Episode Information

CMS: Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?
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In this episode:

Some serious thinkers believe this reality is almost certainly made up.


Episode Audio

49:31 minutes (23.77 MB)
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OK, OK, I  admit, this is the weirdest show we've ever done. This is the kind of show Bill Curry yells at me about. But the minute -- at one of our planning sessions -- somebody said, "How do we know  this is reality?" we knew we had to do a "How do we know this is reality show?"

At first, we didn't even realize that's something a lot of people talk about and think about. We knew Plato talked about it. Then Keanu Reeves. But we had no idea what a lively and ongoing debate was raging, especially about the possibilty that we live in some kind of digital simulation and that who ever is doing the simulation is either using elements of people like us who exist in some other place or time or just messing with us so we don't know that we're in the matrix.

You may think, right now, that it is all pretty hare-brained. But talk to us in an hour and ask yourself then. Can you completely rule it out?

You can join the conversation. Leave your comments below, e-mail colin@wnpr.org or Tweet us @wnprcolin.

***This broadcast originally aired January 15, 2010.***

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Listener E-mail from Rob

Great show, Colin.  Christ, what an imagination I have! 

Listener E-mail from HC

Descartes and Berkeley (after whom a character addicted to the Star Trek
holodeck was named) both made arguments against trusting our perceptions
that were derived from the ideas of Galileo.

Galileo, like Descartes, was a rationalist who believed that our sensations
of the world could not be trusted as sources of knowledge.  He thought that
only mathematical calculations regarding physical quantities could tell us
the truth about the world.  He gave as an example getting tickled by a
feather.  He asked: Is what we feel, namely the tickle, in the feather or in
us?  And he said that all of our sensations were like this.

Berkeley asked a similar question:  He compared the heat we feel from a hot
coal with the pain we feel when stuck by a pin, and he asked whether there
was any reason to believe that either of these feelings could exist in
unperceiving matter. Berkeley, however, unlike Galileo or Descartes,
concluded that there was no matter beyond those perceptions, since no one
had any knowledge of it or could even conceive of it. 

Listener E-mail from Pawel

I was the last caller on today's show and I want to say thanks for the topic and thanks for letting me on to share my views. I just wanted to add two more cents into the discussion.

One of your guests responded to me that we don't have any evidence now that would support this idea of someone behind the scenes pulling all the strings, but we could find it later. I would submit two things: that people have been looking for evidence for it for a very long time, and nothing substantial has been found to support it. That ought to tell us something. Also, we could posit all kinds of fantastical and even ridiculous scenarios (e.g. invisible magic pixies living in people's underwear drawers control the world)--to say that we should give those things serious consideration when we have (in my opinion) no evidence, or at best scant evidence, to support them would lead us to believe every far-fetched idea out there. Speculation is fun, but we have to rely on evidence if we want to hold as many true ideas as possible and discard as many false ideas as possible.

I love the show, and I'm glad that you found a home on NPR!

Listener E-mail from Priscilla

Haven't yet heard you talk about the Buddhist idea "everything is illusion" -
involving concepts of dependent arising, and conventional reality versus ultimate reality.

Listener E-mail from Tom

Fritz Leiber wrote a very good story about this in 1950.  The title was “You’re all alone”.  It was one of his best stories.


Info from the web:



An exerpt:

In 1950 the writer Fritz Leiber writes an urban horror novel titled ‘You’re all alone(later expanded in an adulterated edition called ‘The Sinful Ones’) which deals with the slightly different premise that the world is a mindless machine and the main character is the only person alive. At one point we read:

What if Marcia weren’t really alive at all, not consciously alive, but just a part of a dance of mindless atoms, a clockworks show that included the whole world, except himself? Merely by coming a few minutes ahead of time, merely by omitting to shave, he had broken the clockworks rhythm. That was why the clerk hadn’t spoken to him, why the operator had been asleep, why Marcia didn’t greet him. It wasn’t time yet for those little acts in the clockworks show.

Fritz Leiber’s novel weaves together solipsism (the idea that one’s own mind is all that exists) and Leibniz’ view of pre-established harmony in which “windowless nomads” follow their own internal logic but produce the semblance of communication.

Not much information about Leiber’s novel can be found on the internet at this time. Which should be remedied because Fritz Leiber was one of the pioneers of the genre of urban/philosophical horror which would later find a powerful expression in the works of authors like Thomas Ligotti and Mark Samuels.