The Simulation Situation

There are smart people who think we’re probably living in a simulation. They question whether we’re flesh and blood creatures inhabiting a physical universe. Instead, we’re mental constructs “living” inside an incredibly sophisticated computer program. Our reality is someone else’s virtual reality.

Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker summarizes the logic:

The argument, actually debated at length at the American Museum of Natural History just last year, is that the odds are overwhelming that ours is a simulated universe. The argument is elegant. Since the advance of intelligence seems like the one constant among living things—and since living things are far likelier than not to be spread around the universe—then one of the things that smart living things will do is make simulations of other universes in which to run experiments….

Since there will be only one “real” universe, and countless simulated ones, the odds that we are living in one of the simulations instead of the one actual reality are overwhelming. If intelligent life exists, then we are surely likely to be living in one of its Matrices. As Clara Moskowitz, writing in Scientific American, no less, explains succinctly, “A popular argument for the simulation hypothesis came from University of Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrum in 2003, when he suggested that members of an advanced civilization with enormous computing power might decide to run simulations of their ancestors. They would probably have the ability to run many, many such simulations, to the point where the vast majority of minds would actually be artificial ones within such simulations, rather than the original ancestral minds. So simple statistics suggest it is much more likely that we are among the simulated minds.”

Mr. Gopnik somewhat jokingly suggests that recent events, in particular, an evil buffoon becoming President, a startling turnaround in the Super Bowl, a dumb mistake at the Oscars, are evidence that someone “up there” is messing with us (“Let’s do this crazy thing and see what happens!”). 

In response, Jesse Singal of New York Magazine argues that recent events seem so bizarre because recent history has been relatively calm:

…part of what’s going on here is that over the last few decades, the world has gotten so much less weird — in mostly good ways — that it’s now easier to highlight and harp upon what are, in the grand scheme of things, relatively minor weirdness flare-ups….

We pay more attention to the Patriots coming back from 28–3 in an impossibly short span of time because we’re less distracted by the U.S. trying to napalm its way out of an inconceivably stupid jungle quagmire. We gawk at the Oscar craziness and dwell on it because it stands out in a saner world than many of our parents and grandparents inhabited. Hell, it’s too early to say, but in the long run, barring an unforeseen catastrophe, maybe even [Donald Drump] — God or superintelligent alien simulators willing — will end up getting a mere footnote, rather than a chapter, in the Book of Weirdness humanity continues writing every moment of every day.

I think Mr. Singal is correct, of course. As some have noted, the Oscar thing was bound to happen (it had already happened once before, in 1964 to Sammy Davis Jr.); sports teams occasionally overcome big deficits, especially when the other team helps; and the Electoral College could have done what the Founders intended and elected a normal person (although I have to admit that, as naturally-occurring events in any possible world go, Drump in the White House is hard to accept).

The idea that we are constructs in some kind of vast computer program isn’t the same as what was depicted in the Matrix movies. In the Matrix, we were good, old-fashioned human beings being manipulated into thinking we were somewhere else. In the simulation hypothesis, we’re software that thinks it’s human. But once you start to imagine possibilities like these, it’s hard to conclude we’re one vs. the other. Would it be easier to create virtual beings who think they’re organisms like us or to trick organisms like us into thinking we’re somewhere else? 

That’s one of the problems I have with the idea of the big simulation. It’s the same problem I have with the idea that our minds could be uploaded onto a computer. In theory, a program could execute the same thoughts that you or I have. For example, it could reach the same conclusions we would if presented with the same evidence. But could a program have the same feelings, the same conscious experience, we have when we touch, hear or see? Maybe so, but it’s hard for me to understand how a program could possibly do that. Would the software include components that made the software believe it was conscious when it really wasn’t? Could the evil demon have tricked Descartes into think he was conscious when he really wasn’t?

Of course, there are other problems with the simulation hypothesis besides my personal lack of imagination. Nobody knows how common life is. How often, for example, do chemical components form single-cell organisms? How often does single-cell life make the transition to multi-cellular life? Assuming complex organisms develop, how often do they form stable societies? And how much technological progress do stable societies make before they destroy themselves or hit some other bump in the cosmic road? We know there are lots of stars in the universe, and now it looks like there are lots of planets too, but beyond that it’s all speculation.

It’s also questionable whether advanced civilizations would decide to run such simulations even if they could. Why assume that beings that advanced would care about creating a world like ours? Wouldn’t they have better things to do?

More than a few philosophers and physicists think there are other universes in addition to ours, maybe even an infinite number of them. In one or more of those many universes, every possibility is real. So maybe the universe we experience is a vast simulation. On the other hand, maybe it’s a simulation being run for an audience of one. How do I know that the simulation I’m witnessing is simulating something for anyone else? It would certainly be simpler to simulate a universe for a single “person” (me) as opposed to billions of them (all of you). At any rate, I’m sure I’m here. Are you?