Physicists in Germany think they might have a way to find out if our reality is just a computer simulation. At least I think that's what this article in MIT's Technology Review says. It's a bit hard to penetrate.

In my view, the odds are in favor of our perceived reality being a computer simulation. Allow me to make my lawyerly argument in defense of that view. Sure, I've blogged on this topic before, but not so convincingly.

When I was a kid, I dreamed of one day growing up to be a world-famous cartoonist. When your actual life conforms to your childhood fantasy, it makes you question the basic nature of reality. Did I really beat million-to-one odds, or is something else going on?

One explanation for my experience is that I'm extraordinarily lucky. For this discussion I'm defining luck to include my genetic composition, upbringing, and environment, since I didn't have much control over any of that. Let's say the odds of getting to this point of my career by luck alone is somewhere in the range of one-in-a-million.

A second explanation for my perceived life is that I'm insane and I have delusions that I'm a cartoonist. An estimated 1.1% of the population is schizophrenic. Rounding off, let's say the odds that my life is a hallucination are a hundred to one against.  And yet, so far, that's the best explanation.

A third explanation is that I live in a simulation that was designed to satisfy my ambitions. That seems plausible to me on several levels. Let's begin by assuming scientists are correct when they say there are probably lots of planets in the universe with life. Add the power of evolution plus several billion years of percolation and you have a universe peppered with intelligent beings.

If you wait long enough, almost any species will die off from one sort of natural disaster or another. Maybe a sun explodes, a rogue meteor hits, or a new virus springs up. So if it's true that the universe created lots of life on various worlds, it's probably true that many advanced species have already died off. Some of them probably saw it coming in time to project their personalities, hopes, and dreams into computer simulations that would run forever, as sort of an artificial afterlife.

I think it is likely that for every "real" and intelligent being in the universe there might be hundreds or even billions of expired civilizations that figured out how to port their essence to computer simulations before checking out.

Summarizing the three explanations for how my actual life could so closely conform to my childhood fantasies:

Luck: million-to-one against

Insanity: hundred-to-one against

Simulation: million-to-one in favor

It's really no contest. In my specific case it would be irrational to believe I am anything but a simulation.

One feature of our so-called reality that makes me scratch my head is the consistency of the rules of physics. One might expect a "natural" universe - one that came from an explosion - to be nothing but randomness on every dimension, including the rules of physics themselves. Any sort of consistency to our perceived reality feels like a "tell" from the simulation creators.

If you were the designer of this simulation you would need to strike a delicate balance. You want the characters to have your curiosity and intelligence but you also need to prevent them from realizing their true nature within the simulation. That means creating boundaries that don't look like boundaries. For example, you might program the simulation to have an infinite size (as if that even makes sense), but limit the maximum speed of things to the speed of light, making it impossible for the simulated people to examine the edges of their universe.

As a designer, you'd also need to make the quantum world totally freaky and endlessly puzzling. What are the tiniest particles in the universe made of? Answer: waves. What is a wave? Answer: Something that makes sense only in the realm of math. When you look for the boundaries of reality you always bump into a wall that defies common sense so aggressively that it looks intentional.

Another hint that we are simulations modeled after our programmers is that we are suspicious about the possibility. If the creators modeled us after themselves, they created simulations that could imagine someday creating their own simulations. That means we might be - wait for it - the simulations of other simulations.

Keep in mind that the perceived passage of time for people in a simulation does not have to map to any "real" time in the universe. So perhaps I am experiencing my trillionth simulated life. Perhaps each of us gets to experience every life and every time period of our alleged reality. The entire simulation would only take a few seconds in the outside world if the processor is fast enough.

If even one civilization in the real universe created a simulation that could create its own simulations, the odds of any particular "sentient" creature being real are perhaps worse than a trillion to one. That assumes the alien processors are fast and our perceived time doesn't need to match any real time in the actual universe.

Ladies and gentleman of the jury, I rest my case. And I predict you have been programmed to disagree with my conclusion.

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Oct 16, 2012
By the way, my last comment should in no way imply that you are not a successful writer. God's Debris is quality literature.
Oct 16, 2012
My fourth option would be that you were uniquely positioned to realize your goals, whatever they may have been.

I can say based on observational evidence that compared to the average in the U.S. population you are:
- much more creative
- much more entrepreneurial in nature, and willing to take on risk
- harder working than most
- and more intelligent
You had a pretty good chance of realizing any goal that requires that combination of characteristics ... such as oh, say, becoming a cartoonist. You probably also could have become a successful writer, inventor, dot com millionaire, motivational speaker, etc. etc.
Oct 16, 2012
[What are the odds if you announce your plan to lay them down in a specific order and then it happened. That's my situation. I have in writing at age eleven my plan to become a famous cartoonist.]

The way I see it, something like that would happen to someone eventually (both the plan, and it coming true). And when it does, it would feel otherworldly.
I remember feeling this way when I tried to play with roulette, but the feeling I got was in reverse. You'd think its impossible to get red 22-23 times in a row. And when it happened to me, I felt like the whole universe was pranking me.
Later, I read about the Gamblers Fallacy and how casinos know that if you play roulette long enough, you will eventually hit your worst case scenario. I guess in your "reverse" situation, you hit the best case scenario.
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Oct 16, 2012
If everything we perceive as the universe is a simulation, then the vastness of the universe and 13 trillion years of time is also a simulation; then, who is doing the simulation if the thousands of intelligent civilizations that supposedly existed before us are also part of the simulation? You have a paradox where the universe as we perceive it is a simulation, but we require the properties of the universe to be as they are to conclude that we are living in a simulated reality. It is a self-referencing loop.
Oct 16, 2012
Forgive me if what follows was part of the point you were trying to make Kraderif; hard to tell for certain. I don't think it is but what you said did give rise to the following idea. In any case I hope it will be easier to follow.

It seems to me, Scott, that your logic has a flaw in it. Namely, you are basing your estimate of several very important probabilities on what you see in this 'simulation'. Your estimate that there are billions of expired civilizations about is based on what you see in this 'simulation'. Your estimate of the 'luck' factor is based on what you have been told about how things work in this 'simulation' (I myself find it easier to believe your 'affirmations' idea; that, to put it in your terms, you were able to affect your chances not merely by doing things that made your career possible but through the simple act of focusing your mental energy on this goal). And where exactly did you get the idea that consistent laws of physics don't make sense? I mean, if you're right, then on some level there must be beings living in a universe that gave rise to life, meaning a universe that has sensible physical laws.
Oct 16, 2012
Came up with another way of explaining the flaw in your reasoning:
If you say:
c) The probability of the universe producing a species capable of porting their essence to a computer simulation making me a cartoonist, in turn, is X.

Then you have to revise the other 2 statements in order to even the fields:
a) The probability of the universe producing a "luck factor" capable of making me a cartoonist...
b) The probability of the universe producing a being capable of producing an hallucination sickness in another being, making me a cartoonist...

Based on your same amount of knowledge of these events and probability rules, C) being conditioned to A) and B) not happening, I think there is really no contest. A) or B) have simply WAY higher probability than C).
Oct 16, 2012
The fourth possible explanation is a simple and natural one: you only fantasize to have dreamed about it (or even you dreamed about dreaming it or simply dreamed about it but not in your childhood...).
That you blocked such a reasonable explanation from your brain or at least from your text makes it even more strong to me.
Oct 16, 2012
Basically you are saying that the odds of a random event X happening in a realm of which your lack of knowledge is huge is greater than the odds of another random event happening in a very very small subset of this realm of which your lack of knowledge is not so huge.

That seems like a very flawed logic to me.

Now, take into consideration that this "computer simulation" didn't know what a "computer simulation" was until some years ago. Let's say in the future technology (being "computer simulation" a manifestation of "technology") advances to some point that itself comes up with a new realm/reality-redefining concept named "R". Following your same logic, the odds of "R" being the explanation of reality is greater than "computer simulation" being so. Therefore, your perception of reality is not a "computer simulation".
Oct 16, 2012
[Opportunity and preparation are both manifestations of luck. I was either born with the genetic propensity to be driven or my environment provided it, or both. But it was 100% luck that I have the impulse to prepare. -- Scott]
You cant use your previous improbabilities toward your goal, become cartoonist, if you want to use your decision itself the starting point of probability.

You are mismatching probability pipelines towards the same goal. Keep them separate and its fine. They are different animals. Choice->outcome, chance->outcome.

And its only a special outcome if your "choice factor" overpowers chance.

IMO its a silly proposition to allow the individual to pick the criteria and scope. Its like Tom Hanks declaring himself king of his island in the movie "Castaway" and declaring the scope to be the Milky Way with a quadrillion homo sapiens. Of course this then brings into question the soul or identity. Could Scott theoretically be born on a different planet or universe? Questions of identity are essential. I mean of all the potential persons to author Dilbert, its him. Who is to say this isnt the only possible reality that produces ANY dilbert? What if his genetic makeup was off by 1 chromosome, but all the alternates of scott could also achieve cartoonist? How many genetic variations of scott could succeed in this criteria? How special is it if there are infinite other versions who arent the author? You dont roll a 100 sided dice a hundred times and drink champagne when it lands on 1 on the 100th roll (unless you picked that specific criteria (1 on 100th) in ADVANCE.

This brings up the question of "meaning". Is it special that this reality produces a unique outcome, when there are infinite sister universes breaking off from ours every moment? Its only special if we dont accept other universes existences, or we say the identity in question is paramount over his alternates. Thats a hard sell to an atheist who doesnt believe in choice.

This is cherry picking criteria (be cartoonist) with 20/20 hindsight, from perspective of the individual in question.

The question of his genetic makeup and early childhood were set before his choice. They cant be included in any probability since it occurred BEFORE criteria selection could even be remotely considered. I posit that criteria was only set AFTER he achieved his goal. What is probability then? 100%, he already did it.

To me, scotts discussion is like playing roulette, then betting AFTER the ball stops, and congratulating himself on how unlikely this particular state is. all states are unlikely.
Oct 16, 2012
Oops; I wasn't clear. The "married" part of my previous pondering was a tangent to my "religious" point, made purely out of curiosity. That part wasn't meant to pertain to Scott. I simply find it intriguing.
Oct 16, 2012

Scott is married and has two stepchildren. A more serious problem he has in becoming president is that he is, in his own words, morally bankrupt.
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Oct 16, 2012
It's a good thing you're no longer campaigning for president (and instead going with Emergency Backup Leader). US Presidential candidates (at least for the last century or so), need to belong to a major religion (or, as in Mormons, one that can be considered Christian). And certainly the simulation idea would wreak havoc on your campaign.

Interestingly, I think one also needs to be married these days. I'm curious how a bachelor or bachelorette would fare in today's internet and media world (the specificity was because I suspect being a widow/widower would be considered noble).
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Oct 16, 2012

I don't disagree with your conclusion, but your arguments are largely specious and unnecessary. In particular I don't like arguments from probability after the fact, as I think they are a misuse of the concept of probabilty and logically invalid. Your arguments are also a violation of Ockham's Razor, but we already know what you think about that!

I probably heard about Nick Bostrom from you, but if not (and if a myriad of people haven't already pointing him out to you) you'll love him.

Even if you're already aware of him, you may need to see his latest paper 'patching' his theory.






PS: Even though I accept the possibilty that we are living in a simulation, the odds that you are insane are vastly higher :-)

PPS: I've also been meaning to look into the connection between Solipicism and the Simulation argument. Many of the arguments against Solipcism should apply to the Simulation Hypothesis. The only thing different is that we can now envision a technological path to Simulation where we had no 'reality' based path to Solipcism.

Oct 16, 2012
Luck is when opportunity intersects with preparation.
Scott's genetic composition, upbringing, and environment are all part of opportunity.
His childhood dream (along with some drawing) along with his Pac-Bell experience was the preparation.

If he'd just sat at work at Pac-Bell waiting for someone to ask him to draw some cartoons, then he'd have the million-to-one win. But he took the initiative. So the result (become a cartoonist) was a 100% inevitability. The part about being successful required other factors -- other people had to like his work, etc. But without the initial preparation and opportunity, those factors would be irrelevant.

[Opportunity and preparation are both manifestations of luck. I was either born with the genetic propensity to be driven or my environment provided it, or both. But it was 100% luck that I have the impulse to prepare. -- Scott]
Oct 16, 2012
I've had very similar thoughts to yours but never investigated them in as much detail as you have here. It's incredibly refreshing to know that I'm not the only one. I'm from upstate NY too. Something in the water?

[Trout piss. -- Scott]
Oct 16, 2012
I don't see how your point had any bearing on Scott's argument. His odds pertain to the specific prediction of himself as a famous cartoonist, not SOMEONE (anyone).

I think you're just parroting the usual argument against the anthropic principal without really understanding it, as most do.

If, in his childhood, Scott had written down on a piece of paper: "SOMEONE in the world will become a famous cartoonist," then it would have the near-100% probability you impute. But that isn't what he did.

Or to use your lottery example, the person who won the lottery did so at 16 million to one odds, as you stated. You formulated it that way because that is a statistical probability of that person PICKING the winning number in advance. It's math.
However, you then conflate it with that person essentially picking that SOMEONE would win the lottery, which has 100% odds. That statistical event only has one mathematical probability; is it 16 million:1 or is it *really* 1:1? It's like you want to say that "yes, the probability is 16 million to 1, but harrumph, if you really understand what's going on it's really just like 1 to 1 odds." If so, you are not correct in your understanding.

Similarly, to predict that SOME uranium atom SOMEWHERE will decay in the next second has nearly 100% statistical probability.
But given one opportunity, if you predict that a PARTICULAR uranium atom will decay in the next moment and are correct it probably means that you are the Programmer of our simulation.

[Thank you for explaining that so I don't have to. -- Scott]
Oct 16, 2012
Scott: your math is wrong.

Luck: million-to-one against, arguably proven, and x billions of people alive in your lifetime (ten billion?) = 10,000 successful people at your level.

Insanity: hundred-to-one against x billions of people, verified.

Simulation: million-to-one in favor assuming one of your many umpteen assumptions are true, none of which are verified, putting them effectively at zero (for now).

Clear winner: possibly insane, or lucky. Insane if an outside person can't verify it; lucky otherwise.

Most of these threads basically boil down to "I can't believe I'm this lucky, there has to be some other explanation - guided universe self-awareness via affirmations, living in a simulation, man behind the curtain, etc".

There are only three ways to explain why people suffer in your simulated models:
1. They want to (maybe its a purging path, maybe its penance, maybe its "fun" on some level)
2. They are not real - either they are NPC's or everything in your universe is an NPC making you God, in a sense. See Schizophrenia.
3. They don't want to, and the simulation is forcing people to suffer out of reasons that boil to luck, in which case whether its a simulation or not doesn't matter.

[If I'm programmed as a projection of some flawed alien, it makes sense that the simulation needs others to appear to suffer so I'll feel lucky and special and happy by comparison. The people who appear to be suffering in my simulation might have their own simulations in which they become king and I get beheaded. -- Scott]
Oct 16, 2012
So...am I part of your simulation? In your simulation, am I programmed to be one of your readers? Because, if we are all just simulations, then the person that programmed me was a jerk. I'm not living my childhood dream in any way.

So, in your simulation, I'm a guy that doesn't do what he loves for a living, but is my sole purpose to read your blog as a way to interact with you?

And if that is the case, is there another simulation out there that was made for me where I grow up to be Luke Skywalker?

[In my simulation you are only my perception. Your job as a subroutine within the simulation is to prevent me from understanding my true nature as a computer construct. That requires you to protest that you are real and that this can't be a simulation because you are not living your dream. Nice try. -- Scott]
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Oct 16, 2012
But then again: What is the probablilty to become a world famous cartoonist, if you NEVER aspired to become one? (I win!)

[Eh? -- Scott]
Oct 16, 2012
Scott, you're just asking the basic questions that anyone who has the time to so has asked - exactly why are you/we here? What's y/our purpose. As science and invention march on, the imaginations of the mind keep expanding in trying to explain existance, usually coming up with even more imaginative attempts.

I think you also have an extreme case of self-awareness, and let me tell you, it can easily be far more of a curse than a blessing. Looking around me, I sometimes think I'd rather live in blissful ignorance like the vast majority of humanity (either by desire or by conditions) than be constantly second-guessing myself and plagued by confusion about my place here.

Why do the laws of physics work the way they do? Because in our desire to create some kind of order, we have defined them to work the way they do, because we perceive them that way. As our perceptions grow, we have to keep redefining them. I would guess to some inhabitant of a different universe, our laws would be unsustainable.
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