Is the Simulation Theory Feasible?

Nakib Abedin

Introduction

The simulation theory has existed for centuries, with philosophers proposing the idea as one of various different explanations of the origin of the universe. However, for most of history, it remained as merely speculation, since it would be virtually impossible to prove that we are living in a simulated reality. Although this remains true, in 2003 Nick Bostrom proposed a hypothesis that shows why it is likely that we live in a simulation. In Philosophical Quarterly (2003) Vol. 53, No. 211,he published his hypothesis that argued that at least one of 3 conditions must be true:

Citations

  1. The human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a “posthuman” stage.

  2. Any posthuman civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history (or variations thereof).

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

Explanation of the Theory

Bostrom’s argument relies on the idea that technological advancement shouldn’t really have a limit, and that if humans manage to survive into the distant future, meaning millions, possibly even billions of years, then our technology should be good enough to create simulations that are nearly indistinguishable to reality. Given that we reach this “posthuman” state, the only reasonable argument against the simulation theory is that posthuman civilizations would be extremely unlikely to want to run ancestor simulations. If this isn’t true, and posthumans have good reason to create ancestor simulations, then it is extremely likely that we are living in a simulation.

Since we are assuming there is no technological limit, the posthumans would be able to run trillions and trillions of simulations with relative ease, and all of these simulations would be indistinguishable from reality. However, none of these simulations would actually be reality, because the true reality is the one that created all the other simulations. Bostrom’s argument was revolutionary, because it was the first to provide an explanation on how such a realistic simulation could be carried out. No other theories can make a strong argument that we are living in a simulation, but Bostrom is able to explain why someone would even create a simulation of us and how we would get to the point where they could do so. In fact, if his theory is right, it is extremely unlikely that we would actually be living in a simulation because the chances of us living in reality would be 1 divided by (1 + the number of simulations). If a posthuman species runs 999,999 simulations, our chances of living in the original reality would be 1 in 1 million.

Feasibility

The first of three conditions is impossible to prove, because we don’t have a clue on whether or not we will go extinct. The second condition is also hard to argue against, but the feasibility of having such large simulations can be analyzed to try and decide whether posthumans would want to go through the burden of creating one of these simulations. The universe is vast, and there are an estimated \(10^{78}\)- \(10^{82}\) atoms in the observable universe. Just for Earth, we can expect around \(1.33 \times 10^{50}\) atoms that need to be simulated. Today’s super computers can only simulate molecules that are only a few hundred atoms large. Even after immense technological improvements, simulations of this size would be very hard to develop and would require a tremendous energy cost. Simulating the Earth would require computers the size of countries, maybe even continents. This is just to simulate what is essentially just a spec of dust in the scale of the universe. Universal simulations may need to be the size of galaxies or even bigger to actually simulate everything.

As of right now, we aren’t even able to simulate a single brain, even with the most powerful supercomputers. For a posthuman species to be able to create even one ancestral simulation, they would have to have a computer that could simulate billions or even trillions of brains. Even with massive technological advancements, simulations of this quality would still require a posthuman species to build computers that are probably the size of planets, and to create multiple simulations, they would need computers the size of stars. These levels of computations could be significantly reduced if the computers only render the solar system in detail, but nonetheless, there would be a huge energy expenditure required to run ancestor simulations. This would likely deter a posthuman species from running one of these elaborate simulations.

The idea that there isn’t a limit to technological advancement may be naive itself. The idea stems from the fact that humans regularly seem to surpass what seems to be possible to accomplish the impossible. This has been true for most of human history, but the problem is, human history is fairly short, if we think about it on a universal scale. The assumption of no technological limit is based on a relatively sample size, and the fact the existence of a limit may actually be more probable than its absence. It would explain why we haven’t encountered any intelligent extraterrestrial species and why we haven’t had anyone from the future come to visit us in our time. If there was no limit, theoretically, aliens should have already contacted us by now and time travel should be possible, meaning that our future selves should be able to come back to contact us. This suggests that a limit does exist, and if a limit exists, then Bostrum’s idea of a simulation could be challenged.

Therefore, the computational power required by the simulation theory can be used to argue against it. It is possible that technological advancements may make such a simulation more possible, however, this all lies in the realm of science fiction for now. We don’t even know if a technological limit exists and if it does, then the simulation theory would struggle to hold its ground. Even if the technology is good enough, the energy expenditure would probably deter a posthuman species from actually creating a simulation of such a grand scale. For now, we can hope that this means that everything we know and love is, in fact, real.

An interesting argument against simulation would be the existence of infinite values. Values that are infinite in length can not be stored in super computers, but infinite values do exist around us. For example, we know irrational numbers exist, but computers can not store irrational numbers because they have an infinite amount of digits. The existence of these values could be used against the Simulation Theory. it adds further doubt to the idea that there is no technological limit and in order for the Simulation Theory to be accurate, humans would need to do many things which are considered impossible today.

References

  1. Ananthaswamy, Anil. “Do We Live In a Simulation? Chances are About 50-50.” Do We Live in a Simulation? Chances Are about 50–50, Scientific American, 13 October 2020,
    https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/do-we-live-in-a-simulation-chances-are-about-50-50.

  2. Bostrom, Nick. “The Simulation Argument.” The Simulation Argument, 2003, https://www.simulation-argument.com/. Accessed 14 April 2021.

  3. Choi, Charles. “Too Hard for Science? Simulating the Human Brain.” Too Hard for Science? Simulating the Human Brain, Scientific America, 09 May 2011,

  4. https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/too-hard-for-science-simulating-the-human-brain/. Accessed 14 April 2021.

  5. Greene, Tristan. “There’s an algorithm to simulate our brains. Too bad no computer can run it.” There’s an algorithm to simulate our brains. Too bad no computer can run it, TNW, 22 March 2018, https://thenextweb.com/news/theres-an-algorithm-to-simulate-our-brains-too-bad-no-computer-can-run-it#: :text=A%20human%20brain%27s%20neuronal%20activity,run%20on%20in%20the%20past. Accessed 14 April 2021.

  6. Illing, Sean. “Are we living in a computer simulation? I don’t know. Probably.” The Simulation Hypothesis: are we living in a video game?, Vox, 24 October 2020, https://www.vox.com/future-perfect/2019/4/10/18275618/simulation-hypothesis-matrix-rizwan-virk Accessed 14 April 2021.

  7. Makin, Simon. “The four biggest challenges in brain simulation.” The four biggest challenges in brain simulation, 24 July 2019, https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-02209-z. Accessed 14 April 2021.

  8. Zuckerburg, Catherine. “The human brain, explained.” Human Brain: facts and information, National Geographic, 15 October 2009, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/brain-2#: :text=The%20human%20brain%20is%20a,Allen%20Institute%20for%20Brain%20Science. Accessed 14 April 2021.