Simulated Living

One of the oldest problems in philosophy is that of the external world. It present an epistemic challenge forged by the skeptics: how do I know that what I seem to be experiencing as the external world is really real for real? Early skeptics often claimed that what seems real might be just a dream. Descartes upgraded the problem through his evil genius/demon which used either psionic or supernatural powers to befuddle its victim. As technology progressed, philosophers presented the brain-in-a-vat scenarios and then moved on to more impressive virtual reality scenarios. One recent variation on this problem has been made famous by Elon Musk: the idea that we are characters within a video game and merely think we are in a real world. This is, of course, a variation on the idea that this apparent reality is just a simulation. There is, interestingly enough, a logically strong inductive argument for the claim that this is a virtual world.

One stock argument for the simulation world is built in the form of the inductive argument generally known as a statistical syllogism. It is statistical because it deals with statistics. It is a syllogism by definition: it has two premises and one conclusion. Generically, a statistical syllogism looks like this:


Premise 1: X% of As are Bs.

Premise 2: This is an A.

Conclusion: This is a B.


The quality (or strength, to use the proper term) of this argument depends on the percentage of As that are B. The higher the percentage, the stronger the argument. This makes good sense: the more As that are Bs, the more reasonable it is that a specific A is a B.  Now, to the simulation argument.


Premise 1: Most worlds are simulated worlds.

Premise 2: This is a world.

Premise 3: This is a simulated world.


While “most” is a vague term, the argument is stronger than weaker in that if its premises are true, then the conclusion is logically more likely to be true than not. Before embracing your virtuality, it is worth considering a rather similar argument:


Premise 1: Most organisms are bacteria.

Premise 2: You are an organism.

Conclusion: You are a bacterium.


Like the previous argument, the truth of the premises make the conclusion more likely to be true than false. However, you are almost certainly not a bacteria. This does not show that the argument itself is flawed. After all, the reasoning is quite good and any organism selected truly at random would most likely be a bacterium. Rather, it indicates that when considering the truth of a conclusion, one must consider the total evidence. That is, information about the specific A must be considered when deciding whether or not it is actually a B. In the bacteria example, there are obviously facts about you that would count against the claim that you are a bacterium—such as the fact that you are a multicellular organism.

Turning back to the simulation argument, the same consideration is in play. If it is true that most worlds are simulations, then any random world is more likely to be a simulation than not. However, the claim that this specific world is a simulation would require due consideration of the total evidence: what evidence is there that this specific world is a simulation rather than real? This reverses the usual challenge of proving that the world is real to trying to prove it is not real. At this point, there seems to be little in the way of evidence that this is a simulation. Using the usual fiction examples, we do not seem to find glitches that would be best explained as programming bugs, we do not seem to encounter outsiders from reality, and we do not run into some sort of exit system (like the Star Trek holodeck). Naturally, this is all consistent with this being a simulation—it might be well programmed, the outsider might never be spotted (or never go into the system) and there might be no way out. At this point, the most reasonable position is that the simulation claim is at best on par with the claim that the world is real—all the evidence is consistent with both accounts. There is, however, still the matter of the truth of the premises in the simulation argument.

The second premise seems true—whatever this is, it seems to be a world. It seems fine to simply grant this premises. As such, the first premise is the key—while the logic of the argument is good, if the premise is not plausible then it is not a good argument overall.

The first premise is usually supported by its own stock argument. The reasoning includes the points that the real universe contains large numbers of civilizations, that many of these civilizations are advanced and that enough of these advanced civilizations create incredibly complex simulations of worlds. Alternatively, it could be claimed that there are only a few (or just one) advanced civilizations but that they create vast numbers of complex simulated worlds.

The easy and obvious problem with this sort of reasoning is that it requires making claims about an external real world in order to try to prove that this world is not real. If this world is taken to not be real, there is no reason to think that what seems true of this world (that we are developing simulations) would be true of the real world (that they developed super simulations, one of which is our world).  Drawing inferences from what we think is a simulation to a greater reality would be like the intelligent inhabitants of a Pac Man world trying to draw inferences from their game to our world. This would be rather problematic.

There is also the fact that it seems simpler to accept that this world is real rather than making claims about a real world beyond this one. After all, the simulation hypothesis requires accepting a real world on top of our simulated world—why not just have this be the real world?


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  1. Kevin Henderson

    A recent discussion is worth a glance:

    A simulated universe may not even be possible (too expensive in terms of energy and information). Also it may never be possible to distinguish a real universe from a simulated one even if the premises are implausible.

  2. Dennis Sceviour

    A simulated universe is a classic error for both physicists and philosophers. Simulators try to model an open-entropy universe assuming closed-entropy.

  3. Seems to me that Nick Bostrom did a much more thorough job of this:

  4. Quite possibly I am misunderstanding the logic behind these arguments and do not fully understand the function of a statistical syllogism For instance:-
    Premise 1: Most worlds are simulated worlds.
    Premise 2: This is a world.
    Premise 3: This is a simulated world.

    This can surely be expressed as:-
    Premise 1 Some worlds are simulated
    Premise 2 This is a world
    Premise 3 This is a simulated world
    which is plainly a defective syllogistic argument so far as logic is concerned.
    Surely the best one could get out of this is to say
    Premise 1: Most worlds are simulated worlds.
    Premise 2: This is a world.
    Premise 3: This is marginally more likely to be a simulated world than not.

    I am additionally unable to understand on what grounds the first premise i.e. “Most worlds are simulated” can be taken as true. How many worlds are there? How could it be ascertained that most of them are simulated? This seems to assert there are a limited number of worlds and it has been ascertained that at least just over half of them have been examined and found to be simulated.
    I think if it is wonderment that one may be seeking, far better to become acquainted with the mysteries of quantum theory. I will not get details here and in fact I am no expert, but I do understand that states of affairs which are apparent in quantum theory are not in accord with the world as we understand it. However the mathematical basis which supports quantum theory firmly supports that the above mentioned states of affairs do exist, and are part of nature, which I repeat, is not in accord with the world as it is revealed to us on a daily basis.

  5. Mike and others;

    What is the definition of a simulated world?

    The perception of the universe is limited or constrained by sensory input for every organism; therefore the representation of external reality is imperfect. Examples; bats have a very different representation of reality than dogs. The same for humans and any other specie. In the case of humans we can add to this memory, habits and culture and we can have many points of view of what is happening.

    But that does not mean the the input/external reality is simulated, and probably neither our understanding of it. Because it is actually happening. Our emotional minds respond equally to a movie, news, pictures or in person real events, but the events are happening as well as our perception of them. Then what does simulation mean, what is simulation? Is there something simulating something we believe as real? Is that the thinking? If it is, isn’t it complicated, very complicated and not a simple explanation?

    Forgive me for the quick thoughts, but I love the questions and would love to discuss it with all of you.
    Thank you

  6. Dennis Sceviour

    Wiki interestingly quotes,

    “If we are living in a simulation, then it’s possible that our simulation could get shut down. Many futurists have speculated about how we can avoid this outcome. Ray Kurzweil argues in The Singularity is Near that we should be interesting to our simulators, and that bringing about the Singularity is probably the most interesting event that could happen.”

    As I understand, the theory of Singularity is simply self-improvement cycles in a computer algorithm. This is becoming technologically possible. The idea of reciprocity (interest to our simulators) might produce unexpected results including computer agency and adaptation.

  7. It seems to me that the belief we are living in a simulation has similarities to religious belief. We may believe it fervently but are unable to prove it satisfactorily. This is why I mentioned earlier quantum theory, wherein we have certain states of existence which are to human mind logically and practically impossible. However so far as I know, unlike simulation theory, quantum theory has a firm and indisputable mathematical background to support it. The story goes that any quantum physicist who seeks to doubt or query what this entails in the world is told by his fellow physicists to shut up and calculate. Such exactitude, does not so far as I know, attach itself to the concept of simulation.
    Speaking of simulation I feel inclined to ask a simulation of what? If this be a simulation, then where is the real thing? Again if it be a simulation do we have free will or does our every movement and thought have its origin elsewhere?

  8. Hi Don,

    With reference to your first comment of Aug 23, 8:54 am…

    I don’t think you are correct in saying the first ‘most worlds’ argument can ‘surely be expressed’ by the ‘some worlds’ argument you present. Obviously ‘some worlds…’ is entailed by ‘most worlds…’ but clearly it doesn’t work the other way around. That is to say, to bluff a bit with the old terminology, ‘some worlds are simulated’ is a mere subaltern of ‘most worlds are simulated’. So one can’t substitute the former for the latter and be particularly surprised to find that what one ends up with is “plainly a defective syllogistic argument so far as logic is concerned”. At least it seems one can’t infer anything very much from it. I don’t, however, think any of this matters at all to what I take to be your main (first) point.

    You say we can’t conclude the ‘some worlds’ argument with “This world is simulated” but ‘at best’ “This is [marginally] more likely to be a simulated world than not”. Now, I am inclined to say that (taking the ‘some worlds’ argument in isolation without questioning its premises) “This is more likely to be a simulated world than not”’ does indeed seem a better ‘attitude’ or belief to come away with than “This is a simulated world”. But the untutored concern I have here shows up – in my mind at any rate – if we ask just what “This is more likely to be a simulated world than not” would mean if it were the explicit conclusion of the ‘some worlds’ argument. It seems to me that, if we unpack it, all it could possibly mean is something like “we should expect with x level of certitude that this is a simulated world”. And thus, if I’m right, in your preferred conclusion we’d have a disguised ‘ought’ derived from ‘is’ premises. I’m thinking perhaps a syllogism like this can *show* your preferred conclusion to be the warranted one but that it can’t actually *say* it.

    I may well be way off the mark here – as well as off on a bit of a tangent – what do you think yourself? I do have an intuitive, if untutored, sympathy for what I take to be your idea that if there is a qualification of proportion in the major premise of a syllogism then some such qualification should ‘carry forward’ and show up in the conclusion. But, it seems, statistical syllogisms don’t (typically?) run like that. So, I was trying to get clear on quite why…

  9. The problem of simulation is unlikely to be solved by logic alone, which is a function of reason. It would be the equivalent of attempting to fit an ocean into a lake. The world (earth) is just one planet within a universe. If the universe were a dream starting with an idea, which generates energy, which in turn generates matter, there would be at least three major Dimensions. Each Dimension, the causal, the astral, and the material could have its own dimensions. It is unlikely there would be space or time in the causal Dimension, unlike the astral and material Dimensions whose very nature would require dimensions in order to exist. New universes with new worlds within them could pop up spontaneously and be in different stages of evolution, from the most primitive to the most advanced. The possibility of an advanced race being able to dream a universe containing dream worlds would not be beyond the realm of what is possible, or probable.

  10. Re- Jim P Aug 24th
    At the time it was with some trepidation I must admit that I suggested Some and Most were in a sense synonymous, and this obviously now is not the case although there are similarities. Additionally this argument is stated to be in the nature of an inductive argument. Mike has stated that “the simulation world is built in the form of the inductive argument generally known as a statistical syllogism. It is statistical because it deals with statistics. It is a syllogism by definition: it has two premises and one conclusion”. By the use of “some”, I have turned it into a false deductive argument which is beside te case.
    If this argument is in the nature of a inductive argument first question must surely be to ask under what circumstances and how has the first premise been established what method has been used. This is common practice in science and most papers published in respect thereto deal thoroughly with the method and how it leads to the conclusion. Thus so far as I can see we do need to understand exactly how the first premise in this case was established i.e. “Most worlds are simulated worlds.” I must confess that statistical syllogisms are new to me but they do seem to have a connection in so far as our understanding of induction is concerned. I’m not very comfortable with the situation as it currently stands I am wondering if this is due to my ignorance or my inability to grasp certain essentials. A strong gut feeling tells me that I am not a member of a simulated world, but at this moment I don’t think I am able to assemble an argument to contest this, which is interesting.

  11. Suppose it does become possible to write a computer program which will support say the activities of our ancestors. It would appear necessary that such a program should mimic in some way or the other the electrical activity which occurs in the human brain. We are currently at a loss to explain how the irritation of nervous tissue leads to consciousness. So to produce a simulation of our ancestors it seems that the problem is twofold. 1/ to write a program which functions in the same manner as the brain and 2/ to incorporate therein what ever it is that supports the conscious state in human beings. It has been shown that many human beings can perform quite difficult tasks whilst in a state of unconsciousness but we would want be certain our ancestors in a simulation do have access to the conscious states, and this does seem to me currently a great problem.

  12. Dennis Sceviour

    The control of the free conscious state is a problem for simulations. In contemporary terms, the problem may be described as cultural re-direction. For example, if a user types “kat erry” in the box, the engine suggests “Katy Perry”. Then the user is taken to the culture, music, fashion and political world of Katy Perry. The activity is not about what the user is interested in, but what the search engine finds most interesting based on statistical popularity. Does the user really have a free will to stop search engine re-direction?

    According to Kurzweil, we should give up any sense of free will and instead tell the simulator what it wants to hear. That cannot be correct. The tug of war with free will is not a reason to assume the computer simulation could not exist. Nor does it mean the demonstration of free will shut down the program. It merely reduces the simulation exercise of self-correction and learning, to one of a game – move and counter-move.

    Is the ability to play a game by rules the only test for the existence of agency?

  13. The singularity does not seem that interesting. I’d say our best bet lies with Rick & Morty episodes.

  14. In categorical logic, “some” and “most” are the same; so you are definitely right in that context.

  15. Good question.

    The usual rough distinction is that a real world is composed of matter (that is, matches basic physics’ account of the world) and a simulated world is simply code running in some sort of computer. In a real world, we’d be material boys and girls in a material world. In a simulated world, we are digital boys and girls in a digital world.

    You do raise an interesting concern-in a simulated world, each simulated being would need its own distinct simulated input. Or perhaps the simulated beings could be designed to have their own distinct input from one simulated reality.

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