I read this strange article from the New York Times today entitled "Our Lives, Controlled From Some Guy's Couch". The author, John Tierney, discusses how Dr. Nick Bostrom, the head of Oxford University's Future of Humanity Institute, convinced him that it is quite likely that right now we/you exist only in a supercomputer simulation created by our future descendants -- basically a more sophisticated version of modern day computer games such as the Sims or Second Life.
This bizarre hypothesis is, of course, a new take on the age-old solipsistic supposition explored, for example, by Descartes in his Meditations of First Philosophy that the physical universe as you know it may be nothing more than a dream or an illusion that does not exist outside of your own mind. Several religions, such as Buddhism and Gnosticism, also assert that our world is an illusion which adherents must wake up and attempt to see through.
The logic behind this new hypothesis goes something like this:
- One must first determine the likelihood that our descendants will someday create supercomputers powerful and sophisticated enough to run a simulation containing all the data present in our Universe. Granted thats an enormous amount of data (potentially infinite), but Bostrom points out that one must either accept that this will one day happen or one must believe that the human race will die out before reaching that point.
- One must then determine whether or not our descendants would actually run such a simulation. Bostrom notes that there may be moral or ethical concerns that would give our descendants pause. Would it not be unethical to "play god" with sapien creatures in a simulation: subjecting them to natural disasters, plagues, wars, genocide, reality television -- all the tragedies that comprise the human experience as we know it? Sure, present day gamers might amuse themselves by unleashing a tsunami on their SimCity but the characters in those games can't think or feel. (or can they?)
- If one accepts that our descendants will one day possess the ability to run such simulations and that they will do so then, given the degree to which we today use simulations for scientific research, statistical purposes, and for plain old entertainment, it stands to reason that the number of "simulated ancestors" populating these simulated universes would come to greatly outnumber the "actual ancestors" that once lived. In this case, chances are that you are a simulated ancestor rather than the genuine article.
It's a pretty idiosyncratic line of reasoning (and it's hard to fathom that our imponderably vast universe with all the diversity of creation and all its subatomic complexities could be contained in some supercomputer), but I guess I can put it this way: if our descendants will one day have the power to create a simulated universe just as vast and complex as our own then how do we know that we are not living in this simulated universe? Bostrom himself states in the article that his gut feeling is that the odds we are characters in SimUniverse are maybe about 20%.
In its "today's blogs" section for Tuesday, August 14, 2007, Slate.com outlines some (other) bloggers reactions to this out-there article. Tierney also futher explores the implications of this hypothesis in his blog. He posits the question "if this is all true how does this change how we should live our lives?" The obvious answer is "not much": whether the physical world exists outside the hard drive of some supercomputer or not the consequences of our own actions are really the same (i.e. even if the Universe is an illusion it still seems real to us). But economist Robin Hanson from George Mason University suggests that if we are living in one huge video game then you might want to try and make your life and yourself as interesting as possible so the big guy keeps you around. The curmudgeon in me can't help but remark "Wow, you might think that the academic who originally came up with this 'life is but a video game' idea was wasting his time, but how about the academics that take this as a starting point and spend their time expanding on the implications?"
I perused a few of the comments to the post on Tierney's blog, and I think one of the most persuasive arguments against all this nonsense was posted in a comment by one Eric Heath. He argues that it is egocentric vanity to imagine that the universe is a simulation much like the video games we play today, that it is contained in a supercomputer much like the machines we use in our homes and offices, and that the demiurge is basically some nerd in the future who created our universe to kill time. This is worse than our ancestors who were conceited enough to believe that God created them in his own image. Well, I take that back, perhaps it's not so much due to vanity as tunnel vision: we assume that those things which are a mystery to us must be akin to the things we are familiar with. But isn't it more like that the Creator or the Supreme Being is so superior as to be beyond that which we can imagine or comprehend?