I explore the question of whether we exist in a simulation, give a concrete answer and explain how this knowledge might affect your view of existence.
This question, a favourite of philosophers and stoners alike, has recently seen a boom in interest. Tech entrepreneurs like Elon Musk have openly stated that they believe we exist in a simulation and have expressed an interest in ‘breaking us out’.
Typically the hypothesis is structured like this: “Given the rate of growth of technology and how close we have gotten to simulations that are identical to our own reality, it shouldn’t be long until we can create simulations indistinguishable from reality. And given that, it would seem absurd to assume that we exist in the base reality.” Check out this video from Code Conference in which Musk explains his position.
Personally, I think this simplistic argument falls flat. It fails to pass the test of logical first principles. It is what is called an unfalsifiable argument.
There is no null hypothesis to Musk’s position. If you say that we exist in a simulation that is indistinguishable from actual base reality, then there is no way to test the simulation. Aristotle would have us throw out this argument, since it isn’t worth investigating. Either we exist in base reality or in a simulation and there is functionally no difference between the two. Debate is pointless because no one can ever be shown to be correct and it makes no difference either way.
Fortunately, I don’t need to end the article here. As it turns out, it is possible to construct a falsifiable argument for existing in a simulation. I hope that Musk is just simplifying his position for the sake of brevity, but for those who want a more robust discussion, I’ll attempt to tackle the specifics.
In order to prove or disprove whether reality is a simulation, we need to look at the properties of a simulation. Once we understand where our current simulations differ from reality, we can try to find evidence of some of these mechanisms within reality.
Properties of simulations
- Computational efficiency – video games and simulations do not render the entire world and simulate the properties of physical objects constantly. Things are only computed when the human player interacts with them.
- Bugs – Any sort of computer program will inevitably have bugs and unexpected behaviour.
- Requires hardware – Simulations require computers that exist in the same reality as they do
- Requires consciousness outside of the simulation – A simulation never pops into existence on a computer, it must be programmed by someone outside of the simulation
So in order to prove or disprove whether we live in a simulation, we simply must find empirical evidence of any of these properties.
Of course, many of these properties are tough to test from ‘the inside’. Imagine a character in a game of The Sims, trying to find the computer that is simulating them. Or trying to communicate with the consciousness outside of the simulation. There is currently no conceivable way that this could occur.
Bugs are similarly difficult. Bugs aren’t incorrect behaviour. All bugs are created as a result of the way the code is structured. A bug isn’t the game behaving incorrectly – it is an unintended consequence of the way the game is programmed.
So perhaps we encounter many bugs in our simulation, but we don’t consider them strange, unexpected behaviour because we have no idea how ‘reality’ should look. They are simply another property of our simulation.
Finally we have the property of computational efficiency. And fortunately, here I can point to some evidence of this in our own reality. Quantum mechanics is perhaps our best insight into whether we exist in a simulation.
Quantum mechanics as evidence of computation
Here’s a quick recap of the double slit experiment that is so foundational to quantum mechanics.
A light is shone through two narrow slits and the pattern of light produced on the screen is studied. As you probably know, light exhibits a wave/particle duality.
If the light source is constant, it acts like a wave. Imagine a wave from the ocean, splashing up against a wall with two holes. At each of the holes, the wave splits and the second wall will be wet all over (with wet marks arranged in a specific pattern, due to each wave source interfering with the other).
This differs from when you fire a single photon at the wall. Imagine if you were firing a gun at the same wall set up. If the bullet went through a hole, you’d expect to see a bullet mark lined up directly with this hole on the second wall. And so long as you observe each particle as it passed through the slit, this is exactly what you see.
However, if you don’t observe the particles moving through the slits one by one, eventually you’ll see the wave-like interference pattern instead!
What is going on here? How can this interference pattern exist without multiple particles to interfere with each other? Can a particle interfere with itself? And why does this only happen when we aren’t looking?
These questions bothered physicists for years, but the solution could be a key to answering the question of whether we exist in a simulation.
In a simulation, there is a good reason why the player observing something matters – computational efficiency. There is no point rendering a building in the simulation that the player isn’t looking at. If we wait until the player looks that way to draw it, we save on computation time.
Quantum mechanics could be showing evidence of the same thing. It could simply be that the position of the photon isn’t computed until it needs to be. A photon has a range of possible positions that it can land in based on its own physical properties. Each spot on the wall has a probability of being the place that the photon lands in. Only once it is observed does the actual position need to be computed.
So if the experiment is allowed to run unobserved, even photons fired one by one will appear in an interference pattern. The probability calculation is only done at the point of observation. Because many photons have already passed through, at the time of the calculation, the probability function creates a wave pattern.
But if you force that probability calculation when there is just 1 photon, it cannot interfere with itself, and so you see a particle (or bullet) like pattern.
The Schrödinger’s Cat thought experiment is a good way to explain this concept. The reason that the cat in the box can be simultaneously both alive and dead before it is observed, is because the probability of its living is only calculated once the box is opened and the state is observed. Before that it exists in a state of quantum superposition.
This probability calculation at the point of observation is not limited to the double slit experiment either – there are many other examples, this is merely the most famous. And it would appear to be smoking gun evidence of us existing in a simulation – or a simulation-like reality.
So are we living in a simulation? I believe that we are.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean we are being simulated for the sake of frivolity, like the high-school science project of some higher consciousness.
If I were to speculate, I’d say that our simulation is more likely to be a sort of game that we enter into ourselves. If we’re just NPCs, then why does our observation and action have such a significant effect on the world? Why do we have so much autonomy?
There is more to the human mind than its constituent parts. It won’t be long until we can recreate the human body perfectly. But even a biologically perfect replica wouldn’t spring into life on its own. Some part is missing. Historically this has been identified as the soul.
I believe in the human soul. I believe I can even prove it exists empirically, but I’ll save that for another time. Even if you don’t believe, understand that I’m just using the word soul to describe the part of you that is alive. I’m describing the very thing you fear you’ll lose when you die. That conscious awareness.
When you die, your body will break down. It’ll decay and the matter will become parts of other things. None of your body ceases to exist. The law of the conservation of matter describes how matter cannot be created or destroyed, only reused. The same is true of energy. In fact, there is nothing in this universe that starts as nothing, becomes something and then goes back to being nothing forever.
So why would you believe your soul is any different?
This belief that your soul pops into existence once you’re born and ceases to exist when you die, is incompatible with what we know about the rest of the universe.
But, in observable reality, there is no place that your soul seems to go to be reused. It doesn’t become a part of space, or go to the moon, or become water in the ocean. There is no place in reality that it seems to go. Just as how before you were born, you don’t remember existing as any part of reality.
Therefore I speculate that death is simply logging out of the simulation. Once our time in the game is up, we’re booted out and back into reality.
Now there’s no reason to necessarily believe that true base reality is anything like our current reality.
In base reality we could exist as huge clusters of potentiality, interacting via electrical impulses and gorging ourselves on pleasures incomprehensible.
We just don’t know. We also don’t know the ‘why’ of the simulation. What is to gain from entering into the simulation? Perhaps we’re here to learn and build up something in our souls? Or perhaps we’re attempting to guide the simulation towards some end, which is forgotten the moment we’re born?
We have to accept that we may never know all the answers. In fact it may be essential to the simulation that we continue to not know the answer to these questions.
And if you’re feeling particularly attached to this simulation and unwilling to leave it for a potentially more abstract existence – fear not. We decided to enter into this simulation for a reason and if we did it once, there is no reason why we couldn’t do it again. Souls can’t be created or destroyed in a closed system, so inevitably the time will come for us to make a return visit to meatspace.
That concludes my thoughts on this subject. Please leave a comment if you have any thoughts, or if you’ve found a fault in my theory. I’m interested in opening a discussion.
Edit: If you’d like to hear more about the soul, the follow up article is now available here.