The Low Probability of Reality

Hubble Telescope | Public Domain

Contributing Writer Shamus Endries, ’21

Pong, a tennis-based arcade game, was released in 1972. At the time, Pong was revolutionary, though when we look back at the game, composed of merely two rectangles and a dot, it hardly compares to the photorealistic video games we play just 50 years later. How will games look in another 100, or even 1000 years? Chances are, they will be indistinguishable from reality. So how do we know that we’re not just “Sims,” living in a simulation run by a more advanced civilization? The short answer is that we don’t.

If you tried to convince someone 20 years ago that their reality was simulated, they would have laughed it off. Despite the notion’s strangeness, it’s exactly what Oxford professor Nick Bostrom tried to prove with his paper, “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?” Bostrom proposed that one of three things is true: either humans go extinct and cannot run simulations, humans choose not to run simulations for ethical reasons, or we’re almost certainly living in a simulation. 

The main counterargument to Bostrom’s theory has to do with computing power. It’s almost unfathomable to think about simulating the hundreds of trillions of synapses in a human brain, let alone for every living human. Bostrom proposed that an advanced civilization would have the technological ability to convert planets into computers and other astronomical resources into sources of computing power. This seems far-fetched until we look at the progress we’ve already made. ENIAC, the first computer, weighed thirty tons. Now, a microchip not much larger than a grain of rice can perform operations ENIAC’s creators couldn’t have dreamed of.

This theory has even made its way into our intellectual zeitgeist. Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors and SpaceX, argues that there’s a one in billions chance that we live in a based reality. In other words, there’s a slim chance that our “reality” isn’t simulated. Neil deGrasse Tyson says that with our ever-growing computing power, we could create worlds with characters that have perceived free will. The characters in that world could create computers and simulations. Those simulations could do the same, and there would be an endless cascade of simulated worlds. If you were to be created in one of these worlds, it is statistically more likely that you would be created in one of the countless simulations as opposed to the one true reality.

So what if we are in a simulation? In most ways, nothing changes. We should continue to explore the nature of our existence. We should still be curious about how and why we’re here. But, simulated or not, our experiences are real to us, and our individual goals and pursuits are, in that way, authentic.


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