Film & TV

Reality Is Not a Simulation

A scene from A Glitch in the Matrix. (Magnolia Pictures)
A new documentary shows the sad delusion of an increasingly popular worldview.

Are you real?

At this very moment, there is a small but probably growing contingent of people who think that you are not. But don’t take it personally. It’s not your fault. And those who believe this are a bit ambiguous as to whether they, too, aren’t real. What they do believe is that reality as they, you, and I perceive it is a simulation, generated by some external force that itself inhabits the “real” reality (presuming that, of course, is not also a simulation). To modify Shakespeare, and to use an analogy these so-called simulation theorists are tellingly fond of: All the world’s a video game, and all of us merely players. Or, rather, played — many of these true believers think that we lack actual agency as well, that we’re merely the playthings of higher beings.

This simulation theory is the subject of A Glitch in the Matrix, a new documentary by Rodney Ascher (Room 237, The Nightmare). It purports to examine the “mind-bending” question, “What if we are living in a simulation, and the world as we know it is not real?” Ascher’s presentation is fair and evenhanded. So much so that, whether intentionally or not, it reveals the sad delusion behind the ersatz combination of logic games, pop-culture references, and personal idiosyncrasies that make up this would-be pseudo-religion.

Ascher assembles and invokes a fitting array of academics and other specialists for his documentary. Some merely comment on the phenomenon, but others, such as philosopher Nick Bostrom and the late sci-fi author Philip K. Dick (who, it’s worth noting, was somewhat insane), are directly responsible for its modern popularity. “Modern,” of course, because the idea that perceived reality somehow falls short of actual reality is of ancient pedigree, going back at least to Plato’s allegory of the cave, the Hindu concept of maya, the gnostic division of the world into matter and spirit, the speculations of Descartes, and many other antecedents. A 1977 speech given by Dick, in which he sketches out the broad outlines of simulation theory, provides one of the documentary’s through-lines. And Bostrom, in 2003, authored a paper that wrapped this ancient notion in the trappings of modernity. A similar form of the argument, as popularized by entrepreneur and Internet fad-chaser Elon Musk, holds that, given advances in computing we have witnessed, it seems likely that the human race will eventually become capable of creating simulated realities. And if such realities become easy to create, won’t there be many? And if there are, isn’t it likelier that ours is one of them than that it isn’t?

It’s fun speculation, great fodder for late-night conversations with friends, maybe after a few beers (or other substances). But it takes a particularly sad kind of person to define one’s existence around it. And such people are the real stars of this documentary. They are interviewed for it, but we never see their faces. Not because of some kind of witness-protection-program, voice-and-appearance altering, but rather because they “appear” in the form of their chosen digital avatars at the other end of a video conversation. It is never stated outright, but one suspects that there is more to this choice on their part than mere obfuscation. It gives the impression that the documentary’s subjects are so untethered to reality, they consider their physical bodies negotiable, perhaps even optional.

That is only the beginning of their self-deceptions. Ascher allows them mostly to explain themselves, and their worldview is revealed for its low-grade madness. They are convinced by such workaday aspects of reality as drunken hijinks, coincidences, déjà vu, seemingly inexplicable perceived phenomena (the “glitches in the Matrix” of the title), and even simply other people walking by them that the world is fake, and only they can see it for this. At times, it is a view that shades not merely into narcissism but into solipsism; one of them is convinced that other people simply don’t exist when he is not looking at them. What makes these people so special, what gave them the unique ability to see what others couldn’t — indeed, what makes them real while others aren’t, they cannot answer. Then again, gnostics throughout the centuries have never satisfactorily explained what gives them the secret knowledge others lack.

It is, at least, far easier to identify the two sources that have informed this worldview more than any others: The Matrix specifically, and the experience of video games more generally. The obsession of one subject of the documentary with the former, culminating in his murder of his parents, forms one of the documentary’s other through-lines. Concerning the latter, even though one of the avatars interviewed claims that, historically, our perception of reality has been colored by whatever the dominant mode of technology is at the time, he (and the rest) cannot stop analogizing life as they live it to a video game. Simulation theory is an ancient idea, but its modern incarnation seems inescapably bound up in gaming; all the interviewed avatars also profess to be gamers of some kind and insist on talking about existence in terms of “leveling up” and other such gaming jargon.

The fondness for the video-game analogy points to another pathetic defect of this mode of apprehending reality: It is nothing if not superficial. It was a revealing but unsurprising aspect of the documentary that several of its subjects viewed their experiences in religious terms. One described having an awakening to simulated reality in a flotation tank. Another awakened to his new “religion” while in, of all places, a church. And another, in a somewhat on-the-nose statement, simply asserted that while he himself is “not very religious at all,” simulation theory is “the only blending of religion and science” that he would accept. He is not alone; many — such as Musk and Mr. F***ing Love Science himself, Neil deGrasse Tyson — who disdain conventional religiosity succumb to the allure of the pseudo-scholasticism and faux-transcendence underpinning simulation theory. Indeed, Tyson, so quick to dispel what he deems fallacies, once claimed that he “would find it hard to argue against” the possibility that reality is a simulation.

But modernity has cheapened this ancient notion. The video-game-inflected conception of simulated reality may have the familiar gnostic defect of making the lived reality we can experience matter less than an asserted alternative reality we cannot. But it also introduces a relatively novel defect: Nonadherents are held not simply to be wrong (and probably damned), as with most religions, but (like even believers themselves) to be likely unreal. The conception, furthermore, perfectly accords with a kind of choose-your-own adventure religiosity, one that allows its adherents to customize their relationship to the world and to their fellow human beings without really being asked anything in return.

It is obvious that simulation theorists need some kind of transcendent force in their life. But they have settled on one that is utterly base, and that supplies for them nothing in the way of morality or fulfillment except perhaps the motivation to “level up.” In these ways, the “religion” they have chosen is in fact worse than just about any other. Not because it inevitably invites an amoral world (though it provides precious few defenses against one). And not because it automatically encourages behavior without belief in consequence (even though the documentary highlights the dangerous path of the Matrix-obsessive). No, it’s because it demands so little of them, and allows them simply to define reality as they desire, or as it happens to them. One of them even admits that his life wouldn’t change if it were proven true that we are living in a simulation.

If there is anything to say in defense of simulation theorists, it is that they have perhaps inadvertently stumbled upon a worthwhile recognition: that life today can seem disintermediated, awash in technology, overloaded with stimulation. They also are probably right that their worldview will grow in popularity. But their worldview represents a kind of surrender to the modern world, as it is defined explicitly in the terms of all these modern ills. So to the extent that their worldview grows in popularity, it will be as a symptom of modernity’s ills, a defective stopgap for the receding of other more durable forms of meaning and human connection. A Glitch in the Matrix gestures toward genuine relationships with others as a way to escape the nihilistic trappings of simulation theory embraced fully. And that might be a start for its most solipsistic adherents. But one hopes, for their sake, that it is only the beginning of a journey away from a pointless, silly, modern delusion.

Yet here, unfalsifiability rears its ugly head. Simulationists would say that I believe this because the Simulation is programming me to, so that I can use the platform of National Review to stand athwart not merely history but reality itself. Alas for them, if they so persist. But whatever they believe, they are real, you are real, and so am I.

(I think.)

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