Are We Living in a Simulation? Understanding the Simulation Hypothesis

Elon Musk blew our minds when he suggested that it’s highly likely we’re all living in a computer simulation. Seriously? Why would he think this, and how could we tell if it’s true?

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Team: Fraser Cain – @fcain
Jason Harmer – @jasoncharmer
Chad Weber – [email protected]

Created by: Fraser Cain and Jason Harmer
Edited by: Chad Weber
Music: Left Spine Down – “X-Ray”

It turns out I’ve got a few things in common with Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX and Tesla. We’ve both got Canadian passports, we’re absolutely fascinated by space exploration and believe that humanity’s future is in the stars.

Oh, and we’re kind of obsessed at the possibility that we might be living in a computer simulation.

In the recent 2016 Code Conference, Elon Musk casually mentioned his fascination with the concept first put forth by the scientist Nick Bostrom. Apparently, Musk has brought up the argument so many times, he’s banned from discussing it in hot tubs.

I haven’t received any bans yet, but I’m sure that’s coming.

The argument goes like this:

Advanced civilizations (such as our own) will develop faster and faster computers, capable of producing better and better simulations. You know, how the Sims 2 was a little better than the Sims 1? The Sims 3 was sort of crappy and really felt like a money grab, but the Sims 4 was a huge improvement. Well… imagine the Sims, version 20, or 400, or 4 million.

Not only will the simulations get more sophisticated, but the total number of simulations will go up. As computers get faster, they’ll run more and more simulations simultaneously. You’ll get one mediocre simulation, and then a really great simulation, and then thousands of great simulations, and then an almost infinite number of near perfect simulations.

Nick Bostrom calls these ancestor simulations.

Which means that for all the beings living in all the realities, the vast majority of them will be living in a simulation.

According to this argument, and according to Elon Musk, the chance that you or I happen to be living in the actual reality is infinitesimally low.

Is it true then, are we living in a simulation? And if we are, is there any way to tell?

Nick Bostrom’s ancestor simulation argument is actually a little more complex. Either humans will go extinct before they reach the post-human stage. In other words, we’ll wipe ourselves out before we design computers fast enough to run ancestor-simulations.

I’m really hoping this one isn’t true. I’m looking forward to humanity’s long lived future.

Or, posthuman civilizations won’t bother getting around to running ancestor simulations. Like, the artificial superintelligent machines will have more interesting things to do, and won’t consider sparing a few computer cycles to simulate what it might have been like to watch YouTube videos back in 2016.

Again, this doesn’t sound likely to me. I’m sure those computers will be a tiny bit curious about what it was like to watch Jacksepticeye and Markiplier in their glory, before the terrible Five Nights at Freddy’s Theme Park disaster of 2023.

Those were dark days. Animatronics… blue hair… the horror.

At this point, you’re going to fall into one of two camps. Either you’ve thought through the argument and you find it airtight, like me and Elon Musk, or you’re skeptical.

That’s fine, let’s get skeptical.

For starters, you might say, computers can never simulate actual reality. From our current perspective, that true. Our current simulations suck. But, take a look at the simulations from 10 years ago, and you’ll have to agree that today’s simulations suck less than they did in the past. And in the future, they’re going to suck even less; maybe even be downright acceptable.

Scientific simulations are getting much much better. Cosmologists have developed simulations that accurately model the early Universe, starting from about 300,000 years after the Big Bang and then tracking forward for 13.8 billion years until now.

They’ve been able to model the interaction of dark matter, dark energy, the formation of the first stars and the interactions of galaxies at the largest scale. They have been able to tweak the simulation and get roughly the same Universe as we see today.

They provide all the starting material, and then simulate the gravity and hydrodynamics, the chemical properties of all that gas, radiation and magnetic fields.