Do we live in a simulation? Here’s a look at what this means and what scientists have to say
What if everything around us were an elaborate illusion? What if our world were simply a simulation, with all of us just characters in some kind of an elaborate video game? This is a familiar concept from science fiction books and films, including the 1999 movie ‘The Matrix.’ Now, a documentary — ‘A Glitch in the Matrix’ — scheduled for release in February 2021, is attempting to tackle this question “are we living in a simulation?”
So are we real?
The subject has been a matter of academic debate, and the theory is explored in a 2003 paper by Nick Bostrom, a professor in the faculty of philosophy at Oxford University. He argued that we might be living in a computer simulation.
According to Bostrom, if we are living in a simulation, then the “cosmos that we are observing is just a tiny piece of the totality of physical existence.” “The physics in the universe where the computer is situated that is running the simulation may or may not resemble the physics of the world that we observe. While the world we see is in some sense ‘real,’ it is not located at the fundamental level of reality,” he wrote.
Bostrom explained that if one believes that our civilization will one day run many sophisticated simulations concerning its ancestors, then one should believe that we are probably in an ancestor simulation right now.
“Because their computers would be so powerful, they could run a great many such simulations. 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. It is then possible to argue that, if this were the case, we would be rational to think that we are likely among the simulated minds rather than among the original biological ones,” stated Bostrom. He added, “Therefore if we don’t think that we are currently living in a computer simulation, we are not entitled to believe that we will have descendants who will run lots of such simulations of their forebears. That is the basic idea.”
Bostrom’s research also gave a fillip to discussion focussing around what is referred to as “simulation hypothesis.” “The physicists, as well as the media reports, credit Bostrom as the originator of “the simulation hypothesis,” which proposes that we may be living in a computer simulation set up at an advanced stage of our civilization,” explained Preston Greene, an assistant professor in the philosophy group at Nanyang Technological University.
Greene, however, cautioned that trying to prove that we may be living in a simulation could be dangerous. “Reflection on rational decision making shows us that we are probably not living in a computer simulation. Even so, I end by warning that newly-designed experimental research aimed at determining whether our universe is a simulation is more dangerous than has been realized, and the scientific community should consider discontinuing it,” he said in 2013. In 2019, Greene wrote in the New York Times, “If we were to prove that we live inside a simulation, this could cause our creators to terminate the simulation — to destroy our world.”
In June 2016, Elon Musk, the entrepreneur behind Tesla and SpaceX, said that the odds are “a billion to one” against us living in “base reality.” He explained that one of the strongest arguments for humans probably being in a simulation is: “forty years ago, we had Pong, two rectangles and a dot. That is what games were. Now, 40 years later, we have photorealistic 3D simulations with millions of people playing simultaneously, and it’s getting better every year. And soon we’ll have virtual reality, augmented reality. If you assume any rate of improvement at all, the games will become indistinguishable from reality.”
Musk pointed out that if we are not in a simulation, the most likely reason for that is not that we are the first civilization ever, instead, it is that no civilization has ever advanced far enough to simulate reality.
Investor and futurist Ray Kurzweil has also suggested that “maybe our whole universe is a science experiment of some junior high-school student in another universe.”
Rizwan Virk, a tech entrepreneur and author of ‘The Simulation Hypothesis’ has stated that “simply because we perceive the world as ‘real’ and ‘material’ doesn’t mean that it is so.” “The findings of quantum physics may shed some doubt on the fact that the material universe is real. The more that scientists look for the “material” in the material world, the more they find that it doesn’t exist,” he told The Bulletin.
Dr Jay Pasachoff, chair and Field Memorial Professor of astronomy at Williams College, and director of the Hopkins Observatory, noted in an article that “it’s not difficult to argue that we might all exist within a video game being played by something of intelligence far more advanced than our own.” “We’re used to intelligence being in physical bodies, but as I’ve written about elsewhere, Fred Hoyle’s 1957 novel ‘The Black Cloud’ imagines an interstellar cloud made largely of electrons that have intelligence. So just what form this game-playing superintelligence might take is something we can’t yet fathom,” he wrote for NBC News.
According to Dr Pasachoff, a second possibility is that humans live within one of the multiple games going on in parallel — “essentially a version of the ‘multiverse’ concept.” “Then we must consider the question of life itself. Cosmologists talk of the anthropic principle: the notion that our universe is hospitable to life only because we are here. After all, if the universe weren’t hospitable to life (whatever it is), then we wouldn't be here to ponder the question. If we’re in a simulation, we must be in one of the versions that is detailed enough and lasts long enough to allow the existence of our kinds of life,” he noted.
Cosmologist Max Tegmark has pointed to our universe’s strict laws of physics as possible evidence that we live in a video game: “If I were a character in a computer game, I would also discover eventually that the rules seemed completely rigid and mathematical. That just reflects the computer code in which it was written,” he said.
Not everyone is convinced
In 2016, during the 17th annual Isaac Asimov panel debate at New York’s American Museum of Natural History, the topic was discussed by experts. Harvard University physicist Lisa Randall noted that while she understands it is a possibility there is a simulation, “but there is a problem with the statistical argument.”
“I think if you asked any statistician, there’s just not based on well-defined probabilities here. Bostrum’s argument would say that also that you have lots of things simulating, lots of things that want to simulate us. And I actually really have a problem with that. Why simulate us? I mean, there are so many things to be simulating. None of us actually get together and say — I mean, we simulate processes or whatever, but we mostly are interested in ourselves. I don’t know why this higher species would want to bother with us,” she explained.
Astronomer David Kipping of Columbia University has worked on this subject, but is worried that further work on the simulation hypothesis is on “thin ice.” “It’s arguably not testable as to whether we live in a simulation or not. If it’s not falsifiable, then how can you claim it’s really science?” he told The Scientific American.
Virk, meanwhile, said that if we do exist in a video game, it may be useful to understand what kind of a game we are in for survival. “I think it would make all the difference in the world,” he emphasized.