Are You Living In A Simulation? Nick Bostrom

The movie The Matrix, an American-Australian science fiction film which was a worldwide hit in 1999, was about people living in a computer simulation while believing they live in a physical world. While the movie itself had a silly reason (for the masters to tap the energy of the physical bodies of people wired into The Matrix), it raised an old science fiction concept to the general public:

The concept of "A Simulation" is whereby a technologically advanced civilization could create a simulation system indistinguishable from the world as we know it.

(Actually, before computers even existed, some ancient philosophers considered the possibility that reality is an illusion, but science fiction later recognized how computers could be used to create artificial intelligence and simulations, and become gods in a way.)

In the post-2000 era, the concept has been best refined in a paper by Nick Bostrom, the head of the Future of Humanity Institute in Oxford, England, entitled "Are You Living In A Computer Simulation?", which gets very technical, though he has a somewhat easier to read version which appeared in New Scientist titled Do We Live In A Computer Simulation?

Please let me try to present something similar, organized in my own way, which might be easier for many readers to understand. There are these possibilities:

  1. You/we are currently not living in a computer simulation but in a physical world, i.e., we are in the first pass of human history, and therefore we are not in a simulation.

    From this "first pass" viewpoint, we can look at two possible futures:

      A. Our human species will go extinct in the future (such as by a biotechnology or nanotechnology extinction event, or a self-destructive artificial intelligence) before humans or our descendants reach the technology capability of creating a simulation, so that no simulation will ever be created by ourselves or our descendants; or

      B. Our human species will not go extinct in the future but one of the following two possibilities will occur in the future.

      1. Our species and its descendants will survive, i.e., will not go extinct, but all of our descendants will have no interest in creating any computer simulations of our past, so that no simulation will ever be created by any of our descendants (which seems extremely unlikely); or

      2. Our species and its descendants (including transhumanism and AGI) will survive, i.e., will not go extinct, and some entity(s) will have interest in creating computer simulations of our past, so that simulations will be created by descendants.

  2. Same as item #1-B-2 above, except change "will not" to "did not" -- we are NOT part of the "first pass" of human history, instead, you/we are probably living in a simulation now!

In other words, the last possibility means that humans did already survive, and human descendants created ancestor simulations of human history. If they created one, then they probably copied and re-ran the simulation an immense number or times. That means we are far more likely to be part of a simulation than the first pass of human history.

For example, let's say that a simulation is started whereby the would-be assassin of John F. Kennedy misses in the third shot which struck JFK in the head fatally, e.g., instead Kennedy collapsed into a safe place in his seat after the second shot hit him in the back, and before the third (fatal) shot, or else the third shot just missed. How would that change history? That certainly would have changed American history dramatically, as Kennedy was a reformer and independent thinking leader, unlike subsequent "establishment" presidents who followed the military industrial complex. What kind of super intelligence would the descendants of a JFK survival world create?

Actually, we don't need to change history so dramatically. Slight changes can make a huge difference. For example, there is The Butterfly Effect whereby a butterfly flapping its wings in China in a different way can, over time, create different effects around the world.

Our surviving descendants could create an immense number of simulations. This would mean that you are probably in a simulation, simply because the chances of you and I being in the first pass rather than one of the immense number of simulations would be like winning the lottery on the first try.

What kind of simulation? You could consider two extreme possibilities:

  1. This simulation is an entire world of simulated individuals, both both you as the reader and myself as the writer here would be fully simulated individuals who cross paths on this website, or

  2. This simulation is just one individual -- you -- in a simulated world whereby I the writer don't really exist except for creating this website only for you, the one person in this particular simulation. It is a kind of solipsism.

There are additional possibilities as well, mostly in between the above two.

We could just be "brains in jars" wired to a computer system. By brains, it doesn't necessarily mean grey matter brains, it could be software brains in silicon or some other substrate based computer.

Then there is another class of possibilities -- that these simulations are not created by any human descendant, but by an extraterrestrial (ET) intelligence from either this universe or another, which takes a snapshot of human life on Earth and runs it thru simulations in order to find some which do not go extinct, and to see what higher artificial general intelligence those create. Let's call this "The ET simulation."

Two of the possible ET Simulations are:

  1. A physical universe evolves, but then ET sees a species on Earth (humans) capable of creating a simulation, and even if/when this species self-destructs before creating the simulation, ET can still record the main parameters such as recording the DNA of all life on Earth at a particular moment, recreate a functionally equivalent Earth, and rerun history either on Earth itself or as a simulation, or

  2. A physical universe never evolved, but there was just a shortcut to create a simulated Earth, and the above item is run over and over.

There are other possible ET simulations, too, but you get the idea ...

In any case, if some entity is going to run one simulation, then they're almost surely going to run multiple simulations by making some changes between simulations, however slight.

It is fairly certain that somewhere in this universe or another universe which developed before ours, a superintelligence exists. Being superintelligent, they would almost surely know about us, but certainly not interfere, but would have the technology to easily create simulations.

If you consider that either a more advanced human civilization or an ET civilization could create an immense number of simulations, that means the probability is extremely high and almost certain that you are living in a simulation, not the "first pass" of life on Earth, because the "first pass" is only 1 out of an immense number of passes.

Nick Bostrom condenses the whole argument into 3 scenarios, which I will paraphrase:

  1. Technological species in the universe tend to self-destruct by their own technology (including humans on Earth), such as according to the main topics of this website, so simulations don't exist; or

  2. Some technological civilizations survive, but practically zero are interested in creating simulations; or

  3. Some technological civilizations survive, and create simulations (in our case, either extraterrestrial beings creating simulations of Earthlings, or human descendants creating ancestor simulations), of which they would most likely create an immense number of simulations, and therefore we are far more likely to be part of a simulation than a first pass experience.

The most highly probable way to explain your existence in reading this sentence is that you are a part of a simulation in scenario #3, according to Nick Bostrom.

So what?

If so, then for what purpose are these simulations run, and how should it affect your decisions, behavior, and way of thinking?

Nick Bostrom noted, in a podcast, that the simulation creator would be the full equivalent of "God" and a person who did not believe in any major religion on Earth could see "life after death" in a different way. He notes that he knows of an atheist who became an agnostic because of the simulation argument.

This gets into a lot of issues, including of ethics, corruption, temptations, group think vs. independent thinking, cultures, subcultures, and conformity vs. creativity.

However, even if we are part of a simulation, that does not mean we can just kick back and do nothing. Do you want to be one of the few and far between who do good and responsible things, and earn your keep, or do you want to become contemporary humdrum or evil to later be tossed out when it comes time to sieve out what's worth harvesting from the simulation?




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