When it comes to simulations, the focus of our work here is on how to apply them to real-world problems. On this blog, we write about the future of simulation, and we speculate as to whether human brains are composed of simulations themselves. But a deeper, more metaphysical question has been asked by some, and it’s worth consideration: are we living in a simulation? Is everything we perceive nothing more than code running on an unfathomably powerful computer in an unknown universe?
It could be argued that if we’re living inside a simulation, then there’s no way of knowing it, so any discussion of the topic is pointless. Personally, I’m sympathetic to this point of view in the sense that pondering the answer to this question, while taking some level of effort, probably won’t make life any better (or worse) in the here and now, and we have a huge backlog of real-world (or simulated-real-world, as the case may be) problems to solve. But I’m reminded that I once believed it was impossible for us to know what might have preceded the existence of our universe, and yet physicists are making interesting progress on that very question.
It could also be argued that if we’re living inside a simulation, and if we were to discover evidence of this fact, it wouldn’t make any difference, since there would be no chance of “breaking out”. (I’m always amused by the endless stories in pop culture—from Tron to Star Trek: The Next Generation to The Matrix and many others—in which there appears to be a one-to-one correlation between software portrayals of entities and their physical equivalents, and it’s possible to transition from one state to the other, usually (and conveniently) looking quite similar in the process.) Again, I’m sympathetic to this point of view.
But perhaps the question of “are we living in a simulation?” is not one of physics or cosmology or software but of philosophy. And for thousands of years, we as a species have generally ascribed value to philosophy. The search for truth—the word “philosophy” itself comes from the Greek for “love of wisdom”—is a worthy pursuit. And so even if it turns out to be impossible for us to definitively answer this question, and even if we do answer it but it turns out there is nothing to be done about it—well, information wants to be free, yo.
I’ll return to this topic in the future with more on this question and what those who have considered the question have to say about about it.