Our Lives In The Matrix?


Do you recall watching The Matrix (1999) and wondering if the premise that we are living in a computer simulation could be true? It was certainly intriguing, wasn’t it?

A few weeks back, I purchased “Philosophy & The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy“. It contains a number of articles by various lecturers and professors of philosophy on themes inspired by Douglas Adams’ wonderful book H2G2 (A Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy).

One of the articles is by Barry Dainton, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Liverpool in which he reflects on the possibility that we are indeed living in a simulated world. Here is a passage I thought was worth sharing:

“If the software problem [simulating a human brain] can be solved, then predicted future hardware developments will make possible all manner of large-scale simulations of human minds. If we converted the mass of an Earth-sized planet into a single computer, it would be capable of between 1032 and 1045  operations per second. This would be enough to simulate all the mental activity – reproduce all the experiences – of the 100 billion humans who have ever lived in a little under two minutes. A computer with the mass of a larger planet could do the job in a fraction of a second, using only a small proportion of its computational resources.

“Evidently, if future generations of humankind have access to computers with anything approaching this sort of power, then provided that the software problem has been solved, they could easily run very large numbers of simulations, each of which includes vast numbers of simulated lives. Indeed, it could very easily be that the total number of simulated human lives is vastly greater than the number of non-simulated human lives. For this to be the case, all we need suppose is that our descendants have the will, as well as the means, to create simulations in the required quantities. If we suppose they do, then we are faced with an awkward conclusion: if simulated lives greatly outnumber non-simulated lives, isn’t it far more likely than not, that our own lives are simulated too?

“Let’s go through this more carefully. As Nick Bostrom represents our predicament, we have no option but to accept that at least one of the following propositions is true:

“1. The human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a technologically advanced stage, i.e. a stage at which it can simulate large numbers of human-type lives.

“2. Any technologically advanced civilisation is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their own history (or variations thereof).

“3. We are almost certainly living in a computer simulation.

“Since the possibility that humankind will go extinct in the not too distant future certainly cannot be ruled out, (1) is a definite possibility. But let’s suppose our species does avoid extinction, and goes on to develop technology which makes it possible to simulate very large numbers of human lives. If you think that our descendants won’t use this technology – i.e. if you accept (2) above – then there’s nothing to worry about. But if you think (2) is unlikely to be true, there’s a lot to worry about: if simulated lives greatly outnumber real lives, it is far more likely than not that our own lives are simulated. Alas, if our descendants are anything remotely like us, it is very unlikely that they will be able to resist running large numbers of relevant simulations. Just think of how historians, political theorists, economists, government agencies and military planners would be able to benefit from running variants of our history to see how adopting certain policies would have played out. And that’s before we get to religious cults, utopian (or dystopian) political movements, and the future equivalents of our Russian oligarchs – why settle for a sports team when you can have a whole world to play with?”

Spooky, eh?

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