Curious Kids: How do you know that we aren’t in virtual reality right now?

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Is this the real life? Or is this just fantasy?
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This is an article from Curious Kids, a series for children. The Conversation is asking kids to send in questions they’d like an expert to answer. All questions are welcome – serious, weird or wacky! You might also like the podcast Imagine This, a co-production between ABC KIDS listen and The Conversation, based on Curious Kids.

Have you ever had a dream where you thought everything around you was real, and then you wake up and realise it was all a dream? If so, how do you know you’re not dreaming right now?

The Chinese philosopher Zhaungzi had this very thought more than 2,000 years ago. He woke up from dreaming that he was a butterfly, but then couldn’t be sure that he wasn’t a butterfly dreaming he was a man.

It is easy to believe the world around us is real. But it’s possible that it’s a dream or a very complex computer simulation. Maybe we’re all plugged into a very powerful computer that is providing us with a virtual reality experience that makes us think we’re somewhere else.

If the simulation is really good and looks like the real world, we might not know we’re in a simulation.

So the short answer is we cannot ever be absolutely 100% certain we’re not in a computer simulation, or that we’re dreaming instead of being awake.

But while this might seem like a strange or disturbing thought, it actually makes no difference to the way we live.

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