Ah, the age-old question: “Do we live in a simulation?” Your mind might instantly go to Neo, Agent Smith, and those incredible slow-motion kicks in The Matrix. But for me? I’m transported to a movie that came out nearly three decades before. Yup, we’re traveling back to 1973 to experience a German cinematic gem—hold on—Welt am Draht, or as it’s known in English, World on a Wire, masterfully directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder. This film has everything—virtual worlds, the blending of multiple layers of simulated realities, and the jaw-dropping shock people go through when they discover they’re living an illusion. And here’s the twist: the so-called real world isn’t exactly what it seems either. It’s yet another layer of virtual trickery. This leads us to a question that has tantalized philosophers and scientists for years: Do we live in a simulation? In today’s story, we explore this topic, discover the perspectives from renowned experts, along with my two cents. So grab your red pill and your sense of wonder—because we’re about to challenge everything you thought you knew.
Do we live in a simulation?
With the advancement of computers in science, the emergence of quantum computing, and the growth of machine learning, have you ever paused to consider if our entire existence is just an elaborate computer simulation?
I’m not talking about donning a VR headset for a brief escape into a digital paradise. I mean a scenario where even our thoughts and consciousness are part of the programming. This idea has captivated both philosophers and tech enthusiasts, prompting debates about the nature of reality itself.
The philosopher who has injected modern complexity into this age-old question is Nick Bostrom. And rest assured, he’s not a fringe theorist but a well-regarded academic who has delved into a range of philosophical issues, from existential risks to the ethics of human enhancement and the dangers of artificial superintelligence.
Bostrom’s simulation argument is based on a trilemma. One of these three scenarios must be true:
- Extinction: Most civilizations with our level of technology either destroy themselves or go extinct before reaching a post-human stage. In other words, it’s game over before leveling up.
- Lack of Interest: If some civilizations do reach post-human capabilities, they may have ethical or other reasons for not running ancestor simulations—essentially recreations of past life scenarios.
- Simulation Reality: If post-human civilizations are interested in running ancestor simulations, then we are almost certainly living in one right now. After all, the number of simulated realities would vastly outnumber the one base reality.
If you can’t digest the first two scenarios, prepare to wrap your mind around the third. In this line of thinking, we’re probably not the main act but just the background footnotes in someone else’s grand narrative. Our lives, our world, our consciousness, and even the whole dang universe could just be a super-detailed simulation run by post-human geeks with unimaginable computational power.
But wait, there’s more. If we are in a simulation, we might in fact experience a recursive loop of simulated realities—like a cosmic Matryoshka doll of virtual worlds.
Now, if you think all of this is far-fetched, you’re in good company. But when experts are asked, “Do we live in a simulation?”, responses range from an emphatic no to an unequivocal yes.
From celebrated physicists to influential philosophers, let’s unpack together some of these perspectives.
For more on the simulation hypothesis, check out Are You Living in a Computer Simulation? by Nick Bostrom or, for an easier experience, this episode of one of my favorite podcasts, Daniel and Jorge Explore the Universe.
Do We Live in a Simulation? 12 Experts weigh in
So, what was my move? I searched the internet for insights on this mind-bending topic from experts I personally dig. You know, the people whose books grace my nightstand and whose podcasts fill my ears during the commute. Those whom I admire or who made a cameo on The Big Bang Theory (wink, wink, Neil!).
Alright, enough with the small talk. Let’s kick things off with the skeptics and then make our way over to the folks who are pretty sold on this whole simulation thing. Ready, set, go!
Carlo Rovelli, the Italian theoretical physicist of the moment, says nah, we do not live in a simulation. Rovelli is well known for his work on quantum gravity, and when it comes to the simulation hypothesis, he’s having none of it. Rovelli argues it’s all “nonsense” and without any scientific base.
Andrew Pontzen, a cosmologist from University College London, is also not buying it. While he admits Nick Bostrom’s logic is neat, he challenges the idea that future tech geeks would bother simulating us at all. Plus, to do a perfect simulation, you’d need a computer the size of the universe itself.
Sean M. Carroll, a theoretical physicist, philosopher, and one of my favorite podcasters, challenges the hypothesis on its core assumptions, like the feasibility of creating simulations so advanced and the idea that we’re typical observers. He finds these assumptions to be unjustified.
Lord Martin Rees is in the maybe camp. This highly decorated astrophysicist thinks supercomputers could simulate entire universes, so he’s open to the idea that we could be virtual beings in a faux reality.
David Kipping, astronomer at Columbia University, gives us a coin-flip chance of living in a simulation. He’s working those Bayesian reasoning muscles to put it at 50-50. But he adds that if we ever manage to create our own simulation, then odds are we’re in one too.
Brian Cox, the BBC science star, vibes with the simulation hypothesis, but won’t commit. He thinks if our tech ever levels up enough, creating a perfect simulation is doable, which makes the scenario plausible.
Neil deGrasse Tyson, a scientist who needs no introduction, is wrestling with this one. Initially, he was leaning toward yes, but some wise words from his Princeton buddy J. Richard Gott made him second-guess the whole thing.
Max Tegmark from MIT comes in with a solid maybe, backed by a 17% chance estimate. He’s not all-in, but he’s not ruling it out either.
David Chalmers, a NYU philosopher who’s always messing with our heads about what’s real and what’s not, puts the odds at 42%. He believes the question may be forever unanswerable and suggests we might only find out if we discover bugs or interactive features in our reality. Chalmers’s skeptical but can’t dismiss the idea entirely.
Silas Beane, physicist at the University of Washington, believes that we do live in a simulation, arguing that it’s statistically more likely. He even suggests we might see glitches in the laws of physics if we look hard enough.
Roman Yampolskiy, computer scientist from the University of Louisville, is also backing Team Sim. He even argues that if we apply cybersecurity and AI safety methodologies, we might discover ways to bust out of the never-ending simulated trap.
Rizwan Virk, well-known computer scientist and entrepreneur, wrote an entire book about how we are probably living in a simulation. He finds the simulation hypothesis to be a better explainer for several puzzling phenomena in physics. Not only does he expand on Nick Bostrom’s argument, but he also explores how close current technology is to reaching what he calls the Simulation Point, where creating a Matrix-like reality becomes possible.
Do We Live in a Simulation? My 10% Bet on Our Reality
In a nutshell: while I believe the simulation hypothesis to be improbable, the opposing viewpoints haven’t fully convinced me either. So, I am willing to keep an open mind and place a tentative 10% bet that we might be characters in some cosmic video game.
That said, let’s dive into some of the most common counterarguments that skeptics bring up, and why I find them less than entirely persuasive.
The Why-Bother Argument
For instance, a frequent question aimed at undermining the simulation hypothesis is, “Why would an advanced civilization want to simulate us?” In my view, this argument fails to account for the myriad of motives a post-human or super-advanced civilization might have. With an infinite landscape of time and space, even only one such civilization with the capability and intent could enact the simulation hypothesis. The reasons for doing so? Could be anything from cosmic social experiments to high-stakes scientific research, or heck, even for kicks and giggles. So, the whole why-bother argument? Pretty weak in my opinion.
The Consciousness Impossibility
A typical criticism is the paradox of simulating human consciousness when we don’t fully understand what consciousness is. This argument, while highlighting our current limitations in understanding, doesn’t necessarily apply to a civilization vastly more advanced than ours. Such a civilization might have cracked the code of consciousness or simulated a reality complex enough for consciousness to emerge. To me, this argument lacks bite.
The Computational Dilemma
Another point of contention frequently aired is the presumed computational infeasibility of running a simulation as vast as our universe. But here’s the snag: this line of thinking assumes that whoever—or whatever—is pulling our cosmic strings is confined by the same laws of physics we are. Consider for a moment that our universe could merely be a tiny component, like an atom, in an exponentially larger cosmic arrangement. Under such a premise, the notion of insurmountable computational barriers begins to waver, wouldn’t you agree?
So, where does this leave us?
Is The grand simulator God?
Here’s the conundrum: while various counterpoints against the simulation hypothesis fall short for me, one specific issue truly gives me pause—its unnerving alignment with religious and mystical concepts.
I bristle at how the hypothesis seems to sidle up to metaphysical and otherworldly explanations, especially when it invokes an infinite regression of simulations within simulations.
It’s the Turtles All the Way Down predicament. You catch my drift.
If we’re stuck in this never-ending cascade of simulated realities, then it stands to reason that there has to be a Level One Simulator somewhere. And that, my friends, throws us back into a religious head-scratcher that’s stumped great minds for centuries: Who, or what, is the Grand Simulator pulling all the strings in this infinite loop?
A Final Personal Touch
So, after wandering through these philosophical quandaries, am I still holding onto my tentative 10% bet? The short answer is yes.
If anything, grappling with these complexities has reinforced my decision to keep an open mind. No single argument has tipped the scales in favor of or against the simulation hypothesis.
My position stands, but who knows? Tomorrow, a groundbreaking discovery or a profound philosophical revelation could either cast shadows over or shine a light on the simulation hypothesis. Until then, my 10% bet remains untouched.
And so, there you have it. My chips are on the table. What about you? What’s your wager?
If you enjoyed this dive into the question “Do we live in a simulation?”, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Agree, disagree, or have a totally wild theory of your own? Let’s connect! Subscribe to my LinkedIn newsletter and let’s keep the conversation rolling.