Are We Living in a Simulation?

Press Start for “Are We Living in a Simulation?” by 8-Bit Philosophy, where classic video games introduce famous thinkers, problems, concepts, and more. In this episode, we reflect on the question of SIMULATIONS – specifically whether we might be living within one at this very moment.

Written by: Matt Reichle
Directed by: Alec Opperman
Narrator: Nathan Lowe
Edited by: Mark Potts
Animations by: Dean Bottino
Motion Graphics by: Drew Levin
Assistant Editor: Andrew Nishimura
Produced by: Jacob Salamon

Are We Living in a Simulation?

Suppose, dear viewer, that everything you own: your NES collection, your youth sports participation trophies and all of your wonderful memories are merely fabrications — 1s and 0s of binary code in an advanced computer simulation. It may sound like science fiction, but is it actually possible? According to the inventor and CEO Elon Musk, it’s not only possible, it’s almost certain. Bollocks, you say? Perhaps. Although Musk has made this simulation theory mainstream, it was proposed over 15 years ago by Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom in his essay, aptly titled: “Are you living in a computer simulation?” Bostrom argues that at least one of the three following statements is true: 1. Humans will go extinct before they’re able to make simulations that are indistinguishable from reality. 2. Future humans that are advanced enough to make super simulations will just choose not to create them. 3. We are living in a computer simulation.

According to Bostrom, if future humans don’t go extinct, and don’t opt out of super simulations, than you, dear viewer, are almost certainly living in a computer simulation. Bostrom’s thesis rests on the concept of ancestor simulations – the idea that humans will one day be able to recreate their own history in perfect detail. Perhaps future humans would want pop on a VR headset and see what London was like in the 21st or 17th century, or take a trip to 12th century Mongolia and meet Genghis Khan himself. They would be so detailed that the simulated humans would, for all purposes, think that their lives were real. With enough computing power, simulated people may eventually run their own simulations, and their simulations may run their own simulations — like Russian nesting dolls.

When Elon Musk says that there is a billions in one chance that we are not living in a computer simulation he has math on his side. Let’s say that your next-door neighbor will create a simulation of you next Tuesday. If they are replaying last week in order to better figure out a way to ask you out, it would mean that there is a 50/50 shot that you are a simulated being created for your neighbor’s enjoyment. If this idea is expanded to the totality of humanity things get a little scarier. It only takes one future person to create one replica of our reality, let’s call it the “Party Like It’s 2017.exe,” to make the odds that you are living in that simulation 1 in 2. If, in the future, someone creates 3 different versions of “Party Like It’s 2017”, then our odds of living in that simulation is 3 in 4 – 75%.

Minecraft has sold over 100 million copies in our own world. If in the future “Party Like It’s 2017” were as popular as this, your chances of living in a simulation today would be 100 million to 1, a 99.999% chance of living in a fictitious reality. Given enough time: say thousands of years, billions of people could own 2017 simulations and it would mean that you would have a billions in one chance of living in base reality: or the really real world. Odds are you exist in one of the billions of 2017 simulations. Musk believes that with any real amount of technical progress, widespread simulations like this are inevitable. For Bostrom, it isn’t simulation or bust though— Bostrom believes people may very well be able to create ancestor simulations and choose not to. If you’re hoping you are real, this possibility is your only saving grace. But does it really matter? Will the fact that our universe is simulated make it any more or less meaningful? What do you think dear viewer, would the truth of an other-worldly creator bring you solace, or would we be obliged to make like Neo, and bring it all crashing down?

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