Imagine you’re about to make the biggest decision of your life and you’ve been given two options to choose from. One is comfortable and easy but would mean you’d spend the rest of your life in blissful ignorance. The other is painful and brutal but would mean you’d be granted access to unimagined freedom. This dilemma isn’t just one of the most powerful scenes in the 1999 movie The Matrix , but one of the most enduring science-fiction images of all time.
In the scene, Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) offers Neo (Keanu Reeves) the choice between a blue pill or a red pill. If he chooses blue, he goes back to his normal life and he’s none the wiser, “the story ends”. If he chooses red he’ll get to find out “how deep the rabbit hole goes”.
Neo chooses the red pill and learns the truth of his existence – he’s been living in a simulation. But which one would you have chosen?
A brief history of simulation theory
This month marks the 20th anniversary of the Wachowski’s The Matrix , an action film on the surface with rich philosophical debate threaded throughout. What this means is it’s been 20 years since many of us first questioned whether, just like Neo, we’re also living in a simulation – and, if given the choice, we’d want to do anything about it.
Other movies and works of science-fiction have explored virtual worlds and simulated realities before and after The Matrix , including World on a Wire, The Thirteenth Floor and Brainstorm. However, The Matrix is, arguably, the most explicit exploration of consciousness and simulation theory – we watch as Neo literally ‘unplugs’ himself from the Matrix.
But simulation theory – or the simulation hypothesis – has been a much-debated topic of discussion in philosophical and scientific circles for a long time.
The modern version of the simulation theory, proposed by Nick Bostrom in 2003, suggests that our distant future relatives are running simulations of us all right now.
The existential fear that the world we see around us might not be real, however, isn’t new. The Allegory of the Cave (or Plato’s Cave) was presented by the Greek philosopher Plato in his work The Republic around 380 BC. Plato imagined that if prisoners were tied to the wall of a cave, and had known nothing else, they might interpret the shadows of everything that moves past a fire in the centre of the cave as real objects in the real world – when really they’re just shadows.
One of the purposes of Plato’s teachings was to suggest that human perception is limited because it can only be gained through our senses. Instead, he suggested that philosophical reasoning will provide us with greater truth – and ultimately freedom. This is exactly what Morpheus reiterates when he poses the big question to Neo: “Remember: all I'm offering is the truth. Nothing more.”
Around a similar time, the Chinese philosophical classic Zhuangzi questioned the nature of reality with the Taoist parable The Butterfly Dream, a story of a man dreaming he’s a butterfly, unable to truly know whether he really was a man dreaming of being a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming of being a man.
The parable is open to interpretation but points to a similar meaning as Plato’s Cave. It suggests that if both dreaming and waking feel real, they’re both vulnerable to doubt. Therefore there’s no way of knowing if what we’re perceiving as real is an illusion or not.
Fast-forward to 1641, Descartes took the distinction between reality and illusion a step further suggesting that sensory experiences aren’t to be trusted – and may have been created with malicious intent. He introduces the idea of an evil demon, which could be deceiving us all by generating fake sensory experiences that we consider real.
More recently, Descartes’ thought experiment has had an update that reads like science-fiction nightmare fuel. Called the brain in a vat theory, it proposes that our brains might exist in a life-sustaining liquid where they’re provided with electrical impulses by an advanced computer – or evil scientist. These impulses are identical to those our brains would receive if they were in our bodies, which means our disembodied brains would never know the truth. After all, as Morpheus says, “‘real’ is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.”
Bostrom’s ancestor simulation argument
The contemporary version of the simulation hypothesis was proposed by the University of Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom. In 2003, Bostrom wrote a paper called Are you living in a computer simulation? , which suggested our future relatives might have such enormous computing power that they’d decide to run simulations of their ancestors .
He proposed that, with such a huge amount of power, many simulations containing many simulated, artificial minds could be running at once. Therefore there’s a good chance we’re in a simulation right now. As you’d expect, there have been many critiques of Bostrom’s theory – and many more of simulation theory generally. But that hasn’t stopped his ideas from generating a lot of interest over the years.
Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said during an interview at Code Conference in 2016 , “there’s a one in billions chance we’re in base reality.” And a profile of venture capitalist Sam Altman in the New Yorker revealed that two tech billionaires in Silicon Valley have hired scientists to try and figure out if we’re in a simulation – then break it.
Recently, simulation theory has also proven to be a legitimate scientific hypothesis. In 2016, Neil deGrasse Tyson hosted a panel of experts , including theoretical physicists, cosmologists and a philosopher, at the annual Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate at the American Museum of Natural History to discuss simulation theory.
Examining the evidence that we’re living in a simulation
There are, clearly, many thought experiments about simulation theory, as well as papers written about it, movies that explore it and conferences held to discuss its feasibility. But, as of right now, we’re lacking any evidence beyond Bostrom’s hypothesis. Although this hasn’t stopped many online communities, technologists and theoretical physicists from pointing to clues all around us.
Some suggest the way the universe behaves, the mathematical structure of the physical world and the strict laws it abides by could demonstrate that it was designed like a video game. At the Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate, MIT cosmologist Max Tegmark said: “If I were a character in a computer game, I would also discover eventually that the rules seemed completely rigid and mathematical.”
One of the most compelling arguments is how advances in technology are bridging the gap between virtual reality and reality. If you’ve tried a high-end VR experience, you’ll know it doesn’t take long to fool your senses into thinking you’re elsewhere – it’s why some people experience dissociation when they come out of VR and back into the real world. If we assume the same – or a higher – rate of technological improvement in future, games and virtual reality tech could one day become indistinguishable from reality. This means we might be inside a simulation right now and not know it, but it could also point to us being able to create simulations in the future as well.
There’s also the Mandela Effect, a theory born out of the fact that some people claim to remember TV coverage of Nelson Mandela dying in the 1980s, despite the fact he didn't actually die until the much more recent year of 2013. Believers cite this as evidence that, at some point, the simulation screwed up the timeline – or suggest it’s proof that there’s more than one reality.
You don’t have to do much digging online to find more supposed evidence, which ranges from the plausible to the completely bonkers, including the fact we haven’t found evidence of aliens yet to Trump becoming president of the US.
More science-fiction than science
The silliest, yet hardest to refute, argument of them all is that there’s no proof we’re not in a simulation. But it’s also this argument that makes simulation theory difficult to take seriously. Without the possibility of testing or proof, it’s an idea that fits better into philosophical discourse and science-fiction than actual science.
If we’re searching for the truth of our own reality, maybe we ought to learn a lesson or two from Neo’s own awakening. Many of the arguments for simulation theory are firmly based on our current knowledge and understanding of computer technology.
If we are in some kind of simulation, however, what’s possible outside of the constraints of the simulation could be completely impossible for us to ever grasp. Just like ‘The One’, we wouldn’t be able to think our way out of it without a little help from the outside.