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How Can We Be Sure We Are Not Just An ET’s Simulation?

A number of books and films are based on the Planetarium Hypothesis. Should we believe it?

Science and science fiction writer Matt Williams has been writing a series at Universe Today on why the extraterrestrial intelligences that many believe must exist in our universe never show up. Last week, we looked at the Prime Directive hypothesis (The Directive is, don’t interfere in the evolution of alien societies, even if you have good intentions.”)

This week, let’s look at the Planetarium hypothesis, the sixth in his series: “humanity is in a simulation, and the aliens are the ones running it! In order to ensure that human beings do not become aware of this fact, they ensure that the simulation presents us with a “Great Silence” whenever we look out and listen to the depths of space.” (August 27, 2020)

“Planetarium” sounds like “terrarium,” where we keep lizards in an artificial environment in which they can survive. But we, of course, are really doing all that “nature” for them and they don’t even know it. One might add, they can’t know it. We couldn’t explain anything to a gecko. That isn’t where the gecko lives.

Here’s a TED Ed argument for the idea that we might be living in a simulation:

But science writer Mark Stewart identifies a significant limitation for the theory, on its face:

Sufficiently advanced aliens might indeed have the technology to produce an artificial cosmos thereby creating the illusion that we’re living in “our” universe. However, the bigger the simulation, the more energy is needed to maintain it. Stephen shows that there’s a limit to this – if human civilization ever expands throughout a region of space with a radius of around 100 light years, it would need a simulation beyond the capability of any aliens bound by currently known physical laws. The human race is nowhere near there yet, so it’s possible we may be living in a simulated reality.

Mark Stewart, “The Lonely Universe, Part Five: The Simulation Hypothesis” at The British Interplanetary Society (June 5, 2013)

But that very premise—we can reach the limit—could generate some great science fiction.

Stewart, in any event, isn’t convinced by the hypothesis:

Our loneliness in this cosmos is a simple fact, and not the result of some piece of software. But, as [Nick] Bostrom has pointed out, how can we trust that our memories aren’t programmed to filter out any “chinks” we may have seen? Like the universe itself (whether it’s real or artificial), this sort of reasoning can just go on and on…..

Mark Stewart, “The Lonely Universe, Part Five: The Simulation Hypothesis” at The British Interplanetary Society (June 5, 2013)

Indeed. Philosopher of science Nick Bostrom (pictured), director of Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute, thinks the idea that we are living in a simulation is reasonable but told Vulture, in an interview that there is no way to tell:

Vulture:There was a 2016 New Yorker profile of Y Combinator’s Sam Altman that said many in Silicon Valley had become obsessed with your simulation hypothesis and that “two tech billionaires have gone so far as to secretly engage scientists to work on breaking us out of the simulation.” What do you think when you hear people are doing things like that?

Nick Bostrom: I suspect that the work is probably not on a very large scale. It’s kind of unwise to try to break out of the hypothetical simulation. The chances of success are negligible. If it doesn’t work, it’s a waste of money, and if it does, it might be a calamity. It at least seems like the kind of thing that you would first want to think about for a while, whether it would be prudent to try to do that before embarking on it.

Brian Feldman, “Philosopher Nick Bostrom on Whether We Live in a Simulation” at Vulture (February 6, 2019)

Dr. Bostrom isn’t even sure we should want to contact extraterrestrials: “If there are extraterrestrials, are we sure we want to show them where we are? Like, what’s the cost-benefit analysis? But the action comes first and the thinking about whether it’s wise comes after.”

Vulture also offers 15 “irrefutable” reasons why we might be living in a simulation. (Caution: Lots of things are irrefutable. We can’t rule out the possibility that a stray cat we adopted once belonged to a billionaire’s family. But we are not obliged to believe so on that account.)

Some throw up their hands and say, with Rachel Ritter, “Whichever way you view these questions there’s simply no way of telling what’s real.

Neurosurgeon Michael Egnor, here at Mind Matters News, would take issue with her claim. In response to a similar question, “How do you know you are not the only human who ever existed?” he says,

Our most fundamental knowledge is of logic—specifically, the law of non-contradiction—and even that we must take on faith.

So we are all genuinely in a position of radical skepticism—we have absolutely certain knowledge of nothing, not even of the laws of logic, not even of the certainty of our own existence.

Michael Egnor, “How do you know you are not the only human who ever existed? ” at Mind Matters News (September 15, 2020)

But as he goes on to say, we make a faith-based decision that logic and evidence together are reasonable guides to what is true. It is logically possible that we live in an extraterrestrial’s simulation. But in the absence of evidence, we are in no way obliged to take such an account of our world seriously just because it is logically possible. There is reasonable faith but there is also unreasonable faith.

For example, someone at Reddit doesn’t like the Planetarium Hypothesis: “I briefly became struck with this literal feeling of existential dread and panic. It seems to have subsided, but I am wondering if anyone knows of contradictory evidence regarding the hypothesis?” There is no actual evidence for the Hypothesis so the Redditer’s panic is needless. But it certainly does help market ideas, books and films. For example:

In Heinlein’s novella Universe, the inhabitants of a generation ship (see page 63) find a Universe beyond the confines of their vessel. In a light-hearted short story by Asimov, written two years before Soviet satellites photographed the far side of the Moon, the first astronauts to orbit the Moon find not a cratered surface but a huge canvas propped up by two-by-fours. The “trip” was a simulation that enabled psychologists to study the effects of a lunar mission on the crew. The protagonist of The News from D-Street, a much more somber story by Andrew Weiner, discovers that the totality of his familiar yet strangely restricted world is the product of a computer program. More recently, mainstream media have explored the concept of people interacting with various engineered realities. Several episodes of the TV show Star Trek: The Next Generation, for example, were set on the “holodeck” — a technology that emulated material objects with which users could interact. The movie The Matrix had humans forcibly immersed in a virtual reality, this time through a technology in which brains were stimulated directly by implants. The protagonist of the movie The Truman Show was the unwitting star of a TV show that had him living inside an engineered reality; in this case it was a “low-tech” reality, a fake town below a painted dome designed by the show’s producers.

Solution The Planetarium Hypothesis” at Fossil Hunters (December 5, 2019)

Here’s a TEDx talk by Oleg Maslov (2017) that makes the case that we are artificial intelligences living in a simulation:

What are the chances that we are artificial intelligence beings living in a virtual world? Oleg lays out evidence that suggests that those chances are much higher than we believe. – TEDx

Here’s the same idea from the World Science Festival (2015):

In science fiction, stories about simulated realities are commonplace. Writers and filmmakers delight in the chance to rattle our notions of reality and perception. Even Kurt Vonnegut toyed with the idea in his novel, Breakfast of Champions. But to Nick Bostrom, a philosopher and co-founder of the World Transhumanist Association, simulated realities are more than just a provocative thought experiment. In fact, he believes it is more than likely that we are all part of one right now. – WSF

Here’s an argument (2020) as to why you are probably not a simulation:

Have you ever have a dream you were so sure was real? The simulation argument challenges our very notions of reality by asking whether everything we perceive is nothing more than an elaborate computer simulation. Recently, we’ve even seen headlines like “one in a billion” probability that we live in the real world. Could this be right? How does this affect how we think about our lives? And are there any counter-arguments to save us? New research from the Cool Worlds Lab resolves. – CWL

While we are here: If we are really the gunk in the bottom of the extraterrestrials’ test tubes, the planetarium hypothesis raises the question, why would we want to meet them anyway? If we believed that, wouldn’t we be trying to find a real reality instead?

Note: As noted earlier, Williams traces the simulation back to a 2001 paper mathematician and engineer Stephen Baxter. And he reminds us that Elon Musk is onside.

You may also enjoy:

Seven reasons (so far) why the aliens never show up. Some experts think they became AI, some that they were killed by their AI, and others say they never existed. Who’s most likely right? Science fiction writer Matt Williams delves into seven hypotheses into which scientists and science fiction writers have put a lot of thought.


Are the Aliens We Never Find Obeying Star Trek’s Prime Directive? The Directive is, don’t interfere in the evolution of alien societies, even if you have good intentions. Assuming the aliens exist, perhaps it’s just as well, on the whole, if they do want to leave us alone. They could want to “fix” us instead…

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How Can We Be Sure We Are Not Just An ET’s Simulation?