If we’re living in a simulation, then what is real?

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There is no way to know what’s outside of the simulation. This isn’t just unknown, in the way that the existence of life after death, or parallel universes, is unknown; it is an unanswerable question. Let’s suppose that we are in a computer simulation, either created by a higher intelligence or humans in the future.

Now imagine that through some bug left in the code, we are accidentally able to step beyond the constraints of our programming and ‘see’ the simulation’s raw scaffolding, like Neo in The Matrix. How would you be able to decide whether this lay outside the simulation, or was still part of it – as a joke or an Easter egg, put there by programmers?

Could you even definitively say that the columns of ones and zeros scrolling past your eyes proved that reality was a simulation at all? Maybe that’s just what the Universe is made of, once you zoom all the way in past the atoms and quarks.

And even if you were able to unplug yourself and emerge blinking into the higher reality, how do you know this is what it is? Perhaps there is another reality around that, and so on. If none of these realities are reachable except in our imaginations, are they real? Reality comprises the things we can measure; everything else is fantasy or speculation.

Asking what lies beyond this reality is like asking who we were before being born. Shakespeare’s Hamlet tells Horatio that there are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in his philosophy. But it may be the other way round. Humans are good at dreaming up things that do not exist, so you can’t use your ability to imagine something as evidence for it, one way or another.

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Asked by: Tony H Worcester, via email

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