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Are we living in a simulation ?

Dernière mise à jour : 22 avr. 2022

The 1999 Matrix film widely popularized the simulation hypothesis, i.e. the idea that we live in a virtual reality. Two years later, Avalon, a Polish-language Japanese film directed by M. Oshii was released (more discreetly) and intended to ride this dystopian wave, but in an aesthetic register quite different from that of the Wachowski brothers/sisters. If only because of the inspired choice to use Polish-speaking actors and to shoot the film's apocalyptic scenes in Poland (Wroclaw and Warsaw). The film takes place in a cyberpunk future where people are fascinated by an underground and virtual reality known as Avalon. Avalon is an additive and illegal computer game, a battlefield simulation in which high-performing gamers are able to win money to support themselves. Players simulate combat scenes - in a terrifying war zone - with guns, tanks and bombs, with the goal of moving on to the next level. The game’s greatest player is Ash, a famously skilled gamer who only plays solo. But let's stop spoiling and focus on the subject of this article: simulation theory.

Certain scientists believe that The Matrix raises a serious question : do we live in an illusory simulation ? In other words, does the physical universe exist or is it a virtual reality (such as a computer simulation) ? The ontological question of the nature of reality - physical or virtual - is an existential question that can plague even the least philosophical minds. Although technological progress and recent breakthroughs in AI have stimulated this reflection, the question is not new and has agitated philosophers since antiquity. Broadly speaking, the two opposing schools are materialism and idealism. For example, Plato (423 BC/347) is considered an idealist because he believed that the substantive reality of our world is only a ‘reflection’ of a higher truth (Allegory of the cave). But if we want to be accurate, we should rather talk about Platonic realism which is the philosophical position that abstract objects (Universals, Ideal forms) exist outside of human minds. Berkeley (1685-1753) was another major philosopher who contributed significantly to idealism with his « immaterialism ». But contrary to Plato, Berkeley refuted the thesis of abstract objects having independent existence (his doctrine is referred to as subjective idealism). Closer to us, the philosopher Nick Bostrom has put forward a fascinating hypothesis : according to him, the probability that we are living in a matrix is quite high. Although he considers the scenario depicted in The Matrix to be ridiculous, he acknowledges that there is a serious line of reasoning that allows us to draw an interesting conclusion about the world we live in: the simulation argument.

This argument tends to show that there is a significant probability that we are living in a computer simulation (that could be built by some advanced civilisation: extraterrestrial civilization or future post-humans). To be convinced, one must accept the following premises:

Conscious mind could be implemented not only on biological neurons (such as carbon-based neurons) but also on other computational substrate (such as silicon-based processors). According to scientiste, what allows us to have cognitive and emotional experiences is not the fact that our brain is made of biological matter but that it implements a certain computational architecture. It should be possible one day to implement a human mind on a sufficiently fast computer. Doing so would require powerful hardware and advanced programming abilities (that we do not yet possess) but there is no material constraint that would prevent a technologically advanced civilisation from uploading or implementing human minds in computers. Moreover, it is possible to estimate how much computing power it must take to implement a mind along with a virtual reality. Futurists believe that a technologically advanced civilisation which has developed high technologies (that we know are physically possible), would be able to build machines powerful enough to run a great number of human-like minds. According to Nick Bostrom, the virtual reality would look so perfectly real that there would be no way for us to have proof that we are living in this kind of simulation. For those who consider this hypothesis as too improbable to be taken seriously, the philosopher introduces 3 propositions which form the substantial part of the simulation argument.

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

2°Almost no technologically advances civilisations are interested in running computer simulations of minds like ours

3°We are almost certainly in a simulation.

If the first proposition is false, a significant part of species will become technologically mature. If the second proposition is false, some of these species (that have become technologically mature) will use their computational resources to run simulations of minds like ours. And the number of simulated minds that such high advanced civilisation could run is huge. If the first two statements are false, there will be a huge number of simulated minds like ours. And there would be many more simulated minds than non-simulated minds so that almost all minds like ours would be simulated rather than biological. Therefore, we are probably one of these simulated minds rather than minds that are running on biological neurons. So if the first and the second proportions are both false, we should accept the third one. Nick Bostrom admits that we do not have much information to tell which of the three propositions might be true. He therefore suggests « to distribute our credence roughly evenly between the three possibilities, giving each of them a substantial probability ».

To consider the options in a little more detail:

Since N. Bostrom proposed that the universe might be a simulation, there has been debate about the nature of reality. Elon Musk, for example, believes that it is statistically inevitable that our world is a simulation. Building on this assumption, researchers have undertaken, in the most serious way, to refine the simulation argument. In statistical terms, the probability that this world is a simulation could be 50-50 : D. Kipping, A Bayesian Approach to the Simulation Argument, 2020. To better illustrate the simulation argument, David Kipping decided to use Bayesian analysis that allows one to calculate the odds of something happening by first making assumptions about the thing being analyzed. In conclusion, it is fascinating to observe that at a time when the Metaverse is coming, we may already be in it. As Rizwan Virk pointed out, « as in the world of The Matrix, we may not be able to tell what is real and what is not ».

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