“Planet Earth in our solar system is a kind of zoo for extraterrestrial beings who dwell out there somewhere. And this is the best, the most interesting experiment they could set up: to set up the evolution on Planet Earth going in such a way that it would produce these really interesting characters — humans who go around doing things — and they watch their experiment, interfering hardly at all so that almost everything we do comes out according to the laws of nature. But every now and then they see something which doesn’t look quite right — this zoo is going to kill itself off if they let you do this or that.”
Biologist William D. Hamilton
The New York Times recently ran a column by Robert Wright, Can Evolution Have a ‘Higher Purpose’, of great interest to the Omnivore. This life of ours, this planet, this way with which we deal with each other and with events has always seemed like a very poorly-designed science project, and certainly the happenings of 2016 have only seemed to validate this even more.
William Hamilton died in 2000 at the age of 63, a noted evolutionary biologist who helped unify Darwin’s principles of natural selection and pioneered the use of computers in biology, including complex simulations.
Most unexpectedly, in an interview conducted in 1992 by Mr. Stone (which was to focus on a documentary he was preparing on evolutionary psychology) Mr. Hamilton began speaking about his firm conviction that life as we know it, on our planet Earth, was actually more of a social experiment being orchestrated by extraterrestrial life forms and that adjustments were being made whenever we seemed doomed to hurtle ourselves into oblivion. Interview with William Hamilton
Another recent article from a reputable source amplified on the same theme. In Scientific American, Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the American Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium, put the odds at 50-50 that our entire existence is a program on someone else’s hard drive. “I think the likelihood may be very high,” he said.
The article, entitled Are We Living in a Computer Simulation? posited the possibility, much as Hamilton had 25 years earlier, that we were all part of a giant intergalactic simulation, or game, as you were (although the Omnivore has always wanted to think of it more as a project, rather than an extraterrestrial version of ‘Warcraft’, albeit with real blood).
A popular argument for the simulation hypothesis came from University of Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrum in 2003, when he suggested that members of an advanced civilization with enormous computing power might decide to run simulations of their ancestors. They would probably have the ability to run many, many such simulations, to the point where the vast majority of minds would actually be artificial ones within such simulations, rather than the original ancestral minds. So simple statistics suggest it is much more likely that we are among the simulated minds.
So just how long has this theory been around? And how many of us have the strong feeling that this particular social experiment is running out of time?
The BBC recently addressed the issue in its acclaimed ‘Earth’ series, in a program entitled We Might Live in a Computer Program But it May Not Matter.
The idea that we live in a simulation has some high-profile advocates.
In June 2016, technology entrepreneur Elon Musk assertedthat the odds are “a billion to one” against us living in “base reality”.
Similarly, Google’s machine-intelligence guru Ray Kurzweil has suggested that “maybe our whole universe is a science experiment of some junior high-school student in another universe”.
Much as in the ‘Matrix’, the central question seems to be: what is real? Is any of this? Are we sentient beings or simply complex creations in a vast experiment? And, really, does it matter. According to the BBC:
Who is to say that before long we will not be able to create computational agents – virtual beings – that show signs of consciousness? Advances in understanding and mapping the brain, as well as the vast computational resources promised by quantum computing, make this more likely by the day.
If we ever reach that stage, we will be running huge numbers of simulations. They will vastly outnumber the one “real” world around us.Is it not likely, then, that some other intelligence elsewhere in the Universe has already reached that point? If so, it makes sense for any conscious beings like ourselves to assume that we are actually in such a simulation, and not in the one world from which the virtual realities are run. The probability is just so much greater.