IEET > Vision > Virtuality > Directors > George Dvorsky > Nick Bostrom
The dark side of the Simulation Argument
George Dvorsky   Aug 16, 2007   Sentient Developments  

Kudos to the IEET’s Nick Bostrom for having his Simulation Argument (SA) featured in the New York Times.

The SA essentially states that, given the potential for posthumans to create a vast number of ancestor simulations, we should probabilistically conclude that we are in a simulation rather than the deepest reality.

Most people give a little chuckle when they hear this argument for the first time. I’ve explained it to enough people now that I’ve come to expect it. The chuckle doesn’t come about on account of the absurdity of the suggestion, it’s more a chuckle of logical acknowledgment—a reaction to the realization that it may actually be true.

But this is no laughing matter; there are disturbing implications to the SA. We appear to be damned if we’re in a simulation, and damned if we’re not.

Dammit, we’re in a simulation!

If we were ever to prove that we exist inside a simulation, it would be proof that the transhumanist assumption is correct—that the transition from a human to a posthuman condition is in fact possible. But that will be of little solace to us measly sims! The simulation—er, our world—could be shut down at any time. Or, the variables that make up our modal reality could be altered in undesirable ways (e.g. our world could be turned into a Hell realm).

Also, should we reside in a simulation, we have to pretty much assume that our digital benefactors are rather indifferent to our plight. Based on the amount of suffering going on around here we should probably assume a gnostic religious sensibility. These gods are not our allies; they may have created us, but they are not looking out for our best interests.

Dammit, we’re not in a simulation!

Now, on the other side of the virtual coin, should we ever prove that we are not in a simulation, that would also be bad. It would be potential evidence that the transition to a posthuman condition may not be possible.

This problem is similar to the Fermi Paradox and the possible resolution that we are the first intelligent civilization to emerge in the Galaxy. This is a hard pill to swallow based on the extreme odds.

Similarly, we should be disturbed that we are not in a simulation because it may imply that we don’t have a very bright future—that civilizations destroy themselves before developing the capacity to create simulations. Otherwise, we have to take on a exceptionally optimistic frame and assume that we’ll survive the Singularity and be that special first civilization that spawns simulations. Again, a probabilistically unsatisfactory proposition.

Of course, advanced civilizations may not create simulations on this scale. The Fermi Paradox offers yet another example as to why this is a problematic suggestion. Given the technological potential to colonize the Galaxy, why haven’t advanced civilizations done so? Similarly, why wouldn’t advanced civilizations create simulations given the technological capacity to do so?

The NYT article goes over a number of these issues and Bostrom provides some possible solutions. Ultimately, however, the answers are unsatisfactory.

The Simulation Argument solves the Fermi Paradox! Maybe…

Perhaps the answer to the Fermi Paradox is that we are in a simulation. It would certainly explain the Great Silence. Why bother simulating extraterrestrials? Maybe that’s the point of the simulation—to study how a civilization advances without any outside intervention.

Or maybe the Fermi Paradox exists because all civilizations are busy working on their simulations….

Or perhaps…..ah, forget it. My brain (which is probably sitting in a vat somewhere) hurts.

George P. Dvorsky serves as Chair of the IEET Board of Directors and also heads our Rights of Non-Human Persons program. He is a Canadian futurist, science writer, and bioethicist. He is a contributing editor at io9 — where he writes about science, culture, and futurism — and producer of the Sentient Developments blog and podcast. He served for two terms at Humanity+ (formerly the World Transhumanist Association). George produces Sentient Developments blog and podcast.


There is another dark side to the Simulation Argument.  As the conversation about the Simulation Argument gains momentum, there may be some that take the possibility seriously enough to consider that other people are not real human beings, but merely computer simulations and thereby disposable.  It is not hard to imagine the likes of Pol Pot or Hitler using the idea that we are in a simulation to justify their murderous deeds.  There is also the risk that some people may take their own lives, believing that death is the path out of the simulation, back to a higher level reality.  Fortunately, these scenarios are still unheard of.  Perhaps this is because no-one is taking the Simulation Argument too seriously.  The fact that we don’t take the Simulation Argument too seriously, could be the best reason to believe we are indeed in a Simulation as if we were, there could easily be a sub routine in the program that blocks us from taking the Simulation Argument seriously.  I wonder if there is a way to empirically test whether we are in a simulation by measuring how much we ignore it in the light of arguments that support it?

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