No, that's not strictly true. To put it another way, everything is real. If it wasn't real it wouldn't be. The point I'm trying to make is that this world may very well not be the real one. Whatever that means.
I'll start again.
There is a theory that states that if it ever became possible to simulate reality in a computer, such a simulation would be indistinguishable from the real thing and any inhabitants of the simulation would be completely unaware that they were all simply part of a gigantic computer program.
There is another theory that states that this has already happened.
It's known as the Simulation Hypothesis and has been put forward by Nick Bostrom who is either a philosopher at the University of Oxford or (if his hypothesis is to be believed) a simulation of a philosopher at a simulation of the University of Oxford. The premise is very simple.
If, hypothesises Bostrom, it ever becomes possible to simulate reality in a realistic Matrix-like way then such simulations of reality will almost certainly outnumber the one genuine reality by an enormous factor. Given that these simulations are designed to be indistinguishable from the real thing, then statistically you are almost certainly living in a simulated reality.
Yes, you. You reading this. Now.
It's a bit of a mind fuck. But make no mistake - this isn't some philosophical sleight-of-brain, a reductio ad absurdum designed to shine a light on some logical flaw in the way we think. It's an inescapable conclusion, one third of a trilemma.
But, as someone once said to me when I put this to them, surely we don't have this technology yet?
Well no, we don't. Not in this simulation. But in the outside world, who knows what year it is? Or even if it turns out to still be 2010, perhaps the simulation is being run by a post-human Roman Empire to find out what the 21st century would have be like if Rome had fallen during the 5th century AD.
The trilemma states that:
- EITHER we will never develop the technology to run such simulations (for any number of reasons ranging from such technology being impossible up to and including all sentient life becoming extinct before it reaches this technological level)
- OR if we reach this level of technological competence we refuse to use it (bit weak that one)
- OR we are almost certainly living in a simulation.
Personally I think that the second option can be discounted. If the technology exists and/or is possible, someone (or some thing) will use it. And once it's been used, it will be used again. And again. And again. I suspect that the middle option was included so as to allow the use of the interesting word "trilemma". So that leaves us with just two mutually exclusive and yet equally logically unpalatable options. A dilemma.
Of course some people will leap at the chance to embrace the first conclusion and have its babies. Those who believe that the universe is not only more boring than we imagine, it is more boring than we can imagine. The Worst Of Both Worlds rationalists. The idea that a massively interesting and paradigm changing technology is proved forever impossible will have them rubbing their hands with glee and shrieking their creed from the rooftops.
I don't subscribe to that point of view. But the second option just seems so outlandish (even if it is attractive). And think what it could mean. Suppose one of the simulants (us) living in a simulated world discovers a way to hack the code and give themselves unlimited power? Or even worse, crashes the system.
A fatal exception 0E has occurred at EARTH17:33:00:08:09:2010
Current reality will be terminated
Current reality will be terminated
Even if such an error occurred we wouldn't know about it. The dataset that makes up our consciousness's awareness of the present moment would have ceased the moment before the crash and would only resume once the problem has been fixed.
In fact there's no reason to assume that the data packets comprising the mind-moments that make up each of our lives follow each other in a linear manner from cradle to grave, and as I've discussed before, there's no need for them to do so either. In a simulation of the universe the data I call me could be fragmented throughout whatever passes as the hard disk of the Host System, and doesn't have to be accessed sequentially to bring the illusion of my consciousness to life. It may not even need to be accessed at all. Perhaps it is enough that it is simply stored on the system.
An interesting point is that the moment we develop the technology to create such a perfect simulation, we will have proved ourselves to be living in one. It may well be that the Simulators (as we might call those running us on their Host System) have programmed in system parameters preventing us from ever developing such technology and therefore deducing our true nature, but if not, imagine what that might mean.
We ourselves would be able to run simulations within our simulation and therefore logically who's to say that the Host System itself isn't a mere virtual machine, one in a hierarchy of infinitely nested software implementations of reality?
All of these would be indistinguishable; all just data. It wouldn't matter how "deep" our world was buried in the iterations. Given the sheer numbers of simulations that outnumber it, the one true reality would be almost impossible to locate.
In fact the concept of "actual" reality would be meaningless.
Nothing is real.