By: James Kim
20 years ago from today, Oxford Philosopher Nick Bostrum first proposed the argument that “we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation”(Bostrum, 1), introducing several topics of intellectual debates, many of which are still ongoing to this day. From technicians in the natural sciences to philosophers and ethicists, multidisciplinary perspectives from esteemed intellectuals can be seen from just a few clicks away from your search bar, thanks to the universalized distribution of the internet.
Similarly, virtual reality technology is developing in such a way where it is becoming more and more accessible to the general public. An Oberlo blog post summarizing this year’s VR statistics states that “14.94 million [VR] devices were shipped out in 2022, a 54.2 increase from 2021”(ICD, qtd. in Lin) with a prosperous outlook in market share growth in the near future. With VR technology already being used in several professional fields — even for casual entertainment, many observations within our modern society seem to hint the universalization of VR technology in our daily lives for a wider range of consumers.
Furthermore, the improvement in VR technology is also heading towards the direction of enhancing the graphical user experience of simulated environments. As a first-hand experienced user of the Oculus Quest 2 from Studio X, I was quite impressed by the ability of modern technology to represent an entire reality within just a tiny little headset. Even throughout my first few steps into the virtually projected world, the sensation of playing around with a punching bag never had a chance to remind me that I was being toyed around by a mere illusion. Observing the projectiles flying away from the muzzle of my lazer gun and hitting the targets was like being unified with an in-game character from a first-person shooter game. Walking through office walls and teleporting to designated locations gave me the feeling of dream walking with a clear mind, which indeed, was mind blowing as it sounds.
While gazing at the pinnacle of modern technology right in front of my two eyes was undoubtedly an amazing experience, the hyperrealistic sensations that I was able to feel throughout the gameplay also induced many questions concerning the development of human technology itself. Technological limitations of computations are progressively being lifted by the second, granting the ability to replicate not only the visual world but also other senses such as touch and sound with increased precision more than ever. And as the boundaries between the virtual world and physical world keeps on diminishing as so, wouldn’t it be reasonable to assume the practicality of post-human civilization being able to simulate our universe?
As mentioned, the simulation theory has several different approaches to construct an argument. For instance, a natural scientist can refute the possibility of us being simulated by quoting human discoveries in quantum mechanics and particle physics; a philosopher may tackle this theory by contemplating fundamental questions about the nature of reality by discussing how we should define what a ‘real’ world is with existential introspection. Nevertheless, as most dilemmas are like, the interdisciplinary debate about this inquiry will most likely lead to an inconclusive conversation due to epistemological limitations — our ‘scientific’ knowledge and understanding of the universe are essentially “synthetic propositions [which] are inevitably fallible” (Barghyan et al. 2).
Therefore, my point of interest will be the impact of simulation theory on the general public. Given that VR technology devices will be distributed to a wider audience in the near future, more people will be exposed to these ‘technological uncertainties’ — the simulation theory, and despite its existence for more than two decades, it will become more and more prominent of a topic as the first hand experienced users exponentially increase in numbers. Will this, if any, have a significant impact on our modern society? Will social media or individuals somehow find a way to exploit this “pseudoscience [hypothesis]” (Hossenfelder) for one’s benefit, or even just for the sake of spreading existential crises? What will happen to all of our belief systems such as religions?
I do admit that the simulation argument, at its first encounter, may be a source of psychological distress. Existential anxiety challenges our definition of a ‘real’ world and the meaning of life; the uncertainty to whether we actually do with the unprovable hypothesis is unsettling; the potential existence of a transcendental civilizations overseeing us induces cosmic horror. And if one would find themselves discomforted by these potential scenarios, how would they address this on an individual level?
My response would be that it doesn’t really matter. Whether we are made of flesh and particles or ones and zeros, would it make any differences in the choices we make in life at all? Several humans throughout history demonstrated that it is more than possible to live a good life in our world. Even Chalmers answered the “Value Question: can you live a good life in the virtual world?” as yes(Chalmers 16) in his book ‘Reality+’. If it is possible to live a good life in our current world regardless of the existence of an ‘external’ one (implied by the premise that we are being simulated), simply the possibility that we might live in a simulation won’t serve as a valid excuse to live a meaningless life.
Hence, returning to the original question, will the development of VR technology induce more theoretical uncertainty regarding the simulation hypothesis within our society? Yes — more people will be exposed to first-hand experiences of VR equipped with more advanced replications of reality, thus leading more people to Bostrum’s argument. Will this create any significant issues such as destabilizing the psychological state of the general public? No — may we be forever uncertain about the conclusion of the simulation theory, the two possible outcomes are essentially inconsequential to our life decisions since both realities: either virtual or real, one can lead to one living a good, meaningful life.
If you’re ever worried that you might be living in a simulation and that your entire life just might be an enormous Truman Show, always remember that your choices are still relevant, and they still have the power to influence your life. So try entering the ‘truly’ simulated reality through Oculus Meta Quest yourself! Experience the uncertainty of our living world firsthand. Indulge in the culmination of modern technology to ponder about our existence (just for a moment). And if we ever happen to prove that we are living in a simulation, maybe we should be grateful that our simulators had the willingness and ability to compute free-will!
“Most importantly, let’s hope that no one will trip over the power cable”(Kurzgesagt).
Barseghyan, Hakob, et al. INTRODUCTION TO HISTORY AND PHILOSOPHY OF SCIENCE. PressBooks, http://hakobsandbox.openetext.utoronto.ca/part/main-body/.
Oculus Quest 2 First Steps FULL GAMEPLAY (No Commentary). Created by MrCoolPotato, Youtube Video, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sW8A9VS4ATU.
Alain Lacroix. Fact and Belief. https://www.dreamstime.com/stock-illustration-fact-belief-inability-to-change-someone-s-mind-facts-image68251408.
David J. Chalmers. Reality+: Virtual Worlds and the Problems of Philosophy. 2022.
David Malet Armstrong. Belief Truth and Knowledge. Cambridge University Press, 2009.
James Ladyman. Reality Minus Minus – James Ladyman, Professor of Philosophy. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_0dc7qutyBc. The Institute for Futures Studies, Stockholm, 6 Sep. 2023
Nick Bostrum. “ARE YOU LIVING IN A COMPUTER SIMULATION?” Philosophical Quarterly, vol. 53, 2003, p. 14.
Sabine Hossenfelder. “No, We Probably Don’t Live in a Computer Simulation.” Backreaction, 15 Mar. 2017, http://backreaction.blogspot.com/2017/03/no-we-probably-dont-live-in-computer.html.
Anil Ananthaswamy. “Do We Live in a Simulation? Chances Are about 50–50.” Scentific American, 13 Oct. 2020, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/do-we-live-in-a-simulation-chances-are-about-50-50/.
Fouad Khan. “Confirmed! We Live in a Simulation.” Scientific American 1 Apr. 2021, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/confirmed-we-live-in-a-simulation/.
Lin, Ying. “10 VIRTUAL REALITY STATISTICS EVERY MARKETER SHOULD KNOW IN 2023 [INFOGRAPHIC].” OBERLO, 17 Mar. 2023, https://www.oberlo.com/blog/virtual-reality-statistics#:~:text=2.-,Virtual%20Reality%20Growth,Grand%20View%20Research%2C%202021.
Ubrani, Jitesh, et al. AR & VR Headsets Market Share. IDC, 14 July 2023, https://www.idc.com/promo/arvr.
Is Reality Real? The Simulation Argument. Directed by Kurzgesagt, Youtube Video, Kurzgesagt – In a Nutshell, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tlTKTTt47WE.
Sabine Hossenfelder. “The Simulation Hypothesis Is Pseudoscience.” BackReaction, 13 Feb. 2021, https://backreaction.blogspot.com/2021/02/the-simulation-hypothesis-is.html.