Can we be sure that our world is real and not the product of a sophisticated computer simulation – or artificial reality? This question may sound like a scene from a science fiction movie, but it actually comes from an Oxford University philosopher. In this article we will look at Nick Bostrom’s simulation hypothesis and try to explain it in a simple and understandable way.
What is the simulation hypothesis?
The simulation hypothesis is a philosophical idea introduced by Nick Bostrom, a Swedish philosopher, in a 2003 paper. It assumes that future civilizations may have the technical capability and will to perform detailed simulations of their ancestors or other historical periods. If that is the case, then it is quite possible that we are in such a simulation right now.
In his paper, Bostrom formulates three scenarios, one of which must be true:
- Human civilizations die out before they reach the stage of a “posthuman” civilization that would be able to perform such simulations.
- Posthuman civilizations are not interested in running simulations of their ancestors.
- We almost certainly live in a simulation.
The argument is that if the first two conditions do not hold, then almost inevitably the third condition must hold.
What might such a simulation look like?
A “simulation” in this context is not simply a computer game or virtual reality as we know it. It is a completely realistic, digital replica of reality, so detailed and comprehensive that the beings living in it – that is, us – would not be able to distinguish it from “real” reality.
This means that according to Bostrom’s hypothesis not only our environment but also our consciousness and our thoughts could be part of the simulation. This concept is often portrayed as a “brain in a tank” where the brain is tricked into believing it is experiencing a “real” world through computer stimulation.
How can we tell if we are living in a simulation?
The short answer is: we can’t. At least not with our current technological and scientific understanding.
Bostrom argues that a posthuman civilization capable of such simulations would be so technologically advanced that its simulations would be indistinguishable from reality for the beings living in it. This means that it is currently impossible for us to prove or disprove the hypothesis.
The simulation hypothesis is a fascinating idea that has the potential to fundamentally challenge our perception of reality and our understanding of the world we live in. Even though this is a purely theoretical hypothesis that can currently neither be confirmed nor disproved, it does stimulate deep thought and philosophical discussion.
As disconcerting as the idea may be, it reminds us of an important fact: our understanding of reality is limited and shaped by our perspective. Whether we live in a simulation or not, the search for truth and understanding remains a central concern of human endeavor.