With the release of the fourth Matrix film this Christmas, the idea behind the original movie is once again being talked about. The notion that the ‘real world’ is a computer-generated simulation was considered pure science fiction when the original film was released in 1999, but philosophers have long argued that there are good arguments to suggest we could very well be.
The argument is known as ‘The Simulation Hypothesis’, and — as crazy and counterintuitive as it sounds — it’s discussed quite seriously by academics, physicists and philosophers. Elon Musk, for one, made headlines a few years ago when he said that the chances that we are in ‘base reality’ (i.e. that we are not in a simulation) is one in billions.
The Simulation Hypothesis is in some ways the modern incarnation of an idea that has been around for thousands of years: that the physical world is not the ‘real’ world. Plato suggested that we are all living in an allegorical cave, chained to a wall, and only able to see ‘shadows’ of the real world lit up by projections. He said that a resident of the cave (i.e. us) would think the shadows were ‘the real world’ if they hadn’t experienced anything else.
Plato said that the first thing to happen if someone broke out of the cave was that they would be blinded by all the light in the outside world: the real world. This scene was echoed in The Matrix when Neo wakes up and wonders why his eyes felt strange. It was, said Morpheus (named after the Greek God of dreams), because he had never used his real eyes.
A thousand and a half years after Plato, Descartes proposed a scenario that is reminiscent of what Morpheus tells Neo in the original film about the true nature of reality. Descartes reasoned that if there was an evil demon of utmost cunning that was deceiving his senses, he would think that the sky, the sun, the air and physical objects were real, but he would be wrong. This led him to the conclusion that he couldn’t be sure the physical world exists and the only thing he could be sure of was his now-famous dictum: Cogito, ergo sum (‘I think, therefore I am’). That because he was experiencing something, even if it was all a fiction, he must in some sense exist.
I first became interested in simulation theory in 2016, the same year that Musk made his infamous statement. While playing a virtual reality (VR) Ping Pong game in Marin Country, across the Bay from San Francisco, I put on a VR headset and the responses of the game were so realistic that, for a moment, I forgot I was playing a virtual table tennis game. So much so that at the end of the game, I instinctively tried to put the ‘paddle’ down on the ‘table’ and tried to lean on the table. Of course, there was no table. The VR controller fell to the floor and I almost fell over.
At this point, I realised that our VR technology would, within decades, get to the same point that Musk alluded to. Musk pointed out that 40 years ago, the only widely available video game was Pong, which consisted of two squares and a dot, whereas today’s video games are increasingly sophisticated, so they would soon be indistinguishable from physical reality.
I call this future milestone the ‘Simulation Point’. In my 2019 book, The Simulation Hypothesis, I predicted that there are ten stages of technology development that would get us to such a point.
At the time, I calculated that we were somewhere between stages four and five: about half way there. This year, a few months before the release of The Matrix Resurrections, Mark Zuckerberg got up on stage and announced that his company, Facebook, was changing its name to Meta. Why? Because they wanted to build a metaverse, a theoretical set of connected virtual worlds that we could explore with our virtual avatars in virtual reality.