In June, Elon Musk confirmed that he is a proponent of the simulation argument, specifically stating that he thinks “the odds we’re in base reality is one in billions” and instead we’re sentient characters in future generations’ simulation of their ancestors. He based his opinion on the exponential advances made in gaming and computer technology over the past 40 years, and the expected advancements yet to be made. His words revived interest in the Brain in a Vat thought-experiment, which itself has conceptual antecedents in Descarte’s Evil Demon Hypothesis, Zhuangzi’s Dream Argument, Plato’s Allegory of the Cave and Hinduism’s Maya/Illusion.
All these philosophical exercises examine the nature of reality, an ambitious conundrum to even attempt illuminating. It’s no wonder then that the approach to this has been multifold, encompassing disciplines as diverse as theoretical physics, psychology, philosophy, artificial intelligence, ethics, and neuroscience, to name a few. Alternate realities have manifested thematically (as dream-manipulation, virtual reality, interdimensional travel, alternate timelines) in popular culture, including literature (Ubik, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy), movies (Inception, The Matrix), TV shows (Dr. Who), manga and anime (Sword Art Online), animated sitcoms (Rick and Morty), and of course videogames (In Memoriam, A Map of the Floating City) for quite some time. Similar concepts with overlapping implications of living in pseudo realities include dreams, hallucinations (induced or otherwise), and alternate or parallel universes.
If we could extend the operationalization of ‘simulations’ to include constructed/contrived ‘realities’ (including alternate states of consciousnesses), it becomes somewhat easier to ground our many, many hypotheses (regarding human behaviour in simulations) in some testable format, instead of grasping at straws. For instance, in the 1998 movie The Truman Show, Jim Carrey’s character has lived his entire life in a man-made simulation. Construction glitches, errors in continuity, and logical inconsistencies eventually lead Truman to doubt the authenticity of his reality. All his subsequent behaviours in the movie are estimations of how makers of the film (the real film) project persons in that situation would behave. We cannot draw inferences about real life behaviours from works of fiction, but the movie redirected attention to a peculiar neurosis (dubbed The Truman Syndrome) where people had grandiose delusions of being the star of their own reality shows, stage plays and movies, one in which “hidden cameras” conveniently prevented their suspicions from being falsified. The behaviour of such people could serve as proxies for how we would behave if we suspected we were in a simulated reality. However, it would not be representative of our behaviours if it were confirmed our reality is in fact, not real.
Dreams or altered states of consciousness serve as examples of alternative realities, given that we aren’t aware of being in a dream, except while lucid-dreaming. Studies on lucid dreaming have demonstrated the activation of higher cognitive abilities which are otherwise inactive in non-lucid REM sleep, resulting in an awareness of being in a ‘dream-state’. Some of these studies involved lucid dreamers being given instructions while in dream-state, and neuroscientists assessing its cognitive implications using an fMRI machine. However, the degree of control or free-will exerted in lucid dreams is also limited, discerning it from simulations. Anecdotally, the handful of times I’ve experienced lucid dreaming did not render me a god in ‘my’ reality. I did not go from frantically being chased by a sentient, malevolent math test to telekinetically flinging it away from me. At best, I could decide which direction I wanted to escape to, and perhaps the awareness of being in a non-reality mitigated some of my anxiety, but it did not bestow me the power to change the narrative. Dream physics may well have been broken, but lucid dreaming did not endow me with the power to fix it, or to break it differently. Lucid dreams might give the impression that you are a character in a game, have agency, and can do what you like with no ramifications, but it is still not your reality, and prospects of controlling the narrative are contingent to our (limited) human imagination. Perhaps that is why the instructions neuroscientists give to persons in lucid dream-state are to “clench your fists” or “look left and right”, not “turn into Donald Trump and opt out of the election, already.”
Can we infer from these non-hypothetical instances of alternate realities what we would do if we were in a simulation? Personally, my life’s new mission would be to find the exit (“Good morning, and in case I don't see ya, good afternoon, good evening, and good night!”). But some argue that it wouldn’t make any difference to them, and would continue living life as they normally would. After all, if you do make it out of the simulation, how do you know that THAT isn’t a part of the simulation? And so on. This infinite regress issue with the simulation argument seems to render people arguably more pragmatic. The simulation would be their new reality, why would simulated reality be any different from a ‘real’ reality in the micro scale of their lives? Plus, isn’t it better for us to believe there’s some semblance of structure and control, even if it’s not with us? Maybe we can rely on an omnipotent eye in the sky; might even keep us virtuous? Sounds like religious propaganda to me.