An interesting idea has reached the blackboards of scientists that would normally stay on the blackboards of philosophers. Simply put, are we real people in a real universe, or might we just be characters in a large computer simulation? This follows the reasoning presented in a BBC article earlier this month.
Well, what if the universe was made small enough relative to its creator to fit into one of the ‘test tubes’ in the lab, or was able to be represented as bits in a massive “universal computer game?” As a scientist, all I am qualified to ask is the following: how can we start a scientific discussion on the topic?
Philosopher Nick Bostrom suggests that there are only three possibilities. The first option is that intelligent civilizations will not ever conduct experiments such as constructing our entire universe in a ‘video game.’ This is because before they get sufficiently powerful to do so they are instead destroyed by war, disease, misuse of resources or the unhappy coincidence of a collision with a massive asteroid.
Second of all, perhaps a civilization does advance to that point but chooses not to conduct the experiment for moral/ethical reasons. Thirdly, a civilization did succeed and we are the result! Well, why would other beings build complex computer simulations anyway? Aren’t we just anthropomorphizing our latest penchant for video games onto them? Imagine that however many arms or legs or wings an advanced creature may have, they will find greater reach in their ability to explore, save, or conquer if they invent and then employ computers to solve their problems.
Humans have advanced computer technology astonishingly rapidly in the past 50 years. Imagine an advanced civilization that is 100,000 years or more ahead of us. Could their simulations be so powerful as to simulate, well… us?
Nobel laureate George Smoot asserts that of Dr. Bostrom’s three options, the first one is unlikely. While disease, war, and famine have threatened human existence, we have always managed to hang on to life. On option two, making a simulation may seem unethical if it serves to ascribe a false sense of consciousness onto us poor humans. But, what if another civilization sees a simulation instead as a more _ethical_ way to help life without actually conducting experiments on living things?
This leaves option 3, that we are a part of an ongoing experiment, not quite going away… If true, is there the possibility ever to find a ‘bug’ in the creator’s program?