially when I’m completely sober, I feel like a complete dinkus.
But this is precisely the fun of it: the uncertainty. You might even say the Heisenbergian uncertainty, the quantum-mechanical indeterminacy underlying our reality. Is this thing before me evidence of a simulation? It is, it isn’t, it might be, it must be.
Over the course of writing this essay, I must confess that everything seemed to confirm the truth of the simulation. Every impossible coincidence I experienced or heard about—simulated. The stranger at the café who quoted practically verbatim a line I was reading in a book—simulated. Every new book I picked up, for that matter—simulated. Seriously, how could every book one reads, in the course of writing about reality, be about reality in such a fundamental way? I’ve asked the grumpy old proprietor at my favorite bookstore for recommendations many times. Why, this time, without having any idea of what I was working on or thinking about, did he hand me The End of Mr. Y, by the brilliant Scarlett Thomas (the title puns on “the end of mystery”), in which the protagonist, a writer obsessed with physics (hello), slowly pierces through to another, deeper, video-game-like dimension (hello)? “When one looks at the illusions of the world,” Thomas writes, in a book within the book, “one sees only the world. For where does illusion end?”
This, it seems to me, is what the physicists, and simulation skeptics of all sorts, are missing. Not a belief in the simulation, per se, but the irresistible possibility of it, the magical conspiracy. It doesn’t diminish or undermine their science; quite the opposite, it enriches and energizes it. How many people, generally unmotivated to learn, find their way to a concept as intimidating as, say, quantum indeterminacy by way of the (far more welcoming) simulation argument? I’d guess a great many, and physicists would do well not to belittle that entry point into their work by calling it fluff, nonsense, the sci-fi pursuits of littler minds.
Nobody knows—most likely, nobody ever will—if this world of ours was simulated by some higher-dimensional alien race, and for what purpose, and ultimately whether our simulators were themselves simulated. At a certain point, really, the specifics of it begin to seem beside the point. If people like Musk, Bostrom, and Chalmers get anything wrong, it’s less their simulation realism than what might be called their simulation literalism. So concerned are they with arguing for the exact likelihood of a simulation, its rules and logics and mechanisms, that they forget the intellectual play, the thought experimentation, of it, the fact that human beings have been wondering if their world was real for as long as they’ve been dreaming. “The origin of all metaphysics,” as Nietzsche called it: “Without the dream one would have had no occasion to divide the world into two.” The simulation hypothesis, stripped of the probabilities and its conflation with technology, is the oldest hypothesis in the book.
So it might not be so wrong to take it literally after all. “Maybe life begins the moment we know we don’t have one,” one character thinks in Hervé Le Tellier’s The Anomaly. It’s a popular French novel (L’Anomalie) about people living in a possibly simulated world, and it came out—but of course—during the pandemic. The point of the book, I think, is the same as Chalmers’: to make the case not only that one can live meaningfully in a simulated world, but that one should. That one must. Because maybe goodness is what keeps the simulation going. Maybe goodness, and the spark and serendipity that comes of it, is what keeps the simulators interested. For at the end of The Anomaly, the opposite happens. Someone ignores the possibility for hope, and gives into badness, into base inhumanity. The result is the scariest thing imaginable. Someone, somewhere, in whatever dimension is not our own, turns the simulation off.
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