The Simulation Hypothesis: Please, Make it Stop!

Those important questions (1) Why are we here? (2) Where did we come from? With no complete answer at the time of publishing this post, humankind has had the opportunity to run wild with their imaginations in order to come up with an explanation. While pursuit in the fields of developmental biology and astrophysics represent the cutting-edge in giving a credible partial-answer to these questions, that hasn’t stopped us from coming up with other ideas.

Recently, The Guardian published a piece about the idea that we and the world around us are mere elements in one giant simulation. I don’t subscribe to this idea and having worked with computer simulations involving fluid flow and granular materials, I feel that I can offer some insights into the issue:

  1. Simulations inevitably involve some element of simplification. Phenomena are described using mathematical models. These models were derived by humans and are only in good agreement with the natural world according to human perceptions. For example, the continuum hypothesis works well for CFD modelling of fluid flows. However, it postulates that fluids exist in an infinitely divisible form, when in reality they don’t.
  2. Simulations are very slow. All those calculations add up. For me to simulate tens of thousands of spherical particles for 5 seconds of activity can take over 24 hours in real time. If you scoop some sand up in your hand, there would be many more particles than in that example. Considering how many particles there are in the world, the computation required to simulate the motion of all the particles in the world would require an incomprehensible amount of computing power.
  3. Simulations have boundaries, where are ours? Gagarin found that it didn’t stop at the edge of the atmosphere. Voyager 1 found that it didn’t stop at the heliopause. If the world is being simulated, there would be no justifiable reason to waste computational resources on the stuff outside of it.

A proponent of the simulation hypothesis would be able to “tear apart” my objections. (1) the simulators created these mathematical models to govern our universe. (2) The simulators would have access to incomprehensibly powerful computers that make all of the calculations in a flash (if so, I want one!), so running a subatomic particle dymanics* simulation of the universe isn’t a big deal. (3) There are other things being simulated beyond Earth/ space is there to trick us into thinking we’re not in a simulation! When you put it that way, it becomes clear that the simulation hypothesis is nothing more than reconstituted creationism. It relies on analogous unfalsifiable arguments which require faith in order to be accepted.

But because “God” isn’t mentioned anywhere, it is an attractive proposition for the Dunning-Krugerite Silicon Valley Hipster Billionaires™. PZ Myers wrote a very entertaining post on this exact topic, where other people can be perceived as non-playable characters (NPCs) in a video game. I think that such solipsism is dangerous since it leaves believers indifferent to the needs of others, justifying acts of harm and greed.

If the best that simulation proponents can do is Diet Creationism™, then they have nothing. For their sake, I hope God doesn’t press CTRL+C.

*I’m pretty sure this is a thing. Yes it is. I think the abbreviation SAD would be rather appropriate, or SPD for my German reader(s)!

**On an unrelated note, Iain M Banks’ addresses some relevant themes in his books. Solipsists get into some wacky adventures in Against a Dark Background and the decision-making process of the Culture Minds is covered in The Hydrogen Sonata, where they run simulations are so detailed, it would be an act of murder to stop running them. Sean at Replicated Typo covers this in more detail. Which reminds me that I need to read The Player of Games at some stage.

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3 thoughts on “The Simulation Hypothesis: Please, Make it Stop!

  1. Your German reader(s), ha ha!

    Thank you very much for this post!!! In the past, I’ve been involved in a few discussions with a proponent of this idea at UC. Clearly, he rejected to apply Ockham’s Razor as it would have just shaved off the entire hypothesis! I’m actually wondering how popular this simulation idea was prior to the Matrix movies. Do you have any reminiscences?

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  2. I’m probably too young for that. When I first saw The Matrix in my teenage years, a lot of the plot flew over my head (and still does, now that I’m thinking about it).

    The relatively recent emergence of computers almost lends a mechanism by which the scenario postulated by classical solipsism could be achieved, giving the idea more “credibility” than in the past. This is probably assisted by misconceptions as to how computers and mathematical modelling actually work.

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    • True, and I think it was only a few years ago that I saw the movie. I did a bit of reading, though, and it turns out that the core idea and related concepts are already centuries old. It’s rather the vocabulary that has changed, such as from ‘dream’ to ‘film’ to ‘simulation’.

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