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Is this the real life? Or is this just fantasy? Nan Palmero/Flickr, CC BY-SA

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

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.

How do you know that we aren’t in virtual reality right now? It could be so realistic that it feels like normal life. – Erin, 13, Strathfield.

Zhuangzi Dreaming of a Butterfly. By Shibata Zeshin, Wikimedia.

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.

If you have friends and family, and things you enjoy doing, it doesn’t really matter if they’re a part of a dream or a simulation, because you will still behave in the same way.

You’ll still be nice to your friends, you’ll still love your family (even if they might annoy you), you’ll still enjoy the taste of your favourite foods, and you’ll still hate getting up early in the morning.

Read more: Curious Kids: Why do our brains freak us out with scary dreams?

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