What if... we realized we had been living in a computer simulation?

“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.”
― Albert Einstein

By far the most valuable quality of philosophy is its dynamic ability to evolve alongside those who rely on it to make any sort of sense (or non-sense) of this world.

Ostensibly, it doesn’t seem like much to read into — until we begin to consider the way philosophy is going to (and has started to) navigate us through the darker and weirder corners of the labyrinth that is the digitization of our modern culture.

As we wade deeper into the 21st Century, we’re already experiencing a myriad of revolutions in the way we exist with technology. Computing has gone more quantum, reality has gone more virtual, and intelligence has gone more artificial.

As we awkwardly face new existential questions like none we’ve had to poke at before, we find ourselves at the precipice of new understandings, new paradigms and a renewed imagination to embrace it all.

Among the countless techno-philosophical questions that we’re now asking (Can we digitally emulate the brain? Can we upload our consciousness to a cloud? Can we shift our existence to a more virtual interface?), none has seemingly bewildered us more than whether or not we exist in some kind of a simulation.

Unlike other such existential questions, this one is different only because we can’t necessarily prove or disprove that we’re already in a simulation. Of late, the simulation hypothesis has been gaining more traction as the likes of Nick Bostrom, Elon Musk and Rizwan Virk have been delving into the discussion, leading the charge of enthusiastic curiosity targeted at this open-ended thought experiment — a brain-in-the-vat 2.0, if you will.

So I sought to get an insight from someone who had been well-steeped in this topic, fortunately coming across Dr. David Kyle Johnson, Professor of Philosophy at King’s College in Pennsylvania. Dr. Johnson has won a myriad of awards for his unique ability to bridge the gap between the curious nature of philosophy and the mainstream interests of the general public; he has published countless papers on topics relating to freedom, the multiverse, metaphysics, and religion, having had also written numerous articles exploring philosophical questions embedded in shows and movies like Southpark and Doctor Who, having had also recently written a book which takes a philosophical look at the sci-fi anthology series Black Mirror.

Dr. Johnson currently teaches several courses relating to Philosophy and Metaphysics, including Exploring Metaphysics, The Big Questions of Philosophy and Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy (he actually discusses the simulation hypothesis in great detail throughout both courses.

And so I had the fortunate opportunity to ask him a simple, yet immensely complicated question: How would our lives change if we discovered that we did, in fact, live in a computer simulation?

Well, first of all, even if we did indeed live in a computer simulation, the evidence to convince people of this would have to be overwhelming. I mean, there are still people — conspiracy theorists mainly — who think that the Earth is flat despite all evidence to the contrary.

Now, one might wonder how that is possible. But one of the fundamental lessons of philosophy of science is that science is inductive and thus never 100% proves anything; it just shows certain theories to be better than others.

Science, of course, can and has shown that certain theories are so substantially better than all the others (and thus are so likely) that you’d have to be fundamentally irrational to deny them. I’m thinking of theories like “The Earth is round and orbits the sun” and “Life has evolved on earth for millions of years.” The only way to deny these theories is to make unfalsifiable ad hoc excuses to save them from the evidence. “The devil planted those fossils to make it look like evolution is true!” Stuff like that. Yes, it’s silly. But since science is inductive, it leaves room for people to make these kinds of silly excuses.

So even if we do one day prove, scientifically, that we live in a computer simulation, don’t expect most people to actually accept it. The reason people make up excuses to avoid what science tells us, like that life has evolved over millions of years, is because they don’t want to believe it. It goes against their religious teaching, for example, or what they have always believed. Or maybe they deny it because it goes against what they think their experience tells them. “When I look outside, the world looks flat.” It’s all motivated reasoning.

And if we found out that we lived in a computer simulation, almost everyone would be motivated to deny it. It would definitely go against what people thought their senses were telling them, and what they had always been taught. So I can’t even imagine the ad hoc excuses that people would produce — my god, the conspiracy theories that people would invent! (Ironically, of course, in this case, unlike today, the conspiracy theorists would be standing on street corners with signs that say “Wake up, sheeple. The world is real.” But they would still be conspiracy theorists, nonetheless.)

But let us suppose that the evidence that we live in a computer simulation somehow manifested in a way that made it undeniable. Everyone accepted it; no one denied it. What would happen?

The most likely answer I think is that everyone would flip the fuck out. Conspiracy theorists would feel vindicated (even though they never actually predicted it), people would probably conclude that life is meaningless, and there would be mass suicide. But maybe, it would be no different than when we discovered that the Earth wasn’t the center of the universe. The Church would be upset for a while, and then we’d all adjust. Or maybe, just maybe… the world would end. Perhaps the Being simulating our world is only interested in it as long as we don’t know it’s simulated. So, as soon as we do… *plug pulled.* But in all honesty, I don’t know the answer. All I can really do is speculate.

But I can give you an argument for what should happen — for how we should react, or what should change. And the answer is, very little. Although the answer to whether we live in a computer simulation is very important for people who value truth, and want to know the way the world really is — people like me — the realization that we live in a computer simulation really shouldn’t affect how you or I live. It shouldn’t affect our attitude about life at all. Why?

Well, think of it this way. If we made this discovery, you would have people saying that it entails that the world isn’t “real” and thus that we don’t “exist.” They might look at their spouse and say “How can I love you? You’re not real.” But this is a complete misuse of the world “real.” The way in which we are not “real,” if we live in a computer simulation, is the same way that the plastic plant in the corner of my office is not real: it’s not biological. It’s artificial. Yes that’s true. But it still exists! It’s still a part of the furniture of the universe. Its nature is just different than we first assumed. And if we found out that our universe was a simulation, that’s what we would have discovered about it. Its nature is different than we first assumed. It’s digital, rather than physical, sure. But it still exists!

And, of course, the same would be true of persons, like your spouse. Their nature would simply be different than you had assumed. But finding out that they are a digital being would not entail that they are not “real” — that they don’t exist, or don’t have a mind (i.e., emotions, thoughts, etc.). After all, you’d be a digital being too, and you already know that you have a mind. Proof that we are in a computer simulation would be, for all of us, proof that digital beings can be just as minded as we assumed physical beings can be. It would be proof that your spouse is digital, but not that your spouse, or the world, doesn’t “exist.”

Indeed, whatever computer the simulation is running on exists in the real (i.e., physical) world — and things like the chair you are sitting on exist in its circuitry (essentially as bits of information). Yeah, it’s not solid matter. But guess what? That’s true even if we don’t live in a computer simulation. According to basic atomic theory, material objects are mostly empty space, because atoms are mostly empty space. Indeed, according to quantum theory, objects like your chair aren’t even made of atoms — because, at base, the particles that make up atoms themselves are just “probabilistic quantum wave functions.” And quantum theory is the most proven theory in all of science.

So, if indeed we do live in a computer simulation, the nature of the universe might not even be that different than what science has already proven it is. Instead of wave functions in the quantum foam, it is wave functions on a computer. I fail to see a major difference. Indeed, in a series of brilliant papers, philosopher Marcus Arvan has argued that the idea that we live in a (peer-to-peer) computer simulation is the best interpretation of quantum mechanics because it’s the only one that can make sense of all the seeming contradictions inherent in quantum mechanics (along with things like our sense of self and free will). If we ever get proof that we live in a computer simulation, it will probably arrive in this way.

About the only thing I can tell you will change is this: if we learn that our universe is a computer simulation, I’ll probably reject my atheism. As of now, I am convinced that there is no God because there is not only a complete lack of evidence for his existence, but very solid evidence against it. The concept of a perfect being is logically incoherent, and there is no way a perfect being would design the universe with laws that guarantee natural disasters. But if we live in a computer simulation, then someone (in the real physical world) created it — programmed it, if you will — and that programmer would be, to us, for all intents and purposes, a god.

The programmer would not be the perfect god of theism, of course. So this would not vindicate traditional theism. (It would also explain why our universe is so flawed.) It wouldn’t vindicate Christianity either. This would not convince me, for example, that Jesus was the programmer’s digital avatar (although wouldn’t that explain a lot!). But the programmer would be very god-like — something akin to the old Greek gods — and I’d be very happy to worship that being if it meant I could continue to exist (or maybe get a physical body after my digital one dies).

And I wouldn’t be surprised if numerous philosophers did likewise. So maybe what would happen, if we learned that we lived in a computer simulation, is that every street corner would have a philosopher trying to convince everyone that the world really is not that different than we thought it was before, but that we should probably all be a lot more entertaining so the programmer doesn’t pull the plug. “Don’t Panic. Keep Calm and Party On!”

It takes exponentially longer to explain what’s wrong with a bad argument that it does to make one. That’s why they spread so easily and are so dangerous.” — Professor David Kyle Johnson

Check out some of Professor David Kyle Johnson's courses here

Like Black Mirror? Check out Professor David Kyle Johnson's philosophical investigation into the sci-fi anthology

Image courtesy xresch