One of the most interesting dialogues of Plato – the Allegory of the Cave (a part of The Republic) – analyses how we can appear to perceive reality that is not, in truth, real. The allegory describes prisoners chained to the wall of a cave for their entire lives; their heads are restrained so they can only see the wall and nothing else. Their sole glimpse of others is through shadows on the wall as people walk past in front of a fire burning behind the prisoners. The reality here, as Plato has Socrates explain, does not consist of the shadows, and yet the prisoners may think otherwise because this is all they have ever seen.
Fans of a certain genre of literature or movie drama (the Matrix, in particular, or maybe Existenz – but there are many others) will of course immediately recognise an early insight into simulation. And of course Plato was articulating something that many of us will feel from time to time: how real is our reality, really? Is this world, indeed are we ourselves, just something that someone else has designed and in which we only imagine ourselves to be? If you are thinking this is a topic best left to a certain type of rather embarrassing nerd, you’d be wrong. Professor Niklas Boström, a Swedish philosopher now working at the University of Oxford, presented the ‘simulation argument’ in 2003, which broadly suggests it is more likely than not that we are in fact living in a computer-generated simulation.
Whether we believe this or not – and the success of simulation depends on its subjects not recognising it – it does tell us something about the fragility of reality. And that is not a bad thing for universities to ponder.