The Lonely Universe, Part Five: The Simulation Hypothesis

Stephen Baxter raised some intriguing thoughts in his paper The Planetarium Hypothesis: A Resolution of the Fermi Paradox (JBIS, May 2001).  The idea that we’re in a computer simulation which doesn’t generate extraterrestrials, and creates a kind of virtual reality planetarium, is a neat solution to the Paradox.  But could it really happen?

Sufficiently advanced aliens might indeed have the technology to produce an artificial cosmos thereby creating the illusion that we’re living in “our” universe.  However, the bigger the simulation, the more energy is needed to maintain it.  Stephen shows that there’s a limit to this – if human civilization ever expands throughout a region of space with a radius of around 100 light years, it would need a simulation beyond the capability of any aliens bound by currently known physical laws.  The human race is nowhere near there yet, so it’s possible we may be living in a simulated reality.

The idea that our perception of the world isn’t real has a long history.  The philosopher George Berkeley suggested as long ago as the early eighteenth century that material objects only exist in the minds of the perceivers – a precursor of modern quantum physics. Even earlier, Descartes posed the question: how can we know that the world around us is “real” – are we just a “brain-in-a-vat” which thinks it’s living in the real world?

The concept of our world-view being a simulation on the lines of a virtual reality computer game is, of course, much more recent.  An individual living in a false reality was the central theme of Philip K Dick’s 1959 novel Time Out of Joint.  In Simulacron-3, Daniel F. Galouye saw an entire city (actually created for market research purposes) where the inhabitants were unaware of their simulated status.

A whole universe which is false is a different ball-game entirely.  But Nick Bostrom, director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University, has argued that Stephen’s simulation hypothesis stands a good chance of being true, and is actually more likely than not.  The 1999 science fiction film The Matrix is probably the best-known recent example of a world which is no more than a computer simulation.  Should you take the blue pill, which keeps you in our own (false) world; or the red pill, where you enter a terrifying “reality”?  The question is: who’s telling the truth? If Morpheus is lying and our own world’s the real one after all, you’ve messed up big time by taking the red pill.  Blue pill every time, if you ask me!

And that’s the problem – whichever way you view these questions there’s simply no way of telling what’s real.

As Stephen Baxter says in his article, it might be impossible to prove that our universe is real; but it only needs “one chink in the roof of the planetarium” to prove it false.  So far, there aren’t any. So, at least for the time being, we have every right to assume that our universe is what it seems to be.  Our loneliness in this cosmos is a simple fact, and not the result of some piece of software.  But, as Bostrom has pointed out, how can we trust that our memories aren’t programmed to filter out any “chinks” we may have seen?  Like the universe itself (whether it’s real or artificial), this sort of reasoning can just go on and on…..

Richard Hayes, FBIS
Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

BIS Member Stephen Baxter (right), seen here with Fred Clarke, has proposed a unique solution to the Fermi Paradox.

Human beings as battery farm animals, powering a deceptive simulation of reality: Neo realises the truth in “The Matrix.”

The grand master of shifting realities: Philp K. Dick explores the ambiguous borders of reality and illusion in one of his many stories on this theme.

The machines take over, controlling human destiny: a plot line as popular now as it was when Daniel F. Galouye penned this novel in 1964.





















































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