Look around you. Your shoes, that tree, the Starbucks cold brew you’re clutching—it’s all very much right here in the real world. But what if the “real world” we live and move around in is just a computer simulation? Neil deGrasse Tyson, everyone’s favorite astrophysicist, thinks there’s a very high chance that everything we know is just a hologram. He’s just one of a growing number of people who believe it.
Philosopher Nick Bostrom proposed the simulation hypothesis in 2003, and the belief has only snowballed since then. Most notably, Elon Musk and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson have jumped on the nothing-we-know-is-real bandwagon. Tyson hosted the 2016 Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate at the American Museum of Natural History, which addressed this question head-on: Is the universe a simulation? At the event, Tyson was joined by panelists Lisa Randall, a theoretical physicist at Harvard; Max Tegmark, a cosmologist at MIT; David Chalmers, a professor of philosophy at NYU; Zohreh Davoudi, a theoretical physicist at MIT; and James Gates, a theoretical physicist at the University of Maryland.
The opinions on the simulation hypothesis varied (Chalmers had a real mind-boggler: “We’re not going to get conclusive proof that we’re not in a simulation, because any proof would be simulated.”). Tyson himself said, “I think the likelihood may be very high. […] it is easy for me to imagine that everything in our lives is just a creation of some other entity for their entertainment.” But whether or not everyone is in agreement about the matter, the concept is legitimate enough for the top minds in theoretical physics to meet on and parse out.
It’s Time To Meet Your Simulator
Okay, let’s play along. Say nothing is actually real and we’re all just a bunch of cosmic holograms living out our lives in someone’s elaborate computer simulation. Who is that someone? Martin Savage, a physicist at the University of Washington, has some thoughts. Savage, along with two colleagues, published a paper that explores this issue in November 2012. In a conversation with Talk Nerdy To Me, Savage explains that the simulators may be our own descendants from the far future. Whoa. In the same way archaeologists dig up bones and other artifacts to piece together our past, perhaps future generations will have the ability to recreate simulations of how their ancestors (us) once lived. Yes, maybe your great-great-great-great-great-grandkid is studying you right this second. Hi, kiddo!
2016 Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate: Is the Universe a Simulation?
Report cites SpaceX founder Elon Musk and Oxford philosophy professor Nick Bostrom.
Analysts at Bank of America have reportedly suggested there is a 20 to 50 per cent chance our world is a Matrix-style virtual reality and everything we experience is just a simulation.
The report, which was issued to clients, also implies even if our world was an illusion, we would never know about it.
Bank of America Merrill Lynch backed up the claims by citing comments from leading philosophers, scientists and other thinkers.
“It is conceivable that with advancements in artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and computing power, members of future civilizations could have decided to run a simulation of their ancestors,” the report stated.
Elon Musk – The chance that we are not living in a computer simulation is ‘one in billions’
Its claims also appeal to the work of a philosophy professor from the University of Oxford. In 2003, Professor Nick Bostrom concluded there is significant possibility we “live in a simulation”.
Astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson also maintains the likelihood of the universe being a simulation “may be very high”.
Philosophers dating back to the 16th century, notably René Descartes, have suggested we cannot rely on our sense experiences to perceive the world.
The Bank of America’s report, which was looking at the implications of virtual reality, explained: “Many scientists, philosophers, and business leaders believe that there is a 20-50 per cent probability that humans are already living in a computer-simulated virtual world.
“In April 2016, researchers gathered at the American Museum of Natural History to debate this notion. The argument is that we are already approaching photorealistic 3D simulations that millions of people can simultaneously participate in.”
In the 1999 film The Matrix, humans live in a simulated reality created by machines to control the human population.
Philosopher Nick Bostrom’s famous Simulation Argument suggests it’s highly probable that we live inside a supercomputer. But one philosopher takes this hypothesis to task, arguing in a new paper that there are other post-human scenarios that need to be taken into account.
According to Bostrom’s Simulation Argument, only one of the following three propositions can be true given the potential for a technologically mature “posthuman” civilization to come into the possession of enormous computing power:
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
We are almost certainly living in a computer simulation
If the first proposition is true, it’s likely that we’ll go extinct before reaching posthumanity (in which case there will be no so-called “ancestor simulations”). If the second is true, “then there must be a strong convergence among…advanced civilizations so that virtually none contains any relatively wealthy individuals who desire to run ancestor-simulations.” This seems unlikely.
But if the third proposition is true, then we almost certainly live in a computer simulation. One way of looking as it is through the lens of probability; if there’s one “real” world, and a million simulated worlds, it more probable by several orders of magnitude that we’re in a simulation.
But as Bostrom himself notes: “In the dark forest of our current ignorance, it seems sensible to apportion one’s credence roughly evenly between [these three propositions].”
And it’s here where philosopher Paul Franceschi from the University of Corsica in France takes issue with the argument.
A ‘Reference Class’ Problem
Franceschi says that Bostrom didn’t get the reference class right.
“It consists of human simulations,” he told io9. “The original argument refers to a reference class which is that of computer simulations of human beings, of a very high quality, and by nature indiscernible from the genuine ones.” But there’s more to simulations than just this, he argues — Bostrom failed to account for a much broader class of posthuman simulations.
A certain ambiguity exists in the mere notion of simulations, he says, and a question subsequently arises about the applicability of the Simulation Argument to other possible types of human simulations or immersive virtual reality experiences. To that end, Franceschi describes three other kinds of simulations:
Aware-simulations: A type of simulation that’s in every respect identical to those described in Bostrom’s original argument, i.e. simulations that are almost indiscernible from genuine humans, the only difference being that they’re aware of their own nature in the simulation.
Rough-simulations: Some virtual simulations at a slightly lower quality, with regard to the perfect ones hinted at in the original argument.
Cyborg-type simulations: Simulations indiscernible from human cyborgs with, say, neural implants (possibly with full or partial uploads); think of The Matrix.
Franceschi breaks down the assumption that we likely live in a simulation into three points: (1) the notion that simulations greatly outnumber genuine humans (disproportion), (2) the fact that we are probably simulants (self-applicability), and (3) the fact that we’re totally unaware that we’re being simulated (unawareness).
But by virtue of his new posthuman references classes, Franceschi argues that new conclusions can be produced:
The original argument: As noted, it entails disproportion, self-applicability and unawareness. This conclusion is worrying because it suggests we’re simulants blind to our true nature as living things.
Aware-simulations: The argument only entails disproportion (and not self-applicability or unawareness). It’s a reassuring conclusion because it suggests simulants are (mostly) aware of their existential situation.
Rough-simulations: Like the previous item, it only entails disproportion. This conclusion is also reassuring.
Cyborg-type simulations: This also entails disproportion and self-applicability (and not unawareness). This conclusion is reassuring, too — it suggests that many simulants have a “real world” aspect to them.
By having alternate choices of different reference classes, and at a greater level of extension, different conclusions can be drawn from the premises — conclusions that produce reassuring conclusions. Put another way, it can’t possibly be correct that every posthuman simulant is unaware of their true nature, or that other types of simulations don’t exist.
“Now given that there does not exist in the Simulation Argument an objectivecriterion allowing to choose the reference class non-arbitrarily, we can choose it at different levels of restriction or of extension.”
In this context, he claims that the disturbing conclusion which is associated with the original argument turns out to be an arbitrary conclusion. At the same time, there are several other reference classes which have an equal degree of relevance to the argument itself — reference classes which suggest a reassuring conclusion.