Does it Matter if We’re Living in a Simulation?

Various new findings in science have led to the growing popularity of theories that argue that our world is a computer simulation. Though we are far from reaching a certain answer on this, this is a possibility that has many potentially interesting implications for the way we think about our lives. On the surface, the possibility that we are in a simulation seems to be a quite scary thought, evoking dark sci-fi films like The Matrix. But are all simulations inherently bad? Most of us would probably hope that we aren’t living in a simulation, but how much does it matter if we are indeed living in one?

Many may believe that any kind of simulation would be a bad thing for humanity. Some on the other hand, may think it makes little difference. In my opinion, there is no simple yes or no answer – how much we ought to care that we are in a simulation ultimately depends on its conditions. Taking the conditions of our current world, one striking feature is the pervasive suffering. There are large amounts of senseless, unnecessary suffering in our world. One may argue that a certain amount of suffering, or hardship, is actually good for humans, such as to give us a challenge to overcome and make life more fulfilling. What we currently have though – with nearly half of our world living at or near extreme poverty, countless numbers of people facing disease they have no protection from, many groups of people being persecuted and discriminated against because of factors such as race/gender/sexuality/etc., and the list goes on — seems to be far, far more than that amount. If there is some entity, such as a person or an AI responsible for directly programming that suffering, then there is much reason to care that we are in the simulation. Though it is unclear what we could do in this case, if anything, we would be right in directing our anger towards the responsible entity and trying to find a way to overcome the programmed conditions.

Another reason to care if is if the simulation that we are in is a world where only one or a few individuals have conscious minds – they are the only ones that have subjective, inner experiences. In this hypothetical world, all or most of the people you come into contact with are akin to NPCs in video games – they interact with you but are inactive products of the simulation, and have as much inner experience as a rock does. They may seem to have separate lives and conscious experiences but are just programmed to appear that way. Such a simulation would be quite discomforting to most people. The people in this world that you have formed relationships are not actually conscious, which to me seems to take out the most prerequisite component of a relationship – that it is a mutual one between two conscious beings. This would be deceptive and cruel on part of the simulators.

Theoretically though, if our world were such so that suffering and tragic events were not the result of intentional programming, and that we all are indeed conscious and not NPCs, then it may in fact not matter too much that we’re living in a simulation. What seems to matter to us the most is our conscious experience, and the relationships that we form with other conscious beings that also experience. These will remain even if we’re in a simulation. Fundamental social values that we hold, such as friendship, family, love, and compassion for others, will remain intact. Other, more personal values, such as achievement, growth, and perseverance, will also remain. Even if we are living in such a simulation, our relationships with other people, and our personal experiences, remain real. To most of us, these are the things that we value most in our lives.

In this post, I’ve discussed three possible types of simulations; 1) our current world where suffering has been intentionally programmed, 2) a world where only one or a few people are conscious, and 3) our current world where the suffering that is present is not the result of intentional programming and every person is conscious. There are many other types of theoretical simulations with different conditions, but I believe the conditions I discussed (unnecessary suffering, consciousness of other people) would be among our most prominent worries regarding simulations. Here’s to hoping that if we are indeed living in a simulation, it’s the third type.

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