Thought-experiment August: What if you are just a minor character in a computer game

BCC’s Ronan introduced me to the work of Nick Bostrom, an Oxford Philosopher. He writes and thinks on technology and ethics issues. He has a fascinating line of reasoning. He argues that quite possibly we are living in a simulation, like The Matrix.

For today’s thought experiment let’s consider his proposal. Here is his paper. The crux of the idea focuses on these three possibilities, one of which he argues, is almost certainly true:

1 Almost all civilizations at our level of development become extinct before becoming technologically mature.
2 The fraction of technologically mature civilizations that are interested in creating ancestor simulations is almost zero.
3 You are almost certainly living in a computer simulation.

Ancestor simulations are similar to our video games but highly advanced and based upon future technology. The characters in current computer games are becoming more and more detailed. The more detailed you can make the action of that game’s characters, the more real the game. Imagine a time in the future where these character agents are so detailed that they are essentially instantiations of agents rather than just representations. Almost certainly, as computers continue to advance, this will become more possible. He is suggesting in number 3, that probabilistically, if civilizations have existed in time far into the past, than certainly technology has advanced to the point of being able to run these kinds of highly advanced agent-based simulations. If so, then your probability of being the ‘player’ is very low (He sees the simulationists as scientists, who are trying to discover facts of the universe with these computer simulations, but we all know they would most likely be gamers).

So today’s thought experiment is this. Given that you can’t tell if anyone is real or a simulation (whatever we might mean by ‘real’), how would it change your perception of yourself if you found out that indeed you were the background player of a massive game. Fodder for an elaborate version of SimEarth.

(Or is this just a description of what it means for a spirit to be ‘in’ a body.)

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15 Responses to Thought-experiment August: What if you are just a minor character in a computer game

  1. In a sense if we view god as a scientist and our world as his experiment we are in a similar position. The key difference with the gospel is that we know that through obedience we can eventually become the scientist and run our own experiments.

  2. S.Faux says:

    Makes sense. Jesus died, but had an extra life, and thus the game continues.

  3. Stan says:

    I’d be looking for the cheat codes.

  4. peckhive says:

    Clark! A work of genius.

    Stan, I have them.

    S. Faux, now we level up.

    Symphonyofdissent, but a scientist within a simulation or are we made ‘real?’ or is it a simulation, within a simulation, within a simulation, . . .

  5. Rameumptom says:

    You guys just don’t get it, do you? I developed the first simulation/game of reality, and then made it redundant upon itself. That’s why Ecclesiastes tells us that there is “nothing new under the sun.” What he didn’t tell you is that it is actually a Sun computer that all of this is built on. Linux operating system, etc. “There is nothing new under the Sun Computer” is actually the full phrase.

    And it has been interesting to see how many simulations end up caught up in simulations of their own. I’ve seen people starve to death, sitting at their keyboards….Simulation terminated.

  6. larryco_ says:

    The PBS series “Closer To Truth” (airing in Utah on Sundays at 10:30 on KUEN – 9.1) had a program called something like “Are We In A Sim?” a few months back. They interviewed authorities like Ray Kurzweil, and it was pretty convincing. The conclusion was that the only possible way that we could tell is if we caught “natural laws” being rounded-off at some miniscule point.

  7. Note that none of the indefinitely embedded worlds may know if it’s the basement world, or if there even is a basement world. Ramifications of the argument may be particularly interesting to Mormons. Check out the Creation Argument portion of the New God Argument:

  8. Andrew says:

    wait wait wait, you’re telling me that mice are running the whole show? naaaah, couldn’t be.

  9. Allen says:

    At the present time, the difference between a “real” person and a simulated person is agency or free will. The behavior of simulated persons is pre-determined via the algorithms that comprise the simulation. “Real” persons have agency or free will that allows them to make “real” decisions. If I were to find out that I was a simulated person and not a “real” person, I would be disappointed and would lose my hope for the future, knowing that my behavior and decisions were predestined by the algorithms that make up my personality. Persons who believe in predestination would probably be happy as a simulation, since that is the end result of predestination.

  10. Carl Youngblood says:

    Of course, larryco_, if the laws were somehow being “rounded off” it begs the question of how we could ever tell. Scientists’ current approach, when observing phenomena that don’t fit the theories, is to revise the theories till they account for all the data.

  11. Mark Olsen says:


    I’m not sure I buy your argument. If the simulation can model a real world with the needed complexity, then whatever “agency” turns out to be it will be part of the simulation. I don’t see why this is impossible in principle (though I do hold out the possibility that it is impossible, but only knowable empirically, in some distant future). If we are not causally determined, and if agency is radically in the agent why would there be reasons that these things could not be modeled in principle (I am committed to neither determinism nor contra causal agency here–but look whatever agency turns out to be, I don’t think it is just magic. I need some evidence that the notion could not be computable).

  12. Mark Olsen says:


    There is another problem with your argument. Compatibilism. Plenty of philosophers have bought into determinism, without losing hope that we have responsbility and psychological tests show that as long as the question is asked correctly, the folk will give up their belief in a non-deterministic world before they will give their belief in free will sufficient for responsibility. I am not sure if we are metaphysically free, but I am sure that the end of contracausal choice does not necessarily spell the end of agency sufficient for responsibility. True this is a conundrum that has proponents on at least three different (possibly four different–depending on how your cutting) but if we do live in a mechanistic world, there would be no real problem with a computer modeling that world.

    By the way. I don’t like this argument, but not for your reasons.

  13. Jeremy says:

    Sorry to come late to the party. Probably all of the guests have gone home, but I wanted to comment on something that I have been thinking about recently.

    Instead of wondering whether or not our consciousness exists within a simulation, but whether our simulations have consciousness. There is no real way to test whether an entity “has” consciousness. All that we really have is our own personal experience of consciousness. We assume that other people have consciousness, because we can communicate the shared notion of consciousness with each other.

    However, we have no real way of knowing whether dogs or dolphins or ants or trees are conscious, or at least decision-makers in some sense or other. It is certainly possible that consciousness requires much, much less in terms of cognitive ability than we assume.

    If that is the case, is it possible that we have already created conscious beings? Are our computers conscious? How would we know if they were?

  14. Tod Robbins says:

    Another central aspect of real vs. simulation is: is man uncreate or created? I stand behind Joseph Smith in his declaration that man is co-eternal with God. If something had a beginning it will have an end by logical extension. Simulation implies a beginning and therefore an end. Though, I suppose there is the epic nature of substratum and the like, infinite simulations within simulations with their metalayers. Hmm…

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