A Simulation Built Just for Us

Daily Exhaust Mike sent me this article the other day, entitled Do We Live in the Matrix? It details an interesting concept, one that has been bouncing around the halls of academia in the 21st century: do we actually exist inside of a computer simulation? The idea is a little different than the Matrix of movie fame. In that, real life humans are being fooled into believing their simulated experiences are real, while their bodies are in fact being held in stasis.
The idea that some philosophers, astrophysicists, and computer engineers have come up with in the past decade is not that our senses are being tricked into experiencing a reality other than truth, but that our bodies and our minds are part of the simulation. Not only is the world we experience not real, we ourselves are not real, nothing more than sprites, mobs, or NPCs walking around a simulated universe. As computer processors become more powerful, and as programs become more complicated, it’s not that far of a stretch to think that someday we will be able to develop a computer simulation that is detailed enough that, from the perspective of the simulation, has little difference from the real universe. That being the case, since simulations can be run over and over again, on multiple machines, it becomes not only a possibility that we ourselves are living in a simulation developed by another race…it becomes likely.
The article pokes a bit of a hole in the idea of a perfect simulation. It cites the work of Seth Lloyd from MIT, who posits that developing a perfect simulation would require so many calculations that there isn’t enough energy in the universe to run it. Case closed, right? Not so fast.
The article goes on to state that the simulation does not need to be perfect. It only needs to be perfect enough to fool the simulated beings living within the simulation. That is, us. As long as we don’t look too closely at the universe around us, and see where the Mystical Programmer (God?) decided to optimize, there is no way we could know for sure. A programmer skillful enough could fill the night sky with tiny points of light, but only when Galileo looked through a telescope at Jupiter or Saturn need the details be filled in somewhat. The moon only needed to be a very large and bright two-dimensional disc in the sky, covered with superficial surface details, until we decided to send people to walk on it.
To me, this is mildly disturbing. I have no problem living in a simulated universe as long as the simulation simulates everything. As long as there is no optimization, then, from our perspective, the universe does become real. But a universe with optimization has a purpose, and that purpose would seem to be to fool us. That’s a very teleological way to regard the universe, and not typical of academics, who tend to have a less homocentric view of the cosmos. That’s why I’m leaning towards the idea that the universe we experience is real.
Why run a simulation that only approximates the parts of the universe that sprites within that universe are experiencing? If that is the case, then the subject of study in the simulation is not the universe, but the sprites. It would be nice, I guess, to think we had that kind of importance in the simulation, but it only serves to rescue us from the evidence that suggests we are very small, very mortal, parts of a universe that is bigger than human comprehension.
The idea of a simulated universe, and how to theoretically accomplish said simulation, moved seamlessly to the idea of creating a simulation that responds to observations of sprites within the simulation, i.e., us. Evolutionary theory posits that such an egocentric view is an unavoidable result of how our brains evolved, so until the Mystical Programmer deigns to make its presence known, I’m going to continue to assume that any random point of light I see in the night sky is a fiery ball of nuclear fusion blazing away at some unimaginable distance, not an elaborate hoax perpetrated for our benefit.