My son, bless his cotton socks, is of a scientific mind. He is 11 and he frequently does things like go out onto the brick patio to burn gum wrappers to see if they will float when turned to ash or compare the flight distance of variations on the paper airplane with weights (paperclips, duct tape) added to the nose or tail. The other day, when the wind was terrific -- whipping the giant tulip tree outside my home office window so it waved its limbs like a hula dancer -- he came home from school and reported that he'd spent recess trying to determine how much weight the wind would bear if he leaned back into it.
Teddy is mad if he doesn't get a 100 on a math test. He plays devil's advocate without fail. He is excellent at calculations. He frequently advises me on how I could become better at making a profit (having observed how ill-constructed his mother is for profit-making): "Mom, Mom," he will argue, "if you buy me Devil Dogs, it will actually be a savings, because Devil Dogs come in a box of eight for $2.69, and pears weigh half a pound each, and pears are $1.97 a pound, so it's almost a dollar a pear and Devil Dogs are pennies!"
Having a rational mind swift to see pluses and minuses is how Teddy came into this world, but his calculating nature has been reinforced to some extent by gaming. Video-gaming. I'm no expert -- having last played a video game in the 1980s, as a kid pushing quarters into the Galaxian console in the lobby of the East Hampton Cinema -- but from what I've observed, following clear-cut rules of cause and effect, do-this-and-get-that is how you win most of them. You start the game with a small pile of virtual rubies in your rucksack and by diligent toil and frantic click-click-clicking, until you have carpal tunnel in your index finger, your trove increases; soon you have both rubies and diamonds and can afford a catapult. Or, another game, you're carrying too large a burden of firewood on your back as you trudge on a quest across the virtual medieval kingdom; you only have to make all the indicated stops at the virtual monasteries or castle kitchens, or whatever, to offload the heavy wood, free yourself, and maximize speed as you chase the chalice. It’s all logical. If the scales are out of balance, you adjust them. Do more of this, less of that.
And now I’m going to slide off the topic of the values and penseés of 11-year-old boys for a moment — I’m not actually sliding off: I will be circling awkwardly around to Teddy if you’ll give me a moment — to bring up the seemingly incongruous and possibly irritating topic of “simulation theory.”
You’ve heard of this thing called “simulation theory”? Teddy and I have briefly discussed it, and quite reasonably, he doesn’t like it. It’s not really something to be discussed with children.
Boiled down, simulation theory is the idea that we could all be living in a simulation, in a digital reality, rather than on a real, solid, earth-fire-and-water Earth. I know, I know: On the face of it, it is ridiculous, science fiction, not to be entertained as a possibility by normal people. But pause to recognize that today, in 2021 — only a couple of decades into digital life, or whatever we’re supposed to call it — we’re already creating alternate digital universes that become more and more real-feeling every year.
Have you tried the Oculus Quest gaming goggles? They’re not great, but now pause to consider how advanced simulations will be in 100 years. Or 1,000 years. And how further distant and divorced our consciousnesses may be from our physical bodies. Unless humankind kills itself off via climate catastrophe or nuclear annihilation before we reach that full-simulation stage of technological consciousness, it’s inevitable that simulations will become indistinguishable from old-fashioned human existence. Is that not so?
And — sorry! Bear with me! — now recognize that the potential number of simulations is . . . infinity. In 500 years, say, as this thing accelerates, there might be infinity digital universes indistinguishable from what we have always called “the real world.” So what is the likelihood that we are indeed living, now, at this moment, in one versus the other? Infinite simulations, infinite games, only one “real world.”
It annoys my children when I spoil dinner conversation by talking about this, but simulation theory makes a lot of sense to me. It doesn’t even necessarily sound like a bad thing: It means we get infinite attempts to overcome our own human selfishness.
Because the other day I had a secondary thought: Even if it weren’t true that we are living in simulation or game — even if it weren’t true — we could save the world by acting as if it were.
If this were a game, we’d know what to do: When the scales are out of balance, we adjust them.
I mean, imagine there’s a game designer up there in the sky, trying to give us some hint or clue: “Hey, stupid!” the heavenly game designer says, directing his/her instructions to those of us fortunate enough to live in the First World. “The reason so many of your fellow Earthlings are starving is because you are hogging the assets and not helping others! Hey, beginner!” shouts the game-master up there somewhere. “The reason the planet is warming precariously and species are going extinct en masse is because you are greedy. You keep gobbling up too much fossil fuel, and ordering too many unnecessary products off Amazon. Overconsumption is killing the planet. You’re all going to die. Hello? You do not need a battery-powered Cozee Blanket!”
If my 11-year-old son were playing this Save-the-World Game, he’d dial back the hogging, the ignoring, and the consuming immediately. He’d do a quick cost-benefit calculation and get his virtual world in balance in a jiffy. He’d save the world! Do more of this, less of that. It’s only logical.