The simulation hypothesis

The simulation hypothesis

At this years Code conference, Elon Musk shared his view on the simulation hypothesis:

The strongest argument for us being in a simulation probably is the following. Forty years ago we had pong. Like, two rectangles and a dot. That was what games were.

Now, 40 years later, we have photorealistic, 3D simulations with millions of people playing simultaneously, and it’s getting better every year. Soon we’ll have virtual reality, augmented reality.

If you assume any rate of improvement at all, then the games will become indistinguishable from reality, even if that rate of advancement drops by a thousand from what it is now. Then you just say, okay, let’s imagine it’s 10,000 years in the future, which is nothing on the evolutionary scale.

So given that we’re clearly on a trajectory to have games that are indistinguishable from reality, and those games could be played on any set-top box or on a PC or whatever, and there would probably be billions of such computers or set-top boxes, it would seem to follow that the odds that we’re in base reality is one in billions.

Tell me what’s wrong with that argument. Is there a flaw in that argument?

Is there a flaw? Let’s first look at the main underlying assumptions without judging them.


  1. There is an (unknown) incentive in the “real” world, to create –in our words– authentic, lifelike simulations.
  2. In terms of the basic physical properties, the “real” world follows the same rules as ours. This becomes obvious in the extrapolation of computational progress and the ability itself, to be able to compute something. There is generally no need that the amount of geometric dimensions, the behavior of time, or the link between action and reaction is the same – they differ even in our world at different scales (s. quantum physics).

Today, our computer games are physically inspired – to some extent even replicating the laws of physics, but that’s not their focus. Our computer games could be a lot more physical, but the dynamics of the game itself are more important. But take the first assumption aside – the guys running our simulation might have reasons for doing a strict physical simulation, maybe it’s just entertaining to watch or the CPU is idle and needs work (Don’t they have something else to do? How about bitcoin mining?).

Looks real - but the simulation end at the latest when the player can't perceive it
Looks real – but the simulation ends at the latest when the player can’t perceive it

The second assumption however, is critical. Let’s say, we would know all the physical laws of our universe and like to start a 1:1 simulation. The number of available degrees of freedom may be very small at the big bang, due to the initial symmetries. But with increasing entropy, the amount of information – the degrees of freedom in our virtual world converges to be equal than in our real world. Let alone the saving capacity would consume our own universe itself. We could counter this issue by applying data compression. This compression would increasingly loose its efficiency after time, due to the raised entropy. The better solution (on the long run), would imply the usage of level-of-detail simulations. This is exactly how our current state of the art simulations are done, we simplify the universe’ content and laws to make it fit into our computing machines.

Dear Pong paddles, I have bad news for you. You’re simulated.

What does this tell us? The fact that you can’t replicate a universe inside of itself turns our to be a problem. Even if the Pong paddles could use their ball to simulate something (I would be deeply impressed if they do), they are unable to replicate their own simulation. Simply because the rules and possible states of their ball is a subset of their universe.

The possible solutions

Level of detail

There could be a very clever level-of-detail computation. This algorithm must be clever enough, to even deceive our increasingly precise physical measurements. And it could just simplify or “skip” a lot of simulation steps for matter that is just very far away from observers. But that requires the observers to be handled as a special entity – they must not simply be formed out of the atomic simulation substance. Since we can observe the physical laws behind our cells pretty good, it can be assumed that we are no black-box that is separately treated than the rest of the simulation. The only exception is our intelligence, which still poses a big problem for our scientists. But a lot of us are optimistic that we will figure it out in the next decades. That said, there is no evidence or big likelihood for us being a level-of-detail copy of the “real” world.

Other physical laws

The “real” world is completely different from ours. The vast amount of a reduction of dimensions and physical laws would then make us simulation-able, just like we do with our computer games. This should make us agnostic, we can’t use our logic to come up with insights for reality. Maybe, some elements of our existence are inspired by the “real” world, but it’s impossible to figure it out. Maybe our souls are the hooked-in players, who strive for some entertainment? God knows.


We are no simulation. (Well, now I’m bored.)

And now?

Is there a flaw in that argument? I think there is. The extrapolation logic assumes a comparability of our world and the “real” one, which then leads to solution 2., in which case we just can’t tell anything. This just raises the question to a religious level, the end of every scientific WHY-chain. But, the only imperative we can get from this thought experiment is to look out for level-of-detail hints or loopholes to leave the laws of our universe.

Alright then, back to work, folks!

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