Sep 21 2013

The Consequences of The Simulation Hypothesis

The Wikipedia article for the Simulation Hypothesis is crisp and to the point:

The simulation hypothesis (simulation argument or simulism) proposes that reality is a simulation and those affected are generally unaware of this. The concept is reminiscent of René Descartes‘ Evil Genius but posits a more futuristic simulated reality.

Later, the article describes a number of types of reality simulation, focusing on the mechanics – things like ‘Physical Simulation’ and ‘Brain-in-a-Vat’. But, for me, the why might be a little more important than the how because the why determines the rules of the simulation. Still the how has its own consequences and both the rules and the side-effects of the simulation are important things to consider.


Think about it, if reality really is a simulation and we are living in it, it clearly affects you and me! Should knowing you are in a simulation change your choices in life? In what way would the rules of the simulation differ from our understanding of physical principles and what are the practical ramifications? How about social interactions? Are any of these things testable?

In fact, a need for testability is a major consequence of the Simulation Hypothesis. So let’s start there.

Reality might not be testable

If a physical reality simulation went deep enough, physical and simulated realities would be exactly the same and there would be no way to tell a simulated reality apart from a real reality. And, of course, a more cut-rate simulation might simply simulate the test results; assuming, of course, that every test could be anticipated. Or the entities running the simulation might roll it back to an earlier state and over-write the experiment when they re-run it.

The fact is, whether we are or are not in a simulation is probably impossible to know by using our (possibly) simulated senses. If it is testable then the most likely assumption is that testability is part of the simulation rules. Another possibility is that the simulation is running from some starting point until some ending point and no one is paying any attention in the meantime.

The main consequence of non-testability is simple: your best bet is to assume reality really is real. Anything else means you are most likely going down a path that ends in mental illness and your inability to function in society. You might even be right about the universe being a simulation, but unless you could prove it people are going to make circular motions with their fingers around their ears and nod knowingly.

Reality might be a game

Think about it, much of mythology makes all of us out as NPCs (Non Player Characters) in a great godly game anyway; so what if that were actually the case? What if there used to be a whole bunch of players fooling with humanity like kids might poke an ant hill and now only one is still doing so seriously? If so, you might want to do what that player wanted. But only if the player was actually making your life better as a consequence since it makes no rational sense to submit yourself to a player if that player doesn’t give you something in return.

There is also the possibility that the game is full of players all the time, but playing as us and not as gods. (Maybe just as movie stars or investment bankers.) A variation of this formulation (brain-in-a-jar) is that we are the players. Or at least you (the person reading this) and me (the person writing this), except we don’t know it and think it is all real. Or maybe one of us is an NPC? This one gets crazy quick, but if you think you know someone who might be a player and not an NPC you might want to maximize your time with them. After all, maybe you de-rez when they can’t see you!

In any case, if reality is a game there are rules for winning it. Even an NPC might be able to maximize their returns in the game through creativity with those rules. Or by sacrificing every action but those meant to win the game.

If you think about it, much of humanity works that way now, anyway.

Reality might be a what-if simulation

Suppose a historian got to wondering what would have happened to the world if president Lincoln had been assassinated right after the Civil War was over. Or pick some other turning point of history or physical law and ask “What if it went the other way?”

This might be more than a genre of fiction! Our world, even the entire universe, might be the result of someone asking that kind of question and then coming up with a way to simulate it.

If this is the case the consequences are simple: unless the how of the simulation has provided us with a way to perform unintended actions, then living your life as if reality was real is the only option. Anything else puts you into crazy territory and you don’t want to go there.

Of course, you’ve got to wonder about the ethics of a scientist willing to use intelligent beings as rats in a cage. As opposed to the gamer types who doubtless have no ethics at all. (Kidding! I’m sure they have some ethics.)

Reality might be a simulated heaven or hell

There are entire religious movements predicated on the idea that our world is actually heaven or hell. But what if that was actually the case? What if real life is so much worse or so much better that, in comparison, the simulated world you and I live in seems one extreme or the other? Or maybe our simulation is designed as some uncomfortable intermediate purgatory?

Frankly this seems unlikely. Unless, of course, I am a demon meant to punish everyone around me, in which case I would like to apologize most sincerely.

Still, once again, your best bet in a simulated heaven or hell is to go with the program. Taking advantage of whatever opportunities there are to make yourself a better person would seem to play into the rules of either situation.

Reality might be an unintended consequence of another process

There is always the possibility that everything we are and everything we know came about by accident when some process was initiated. If this is the case then reality as we know it might as well be a real reality, except for the inevitable cracks and corners where things don’t work the same as everywhere else. If this is the case, then looking for those interstitial spaces might be fruitful and interesting.

The downside is that you will probably start talking like a New Ager about crystals and ley lines. Buddhism might apply here even more strongly than it would in ‘Reality is a Game’ or ‘Reality is Heaven/Hell’ simulations. In any case, most of the time those glitches will be of no consequence to you.

Reality might not be real, but it might as well be

This is the take-away from all of the simulation types described above: you are probably better off if you accept our reality as real and get on with your life. After all, reality might actually be real! In fact, since the Simulation Hypothesis probably it isn’t testable, believing anything else makes you at best ‘odd’ and at worst completely insane – at least when compared to the standards of reality as we know it.

The sticking point here is that the odds of reality being a simulation are probably greater than are the odds of reality being real. In fact you can calculate the odds in a way similar to the Drake Equation:

The Bell Equation – S = U * I * N – where

S = The number of Simulations (an integer of zero or greater)

U = The number of Universes with intelligent life (an integer of one or greater)

I = The odds of any one Universe producing Intelligence able to create Simulations (a whole number between 0 and 1

N = The average (or perhaps the mean) Number of Simulations created in Universes capable of creating Simulations

If S is greater than U, the odds are you are living in a simulation and not in a real universe. Since U is at least ‘1’ – if you apply any reasonable values to I and N, then S is always greater than U. Far larger if I is ‘1’. Anthropic principle be damned.

So, chances are this reality is a simulation. But the realities of being in a simulation dictate that you should act as though the simulation is real or face negative consequences. Any questions?

1 ping

  1. The Simulation Hypothesis and Religion: Part 1 – Animism » Jack William Bell

    […] I explored some of the consequences of The Simulation Hypothesis. In that essay I quickly glossed over the possibility that our world’s religions might exist […]

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