We may find out that we live inside a simulation if we can notice that our reality is not realistic, at least in some aspects. To see why we can look at the possible motives for post-humans to run simulations of human civilisations. Even though it is not certain post-humans might have similar motivations as we have. Modern humans attach great value to their inner selves, so we may not change our human essence once we can. Hence, the motives of post-humans might well be similar to ours, and they might run simulations of human civilisations for research or entertainment.
Research could be about running what-if scenarios. So what if a giant meteor hits the surface of the planet? What if China never became unified? Alternatively, what if there never were religions such as Christianity and Islam? Or what if a deadly infectious disease breaks out? Countless scenarios are possible. Post-humans might be interested in running them to see how humanity will cope. These simulations are likely to be realistic.
Possible entertainment applications are games or dream worlds to make your imagination come true. Such a simulation may not be realistic in some aspects as it reflects the rules of a game or someone’s imagination. Chaos theory states that small changes in the initial conditions of complex systems can have a dramatic impact on future developments. For instance, a butterfly flapping its wings in Texas might cause a hurricane in China. And simulations of civilisations are complex, so to guarantee a particular outcome, you need control over everything that happens. This requirement does not apply to games. Unpredictable developments make games more interesting.
Our understanding of human nature suggests that the number of simulations for entertainment likely vastly outstrip those run for research, at least if sufficient resources are available. Hence, if we do live inside a simulation, we should expect it to be for entertainment. The owner or owners may use avatars and appear like ordinary human beings to us. If reality is unrealistic in some aspects, this suggests that our purpose is entertainment as a simulation run for research is more likely to be realistic. Furthermore, evidence of control further indicates that the purpose of this simulation is not a game but implementing someone’s imagination.
If the beings inside the simulation were sentient, that can raise ethical questions like whether or not they have rights the creators should respect. Considering how humans treat each other, it is not a given that these rights would be respected even when the creators acknowledge them. In a realistic simulation, bad things do happen to people all the time. And in the case of control, the beings inside the simulation are not sentient. They do not think and do not have a will of their own. Hence, we might have no intrinsic value to our creators.
Simulations could be realistic in many ways while not being realistic in some aspects. If that is somehow noticeable, then we might find out that we do live inside a simulation. Instead of speculating about us living in a simulation by guessing the probability of the existence of post-humans and their abilities, resources, and possible motivations, it seems more illuminating to look at the available information about our universe. Perhaps there is a more conclusive argument to be made. It may go like this:
If this universe is real, we cannot be sure that it is, because a simulation can be realistic too, but at least the laws of reality cannot be breached.
This universe may have fake properties, but we cannot establish this because we do not know the properties of an a real universe.
Breaching the laws of reality is unrealistic in any case. If it happens, we may have evidence of this universe being virtual.
It follows from (1) and (2) that we cannot use the properties of this universe reflected in the laws of reality to determine whether this universe is real or a simulation. And it does not matter whether the laws of reality are genuine or not. If they are authentic and breached, this universe is a simulation. If they are fake, this universe is a simulation anyway. Science can establish laws of reality or properties of this universe, but science cannot determine whether they are real or fake.
According to science, this universe kicked 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 on Earth to evolve into what it is today. According to science, 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.
The following properties of our universe are certified by science and can be called established laws of our reality, reflecting what scientists believe to be realistic:
The laws of physics always apply inside their realm, for instance, Newton’s first law of motion, which states that a change in the speed or direction of the movement of a body requires a force.
The universe started with a big bang. Life on this planet emerged from chemical processes, and evolution shaped it. There is no evidence of a creator.
We are biological organisms, and our consciousnesses reside in our bodies. There is no spirit or soul.
Evidence to the contrary might indicate that we do live inside a simulation. Meaningful coincidences suggest there is an intelligent force directing events. The paranormal defies the laws of physics from time to time. Evidence for reincarnation indicates that we are not biological organisms. But meaningful coincidences can materialise by chance. And there may be laws of reality we do not know. And there is plenty of evidence of the consciousness residing in the body while only a few people remember a previous life. A convincing case for us living in a simulation requires clarification as to why it is the best explanation for our existence. The clarification might consist of the following parts:
Our existence is not a miracle that requires a creator, but this universe can be a simulation.
The motivations of post-humans may determine whether we are able to establish that we do live inside a simulation and what its purpose is.
Science cannot establish that his universe is a simulation as we do not know the properties of a real universe.
Alternative explanations for strange phenomena seem less plausible as they run into logical inconsistencies.
Evidence suggestive of reincarnation suffices to conclude that our consciousnesses do not reside in our bodies.
Evidence suggestive of ghosts, premonition, and alien abductions suffices to conclude that the laws of physics do not always apply.
The distribution of meaningful coincidences is unlikely to be result of accident, indicating an intelligence coordinating events in this universe.
Establishing that the distribution of meaningful coincidences is an unlikely result of mere accident is perhaps the hardest part. Meaningful coincidences can happen by accident. It is not possible to determine the probability of them happening. There may however be arguments that can be made to establish that mere accident is not so likely. To make the argument more convincing we might consider the following:
Some types of meaningful coincidences are less likely to happen than others. The more elaborate the scheme, the less likely it is the result of mere chance.
If meaningful coincidences happen in relation to the most important historic events, then an intelligence coordinating events appears more likely.
If meaningful coincides are not distributed randomly across people and time-frames, it might suggest interference or even destiny.
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 long it was impossible to clarify why this world might not be real or how the gods might have created it. Recent advances in information technology have changed that. This universe could be a virtual reality. We are inclined to think that what our senses register is real, so we tend to 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 famous painting named The Treachery of Images of René Magritte makes you notice: this is not a pipe.
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.
According to Bostrom there could be many different 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 anymore and called post-humans. These post-humans might be brains-in-vats or have uploaded their consciousness into a computer and have no physical body. These post-humans may run simulations of their 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:
Nearly all real human civilisations end before enter the post-human stage.
In any post-human civilisation only an extremely small number of individuals are interested in running simulations of a human ancestor civilisations.
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 provenbecause we have not managed to do it yet:
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 It might be explained like this. We do not 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 invent it in the next 10, 100 or 1,000 years, then it will not happen later than that, because 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?
There are many uncertainties. The available computing power of post-human civilisations might not be sufficient. It is possible that nearly all civilisations die out before becoming able to build simulations of human civilisations. Maybe post-humans will differ from us to the point that they will not be interested in running these simulations. Bostrom doesn’t try to guess the likelihood of the options. He thinks that we have no information as to whether this universe is real or not. But that may not be true.
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]
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.