Woman in VR Simulation

Do We Live In A Computer Simulation? Why Some Prominent Thinkers Believe We Do, And Why They’re Likely Mistaken [Opinion]

A popular theory going around these days argues that reality as we know it is nothing more than a computer simulation. According to the theory, you and I and everyone we know are but glorified Sims characters, unaware of the fact that we’re living as mere bytes of data in a complicated software program.

Though it’s a bit hard to swallow the first time you hear it, the theory has nonetheless garnered some serious support from high-profile figures in the science and technology communities.

Elon Musk, for instance, raised a few eyebrows back in June 2016, when he stated that the odds of us not living in a computer simulation were “one in billions.” Neil deGrasse Tyson likewise put his weight behind the theory, placing the odds of it being true at a more modest, but still staggering 50/50–a high-stakes coin toss, if ever there was one. And Rich Terrile, who works at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, even compared the theory to the revolutionary one proposed by Copernicus, in terms of its significance.

Elon Musk appears at a Vanity Fair New Establishment Summit
Elon Musk at a Vanity Fair summit [Image by Mike Windle/Getty Images]

But despite the tremendous fanfare it’s received so far, the notion that we live in a highly realistic computer game comes packed with a number of serious flaws. Before we take a look at them, it would make sense to briefly review what exactly the theory argues.

One popular variant of the simulation theory first entered the scene in a 2003 paper by Oxford University professor Nick Bostrom. In that paper, Bostrom proposed that if our technology continues advancing at a rapid rate, we’ll be able to harvest “enormous amounts of computing power” in the future.

Later generations of mankind might decide to use such power for the sake of running simulations, perhaps of their ancestors. Should they decide to run many simulations, the number of digital beings would far outstrip the number of real ones, and thus the chances that a living organism is real, rather than simulated, would be awfully slim. That’s the main argument Bostrom makes in his paper.

“Suppose that these simulated people are conscious…Then it could be the case that the vast majority of minds like ours do not belong to the original race but rather to people simulated by the advanced descendants of an original race.”

In other words, if there are a thousand, or a million, or even a billion simulated beings for every real one, why should we suppose we’re the latter?

People resting in a crowded park
Faces In The Crowd [Image by Savvapanf Photo/Shutterstock]

The main problem with this idea is that it takes too much for granted. Even Bostrom pointed out that there’s no guarantee mankind would ever reach such technological capabilities, or that future generations would have any interest in running these sorts of computer programs.

The human race already faces existential threats as a consequence of its technology. Whether we’re talking about global warming, hostile AI, rogue nanobots, nuclear attacks or biological warfare, there’s no promise that our species could live long enough to see itself develop the necessary capabilities in the first place.

Elon Musk himself has warned of these dangers, and late last year Stephen Hawking wrote an opinion article for the Guardian titled, “This is the most dangerous time for our planet.”

As our technology improves, so do the threats associated with it. It’s quite possible we may put ourselves out of business long before we have the capability of operating a highly detailed computer simulation of the kind Bostrom proposes.

But let’s, for the moment, suppose that the species does survive, and even learns how to power and program these super-charged simulations. Why would anyone waste their time and resources simulating the drudgery of our daily lives? Should such technology exist, and an advanced civilization possess it, one might be inclined to think they would come up with a much better purpose for it. For example, they could program a kind of celestial paradise they might plug themselves into, and thereby enjoy unbelievable amounts of pure, unadulterated bliss. If they have the ability to manufacture such a detailed world as this one, why shouldn’t they be able to build one for themselves, and decorate it with their own pleasures?

Of all the possible uses for a sophisticated computer simulation, having one which records every boring day-to-day activity of human life sounds not only incredibly pointless, but also egotistical. Why should any “posthuman” civilization care that much about us?

Of course, it’s possible they may wish to run this kind of computer simulation for the sake of learning something more about mankind’s history, or for a whole host of other educational purposes.

But this introduces another problem with the theory. Life as we know it is chock-full of suffering. Any simulation sophisticated enough to create conscious beings, and then subject those beings to a litany of tortures, would be unutterably cruel. It’s hard to buy into the theory that future scientists would run such simulations, simply to learn more about their ancestors.

If our descendants should retain any ounce of pity or compassion for the suffering of others, it’s unlikely they would place conscious beings–humans and animals, alike–in such a difficult spot. History is pockmarked with horrors. To simulate the Holocaust, the Black Death, the plights of prehistoric man, for no other reason than to round out an anthropology lesson, is almost too ridiculous to believe.

Those, at least, are some of the reasons why the simulation theory makes for a tough sell. But then, who knows? Reality is often much more complex than we can even begin to imagine. If you’re curious to learn more about the theory, check out the video below.

[Featured Image by franz12/Shutterstock]

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