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The Singularity Q&A

Q: Are we living in a simulation?

A: A solid alternative explanation to the Fermi Paradox comes from the idea that our conscious experiences, and perhaps the entire universe as we know it, may reside within a simulation created by a superintelligence.  Such a superintelligence may simply decide not to include alien contact in the simulation.

But while the Fermi Paradox could be explained by the simulation argument, the Paradox does not lend a great deal of credibility to the idea that we are living in a simulation.  As discussed previously, there are just too many possible explanations to the Fermi Paradox to assume that any one of them -- such as the simulation argument -- is correct.

A more persuasive argument for the simulation idea comes from a scholarly paper by Nick Bostrom.  He makes a compelling case that one of the following must be true:  1)Pre-Singularity civilizations must be very likely to destroy themselves prior to achieving the Singularity. 2) Superintelligence practically never has any desire to create simulations like the one we might be living in.  3) We are almost certainly living in a simulation.

One must read the paper to see the mathematical rigor of the argument, but the basic idea is that if superintelligences were at all inclined to create simulations occupied by minds like ours, then they would probably end up creating so many simulations -- with so many minds -- that any randomly selected mind would have a much higher chance of living in a simulation than outside of one.  That is, unless pre-Singularity civilizations are so likely to self-destruct that few or no superintelligences exist.  Bostrom's conclusion is that we lack sufficient data to give a higher probability to any one of these three possibilities over another.

This doesn't mean there's a 33% chance you're living in a simulation, only that the simulation argument can definitely not be ruled out at this time. 

If we are living in a simulation, then the obvious question is "why?"  I have yet to hear a great reason why a superintelligence would create a reality like this one, but maybe I would need greater-than-human intelligence to understand the greatness of the reason.  The fundamental difficulty of the Singularity surfaces once again:  nobody really knows what superintelligences will do with their time and energy -- they may differ from each other even more than they differ from us.  Even so, I should probably mention that the reason given for the simulation in the popular film, The Matrix, doesn't seem to make sense from a scientific or even common-sense standpoint -- although it makes for a fun movie.

Finally, if we were to learn tomorrow that we were living in a simulation, this knowledge should not, by itself, have any great effect on our lives.  Knowing the rules of the simulation, on the other hand, would be of great value; in the absence of convincing evidence that a Singularity is not permitted by our universe, the pursuit of greater intelligence is an overwhelmingly logical thing to do.  So far, though, the only way we've been able to find out the rules of our universe -- simulation or otherwise -- is through science.  Learning that your universe is a simulation, a dream, or a chicken pot pie should not make you any more or less inclined to seek a better existence for yourself or your fellow beings within it.




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