Are we living in the Matrix?

(Image Credit: Hersson Piratoba)

(Image Credit: Hersson Piratoba)

According to a recent interview in the New Yorker, Simulation theory has caught on with tech billionaires in Silicon Valley. Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, Tesla, Paypal, and soon to be grand dictator of Mars, said in June that there's a one in a billion chance that we're not living in a computer simulation. So to recap, that's a billion to one chance that we are in a simulation.

His logic is that if simulating reality were possible (I think it's implied we're talking about some highly advanced alien civilization here, not humans), it's highly likely that there are billions of simulations running in parallel. And since we have no way of telling if we're in a simulation or not, this means that our chances of being in the one version of reality amongst those billions of other simulations are very small indeed.

Also according to the same New Yorker interview, two unnamed tech billionaires are paying scientists to try to break us out of the Matrix. Since there are some very rich and powerful people interested in Simulation theory, I'd like to examine it more closely through a scientific lens.

Science: The intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment

Let's define science ------------------------------>

The key words in this definition are observation and experiment. For something to be classified as science, it must be testable. This is why things such as astrology, scientific racism, cryptozoology, the flat earth society, climate change deniers, etc, are not considered scientific - they simply are not testable.

Even some areas traditionally thought of as scientific do not follow this definition. For example, my favorite 'science' topic bordering on pseudoscience is string theory. String theory is a mathematical construct that the universe is made out of tiny vibrating things - it leads to cool predictions like 11-dimensional space and alternate universes. However, there is no way to test it.

I'm an observer. I'd like to talk about some testable predictions of Simulation theory.

  1. It might be possible to observe little glitches in the system. Think of the déjà vu scene in the Matrix where Neo sees the same black cat walking by twice. However, this seems unlikely given the sophistication it takes to simulate billions of people and the physics engine to accompany them. A philosopher who has done a bunch of thinking about Simulation theory, Nick Bostrom, stipulated that it might be possible to detect glitches in the system if they are plopped right into our laps. He said that a window could potentially pop up saying: "You are living in a simulation. Click here for more information."
  2. Another interesting way to investigate this theory scientifically would be to create simulated consciousness for ourselves. To date, while we have been able to do impressive things with computers, the AI we create is not fully conscious (think Skynet). Developing AI to investigate if a simulated universe is possible would fall under the category of experimentation.

However, even though the observations and experiments listed above may help to investigate this theory, Simulated reality by definition may be impossible to prove. At this point, my brain is really starting to hurt. 

It turns out that experimenting or making observations in a simulated reality may be part of a nested simulation. This means that we may not be able to trust anything we observe in our 'reality' because it could be part of a separate simulation. Bummer. 

So what do I believe and where can I leave off this discussion after making everyone thoroughly freaked out? My scientific brain tells me that this theory is not fully testable. So while it's a fun thought experiment to play around with, I'm not prescribing to Simulation theory. But trust me, I'll be keeping my eyes peeled for glitches for at least the next week!