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Have you ever thought to yourself, “What if none of this is real? What if my entire life is a dream sequence, a lie, or a simulation?”
You’re not the only one.
Cosmologists, nuclear physicists, and philosophers gathered at the Hayden Planetarium last month to discuss the very real possibility that we all may live in one big complex computer simulation; that the world surrounding us is a figment, and our very lives merely computer generated creations passed down from mysterious overlords.
David Chalmers, and Australian philosopher and cognitive scientist, was one of the few featured speakers at the Hayden Planetarium event, invited to pontificate on this intriguing and terrifying concept.
BTRtoday had the pleasure of sitting down with Chalmers, and delved deep into a topic so intricate and unbelievable that we just might believe it.
BTRtoday (BTR): What exactly is the Simulation Argument?
David Chalmers (DC): The Simulation Hypothesis is that we’re living in a giant computer simulation and that people in the next universe up–so to speak–run a giant computer simulation with simulated people.
That might seem like wild science fiction, but the Simulation Argument says that statistically maybe this is actually likely. That, in the course of history, there are going to be thousands or millions of simulated universes, and just one original universe. Statistically, maybe it’s actually more likely that we’re in a simulated universe.
BTR: How did you first become interested in this bizarre concept?
DC: I’m a philosopher, and actually it’s an updated version of an old philosophical fantasy. Rene Descartes, centuries ago, asked, “How do you know that anything in the external world exists? How do you know you’re not being fooled by an evil demon that might be producing all of these sensations in your mind–as if there is a world out there when there’s not really a world out there?”
The modern version of that is basically the Simulation Hypothesis that is illustrated in movies like “The Matrix.” We start to question: how do you know that you’re not in a matrix scenario right now? That the world out there seems real, but actually it’s a simulation…
It goes to the heart of one of the traditional questions in philosophy, which is “how do we know anything at all?”
BTR: If you had to guess, what percentage chance would you say there is that we’re living in a simulation?
DC: I’ve gone back and forth on this one. Some days it’s 10 percent, some days it’s up to 50 percent.
If you start to think about it statistically, you begin to think probably there are going to be more simulated beings in the history of the universe than there are un-simulated beings. Then what are the odds that that I’m one of the un-simulated ones? Maybe there are thousands or millions more beings than un-simulated beings, I’d have to be very lucky to not be.
On the other hand, there is the question as to whether the simulated beings are really going to be conscious at all, and so on. There are all sorts of philosophical questions that you need to answer, to figure this out.
Last time somebody asked me, I said 42 percent.
BTR: How do you explain things like touch, sight, and feeling through the lens of this theory?
DC: Well, virtual reality devices right now are pretty good for giving you a visual experience of an external world. They’re also pretty good for sound; they’re not yet that good for touch. Current virtual reality devices like the Oculus Rift and the Samsung Gear VR and so on, they’re basically two senses–vision and sound. For getting the body involved, we’re not really at the point where we can do that in Virtual Reality yet, people are working on haptic touch and so on, that’s much harder.
But you can imagine some future technology that will make it possible for people to simulate the whole thing. They’ll be able to get the whole brain connected up to all of these sensory inputs. They won’t worry about the environment, the environment will just be a computer. As long as you get the brain processes of touch, and of sound, and of vision, and of smell, then the thought is as long as the brain is functioning the right way then the person experiencing that will have an experience of an external world in the normal way.
BTR: If you’re operating from the standpoint that everything is a simulation, is there some point of accompanying nihilism that comes along with that?
DC: Some people think that, and that’s been a traditional attitude–if we’re in a simulation, none of this is real, it’s all an illusion, and nothing really matters. I want to combat that view, and that is actually my most fundamental philosophical interest in this–it is for thinking about meaning and value.
I think that if we’re in a simulation, all this is still perfectly real. If it turns out that the tables and chairs around me are all simulated entities that doesn’t mean they’re not real, it just means that they’re made of something different. They’re made of information, roughly.
So we’re living in a world wherein which the nature is different from what we thought, but it’s still all perfectly real. I think if we discovered that we were in a simulation, for a couple of weeks we would react the way that you’re suggesting, thinking that it was all an illusion and nothing is real. But, give it a couple of months, and things would start to go back to normal and we’d be doing the same old stuff–going out to dinner and working at our jobs.
I think we would just come to terms with it because we’d realize that’s what our reality is. We’d think, “our reality is in fact a computer simulation in the next universe up, well, how interesting…”
BTR: Do you think it’s possible that simulated people could still have consciousness? If so, where do we draw the line between what is simulated and what isn’t?
DC: It is a deep question, whether simulated brains would have consciousness at all. I lean towards the view that they could.
For example, we could imagine gradually replacing our brains, one neuron at a time, with a silicon chip. My view is that we would stay conscious throughout. There’s nothing stopping a computer brain from being conscious. If that’s right, then in a simulated universe simulated people could still be conscious.
The alternative for thinking about a simulation, is that we might be the way that Neo is in “The Matrix.” Neo’s body and brain are actually outside of the matrix. His brain is thinking in a biological pod, outside of the matrix, and he’s connected to a simulated world.
If you’re worried about a simulated brain not being conscious, then do it they way that it’s done in “The Matrix”; have a biological brain connected to a simulated world, and that way you could still have the Simulation Hypothesis.
BTR: Do you think that there is any conceivable way to prove this theory?
DC: I think that there is no way to disprove the theory. Is this a falsifiable hypothesis? There is no way to prove conclusively that we’re not in a simulation. Because any proof, any evidence we could get, that could all be simulated. The simulators would just be one step ahead of us.
Probably, if they wanted to, the simulators could give us really strong reason to think that we are in a simulation. They could make the sky light up with fire right now saying, “Hey, you’ve been in a simulation all along!” They could make time run backwards, and do all kinds of funky stuff.
But just in the ordinary run of events, I think that a sufficiently good simulation would be indistinguishable from reality. So there’s no way to get proof.
BTR: If you happen to realize that you’re part of the simulation, do you think it would be possible to be able to escape it or control it?
DC: That’s a good question. It’s partly a question of how do we outsmart our simulators, or how do we communicate with them and get them to let us out. That depends, to some extent, on how the simulation is constructed. It also depends on whether the simulators are paying any attention. Maybe they just set up a computer last night, and let it run overnight, and they haven’t even been checking in and watching for the last few million years. In which case, there may not be a whole lot we can do.
I suppose that we could hope that they’re actually paying attention and maybe we can try to convince them that we have something to offer them. First thing to do might be to tell them, “Hey, we figured you out, there’s a good chance we’re in a simulation!” Maybe there’s something that they’re trying to get out of us.
Some people take the view that the moment we discover we’re in a simulation, and we start taking that hypothesis seriously, then they’re going to shut us down. So, whatever you do, don’t talk about the idea that we’re in a simulation! The shut down could be coming at any moment.