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How Do We Know Our Universe Is Not a Sim World?

It’s an interesting idea, say Bradley fellows, but for a number of reasons, it is not credible

The idea that we are a simulation by space aliens is a staple of science fiction, of course (think The Matrix, 1999). But some scientists take this simulation hypothesis seriously.

Serious discussion started with a paper by philosopher Nick Bostrom in 2003, “Are you living in a computer simulation?” in which he suggests, “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.”

British astronomer Martin Rees has speculated that we might be living in just such a vast computer sim and some other scientists are pondering the possibilities too:

Rizwan Virk, founder of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s PlayLabs program and author of “The Simulation Hypothesis,” is among those who take the simulation hypothesis seriously. He recalls playing a virtual reality game so realistic that he forgot that he was in an empty room with a headset on. That led him to wonder: Are we sure we aren’t embedded within a world created by beings more technologically savvy than ourselves?

That question makes sense to Rich Terrile, a computer scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Detailed as they are, today’s best simulations don’t involve artificial minds, but Terrile thinks the ability to model sentient beings could soon be within our grasp. “We are within a generation of being those gods who create those universes,” he says.

Dan Falk, “Are we living in a simulated universe? Here’s what scientists say.” at NBC News

Heady stuff, though Harvard physicist Lisa Randall told colleagues in 2016, there is zero evidence and that fact still matters. Others say it is simply an attempt to make space aliens or future selves stand in for God. Indeed, some thinkers oppose the idea precisely because they see it as a stand-in for an argument for God.

We asked several Walter Bradley Center fellows offered Mind Matters News some thoughts:

Jonathan Bartlett offers,

The simulation hypothesis is interesting but it fails precisely because it is too loosely stated, and equivocates more than it clarifies.

The primary “proof” for the simulation hypothesis is that, let’s say that we could simulate a universe. If we do, there are now two universes, ours and the simulated one. In the simulated universe, if it succeeds, there will eventually be organisms that can also discover how to simulate a universe. Now we have three universes, and two of them are simulated. So, if you wake up in any universe, there is now a higher probability of a particular universe being simulated than the universe being real…

There are many problems with this line of thinking. First of all, new universes must necessarily be smaller than the original universe. We don’t know a “preferred” size of the universe, so we have no idea if ours would be bigger or smaller than the “real” one. Second, the proposal presumes that a universe could be simulated. In order to simulate something, you must be able to calculate the next move. However, there are many reasons for thinking that not everything in our universe is calculable. If this is the case, then there is no way to simulate our universe, at least using a standard meaning for the word. Additionally, as conscious beings, we are not merely being calculated; we are actually thinking and feeling ourselves. Because we are aware of our own consciousness, it can’t merely be calculated, as Searle’s Chinese Room illustration explains.

Now, it is possible that some of those who use the term “simulated” actually mean something other than “calculated.” Perhaps many academics who feel uncomfortable arguing for design in the universe (either because they fear for their jobs, or personally find the arguments distasteful) use “simulated” as a stand-in term. They thus avoid the professional problem of introducing theological concepts of design. In short, we can’t talk about evidence for design, but we can talk about evidence for simulation, and so some of the discussion about design has simply been renamed in order to satisfy the censors.

I’ve found that this kind of terminology switching is very evident with topics that are not supposed to be discussed. Instead of raising the forbidden topic, you find a more socially acceptable stand-in.

If that’s the case, there is good and bad. It’s good that people are finding an outlet to discuss the facts. The problem is that too many people get confused by the terminology, and wind up completely misunderstanding what the conversation is about.

Brendan Dixon notes that, in association with arguments that we live in a multiverse (ours is one of an infinite number of universes), it seems like a way of playing tricks with numbers:

I was just reading Paul Davies’ book, The Goldilocks Enigma: Why Is the Universe Just Right for Life?. As part of his overview of the Multiverse, he lays out the thinking for our living in a simulated universe. At its root, if I follow the logic, it’s a numbers game: Given enough universes (the multiverse is assumed by some mechanism to yield a near infinite number), assuming no end to technological progress (which Davies fails to address), assuming vast resources (which he barely touches on), then you can assume someone will want to simulate something. And, in an infinite number of universes, well, the magic of infinity comes to play which yields the odds we’re likely living in a simulation. If you buy it.

Robert J. Marks observes that “There is an uneasy parallel with Judeo/Christian beliefs”:

Simulation requires a model and the Genesis account says God created man “in his own image.” In that view, however, we are not the products of only DNA or other computer code. Algorithms are incapable of qualia, creativity or love.” Those who believe we are simulations can believe life is too complicated to explained by Darwin. Or the universe is too fine tuned to be explained by chance. There is no God, and panspermia, the belief that space aliens seeded life on Earth, is too whacky. So they reason, we must be a computer simulation.

Self-driving car entrepreneur Elon Musk and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson take that view:

“If you assume any rate of improvement at all, games will eventually be indistinguishable from reality,” Musk said before concluding, “We’re most likely in a simulation.”

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson agrees, giving “better than 50-50 odds” that the simulation hypothesis is correct. “I wish I could summon a strong argument against it, but I can find none,” he told NBC News MACH in an email.

Corey S. Powell, “Elon Musk says we may live in a simulation. Here’s how we might tell if he’s right” at NBC News

The computer sim universe seems to be a way of dealing with the massive evidence of the fine-tuning of our universe without invoking traditional philosophy or religion.


See also: What becomes of science when the evidence does not matter?


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How Do We Know Our Universe Is Not a Sim World?