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Red Pill Blue Pill concept. The right choice the concept of the movie matrix. The choice of tablets

What Drives the Belief That We Live in a Computer Sim Universe?

The lack of evidence for the sim is admitted — but then we are challenged to prove that it ISN’T true…

Last Saturday, we looked at the largely faith-based conviction that there must be intelligent beings on other planets in the universe. I call it a “faith-based” conviction. because the evidence is largely discouraging. But the faith is one that many people in science share.

One could say the same for the nagging belief that we are living in a computer simulation, a belief entertained by science broadcaster Neil deGrasse Tyson, X (Twitter) owner Elon Musk, and former Astronomer Royal Martin Rees. It’s not so much a faith as a suspicion: The designed universe we see around us is indeed the product of an intelligence — artificial intelligence.

Late last year, University of Portsmouth physicist Melvin Vopson published an open-access research paper exploring the idea that “we are simply characters in an advanced virtual world”:

The simulated universe hypothesis proposes that what humans experience is actually an artificial reality, much like a computer simulation, in which they themselves are constructs.

University of Portsmouth “Could a new law of physics support the idea we’re living in a computer simulation?” Phys.org, October 9, 2023

Of course, if the simulation is as artful as we might expect from an extraterrestrial intelligence, we would not detect it, right? Unless we were given red pills, as in The Matrix movie (1999). But, assuming that we are inclined to believe that our universe is a sim, why should we also believe that red pills even exist, apart from science fiction?

Stony Brook astrophysicist Paul Sutter is content with a “maybe” approach to the question. As he writes at Ars Technica,

Upon the realization that we could be simulated, you might be tempted to throw away life—what good is it if it’s not real? But if you were predisposed to nihilism, I doubt you needed an Oxford philosopher to help you along. A simulated universe isn’t a fake universe; it’s just real in a different way than we expect. Simulated pain still hurts. Simulated love is still powerful. We can still strive to be good stewards of our planet and generous toward our neighbors; faithful simulations are miserable to live in if you have neither shelter nor food.

Paul Sutter, “Could our Universe be a simulation? How would we even tell?,” Ars Technica, January 31, 2024

But, of course, that doesn’t answer the question of why we should believe that we live in a simulation. For that, Sutter points to arguments originated by Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom, including the idea that our advanced descendants may simulate universes featuring many consciousnesses:

Once this starts, the number of simulated brains will vastly outnumber the organic brains. Think of all the digital creatures that have ever “lived” in all instances of all video games combined: how many NPCs, monsters, and avatars were born with the click of a button or the flip of a switch, followed their programming, and then were just as quickly shut off? With suitably powerful computers at their disposal, the simulation-builders wouldn’t just stop at one brain in one Universe; they would make a bunch of Universes, each containing a bunch of brains. At this point, the vast majority of conscious entities would be simulated rather than biologic.

Paul Sutter, “How would we even tell?

So why shouldn’t we find ourselves be the product of a simulation too? When we are this far out on a limb, it is hard to find feet-on-the-ground answers.

Dartmouth College theoretical physicist Marcelo Gleiser doesn’t buy the simulation idea at all: “It is little more than a fancy excuse for escapist fantasizing.” He worries that such notions will prevent us from grappling with real-world problems. In any event, he follows the simulation hypothesis down the path: If we take the idea seriously, “It could very well be that our simulators are being simulated by even more advanced simulators, and those by even more advanced ones, ad infinitum. Who is the First Simulator?” Well then, we are back where we started: Who or what originated the universe?

We could just leave out all the simulations and the question would be the same.

It’s pointless to respond to sim advocates by saying that there is no evidence that we live in a sim because the proponent will simply demand that we prove that we don’t. As we might suspect, evidence is not really the issue here. The sim universe is a way of grappling with the unseen aspects of reality without invoking traditional religious ideas. In the same way, the passion for finding extraterrestrial intelligences is a way of addressing the sense that we are not alone while bypassing belief in God. Interestingly, along those lines, the extraterrestrials are usually more advanced than we are, not less…

If we grasp the psychological role that these sorts of beliefs play among scientists and the sciencey crowd in general, it’s easier to see why they persist and garner headlines with so small an evidence base.

Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul; and with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor of the forthcoming The Immortal Mind: A Neurosurgeon’s Case for the Existence of the Soul (Worthy, 2025). She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

What Drives the Belief That We Live in a Computer Sim Universe?