The Simulation Hypothesis: an economical twist (part 1 of 2)

Are we living in the Matrix?


Are we living in the Matrix? This question seems futuristic, a theme from a science fiction movie. (Which of course it is.)  But the best science fiction is philosophy in fancy dress, and philosophers have been asking the question since at least the ancient Greeks.

The question generated considerable interest in June this year when Elon Musk said the chance that we live in a “base reality” was “one in billions”. But as long ago as 380 BC, when the Greek philosopher Plato wrote “The Republic”, he included the Allegory of the Cave, which argued that men are like prisoners chained to a wall in a dark cave. Their only impression of reality is the shadows cast on a wall in front of them by a fire behind them which they cannot see. If they could see reality in all its true glory it would blind them.


In 2003, the question was given the formal structure of a trilemma (a difficult choice between three options) by the Oxford University philosopher Nick Bostrom. He observed that we use our technology to simulate worlds inhabited by creatures which are as realistic as we can make them, and that some of the most compelling of these worlds contain people who could be our ancestors. There are many reasons to create these “ancestor simulations”, and a civilisation which could create them at all would create many of them. He concluded that one of these three statements must be true:

  1. All civilisations are destroyed (or self-destruct) before their technology reaches the stage where it would allow them to create ancestor simulations.
  2. Numerous civilisations have reached that stage of technology but they all refrain from doing so, perhaps for moral or aesthetic reasons.
  3. We live in a simulation. (1)

People often that assume that Bostrom argues that we are living in a simulation, but in fact he thinks the self-destruction scenario is also a contender.

Answering Enrico


The simulation scenario and the inevitable demise scenario also both offer plausible answers to Enrico Fermi’s Paradox, the apparent contradiction between the absence of evidence of other intelligent life in the universe, and the high probability of there being lots of it. Maybe civilisations inevitably collapse before they acquire the power to build Dyson Spheres or blurt out Pi in a durable pan-galactic email. Or maybe, like Douglas Adams’ mice (2), the creators of the simulation we live in only needed the one world to achieve whatever goal they had in creating the earth. Populating the universe with teeming swarms of aliens was simply unnecessary, as well as being hideously expensive in computational resources.

Reasons to simulate us

If we do live in a simulation, why was it made? If the sole purpose was entertainment then the prevalence in our world of torture, child leukemia and much else makes it hard to avoid concluding that our creator was either incompetent or callous. (Conscientious theists have to wrestle with a fiercer version of this problem known as the Problem of Evil. I say fiercer because in their case the incompetent or callous entity is also omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent, which makes their world a very scary place. Especially since most theists believe in a deity which actively intervenes in their world from time to time.)

Perhaps we are part of a massive modelling exercise (a Monte Carlo simulation, perhaps) to determine the optimal way of achieving a specific goal. One candidate for that goal is the creation of superintelligence. From the perspective of a superintelligent alien species, individual humans might be about as interesting as dogs if we are lucky, or as microbes if not. Whereas a superintelligence might be seriously interesting. Maybe our simulators are in the business of creating new friends. Or maybe they need a lot of clever new colleagues to solve a really big problem, like the heat death of the universe.

Next week: the economical twist


(1) Bostrom’s trilemma makes a few assumptions, notably:

  1. It is not impossible to create simulations inhabited by entities which consider themselves to be alive.
  2. It is implausible that we are the most (or one of the most) technologically advanced civilisations that have ever existed in this universe.
  3. It is implausible that we are one of the tiny, tiny minority of civilisations in this universe which arose naturally.

(2) The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy

5 thoughts on “The Simulation Hypothesis: an economical twist (part 1 of 2)

  1. Hi Calum,

    Interesting that you start your post with a science fiction analogy as i recently posted a blog on why all science fiction concerning a possible human future world is effectively now pointless. (Unless we do the right thing and limit current AI development until everyone has had a long think and all agree on the way forward.) See “Sorry.” Science Fiction Fans.

    Regarding Musk and Plato it seems far more likely to me that our individual limited capacity human brains must necessarily create a smaller, simplified version of ‘The Reality’ in order for us to be able to function in anything like a workable fashion in our massively complex shared realities. At least that is how i see Plato’s reasoning. if we allowed all of reality inside our minds it would simply overload it and we would not be able to respond effectively to it. Not sure if that is how Musk might see it or if he’s simply using probability to come to the conclusion that of all possible realities the chances we all are living in the only ‘correct’ version is infinitesimally small.

    The Bible puts it as ‘We see through a glass darkly’ while on earth, but in spirit we shall see clearly which sort of corresponds with Plato – seeing only a shadow version.

    Regarding Bostrom: surely there must be at least a fourth possibility? – that we are the first or most advanced civilisation in the Universe, after all someone has to be the first? Right?

    I guess that now people are thinking it it may be a possibility, but what possible benefit can it be to mankind to consider it further if it simply means that we are actually all nothing but someone’s artificial simulation with no actual reality other than as a program in a computer processor and memory? What point would anyone’s life then have. Would we all go on doing what we have been doing so some superintellligence may get a benefit or entertainment from us??

    Regarding Enrico: I love Douglas Adams’ work but the problem with the mice creating the world to find the Ultimate Question (to which the answer is 42) is a similar problem to one i’m pondering about God creating the Universe ( i’m converting myself from Atheism to Faith!)

    If this earth is so singularly important, what possible purpose does/did it serve to stick 99.99999999999999…% of it out of the detection of our human senses??? What an enormous waste of resources that truly would be for no apparent purpose at all that we currently know of. It’s only in the last 4 centuries of life that this planet has even been aware that we exist in a galaxy of billions of solar systems like our own, and much more recently than that that our galaxy is simply one of countless billions in the observable universe. Just what the hell is all that mass/energy there FOR??? And then there’s Dark Matter /Energy – give me a break!

    Also for Enrico’ s paradox as for Bostrom – there HAS to be a first civilisation at one point – why not this one?

    Admittedly i’m fairly new to this Theistist stuff but i don’t see there IS a ‘Problem’ of Evil or similarly that our intelligent simulation creator had to be callous or incompetent. It seems fairly reasonable to me that in order for good to exist you need some way of measuring it to something else to know if it is actually good or bad (a Duality if you will we move toward one and away from the other, continually) so we NEED evil to be able to know what Good is. Imagine what world without evil would be – there would only be different levels of Good so therefore someone at the lowest level of good would feel, rightly, that everyone else was more good than them and those at the highest levels would believe they were more good than the ones at the lowest level; they’d be ‘less good’ than themselves. We’d have the same duality. Putting it another way everything has both good and bad in it if seen from the right perspectives.

    This seems only fair to me.

    Lastly, the phrase “or as microbes are if not”. does no justice to the fact that if it were not for microbes we would have almost no body or brain in which we live, both because we are made mostly of said microbes and because we are the very very distant progeny of the first microbes – they created us if you will but they created us with themselves as essential fundamental components – I fear Humans have missed this fairly self-preserving point with the creation of a superintelligence consisting mostly of silicon or it’s future successor.


  2. Thanks for the tip Calum – I own the book and tried to read it – I detest the man’s ignorance and small minded viewpoint not to mention his arrogance in his beliefs. The man himself i am obliged to love all the same.

    Rest assured that in ‘converting’ to faith I shall in no way lose my mental abilities to look at ALL ideas and determine what is truth and what is delusion for myself. I am not a member of any church – the conversion is my own idea and i am not under any other person’s influence; it is a free, and to me very logical, choice. I truly believe that there has never been a better example for any person to follow as a mentor than the, some would say fictitious, Jesus Christ.

    I see remarkably little difference between God and a vast ASI that operates in a purely benign fashion to human beings (who can then still go right ahead and do diabolical things to each other all the same). Can i assume that you would listen to and trust the latter on decisions in your life? Then why not the former?

    Faith is what separates the two and i believe faith is a vital part of human make-up. Believing that something may be true whilst not yet having sufficient proof.


  3. Ooh, I find this one hard to understand; For example, What does Musk mean by Base Reality? some of the most compelling of these worlds contain people who could be our ancestors = Why? What on earth leads Bostrum to those 3 conclusions? Just some feedback about this particular post, as usually I can follow. Your posts are interesting, thank you. LesleyLesley Bingham 418 899 1540

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