Are we living in a simulation?

What if I told you everything you knew was a lie?

Sounds like a quote from The Matrix doesn’t it? Well, that’s because it is (or was). It’s what Morpheus says to Neo when telling him that the reality he sees, is not reality at all. He is actually living in a simulation.

While the plot of The Matrix may sound pretty far-fetched, there’s a growing group of scientists, physicists and philosophers who believe it could be uncomfortably close to the truth.

The Simulation Argument

The simulation argument was first popularised by Nick Bostrom in 2003. In his article Are We Living in a Computer Simulation? Bostrom presented three hypotheses, one being “we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation”.

Yes, you read that correctly. ALMOST CERTAINLY.

Bostrom’s argument rests largely on the huge theoretical computing power that future, “posthuman” civilisations could possess. They could be capable of things we could not currently fathom.

While the idea may sound a bit like the ramblings of a fringe group of mad philosopers, it has the backing of some highly respected heavy-hitters. Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and Tesla boss Elon Musk both think we are more likely than not in a simulation.

And with a bit of digging you can find plenty of evidence to support this hypothesis.

We have The Sims. Does another being have “The Humans”? Credit: Kirrha via Flickr

Technological development

The reason for the simulation argument’s recent re-emergence is largely due to the popularity of virtual (VR) and augmented reality (AR). These technologies have advanced so rapidly in recent years that we naturally begin to wonder of their future potential.

Could they eventually become so immersive and realistic that we cannot separate them from reality? If so, who’s to say this hasn’t already happened? And if this has already happened, who’s to say we are not in one of these universes?


Neil deGrasse Tyson summed up the genetic argument to support the simulation hypothesis in last years Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate. He points out our vastly superior intellect compared to chimpanzees, despite the fact we share 98% of our DNA.

Is it naïve to believe there’s not a being only slightly different to us genetically but whose intelligence would make us look like chimpanzees, or “drooling, blithering idiots” as deGrassse Tyson puts it?

If this is the case, and our species is already dabbling with virtual realities and artificial intelligence, can we comprehend what these beings may be technologically capable of? An entirely simulated universe perhaps?


A final argument for the simulation hypothesis comes from the incredible explanatory power of mathematics. Many things we know about the universe are explained by maths. Gravity, the Big Bang, the speed of light, all of these abide by mathematical rules. Mathematics also seems to set limits to our universe.

You know what else is bound by maths? Computers and video games. Could it be that maths explains our universe so well because our universe is nothing more than a computer program?

Are we no more than a series of letters and numbers? Credit: Kjetil Korslien via Flickr

Does it matter?

The simulation argument raises a lot of questions. Upon researching this topic I certainly have more questions than answers. But the final question I always come back to is does it even matter?

There is no way to tell if we are in a simulation because, if everything we’ve ever known has been simulated, we’d have no concept of what reality is. The simulation would be our reality.

And in the end, if this is a simulation, then hats off to its creator because I think this universe is pretty incredible.

4 Responses to “Are we living in a simulation?”

  1. awylde says:

    Hey Rob. Bostrom’s other two hypotheses are “The human species is very likely to become extinct before reaching a ‘posthuman’ stage” and “any posthuman civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history (or variations thereof)”. He also suggests that at least one of the three hypotheses must be true. I wanted to delve a bit deeper into his theories and what is meant by “posthuman” but I would have needed way too much space!
    You can check out his article here – it’s and interesting read. There’s also a bunch of youtube videos if you’re interested.

  2. awylde says:

    Thanks Nicholas. You’re right, it’s an extremely complex topic which I found out while researching! Plenty more I could have added in there.

  3. Nicholas Fawcett says:

    Interesting read Alex! A very complex topic (one which I personally don’t believe is true) and you summed it up pretty well… does it even matter? This topic reminds me a little of the Galileo controversy back in the 1600’s… humans always believe that they are the centre of the universe and that we serve a purpose in the universe, rather than just accepting that we may be nothing more than a freak occurrence! Great writing and well done for tackling this topic!

  4. Rob Dabal says:

    Interesting….it probably doesn’t really matter, but what are the other two hypotheses?