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Are we living in a computer simulation?
To start off we should imagine that either distant future humans or an advanced race of aliens could manufacture, code and start a supercomputer that could simulate a whole separate universe. If this is so who is saying that our descendants would not try to do that one day? And more importantly how would we know that we are not currently living in one.
This thesis is important because it makes people question the very foundations of what they know to be true. It will make people think about how disconnected they are from the real world, because of this it provides and almost morbid curiosity into this subject. This paper will provide new understandings of perspectives and ideas that may not previously have been thought of by the reader(‘s). It is also a good research question because it is a point that I the writer have been interested in for a while.
The methodology used to explore this point are mainly through research, recording key points and exploring them all in essay form. There will also be philosophical ideas explored where multiple perspectives and arguments are brought up. Because of the partly scientific roots of this question I will restrain from expressing my own opinion as much as possible. Because of the philosophical side of the question the reader will be put into some of these perspectives so the point behind it can be better understood.
The hypothesis for the upcoming research is that of course the chances are that we are not living in a computer simulation but the points that will be explored may compose that it is possible to be living in a computer simulation. In order to understand a justified conclusion to the answer there are many philosophical and scientific points that we must explore. So, a specific hypothesis is hard to create.
Referring to the simulation argument proposed my Nick Bostrom , he argues that one of the three possible points must be true (1) The human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a “posthuman” stage; (2) any posthuman civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history (or variations thereof); (3) we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation. These three points follow the belief that a civilization could reach a posthuman stage.
Nick Bostrom’s Three arguments
Posthuman or post-human is a concept that originates and tends to stay within the fields of science fiction. It is a state that a living being, human or non-human that transcends a state of being human, this could refer to humans that have physically evolved past any state that resembles todays humans, they could have cured aging which allowed them to live for hundreds and maybe thousands of years. this could also be that they are incredibly intelligent and able to for example create a very sophisticated and advanced computer simulation or answer impossible questions that are tens of thousands of years ahead of humans that exist today.
Of course, Nick Bostrom’s argument does not state that we are living in a simulation, he provides us with three options. The first option explains that humans will become extinct before we reach a posthuman stage. This considering human nature is the most likely of the three. In fact, mathematician Dr Fergus Simpson  predicts that there is a 0.2% chance of a “global catastrophe” occurring in any given year over the course of the 21st Century.
The second option proposes that any posthuman civilisation would be extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history (or variations of). This is the second most likely option due to how specific the simulation argument is, there is always a large chance that as the option states the posthumans could just “not do it”, to put it plainly (I go into more detail later in the paper). This option also has an interesting point that any posthuman civilisation could be the one to create or in this case not create the simulation. If the nature of the simulation is to simulate a whole universe then we could be involved as programs whether human descendants create it, or any other alien simulation would create it.
The third option makes quite a bold statement that we are indeed living in a computer simulation, to explain why this statement is logically correct I must propose a mathematical look to it using probability. If we could imagine that a posthuman stage is reached, and they did in fact decide to create a simulation of their ancestors (us), then who is saying that we or they are in fact the biological original. If a simulation of this magnitude is feasible and if it has happened then maybe it would happen again, maybe many times, but if all these simulations where spawned inside other simulations then there could be an incredibly large number of simulations. If this is so then the chances of us being the original are quite slim and therefore it is safe to assume (if the original two points have not met) we are indeed living in simulation. I will explore this point further later in the paper.
The Assumption of Substrate-Independence
If we want a computer simulation to process a human’s mind down to a perfect detail and for each person in the simulation to truly be their own cognitive person then we need a Substrate-Independent mind. This is the idea that our minds are not limited to only being our brain cells, but that we can transfer our minds or create others to exist in other ways, for our example as a computer program. Of course, this isn’t necessary, the posthumans could program a neural network to act just like a human.
This is believed to be possible because the human consciousness is nothing more than electric signals being passed around the brain, our sense of awareness that makes us feel special is argued to just be a side effect of intelligence. We could call it a survival technique, when we are threatened or on the verge of death that last burst of energy and strength could be brought on by our willingness to save ourselves. There are arguments saying that a human consciousness is spiritual and almost supernatural, but the computer simulation argument isn’t going to get anywhere with that assumption. so, we will accept that it is only a matter of time until we can program a human mind using code and computer hardware.
Very small factors on a microscopic level that effect a neuron can be ignored for example nerve growth factors and negligible chemical releases in the synapse would not affect the signals being sent between neurons. Although it would lack authenticity the posthumans could program a human to react to curtain stimuli in a way identical to humans in that the consequences of which ensure the integrity and relatability of the simulation with authentic humans. The only challenges in creating a digital mind lies in programming the syntax of consciousness as we still do not fully understand what it is, we can only assume that in the future our increasing intelligence will eventually shed some light on the mind.
The processing power and other computational needs
Our technological advancements in computing have been, and are continuing to be rapidly increasing. there was a time where the only computer game was pong, it consisted of a few 2D shapes interacting with each other. Now only 47 years later our computer games are set in vast 3D worlds with a graphical resolution of up to 4K pixels, in these games we can play with over a hundred different players simultaneously all around the world, we have also recently developed virtual reality headsets that can provide an equal level of detail and immersion. Eventually if our progress continues at this rate the difference between the programmed world and reality will become increasingly small and eventually non-existent.
Our proposed posthuman computer simulation does not need to process and implement every single quantum particle in that universe, neither does it need to process the size of the universe. If the intentions of this simulation where to for example study the 21st Century human’s anatomy or characteristics, then why would it need to for example process what a planet temperature is outside of our current observable universe. In short, the computer would not need to process information that would not affect the outcome of the study. An interesting example of this type of simulation comes from an episode of an American sitcom called Rick and Morty  Season 1 episode 4, “M. Night Shaym-Aliens!”. In this episode protagonist Morty comes to the attention that he is living in a computer simulation ran by aliens. He removes himself from the simulation by literally jumping out of it! The simulation was being created in the physical world around him and when the computer is hacked by Morty’s Grandfather Rick, rendering it unable to create more of his world he runs out of it as you would run of a stopping treadmill. Another interesting computing variable explored by this show was when the computer needed to simulate a much larger area the detail and efficiency of the simulation decreased e.g. The artificial intelligence robots used to pose as other humans started to act less like humans and more like cattle. It is explained by Rick that this is all because of the lack of processing power.
Obviously right now we cannot create a conscious mind in a computer, we lack the processing power and software required to do so. But at the rate of which our technological advancements are going we will eventually meet the point where we can implement a human mind as a computer program. For our simulation argument it simply does not matter whether the amount of time it takes to achieve this goal equates to 50 years or even 500 million years from now. In both cases and almost all other ones we can still create our simulation just a little later!
We currently have quite a good idea of how much processing power is required to emulate a human brain, taken from an article written by S. Orca on “H+ magazines” , he states that the human cortex has about 22 billion neurons and 220 trillion synapses. A supercomputer capable of running a software simulation of the human brain doesn’t yet exist. Researchers estimate that it would require at least a machine with a computational capacity of 36.8 petaflops (a petaflop is a thousand trillion floating point operations per second). Now despite that sounding like a lot of processing power, the world’s most powerful super computer lives America and is known as “Summit ”, this computer’s processing power peaks at a staggering 200 petaflops. This shows that our current computers do have the raw power to emulate a human mind.
The human mind also stores memories, information that it has learnt to be stored away for future use. Well our computers do that as well, they store it in their memory. As far as how much our brain needs were also calculated in the same article from S. Orca to be around 3.2 petabytes. Of course, when it comes to whether we can provide for this it is incredibly easy, you can buy a rack server from tech outlets that can store up to 5 petabytes of data. And more efficient / larger storage technologies are being developed with each passing decade.
Of course, if you are in a computer simulation, you have the whole world around you? Not just your mind with free will and awareness but a whole world full of intelligent beings with the same attributes. Unfortunately it is quite futile to try and calculate how much processing power is needed to emulate the rest of the universe, of course the scale of your desired simulation can affect your needed processing as I said before you could only need to simulate the earth, all other objects in the sky could just be “lights” and if any of it is needed to be interacted with e.g. Asteroid or the moon landing then the post humans can just tweak the simulation slightly to continue to entertain the humans with false objects like just adding the section of the moon that was walked on for that time. But if the posthumans want to emulate whole star systems and galaxies then we can only use our understanding of how much our computers have developed and see that eventually we will reach these milestones.
After some (although not completely un-controversial) proof and reasoning for a computer simulation of this nature to be possible we must address why our descendants would most likely not be the posthumans to create the simulation but that we (considering Nick Bostrom’s first two points are not fulfilled) are most definitely living in a simulation, If the computer simulation has the programs in that simulation reach a posthuman stage then there is indeed a god chance that they will create a very similar computer simulation. This can create a loop of an enormous amount of computer simulations all inside each other, all believing they are the original biological posthumans. Now if you were to spread all these simulations out (there could be a near infinite number) and throw a dart at one, what are the chances of that simulation being the first one, or the creators of that simulation being the first posthumans to do so. With this probability alone there is a near infinite chance that we are not the biological originals and are in fact living in a computer simulation.
So, if you can imagine that in your world you meet a brick wall, as a regular human you can assume that it is hard, heavy, have a pretty pattern and real. But if you were to zoom in to it at an atomic level you would see that it is made from atoms that relative to their size are quite spaced out and detached from each other, But their molecular bonds and how their individual particles interact with each other govern how we interact with the wall, but we don’t see this or think about it every time we see one. So, you could say that on an atomic level the brick wall might not seem hard, heavy or real (but still quite pretty I’m sure). Now I would like you to imagine you are playing a video game and you come across a brick wall, the fundamental building blocks of this object is code. Both code and particles cannot be seen by the human so who is to say the brick wall is not made from code. And every time you look into an electron microscope the posthumans have installed a subroutine that shows you the particles you should be seeing. I know this is quite a bold example, but my point is that the posthumans could be similar to game developers in terms of immersion and keeping the simulation a secret.
To make the simulation easier to run and achieve stability it could utilize a kind of Technological Solipsism. Solipsism is the view or theory that the self is all that can be known to exist. Imagine putting on a virtual reality headset and playing a game. To make the game less straining on the graphical processing unit when you are looking in a direction the space behind you has not yet been rendered or processed yet, it waits for you to look at that point for it to be loaded. The posthumans could take advantage of this by only loading the area of the simulation you interact with. All your personal belongings in your closed wardrobe may not exist right now and only pop into existence when you are about to open the door. This would just like in the VR game reduce the workload of the simulation’s computer.
The second of Nick Bostrom’s three points states, “any posthuman civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history (or variations thereof)”. This may sound quite straight forward, the idea of the posthumans simply not wanting to. But there is more behind this point when you consider the nature of how intelligent these people will be. To be able to create a computer architecture that can support this magnitude of processing the posthuman race will be like gods compared to us. Imagine the most intelligent ant in the world walking into a movie theatre and seeing a collection of us humans sitting down in rows of seats eating popcorn and watching a flashy light in the shape of large humans on a big wall. It would seem nonsensical to the ant, and no matter how hard you try to explain the experience to the ant it would never understand. This could give you a rough idea of hoping to understand anything a posthuman would do. As said buy the “Kurzgesagt ” YouTube channel, “it is quite arrogant to assume these gods would create this computer simulation on something as insignificantly dumb as us?”
What could a reason be for the posthumans to create a simulation of this magnitude? One theory also brought to light by Nick Bostrom  is that we are living in an ancestral simulation, similar in intention to a history channels re-enactment of a battleground. But its real, we have or at least possess the illusion of free will. The posthumans may have wanted to see our first trip to mars or just what humanity looked like as it aged among the millions of years before it. I admit they must want some immense detail and it seems like quite a lot of effort to do so but they are the posthumans and I’m sure if they did want to it’s for a good reason.
Now it could be that our world that feels so real and is so perfectly normal that we can’t be in a simulation turns out to be completely artificial. The posthumans reality could have completely different laws of physics or fundamental variables that they didn’t include or change in our simulated reality. Referring to “Plato’s Allegory of the cave ”, where prisoners are chained in a cave forced to look in only one direction at a wall. There is a fire in this cave behind the prisoners that shines on puppets also behind the prisoners that cast a shadow on the wall they all face (See below). To these prisoners the cave around them and the shadow figures are their world, all sounds emanating from outside the cave and lights flickering seem to be all created by the shadow figures. If these poor prisoners where to escape then they would not know what to do with themselves in the outside world, it would be like stepping into another dimension. We could apply this to our experience in our world, everything we know we know to be right only because it’s what we’ve always known, or we hadn’t known better. So, the posthumans can manipulate its simulations programs (us) to know whatever they want as true reality. This could make all evidence for our reality being the original biological one simulated by the posthumans for insurance.
Quantum Monte Carlo effect
Students at the university of Oxford have done an experiment to try and create a computer simulation of the Quantum Monte Carlo effect or QMC  In short, the QMC is a phenomenon in physical systems that exhibit strong magnetic fields and very low temperatures, and manifests as an energy current that runs across the temperature gradient. They had to use random sampling to analyse many-body quantum problems where the equations involved cannot be solved directly. They discovered that the complexity of the simulation increases exponentially as more particles are analysed. So, the more information the computer had to analyse the more processing power it needs, this is quite self-explanatory for most computer programs, but this increases exponentially. So, every particle you add to analyse you must double the processing power. The researchers calculated that just storing information about a couple of hundred electrons would require a computer memory that would physically require more atoms than exist in the observable universe.
The QMC is a perfect example of a solid evidential proof that we are not living in a computer simulation and it cannot be ignored but that doesn’t mean we can’t refer to the author of the paper about the QMC, Zohar Ringel, “Who knows what the computing capabilities are of whatever simulates us?”. And I must link back to what I said about the posthumans controlling our reality and making their own laws of physics and computing for us to live with. This gives the philosophy I am applying to this argument an arrogant stance that it truly doesn’t matter what evidence is provided. So, it can be understandably ignored as useful and more of a trump card.
The probability of any race reaching a posthuman stage is extremely slim, the probability of a posthuman race running an ancestral based computer simulation is also extremely slim, if by some miracle these points are fulfilled then the probability of people with our kind if experiences that are living in a simulation is very likely. Whether a computer of a magnitude that could simulate a mind would be created is most likely possible, all of entirety around us can be manipulated to seem real, but just a program in its natural form. We know at least with our current understandings of physics that the entire observable universe down to its quantum level cannot be processed by any machine, we know this because of the QMC study and general nature of quantum entity’s. So, it comes down to whether us as a species overcome a very low probability of excellence then we must face a very high probability of gloominess.
External links and sources:
(picture) – https://faculty.washington.edu/smcohen/320/cave.htm
By Henry Mills
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