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Air France flight 006 takes off from Charles de Gaulle airport in France, flies the 4,000 or so miles across the Atlantic, and encounters severe turbulence just before its planned landing at JFK in New York. This is the setup for The Anomaly, by French author Hevre Le Tellier. What follows is nothing short of a complete and utter mindf*%#. And unlike some other mind-warping novels that might come to mind, this one is also extremely poignant and well-written.

The Anomaly is probably one of the best books I’ve read—er listened to—in quite some time.

It’s also the second book in as many months that I’ve read in which the Simulation Hypothesis comes up as a possible explanation for, well, various anomalies. (The other is The Sea of Tranquility, by Emily St. John Mandel, who wrote one of the best novels I’ve read in a decade, Station Eleven.)

The Simulation Hypothesis, in case you are one of the few people left on earth who has not heard of it, is the idea that our reality isn’t what we think it is. Instead, we—all of us—are really just part of an extremely realistic expansion pack for The Sims. And who is running the simulation? Aliens, perhaps, or future versions of humanity who’ve stumbled upon enough computing power to simulate their own history on Earth. Maybe God himself. Because he was bored and didn’t have the money to buy a real universe from Alibaba, so he coded one up in Ruby on Rails.

The Simulation Hypothesis is very trendy with a certain kind of nerd (guilty as charged!). For example, the guy who now owns All The Tweets has been a big proponent of this idea over the last few years. Many of the proponents, including ol’ Elon Musk, will even suggest they have a ‘proof’ that we are, at least with a high degree of likelihood, living in a simulation. I’ve explained the nuts and bolts of the argument before, but the gist is basically, we will get better and better at simulating things until eventually we can simulate entire humans and their environments. Eventually, entire universes—or at least enough of a universe to trick the simulated beings into thinking there’s something outside of their walled-off little sandbox. Not only that, but the simulated beings, if their simulations are sophisticated enough, will themselves simulate other beings. And so on, until you end up in a Pyramid Scheme of simulations, of which very few participants are actually ‘real.’ This proof relies on more subtleties than its advocates would have you believe, and it’s far from a sure thing. Still, it’s not out of the realm of possibility, is it?

But I cannot be living in a simulation, because I have the experience of existing. “I think, therefore I am,” to quote Descartes. Which is a thing I sometimes do. 

The Descartes “I think therefore I am” argument is addressed in The Anomaly.

And the response is fairly simple. One only needs to expand on Descartes’ original proposition a bit: I have been simulated to think ‘I think,’ therefore I am (simulated). (In the novel they call this ‘Descartes 2.0’).

Because here’s the thing, if you think about it. Even if we are in what Musk calls ‘base’ reality, which is the actual-I-swear-this-is-the-real-reality, AKA the Bernie Madoff in the simulation Ponzi scheme, we are still running on computer hardware. It’s just a particular kind of hardware made of electrons and protons, rather than silicon chips. Everything, down to the most basic elementary particles, follows some algorithm. Attract that particle, fly over there, zap this other particle. Atoms and molecules too. And cells. And organs. And our brains. Our brains are literally computers, albeit much, much more sophisticated computers than you can currently buy in the Apple Store.

And not just us, but our society, runs according to various kinds of ‘social’ algorithms.

If that wasn’t clear enough before the internet, then consider what the era of Facebook and Twitter have wrought: entire social ecosystems where what we read and react to are determined by, that’s right, a godd*&# algorithm. Even Elon’s promise to ‘fix’ the Twitter algorithm is a tacit acknowledgement of its power over us.

So it really isn’t even clear, to me at least, what difference it would make if we found out, say tomorrow, that we live in a simulation. It’s not unlike how the fact that we may, or may not, be living in a 10-dimensional universe, according to those kooky string theorists, literally makes no difference to my life. I live, eat, pee, work, and watch college basketball in three dimensions. Unless there’s some way to leverage those extra six spatial dimensions to help me get my kids to school on time, or help Maryland basketball (men and women’s, please!) build a contending recruiting class in 2023, these extra dimensions are useless to me. Angels on the heads of pins. Whos in Whoville.

This is not an original analysis, of course, and some of the characters in The Anomaly make a much more eloquent case for this idea, that it doesn’t really matter.

Which brings us to the enlightenment part of the title. That we may or may not live in a simulation does matter if you subscribe to a particular theological worldview, I suppose. If Jesus or Mohammed or Vishnu or Joseph Smith are also simulated, then a few billion of us are going to have a lot of egg on our face in the simulated afterlife. Of course, one could argue that “God” is the simulator, but that’s compounding a lot of sustained disbelief on top of itself. Which, to be clear, one is welcome to do.

Another approach is to acknowledge that whether our conscious minds operate on wetware or an intergalactic super-computer powered by black holes and nacho cheese, we still are. With or without the simulation hypothesis we cannot escape the problems of wondering about the ultimate nature of reality. About where we ultimately come from. Where we are ultimately going.

In this view, reality is just our experience. It’s tautological.

We are just riding a wave, and hopefully enjoying it from time to time. (Put another way, worldviews like Buddhism are operating system agnostic).

At the end of the day, as Le Tellier makes clear in his novel, which is ultimately about the various lives of all those people on Air France 006, the point of our existence isn’t to figure out the point of our existence. It’s simply to live. Even those of us who have found ourselves being forced to land at a military base after our relaxing vacation in Paris because, it turns out, we already landed several months ago.

And in 2,000 years, presuming we don’t annihilate ourselves, some bionically enhanced Tech Bro will be man-splaining some new analogy for the idea that reality itself is like one of those words that, if you say them again and again, begin to lose their meaning. As Elon did with the Simulation Hypothesis two millennia before him. As Plato talked about shadows and caves two millennia before Elon. And as no doubt some Cave Bro, who lived long before Plato, grunted to a friend after a long day of hunting: maybe we are just drawings on some other cave person wall.

Jesse Stone

Jesse B. Stone loves science and writing. Apologies if you were looking for the "Jesse Stone" played by Tom Selleck in the CBS movies.

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