Opinion

Alex Beam

Are we living in a computer simulation?

Promotional image from the 1982 film "TRON," at the Museum of the Moving Image Friday, December 23 and Sunday, January 1 as part of the series DIGITAL PLAY GOES TO THE MOVIES. PHOTO CREDIT: Museum of the Moving Image
Museum of the Moving Image
Image from “TRON,” (1982) at the Museum of the Moving Image.

I learned only recently that some of the greatest minds of our time believe that we are living in a computer simulation, not in a “real” world.

That does explain a lot. It explains why the Red Sox can’t manufacture any run support for the gifted Chris Sale, and it explains why the president’s son wants to award a Pulitzer Prize to the “journalist” who “reported” that Hillary Clinton was operating a child slavery ring out of a pizza parlor in Washington, D.C.

Here are the facts, real or imagined: Oxford University philosopher Nick Bostrom got the ball rolling with a provocative 2003 paper, “Are You Living in a Simulation?” Bostrom must be one of those people who actually watched “The Matrix Revolutions” all the way to the end, because he concluded: yes.

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This message found an eager audience in Silicon Valley, where Newton transplant Ray Kurzweil has been prating about the singularity — the moment when human life and computer life merge — for years. Now Tesla founder and genius-at-large Elon Musk — or is that the digitized avatar of Elon Musk? — yaps so much about living in a pixelated simulation that the subject has been banned from his family’s hot tub.

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What is the reasoning behind this, you might well ask? Musk notes that video game simulations are already so lifelike that a video simulator living in the future must have developed the ability to create what looks like a real world. NASA scientist Rich Terrile agrees, telling The Guardian newspaper that the universe “behaves mathematically and is broken up into pieces (subatomic particles) like a pixelated video game.”

“Quite frankly,” Terrile added, “if we are not living in a simulation, it is an extraordinarily unlikely circumstance.” Who built this world? “Our future selves,” he explained.

To be fair, The Guardian quoted MIT physics professor Max Tegmark and Harvard physicist Lisa Randall pooh-poohing the purported simulation. “There’s no real evidence,” Randall said. “It’s also a lot of hubris to think we would be what ended up being simulated.”

How profound is the belief in our collective unreality? So deep that The New Yorker has reported that two Silicon Valley billionaires are investing good money in destroying the simulation that is controlling our lives.

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Sensing some serious click bait, The Atlantic, now more of a simulated than an actual magazine, published an article entitled “Tech Billionaires Want to Destroy the Universe:” “You lose your home, you lose your family, you lose your life and your body and everything around you,” writer Sam Kriss wails. “Simulation or not, everything would disappear. It would be the end of the world.”

About 30 years ago, the late writer and critic Susan Sontag published a charming recollection of her 14-year-old self visiting the Nobel laureate Thomas Mann when he lived in Pacific Palisades after World War II. Recalling the moment as an adult in her 50s, Sontag wrote: “The zealot of seriousness in me, because it was already full-grown in the child, continues to think of reality as yet-to-be. Is this the real world?”

Who knows? Maybe she was on to something.

Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @imalexbeamyrnot.