NOVEMBER 14, 2023
Are we Living in a Simulation?
Have you ever experienced a run so perfect that you feel separate from your body and maybe even your conscious mind? In those moments of perfect clarity and transcendence, do you sense that the world around you may be contrived, rather than complete and real?
Well, you’re not alone…
Ever since the allegory of the cave, philosophers and scientists have wrestled with the idea of layered realities.
Described by Plato as a dialogue between Socrates and Plato’s brother Glaucon, the cave allegory imagines a group of prisoners chained together inside an underground cave.
Behind the prisoners there is a fire, and between the prisoners and the fire are moving puppets and real objects on a raised walkway with a low wall.
The prisoners are unable to see anything behind them, as they have been chained and stuck looking at the cave wall, their whole lives.
As they look at the wall, they believe the shadows cast by the moving figures are the real and only things.
Imagining what would happen if one one of the prisoners were forced to leave, the narrative assumes the freed prisoner would return and try to liberate their fellow prisoners.
However, in its conclusion, Socrates and Glaucon agree that the other prisoners would likely kill those who try to free them, as they would not want to leave the safety and comfort of their known world.
In modern times, popular culture has toyed with the idea we live in a simulation.
The Truman Show (1998) fostered its own psychological condition, Truman Syndrome, attributed to those sharing the “delusion” that they were being watched and manipulated like Jim Carrey's character.
But in terms of mind-bending films, it’s The Matrix that most closely resembles Simulation Theory.
Best articulated by the Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom in his paper “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?” (2003), he explains that future generations are likely to possess mega-computers that can run numerous and detailed simulations of their forebears, or “ancestor simulations”.
And according to Bostrom, the chances are, we’re products of one of those simulations.
“The vast majority of minds like ours do not belong to the original race but rather to people simulated by the advanced descendants of an original race.
“It is then possible to argue that, if this were the case, we would be rational to think that we are likely among the simulated minds, rather than among the original biological ones.”
If we assume that there are numerous simulations, it’s incredibly unlikely that we don’t exist in one of them. According to Elon Musk, the odds that we’re not living in a simulation are “one in billions”.
It gets worse…
NYU philosophy professor David Chalmers described the higher being responsible for this potential simulation as a “programmer in the next universe up,” perhaps one we mortals might consider a god of some sort, but warns us against assuming they are enlightened or benevolent.
“They may just be a teenager,” Chalmers said, “hacking on a computer and running five universes in the background… But it might be someone who is nonetheless omniscient, all-knowing and all-powerful about our world.”
As a runner, what could be a worse fate than believing your entire existence is being controlled by a sedentary teenager in a squalid room in 4023?
According to Preston Greene, a philosophy professor at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, by even reading this, you’re risking all of our lives.
Just as scientists terminate simulations (of weather, earthquakes) when they no longer provide useful data, so too can our hypothetical overlords, without warning.
So by becoming aware that we’re living in a simulation, we risk being deleted:
“If our physicists use experiments to prove we live in a simulation, and they tell everyone about this and that has a large effect on how our civilization behaves,” he explained, “then our simulation would no longer be useful for answering questions about the basement [foundational] level of reality, which contains the computers doing the simulations.”
Fear not though, as Greene assures us with that with the mere flick of a switch “it will be a quick and painless death.”
However, the radical arguments against Simulation Theory reveal the anthropocentric vanity of those arguing we live in one.
In 2016, during the 17th Isaac Asimov Panel Debate in New York, Harvard University physicist Lisa Randall emerged as the prominent doubter of the theory.
Flipping the probability argument on its head, she questioned why those possessing the ability to run such complex simulations would want to simulate… us.
“The argument says you’d have lots of things that want to simulate us. I actually have a problem with that. We mostly are interested in ourselves. Why simulate us? I mean, there’s so many things to be simulating… I don’t know why this higher species would want to bother with us.”
It’s widely thought the argument was finally put to rest in 2017 by physicists Zohar Ringel and Dmitry Kovrizhi.
They proved that a classical computing technique called “quantum Monte Carlo,” used to simulate quantum particles, was insufficient to simulate a quantum computer itself, the breakthrough needed to overcome the need to physically build one.
And if it’s impossible to simulate a quantum computer, you can forget about trying to simulate the Clapham Common Parkrun, let alone the whole universe.
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 universe.
Unfortunately, whilst Kovrizhi dismissed Simulation Theory as “not even a scientific question”, Ringel left the door unnervingly ajar in an interview with Popular Mechanics:
“Who knows what the computing capabilities are, of whatever simulates us.”
Echoing the sentiment of the original proponents of the theory, Ringel suggested that an advanced species could possess a system that makes even the world’s fastest supercomputers seem impotent.
Maybe they’ve perfected quantum computing.
Or maybe it’s something entirely different which our limited minds can’t even conceive.
But I hope for all our sake you don’t believe that, because if you do, we may all be switched off by the time you've finish reading this.