Are we but ghosts in the machine? Pt. 4

So far, we have examined the workings behind Nick Bostrom’s Ancestor Simulation hypothesis, looked at the how’s and the why’s of such an endeavor. Part one, part two and part three (hopefully) illustrate how, probabilistically, we are more likely to be in such a simulation than not. Now, in part four, we will briefly look at what it means to be simulated, how it would work, and if we would ever have any way to know for sure.

It is important to realise that what Bostrom has put forward is not proof or otherwise that pits reality against simulation in relation to our own perceived reality. It is merely an argument of probability, which is intended to lead us towards discussion of our existence and the ntaure of that reality:

“I believe that the simulation argument is sound. The argument shows only that at least one of three possibilities obtains, but it does not tell us which one(s). One can thus accept the simulation argument and reject the simulation hypothesis (i.e. that we are in a simulation).”

“Thus, the simulation argument is not best thought of as a skeptical argument that would have us be more agnostic, but rather as an argument that would have us increase our credence in one particular disjunction (and decrease our credence in its negation). It aims to tell us something about the world rather than to advise us that we know less about the world than we thought we did.”

But, regardless of how the argument is actually interpreted or used, it most clearly puts forward questions that are universal, regardless of the specific ins and outs of “is it possible to do?” or “why would it be done?”

Let’s pretend…

Let’s assume for a moment that the statistics are balanced towards option (3) – that we are actually living in an Ancestor Simulation. What does that mean? Would there be any way for us to prove it? Would we ever become aware of it?

In short, with only one major exception, no.

We shall assume that an originating civilization has created the simulation in which we live, and assume that they are technologically able to simulate not just one human mind, but all the human minds living at this point in time, along with the universe that we experience around us. We won’t worry about their motivations; just assume that it is so. What questions are raised?

The easiest thing to do is use a comparable to give yourself a basic frame of reference. Turn on a videogame console and start up a game. Let’s say, for the sake of illustration, that we are playing Halo. Now pause the game and imagine that YOU are the progenitor civilization, and the game is the simulation that you have created. Imagine for a second that as well as the game world, the NPC’s within the game and the sounds and visuals, you have been able to program the protagonist – Master Chief – will a fully-fledged mind, to the extent that consciousness is present (or at least, to the extent that the Chief perceives himself to be conscious). We will call upon this frame of reference to help illustrate some of the questions we may come across.


One popular question often posed is that, if we are all in a simulation running on some fantastic super-computer, wouldn’t there be times when things go a bit wonky and something goes a bit wrong? A universal “blue screen of death”? And if so, surely we would identify these “glitches” and be able to use them as signs pointing to our artificiality?

Well, yes and no.

It is highly likely that any complex system, whether the human brain, your laptop or some vast stellar super computer of a progenitor would, from time to time, encounter calculation errors resulting in flaws and glitches. if we assume that the simulation in which we find ourselves is simulating every living organism on our planet, as well as the planet itself, the observable universe, and all the interactions and physics therein, it is safe to assume that occasionally, such massive computation will fall flat on its ass, or would create strange artifacts due to sloppy programming or omissions.

Glitches or bugs in a videogame can include such things as clipping (objects passing through each other due to incorrect physics routines or bounding box errors), missing objects, objects lacking textures (appearing “blank”), strange AI behaviours, odd audio effects, and many more.

In our souped-up game of Halo, a glitch or bug might mean that the Chief sees a tree hovering a few feet off the ground (which there famously is on the level Assault On The Control Room), or a vehicle thrashing about seemingly of its own accord as the physics engine tries to reconcile its position to a rest-state when another object is in the way. Perhaps he sees an enemy Elite standing there ignoring him, seemingly unable to see the Chief or carrying out strange repetitive actions, as if stuck in a loop.

Now, as we have injected the Chief (in this special release of the game) with human intelligence, it is natural to assume that he would be a little freaked out by something like a hovering tree or a jiggling Bansee vehicle. If you or I dropped a weapon to the ground only to see it spin wildly because it was against a wall and because the program could not reconcile the fact that the final destination of the dropped weapon is beyond or within that wall (because the physics engine had not correctly “bounced” the weapon off of the wall), we would certainly be a little shocked. We would perhaps question our own sanity, or start to think perhaps a poltergeist or some other malevolent force was at work. A scientist might accept the strange behavior as not particularly mystical, and decide to examine it fully, to find out what is causing the phenomenon.

But there is one thing to remember: it is highly unlikely that the person running the simulation wants to send the entities within it on a quest to expose it. After all, if I am running a simulation to evaluate human history, the last thing I need is to make the simulation obvious to those within it, as this would break away from the original history upon which the simulation is based, and render the data useless.

So, it is safe to assume that yes, in an Ancestor Simulation, the creators would be just as guilty as today’s software engineers – sometimes it is impossible to test for everything, some things get left out due to time constraints, and oddities can ensue. So, we just need to look hard and find the glitches, right? Wrong. We never will, because such activity is undesireable to the creator. Therefore, tools will be available to rectify glitches in a way we would not perceive.

It is a problem very easily solved – when a glitch of some sort occurs, simply pause the program, fix the bug, and rewind the program to a few seconds before the bug occurred. Simple. If I am playing a normal game of Halo and I somehow manage to get the Master Chief outside the permitted map area with no way to get back, I simply pause the game and go back to the last saved checkpoint, carrying on as if nothing had happened. In our simulation, although we would experience the glitch, once it was fixed and returned to normal, we would be “rewound a few minutes” and our brain-states would return to the way they were at exactly the point from which play resumed – leaving no trace of memory of the glitched event or rewind. For all we know, we could be finding glitches every single day, and have no way to know. And absolutely no way to prove that it happened.

In The Matrix, Neo experiences déjà vu, and sees a black cat pass a doorway twice. He innocently points this out, and is advised that this means that something has been changed in the Matrix-simulation and this is a glitch that occurred as a result. However, in reality (no pun intended) this would not occur beause once the glitch was rectified or the change made, he would be returned to just prior to the glitch occurring, have no memory of it and therefore not be able to bring it to the attention of his allies.

Therefore, the presence or perception of bugs and glitches cannot be used to prove or disprove the possibility that our reality is simulated.

It’s all too much!

Many people suggest that infinity itself is the sole agent that can determine the “realness” of reality. That, despite the creator civilization having super-duper awesome computing at their disposal, there is no way they could create an infinite universe – that being the universe we observe both visually and in mathematics. This fact surely makes such a simulation untenable?

Well, no, not really.

The fact that mathematics can create infinity does not mean anything, in terms of computing power. Instrinsically, just because an equation on a blackboard suggests that the universe is infinite does not mean that it requires such a universe to exist. And the fact that we can make visual observations that suggest an infinite universe equally does not mean that the infinite universe has to actually exist for us to see it.

Simply put, it is a valid point that it would be prohibitive to run a simulation that requires the creation of infinity. However, it would also be incredibly pointless to actually create such an infinity all the time when, for the most part, observation of this infinity is almost never taking place. 

In game design, this is called LOD or Level Of Detail. In our pimped game of Halo, the Chief can be standing an an enormous valley, snow falling, wind whipping at his armor, and he can look up and see a starry sky. In that sky, he will see galaxies far away, shimmering amidst the stars. To him, that is the observable universe, many millions or even billions of light years away. He could take out a ridiculously powerful telescope, and perhaps bring it to bear on a distant galaxy, and marvel at the hundreds of millions of stars within that galaxy, and how he is now able to see many more galaxies even further away.

But you are the programmer for his reality – a reality he accepts and perceives as totally real – and you really haven’t got a few spare millennia (or the memory in your upgraded super-powerful Xbox) to create all these trillions of stars and galaxies. So instead, you bring LOD to bear. Around the valley you create a skybox -literally a box around the valley he perceives upon which lives a simple texture map of the night sky. Perhaps it is animated to show clouds, shooting stars and movement of the celestial scenery. It does not need to be very high-resolution, because it is supposed to be a very long way away from the Chief, and he is observing it with the naked eye. However, does it follow that when he whips his telescope out, he will see a clunky low-resolution texture map of the night sky? No. When he looks through the telescope, then he sees a chunk of the outside universe with stars and galaxies in higher detail – a different image to the one he was seeing just a moment ago. But, this could again be a simple two-dimensional animated image, as there is no need to use complex modelling at these perceived distances. In effect, there is no limit to how far out into space the Chief looks, as no matter what he uses, he always gets the same thing – a very simple but detailed image that he beleives is the dark, mysterious depths of space, many many light years away. In reality, such an image would probably require less processing power than his own armor, in terms of system resources.

So, in effect, what our simulation creators could do, with very little impact on their system resources, is effectively show us what we need to see, on demand, instead of generating and rendering the whole universe.

The same can be said for the other direction – the quantum world. In the same way, it is not neccessary for the simulation to render down to the atomic or sub-atomic scale. The simulation only needs to constantly render to the naked eye level of resolution. Greater resoltions can be provided on demand, locally to the observer, when magnification equipment is used. In the Ancestor Simulation, it is more likely that it would not be an image, per se, but rather code that convinces the observer that they are seeing what they are.

So, level of detail, or the existence of infinity cannot be used to prove or disprove the possibility that our reality is simulated.

It’s all too much! Again!

Another argument along the lines of the resource management discussion above is that although it is conceivable that the creation of an entire universe – at whatever level of detail – by some supercomputer is possible, surely running the program real time would just be too much. There would be so much to process that it would never get off the ground.

Well, whilst that suggests a certain arrogance about just exactly what a future technological civilisation may or may not be capable of building, it has a fatal flaw.

Who said anything about real-time?

When Pixar creates on of its fantastic CGI animated films, it does not build the whole thing on the shelf, characters, actions and all, and then simply render it to a video recorder. Each frame of film, 24 for each second, is rendered individually. The movements and actions are planned and built in, and the film comes together, frame by frame, on huge render farms that are made up of many, many servers. Each server might render a few frames in an hour. Back in the day, it could take a whole day to render a single frame. For an hour and a half long film, that’s 129,600 frames, renderd one by one. Nowadays of course the process is much faster (even though the amount of stuff being rendered by the computer is much greater, much more complex and contains more elements).

In the same vein, it is possible to imagine that the race creating the simulation have a bank of “servers” that can “render” the simulated reality. Let’s, for the sake of argument, assume that they render this simulation in frames, like an animated movie. Let’s also assume that their “frames” are actually units of time. For the sake of argument, we will assume that they render the simulated “reality” in frames that are in fact a jiffy long. A jiffy is the rather endearing name for what physicists believe is the smallest feasible and measurable unit of time – according to Wikipedia:

“In astrophysics and quantum physics a jiffy is, as defined by Edward R. Harrison,[4] the time it takes for light to travel one fermi (the size of a nucleon). One fermi is 10−15 m, so a jiffy is about 3 × 10−24 seconds.”  

Now, if the creator race have computers that are so powerful they can render a simulated reality at the jiffy level, real-time, then great. Yay them. That’s really powerful tech, they have teh smartz and everyone loves everyone.

But wait. That’s a hell of an assumption. For all we know, they can’t render real-time. We discussed in a previous blog that the instincts that drive man to enquire about his history and his surroundings are inherent in human nature – and will never be forgotten. So it is silly to assume that scientists, eager to simulate a reality for whatever reason, would figure out how to do it and then decide to wait for another few thousand years just beacuse it had to be real-time. Of course they wouldn’t. And they wouldn’t because they would know full well that the render speed of the simulation is irrelevant to the entities living within the simulation.

What do I mean? Simply put, if we were simulated, then we would only be “aware” at the same level of quantisation as the simulation. Our perceptions and thought processes would be rendered and be active only at the same rate as the rendering itself. So I would experience a jiffy of time, then nothing, then the next jiffy, and so on (of course, I would not actually “experience” a jiffy but you know what I mean). I would no more sense the pauses between jiffies than you perceive the spaces between frames in a CGI animated movie, or than my super-conscious Master Chief would be aware that I had paused the Halo game to go get a coffee. Whether each jiffy was rendered real-time, or a thousand million years apart, to a simulated entity reality would simply proceed at normal speed.

This means that being able to “render” a simulation real-time is not a pre-requisite for the creation of a simulated reailty.  


The fact that it may require just too much computing power to “render” a simulation in real-time cannot be used to prove or disprove the possibility that our reality is simulated. 

I think, therefore…I might be?

Consciousness – the sense of self, the “I” in “me” – is an interesting subject. No-one is able to say for sure what it is, or why it is. It could be a side effect of the complexity of the human brain and it’s complex workings. It could be a matter of the soul – an entity that lives within us, and merely inhabits us on our journey of life. Who knows? But in terms of this discussion, does it totally negate the possibility of reality being simulated?

Well, no.

If consciousness is merely a by-product of a complex system then, as we have already stated in our breakdown of the underlying requirements for a simulation, there is nothing available to us in our current uinderstanding of physics, biology or metaphysics to suggest that such consciousness-creating complexity is dependent on substrate – i.e. it is not a matter of what the system is made of that determines the generation of consious thought. There is no reason to suspect that consciousness would not occur in a suitably complex system made from electronic components, or even software components. Without the knowledge of such a limitation, it is untenable to claim that substrate is critical, and therefore any argument that a virtual brain would not create conscious thought is moot.

It is also important to remember that there is also nothing in our current knowledge to prevent us assuming that consiousness is merely a manufactured illusion, or that in a simulation consiousness could not be programmed, rather than actually existing. We do not have the technological capability to say if it possible to simulate consciousness, let alone create it in genuinely by way of a suitably complex system.

On the other hand, it could be assumed that consciousness is an entity – like a soul – that is seperate from our bodies and therefore almost like a beneficial parasite or symbiotic organism within us. Interestingly, this idea both proves and disproves the simulation argument at the same time. Bear in mind here that I am using the word “soul” outside any religious context and with no inherent confirmation of any religious connotations – it is merely a word I choose to use to denote the consciousness within us, because I am getting frustrated typing the word “consciousness” so much!

If our preceived universe is actually real, and not a simulation, and if our “self” is actually a separate entity, then in effect we are still simulated – to a certain degree. Our physical selves would merely be avatars, or vehicles, for such an entity. Meaning that the “me” I perceive as “me” is, in fact, not me! Although this would not be a simulation in the same vein as a full Ancestor Simulation, it woud still, nontheless, reduce our existence to something other than we perceive.

Of course, the other alternative is that the “soul” may in fact be a “gamer” – somebody experiencing a fully-simulated universe through direct injection into that simulation. It may be that without the soul or the “conscious entity”  we are merely virtual avatars, motionless and without direction, until the “player” jacks into the simulation and takes control.

This, of course, raises a whole new question – if the simulation is in fact interactive and has “players” contolling us, does that mean there is a “player” for each human? Not neccesarily. There may be a limited number of “players”, and the rest of humanity maybe be NPC’s – non-player characters. Dumb bots, if you will. For all you know, you may be the only actual player-controlled character in the whole world, and the rest of us simple drones (albeit very intelligent and convincing drones).  There is no way to tell.

As a little aside, Jim Elvidge, author of The Universe – Solved, leans more towards this train of thinking. He expands on the simulation hypothesis much like Nick Bostrom, but favors more the idea that physical entities are “plugged into” and “playing” or experiencing the simulation directly at some level (whereas Bostrom favors the “everything is pure simulation” side of the coin). Both are very compelling and interesting angles, and offer different reasons for such simulations to exist. Ideally, both should be studied alongside each other. 

This also creates the ONLY way for us to find out whether we are simulated or not. If numbers of the human race are actually avatars controlled by flesh and blood beings from “out there”, then it would be within their power to tell us our true nature. Why they would do so is another question. And, judging by the typical postings on, they would most likely not be believed anyway!

So, assuming we could prove the existence of a “soul”, or even if we never do, does the concept put a spanner in the works as far as suggesting we are simulated? I think you know the answer by now:

The existence and/or concept of consciousness and/or a “soul” (in any sense) cannot be used to prove or disprove the possibility that our reality is simulated.

I prove that I cannot prove what I prove.

Some suggest that if we are in a simulation, this simple fact disproves the simulation theory altogether.


Basically put, Bostrom’s argument is based on the idea that a suitably tecnologically advanced race would have the capability of creating an Ancestor Simulation. This idea is based on our current knowledge and understanding of physics and technology, and is dependent on us being able to predict what may be possible in the future.

But, it is argued, if we are simulated, we have no way to know that our current understanding of physics and technology is real – that is to say, for all we know, the laws of physics and quantum physics as we know them, and in fact all known laws governing the universe, may bear no relation at all to the “real” laws in the “real” world where the simulation-creator exists. For example, in our super-duper Halo game, I could set the physics engine to make magnets where aligned poles attract rather than repel. Or I could make gravity a strong repellent force rather than a weak attractant force. The Chief, inhabiting what he perceives to be his reality, would have no way to know that in my “real” reality, these laws are not the case, and would assume these as universal and correct laws. Therefore, if we cannot say with 100% certainty that our predictions are possible, we cannot say with 100% certainty that the simulation is someting that the “real world” inhabitants are able to create with their knowledge. Therefore, this suggests that the simulation is either not possible, or gives extra weight to the possibility that we are living in the reality that cannot run a simulation and are therefore real, not simulated.

Hell of a paradox, that one. I think I broke my brain.

But, in fact, it does not stop our reality being simulated at all. The counter reply is such:

  • If we do live in a simulation, regardless of whether our understanding of “capability” is correct or not, it proves that a simulation is possible and therefore given the statistical probability of there being more simulations that “real” realities, we are most likely to be simulated, or
  • If we are NOT in a simulation then it is more likely that our knowledge and assumptions about future technological capabilities are correct and based on “real” laws of physics – meaning that it we are more likely correct in our assumption that we will develop such a simulation at some point, Again, statistically, if we will one day have such a capability and will more likely have more than one simulation running, the likelihood of there being a greater number of simulated realities than our “real” reality is high and therefore means that in all probability we are more likely to be simulated and not real.

Take a deep breath 🙂

You know what’s coming…

Being simulated and it’s implications on our understanding of universal laws and technological potential cannot be used to prove or disprove the possibility that our reality is simulated.


In conclusion, what do we have? Well, as Bostrom himself points out, no proof of any kind that our reality is simulated or not. And we probably never will, unless Bostrom has taken the wrong tack and Elvidge has hit the nail on the head with the avatar idea, and we can actually be told. Rather, what we have is a collection of interesting points that compliment the statistical probablility that, in all likelihood, given the assumption that a race will reach the level of technology to create such a simulation, and run many simulations concurrently, it is more likley that we inhabit one of many Ancestor Simulations as opposed to inhabiting a single, “real” reality. Even if the creators run only two simulations, that means that we only have a one in three chance of not being simulated. And then factor in the possibility that their simulated beings may themselves create and run a simulation, and then their simulation may do the same (assuming the creators of each simulation permit it) ad infinitum (although with a lower level of detail each time), the odds of us being the original progenitor race becomes less and less.  Indeed, because of this, the simple act of creating a simulation in no way acts as proof that the creators are the “originals”.  It can make you dizzy.

I hope that you have enjoyed this article, and that it has opened your eyes to a whole different way of thinking. There is probably no way we will ever know one way or the other whether we are simulated or not. That we exist is not in question – “we think, therefore we am”! But we can gain insight into reality and our perceptions. Not only does the concept ask interesting questions of the nature of reality, and our perceptions of it, it forces us to look into theology as well. In pretty much every religion and faith there is a creator myth. Imagine for one minute that we create an Ancestor Simulation. Think about how we would appear to the simulated entities. We would have mystical powers to create and destroy life as we saw fit. We would control their entire universe. We could appear or disappear within the simulation at will. We could make bushes burn, make seas part, speak from the heavens, attribute magical powers to a chosen few individuals. We would, to the inhabitants and for all intents and purposes, be gods. This is interesting because the Ancestor Simulation hypothesis in of itself does not remove any theistic beliefs – in fact, it lends the idea of a creator God even more weight. If we do live in a simulation, and could prove it, it would, in fact, be irrefutable proof of the existence of God. The real kicker would be to find out that God was, in fact, just another simulation himself.  If there is one significant question that stems from all this, it is not “Is God an astronaut?”, it is:

“Is God a computer nerd?”



  1. k2source
    Posted September 17, 2008 at 6:14 am | Permalink | Reply

    I have found the simulation argument very interesting as well. It seems to me that there should still be some residual non-zero glitch probability since the glitch-detection monitoring code and glitch-correction code itself are potentially vulnerable to errors also (failure to detect, imperfect correction, etc.). Therefore, there should be a very small number of glitches that escape to be potentially noticed. Of course, there’s no guarantee that the class of glitches involved are easily recognized by our simulated minds, but at least there’s hope…

    Also, I’m not completely sure that the simulators are absolutely against everyone knowing. Look at where we are in history, we are right at the first point in history where anyone could really be aware of this possibility. Maybe they are curious about what types of people recognize the possibility and those who don’t. Maybe they are interested to see how we approach the problem of transcending our situation. Maybe they are interested in how technological singularities tend to evolve…

  2. Posted September 19, 2008 at 7:23 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Interesting points. However, assuming we are simulated, it is safe to assume that there is a purpose to the simulation – for example, a civilisation tracing its roots, or something more functional (let’s use Douglas Adams’ super computer from the Hitch Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy as an slightly fanciful example here). Now, if posthumans are running this simulation, it stands to reason (especially if it is an historical simulation) that the simulees suddenly becoming aware of their simulated nature would perturb the outcome of the simulation – assuming that the “real” simulation they are simulating did not make such a discovery in their “real” lives (the lives being simulated). Or, in the Hitch Hiker example, a program created for a specific purpose would risk becoming pointless should it become aware of its own natureand therefore “distracted” from its original purpose.

    I reckon that, considering this, it would not be in the creator’s interests to allow the simulees to become aware of their simulated status, for fear of “buggering up” the outcome. I think the creator would do everything they could do remove such glitches, or at least remove any evidence of them. It may be reasonable for them to leave those that are not at risk of discovery, or those that are explained away within the simulees’ frame of reference. Either way, I think it would be nigh impossible for us to ever prove for sure that we were simulated or not, as a glitch that was experienced and not “wiped out” would most likely be explained by factors that are within our “real world” frame of reference, or perhaps by some branch of science that we would think we were unaware of.

    As an example, consider the bright source of light and radio waves that astronomers have just discovered slap-bang in the middle of nowhere, deep out in space. Now, we could imagine that this might be a glitch, a slip of the skybox designer. But what scientist here in our reality ios going to suggest that it is proof of simulation? No scientist could prove such a claim, and would risk ridicule. In reality, astronomers and scientists would simply use our existing knowledge to explain it, or else say that it is obviously a new and previously unknown phenomenon that we can’t yet explain.

    Although , your final thoughts are interesting. For all we know, the whole point of the simulation is to merely see how intelligence develops within a simulation, or how life evolves there, and perhaps awareness of being simulated is part of the study?

    Don’t forget your packed lunch when you drop down the rabbit-hole 🙂

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