Why I don’t think we are living in a simulation

The idea that this world is not in some sense “real” but that we are living in a simulation has gone from a notion in the minds of a couple of fairly obscure thinkers a few years ago to mainstream news.

‘We will prove we’re in a simulation’ Silicon Valley convinced we’re living in the MATRIX

It is a remarkably hard idea to shake, and it is not surprising that the notion has been catching on among technocrats who think of themselves as radical thinkers and iconoclasts. (After all, what idol is more worth smashing than the mundane concept of “reality”.)

Nick Bostrom was one of the originators of the idea. The ever-imaginative Robin Hanson has even provided us with hints on how to live in a simulation.

In my opinion, this idea founders on the same problem that materialism cannot explain: the existence of qualia. I have written about why I consider that the existence of qualia requires a non-material solution in this paper. It seems to me that if phenomena we all experience in this world (pain, pleasure, emotions) cannot be reduced to a physical explanation, the possibility that we are living in a purely physical “computer simulation” can be dismissed.


13 responses to this post.

  1. You could argue the idea goes back a lot further. I think one youtube I found on the concept claimed it went back to an Ancient Greek philosopher.


    • Posted by Julian O'Dea on October 17, 2016 at 5:52 am

      Yes, I suppose it is another version of the “brain in the vat” puzzle, updated with the use of the modern concept of the “computer simulation”. Although the idea that civilisations will inevitably become so technically advanced that they will be able to run simulations (of which this world is supposedly one) is perhaps a novel addition to the argument.


  2. Hahaha Nick Bostrom wasn’t even born when Phil K Dick’s classic books on this ‘it’s all a dream’ or ‘it’s all a big con’ concept were published.

    (And okay that’s not the ‘it’s all a computer simulation’ concept particularly but it’s definitely a more general working of the concept).

    At any rate, doesn’t the ‘simulation’ idea founder on the same problem physics founders on – even if the reailty we experience is a lie, the simulation can only be maintained if there is form of reality with predictable rules.


  3. Posted by Glengarry on October 18, 2016 at 6:19 pm

    I was amused when someone noted that this idea of the material world being a mere simulation used to evaluate us for some unknown purpose beyond it, has some rather significant historical roots.

    Someone else (28sherman, possibly) in another context remarked that the upcoming sexual consent forms that progressive america is becoming so fond of, perhaps could be standardized into requiring that neither party subsequently have carnal relations with anyone except the opposing party.

    All that was old is new again. So triggering.


  4. Posted by RichardP on October 20, 2016 at 5:23 am

    “The idea that this world is not in some sense “real” but that we are living in a simulation …”

    Here are some thoughts immediately triggered by the OP. I’m sure others have similar responses when they encounter this line of thinking. (This is a bit lengthy. I’m taking this opportunity to cleanse my mental palatte, having just watched the final debate between Ms. Clinton and Mr. Trump. Eeewww!)

    To what does the phrase “this world” refer in the above quote. This planet? This solar system? This universe? Is that sentence claiming that life on this planet is a simulation, but that at some distance from the planet (where is that boundary?) the real begins? So astronauts pass from the simulation out into the real, and then pass back from the real into the simulation? This subject needs to be defined much more specifically before any useful thoughts about it can emerge. (I don’t mean here; I mean in books and articles.)

    From the linked article: “Tech innovators … believe that we are not living in the real world.” Where did the tech innovators experience the real, that they can realistically know that it exists, and that they can compare this present simulation with that real and document the differences? Without having two, and being able to compare them, there is no foundation upon which to claim that what we currently have is not “real” – even if it is a simulation.

    If God can do anything, can make a rock so heavy that he can’t lift it?

    There is no real skill needed to pose absurd theories and questions. There IS real skill needed in learning how to make use of what is useable in the world we each inhabit – simulation or not. Are we going to put them to use in bettering our lives, or are we going to stare at them for a lifetime and wonder if they are “real”?

    We actually don’t live in the “real” world. We live in our perceptions of that real world. We don’t respond to “what is” (the real world). We respond to what is perceived. And we each have varying abilities to perceive. Therefore, none of us ever lives in the same world inhabited by another.


  5. Posted by RichardP on October 20, 2016 at 5:25 am

    Continuation of: “The idea that this world is not in some sense “real” but that we are
    living in a simulation …”

    Scientists understand that what they know today can be turned on its head by what is
    discovered tomorrow. Therefore, they don’t look for what is “truth” or for what is real”.
    Rather, they look for what is reliable. Can they depend on something being consistent enough that they can do something with it? (Is gravity dependable enough that we can rely on it and build rockets that can escape it? Etc.)

    Like scientists do, it is OK (necessary really) to question and refine our peception of
    things. It is nonsense to question the existance / reality of things that have proven themselves to be reliable / dependable since time began. The problem that we humans have is – how do we distinguish ‘what is’ from ‘what we perceive’? One of the ways is to examine whether this thing that we think about has the ability to affect folks other than just ourselves. Another of the ways is to see if other people agree with our
    description of the thing. This checking with other folks is what is at the basis of the
    scientific method – particularly the “replication” part. If others are affected by what we
    are thinking about, or if others can perceive and define something approximately the
    same way we do, then it is likely not just a figment of our imagination.

    Whether we are all part of a simulation is irrelevant. Are things dependable and reliable enough that we can use them to create good things for our lives? is what is relevant. This is all we get. We better take care of it and put it to use for ourselves and others. If we believe that we are living in a simulation where everything we see is controlled by some outside “other”, then we have no reason to take care of the things in this world. After all, if we break it irretrievably, it can be fixed simply by rebooting the simulation. That is not a particularly good legacy to leave to future generations.


    • Posted by Julian O'Dea on October 21, 2016 at 12:09 am

      I don’t believe we are living in a simulation. That belief seems to me to be a good example of something I sometimes describe by saying that “if you find that your chain of reasoning has led you to an unlikely position, there is probably something wrong with your chain of reasoning”.

      Kierkegaard wrote: “I stick my finger in existence — it smells of nothing. Where am I? Who am I? How came I here? What is this thing called the world? What does this world mean? Who is it that has lured me into the world? Why was I not consulted, why not made acquainted with its manners and customs instead of throwing me into the ranks, as if I had been bought by a kidnapper, a dealer in souls? How did I obtain an interest in this big enterprise they call reality? Why should I have an interest in it? Is it not a voluntary concern? And if I am to be compelled to take part in it, where is the director? I should like to make a remark to him. Is there no director? Whither shall I turn with my complaint?”

      If Kierkegaard had stuck his finger in a hornets’ nest he would have felt something. Pain, which is an undeniable feeling. It is not as if the world we live in is like some kind of abstract program or simulation. We have feelings (the “qualia” I mentioned above). If we were simply bits in a giant computer or programmed entities, I cannot see how we could experience qualia. I can’t imagine that matter or energy or “information” can have the immaterial experiences of pain or pleasure or joy or sadness. As I like to say, you could build the biggest computer imaginable, but it would still be made of metal circuits. How does metal “feel” anything?


    • “Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting” – in an interesting way a lot of thought anticipates ‘simulation theory’. In a striking passage in Wordsworth’s Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood, the poet whose style on the face of it seems to be mostly focused on naturalistic scene and lowly characters indulges in some rather interesting and lofty theology.

      Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
      The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star, 60
      Hath had elsewhere its setting,
      And cometh from afar:
      Not in entire forgetfulness,
      And not in utter nakedness,
      But trailing clouds of glory do we come 65
      From God, who is our home:
      Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
      Shades of the prison-house begin to close
      Upon the growing Boy,
      But he beholds the light, and whence it flows, 70
      He sees it in his joy;
      The Youth, who daily farther from the east
      Must travel, still is Nature’s priest,
      And by the vision splendid
      Is on his way attended; 75
      At length the Man perceives it die away,
      And fade into the light of common day.

      But there are differences; simulation theory fans now seem to have some Matrix idea in mind. Wordsworth and numerous other writers like him weren’t working from the machine metaphor. Theology usually seemed to be their fallback.


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