Do we live in a simulation, like the Matrix? How would we even know if we were? John F. from the Philippines writes:
CMI’s Shaun Doyle responds:
I wouldn’t say that it’s ‘gaining evidence’. People may be talking about it recently in greater numbers than before because the 17th annual Isaac Asimov Debate at New York’s American Museum of Natural History discussed this topic.1
Let’s say that we live in a simulation. Question: what is a ‘simulation’? The notion is inescapably laden with presuppositions of both design and a real substratum from which the ‘simulation’ arose. Perhaps we could talk of a ‘virtual world’ to try and escape implications of design. But that still presupposes a real substratum from which it arises. The point is, if we are in what can be properly termed a ‘virtual world’ or a ‘simulation’, then there still must be a real world from which the virtual world arises, by the very meaning of those terms.
Another idea that they talked about was an infinite regress of simulations within simulations. But for every virtual world, there needs to be a world from which it arose. As such, if we have an infinite regress of virtual worlds, we also have an infinite regress of worlds that they arose from. However, this is a vicious regress; every entity needs another entity to explain it. Question: how do we stop such an infinite regress? Can we stop it with a virtual world? No, because, as we established above, a virtual world needs to arise from something to be a virtual world. So we can only stop it with a world that is not virtual; i.e. a real world.
Interestingly, several panellists pointed out that the designer of such a simulation, being outside and above the simulation, parallels the idea of God. As secularists, though, most panellists preferred to think of some ‘teenage hacker’ having fun on his ‘computer’. But is it so easy to limit the designer to a physical world? After all, a physical simulator would live in a life-permitting universe, as ours is. However, the simulation hypothesis implicitly admits that the fine-tuning argument is sound. Wouldn’t that suggest a similar fine-tuning argument could also be run for the world the simulation was designed in? Indeed, it’s reasonable to think that any universe with a simulator would be subject to a fine-tuning argument. The simplest way out of this fine-tuning regress is a non-physical designer like God.
And ask yourself, what is the simplest conclusion: that we’re a 5th level simulation, or that we’re living in a real world? Clearly the latter. As such, without any evidence for being in a simulation, we have no reason to suppose that we are in one. After all, why should we think e.g. our sense and memory beliefs (by which we ‘know’ about the physical world) are untrustworthy? And I’m not talking about occasional failures in those faculties. I’m asking: why should we consider our sense perception and memory beliefs generally unreliable? See, to be able to judge them as generally unreliable, we need some means of doing so. But we can’t get outside of our own sense and memory beliefs to do so! So there’s no way to do that apart from using our sense and memory faculties. But if we do, we end up assuming the general reliability of our sense and memory faculties to deny their general reliability. So, such skepticism about the reality of the physical world by and large ends up having to presume what it tries to deny.
The fundamental mistake people tend to make with this extreme skeptical line is thinking that, just because sense and memory can be fooled, that means they are habitually fooled. Now, sometimes this is indeed the case. But why are such cases so readably discernible to us as cognitive disorders (e.g. Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia)? None of this disproves conclusively the idea that we are in some sort of Matrix. Nonetheless, these considerations should help us see that the burden of proof is on the skeptic who tries to say that our sense and memory beliefs are generally unreliable. It’s not on the person who, as a rule, trusts their sense and memory as representing a real physical world external to themselves. And yet, does naturalism actually provide the resources to generate reliable cognitive faculties? See Naturalism in the light of reality and Monkey minds: How evolution undercuts reason and science for more information.