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The Simulation Hypothesis

In 2003, philosopher Nick Bostrom published a paper in the Philosophical Quarterly titled “Are you living in a simulation?” As you can imagine, it turned some heads. But what does Bostrom‘s paper actually say? The theory lays out three scenarios. Bostrom argues at least one must be true:

  1. The human species will go extinct before being able to create and run simulations of reality. 

  2. The human species may develop the capability to create and run computer simulations, but are extremely unlikely to run simulations of their own history. 

  3. The human species has the ability and desire to create and run numerous simulations. 

As you work yourself down the list, you may find yourself thinking that the last option is pretty obtainable. Just think about the advancements made in computer games over the last 20 years. Imagine what we can do in 500 years.


Let’s talk through the three scenarios: If the first scenario is true, then all of this is for nothing because we get wiped out by an asteroid or global warming. Even if we do survive, perhaps our technological capabilities hit a ceiling. Or - as the second scenario suggests - we can create realistic simulations but we don’t feel moved to run one of our past.  However, if the third scenario is true, Bostrom argues that it’s likely we are living in one of those simulations. Supporters of this theory use quantum physics to back up their assertions. For example, quantum indeterminacy is the theory that a particle exists in one of multiple states but you don’t know which one until it is observed. Schrödinger’s cat is often used as an example of quantum indeterminacy: A cat is placed in a box with radioactive material. Before you open the box, there’s a 50/50 chance the cat is dead or alive - you don’t know which one because you haven’t seen it yet, but it exists in both states until you open the box. Supporters of Bostrom’s theory argue that the same principle applies to computer programming. It would take an unnecessary amount of energy to render every pixel of data in a video game in real time, so they only render the parts you (the player) can see. There would be no need to render the cat’s ‘state’ until someone looked at it.  But what if the third scenario is true and we just haven’t created the simulations yet? Or are we living in another simulation’s simulation? Or are we a speck of dust floating past Horton’s ear? Something to think about. Happy Sunday. 


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The Simulation Hypothesis: are we living in a computer simulation? 

Image by Josh Riemer

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