(TMU Op-ed) — The Matrix is big money these days. Not the movie so much (although a 4th installment is planned), but rather the Simulation Argument—the idea that we’re living in an advanced computer program or video game.
And the resulting rabbit hole has inspired countless viral articles that accrue major page views all across the web, with the subject itself being debated on prestigious stages by some of the world’s most renowned thinkers and physicists.
Tech magnate and entrepreneur Elon Musk made headlines in recent years when he openly stated he believed we live in a simulation. He was quoted saying he thinks there’s “a one in billion chance we’re living in base reality.” In other words, he thinks it’s astronomically more unlikely that we’re not living in a simulation. He said the game No Man’s Sky further convinced him of this reality. To him, the question is “What’s outside the simulation?”
In a 2017 interview, Musk expanded on his views with a tweet to the Twitter account belonging to the show Rick and Morty:
“The singularity for this level of the simulation is coming soon. I wonder what the levels above us look like.”
The singularity for this level of the simulation is coming soon. I wonder what the levels above us look like.
Good chance they are less interesting and deeper levels are better. So far, even our primitive sims are often more entertaining than reality itself.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) October 5, 2017
Where did such technomanic confidence in a real-life Matrix come from? The original Simulation Argument was penned by Nick Bostrum in 2003, though he started speculating on the end result of a Technological Singularity in 2001. He projected, that with our current rate of technological advancement, it is likely that advanced simulations will be increasingly common in the future, and thus it is likely we are actually in one of those simulations.
When the Simulation Argument first came out I was in college, around the time I already felt like I was living in some kind of dystopian movie in which war criminals could be re-elected to a second term as president and an unstoppable corporatocracy could suck the life and data out of a complacent populace.
Now, 15 years later, it seems we’re at enough inflection point, although this time it’s not just about one issue: with climate change looming, economic collapse imminent, and mindless nationalism seeping back into the global order, it’s as if we’ve hit a cultural singularity of destruction and apocalypse fetishism.
It makes total sense that such a hypothesis would become so popular in this environment. How could this reality be real? It almost makes more sense that this is a simulation. It’s soothing to think this is all some sick experiment by a sadistic posthuman AI or an extraterrestrial youth on higher-dimensional amphetamines and hallucinogens.
But it was hard to predict that such an outlandish concept could become so mainstream that actual scientists were subscribing to it—and actually running experiments to prove it.
However, in recent years, that’s exactly what has happened. A team of German physicists used a field called lattice quantum chromodynamics to create a mini-simulation of a sliver of the universe to see if it has the same kind of arbitrary constraints, such as high energy particles seen in the Greisen–Zatsepin–Kuzmin or GZK cut off.
Theoretical physicist S. James Gate claims to have found a surprising and highly unusual code in his research into string theory. He says that, embedded deep within the most fundamental equations that outline our cosmos, he found self-dual linear error-correcting block code. Essentially, he says there are error correcting 1s and 0s bound up inside the superstrings that constitute the core of our reality. Though Gate was a skeptic on the simulation idea, this discovery shook him.
A new book by Rizwan Virk expands upon Bostrum’s original idea and then takes it to the next level, as he wonders about the nature of our existence within the simulation.
“Probably the most important question related to this is whether we are NPCs (non-player characters) or PCs (player characters) in the video game,” Virk said in an interview with Vox.
“If we are PCs, then that means we are just playing a character inside the video game of life, which I call the Great Simulation.”
Virk argues that the mysterious findings in quantum mechanics—namely that the universe seems to be largely quantum potential and not fixed reality until a human observes it—are consistent with video game rendering logic. “The cardinal rule,” he says, “is the universe renders only that which needs to be observed.”
The cultural influence is significant, too. As we careen toward a frighteningly uncertain future, the temptation to engage in newer, proto-technologist forms of escapism grows stronger. The downstream effects of the Simulation Argument are becoming more clearly defined as a traditional religious psuedo-science, with YouTube videos of people claiming you can hack reality and reprogram your mind to live in the universe of your choosing.
One hacker, George Hotz, is so convinced we’re living in a simulation that he’s created a church for it, his goal being to figure out how to hack the simulation and escape into a new reality.
“It’s easy to imagine things that are so much smarter than you and they could build a cage you wouldn’t even recognize,” George stated, adding that the solution is to “jailbreak the simulation,” and either meet our makers or destroy them.
It’s hard to say whether such ideas are productive or dangerous. It’s unlikely Bostrom—who claims he had not seen The Matrix before writing his seminal paper on the hypothesis—could have ever imagined his idea would become so firmly embedded in the zeitgeist. He also likely could not have imagined the all-encompassing, dystopian nature of the surveillance grid we would live in nearly twenty years later.
People increasingly feel like they’re losing control of not only their own realities, but the collective, consensus reality we live in. It’s enticing to believe there’s a larger mystery governing the laws of this insanity. It’s enticing to view consciousness as some kind of reality-hacking, non-biological buzzsaw slicing through the quantum ether.
But at the end of the day, perhaps our minds are just the unlikely interfaces between chaos and energy. Given the unlikeliness of existing at all, maybe that should be enough.