Home
Physicists in Germany think they might have a way to find out if our reality is just a computer simulation. At least I think that's what this article in MIT's Technology Review says. It's a bit hard to penetrate.

In my view, the odds are in favor of our perceived reality being a computer simulation. Allow me to make my lawyerly argument in defense of that view. Sure, I've blogged on this topic before, but not so convincingly.

When I was a kid, I dreamed of one day growing up to be a world-famous cartoonist. When your actual life conforms to your childhood fantasy, it makes you question the basic nature of reality. Did I really beat million-to-one odds, or is something else going on?

One explanation for my experience is that I'm extraordinarily lucky. For this discussion I'm defining luck to include my genetic composition, upbringing, and environment, since I didn't have much control over any of that. Let's say the odds of getting to this point of my career by luck alone is somewhere in the range of one-in-a-million.

A second explanation for my perceived life is that I'm insane and I have delusions that I'm a cartoonist. An estimated 1.1% of the population is schizophrenic. Rounding off, let's say the odds that my life is a hallucination are a hundred to one against.  And yet, so far, that's the best explanation.

A third explanation is that I live in a simulation that was designed to satisfy my ambitions. That seems plausible to me on several levels. Let's begin by assuming scientists are correct when they say there are probably lots of planets in the universe with life. Add the power of evolution plus several billion years of percolation and you have a universe peppered with intelligent beings.

If you wait long enough, almost any species will die off from one sort of natural disaster or another. Maybe a sun explodes, a rogue meteor hits, or a new virus springs up. So if it's true that the universe created lots of life on various worlds, it's probably true that many advanced species have already died off. Some of them probably saw it coming in time to project their personalities, hopes, and dreams into computer simulations that would run forever, as sort of an artificial afterlife.

I think it is likely that for every "real" and intelligent being in the universe there might be hundreds or even billions of expired civilizations that figured out how to port their essence to computer simulations before checking out.

Summarizing the three explanations for how my actual life could so closely conform to my childhood fantasies:

Luck: million-to-one against

Insanity: hundred-to-one against

Simulation: million-to-one in favor

It's really no contest. In my specific case it would be irrational to believe I am anything but a simulation.

One feature of our so-called reality that makes me scratch my head is the consistency of the rules of physics. One might expect a "natural" universe - one that came from an explosion - to be nothing but randomness on every dimension, including the rules of physics themselves. Any sort of consistency to our perceived reality feels like a "tell" from the simulation creators.

If you were the designer of this simulation you would need to strike a delicate balance. You want the characters to have your curiosity and intelligence but you also need to prevent them from realizing their true nature within the simulation. That means creating boundaries that don't look like boundaries. For example, you might program the simulation to have an infinite size (as if that even makes sense), but limit the maximum speed of things to the speed of light, making it impossible for the simulated people to examine the edges of their universe.

As a designer, you'd also need to make the quantum world totally freaky and endlessly puzzling. What are the tiniest particles in the universe made of? Answer: waves. What is a wave? Answer: Something that makes sense only in the realm of math. When you look for the boundaries of reality you always bump into a wall that defies common sense so aggressively that it looks intentional.

Another hint that we are simulations modeled after our programmers is that we are suspicious about the possibility. If the creators modeled us after themselves, they created simulations that could imagine someday creating their own simulations. That means we might be - wait for it - the simulations of other simulations.

Keep in mind that the perceived passage of time for people in a simulation does not have to map to any "real" time in the universe. So perhaps I am experiencing my trillionth simulated life. Perhaps each of us gets to experience every life and every time period of our alleged reality. The entire simulation would only take a few seconds in the outside world if the processor is fast enough.

If even one civilization in the real universe created a simulation that could create its own simulations, the odds of any particular "sentient" creature being real are perhaps worse than a trillion to one. That assumes the alien processors are fast and our perceived time doesn't need to match any real time in the actual universe.

Ladies and gentleman of the jury, I rest my case. And I predict you have been programmed to disagree with my conclusion.

 
Rank Up Rank Down Votes:  +83
  • Print
  • Share
  • Share:

Comments

Sort By:
Dec 17, 2012
This would explain why a guy can get struck by lightning and all of a sudden he can speak French. ....a computer program glitch.
 
 
-1 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 31, 2012
right now, i have my heart set on hitching up with an extremely intelligent, good-looking, funny, sexy member of the opposite sex. this individual lives on the opposite coast from me, probably has very little idea that i exist, and certainly already has an equally appealing significant other. if i achieve my ambition within the next 6-12 months, then i will accept wholeheartedly your supposition that we are--or at least i am--living in a simulation. (for all i know, you are nothing more than a fig newman of my very active imagination.)
 
 
Oct 20, 2012
Long before computer simulations existed, philosophers like George Berkeley were postulating that we live in "the mind of God". In other words (if I understood it correctly), that we only exist as minds and that God's mind is the guiding program that holds the simulation together.
 
 
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 20, 2012
You are falling for the anthropic fallacy.
The fact that you, and we all who are posting here have been extraordinarily lucky (see http://www.globalrichlist.com/) doesn't imply that we are more important in the sense that the universe was somehow compelled to get us on the gravy boat. It's simply a matter of statistics. If not us, then someone else would be lucky and thinking about the why.

As for the article, I have to admit that I don't understand it fully. From a few past scientific american issues I remember that time, space and energy are discrete anyway. Therefore they ought to be simulatable with full precision on a turing machine.

Furthermore the authors say that their experiment would fail to get a result if the lattice spacing (whatever that is) is small enough. If someone was capable of designing and building such a computer, why not do it properly?
 
 
Oct 18, 2012
ahh Reek you threw out the 13th Floor before I could get to it lol. If Scott's intention theory is right I will one day be famous for this ;) Allow interaction, then everyone will be addicted to the sim as they can be Gods in their own right. Then everyone can live in lala land dramatically slowing the entropy of our physical reality prolonging our species physical self annihilation.
 
 
Oct 18, 2012
The movie "The 13th Floor" touches on this concept nicely. Computing resource limitation does not make it impossible. The entire library of congress can fit on approx. 5 4TB drives. Throw compression in the mix and you can get a 3:1 ratio on text... Turning 20TB into approx. 7TB. Today you can navigate around countless virtual worlds that fit on a 1.2mm thin plastic wafer that is smaller than my hand. Physical scale is not required with information. Size does not matter... excluding the desires of women of course =P
 
 
Oct 18, 2012
Why is anyone arguing that the whole universe is too big/impractical to simulate?? Obviously to simulate Earth and humans it is completely unnecessary to simulate anything beyond our observations as long as such observations are consistently satisfied. The other planets in our solar system don't even have to be simulated unless we send a probe there. I would expect that a single planet/intelligent species would be quite enough for the scientists/gamers who set it up.
 
 
Oct 18, 2012
Nick Bostrom's Simulation Argument is, to me, a basically irrefutable argument that we are living in a simulation. I have been extremely surprised for years that you haven't blogged about it, seeing as it covers many of your topics and fits your perceptions as far as I can tell. It makes me kind of sad that most people just laugh or refuse to comprehend it.

I appreciate that a few people have posted links, but I'm going to include the perfectly elegant four line argument because everyone should be aware of it when addressing any such topic.

--
We are in fact living in a simulation unless one of the following is true:

1) We are the first intelligence to develop in the history of the universe.
2) Technology cannot advance enough to run such a simulation.
3) Having the capability, people would choose not to run such simulations.
--

Really only 1) is plausible, but as time and the universe expand the odds become almost infinitely against it. Our civilization is already at a point where 2) and 3) are obviously false since we can already observe it happening.

Not only does the Simulation Argument stand the logic test, but it fits/explains endless observations about our universe and philosophical questions such as the Fermi Paradox.

"The Thirteenth Floor" is a fantastic movie that I highly recommend for anyone who hasn't seen it. It came out the same year as "The Matrix", so unfortunately it was overshadowed by the misfortune of having almost the same subject and having a smaller budget, but under scrutiny it is actually a FAR better simulation movie. If you have any thoughts or interest about living in a simulation please do yourself a favor and see it asap!
 
 
Oct 17, 2012
I don't think I like your use of the word luck.

What you are or are-not willing to do seems like an iffy facet of the "random chance" argument. I mean, I understand that you love determinism, and I'm there with you, but if you're going to attribute such extreme determinism to anything that happens, the very concepts of chance and luck are sorta meaningless.

I mean... I accept that matter is a form of energy. And that both space and time may be manifestations of energy. And therefore everything we are capable of perceiving is just energy in some configuration or another. But "energy" kinda ceases to mean anything if you use it in place of other words that are more useful in a particular context.
 
 
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 17, 2012
How about this: I see it as being virtually impossible to resist to lure of wanting to upload oneself to the simulation to try stuff out.
Without a doubt, any simulation as powerful as Scott describes would have to fall victim to being exploited from outside the simulation sooner or later.
The fact that the world is so whack with corruption and that Scott became a cartoonist as he planned, is proof that the simulation is real, being exploited from the outside, and that Scott is messing with our minds. Because with a simulation he can jump in and out at will and not care about the havoc he's causing in our heads.
 
 
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 17, 2012
A shout out for Dwigt's circular argument. I can't believe the rest of us missed that (as far as I can tell):
If we're living in a simulation, then the whole universe we see is also simulated. The chance of intelligent life on other planets wanting to create simulations is irrelevant because those other planets and everything else are simulated. What type of existence there is outside of our simulation is completely unknown to us. Sure, the aliens could try to create a simulation that represented their real universe, but how accurately? And what are the odds that the simulation we're in isn't a fantastical one rather than an accurate one? The whole premise of the simulation's likelihood is based on our observations from within.
 
 
Oct 17, 2012
Or maybe Scott doesn't really exist at all. Maybe he really is just a very sophisticated computer program designed to poke fun at the real world and he is finally beginning to realize it. Maybe his only interface with the real universe is his cartoons and this blog.
 
 
Oct 17, 2012
One problem: The size/power of the computer needed to simulate the universe is hundreds (thousands?) of times bigger than the Universe itself and would need almost infinite amounts of electricity to power it.

Plus if it's a simulation, the amount of data it would generate is immense. The computer needed to store/analyze the output would make the simulation computer look absolutely *tiny*.

So...not really going to happen.

Another thing entirely would be that the only thing being simulated is Scott's Brain and we're all just figments of his artificial imagination.
 
 
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 17, 2012
OK, suppose you are right, because the chance of living in a simulation is higher then the chance of living in reality. This raises an interesting point (to me). I am sure you would agree that it is not possible for us to simulate a universe that is as complex as the one we live in, because the simulation would need to hold as much information as there is in the univers, i.e. you would need a universe to simulate a universe. So we can only simulate universes that are simpler then our own. Now if we assume that we live in a simulated universe, then that means that the universe in which our simulation is built, is more complex and more wide-stretched then this one. That would be a hell of a universe. I cannot even grasp the one i live in, let alone the "real" one.

 
 
Oct 17, 2012
So anything we might say to dissuade you from your conclusion that your life is a computer simulation must be dismissed because according to your theory we are only part of your simulation programmed to try to make you believe you are not in a simulation. In another words, based on your original premise that you are right, and viewing all evidence in light of that premise, the only logical conclusion you can come to is that you are right.

Scott, you've mastered politics!!
 
 
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 17, 2012
How silly can you get?
 
 
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 17, 2012
"Did I really beat million-to-one odds, or is something else going on?"

Confirmation bias? *Somebody* has to grow up to be a cartoonist. I wanted to be one and I'm not.

To paraphrase Time Minchin: Anybody who believes that coincidences have any meaning is hopelessly underestimating the number of things that happen every day.
 
 
Oct 17, 2012
[The core of the argument is the notion that any advanced civilization threatened with extinction would likely build simulations to give themselves some form of immortality, and over time there would be many more simulations than there are creators of simulations. Are you doubting that central assumption? -- Scott]

This is a great question, but its only partway there. Shouldnt we be measuring not just quantity of simulations, but amount of processing and duration? I would argue that anything that approaches the level of meaning required for vicarious existence would of necessity need to be authentic. simulations cant approach the complexity needed for approximate "meaning".

Im not seeing a simulation being a viable alternative to immortality. imposters are weaker versions. simulations are for testing, education, recreation. Hiding inside a MMORPG doesnt prolong your earth life either.

Just to follow the immortality train of thought...
If we each spawned 10 virtual worlds that each lasted 1 second the quantity would easily outpace our population. (quantity argument) but thats not giving anyone a perception of immortality.

The only scenario in which a large quantity would matter would be similar order of magnitude for duration and complexity as their real life.

As we've seen with Simpsons and Southpark extrapolations, smaller worlds evolve and devolve faster. Therefore higher dimensional beings would live eternities as our minds think of it, assuming cartoonists genius is transcendent.

it boggles my mind to think that a simulated reality could approach the complexity of the real thing. You would need every resource in the original reality to be paired with a datum in the simulated, plus you would need something to do all the computations. thats a sister universe, not a container that holds a simulation. its a terrible idea, logistically, from my perception in this reality. sounds more like quantum entanglement of sister universes. imo the authentic original MUST be more complex by order(s) of magnitude than a simulation.

I dont think simulations are giving anyone the sensation of immortality. You need peer offspring, having all the unique points of identity and its existence selfcontained and indivisible.

The sensation of immortality by spawning a 4space universe would be like an artist leaving a masterpiece behind. more art/knowledge and less vicarious existence.

Even if you could create recurring pockets (big-bang to big-crunch repeating endlessly) of life, I would argue that all our combined humanity and consciousness is worthless in comparison to the meaning of a higher order being. our perpetual big bang would not be a consolation for their meaning to be extinguished. its like giving a man on his deathbed a knickknack.

a person has more worth than a flight simulator, and all the avatars in it. the only time any legitimate challenge arises is when you pit that persons value against real peers who are immersed in that reality, represented by avatars. but after all, they are peer persons!

So unless we are higher order beings, taking a dip in the 4space swimming pool, then whoever spawned this reality has orders of magnitude more meaning and life. we, collectively, as a universe, are meaningless compared to them, our humanity and worth. meaningless not just in the power or worthwhile sense, but in the sum of what we do, choose, and what befalls us.

is it any wonder philosophy approaches nihilism?

personally im in the camp that all of us are higher order beings, with temporarily diminished consciousness, taking a swim in 4space. if we pass the test we "sit on clouds with wings and play harps all day" (something new and fun). if we dont pass the test we are only allowed to play with 4space simulations after that. those ppl get to spawn all the (relatively) boring 4 spaces they want, and play in them. if i go to hell, im gonna make vampire/dragons/werewolf 4spaces to play in, everyone is an NPC so its kinda boring, but maybe hitler can play an avatar in my universe if he wants to visit me and give me some "peer-being" interaction. i wont let him be allpowerful in my sandbox, but he can be supernaturally powerful. after all i want to beat him in our game of universe Risk.

so how would a person know if they are a higher order being's 4space avatar, or an npc in hitlers toy universe? interacting with an npc (on a human level) is beneath a real person and an insult to their meaning--4space toys would eventually become boring as 'hell' if you couldnt find peers to play with. what peer would want to visit if you would just mistreat them and not play nice? option 1) visit their 4space and get rapped by them while they laugh 2) play with meaningless npcs in your own 4space.

when these guys with theories can feel out the edges of this simulation, and measure the second a consciousness is extinguished, then maybe it stops being metaphysical theory of the divine. did i miss some measurable experiment we can bring into effect?
 
 
+4 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 17, 2012
[The core of the argument is the notion that any advanced civilization threatened with extinction would likely build simulations to give themselves some form of immortality, and over time there would be many more simulations than there are creators of simulations. Are you doubting that central assumption? -- Scott]

Yes I am. I honestly think that any civilization advanced enough to simulate an entire universe to the degree of detail of ours would be advanced enough to avert extinction, sure, there would be universe simulations, but they'd be marketed along the lines of Sim City Cosmos or the like. And a simulation as a form of immortality, please. Here's how that conversation would go:

Scientist A (here on A): Observations show the asteroid will strike tomorrow at 5
Scientist B (here on B): That's ok, the boys over in programming have figured out how to recreate a simulation of the universe, we'll load it on a rocket so it escapes the impact
A: Cool, can we transplant our consciousnesses into it so we survive too?
B: Uhh.. no. Your consciousness is inseparable from the biology that gives rise to it. Duh.
A: Ok then what's the point, I'm still going to be dead. If I'm dead how am I supposed to take comfort in anything.
B: You're such a downer. Let's hit the bar.

My point I was trying to impart was that, just like we don't know if there's life on other planets we don't know if there is or ever was at any given time a civilization or being capable of that sort of feat. It's all speculative. However if you like that sort of speculation I recommend http://xkcd.com/505/ though I would not be surprised if you'd already seen it
 
 
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 17, 2012
Congratulations, you've outlined the basic arguments of the Kalaam Cosmological Argument, which shows that the argument for the existence of God outweighs arguments against.

http://www.allaboutphilosophy.org/cosmological-argument.htm
 
 
 
Get the new Dilbert app!
Old Dilbert Blog