A little while ago, I put out the welcome mat to ask me anything and be guaranteed an answer. And you responded. What’s more, your questions were so intense, so thought-provoking, that I decided that cramming all the answers into one forty-minute post would be a crime (or at least a misdemeanor).
With questions this good, each one deserves its own post in answer. So all this week, I’ll be answering questions.
Here’s the first, from my good friend Ben Trube:
Okay Brian, I know you’re the right person to ask this question:
“Are we living in a computer simulation?”
Some potential source material and my inspiration for the question: NPR article
This is a great question, and as the article points out, people have been asking it long before The Matrix came out – indeed, long before computers were even invented. The puzzle of whether reality is “real” has kept philosophers busy for about as long philosophy has existed.
And the answer is simple: it’s utterly impossible to know. We can’t even speak meaningfully about how likely it is that we’re in a computer simulation.
There are certain properties we would expect a computer simulation to have: finite computing resources, logic errors, and so on. Conceivably, you might design experiments that could test for these properties. So why do I say it’s impossible to know?
Simple. Because all of our ideas about how computers work are based on computers in this reality, which – if we’re a simulation – might be nothing like how computers operate in the “real” reality.
Our parent reality might have totally different laws of physics. It might even have different laws of logic. Two and two might not equal four. Since our entire lives have passed inside this reality, we have to concede that we have absolutely no basis for even speculating about any other reality.
So if our experiments didn’t find evidence of a computer simulation, that could just mean that we have no idea what “real” computers are like. Conversely, if we did find evidence, it could just mean that our reality happens to have properties of what we think of as a computer simulation; it says nothing about whether our reality matches the properties of a “real” computer simulation, which is unimaginable to us.
The NPR article you referenced quotes philosopher Nick Bostrom as saying that we’re “almost certainly” living in a computer simulation. But he makes the same logical error I just described: all his reasoning presupposes a “real” reality with the same properties as our own. There’s just no basis for such an assumption.
Okay, so we have no idea whether we’re made of baryons or bytes. A follow-up question might be: does it matter? Occam’s Razor says that if a hypothesis makes no observable predictions (that is, if “real” reality and simulated reality are subjectively identical) then it’s not worth worrying about.
But that’s a pretty big if. It could be, as in The Matrix, that waking up from the simulation has profound implications. It’s a question worth asking.
And a question that’s impossible to answer – just as Neo can never know that Zion is the real world, and not just another Matrix.
What do you think? Am I right, or did I miss something? Let me know in the comments!
Tomorrow, I’ll answer Zeev’s question: “Where do you see the United States in 20 years?”