Is life a simulation? Are we living in a computer-driven kind of game? It may seem a weird and delusional question, but what if it’s not? What if there’s something more to it? This simulation hypothesis may seem like something coming out from a science fiction movie, but is it that impossible? Let’s check out…
First of all, what is this simulation hypothesis?
If you have seen The Matrix, you may have an idea of what I am talking about, if not, here it is: in the movie, Keanu Reeves (the time-traveler) plays the character Neo. Neo meets a guy named Morpheus, who gives him a choice of taking the blue pill or the red pill. If Neo took the red pill, he would wake up and realize that his entire life, including his job, his house, everyone he knew, and pretty much everything else, was part of this elaborate simulation, and he would find himself in a world outside of the simulation.
And this is the basic version of the simulation hypothesis. In other words, the simulation hypothesis suggests that the physical world that we live in, including the Earth and the rest of the physical universe, is actually part of a computer simulation.
For some machine to be able to produce our whole reality, and everything it contains, it needs to be unimaginable powerful, and ready to run and keep track of an absurd number of variables. First, consider the course of just on human lifetime, with all its events, all the ideas, materials, and people that one single human interacts with during an average lifespan. Then multiply this by the around a hundred billion humans that have lived on Earth so far. Don’t forget to include every interaction between all these people, the interactions between all the animals, plants, microorganisms, and all the things that we know, as well as the ones we don’t know, to be a part of our world. All these things combined are what constitute the reality we encounter today. Now add the other planets, celestial bodies, and everything that’s a part of our universe to the formula.
Processing all this would require computing a practically impossible amount of data. So this is a crazy and inconceivable idea, right? Wrong…
Are you living in a computer simulation?
“Unless we are now living in a simulation, our descendants will almost certainly never run an ancestor‐simulation,” Philosopher Nick Bostrom.
In 2003, the Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom, who’s a professor at the University of Oxford, wrote an outstanding paper simply called “Are you living in a computer simulation?” that approached the subject of what was to be known as simulation hypothesis.
In his hypothesis, Bostrom claims that future people will likely have super-powerful computers on which they could make simulations of their ancestors. These future simulations would be so good that the simulated people they contain would think they are conscious. And in that case, he says, we are likely among such simulated minds rather than the original biological ones.
Bostrom then concludes that if we don’t believe we are simulations, then we are not entitled to think that we will have descendants who will run lots of such simulations of their ancestors. If we accept the first premise that we’ll have powerful super-computing descendants, then we have to admit the other, that we are a simulation.
That’s some pretty powerful stuff, right?
As Bostrom goes deep into the details of his argument, he writes that within the philosophy of the mind, it is possible to speculate that an artificially-created system could be made to have “conscious experiences,” as long as it was equipped with “the right sort of computational structures and processes.” It’s somewhat presumptuous to assume that only experiences in “a carbon-based biological neural network inside a cranium,” a.k.a. our brain, can give rise to consciousness. Silicon processors in a computer can potentially mimic the same.
Of course, right now, this isn’t something our computers can do. But we can imagine that the current rate of progress and what we know of the limits imposed by physical laws can lead to future civilizations being able to invent such machines, or even turning stars and planets into giant super-computers. These computers could be nuclear or quantum, and whatever they would be, I’m sure they could run amazingly detailed simulations.
Bostrom gives a number to represent the kind of power needed to emulate a human brain’s functionalities – between 1014 to 1017 operations per second. So, if we get that kind of computer speed, we can run a human mind within the machine.
However, he thinks that simulating the whole universe, including all its details “down to the quantum level,” requires so more computing power to the point that it may be “unfeasible.” But that may not be necessary, as all the future humans or post-humans would only need to simulate the human experience of the universe. They’d need to make sure the simulated minds don’t pick up on “irregularities,” or basically anything that doesn’t look consistent. They wouldn’t have to recreate things that the human mind wouldn’t ordinarily notice, like things happening at the microscopic level, for instance.
Representing things happening on distant planetary bodies could also be compressed, there would be no need to get into fantastic detail among those. The machines would just need to do a good enough job. As they would keep track of what all the simulated minds believe, they could just fill in the necessary details on demand, and they could also edit out any errors if those happen to take place.
Bostrom even provides the number – between 1033 to 1036 operations – necessary for simulating all of human history. That would be the goal for this sophisticated virtual reality simulation, based on what we already know about their workings. Actually, he thinks that it’s very likely that just a single computer with a mass of a planet can pull off such a task “by using less than one-millionth of its processing power for one second.” A highly advanced future civilization could build a countless number of such machines.
So, what could stop such a future? The philosopher considers in his paper the very likely possibility that humanity will destroy itself, or be destroyed by an outside event before it reaches this post-human simulated stage. There are even many ways in which humanity could always be stuck in the primitive stages, not ever being able to create the machines needed to simulate entire minds. He even suggests the possibility of our civilization becoming extinct by human-created self-replicating nanorobots, which turn into “mechanical bacteria” (the kind of stuff from sci-fi movies).
Another point against us living in a simulation would be that future civilizations might not be allowed to run such programs, or even not care at all.
“You’re not going to get proof that we’re not in a simulation, because any evidence that we get could be simulated,” Professor David Chalmers
You can check some glitches in the simulation caught on camera here. If that isn’t enough, here are some other proofs that we may be living in a simulation:
1 – The Mandela Effect
Some people claim to remember Nelson Mandela’s death happening in the 1980s, even though he actually died in 2013. The “Mandela Effect,” as it is now known, may be the proof that whoever is in charge of our simulation is changing the past. This effect can also be evidence of parallel universes, and some individuals have crossed from one universe, in which Mandela did, in fact, died in the ‘80s, into ours, where he lived to the age of 95. There are several examples of this phenomenon, including people recalling a nonexistent 1990s movie called Shazaam, starring the comedian Sinbad as a genie.
2 – Strange behaving electrons
In the famous physics’ double-slit experiment, electrons were fired at a photosensitive screen through slits in a copper plate, producing an interference pattern that indicated wavelike behavior. But when they conducted the same test under observation, electrons behaved like particles, not waves, and there was no interference pattern. Some have taken this to mean that our simulation is conserving its resources and rendering certain things only when it knows we’re looking at them.
3 – Climate Change
Our civilization happens to be set, coincidentally, on the cusp of environmental chaos, suggesting we could be an ancestor simulation created in the hopes that we’d show our creators how to solve an energy crisis.
4 – Missing Aliens
We’ve already spent billions, sending probes through outer space and other kinds of intelligent life search experiments, and should probably have found evidence of extraterrestrials by now. Maybe the fact that we haven’t located them yet suggests that we live in a simulation they’ve figured out how to escape from. Or perhaps the machine we’re on only has enough power to simulate one planetary civilization at a time.
5 – Computer Virus in DNA
In 2017, a group of researchers at the University of Washington proved that they could embed malicious computer code into physical strands of DNA. Their goal was to show that computers working in gene sequencing were vulnerable to attack. But they may have, unintentionally, revealed that what we perceive to be biological reality is, in fact, computer code.
6 – We already love making simulations
In 2014, the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics connected 8,000 computers to create a 350 million light-year simulation of our universe and digitally aged it over 13 billion years. And the fact that The Sims video-game franchise has sold over 125 million copies in its first decade shows we’re really interested in playing with simulations. If, and when, a future version of humanity finds the ability to create more realistic simulations, it wouldn’t be a surprise if they opted to do it.
7 – The “bricks” of our simulation
We may have already found the pixel-sized building block of the universe: the Planck-length, the point at which our concepts of gravity and spacetime no longer apply. If our world is a simulation, the Planck-length would be the equivalent to one bit of information, or a pixel.
8 – “Rules” in our Universe
Max Tegmark, an MIT cosmologist, has pointed to our universe’s strict laws of physics as possible evidence that life is a simulation. “If I were a character in a computer game, I would also discover eventually that the rules seemed completely rigid and mathematical.” In this theory, the speed of light (the fastest rate at which any particle can travel) represents the speed limit for transmitting information within the network of our simulation.
9 – Computer code in Quarks
Theoretical physicist James Gates claims he has identified what appears to be actual computer code embed in the equations of string theory that describe the fundamental particles of our universe. He says he found “error-correcting codes – they’re what make browsers work. So why were they in the equation I was studying about quarks and electrons and supersymmetry?”
Why do it?
So, why do it? What’s the upside of creating these simulations?
Bostrom thinks that it’s not likely that the practice of running such simulations would be so widely assumed as being immoral that would be banned everywhere. Also, and knowing human nature, it’s unlikely that, in the future, there wouldn’t be someone who would not find such a project exciting. It is the kind of stuff that, if we could, we would definitely do today, and the chances are that we will continue to want to do it in the distant future.
The fascinating thing is that we have no way of knowing what the actual reality of existence really is. Our minds may be likely accessing just a small fraction of the “totality of physical existence.” And not only that…
What we think we are may be run on virtual machines that are run on other virtual machines, almost like the Inception (another great movie) of simulations, making it nearly impossible for humankind to see beyond the true nature of things. Even the future post-humans simulating us could be themselves simulated. As such, Bostrom concludes, there could be many levels of reality, and the future us might never know if they are at the “fundamental” or “basement” level.
Interestingly, this kind of uncertainty gives rise to universal ethics. If you don’t know if you are the original, you better behave or the godlike beings above will intervene.
What are the other implications of this reasoning? Let’s assume we are living in a simulation, now what? The Swedish philosopher doesn’t think our behavior should be affected much even with such substantial knowledge, especially as we don’t know the true motivations of the future beings behind creating the simulation. They even might have entirely different value systems.
If you think this hypothesis sounds plausible, you’re not alone. Elon Musk and the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, among many others, are convinced that we are just sophisticated self-aware computer programs, or maybe even in some weird video game from the future.
“My advice is to go out and do really interesting things, so the simulators don’t shut you down,” MIT Cosmologist Max Tegmark.