Is our Life Nothing More Than a Big Computer Simulation?

A few years ago, I was hosting a business dinner in New York, with half a dozen men and women after a day of intensive meetings. Perfect food, some great wine, and a great group of people from hard- and software companies, the majority from the USA, some from Europe.

Initially, the conversation focused on business, but as the evening got older, it turned to other topics. We discussed politics, history… and computing. These folks were all computer specialists and most with a degree in engineering. At a certain point, the discussion turned to the theory that we, as humans, do not exist, but instead, we are just avatars, simulations within a very sophisticated software, running on very advanced hardware. This theory is not new: Elon Musk is one of its proponents. It is based on the observation that computers are becoming more and more advanced and that the distinction between virtual reality (VR) and “real” reality seems to disappear. The metaverse seems to support this theory too. Sometime in the far future, somebody will be able to create a computer that doesn’t just simulate a single human brain (which according to some estimates may be possible in 50 years or so), but the brain of all humans. It is just a matter of scale; throw in some quantum computing, sufficient hardware, and real-time analytics with deep machine learning, and it should be possible to achieve.

Thus, at this very moment, we might be imagining to be physically alive; today and here on this planet, whereas, in reality, we are just characters in a very advanced computer game being played by an acne-faced teenager 200 years in the future. Everything that we experience: all pain and war and suffering and all love and rewards and happiness would then only be part of a simulation.

Little speaks against this theory from a technical standpoint. As long as technological progress continues to accelerate at the same pace it has for the last 150 years or so, this is easily imaginable. This is naturally also a weakness of the theory: life on Earth, as well as history, hardly ever were linear. We only experience a very small fragment of all of history, yet we consider our lifespan to be all-encompassing. For instance, about every 1000 years or so, a major volcanic eruption happens, which tends to dramatically alter the progress of humanity’s culture. Nevertheless one could argue that such catastrophes might delay the development of a super VR computer, but the delay doesn’t mean that it could never be created.

So why do I still think there is no value in the theory that we are all just part of a very advanced computer simulation? At the Free University of Amsterdam where I studied biology many years ago, one of the highlights of the first year was a course in Philosophy and Methodology of Natural Sciences. I have forgotten the professor’s name, but the man did a tremendous job at hammering home some basic scientific principles. I am not sure whether students still get such courses today, but this was really worthwhile stuff. The course also dwelled on the value of theories and hypotheses. What is a valuable theory? To get to the point: a theory only has value if it can be either proven or disproven. One can theorize about everything, put forward the wildest ideas, but if you cannot test a theory, it is worthless. So, the “simulation theory” MIGHT be true, there is NO way to prove or disprove it; it is a theory that isn’t falsifiable. By what criteria could anyone prove that we are, or are not part of a simulation? After all, at some time point, the simulation would be so perfect that it couldn’t be identified as a simulation anymore, it would be like real life. It is similar to stating that we are created by an invisible fairy living at the bottom of our garden – a theory that people may shrug at, or ridicule, but which would be very hard to prove or disprove. And, as my professor taught me thirty years ago, non-falsifiable theories have, from the scientific point of view, no value.

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Originally posted 2019-01-12 20:35:00.

4 thoughts on “Is our Life Nothing More Than a Big Computer Simulation?

  1. Yeah, I wrote about this recently too. We seem to agree about the fact that this theory is unfalsifiable. One of the points that I made was about how our simulations that we run on earth are defined by us, and because of that the “things” in the simulation can’t ever know that they are being simulated. How would ever even know that we weren’t real?

    • I left a comment on your blog; many thanks for your great article on this topic, about which will definitely hear more in the future.

    • So true! “I think therefore I am” Descartes’s cogito. Descartes looked for a foundation to build the knowledge, a fixed point from which knowledge can be erected. The only remaining fact is that we think and therefore must exist, in whatever shape. The rest is always uncertain.

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