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The Reality Of Reality May Not Be Reality

<em>The Matrix</em>: Which pill do you choose?
<em>The Matrix</em>: Which pill do you choose?

Every night for months before the presidential election, Nate Silver would fire up his computer and run simulated results for his FiveThirtyEight blog on The New York Times. He ran hundreds of these simulations, tweaking variables like "white male poodle owner" turnout. Then along came Election Day. We all went out to vote (you did vote right?) and reality became the final word, trumping whatever Nate Silver's simulated universe might, or might not, have said.

But what if there was more to the story? What if the simulated election didn't just happen in Nate Silver's computer? What if Election Day itself was a simulation with you, me and even Nate Silver just running through our autonomous but fully programmed roles. My friends, what if we all are living inside someone else's simulation?

Wait, wait, wait; don't click on over to Planet Money just yet. Hear me out. There are well-known philosophers working at well-known universities who would argue that the reality of our lack of reality might just be the most reasonable assumption to make about reality. Given the alternatives, accepting that we are all simulations living inside a simulation might just be ... reasonable.

The question "are we living in a dream" is as old as human culture. The 4th-century Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi once dreamt from a butterfly's perspective. Upon waking he wondered if he was a man dreaming he was a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming he was a man.

In today's culture we have The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and The Matrix posing modern versions of Zhuangzi's question on where the dividing line stands between reality and simulation. Last week my co-blogger Marcelo Gleiser explored a related idea, focusing on the merging of man and machine in a "singularity."

But the detailed philosophical form of the simulation argument comes from Nick Bostrom, a philosopher who is currently the director of the Future of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford.

Back in 2003 Bostrom wrote an article imaginatively titled "Are You Living In A Computer Simulation." Bostrom wanted to consider technologically mature civilizations, which for him meant cultures so advanced they build super-duper computers with fully conscious simulated minds living inside simulated realities. Think The Sims on super-duper steroids. These cultures, Bostrom reasoned, might then create ancestor simulations on their computers, meaning simulations of their own past. With these ideas in mind, Bostrom then made the final leap by considering the truth, or falsehood, of three statements:

  • Almost all civilizations at our level of development become extinct before becoming technologically mature.
  • The fraction of technologically mature civilizations that are interested in creating ancestor simulations is almost zero. 

  • You are almost certainly living in a computer simulation.
  • So watch what happens as we run down the truth/falsehood list of these statements. If 1 is true then virtually no civilization becomes super-high tech before dying, which kind of stinks. If 1 is false but 2 is true, then virtually no ancestor simulations should exist. The use of "virtually" is important here because Bostrom's purely philosophical argument relies on probabilities and, in the end, it leads him to a remarkable place.

    Now let's say statement 1 is false. That would means there are civilizations reaching heights of technology we can barely imagine today. Then add statement 2 as false. That would mean some of these technologically mature civilizations start creating super-duper simulations of their own past. With statement 1 and statement 2 false the conclusion has to be that there must exist ancestor simulations running out there right now full of simulated ancestor minds.

    And who are the ancestors? Better look in a (simulated) mirror.

    Most importantly, when you work out the numbers there should be vastly more simulated minds in simulated realities than real minds in ... um... real reality. That's because each ancestor-loving technologically mature civilization could run oodles and oodles of simulations. Put it all together and what you have are overwhelming odds that the reality we experience is a simulated one (at least via this purely philosophical argument).

    As Bostrom puts it:

    What Copernicus and Darwin and latter-day scientists have been discovering are the laws and workings of the simulated reality. These laws might or might not be identical to those operating at the more fundamental level of reality where the computer that is running our simulation exists (which, of course, may itself be a simulation).

    So there it is. Now you know. But maybe this is too much for you. Maybe you're thinking, "Wow, I wish I had taken the blue pill." Maybe you accept these kind of abstract philosophical arguments enough that the reasoning sticks. Maybe the idea that your whole life is nothing more than a sim running on some superbeing's laptop is just too much for you.

    Well, that is OK because I do have a few words that might just make this new reality easier to swallow:

    Thanksgiving dinner with your crazy family is just around the corner!

    You can keep up with more of what Adam Frank is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @AdamFrank4

    Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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