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

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Comments (14)
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  • 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.

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