“I, I’m not living life, I’m not living right, I’m not living” — Nicki Minaj
Over the past few years, the question of whether or not collective human consciousness exists in/as a simulated reality has been a growing area of interest for scientists and philosophers alike.
To the best of my knowledge, this question was first seriously addressed by Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom, in his 2003 paper titled “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?” I’ve included a link to Bostrom’s essay at the end of this piece. I recommend reading the original, as he goes into far more detail than I am willing to here, but I shall summarize my understanding of his argument below.
Bostrom begins his paper by suggesting that at least one of the following propositions is true:
- The human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a “posthuman” stage
- Any posthuman civilization is extremely unlikely to run a signifiant number of simulations of their evolutionary history (or variations thereof)
- We are almost certainly living in a computer simulation
By this, Bostrom basically means the following:
Let us assume that the human species doesn’t ever go extinct. If we take this to be true, it can also be assumed that technological progress will continue at an accelerating rate, as is the case today. That is to say, at some point in the future, humanity will have made vast advancements in both software and hardware development, to the point that it would be possible to simulate individual human consciousness and reality itself on a computer.
Next, we must assume that future-humans would actually be interested in simulating their evolutionary history. This idea doesn’t seem like much of a stretch. In a society where memory capacity and processing power begin to approach infinity, one can assume future-humans will simulate their actual past, or variations of their past — not just once, but billions of times. In fact, we are already running rudimentary simulations today, through mediums such as video games.
Finally, if we take it to be true that future-humans will simulate their ancestral past billions of times, it is far more likely than not that we are currently living in a simulation. Think about it — if future-humans (assuming the species hasn’t gone extinct) are interested in simulating their past, and have the technology to do so, the number of simulated realities will vastly outnumber the one “true” or “original” reality. Thus, probability would suggest that our current existence, here in the year 2018, is part of a simulation.
Bostrom’s paper certainly presents a compelling argument. He isn’t the only intellectual that has opined on this issue — plenty of others have provided takes of all temperatures on “sim theory” over the years, and the concept has cemented itself in the public consciousness as an important topic of debate. Though I do not have a strong opinion one way or the other, for the remainder of this essay, I am going to write from the premise that we are, in fact, living in a simulation. If sim theory is true, there are a number of interesting metaphysical and philosophical implications that are worth considering, some of which I’ve addressed below.
1: The Existence of God
Sim theory seems to have a decent level of public support, or at least acknowledgement, within the atheist community. Several prominent atheists, including figures such as Sam Harris, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Lawrence Krauss, are at the very least not dismissive of sim theory. That is not to say that these people are fully supportive of, or fully agree with, sim theory, but they have at least been willing to entertain and discuss the idea.
I find this atheist support a bit strange, because sim theory suggests the existence of a deity or deities. If we are living in a simulation, then everything (our consciousness, the broader environment, etc) was programmed by future-humans. There would be, quite literally, a giant person in the sky, beyond our comprehension, who created our universe (the simulation). From the perspective of the people inside the simulation, how are the creators of the simulation any different from a deity that created the world?
Criticism of organized religion is one thing, and an important thing at that. But, anyone who acknowledges that we might be living in a simulation, while also vehemently denying the existence of “God” in any form, might want to think about the problem a bit more — after all, simulations need creators, and these creators may well be old men with thick white beards.
2: Fate vs. Free Will
If we assume we are living in a simulation, created by future-humans who function as the Gods of our reality, several other questions arise.
a) What is the nature of our creators? Are they benevolent or malevolent?
b) Do they watch the progression of our simulation passively, or do they actively intervene whenever they please?
c) Is consciousness coded to exist autonomously within the simulation, or is it coded as a built-in, inflexible part of the broader system?
These questions are actually not new, and not specific to the metaphysics of sim theory. In fact, they are the same questions theologians and philosophers have been pondering for millenia. Compare the questions above with the corresponding questions below.
a) Is God kind or cruel?
b) Does God answer prayers?
c) Are human beings guided by fate or free will?
The only difference is the context. God may be the creator of our universe, or the programmer of our simulation, but the same fundamental questions of existence remain.
3: Prophets, Clairvoyance, and the Philosopher’s Stone
Think of some of the miracles attributed to Jesus Christ. This is a man who allegedly walked on water, cured lepers of their ailments, fed a sold-out arena with a mere 5 loaves and 2 fishes, turned water into wine, and rose from the dead, among other feats. Based on our understanding of the scientific parameters of our world, these miracles should not have been possible. Now, obviously the New Testament is a contentious book — billions of people believe these miracles occurred, while billions more think all these claims are a load of baloney.
Consider this possibility though: What if our God-programmers decided “Hey, in one of our gazillion simulations, we should code-in this person who isn’t limited by the same parameters/boundaries which govern everyone else. We could have him be born to a virgin mother, and make it so he could do things which would be impossible for others. It would be interesting to see how the rest of the humans in the simulation react to this.” The same argument can be made for every prophet throughout history.
What about clairvoyant people? Think of The Matrix trilogy. When characters are in the real world, they are able to “read” the Matrix, which is represented as a complicated string of code. If we actually live in a simulation, it seems entirely possible to me that certain people, whether they be psychics, shamans, or tarot card readers, have found ways to “read” the code of our world, and therefore envision what the future will entail.
And what of the noble alchemists! The pursuers of the sacred stone, the holy elixir! Those who would conquer death! In all seriousness though, let us assume for a moment that an ancient practitioner of the alchemical sciences actually discovered the philosopher’s stone, and managed to prolong his/her life for centuries. I’m not a computer scientist by trade, but the following scenario seems plausible to me, within the context of sim theory: The consciousness and body of a single human is represented by a string of code (string_1). Within the simulation, string 1 interacts with a given combination of base metals (string_2) and chemicals (string_3). If the designers of the simulation never anticipated these three strings of code coming together at once, the result might be a bug/glitch in the system. What if the result of this bug/glitch was an unanticipated alteration of the string_1 codebase? Might this bug/glitch accidentally eliminate the lifespan parameters that had been written into string_1? Is the philosopher’s stone itself an accident of our reality, something that was never meant to exist?
4: Multiverse Hypothesis and the Afterlife
The modern cloud computing industry has become an important backbone for the global economy. 3rd party storage, compute, and SaaS providers allow new corporations to get their IT infrastructure up and running without the hefty upfront capex of building out a data center. That said, the rise of cloud computing leads to an interesting question — if various companies are sharing a pooled cluster of compute and storage resources, are there security risks or the potential for data leakage among companies sharing the same server pool?
Now, obviously major cloud providers take various precautions to protect user data. From what I understand, it is incredibly technically difficult, if not impossible, for a user of a cloud service to access the data of other users on the same cloud platform. But bear with me for a second. Imagine the God-programmers of the future decide to run a billion simulations of their ancestral past, all of which are hosted on a centralized cloud platform. Now, if there is some sort of hack, or even a natural disaster, it is feasible to imagine a scenario where data from one simulation accidentally gets transferred to another simulation. This idea of more than one simulation running concurrently corresponds nicely with what we know as “multiverse theory”, and would account for the stories of people who claim to have entered the multiverse, whether through meditation, fasting, hallucinogens, or other methods.
Now consider death. No one knows what happens to our consciousness when we die. However, if our consciousness is indeed a string of code existing inside a simulation, an interesting hypothesis can be made. If our God-programmers truly have unlimited compute and storage resources, one would imagine that they would want to save/back-up the consciousness of every person that runs through one of their simulations, in case they need this data in the future. Depending on the nature of our God-programmers, the type of server on which the consciousnesses are eternally stored could be pleasant (heaven), unpleasant (hell), or neutral (no afterlife).
There are countless conclusions that one can draw from thinking about sim theory. My brain hurts from writing this. I hope to continue this discussion with anyone who is interested.
I leave you with a quote from The Alchemist, a novel by Brazilian author Paulo Coelho:
“To die tomorrow is no worse than dying on any other day. Every day is here to be lived or to mark one’s departure from the world”
Maybe belief in the divine is all a farce, and we are the product of pure elemental evolution. Maybe we were created in God’s image. Maybe we are the descendants of the Elohim. Maybe aliens created us for their own amusement. Maybe we are all advanced computer code.
At the end of the day, regardless of the mystery of our existence, we still need to go out there and live. Happy 2018, let’s get out there and get it done.
NICK BOSTROM ESSAY: