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Sep 19

The Simulation Argument: Why We Might Already Be Living in Virtual Reality

simulation-argument-nick-bostrom-chuck-klosterman-1400x600The essay that you (or your avatar) are reading right now is about the Simulation Argument, formulated by Professor Nick Bostrom of Oxford University. But really, it’s a story about uncertainty.

It’s a cautionary tale against intellectual hubris and snobbery, as well as an admonition to enrich your own life and expand your range of possibilities.

Take the plunge with me, and we’ll see why Professor Bostrom thinks it’s possible we’re living in a computer simulation, run by advanced humans in some distant future.

THE SIMULATION ARGUMENT

In a famous paper entitled, Are We Living in a Computer Simulation?, Bostrom argues that at least ONE of the following propositions must be true:

(1) The human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a “posthuman” stage.

(2) Any posthuman civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history (or variations thereof).

(3) We are almost certainly living in a computer simulation.

Think about it: If crazy high-tech future humans simulate billions of universes, there will be billions of fake universes and just one “base reality.” The chances of being born into the base reality (as opposed to one of the simulations) would be astronomically low. Thus, if such a thing has already happened, we’re probably in a simulation right now.

However, we may not be. If our species is sufficiently volatile and self-destructive, such that we’re unlikely to survive long enough to become posthuman, or if for some reason our posthuman descendants don’t care much for simulating universes, we’re probably not living in a computer simulation.

And that’s the Simulation Argument. It’s really pretty straightforward and easy enough to understand. But as you can see, it’s the sort of idea that could keep you awake at night, wondering how “real” our reality really is.

For his part, Bostrom doesn’t claim to actually believe that we’re living in a computer simulation; he just admits that it’s possible.

In fact, Bostrom states:

“We may hope that (3) is true since that would decrease the probability of (1), although if computational constraints make it likely that simulators would terminate a simulation before it reaches a posthuman level, then our best hope would be that (2) is true.”

In other words, hopefully we are in a simulation, Bostrom says, because that would mean we aren’t likely to destroy ourselves entirely. However, if we are in a simulation and the simulators might “turn off” our reality sometime soon because keeping it running requires too much computing power, we should hope that our descendants simply don’t tend to simulate their past for whatever reason.

Personally, if one of those three propositions must be true, I hope it’s (2) regardless. I’m not sure why we would hope first and foremost that we are living in a simulation, rather than hoping that our descendants don’t care much for running ancestor simulations.

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