Are we Sims or like Neo in the Matrix?

Bookmark and Share

The concept of a simulation has been around for a long time. Using computers, we have been able to predict how certain series of events may play out, using simulations, which has the benefit of being pretty much risk free in the real world, at worst, they waste a bit of power.

But with the international success of the movie The Matrix, and of course the amazing ‘Ready  Player One’ a new idea, that we ourselves could be living inside a computer simulation, has been thrust forward, with some very high profile exponents – according to Elon Musk

“The strongest argument for us probably being in a simulation I think is the following,” Musk said. “40 years ago we had Pong. Two rectangles and a dot. That’s where we were.”

“Now 40 years later we have photorealistic, 3D simulations with millions of people playing simultaneously and it’s getting better every year. And soon we’ll have virtual reality, we’ll have augmented reality.”

“If you assume any rate of improvement at all, then the games will become indistinguishable from reality, just indistinguishable.”

When you consider the developments in VR and AR, is it impossible to believe that one day both VR and AR – combined with haptics – will become indistinguishable from reality? If so, then statistically it is likely that this has in fact already happened, and we are indeed living within it.

Whether Musk is right or not, we would probably never know, what is more interesting, we believe, is what sort of simulation is the most likely?

There are a two main different prospects, both of which have been championed by different thinkers. The two kinds of simulation we will be talking about are the kind proposed in Nick Bostrom’s now famous Simulation Argument (2003), which is available online, and the Neural Simulations proposed by Barry Dainton in his piece “On Singularities and Simulations.”(2012)

Bostrom proposes something he calls an “ancestor simulation” which involves our descendants using their super powerful computers to simulate consciousness within a machine. From there, they would simulate humanity’s history, complete with their ancestors, all of who would be fully conscious beings, but would exist in a computer like in The Sims video game, rather than a brain.

The other kind of simulation is more like what we see in the movie The Matrix, where we are plugged into something that makes us think we are living a certain life, with certain memories. Our own consciousness would be saved on a back-up, ready to be re-installed at a moment’s notice. Put simply, it is a controlled hallucination, where we think we are someone else, and have all their memories instead of our own.

Both of these ideas have their positives and negatives. To create an ancestor simulation requires that we be able to create consciousness in a machine. Philosophy of the mind has a huge body of literature, but what is clear is that people disagree as to whether consciousness can exist outside a human brain or not. A neural simulation doesn’t have this problem. But, it is a lot harder to successfully manipulate consciousness to the sufficient degree that one might think. But if Musk is right, then despite it being featured in a blockbuster movie, we think it is the most likely.

For more information about this, and in order to make up your own mind about which option is more likely, we thoroughly recommend you seek out the work of the two philosophers we have discussed.

The Simulation Hypothesis by Nick Bostrom is available free online, and Barry Dainton’s On Singularities and Simulations was published in the Journal of Consciousness Studies in 2012.

Bostrom, N, Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?, Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 53, NO. 211, pp. 243 – 255, 2003
Dainton, B, On Singularities and Simulations, Journal of Consciousness Studies, 2012