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
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-}

Oct 15, 2012

I think this thought fits under the idealism philosophy group - that reality is merely a projection of some mental construct.

But here is a thought experiment from that group. If we perceive a non-real experience as being real, and we perceive other intelligences that are separate from our self, and those other non-self intelligences report a similar perception of the experience as our own, and that experience is continuous, consistent, and ubiquitous, then what other criteria could possible distinguish the non-real experience from a real one?

I'm sure you have seen the movie Inception, which draws elements from The Tempest. Both present examples of reality and non-reality, but also explores the idea central to idealism, that it is our perception alone that defines what is real, and nothing else. So if you perceive reality in a certain way, it makes no difference as to whether that reality comes from our own consciousness, some other intelligence, or from random chance.

An all-powerful programmer is functionally no different from an all-powerful God, or all-powerful entrophy.
+6 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 15, 2012
Filtered c o c k r o a c h. When something like that happens, I realize that they designed our game pretty poorly.
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 15, 2012
I'm surprised no one has mentioned the most logical argument of all. We're the AI's in a video game of a more advanced species. Considering how rapidly we're pumping out content that seems almost as real as our lives, it's likely that other people have already done this for us. It's like the Sims and whenever something truly strange or miraculous happens in our lives specifically, that's just our player interacting directly in our lives for the moment.

Could probably explain buddhist/hindu style reincarnation too. Boom! Level UP! High Karma Score! You go from !$%*!$%*! to spider!
Oct 15, 2012
Reality is what we can get away with. That means wether or not this is a computer simulation is irrelevant to wether or not this is reality. Unless you come up with some plan for 'escape' the world we see around us is the world we have to deal with.

And don't tell me I don't exist. My consciousness is enough proof to me of my existence wether or not Im really a computer program and I find the idea that I don't exist insulting. Yes, I know, you said it to WATYF1 not me, but you were thinking it about all of us weren't you?
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 15, 2012
BTW, you are all part of my simulation. Please refrain from discussing this any further or I will run my wipe program, and it will be as if you have never existed. Have a nice simulated day (.00000000000000000001 nano seconds).
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 15, 2012
I have no issue with this theory. It is as plausible as any, and has (or lacks) the same amount of proof.
Oct 15, 2012
I'd very much like to live in the simulation in which my childhood dreams come true. Is there a reboot button?

Does the way our minds work have an outcome influencing effect on the theoretical simulation? If one's dreams or ambitions are defined clearly enough and consistently over an extended period of time, does that encourage the simulation to create those conditions?
Oct 15, 2012
to brian_e

It's simulated turtles all the way down.
Oct 15, 2012
So you re-framed the cosmological argument in terms of simulations. So who simulated the first simulators? Simulated God?
+6 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 15, 2012
Apparently, you've been programmed to make dumb arguments. :^D

Do you have any idea how many people don't have ANY of their ambitions satisfied (let alone most or all of them)?? You've made the mistake of looking solely at the odds while ignoring the empirical data.

The obvious answer is #1: Luck. Do I arrive at that answer via the odds? No. I arrive at it by a cursory observation of the populace at large, most of which isn't nearly as fortunate as you and most of which doesn't end up fulfilling their childhood dreams.

You're a lucky bastard, Scott. Just accept it. You don't need to come up with ridiculous hypotheses about the universe just to satisfy your winner's guilt. :^D

Btw... this statement: "One might expect a "natural" universe - one that came from an explosion - to be nothing but randomness on every dimension" makes me think you're trying reeeealy hard to accept that this universe was designed without accepting the most common explanation for that perceived design. :Op Every one of your "curiosities" can be accounted for by theories that have been around since the beginning of recorded history.


[Nice try, but I know you aren't real. -- Scott]
Oct 15, 2012
You left out what I think is the most likely explanation - that your memory of childhood is unreliable.

You are a successful cartoonist. You say that you always wanted to be a successful cartoonist. You probably also wanted to be an astronaut, a fireman, a famous singer, a writer, and a prince. If you were an astronaut, you would likely look back and say - I always wanted to be an astronaut, what a remarkable coincidence that I became one.

Your present condition (being a successful cartoonist), paired with your contentment, means that your memory will focus on only memories of wanting to be a cartoonist, and will ignore memories of wanting to be an astronaut.

So there's nothing overly remarkable about your reality conforming to your perceived desires, only confirmation bias playing with your perception of your desires and your experiences so that they are congruent.

[I considered selective memory and confirmation bias. But I have in my possession my application to Famous Artist School for Young People that I completed when I was eleven years old. On the application I described my goal of becoming a cartoonist. I'm almost positive I never applied to astronaut school, but you are technically correct that I could have forgotten. -- Scott]
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