“Reality is an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.”
– Albert Einstein
In a nutshell, the simulation hypothesis posits that the reality we see and experience is not “base reality.” Instead, it is some form of simulation. The argument for this idea is as follows:
Back in the 1970s, we had simple video games like “Pong.” The graphics looked like this:
You can almost count the pixels on the tiny black and white screen. But now, just 50 years later, the image quality of video games is steadily creeping towards that of movies. Though there is clearly much room for improvement, the overall trend toward simulated realism has been striking. And again, this improvement has taken place over a period of time that is, in the grand scheme of things, infinitesimal. Given another 50 years, it could be that our video games are nearly indistinguishable from the real world, at least from a visual standpoint.
If we could simulate the other sensory inputs with the same degree of accuracy, it is not difficult to imagine a future in which a person might forget that they were in a video game if they spent too much time playing it. (Or believe they had left the game if it managed to trick them into thinking they had taken off their headset.) It might be that this has happened already, and that we are all living inside an incredibly complicated simulation. Plenty of very smart people think this is the case; Elon Musk is one of them. In the video below, he states that in his opinion, the chances of the reality we live in actually being base-reality are, quote “one in billions.”
At this point, I’ve spent a pretty good amount of time thinking about the metaphysical implications of the simulation hypothesis. They are numerous and potentially very important. If the hypothesis was proven correct, it could overturn what is, in my mind, the most basic presupposition of most modern scientists. This supposition is, essentially, that all macro phenomena, such as life, personality, and behavior in general (Of both animate and inanimate objects) result entirely from the interaction of subatomic particles. In short: they assume that the micro drives the macro.
There is, of course, quite a lot of evidence to suggest that the world does indeed work this way. For example, scientists can genetically engineer organisms to produce proteins by inserting small sections of DNA into their genomes. This micro alteration leads to a macro level effect (The production of the protein). Another good example is that of pharmaceuticals. When you take a pill, its effects are presumably due to the active molecule’s interaction with the microscopic structures and processes of your cells. You then feel the macroscopic effects of the pill in question, as a change in your symptoms or consciousness.
However, if the simulation hypothesis is correct, micro-phenomena might not be the actual driving force behind the macro-phenomena that we experience on our level of reality. You can come to this conclusion by considering the dynamics at play within the world of a video game. Here’s how:
Imagine a game, such as the first person shooter “Call of Duty.” If a person playing the game wants to equip their virtual avatar with a weapon, he can position his avatar in front of a lever fixed to a wall (In the world of the game) and click a button on his controller. After clicking the button, the gamer’s character will grab the lever with their hand and pull it. A weapon will appear out of a slot in the wall, which the player’s character will pick up and be able to use.
Ask yourself this: Why did then weapon appear? Did it appear because his character in the game reached up with their virtual arm and pulled the virtual lever? Of course not. In reality, it appeared because the human holding the controller pressed the appropriate button to complete the purchase. There was no causal link between the pulling of the level and the appearance of the weapon. But someone who had become lost in the game, and believed that it could only be understood by studying the motions of the images on the screen, might come to the former conclusion.
Another closely connected implication of the hypothesis is that we might not actually be made of subatomic particles. Instead, they might simply be illusory entities that appear when we subject matter to a certain form of inquiry (I.e, smashing matter together at high velocities in a particle accelerator) but don’t actually exist when we’re not looking for them. Consider the video game example again. Think about the weapon that appeared from the slot in the wall. Was the weapon behind the slot before the lever was pulled? Of course not.
The same might be true of the cells within our bodies:
Imagine another video game. This one’s objective is to simulate a laboratory environment in order to help students learn biology remotely. In the virtual lab, a microscope sits on a virtual table. A student can use his avatar in the game to pick up a microscope slide. Resting upon the slide is, say, a piece of onion skin. If the student places this slide under the microscope, a representation of the onion cell will appear on the screen in front of them. The cells on the screen weren’t actually a part of the virtual onion. Instead, they were simply the image that appeared when the student used their avatar to subject the virtual onion skin to a certain form of inquiry.
My guess is that all of this might strike you as a bit far fetched. After all, reality feels pretty solid, and seems to operate in an un-simulated manner. Might it be that gene editing and pills work in the way that we generally imagine them to? The answer is: Yes, maybe.
But once you begin to look at some of the ways reality behaves using certain, very specific techniques of inquiry, the idea that it might be some type of illusion begins to feel a lot more plausible. Take for example, the double slit experiment. The results of this experiment might be the weirdest of any experiment ever conducted. If you want to see how it’s performed, watch the video below.
If you didn’t fully understand this information on your first watch, I’d highly recommend rewatching it a few days later after your subconscious has had time to process it. Having a good grasp of the double slit experiment will make you sound very smart and will also make it so that you never look at reality the same way again.
Side note: The experiment described above has been repeated with molecules comprised of over one thousand atoms. The results still hold.
Another strange property of reality is called quantum entanglement. This is a phenomenon that even physicists struggle to describe in detail, but I’m going to give it a shot: If two particles are entangled (Which happens when they interact), they seem to be able to influence one another, instantaneously, regardless of the distance between them. They do so with no exchange of any piece of matter or energy that would carry the influence from one to the other. This obviously presents some issues. For one, every time we witness something influencing something else on our level of reality, there always seems to be a physical mechanism by which the influence is exerted. Even the seemingly instantaneous and unsupported communication between two people speaking with each other using phones is made possible by the fact that we can transmit information using electromagnetic waves. These waves are real, easily detectable, and though they travel very quickly, they do not move instantly from one phone to the other. Travel at such speeds is said to be impossible, based on Einstein’s equations of relativity. And yet somehow, entangled particles can influence one another with zero lag, and no physical mechanism.
The final piece of evidence that I’m going to use to try and convince you that the reality we experience might actually be generated by some divine mind or computer, is that of dark matter. No one knows what dark matter is. In fact, pretty much all scientists agree that it might not exist at all. Dark matter is the name scientists use refer to matter that should be there, based off of the way that the universe is expanding. The problem is, it hasn’t been detected. It is theoretical. The reason why so many scientists are talking about it is because all the matter in the visible universe (The stars, solar systems, galaxies, etc) is moving in a way that seems to defy the laws of gravity as we know them.
Its as though there was a nearby solar system containing many planets, orbiting a central point. Only there was no star at said point, nor anything else that could exert a gravitational pull. That’s basically what scientists see when they use telescopes to observe the motion of the stars and galaxies in our universe. They are moving as though pulled or pushed by some gravitational force far stronger than the one that they all exert on each other. But no source for this force has been found.
There is currently no agreed upon scientific explanation for the strange truths described above, though plenty have been put forward. Many scientists feel the only way we will get to the bottom of things is by building ever larger particle accelerators, capable of breaking the constituents of our universe into ever smaller pieces. I’m not so sure that’s the case.
The reason I wrote this is because I feel that a very strong sense of close mindedness has crept into our academic institutions, and is being spread out to the rest of the world. When I listen to lectures and presentations from these institutions on science and causation, the presenter often seems to feel that we have reality about 80% figured out. That we’ve pretty much nailed the general structure and functioning of the universe and that the only remaining work will be to fill in the details. By way of analogy, I think that modern scientists feel as though they are about as close to understanding the universe as map makers were to describing the shape of the continents back in the late 1600s (I’m not counting the art around the chart).
They no doubt believe there are plenty of details left to fill in, but also seem to believe we’re reasonably close to the goal of completely understanding the basic mechanisms that drive reality’s behavior. My guess however, is that our current understanding of the world/universe is more akin to that of the map makers who created the map below. In other words, we have a very long way to go. And I want to convince more people to come around to my way of thinking.
I hope reading this might have changed the way you look at the world, and opened your mind to some new possibilities. Many people I speak to seem to feel that any belief in an intrinsic meaning or purpose to life has been disproven by science, and is an example of wishful thinking. The same people generally seem to think the same about the idea that a person’s consciousness experience might continue after the death of their physical body. Again, these ideas seem to have stemmed from centralized institutions. As far as I can tell however, the jury is not out on the answer to either of those questions. You might come to the aforementioned conclusions by using a Western, reductionist approach to investigate reality, or if you listen to too many lectures given at universities. However, there are many other ways of gaining knowledge and wisdom. And, as I have argued in this essay, it might be that the atoms Western scientists have spent some much time using reductionist methods to study don’t actually exist when we aren’t looking at them. If that’s the case, how can one come to know the truth?
The answers to that question are nearly infinite. I believe that you can learn deep, important truths through just about any method imaginable. You can learn them by playing chess. You can learn them by cooking. You can learn them by practicing a musical instrument. You can learn them by listening to the stories of people who have led extraordinary lives. You can learn them by throwing yourself into a chaotic situation and observing how your mind responds. Again, there are an infinite number of ways in which to know the truth.
With that in mind, I invite you all to keep learning, and to always consider the possibility that reality might be radically different from what it seems.
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