We Are (Most Likely) Living in a SciFi Simulation

“Have you ever had a dream, Neo, that you were so sure was real? What if you were unable to wake from that dream? How would you know the difference between the dream world and the real world?” – Morpheus in THE MATIRX


The question is not whether we’ll run simulations of life – we already do that. The question is how good will these simulations become. Will they become so detailed that they are indistinguishable from reality? The consensus among computer- and neuro-scientists suggests they someday will. And according to Nick Bostrom, philosopher and founding director of The Future of Humanity Institute, it means that we are not only likely to run simulations of this level, we are probably living in one right now!

His Simulation Argument, sometimes referred to as Simulism, states that at least one of the following propositions has to 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;

(3) we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation.

Let’s take these questions one by one: 

(1) Will humans develop sufficient technology to create simulations indistinguishable from reality before we go extinct? According to Moore’s Law, which has been accurate for the past five decades, computer chip capacities roughly double every two years. If this exponential growth continues it’s only a matter of time before we reach the necessary technology to achieve Simulism.

(2) If we have the necessary technology, will we use it? Maybe it will be considered immoral to do so. Maybe it will be against the law. But if human nature is any guide, somebody somewhere is going to try it. And once Pandora is out of the box it’s nearly impossible to put her back. Even just one simulation could spawn multiple new simulations as the fake humans develop the necessary technology.  

(3) If propositions (1) and (2) are false, then there will be an astronomically huge number of simulated minds like ours. In fact, there would be many more simulated minds than biological minds—more fake worlds than real ones. Therefore, it is more than likely that your brain is a character in someone else’s movie.

If you’re thinking about THE MATRIX, think again. While the world in this popular trilogy is simulated, the humans are still… well, human. Their minds are manipulated not created out of zeroes and ones. In TRON the world is made of software but the characters inside the world are real. At least the characters in this film know from the beginning they are in a simulated world. 

When I first read about Simulism, I actually thought about THE TRUMAN SHOW. If I were indeed part of an artificial world, how would I know? I wouldn’t. Truman essentially took the blue pill and was blissfully ignorant until things started going wrong. This brings me to another potential aspect of Simulism: what happens when there’s a software glitch? Maybe this explains all of the inexplicable things in the world – UFO sightings, religious miracles, Justin Bieber… Or maybe it’s just the sims operator screwing with us.

We could all be pawns in an INCEPTION-like game where Extractors can download our dreams and implant certain thoughts. Our eureka moments might not be inspired insights but rather cheats delivered to us by our programmer overlords. Or humanity (and the entire planet) might actually be a supercomputer designed by aliens to answer the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything.

Then there’s the 1983 movie BRAINSTORM in which a team of scientists invent a brain/computer interface that allows sensations to be recorded from one person’s brain and played back in another’s. The experiences would be real, they just wouldn’t be your own. Our sims programmer—probably an awkward teenager—may be uploading his own problems to see how we deal with them.

Would this be ethical? What about all the suffering in the world? Is it right to create a simulation in which people experience pain and grief? If you knew you were in a simulation, would it change how you approach life? Would you even want to know?

Would you take the red pill or the blue pill?