It’s a very bizarre, confusing, and somewhat concerning feeling to know that we are all completely clueless about the nature of our own reality. There’s a plethora of theories out there speculating where our world comes from and what, if anything, is outside this universe. Today, I’m diving into one of these theories which has been brought up in recent years and is currently spiking in attention.
Many of you have probably heard of something called the Simulation Theory or have at least heard something about it. What exactly is that? And how does it relate to me, my life, or life in general? There are tons of different angles this can take, but just like my other articles, I’ll just being going over general concepts, thoughts, pieces of evidence, and explanations about it.
The Simulation Theory, also known as the simulation hypothesis or “synthesized reality,” is the theory that states that we are all living in some kind of simulated world. Everything that we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch has all been artificially fabricated and programmed into this reality like a video game by someone or some beings.
With the continuous advancement of technology, computer simulations have become widely popularized in the modern world. Scientists in many fields commonly use simulations to test various hypotheses to determine potential real-world outcomes of different situations. They are also extremely common in many different videos games and digital gaming programs, such as Minecraft, The Sims, World of Warcraft, and virtual reality programs.
The graphics and capabilities of these games and programs are being developed to become more and more life-like as time goes on. Moore’s law states that the average capacity and processing power of computers doubles approximately every two years. Many believe that at some point in the future, these computerized worlds will become so realistic, that they will be indistinguishable from reality.
Because of this, it is theorized that humanity is already living in a hyper-realistic artificial world. As I’m sure you can imagine, this carries many, many scientific and philosophical implications which I will be going over throughout this article. Hopefully I’ll be able to answer most, if not all, of the questions you may have about this topic as we go down this rabbit hole.
There are actually numerous versions of the theory dating back long before the idea of modern-day computer simulations was even imaginable.
Around 600 to 400 BCE, Siddhārtha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, taught that the world we experience around us is illusionary, and that nothing truly exists beyond the essence of our minds and conscious thought. He believed that by achieving a certain level of awareness (nirvana), one could break free from the illusion and realize the true nature of their existence as being one with everything.
In the late 4th century BCE, Greek philosopher Plato proposed his theory of the Forms (embodiments of abstract thoughts or ideas), suggesting that the material world is just a lesser, imperfect version of a true reality where there are perfect Forms of all objects, places, or ideas which humans can perceive, and such a reality can only be accessed in the afterlife.
Around the same time as Plato, Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi speculated that we are all living in a dream world, as nobody can be certain that he/she is not dreaming, since people having a dream usually don’t know that they are dreaming. This is evident in his famously written story, The Butterfly Dream.
French philosopher René Descartes expanded on this theory in his 1641 published book, Meditations of First Philosophy, where he agreed that the world he saw around him was entirely fictional, but that at least he, the one perceiving the world, had to truly exist in order to be perceiving it, which was summarized with his famous phrase, “I think, therefore I am.”
In the 1980s, physicist Gerard ‘t Hooft developed the holographic principle, or “holographic universe theory,” later interpreted by string theorist Leonard Susskind, suggesting that the universe is a holographic projection of information encoded on the surface of an extra-dimensional volume of reality, based on Albert Einstein’s equations of black hole thermodynamics.
Finally, in 2003, Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom published an article in Philosophical Quarterly titled Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?, explaining what is known as “The Simulation Argument,” expanding on the works of Zhuangzi and Descartes, which posits a trilemma of possibilities for the potential of a simulated reality.
The most prevalent version of the theory that persists today is Bostrom’s theory. It relies on the idea of an “ancestor simulation,” which is basically a simulation that plays out the entirety of human history from start to finish.
Due to the common, modern-day problem-solving uses of computer simulations, Bostrom believes that it is not far-fetched to think that, one day, humans will want to use their technology to get full insight into their own evolutionary history and see how it all played out. It is worth noting that many known scientists and public figures currently agree with him on this, such as Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Elon Musk.
The argument composes of three possible scenarios for the fate of humanity, one of which Bostrom claims must be true. The scenarios are described as follows:
- The human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a “posthuman” stage.
- Any posthuman civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history (or variations thereof).
- We are almost certainly living in a computer simulation.
If human beings ever reach a stage in their technological advancement where they are able to run ancestor simulations, it would take an insane amount of computing power to do so.
The human brain is known to function with an estimate of over 100,000,000,000,000,000 (a hundred quadrillion) neurological operations per second. An ancestor simulation would need be able to do that billions of times over, all at the same time. And that’s not even including all of the other non-living operations it would need to perform constantly (driving vehicles, moving ocean tides, rotating the earth, etc.)
A computer with that kind of capacity is not even fathomable to us in our current era. However, it’s not unreasonable to believe that, given enough time, humans may one day be able to develop such technology and gain the appropriate amount of power to run it. One common idea is that humans may one day harness the power of the sun via large energy channeling devices, like the theoretical Dyson sphere.
However, getting to this point would probably take a substantial amount of time (centuries or even millennia). The only way humans could reach this point is if they manage to survive for that long. There are countless geological and cosmological threats which could cause our species to go extinct, including, but not limited to, hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, climate change, meteorites, solar flares, and black holes.
And even if humans managed to survive through all of that, the last hurdle we would have to overcome is ourselves. Creating nuclear warheads, atomic bombs, and sophisticated weaponry, humans have a tendency to cause a lot of deadly harm to themselves with their own inventions. It’s not improbable that one of these inventions could very well be our last.
This brings us to a term the argument uses to classify a future civilization. “Posthumans” are humans that have managed to avoid all of these threats and thrive well enough to develop the technology necessary to run things like ancestor simulations. Scenario 1 is the situation where this doesn’t happen.
Even if humans manage to reach a posthuman stage, Scenario 2 proposes that they will simply choose not to run ancestor simulations. There are several reasons why this could be.
Assuming consciousness can be simulated, recreating all of human history and forcing billions of artificial humans to experience it brings up various ethical concerns. As we all know, humans have never exactly been the best as treating each other nicely. With war, conquest, diseases, and all sorts of other tragedies, our history is full of a great deal of pain and suffering (See “What is the Human Condition?“). If posthumans have an incompatible sense of morality with this idea, then they may not want to put billions of people through all that.
It’s also possible that posthumans may simply prioritize their technological advancements for other purposes. Running ancestor simulations could be considered secondary to whatever else they feel they should be using their energy and power for.
Perhaps they would have become a type III civilization and would then have colonized the entire Milky Way galaxy. Maintaining such a vastly large civilization may take the majority of any computing power they would have.
They may even want to consider exploring beyond their own galaxy, which would require faster-than-light travel. Such a feat, if even possible, would take an incredible amount of their resources to perform, and they simply might not have enough to spare for an ancestor simulation, seeing that as a trivial mission in comparison to their goals of exploration.
If humans do manage to reach a posthuman stage AND have the desire to run ancestor simulations, then by sheer probability alone, we are almost certainly living in one.
Modern-day simulations are commonly run multiple times with slightly different variables each time to see which result leads to the outcome the operator wants. Using the same logic, posthumans may want to run countless ancestor simulations to see which one is consistent with the physical evidence they have of their own history (fossils, ruins, artificial landmarks, etc.).
But the true probability comes from the potential to run multiple “layers” of simulations. Consider this: With so many simulations of humans being ran at once, it opens the possibility that at least one of them will consist of the simulated humans creating their own human simulations. If that happens, then that first set of simulated humans may want to run multiple simulations. Eventually, the humans in one of those simulations may want to run simulations of their own. And so on and so forth.
Even if there was just one simulation being ran, if the humans in that simulation ran just one simulation of their own, then the odds of you being among the original set of humans become 1/3. If the original set runs 2 simulations that each have 2 of their own simulations within them, your odds then become 1/7. Those odds only get smaller with each new layer of simulations.
At this point, the number of simulated humans throughout all those layers of simulations would vastly outnumber that of the original humans. This is why it stands to reason that Scenario 3 is one in which we are virtually (no pun intended) guaranteed to be living in one of these ancestor simulations.
Evidence in Physics
It gets even more convincing when you consider the laws of the natural world we live in as evidence. All computer simulations are encoded with a set of rules that govern the simulated world. All objects in the simulation are created with binary code which determine their properties. If there is a solid wall in The Sims, for example, the characters of that world cannot simply pass through that wall.
The physics of our world seem to work the same way. There are many limitations set for us in this world that prevent us from doing certain things. We cannot walk through solid objects, defy gravity (without a machine), breathe without oxygen, or travel faster than light.
In addition to that, when we zoom in to any material substance in our world, we see molecules, atoms, and subatomic particles which make up all matter in the universe. Just like binary code in a video game, these microscopic materials are the fundamental “codes” for all physical substances in existence.
It is also worth noting that mathematics is a very fundamental principle in our world. Every single thing in the universe in quantifiable in some way.
With the existence of universal constants, space-time measurements, energy displacements, and chemical reactions, the universe can be explained better with math than with words. All known computer simulations carry out their functions using mathematical properties like these.
On top of all of that, a simulated universe would explain why the “observer effect” happens in quantum physics. Without going into extensive detail about it, subatomic particles seem to always be in a state of waves of potentials, or “superposition,” before they collapse down and render into one single point in spacetime upon being observed or measured.
For those who have no idea what I’m talking about, here’s a short video explaining it in layman’s terms: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aXvHfCeXd5U
Visual graphics in video games and simulations work in a very similar fashion as this. This is commonly done to save computing power, as it is much easier to only render coded visuals in a given direction or area when a player is actively looking that way or focusing on that area.
Some have speculated that the observer effect could be the result of a multiverse, where each potential position of the subatomic particle is rendered into its own reality across different versions of the universe, each with their own outcomes. In Simulation Theory, the multiverse is actually a near-infinite multitude of simulations all being ran to test different results.
As mentioned early, this opens up discussions of numerous philosophical implications if the theory is true.
For starters, it would imply that consciousness and “qualia” (subjective experience or “what-it’s-like-ness”) can, indeed, be simulated, which would disprove Descartes’s solipsistic idea that one’s own thinking mind is sure to inherently exist. An exception to this would be if the simulation was one in which real minds were somehow uploaded into the virtual world, like in the movie The Matrix.
It would also confirm the existence of a higher power. In this case, the “god(s)” of this world would be the one(s) in charge of running the simulation, which would most likely be one or more of the posthumans discussed earlier.
However, this would then beg the question of whether or not the one(s) running the simulation are in a simulation themselves. Any and all set of beings in any of these potential layers of simulations would never know if they are the originals beings or not.
And even if there was proof that the world where the original beings live in was genuine, it would still leave questions about their world left unanswered. We know about the laws that govern the simulated worlds, but then what laws govern that universe outside of the simulations? And where do they come from?
So, are we all really living in a computer simulation? Well, maybe. But just like all other theories people have on the nature of realty, there doesn’t seem to be any feasible way we can ever prove it. Even if we do find convincing evidence that there is a world outside of the simulation, that evidence could, itself, be simulated.
From a philosophical standpoint, making such a discovery of reality could drastically change the way we perceive the world and re-define the meanings we assign to our own existence.
But it doesn’t have to be like that. Regardless of what the truth of reality is, it shouldn’t really change the way we choose to live our lives. Even if we are in a simulation, your life still has the same meaning as whatever you originally gave it. Even if you don’t believe things like free decision or free will, at least you perceive the decisions you make in life as that of your own.
Einstein was once asked if he thought reality was actually real. He honestly didn’t think it really mattered, because as long as the world you are perceiving seems real to you, then that is your reality.
As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Do you think we’re living in a simulation? Let me know in the comments down below.
Until next time,