Are we living in a simulation? Look to Free Guy, not The Matrix, for answers, says David Chalmers

Pop culture, and especially science fiction, has played host to several of philosophy’s biggest questions that can trace their origins back thousands of years, according to David Chalmers, philosopher and author of Reality+.

Renowned philosopher says Ryan Reynolds film offers a more hopeful take on age-old questions about reality

Philosopher and author David Chalmers with his book Reality+: Virtual Worlds and the Problems of Philosophy, which launched in January. (Claudia Passos)

Philosopher David Chalmers is often asked whether the so-called real world we live in is actually a computer simulation created and run by a hidden, god-like overseer.

That's little surprise, since he was one of several consultants on 1999's The Matrix, arguably the best known popular media to touch on the topic.

Pop culture, and especially science fiction, has played host to several of philosophy's biggest questions about life, the universe and reality itself that can trace their origins back thousands of years, says Chalmers, a professor of philosophy and neural science at New York University.

"We have Plato telling his allegory of the cave, where … we could be prisoners just inside the cave looking at shadows when the real reality is out there. That's certainly reminiscent of The Matrix and the simulation idea," Chalmers told Tapestry's Mary Hynes.

But lately, he points to a more recent pop culture entry as a better marker of what life in a simulated, or digital world, might look like: Free Guy, the 2021 action-comedy starring Ryan Reynolds.

"At one point, there's a great conversation between two of them. One of them says, 'Does that mean none of this is real?' The other one says: 'Look, I'm sitting here with my best friend trying to help get him through a tough time. If that's not real, I don't know what is,'" Chalmers said.

Reynolds plays the titular Guy, a non-player character (NPC) — little more than a background face in the player's story — in a chaotic video game akin to Grand Theft Auto. 

Eventually Guy gains sentience, realizing that the world he understood to be real is actually a digital fabrication. But instead of trying to escape into the physical world, he fights to defend it and his fellow NPC friends from deletion.

It's a stark contrast from The Matrix film, in which Keanu Reeves' character Neo finds meaning and freedom from escaping the virtual world created by malevolent machines.

That world was understood to be fundamentally false, or unreal. But Chalmers, whose latest book is titled Reality+, argues that a virtual, or digital reality, can be as "perfectly real" as life in a physical one.

"In virtual reality, you can build real communities, have real relationships, have real projects, seek real understanding," he said.

"There may be some things you won't get. Some people, for example, find meaning in communing with nature. But I still think that an awful lot of what we get meaning from in the physical world, you can also get in a virtual world." 

The future of virtual spaces has been on the minds of many, thanks to big names in tech like Meta's Mark Zuckerberg staking a claim to the future of the so-called metaverse.

We're a long way from realizing the worlds envisioned in science fiction, though. Some critics have said it will likely be decades before consumer technology has advanced to support the VR-powered board rooms seen in Zuckerberg's Meta-branded pitch videos. 

Life as a non-player character

Matt Lieberman, Free Guy's screenwriter, told Hynes he's gone through periods in his life where he's felt like an NPC himself — especially when, like Guy, his life revolves around repeating tasks over and over again, without so much as a thought.

"I wake up. I raise all the curtains. I have my morning routine. At night, I have a turn-down routine. And life passes by," he said.

Screenwriter Matt Lieberman poses at the premiere for the film Free Guy in New York City on Aug. 3, 2021. (Caitlin Ochs/Reuters)

Lieberman has never gone so far to seriously contemplate whether real life is a simulation, even if the drudgery of everyday life resembles that of a video-game NPC or background extra in a movie once in a while.

Free Guy might hold part of the answer, as Reynolds's character succeeds with the help of his fellow NPCs. 

"I think the bigger message is that, like, it's easier to break from those constructs with more people, by letting more people into your life," he said. 

And like Chalmers, Lieberman sees potential in finding meaning to life whether you're made of flesh and blood, or bits of code like Guy.

It's a profound lesson that refutes one of The Matrix's pivotal scenes, where a boy tells Neo that before he can bend a spoon with his mind, he has to accept that in the digital world, there is in fact no spoon. 

"I'm going to say yeah, there is a spoon. It's just a digital spoon," Lieberman said. 

Written by Jonathan Ore. Produced by Arman Aghbali and Jacob Henriksen-Willis.

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