Robert Lawrence Kuhn is the creator, writer and host of "Closer to Truth, " a public television and multimedia program that features the world's leading thinkers exploring humanity's deepest questions. Kuhn is co-editor, with John Leslie, of "The Mystery of Existence: Why Is There Anything at All?" (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013). This article is based on a "Closer to Truth" episode produced and directed by Peter Getzels. Kuhn contributed this article to Space.com's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.
I began bemused. The notion that humanity might be living in an artificial reality — a simulated universe — seemed sophomoric, at best science fiction.
But speaking with scientists and philosophers on "Closer to Truth, " I realized that the notion that everything humans see and know is a gigantic computer game of sorts, the creation of supersmart hackers existing somewhere else, is not a joke. Exploring a "whole-world simulation, " I discovered, is a deep probe of reality.
David Brin, sci-fi writer and space scientist, relates the Chinese parable of an emperor dreaming that he was a butterfly dreaming that he was an emperor. In contemporary versions, Brin said, it may be the year 2050 and people are living in a computer simulation of what life was like in the early 21st century — or it may be billions of years from now, and people are in a simulation of what primitive planets and people were once like.
Philosopher Nick Bostrom, director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University, describes a fake universe as a "richly detailed software simulation of people, including their historical predecessors, by a very technologically advanced civilization."
It's like the movie "The Matrix, " Bostrom said, except that "instead of having brains in vats that are fed by sensory inputs from a simulator, the brains themselves would also be part of the simulation. It would be one big computer program simulating everything, including human brains down to neurons and synapses."
Bostrum is not saying that humanity is living in such a simulation. Rather, his "Simulation Argument" seeks to show that one of three possible scenarios must be true (assuming there are other intelligent civilizations):
- All civilizations become extinct before becoming technologically mature;
- All technologically mature civilizations lose interest in creating simulations;
- Humanity is literally living in a computer simulation.