We are simulations living in a virtual realm, says Elon Musk. But why do we like the idea? | Julian Baggini
The chances are, scientists argue, human life takes place inside a series of concentric, Matrix-style worlds. Maybe we should try to wake up
Human beings have long been fascinated by the idea that the world as it appears to us is not the ultimate reality. In recent years, however, such metaphysical speculations have taken on a more materially conceivable form. Computer-based virtual reality makes the idea that we could be living in a simulation more than just an abstract possibility; some very smart people even think that this is not only possible, but likely. Very likely.
Many of them take their lead from the Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom. His tightly argued 2003 paper in the leading journal Philosophical Quarterly argued that if such a simulation were created at any point in the universes history, then wee almost certainly in one now.
Silicon Valley is a fertile breeding ground for believers, and Elon Musk, the space travel and electric car entrepreneur, has come out as one of them. He says that the chances were not uploads in a virtual world are billions to one against. Its easy to laugh this off. If life is a massive multiplayer online game, how come its the only one that never freezes?
The theory is also vulnerable to a twist on the venerable problem of evil: if people like us created this virtual world, why on earth are the diseases so nasty, the poverty so widespread and the television so awful? If you could make a perfect simulacrum of a world, why would you make one so imperfect?
But for me the main interest isnt in whether Musk is right. My fascination is with the fascination. Some people just find the whole idea too fanciful to even think about. But many other find it terrifying, exciting or both. Why would such an apparently outlandish idea have this effect?
Its not as though it would actually change anything about daily life if it were true. Your joys, heartaches, pleasures and pains feel the way they feel, whether theyre experienced in silicon or carbon. The Buddhas teaching that life is suffering is no less true if rebirth is really a reboot.
Musk himself provides a neat example of the strange power of the theory to change everything and nothing. He is worried about the unintended potential bad consequences of artificial intelligence (AI), such as machines making us their slaves. So he has donated $10m to the Future of Life Institute to run a global research program aimed at keeping AI beneficial to humanity. What is odd about this is that his theory implies that he himself is a form of artificial intelligence, and it doesnt seem to have done him any harm.
Even more mind-spinning is that if Musk is right then we are actually about to see AI being produced within AI. There could be no end to these worlds within worlds. When the Taoist Zhuangzi woke up after dreaming he was a butterfly, he should have written: Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was a man dreaming of a butterfly, or a man dreaming he was a butterfly dreaming he was a man dreaming he was a butterfly … And so on, in ad infinitum. But no matter how long the chain goes on, were still left at whatever level of the dream it is where we find ourselves wondering.
Perhaps the very fact that the theory changes nothing is part of its attraction. You get all the thrill of believing something wild without the downside of having to fundamentally change the way you live. Its a bold intellectual leap that leaves you exactly where you jumped from. This is the safest possible way to enjoy the exhilaration of upheaval, for there surely is something intoxicating about turning ordinary life on its head, even when its terrifying.
Soldiers often find that war is both sickening and the thing that makes them feel most alive. Many who watched the 9/11 attacks live on television will admit, if honest, that amid the terror was a kind of guilty thrill that they were witnessing something momentous. Anything cataclysmic, from an alien invasion to a natural catastrophe, also makes life seem more than just mundane, and so also somehow more meaningful.
There is one way in which the simulation hypothesis might offer more than just a change in how we see this world. It might also open up the possibility of a kind of eternal life. In an age when fewer and fewer of us believe we will ascend to heaven, limitless uploads to a virtual afterlife would be the next best thing. Who wants to accept that Game Over really can be end?
What these explanations of the theorys appeal have in common is that they speak to a common desire for there to be more to life than the interregnum between cradle and grave. Desire for a virtual life grows from dissatisfaction with the real one we have. This desire can surely only increase, the more disconnected we become from the natural cycle of life and death, and the less able to accept it.
Technology helped create the problem, and now it offers itself as the solution. A better response would be to loosen our attachment to all things digital and neat, and spend more time trying to embrace the analogue but messy mortal, natural world.