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The Limits Of Simulation

Jim Carrey as Truman Burbank, a man living in someone else's dream. The 1998 movie <em>The Truman Show</em> asks us to look at experience and reality with fresh eyes.
Melinda Sue Gordon
The Kobal Collection/Paramount
Jim Carrey as Truman Burbank, a man living in someone else's dream. The 1998 movie The Truman Show asks us to look at experience and reality with fresh eyes.

The idea that the world might be living in a simulation — discussed in Marcelo's post this week — is brought to life with wit and power in Peter Weir's 1998 film The Truman Show. Young Truman, who has been raised inside a simulation — a reality TV show! — is free to explore his environment; he can move around and pursue his interests and interrogate and probe. If he looks to his right, he sees the hustle and bustle of the world around him. Look to the left? More hustle and bustle. Of course, were he to look to the left when the simulators expected him to look to the right, he'd witness nothing but stage hands making preparations for his next look.

The radical and mind-boggling idea at work here is this: so long as you get fresh detail whenever you look for it, you'll never notice your whole life is a grand illusion.

The pilot to the original Star Trek series offers an interesting twist on this. Captain Pike comes to realize he is living in a simulation; he's a prisoner in a menagerie. But at the end he learns the his captors have created the simulation for his own benefit; he'd been in a horrible accident, and a simulated life would be superior to anything he could achieve on his own.

It's clear — on this way of understanding what a simulation is — that we are ourselves are not simulated. How could we be?

What makes the world a simulation is that it has the right look and feel. We're the judge of that, of course. And anyway, what could a simulated consciousness even be? A simulated consciousness — simulated from the inside, that is — would be a perfectly good, perfectly real consciousness. This was Descartes' discovery. Cogito ergo sum. I think therefore I am.

But there may be another limit on the extent of the simulation. It is one thing to simulate the look and feel of something, or everything, but it is another to simulate the meaning or significance of how things look or feel.

For example, in The Truman Show, Truman takes an elevator at work. It's a mock elevator, however. If he were to look inside, when the production crew were unsuspecting, he'd see no elevator shaft. So the success of this simulation depends on giving Truman elevator-experiences whenever he looks.

But this takes for granted what an elevator-experience is. Nothing is an elevator if it doesn't move up and down a shaft and if it doesn't continue to exist when unperceived. It's one thing to fool you into thinking that there is an elevator there, behind those sliding doors. It's another altogether to write the elevator script from scratch.

So it would seem to follow that, although it might be possible that we are living in a simulation, it couldn't be the case that our conception of the world is itself a simulation.

But can we make sense of a world in which there are only pseudo-elevators and false-friends, but no real elevators or true friends?

Maybe we can. It would, truly, be a prison. One of the insights of The Truman Show: in such a world we'd be victims and there'd be much to be mad about.

You can keep up with more of what Alva Noë is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @alvanoe

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alva Noë is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos and Culture. He is writer and a philosopher who works on the nature of mind and human experience.