Are you in a Computer Simulation?

June 12, 2021.

Nick Bostrom in his chapter Are you in a Computer Simulation? claims that there is a significant probability we are in a computer simulation. The argument is arranged so that, due to the implausibility of all three propositions being false, at least one of the arguments is true:

  1. The chances that a species at the current level of development can avoid going extinct before becoming technologically mature is negligibly small.

  2. Almost no technologically mature civilizations are interested in running computer simulations of minds like ours.

  3. You are almost certainly in a simulation.

This argument logically asks us to deny proposition (1) and (2), pressuring us to conclude they are implausible, leaving us to consider how we might be simulated people. This essay will explain why this argument presents an improbable trichotomy when conceived objectively.

Upon examining proposition (1) we find an inherent bias that skews the truth. Our temptation is to automatically deny this principle, after all, what are the chances of extinction? However, this dismissal overlooks man’s anthropocentric inclination. If we were to ask civilizations passed during their golden age, whether they foresaw extinction, most would affirm the same sense of invulnerability. The argument is attractive since it trades the possibility of a grim fate for future hope. It is true that our society is very different from what inhabited the previous centuries, nevertheless, our predictions tend to anticipate an ending where we are present. For example, picture the most militant climate doomsday prepper. Even they envision a world drained of resources, that they are somehow a part of. The human condition presupposes our survival. Our presupposition that we are safer than the generations before skews the objective likelihood of survival. The malleable future holds no more confidence in our survival than the possibility we are in a simulation.

Proposition (2) makes the simple assertion - if we had the technology to create a simulated world, we would. This embraces the human species’ natural desire to innovate. Given this proposition is true, there is insufficient logic to reach the conclusion that I am in a simulation right now. We call these hidden propositions, enthymemes. To conclude I am in a simulation, the following points must also be true:

i. Advance simulation technology exists and is available to me.

ii. The system has little to no conceivable bugs.

iii. My memory has been wiped, voluntarily or maliciously.

iv. I can be sustained for a long period of time without exiting the simulation.

v. At least somebody has a reason (rationally or maliciously) for exposing me to suffering.

While it is possible to comprehend a situation that these scenarios are all true, holding these conditions in unity far surpasses the proposition. Entering these exact conditions significantly reduces the plausibility of the point. Proposition (2) relies on improbable enthymemes.

We can reject Proposition (3), by bringing the argument to a reductio ad absurdum, reduction to absurdity. The absurdity manifests when considering the problem of other people. Assuming I am in a simulation, there could be one of two possible scenarios: (a) other people I encounter are in fact real people (b) other people I encounter are simulated AI. Both conclusions have absurd consequences. If (a) is true and people are genuinely real, then not only do I have to agree on the unlikely conditions I require to be in a simulation. But I must accept the extremely unlikely event that 7.53 billion people also decided, or were nefariously forced, to participate in a simulation and have their memory wiped. If (b) is true, then I am required to believe that I am extremely deceived to the extent that my friends, family and parents are sophisticated AI. I am a pessimist when it comes to effectively convincing me, that someone I know is a computer. In both cases, the problem of other people reveals that if any of the two possible scenarios are true, then we must make absurd conclusions that question the nature of reality.

The most likely conclusion of Bostrom's argument is, that proposition's (2) and (3) are independently false. This leaves us with proposition (1)’s conclusion, which remains irrelevant to the speculation. While Bostrom's argument heavily takes into consideration human nature, our inclinations hinder an objective reading of probabilities. Rationally considering the possible scenarios we can conclude it is unlikely we are simulated people.

Works Cited

Bostrom, Nick. "Are You in a Computer Simulation?" (2016): 22-25. Print.