The theme would seem to be the prerogative of science fiction stories and novels, but recently – also thanks to the push of increasingly good writers to deepen the inner topics as well as technological and give them an unthinkable depth until a few years ago – the reasoning has passed to psychologists and philosophers, giving rise to “fusion” arguments between various disciplines.
One of the experts who reflected on these aspects is Matthew Francis who in an articulated article on “Aeon” – a digital magazine of ideas, philosophy and culture – addresses this issue as a writer and scientific speaker specializing in physics, astronomy and the culture of science. .
Francis starts from the assumption that our species is not eternal and that somehow and in some time it will disappear forever without, probably, leaving traces. But before humanity disappears there is a good chance that it will be able to create a computer organism with enormous computing power, enough to emulate the human experience in all its infinite details. And since there is very little to get there (at least in theory), Francis wonders if in reality it has already happened: that is, we live in a computer simulation and the reality we experience is only part of the program?
Modern computer technology is extremely sophisticated and will become more and more so after the introduction of quantum computing, when thanks to extremely powerful machines, humanity will be able to perform large-scale simulations of more complex physical systems. Perhaps even managing to understand complete living organisms, such as human beings.
At first glance it might seem like a crazy idea, worthy of a 1940s sci-fi B-Movie, but in reality it is not. Some philosophers have recently argued that if we accept the complexity of computer hardware, it is quite possible that we are already part of a simulation, a virtual creation of humanity’s past. Three nuclear physicists have proposed a way to test this hypothesis, based on the concept that every scientific program makes simplifying hypotheses. In practice, if we really live in a simulation we might be able to use experiments to detect these hypotheses.
Both of these perspectives, one logical and the other empirical, take for granted the fact that we could live in a simulation without being able to distinguish the difference with reality. After all – says Francis – the results of the simulation experiment could also be explained without humanity living in a simulated world, and therefore the doubt remains: is there a way to understand if we live a simulated life or not?
In practice, if our descendants were interested in creating simulations of ancestors, could the untrue alternatives be so real as to allow our “avatars” to live experiences so precise that they surpass our own first-person experiences? Or, at least, those of human beings who actually existed in the fundamental reality? Provided, of course, that this reality exists or has existed …
Too complicated? Philosopher Nick Bostrom has provided a framework for solving this problem, arguing that we must take it for granted that one of the three statements is true. Or humans become extinct before they reach the technology that produces the simulation. Or the civilization that will come after us has little interest in creating and using this technology. Or we ourselves are probably part of a simulation. Bostrom states that, all things being equal, the chances of a conscious experience being a simulated experience are greater. There would be many more if the other two conditions (extinction or lack of interest) failed.
As we said, the idea that human consciousness is simulated is a cornerstone of science fiction, and Philip K. Dick is one of the leading exponents of this genre. His theories have been filmed in numerous films, the ones that deal with these issues more deeply are the series of “The Matrix”, which began in 1999. The world we know is a computer simulation to keep the brains of human beings occupied while giving bodies energy is collected. In practice they live as avatars in a completely immersive virtual reality environment, however the simulation is not perfect as some prepared minds can see the defects, so much so that those who live in the “real world” enter the Matrix.
Bostrom’s approach is different: for him the whole universe is a simulation, not just humanity, and every aspect of human life is part of the code, including our minds and interactions with the non-sentient parts of the program. In any case, the philosopher believes that a complete emulation of reality is not feasible even for the most powerful calculation systems. Not all the details are simulated, there is no need for the program to define all the particles in every detail, it is sufficient that they appear only when necessary to give life to a completely coherent reality. If we see a house from the outside, it is not necessary that the inside actually exists to believe that it exists. But when we enter there must be!
These philosophical speculations help to create scientific theories on otherwise unsolvable issues. For example, astronomers are certain that there are millions of planets inhabited by sentient beings in the universe, yet so far we have not seen any. Living in a simulation we could say that aliens are not part of the program.
A simulated universe could have been designed for the eventual development of life, or it could be the result of an experiment in which many parameters were tested before life was possible. Cosmologists are running similar, albeit much simpler, simulations to find out how likely our cosmos is to derive from random starting conditions. From a scientific point of view it is irrelevant if we cannot distinguish a simulated universe from a real one, whether or not we live in a simulation: this is our reality and it is all we have.
However, Bostrom goes further and in his argument on the simulation states that “if an error were to occur in the program, the person responsible could easily change the state and eliminate the anomaly before it ruins the simulation. Alternatively, you could go back a few seconds or minutes or hours, and repeat the event in order to avoid the problem “.