Were the Oscars and the Election Proof We’re Living in a Simulation?

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“Ladies and gentlemen, this doesn’t quite feel real.” Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Earlier this week, New Yorker staff writer Adam Gopnik wondered aloud whether all the recent weirdness we’ve experienced adds up to evidence that we are living in a computer simulation that is either going haywire or being purposefully messed with by its architects. You know the weirdness in question: It seems like lately, every time the nation’s focus is trained on the same event, whether it’s the NBA Finals or the election or the Super Bowl or now — the incident that sparked Gopnik’s article — the Best Picture screwup, something completely unbelievable happens. Nothing like this has remotely happened before has been the refrain over and over and over, he explains.

The simulation hypothesis is less crazy than it sounds — perhaps no crazier than any coherent story about the origin of the universe. Academics like David Chalmers and Nick Bostrom have posited arguments that make the numbers “work,” at least if you squint a bit. Over a span of trillions of years, in a universe or universes of inconceivable size(s), maybe there are a lot of intelligent species, and maybe they tend to like simulating other universes (as Homo sapiens has already begun to do on a very modest level). If so, then any intelligent species that examines the odds carefully will come to the discomfiting conclusion that it — and its universe — is very likely simulated rather than the genuine article (whatever that means, given that it’s impossible for any species, even one that has created a universe simulator, to prove it is not itself part of a simulation — maybe the simulations go up and up and up and up).

The oomph of this argument lies in the math, but naturally it’s thought-provoking to try to imagine what might constitute evidence that we’re in a simulation. To Gopnik, all the recent weirdness points in that direction, and Chalmers, he notes, also sees things this way.

Here’s how Gopnik lays out his argument:

The implicit dread logic is plain. If we are among the simulated minds, then we exist in order to be stimulated minds: we exist in order for the controllers to run experiments. Until recently, our simulation, the Matrix within which we were unknowingly imprisoned, seemed in reasonably sound hands. Terrible things did happen as the cold-blooded, unemotional machines that ran it experimented with the effects of traumatic events—wars, plagues, “Gilligan’s Island”—on hyper-emotionalized programs such as us. And yet the basic logic of the enfolding program seemed sound. Things pinned down did not suddenly drift toward the ceiling; cats did not go to Westminster; Donald Trump did not get elected President; the movie that won Best Picture was the movie that won Best Picture. Now everything has gone haywire, and anything can happen. [bolding mine]

There’s something exciting about getting swept up in this feeling that we are tacking into uncharted waters, weirdness-wise, that there’s no real precedent for the current state of affairs. But those bolded sentences are doing a lot of work. Indeed, part of what’s going on here is that over the last few decades, the world has gotten so much less weird — in mostly good ways — that it’s now easier to highlight and harp upon what are, in the grand scheme of things, relatively minor weirdness flare-ups.

When you look at recent history, it’s just very hard to come up with a case that our current smattering of unreal events is sturdier proof of a simulation thesis than all the 20th-century horrors Gopnik gestures at but doesn’t name: two world wars and the Holocaust and the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings and starvation in the USSR and the Khmer Rouge and the Cold War and all the rest. Not that conflict or loss of life should ever be seen as normal, but this was consistently weird carnage and near carnage. A military superpower built a vast and horrifying machinery of death to rid Europe of a religious minority, and mostly succeeded. For decades, the two reigning superpowers pointed enough nukes at each other to turn the planet into an uninhabited glass marble several times over, and if not for several instances of coolness in impossibly tense situations, we’d all be gone. The Khmer Rouge raised the bar on human atrocity in countless ways, but its crimes are so drowned out by all the other bloodshed from that century that most people don’t know the first thing about it.

In fact, if someone plopped a century-long timeline of human history on your table and asked you to circle all the evidence you could find that we’re living in a simulation, you’d likely find the fewest instances in this, the first chunk of the 21st century. That’s not to say weird stuff doesn’t still happen, and it’s definitely not to say some of that weirdness isn’t inconceivably bloody — the Syrian civil war would be at home in the 20th century — but overall we deal with a lot less surreality than we did in the recent past. We pay more attention to the Patriots coming back from 28–3 in an impossibly short span of time because we’re less distracted by the U.S. trying to napalm its way out of an inconceivably stupid jungle quagmire. We gawk at the Oscar craziness and dwell on it because it stands out in a saner world than many of our parents and grandparents inhabited. Hell, it’s too early to say, but in the long run, barring an unforeseen catastrophe, maybe even Donald Trump — God or superintelligent alien simulators willing — will end up getting a mere footnote, rather than a chapter, in the Book of Weirdness humanity continues writing every moment of every day.

Was the Oscars Screwup Proof We’re Living in a Simulation?