A friend asks ‘Are we living in a simulation?’

Neil deGrasse Tyson, Elon Musk and others have suggested that our universe might be a simulation. A friend of mine wondered aloud recently how anyone might test such a hypothesis.

For some reason I think of Carmen.

Carmen is the title character of an 1875 opera by Georges Bizet. She is a Romani woman who by day works in a Spanish cigarette factory and by night works with gangsters to smuggle contraband across the border.

Carmen  (Maria Ewing)

Carmen exemplifies some questions that arise when we explore aesthetic philosophy.

Does Carmen know she is in an opera?
No. Carmen would say she is in Spain.

Does Carmen know she is singing?
Only when she is.

The singer who portrays Carmen is singing all the time and knows it. But Carmen would say that sometimes she sings and most of the time she doesn't. Sometimes she's got a little ‘la la la’ going as she walks around. Most of the time she's having conversationsmaking plans, flirting, telling people to go to hell. And sometimes, as a mezzo-soprano performs on a stage in our world, Carmen is silently thinking to herself.

Is Carmen free?
Carmen is a character whose story is set. She acts in predetermined ways, voices predetermined lines.

In those lines Carmen insists that she is free, a person who makes her own choices.

Is Carmen at least free in her own universe?
Carmen says she is, but even she has trouble believing this.

Carmen's actions are those of a driven personality. Tragedy results when she toys with a person who turns out to be as driven as she is.

Though Carmen insists to others that she is free, in her most private moments the insistence falls. Everything, she believes, is written in the cards one is dealt. One's fate is always sealed. No one really gets to choose anything.

Can Carmen discover that she's an opera character?
As her opera is not about a character who makes such a discovery, she cannot.


Carmen lives in world where things happen a certain way. There people go around singing just as here atoms form molecules. No one finds this strange. It's just how the universe works.

Carmen's end will always be tragic. The events of her life represent a closed loop in the fabric of that world.

This would not surprise her. Carmen has always suspected as much. She will never see her situation as we do, though, because the only view she can get is from inside her universe.

In that universe she is not a character. She is a person.