Is this life real?

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Is this life real?

Photo by Barry Lewis/Corbis

Philosophers and physicists say we might be living in a computer simulation, but how can we tell? And does it matter?

Matthew Francis is a science writer and speaker specialising in physics and astronomy. He blogs at Galileo’s Pendulum and is the physics and math editor at Double X Science. He lives in Richmond, Virginia.

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Our species is not going to last forever. One way or another, humanity will vanish from the Universe, but before it does, it might summon together sufficient computing power to emulate human experience, in all of its rich detail. Some philosophers and physicists have begun to wonder if we’re already there. Maybe we are in a computer simulation, and the reality we experience is just part of the program.

Modern computer technology is extremely sophisticated, and with the advent of quantum computing, it’s likely to become more so. With these more powerful machines, we’ll be able to perform large-scale simulations of more complex physical systems, including, possibly, complete living organisms, maybe even humans. But why stop there?

The idea isn’t as crazy as it sounds. A pair of philosophers recently argued that if we accept the eventual complexity of computer hardware, it’s quite probable we’re already part of an ‘ancestor simulation’, a virtual recreation of humanity’s past. Meanwhile, a trio of nuclear physicists has proposed a way to test this hypothesis, based on the notion that every scientific programme makes simplifying assumptions. If we live in a simulation, the thinking goes, we might be able to use experiments to detect these assumptions.

However, both of these perspectives, logical and empirical, leave open the possibility that we could be living in a simulation without being able to tell the difference. Indeed, the results of the proposed simulation experiment could potentially be explained without us living in a simulated world. And so, the question remains: is there a way to know whether we live a simulated life or not?

At some point in the future, humans as we know ourselves will cease to exist. Whether we become extinct with no evolutionary descendants, or leave one or more post-human species as our inheritance, we humans will eventually be gone. But if we do leave futuristic descendants, those descendants might be quite interested in creating ancestor simulations, virtual universes populated by conscious humans. And if the technology to craft such simulations was sufficiently popular, they could proliferate so widely that the first-person experience of such simulations would outnumber the first-person experiences of humans who have actually existed in fundamental reality.

This presents an interesting problem if you happen to find yourself having a first-person conscious experience: how do you know whether you are one of the original humans, or an ancestor simulation, especially when there are many more of the latter? The philosopher Nick Bostrom has provided a framework for thinking about this problem. He argues that we have to conclude one of three things is true. Either humans or human-like species become extinct before they achieve simulation-producing technology, or ‘post-human’ civilisations have little interest in making or using this technology, or we ourselves are probably part of a simulation. I say probably because, all things being equal, the odds would be greater that a conscious experience is a simulated experience. There would just be way more of them around if the other two conditions (extinction or lack of interest) fail.

Bostrom is certainly not the first to examine the possibility that our perceived reality is virtual, though the proposed nature of the simulator varies a lot. In addition to philosophical and scientific ruminations, the idea that human consciousness is simulated is a staple of science fiction. In the movie trilogy beginning with The Matrix (1999), the world we know is a computer simulation to keep humans’ brains busy while their body chemistry was harvested for energy. In The Matrix, humans experience the world as avatars in a fully immersive virtual reality environment. However, the simulation was sufficiently flawed that some prepared minds could see its glitches, and people from the ‘real world’ could hack into the Matrix.

Bostrom’s idea is somewhat different: in his picture of things, the whole Universe is a simulation, not just humanity. Every aspect of human life is part of the code, including our minds and interactions with the non-sentient parts of the program. However, Bostrom recognises that a complete emulation of reality on every level is likely to be impractical, even for powerful computing systems. Just as our scientific simulations involve levels of abstraction where excess detail isn’t required, simulations would probably make use of certain rules and assumptions, so that not every detail would have to be simulated. These would come into play when we performed experiments: for example, ‘when it saw that a human was about to make an observation of the microscopic world, [the simulation] could fill in sufficient detail in the [appropriate domain of the simulation] on an as-needed basis,’ Bostrom writes in the paper ‘Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?’ (2003). That way, the program wouldn’t need to track every particle or galaxy in every detail, but when those data are called for, enough of the cosmos is in the program to provide a completely consistent reality. Even humans need not be emulated in every detail at all times; our subjective awareness of ‘self’ varies depending on circumstances. Unlike Linus in the cartoon strip Peanuts, we are not always aware of our tongues, so the simulation need not keep the ‘tongue’ subroutines operating in the foreground.

it could be the case that one planetary civilisation is all that can be simulated, without running into computational capacity issues

Beyond these philosophical implications, the simulation hypothesis could help answer some scientific problems. Since Earth-like planets are not terribly rare, it’s possible enough civilisations have arisen in the Universe that they would be able to communicate or travel between stars. Yet we have not seen any so far, leaving us to wonder: where are the aliens? However, if we live in a simulation, aliens might simply not be part of the program. In fact, it could be the case that one planetary civilisation is all that can be simulated, without running into computational capacity issues.

Similarly, the failure of physicists to find unified theories of all the forces could be due to an inadequacy in the simulation. The simulation hypothesis could even resolve the ‘fine-tuning’ problem: that the parameters of our Universe allow for life, but changing them might result in a lifeless cosmos. A simulated Universe could be designed for the eventual rise of life, or alternatively could be the outcome of a successful experiment in which many possible parameters were tested before life was possible. Cosmologists perform similar (albeit simpler) simulations now to see how likely our particular cosmos is from random starting conditions.

Bostrom goes a step further in his simulation argument: ‘Should any error [in the program] occur, the director could easily edit the states of any brains that have become aware of an anomaly before it spoils the simulation. Alternatively, the director could skip back a few seconds and rerun the experiment in a way that avoids the problem.’ However, if the simulation in which we live has real-time error correction, it’s troubling from several points of view. Indeed, it could potentially throw the whole enterprise of science into question. What would prevent the simulator from changing the laws of physics on a whim, to test parameters or simply to mess with our heads? In that scheme, the programmer becomes a capricious and possibly malicious god, whose presence can never be detected.

While Bostrom is interested primarily in showing that we’re more likely than not to dwell in a simulation, scientists who confront this problem have a different set of questions to answer. The primary contrast derives from the fact that science is concerned with what can be tested by experiment or observation. And, as it turns out, there are a few things we can infer from any simulation we might inhabit.

First, if we live in a simulation, it obeys a set of well-defined laws, and any dynamic changes to those laws are relatively small. That’s based on the overwhelming success of the scientific approach over centuries. In fact, the simulation hypothesis has some potential explanatory power: the reason our Universe obeys relatively simple laws is because it was programmed to do so. As for changes the simulator makes as the program runs, that was one proposed solution to the ‘faster-than-light’ neutrino results from 2011: the program contained an error, and we measured something based on that error, and the bug was subsequently fixed. (There’s currently no reason to think the faster-than-light result was real, since the anomaly has a prosaic explanation, requiring no dramatic alternative ideas.)

The truth of the matter might be that we dwell in a simulation but, like the existence of an impersonal god, this fact has no bearing on how we conduct our lives

However, there’s nothing in this cosmic lawfulness to tell us whether we’re in a simulation or not. If the program is good enough with no obvious ‘Easter eggs’ or hidden messages left by its designers, then any experiment we perform will return the same results whether we’re in a simulated cosmos or not. In this scenario, there’s no way we can ever tell we’re in a virtual world, no matter how convincing our favourite philosophers are on the matter. The big-T Truth of the matter might be that we dwell in a simulation but, like the existence of an impersonal god, this fact has no bearing on how we conduct our lives.

We should also consider the possibility that we live in a simulation, but that the laws governing it are different to those of the world of the programmers. After all, scientists generate models all the time that don’t correspond directly to the real world but help refine our theories. And if such a simulation is an imperfect emulation, there might be places where the computer code shows its presence. If the Universe is a numerical simulation similar to those run by modern nuclear physicists, then there might be a point where the program’s necessary simplifications are at odds with the predictions of fundamental physics.

Consider atomic nuclei, which are made of protons and neutrons that are themselves made of quarks. The whole mess requires understanding the nuclear strong force that binds everything together, but the complex interactions have no consistent treatment of the kind for free particles such as electrons. However, it’s often difficult for physicists to calculate interactions between more than two particles at a time, especially at the high energies involved inside nuclei.

Instead of allowing them to move just anywhere, nuclear physicists act as though the particles reside on a three-dimensional lattice, like atoms in a solid crystal. Because energy increases as the quarks get closer together, forcing them to stay apart by a fixed distance keeps the numbers manageable — and still reproduces the behaviours we see experimentally. This type of numerical calculation is known as lattice quantum chromodynamics (LQCD).

While the simplifying principle in LQCD is the only consistent way they’ve figured out how to describe quarks, it violates the principle of relativity as set out by Albert Einstein. Spacetime in relativity is a continuum, with no special directions defined. On the other hand, a lattice such as the one in LQCD has special points and special directions (along the connections between the nodes). If high-energy collisions such as those produced by cosmic rays exhibited behaviour more like LQCD than like the predictions of relativity, it could be a sign we’re in a simulation where the programmers cut the same corners as modern nuclear physicists do.

Silas Beane and colleagues at the University of Bonn in Germany considered other testable deviations along these lines (including some anomalous behaviour by the electron’s heavier cousin, the muon). However, there are several possible ways their scheme won’t work. Whoever wrote the simulation might not use the same type of code nuclear physicists do, meaning that the predicted deviations won’t show up. The deviation might also happen at such high energies that we won’t discover them in the foreseeable future. Lastly, spacetime might behave like a lattice for reasons other than living in a simulation, a possibility seriously considered by a number of physicists.

In fairness, Beane, Davoudi and Savage, the nuclear physicists who proposed a way to test the simulation hypothesis, know all this, and it would be a mistake to think that this is the focus of their life work. If you look at Beane’s bibliography page on the INSPIRE repository (the high energy physics information system), you’ll see that this paper is the only one he has yet written on the subject; the rest involve standard LQCD research. While I’m sure he and his colleagues take the cosmic simulation work they did seriously, they’re likely typical of most researchers: they might find these questions interesting, but they won’t devote their lives to investigating the answers.

Partly that’s pragmatic: you can get funds for working within the standard paradigms of modern physics, but it’s harder to pay for research into what could be construed as open-ended philosophical questions. However, the problem itself is far too slippery to offer a tangible pay-off. Despite the impression one can often receive from reading popular science accounts, there’s little chance of success in devoting your life to the biggest questions about life, the Universe, and everything. The reason major breakthroughs (like the quantum mechanics revolution of the 1920s) are rare is because they’re hard. Science is mostly incremental progress, and that’s not a bad thing, even if it might seem unglamorous.

The difficulty with probing into the cosmos-as-simulation is finding the right scientific questions to ask: the ones that lead to testable consequences. In a hypothetical simulated Universe where the program manager can step in and fix problems in real time, we might not be able to distinguish between a real cosmos and an emulated one. The same applies to a simulation without any detectable imperfections. Even a compelling philosophical argument in favour of us living inside a computer program seems empty if we can’t obtain experimental evidence to back it up.

Do we live in a simulation? My gut feeling is no, and not just because I don’t want to believe in the existence of an intelligence who is either indifferent or who programmes beings to suffer needlessly. (Why not simulate a paradise?)

The power of science often lies in its generalisations, its abstractions, and even its simplifications. Simulating an entire Universe with sufficient detail to include conscious minds will be complex, even if the fundamental rules underlying the program are simple. It seems needlessly baroque to programme something as complicated as that, when you can learn just as much from something simpler.

However, those are intuitive musings, which might or might not prove valid. A better refuge is empiricism, unromantic as it is. From a scientific point of view, if we cannot distinguish between a simulated and real Universe, then the question of living in a simulation is moot: this reality is ours, and it’s all we have.

Read more essays on computing & artificial intelligence, metaphysics and physics


  • atimoshenko

    Why exactly would our descendants be interested in running full simulations of us, and why would they consider creating hundreds of billions of conscious entities (and inflicting great suffering upon at least some of them) as ethical in the pursuit of idle curiosity?

    • G


      They wouldn't.

      But given the pandemic narcissism of our times, it appears to have become second-nature for some of us to consider ourselves SPECIAL (all-caps intended;-)

      That, or this is the atheist answer to Young Earth Creationism, just as the Singularity is the atheist answer to Christian eschatology.

    • Royalsampler

      Perhaps biodiversity is a valuable commodity in the universe and simulation is an efficient way to 'mine' it?

      • theotormon

        You mean like for biomimetic technology? Interesting notion.

      • Overleaf

        Anything that has "diversity" in it is a valuable commodity. BTW I have a bag of diversity for you with huge value. Wire me lots of money and I will send you the bag. Deal?

    • G-G-G-Guest Unit

      Perhaps for the same reason that we create simulated worlds now? Perhaps for the same reasons that we create complex computer models to better understand the universe around us? Perhaps just for fun? There are plenty of answers to your open ended question.

      • atimoshenko

        Simulating worlds and creating conscious entities are quite different things. There is a reason why human trials are not the first stage of drug testing, and why it would be even more ethically worrisome to run human trials "just for fun"...

      • Sean R.

        Just what we need, kids from the year fifty-k playing GTA: Twenty-First Century Edition.

    • Michael Hanlon

      They need not be our descendents. 'Humans' could be a simulation in anybody's fake universe, just as we simulate aliens and the like in our computer games.

    • Mikkal VanPelt

      Ah. You were on the right question until you added "of us." If it is a simulation, then there is no interest in "us" other than as one more phenomenon in the simulation. The simulation is more likely on the order of, "What happens when I push THIS button?" "Oooh! That's pretty! Let's see what it does!" we just happen to be part of somebody's curiosity.

  • Manish Bansal

    I was surprised to see no mention of dreams in the article. There are so many things we see in our dreams which have no connection at all to our real life. Where do those stories come from? Who plants them in our brains? Are dreams the bugs in the program which cause one living being's reality to be experienced by another living being?

    • dd

      Remember, a Deja Vu is a bug in The Matrix

    • justdiealready

      No. But the limitations of the so called simulation, as they are described in the article (computational power limitation), are essentially how dreams work. For instance, specifics of objects are only invoked when they become part of the dream, otherwise they are hazy (example: you dream of interacting with a man, but cannot recall his face). Most people have this idea they dream in black and white, because color is only invoked if it's relevant to the narrative. Your brain has a limited vocabulary, and it uses recombination techniques to construct your dreams. You will never dream of something that isn't already part of what you know. This is also how imagination works. And it's partly why the authors compare reality to a computer simulation: it's easier for us to think of it that way, because that's our technological limitation. A little how movie aliens (and before aliens, supernatural monsters) are often humanoid or composites of different animals. Reality is probably something completely unforeseeable.

  • Michael Hanlon

    You don't actually need to simulate an entire Universe. Only the bit of it that has a direct causal relationship with the conscious beings in the simulation. Most of the Universe we see could be something akin to painted scenery on a model diorama, a fake-within-a-fake, and thus the computing resources needed would be reduced hugely.
    The best argument against Matrix universe hypotheses is that we have no reason to believe such a simulation is possible, if it possible to create consciousness in a machine and so forth. To my mind the best argument FOR is the increasingly fishy silence from the heavens. The more we learn about the number of planets out there, the more it is clear that we should be living in a Star Trek Universe - and equally clearly we are not. Living in a Simverse is not the only possible explanation for this, of course, but it is worth considering.

    • Sean R.

      Why must we be living in a Star Trek Universe? It isn't just Space that separates us, it's Time as well. Civilizations come and go, just look at the rise and fall of them on our planet... and who is to say we'll manage to have any sort of civilization off planet before we self-destruct? You look at the news today, it's hard to believe we could focus long enough to get off planet.

      What if the civilizations out there are less Star Trek, more Killing Star or Berserker? Maybe we don't want to be noticed just yet...

      • Michael Hanlon

        The assumption that we are about to self-destruct is a popular one, but it is far from given that it is correct. You can equally argue that just as our civilisation contains the seeds of its own demise (nuclear weapons, ecological catastrophes and so on) it also contains the seeds of immortality (huge leaps in technology, globalised economy, feasibility of colonising off-world). It is not impossible that something resembling our world will be around for a long, long time. The 'news' is actually hopeful and good; in my lifetime Chinese people went hungry en masse; look at the place now. There are fewer wars now, killing fewer people, than at most times in human history.
        And given the (probable) number of habitable planets out there it seems odd that NO ONE has made the big leap to either colonise the galaxy or just make their presence felt. You don't need warp drives, just a lot of time and effort and not that much time. The point is WE could do it (at least we have a stab at knowing how we would try) and we've only had proper technology for a couple of hundred years. It seems implausible that no one out there has done so. So, as I said, fishy.

        • Sean R.

          I'm actually less worried about nuclear war, peak oil, etc than I am of the debt crisis & the overall ignorance of our civilization. Look at the recent term "low information voter" the idea that reality tv is more important than life's reality, how many "scientific facts" are just popularized Hollywod myth. Yes there are some nice things going on in China but I can't help but also point out the immense amount of pollution in their country with undrinkable water, unbreathable air. Our leadership pushes back the problems for the next generation and the voters only squawk if they feel a minor pinch.

          The barbarian hordes at the gate area in already inside and in charge... and it is frightening.

          • Michael Hanlon

            Have you seen 'Idiocracy'? It's very funny, but also scarier than most 'serious' disaster movies. The stupids end up in charge. But, again, I am confident this won't happen. The masses may be glued to their TVs but there is more easily accessible information out there than ever before. Was the average Frenchman, American or Briton of 150 years ago really better informed than their equivalents today? Or just the well-educated elites whose thoughts and writings have been passed on down to us?

        • Mikkal VanPelt

          As said earlier, those others out there might have seen us, seen what we do, seen how we are, and seen what we are capable of doing and so are fleeing in horror as quickly as they can.

      • Michael Hanlon

        Your other point - evil aliens. It's probably too late. Anything within a hundred light years with the sort of space telescopes that we already have on the drawing board will know we are here already. Maybe they are on their way as we speak!

        • Mikkal VanPelt

          They could as well be fleeing in horror.

          • Overleaf

            More probably they are just watching us with popcorn in hand trying to contain their laughter when they see a speech by Naomi Klein, David Suzuki, or Laurie Penny.

    • andacar

      This reminds me of a short science fiction story I read a while ago in which a man is in a hospital. He tells the nurses and doctors that they are all aliens who have simulated the entire world around him. They almost succeed in getting him to believe the world is real when he notices that the rain is only falling in one window and not the other. I can't recall the name of the story.

      • jhertzli

        "They" by Robert Heinlein

        • andacar


    • ballinik

      That's not an argument at all, that's your view on it. The "increasingly fishy silence" is what? Your short 80 years of consciousness? You fail to understand that the sheer size and vastness of both time and space your "aliens" won't be finding us soon. 200,000 years of modern humans is still nothing in the grand scheme of things, the probabilities are minuscule until more time can pass.

  • Lester

    Often when people criticize others they are actually revealing their own shortcomings, their own worldview.

    I see the simulation theory in the same light. Rather than a reflection of the likely nature of reality it is a reflection of ther nature of our technological and reductive worldview - an atheists version of religion.

    Consciousness may well be the base of reality, the spring from which all material is formed. All material may be consciousness and contain a reservoir of information. When it comes to gut feelings I go with this one but I understand why our culture currently struggles with it.

    Ultimately though this Buddhist saying captures our relationship with these ideas perfectly:

    "First there is a mountain and rivers and streams. Then there is no mountain and rivers and streams. Then there is mountains and rivers and streams again."

    • Kevin Curry

      If religion were simply a search for understanding the natural world, maybe. But, your assertion that this subject is the religion of the athiest is a bit misguided. I don't believe a scientific and philisophical pursuit, as allowed by the current constraints of our knowledge, for understanding the natural world is at all analogous to blindly following an ancient text, mysticism or some other religious construct. I also don't see those interested in the simulation theory calling themselves believers blindly or using their theory to impose ideals upon others.

      • Lester

        I see what you are saying Kevin and within the context you set up you make a good point. I agree that the methodology of science and philosophy (excellent bedfellows as opposed to foes as they are often portrayed) are powerful tools for gaining a great insight into the material world as it appears within our measuring capacity.

        But I'd be reluctant to reduce all religious thinking and philosophy to merely blindly following ancient texts. Of course there are the very Earthly failings of institutional religions that morph quickly into sociopolitical tools, but these are not representative of the inquiry that is fundamental to a great deal of religious thought.

        Interestingly Science also suffers from the all to human need for security and certainty, and when it does it too morphs into a kind of Scientism, that is never the neutral phenomena it pretends. True scientific inquiry and true religious philosophy can both be excellent ways to approach the mystery of existence.

        When I said the "atheists version of religion" I used it to mean that the cultural confines and boundaries that promote imaginings and inquiry in one direction have created a kind of Godless ( yet surprisingly analogous to religious) metaphor which I think is, well, sort of amusing.

    • Robert M

      I agree with how you view the theory as resulting from an exclusively positivistic philosophy, which guides scientists to the exclusion of not only other types of reasoning, but, beyond that, other types of understanding.

      Hypotheses like the one presented in the article make me worried about how positivistic philosophy might impact our human world. It's grown so unwieldy with all of the data and research that no one could hope to really make sense of it, and yet as it continues it grows the possibly enormous negative impacts on human culture that could result from even small misunderstandings.

      • Lester

        I agree with you Robert. Science is best wielded when understood to be a means of gaining insights into the majesty of reality. It steps onto shaky ground when used to extrapolate definitive ultimate truths.

    • justdiealready

      Does that mean that bacteria and plants don't perceive reality? They are certainly not conscious. But they interact with the world around them, in their own way.

      I like the old idea of the light specter. We only perceive a small part of it, and we construct our visual model of the world around it. How does a blind person construct the world? If we were, biologically, equipped differently, would we be able to see a different kind of reality? It's amusing, just the other day, I was watching this old clip:

      The little squares are limited by their two-dimensional worldview, so they cannot even wrap their heads around the world perceived by the apple. I quite like this idea, that there's more to reality than we can perceive, and that sadly, we probably simply don't have the requirements to understand it, ever.

      • mark

        I'm not sure what you mean by bacteria does not have consciousness. All living things have consciousness, of course percieved differently than humans or any other animal compared.

        • justdiealready

          I would say they have some degree of awareness, that allows them to function. I suppose you could disagree on the definition (awareness, sentience, conscience).

        • Tom Cloyd

          Mark you conflate responsivity with consciousness. An ice cube and a bacterium have the former. They certainly do not have the latter, not in any way that we can verify as we can the consciousness of a human being.

          • calamond23

            Splitting hairs, the definition of consciousness isn't being humanlike.


          • Tom Cloyd

            Making a key discrimination is dividing two subsets, each of which have distinct and unique characteristics. The distinction between responsivity and consciousness is hardly a trivial one. Mark asserts that all living things have consciousness. That is an outrageous and radical proposition, and all the more so because it is presented with NO argumentation whatsoever.

            In humans the key element of consciousness is not just awareness of self but recognition of self. Experiments with other primates show self-awareness, but not self-recognition - in some species: they know their own hand, but do not recognize themselves in a mirror. Some mature elephants, on the other hand, have been shown to have self-recognition.

            Consciousness is a complex and fascinating thing, and appears to require several descriptive continua to reasonably encompass its breadth. That said, I still maintain that the responsivity of an amoeba to a probe is hardly evidence of consciousness that bears any meaningful similarity to consciousness in human. A comatose person can be responsive to a range of stimuli, but would hardly be called conscious by anyone with any real education in zoology.

            As for your reference - I'm a sucker for anything relating to evolution, and that is an utterly fascinating article. Quite a find, for me. However, it has all of two references to conscious, and neither are in any way that I can see pertinent to this discussion.

          • Mikkal VanPelt

            Please do not forget that consciousness also requires recognition of self in others, even if that recognition is extrapolation.

  • Elizabeth Stott

    Fascinating, thank you, Matthew Francis. There are mathematical paradoxes, perhaps, that prevent a system from 'knowing' more than it contains. I question too, the idea of simplicity. eg. in chaos/complexity, we do not need many parameters for things to get interesting! And could we not be a physical simulation - an analogue?

    • smokeyal

      Theory - schmeory - These brains should get a real job

  • Andrew Denny

    When you say: "... I don’t want to believe in the existence of an intelligence who is either indifferent or who programmes beings to suffer needlessly", why should your suffering be their suffering?

    Perhaps the simulation's creator (god or gods?) isn't interested in us at all, except as components - just as we are not interested in the sufferings of the gears of a watch.

    If I was a watch gear, I might feel a Sisyphean suffering in being forced to go round in the same direction all the time, and never have the freedom or pleasure of reversing its direction. Why would we submit a watch gear to such suffering? Could it ever understand the greater concept of time for which it was created?

    • Raylan

      I agree with your point of view Andrew.

      Here is a very simplistic answer when addressing the point posed by the author:
      "I don’t want to believe in the existence of an intelligence who is either indifferent or who programmes beings to suffer needlessly. (Why not simulate a paradise?)"
      Looking from the vantage point of humans as creative beings - we write stories, make movies, create music. Do the characters in our own creations not suffer? If the author's point were to hold water - that we couldn't possibly be simulations because wouldn't it make mores sense just to have us all in a 'simulated paradise' - then why isn't every character created by us in our fictions living in paradise? Why don't all our characters live happily ever after. Why isn't every poem, song, story and movie a happy one?

      One word - Realism

      "IF" we are living in a simulation, just as any scientific scientific simulation on our part strives to create realism - why wouldn't our engineers strive for the same? And if it is one big simulation - would they not try to run as many permutations of "Us" as possible to observe all the possible outcomes.

      Like Andrew wrote above, there would be a a Sisyphean suffering to watching the same gear turning over and over.

      • tony

        Well said.

    • Mike Trotter

      I believe we suffer because of each other. Because of decisions we make base on character flaws in our makeup such as selfishness/self seeking which is often sub conscience, etc. We have this free will and in order for a creator/author to end all suffering, I think you would agree that, he would have to remove our thinking. He may be allowing suffering to continue for an ultimate purpose and since our thinking is limited to his, it might not be possible to comprehend this purpose.

      • Cheshire Savant

        Can you please demonstrate free will to one with a deterministic philosophy?

  • andacar

    The best and simplest response that I ever saw to this kind of conundrum was in one of Alan Dean Foster's Star Trek novels. Spock says, "A difference that makes no difference is no difference."

    • ryan muir


    • justdiealready


    • Tim Kosub

      Spock's claim is ambiguous, since he doesn't say whether the kind of differences involved are the same, e.g., a theoretical difference that makes no empirical difference is no difference at all, is plainly false. Other differences would also make a difference.

      • Don

        You really need to get some kind of a life Tim.

        • Nicholas Finch

          What difference does it make for Tom? LOOL

    • Irene Alhanati Cardillo


  • Luke Cui

    You're assuming the simulators (if they exist) are sane. There's a chance they aren't; there's a chance that they, like us, prefer convoluted plots over simple conflict resolution. We have to remember that we also make a sort of simulation in writing fiction. For aesthetics, I guess, we like plots and characters who suffer even when they don't have to. We can argue that fictional characters' suffering help us understand our own, but the same argument can be applied to the problem about simulators. We can also argue that our own fictional characters aren't real, but the simulators can say the same thing, can't they?

    • NRGhee

      This puts me in mind of a story I submitted to a publication. I deliberately wrote a story in which the world's problems had been resolved, with the intent of showing how today's crises could be laughable tomorrow. The publisher said it was good, but didn't print it because it lacked conflict.

      Sorry if this is a little off-topic, but I believe it speaks to your point.

    • andacar

      Now we're into "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream" territory, Harlan Ellison's incredibly depressing short story.

  • G

    Oh my, another Computer-God religion to go along with the Church of Singularitology, the Cryogenic Temple of Alcor, et. al. They do seem to be multiplying like mice these days.

    Let's see...

    =A deity, or deities as it were, in the form of The Programmers.
    =A spirit realm in the form of The Simulation.
    =Plenty of moral drama.
    =And as with any other propositions about deities, thoroughly untestable.


    Though, if it were a computational physics experiment, it would have no need of us in it. And if it were a social psychology experiment, then it's a case of cruelty to (human) animals, so either The Gods are evil, or their Institutional Review Board is negligent.

    There's a simpler explanation. Perhaps Nick Bostrom has been taking too much LSD...?

  • AndreFromMontreal

    All the different ways we can conceive our universe to be, are most likely fictions. Even if the mathematics are telling us an interesting story, like in the Leonard Susskind's holographic principal, we must not forget that the essential is happening at the human scale.
    But one interesting fact: what we perceive is just a simulation of reality.

  • Robert Root

    the question then would be: Who created the creator of the simulation? the problem is just moved one step back

    • Eli

      I did.

    • Do he

      From there, it's simulations all the way down.

  • Joseph

    If we are part of a simulation were we picked as a life form/s because we live a much shorter life that the programmers? As we watch fruit flies and other insects live and die because they do this in a matter of days, Maybe our short lives of 50-100 years is comparably short to that of the programmers and thus they can watch what is a 1000 years to us in one of their months. By the way, would our God/s be their God/s also?

    • Gary Larceny

      They are our god, i.e., a goofy sadistic nerd.

  • Eli Olson

    Excellent article!
    Perhaps a possible experiment could be, if indeed the simulation does “cut corners” by calculating precisely only when needed, if we were to gather the science community and in single instance we all fire up the colliders, microscopes, telescopes, and any other experiment that would require mass computational power, and observe if the results are consistent. Perhaps we would see a multitude and glitches. Then again we could crash the whole damn system… Worth a shot, and I for one would participate.

  • Ryan

    I am in no way an expert on this stuff but would it be plausible that the atoms we know of are a ternary code of some sort? The different amounts of protons, neutrons, and electrons creating data structures or something?

  • Wang Chung

    I would think that anomaly's like Telepathy or Future Sight would indicate we are in a simulation. If you can see the future, then the data for that event must already exist.

  • God

    So, if we live in a computer, what happens to us when they close the app running our universe in order to look at naughty pictures in their version of the internet.

  • Ed

    It's turtles all the way down.

    • Nicho

      Indeed. It seems to me that using a simulation as a deus ex machina for a range of interesting puzzles is laziness. If we are in a simulation run by a future human race then all issues we purport to attribute to the simulation would also exist in 'base' reality

  • fastnbulbous

    As Douglas Adams said: There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable.

    There is another theory which states that this has already happened.

  • fastnbulbous

    A few observations.

    The reality/simulation distinction is arbitrary. Simulation may be the only reality.

    The 'simulation' may have been started by ancestors not descendants.

    If the simulation game goes back countless generations, maybe the first players were very very simple computers, which we now call atoms. The software was given just enough capability to make itself just a little bit more capable and complex with each generation. And now here we are, complex and flawed but still ultimately controlled by our ancestral atoms.

    • bulbousalsotapered

      Or we may be players who signed up for the game not fully understanding that the game time would be experienced as very real time.

  • mmcpher

    Because science and technology and philosophy have become sufficiently advanced to be able to reason to the silliest of scenarios, does not make silliness probability. There is a difference between perception and simulation, and then there is objective reality.

    • Dan K.

      But silliness is reality, reality IS silliness. To consider the fact that there are potentially billions upon billions of galaxies, and that each of those highly unlikely to support life but yet there are likely millions of conscious beings. THAT is silly. Silliness is the fact that we exist. That being said, postulating that we are in a computer simulation is probably an unnecessary injection of silliness into an already silly world. "Objective reality" is a myth though, at least at our level of existence and consciousness.

  • Granite Sentry

    Seems like if you're a simulation able to prove that you're a simulation, you're not one. On the other hand, being unable to prove that you're not a simulation does not prove that you are. Or perhaps we're all just butterflies dreaming we're simulations.

  • rednip

    Simple, this is not a simulation as there are no dragons. If it were a simulation, there would definitely be dragons!

    • Scarpo

      Vladimir Nabokov's entire oeuvre addresses the idea that there is a larger power at work in our world. For examle in one of his starkest pieces of "meta fiction" the novel Bend Sinister, the lead character is aware of a god-like being observing him. And he was right: Nabokov carefully intrudes in his fictional world as himself.... the ending is quite jarring. Great work deemed even by critics as too difficult for the reader. Then there is Invitation to a Beheading. All his work addresses the "simulator" concept only he wrote before computers so he used fiction to explore the idea.

  • ryan muir

    I have thought of this philosophical problem quite often. If the idea of the universe is so old and so big, the probability of our time period in this graph would lie in a bell curve. Very low chance for us to be the first and the highest likelihood we fall in a time with many before us, giving rise to past beings having a long enough period to create us very sophistically into a virtual program. But here also lies many problems. 1) We cant remember anything, why would they wipe our slates clean? memory is everything, if we cant recall then there becomes no inherent purpose. 2) why program us into beings born in complete dependency and utter ignorance? (arising same "god" questions: pain, suffering, hatred, etc...) 3)why create a system that can only create as many ppl as dependent on things inside the code? only so many ppl can virtually enter the code as the beings inside of the code allow. If I choose not to have a child someone cant enter, why not create a different way for life bgin. 4) why are the creators so secretive on not allow us to know we are in a code.
    CONCLUSION: this is just another form of gods and heavens just with a different name. It is an existential terror management. no life wants to cease, so we create new ways to sustain life after death.

  • Dina Strange

    How can something that is being simulated prove that it's not simulated? Doesn't that imply that simulated MUST BE 1st. outside of range of simulation, 2nd. not to run the program of simulation inside of it which logically means not be conscious of him/herself.

  • Dan

    Its a nice subject for an article, and well written, but I feel these falls down on a few points that prevent it from being great.

    Firstly, too unquestioning acceptance of this proposal that we are 'probably' living in a simulation. Its a wild claim, we don't understand a fraction of all the different factors we would need to fully comprehend to be confident of this.

    Secondly, as other commenters have pointed out - why assume the simulation need to include all of our consciousnesses? It could just as easily be just one of us, and everyone else be part of the simulation. Or each consciousness could have its own simulation, designed for a special test. There's no reason to particularly privilege either alternative -other than perhaps to push the discussion to conjecture about processing power.

    Finally, there's the deeper question of what exactly the difference would be between a 'simulation' such as that described and 'reality'. The author implies some external hidden measure by which the difference is established, but never unpacks. The Spock quote cited by another comment applies perfectly.

    Generally speaking, it feels like this really could have benefitted from more familiarity with what are quite old and established philosophical issues, and less of the jumping to the scientific questions before the assumptions are fully grounded. Don't mean to sound like a typical moany internet commenter though, love the subject matter, and kudos to aeon for continually putting out great stuff.

    • Scarpo

      The one thing that freaks me out and susceptible to stories like the above is that glaring problem in quantum physics ...the lack of a unified field framework that encompasses all of natures forces. Unless I've missed something a glaring contradiction still exists between the micro and macro. I'm aware of the different "theories" but a theory is just a theory.

  • gregormendel

    "In fact, it could be the case that one planetary civilisation [sic] is all that can be simulated, without running into computational capacity issues."

    Assumptions based upon assumptions... This statement is incredibly arbitrary and is in no way supported by our current knowledge of biology.

    According to this statement, any habitable planet will be unable to harbor life, not due to any scientific reason, but because there just isn't enough computational power. What? Just another way of saying we're the center of the universe. Way too anthropocentric for my tastes.

    A better solution would be that sentient beings discover a means of uploading consciousness before discovering a means of traversing the stars. Why travel millions of light years when one could simply create a virtual universe with no pain or suffering?

    inb4 everyone underestimates how difficult interstellar travel actually is.

  • John

    Why do you assume, the universe we live in is a complex one? Perhaps, this universe is sufficiently complex, but not as complex as the universe that the programmer lives in?

  • Cyber Dactyl

    Who among us find it bizarre, that in the history of mankind, from the raw beginnings of consciousness, from hunter-gatherers onward through the tens of thousands of years, WE, (you and I) are at the cusp of the singularity, the last blink of an eye before runaway super intelligence?

    • theotormon

      Well said. Yet the condition of existing at all is always "at the cusp" since it is immeasurably more likely that our specific selves should not exist. Yet if anybody is going to exist then it must be somebody. And here we are. And if anybody is going to find themselves at the vestibule of the singularity, it must be somebody. And here we are.

    • AndreFromMontreal

      Relax, you sound
      like some kind of Mystic. Who knows what tomorrow is going to be? Like you, I
      am curious about the subject, but otherwise rather skeptic of the outcome. Not
      because of any faith; I am agnostic. I will just point out the fact
      that we do not know the parameters that allow consciousness to arise. Those who
      are tempted to ‘download their brains’, like the Russian billionaire Dmitry
      Itskov, might just end up transferring data in an unconscious machine. This would result in simple worthless

    • Twirlip of the Mists

      We've recently developed a number of technologies which could very plausibly cause human extinction, either through deliberate action or by accident, and a number of others are on the horizon. Superintelligence being one - not the evil computers of fiction that seek to Destroy All Humans, but simply a system which thinks better and faster, and considers us as no more than atoms it can use for something else. (It wouldn't have to be conscious, any more than corporations are conscious.)

      Or we have bioweapons, molecular manufacturing, and so on. These technologies all show up around the same time as AI and generate plenty of existential risk.

      Our population growth has been exponential, so a significant fraction of all the humans who have ever lived are living now.

      So no, we shouldn't find it bizarre to be living shortly before the end. It's actually a very likely time to be born.

  • عمر بو الزور

    What if the universe we live in is already a simplified version of the universe the Programmers live in ?
    Or, what if they had sufficient processing power that they do not need any simplifications to be done ?
    Or, what if our universe is totally different from the one our Programmers live in ?
    Or, what if this is NOT a simulation at all, considering the number of randomness in our universe and how hard is it simulate random events ? Maybe they can do that, too ...
    Final thought : if this is a simulation, maybe the Programmers would hardwired us to not to think about it ...

  • hocestquisumus

    First of all: If you tried to simulate a whole living, changing universe, you'd probably start by defining some basic rules and let the simuverse work out itself. Which would make it real in every sense of the word, wouldn't it. Let me elaborate a little further:

    While this theory gets a big, fat "I don't think so" from me, I do think the whole premise if it *were* true is wrong. If anyone were to create a simulation of such complexity, one wouldn't go at it like Bethsoft creating an Elder Scrolls game or Rockstar another entry into the GTA franchise. Meaning, they wouldn't create a polygon world, populate it by putting stuff and characters in predefined start positions, then turn a basic AI 'on' so the NPCs can fake a 'life' for the player's entertainment. While such games are immensely impressing, they can't hold a candle to the real world (well, d'oh). I don't think that will ever change. It will get better, it well get more defined, it will get more and more impressing. But I'm of the firm opinion that it'll never be indistuingishable from reality. Why?

    The restrictions are not in the hardware. It's amazing what you can do with a 100 euro video card these days. Yet nobody uses them to their full potention. That's because there is a point where the cost/benefit-ratio stops making sense.

    Which is of course true for games as well as scientifc research.

    We could argue that a simuverse exists for neither purpose but for creating a living space for people who have uploaded their consciousness. Which brings up the question about all the suffering. Wouldn't they want a paradise? Or is paradise too boring? But... wouldn't they at least want a whole universe to explore whereas ours is strictly look don't touch thanks to a certain Dr. Einstein?

  • Sean R.

    This premise has already been explored much more thoroughly through fiction. I suggest anyone interested to check out the film World on a Wire, there's also the great short story by Philip K Dick titled The Trouble with Bubbles which takes a more lighthearted but tragic view of this idea. I'm sure there are many more examples out there, certain The Matrix fits as well.

    In the end... it really just sounds like someone who is bored throwing out ideas that could never be proven or disproven, stick to enjoying the ride of whatever drugs you're on :P

  • Xiccarph

    Ahhh... "The Thirteenth Floor" movie.

    Why can't All That Is just be called an infinite simulation in infinite realities? Seth would probably say...pretty close, pretty close...

  • Mark

    I hate when articles mention "where are the aliens". I doubt it very much that if this reality is a computational simulation that it would not be powerful enough to produce more than one planet with intelligent life. Thats almost like saying "this computer can only produce word documents but thats it. It wouldn't make sense because obviously any computer has the capacity to produce or render many things, even at the same time. Im sure if this universe is simulated it has enough power to produce more than one planet with life on it, probably even intelligent life none the less. And if one does enough research one will find that the aliens or dimensional beings were and still are in this reality, whether simulated or not due to the overload of evidence.

  • Angel Gabriel in The Flesh

    I know what your Luciferian hoax is. And it is not going to pan out well for you.

  • Don

    To think that we may be living in a computer simulation is absolutely mind boggling. Even more mind boggling is the intelligence responsible for accomplishing such a feat!!!!!

  • cbartley17

    How did this debate veer toward religion? The simulation argument as posited by Bostrom has nothing to do with, and is not inconsistent with, the existence of a deity or deity. The simulation argument is simply a logical framework for identifying the cases that must be ruled out in order for us to possibly live in a simulation. Even if the first two cases are ruled out the simulation argument still allows for the possibility that we're not yet living in a simulation (

    Moreover, the simulation argument is as of yet, a philosophical construction. Once, if ever, we find a way to unambiguously test whether or not we're in a simulation it will become a scientific question and we'll run the experiment.

    In the meantime it's fun to think about. I've always found the "rendered-as-needed" idea interesting. It provides an alternative way of thinking about quantum particles as probability maps that literally do not exist until observed.

    Additionally, we can imagine how the universe is both infinite and finite at the same time. In some video games the payer is simply transported back to the beginning once they reach the end of an environment. In other video games the game endlessly constructs more space as the user continues to venture farther in one direction. Either of these scenarios might also be true for our universe.

    And then of course there's quantum entanglement. How is it that the measurement of one particle might affect the behavior or identity of another instantaneously over any distance? That is, how can information be transmitted faster than the speed of light? Perhaps if the rules of simulation dictate as such. Once again we can think of a simple pong-like video game. If the paddle starts at the top of the screen the ball will always enter from the bottom. If the paddle starts at the bottom of the screen the ball will always start from the top. This is written into the code of the game and there are no other possibilities. It's not even that information must travel between the paddle and the pong (or one particle and it's entangle brother), it's that there are only certain arrangements that have been programmed by the software. It literally cannot be another way.

    Lastly, this is just cool:

  • Robert Valcourt

    I stopped reading when the Author of the article offhandedly dismissed Alien - Human interaction. The whole "where are the aliens" B.S. The theory put forth is about as outlandish as I have heard but yet Aliens are somehow more outlandish. So much so that one of the supporting evidence's of the theory that we live in a simulation is the absence of aliens.

  • Jum1801

    In the business of answering the sophistry about the supposed difficulty of distinguishing reality from a computer simulation, Samuel Johnson answered that one about 250 years ago when he kicked hell out of that big-ass rock.

    • tristan eldritch

      Today, many neuroscientists would tell Johnson that the pain were in his brain rather than his foot; and Johnson, I suppose, would kick it again in order to refute them. His response is facile for many reasons.

      • Jum1801

        Samuel Johnson facile? I suppose I would make that argument if it were in my interest that the intentionally opaque jargon and obfuscatory psycho babble displayed here be seen as having real value. That's a tough sell, especially when the discussion is more reminiscent of the cocktail party to introduce the Emperor's new tailors to the court.

        • tristan eldritch

          Well, first of all I didn't call Samuel Johnson facile - I called his argument in this particular instance (where he was attempting to refute Berkley) facile, and I believe it is just that. Can you explain precisely how the fact that certain types of sensation (ie pleasant/unpleasant) can be predictably produced (i.e. by kicking a stone) proves that matter has an existence independent of our sensations, bearing in mind that you are simply using a sensation (the unpleasant sensation of kicking a stone) to prove this? Or why, for example, if something as intuitively and apparently real and permanent as the sensation produced by color has no actual objective existence, and yet the fleeting sensation of a sore toe proves indisputably and for all time the mind-independent existence of the cause of the sensation? Whatever one thinks about Berkley's idealism, Johnson's refutation is a bold-faced appeal to naive common sense (the same common sense which would hold that the pain were in the foot rather than the brain), and no more rigorous or convincing than a refutation of heliocentrism that consists of pointing out that it sure looks a lot like the sun goes down over the horizon.

          • Jum1801

            Thank you for making my point so much better than I ever could.

          • tristan eldritch

            I think you're confusing yourself with someone who had a point to begin with.

    • Spike McLarty

      Samuel Johnson is famous for his understanding of neurology and cognitive science, as well as his deep and subtle grasp of physics, mathematics and mathematical logic.
      Oh wait.
      I've been thinking about Johnson and his rock for years. As far as I have ever been able to tell, his kicking the rock has the semantic content of "I don't want to reveal my unstated assumptions, or my reasoning, and I want to stop thinking about your uncomfortable idea RIGHT NOW. So there!"
      To call it facile is to be kind, childish and lazy is more like it.

  • tristan eldritch

    What is interesting me about Bostrom and the simulation theory is that it is to all intents and purposes a Creationist theory of the universe which is nevertheless couched in terms which doesn't raise the emotional heckles of atheists. That is, that the idea the universe were created by a mysterious being or intellect powerful enough to create universes is abysmal and objectionable on so many levels, and yet merely say that the universe might be a simulation created by a mysterious programmer powerful enough to create such a a complex simulation, and the utterly objectionable idea becomes a neat, respectable speculation. Why is that, I wonder?

  • Anon

    my only question, IF we are a computer simulation, then why are we not living in a Utopia, instead of living in war, pestilence and corruption... If I was in a program, I would prefer to be in a world without all that... just my thought on the matter. And in a Computer simulation, would we programs (humans) still have free will?

  • Nick Hart

    The simulators did leave a clue: the predisposed us to believe in God.

  • Renee

    There are vast distances between us and any potential civilization out there. Alpha Centauri is the nearest system to us, a three-star system that is 26 trillion miles away. It would take the shuttle 165,000 years to get there. The next nearest star after that is a red dwarf called Bernard's star and it's 36 trillion years away. Guess what neither of those star systems is the kind likely to support life, and they are the nearest!

    Things just keep getting exponentially further away after that. When you consider the distances involved and the technology required to travel such distances within a single generation, it doesn't seem all that strange that we haven't seen any other civilizations gadding about the solar system. It will take extraordinarily advanced science to get to any system capable of supporting life outside our own.

    In short, the absence of aliens is certainly not proof of a simulation.

    • Ingolf Stern

      The "absent alien" problem presumes something that has not been demonstrated - that the aliens are in fact absent.
      Perhaps they are everywhere but we cannot see them.
      Infra red. Ultra violet. x-rays. gamma rays. all of these are things present but unseen.
      In fact, most of what is present is unseen, unheard, unrecognized.
      Silly theorem.

  • girdyerloins

    Some fellow, a computer whiz, wrote a book during the last few years suggesting the universe itself was a computer; that the ones and zeros engendering its existence resided in the various components of the atoms and what not making up the whole shebang. An intriguing notion, not at all unlike this author's proposal. I have to say I'm amused by possible reasons proposed by this view and suggest one of my own. Since mankind keeps a death grip, so to speak, on immortality ideologies, and economic prosperity is, after all, the ability to postpone one's demise, it is apparent that everything we do, outside of scrabbling for the means to sustenance, is entertain ourselves until death. And I use the word entertain rather broadly here, to encompass any and all activities which distract us(or, even, focus us) on our deaths, to include tv reality shows, of course. As most activities in the world have become part and parcel of a wealth-acquisition scheme(leaving aside who benefits), and this scheme figures prominently in most peoples' minds as "reality"("Reality", for some), and our collective ability to abandon such schemes as offer us solace, I suspect we would relinquish our grip on this particular scheme-that of making money to help worship our dominant immortality ideology only reluctantly over time.
    This means we could see a not-so-distant future in which we could enter simulations of the past and be so immersed as to lose ourselves-all as part of a commercial venture which some sharp entrepreneur has succeeded in promoting alongside advances in technology in which a segment of the world's population that has realized a somewhat more enlightened and ubiquitous conciousness without the aid of artificial stimulants also exists.
    The Catholic Church's sale of indulgences a few hundred years ago, convinced me that we humans can be sold anything, if such "shares in heaven" are any indication.

  • John G Messerly

    I think Bostram's simulation argument is most relevant when we consider ancestor simulations and the relevance that has for overcoming death. For more see

    • Ingolf Stern

      lol. overcoming death. you want that? you want to forever? to what end? me, I want to grow, to move-along, see what's next.

  • Ingolf Stern

    "why not simulate a paradise?"
    Exactly. you have traversed the path of irrelevance and arrived at last upon the useful shore.
    the answer to all "why?" questions is available if one allows a single premise: what happens is what is intended to happen.
    if you allow that competence, function, success is the norm, then motive can be discerned from function, action.
    what happens as a result of the non-paradisiacal nature of our world?
    well, we experience spiritual growth.
    "non-paradise" as the default game mode is sort of like exercise, weight lifting.
    the resistance we experience when pursuing our desires amounts to the spiritual weights we lift to grow. without resistsance, with only coasting, there is no growth, no striving, no choices to make and live with. no cause-effect from which to learn.
    you can learn all this by reading Thomas Campbell - "My Big T.O.E."

  • Fred Bosick

    A regular lattice is unlikely to be the substrate of our Universe if only because we *know* what it is and would seek to make it undetectable in our own simulated universes.

    In first person shooter games(Doom/Quake/etc.) an early exploit was called "bunny hopping". The player would move on diagonals of the underlying lattice to gain speed. You had to hop to expose the flaw. if a bunch of dissolute young men playing video games can find something like this, a planet full of scientists working over centuries can do better. There are already experiments to detect the supposed granularity of the Universe by seeking the time broadening of gamma ray emission events, hoping to find adjacent photons hopping different Planck foam edges on their way across billions of light years. Results are inconclusive.

    Any self respecting Architect would keep the Keymaker away from a would-be Neo.

  • Truth Teller

    Yes, it matters. If all the events in my life are a result of a computer simulation, I want to bitch slap the programmer. I am supposed to be rich, handsome, and immortal.

  • ecip

    Consider that The Milky Way, Andromeda, and everything else in our little speck of Universe is sailing toward the Great Attractor at 14 million miles an hour.... is anything impossible?

  • jesus zamora bonilla

    If our universe IS a simulation, what about the REAL universe in which that simulation is being performed? The same argument for showing that OUR universe is a simulation would be valid to infere that THAT universe is also a simulation. But not ALL universes can be a simulation.
    Furthermore, we are after all nothing but an emerging effect of a series of physical causes; little changes if the 'ultimate' physical causes we emerge out are physical causes that consist in the quantum processes of our 'real' molecules, or in the quantum processes of the 'real' molecules of the 'real' computers on which our 'simulated world' is simulated. So, we are 'real' after all (i.e., REALLY emergent out of the REAL physical processes of SOME physical reality)

  • pistachiowildebeest

    I suspect the answer to the question "Are we living in a computeation?" might be simultaneously "Yes" and "No," by the following reasoning.

    It appears likely that reality is infinite in extent. The most straightforward cosmological models assume that space is infinite, hence our Hubble Volume will be precisely duplicated an infinite number of times (along with other volumes that differ to various degrees). That's all you need, but there are many other varieties of multiverse - eternal inflation, many worlds, and so on.

    From this we can conclude that our conscious experience at any moment - like this one - is generated an infinite number of times. But those identical conscious moments can be generated by entirely different mechanisms and on completely different substrates, given the entirely reasonable assumption that our consciousness is Turing computable in the first place. So there exists an experience (me, reading this article) generated by a physical brain composed of molecules and atoms, which is our usual assumption and by far the simplest. There also exists an identical experience deliberately generated in a computer simulation in the far future. Actually, there are an infinite number of both, so there's an obvious measure problem! There are also an infinite number of identical experiences generated by other mechanisms - for instance, simulations arising through random natural processes, like a Boltzmann brain spontaneously arising in the heat death, or the random interactions of quarks in the core of a neutron star, and so on. They are all by definition internally indistinguishable, so we've got no means of telling what mechanism is generating our experience. We may as well say "they all are."

    There are a number of further conclusions one can draw about "what dreams may come."

    Hans Moravec has played with a similar idea ("Simulation, Consciousness, Existence"), and Greg Egan has used something like it in fiction (most notably Permutation City).

    It's all completely bonkers, of course! And I'm not being entirely serious... but if consciousness is computable (no reason to think it isn't) and the reality is infinite (which seems likely), then things can quickly become extremely strange.

  • mitya777

    The article and most of the comments always use the pronoun 'We' to describe our fake selves. But given the cost of such simulations it likely that there would be many more 'single-consciousness' simulations leading up to any simulation with multiple 'actors'. And since I am aware of myself... the probability is that all of you are non-conscious drones created for my simulated consciousness to 'play' with.

  • Floydianslip

    This was a fantastic read - especially while listening to some Radiohead :)

  • Phil Rae

    Simulating an entire Universe with sufficient detail to include conscious minds will be complex


    Who's to say it's simulating everyone? Maybe it's just simulating you and your reactions to the world. Everything outside your influence just isn't there. Or because I'm writing this, maybe it's simulating me. Maybe you're not real and the gods are testing how I cope with these suggestions of simulation. Maybe I'm destined as 'The One' and the real world is breaking me out. Who knows (except 'the gods').

    In terms of computing power required to simulate 7 billion active minds and potentially all the other lifeforms too (is my cat a concious being or just a routine?); just look at what's been achieved in 30 years. Think how that should expand exponentially in 100 years, let alone 1000. I think it's very possible that simulations could happen which is scary.

    Do you ever worry that our timeline has been tweaked so that we are a violent species? Maybe the world wars were an act of tweaking the system, and these days IS and North Korea are the tweaks. We've all played Sim City and Civilisation where variables are tweaked to make life more exciting. Maybe we are destined for a life of war and eventual extinction because of it.

  • netsurfer912

    I highly fucking doubt it. we can trace the universe back to the big bang and if that has been simulated it is unlikely that the simulation was even designed with humans in mind. Also we can't know if our simulation is simplified - how could we? Maybe the simulation even has flaws - but the laws of physics do make sense all in all, even if they can be weird at times.

  • purebull

    not just a simulation of life, but an actual game.

  • blagos

    Maybe we are just bugs in the program.

  • blagos

    In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice, but in practice, there is. . .

  • blagos

    If we are in a simulation, then I would think that our universe would be a much simpler, dumbed-down version of some higher reality. When we run a simulation, it is simplified as much as possible to achieve a results. The beings that inhabit that reality wouldn't even be remotely human. The world they dwell in would contain orders of complexity beyond what we can understand.

  • TheDoctor IsIn

    Or, perhaps, without suffering there can be no non-suffering? Imagine an existence where every single need of a person is instantly fulfilled even before it was felt. Would you like to be that person? It would be, I think, a rather sterile existence.

    This is, of course, a variant of the religious argument that with sin there can be no virtue.

  • Mike Trotter

    Simulation Hypothesis is not workable. Truth is a statement which agrees
    with reality and/or logic. And because truth is a statement it requires
    a mind, and if truth requires a mind and you are in a simulation, than
    your mind alone is deciphering truth, or it is recognizing truth
    that is outside of that simulation. If that be the case, that you alone are deciphering truth, then a problem arises, because your version of reality/actuality is the only reality/actuality that exists.

    If its true that the simulation is reality and you are the only one who
    knows it, then once again we are right back at the first part where
    actuality is being deciphered by your mind which would contradict the issue of the
    simulation being outside of you and you are inside of it.

    But if it is true that simulation is actuality and you are recognizing a
    greater truth, then its not dependent on your mind and it must be
    true that there is a mind beyond the actuality of that is truth, thats a
    conceptual abstraction, and that is the reality that you're tapped into.

    If there are If there are more than one creator, then they would be
    contradictory because their minds produce different results in different
    ideas. But if they're identical and they realize that there is only one actuality,
    then there is no functional difference between multiple minds or a single mind.

    Either way you look at it, in order for the simulation theory to be true, there has
    to be a mind outside of your own mind and the simulation. And If theres a mind like that out there and it's an absolute mind, then that means that there are also absolute truths. Where do we find the realization of any theological
    system of absolute truths that are supposed to be from an absolute God, "Absolute mind"

  • Nitin Singh

    There is no God, we actually live in simulation. Think of this. Why don't you remember anything before you were born. You came from the state of 0 and you will be
    aging towards the state of 0. I don't understand what is making you to hold back on the truth that we are simply objects created in a subroutine which will follow the
    predefined physical laws and then rest back to the state 0.

    Human beings should only focus on how effectively they can utilize this simulated environment, can they find out the ways to over ride the administrative levels and
    change laws of physics. May be in future we will then be able to teleport and do telekenesis.

  • Overleaf

    In the real physical world, most quantities are real numbers (such as the square root of 2) which cannot be represented in a computer to infinite precision. No matter how much precision we use to represent the real number, after a lot of operations, the result tends to diverge from the real number which we would get in the physical world. So after a while the simulation stops tracking a physical world. This would immediately be detected by today's scientific instruments. So no, we are not simulations.

  • The Spider

    Wow. Are you all on Drugs?

  • andacar

    Wow! This am not going very deep. It am not make me head hurt!

  • Curious1

    I don't think it's exactly a computer simulation. It's just, in our technology-saturated and obsessed world, that's a good metaphor for us to begin to work with that intuitive nagging feeling we've always had that somehow this isn't all quite real. It could be a program, or holographic projection or something similar, then again it could all be some kind of metaphysical collective dream. Does it matter? Well, yes and no. It would create some changes to find out it's a simulation, and even more speculations about how it all works, multiple layers of simulation etc etc, but at the end of the day you'd still need your job and to buy more milk. But I think that we haven't reached the final answer. So it's a question worth asking, but the answer shouldn't be assumed to be within our grasp yet.

  • NicolasBourbaki

    "While Bostrom is interested primarily in showing that we’re more likely than not to dwell in a simulation,..."

    Not exactly. He argues that there is about a 1/3 subjective probability that we're in a simulation (in interviews he puts the number at less than a third for reasons he has publicly explained).

  • Musa VM Kanneh

    I found these religious verses to be close or similar to what is written in this article:

    ....whereas the life of the world is but matter of illusion. Quran 57:20

    And this worldly life is not but diversion and amusement. And indeed, the home of the Hereafter - that is the [eternal] life, if only they knew. Quran 29:64

  • DJWaterman

    This kind of playful imagining explains why philosophy is largely irrelevant in today's world.

  • Ron Smith

    The reason post humans would run simulations has nothing to do with their concern about us living in a paradise or such nonsense. They would be running simulation for the same reasons we solve their own problems. They might want to know how things would be different if certain parameters were changed. Who knows, but they certainly would not be concerned about us. We are merely tools if this scenario is correct. If this is a simulation I would think there would be an end to the simulation at some point and the plug is pulled. We would never know.....of course.

  • Andres Aristizabal

    One thing to keep in mind is that if, in fact, we live in a simulation, whoever (or whatever) created/programmed it must be either a much more mentally and technologically advanced being (or beings) to be able to come up with such a complete program that models the whole universe, or someone who is constantly re-writing the code to account for our progressive "enlightenment

    If it is in fact a program that was written and left to run, I think that we would eventually find some kind of evidence as we get to its limits. This would be very disheartening for me because I don't think we would have a way to "get out" of the program, and therefore we would have found "the end". We would probably lose all reason for living.

    Instead, I lean more towards a program that is constantly changing or evolving. Just as scientists create progressively more complex tests to their subjects as they learn, those who are running the program we live in could be paying attention to what we learn and do. If that is the case, one could say that it would have been impossible for a caveman to discover single cell organisms since they probably were not written into the program back then. It would have been only when humans started investigating the smallest things that the code (or mod) was written. Who knows, maybe an earlier part of the program only had data for a world that was flat, and as we got closer to the edge, the code was once again updated to give us an endless sphere.

    I like that idea since it would indicate we're being "taken care of", after all, we've been thriving steadily for as long as we know. And we would only be limited by our own (programmed) imagination.

  • Chris

    When religion ceased giving me the answer i was looking for i did not simply take the easy way out as most atheists do. But i came to the obvious conclusion and that is WE are like the game SIMMS and we are probably pawns in a more sofisticated video game

  • duckluvr95

    A simulation with extremely complex & conscious beings would be cruel. If we were some 'ancestor simulation' than fuck the future humans who created us.