In the Matrix films – the fourth of which came out this week – a programmer discovers that the “real world” is in fact a vast computer-generated simulation. It’s considered science fiction, says Rizwan Virk in The Spectator. But what if it’s not? What if we are in fact all “living in the Matrix”? It may sound crazy, but this “simulation hypothesis” is “discussed quite seriously by academics, physicists and philosophers”. Oxford professor Nick Bostrom has reasoned that if any civilisation in the universe is capable of building a simulated world that’s indistinguishable from physical reality, then we’re probably already living in one. Tesla founder Elon Musk has said the chances we’re living in “base reality” – ie, not in a simulation – are “one in billions”.
This idea has been around for millennia. Plato suggested we were all living in a metaphorical cave, able only to see “shadows” of the real world. Descartes concluded that he had no way of knowing that the physical world existed, but that the process of thought proved his own existence – hence “Cogito, ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am). And the simulation hypothesis may well become (virtual) reality in the future: Mark Zuckerberg’s dream is to build a “metaverse” of interconnected virtual worlds that we can explore with avatars. So who knows? Maybe Shakespeare was right: “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”
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