The simulation argument

Is this world real?

Already in ancient times philosophers found out that there is no way of telling that the world around us is real or that other people have a mind of their own. Perhaps I am the only being that is real while the rest of the world exists only in my imagination. This could all be a dream. On the other hand, some major religions claim that gods created this universe, and that we are like these gods. For instance, in the first chapter of the Bible God says “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness.”

For a long time it was impossible to clarify why this world might not be real or how the gods might have created it. More recently it is possible to come up with an explanation. This universe could be a virtual reality created by an advanced civilisation. We could be a characters in a virtual reality controlled by a computer programme. That may give you an uneasy feeling for we are inclined to think that what our senses register, is real. For instance, we may think we see a pipe when there is only an image of a pipe. The caption of the picture reads “this is not a pipe.”

Do we live inside a computer simulation?

In 1977 a science fiction writer named Philip K. Dick was the first to claim that our reality is made up by a computer. He guessed it after experiencing a psychosis. The philosopher Nick Bostrom formalised the idea twenty-five years later in the simulation argument. He argues that we might be living inside a virtual reality. There could be many different human civilisations. The humans in those civilisations may enhance themselves with bio-technology and information technology, live very long and have capabilities ordinary humans don’t have. For those reasons these beings aren’t humans any more, henceforth they are called post-humans.

Bostrom now asserts that the post-humans may run virtual realities of human civilisations. An obvious reason for doing this is entertainment. And so we could be living in a virtual reality ourselves. The difference between a real (non-virtual) human civilisation and a virtual reality is that a real human civilisation emerged and developed itself, while a virtual civilisation is created. Given sufficiently advanced technology, it seems possible to represent a universe in a meaningful way, including simulated human consciousnesses. Current developments in information technology suggest that our civilisation may be able to create virtual reality universes in the future.

Bostrom thinks that one of the following three options must be true: (1) nearly all human civilisations end before they can build virtual realities resembling human civilisations, (2) when human civilisations or post-human civilisations can build virtual realities of human civilisations, they will not do so or only make a small number of them or (3) we are almost certainly living inside a virtual reality as there will be a large number of virtual universes for every real universe. The hidden assumption behind the simulation argument is that this technology is feasible and can be made cheap.1

How likely is it?

It is not possible to calculate the probability of us living in a virtual reality. There are a lot of uncertainties in the simulation argument. For example, our civilisation could be the only human civilisation and we could go extinct. Or perhaps post-humans develop ethical objections against building virtual realities of humans. And even though humans like to write stories and use virtual realities for research or entertainment, they may alter themselves so that post-humans do not have these desires. Still, there is a good chance that live in a virtual reality ourselves.

That is because we humans see ourselves as special and unique. Religions make use of this trick too. The Bible says that we are made in the image of God and that humans are ordained to rule all other living creatures. So if we have the means to perpetuate our delusions, we will not give up on them. On the contrary, as soon as it is possible to make our imagination become reality, we will not hesitate to do so. Hence, when humans transform themselves to become post-humans, they will probably cling to their believed precious human essence, and let their imagination run free.

The idea of this universe being a virtual reality is popularised in the 1999 film The Matrix. The film speculates about us having an existence outside this world. That doesn’t need to be. We may just be virtual reality characters inside a computer simulation. So why did Neo’s passport expire on 11 September 2001, the date of the terrorist attacks? Perhaps it is just a coincidence. Or perhaps this universe is just a form of entertainment.

matrix_passport
Neo’s passport expiring on 11 September 2001

Featured image: The Treachery of Images. René Magritte (1928). [copyright info]

1. Are You Living In a Computer Simulation? Nick Bostrom (2003). Philosophical Quarterly (2003) Vol. 53, No. 211, pp. 243-255. [link]

Dead Sea Scroll - part of Isaiah Scroll

A few possible scenarios

The future may not look outrageously inspiring. It may be even a bit scary to think about what might happen. To name a few possibilities, terrorists could spread deadly diseases, governments and corporations may soon know more about us than we do ourselves (they may already), machines may become smarter than people (they may be already), and climate change could make large parts of the planet uninhabitable. In the meantime futurologists have been busy figuring out what the future might look like. If things don’t go wrong then a few scenarios seem feasible.

First, machines and algorithms may take over our tasks so that humans will become obsolete as workers. That already happened in many fields but until now new jobs have been created that replaced the old ones, mostly in the service sector and the bureaucracy. Soon much of human decision-making may be replaced by algorithms. An algorithm is a rule or a set of rules like “if this happens then do that.” A very simple example is “if the temperature falls below a certain threshold then turn on the heating.” This particular algorithm relieves us from the tedious task of turning the heating on and off. More complex algorithms executed by computers may soon make better decisions than humans in many situations.

In a decade or so we may not be driving our own cars any more. We may just tell them where to go. Cars may plot a route, drive us there, and keep us safe. It may be forbidden to drive a car yourself as human drivers cause more accidents than computers. A few decades ago, when Knight Rider was a popular television series, this seemed a distant possibility, but today the technology is already there. Algorithms can make many decisions. We may still decide what we want, for example where we want to go to, or what kind of book we like to read, but algorithms may decide the specifics. You may accept this because the algorithms are better at doing these jobs than you are.

Second, humans may enhance themselves using bio-technology, cyborg engineering and information technology, and evolve into beings that differ from humans existing today. These beings may still be like us in many ways. That is because we think of ourselves as special so we may  not be willing to alter our precious essence. The ‘improved’ humans can be called post-humans because they were created from humans. They may live very long, and because algorithms may do most of the decision-making for them, they may have a lot of time on their hands. Boredom may be their biggest challenge. This brings us to the third option. These post-humans may create virtual realities with simulations of humans to entertain themselves. And they may live in tubes like brains in vats.

The future could be a combination of the three options. Machines and algorithms will take over our jobs so that we will become obsolete as workers. We will be enhanced with new technologies and live very long. And we will create virtual realities with simulations of humans to entertain ourselves. If that is going to happen, and the technology to create these virtual reality universes becomes cheap, there will be billions of virtual universes for every real universe. If that is true then we almost certainly live in a virtual reality ourselves.1 And may be a lot cheaper in terms of computer resources if the actors in the virtual reality don’t think for themselves and just follow a predetermined script.

If there are billions of virtual universes for every real one then what are the odds of our universe being real? The answer is one in a few billion. We can’t know at what point in time we live, before or after the invention of virtual reality universes, but we have to assume that it is after. That can be explained as follows. Assume that every year has an equal probability of this technology being invented and that we are going to create this technology in the next 100 years or 1,000 years. It will not happen later than that because by then we have done it. But what are the odds of it happening in the next 100 or 1,000 years compared to the billions of years that already have passed?

The owner or owners of a virtual reality may be indifferent towards the fate of simulated humans inside, just like we are indifferent to characters in a computer game. That is not surprising. Animals are more real than simulated humans, but most people don’t care much about animals either, except for their pets. Many people are indifferent to the fate of their fellow humans when they don’t share their beliefs or ethnicity. Yet, the owner or the owners of this universe may play roles in this virtual reality using avatars, just like we can use avatars in computer games. And perhaps, if being an avatar becomes the daily reality of the owner or the owners, she, he or they might still care for us

The verdict may already be out. The licence plate number of Franz Ferdinand’s car suggests that this universe is a virtual reality created by an advanced civilisation. This gives new meaning to the first chapter of the Bible where God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness.” And so the old texts drawn up by Jewish priests in the fifth century BC may strike back with a vengeance. The religions of the God of Abraham may not have come out on top by accident. But the Jews made up their deity Yahweh. And then this deity created us? How to make sense of that?

Featured image: Dead Sea Scroll – part of Isaiah Scroll (Isa 57:17 – 59:9). Public Domain.

1. Are You Living In a Computer Simulation? Nick Bostrom (2003). Philosophical Quarterly (2003) Vol. 53, No. 211, pp. 243-255. [link]