These are the days of fever dreams, whether induced by an actual virus or by the slow-motion stresses of a world dealing with a pandemic. One kind of dream in particular that I know I’ve had has to do with discovering that this was all, well, a dream. Except, when I really do wake up, I remember that there are ideas about the nature of reality that go beyond even this. The trickiest variant of these concepts is the simulation hypothesis, which is that we far more likely exist within a virtual reality than in a physical reality.

The proposition that the world is a sham is not new; it’s been cropping up for thousands of years across different cultures, from China to ancient Greece, advocated by thinkers like Descartes with his mind-body dualism. But this more recent version, based around computation—or at least artificial reconstruction—bubbled up around 2003 with the publication of a paper titled “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?” by the philosopher Nick Bostrom. In essence Bostrom makes the argument that if any extremely advanced civilizations develop the capacity to run “ancestor simulations” (to learn about their own pasts) the simulated ancestral entities would likely far outnumber actual sentient entities in the universe. With a little probabilistic hand-waving it is then possible to argue that we are most likely simulated.

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