ntil I talked
to Nick Bostrom, a philosopher at
Oxford University, it never occurred to me that our universe
might be somebody else’s hobby. I hadn’t imagined that the
omniscient, omnipotent creator of the heavens and earth could be
an advanced version of a guy who spends his weekends building
model railroads or overseeing video-game worlds like the Sims.
But now it
seems quite possible. In fact, if you accept a pretty reasonable
assumption of Dr. Bostrom’s, it is almost a mathematical
certainty that we are living in someone else’s computer
would be similar to the one in “The Matrix,” in which most
humans don’t realize that their lives and their world are just
illusions created in their brains while their bodies are
suspended in vats of liquid. But in Dr. Bostrom’s notion of
reality, you wouldn’t even have a body made of flesh. Your brain
would exist only as a network of computer circuits.
as in “The Matrix,” unplug your brain and escape from your vat
to see the physical world. You couldn’t see through the illusion
except by using the sort of logic employed by Dr. Bostrom, the
director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford.
assumes that technological advances could produce a computer
with more processing power than all the brains in the world, and
that advanced humans, or “posthumans,” could run “ancestor
simulations” of their evolutionary history by creating virtual
worlds inhabited by virtual people with fully developed virtual
experts have projected, based on trends in processing power,
that we will have such a computer by the middle of this century,
but it doesn’t matter for Dr. Bostrom’s argument whether it
takes 50 years or 5 million years. If civilization survived long
enough to reach that stage, and if the posthumans were to run
lots of simulations for research purposes or entertainment, then
the number of virtual ancestors they created would be vastly
greater than the number of real ancestors.
There would be
no way for any of these ancestors to know for sure whether they
were virtual or real, because the sights and feelings they’d
experience would be indistinguishable. But since there would be
so many more virtual ancestors, any individual could figure that
the odds made it nearly certain that he or she was living in a
The math and
the logic are inexorable once you assume that lots of
simulations are being run. But there are a couple of alternative
hypotheses, as Dr. Bostrom points out. One is that civilization
never attains the technology to run simulations (perhaps because
it self-destructs before reaching that stage). The other
hypothesis is that posthumans decide not to run the simulations.
“This kind of
posthuman might have other ways of having fun, like stimulating
their pleasure centers directly,” Dr. Bostrom says. “Maybe they
wouldn’t need to do simulations for scientific reasons because
they’d have better methodologies for understanding their past.
It’s quite possible they would have moral prohibitions against
simulating people, although the fact that something is immoral
doesn’t mean it won’t happen.”
doesn’t pretend to know which of these hypotheses is more
likely, but he thinks none of them can be ruled out. “My gut
feeling, and it’s nothing more than that,” he says, “is that
there’s a 20 percent chance we’re living in a computer
My gut feeling
is that the odds are better than 20 percent, maybe better than
even. I think it’s highly likely that civilization could endure
to produce those supercomputers. And if owners of the computers
were anything like the millions of people immersed in virtual
worlds like Second Life, SimCity and World of Warcraft, they’d
be running simulations just to get a chance to control history —
or maybe give themselves virtual roles as Cleopatra or Napoleon.
to think of the world being run by a futuristic computer geek,
although we might at last dispose of that of classic theological
question: How could God allow so much evil in the world? For the
same reason there are plagues and earthquakes and battles in
games like World of Warcraft. Peace is boring, Dude.
practical question is how to behave in a computer simulation.
Your first impulse might be to say nothing matters anymore
because nothing’s real. But just because your neural circuits
are made of silicon (or whatever posthumans would use in their
computers) instead of carbon doesn’t mean your feelings are any
David J. Chalmers, a philosopher at the Australian National
University, says Dr. Bostrom’s simulation hypothesis isn’t a
cause for skepticism, but simply a different metaphysical
explanation of our world. Whatever you’re touching now — a sheet
of paper, a keyboard, a coffee mug — is real to you even if it’s
created on a computer circuit rather than fashioned out of wood,
plastic or clay.
You still have
the desire to live as long as you can in this virtual world —
and in any simulated afterlife that the designer of this world
might bestow on you. Maybe that means following traditional
moral principles, if you think the posthuman designer shares
those morals and would reward you for being a good person.
Or maybe, as
Robin Hanson, an economist at George Mason University, you
should try to be as interesting as possible, on the theory that
the designer is more likely to keep you around for the next
simulation. (For more on survival strategies in a computer
simulation, go to
Of course, it’s
tough to guess what the designer would be like. He or she might
have a body made of flesh or plastic, but the designer might
also be a virtual being living inside the computer of a still
more advanced form of intelligence. There could be layer upon
layer of simulations until you finally reached the architect of
the first simulation — the Prime Designer, let’s call him or her
maybe the Prime Designer wouldn’t allow any of his or her
creations to start simulating their own worlds. Once they got
smart enough to do so, they’d presumably realize, by Dr.
Bostrom’s logic, that they themselves were probably simulations.
Would that ruin the fun for the Prime Designer?
stop once the simulated inhabitants understand what’s going on,
then I really shouldn’t be spreading Dr. Bostrom’s ideas. But if
you’re still around to read this, I guess the Prime Designer is
reasonably tolerant, or maybe curious to see how we react once
we start figuring out the situation.
possible that there would be logistical problems in creating
layer upon layer of simulations. There might not be enough
computing power to continue the simulation if billions of
inhabitants of a virtual world started creating their own
virtual worlds with billions of inhabitants apiece.
If that’s true,
it’s bad news for the futurists who think we’ll have a computer
this century with the power to simulate all the inhabitants on
earth. We’d start our simulation, expecting to observe a new
virtual world, but instead our own world might end — not with a
bang, not with a whimper, but with a message on the Prime
It might be
something clunky like “Insufficient Memory to Continue
Simulation.” But I like to think it would be simple and
familiar: “Game Over.”
Endnote by Wes Penre, Illuminati News:
lecture, where he explains why he believes that the
discovery of aliens would be a disaster for the future of
humanity and lead to the end of civilization as we know it.
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