March 1, 2024


Even if you haven’t played geeky simulation games like Second Life, Sim City or World of Warcraft, you have probably heard of them: how widespread they are, now obsessive the gamers are, how absorbing these parallel universes become. Now, here’s a question: how do we know that we are not someone else’s simulation — say, a distant, highly evolved descendant, or an alien experimenting with various life forms? It’s an unsettling thought, says New York Times columnist John Tierney, but at least it solves the problem of evil in the world. Aren’t most geeks into destruction and mayhem?

What provoked these musings was the work of Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom, who wrote a paper on this possibility in 2003 which has provoked a great deal of interest, especially amongst the "transhumanist" community. Bostrom’s gut feeling is that there is a 20% chance that we are actually living in a computer simulation. Highly evolved humans would no doubt run many simulations and scenarios on their computers, vastly multiplying the number of simulated humans. The sensible approach is to believe "with very high probability that we are among the simulated majority rather than the non-simulated minority," he says.

How can we know whether or not we are mere simulations? We can’t, says Bostrom. The geeks in charge could inform us with a screen saying something like "you are living in a computer simulation. Click here for more information." But this seems unlikely. Even when we die, as Australian philosopher David Chalmers points out, our afterlife might also be simulated.