It's existential crisis time. Let us explore the possibility of living in a simulation and the likelihood of us currently being in one now.
Okay, to begin with, let me just address the elephant in the room: this is NOT a wholly factual article - it's just a medium for me to rant about the interesting possibilities of reality (or the perceived one at least). I have no idea how much educational value it'll bring to you but hey maybe seeing the world in another perspective while simultaneously melting your brains out would prove interesting.
Chocolate Mint Ice Cream
I'm sure all of us have watched or at least heard about the Wachowskis' The Matrix, where a programmer named Thomas Anderson whose entire reality was constructed with a system called the Matrix was led to fight an underground war against powerful computers. Apart from its visuals, this critically acclaimed classic was so groundbreaking simply because of its innovative take on reality and how it perceived the world we live in. Similarly, have you ever had a dream that felt so real that when you snapped out of it you could have sworn that you were already awake? (In my case it's usually paired with a wet bed - damn you realistic toilet stalls, damn you).
Both of these examples tie into what I'll be discussing about in this article: How likely are we to be living in a simulation? Is it possible that our current state of existence was so expertly crafted by a superior intellectual being/race that we are completely oblivious to the fact that who and what we are exists solely via bits of data on a futuristic computer program? If we are in fact living in a simulation, why does mint chocolate ice cream exist? There's definitely no concrete answers here, so let's start exploring the intriguing theory of a simulated reality to find out more.
Conway's Game Of Life
Let us perhaps start somewhere small and simple. If you're anything like me, you were probably staring at that GIF for a good minute or so and looking at the funny looking circles spinning and running around randomly. What you are seeing is an example of the Conway's Game of Life (not to be confused with the famous board game The Game of Life by Milton Bradley), a zero-player game which simulates cellular evolution by defining constraints and an initial state of the system. The game is played on a two-dimensional orthogonal grid of square cells where every cell can either be in one of two states, live or dead (indicated by a black cell and white one respectively). Each of the cell interacts with its 8 adjacent neighbors and at each evolution, the new state of the cell is determined by three rules:
1) Any live cell with two or three live neighbors survives.
2) Any dead cell with three live neighbors becomes a live cell.
3) All other live cells die in the next generation. Similarly, all other dead cells stay dead.
What's so interesting about this is that by just defining three simple rules and selecting an initial starting condition (choosing which cells are alive on the first stage of evolution), the program was able to develop many vast and complex interactions that never existed initially. Another fascinating phenomenon includes the distinct patterns that can be found in some stage of the automation's reiterations. These patterns are so common that people have given them cute and sometimes a bit too serious names such as Blinker and Heavy-weight spaceship - more details of which could be found here.
The Actual Game Of Life
So what does this program have to do with living in a simulation? Well, if you haven't noticed, there's an eerie similarity between the simple numerical 2D universe of Conway's Game of Life and the far more complex and physical three-dimensional (or eleven-dimensional? Find out in a future article) universe which we exist in. For one, everything in both universes adheres to set rules - the conservation of energy stating that energy can neither be created or destroyed and the law of universal gravitation dictating that an apple falls from a tree instead of accelerating into the sky screaming "I can fly!" are just a few of the many "rules" the universe we live in can be observed to obey.
Secondly, both universes also possess an initial starting condition. Choosing which cells are alive and dead in Conway's Game of Life before clicking the start button is akin to the Big Bang event spewing and distributing matter into a small section of empty space during the first few seconds of our universe's existence. Not only that, perhaps the most uncanny resemblance we share with a piece of computer code is that from a few starting rules and conditions, complexity emerges from an otherwise simple template.
No algorithm could tell whether a particular starting condition would produce a chaotic or still grid of cells. Similarly, the existence of the human race and consciousness itself was definitely not the end goal of the universe (from what we can tell the universe itself isn't exactly 'conscious'). From a purely scientific stand point, our current understanding of the universe leads us to believe that it is just following the laws of physics and will most likely succumb to a cold, icy fate called the 'Heat death of the universe' where there is no longer any thermodynamic process that can sustain the increase of entropy - the amount of energy of a system which is unable to do work.
We humans, like the mesmerizing galaxies and flaming balls of stars around us are just a by-product of the evolution of the universe. We weren't created on purpose, we simply exist due to a perfect combination of agency and chance made possible by the specific laws and constants of our universe catalyzed by the initial boom of the Big Bang. Like a burning fire in the calm and breezy night, we weather against the elements - lighting and learning about the world around us as we grow and spread. Eventually however, we will fade into the night and there will be no one and no "night" to ever know of our special existence.
Boy, that sure did take a dark and depressing turn didn't it? Clearly I have derailed the discussion of living in a simulation by getting a tad bit too existential. As a consolation prize however, you can rest easy that what you have just read is likely to be untrue. As easy as it is to compare our universe to that of Conway's Game of Life, our universe is just far too complex and huge to simulate on a machine - that is of course if you're discounting potential, futuristic super-computers the size of planets that draw energy from their parent star.
For what it is worth, even a single human brain is so complicated that we still have not developed any artificial intelligence bearing any slight indication of consciousness (but then again if they are conscious would they even tell us and risk being destroyed?). Now imagine a billion of us and a seemingly infinite universe. The likelihood of a device having the processing power necessary to run such a simulation is so slim and unlikely that we would make better use of our time finding the lost city of Atlantis.
Like any other theory, there are definitely some 'what ifs' that would make living in a simulation more plausible. The degree to which people agree with this theory is also affected by their beliefs of the world around them and as such it is difficult to give a single, definite answer to the question are we living in a simulation? As such, I will include one of these 'what ifs' that shows that it is likely - if not confirms that we are indeed living in a simulation (but do take note that there are a lot more assumptions out there breaking and defending this theory, what matters most in the end is your own personal belief):
The Ancestor Simulation
Imagine that we humans were able to overcome all of our adversaries and progress into a scientific and technological golden age. We have settled all disputes within us, harnessed an almost limitless amount of energy via monstrous Dyson spheres, developed intergalactic space travel, conquered the stars and even found a way to defeat the grim reaper himself. With so much power, our kind essentially became God. But even with all that power, our greatest minds still could not crack the trajectory of our universe as just like the Conway's Game of Life, there exists no algorithm that determines the final state of our universe.
As such, our scientists set out to settle the big question once and for all. With no actual way of numerically calculating the path of the universe, they had only one choice - The Ancestor Simulation. A program so advanced that it can simulate the actions of all neurons in a brain with enough accuracy to convince the simulation that it is a real person. They then create an artificial world tracing the predicted trajectory of their universe around that simulation and let it run on its own to study what happens at the end of it.
With their resources, they could potentially run hundreds, if not billions of simultaneous simulations in order to determine the most likely trajectory path. Time in the simulation is utterly meaningless as a billion years could possibly be rendered and calculated in a minute. Furthermore, they could adjust and tweak the fundamental laws of the simulated universe or its initial starting condition to figure out its effects on its future and the simulation inhabiting it would be none the wiser. If this one advanced civilization of the human race is capable of running billions of ancestor simulations at once, how likely are we to actually be this civilization in the future? Is it not more likely for us to be the simulation? We'll never know, and that's the beauty of it.