In his monthly column, Conspiracy, Rich Cohen gets to the bottom of it all.
The best conspiracy theories make sense of what has always seemed senseless. They let you believe you are finally connecting the dots, finding the missing pieces, experiencing the world as it really is. The most powerful theories—the mind blowers—name something you’ve always known, even if you hadn’t known it consciously, or did not believe it could be named. There is no invention, just discovery. The best explain why you feel like you’re being watched, have lived all this before, knew what would happen before the film even started. That’s the case with what’s become my favorite conspiracy theory: the notion, argued by futurists and tech visionaries, that we live not in the real world but in a simulation, an intricately detailed game cooked up by a demigod, hacker, or AI mastermind, which, if true, explains the uncanny sense that this is not my real life, that these are not my real memories. Or, as my friend Mark, standing on Oak Street Beach at 2 A.M. with Chicago aglow behind us, said, “None of this shit’s real, man. We’re all just figments in a crazy dream.”
This idea that this is not the real world is way older than Pink Floyd (“We’re just two lost souls / swimming in a fish bowl”) and way older than the defining movie, The Matrix. You hear it in the Hasidic wisdom of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool”: “No doubt the world is an entirely imaginary world, but it is only once removed from the true world.” You hear it in the writing of the nineteenth-century naturalist Philip Henry Gosse, whose book Omphalos argued that the fossils that proved the world is older than the six thousand years of Genesis had been put in the ground by God to test man’s faith. You hear it in the Buddhist folk tales, most famously the “butterfly dream” of Zhuangzi, in which the author is uncertain if he is a man who dreamed he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming that he’s a man. It’s the uncanniness you experience not when you are drunk and not when are you are high, but when you are drunk and high, the insight you stumble across the way you stumble across certain bars only when it’s very late and you are very lost and absolutely need them to exist. It’s not that the stimulant creates the dream, but that it opens your eyes to the big truth you’ve been trained not to see.
The modern history of the simulation hypothesis begins in 2003, with the publication, by Oxford professor and futurist Nick Bostrom, of the paper “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?” It seems less a theory than a mood, an ennui, a Peggy Lee sense of “is that all there is to a fire?”
Considering the speed of recent advances in computing power and virtual reality, and our penchant for recreating human life, Bostrom believes that, with time, our simulations will become ever more detailed and realistic, until, at a certain point—the “simulation point”—the characters in the game will become self-conscious, and, being born in it, unable to tell the real world from the simulation. A society that can create such a simulation will not create just one, says Bostrom, but millions, each of them populated by self-conscious entities that believe they are in the real world. In the fullness of time, there will be one original civilization and innumerable copies. That being the case, which type of world do you think we’re in right now? What are the odds that we are not in a simulation?
What’s more, those living in a simulated world, believing in progress and the future, will create their own simulations and fill them with still more simulated humans, each believing they’re the first and only. Since there will be more second generation simulations—simulations inside simulations—than first, and more third than second, and so on, the odds tell us that we are most likely living a hundred million simulations away from the original. The universe is not stars and planets and ships and oceans and politicians. It’s a mirror facing a mirror, a dream inside a dream. It’s an infinite regress.
Bostrom’s argument relies on trend logic, via which, inspecting a toddler, you might conclude: if the kid keeps growing at this rate, he will be forty feet tall by age fifty. And yet, the simulation hypothesis has caught the fancy of some of the biggest names in science. Neil DeGrasse Tyson, the director of the Hayden Planetarium, put the odds of our being in a simulated world at fifty percent. Elon Musk went much further, saying the odds of us not being in a simulation is “one in billions.”
“Many people in Silicon Valley have become obsessed with the simulation hypothesis, the argument that what we experience as reality is in fact fabricated in a computer,” Tad Friend wrote in The New Yorker in 2016. “Two tech billionaires have gone so far as to secretly engage scientists to work on breaking us out of the simulation.”
The hypothesis solves certain problems, explains away some questions that have long bedeviled physicists. Like math: What is it? Where does it come from? Did we make it up, or is it a feature of the physical world, like gravity? Why do mathematical rules work everywhere all the time? Why does two plus two always equal four? If we are in a simulation, the answer is simple: in math you are witnessing the code of the creator.
“Reasons to believe the universe is a simulation include the fact that it behaves mathematically and is broken up into pieces (subatomic particles) like a pixelated video game,” Olivia Solon wrote in The Guardian in 2016.
In a video game like Crysis 3, only the part of the world that can be seen by a player is rendered. Vacant landscapes exist only as a potential until engaged. To do as the faithful believe God has done—that is, to create the entire world, to maintain its existence even when it cannot be seen—would take more computing power than exists. Some suspect our world was built in the same way. An otherwise empty street vanishes as you pass it by. When you don’t see it, it’s not there. This would solve several anomalies that haunt quantum mechanics. For example, why can’t we know the location of certain particles until they’re observed? Perhaps they don’t exist until a player has engaged, as Mario and Luigi don’t exist when that game is shut off.
Think of the Zen koan: if a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? The answer, inscrutable in the organic world, becomes straightforward in a simulation. No, because the forest does not exist if a player is not on that screen. “Quantum Physics gives us a description of the universe (or multiple universes) that doesn’t make sense from the perspective of an ‘objective reality’ but requires observation by some consciousness,” author and video game designer Rizwan Virk wrote on the website Hacker Noon. “These sometimes incredible findings defy common sense, unless we are living inside a video game …”
The simulation would fall in line with the general direction of the progress of human thought, in which each development or revolution in our perspective has made mankind seem less unique, less important, less central. We started at the center of everything, with a star-studded firmament above and the sun going around us. Our earth then became a part of a larger system, orbiting instead of orbited. That system was then downgraded, becoming part of a galaxy, which itself became part of a universe, which became a mere slice of a multiverse. The multiverse now becomes one program among billions, stored on a heavenly mainframe. Which explains that feeling of dislocation and detachment, the sense that this life is not real.
A theology has grown up around the simulation hypothesis. To some, it backs up a belief in reincarnation. You get eaten by a green meanie but come back, just like PAC-MAN. To others, it rhymes with a Catholic notion of ascent. Those with the best score graduate to the next world, the world of the programmer, who is herself or himself (it really doesn’t matter) a facsimile likewise trying to ascend. In the end, the best player may enter the real world, unless, as still others believe, there is no real world, no original, that the first copy is a copy of still another copy. To some, that’s that’s the meaning, that there is no meaning. The hypothesis, if true, leaves us where we started: lost beings in search of a creator. Which is why you aren’t happy even when you get what you want, because it’s not really what you want. What you really want waits in the next level, or the level beyond that.
But, to my mind, Bostrom and the others have made just the sort of questionable assumptions you would expect from a futurist. For starters, they assume that science will be able to create human consciousness—or, more likely, has done so already—that it’s a physical thing that will arise from silicon when certain elements are in place. But we don’t know what consciousness is, or if it even exists. Nor do we know what we are, where we come from, or why we’re here. We know nothing. In short, Nick Bostrom is, in my opinion, a little too smart for his own own good. He’s chasing a phantom, proving that intelligence is overrated. It’s a great advantage to be just a little bit dumb. Like me.
It’s funny that these tech visionaries, none of whom believe in the old idea of God, have, with their hypothesis, recreated Jehovah, or the Mount Olympus of ancient Greece. The materialistic world born of Newton and Darwin—the belief that the universe is a natural phenomenon, the result of a cosmic accident, that it grew without aid of guiding intelligence—is too much for even hackers to accept. This hypothesis gives them a way back to the creation story. Maybe it did take that first coder just six days. Maybe he did start out by hanging the sun, then putting the land between the seas, then coded in flora and fauna, then inserted Adam and Eve, self-replicating AI that took over from there, following a directive: “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.”
I love the simulation hypothesis because it echoes two epiphanies from my childhood. The first involved Bozo’s Circus, which, in the seventies, was every kid in Chicagoland’s favorite show. One day, messing with the TV, I tuned in a local Milwaukee station. Bozo was on, yet it was not Bozo time. I began to watch, then laugh. This was not Bozo, but an imposter dressed as Bozo. The shoes, the hair, the face—it was all wrong. Then I stopped laughing and asked myself: what if this was the real Bozo and my Bozo was the imposter? From there, it took me a moment to realize that there is no Bozo: it’s all fake.
The second epiphany involved a Fisher-Price set I’d gotten for my birthday. I was four and alone in the early morning, putting the little men in their little cars, when the face of one of those little men, having been puckered, unpuckered. His eyes shifted, his grin became a frown and his mouth seemed to say, Help me! In an instant, I reached the conclusion that powers the simulation hypothesis and religion in general: if this little man is real and I’m playing with him, there must be someone—or something—playing with me.
Though recent, the simulation hypothesis demonstrates an old impulse. People come to believe their creations are real, then extrapolate. The sense of the uncanny shambles alongside technical innovation. First we build it, then we turn it on, then we watch it move, then we think it’s alive. When the animatronic Abe Lincoln stood to speak at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York, several spectators fainted. It’s the same with coders who play their own games. It’s only natural for them to see their creations—their reflections—as autonomous and real. And then to see themselves, ourselves, as unreal.
Rich Cohen is the author of The Last Pirate of New York: A Ghost Ship, a Killer, and the Birth of a Gangster Nation.