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

[How would you know if you were an NPC?]

That depends on your definition of NPC. If you mean 'part of the scenery; something the simulation provides as entertainment for the Real People that doesn't have consciousness' then the answer is if you can feel your consciousness then you're not an NPC. If your definition of NPC includes having consciousness then I suppose there really is no way you can know for certain, but would it matter? If you can feel your consciousness and, therefore, know you are conscious, that makes you just as real as the 'real people'.
Oct 16, 2012
A simulation would not include awareness of a simulation... it would be counterproductive.

[The only way to suppress that awareness from emerging would be to keep the simulated person artificially dumber than the creator. I would think the ego of the creator would prevent that from happening. -- Scott]
+6 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 16, 2012
"When you look for the boundaries of reality you always bump into a wall that defies common sense so aggressively that it looks intentional."

That's a good point.

"A third explanation is that I live in a simulation that was designed to satisfy my ambitions. "

That's not such a good point, because there are so many other people here whose life does not satisfy their ambitions.
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 16, 2012
Scott, you're just a special case of the weak anthropic principle and a basic misunderstanding of the laws of probability. Why are we here and able to observe the universe? Well, if the fundamental physical constants were slightly different, it would be impossible; life can only view a universe in which it can emerge. We just happen to be in one of those universes.

Why is Scott Adams a ragingly successful cartoonist? He was a highly motivated, independent person with a strong artistic and creative streak. I've met people like that; few of them last in the cubes. Eventually, they find something they love doing, or at least something that allows them to indulge in what they love doing. Some will be hugely successful, but !$%*!$%*!$%*! will play a role in it; for example, Scott has shown us both "Basic Instructions" and "Unfit" in his blog, but I've only seen "Basic Instructions" take off and endure in what I'd describe as even any vaguely successful way.

What was the difference between those two artists? Just the luck of the simulation? I'd argue it was self-selection and !$%*!$%*!$%* (also, I think Scott Meyer and Scott Adams made much more prudent artistic choices than Mike Belkin in their work).

Look online, and compare Penny Arcade, Ctrl Alt Del, and XKCD (the first is ragingly popular and even runs two huge gaming conventions every year, XKCD has a mixed result with both fans and detractors, and Ctrl Alt Del somehow makes its author money despite an appearance/perception of being almost universally loathed).

The point is there are lots of paths, lots of inclinations, and it's a combination of luck, talent, and being in the right place at the right time - not some magic programming that ensures things will happen. If "Dilbert" began today, I doubt it would take off; I bet it would have an Occupy Wall Street theme and immediately alienate one-third of the population (and the third that liked it probably wouldn't have any money or be inclined to pay for anything from a big mean corporation, heh).

As for me, my childhood dreams involved being an astronaut and governor of California, at the same time. Guess how close I came to either! The only accident I see is that I stumbled into acadamia by blind luck and while I don't like the politics of the professors, my function is one that is roughly analogous to a similar one in the corporate world. I just don't get treated like crap and I get better health care (at least until the Obamacare "Cadillac" tax kicks in). But what did I _think_ I was going to be doing, for years, before I had my current job? Financial programmer (due to strong skills in math, accounting, and finance).

What are the odds this "program" of Scott's gives people the life of their dreams? If we're to believe the stories of the "one percent," does that mean 99% of the simulation is NPC's or chum or irrelevant, and only Scott and company are special?

Back to probability - let's say the odds of getting hit by lighting are astronomically low; I think it's 1 in 100 million (better than winning the lottery). But risk management changes that - the odds of people who never go outside in rainstorms being hit by lightning and much lower than the same happening to the person who goes outside wrapped in aluminum foil, holding a golf club in each hand, dancing around on a puddle over a big metal plate in the road in a wide open space. But the odds are just the statistic, and don't take into account the specific !$%*!$%*!$%*! (conditional probability).

And the only comic I can't freakin' explain enduring is Ziggy (once parodied by Scott Adams himself as "Zippy the Piphead.")

[For every real and advanced civilization that can be explained by the anthropic principle there could be millions of simulated worlds they created. -- Scott]
+19 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 16, 2012
Your dreams came true, so we are all living in a computer simulation. Perhaps you can explain my life because I never dreamed of being fifty, single, short, bald, long term unemployed, a software engineer and being possessed of a hairy back. The only ambition of mine that ever came true was mountaineering in the Andes, and that cost me all of my redundancy money (Admittedly money well spent, but something I bought rather than achieved).

And if this is just your simulation, MAKE MY LIFE BETTER FOUR EYES!
-4 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 16, 2012
"Imagine you have a deck of a million playing cards.
Shuffle the deck and lay down the cards one by one in random order.

The odds of you laying down the cards in the exact order that you did was 1 in a million. But you just achieved exactly that."

@uhmdown: laying a million cards in the same order is 1:1 million????? You should be banned from this website. Or at least the comments section.
+5 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 16, 2012
hmmm. I had a vision of being a successful lawyer since I was about 8. I had clear visions of driving in luxury cars and wearing nice suits. I achieved all that and then became an alcoholic. Is alcohol a virus, if life is a computer simulation?
-1 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 16, 2012
Imagine you have a deck of a million playing cards.
Shuffle the deck and lay down the cards one by one in random order.

The odds of you laying down the cards in the exact order that you did was 1 in a million. But you just achieved exactly that.
The example of you becoming a cartoonist follows the same structure as my example, yet my example doesn't really seem to encourage a belief that we live in a computer simulation.

[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. -- Scott]
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 16, 2012
Taken Steve Job's sentiments on dropping acid to heart huh? Have you perhaps peered behind the veil of reality and seen the machine elves hard at work debugging quantum lines of code? While the idea that our existence resides within 'the mind of God' (essentially what you're describing) is abstractly intriguing; it's not provable just because people found ways to make the math work. Or because the laws of physics as we know them are almost completely repeatable via simulation. Or because it's a cool idea and we'd really really like it to be the case. We might live in a simulation, there might be life on other planets, Lady Gaga might be a man, but until stronger evidence is forth coming it's still just more or less informed albeit speculative theory.

[The core of the argument is the notion that any advanced civilization threatened with extinction would likely build simulations to give themselves some form of immortality, and over time there would be many more simulations than there are creators of simulations. Are you doubting that central assumption? -- Scott]
Oct 16, 2012
There is a school of thought that says that we ourselves are the creators of this simulation. As an infinite creator being one stimulating past time might be creating a kind of theatrical production that in every way seems real to the participants and perhaps to even some of the observers. A being of unlimited powers who might also wish to participate within this simulation of their own creating might even be capable of temporarily forgetting who they are for dramatic purposes and educational purposes. For a long time I've been suspicious of the seeming fact that we are unable to observe or interact with any life forms outside of this world, this seems like a "tell" to me. Also, the actors in this production seemingly come and go onto and off of this stage with no apparent place of origination or destination, this strikes me as very strange. I suppose we'll all find out soon enough just exactly what is going on as each of us takes our cue to exit the stage and return to the greater reality.
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 16, 2012
I don't think you understand statistics, Scott. An intelligent person achieving a career they obsess over is not exactly uncommon. Even if it were, you're one flippin person. Statistically speaking, everything you have ever done is meaningless and overwhelmed by the mass of humanity. None of this has any bearing whatsoever on whether the universe is a simulation. Actual evidence is the sort of scientific stuff being pursued in the article you link to, and as far as theorizing go, the odds are for us being a simulation ONLY because an advanced civilization would have many such simulations, such as we might have one day ourselves. The number of potential simulations is much much higher than the number of "real" universes.
+5 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 16, 2012
The simulation theory is an interesting one Scott.

Explain for if you would how some of the following groups of people fit into that theory.

1. Starving people in Africa being beset by war, famine, disease etc. Are they just there to make the rest of us feel better about ourselves? What's their purpose?

2. Psychopaths and other murderers and other such. Are they just random elements thrown into the program to spice things up or are they "people" who have woken up to the fact that it's all a simulation and realise that they can't actually die. They can do what they want and the worst is that they get reset into a different life in the simulation

3. Other "1st world" people who get dealt a !$%*!$ hand at birth. Again are they just part of the program or is there some reason why some people like you seem to be able to get everything good and others get handed turd sandwiches repeatedly?
Oct 16, 2012
The universe didn't start with an 'explosion'. It started with an expansion. If the laws of nature did change, it probably wouldn't last long at all, according to the mathematics (which is totally a human construct).
Oct 16, 2012
>In my specific case it would be irrational to believe I am anything but a simulation.

You haven't presented a single argument in favor of this being a simulation. (Figuring out early on what you have an aptitude for doesn't count). If you really believe this is a simulation, I'd suggest you don't probe for bugs, as you might inadvertently cause a seg fault/core dump.
Oct 16, 2012
I read recently that some scientists have done research on memories, vis-a-vis fear-inducing memories. The researchers determined that, if you were scared by something, it wasn't the event itself that made you repeat the fear whenever you think about it - it's the memory of that event rather than the event itself that causes it to be stored in the region of the brain that, when recalled, induces a fear reaction. By re-inducing the experience a number of times, researchers were able to blunt the effect and store the memory in a different part of the brain, thus reducing the fear component (if anyone wants a link to the article, let me know). The researchers think that this might have some applications in reducing traumatic events, such as PTSD.

The reason I bring this up is because Scott's memory may be a memory of something he thinks happened, rather than something that did happen. At the same time, I seem to recall that Scott thinks we're just a bunch of meat robots without the concept of free will. So us being a computer program would fall in line with that, unless you assume that one of the things our programmer coded was autonomous action.

But ultimately, it's pretty much a moot point. Cogito ergo sum. It doesn't matter. I'd rather spend my time enjoying my programming rather than wondering what my coding really says. It's more fun that way. But Scott, if you prefer the term "programmer" to "God," more power to you.

Oct 16, 2012
I believe we are in a simulation, and I am an NPC. There are billions of us. Only Scott Adams and Liam Neeson are real.
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 15, 2012
Reading this article brought back the fond memory of the first sequence in the Richard Linklater movie Slacker, where the passenger in a taxi is rattling on about his imagination and parallel realities. Good entertainment, Scott!
+12 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 15, 2012
Scott, once again you have shown your true philosophy of life is :

"I think, therefore, I am not."
+7 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 15, 2012
@delius1967 "You're making a common mistake when computing the likelihood of events,…"

He is making an error, but it is not in regards to the law of large numbers. He has already conditioned on the fact the events are happening to him not examining could this ever happen. Moreover in regards to am I a simulation, any events occurring to outside individuals would have to be ignored as possible programmed background. If I am a simulation in a program designed for me, then my consciousness is at most the only consciousness I can consider (if I can even consider that, but that is an entirely different mode of philosophy). I suppose I could just be a background program in a simulation designed for something else, but then why give me consciousness?

His error is based on the odds he gave he has a probability greater than 1. If we assume the first 2 odds are correct but we need to consider the joint probabilities with "and not a simulation" then we can fix it assuming luck and Insanity are mutually exclusive and they are the only 2 possible other reasons and they are independent of life being a simulation. These become:

Luck and not a simulation: about a trillion to 1 against,
Insane and not a simulation: about 101 million to 1 against.
Some other reason and not a simulation: just over a million to 1 against

I don’t know why I bother posting though, since either I'm the simulation, and Scott Adams, delius1967 and everyone else posting are just programmed stimuli to see how I react, or this post is just a programmed stimulus to see how Mr. Adams reacts, unless of course delius1967 is the consciousness being stimulated...
Oct 15, 2012
To whoever said they were an NPC i LOL on that one. (couldnt find your post)

If some of us are avatars of REAL users from a higher plane, it stands to reason some of us could be NPCs.

Its a great question. ive asked myself that question plenty of times. really plays into racist theology as well. some of them basically claim browns are all NPCs, calling them mud ppl.

What about the countless hominids before "Adam and Eve"?

How would you know if you were an NPC?
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