While many people take reality at face value, others believe the far more intriguing theory that we are living in a computer simulation. It’s a concept straight out of “The Matrix” (though its origin reaches much further back), and one of its supporters is Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.
During an interview at Code Conference 2016, Musk said, “There’s a one in billions chance we’re in base reality.” This essentially means that he believes that more likely than not (by a lot), the world that we know is just a very sophisticated computer simulation. Neil deGrasse Tyson feels similarly, putting our odds of living in a simulation at around 50/50.
Musk elaborated on the idea during the interview:
The strongest argument for us being in a simulation, probably being in a simulation, is the following: 40 years ago, we had Pong, two rectangles and a dot…That is what games were. Now, 40 years later, we have photorealistic 3D simulations with millions of people playing simultaneously, and it’s getting better every year. And soon we’ll have virtual reality, augmented reality. If you assume any rate of improvement at all, the games will become indistinguishable from reality.
The contemporary version of the simulation hypothesis was introduced by Nicholas Bostrom, a British philosopher, in 2003. Simply put, the hypothesis states that there is a likelihood that advanced future civilizations would run equally advanced computer simulations of past civilizations. So, much like we play video games about ancient populations, they might do something similar, just much more technologically advanced. Some people even think that the events of the 2017 Oscars are proof of this theory.
While the idea of a simulated universe was officially described by Bostrom and recently brought to headlines by Musk and Tyson, it is not a new idea. This concept has been around for decades, and if you count its predecessor, the idea that everything around you is just a dream, the concept is much, much older than that.
However, even though the idea is old and debated heavily by both scientists and philosophers, it might not hold much actual weight.
For starters, a simulation is, by definition, an “imitation of a situation or process.” And so, if we were living in a simulation, how would we exist and interact with our physical world as we know it? Unless our physical interactions with food, humans, air, and the like are all elaborate programs to trick the brain in every which way to perceive the physical as such, the concept in and of itself is inherently flawed. Once a “simulated” object becomes physical, then does it, conceptually, stop being a simulation?
Another argument against the notion of a simulated reality is the limitations of computing. No matter how powerful quantum computers grow to be over the years, decades, and centuries, using them to create a real physical world, or “simulation,” might still be a technological impossibility. Unless information technology is radically and rapidly changed, it just might never be possible.
Essentially, unless life as we know it completely changes and the way that computers operate is turned on its head, the only way that the type of simulation Musk is talking about would be possible is through some higher level of reality. Some even argue that, because human beings aren’t expected to survive on planet Earth for that much longer (relatively speaking), a civilization could never advance to the point that such a simulation would be possible.
Ultimately, there is no definitive evidence confirming either side of this theory. There are possibilities, and within each possibility, there are scientific limitations.
If Musk and his fellow believers turn out to be correct, there could be multiple existing levels of reality and parallel technologies that we could somehow learn about one day. But, then there’s the equally plausible chance that there is one base reality, and we’re living in it. If this is the actual universe (or part of the Multiverse, but that’s another conversation entirely), then all of the scientific principles that we know of apply, which means a simulated universe would be an impossibility.
Again, neither is known for sure, so unless new information surfaces, you’ll probably want to assume what you see in life is what you get.