Simulation hypothesis

Is this world real?

Already in ancient times philosophers imagined 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 one who is real while the rest of the world is my imagination. This could all be a dream. Some major religions claim that gods created this universe and that we are like them. In the Bible it is written that God said: “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 advances in information technology changed that. This universe could be a virtual reality. We are inclined to think that what our senses register is real, so we may ignore evidence to the contrary. For instance, you may think you see a pipe when watching an image of a pipe. The caption of the picture makes you notice: this is not a pipe.

Do we live inside a computer simulation?

In 1977 science fiction writer Philip K. Dick was the first to claim that we do exist in a computer-generated reality. This is the simulation hypothesis. He came to this insight after experiencing a psychosis. If he is right then his name suggests that our creators do like to joke around. Professor Nick Bostrom explored the probability the simulation hypothesis being true in the simulation argument. It states that we almost certainly live inside a computer simulation if certain conditions are met.

According to science this universe started off fourteen billion years ago with a big bang. Ten billion years later life on this planet began to develop out of chemical processes. It took another four billion years for life to evolve into what it is today. The first humans arrived on the scene 400,000 years ago. Agriculture started 10,000 years ago. Modern science began only 500 years ago. There is no evidence of an intelligent creator, the laws of physics always apply, and we are biological organisms made out of carbon and water.

For the purpose of the argument this universe and our civilisation can be called real if the above is all true. If this is all appearance, and we only exist inside a computer, this universe can be called a simulation.

Bostrom argues that there may be many different real human civilisations as there might be parallel real universes containing human civilisations. The humans in those civilisations may at some point enhance themselves with bio-technology and information technology, live very long and acquire capabilities ordinary humans don’t have. For that reason these beings aren’t humans but are called post-humans. These post-humans may run simulations of human ancestor civilisations. In that case we may be living in one of those simulations ourselves. Bostrom argues that at least one of the following must be true:

  1. Nearly all real human civilisations end before enter the post-human stage.
  2. In any post-human civilisation only an extremely small number of individuals are interested in running simulations of a human ancestor civilisations.
  3. We almost are certainly living inside a computer simulation.1

It comes with the following assumptions that appear realistic to many experts in the relevant fields, but are not proven:

  • The available computing power in post-human civilisations is sufficient to run a very large number of simulations of human ancestor civilisations.
  • The human consciousness needs not to reside in a biological organism, but can be implemented in a computer, perhaps in a limited form that appears realistic.1

Bostrom then concludes that if you believe that our civilisation will one day become post-human and will run a large number of human ancestor civilisations then you must believe we are currently living inside such a simulation.1 That is because we don’t know at what point in time we are, before or after the invention of virtual reality universes. If every year has an equal probability of this technology being invented, and we are going to create this technology in the next 10, 100 or 1,000 years then it will not happen later than that. By then we will have done it. But what are the odds of it happening in the next 10, 100 or 1,000 years compared to the billions of years that already have passed?

Bostrom doesn’t try to guess the likelihood of the options. There are too many uncertainties. The available computing power of post-human civilisations might be insufficient. Or perhaps nearly all civilisations will die out before becoming advanced. Or perhaps post-humans will differ from us to the point that they will not be interested in running simulations of humans. Bostrom further assumes we have no information as to whether this universe is real or not. But that may not be true.

Post-human motivations

These simulations may be realistic in many ways but may not be realistic in some aspects. If that is somehow noticeable then we may be able to know. To see why a simulation may not be realistic in some respects, we have to look at the possible motivations for post-humans to run simulations of human ancestor civilisations. Even though it is not at all certain, post-humans may have similar motivations as humans. Hence, these simulations might be made for research or for entertainment.

A research application could be running what-if scenarios. So what if a giant meteor hits the surface of the planet? What if China never became unified? What if there never were religions like Christianity and Islam? Or what if a deadly infectious disease breaks out? Countless scenarios can be imagined. Post-humans might be interested in running them and see how humanity would cope. In that case the simulations may be realistic.

Possible entertainment applications for simulations are playing games or making your imaginations come true. Such a simulation may not be realistic in some aspects because it reflects someone’s imagination. Chaos theory suggests that even small changes in the initial conditions can have a dramatic impact on future developments so in order to guarantee a particular outcome you might need complete control over what happens. This doesn’t apply to games as unpredictable outcomes is what makes games interesting.

Real or fake?

If the simulation is in some ways not realistic, that may be noticeable. In order to notice it, we need to have an idea of what is realistic and what is not. We only have our universe and our state of knowledge about its past, its laws of physics, and our human nature, to make such a guess. If this universe is indeed real, then it must be realistic by definition. If we have sufficient knowledge about reality, it may be possible to discover that we live inside a simulation. If this universe is real, then the following seems to apply:

  • There is no evidence of an intelligent force coordinating events in this universe.
  • The laws of physics are always the same and cannot be breached.
  • We are biological organisms made out of matter and our consciousnesses reside in our bodies.

Evidence to the contrary may indicate that we do live inside a simulation. Meaningful coincidences suggest that there is an intelligent force directing the events in this universe. The paranormal seems to flout the laws of nature. Evidence for reincarnation suggests that we are not biological organisms. But meaningful coincidences can happen because of chance. And there may be laws of physics we do not know of. And there is plenty of evidence of the consciousness residing in the body while only a few people remember a previous life. Making a convincing case for the simulation hypothesis requires clarifying why simulation is a more plausible explanation for these phenomena.

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

Witbreuksweg dormitory

Meaningful coincidences

Is it possible to prove that this universe is a virtual reality created by an advanced civilisation? The properties of this universe can’t be used for that because we don’t know what a real universe looks like. There may be another way. If coincidences have meaning to us and if they happen numbers that are improbable, this may be because an intelligent force is directing events. Perhaps there is even a script. If there is a script then this universe may be created by an advanced civilisation. A script can generate meaningful and peculiar coincidences. And indeed, peculiar coincidences happen, for instance similar extremely rare events happening on the same day.

On 15 July 2011 two television towers in the Netherlands caught fire. One collapsed in a spectacular way. There never had been a fire in a television tower in the Netherlands before while those television towers had been there for more than fifty years. And there are only a few television towers, making such an incident even more improbable. There was some speculation about these incidents having a common cause. This is unlikely as these towers are two individual masts in different areas.1

The following happened to me. In 1992 I was making a bike trip in Groningen where I lived back then. While I was on my way a car door suddenly opened just in front of me. I could barely avoid a collision. Some ten minutes later, while I was still on the same trip, it happened again with another car on another road. Remarkably, it never happened before or after this trip that a car door just opened in front of me, even though I made bike trips nearly every day.

Incidents like these might be mere random events. Bizarre accidents happen all the time by chance because so many things happen at the same time. Some of them are bizarre but it doesn’t require an intelligent force to make that happen. There is no way of calculating the odds of an event like two television towers catching fire in one country in one day because these events are extremely rare. The probability of each of these events happening is extremely low, but the number of possible rare accidents is extremely high.

But how low and how high? That matters a lot. If there are a million of these events, and the odds of one of them happening on a certain day is one in a million, we shouldn’t be surprised to see such events happening. On average an event like that should happen every day. But if the odds are one in a trillion, and these events happen quite often, we may be on to something, because on average it should happen once in a million days.

We attribute meaning in many different ways and we are not inclined to think of randomness in the case of unusual events. The number of possible meaningful coincidences is close to infinite so it should not surprise us that meaningful coincidences happen. On the other hand, bizarre and meaningful coincidences are more likely to happen to someone but are less likely to happen to me. Several meaningful coincidences happening in one person’s life has more significance than a simple incident like two car doors opening in front of me on the same day.

There were plenty unusual incidents in my life. For instance, once I entered a do-it-yourself store. There was a couch near the entrance. The price tag was € 389. This caught my attention because as a student I lived in dormitory 389-second-floor on the campus of the University of Twente. Price tags often end with a nine so the incident wasn’t impressive. Then I realised that it would be far more curious to find a price tag of € 401 as I also had lived on dormitory 401-right-side and price tags rarely end with a 1.

A few seconds later I ran into a pile of bags of potting soil. These bags had 40l conspicuously printed on them, noting that they contained forty litres of potting soil. That was close enough to 401 to be intriguing. There weren’t any other bags to be seen. Potting soil comes in bags of 10, 20, 25, 40 and 50 litres, and bags of 40 litres come with markings like 40L and 40 litres, so the marking 40l is peculiar.

And more was to come. Two years later I came back to the same store. Bags of potting soil with the 40l marking were situated outside near the entrance. This reminded me of the previous incident. There was no couch near the entrance nor did I see a price tag of € 389 there. These things I was contemplating while I proceeded to fetch the item I was planning to buy. The price of this item turned out to be € 3.89.

This scheme is more intricate than two television towers catching fire or two car doors opening in front of you on the same day, most notably because there was a repeating pattern while these incidents also appear to be part of a larger scheme, in this case of a sequence of peculiar coincidences referring to a certain lady who lived on dormitory 401-right-side. The first coincidence was already remarkable. The second one was truly inconceivable if you come to think of it, or perhaps not if you are a sceptic.

Featured image: Number 381 dormitory. University Of Twente (2013). [copyright info]

1. Onderzoek: Hoe konden twee zendmasten vandaag in brand vliegen? Algemeen Dagblad (15-07-2011). [link]

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 allegedly said: “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 that became possible due to advances in technology. This universe could be a virtual reality created by an advanced civilisation. We could all 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?

The idea that we could be simulated beings inside a computer first came up in 1964 in the book Simulacron-3. In 1977 a science fiction writer named Philip K. Dick (funny name) was the first to really claim that our reality is made up by a computer. He did this after experiencing a psychosis. The philosopher Nick Bostrom formalised the idea twenty-five years later in the simulation argument. He argued 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 these 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) universe and a virtual reality is that a real universe is not created by intent, while a virtual civilisation is. 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 not-too-distant 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 human essence, and let their imagination run free. And their imagination may become their new life as Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert noted:

For those of you who only watched the ‘old’ Star Trek, the holodeck can create simulated worlds that look and feel just like the real thing. The characters on Star Trek use the holodeck for recreation during breaks from work. This is somewhat unrealistic. If I had a holodeck, I’d close the door and never come out until I died of exhaustion. It would be hard to convince me I should be anywhere but in the holodeck, getting my oil massage from Cindy Crawford and her simulated twin sister. Holodecks would be very addicting. If there weren’t enough holodecks to go around, I’d get the names of all the people who had reservations ahead of me and beam them into concrete walls. I’d feel tense about it, but that’s exactly why I’d need a massage. I’m afraid the holodeck will be society’s last invention.2

Processing and memory constraints

Even though the advanced civilisation will may have enormous processing and memory capacity, there may be processing and memory constraints for individual simulations as they may run billions of simulations. There may be ways to overcome these limitations like rendering only observed reality and running a predetermined script. Free will may simply be too expensive.

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 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]
2. The Dilbert Future. Scott Adams (1997). Harper Business.