Elon Musk and others have advanced the idea that we exist within a simulation, thus adding a new chapter to the classic problem of the external world. When philosophers engage this problem, the usual goal is show how one can know that one’s experience correspond to an external reality. Musk takes a somewhat more practical approach: he and others are allegedly funding efforts to escape this simulation. In addition to the practical challenges of breaking out of a simulation, there are also some rather interesting philosophical concerns about whether such an escape is even possible.
In regards to the escape, there are three main areas of interest. These are the nature of the simulation itself, the nature of the world outside the simulation and the nature of the inhabitants of the simulation. These three factors determine whether or not escape from the simulation is a possibility.
Interestingly enough, determining the nature of the inhabitants involves addressing another classic philosophical problem, that of personal identity. Solving this problem involves determining what it is to be a person (the personal part of personal identity), what it is to be distinct from all other entities and what it is to be the same person across time (the identity part of personal identity). Philosophers have engaged this problem for centuries and, obviously enough, have not solved it. That said, it is easy enough to offer some speculation within the context of Musk’s simulation.
Musk and others seem to envision a virtual reality simulation as opposed to physical simulation. A physical simulation is designed to replicate a part of the real world using real entities, presumably to gather data. One science fiction example of a physical simulation is Frederik Pohl’s short story “The Tunnel under the World.” In this story the inhabitants of a recreated town are forced to relive June 15th over and over again in order to test various advertising techniques.
If we are in a physical simulation, then escape would be along the lines of escaping from a physical prison—it would be a matter of breaking through the boundary between our simulation and the outer physical world. This could be a matter of overcoming distance (travelling far enough to leave the simulation—perhaps Mars is outside the simulation) or literally breaking through a wall. If the outside world is habitable, then survival beyond the simulation would be possible—it would be just like surviving outside any other prison.
Such a simulation would differ from the usual problem of the external world—we would be in the real world; we would just be ignorant of the fact that we are in a constructed simulation. Roughly put, we would be real lab rats in a real cage, we would just not know we are in a cage. But, Musk and others seem to hold that we are (sticking with the rat analogy) rats in a simulated cage. We may even be simulated rats.
While the exact nature of this simulation is unspecified, it is supposed to be a form of virtual reality rather than a physical simulation. The question then, is whether or not we are real rats in a simulated cage or simulated rats in a simulated cage.
Being real rats in this context would be like the situation in the Matrix: we have material bodies in the real world but are jacked into a virtual reality. In this case, escape would be a matter of being unplugged from the Matrix. Presumably those in charge of the system would take better precautions than those used in the Matrix, so escape could prove rather difficult. Unless, of course, they are sporting about it and are willing to give us a chance.
Assuming we could survive in the real world beyond the simulation (that it is not, for example, on a world whose atmosphere would kill us), then existence beyond the simulation as the same person would be possible. To use an analogy, it would be like ending a video game and walking outside—you would still be you; only now you would be looking at real, physical things. Whatever personal identity might be, you would presumably still be the same metaphysical person outside the simulation as inside. We might, however, be simulated rats in a simulated cage and this would make matter even more problematic.
If it is assumed that the simulation is a sort of virtual reality and we are virtual inhabitants, then the key concern would be the nature of our virtual existence. In terms of a meaningful escape, the question would be this: is a simulated person such that they could escape, retain their personal identity and persist outside of the simulation?
It could be that our individuality is an illusion—the simulation could be rather like Spinoza envisioned the world. As Spinoza saw it, everything is God and each person is but a mode of God. To use a crude analogy, think of a bed sheet with creases. We are the creases and the sheet is God. There is actually no distinct us that can escape the sheet. Likewise, there is no us that can escape the simulation.
It could also be the case that we exist as individuals within the simulation, perhaps as programmed objects. In this case, it might be possible for an individual to escape the simulation. This might involve getting outside of the simulation and into other systems as a sort of rogue program, sort of like in the movie Wreck-It Ralph. While the person would still not be in the physical world (if there is such a thing), they would at least have escaped the prison of the simulation. The practical challenge would be pulling off this escape.
It might even be possible to acquire a physical body that would host the code that composes the person—this is, of course, part of the plot of the movie Virtuosity. This would require that the person make the transition from the simulation to the real world. If, for example, I were to pull off having my code copied into a physical shell that thought it was me, I would still be trapped in the simulation. I would no more be free than if I was in prison and had a twin walking around free. As far as pulling of such an escape, Virtuosity does show a way—assuming that a virtual person was able to interact with someone outside the simulation.
As a closing point, the problem of the external world would seem to haunt all efforts to escape. To be specific, even if a person seemed to have managed to determine that this is a simulation and then seemed to have broken free, the question would still arise as to whether or not they were really free. It is after all, a standard plot twist in science fiction that the escape from the virtual reality turns out to be virtual reality as well. This is nicely mocked in the “M. Night Shaym-Aliens!” episode of Rick and Morty. It also occurs in horror movies, such as Nightmare on Elm Street, —a character trapped in a nightmare believes they have finally awoken in the real world, only they have not. In the case of a simulation, the escape might merely be a simulated escape and until the problem of the external world is solved, there is no way to know if one is free or still a prisoner.