How to Know Whether You are a Real Person or a Simulation

    Regular readers of this blog know about philosopher Nick Bostrom’s idea that it is far more likely we are simulations created by an advanced species than we are likely to be the original species itself. The reasoning here is that every sufficiently-advanced species will create multiple simulations in which the simulated creatures believe they are real. So the odds are high that we are one of the many simulations, not the original species that created them.

    But how could you tell?

    I have a hypothesis. There should be a difference in how a real species and a simulated species views its own history. The real species would have a real history with full details. The simulations would have something closer to history on demand. And by that, I mean the history only comes into existence when current circumstances require that history. If we are software simulations, the simulator presumably has resource constraints. That means the simulation would not create every part of the universe just in case it is needed; it would create what it needed on demand. For example, a simulated universe would not contain details about undiscovered planets. Those details would be rendered by the simulation at the time of discovery. 

    To put this in simpler terms, if we are real, the past influences what we do in the present. But if we are simulations, what we do in the present could be creating the past. 

    For example, here’s an article describing how quantum physicists have determined that the present creates the past as needed. Freaky, right?

    If we are simulations, we should expect to see two additional qualities in the universe as partial confirmation:

    1. We should expect that we can’t travel past the boundaries of the simulation.

    2. We wouldn’t be able to observe the basic building blocks of our reality.

    Sure enough, we meet both criteria.

    We can’t travel beyond the edge of the universe without exceeding the speed of light, which is theoretically impossible. That’s what you would expect in a simulation. You would have some sort of rule of physics to keep the simulated people from traveling beyond the edges. Here I’m assuming the universe is expanding at the same rate as the light that is traveling in all directions, so we can never catch up to it.

    The hypothetical creators of our simulation would also try to prevent us from discovering that we are not made of anything real. And sure enough, when science looks at our basic building blocks at the quantum level, all we have is probability and strangeness. 

    I have viewed the world as having backwards causation (the present creates the past) since I was a young man. In my worldview, an envelope you receive in the mail doesn’t have definite contents until it is observed. Up until the moment someone sees the contents, the envelope can contain anything that known history has not yet ruled out. This model of the world explains my observations every bit as well as the idea that the past determines my future. 

    In a simulated reality, we would expect to see lots of confirmation bias and lots of cognitive dissonance. Do you know why?

    It keeps the programming simple for the author of our reality.

    If we simulations saw our personal experiences accurately, the author of the simulation would have to make your view of history and mine fit together and be consistent on every variable. That would be massively complicated with billions of simulated humans doing things that create their histories on the fly. The solution to that complexity is to allow the simulated humans to hallucinate that whatever they observe, coincidentally fits both their histories and their worldviews. That way the simulation doesn’t need to create accurate histories for all the players. We can imagine our own histories as being accurate until events in the present make that impossible. Then, and only then, does the simulation decide on a definite past. 

    Consider the news this week that a recent discovery suggests humans were in North America 100,000 years earlier than scientists believed. That finding is not yet confirmed, but it still works to make my point. Given that this new finding is not yet confirmed, our human history does not need to be rewritten by the simulation. But if new discoveries confirm that humans were in North America that early, our “real” history comes into existence at the moment our observations make it impossible for any other history to be true. Until then, both histories (and more) exist as probabilities, nothing more.

    I assume I got some (or all) of the science wrong in this blog post. The only point I want to defend is the idea that a simulated universe would probably need to create its history based on current events, whereas a “real” universe would have an objective history that never changes.

    You might enjoy reading my book because the present will cause you to do it in the past.

    I’m also on…

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