Editor’s Notebook: Exploring the simulation

February 2, 2022 5:57 am
Snowy woods

The outdoors is calling – and that’s for real. (Dana Wormald | New Hampshire Bulletin)

I’m not crazy about the guy my Google news feed thinks I am. That person seems to be obsessed with Leonardo DiCaprio and Ben Affleck, as well as a reality show called “Below Deck” and, of late, singer Don McLean of “American Pie” fame.

No offense to Leo, Ben, and Don – or their fans – but I don’t spend much time thinking about any of them. Also, I’ve never seen “Below Deck” – and certainly wouldn’t admit it if I had. If I’ve learned anything from my wife over the years, it’s that cheesy reality shows are to be enjoyed privately, preferably late at night, with a glass of wine and just a hint of self-loathing.

But sometimes the feed surprises me by giving me exactly what I want. It knows, for example, that I spend a lot of time wondering whether we’re all living in a simulation.

It started in earnest last week with a link to a New York Times opinion piece by Farhad Manjoo titled “We might be in a simulation. How much should that worry us?” I couldn’t click it fast enough. 

As Manjoo notes in his column, the simulation hypothesis isn’t new (it was popularized by philosopher Nick Bostrom in a 2003 paper titled “Are you living in a computer simulation?” and a few years ago Elon Musk raised lots of eyebrows – possibly computer-generated – when he announced that “we’re most likely living in a simulation.”) But Manjoo’s news peg – that is, why he decided to write the column when he did – is the release of a new book by NYU philosophy professor David Chalmers: “Reality+: Virtual Worlds and the Problems of Philosophy.”

Chalmers – who came up with the idea of the “hard problem of consciousness” nearly three decades ago – is less certain than Musk about the nature of our world, writing “the chance we are sims is at least 25 percent or so.” The book is not just an exploration of whether we are in a simulation, however, but rather, according to the publisher, is an “analysis of our technological future” in virtual reality. The description continues: “(Chalmers) uses virtual reality technology to offer a new perspective on long-established philosophical questions. How do we know that there’s an external world? Is there a god? What is the nature of reality? What’s the relation between mind and body? How can we lead a good life?”

There’s not a world, real or simulated, in which I don’t read that book.

Finally, early on Monday morning as I struggled to clear my foggy mind for the work week to come, my feed delivered this click-baity April headline from Scientific American: “Confirmed! We live in a simulation.” It’s written by Fouad Khan and is kind of fascinating – albeit largely over my head. The gist of Khan’s argument is that “all computing hardware leaves an artifact of its existence within the world of the simulation it is running. This artifact is the processor speed.”

And, in our world, “the speed of light is a hardware artifact showing we live in a simulated universe.”

I guess that settles it. Welcome to the simulation, folks.

Of course, it’s not settled and never will be. I don’t believe anybody can prove this is a simulation – nor can anyone prove it’s not. It’s just an interesting thought exercise and a handy coping mechanism for our strange times. But I also think it’s perfectly reasonable that I take a look around and do my own research.

Last month I splurged on a New Hampshire state parks license plate, which gives us free admission to a long list of day-use parks throughout the state. I’m embarrassed to say how few I’ve visited in my half-century within the borders of this stunning piece of land. And we’re collecting inexpensive camping gear too – a tent, sleeping bags, a sleeping pad, and LED lanterns so far – because I’m curious to see whether the matrix reveals itself in the night sky, away from the lights of town. I also want to find out whether the sensation of breathing nothing but fresh air for days at a time feels like pure or simulated pleasure. And I plan to carefully and reverentially monitor sunset after sunset in search of telling glitches.

I’ve read the articles, pondered at length what’s real and what isn’t, and concluded that my universe – whatever its structure – contains too many walls and ceilings, too many streaming services and phone notifications. The outdoor world that was so important to me in childhood has not abandoned me – I have abandoned it.

It’s time I made my way back. It’s time to reset the simulation.

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Dana Wormald
Dana Wormald

Dana Wormald, a lifelong resident of New Hampshire, has been a newspaper editor for more than 25 years. He began his career on the Concord Monitor’s news desk in 1995 and later spent more than a decade at the New Hampshire Union Leader. In 2014, he returned to the Monitor to serve as opinion editor, a position he held until being named editor of the Bulletin. Email: [email protected]