That’s right!, there is a debate going on in some scientific and not so scientific circles whether we are living in a simulation, just like Super Mario. Warning: this post may introduce a bunch of ideas you may have never heard about…
Where did this idea come from?
In 2001, Nick Bostrom, a Swedish philosopher based at the University of Oxford, came up with a paper entitled “Are You Living In a Computer Simulation?“. He actually published it in 2003. The paper is in part inspired by ideas that developed in the science fiction, futurology and philosophy world, including post-humanism, “big world”, and terraforming. Let me explain quickly what that is about… some of this stuff is a bit “out there…”.
- Post-humanism is about what follows the human race, or what evolves from the human race. You could think of intelligent cyborgs, or robots that would take over from us.
- Terraforming is about conquering and establishing human life on other planets.
- The Big World is a universe with macroscopic superposition, where entire worlds like us are superposed onto one another.
Bostrom proposed that there is a significant chance that any of the three following scenarios are true: 1) the human race will go extinct before becoming post-human, 2) A post-human society will not run simulations of its evolution, or 3) we are currently living in a simulation. It must be one of these three, says Bostrom, and he shows that the probability of each choice is significant, i.e. not zero. Bostrom did not start this discussion. Decades before Bostrom’s mathematical argument, folks like Jacques Vallee, John Keel, Stephen Wolfram, Rudy Rucker, and Hans Moravec explored this notion.
What do they mean by “simulation”?
Simulation means that the rules under which we exist and by which we live are controlled by a machine. The simulation is a “computer program” that makes things in our universe happen. This implies, of course, that there is another universe, or reality, in which this controlling program and its computer exist. I will explain below why I put “computer program” in quotes. Of course this is a total supposition. The simulation could have set the basic rules of life and evolution, from which the World has evolved. Or the simulation could actually control every step of our existence and the movement of every particle known in the creation. Is the simulation program perfect? Some writers have argued that the simulators (the ones controlling the simulation) may have the ability to erase any program errors from our memory, or that we could not even perceive these program errors if they exist…
Why is this idea even debated these days?
This topic is debated in pretty serious circles, like the Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate, recently held at New York’s Hayden Planetarium.
We live in an increasingly digital world, where computers are getting faster, bigger and cheaper all the time. Video games computer-generated movies (simulations) are becoming more life-like. Computer-driven machines (post-human robots?) are becoming more human-like. Movies like the Matrix and the Truman Show have popularized the notion of outside worlds, or worlds within worlds.
But there are other interesting developments in the world of physics that make this idea intriguing. Over the centuries, we have tried to explain the world around us through science. We have built tools to observe our world further and further, within and out. We discovered and proved the existence of atoms and electrons in 1897. In 1932, we found about neutrons. In 1962, physicists started to talk about quarks. We are now looking for evidence of the famous Higgs boson. It takes very sophisticated and expensive tools such as linear accelerators and the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world’s largest and most powerful particle collider, to study what our universe is made of. At the same time, we are learning about dark matter and dark energy that may explain how the universe is expanding.
Evidence increasingly points to the possibility that our world may be made of waves and bits. Matter, the one we see around us, may also ultimately be bits, wave and information. One of the first to advance such a theory was Edward Fredkin, a professor at MIT, then Boston University and Carnegie Mellon. Back in the sixties, he came up with the theory of digital physics, postulating that information is more fundamental than matter and energy. He stated that atoms, electrons, and quarks consist ultimately of bits–binary units of information. So this is not a completely new story.
Mathematicians and philosophers are exploring such theories because our scientific tools are not capable of looking smaller or further for now. So, if we are starting to believe in a digital world made of ones and zeros, it is no longer a giant leap to think of it as a giant computer, or being driven by a computer program. Take a look at Kevin Kelly’s 2002 article, “God is the Machine.”
Simulation: yes or no?
So, are we living in a simulation? There are a lot of discussions and arguments out there about whether we are in a simulation or not. Some people argue that it would take too much energy to run the simulation of our world and perhaps other simulations running at the same time. Imagine walking on a beach…every grain of sand would have to be part of this simulation, moving in and out of the ocean. Think about every encounter and every discussion with another human being being pre-scripted..
My personal view is that this idea that we live in a simulation is improbable. One main reason is that all of these ideas and concepts are the product of our language and our ability to reason using language. Mathematics is another form of language and reasoning. Language and conceptual reasoning are the product of our limited human abilities. The concept of “simulation” is something that we can grasp. But what about a million other concepts that we cannot grasp or formulate. What about a million other forms of intelligence out there. Zeroes and ones, the alleged basis of our universe, are mere human inventions. It is possible that we live one of several forms of reality, but the “simulation” idea is simplistic to me. There is likely something out there so different that we cannot even express with our limited intellect or language…
Along the same line (or on the other hand)… describing the universe as pure information may also be a simplification. Life as we know it runs on some fundamental rules: the first one is reproduction, the concept that life has a built-in reproduction mechanism, the second concept is that of healing. Most living organisms are able to sense when they are hurt or attacked and are able to react with a plan to heal themselves. The third rule of life is that organisms evolve and adapt to their environment in order to survive. Something, somehow, has come up with these rules…