"There’s a one in billions chance [we’re in] base reality... I think it’s one in billions. We should hope that’s true because otherwise if civilization stops advancing, that could be due to some calamitous event that erases civilization, so maybe we should be hopeful this is a simulation. Otherwise, we will create simulations that are indistinguishable from reality or civilization will cease to exist. Those are the two options.” Elon Musk.
Philosophers as far back as Plato (see the allegory of the cave) have reasoned that what we perceive is not reality. With the advent of computers and especially the stupendous increase in computing power, we have to ask ourselves- are we part of a huge computer simulation? Sounds ludicrous, doesn't it? Perhaps, but there are serious professional physicists and philosophers out there who consider the concept not only plausible, but likely. And no, these folk are not inmates of a secure mental health facility, they are, in the main, tenured academics. So on this rainy Sunday afternoon I'm going to look briefly at some of the arguments for and against the hypothesis: are we simulated entities spewing from a very, very, sophisticated computer?
The argument goes something like this as first proposed by the philosopher, Nick Bostrum in 2003: There is one of three possible scenarios for any civilisation. Of which only one is true.
1. Civilisations do not reach a 'posthuman' stage where they are capable of rendering highly sophisticated simulations using computer power.
2. Civilisations reach this stage, but for whatever reason (?ethics) they have no interest in running a simulation.
3. Sophisticated civilisations are running simulations and that there is a high probability we are living in a simulation.
Bostrum argues that at least some highly advanced civilisations would produce 'super-simulations'. He then contends that the possibility of a simulated world is not only plausible but likely. If our civilisation has progressed to this stage then our perceived world is not real (base reality) but a mere fabrication. In fact it doesn't have to be our civilisation devising the code. Maybe a highly developed alien civilisation has beaten us to it. Could 'we' exist as an experiment or as pawns in a simulated game designed for the amusement of little green men? Erm, this is certainly an interesting conundrum. What would this mean for our morality, ethics and how we view ourselves as 'humans'? And what about the ultimate, BIG, question- God: Is God an alien programmer?
Here is something to consider: Our computing ability has increased at a giddy rate over the span of just 60 years. Remember those simple tennis games of the early 1970s? Now contrast this with the complex role playing computer games of today.
's law, which originated in the 70s,
simply states: 'computer processing power doubles every two years'. Tis a bold
predictive statement but one that has shown to be pretty much correct. What
will our computing capacity be in say, 20 years from now? I’m sure you will
have noticed the problem of this sort of reasoning. To posit thusly, I’m
assuming that we are not Sims, yet. Moore
Something else to ponder. The universe seems fine tuned for our existence (Anthropic Principle). If the laws and fundamental physical constants were different to just a very small degree then a universe able to support life could not exist. The universe might be a very different place indeed; no stars; no planets; no aggregates of matter at all. Of course, someone designing a simulation on a super computer would get the programme just right so that the simulation could work so we could exist. Those of a religious bent could perhaps see the 'hand of God'. Although it is also true that if the laws of physics were otherwise we wouldn't be here to ponder this quandary. Just because a set of parameters is improbable this should never equate as impossible. Here is a simple thought experiment: It is estimated that there are 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (let's call it X) grains of sand on Earth. This is about the same number of stars in the visible universe. If you could travel anywhere in the globe and select just one grain of sand the chances of you picking any particular grain would be 1 in X. Truly a staggering astronomical probability. But yet, there is that grain of sand, in your hand.
The grain of sand analogy neatly leads me to:
What is reality anyway? Surely impressions of the outside world impinge on our senses, carried by electrical signals to the brain where they are processed and interpreted to provide a sense of reality. How can it be otherwise? And if the universe is not perceived by a sentient being does the universe actually exist? Regardless, you have got to ask yourself: So what, if we are in a simulation or occupy base reality. Our reality is what exists for us, now. Would a simulated apple taste as sweet as a real one? I would argue, yes.
And finally, I would just like to say a few words about how all this relates to the concept of God. I mentioned earlier that if we are in a simulation then the ‘being’ running the show could be conceived as a god, to the poor pixels dancing to the programmer’s tune. I would argue to the contrary. Whatever a God, actually is, it is not an entity within our frame of reference. In other words, IT cannot be part of the natural universe but by definition, lies in the supernatural realm, whatever they might mean. A super programmer is very much part of the universe and consequently, like us, subject, to natural laws and hence causality. A god cannot be a living, breathing, entity writ large, it has to be a ‘being’ outside the universe otherwise a human would be a god to a dog and a dog a god to an amoeba etc.
As my readers have probably gathered, I’m not an adherent to the ‘Simulation Hypothesis’. The deeper we think about this the more we become hopelessly mired in mind boggling paradoxes. Real life is bloody complex enough without conjuring up the intellectual monstrosity of a simulated life, perhaps? This doesn’t necessary mean it is not true, though. It simply will not do to argue that as we do not like the idea it should not be the case. If we are against the hypothesis we should be prepared to get off our sweaty arses (arse) and argue cogently why this is not so. And yea, to do so we must be prepared to enter the world of obtuse metaphysical concepts. Nuff said (for now).