Are You Living In a Computer Simulation?  

simulation

World of Wires, a play inspired by the simulation argument, New York (2012)
 
The Simulation Argument

Here you can peruse the debate that followed the paper presenting the simulation argument. The original paper is here, as are popular synopses, scholarly papers commenting or expanding on or critiquing the first paper, and some replies by the author.

The simulation argument continues to attract a great deal of attention. I apologize that I cannot usually respond to individual inquiries. I hope that you will find what you're looking for on this page (March 2014 - NB).

Professor Nick Bostrom
Oxford University
www.nickbostrom.com
 

"The Simulation Argument is perhaps the first interesting argument for the existence of a Creator in 2000 years."

David Pearce (exaggerated compliment)
 

"Thank you so much, Dr. Bostrom. You have proved that my psychiatrist was wrong all along."

Anonymous correpondent (misfiring compliment)
 
           

 

The original paper presenting the simulation argument:

 

 

Are You Living In a Computer Simulation? ORIGINAL Nick Bostrom. Philosophical Quarterly, 2003, Vol. 53, No. 211, pp. 243-255. [html] [pdf] (An earlier draft was circulated in 2001.)

    ABSTRACT. This paper argues that at least one of the following propositions is true: (1) the human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a “posthuman” stage; (2) any posthuman civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history (or variations thereof); (3) we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation. It follows that the belief that there is a significant chance that we will one day become posthumans who run ancestor-simulations is false, unless we are currently living in a simulation. A number of other consequences of this result are also discussed.  
         
           

Some popular synopses:

 

  Nick Bostrom interviewed about the Simulation Argument. Philosophy Bites, 14 August, 2011 (audio) [mp3]     Interview for the Philosophy Bites podcast.  
           
 

Video interview of Nick Bostrom on the Simulation Argument. By Adam Ford, February 2013 NEW

     
           
 

Our Lives, Controlled From Some Guy’s Couch. John Tierny. New York Times, 14 August, 2007

    Article in NY Times  
           
 

Do we live in a computer simulation?. Nick Bostrom. New Scientist, Vol. 192, No. 2579, 19 November, pp. 38-39, 2006. [pdf]

    A very brief, popular synopsis. But please read the original paper (above) instead if you can.  
           
  David Chalmers interviewed on bloggingheads.com. May 22, 2007 (audio)     David Chalmers, a philosopher at ANU, talks about the simulation argument and assigns 20% probability to being in a simulation.  
           
 

The Simulation Argument: Why the Probability that You are Living in the Matrix is Quite High. Nick Bostrom. Times Higher Educational Supplement, May 16, 2003. [html]

    Another popularization. (Has been translated into Spanish, Russian.)  
           
 

Why Make a Matrix? And Why You Might Be In One. Nick Bostrom. In More Matrix and Philosophy: Revolutions and Reloaded Decoded, ed. William Irwin (Open Court, 2005). [html]

    Yet another popularization, for Matrix-aficionados.  
           
 

Simulism wiki

    A wiki devoted to the simulation argument created by Ivo Jansch. Spooky YouTube video at http://www.simulism.org/Simulation.  
         
           

Frequently asked questions:

 

  The Simulation Argument FAQ. Nick Bostrom. 2011. [html]    

Answers to 16 common questions.

 
         
           

Scholarly commentaries and follow-on studies:

 

  How to Live in a Simulation. Robin Hanson (2001) Journal of Evolution and Technology, Vol. 7. [html] [pdf]     ABSTRACT. If you might be living in a simulation then all else equal you should care less about others, live more for today, make your world look more likely to become rich, expect to and try more to participate in pivotal events, be more entertaining and praiseworthy, and keep the famous people around you happier and more interested in you.  
           
  Innocence Lost: Simulation Scenarios: Prospects and Consequences. Barry Dainton (2002) Draft. [pdf]     ABSTRACT. Those who believe suitably programmed computers could enjoy conscious experience of the sort we enjoy must accept the possibility that their own experience is being generated as part of a computerized simulation. It would be a mistake to dismiss this is just one more radical sceptical possibility: for as Bostrom has recently noted, if advances in computer technology were to continue at close to present rates, there would be a strong probability that we are each living in a computer simulation. The first part of this paper is devoted to broadening the scope of the argument: even if computers cannot sustain consciousness (as many dualists and materialists believe), there may still be a strong likelihood that we are living simulated lives. The implications of this result are the focus of the second part of the paper. The topics discussed include: the Doomsday argument, scepticism, the different modes of virtual life, transcendental idealism, the Problem of Evil, and simulation ethics.  
           
  Living in a Simulated Universe. John D. Barrow (2007) in Universe or Multiverse? ed. Bernard Carr (Cambridge University Press): pp. 481-486. [pdf]     ABSTRACT. We explain why, if we live in a simulated reality, we might expect to see occasional glitches and small drifts in the supposed constants and laws of Nature over time.  
           
  Simulation Scenarios. Barry Dainton (2003) Powerpoint presentation. [ppt]     SUMMARY. Covers many related issues, but may be hard to understand without the oral presentation that is meant to go with these 79 slides.  
           
  The Matrix as Metaphysics. David Chalmers (2003). [pdf]     SUMMARY. On several Brains-in-vats and Matrix-like scenarios. Argues in support of what is also my contention, that the simulation-hypothesis is not a radical skeptical hypothesis.  
           
  Are You a Sim? Brian Weatherson (2003) Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 53: 425-31. [pdf]     SUMMARY. Weatherson is prepared to accept the Simulation Argument up to, but not including, the final step, in which I use the Bland Principle of Indifference. In this paper, he examines four different ways to understand this principle and argues that none of them serves the purpose. (For my reply, see the paper below.) Note that Weatherson accepts the third disjunct in the conclusion of the Simulation Argument - i.e. that there are many more simulated human-like persons than non-simulated ones. By contrast, I do not accept this: I think we currently lack grounds for eliminating either of the three disjuncts.  
           
  The Simulation Argument: Reply to Weatherson. Nick Bostrom (2005) Philosophical Quarterly Vol. 55, No. 218, pp. 90-97. [pdf]     SUMMARY. My reply to Weatherson's paper (above). I argue he has misinterpreted the relevant indifference principle and that he has not provided any sound argument against the correct interpretation, nor has he addressed the arguments for this principle that I gave in the original paper. There also a few words on the difference between the Simulation Argument and traditional brain-in-a-vat arguments, and on so-called epistemological externalism.  
           
  The Simulation Argument again. Anthony Brueckner (2008) Analysis, Vol. 68, No. 3, pp. 224-226.     SUMMARY. Short article by Brueckner in which he proffers "a new way of thinking about Bostrom's argument". (See below for my reply.)  
           
  The Simulation Argument: Some Explanations. Nick Bostrom (2009) Analysis, Vol. 69, No. 3, pp. 458-261[pdf]     SUMMARY. My response to Brueckner (above), in which I argue that he has misconstrued the simulation argument. I also argue that he is mistaken in his critique of the idea that simulated beings may themselves create ancestor-simulations.  
           
  Historical Simulations - Motivational, Ethical and Legal Issues. Peter S. Jenkins (2006) Journal of Futures Studies, Vol. 11, No. 1, pp. 23-42. [pdf]     ABSTRACT. A future society will very likely have the technological ability and the motivation to create large numbers of completely realistic historical simulations and be able to overcome any ethical and legal obstacles to doing so. It is thus highly probable that we are a form of artificial intelligence inhabiting one of these simulations. To avoid stacking (i.e. simulations within simulations), the termination of these simulations is likely to be the point in history when the technology to create them first became widely available, (estimated to be 2050). Long range planning beyond this date would therefore be futile.  
           
 

Are we living in a Matrix? What Can Computers Tell Us About God?. Hooman Katarai (2004) Powerpoint presentation. [ppt]

    SUMMARY. An MIT computer science grad student theologizes.  
           
 

Theological Implications of the Simulation Argument. Eric Steinhart (2010) Ars Disputandi, Vol. 10, pp. 1566-5399 [pdf]

    ABSTRACT. Nick Bostrom’s Simulation Argument (SA) has many intriguing theological implications. We work out some of them here. We show how the SA can be used to develop novel versions of the Cosmological and Design Arguments. We then develop some of the affinities between Bostrom’s naturalistic theogony and more traditional theological topics. We look at the resurrection of the body and at theodicy. We conclude with some reflections on the relations between the SA and Neoplatonism (friendly) and between the SA and theism (less friendly).  
           
 

I, Sim - An exploration of the Simulation Argument Anders Hammarstrom (2008).[pdf]

    SUMMARY. A student's MA thesis  
           
  A Patch for the Simulation Argument Nick Bostrom & Marcin Kulczycki (2011). Analysis, Vol. 71, No., 1, pp. 54-61 [pdf] NEW    

ABSTRACT. This article reports on a newly discovered bug in the original simulation argument. Two different ways of patching the argument are proposed, each of which preserves the original conclusion.

 

 
           
  Natural Evil and the Simulation Hypothesis David Kyle Johnson (2011). Philo, Fall-Winter issue, Vol. 14, No. 2. [pdf]    

ABSTRACT. Some theists maintain that they need not answer the threat posed to theistic belief by natural evil; they have reason enough to believe that God exists and it renders impotent any threat that natural evil poses to theism. Explicating how God and natural evil co-exist is not necessary since they already know both exist. I will argue that, even granting theists the knowledge they claim, this does not leave them in an agreeable position. It commits the theist to a very unpalatable position: our universe was not designed by God and is instead, most likely, a computer simulation.

 
           
  Constraints on the Universe as a Numerical Simulation Silas R. Beane, Zohreh Davoudi, Martin J. Savageavid (2012). [pdf] NEW    

SUMMARY. A low-level physics simulation using the simplest simulation methods, which simulated our universe on a grid with finite resolution, would result in some potentially observable distortions of the simulated physics because of the rotational symmertry breaking effects of the simulation lattice. I would think that even the earlist simulations of systems sufficiently complex to contain observers would make use of powerful computational shortcuts that would eliminate the opportunity to observe any such discrepancies (mostly the simulation would take place at a much higher level of abstraction in order to reduce the computational demands).

 
           
  On the 'Simulation Argument' and selective skepticism Jonathan Birch (2013). Erkenntnis, Vol. 78, No. 1, pp. 95-107 [requires journal subscription] NEW      

SUMMARY. Develops an objection similar to the one discussed under question 4 in the Q&A.

 
           
  The Simulation Argument William Eckhardt (2013). In Paradoxes in Probability Theory (Springer), chapter 4 [book link] NEW    

SUMMARY. A critical discussion in the context of the doomsday argument.

 
           
  The Doomsday Argument and the Simulation Argument Peter J. Lewis (2013). Synthese, January [requires journal subscription] NEW    

SUMMARY. Analyzes some analogies and disanalogies between the doomsday argument and the simulation argument, and concludes that the former fails whille the latter succeeds.

 
         
         
           

Some background readings:

 
 

Traditional philosophical skepticism and brain-in-a-vat arguments:

Skepticism: A Contemporary Reader. DeRose, K. and Warfield, T. A. (eds.) (1999). Oxford University Press, Oxford.

On anticipated technological capability of running realistic simulations:

Whole Brain Emulation: A Roadmap Sandberg, A. and Bostrom, N. (2008). Technical Report #2008-3, Future of Humanity Institute, Oxford University

How Long Before Superintelligence? Bostrom, N. (1998). International Journal of Futures Studies, Vol. 2.

Matrioshka Brains. Bradbury, R. J. (2000).

Minimum energy requirements of information transfer and computing. Bremermann, H. J. (1982). International Journal of Theoretical Physics 21: 203-217.

Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology. Drexler, K. E. (1985). London, Forth Estate.

Nanosystems: Molecular Machinery, Manufacturing, and Computation. Drexler, K. E. (1992). New York, John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Nanomedicine: Volume 1: Basic Capabilities. Freitas, R. A. , Jr. (1998) Landes Bioscience.

The Age of Spiritual Machines: When computers exceed human intelligence. Kurzweil, R. (1999). New York, Viking.

Ultimate physical limits to computation. Lloyd, S. (2000). Nature 406 (31 August): 1047-1054.

Mind Children. Moravec, H. (1989). Harvard, Harvard University Press.

Robot: Mere Machine to Transcendent Mind. Moravec, H. (1999). New York, Oxford University Press

Pigs in Cyberspace. Moravec, H. (1993). Extropy #10, Winter/Spring issue.

The Physics of Information Processing Superobjects: The Daily Life among the Jupiter Brains. Sandberg, A. (1999). Journal of Evolution and Technology, Vol. 5.

The Physics of Immortality. Frank J. Tipler (1994), Doubleday.

Existential risks (How we could fail to develop the required technologies):

Existential Risks: Analyzing Human Extinction Scenarios and Related Hazards. Nick Bostrom (2002). Journal of Evolution and Technology, Vol. 9 [html] [pdf]

Existential Risks Reduction as Global Priority. Nick Bostrom (2013). Global Policy Journal, forthcoming [html] [pdf] NEW

The methodology of observation selection effects:

Anthropic Bias: Observation Selection Effects in Science and Philosophy. Nick Bostrom (2002). Routledge, New York.

anthropic-principle.com. Website containing introductions and preprints

Miscellaneous:

The Planetarium Hypothesis: A Resolution of the Fermi Paradox. Stephen Baxter (2001). Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, Vol. 54, no. 5/6, pp. 210-216.

Some simulation-scenarios depicted in fiction:

Bedlam. Novel, Christopher Brookmyre (2013)

Permutation City. Novel, Greg Egan (1995)

The Matrix. Film, directed by Andy Wachowski and Larry Wachowski, parts I-III (1999-2003)

The Thirteenth Floor. Film, directed by Joseph Rusnak (1999)

Vanilla Sky. Film, directed by Cameron Crowe (2001), based on the film Open Your Eyes (see below)

Open Your Eyes. (Abres los Ojos). Film, directed by Alejandro Amenábar (1997).

I don't know, Timmy, being God is a big responsibility. Short story, Sam Hughes (2007).

Welt am Draht Film, directed by Rainer Fassbinder (1973). (Trevor Levick suggests this might be the original of all Matrix-type films.)

 
  Note: This is not a complete list. Others include Simulacron III (1963), aka Counterfeit World, by Daniel F. Galouye, which was made into the movie Welt Am Draht (1973) by Rainer Werner Fassbinder (The Thirteenth Floor was also based on Simulacron III); Exit to Reality (1997) by Edith Forbes; Otherland by Tad Williams (1996-2001); the film Dark City (1950, 1998); eXistenZ (film directed by David Cronenberg, 1999); many stories by Philip K. Dick; Realtime Interrupt (1995) by James P. Hogan, etc. etc. Jay Shreib produced a play inspired by the simulation argument, World of Wires, which opened in New York in January 2012.  
         
       
simulation

 

About Nick Bostrom

Bostrom is an Oxford philosopher whose research interests include philosophy of science, foundations of probability theory, ethics, and emerging technologies. He is the director of the Future of Humanity Institute.

You can visit his homepage at http://www.nickbostrom.com.