By Dr. Gary L. Deel, Ph.D., J.D.
Faculty Director, School of Business, American Public University
This is the second 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.
In the first part of this series, I posited why it’s probable we will one day develop the technology necessary to create a digital world so detailed and sophisticated as to be indistinguishable from our own. Also, the artificially intelligent inhabitants of that world will be capable of sensing, thinking and feeling just as we do. But what would that mean for the likelihood of simulated reality?
Let’s imagine that tomorrow we create video game people just like us living in a video game world just like ours. And as a kind of social experiment, we set this sort of video game reality running and observe the behaviors of the people living in it, almost like a kind of virtual ant farm.
Over time, we watch as our digital creations follow a similar path of evolution to our own — learning about their world. They amass knowledge, create civilizations, wage wars, press forward into their own age of enlightenment and eventually reach a technological ability that is on par with that of their creators, us.
And when the digital humans master the ability to create their own simulations, what do they do? They create their own little digital world for their own little digital people, just as we once did for them.
So now we have a digital world within a digital world. And we could imagine this nesting to run on infinitely, as each level of AI simulation matures and creates its own simulation level in due time.
Would the Simulations Know That They Are Simulations?
The really interesting thing, however, is that none of those simulations would be the least bit aware that they are simulations. I mean, how could they? Even if they thought about it — the way we’re thinking about it in this discussion — they wouldn’t have any way to prove it.
They would be limited by the confines of their own digital universe. There would be no way for them to “detect” the larger picture at hand. And so they would assume that they are “real” in the same way we assume that we are real.
And that fact brings us to the most unsettling part of this discussion. If none of the simulations in the sequence can tell that they are simulations, then who’s to say that we ourselves are not just one of the simulation levels?
Infinite Levels of Simulations, but Only One True Reality
Visionaries like Elon Musk have actually posited that we are more likely than not to be a simulation just based on sheer probability. It does make mathematical sense.
Think about it. If the above scenario is accurate — real humans create a simulation which creates another simulation which creates another simulation and so on — that would mean there are potentially infinite levels of simulation, but only one real reality.
And if that’s the case, then the simple odds are that we are just one of the simulations and not the one original reality. We just happen to be in the life stage progression where we are evolving our way toward creating the next simulation level so that we can pass the proverbial baton.
Of course, there’s no tangible evidence that any of this is true, and as such I’m not necessarily suggesting that it is. But the possibility might nonetheless be an uncomfortable idea for some. A feeling of insecurity understandably emerges when that which we think we know and can rely upon is called into question.
But if there is any consolation to be found in this sobering prospect, it’s that our world — real or not — is as real to us as any other world is likely to be for the beings that inhabit it, digital or otherwise. In “The Matrix,” Neo questions whether the simulation is real and Morpheus replies: “How do you define ‘real?’ If real is what you can feel, smell, taste and see, then ‘real’ is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.”
What Morpheus was saying, and correctly too, is that an experience is precisely as real as the mind interpreting and interacting with it allows it to be. A dream isn’t necessarily “real” in the tangible sense, but it certainly feels real while we’re in it.
In the same sense, even if our world and our existence are all one big simulation, it feels undeniably real to us. Given that, even if we are living in a simulation, there wouldn’t be any way to escape it. So there’s no use fretting about such a possibility.
Don’t Worry about Your Reality: Focus on Your Life and What You Can Control
So worry only about those things you can control. The nature of our existence is not one of those things. Let it go, and live the very best life — real or simulated — that you can.
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.