Elon Musk has brought the issue of whether we are a simulation to the attention of the public. However, he failed to provide the best arguments for his position. Here are three more powerful arguments.
What is Musk's argument? In a nutshell, there are more simulations than real worlds. Academics simulate "toy worlds" all the time; there are likely hundreds of billions of such simulations. On top of those simulations, there are hundreds of billions of games. Today, those simulations are rudimentary compared to the world we inhabit, but at today's rate of progress, these simulations will get progressively more detailed and accurate. At some point they will become indistinguishable from the world we inhabit. Then the force of the probabilities -- most people are simulated rather than real -- dictates that almost surely, Musk is right.
However, there are at least three other arguments that support this perspective.
First, there is the unreasonable success of mathematics in describing the universe. If the motion of the planets were a much more complicated function than a quadratic, would humanity ever have discovered it? If relativistic effects mattered at earth-level speeds, could an Isaac Newton have been possible? It is almost as if the universe left breadcrumbs for us to uncover. Or, perhaps, a programmer intentionally made it possible to discover. Mathematics works in our universe because the universe is code, not a physical universe, and coders use simple formulae where possible.
Second, the quantum theory tells us that whether light is a particle or a wave depends on whether we look. If this isn't a programming hack, what is it? You can almost see the software developers discussing this, when they discover two teams have written their code in an incompatible way. 'We need light to behave like a particle so that we can have detectors…but it needs to be a wave too…let's just make it depend on whether anyone is trying to measure or not.' The quantum theory is completely outlandish; Nobel laureate Richard Feynman called it absurd. But as a programming short-cut -- let's make it whatever we need it to be depending on context -- quantum mechanics makes good sense. Light has an incomprehensible dual nature because two programming teams didn't coordinate, a failure of program management.
Third, there are many other outlandish phenomena that make much better sense as programming tricks. Foremost among these are placebo effects, consciousness, and dreams. Placebo effects are real; perhaps more extreme are people who are misdiagnosed dying. We wouldn't believe in the placebo effect except that it is consistently replicable. We have a strong sense of our consciousness and the free will to make choices, yet every philosopher has struggled to make sense of free will and it is not too controversial to say that all have failed. Free will and consciousness make some sense as programming components, where the pieces "stand alone." Sure, we don't actually get to decide what to do (the program dictates that) but our code is independent from the rest of the system. Dreams are too real and relevant to be 'brain repair' or 'memory setting' yet too outlandish and bizarre to be communication from the subconscious mind. Indeed, like the quantum theory, dreams seem to have a dual nature. I'm not sure what to make of dreams as programming; it almost seems like our circuitry is being tested on some other inputs. But not only dreams, but also sleep, is pretty unfathomable from an evolutionary perspective -- sleep is a vulnerable state; there should have been strong pressure to rest without sleeping, the way 'instant start' devices work. Placebos, consciousness, and dreams are three conundrums of human existence that might be byproducts of programming hacks; certainly we don't have an alternative explanation that is superior.
A related but weaker argument than these is the continuing discovery of programming 'easter eggs': delightful surprises hidden in code of our world, in the physical world and in life itself.
Finally, if our world is a simulation, should you behave differently? First, you might be tempted to say that really bad behavior doesn't matter -- only bits are harmed, not actual individuals. But that is naïve; indeed, perhaps your best bet for an enjoyable life is to be good, as perhaps the programmer has instituted karma or hell or some other retribution for bad behavior. Wouldn't you, if you were writing a complex simulation?
Posted June 6, 2016.