Do we live in a simulation?


Fact Box

  • Merriam-Webster defines simulation as “the act or process of simulating” (which is “to give or assume the appearance or effect of often with the intent to deceive”), or “the imitative representation of the functioning of one system or process by means of the functioning of another.”
  • The basic premise behind the “Simulation hypothesis” is that humans could actually be virtual beings living in a computer simulation.
  • Philosopher and Oxford University faculty member, Nick Bostrom, made the Simulation Hypothesis theory popular since 2003 through his original paper on the subject, entitled “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?
  • Several films and television shows through the decades have toyed with the simulation idea. The most popular among the films include The Truman Show (1998), The Matrix (1999), The Thirteenth Floor (1999), Inception (2010), Source Code (2011), and Ready Player One (2018).

Jay (Yes)

On its face, the question seems impossible, but there are many educated people, among them Elon Musk and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who posit that this is not only possible but likely. According to Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrum's theory, one of three (differing) possibilities is valid. First, all human-like civilizations in the universe become extinct before developing the technological capabilities to create simulated realities. Second, civilizations capable of attaining this technical capability phase won't bother to run simulations. Third, perhaps an advanced civilization does become capable of creating multiple simulations, which would mean there are far more simulated worlds than non-simulated ones.

While we don't know which of the three are true, each are possible and are thus valid. Computer scientist and video game designer Rizwan Virk explores Bostrum's theory even further in his book The Simulation Hypothesis. According to Virk, there are a plethora of mysteries that are better explained with the simulation hypothesis than through our standard ways of thinking. Virk believes it's more likely that we are living in a simulated reality run by advanced beings.

Look at society's progression with simulated realities and gameplay. In the span of a few decades, we've gone from Pong (the first video game ever, debuting in 1985) to the Nintendo Wii (unveiled in 2012) to the now stimulating, all-immersive virtual reality games such as those found on Facebook's Oculus. It is exceedingly possible beings from a Type 4 civilization create and run quantumly more sophisticated simulations and are running them now—far more likely than the thought of us being alone in the universe, limited only to explore a small part according to the rules as we understand them.

Andrew (No) 

Physicists Zohar Ringel and Dmitry Kovrizhi from Oxford University proved that a phenomenon occurring in metals, known as the quantum hall effect, would be impossible to recreate in a computer simulation. The physicists discovered that the computational power needed to operate a simulation of the effect grows exponentially with every particle added to the experiment. To allow this single phenomenon to occur in a relatively small amount of electrons, a computer memory larger than all of the atoms in the universe would be necessary.

In addition to the physical impossibilities, we must consider the larger philosophical questions behind a proposed simulation. Why would anyone want to simulate our existence? Are they some sort of post-human entity simulating their past? Is it being done for entertainment? Frankly, simulating an existence seems like a waste of time and resources, and it's hard to believe that any advanced society would bother.

Computational programming, which maps an input to an output, is how video games are created, and is not compatible with our lives. In the computational structures of games, an output or action is the result tied to an input; there is no intention, thinking, or reasoning. In our lives, we are free thinkers, following our minds' complex thought processes. If our world is a simulation, is every person controlled? Does only one person or a small group have free will? This very ability to think freely and reason is why we are capable of thinking thoughts such as 'are we living in a computer simulation'?

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