Is the world a simulation? Can we know? And if we did know, would it change anything? How have the world’s great thinkers helped us address these questions?
By Carson Sehr
Socrates concluded in Plato’s Republic, “In the higher world form of good [truth] appears last of all, and is seen only with effort.” The question of reality and our perception of it has long encapsulated the minds of philosophers, and these great minds have claimed that reality, and our place in it, eludes mankind most of all.
What defines a simulation? Most of today’s depictions involve a technological origin, as in The Matrix, or emanating from the recesses of the mind, including “The Night Face-Up,” by Julio Cortázar and Sophie’s World, by Jostein Gaarder. The podcast Philosophize This! examines the possibility that we exist in a simulation. After a plethora of viewpoints and objective analysis in the style of Sophie’s World, the hosts conclude that although humanity cannot wholly garner its status of reality or simulation, the answer would not have consequence. If the evening news begins one night with the revelation that we live in a simulation, that shock value would comprise almost all of the change in humanity’s world. Everyone would wake up the next morning with the sun, traverse to work, and live their lives; perhaps midlife crises would look a bit more spectacular.
If no cognizant beings exist to witness the reality of the world, the world itself concurrently exists and does not
On the other hand, who can deduce that our currently accepted models of the earth’s creation do not constitute simulations? By following the theory of creationism, God contrived both this world and the world beyond, making the only ‘reality’ God himself. Similarly, in the theory of evolution and the Big Bang, chance and mutation fabricated the world, dictating the law of chance as the only ‘reality.’ Perhaps the frightening, dystopian aspect of existence in The Matrix lies in humanity’s fear of machines and their cold, ruthless, and utterly formulaic qualities. Mankind, however, has a preconceived notion that God holds our best interests at heart; as Jeremiah 29:11 assures, “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’” Western civilization has gone so far as to anthropomorphize the law of chance, believing that it, too, exists for our sake, lending to the portrayal of good luck. Alongside the machines in cruelty, however, the naturalist subset of realism argues that nature has equal indifference towards the good of humanity–a claim staggeringly pessimistic in today’s social consciousness. If nature has indifference towards its inhabitants, what occurs if no inhabitants exist to receive the indifference?
‘If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?’ This quandary has confounded generations since George Berkeley proposed it in his 1710 treatise. One of the few answers to this predicament–not specific question–originates in the work of Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger, where he asserts that if two events of equal likelihood and seeming mutual exclusivity could take place, and no way to examine the results stands, both events occurred and their results exist simultaneously. Applied to reality, this appears to claim that if no cognizant beings exist to witness the reality of the world, the world itself concurrently exists and does not. Therefore, does the unexplored region of the universe exist (assuming humans are alone in the universe)? Or even the depths of our oceans we have yet to explore? Who can say?
The answer of our place in reality has long tantalized the greatest thinkers, as well as the common man. As the only possibility for a definitive answer occurs in our alien overlords or their equivalent revealing their mastery over us, humanity will continue on as we always have, assuming our role as the apex creature of the universe. As the Tootsie Pop™ owl eternally concludes, “The world may never know.”
Photo: Princeton North by Lem Skall on Flickr