Inspired and Blessed by Bob Acebedo
Inspired & Blessed

Are we, our life and universe simulated?

May 24, 2023, 12:07 AM
Bob Acebedo

Bob Acebedo


Who doesn’t remember the highly acclaimed 1999 blockbuster movie, The Matrix? The movie depicts a dystopian future in which humanity is unknowingly trapped inside a simulated reality, called the Matrix, which intelligent machines have created to distract humans while using their bodies as an energy source. Computer programmer Thomas Anderson (played by actor Keanu Reeves), under hacker alias Neo, uncovers the truth and he is drawn into a rebellion against the machines.

Imagine if, casting aside what we know about life and the universe, this is more than just a movie depiction but a real-life truth? What if our universe were simply a hyper-realistic simulation or a fake – that perhaps everything we see and know is a gigantic computer game of sorts, the creation of super smart hackers existing somewhere else?

Minding the simulation enigma seriously – just as modern philosophers and scientists do – I tried scouring for answers from two contemporary prominent thinkers – one is a philosopher and the other one is a scientist.

First is Nick Bostrom, a Swedish philosopher and director of the Future of Humanity at the University of Oxford.

Bostrom firstly gives us a description of what “ancestor simulation” is all about:

“Ancestor simulation is the idea that you could have a very technologically advanced civilization with the capability of creating computers that could run detailed simulations of people like their historical predecessors. It would be like the Matrix except that instead of having brains in vats, the brains would be part of the simulation. So it would just be one big computer program.”

For Bostrom, the simulation argument doesn’t only try to show that we are living in a simulation, but rather that one of the three possibilities is true:

“The first possibility is that almost all civilizations at our current level of development become extinct before becoming technologically mature. The second possibility is that there is a very strong convergence among all technologically mature civilizations such that they all lose interest in creating these ancestor simulations. And the third possibility is that we are literally living in one of these computer simulations.”

Thus, for the simulation argument to be right, one of the three possibilities should be true. Bostrom continues:

“If I assume that the first possibility is not true, then there will be eventually some civilizations that are mature. If I assume that the second possibility does not obtain, then at least some of these mature civilizations use some fraction of their computational resources, and you can show that because the technological capabilities that such a mature civilization would have would be so extreme, (thus) they could create astronomical numbers of these ancestor simulations. Which means that if you reject the first two possibilities, you have to conclude that there will be many more simulated people like us than non-simulated ones like us.”

Now, following Bostrom’s reasoning, can we infer that those people who are simulating this present civilization may appear to us as gods?

Bostrom thus retorts:

“The simulation argument is not an attempt to refute or to prove theism. The simulation argument would imply a weaker form of creation hypothesis, which is that the simulators would have some of the attributes we might traditionally associate with gods because they are far superior to us intellectually. But they wouldn’t have to be unlimited or infinite minds, though they could intervene in our experiential world by manipulating the simulation.”

Let me wrap up thus Bostrom’s argument: (1) All civilizations in the cosmos either destroy themselves before becoming technologically advanced; (2) Or they lose interest in creating world simulations; and (3) Because if even one advanced civilization anywhere in the cosmos can create such simulations, we are almost certainly living in one.

Seems logical, huh? Let me proceed, meanwhile, to our next resource thinker.

Martin Rees is UK’s Astronomer Royal, a hard-nosed realist, and based in Cambridge University.

On a preliminary note, Rees considers the simulation theory as a “bit flaky,” taking into consideration the limits of the powers of computers. But he does not dismiss the possibility that “in the far future, there could be computers which could do a simulation of a fairly large fraction of the world.”

Rees explains:

“But if you imagine that intelligence develops exponentially in the next five billion years as it has in the last five billion years, then you could well imagine that there would be more simulated universes than the original one. Perhaps it’ll be an imperfect simulation, with sort of glitches where the laws of nature do display irregularities. That would be an interesting speculation.”

But, can Rees go further in stretching such possibility beyond speculation or establishing its plausibility?

Rees answers, thus:

“The only way we can go further is that in the multiverse concept we could perhaps imagine that there are other universes where the laws are even more propitious for the emergence of complexity and where it would be easier to develop a very complex supercomputer than it is in this universe, then that would slightly strengthen the conclusion that we ought to be in a simulation than a real thing.”

I could sense, hence, that even for a hard-nosed realist like Martin Rees, the plausibility of us being in a simulated universe cannot be ignored.

But, quite palpable likewise, I cannot avoid inferring that one underlying assumption in the theoretical ruminations of Bostrom and Rees is that the element of “consciousness” is simulated too. Which brings me to ask further: If consciousness is part and parcel of simulation, what then is the reality of our “free will”? Is it just an illusion, being “pre-determined” through simulation? This would call for a separate discussion on this column.

For now, let me give a rundown of Bostrom’s and Rees’ arguments.

Perceptibly, we can deduce five premises leading to a conclusion: (1) If there are other intelligent civilizations somewhere; (2) if their technologies grow exponentially; (3) if they do not become extinct; (4) if there is no universal ban running on simulations, and; (5) if consciousness can be simulated – then the conclusion is that we are living in a simulation.

Logical reasoning says that if we do not accept the conclusion, then we must reject at least one of the premises. Pray thee, can we reject even the faint possibility of any of the premises?

For me, echoing a fundamental theme from theology, the simulation theory very well resonates with the truth that God, the ultimate simulator or creator, exists. It is profoundly comforting to know that if this life is but a “simulation exercise” to prepare us for a real heavenly life that is eternal, then God – being the master simulator or programmer – is guiding us in every step of our journey.

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