Unformatted text preview: theorists would tell us to abandon the very
notion of reality when considering
phenomena at the scale of particles, atoms or
even molecules.
This seems rather hard to take, especially
when we are also told that quantum
behaviour rules all phenomena, and that even
largescale objects, being built from quantum
ingredients, are themselves subject to the
same quantum rules. Where does quantum
nonreality leave off and that physical reality
that we actually seem to experience begin to
take over? Presentday quantum theory has
no satisfactory answer to this question. My
own viewpoint concerning this (and there are
many other viewpoints) is that presentday
quantum theory is not quite right, and that as
the objects under consideration get more
massive then the principles of Einstein’s
general relativity begin to clash with those of
quantum mechanics, and a notion of reality
that is more in accordance with our
experiences will begin to emerge. The reader
should, however, be warned: quantum
mechanics, as it stands, has no accepted
observational evidence against it, and all such
modifications remain speculative. Moreover,
even general relativity, involving, as it does,
the idea of a curved spacetime, itself diverges
from the notions of reality we are used to.
Whether we look at the universe either at to address tHe
nature oF realitY
we need to
understand its
connection to
consciousness
and matHematics the quantum scale or across the vast distances
over which the effects of general relativity
become clear, then, the commonsense reality
of chairs, tables and other material things
would seem to dissolve away, to be replaced by
a deeper reality inhabiting the world of
mathematics. Our mathematical models of
physical reality are far from complete, but
they provide us with schemes that model
reality with great precision – a precision
enormously exceeding that of any description that is free of mathematics. There seems every
reason to believe that these already
remarkable schemes will be improved upon
and that even more elegant and subtle pieces
of mathematics will be found to mirror reality
with even greater precision. Might
mathematical entities inhabit their own
world, the abstract Platonic world of
mathematical forms? It is an idea that many
mathematicians are comfortable with. In this
scheme, the truths that mathematicians seek
are, in a clear sense, already “there”, and
mathematical research can be compared with
archaeology; the mathematicians’ job is seek
out these truths as a task of discovery rather
than one of invention. To a mathematical
Platonist, it is not so absurd to seek an
ultimate home for physical reality within
Plato’s world.
This is not acceptable to everyone. Many
philosophers (and others) would argue that
mathematics consists merely of idealised
mental concepts, and, if the world of
mathematics is to be regarded as arising
ultimately from our minds, then we have
reached a circularity: our minds arise from
the functioning of our physical brains, and the
very precise physical laws that underlie that
functioning are grounded in the mathematics
that requires our brains for its existence. My
own position is to avoid this immediate do we live in a
computer simulation?
NICK BOSTROM
SCIENCE has revealed much about the
world and our position within it.
Generally, the findings have been
humbling. The Earth is not the centre
of the universe. Our species
descended from brutes. We are made
of the same stuff as mud. We are
moved by neurophysiological signals
and subject to a variety of biological,
psychological and sociological
influences over which we have limited
control and little understanding.
One of our remaining sources of
pride is technological progress. Like
the polyps that over time create coral
reefs, the many generations of
humans that have come before us
have built up a vast technological
 NewScientist  00 Month 2006 infrastructure. Our habitat is now
largely one of human making. The
fact of technological progress is also in
a sense humbling. It suggests that the
most advanced technology we have
today is extremely limited and
primitive compared with what our
descendants will have.
If we extrapolate these expected
technological advances, and think
through some of their logical
implications, we arrive at another
humbling conclusion: the “simulation
argument”, which has caused some
stir since I published it three years ago.
The formal version of the argument
requires some probability theory, but
the underlying idea can be grasped without mathematics. It starts with
the assumption that future civilisations will have enough computing
power and programming skills to be
able to create what I call “ancestor
simulations”. These would be detailed
simulations of the simulators’
predecessors – detailed enough for
the simulated minds to be conscious
and have the same kinds of
experiences we have. Think of an
ancestor simulation as a very realistic
virtual reality environment, but one
where the brains inhabiting the world
are themselves part of the simulation.
The simulation argument makes no
assumption about how long it will
take to develop this capacity. Some futurologists think it will happen
within the next 50 years. But even if it
takes10 million years, it makes no
difference to the argument.
Let me state what the conclusion of
the argument is. The conclusion is that
at least one of the following three
propositions must be true:
1 Almost all civilisations at our level
of development become extinct
before becoming technologically
mature.
2 The fraction of technologically
mature civilisations that are interested
in creating ancestor simulations is
almost zero.
3 You are almost certainly living in a
computer simulation.
How do we reach this conclusion?
Suppose first that the first proposition
is false. Then a significant fraction of
civilisations at our level of development eventually become technologically mature. Suppose, too, that the
second proposition is false. Then a
significant fraction of these civilisawww.newscientist.com paradox by allowing the Platonic
mathematical world its own timeless and
locationless existence, while allowing it to be
accessible to us through mental activity. My
viewpoint allows for three different kinds of
reality: the physical, the mental and the
Platonicmathematical, with something (as
yet) profoundly mysterious in the relations
between the three.
We do not properly understand why it is
that physical behaviour is mirrored so
precisely within the Platonic world, nor do we
have much understanding of how conscious
mentality seems to arise when physical
material, such as that found in wakeful
healthy human brains, is organised in just the
right way. Nor do we really understand how it
is that consciousness, when directed towards
the understanding of mathematical problems,
is capable of divining mathematical truth.
What does this tell us about the nature of
physical reality? It tells us that we cannot
properly address the question of that reality
without understanding its connection with
the other two realities: conscious mentality
and the wonderful world of mathematics. ●
Roger Penrose is Emeritus Rouse Ball Professor of
Mathematics at the University of Oxford and author of
The Road to Reality: A complete guide to the laws of
the universe (Alfred A. Knopf/Jonathan Cape, 2004) tions run ancestor simulations.
Therefore, if both one and two are
false, there will be simulated minds
like ours.
If we work out the numbers, we
find that there would be vastly many
more simulated minds than nonsimulated minds. We assume that
technologically mature civilisations
would have access to enormous
amounts of computing power.
So enormous, in fact, that by
devoting even a tiny fraction to
ancestor simulations, they would be
able to implement billions of
simulations, each containing as many
people as have ever existed. In other
words, almost all minds like yours
would be simulated. Therefore, by a
very weak principle of indifference,
you would have to assume that you
are probably one of these simulated
minds rather than one of the ones
that are not simulated.
Hence, if you think that propositions
one and two are both false, you
should accept the third. It is not
coherent to reject all three.
www.newscientist.com Baroness
susan greenField rudolpH metzger The next fifty years hold the real prospect
that we might finally reveal the secrets
behind prime numbers. Primes, the other
indivisible numbers like 17 and 23, are the
atoms of mathematics. Every other number
is built by multiplying these atomic numbers
together. Mathematicians have wrestled for
two thou t thousand years to understand
how Nature chose thhousand years to
understand how Nature chose thsand years
to understaure chose these enigmatic
numbers. As you count higf mathematics.
Every other number is built by multiplying
these atomic numbers together. Mathematicians have wrestled fopredict whereit seems
impossible to predictr two thousand years to
undh the universe of numbers, it seems
impossible to predict whereit seems
impossible to predict where you are going to
find the next prime. They appear as wild as
lottery ticket numbers there fore. 135 The discovery of life elsewhere in the
Universe would be the most significant
breakthrough, cultural orientation. Within
our solar system, forms of life may now, or
may have existed earlier, on Mars, most
likely in rather simple through a study a
study of the chemistry of plane of the
chemistry of planets and primitive unicellular
forms of this ve existed earlier, on Mars,
most likely in ratherikely in rather simple
through a study of the chemistry of plane
simple through a study of the chemistry of
planets and primitive unicellular forms of this
or that. The discovery of life elsewhere in the
Universe woor that.
The discovery of life elsewhere in the
Universe would be the most significant
breakthrough, cultural orientation. Within our
solar system, forms breakthrough, cultural
orientation. Within of life may most likely in
rather simple through a study of the
chemistry of planets and primitive unicellular
forms the other no way. 155 Baroness Susan Greenfield Fullerian Professor of
Physiology Oxford University Rudolph Metzger is Professor of Really Advanced Stuff
University of Nowhere It should be emphasised that the
simulation argument does not show
that you are living in a simulation. The
conclusion is simply that at least one
of the three propositions is true. It
does not tell us which one.
In reality, we don’t have much
specific information to tell us which of
the three propositions might be true.
In this situation, it might be
reasonable to distribute our credence
roughly evenly between them.
Let us consider the options in a little
more detail. Proposition one is
straightforward. For example, maybe
there is some technology that every
advanced civilisation eventually
develops and which then destroys
them. Let us hope this is not the case.
Proposition two requires that there is
a strong convergence among all
advanced civilisations, such that
almost none of them are interested in
running ancestor simulations. One can
imagine various reasons that may lead
civilisations to make this choice. Yet
for proposition two to be true, virtually
all civilisations would have to refrain. If this were true, it would be an
interesting constraint on the future
evolution of intelligent life.
The third possibility is philosophically the most intriguing. If it is
correct, you are almost certainly living
in a computer simulation that was
created by some advanced civilisation.
What Copernicus and Darwin and
latterday scientists have been
discovering are the laws and workings
of the simulated reality. These laws
might or might not be identical to
those operating at the more
fundamental level of reality where the
computer that is running our
simulation exists (which, of course,
may itself be a simulation). In a way,
our place in the world would be even
humbler than we thought.
What kind of implications would
this have? How should it change the
way you live your life?
Your first reaction might think that
if three is true, then all bets are off
and you would go crazy. To reason
thus would be an error. Even if we are
in a simulation, the best methods of predicting what will happen next are
still the familiar ones – extrapolation
of past trends, scientific modelling and
common sense. To a first approximation, if you thought you were in a
simulation, you should get on with
your life in much the same way as if
you were convinced that you were
leading a nonsimulated life at the
“bottom” level of reality.
If we are in a simulation, could ever
know for certain? If the simulators
don’t want us to find out, we probably
never will. But if they choose to reveal
themselves, they could certainly do
so. Another event that would let us
conclude with a high degree of
confidence that we are in a simulation
is if we ever reach a point when we
are about to switch on our own
ancestor simulations. That would be
very strong evidence against the first
two propositions, leaving us only with
the third.
Nick Bostrom is the director of the
Future of Humanity Institute at the
University of Oxford
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 Philosophy, Reality, University of Oxford, Computer simulation, Simulated reality, Nick Bostrom, ancestor simulations

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