Suppose this whole mess is just a simulation? Wildfires, Trump, Mars rovers, vaping, dreams, sex, God, you, me, everything — all a digital creation of some far-in-the-future kid playing with her Xbox. You know what teens are like; they get bored easily and destroy what they've made before starting over. Max Tegmark, the Swedish-American cosmologist, recommends — I think tongue-in-cheek, it's hard to know with him — that we all go out and do interesting things with our lives so that our creator is too engrossed by our activities to switch us off.
You're probably familiar with the "everything's a simulation" argument ("Reality Check," April 28, 2011), the idea that virtual worlds would be far easier to create than actual ones. In the 1970s, the best-selling video game Pong consisted of two lines and a dot. Now 40 years on, you can experience a near-seamless, virtual-reality 3D fantasy world where you can fight dragons or aliens, learn how to fly or flirt with digital beings of whatever sexual orientation appeals. Fast forward a couple of hundred years or so and it'll be horny teens creating entire worlds just like the one we seem to be living in.
Just like? Here's the nub of the argument that we're more likely living inside a gigantic simulated universe than a "real" one: Real universes take a lot of energy to create, while — in the not-so-distant future — simulated ones will be programmed as easily as a SimCity game is today. Future versions of VR will surely have computational agents — people — that seem to be conscious. There will be no need for actual black holes, galaxies, planets, life — it will all be simulated in the hearts of computer chips with barely any expenditure of energy. Based on such arguments, Elon Musk asserted a couple of years ago that "the odds are a billion to one" against us living in what he called "base reality."
If the zeroes and ones of a computer memory approach doesn't appeal to you, try this idea from Alan Guth, father of "inflation" following the Big Bang (which explains, perhaps, some curious aspects of our universe). Guth suggests that this cosmos could be a lab experiment spawned from an artificial Big Bang created by super-intelligent beings. In this case, all the matter and energy of the universe (our universe) is real, we're real, everything's real, the 14-billion-year outcome of intelligent beings running a "Hey, let's see what happens!" scenario, the way a biologist today might create a culture of evolving micro-organisms in the lab.
None of this is really new. Plato's cave (in which chained prisoners perceived shadows on the wall of a cave as reality) anticipated The Matrix by 2,000 years. Three hundred years ago, philosopher George Berkeley convinced himself, with impeccable logic, that the world is an illusion. But that's not to say that Plato or Berkeley went around in a stoned cloud of unreality any more than Elon Musk (presumably) treats his family and colleagues as artificial constructs.
Convince yourself it's all a simulation and what changes? Nothing, of course. Whether we're brains in vats, dreams in the mind of God, or zeroes and ones "living" on a sophisticated computer chip, life — the life we experience — goes on. What to do? In the immortal words of Keanu Reeves' Ted, "Party on, dudes!"
Barry Evans (email@example.com) thinks it's all an excellent adventure, real or not.