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The Digital Universe: On Living in a Computer Simulation

The idea that reality is not as we perceive it to be, or that we live in some sort of illusory world, has long been a staple of science fiction stories. Is the world we see all around us really the one we think it is, or are we living in some sort of complex illusion? One pervasive idea is that everything we see and do is part of a vast, complex simulation run by hyper-advanced computers, and that you, I, and everyone around us are all living in essentially one massive virtual reality program. This concept was most famously portrayed within the realm of science fiction by the Matrix trilogy of films, but is this all just science fiction or is there any truth in such a bizarre notion? Believe it or not, the idea has gained quite a bit of traction and momentum in recent years among scientists, and is not as firmly entrenched within the domain of pure Forteana that you might perhaps expect. So make sure you have a helmet on to prevent the brain splatter of all the mind blowing you are about to receive, and let’s take a look.

The suspicion that all is not what it seems is not exactly new. The great Greek philosopher Plato was entertaining the idea that our existence was like shadows dancing and flickering upon a cave wall 2,400 years ago. There was also long the idea that we all live in a perpetual dream, a concept embraced by the ancient Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi in around 369 BC, who called life “the great dream,” as well as by the 4th to 5th century C.E. Yogachara Buddhist philosopher Vasubandhu. In the 17th century, René Descartes mused that reality could all very well be manipulated and shaped at the whim of some all-powerful invisible demon without our knowledge, and in the 18th century the famous philosopher George Berkley bluntly proclaimed that our world was merely an illusion. Indeed, great thinkers have always questioned our perception of reality since time unremembered. One of the more recent ideas pertaining to this basic concept of life as an illusion is that we are all living within a complex virtual reality program created hundreds or thousands of years in the future of our own perceived timeline by our ancestors for reasons we may never fully understand.

Although bandied about for years, this idea, called the “The Simulation Hypothesis,” was first definitively formed and cemented in the public awareness in 2003, by University of Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom, who proposed that our ancestors far in the future may have reached a point in computing technology that they are able to create whole virtual worlds populated by artificial intelligence programs that exist digitally, us, for the purpose of recreating different eras of their past or their evolutionary history for their own study or amusement. Bostrom speculated that there could feasibly be vast numbers of these virtual simulations being run by our descendants, or even those created by other simulations, making us possibly computer simulations within other computer simulations, which could in turn be simulations of others.

Considering the almost absolute certainty that we will one day achieve the technology to produce these complex simulations, and that these would potentially spawn countless other simulated minds that would eventually far outnumber those of the original creators, Bostrum argued that there was a statistically much higher chance that we are among the simulated rather than the original biological minds that started the whole thing, or what is often called the “base reality.” The whole idea revolves around a “trilemma,” the one in this case which Bostrom called “the simulation argument,” which proposes that one of three scenarios must be true. The three propositions are more or less as follows:

  1. That advanced societies never reach the point of being able to make high-fidelity simulations indistinguishable from reality because they wipe themselves out before it gets that far, easy to see considering our inherently self-destructive nature.
  2. That society does reach that level of technological advancement, but for whatever reason, perhaps for ethical or moral ones, chooses not to implement it.
  3. The fraction of all people with our kind of experiences that are living in a simulation is very close to one.

I told you so

The basic idea is that if there is any chance that #3 is true, then it follows that we are most likely living in a simulation ourselves. If this were true, and we are indeed living in one massively complex virtual reality run by higher intellects, then it would have a variety of possibly spooky consequences. One idea that has been put forward is that if this is all a simulated reality, then the creators likely have limits to their computing power, no matter how advanced they are. After all, why should they lovingly and meticulously render every single atom in the universe in the first place, and how much power would that take? This would take mind-boggling amounts of computing power, and means that they may have to cut corners, so to speak, and thus necassarily prevent their simulations from creating other simulations, which would eat up ever more processing power.

This means that at a certain point, when a simulation is on the verge of creating its own, which could go on to make its own and so on ad infinitum, then the creators might simply pull the plug on it all and reboot, or alternatively reroute the high-fidelity consciousness down into a more “low-fidelity” part of the program. Another chilling possibility is that there could occasionally be bugs or viruses in the system that could potentially wipe us out or at the very least twist or warp our reality. Indeed, just as in the Matrix films, it is thought that certain unexplained anomalies or curiosities in our reality such as ghosts, UFOs, and a wide variety of other paranormal phenomena could be essentially “glitches in the matrix,” so to speak.

If the existence of this simulation runs the risk of being shut down or rebooted at any time, there seems to be little we could do about it, and nothing to give us warning. We would simply one day cease to exist, or be reset back to an earlier timeline to relive our lives again, possibly under different parameters. Some interesting ideas of what we could actually do about this have been put forward, with cosmologist Max Tegmark having mused that it is important that we make our simulation entertaining enough for these proposed creators so that they decide not to shut us down. Tegmark has said of this possibility:

If you’re not sure, at the end of the night, whether you’re actually simulated or not, my advice to you is to go out there and live really interesting lives, and do unexpected things, so the simulators don’t get bored and shut you down.

Another possible consequence of living in a simulated world is that every simulation could even have its own laws of physics, as each one could essentially be set to run on a certain set program with its own limitations and rules, sort of like a video game engine, and these could be tweaked or changed for the study or even amusement of our overlords. Indeed, it is slightly unnerving to think that what we are and the physical rules we live by, everything we observe about nature and the universe, could be something conjured up by the whims of some other outside intelligence. Machine intelligence expert at Google, Ray Kurzweil, has even gone as far as to suggest, “Maybe our whole universe is a science experiment of some junior high-school student in another universe.”

If this were the case, and our physical bounds were decided by and even occasionally changed these creators, then trying to understand the universe we inhabit would be less like science and more like a video game character trying to figure out the operating system their “game” is running on. We would have no idea if the rules of reality as we know it are set or even real to begin with. Tegmark has commented on this and how it pertains to the possible existence of a computer simulated world thus:

In order to make the argument in the first place, we need to know what the fundamental laws of physics are where the simulations are being made. And if we are in a simulation then we have no clue what the laws of physics are. What I teach at MIT would be the simulated laws of physics.

Other thoughts on this idea of the nature of these proposed creators deciding on and meddling with our reality have been brought up as well. Philosopher at New York University David Chalmers has said of the possibility of such a shadowy creator, “We in this universe can create simulated worlds and there’s nothing remotely spooky about that. Our creator isn’t especially spooky, it’s just some teenage hacker in the next universe up.” Physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has also chimed in on this, saying:

We don’t think of ourselves as deities when we program Mario, even though we have power over how high Mario jumps. There’s no reason to think they’re all-powerful just because they control everything we do.

However, Tyson has tempered this somewhat by suggesting the substantial gap in intelligence that would exist between our simulated minds and the original architects of the program, adding:

We would be drooling, blithering idiots in their presence. If that’s the case, it is easy for me to imagine that everything in our lives is just a creation of some other entity for their entertainment.

Another consequence of living in a computer simulated reality would be what happens when we become truly aware that we are within one? What kind of effect would that have on the human mind and our sense of morals or religious beliefs? If the simulation hypothesis is real, it would tie into religious beliefs such as eternal life and reincarnation, as every program could be run again and brought back to life either in the same form or a different body. Imagine the profound effect on spirituality and religion that the awareness of being simulations would bring. Chalmers has said of this:

If the simulation hypothesis is valid then we open the door to eternal life and resurrection and things that formally have been discussed in the realm of religion. The reason is quite simple: If we’re programs in the computer, then as long as I have a computer that’s not damaged, I can always re-run the program.

A simulated reality could also mean eternal life in the sense that simulations could be “promoted” in a way into escalating planes of existence by the ones generating the program. This idea was explored by the philosopher Eric Steinhart in his 2014 book Your Digital Afterlives, in which he speculates that our reality might be one of many infinite layers of other simulations all running simultaneously and which he calls “nested simulations,” all residing within a “great chain of being.” Steinhart muses that the advanced beings who created these simulations might care about the artificial intelligences they have spawned, and “level-up” programs that die into a cycle of ascension through progressively higher levels of simulation. What would knowing of this do to our society and the many faiths that we have all over the world? Indeed, the very idea that we have a creator other than the traditional view of a all-powerful, omniscient God could have profound effects on theology. After all, if this is all true, then it is not a higher being that has made us, but rather, in a sense, us.

Awareness of being a program could also cause a potential break-down in society or at least tough questions on our existence in other ways, as why would anyone need to care about such things when none of this is “real” anyway? Would this cause people to be more prone to breaking the law or hurting others, or to run amok? Would there be an increased amount of carelessness in peoples’ behavior, or a degradation of their moral or societal values? An economist and futurist by the name of Robin Hanson has speculated on this thus:

Your motivation to save for retirement, or to help the poor in Ethiopia, might be muted by realizing that in your simulation, you will never retire and there is no Ethiopia.

This talk of living in a virtual reality may all seem to be fairly far-out, but the basic idea has been latched onto and pondered and debated on by a surprising number of philosophers, futurists, technologists, and physicists. One of the most high-profile advocates of the idea that we live in a simulated reality is none other than the billionaire founder of Tesla Motors and SpaceX, Elon Musk, who has suggested that it is inevitable that the technology to create virtual worlds that are indistinguishable from reality will be created, and that since this will most certainly happen then we almost certainly live in one such construct, saying, “There’s a billion to one chance we’re living in base reality.” As evidence, Musk points to the astronomical advancement of computer technology in recent years, saying:

Forty years ago we had Pong – two rectangles and a dot. That’s where we were. Now 40 years later, we have photorealistic, 3D simulations with millions of people playing simultaneously and it’s getting better every year. And soon we’ll have virtual reality, we’ll have augmented reality. If you assume any rate of improvement at all, then the games will become indistinguishable from reality.

The idea is similar to what Bostrum originally postulated back in 2003; that our incredibly fast-paced progression of technology will lead to a world in which not only will we create conscious programs, but that artificial entities living in simulated worlds will one day outnumber actual biological human beings. This follows that if there are so many more artificial minds than biological ones, the probability that we are in the original reality dwindles dramatically. Some scientists even argue that our being a simulation would be a much simpler explanation for our existence than that we started as a hodgepodge of colliding molecules that took shape amongst the primordial ooze of our planet’s origins to eventually lead to the intelligent beings we are today.

It is not hard to see what Musk is getting at. Even today we are rapidly advancing in our ability to run complex simulations ourselves, with some programs even incorporating certain aspects of what we might call “cognition,” the ability to independently form decisions based on the factors at hand. There are also projects under way to try to map the human brain and achieve an understanding of how it works, and combined with our exponentially growing computational power this could lead to potential great leaps towards simulated worlds and self-aware beings. But will this all actually ultimately lead to machine consciousness and the ability to create it? No one knows.

Musk is not the only one to take this seriously, and the idea has been pondered by many in the scientific community, many of whom most recently got together to discuss it and offer their thoughts on the matter at the 17th annual Isaac Asimov Debate, at New York’s American Museum of Natural History in 2016, which was hosted by the well-known physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. The debate sold out in a mere 3 minutes, making it the most popular ever, and the main attraction was a slew of great minds talking over the possibility of whether we exist in a computer simulation or not. The panel featured Tyson, a nuclear physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology named Zohreh Davoudi, cosmologist Max Tegmark, James Gates, a physicist at the University of Maryland, physicist Lisa Randall, and a philosopher from New York University, David Chalmers, all of who tossed in their two cents on the matter.

Among the things discussed was the probability that we are living in a simulated universe and how we could possibly go about trying to prove it. One way would hinge on the idea that if we are in fact living in a simulated program, then we could potentially look for any evidence of flaws in the program. The idea is that any bugs, short-cuts, or fidelity limitations due to computing power in such a simulation could feasibly be observed and even measured, similar to how even the most life-like images can be broken down into their constituent pixels if studied closely enough. One way to pick up such anomalies would be to study cosmic rays, which could hold hints to the existence of such a simulation. Davoudi elaborated on this by explaining that if this were a simulated program, then these cosmic rays would appear different, perhaps composed of separate interlocking pieces rather than as continuous swaths. Looking for flaws like this or other anomalies, these “glitches in the matrix,” could expose the reality of a computer simulation, depending on the quality and fidelity of the program to begin with.

There is also the fact that everything seems to be broken up into subatomic particles, almost as if these are the “pixels” of our universe, with even time, energy, space, and volume seeming to have finite limits, meaning that they could be computable factors. Likewise, if the universe was a computer simulation, then it would be firmly rooted in rigid mathematics, and the debate brought about ideas on evidence of this in effect. Tegmark in particular pointed out that indeed our universe seems to be very closely tied to math, an idea of which he has written of in his 2014 book Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality. Tegmark has the idea that this reliance on mathematical laws could be a function of the computational nature of the universe, saying:

The more I learned about reality later on, as a physicist, the more struck I was that, when you get deep down into how nature works, down into looking at all of you as a bunch of quarks and electrons, if you look at how these quarks move around, the rules are entirely mathematical, as far as we can say. If I were a character in a computer game, I would also discover eventually that the rules seemed completely rigid and mathematical. That just reflects the computer code in which it was written.

Tied into this are findings made in physics that seem to point at a computer simulated universe. One of the panel, James Gates, explained that he found what appeared to be “error correcting codes,” or precautions in computer programs to cancel out errors made by physical computing, while studying equations of string theory. According to Gates, these would be “extremely unlikely” in a non-simulated universe, yet they seem to be there. Gates would explain of this bizarre finding:

In my research I found this very strange thing. I was driven to error-correcting codes—they’re what make browsers work. So why were they in the equations I was studying about quarks and electrons and supersymmetry? This brought me to the stark realization that I could no longer say people like Max are crazy. Or, stated another way, if you study physics long enough, you too can become crazy.

There is also the strange fact that in quantum mechanics, quantum particles only become one way or another when they are actually observed, a fact which has spooked and baffled physicists for years. Those who advocate the idea of a simulated universe have tried to explain this anomaly in terms of a video game needing a conscious player to play. This, plus the fact that there is only so closely we can look into these things without them getting grainy and “fuzzy,” almost as if this were the limit of the “resolution,” has suggested to some scientists that this is exactly what we could expect if reality were computer generated. Then there is the fact that one of the mysteries of the cosmos is that everything seems so extremely fine-tuned to be the way it is, with even minute changes meaning the universe would not exist as it is, if at all, which is particularly evident with the creation of life itself. This could all be due to random factors ending up just so, or it could be evidence of a conscious programmer behind it all.

In the end, it is perhaps impossible to prove or disprove any of this. Not only do we woefully lack the tools we would need to find any errors in such a program, but the program itself could be so flawless as to be beyond our ability to ever find such errors or flaws in the first place. Additionally, if the reality we know is one big virtual world, then it would be hard to trust any of our findings or senses anyway. As David Chalmers has explained of this conundrum:

There’s certainly not going to be conclusive experimental proof that we’re not in a simulation. Any evidence we could ever get would be simulated!

Therein lies the problem of ever proving any of this. With a lack of any sort of concrete data or evidence it all remains simply a neat idea and speculation into the nature of our reality, as we have done since more or less when we were able to do so. Is reality as we think we know it? Are we biological beings interacting with a universe rooted in the physical world, or are we merely a program running for some inscrutable purpose by some superior version of ourselves or even other entities altogether? How will we ever know if this is true or not? The answers will probably remain vague yet intriguing, and although we will most likely never know, or be allowed to know for sure, it is an avenue into the nature of our reality and very existence that will likely be brought up, pondered and debated for some time to come. In the meantime, make yourself interesting. We wouldn’t want any potential higher programmers to get bored.