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Do We Live in a Simulation?

May 19, 2018

Do we live in a simulation, created by an advanced civilisation, in which we are part of some sophisticated virtual reality experience? For this to be a possibility we can make the obvious assumption that sufficiently advanced civilisations will possess the requisite computing and programming power to create what philosopher Nick Bostrom termed such ‘ancestor simulations’. These simulations would be complex enough for the minds that are simulated to be conscious and able to experience the type of experiences that we do. The creators of these simulations could exist at any stage in the development of the universe, even billions of years into the future.
The argument around simulation goes like this. One of the following three statements must be correct.
a. That civilisations at our level of development always or almost always disappear before becoming technologically advanced enough to create these simulations.
b. That the proportion of these technologically advanced civilisations that wish to create these simulations is zero or almost zero.
c. That we are almost sure to be living in such a simulation.
To see this, let’s examine each proposition in turn.
a. Suppose that the first is not true. In that case, a significant proportion of civilisations at our stage of technology go on to become technologically advanced enough to create these simulations.
b. Suppose that the second is not true. In this case, a significant proportion of these civilisations run such simulations.
c. If both of the above propositions are not true, then there will be countless simulated minds indistinguishable to all intents and purposes from ours, as there is potentially no limit to the number of simulations these civilisations could create. The number of such simulated minds would almost certainly be overwhelmingly greater than the number of minds that created them. Consequently, we would be quite safe in assuming that we are almost certainly inside a simulation created by some form of advanced civilisation.

For the first proposition to be untrue, civilisations must be able to go through the phase of being able to wipe themselves out, either deliberately or by accident, carelessness or neglect, and never or almost never do so. This might perhaps seem unlikely based on our experience of this world, but becomes more likely if we consider all other possible worlds.
For the second proposition to be untrue, we would have to assume that virtually all civilisations that were able to create these simulations would decide not to do so. This again is possible, but would seem unlikely.
If we consider both propositions, and we think it is unlikely that no civilisations survive long enough to achieve what Bostrom calls ‘technological maturity’, and that it is unlikely that hardly any would create ‘ancestor simulations’ if they could, then anyone considering the question is left with a stark conclusion. They really are living in a simulation.
To summarise. An advanced ‘technologically mature’ civilisation would have the capability of creating simulated minds. Based on this, at least one of three propositions must be true.
a. The proportion of these advanced civilisations is close to zero or zero.
b. The proportion of these advanced civilisations that wish to run these simulations is close to zero.
c. The proportion of those consciously considering the question who are living in a simulation is close to one.
If the first of these propositions is true, we will almost certainly not survive to become ‘technologically mature.’ If the second proposition is true, virtually no advanced civilisations are interested in using their power to create such simulations. If the third proposition is true, then conscious beings considering the question are almost certainly living in a simulation.
Through the veil of our ignorance, it might seem sensible to assign equal credence to all three, and to conclude that unless we are currently living in a simulation, descendants of this civilisation will almost certainly never be in a position to run these simulations.
Strangely indeed, the probability that we are living in a simulation increases as we draw closer to the point at which we are able and willing to do so. At the point that we would be ready to create our own simulations, we would paradoxically be at the very point when we were almost sure that we ourselves were simulations. Only by refraining to do so could we in a certain sense make it less likely that we were simulated, as it would show that at least one civilisation that was able to create simulations refrained from doing so. Once we took the plunge, we would know that we were almost certainly only doing so as simulated beings. And yet there must have been someone or something that created the first simulation. Could that be us, we would be asking ourselves? In our simulated hearts and minds, we would already know the answer!

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