Why We’re Not Living in a Computer Simulation

We humans have small brains hardwired for life on the African savannah and the primordial forests of Eurasia. This alone should tell us that we need to be very careful when attempting to think, and that any conclusions we draw that aren’t strongly supported by empirical evidence are likely to be hilariously wrong. If you’re skeptical about this statement I suggest you waste a few years studying philosophy, a subject in which hilariously wrong ideas are in no short supply.

Because our brains are small and mostly occupied with things like regulating heartbeat, ensuring we fill and empty our lungs with sufficient frequency, and don’t fall over while we are moving, we tend to take what little we know and project it onto the wider world around us. This strategy conserves effort, which was important back when calories were scarce. Hence because we often cry when we’re sad, we assume that rain means one of our gods or goblins is sad. Because Mary is doesn’t like us and sometimes tries to harm us, we assume when a bad thing occurs (such as tripping over a tree root) it’s because someone or something doesn’t like us. Because we sometimes get what we want if we pester mommy, we assume that we can sometimes get what we want if we pester our gods (we call this “praying”). And of course those gods and goblins themselves are merely projections of our mommy and daddy onto a larger canvas.

So we’ve always erroneously extrapolated from what’s in front of us. When the link between electrical current and living cells was discovered, the world went wild for electricity. Mary Wollstonecraft wrote a brilliant novel and doctors decided nothing could be better than applying large amounts of current to the delicate human brain in order to see what happened. We forget today how shiny and new electricity was for a few decades, but if we go back and read the journals of the time we can see our forebears were just as obsessed by electricity as we are by modern computing technology. And like us, they began to see electricity everywhere.

Even before we had much in the way of technology, people were jumping to all manner of conclusions based on nothing whatsoever but their own imagination. One well-known Greek fellow looked at the shadows resulting from an object being interposed between a wall and a light source and decided that our world is “really” just a series of shadows cast by a “real reality” beyond our realm. If we can reason this poorly with only an oil lamp for inspiration it’s not surprising if we reason poorly when confronted with more astonishing artifacts.

Now we have video games and nonsensical Hollywood movies, it was inevitable that some people would find themselves believing that we’re all actually just part of a computer simulation. “We must find out!” shout such folk, convinced they’ve uncovered The Great Secret Truth About Existence.

Before we get ourselves into an enjoyable fluster and start chasing our tails, let’s remember that history shows very clearly we humans find it astonishingly easy to believe practically anything at all provided it’s simple. Our brains don’t do complex, but we fall over ourselves to embrace easy-to-understand nonsense. And what could be simpler than the idea we’re all just Super Mario running around inside someone’s celestial laptop? But being simple rarely means being right.

Here’s how real science works: we observe a phenomenon we can’t explain with current theories, we develop various hypotheses that each make one or more unique predictions that can be tested against empirically derived data, then we see which hypothesis best explains everything we can measure. That’s how we have the everyday magic we enjoy today: smartphones, airplanes, GPS, and so much more.

What doesn’t ever work is leaping to conclusions based on no unexplained phenomenon and on arbitrary “reasoning.” Most of human history has involved the latter and all it brings us is endless confusion and plenty of violence along the way.

So what’s the unexplained phenomenon that is addressed by the “we’re all in a computer simulation” notion? Well, um, ah… actually nothing at all. I could just as well posit that we’re living in a huge fruitcake that’s slowly baking in a meta-universal oven owned by an alien Aunt Grady and all the galaxies we see in our telescopes are “really” raisins and slivers of almond. Or I could say we’re “really” in a meta-universal ocean and all the galaxies we see are “really” bubbles resulting from the exhalation of invisible dark-matter fish. In fact the list of absurd ideas is literally endless and I’m sure you can think of plenty yourself, especially if you drink a few beers first.

Furthermore, what are the unique testable predictions made by the “we’re all in a computer simulation” notion? Well, um, ah… actually none at all. So we could never actually find out anything about this idea. Which is convenient for those propounding it, but a total waste of time for the rest of us.

Finally, what utility does this idea have? Does it answer anything at all about how our universe came into existence and how it works? Nope, not at all. Because the “we’re all in a computer simulation” concept is precisely the same as the “god made everything” concept: it answers nothing because in both cases all you get is a pointless regression. If we’re in a computer simulation, how did the universe in which the computer has real existence come into being? If mommy or daddy god made everything, how did mommy or daddy god come into existence?

This is the same dilemma the more thoughtful of our ancestors faced, which led them to introduce parent gods for their primary gods, and then parent gods for the parent gods, until they realized that this was making the whole concept of gods risible for even the most dull-witted and superstitious peasant so they resorted to the trick of distracting attention though graphic descriptions of some primordial void that had “always” been there and then magically changed. In other words, it was the CGI of its day, intended to divert attention from the fact that just like any Hollywood blockbuster movie there’s no intellectually coherent content whatsoever.

In summary, there is no reason at all for us to entertain the notion that we’re all living in a computer simulation and there are many reasons, of which I’ve adumbrated only a few here, why we can ignore the idea entirely and spend our precious time on far more useful and interesting ideas instead.

Anyone who enjoys my articles here on Medium may be interested in my books Why Democracy Failed and The Praying Ape, both available from Amazon.

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