So, some people out there are sort of preoccupied with the idea we live in a simulation. It's a sort of strange thing to concern yourself with – not too dissimilar to theology, I suppose it certainly sounds important. If anyone knew what the hell they were talking about it certainly would be – if Elon Musk said we were definitely in a simulation, I would consider that at least worth hearing.
But this isn't the first time very serious people have considered ways in which our lives are surprisingly fake. Brain in a vat thought experiments are pretty old, Poincare recurrence and Boltzmann brains, and stories of philosophers comparing real life to dreams – it seems that, if you get fancy enough, you just start assuming everything is fake.
My private, and somewhat rude, speculation is that this is an extremely mild escapism combined with a very natural extrapolation. Everything else is an almost endless pit of complexity, and all simplified descriptions being lies, why not pour that into the truest, elementally simple thing we know – what we see and hear and touch. Surely that's an endless pit of complexity and our simple perception is a lie too? And the most sophisticated idiocy is born. [Obviously, this would only ever be true occasionally – any specific story about other people's minds will be false, because actual thought is weird and accidental and unfocused – so please understand I mean no slight to any individual in this description.]
That people can construct examples of this beyond disproof is not too surprising to me – other smart people typically use things like teapots to explore these, but sure, whatever. My question is, what makes this such an appealing idea? These ideas are so specific – it'd be like if someone insisted the greatest boon to science would be the deep underwater societies we might find. They'd say, we know there's life, we know it's had plenty of time to develop intelligence, and if you want big brains, the biggest animals live deep underwater, where buoyant forces allow for larger bodies in generally. They might even have additional fancy reasons to say there is an intellectual goldmine there – but I don't hear ideas like that, presented from many different angles, across the years. It shares some traits – the idea we are outmatched by whatever contains us, for instance – but suffers a strange flaw – you could just go and check.
And so we don't hear about rich and smart and fancy people obsessed with the technology of the deep ocean. There's just as much evidence to support it – essentially none – and even stronger reasoning, as far as I can tell. So why is it less appealing?
I've recently heard the idea that there's been an under-challenged assumption in philosophy, that it's best done in an abstract, Cartesian, my-mind-interacts-with-the-world sense, which lends itself to this type of isolated-mind realist theories. But as you'd note from the above links, I suspect the high status signalling of that is a consequence of Descartes making these arguments – not as a cause – because it isn't like a smart person does something weird and unappealing and gets status anyway. So, while an interesting lens, I find the history of the explanation nonsensical.
I have no answers. Perhaps living inside a simulation gives us the feeling that there is a God. But (as I've insisted in private conversation) a sysadmin is such a strange and foreign shape for a God that the terms cannot possibly be used interchangeably. Almost any characteristic of any God in any tradition wouldn't be shared with the simulation sysadmin! But does the simulation idea appeal to the same instinct in our hearts, and so the ideas take hold the same way?