There is a slightly unsettling article in the New York Times Science section this morning. It rests on an idea that seems, on its face, to be preposterous, but it is unsettling because it turns out to be so insidious.
Writer John Tierney talks to an Oxford philosopher named Nick Bostrom, who is modestly well know for advocating a The Doomsday Theory, an exercise in logic that, as he describes it "seeks to show that the risk that humankind will go extinct soon has been systematically underestimated."
But that's not what Tierney wants to talk about. Instead, he wants to talk about Bostrom's argument that there is a significant chance that we are all living inside a computer simulation run by remarkably advanced descendants of the real, non-simulated, human race. This is, of course, preposterous.
Unless it isn't.
Bostrum figures it this way. It seems very likely, based on our experience with increasing computing power, that sometime in the future – anywhere from a few decades to many millennia – humans will develop computers of sufficient power to realistically simulate the entirety of human history, complete with humans simulated in sufficient detail that they develop some level of consciousness. Whether this event is right around the corner or in the far future doesn't make much difference to the argument.
This being the case, there are only two basic reasons to assume that it is flatly impossible that we are living in some Matrix-like simulation. First, that no civilizations reach that level of technology (and we are clearly headed in that direction right now, so the implications of this argument are alarming), or, second, that civilizations that do reach this level of technology have no desire to run this sort of simulation. And clearly human beings do, even if no other creatures in the universe do – we do it all the time with our current computers: think Sims, Civilization IV, Caesar IV, and any similar simulation game. It seems unlikely that humans will lose their taste for watching such animated critters go about their business just as their ability to add detail and realism skyrockets. It's certainly possible that some highly advanced civilization might develop a moral or legal prohibition against such simulations, but it seems improbably that ALL such civilizations, and all individuals in such civilizations, would hold these beliefs and refrain from running any detailed simulation.
So, presuming those two conditions are false, then we have to assume that is possible we live in a simulation. If, indeed, processing power develops sufficiently, then it is likely that there would be many such simulations running, meaning the total number of conscious creatures living in computers greatly exceeds the number living in whatever constitutes reality. In that case, it would become ever more likely we are living in a simulation (Imagine, for example, that the hottest-selling computer game for Christmas in the year 2234 is SimEarth, or even SimCosmos. You begin to see the potential dimensions of this).
Bostrom puts the chances that we are living in some kind of simulation at about 20 percent, though if you read his original (and rather dense) paper on this, he appears to be implying a much higher chance.
So what if it's true? Well, in practical terms not much. Whether we live in a simulation or not, we still have problems and challenges we need to meet to live day to day. But there are some metaphysical and quasi-theological implications. If we are in simulation, then there is some kind of creator who can intervene or examine our actions. It is, therefore, possible that our actions are being judged and we could be punished or rewarded accordingly.
And it sure as hell explains a lot, doesn't it? The Big Bang? What a freaky idea, unless it is either a fiction created by the person running the simulation or some artifact of the beginning of the simulation itself. Suffering? Evil? War? Disaster? All part of game – a flawless life in a perfectly smooth cosmos would probably make lousy entertainment, or would be useless as some kind of research project.
But as I say, it's completely preposterous.