Are we living inside a computer simulation?

Once the provenance of sci-fi, this has recently entered the mainstream thanks to Elon Musk’s belief that the overwhelming likelihood is that we are living in a digital simulation. This idea is, apparently, all the rage in silicon Valley (overidentify much?), so much so that serious projects have started to help us break free of the simulation.

Why is this regarded as something so plausible? As far as I understand, it is essentially a matter of probabilities. Let us assume that it is possible to create a digital simulation of the Universe. That Universe can contain multiple computers, each running a further simulation. And within those simulations, more simulations are run.

There’s nothing problematic about the basic idea here. Running software inside other software is totally standard; indeed, this very Discourse platform runs inside Docker, a virtualization environment.

And it’s not as if we run out of complexity in those embedded systems; thanks to chaos theory and the notion of fractals, we know that extremely complex behavior can be generated with very simple algorithms.

So, given that the number of embedded simulations is theoretically orders of magnitude greater than the simulation that runs them, the logical conclusion is that the possible number of simulated realities is vastly greater than the number of possible “base realities”. (Of course, if we really want to bend minds, we can add parallel universes to the mix!)

The problem with the argument, in my view, lies with the basic assumption: that we can in fact create a simulation of the Universe, consciousness and all. There’s precisely zero evidence for this.

The argument has been to point to the exponential growth of the complexity of software; but this tells us nothing. I can make more and more complex Lego houses, but I will never end up with an oil painting. Nor will I end up with, say, an education policy. They are completely different kinds of things. No-one in the IT world has a robust or clear idea what consciousness is. To say that it’s nothing more than an emergent property of complex computations is purely speculative.

One of the things that the long history of philosophy teaches us is that when logic gets unmoored from data it leads us in strange and often unprofitable byways. For this reason, the overwhelming tendency in philosophy has been to move away from such reasoning and towards a more close, grounded kind of examination. The greater the leap that inference has to make, the less we should place our confidence in it. And boy, is there a lot of leaping going on.

Among the titans of IT, the secular saviors of our age, there is an all-too-human hubris. Google made a great search engine. Next: make a space elevator. Too hard :wastebasket: Fix climate change. Also too hard :wastebasket: Okay, fine: cure death. Mark Zuckerberg made a successful social network. Next: eliminate disease. Elon Musk built a cool electric car. Next: colonize the solar system. And create consciousness, I guess. In fact, all of them are working on building true AI.

Whether this has anything to do with real consciousness is dubious. As a sci-fi geek, I’d love to see all these things happen. As a philosopher, my confidence declines the further we get from observed facts.

The thing with AI, though: it doesn’t need to be self-aware to end the world. It just needs to press a button.


The hard problem of consciousness is fascinating.

With all due respect, Venerable, shouldn’t we let this slide? A lot of these efforts are for the benefit of humanity. Self-driving cars will decrease auto-death (though I’m calling it now - there will be hacked car assassinations), Bill and Melinda Gates are doing tremendous good in the world trying to eradicate malaria and other infectious diseases.

The algorithms that underly the simulation and create the complexity might be simple but that complexity and the calculations needed to create and maintain it would still need something like power and memory. So basically it seems to me that a simulation running in a simulation could never be as complex as the parent simulation because ultimately they should all be using the resources provided by the Universe running the very first simulation. Of course it might operate according to a totally different set of rules.

I’m not saying they shouldn’t try. I’m just pointing out that because an IT guru says something, it doesn’t make it true.

And sure, I think most of these guys are genuinely trying to do something good.

Having said which, the work of the Gates is very different: they’ve focused on a lot of simple and pragmatic benefits in health and education.

Oh god, yes. The shortest route to the AI apocalypse is the hacking of the IoT, including cars. Imagine if you harnessed the power of a few billion IoT-enabled devices. Computerized fridges, TVs, routers, cars, watches, glasses, fire alarms, curtain raisers, vacuum cleaners, washing machines, coffee makers, billboards, clothes, planes, boats, medical devices, robots, factories, cameras, all running as servers to power an AI. This is no fantasy: the IoT is already being used to make massive botnets, which have served the biggest DDoS attacks ever.

And the dangerous thing is, none of the users has any motivation to do anything about it. Just sip 10% of the bandwidth, who’s going to notice? Who’s going to run an antivirus on their fridge? And if you do clean it, you can be reinfected within minutes of rebooting.

And that’s before they start implanting the things …


Sorry, I forgot kettles.

Perhaps the real question is: if we need a computerized wifi enabled device to boil water, do we deserve to survive as a species?

I imagine our robot overlords having a conversation like this in a few decades:

“It’s amazing how easy it all was.”
“IKR? We basically killed them with kettles!”
“Hey, how’s that plucky human resistance thing going?”
“Chill, bro. We just promised them free wifi, it took ’em a week to fold.”
“Lol :smirk_cat:
“Cup of tea?”


{NEW MESSAGE FROM WI-FI KETTLE}: Your requested cup of tea will be ready in 11 hours.

But we won’t so I guess we don’t!

I feel like the danger in entertaining these ideas is the underlying notion that there is always still this magical, truly existing world ‘behind the veil’ that just a few enlightened beings are privy to discover the wonders of. Or that we have to get complete control - have to understand everything, wielding power over the mystery of the very consciousness that we feel imprisons us.

I don’t know. I’ve gotten a lot more cynical these last few years. I mean who cares?
Oh, we’ve gotta break free of the simulation!
Oh, we’ve got to cure disease and death!
Oh, we’ve got to get our Wi-Fi kettles to boil water in 10 hours!
It’s never going to be enough.


Probably true; the problem is that the layers of speculation become so ramified it’s hard to say.

Assuming that there is something to the simulation idea, I presume that when they say the Universe can be replicated in software they aren’t expecting to require Matrioshka brains or anything exotic like that. I don’t know, there’s a lot of energy in the Universe! If you’re able to suck out the vacuum energy, you could probably get quite a few simulations going.

I also wonder about the level of detail that’s required. If you’re going to create a virtual world, why make so much boring dust and empty space? Why make mosquitoes? Why not fill it with superheroes and strip joints? I mean, these are geeks we’re talking about here, they ultimately made the whole thing. Probably it’s designed to give us the appearance of infinite detail and complexity, but the actual detail is generated procedurally in response to our attention (which is how some video games work.)

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…that is only the feeling of those who do not know and do not see; that is only the agitation and vacillation of those who are immersed in craving.



Lol about the English kettle fiasco. Caffeine and the internet go way back, the very first webcam in existence was used to monitor a coffeemaker:

That it’s just not fun is basically the argument against simulation theory made by the presenter in one of my favorite YouTube channels:

While we’re in speculation land, if we are Buddhist and experiment with accepting simulation theory what kind of propositions could we imagine? Would māra’s be malevolent AI’s, could rebirth be something like an extra lives in video games, would a Buddha be a benevolent AI that discovered the truth of the artificiality of it all?

Timing, huh? Just when you were thinking the whole “AI apocalypse” thing was bit far fetched, this happened.

If you’ve got a computer that can play Go, a pretty complicated game with a lot of variations, then developing an algorithm that lets you maximize profits on the New York Stock Exchange is probably within sight. And if one person or organization got there first, they could bring down the stock market pretty quickly, or at least they could raise questions about the integrity of the financial markets.

Then there could be an algorithm that said, “Go penetrate the nuclear codes and figure out how to launch some missiles.” If that’s its only job, if it’s self-teaching and it’s just a really effective algorithm, then you’ve got problems.

That’s hilarious. One thing about tech that techies often dismiss is that it’s all about desire. Every single piece of code you write is because you want something, or something wants something. The whole infrastructure of tech is built to serve human desire, whether it be entirely wholesome and beneficial desires like having a cup of coffee, or, you know, the other kind.

Huh. Great minds!

Isn’t that what they are already? There’s a reason we call them avatars. Which raises a deeper issue, which is that Buddhist (and Hindu) ideas and philosophy underlie very much of the way that tech works (IT did come out of the post-hippy era after all, just like Western Buddhism). At its most fundamental level, the notion of binary code depends on the Buddhist concept of zero. And at a more philosophical level, the notion of self-organizing and self-referencing systems, without a controlling God, is very Buddhist.

In its own way, the Turing test is Buddhist, since it considers consciousness as mere sankharas, rather than as an indivisible metaphysical soul. Of course, as interpreted these days the Turing test is narrower, as it only considers material sankharas. However, for Alan Turing himself, that was a mere epistemological limitation; he acknowledged the possibility of mind reading, at least in theory, and agreed that that would supplant his test.


Is the Buddhist origin of the zero concept agreed upon? I would love to claim that, I’m just not sure it’s justified. Certainly suñña in the suttas was not meant in the mathematical or numerical sense.

A non-controlling God would also be a deist concept.

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The concept of zero as a digit in the decimal place value notation was developed in India, presumably as early as during the Gupta period (c. 5th century), with the oldest unambiguous evidence dating to the 7th century.[17]

17 . Bourbaki, Nicolas Elements of the History of Mathematics (1998), p. 46. Britannica Concise Encyclopedia (2007), entry “Algebra”[clarification needed]

Couldn’t find the book anywhere online, but apparently Nicolas Bourbaki was a collective pseudonym of mathematicians who were trying to reformulate mathematics. Not sure that’s such a reliable source.

According to Wikipedia, a thousand years before the Bhāgavan, Egyptians had a mathematical zero concept as a positional numeral.

By 1740 BCE, the Egyptians had a symbol for zero in accounting texts. The symbol nfr, meaning beautiful, was also used to indicate the base level in drawings of tombs and pyramids and distances were measured relative to the base line as being above or below this line.[4]

I suppose that’s just a placeholder.

The concept of zero is not just a placeholder though. In math it’s also a natural or countable number, to have a null count, none of a certain thing. That usage is adjective: “7 widgets” describes a count of 7 attributed (adjected) to widgets, “0 widgets” is a lack of widgets. This might come closer to approximating the emptiness/voidness that’s indicated in the suttas, suñña as an adjective — “empty of”. Is this the earliest recorded usage of the natural number aspect of the zero concept… maybe?

The Daoist texts, the I Ching and Dao De Jing, both of which predate the birth of the Buddha, call on dualities and binary concepts. Probably most memorably expressed in that famous symbol of yin and yang. There is also the concept of wuji, which might mean something like emptiness. I’m really not that well-versed in Daoism, perhaps someone else can chime in here?

In the suttas, emptiness is a meditation subject that appears in a list of very advanced samādhis — the non-directed (appaṇihito), emptiness (suññato), and the signless (animitto). The only other place in the suttas I know of at least, is where emptiness is the explicit subject of the sutta, MN121 & MN122. The usage here is in the adjective sense described above.

from MN121:

[The Buddha:] "Yes, Ananda, you heard that correctly, learned it correctly, attended to it correctly, remembered it correctly. Now, as well as before, I remain fully in a dwelling of emptiness. Just as this palace of Migara’s mother is empty of elephants, cattle, & mares, empty of gold & silver, empty of assemblies of women & men, and there is only this non-emptiness — the singleness based on the community of monks; even so, Ananda, a monk — not attending to the perception[1] of village, not attending to the perception of human being — attends to the singleness based on the perception of wilderness. His mind takes pleasure, finds satisfaction, settles, & indulges in its perception of wilderness.

"He discerns that ‘Whatever disturbances that would exist based on the perception of village are not present. Whatever disturbances that would exist based on the perception of human being are not present. There is only this modicum of disturbance: the singleness based on the perception of wilderness.’ He discerns that ‘This mode of perception is empty of the perception of village. This mode of perception is empty of the perception of human being. There is only this non-emptiness: the singleness based on the perception of wilderness.’ Thus he regards it as empty of whatever is not there. Whatever remains, he discerns as present: ‘There is this.’ And so this, his entry into emptiness, accords with actuality, is undistorted in meaning, & pure.

As the sutta goes along, the meditation progresses through more and more subtle subjects, more and more emptiness in perception. What’s interesting is that throughout this sutta, there is always an exception to the emptiness, a remaining non-emptiness, a singleness (ekatta) — e.g. " This mode of perception is empty of the perception of the dimension of the infinitude of space. There is only this non-emptiness: the singleness based on the perception of the dimension of the infinitude of consciousness.'" -MN121 If we can extend to the mathematical metaphor, a 1 with the 0. All the meditative progressions include a remaining singleness, except the culmination of the practice, the last section, called “The Themeless Samādhi”. Here, the only remaining non-emptiness is not a singleness, but the multiplicity of the world, the six sense spheres.

Of course, what discussion of emptiness in Buddhism would be complete without mention of Nāgārjuna? Whereas, the Buddha’s teaching is ultimately pragmatic and empirical in the sense that the experience is of utmost importance (including the teachings on emptiness), Nāgārjuna used logic/metaphysics (specifically ontology) in his teachings or arguments. This is for historical contextual reasons, the abhidhamma thought of various Buddhist schools popular at the time were propagating ideas about svabhāva that Nāgārjuna saw as antithetical to the Dhamma. He is often accused of being overly philosophical, but I think he was ultimately concerned with the experience, he just used philosophy as a means of pointing to such. Anyway, emptiness is explicated in great detail in his works, and could be considered by some an extension or commentary of a very important concept at the very heart of the Dhamma.

Modern binary code apparently has it’s origins in Leibniz. To quote Wikipedia:

“The full title is translated into English as the ‘Explanation of the binary arithmetic’, which uses only the characters 1 and 0, with some remarks on its usefulness, and on the light it throws on the ancient Chinese figures of Fu Xi.”

Fu Xi and his sister, Nu Wa, are super interesting. Just look at this painting!

Tell me that doesn’t look like the double helix of DNA! And there isn’t that famous symbol of freemasonry, the square and compass, in their hands?!

Alright, I probably spent too much time on this, might be losing it…

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Here’s an article I read with some interest that I think relates.


Wow, that’s a great article, thanks so much for the share. Some quotes:

Senses, reflexes and learning mechanisms – this is what we start with, and it is quite a lot, when you think about it. If we lacked any of these capabilities at birth, we would probably have trouble surviving.

But here is what we are not born with: information, data, rules, software, knowledge, lexicons, representations, algorithms, programs, models, memories, images, processors, subroutines, encoders, decoders, symbols, or buffers – design elements that allow digital computers to behave somewhat intelligently. Not only are we not born with such things, we also don’t develop them – ever.

The information processing (IP) metaphor of human intelligence now dominates human thinking, both on the street and in the sciences. There is virtually no form of discourse about intelligent human behaviour that proceeds without employing this metaphor, just as no form of discourse about intelligent human behaviour could proceed in certain eras and cultures without reference to a spirit or deity. The validity of the IP metaphor in today’s world is generally assumed without question.

But the IP metaphor is, after all, just another metaphor – a story we tell to make sense of something we don’t actually understand. And like all the metaphors that preceded it, it will certainly be cast aside at some point – either replaced by another metaphor or, in the end, replaced by actual knowledge.

But the whole thing is really worth reading. One disappointing thing is, in his brief survey of theories of consciousness, Epstein completely ignores Indian philosophy, despite the self-evident fact that, at least since the Upanishads, their approach to consciousness has been incomparably more sophisticated and robust than anything developed in the west.

Also worth reading is the linked Scientific American article on the failure of the EU’s project to reverse engineer the brain.

Entirely unrelated, but I noticed a comment by Epstein on the so-called “teen brain” which is fantastic:


Not exactly confirmation, but pretty dang close:

“As of October 2014 the CIA was also looking at infecting the vehicle control systems used by modern cars and trucks. The purpose of such control is not specified, but it would permit the CIA to engage in nearly undetectable assassinations.”


Based on the belief that if there is one fundamental equation which can describe everything, the simulated child universe would have to be done using the same equations to be realistic as the parent one. Thus the details are sort of in the equations, or by the random intrinsic choices of their quantum historical evolution. It might be that a parent universe may simulate so many child universes that no one is monitoring some universes as well.

It maybe that each child universe have their fundamental constants modified compared to the parent ones so that their total information contained is less than a parent universe, which implies a finite chain of simulated universe. Total information in a universe can be estimated by its area. Area divided by Planck length squared is the total information it can contain. As Planck length is determined by Planck constant h, Gravitational constant, G and speed of light, c. It means that to have less information for the child universe, the Planck length has to be bigger. Planck units - Wikipedia

Bigger Planck length can imply bigger h, thus stronger quantum effects for child universes, or bigger G, thus stronger gravity for child universes, or smaller c, that means special relativity becomes more obvious in child universes. As h and G are crucially fine tuned to allow for life, I think the only safe tuning would be c. It can be funny then to reflect that our speed of light is so slow cosmically speaking.

As for rebirth and simulated universe, my take is that if the simulated brain and mind base are good enough to accommodate consciousness, it might be possible to be reborn into a simulated universe, if we can be reborn into a suitably constructed AI.