Are We Living in a Simulation?

Jason Schwartz ’17, Staff Writer 
What if we are all a part of something greater than ourselves. What if we are characters of a computer simulation? Don’t fret if you’re confused or overwhelmed right now because I understand that there is a lot of ambiguity in what I just said. If you had a similar reaction of wonder and awe, I recommend you to keep reading. Regardless of your reaction, I assure you that this seemingly far-fetched theory has the support of acclaimed physicists and modern theorists worldwide. These intellectuals conjure up their own plausible interpretations of the simulation theory, despite the fact that there is much skepticism towards it.

The simulation theory became known as a result of a paper written by Nick Bostrom, a renowned philosopher at the University of Oxford, in 2003. Bostrom begins the paper by identifying current trends in technology, such as the emergence of virtual reality. Toward the end, Bostrom arrives at the crux of his case, which gives two propositions of “the simulation argument.” The first states that “consciousness can be simulated in a computer, with logic gates standing in for the brain’s synapses and neurotransmitters.” In other words, it seems likely that self-awareness can thrive in a computer system. The second argues that “advanced simulations will have access to truly stupendous amounts of computing power.” Simply put, we are simulated entities living in a digital game created by our future descendents. Bostrom also proposes a single computer controls not only planet Earth, but thousands of other worlds.

Bostrom’s “simulation argument” persuaded plenty of well-known intellectuals, particularly those who are proponents of technological advancement. For example, Elon Musk, the billionaire CEO of Tesla Motors, thinks that the emergence of simulations is “indistinguishable from reality.” As a prominent figure in technological advancement, Musk is the man of the future. Furthermore, Max Tegmark, an acclaimed cosmologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, stated that the more we learn about our universe, the more it seems to be based on mathematical laws. While Musk and Tegmark were persuaded by Bostrom’s compelling argument, some intellectuals created their own views on the “simulation argument”.

Robin Hanson, an economist and futurist, has his own unique spin on the simulation theory. According to Hanson, the simulation theory connotes that there is one simulated person who is then multiplied repeatedly. In his nonfiction book, The Age of Em, Hanson describes that humans have learned to duplicate themselves many times, which led to the creation of “ems,” or emulated people. An “em” can replicate him or herself at anytime in order to increase productivity. As an economist, Hanson is cognisant of the importance of simulation theory in business. He points out that a couple of ways that will increase the willingness to work. For example, an “em” may replicate himself or herself after a vacation when he or she feels rested and cheerful. The state of mind of that “em” will then transfer into the next “em.” Hanson’s economist nuance on simulation theory is interesting and captivating, but the variants of the simulation theory do not stop here.

Eric Steinhart, another respected philosopher, provides a theological twist on simulation theory. In his 2014 publication called “Your Digital Afterlives,” Steinhardt investigates the connection between “the simulation argument” and the beliefs of various religions. He emphasizes on the possibility of “nested simulations.” In other words, if we are granted an afterlife, we could simulate people of our own and they may go simulate people of their own. It’s a repetitive cycle of simulating people. He sees a digital version of the “great chain of being.” Steinhart hypothesizes that once we (as simulated humans) reach perfect simulation, we will have also achieved the apex of our moral capability. Thus, the tendency for human simulations to take care of each other will increase, which could also increase the chances of finding out if there is an afterlife. Steinhart’s approach is unfathomable, yet it is very intriguing.

Simulation theory is clearly an existential and theoretical conundrum that is far beyond the scope of our understanding. Although many acclaimed scientists and philosophers back the “simulation theory”, our research into the theory is still at its early stages. It would be interesting to see who else is interested to take on such an ambiguous and abstract subject matter. For now, take a moment to reflect on the following statements. Our entire existence is a simulation. We are merely characters in a giant computer game as our actions are controlled by something more powerful than humankind.

Photo Credit: Sergey  Nivens

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