Are We Living In a Simulation?

If you’ve just watched The Matrix or you’re a Californian who has gone a little overboard on the weed legalization celebrations, you might be wondering; how do I know that I’m not just part of a computer simulation? Does Super Mario think it’s pretty standard to be attacked by suicidal turtles all day? Maybe Kimmy from Candy Crush, never wonders why she isn’t riddled with diabetes. It might seem obvious to us that they are completely virtual but who’s to say that we aren’t part of a giant simulation? Maybe we’re all NPCs in a computer game So, let’s take the red pill and the blue pill at the same time, because screw you Morpheus, as we ask ourselves; is anything real? Thanks to science fiction, we often associate simulated realities with computers, but doubting reality is far from a new thing. The Greek philosopher Plato, who lived around 2500 years ago, wrote about the concept in his work the Republic. He pictured a cave with prisoners chained to the wall and all they ever saw were the shadows of others passing in front of a fire, projected up onto the wall in front of them. This is the only life the prisoners had ever known and so they would understandably believe that the shadows were actual people. It’s similar to the modern world where we look mainly at people’s virtual lives, though social media, and we think of their actual lives as far more exciting than our own, when in fact they are having the same terrible time that we all are having. The real problem comes with this definition of “I”. “cogito ergo sum” – I think therefore I am – but that doesn’t help us prove WHAT you are. Master Chief exists but he’s just a bunch of code I can control… John Locke, pointed out that we could never actually know the real essence of anything, we could only deal with its nominal essence, meaning what we actually experience of it, rather than the whole picture. He said it was like looking at a clock face; all you can see is the time it shows, you don’t have any idea what cogs and wires are behind it, making it work. So as much as we believe we know how the universe works behind the scenes, we’re still really just clueless puppets. Everything you experience comes in through your various senses, such as your sense of smell, sense of touch, etc. But at the end of the day, all of these senses end up as electrical impulses in your brain. Daniel Kish had his eyes removed at just 13 months old, due to retinal cancer, and from a young age he trained himself to echolocate, using clicks with his tongue and listening for the echo. He became so proficient at this that he was able to mountain-bike and tell the difference between surfaces such as metal and wood. And when neurologists tested him, they found that his visual cortex was being activated, so he was really seeing objects using sound, not just hearing them, the brain had just swapped around some of the inputs. Your body also senses an astonishing amount of data, more than you could ever realistically process. So if you wanted to create a fake reality, you wouldn’t need to program in every tiny detail, since only a small fraction would be experienced by the user at any one time. Right now there is air pressure acting on every millimeter of your body, there’s light bouncing off objects from countless things outside of this screen you’re staring at, and that strange pain in your elbow… well I don’t know what that is and you should probably get it checked out. And this is why we have pain, it’s like a red flag that makes you pay attention to one specific area of your body, because if you listened to all parts of your body, all the time, your brain would simply be overwhelmed with information. So then, let’s take this a step further. If perception is just electric impulses in your brain then your brain is also just a lump of quite fancy meat, full of electrical impulses. Any idiot with some bacon and a Taser can recreate that. So surely your consciousness is more than just the material that makes up your brain, isn’t it? We call these things; substrate independent. This means something that is more than the stuff it is made up of. Waves are a good example of this. If you see a wave on the ocean, it has amplitude, frequency, things like that. And these properties are not a part of the sea water, they are part of the wave and independent from the water. So the bacon and Taser combination may produce some similar matter to a brain but it’s not going to create the same conscious thoughts like “what is love?” and “what was that thing I was supposed to be doing right now?” and “why don’t electric eels electrocute themselves?” …Seriously, why is that? So even if your brain isn’t meat, if it’s just a sting of code written by some scientist, or alien, or a 2038 iphone app, that’s not to say that your consciousness isn’t a real thing. All your ideas could be unique and original… okay, relatively original at least. Coding doesn’t mean that your every thought has already been decided, just that the initial conditions have been set. And this leads us to our own AI. As we build more and more advanced programs, it makes the likelihood that we’re in a simulation seem even higher. Just think about it, if we can code simulated brains, what’s to say we aren’t already part of one. Elon Musk once said it’s only about a one in a billion chance that we’re not in a simulation. And he’s a pretty switched-on guy. In fact, it may only be by creating our own simulations that we are able to really test our own reality. Physicist Silas Beane, is one of many theorists who has said that a simulation must have limited computing power; it can only get as big as the hardware will allow it. So, if we start creating enormous simulations of our own and those create other enormous simulations, at some point we’re going to use up all the processing power available to whatever hardware our universe is running on and we’re going to crash it. Until that happens, or we somehow discover the inner working of our reality, we can never truly know for sure if everything we know is just a simulation.

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