I've always loved the question, "Are you living in a computer simulation?" The question was made famous in a 2003 paper by philosopher Nick Bostrom, who suggested that we are almost certainly living in a simulation. You can go back and read the paper after you're done reading this, but let me give you a really short version of the idea.
Bostrom's argument relies on the assumption that a future civilization would have the technological capacity to run detailed simulations of their ancestors. Think of people playing SimCity, or Civilization, but with beyond Star Trek technology. If this was the case, and these future humans chose to run these simulations, it would eventually create many more simulated realities than actual reality. Therefore, statistically, we're likely to be living in a simulation. Not surprisingly, there's a lot of debate about whether this idea could even be real.
Yes, it's all true. Every one of us is living in a simulation. No, really!
Now, before you let your mind drift into "The Matrix" (I know Kung Fu!), let me take a moment to define what I mean here by the term, "simulation". It's not about nefarious machines using humans as batteries, as much fun as that all sounds. No, it's about something much closer to home, something intrinsic to our existence, and paradoxically, far more intriguing.
Every individual on this planet experiences a version of the world that is shaped by their unique set of sensory inputs. We can agree, for instance, on a squirrel dashing across the street into the neighbor's yard. But what that squirrel truly means - its color, the rustle of its fur against leaves, the quick flicker of its tail – all these are uniquely interpreted by you, me, and each one of us. In essence, what we perceive as the "squirrel" is an artifact of our consciousness, a result of the idiosyncratic way in which our brain processes and interprets sensory data.
Our consciousness, this marvelous, mysterious thing, is responsible for our interpretation of reality. It takes the raw data that our senses collect and then spins it into a story that we come to understand as "the world". But here's the kicker: what we interpret as reality is based on a minuscule subset of the information available to us at any given moment. This conscious experience of ours, at its best, is a rudimentary approximation of reality. It's akin to understanding the scope of an ocean by studying a single drop of seawater, or the proverbial beach by a single grain of sand.
Do you doubt my well thought out assertion? Well, then... Let's perform a simple experiment. Can you tell me the exact number of blades of grass you passed on your way home yesterday? No? What about all the people you passed by? What did they look like? What clothing were they wearing? The information was there, right in front of your eyes, but your brain deemed it irrelevant and discarded it, focusing instead on the more significant aspects of your journey. You created an approximation of the many lawns you passed rather than absorbing the "reality" of those lawns, and their individual blades of grass. You created a simulation of the real world, a simulation you accept as reality.
Our lives are a series of such simulations, as interpreted by our brains. Each of us lives in a unique, personal simulation, curated by our minds from the sea of stimuli that bombards us every second of every day. It's not just that you forget a gazillion little things you saw, or smelled, or heard, but that those things never made it into the final construction of your personal reality. For this thing that is you, there is no objective reality. It's all just made up, by you, every moment of every day.
I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, if I'm living in a personal simulation of reality, then how is it that my buddy, Max, and everybody else, can agree that the car over there is a Porsche and that it's candy apple red? That's consensus reality, right there. You, Max, and everybody else, have simply come to an agreement that the version of the car they see is the same as everyone else's.
Still not convinced?
Consider the 'brain in a vat' hypothesis, a thought experiment commonly used in discussions about consciousness, reality, knowledge, and all that good stuff. Here's how it works. There's a human brain (yours, let's just say), completely separate from a human body, being kept alive in a vat of nutrients so that it remains alive. That brain is then connected to various electrodes and inputs using a supercomputer that perfectly simulates the kind of input we'd normally get from our eyes, our ears, fingers, and every other body part you care to name or imagine. With me so far? Good. This hypothetical computer simulates experiences perfectly, effectively creating a virtual reality. In this situation, the brain would perceive this simulated reality as true reality, without any means to discern that its experiences are not grounded in a physical world but are merely the product of artificial stimuli.
The question then becomes: would this brain, devoid of a body and the typical sensory inputs, experience a reality indistinguishable from ours?
If we consider our discussion so far, the answer may well be 'yes'. After all, our reality is essentially a product of the brain interpreting sensory inputs. You aren't seeing the world directly. Your eyes are picking up random photons which then triggers a chemical reaction that sends an electrical signal to the part of the brain responsible for processing images and it says, "Yeah, that's probably a tiger."
Provided with the same inputs, our hypothetical 'brain in a vat' could theoretically construct a simulation of reality just as our brains do. However, this concept simultaneously confronts us with a disturbing question: if we cannot distinguish between simulation and reality, then what is 'real'?
To navigate this philosophical minefield, let's talk a little about reality and just accept that, for us, reality can no longer be an objective, universally accepted entity. Rather, it is a subjective construct, an individual's unique interpretation of the sensory input they receive. Thus, 'reality' becomes a deeply personal phenomenon, as varied and unique as the individuals experiencing it.
But this doesn't have to be merely an intellectual exercise. Allow me a moment to get all self-helpsy (is that a word) and go out on a 'we are all one' limb. Recognizing the inherent subjectivity of our experiences can radically transform how we approach our daily lives. For instance, it enables us to question the default settings of our perception. If we learn that our perception of reality is largely a construct of our minds, we can begin to consciously reprogram our interpretations. We can start to see possibilities where before we saw barriers, opportunities where we saw obstacles, beauty where we saw ugliness, and where we see problems, as the song says, "only solutions".
Furthermore, the acceptance of our cognitive simulations can foster an environment of respect for the myriad of realities experienced by others. If each of us lives in our own personal simulation, then diversity of thought, feeling, and perception, is not just an abstract concept, but a fundamental truth of human existence. This understanding can guide us towards a more tolerant, inclusive, and empathetic society.
Therefore, my friend, let us not despair at the idea that we are all living in simulations. Instead, let us embrace it as a profound testament to the power of human consciousness. Let it remind us of the marvel of our brains, which can weave together sensory input into a coherent, meaningful, and extraordinarily personal narrative.
Living in a simulation need not be a dystopian concept, akin to The Matrix. Instead, it can be a celebration of our individuality, and our consciousness. It allows us to reframe our understanding of reality, to move away from the perception of an objective, shared world, towards a multitude of subjective, personalized realities. No headset required!
So, absolutely, we are indeed living in a simulation, but it's a simulation all our own, distinct from the simulations in which everyone else exists. It's a simulacrum of reality sculpted by the unique interplay of our sensory inputs and our brain's interpretation of those inputs. [Cue the inspirational music, slowly rising toward a crescendo.] It's an intimate and personal theatre in which the drama of life unfolds. And, in acknowledging this, we find the freedom to rewrite our narratives, to reshape our realities, and to redefine our relationship with the world, and those within it.
The simulation is not just the world we live in; it is the world we create.
And yes, it is still possible that we are all living in a collective computer simulation. :-)
Until next time...