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Are you having an existential crisis? Try wondering if your entire existence is even real. If some scientists and even Elon Musk question that, you never know.
The thing is, if we really are no more than simulated beings made to believe that we are flesh and blood instead of pixel and code, the truth could mean we stay blissfully unaware — or that humanity will turn on itself. We’ll still know nothing if we find out nothing — but we could end up destroying our species or even our planet if we do find something out.
Preston Greene, an assistant professor of philosophy at Nanyang University in Singapore, recently shared his thoughts about such a strange, mind-expanding theory in a New York Times op-ed, and he'll soon have a paper published in the journal Erkenntnis.
“What if computers one day were to become so powerful, and these simulations so sophisticated, that each simulated 'person' in the computer code were as complicated an individual as you or me, to such a degree that these people believed they were actually alive?” Greene questioned. “And what if this has already happened?”
We’ve been using computer simulations to prove (or disprove) theories and predict outcomes since the ‘90s. How else could we “look inside” a black hole or find out more about pulsars than a telescope could ever see? Simulations, however, are an assist to the human brain at most. It depends how advanced the latest computer technology is. What was cutting-edge in 1995 is pretty much obsolete now. What is new now … you get the point.
Then there’s that whole “what if this has already happened” scenario that will probably keep you wide awake for a few nights. Greene credits this to philosopher Nick Bostrom, who theorized that we could just be computer simulations created by aliens much more advanced than any civilization we could ever dream of. But why? Turns out Bostrom was thinking that people who are able to develop simulations will want to replicate their ancestors in the digital realm. We might even be those ancestors. As if the thought of being the video game ancestor of creatures from outer space isn’t freaky enough, Elon Musk also seems to believe we’re stuck in a real-life Matrix, if life is even real.
Physics can prove it, if you ask Professor George Smoot, a physicist and Nobel laureate who referred to humans as “philosophical zombies” and “hypothetical beings” in his now-famous (or infamous) TED speech. MRIs can now scan the human brain neuron by neuron, and those neurons could theoretically be replicated. However, that and the other experiments he proposes could be a threat to every human being on the planet. It’s kind of like a medical trial. Everyone is told they are receiving a new medication, and if anyone in the placebo group finds out they’re just swallowing a sugar pill, the whole experiment needs to be aborted.
This is why believers insist we’re all just characters downloaded into some alien hard drive or smartphone. "If you assume any rate of improvement at all, then games will be indistinguishable from reality, or civilization will end. One of those two things will occur," Musk echoed Bostrom and Smoot when he appeared on comedian Joe Rogan’s podcast last year. "Therefore, we are most likely in a simulation, because we exist."
Is finding out worth the risk of annihilating humanity? We may never know, which is how we will keep on existing.
(via The New York Times)