Throughout history humans have sought to explain the world, and by extension, the universe, around them. Why we exist, what our purpose is (if any), and where we are headed have all been big questions grappled with by mythology, religion, and most recently, science.
From the Earth resting on the back of a giant turtle, to 14 billion years of randomness since the big bang, the nature of our universe has been hotly debated and theorized about. But among all the outlandish ideas and math-based scientific theories a very offbeat theory has started to gain traction in the mainstream: that you, me, and everything in this universe is merely a simulation.
The simulation hypothesis, as it is referred to, is not a new idea. For as long as we have written records open-minded thinkers have questioned the nature of our reality, from Zhuangzi’s story of a man who is unsure if he is a man who dreamed of being a butterfly, or a butterfly who is dreaming of being a man, to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. The modern interpretation can be broken down into a few propositions that I’ve simplified here:
- Technology can be created that can simulate a reality indistinguishable from actual reality.
- Civilizations that reach such a level of technology tend to create simulated realities.
- It is unlikely that our civilization is the first (or base) civilization to reach a level of technology sophisticated enough to simulate reality.
- We are likely a simulation.
Some people find contention with that first point, as the ability to simulate a reality indistinguishable from our own hasn’t been demonstrated yet. My response is that given that I was born when Pong was still a new thing, and during my life I’ve watched video games evolve from low-res blocks on a screen to immersive 3D virtual reality experiences. Even now 3D Rendering is getting hard to distinguish from reality. Assuming this trend continues I’m confident we will achieve such a simulation within my lifetime.
And the question of whether or not we’re real is being seriously asked. Even now, scientists are trying to put together tests to determine if we are in a simulation or not.
As I’ve thought a lot about whether or not I’m a simulation several questions have arisen, generally the existential “why do I exist?” kind. In this article I will ask these questions and explore the implications of each.
Am I Roy?
It could be that our world is essentially Roy: A Life Well Lived, a virtual life simulator from the hilarious series Rick and Morty. In it, you play the entire life of a human male named Roy in a matter of seconds. The main idea of this concept is that I may be the title character of a game that someone is playing right now.
If this is the case, I’m not sure whether or not I’d say the current player is winning. Maybe somebody needs to take me off the grid.
Some cheat codes would be really handy right now.
Am I an NPC?
Given that Earth presently has between 7 and 8 billion people inhabiting it, it stands to reason that if all this were some kind of game that I am not the main character but simply an NPC. NPC stands for Non-Playable Character, essentially an automaton controlled by the system. I am either a background character irrelevant to the plot, or a secondary/supporting character who the main character interacts with in a meaningful way.
The implications of this possibility are very interesting. Is my life simply idling while I wait for player 1 to do something? Have I already met the player and fulfilled my purpose? Why am I, an NPC, writing about whether or not I might be an NPC? I guess it could be part of the game’s plot.
I know when I play open world games I like to try and mess with the NPCs as much as possible. If I were an NPC it would certainly explain a lot of the interactions I’ve had with people throughout my life.
Am I a history lesson?
Another possibility is that I am being played/experienced by someone as part of a history lesson. What better way to understand history than getting to experience it firsthand? No need for time travel when you can simply digitally simulate and immerse yourself in the era you’re interested in.
If this is the case, then it kind of makes sense why someone would play the game at this point in history. I was born in 1978 shortly after microchips became available on a wide scale. The technological and social changes that have occurred since the early 1980’s to 2019 are incredible, especially when you compare the rate of change in previous decades and centuries. In the 40 years I’ve been alive we went from computers that essentially filled a room to even more powerful ones that you put in your pocket with your wallet and keys.
Predictions about the near future suggest that humans will start merging technology with consciousness. If that happens there will be a fundamental shift in human life and experience. It would certainly be helpful to understand such a future by living through the decades preceding this bio-technological singularity. Young children in the future may be playing this simulation to prepare them for the fact that they exist post-singularity.
From more of an existential crisis-perspective, if this is all some sort of virtual “A Part of Our Heritage” commercial, then why me (or perhaps more appropriately, why this avatar)? Despite hopes for the contrary my life is largely shaping up to be one of someone largely irrelevant, historically-speaking. The only reason I could think someone would want to live my life would be because I’m so distant and disconnected from most things that I make a pretty good outside observer.
It might explain why I seem to never be able to effect real change in the world around me, especially if this is a history lesson that has to play out more or less the same as it originally did. At 40 years old, it may also be that I’ve yet to achieve the greatness that makes me someone worthy of historical re-creation. It’d be nice if that were the case.
Am I Truman?
In the movie The Truman Show, Truman Burbank is a man who (as a child) was adopted by an entertainment company and raised by actors in a giant studio, unaware that his entire life was a reality television show watched by the world.
Personally, I’ve often wondered whether or not I’m somehow being “watched” for as long as I can remember. Prior to my knowledge of the simulation hypothesis, though, I considered the possibility that people from the future (or alternate dimensions) could be watching us through one-way portals, or that the deceased may be watching us from some different plane of existence.
It is possible that this entire universe is a computer-simulated reality entertainment program being watched (but not interacted with) by humans, or perhaps non-human intelligence (it could be that we are something else’s idea of science fiction). Certainly AI-generated actors are cheaper than their flesh-and-blood equivalents.
The idea of a non-human celebrity isn’t unheard of in our reality either. From the low-tech Muppets, to Johnny 5, to modern CGI blockbusters and VTubers we can easily idolize creations as if they are flesh-and-blood beings like us. Japan even has pop icon Hatsune Miku, who is merely a computer-generated voice.
If this is the case, and my existence is purely for passive entertainment, it makes me wonder if my love of Pepsi is less about my personal preferences and more about which company is paying for product placement in the program.
Am I a punishment?
Over the past several decades technology has transformed several aspects of our lives. Commerce, communication, and even romance can all be managed through devices we carry around in our pockets. As our ability to integrate our lives with our technology increases, it stands to reason that how we deal with criminal behaviour will likewise be transformed.
In the 1996 The Outer Limits episode The Sentence, David Hyde Pierce plays a scientist who has invented a virtual form of criminal punishment. Criminals get put into a simulated prison, and in a matter of minutes they live out their sentence (perceiving the time passing as years). If such a technology could be developed it would certainly be more economical (and possibly humane) than our current prison system.
It would be tempting to imagine such a simulated reality as some kind of virtual “hell” to punish and torment criminals, but since our existing prison system does little to reform behaviour perhaps the experience of a middle-class life would give a criminal a different/better perspective of life. Thus, it is possible that my life is a form of rehabilitation.
In theory my life could also be a punishment for rich white-collar criminals; wherein they have to endure a middle-class existence while the rich burn down the world around them. Either way works.
Am I a tool?
I am a software developer by trade and by passion. While I don’t consider myself all that great, most people who know me professionally consider me some kind of genius. Indeed I haven’t met any other developers as passionate, capable, or fast as I am. I build things like this and this for fun.
It is entirely possible that my existence here performs some kind of task or function at a level I don’t comprehend. As my primary job has always been an analyst/problem solver of sorts, it could be that the puzzles I’m presented with and the solutions I supply are somehow providing some sort of computational value to whoever is outside the system. As advanced as we are with artificial intelligence and the automation of traditional labour, we still struggle to replicate human ingenuity and creativity. It could be that we are AI agents within our simulation designed to be creative problem solvers.
I think the biggest flaw with this idea is that I have to believe that a being capable of constructing a simulation of our universe has already solved all the minor problems I deal with from day to day. It could also very well be that we exist in this simulation to solve problems like global warming, find alternative energies, and other challenges. Perhaps the universe outside our simulation created us in the hopes that we could solve problems challenging them. That would be a clever way to tackle some of our problems. Hopefully we get the solution before it’s too late for us…and them.
Am I a training program?
A concept that has more in parallel with religious philosophy than science, perhaps the purpose of my life is to prepare the player for what comes next?
It is possible that there never was a real Clayton Rumley and that this life is a loose historical recreation of the events that lead to the creation of the simulation, preparing the user for enhanced features once this level is complete. Upon the completion of this life they will “ascend” (or “level up”) and become more powerful beings, or more aware of the fabric of this reality. Perhaps this is what the various religious figures in history figured out, or perhaps their stories were planted into the simulation to provide clues for the players. Either way, it’s an exciting prospect.
Another interesting possibility is that this reality may also be a training program to “humanize” artificial intelligence. Think about it: there is a real fear right now of artificial intelligence one day becoming smarter than us and eventually supplanting us. Perhaps if an AI is trained using a human life as a template, that will make them cherish human life and seek to protect it rather than simply exterminate it.
Whether by nature, nurture, or programming, I’ve been imbued with an altruistic nature and a belief that people, in general, are good. I’ve largely maintained this disposition despite the times in my life where I’ve been taken advantage of by people and by the very real existence of extreme greed, fear, and hatred that threatens the western world at the moment. Despite all these things I still believe humanity is redeemable and if I’m the training ground for an artificial intelligence I think I would be okay with the outcome.
Am I a memorial?
For as long as humans could create we’ve made things in memory of the deceased. From monuments, to portraits, to tombstones we leave markers of those who came before us. The last century or so gave rise to photography, phonography, and videography which has allowed us to immortalize ourselves in ways that have never been seen before. The plethora of blog posts, Facebook updates, Tweets and everything else in the digital age provides a new wealth of material about a person and their life.
With our vast data warehouses about people and all the visual and audio recordings we have of everyone, it stands to reason that eventually we will be able to create artificial beings based off of actual people who look and behave like the original. While a staple in science fiction (two simulation-driven Star Trek episodes, TNG’s Booby Trap and Voyager’s Nothing Human come to mind), Russian programmer Eugenia Kuyda accomplished something similar in real life when she developed a chatbot that is based off a deceased friend of hers named Roman. Trained on their past recorded chat history, the bot converses like Roman and even forms similar opinions based on new information.
It could be that the real Clayton Rumley is dead, and I am a recreation based on upon the extant records and writings from the period in which I was alive. My likeness and voice could be based off of photographs and recordings. Perhaps I develop it in my old age as a kind of autobiographical database (I have built more simplistic things like that in the past), or perhaps my children, other ancestors, or colleagues built this as a way of preserving me. Future generations might be watching or interacting with this simulation to get to know me.
If I am a memorial (or a history lesson), and based on my writings and recordings, it might explain why I often never quite feel “complete” or “real”. It would also be a sad realization to be nothing more than an echo of someone who may be long dead. It also introduces a certain degree of fatalism into my outlook on life. If a memorial is my purpose than my journey has been per-ordained and I’m merely playing out the script that has already been written for me.
Even worse, it could be that there are no humans left alive, and this recording is all that’s left as evidence of our existence. This leads us to the final, chilling possibility:
Am I the inner light?
The Star Trek: The Next Generation episode The Inner Light featured a story where an alien probe connected with captain Jean-Luc Picard’s mind and caused him to live the adult life of a man on an alien planet that was dying. Settling in to the virtual fantasy he lived the life of this man and at the end of his life he witnesses the culture launching a probe to space…the probe that Picard would ultimately encounter. It is then explained to him that they realized their civilization would end before they could develop space travel so they built the probe as a way of preserving their culture and ensure that they would be remembered. The interface ends and Picard awakens in sickbay. Having been unconscious for only a few hours on the Enterprise he had lived an entire lifetime in the simulation, an experience that profoundly affects him.
When I was a child in the 80’s the threat of nuclear annihilation due to conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union was still a very real and terrifying possibility. Even though I lived in Winnipeg, my relatives pointed out to me that missile silos in the Dakotas meant that we were right next to primary targets. I do recall laying awake at night as a child wondering if we’d be able to flee north fast enough if we saw mushroom clouds to the south.
With the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union shortly afterwards I (and the rest of the western world) breathed a collective sigh of relief as we felt we had dodged a major bullet.
Today though, we face an equally devastating end through climate change, social disharmony, and new (and old!) diseases. We continue to pollute our planet and threaten fragile ecosystems so we can all drive bigger cars and have the latest smartphones. While several people are sounding a clarion call over the threat human life, and indeed all major life on Earth faces, like the aliens in The Inner Light we may find out that it’s too late and our last great effort might be to build this simulation. To paraphrase a line from the TNG episode The Chase, it could be that this simulation exists not as a monument to our greatness, but as a testament to our existence.
I’m hoping that this isn’t the case, and that if we are indeed simulated that someone out there is watching or playing it.
And if you’re reading this and you are the player of this simulation, I hope you enjoyed it.