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Simulated reality

Simulated reality describes a hypothetical environment that, although experienced as real, is actually a highly detailed simulation of reality. Unlike the currently technologically achievable concept of virtual reality, a simulated reality would be impossible to tell apart from "real" reality.

The modern version of this involves a thought experiment on the lines of imagining that the person experiencing the simulated reality is somehow "plugged into" a computer of immense power that is programmed with all the rules of the simulation, and provides them with all of their sensory input. A deeper thought experiment may even assume that the person experiencing the simulation is themselves simulated within the simulation, and may have no physical existence at all outside of the simulation.

Two philosophical questions, and one ethical question, arise immediately:

  • is it, even in principle, possible to tell whether we are in a simulated reality, or a real one?
  • is there any difference between the two?
  • how should one behave, if you knew that you were living in a simulated reality?

Simulated reality in fiction

Simulated reality is a theme that pre-dates science fiction. In Medieval and Renaissance religious theatre[?], the concept of the world as a theater[?] is frequent. Works include:

Is this a simulated reality?

The simulation argument, due to the philosopher Nick Bostrom[?], attempts to prove that we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation.

His argument is based on the following premises:

  1. Given sufficiently advanced technology, it is possible to simulate entire inhabitated planets, including all the people on them, on a computer
  2. Given a sufficient amount of time, humans will develop that technology
  3. Simulated people can be fully conscious, and are as much persons as non-simulated people are,
  4. Given the ability to simulate entire planets and their inhabitants, future humans will want to run a large number of these simulations (specifically so-called ancestor simulations to explore their own history),
  5. Future humans will not be prevented from running a large number of these simulations by laws or moral strictures.

Bostrom presents arguments for the truth of each of these premises, based on neuroscience, physics, the rate of technological change, philosophy, and human nature.

Based on these premises, he concludes that either

  • we are currently living in a computer simulation, or
  • in the future, we will run a large number of computer simulations of worlds and their inhabitants.
He then notes that we have no way of knowing whether we are in fact currently in a computer simulation. However, since the number of such computer simulations existing at any point in the future is likely to be very large (it is likely that, given the possibility, the majority of people would want to run one), while there is only one non-simulated universe, he argues that it is almost certain that we are living in a computer simulation.

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