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.

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Oct 15, 2012
personally i am baffled by ppls focus on the odds.

we are supposed to blow off the odds of spontaneous DNA-based biogenesis, but have an issue with Scotts life success?

It never ceases to amaze me how confirmation bias plays with our perception of probability and coincidence.

even the criteria itself is a subjective measure of success. if scott was born to be POTUS, then he is (again subjectively) an absolute failure. its only a success if you start with premise he was born to work at Taco Bells drive thru.

Having this goal in his teenage mind just gives self-fulfilling prophecy root. Seizing your intentional dreams doesnt seem like a situation that odds can mesh well with.

and if you were going to do odds, you would need to measure his skills/talent/resources against that of others who he actively had to compete with. if 100 ppl try to be comic strip artists, and he is the funniest of the lot, then its a no-brainer, not a shot in the dark. you measure his chances against the 100, not the 6 billion on the planet.

arguably his decision to pursue comics was atleast partly based on his perceived ability. meaning if he sucked back then he wouldnt have chosen it, so measuring the likelihood of a person having his level of talent is moot in relation to his choice to pursue it. he had the talent first.

And in his discussion, the sum of amazement is comparing his point of choice until his point of achievement.

How about we discuss the chances of him receiving his exact genetic heritage. 2^46.

The unlikelihood of any and all branches of reality is staggering. Sometimes crazy odds will play out, as every single zygote is a long shot.

The most likely outcome (of system with lots of variables) is most often (if not always) a rare improbability. all outcomes are improbable due to the quantity of possibilities.

imo, professions in the modern age are like that. the more specific you get, the more it will seem improbable you got so damn lucky.

What are the chances I would work for this particular Taco Bell? There are thousands of 'em! its a modern miracle.
Oct 15, 2012
So... how do you account for the alien(s) that programmed the sim. Where did they come from and why were the laws of (their) physics consistent enough to write programs?

Where does the regress stop?
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 15, 2012
Scott, please see a philosophically sound argument for simulation here:
www.simulation-argument.com (simulation-argument dot com)

It's what your getting at with your razor sharp intuition but very fully developed.
Oct 15, 2012
I would find the main argument more convincing if you had stated, at age eleven, "I want to become world-famous by creating an entirely new genre of comic strip, completely original, which will transform how we view humor in comic strips." Now, if that is what was written on your application to the Famous Artist School, then yes- you are living in a simulation geared to satisfy your desires from childhood. But your name also has to be Bill Watterson.
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 15, 2012
Your simulation theory is strikingly similar to what a lot of 'psychics' and spiritual (but not necessarily religious) people believe. The universe was made by a 'creator'. Life exists or existed on many other planets in the universe, but the creator chose Earth as an experiment. 'Souls' who sign up for lives on Earth agree to be 'veiled' from the knowledge of where they came from (that's the simulation similarity), and in order to grow and learn agree to experience every single type of life possible in many different periods of time in their multiple human lives.

People have life purposes, but since they are 'veiled' can deviate from the life purpose they were born to fulfill. People are guided toward these life purposes through signs, synchronicities and so called 'luck' - those that do follow their life purpose are the happiest and most fulfilled. Those that deviate are most likely less successful and less happy with their lives, though their souls do still learn a lot from their negative experiences.

Oh...and time as we know it does not exist on the 'other side', so all of the lives these souls are experiencing and learning from are happening simultaneously from the other side's perspective.

Just sayin'... this is truly a consensus among lots of these types of people. For example, Steve & Erin Pavlina, Tom T. Moore, & Slade Roberson all have blogs where they talk about this stuff all the time. It's not too far removed from your simulation theory.
Oct 15, 2012


3600 seconds in an hour X 24 hours in a day X 365 days in a year X 4.7 billion years = 148 quadrillion seconds. If a uranium atom has a 50% chance of decaying in that time then its chance of decaying at any given second would be 1 in twice that number, or 296 quadrillion.
Oct 15, 2012
derivatives and abstractions abound. The idea our reality is a derivative of a higher dimension seems quite logical.kljlkjl.kjlkj

Everything in our reality implies it. Even here I can shrink my consciousness to fit inside a movie or computer game, and drop all awareness of the 4space I actually inhabit.

The idea we are extraplanar beings, who dip our pinky toe in this 4plane, and shrink our awareness to these senses has been repeated many times before.
Oct 15, 2012
Do you eat spicy food late at night just before going to bed with either "The Matrix"or "The Big Bang Theory" on the television? This seems much more plausable.
Oct 15, 2012
Fascinating. Absolutely fascinating.

I accept what I experience through my senses because I am expecting and hoping to wake up.
Oct 15, 2012
Couldn't resist: if I did the calculation right (and the numbers involved are extreme enough that I could very easily have screwed up somewhere) the odds of a *specific* U-238 atom decaying during a *specific* second are about 200 quadrillion to one against.
Oct 15, 2012
You're making a common mistake when computing the likelihood of events, which is conflating your personal odds of being involved with the statistical odds of an event happening at all. The odds of you personally being a famous cartoonist may be a million to one, but the odds of SOMEONE being a famous cartoonist are 100%. (This assumes a society that has evolved the concepts of "cartooning" and "fame" of course, either of which might not have happened, but in that case you wouldn't have had that childhood dream.) On the other hand, your calculation of the likelihood of computer simulation is a statement about the world in general; no matter how high it is, it is still lower than 100%.

To use a common example, the odds of any one person winning a six-number, 00-49 lottery are about 16 million to one against, way smaller than any of the examples you give; yet it happens on a regular basis. For the specific individual involved, it is a staggering bolt-out-of-the-blue, but statistically speaking it is a certainty.

A more scientific example is the decay of radioactive elements. Uranium-238 has a half-life of 4.47 billion years, so for any particular one of the 2.5x10^24 atoms present in a kg of U-238, the likelihood of it decaying is about as close to zero as you can get. Yet every second it happens about nine million times.
Oct 15, 2012
As much as the theory of reality being just a simulation (or even simulation within simulation) seems plausible to me, the idea that some other species created it to achieve some kind of afterlife is kind of weird. How does existance of billions of people immortalizes anyone, while we don't even have a slightest idea what our creators were like? I'd rather believe, that universe was created for some scientific experiment. Or just for fun.

Also: Scott, you stated many times, that you don't believe in God, yet you keep bringing even crazier (or at least equally crazy) ideas of our origins. Come on :)
Oct 15, 2012
You forgot "hard-ish work" as a possibility.

Of course, your mythical computer simulation could be the work of some omnipotent God. However since you don't see any objective proof of said God, you've done what Chesterton suggested would happen and come up with a God-like substitute that you can rationally accept or day dream about without worry.

Therefore I'm going to defy your expectations and vote other.
Oct 15, 2012
I don't think a wave is considered a particle.
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 15, 2012
>>So I ask - you mean all the pain/suffering/war/death/disasters are part of someone's programming intent? What sort of demented wackos "programmed" this simulation anyway? 8-}

The same wackos that make movies and write books with dramatic elements in them. Completely goodie-goodie stories are for children. Stories with antagonists and painful obstacles are extremely popular. Wouldn't the same hold true for the creators of the simulations? After all, both are equally unreal. Odysseus curses Poseidon not Homer. Wouldn't you rather live in a world with a real Homer creating these events rather than a real Poseidon?

Oct 15, 2012
Note that with a 1 in a million chance there are about 6000 people on earth who must feel like you. Someone has to be in that group.

Nonetheless I agree that the chances of us living in a simulation are quite high (heck, is that not what most religions say? There is a "God" who created us, i.e. some programmers). Fits nicely with the Intelligent Design theory.

Though I believe I am only an NPC in this simulation.
+5 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 15, 2012
If your theory is correct, then I have a message for my simulator/programmer: You are an evil bastard with a twisted sense of humor.
Oct 15, 2012
Your simulation scenario also comes down to luck - for some reason someone is running a simulation of you getting your dreams - that could be considered a 1 in 6 billion chance, or even far less if the simulation goes out to other civilizations.
Oct 15, 2012
scott - you gotta fix this thing -

the blanked out work is

A d j u s t i n g

adjust - ing

a synonym for configuring-on-the-fly.

gotta love computers

Oct 15, 2012
Sounds like a creationist theory, but more specific (creationism leans toward god setting it all up, but not necessarily monitoring and !$%*!$%*!$ So I ask - you mean all the pain/suffering/war/death/disasters are part of someone's programming intent? What sort of demented wackos "programmed" this simulation anyway? 8-}

[I have no idea why the comment got munged the first time. The blanked out word was !$%*!$%*!$%* - maybe I had a typo it picked up on - my apologies if so]
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