The Simulation Hypothesis

The Simulation Hypothesis March 26, 2023

Have you ever wondered if the world around us is a simulation? Does our universe exist as a virtual construct created by some advanced alien race? Or perhaps future “post-humans” decided to create advanced simulations to recreate the history of the human race. Seem far-fetched?

Interestingly enough, this idea is being taken seriously by some well-known physicists and philosophers. Philosopher Nick Bostrom (Oxford professor and director of the Future of Humanity Institute) advances an argument that our world really is a simulation. You can dig further into his works here – You can read his argument here:

The Possibility

On the face of it, this seems like a philosopher who watched the movie “Matrix” and thought it would make for a cool doctoral dissertation. If we are being charitable though, his case (while highly speculative and counter-intuitive) doesn’t seem to be entirely implausible.

If you consider the technological developments in our culture over the past few decades, the possibility of the creation of an advanced simulator has some prima facie plausibility. It wasn’t that long ago that ‘Pong’ was the most advanced video game we had. Now we can create realistic looking, interactive worlds. We have super computers that are able to simulate extremely complex scenarios in climate science, astrophysics, and molecular physics. And this has occurred in my lifetime.

If our species has grown in our capabilities this quickly, who is to say what technologies we could develop in 100 or 1000 years. Surely 1000 years ago, people in medieval Europe would not have foreseen the ubiquitous, powerful computers that we all carry around with us in the form of cell phones.

Nick Bostrom

If we become capable of running super complex simulations (possibly ancestor-simulations), it seems likely that we would run these simulations. A simple reflection on our own development and use of technology seems to lend plausibility to this idea. If we make something cool, it’s likely that we will use it. Bostrom’s thought experiment starts with this notion and makes the claim that there are three possibilities regarding the outcome of our technological advancement:

  • 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 (or variations thereof)
  • we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation

The paper says that – “It follows that the belief that there is a significant chance that we will one day become posthumans who run ancestor-simulations is false, unless we are currently living in a simulation.”

Bostrom calls the first option the “doom” option. He admits that this is possibly true, but that in order for humans to not progress, some kind of exceptionally long-lasting technological stasis or possibly earth wide cataclysmic disaster would need to take place. While this is possible, on the face of it, it doesn’t seem likely.

What is Likely?

So it’s likely that we won’t go extinct before reaching some “posthuman” stage of evolution. It’s also more likely than not, that we will have the ability to create exceptionally advanced simulations at some point in our future. Further, if we are able to make these simulations, it’s very likely that we would use them to create simulations of our evolutionary history.

Given that we are not at that stage in our development now, and given the near inevitability that our descendants will continue to exist, continue to grow, and continue to use the technologies they create, and given that we are not currently at that stage of development (since we can’t run such simulations), it’s likely that we are currently in a the simulations created by our descendants. At least I think this is a summary of Bostrom’s claims.

Reasons For Thinking It Is True

The above argument is admittedly speculative on many levels. But there might be some reasons, outside of Bostrom’s reasons, for thinking that we are in a simulation.

A theoretical physicist from the University of Maryland named James Gates claims that, deep within the mathematical models of supersymmetry theory one can find an underlying DNA of the cosmos. He claims that buried in the equations themselves one finds a recognizable form of computer code. Gates isn’t merely finding information, broadly speaking, he is finding a specific kind of error-correcting computer code that is very much like the kind of code used in internet browsers.

The idea then is that there is some kind of information that underlies physical reality. Rather than inferring that there must be a Divine Mind behind the existence of this information, secular thinkers look to other explanations. One of which is that this world is, in fact, a simulation. Our world is not, as Elon Musk and others put it, “base reality”.

Some take Gate’s finding as a vindication of the notion that ideas are a more fundamental reality than matter. For a popular level take on this you can watch this documentary –

Other popular reasons for thinking that we might be in a simulation are:

  • We can’t seem to link up the quantum world with the macro world in physics.
  • Quantum entanglement doesn’t make sense in a real objective world.
  • People have all sorts of odd, unexplained experiences (deja vu, out of body experiences, seeing things that aren’t there, etc.) These experiences don’t seem to fit the materialist conception of the universe.

What To Make Of The Simulation Hypothesis

While I don’t find the simulation hypothesis to be all that convincing, as a theist, I can actually agree with many of the underlying philosophical assumptions and / or conclusions.

  • There exists some reality that is more “base” or ontologically primitive than the physical world.
  • Mind precedes matter.
  • There is an intelligence behind the world we see, feel, hear, touch, taste, and smell.
  • People’s odd experiences in this world are potentially damaging to a materialist world view.

To all these points I say – welcome to the fold brothers and sisters. We are happy to join you as you start on the journey of exploring where your findings lead you.

Perhaps their various observations and findings mean that we really are in a simulation. I suppose that’s possible. But it’s also possible that we are in a physical reality rather than being mere brains in vats operating in some kind of virtual construct. Maybe a “Super Mind” or “super minds” live in some unknown dimension and they created the physical reality that we now live in. Perhaps physical reality is such that it’s underlying cosmic DNA contains information. Who knows, maybe all of these anomalies / findings are the result of our current lack of a coherent conceptual framework. Maybe the universe really is unintelligible and we are just coming to understand that. Fortunately, the unintelligible option would not be merely ironic, it would be incoherent.

Another Option

Maybe there is another option. Maybe some all-powerful, rational mind purposefully created the world such that the world is composed of some kind of rational order. And that rational mind created our minds in such a way as to make the universe intelligible. This possible explanation seems to be too fantastical to accept because it would mean that several of the worlds religions have been right all along. And they didn’t arrive at it by means of contemporary natural science.

You can’t offer physical evidence that the simulation hypothesis is false. For the physical evidence you offer, if the simulation hypothesis is correct, would simply be part of the simulation. This is the difficulty Bishop Berkeley’s interlocutors had. How could you prove immaterialism, or in our case, the simulation hypothesis to be false by appealing to the “world” around you?

Given the ubiquitous acceptance of the reality of the physical world, and given the fact that all of the evidences for the simulation hypothesis could be explained by alternate means, I think the burden is on those who subscribe to the simulation hypothesis to make their case in a way that makes their position more plausibly true than competing views.

Theism in general and Christian theism in particular can explain everything brought up by Bostrom and Gates without coming to the strongly counter-intuitive conclusion that Bostrom comes to. His argument is admittedly speculative. This by itself doesn’t mean it’s false. But it’s a very hard pill to swallow without something more substantial behind it.

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