3 superb arguments for why we live in a matrix – and 3 arguments that refute them

Is this the real life or is it just fantasy? And does it really even matter?

  • The simulation argument was first put forth in a paper published in 2003 by philosopher Nick Bostrom.
  • Bostrom assigns less than a 50 percent probability that we're living in a simulated universe.
  • Some physicists believe that we can test this scientifically.

Are we living in a simulation? This idea has been explored on a number of levels. While there has been a fair share of sophomoric musings and half-baked proposals surrounding the hypothesis — usually in hazy podcast studios and college dorm rooms — there are actually a number of respectable contemporary philosophers and physicists who are seriously considering the idea and its implications.

The argument as we know it today first popped up in a paper by Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom. Who argued both for and against the proposition of a simulated universe and then explored a number of consequences that flow from that proposal. His main points appear at the start of the argument, in which Bostrom states at least one of the following are true:

  1. The human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a "post-human" stage.
  2. Any post-human civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history (or variations thereof).
  3. We are almost certainly living in a computer simulation.

Bostrom calls this the Trilemma. We'll be revisiting these points as we explore the arguments supporting that we live in a matrix-esque simulation and arguments that refute the idea.

Nick Bostrom’s trilemma 

Bostrom is undecided on the true validity of the simulation theory, but he is one of the major proponents of the argument for it. Here are some of his arguments for the idea that we might be living in a simulation. He believes that there is a significant chance that there will one day be post-human entities with the possibility to create an ancestor simulation, unless we're already in that simulation.

Bostrom accepts the simulation argument, but rejects the simulation hypothesis. Meaning that he thinks that one of the three possibilities is true, but he's not entirely convinced we are in the simulation. He states:

"Personally, I assign less than 50 percent probability to the simulation hypothesis — rather something like in 20 percent-region, perhaps, maybe. However, this estimate is a subjective personal opinion and is not part of the simulation argument. My reason is that I believe that we lack strong evidence for or against any of the three disjuncts (1) – (3), so it makes sense to assign each of them a significant probability."

He goes on to say that although some accept the simulation argument, their reasons for doing so differ in a number of ways. Bostrom is quick to point out that this is not a variant of Descartes famous demon hallucination brain-in-vat thought experiment

" ... the simulation argument is fundamentally different from these traditional philosophical arguments… The purpose of the simulation argument is different: not to set up a skeptical problem as a challenge to epistemological theories and common sense, but rather to argue that we have interesting empirical reasons to believe that a certain disjunctive claim about the world is true."

His simulation argument depends on hypothetical future technological capabilities and their use in the creation of a perfectly simulated universe and world, which would include our minds and experiences of what we consider reality.

Have we discovered the rules of the simulation?

In a far ranging and elucidating discussion a few years back at the Isaac Asimov memorial debate, Max Tegmark, cosmologist from MIT put forth a few arguments on the nature of the simulation in comparison to a video game.

If I were a character in a computer game, I would also discover eventually that the rules seemed completely rigid and mathematical. That just reflects the computer code in which it was written.

His point was that it seems like the fundamental laws of physics will eventually grant us the capability to create increasingly more powerful computers, far beyond our current capacity. These things could be the size of solar systems, perhaps even galaxies. With that much theoretical computing power, we could easily simulate minds if in fact that's not already our fate.

Now under the supposition that we're already in a super complex system emanating from some galaxy-sized computers, some detractors have said that we should be able then to spot "glitches in the Matrix."

Bostrom was quick to point out that any glitch we considered real could just be frailties of our mind. That would include things such as hallucinations, illusions, and other types of psychiatric problems. If any kind of glitch occurred, which is expected in a computing system, Bostrom feels that the hypothetical simulators would be able to account for that by:

"... having the ability to prevent these simulated creatures from noticing anomalies in the simulation. This could be done by avoiding anomalies altogether, or preventing them from having noticeable macroscopic ramification, or by retrospectively editing the brain states of observers who had happened to witness something suspicious. If the simulators don't want us to know that we are simulated, they could easily prevent us from finding out."

He goes on to consider how this isn't that far-fetched as our organic brains already do such a thing. While in the midst of a fantastical dream, we are usually left unaware of the fact we're dreaming and this simple function is carried out by our technologically-unaided brain.

Testing the simulation hypothesis experimentally

Zohreh Davoudi, a physicist at the University of Maryland, believes that we can test if we're in a simulation.

"If there is an underlying simulation of the universe that has the problem of finite computational resources, just as we do, then the laws of physics have to be put on a finite set of points in a finite volume… Then we go back and see what kind of signatures we find that tell us we started from non-continuous spacetime."

The evidence that would prove we are living in a simulation could come from a unusual distribution of cosmic rays hitting Earth and suggesting that spacetime is not continuous, but instead made up of discrete points. Although the problem of proving you're in simulation still has the implication that any proof found might also be simulated.

In a continued discussion of the subject at the Asimov's conference, Davoudi brings up an old theological point with an up-to-date and modern premise.

"... What's called the simulation is you just input the laws of physics, and nature and universe emerges. You don't actually try to make it look like it's something going on. You don't try to — the same as with computer games. You don't interfere with what you've created. You just input something that is very fundamental and just let it go, just as our universe."

Other commentators remarked on this ideas similarity to deism. This means that "god" or deus was the first cause to set the creation of universe in motion, but doesn't interfere in it afterwards..

From the simplicity of these laws of physics then emerges complex processes which seem to have continued to grow and evolve as the universe ages.

Arguments against the simulation theory 

Theoretical Physicist, Sabine Hossenfelder, from Goethe University Frankfurt is in the camp that believes that the simulation hypothesis is just plain malarky. She argued in a blog post that a good deal of physicists don't take this problem seriously. Hossenfelder also has problems with the nature of the argument and the way the theory is presented. She says:

"Proclaiming that 'the programmer did it' doesn't only not explain anything — it teleports us back to the age of mythology. The simulation hypothesis annoys me because it intrudes on the terrain of physicists. It's a bold claim about the laws of nature that however doesn't pay any attention to what we know about the laws of nature."

Hossenfelder believes that there is a trivial way in which to say that the simulation argument is correct:

"You could just interpret the presently accepted theories to mean that our universe computes the laws of nature. Then it's tautologically true that we live in a computer simulation. It's also a meaningless statement."

Leaving the realm of linguistic logic and entering into the mathematics and fundamentals of physics, Hossenfelder goes on to explain that a universe cannot be built with classical bits and still have quantum effects. You also need to take into account special relativity, which no one who has been testing any kind of experimental hypothesis has been able to remedy.

Indeed, there are good reasons to believe it's not possible. The idea that our universe is discretized clashes with observations because it runs into conflict with special relativity. The effects of violating the symmetries of special relativity aren't necessarily small and have been looked for — and nothing's been found.

No ability to distinguish a simulated universe 

Lisa Randall, a theoretical physicist at Harvard University, is somewhat baffled as to why this is a topic up for serious debate. Her logic is operating under the premise that this idea cannot ever be tested scientifically and is just mere linguistic floundering for scientists.

"I actually am very interested in why so many people think it's an interesting question," she has said about the topic.

Her prediction is that the chances of this argument turning out to be right are effectively zero. There is zero evidence that can be conceived of that we're living in a simulation and runs in parallel to the old idea that "a god did it." Now the only difference is that a computational system has taken the place of the clockmaker, Jehovah, or the world being the breath of Brahmin and so on in this similar strain of religious examples.

To really distinguish a simulation, you really do have to see just our whole notion of the laws of physics breaking down, or some of the fundamental underlying properties... Not because of interaction of the environment, but just the computer just couldn't keep track of stuff… I mean, to simulate the universe, you need the computational power of the universe.

Inherent contradiction in the argument 

Cosmologist Sean M. Carroll believes that there is a blaring contradiction endemic to the argument. He first lays out the gist of the argument in a supposed logical system. Here is how he views the simulation hypothesis:

  1. We can easily imagine creating many simulated civilizations.
  2. Things that are that easy to imagine are likely to happen, at least somewhere in the universe.
  3. Therefore, there are probably many civilizations being simulated within the lifetime of our universe. Enough that there are many more simulated people than people like us.
  4. Likewise, it is easy to imagine that our universe is just one of a large number of universes being simulated by a higher civilization.
  5. Given a meta-universe with many observers (perhaps of some specified type), we should assume we are typical within the set of all such observers.
  6. A typical observer is likely to be in one of the simulations (at some level), rather than a member of the top-level civilization.
  7. Therefore, we probably live in a simulation.

With the above logic in mind, Carroll goes on to explain that if we accept all of that then we most likely live in the lowest level of the simulation, in which we wouldn't be able to perform any of our own simulations even if we wanted to and somehow had the capability to do so.

Hopefully the conundrum is clear. The argument started with the premise that it wasn't that hard to imagine simulating a civilization — but the conclusion is that we shouldn't be able to do that at all. This is a contradiction, therefore one of the premises must be false.

3D printing might save your life one day. It's transforming medicine and health care.

What can 3D printing do for medicine? The "sky is the limit," says Northwell Health researcher Dr. Todd Goldstein.

Northwell Health
Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Medical professionals are currently using 3D printers to create prosthetics and patient-specific organ models that doctors can use to prepare for surgery.
  • Eventually, scientists hope to print patient-specific organs that can be transplanted safely into the human body.
  • Northwell Health, New York State's largest health care provider, is pioneering 3D printing in medicine in three key ways.
Keep reading Show less

Are people getting smarter or dumber? Yes.

The Flynn effect shows people have gotten smarter, but some research claims those IQ gains are regressing. Can both be right?

Surprising Science
  • Many countries made incredible gains in IQ scores during the 20th century, averaging three IQ points per decade.
  • Studies out of Europe have shown a reversal of this trend.
  • Such declines are not universal, and researchers remain unsure of what is causing them.
Keep reading Show less

Scientists turn nuclear waste into diamond batteries

They'll reportedly last for thousands of years. This technology may someday power spacecraft, satellites, high-flying drones, and pacemakers.

Woman looking at a diamond.

Nuclear energy is carbon free, which makes it an attractive and practical alternative to fossil fuels, as it doesn't contribute to global warming. We also have the infrastructure for it already in place. It's nuclear waste that makes fission bad for the environment. And it lasts for so long, some isotopes for thousands of years. Nuclear fuel is comprised of ceramic pellets of uranium-235 placed within metal rods. After fission takes place, two radioactive isotopes are left over: cesium-137 and strontium-90.

Keep reading Show less

Want to forge stronger social bonds? Bring beer.

New research shows that a healthy supply of locally-sourced beer helped maintain Wari civilization for 500 years.

Culture & Religion
  • A new analysis of an ancient Wari brewery suggests chicha helped maintain the civilization's social capital for hundreds of years.
  • Civilizations throughout the ancient world used alcoholic drinks to signify kinship, hospitality, and social cohesion.
  • The researchers hope their findings will remind us of the importance in reaffirming social institutions and sharing cultural practices — even if over coffee or tea.

Beer is history's happiest accident. Though the discovery probably happened much earlier, our earliest evidence for beer dates back roughly 13,000 years ago. Around this time, the people of the Fertile Crescent had begun to gather grains as a food source and learned that if they moistened them, they could release their sweetness to create a gruel much tastier than the grains themselves.

One day a curious — or perhaps tightfisted — hunter-gatherer hid his gruel away for a safekeeping. When he returned, he found the bowl giving off a tangy odor. Not one to waste a meal, he ate it anyway and enjoyed an unexpected, though not unpleasant, sensation of ease. By pure happenstance, this ancestor stumbled upon brewing.

That's one possible origin story, but we know that our ancestors learned to control the process, and beer took a central role in Fertile Crescent civilizations — so central that Professor Patrick McGovern, a biomolecular archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that beer, not bread, incentivized hunter-gatherers to relinquish their nomadic ways.

Beer may also be proof of a God who wants us to be happy (Dionysus?), because the beverage* would be independently rediscovered by peoples across the ancient world, including those in China and South America.

One such peoples, the pre-Inca Wari Civilization, made beer, specifically chicha de molle, a critical component in their religious and cultural ceremonies. In fact, a study published in Sustainability in April argues that the role was so important that beer helped keep Wari civilization intact for 500 years.

Brewing social capital

Twenty years ago, a team of archaeologists with the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, discovered a brewery in Cerro Baúl, a mesa in southern Peru that served as an ancient Wari outpost. The brewery contained original equipment, clay storage vessels, and compartments for milling, boiling, and fermentation.

The team recently analyzed these on-site vessels to uncover the secrets of the Wari brewing process. Removing tiny amounts of material found in the spaces between the clay, they were able to reconstruct the molecules of the thousand-year-old drink. They then worked alongside Peruvian brewers to recreate the original brewing process.**

Their molecular analysis revealed several key features of the beer: The clay used to make the vessels came from a nearby site; many of the beer's ingredients, such as molle berries, are drought resistant; and though alcoholic, the beer only kept for about a week.

These details suggest that Cerro Baúl maintained a steady supply of chicha, limited by neither trade nor fair weather, and became a central hub for anyone wishing to partake. The Wari would likely make such trips during times of festivals and religious ceremonies. Social elites would consume chicha in vessels shaped like Wari gods and leaders as part of rituals attesting to social norms and a shared cultural mythology and heritage.

"People would have come into this site, in these festive moments, in order to recreate and reaffirm their affiliation with these Wari lords and maybe bring tribute and pledge loyalty to the Wari state," Ryan Williams, lead author and head of anthropology at the Field Museum, said in a release. "We think these institutions of brewing and then serving the beer really formed a unity among these populations. It kept people together."

The Wari civilization was spread over a vast area of rain forests and highlands. In a time when news traveled at the speed of a llama, such distinct and distant geography could easily have fractured the Wari civilization into competing locales.

Instead, the researchers argue, these festive gatherings (aided by the promise of beer) strengthened social capital enough to maintain a healthy national unity. This helped the Wari civilization last from 600 to 1100 CE, an impressive run for a historic civilization.

Bringing people together (since 10,000 BCE)

A Mesopotamian cylinder seal shows people drinking beer through long reed straws. Image source: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Of course, the Wari weren't the first civilization to use beer to reaffirm bonds and maintain their social fabric. Returning to the Fertile Crescent, Sumerians regarded beer as a hallmark of their civilization.

The Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh tells of the adventures of the titular hero and his friend Enkidu. Enkidu beings as a savage living in the wilderness, but a young woman introduces him to the ways of civilization. That orientation begins with food and beer:

"They placed food in front of him,
They placed beer in front of him,
Enkidu knew nothing about eating bread for food,
And of drinking beer he had not been taught.
The young woman spoke Enkidu, saying:
"Eat the food, Enkidu, it is the way one lives.
Drink the beer, as is the custom of the land."
Enkidu ate the food until he was sated,
He drank the beer — seven jugs! — and became expansive
and sang with joy.
He was elated and his face glowed.
He splashed his shaggy body with water
and rubbed himself with oil, and turned into a human

Tom Standage, who recounts this scene in his History of the World in 6 Glasses, writes: "The Mesopotamians regarded the consumption of bread and beer as one of the things that distinguished them from savages and made them fully human." Such civilized staples not only demarcated their orderly life from that of hunter-gatherers, they also served a key role in their culture's unifying mythology.

Furthermore, Standage notes, Sumerian iconography often shows two people sipping from waist-high jars through reed straws. The earliest beers were consumed in a similar fashion because technological limitations prevented baking individual cups or filtering the beverage. But the Sumerians had the pottery skills to make such cups and filter the dregs. That they kept the tradition suggests that they valued the camaraderie brought by the experience, a sign of communal hospitality and kinship.

The ancient Greek's similarly used alcohol as a means of maintaining social and political relationships — though their drink of choice was wine.

During symposiums, upper-class Greek men would gather for a night of drinking, entertainment, and social bonding. In Alcohol: A history, Rod Phillips notes that symposiums were serious affairs where art, politics, and philosophy were discussed throughout the night and could serve as rites of passage for young men. (Though, music, drinking games, and sex with prostitutes may also be found on the itinerary.)

Of course, we can amass social capital without resorting to alcohol, which has been known to damage social relationships as much as improve them.

In the 17th century, London's coffeehouses stimulated the minds of thinkers with their caffeine-laden drinks, but also served as social hubs. Unlike the examples we've explored already, these coffeehouses brought together people of different backgrounds and expertise, unifying them in their pursuit of ideas and truths. Thus, coffeehouses can be seen as the nurseries of the Enlightenment.

Relearning ancient lessons

The Field Museum archaeologists hope their research can help remind us the importance social institutions and cultural practices have in creating our common bonds, whether such institutions are BYOB or not.

"This research is important because it helps us understand how institutions create the binds that tie together people from very diverse constituencies and very different backgrounds," Williams said. "Without them, large political entities begin to fragment and break up into much smaller things. Brexit is an example of this fragmentation in the European Union today. We need to understand the social constructs that underpin these unifying features if we want to be able to maintain political unity in society."

So, grab a beer or coffee or tea, spend some time together, and raise a glass. Just try not focus too much on whether your friend ordered Budweiser's swill or an overpriced, virtue-signaling microbrew IPA.

Keep reading Show less