What if we—meaning all of humankind and the entire universe we inhabit—are part of a simulation that some future civilization’s powerful computers built for us? This “simulation theory” is one of the most cutting-edge and provocative ideas on the philosophical side of science today. The concept is simple enough, but it has far-reaching implications.
In the fifth installment of Pop Mech Explains the Universe with Neil deGrasse Tyson (above), the astrophysicist and science communicator discusses the fine line that many people, especially certain religious believers, draw between humans and other animals. That line of thinking—that we’re special, that we possess higher-level intellect and reasoning—commonly leads us to dispel the notion of a higher-order civilization or species controlling us.
But, Tyson explains, this is a bit narcissistic. Our closest genetic relatives have something like 99 percent of the same DNA as us, he says. All the differences people point to that supposedly make humans special must be, mathematically, contained in that 1 percent.
“If as small as that 1 percent [is], if our toddlers can do what the smartest chimps can do, imagine a lifeform in the universe 1 percent beyond us!” Tyson explains. “If they exist, then the smartest human would rival their toddlers! Their simplest thoughts would transcend our most brilliant thinkers.”
The implication is that we likely can’t even fathom what that additional 1 percent of genetic difference would amount to in terms of intellect and subsequent innovation. “Forgetting a simulation universe, imagine if they [aliens] came upon us!” Tyson says. “If they wanted to, they could turn Earth into a literal aquarium terrarium, a zoo for their own entertainment! If you were in a zoo by someone as smart as I just described, would you even know it?”
Besides, we already have simulations in our own culture. “I played SimCity,” Tyson says, reflecting on how Godzilla shows up to destroy the city in the open-ended video game. “I remember saying, ‘that’s not real,’ [but] Godzilla is real! Godzilla is Hurricane Sandy. Godzilla is September 11. There’s something real about the concept and consequences of what was portrayed. It could be in these smart alien worlds that we’re a simulation run by some juvenile alien still living in his parents’ basement. I’m not gonna rule that out.”
New episodes in our multi-part video series will debut every week, so be sure to check back for more of Tyson’s thoughts on animal brains, the greatest scientific achievement of 2022 (so far), and more.
🎥 Catch up on our first four videos:
Caroline Delbert is a writer, avid reader, and contributing editor at Pop Mech. She’s also an enthusiast of just about everything. Her favorite topics include nuclear energy, cosmology, math of everyday things, and the philosophy of it all.