For various reasons, a number of people have asked the question of whether this world we exist in is actually just a simulation. I've never found it to be a really interesting question for the same reason I don't worry about religion a lot. Whether it is true or not does not change what my actions would be. All cases require you to act morally.
Recently, there was an article in Discover magazine that claimed to be able to prove that we could not be existing in a simulation because the computational requirements would be too great. This Equation Calculates The Chances We Live In A Computer Simulation. I thought the article was rather presumptuous. In all discussions of whether we might live in a simulation or not, it seemed like there were a few critical missing points, particularly why this would be a simulation. That never seems to get answered. How humans think is always to seek a balance, particularly a moral balance, a logical balance or both. We want to know the "why" of things or we are uncomfortable. It's sort of like Neil deGrasse Tyson's "God of the Gaps" concept. We need to fill in the logical chain of our thinking. This essay is to do that for the idea that this world is a simulation. Is it correct? Well part of the point is that there should be no way to know. The discussion of life as a simulation is always missing a critical moral balance and logical connection. Notice that nowhere in that article or anywhere else is there mention of why the simulation would be made. In the story "Simulacron 3" it was for marketing studies. In Star Trek it was for entertainment but they knew they were in a simulation. In David Brin's story "Stones of Significance" was a brilliant discussion of this topic that also included a great commentary of life in the time of the Singularity. Still, he was quite vague about the purpose of the simulations... who were also making simulations. He found the response I write here to be amusing. The Discover article also skips that and rather prejudicially calls the creators of the simulations "Overlords". I've heard others say that this world might just be a science experiment of some super advanced alien child. No one seriously tries to say why the simulation would be made in the first place. Without that target, no amount of speculation is going to lead to a useful description or analysis.
May I offer what seems to me to be a logical and moral reason for making the simulation? I have long been doing a systematic study of how humans could adapt to the next "stable" ecology that follows the hunter-gatherer tribal ecology. Much of it is a moral/strategic problem, though everyone seems to focus on the technological aspects of the future which are much easier than the human aspects. One of the greatest problems I see for long term human survival is that moral education is essential, but how to do it without endangering the person too much? It's an incredibly difficult problem because of the sheer qualitative difference between the tribal ecology we have come from and are still most adapted to versus "new ecology" we need to strategically adapt to. All organisms, including tribal humans, use Darwinian based strategies, but in the next ecology we will need to use human created strategies such as come from philosophy, science, law, etc. I write books about the huge degree of genetic and strategic adaptation humans need to accomplish to survive in the ecology that will follow the tribal ecology we left when we created the farms and cities of civilization. So in that context why would you make a simulation? To provide a moral education. It could solve that huge problem. What reasoning or evidence could support that idea besides the need for it and some minor questions about quantum nature? That reason would be the absolute unlikely uniqueness of this time we exist in. Humanity has been transitioning towards civilization for about 10,000 years but there has never been a time like now. You can choose any moral milieu or message you want from greedy drug lord to Mother Teresa. Due to Existentialist philosophy, which is fairly recent, we are in the odd position of having almost no broadly accepted moral authority... as Nietzsche said "a terrifying freedom". We have every odd kinetic distraction from drugs to surfing to raves to concerts. As opposed to the almost universal fact of history, the common rule of "son shall follow father in occupation" no longer holds true. Even the choice as to whether to have a family has changed. Life now is a moral education unlike any in the past. We can make two assumptions about the future. The first is that it will be more complex. The second is that there will be more moral hazards. Technology and the weakening of traditional absolute moral authorities just lead to both of those.
I wrote this essay as a response to the article in Discover Magazine in the style of the story "Letter From A Higher Critic". I hope you find it interesting.
I read the recent article by Bibeau-Delisle and Brassardin in Discover magazine about the possibility of this world being a simulation, with some amusement... because you see, it is one. I'm afraid it's easy to understand how they could reach such erroneous conclusions as in the article though, particularly the value they ascribe to RCal: "Here RCal is the huge number of brains that fully exploited matter should be able to simulate." There are so many assumptions made in the article that it is almost embarrassing. The real problem though is one missing assumption: why the simulation was made. No one seems to speculate about that any other than it's some evil Overlord. The purpose of the simulation you live in though is far more profound than those because as Mr. Brin suggested in his sotry of a simulation:"Stones of Significance", there is great moral significance to making life, even simulated life. If you know the reason this simulation was made, then everything else makes sense. Let me explain. I'm from outside the simulation so it might seem that I shouldn't do this but there is a reason. It is time for you to know of this idea.
This simulation, this Earth that you live in, is a school for our children. The education you get here is primarily about a moral education, the most important learning experience there is. You will also be exposed to basics of science, philosophy and other things, but morality is the main lesson. Later you will get a more advanced philosophical, social, and technical education but the learning curve for our modern culture (what you would call the future) is so steep and tall that you need to start out in a simpler culture, so this simulation is used which is closer to the Darwinian driven tribal ecology that humanity is still highly adapted to. While you are far more evolved than your tribal ancestors, you are still a product of Darwinian evolution and must be in touch with that and those Darwinian strategies before you can learn the advanced moral strategies that the current human culture encompasses and depends on.
Think of the uniqueness of this simulated world. It is a world in transition. From your point of view of history there has already been a lot of change, but nothing like what has gone on in the past hundred years. Politics has recently changed from royalty to democracy. Medicine has recently progressed from amputation to anesthesia, antibiotics, vaccination, organ repair, and even gene therapy. Travel and industry have changed from animal power to flight. Religion has changed from pervasive to threatened. Technology has progressed from the first electric lights to personal computers and the beginnings of practical AIs. From unquestioned social roles, the roles of gender and race are being questioned and reformed. It goes on and on but besides those developments, there has been a great deal of social and moral development. Instead of following the occupation of your father or being immutably tasked with the important job of having children, you can do almost anything you want including being perhaps a builder, artist, merchant, scientist, warrior, priest, leader of many kinds, or even a drug dealer. Having that kind of choice is dangerous. The thing is that while this simulation is supposed to offer a primer on adjusting to technology and the diversity of a modern civilization, modern to me anyway, it has a more basic purpose. My "modern" culture has great dangers to it that are also very novel to human instincts. It just may not lead to the development of survival and moral instincts. It can overwhelm individuals. It's complicated and there aren't the simple moral dangers and problems that human instincts recognize and respond to. It doesn't "release" normal instinctual responses. The most important function of this simulation is to develop moral instincts. In this simulation that is your society are many archetypes of wealth that insulate the owner from dangers and challenges that make a person mature and develop their essential survival and moral instincts. In the future, that is even far more true.
Think of something as simple as birth control. Tribal humans don't have real strong instincts to have children but they have powerful drives to have sex. Sex leads to children and that process naturally releases instinctive parental behaviors. My culture is incredibly wealthy. If your moral instincts aren't developed here, they are unlikely to develop there. It doesn't present challenges that would be familiar to your instincts and they would just be confused. It would be hard for you to develop motivations and discipline. That is also true for your survival instincts. Really, in my cultural past or your future, the population declined because with sex being separated from reproduction, many people didn't have families. There were too many difficulties, distractions, and kinetic alternatives. It was only through natural selection over time that the instinct to have children grew more common. Now it is very common and demographic management is essential to avoid the great dangers of overpopulation. We have removed the need for the mindless Darwinian drives for maximum reproduction by increasing the rate of successful individual and family survival by the use of some basic genetic technologies. It has increased survival rates much as vaccinations have increased survival rates in your culture. It has also changed our concepts of status, a powerful driver of human behavior. There are alternative strategies that work better.
In my culture, the replacement rate is naturally about 1.25 but that is cut in half by this simulation. About half of the children that "live" through it simply die when they die in the simulation. We have learned many painful lessons and have had wise moral leaders of our civilization. The world we live in is not one that occurs in nature. It must be built and protected. The moral struggle is one fought every day by all good men and women. We protect our civilization because it is our life support system. We need our children to start out morally strong. Long ago we learned we had to artificially replace the natural selection we had removed and called human progress. It just allowed a genetic load to accumulate. Luckily it was not hard to economically and ethically use artificial selection to replace that natural selection that has been removed. Now everyone has what your culture would call excellent health, beauty, and brains. Nature can only select against bad genes, not for good genes. We easily can. We aren't superhumans, whatever that is, but we are healthy, strong, intelligent humans and that's pretty amazing. The average lifespan is about 160 years but unfortunately, it seems that what fails first is one's spirit rather than one's flesh.
So let me clarify those numbers some. The world population "then" is about 3 Billion people. It takes about 6 years to live a lifetime in the simulation so at any given time there are about (3 Billion parents * 2 children * 6 years in the simulation ) / 160 year life span equals 225,000,000 consciousnesses are in simulations at any one time (RCal). Education is resource-intensive but necessary and that is quite manageable especially since education is a primary aspect of status now. The computing load is quite manageable. Most of "your world" doesn't exist. Do you experience it directly? Are all your experiences real including the large amount of "dead time"? What does takes a fair amount of computing power though is that most people you meet are actually just computer generated. They only exist while you or another child are aware of them but they do take resources.
If you are reading this, it's almost certain that you aren't a methamphetamine addict or fentanyl. Twenty years ago there weren't any drugs so dangerously addictive and destructive. Think of what the future holds. Think of what dangers fully immersive virtual reality presents. People have made the most beautiful and seductive worlds imaginable that carry no hint of evil. They can be dangerous though. We know all about the dangers of kinetic pleasures and addiction. It is merciful and safer to try to make sure that a person has the potential to survive in the "real" world.
In this simulated world, you are getting a gentle introduction to technology. You are exploring other cultures. Most of all though you are exploring right and wrong. You are making mistakes which is the greatest driver of learning. You can make mistakes safely here that you couldn't afford to make in my world. You are learning about yourself, your strengths, and your weaknesses. If you are older now, is there something that you wish you had done in your youth such as learning an art like dance, music, or painting? Now you will have a second chance and there will not be the same demands to hold you back. Have no doubt, you have a great deal of technical, cultural, philosophical, and moral education ahead of you, but this will give you a foundation to grow from. The biggest difference you will have to learn is that we control our genetic and strategic destiny. The blunt strategies nature can make are good for animals, but humans need better ones. It's a good world. You will like it but like all things, there are balances.
When you "die", you enter the "real" world, if you have learned the moral lessons you need to. Don't snivel about fairness. We are just protecting our society as most societies in "your past" have by "rites of passage" that determined if a person was going to be accepted as a member of the society they grew up in. Then as now, it is a matter of survival of both the individual and the society. Your best chance for survival is an education in a simulation. "Alien overlords"! How silly! We are your parents.