Paul M. Sutter is an astrophysicist at SUNY Stony Brook and the Flatiron Institute, host of “Ask a Spaceman” and “Space Radio,” and author of “How to Die in Space.” Sutter contributed this article to Space.com’s Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.
Is everything we know and experience, including reality itself, a simulation created by some invisible and unknowable entity? This idea, known as the simulation hypothesis, was first put forward by Oxford University professor Nick Bostrom in 2003.
But does the simulation hypothesis offer a convincing argument, or is it just something interesting to ponder? Let’s find out.
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Suppose our computers will continue to grow ever more powerful, efficient, and capable. Let’s say that at some point in the deep future (for this argument to work, it doesn’t matter exactly when), we built a ridiculous planet-sized computer, a computer so powerful it could simulate our entire universe. , recreating all the physics, chemistry, and biology that we experience in the natural world.
If we also assume that consciousness is consciousness, regardless of where it resides (either in an organic or digital brain), then any simulated entity within the computer that gains consciousness will experience a world that is indistinguishable from our own.
You know, Matrix.
Once our descendants build such a computer, they will inevitably create countless simulated beings; just try to count how many creatures in video games have come and gone since we first developed the technology. Very quickly, the number of simulated sentient brains living in a computer will far outnumber the organic brains living in the real universe. If this ends up happening, we are left with three possibilities:
1. Our descendants (or other intelligent beings in the universe) will never be able to develop the technological ability to faithfully simulate the cosmos.
2. Our descendants (or other intelligent beings in the universe) will develop the technology but will choose not to simulate the cosmos.
3. The vast majority of all sentient entities, including you, are living in a simulation.
The simulation argument is the latest in a long tradition of philosophical thought that questions the ultimate nature of the reality we experience. Throughout the centuries, philosophers have wondered if our reality is the construction of a malicious demon or if we live inside someone else’s dream. It is the ultimate form of skepticism and is useful in reminding us that there are limits to the empirical study of nature.
As for the philosophical arguments, the simulation hypothesis is a good one. But the hypothesis ends with a trilemma: three statements, one of which must be true (if it accepts all the assumptions of the argument), but we can’t say which one.
You are allowed to put your hands up and say you don’t know which possibility is most likely correct. You are also allowed to argue for one option over another. For example, you might say that computers will never be powerful enough to faithfully simulate the universe or that advanced civilizations will always find it morally reprehensible to simulate consciousness. Or you could say that everything is inevitable and that we live in the simulation of someone else’s universe.
However, whichever option you choose, you must provide additional arguments beyond the original simulation hypothesis. Or, you could question the assumptions that go into the argument itself.
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Perhaps the most important assumption in the simulation hypothesis is that simulated brains will rapidly outnumber organic brains. Assuming there are no differences between organic and simulated consciousness experiences (another big assumption), this is what allows you to calculate the odds of you living in a simulation. In the distant future, for example, there could be 99 billion simulated sentient beings for every billion organic beings. That would mean that there is a 99% chance that you are among the simulated ones.
But in 2017, Brian Eggleston, a systems analysis undergraduate student at Stanford University, discovered a major flaw in Bostrom’s accounting. The simulation argument is based on our descendants building super advanced computers, because we are the only known species to build computers in the first place. Once our descendants build such computers, we will know for certain that we are not among the simulated beings in those computers, because we can point to those computers and say conclusively that we are not among them.
No matter how many simulated sentient entities our descendants make, whether it’s 10 billion or 10 billion, we can’t use them to calculate the odds of us being in a simulation. In other words, its future ability to create simulated universes tells us nothing about whether we’re in a simulation. We cannot use the future numbers to calculate the probabilities. And if we can’t calculate the probabilities, we don’t have a trilemma and so we can’t say anything else.
Instead, we can only look into our past, whether it’s humans who lived some time before us (in a real, unsimulated universe) or some alien creatures who enjoy making simulated humans. While either of those realities is possible, we have absolutely no evidence that it’s true, and we have no way of calculating how many simulated entities exist.
Are we living in a simulation? Ultimately, we don’t know, and the simulation hypothesis doesn’t provide a convincing argument that we can. So you can get back to enjoying your life.
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