By Dr. Gary L. Deel, Ph.D., J.D.
Faculty Director, School of Business, American Public University
This is the first article in a two-part series on the concept of simulation theory and the proposition from some thought leaders that we might in fact be living in a simulation.
“Have you ever had a dream that you were so sure was real? What if you were unable to wake from that dream? How would you know the difference between the dream world and the real world?” — Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne in “The Matrix”)
If you’ve ever seen this classic sci-fi movie, you’ll probably recognize this quotation. It comes when the wise Morpheus explains to the hero Neo, aka Keanu Reeves, that the world which he thinks is real is actually a computer program in which he is an unwitting prisoner.
“The Matrix” was released back in 1999, but it is still celebrated today as a cerebral, captivating film, so much so that the creators are currently working on a fourth sequel scheduled to be released later this year. The movie franchise’s popularity is due in part to the fact that it inspires viewers to ponder: Is the world we live in a simulation? And if it is, how would we ever know for sure?
The Reality of Our World Is a Question That Long Predates ‘The Matrix’
Interestingly, this question of whether or not our world is real long predates “The Matrix.” For centuries, philosophers have wrestled with simulation theory. That’s the proposition that the world we appear to be living in might not actually be “real.”
Some of the earliest musings on this subject came from René Descartes in the 17th century. Descartes observed how dreams can feel very real. And he extrapolated from that sensation that it might in fact be difficult to distinguish dreams from conscious reality. He famously said, “It is possible that I am dreaming right now and that all of my perceptions are false.”
Descartes likely focused on the perspective of dreaming because computers didn’t exist in his time to allow for conjecture on technological illusion vis-à-vis the plot of “The Matrix.” However, a common theme between Descartes’s dream theory and the storyline of “The Matrix” is that both assume we are in fact corporeal beings who are simply being deceived by a facade in the form of the environment we inhabit. And if we could just somehow either wake up or unplug, we could escape this simulation of the “real” world.
But some simulation theories go a step further and suggest that perhaps there is nothing “real” about us at all. In other words, if there is a real world, no part of us is likely to exist in it.
Nested Simulations of Reality
Consider the argument of nested simulations posited by brilliant minds such as Elon Musk and others. It goes like this: Think of the most sophisticated role-playing video games on the market today. These games can sometimes feel so real that players interacting with nonplayer characters (NPCs) — computer-generated parts of the game experience — could be forgiven for wondering if these game characters have genuine thoughts, emotions, and a conscious awareness of their own.
Of course, they don’t. At least not yet. Today’s game NPCs are nothing more than the product of basic coding algorithms that dictate in-game behaviors and interactions with actual players.
But imagine what these games might become in another 10 or 50 or 100 years. Might we be capable of creating a digital world complete with programmed sights, sounds, tastes, smells, and laws of nature? And might we also create NPCs that could eventually sense, think, and emote as a kind of in-game artificial intelligence (AI)? If we manage to produce this, how distinct would their experience in their video game world be from our experience in our own “real” world?
In the Future, We May Be Able to Create A Highly Palpable Simulated World
If we don’t destroy ourselves first, there is no reason to think that one day we won’t possess the technological means to create AI on par with human cognitive abilities and a simulated world that is as detailed and palpable as our own reality. When we do that, we will have created an authentic “world” and authentic “people” living in it who are virtually indistinguishable from the real thing.
But what does that mean for the reality of our own existence? In the next part, I’ll explain how a nesting of simulated worlds could occur from such circumstances.
About the Author
Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Public University. He holds a J.D. in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. Gary teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Public University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.