Simulated reality

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Simulated reality describes a hypothetical environment that, although experienced as real, is actually a highly detailed simulation of reality. Unlike the currently technologically achievable concept of virtual reality, which is easily distinguished from the experience of "real" reality, a simulated reality would be impossible to tell apart from "real" reality. Hyperreality describes postmodern ideas regarding the perceptions of reality which in some ways parallel this concept.

The modern version of this involves a thought experiment along the lines of imagining that the person experiencing the simulated reality is somehow plugged into a computer of immense power that is programmed with all the rules of the simulation, and provides them with all of their sensory input. A deeper thought experiment may even assume that the person experiencing the simulation is itself simulated within the simulation, and may have no physical existence at all outside of the simulation.

Two philosophical questions, and one ethical question, arise immediately:

  • is it, even in principle, possible to tell whether we are in a simulated reality or a real one?
  • is there any difference between the two? Does it matter?
  • how should we behave if we knew that we were living in a simulated reality?

Simulated people in simulated reality

Several people have pointed out that if a human brain is analyzed in sufficient detail, the mechanism of that brain might be electronically simulated. The result would behave as an electronic duplicate of the original human brain, as occurs in mind transfer. Whether the speed is similar to the normal speed of a brain would affect how it could interact with the real world. Gathering enough detail is neither possible nor practical, at present in the early 21st century. Science fiction authors have noted various difficulties which such a being may encounter, such as its existence being legally recognized, the right to own property, and the relationships with the original and other duplicates of itself.

Is this a simulated reality?

The simulation argument, due to the philosopher Nick Bostrom, investigates the possibility that we may be living in a simulation. The argument attempts to prove the disjunction of three hypotheses:


  • the human race will never reach a level of technology where we can run convincing reality simulations; or
  • races who do reach such a level do not tend to run such simulations; or
  • we are almost certainly living in such a simulation.

His argument uses the premise that given sufficiently advanced technology, it is possible to simulate entire inhabitated planets or even larger habitats or even entire universes as quantum simulations in time/space pockets, including all the people on them, on a computer, and that simulated people can be fully conscious, and are as much persons as non-simulated people are.

If we then assume that the human race could reach such a technological level without destroying themselves in the process (i.e. we deny the first hypothesis); and that once we reached such a level we would still be interested in history, the past, and our ancestors, and that there would be no legal or moral strictures on running such simulations (we deny the second hypothesis) - then

  • it is likely that we would run a very large number of so-called ancestor simulations;
  • and that many of these simulations would in turn run other sub-simulations, and so on;
  • and given the fact that right now it is impossible to tell whether or not we are living in one of the vast number of simulations or the original ancestor universe, the likelihood is therefore that we are.

Assumptions as to whether the human race (or another intelligent species) could reach such a technological level without destroying themselves depend greatly on an expansion of the Drake's equation, which predicts the number of intelligent technological species communicating via radio in a galaxy at any given point in time. The expanded equation looks to the number of posthuman civilizations that ever would exist in any given universe. If the average for all universes, real or simulated, is greater than or equal to one such civilization existing in each universes entire history, then odds are rather overwhelmingly in favor of the proposition that the average such civilization is living in a simulation, assuming that such simulated universes are possible and such civilizations would want to run such simulations.

A number of criticisms of the simulation argument exist. Some consider the idea little more than a rehashing of the idea put forth in the middle ages, that the world is the dream of a demon, or Hilary Putnam's "brain in a vat" scenario. Critics assert that the Simulation Argument is merely a more modern and plausible spin on an old concept.

Others see the proposition itself as having little to no real life applications, since the claim is essentially unprovable in any concrete sense, and any "evidence" that is directly observed could be another simulation itself. This is akin to an infinite regress problem with the argument. Even if we are a simulated reality, there is no way to be sure the people running the simulation are not themselves a simulation, and the operators of THAT simulation are not a simulation, ad infinitum. Given the premises of the simulation argument, any reality, even one running a simulation, has no better or worse chances of being a simulation than any other.

Another criticism that can be made is that even if this is a "simulation", it is still the only "Reality" we have ever known, and we have no example of a non simulated reality to compare it to, so this is still, in a sense, "reality" as we understand it.

Incorporating the above objections of infinite regress and the problem that all realities have an equal likelihood of being simulations, it is questionable that any "evidence" can exist of non simulated reality, as one could always claim that, with sufficient technological sophistication, even supposed evidence for a non-simulated reality could itself be an illusion. In the end, making any distinction between reality and simulation is, using the terms and criteria of the simulation argument, essentially impossible.

Some may object that such real world applications are not the point, but they would find themselves in agreement with the critics, however unwittingly, in asserting that the claim is completely abstract.

One can also make an argument that even if reality "appears" to be a simulation, that could just be an illusion masking the reality that we are some other sort of illusion, but that brings us to the infinite regress problem again.

Simulated reality in fiction

Simulated reality is a theme that pre-dates science fiction. In Medieval and Renaissance religious theatre, the concept of the world as a theater is frequent. Works, early and contemporary, include:

See also

External links

de:Simulierte Realität