An Examination of the ‘Simulation Hypothesis’
In recent years, there has been a proliferation of debates concerning what’s been termed the ‘simulation hypothesis’, the idea that our universe is, in fact, a computer-generated simulation. This paper, therefore, aims to provide a brief critical analysis of this theory. The discourse will begin by providing some background information on this subject, and how the hypothesis has emerged. Moreover, there will then be a brief section detailing some ideas in the field of philosophy that support the simulation hypothesis, before turning to the realm of quantum physics, and demonstrating how some of the anomalies in the quantum world can be explained by the simulation hypothesis. Finally, some criticisms of the simulation hypothesis will be offered, before some carefully considered and balanced conclusions are offered, based upon the available evidence.
Background: Where Did the Idea Come From?
To begin with, the idea of reality being illusionary is nothing new and can be traced to Zhuangzi’s ‘Butterfly Dream’ paradox, which states that one cannot know whether one is a person who’s dreamt of being a butterfly or a butterfly that is dreaming they are a person (Lui & Allinson, 2001, p. 276). Moreover, Plato’s ‘Allegory of the Cave’ (cited in Lewin & Ergas, 2018, p. 480) suggests that people cannot know the true nature of reality, demonstrating how people can be easily tricked by their senses. So, these ideas about the nature of reality, and questioning what is real, is nothing new, and can be traced back to antiquity. More recently, American science fiction writer Philip K. Dick also conducted an interview explaining why he believes “we are living in a computer programmed reality” (Were We Lied To, 2017, 00:03:39), while the 1999 film The Matrix also brought many of these ideas into popular culture. Therefore, in recent years, this is a subject that has gained much traction, and this has now too spilt over into debates in the academic world.
Ruminations From the Field of Philosophy
In 2003, in response to a growing discourse questioning the nature of reality, Nick Bostrom provided a philosophical paper asking whether we are living in a computer simulation, with it being proposed that at least one of the following is true: (1) humans are likely to become extinct before creating computer simulated realities that are indistinguishable from reality, (2) future human civilisations are unlikely to run a significant number of historical simulations, or (3) we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation (Bostrom, 2003, pp. 243-255). Thus, if technology continues to advance on its current exponential trajectory, computer simulations that are indistinguishable from reality will almost certainly be able to be created, and, unless there is some ethical reason not to, would be run on a scale that would make the probability of our universe being base reality literally billions to one. This then provides a compelling logic, rooted in probability theory, which underpins the simulation hypothesis.
Support From the Realm of Quantum Physics
There is also some evidence to support a simulation hypothesis in the realm of quantum physics, such as through the ‘double-slit experiment’, which demonstrates that particles act differently depending upon whether there’s an observer or not, or via ‘quantum entanglement’, which shows that particles can interact and exchange data even when separated by vast distances (Ahire, 2018). Thus, the double slit experiment could suggest that we are in a digital simulation and that the computer running it only generates what the observer sees in order to conserve computing power (as is done in modern computer game simulations). Moreover, quantum entanglement might also show that all particles are connected to a central processor, and so are able to connect across what we consider to be time and space (which could be viewed as quantised ‘bits’, limited only by the programming rules). As such, advances in quantum physics are providing some support for the simulation hypothesis, along with the development of the field of digital physics.
Criticism and Counter-Arguments of the Simulation Hypothesis
It could be argued that even if computational power and technological development is occurring at an exponential rate, as Moore’s Law states, it would still take an unimaginably vast computer processor to be able to generate all the data in the observable universe, and so this is where the idea of the simulation hypothesis begins to drift into the realms of science fiction. Indeed, on this subject, Lloyd (2007) states that: “The quantum-computational nature of the universe dictates that the details of the future are intrinsically unpredictable. They can be computed only by a computer the size of the universe itself” (n.p.). Nevertheless, when it comes to only simulating the lifelong mental experiences of all humans that have currently existed in history, PBS Digital (2017, 00:06:00) claim that a computer the size of the moon would be more than adequate in achieving this. However, while such a vast computer is currently unimaginable, it is impossible to say what humans might achieve in ten thousand or even a hundred thousand years later, and so such a feat should not be ruled out. Ergo, as it is only human consciousness and experience that needs to be simulated, and what has been observed (as the experiments of quantum physics suggest), then this does bring such a hypothesis back into the realms of feasibility.
In conclusion, this cursory paper has outlined some of the main arguments and criticisms of the simulation hypothesis. It has been shown that doubts about the nature of reality are nothing new amongst philosophers, with such questions being asked since the dawn of antiquity. However, an increased interest in this subject in popular culture has led to more scientific inquiries being made into the possibility of the universe being a digital simulation. The weight of evidence shows that while there are some criticisms to be made about this hypothesis, in respect of the magnitude of computing power needed to simulate the observable universe, there is also some evidence to suggest that perhaps the whole universe does not have to be simulated, but conversely that only the observable parts of it need such rendering. Furthermore, as the argument is also supported, in part, through exercises in logic in the field of philosophy, this as a whole serves to offer a convincing argument for the possibility of a simulated universe.
Ahire, J. (2018) Reality is a Hypothesis, E-Book: Amazon Media.
Bostrom, N. (2003) ‘Are We Living in a Computer Simulation?’ The Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 53, No. 211, pp. 243-255.
Lewin, D. & Ergas, O. (2018) ‘Eastern Philosophies of Education: Buddhist, Hindu, Daoist, and Confucian Readings of Plato’s Cave’. In: P. Smeyers (Ed.) International Handbook of Philosophy of Education, Switzerland: Springer (pp. 479-499).
Lloyd, S. (2007) Programming The Universe: A Quantum Computer Scientist Takes on the Cosmos, E-Book: Vintage Books.
Lui, M. & Allinson, R.E. (2001) ‘The Myth of Comparative Philosophy or the Comparative Philosophy’. In: B. Mou (Ed.) Two Roads to Wisdom? Chinese and Analytic Philosophical Traditions, Chicago: Carus Publishing Company (pp. 269-293).
PBS Space Time (2017) ‘Are We Living in an Ancestor Simulation?’ YouTube [online video], https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hmVOV7xvl58, Date accessed 1/11/2018.
The Matrix (1999) Directed by the Wachowski Brothers. USA: Warner Bros.
Were We Lied To (2017) ‘Philip K Dick: Simulation Theory’, YouTube [online video], https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0LDv8fm_R7g, Date accessed 1/11/2018.