The Nature of Reality: Are we living in a simulation?

Written by Radoslav Serafimov

“I think therefore I am.” This is possibly the most well-known argument that philosophy has produced in its entire existence. The one who vocalized this thought was the French philosopher René Descartes, who then went on to create something called the “brain in the jar” theory. The theory proposes that one’s consciousness is the only thing that truly exists and that the rest of the world is simply an illusion created by some malignant demon.

In 2003 another idea was proposed by Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom called the Simulation theory. It is essentially Descartes’ idea of the brain in a jar, except that Bostrom attempted to prove why this could, in fact, be the reality of our existence as opposed to Descartes’ use of the idea as nothing more than a thought experiment. Bostrom’s argument boils down to these 3 propositions:

  1. “The probability of human-level civilizations that reaching a sufficiently advanced stage (that is, one capable of running high-level simulations) is very close to zero”, or
  2. “The probability of advanced civilizations being interested in running simulations of their evolutionary history, or variations thereof, is very close to zero”, or
  3. “The proportion of all people with our kind of experiences that are living in a simulation is very close to 100%.”

What Bostrom claims is that at least one of these unlikely-seeming possibilities is almost certainly true. What I am interested in exploring in this article is how the third possibility may come to pass.

The entire simulation theory is based on a few assumptions. Perhaps the most obtrusive of these is the idea that computers that are capable of simulating billions of fully functioning human minds as well as, well…an entire universe are even possible. This may seem absurd, but perhaps it isn’t quite as ludicrous as you might imagine. Let us take a moment to explore the technological feasibility of this idea.

Our technology has reached a level where we can map a human brain down to the neuron in about 45 minutes under an MRI scan. If the brain is the physical representation of the mind, then we could feasibly encode a functioning copy of a human brain. Let us also take a stroll down videogame memory lane. The first computer was invented in 1833. The first video game – Pong – came into being almost 140 years later, in 1972. Only 58 years later we have video games that look almost photorealistic and digital body doubles in movies that can fool a large part of the audience. Previously CGI artists struggled with something known as “the uncanny valley” – the human brain’s natural ability to detect something off about a human face. Even that has been surpassed in the likes of the new Star Wars movies that have revived and rejuvenated actors with great success, managing to even fool this unconscious part of our brains. At the same time, massive leaps are occurring in the fields of electronics and computing such as high-temperature superconductivity and quantum computing (both of which are topics complex enough to be deserving of their own articles).

Considering all of this, is it still inconceivable to imagine that we could eventually simulate an entire universe? It has been suggested that we wouldn’t even need to do that! We could approach the simulation from the perspective of a solipsist and simply simulate only what we are interacting with. In this very moment, I personally cannot verify the existence of say Alpha Centauri since I cannot directly observe it. So, there is no need to simulate it unless I take out a telescope and point it in the direction of Alpha Centauri. Even then, all that I would need to see is a static 2D projection of the star as opposed to a fully functioning, simulated star system.

Thus, it is perhaps feasible that such levels of technological advancement could be achieved. So why would anyone want to make them in the first place? Many reasons have been cited, such as ancestor simulations to explore and study a species’ past, entertainment and scientific experimentation or perhaps even to attempt to test out political campaigns and propaganda before deploying them in the “real world”.

Now we come to the crux of the matter – are we living in a simulation?

We have attempted to illustrate possible ways of achieving such a feat as simulating an entire world full of conscious beings as well as possible reasons for doing such a thing. Bostrom claims that if both of these conditions are satisfied (i.e. a capable posthuman civilization chooses to create so-called “ancestor” simulations to explore their past) it becomes almost certain that we do live in a simulation. This is because any ancestor simulation will eventually reach the point where they can create an ancestor simulation themselves and this would repeat ad infinitum, thus making it highly unlikely for us to exist in the original “real” world!

Now that I’ve hopefully freaked you out a little bit it comes time to ask – what does this mean for us? How does this change the way we live our lives? Well, economist Robert Hanson suggests that we should attempt to be entertaining to avoid being deleted in case the simulation’s purpose is entertainment. We should also probably avoid attempting to find out if we even live in a simulation since if we did it would probably end, and our lives would be forfeit.

Ultimately, most philosophers and scientists agree that Simulation theory is impossible to conclusively prove or disprove, though some have tried. So, we should live our lives as we would anyway, because whether you are flesh and blood or an advanced computer code, that is not what defines us as people, so we shouldn’t set too much store by it.


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