Thinking about whether the world might actually be a computer simulation isn’t anything new. We all went through that particular existential crisis after we saw the first Matrix. I have a secret hypothesis that this is why the second and third Matrix films were so lackluster; it was an effort to get everybody to stop thinking about whether or not we’re actually all just brains hooked up to a computer.
To be fair, this is something we’ve been wondering about probably as long as we’ve had the ability to wonder about much of anything. Plato wondered about it. Anybody who has vivid dreams wonders about it. It’s ingrained in the human condition.
Interestingly, there is real scientific research that’s being done on this stuff. I’m not sure if it’s possible to prove a simulation hypothesis, but we certainly have a lot of reasons to infer one, just by the fact that we’re getting better and better at creating simulations ourselves. Considering the fact that consciousness is one of those things we don’t really understand, is it possible that consciousness will arise out of a computer game character? I certainly think it’s possible, albeit unlikely for a long while. But some day? Certainly.
What if we do end up proving that reality is a simulation in a computer?
I’m trying to imagine how that makes me feel. On the one hand, it doesn’t really change anything: all my experiences are going to be the same. Reality as I know it is already so many electrical impulses being transferred between the neurons in my brain. The revelation of a simulation would just mean I wasn’t interacting with those electrical signals in quite the same fashion.
On the one hand, it might even be encouraging to realize that our world is a simulation. Simulations, after all, are built for a reason and while fiction likes to say this reason is to enslave its occupants, that seems like a very expensive way to do what chains and metal bars do already. It seems more likely to me that the reason for the simulation’s existence would be benevolent or at least indifferent to us; certainly not malevolent.
Would that be an improvement, to find out that there really is a power and intelligence behind the reality that we perceive?
There are other benefits to a simulated world. It might mean never having to experience the heat death of the universe and the realization that everything in reality is doomed. It might be a strong reason to believe our consciousness goes somewhere after death.
On the other hand, to find out that everything, absolutely everything, was a simulation would remove a lot of the mystery and wonder out there. Certainly, we’d be able to wonder about the simulation itself, who built it and why, but we’d no longer be drawn to the most distant stars and dream of being the first ones to visit them. The world would become a much smaller place.
There’d probably also be a lot of suicides if it turns out we’re all in a computer simulation. Maybe. I’m not really sure; one thing I try to never underestimate is the resilience of the human spirit.
It’s something that is very interesting to think about, whether or not this is ever proven to be true.