Are We Living Inside a Computer Simulation?: An Introduction to the Mind-Boggling “Simulation Argument”

The idea that we are living in a vast computer simulation as hyper-sophisticated simulated characters with limited self-awareness sounds like the kind of thing that issues forth from stoned philosophy majors in late night dorm room sessions. And no doubt it has, thousands of times over, especially after 1999, when The Matrix debuted and turned an amalgam of Plato, Descartes, Berkeley, and other metaphysicians into a then-cutting-edge sci-fi kung fu flick.

But is it a ridiculous idea? The obvious objection that first arises is: how could we possibly ever know? Computer simulated characters, after all, have no ability to step beyond the confines of the worlds designed for them by programmers, a limitation illustrated when one reaches a dead-end in a game and finds that, while there may be the image of a forest or a field, the game designers have seen no need to actually create the environment. Our character bumps up against the game’s edge stupidly, until we toggle the controls and move it back into the prescribed field of play.

But (fire up your bongs), does the character know it’s reached a dead end? And if the universe is a simulation, who’s running the damned thing? And why? Welcome to “the simulation argument,” a theory endorsed by philosopher and futurologist Nick Bostrom, Tesla and Space X founder Elon Musk, and quite a few other non-dorm-dwelling thinkers. “Many people have imagined this scenario over the years,” writes Joshua Rothman at The New Yorker, “usually while high. But recently, a number of philosophers, futurists, science-fiction writers, and technologists—people who share a near-religious faith in technological progress—have come to believe that the simulation argument is not just plausible, but inescapable.”

Given their quasi-religious bent, are these technologists and futurists simply replacing a creator-god with a creator-coder to flatter themselves? Judge for yourself, firstly perhaps by listening to Musk explain the concept in brief at a Recode Conference above. (If you find yourself comforted by his answer, you may just be a game designer.) Then, for a more sprawling, pop-cultural dive into the simulation argument, spend an hour with The Simulation Hypothesis at the top of the post, a documentary that—depending on the laws of your current place of residence—may or may not be enhanced by an edible.

We might also reference Bostrom’s 2003 article—or watch him describe his position in the video below. Bostrom speculates that we might be living in an “ancestor simulation” run by an incredibly advanced civilization thousands of years in our future. Like Musk, writes Rothman, he concludes that “we are far more likely to be living inside a simulation right now than to be living outside of one.” The possibility raises all sorts of disturbing questions about the reality of choice, the moral meaning of our actions, and the nature of human identity. These are questions philosophers (and Philip K. Dick) have always asked, but until recently, they had little recourse to independent confirmation of their hypotheses. Now, as you’ll discover in The Simulation Hypothesis, physicists have begun to discover that “our universe isn’t an objective reality.”

It is indeed perfectly plausible, given the exponential speed with which technology advances, that we will be able to run simulations with the same level of sophistication as our reality in a matter of a few generations or less… provided we don’t destroy ourselves first or completely lose interest. Which answers the question of who might be running the program. As with the higher beings in Interstellar who reach back to give the dying human species a hand, “there is,” writes Rothman, “no sanctity or holiness in the simulation argument. The people outside the simulation aren’t gods,” or even aliens, “they’re us.” Or some sufficiently evolved version, that is, whose technological achievements would likely seem to us like magic.

The Simulation Hypothesis will be added to our list of Free Documentaries, a subset of our collection, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, Documentaries & More.

Related Content:

Free Online Philosophy Courses, a subset of our collection 1,700 Free Online Courses from Top Universities

Philip K. Dick Theorizes The Matrix in 1977, Declares That We Live in “A Computer-Programmed Reality”

What Do Most Philosophers Believe? A Wide-Ranging Survey Project Gives Us Some Idea

Daniel Dennett and Cornel West Decode the Philosophy of The Matrix

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (14) |

Support Open Culture

We’re hoping to rely on our loyal readers rather than erratic ads. To support Open Culture’s educational mission, please consider making a donation. We accept PayPal, Venmo (@openculture), Patreon and Crypto! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (14)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • MrCompletely says:

    Hi, thanks for linking to this. I highly recommend reading, and perhaps posting as a counterpoint, this paper by philosopher David Chalmers:

    I certainly wouldn’t call it a refutation of the idea, but it’s a much more nuanced and thoughtful exploration than many you’ll find.

  • Ring. says:

    It doesn’t matter if we are living in some vast simulation since we are not likely to discover subjective proof of that simulation or a practical way to influence the outcome.

  • Russ Mason says:

    NASA physicist and philosopher, Tom Campbell, was onto this decades ago. His YouTube videos are extremely good and important to see if one wants to understand the nature of reality and consciousness. Campbell is the expert; most of the others are theorists.

  • Anthony thomas says:

    Biological systems can only exist in base reality. There may be billions of simulations but the life forms in these must exist as some synthetic medium that is not organic.

  • Tom says:

    As digital simulation gets better over time, so does our ability to manipulate matter at an atomic level. There’s no reason to assume that in 10k years we’d be limited to digital simulation…a fully organic replication of life is well within the realm of (eventual) possibility.

  • Randy says:

    First, whether we’re in a simulation or not, it doesn’t matter. All of what happens to us is as real as it needs to be.

    Second, if we’re in a simulation, what are we simulating? What would even be the point? If you can build this simulation, you might as well go all the way and build the whole universe itself.

  • Shaun Kennedy says:

    Maybe someone with actual computing knowledge can shoot me down, but isn’t there a fourth possibility to Nick Bostrom’s hypothesis?

    Namely, isn’t it possible that the potential power of computing has a limit and that that limit is well below creating a simulation of our universe’s complexity? We know that silicon atoms can only handle so much proximity, so we’re theoretically talking about quantum computers and even if they can handle this much computation (again I have no idea) can we practically or theoretically ever create them? Isn’t there at least a possibility that we can’t, no matter how advanced? Or that they wouldn’t be able to handle processing the universe, even if they could?

    And Randy, I think that’s what he’s saying, that the universe is the simulation though both are interesting concepts, existentially if you consider how much overlap there would have to be for even one of our consciousness to be a simulation. Though the entertainment of that idea would take a certain amount of hubris and/or narcissism if one was to believe no one else existed except for our perception… Again mind-boggling to contemplate!

  • rus says:

    oh, you mean a ton of eastern philosophies
    as well as western gnosticism?

  • Toad says:

    rus: One can, figuratively speaking, judge a book by its cover, one can flip through the pages and catch a glimpse of its ideas, one can read it through carefully, one can even try to apply the ideas of a book in actual practice. What you did there is wave a dismissive, flippant hand in the general direction of the notion of “reading.”

  • JAM says:

    Is interesting the theory… But I think that if you can’t know for sure is life is a simulation then ate the end it really does not matter… Nobody will know. Is like God. Nobody can prove the existence of God so why bother with religion… what matters is to live the present and try to make the best of it.

  • Toad says:

    A question from the post: “The obvious objection that first arises is: how could we possibly ever know?”

    I would recommend, and often do, checking out the ideas of S James Gates, a physicist at the University of Maryland–a mainstream institution–who has claimed to find, within the mathematics of fundamental physics, information that resembles error correction coding. Has the aroma of falsity for sure, but who knows, and it’s just an interesting example of an actual stab at piercing the matrix. There’s a long, substantive video, recommended, with Dr Gates and others, presided over by no less than Neil deGrasse Tyson:

    Another question from the post: “Given their quasi-religious bent, are these technologists and futurists simply replacing a creator-god with a creator-coder to flatter themselves?” I say, absolutely yes, and you are spot on.

    Whether it’s a program running on a substrate technology, or just laws of physics describing the characteristics of a substrate material, an undeniable truth is this: there is somehow an awesome ENERGY, a constant movement of everything everywhere, driving this thing. None of these explanations address that energy in the substrate. It doesn’t much help to say that it’s just computers all the way down.

  • Timothy Beckley says:

    New book on Philip K Dick proves we are living in the Matrix and some
    “outside force” is controlling our destiny. . .

  • john kuti says:

    Two hundred thousand years from now the earth is either back to the stone age or having progressed and solved the problems of population, resources, political instability, health, energy, with far fewer people with wildly advanced informational technology that has created quantum computers with infinite speed and memory capable of making simulations of reality that are one to one perfect.
    Creating a plausible simulation of our universe would only require that reality be measurable when observed by conscious rational creatures. Ans so it is.
    Why do it? The one problem that can’t be solved in an informational paradise is the expansion of the sun into a red dwarf.
    Making a simulation where the avatars have our ability to make decisions based on a programmed set of rules that respects evolutionary adaptation would be a way to let life survive by moving the quantum computer generating our simulated universe an appropriate distance from an expanding sun
    Having simulated life that is indistinguishable from one generated by a real universe is a pretty good deal, and much better than the inevitable option .

  • Nicole says:

    When I read something like this I feel it points to God … I mean when they use something of our plant or realm or whatever, we tend to stuff it in this all-in-one, exactly like ours, basket but it wouldn’t be like ours. Actually, ours would mimic there. I just mean, because I have done 100s of accurate medium readings and I’m a very…or I was a very skeptical, “scientific and medical proof,only” , girl. Now I realize the other side can do two things. They know how I think of something and can redirect me, like my memories are a newspaper scanner they can sort through. And can then put their memories in my head. So bascially they can download and upload …that’s very computer like…but that doesnt mean no God. I dont think God is at the next place either but I believe the more known and felt, it will be there. So then, the next level is in fact just us, like it is “just us” now but that doesnt mean there are only 2 stops. There are many and the more we go along who knows. Actually, I can only go one level up. Btw there isnt a down. And it’s not too far up. Its just this is is the dirty basement to a a boiler room and next is like a nice, central ac and heated cozy office building but all year long is its xmas party and all the people you love are there. Like I tell my 3 year old, I looked for it, I hunted it down and seen all of it.. ain’t nothing scary out there.
    Just the silly imagination and free will, made some creative people tell some stories, now and long ago.Every part is programed in us. We just worked in this basement too long, is all. One day the office people will invite u in and ur going to walk through and not even think twice like as natural as can be.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.