It has been 22 years since The Matrix popularised the idea that reality is an illusion and that we are all actually lying in pods of fluid, serving as nutrients for machines. It sounds fantastical to most people – typical science fiction – but there are certain scientists and philosophers who believe that The Matrix, along with the long-awaited sequel The Matrix Resurrections, raises some serious questions of whether we really are living in a computer simulation.
So, are we? You take the blue pill and the article ends. You close the website and go back to descaling the kettle. You take the red pill and you keep on reading and Rizwan Virk, computer scientist and author of The Simulation Hypothesis, will show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.
“I think it’s more likely than not that we are in some kind of simulation,” says Virk, whose book is built upon a 2003 paper by Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom that asks whether we are living in a computer simulation. It argues that the most probable outcome, among three options, is that an advanced civilisation will survive long enough to be able to develop the technology to create various simulated worlds.
“This means that there are many simulated realities and there’s only one base reality,” explains Virk. “Therefore, which reality are you most likely to be in – the 99 simulated realities or the one base reality? You’re more likely to be in the 99.”
It’s a theory that is yet to be proved, but it hasn’t been disproved either. One of Virk’s big arguments is based on physicist John Wheeler’s phrase ‘it from bit’, the idea that the basis of the Universe is not energy or matter but information, with each subatomic particle representing a bit. “We can basically 3D print any object, and genes are just data,” says Virk.
This feeds into his larger argument that if the multiverse – the hypothesis that every time a decision is made, it creates a new timeline – is real, it backs up the premise that reality is digital rather than physical. “There’s nothing in nature that duplicates an entire large physical object, particularly in an instant,” he says, “but it is pretty easy to duplicate information and then render that information as needed.”
He also cites the observer effect, a phenomenon in physics in which the mere act of watching something can change it. “That doesn’t make sense if you live in a single physical reality,” says Virk, “but in video games we only render the world when you need to see it. That suggests we live in a rendered world, where reality only exists when it is observed.”
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Let’s say it’s true, let’s say that we are all living in a computer simulation: who or what is on the other side? “Some people say it’s aliens,” says Virk. “In Bostrom’s simulation argument, the simulations are what he calls ‘ancestor simulations’ conducted by future versions of ourselves. It would basically be like us simulating ancient Rome.”
And why would they want to run a simulation of our world? “Well, why do we run simulations? Usually it’s to figure out different possible outcomes. We might run a simulation of, say, global nuclear war or climate change. We might run it multiple times to see what scenarios are more likely to lead to destruction.”
But if we live in a computer simulation, then how does that affect our approach to life? Doesn’t it make everything meaningless?
“Some people say, ‘well, it doesn’t matter what you do’. For me, it’s not quite that,” explains Virk. “It’s more that I’ve chosen to play this game, I’ve chosen some of its quests and challenges. And it wouldn’t be a very interesting game if everything was easy.”
Verdict: The simulation theory is sound, and we love Keanu Reeves, so it looks like we’d better take the red pill.
- This article first appeared in issue 371 of BBC Science Focus Magazine – find out how to subscribe here
About our expert, Rizwan Virk
Rizwan (“Riz”) Virk is a successful entrepreneur, investor, bestselling author, video game industry pioneer, and indie film producer. Riz received a BS in Computer Science from MIT, and a MS in Management from Stanford's GSB.
Riz’s books include Startup Myths & Models, The Simulation Hypothesis, Zen Entrepreneurship, and Treasure Hunt: Follow Your Inner Clues to Find True Success.
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Stephen Kelly is a freelance culture and science journalist. He oversees BBC Science Focus's Popcorn Science feature, where every month we get an expert to weigh in on the plausibility of a newly released TV show or film. Beyond BBC Science Focus, he has written for such publications as The Guardian, The Telegraph, The I, BBC Culture, Wired, Total Film, Radio Times and Entertainment Weekly. He is a big fan of Studio Ghibli movies, the apparent football team Tottenham Hotspur and writing short biographies in the third person.