In a recent article published in October 2020 in Scientific American, Anil Ananthaswamy reported on the findings of David Kipping, an American astronomer from Columbia University. His study suggests that it is not a wild claim to state that the reality we live in is a computer simulation generated by a highly advanced simulation.
Although it may sound like a plot straight out of a science fiction movie, it is primarily founded on a re-evaluation of a paper suitably named “Are we living in a computer simulation?”, and published in 2003 by an Oxford philosopher, Nick Bostrom. This simulation would most likely operate on a demand-based mechanism. In other words, it would create perceptions of reality when solicited and would be restricted by the limits put in place by the “programmer”.
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Nick Bostrom’s 2003 Paper
In his publication, he considers a purely binary situation in which our reality is or is not a computer simulation which he brings back to a 50-50 chance. However, his claims are highly unfounded and considered philosophically and mathematically bold. Bostrom makes initial speculations about a technologically advanced civilization that would use a small part of its computational power to generate realities that bear “conscious beings”. In his perspective, it resulted from this hypothesis that one of these three following statements must be true:
- Humans almost always go extinct before acquiring the capacities necessary to simulate a new reality.
- Even if we would be able to reach that stage, humans would not be interested in simulating a new and therefore less advanced version of themselves.
- It is highly likely that humans themselves are living in a simulation.
These claims are known as Bostrom’s “trilemma” which Kipping has attempted to answer a bit more than a decade later.
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How Did David Kipping Reach These Numbers?
To elucidate the seemingly flippant claims made by Bostrom, Kipping undertook a more scientifically-based approach in solving the simulation problem. Using Bayesian analysis, a method of statistical inference allowing the probability of a hypothesis to be updated as more information of influencing parameters is disclosed, in an advanced implementation of artificial intelligence. His more rationally founded study revealed that the probability of humans living in a computer simulation, and the probability of a non-simulated reality, are close to even.
Firstly, Kipping proceeded to reduce the trilemma into a dilemma by merging propositions 1 and 2 as they both bore the same outcome: no simulation. Based on how conventional and default proceedings work when a problem lacks data, Kipping applied the principle of indifference equated each outcome with a probability of a half.
He then proceeded to prove that a simulated universe would most certainly be a finality: “nulliparous”, in other words, there could not be any “offspring” simulations – simulations stemming from simulated universes – as the computer power necessary would grow exponentially. As such, simulations are most unlikely to spawn additional simulations.
After these extended calculations, Kipping observed only a slight shift in favor of a non-simulated reality with the conclusive probability being set at 50.22222 to 49.77778.
The novelty introduced by Kipping’s analysis is that these odds are not set. In the case of humans ourselves discovering such a reality simulating technology, the chances of us living in one would drastically shift in favor of this being true.
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However, Kipping himself seems to be opposed to this “principle of indifference”, and thus to all the deductions which stem from it. Therefore, despite his publishing, Kipping has yet to take his stance as a firm believer in simulated realities.
How To Test The Simulation Hypothesis?
Although most attempts to answer this question lie on thin ice, two scientists have come up with conjectures. The first one, Houman Owhadi, claims that “if the simulation has infinite computing power, there is no way you’re going to see that you’re living in a virtual reality” because it can comply with any request. However, provided the computational resources are limited, the quantum superposition of states may come into play.
A mathematical abstraction known as the wave function which collapses in one of many possible states when observed would remain intact if we were living in a simulation. Owhadi has come up with four additional experiments based on similar principles but they remain pure conjectures.
Physicist Zohreh Davourdi agrees that the simulator would have to have limited computing power for it to be detected and suggests it might be given away through discretization of spacetime the simulator would put into place to save computing power in the simulation of astrophysical phenomena such as the direction of propagation of high-energy cosmic rays.
However, Kipping comes to a rather evading conclusion, claiming that “it’s arguably not testable as to whether we live in a simulation or not”. Another red flag concerning his claims is that humans have yet to define what consciousness means. As such, the rather blurry definition we have of it might influence the way we think about reality and a simulation of it.
To Kipping, the answer is rather simpler and stems from Occam’s razor which states that in absence of evidence, the answer to a problem is likely to be the simplest explanation, disfavoring the idea of a simulation and preferring the idea of a base reality as we have always presumed it to be.
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