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Do We Exist Inside of a Computer Simulation?

What if the reality we live in is not quite as it seems? What if the reality we live in isn’t even “real” in the practical sense of the word? What if we live inside of a computer simulation and we are not real people? Well, this is the fundamental basis for the idea known as the “Simulation Hypothesis.”

Before we delve into the actual theory and get into the bulk of the validity of the idea, I would first like to make full disclosure. I am quite aware that by writing about this topic, I leave myself defenseless to attacks on my sanity. I am certainly aware that my mental faculties are going to be questioned. If you are someone who is uncomfortable with the uncertain, then leave this page at once and read another article that is based in “reality.” However, if you are the type of person who is intrigued by the unknown, by all means read on.

The Simulation Hypothesis proposes that all of reality, including the earth and the universe, is in fact an artificial simulation, most likely a computer simulation. The term was first coined in 2003 by Oxford Professor Nick Bostrom in his paper titled “Are You Living in a Simulation?” In his paper, Professor Bostrom explains that it is very likely that the reality we live in is merely a computer simulation, that the environment around us is merely a computer program, and that our consciousness itself is just a bunch of lines of code. Professor Bostrom explains that humanity’s existence can be explained by one of the following three propositions.

  1. The human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a “posthuman” stage.
  2. Any posthuman civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history.
  3. We are almost certainly living in a computer simulation.

Professor Bostrom goes further into the details of his hypothesis, but I will not be discussing those. I will be talking more about how the idea of the Simulation Theory came to be and whether our human civilization will ever reach that stage.

Although Bostrom published his paper in the 21st Century, the idea itself is certainly not a contemporary one. The movie The Matrix basis rests upon the Simulation Theory. The humans in the movie are in a simulated reality, that death in the simulation will result in fatal consequences in the base reality. The 1975 Doctor Who episode even described an alien race that lived inside a simulation because their current planet had become overpopulated. Even though these examples are rather modern when compared to the length humanity’s entire existence, an argument can be made that the idea has existed for thousands of years. Many ancient civilizations believed that dreams were just the body’s “soul,” or consciousness passing over into a different realm of reality. Even the ancient Indian Vedic society had a concept known as “Maya,” roughly translated to “the current reality is unreal.” It is only in recent years that we have been able to apply this ancient concept to modern technology.

Even though Bostrom’s paper was published more than a decade ago, the theory has seen a recent resurgence in popularity. Elon Musk stated last year during a Code Conference that the “chances that we live in a base reality is one in a billion.” The evidence that he cites for the Simulation Hypothesis? Pong. “The strongest argument for us being in a simulation, probably being in a simulation is the following: 40 years ago, we had pong, two rectangles and a dot,” Musk said. “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.” All this being said, Elon Musk is giving humanity too much credit for technological advancements. Sure, the technology has been improving very fast, but there hasn’t been an utter outbreak of completely new ideas and inventions in recent years. Our Spaceships fly about as fast as they did fifty years ago. Lithium-Ion battery technology has been around since the 70s and our improvements in battery technology has been pathetic.

An issue with being able to power a computer powerful enough to run a simulation would be its power source. Our current technology is nowhere near the stratosphere necessary to power this computer. Our current Lithium-Ion battery technology which runs most of our laptops, while lightweight, cannot hold enough charge to power the supercomputer. Take this into consideration, the battery that is needed to power a Tesla car weighs 1200 pounds. We can’t just improve on our current technology, we need to totally invent new technology. The way to go about this would likely be mass scale nuclear fusion technology. At the moment we have nuclear power plants, that run using nuclear fission. The difference is that nuclear fission releases heat energy by splitting atoms. Nuclear fusion takes place when two low-mass isotopes, typically isotopes of hydrogen, unite under conditions of extreme pressure and temperature. This is what takes place inside of the sun. A Dyson Sphere is most likely what will be needed to power our computer simulation. A Dyson sphere is a hypothetical megastructure that completely encompasses a star and captures most or all of its power output. A Dyson sphere is what a Stage II Civilization is capable of creating. We are a tens of thousands of years from that point. Let us assume that the creators of the simulation were able to solve this power source issue. There is still another problem.

The main issue with the theory is the sheer improbability that such a powerful computer will ever be created by human civilization. To determine the implausibility of the required technology, we first need to put it in perspective, and that will require some math. Firstly, in order to render the entire earth, let alone universe, within a computer would require tremendous power. Computational power that is not at all feasible at this time. Hope is not lost however, there is in fact a way to get around this issue. You do not need to render everything simultaneously, you only need to render what’s necessary, when it is necessary.

To put this in similar terms, video games are the best way to explain this. When your character is running through the forest, and then he enters the house, the inside of the house is rendered by the computer. While inside the house, the forest is not being rendered, neither is his “base camp” two miles away. The only thing being rendered is the room you are in. Now we can apply this to real life. The desk that my computer is resting upon while I write this is made of millions of atoms. But all these atoms do not need to be rendered, only the outside of the desk needs to be rendered. Similarly, when a patient is lying on an operating table, his internal organs do not need to be rendered by the computer until the patient is cut open. This makes the computational power necessary to render our own existence much more manageable. The average human brain fires 1E20 nerve synapses every second, if we consider every nerve synapses as one calculation, to simulate one second of one human’s consciousness, this would require a computer capable of 1E20 calculations per second. But, there isn’t just one human on earth, there are close to 8 billion. In order to simulate all of humanity’s consciousness at one time, which is what the Simulation Theory would necessitate, you would need a computer capable of doing at least 3E40, per second. And that is just to render the earth. In order to render the entire Universe, we would need an incalculable amount of computational power. The most powerful supercomputer in existence, NRCPC Sunway TaihuLight at the National Supercomputing Center in Wuxi China, can compute 93,000 trillion calculations per second. That is a far cry from the 3E40 needed to render just the earth. We are so far from achieving the necessary computational power, that it is questionable whether we will ever reach this point as it will take billions of years. That brings us to the second issue with the Simulation Hypothesis.

They are known as “Great Filters.” When you consider that the universe is infinitely large with infinitely many planets, and infinite possibility of other civilizations, it is counterintuitive that we have yet to come across a single one. This is known as the Fermi Paradox. There may be an explanation for this. They are known as “Great Filters.” Great Filters are catastrophic events that wipeout a civilization once that civilization becomes too advanced. The filters can be anything from nuclear war, disease and pathogens, to the destruction of the solar system due to the star becoming a supernova, or an asteroid destroying the planet. Considering for just a moment that this theory be true, it would explain why we have yet to find any extraterrestrial life. It also means that the human species will never be able to create a computer powerful enough to create a simulated reality. This leaves us with only two possibilities. The Simulation Theory is untrue and we do not in fact live inside of a simulation, and the reality we live in is a base reality, or we most certainly do live inside of a simulation created by a highly advanced civilization.

There is no way to know which of the possibilities are true, but let us consider the second possibility for a moment. The second possibility would explain a lot. It would explain why we have yet to find any extraterrestrial life. If we do in fact live inside of a simulation, we are most likely one of many billions of simulations that are being run. We will refer to these simulations as ancestor simulations. Maybe this highly advanced civilization is running these simulations to troubleshoot where humanity went wrong, or maybe the advanced society was bored and just decided to run these ancestor simulations. We will never know, and it would be childish to assume the reason that this civilization is running these simulations. Let’s take for example the smartest ant on the planet and we will put him inside of an arcade. The ant will never know what is going on, and he will never know what our intentions are in playing these games. That is what we would be to this advanced civilization, ants. In order to run such complex simulations, the civilization would certainly be a Stage III Civilization. I will discuss what this mean in my next article. To get back to my point, it would require a lot of audacity on our part to assume why this post-human civilization created our simulated reality. They would be, quite literally, gods to us.

This is the Simulation Hypothesis. Whether or not we are actually in a simulation is up for debate. Are we just a bunch of code being run in a supercomputer? Or are we actual biological beings? We will never know, but we certainly mustn’t discount this theory as a possible explanation for our existence. Will you unplug from The Simulation?

After Thoughts:

This was one of the articles that was very entertaining to write. Not only was writing the article fun, but the research aspect was enjoyable as well. The entire concept was really quite interesting. If you are still interested or have more questions about the concept I would recommend you read about it some more. Some great places to start are “Simulation Theory and the scientific pursuit of God” this had some interesting thoughts about the existence of the Simulation Theory in the bible. Of course I would read Professor Nick Bostrom’s paper on the topic, the concept was originally his idea and I think the fact that he wrote this all the way back in 2003, before virtual reality had become popular, is rather amazing. Kurzgesagt has a great video on this as well called “Is Reality Real? The Simulation Argument.” For more information about Great Filters, checkout its Wikipedia page. For more recent in-depth information, check out Mark Solomon’s 2013 book On Computer Simulated Universes. This is certainly a very interesting concept and worth reading more about.

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