Elon Musk reckons that there is a good chance that we are inside a simulated reality. This seems like a new, mad and frightening idea but it is a very old idea dressed up in present day metaphors.
Of course, it does raise the dizzying question ‘how we can know that anything is real?’. If I was inside the Matrix, without making friends with Morpheus, how could I tell that it was just an illusion? But then, people have wrestled with the question of reality and perception since ancient times. When could we ever tell that our view of the world was accurate, and that what we experience as real is, in fact, real? How can we be sure as individuals that we are not hallucinating or dreaming? Coudl we know, individually or collectively, if a meddlesome god or demon had distorted our senses? So, it seems that that this is just an age-old question about reality that has been dressed up in new metaphors.
This change in metaphor, however, may be significant. Aspects of the mind and perception remain beyond our control and understanding. If I am delusional as an individual, how can I tell? When it comes to deities, human science would be, by definition, useless. If an omnipotent God has created an illusion for us to labour inside we are never going to find out unless S/He wills it. Mental delusions may lie beyond human agency. Metaphysical ones certainly do. A powerful technological illusion on the other hand seems a bit more hopeful. Humanity possesses technological capabilities. Moreover, we have the ability to develop technologically and to eventually understand things that currently mystify us. So unlike the mind, or God, a technological matrix is something we could probably deal with. Through technological development, we might eventually be able to pull back the curtain to reveal the wizard behind a fabricated reality.
Musk’s provocative gambit is just the philosophically grand version of ‘solutionism’, where computer technology is offered as the answer to any issue big or small. A member of the Silicon Valley elite is, unsurprisingly, intimating that computers may not only be able to bring us communications, entertainment and shopping but also the meaning of the universe and life itself. This is just another example of tech industry products being framed as having metaphysical properties. When Silicon Valley oozes ideology it does not sell itself, or its products, short.