Is simulated reality real

Are we living in a computer simulation?

Think back to your last dream. Whether you have flown, been chased by fantastic beings or you have dreamed (wish-) after pressing the snooze button that you were already at work - you most likely only knew that you hadn't really experienced any of this after waking up. In a dream, however, everything seemed real.

It could be similar with reality, argue proponents of the so-called simulation hypothesis. They believe that life, the world and everything else is a huge lie. In reality we are in a simulation, calculated on computers that have been programmed by a superior species or even by an artificial superintelligence. No joke.

Anyone who contemptuously raises their eyebrows at those who oppose vaccination and who are afraid of implanted microchips will be drawn to the film matrix remembering fantasies of the simulation disciples just shake their heads. But what sounds like the ultimate conspiracy theory is actually the subject of serious debate - even among scientists.

Trendsetter in toga

The ancient philosopher Plato would have liked the cult film by Lana and Lilly Wachowski. He found himself trapped in an illusory world over 2000 years ago, formulated in his famous allegory of the cave. Since then, the question of real reality has been an evergreen in philosophy - and also in pop culture.

In times when artificial intelligence has already reached a breathtaking level, the question arises completely new. If we move away from the minimalist video game within a few decades Pong Elon Musk is convinced that if we have found photo-realistic 3D simulations, in a few years we will have reached a point where reality can no longer be distinguished from simulations. He puts the probability that we live in real reality at just one in several billion.

Digitalism instead of world religions

Musk is probably the most prominent supporter of the idea of ‚Äč‚Äčabsolute simulation, but the idea is also increasingly being discussed again in forums and leaning scientific circles. While there are fewer and fewer believers in classical religions worldwide, the ideas of "digitalism" are gaining more and more popularity. If you used to search for God for a lifetime, it is now the way out of simulated reality. Just like the computer expert George Hotz is looking for. At the age of seventeen he cracked the software protection of the iPhone, now he is taking on the matrix. How he plans to break out of the simulation is not known, but he wants to found his own church for this purpose.

Every religion needs its Bible - for the simulation theorists it is probably the treatise "Are You Living in a Simulation?" by Nick Bostrom in 2003. The philosopher now heads the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University. He believes that as computing power increases exponentially, it must at some point be possible to simulate the entire history of mankind in a computer.

No need to go insane

Bostrom goes through three options, one of which he says must come true. On the one hand, it could be that there are no posthuman civilizations because they self-extinguish - through nuclear war, for example - before they reach a higher technological level. Another possibility would be for a civilization to own the technology but not use it for ethical reasons.

And then there is option number three: namely that the possibility of simulation exists - and is used. While the "real" reality only exists once, there would soon be billions of simulations. The probability that we live in reality would therefore go to zero.

Is your head already smoking, is your brain killing? It still goes on! For Bostrom's mind game one has to agree with the substrate independence. This is the assumption that consciousness can exist not only in brain cells, but also on silicon chips. Which brings us to the old question of whether machines can think.

There is no doubt that there is some nihilism inherent in the simulation hypothesis: If we only exist as a pile of data anyway, does life make sense at all? Instead of fighting the corona pandemic and the climate crisis, shouldn't we be throwing a huge party? Nick Bostrom was agnostic as early as 2003: We will probably never know whether we are real - and ultimately it makes no difference to our lives. If we really live in the simulation, it is like a dream that we will never wake up from (at least until iPhone hacker Hotz found a way out).

And who wants it to be a nightmare? (Philip Pramer, January 26th, 2021)