Could Human Life be a Simulation, and Why is that So Disturbing?

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The idea that life is not “real,” in the way we understand it as human beings, is not new. In fact, it’s very, very old—at least as old as the ancient Greeks. Plato was just one of the philosophers who argued that our reality was at least somewhat illusory, and while most of us are now familiar with some variant of the concept through movies like The Truman Show or The Matrix, it’s a topic that has persisted in philosophical circles throughout modern history, and even has scientific support in fields like quantum mechanics.

Nevertheless, the theory has spread more rapidly—and far beyond specialized academic communities—since the advent of computers. The possibility of digital creation enabled by advanced technology has allowed us to formulate an interesting guess at the story of our own beginnings: As we design, so, perhaps, were we designed.

Granted, we’re not able to program realities even close to the sophistication of our own world, but that doesn’t mean we’ll never have that capability. And if the time comes when we can create something similar to our universe, even on a rough scale, we will finally know the provenance of mankind. For if we can “play god” and make a world resembling our own, then it stands to reason that a civilization one level above us has done the same thing, and that their work is the reason why you and I are living and breathing today.

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In 2003, a Swedish philosopher named Nick Bostrom came up with a “Simulation Argument” which stipulated that one of the following three statements must be true:

1. Civilizations do not reach a “posthuman” stage where they are capable of rendering “ancestor-simulations” using computer power.

2. Civilizations do reach this stage, but, for whatever reason (ethics? superior intelligence that leads to disinterest?), have no interest in running ancestor-simulations.

3. There is an extremely high probability that we are living in a simulation.

I’m paraphrasing Bostrom’s words, but I think language from his introduction may actually be more helpful in clarifying his logic:

One thing that later generations might do with their super-powerful computers is run detailed simulations of their forebears or of people like their forebears. Because their computers would be so powerful, they could run a great many such simulations. Suppose that these simulated people are conscious…then it could be the case that the vast majority of minds like ours do not belong to the original race but rather to people simulated by the advanced descendants of an original race. It is then possible to argue that, if this were the case, we would be rational to think that we are likely among the simulated minds rather than among the original biological ones. Therefore, if we don’t think that we are currently living in a computer simulation, we are not entitled to believe that we will have descendants who will run lots of such simulations of their forebears.

Or, more briefly: “If there were a substantial chance that our civilization will ever get to the posthuman stage and run many ancestor-simulations, then how come you are not living in such a simulation?”

Bostrom’s theory rests on the plausibility of the “technological singularity”—the moment when machines will become conscious for the first time, and able to improve and redesign themselves (think of the film Her). Some scientists believe this could happen in a matter of decades, while others think it’s impossible. To Bostrum, the arrival of the singularity will represent the start of a “posthuman” stage. With enough computer power (significantly more than we have now), he posits that a simulation could be made that creates human-like creatures in a human-like environment. We could essentially “trick” the creatures into accepting their situation as real, and perhaps edit their memories, Men in Black-style, in the case of a glitch—or, alternatively, just rewind the simulation. Furthermore, if this sort of technology existed, there is theoretically no limit on how many simulations could be run.

From there, the core of his argument follows: If civilization can reach that simulation-producing posthuman stage—and it’s a big “if,” for Bostrom—it’s far less likely that we’re the one original biological civilization than it is that we’re one of the million/billion/trillion/kazillion simulations.

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Let’s assume for a moment that Bostrum’s theory is correct, and that we’re living in the third scenario he postulates, where simulation is not just a possibility, but an overwhelming likelihood. Or, hell, forget Bostrum and the credibility he brings to the argument—let’s just say that one way or another, we live in a simulation. Taking it a step further, imagine that we discover the truth, beyond doubt, but that we don’t meet our creators.

How would that change the way we live?

It’s easy for some people to say that they’d continue living their lives as before, since, on a pragmatic level, “nothing changes.” And maybe for a fraction of our population, that’s true. On the other hand, the eternal question about ‘God’ would be answered, at least in a limited way, and wouldn’t that usher in a bit of chaos? (It’s possible to predict how religion might adapt, though, provided they don’t ignore the evidence altogether. They’d simply have to place God above all the simulated worlds and the original “real” people, rather than solely above our world—it would, in fact, fit nicely with monotheistic religions like Christianity, with its notion of ‘God’ communicating with our forebears and placing his son on Earth…even ‘heaven’ becomes a concrete proposition, if our consciousness can be transplanted onto new systems.)

What about laws and morality? Would we take them quite so seriously? Would we value life just the same, or would the knowledge that we’re not “real” lead to a societal breakdown, since it wouldn’t technically matter how we behaved as intangible beings? Is murdering/raping/beating/robbing a simulated human a lesser crime than doing the same to someone that is biologically “real”? Would suicide rates skyrocket? Are concepts like love and loyalty important if they’re a figment of simulated minds?

More pressing, personally: Even if society persisted in roughly the same way after our “enlightenment,” why is it that I get a deep feeling of anxiety whenever I think about the possibility of myself as a simulated human?

I first came across the idea of simulation—outside of movies—two years ago, and I immediately felt waves of panic in my stomach. That reaction was partly down to the fact that I have OCD tendencies, and habitually ruminate on negative thoughts to the point of anxiety. When this all-too-familiar process began happening with the simulation hypothesis, I thought I was truly unique, and that my brain had seized on a real worry that went beyond what other sufferers felt. And, since it asked an unanswerable question, I concluded that it might be the ultimate form of “pure” (i.e. thought-based rather than habit-based) OCD.

As it turns out, I was very wrong—”Existential OCD” is so common that it has its own special category. There are many of us who are unsettled by the idea of life being illusory in some way, and while you may be the kind of person who can grapple with the concept without the associated negative feelings—or who finds the idea unpleasant but quickly moves on—someone with OCD will have a tougher time.

But a tendency to ruminate doesn’t answer the question of why the simulation hypothesis itself carries a negative association for most humans. The answer, I think, might be simple—even though I understand on a logical level that my own death wouldn’t matter on a grand scale, and that on a universal scale I am devastatingly unimportant, the truth is that the human ego is a real thing. Delusional or not, I feel significant, and I enjoy feeling that way. Even with the knowledge that my life is limited and the human race may one day become extinct, I believe that I matter.

This belief doesn’t rely on religion or the promise of an afterlife—I maintain that there is meaning in this world, and beauty, and purpose, and I take satisfaction from the successes (and even from the failures) as I move closer to death. Evolution has probably crafted my brain to think this way, and I’m glad.

Don’t get me wrong—there is still negativity and suffering and other unwanted emotions happening inside me. But beneath it all is a sense of adventure, and with it a sense of significance. There’s privilege involved in this type of thinking—I know I’m lucky—and probably some narcissism as well, but I’m not alone. Even people who don’t believe in God have figured out how to believe in themselves.

But if we were a simulation, and knew it? I get the feeling that my sense of self-belief, along with my attachment to a meaningful world, would collapse. It would be like suicide, but without even committing the act. My agency would be stolen from me, and the value I perceive in myself would be gone.

The destruction of ego is just one reason to fear the simulation hypothesis—the knowledge that we could be terminated at any time by our overlords is no fun, either—but I think it might be the most compelling. It would deprive us of the pursuit of happiness, and rob us of our hope.

And yet, Bostrom argues against me. We should actually root for ourselves to be simulations, he writes, since one of the likely alternatives is the extinction of the human race before such a project is made manifest. People like me, he adds, are probably overreacting.

“Properly understood,” he writes, “the truth [of simulation] should have no tendency to make us ‘go crazy’ or to prevent us from going about our business and making plans and predictions for tomorrow.”

Maybe he’s right. Maybe, despite the certainty of an ugly existential crisis, I’d eventually adapt to the revelation and continue along my current path, passions and ambitions uncurbed. If religion could adapt, and our societies remained intact with similar values, why couldn’t I adjust too?

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I can take comfort in the fact that I will probably finish this lifetime without an answer. That represents its own kind of torture, but I’ve been ignorant on the question of our existence since birth, and I can persist. Maybe it would be nice to know where we come from eventually, but if the answer is “a computer simulation,” I’d prefer to learn the truth as late in the game as possible.

Of course, even if we do discover that our lives are a simulation—and to be clear, we’re far, far away from that breakthrough—it doesn’t answer the question of what created the thing that created us. And each time we answer that question, there’s another mystery to solve, another layer to explore, all the way to the origins of existence. It brings to mind an old metaphysical joke—the Earth is flat, a man claims, and it rests on the back of a turtle. That turtle is standing on the back of a second turtle, the second turtle is on the back of a third, and so on. Hearing this, an observer asks a reasonable question: What is the last turtle standing on?

But the man shakes his head. “It’s turtles all the way down.”

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