Simulated butterflies

Daoist philosopher Zhuang Zhou may have been the first to propose the simulation hypothesis, when he remarked that upon awakening from a dream that he was a carefree and beautiful butterfly, he could no longer be certain that in his "real" life, he was not a butterfly dreaming that he was a man.

In the past few years, Silicon Valley’s billionaires have been waking up from their own butterfly dreams, including Elon Musk, who made the now-infamous statement in June 2016 on the stage of the Recode Conference that he believes the odds that we are in "base reality," that is, not living in a computer simulation, is "one in billions," based on the following logic:

"Forty years ago, we had Pong: like two rectangles and a dot. That was what games were. Now, forty years later, we have photorealistic 3-D simulations with millions of people playing simultaneously, and it’s getting better every year. And 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."

This argument is loosely based on the one laid out in "Are You Living in a Simulation?" by Nick Bostrom, the philosophical thinker who also brought us the "paperclip maximizer" thought experiment of artificial intelligence and proponent of the Doomsday Argument. Bostrom suggests that the reason for a post-human civilization to create a simulation sufficiently advanced that we wouldn’t even know we were in it (referred to as an "ancestor simulation" in the original paper), is not at all clear:

"Maybe the scientific value of ancestor-simulations to a posthuman civilization is negligible (which is not too implausible given its unfathomable intellectual superiority), and maybe posthumans regard recreational activities as merely a very inefficient way of getting pleasure – which can be obtained much more cheaply by direct stimulation of the brain’s reward centers."

But Neil DeGrasse Tyson, who also professed support for the simulation theory in 2016 during the Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate, was also under the impression that our reality could be a simple game or diversion for these technologically advanced descendants of humanity: "It is easy for me to imagine that everything in our lives is just the creation of some other entity for their entertainment."

Bostrom concludes that unless we are living in a simulation right now, it is almost certain that our descendants will never create one, but as Musk points out, humanity has repeatedly expressed the desire to create games that are indistinguishable from reality: and we’re not only talking about verisimulators, we’re talking the whole existence enchilada.

There are already a couple of world-scale games that prove we can and most likely will (and therefore already have) created the simulation.


Physicists, cosmologists, and coders working across the world have recently accomplished computer simulations of the universe including galaxies, stars, supernovas, and black holes:

The closest thing to this that you can actually play is Everything. Everything, the game, lets you control a universe of things on the scale from bacteria to entire galaxies. Individually selecting and forming groups of objects, Everything lets you explore and experience animals, plants, humans, objects, every conceivable thing, set to hours of ambient original soundtrack and narrated by the British philosopher Alan Watts’ musings on changing your perspective and regarding the interconnectedness of the universe.

The game’s creator, artist David O’Reilly, is known for his deliberately low-poly and glitch aesthetics in the world of animation, and explained in an interview with Inverse that it’s about, "your idea of you, and how you relate to the world. It’s also about nothing, perspective, nature, existence, recursion, symmetry life, and its systems."

What it isn’t about is creating a perfect simulation. Many players have complained about the minimalist mechanics of Everything, in particular, the movement of animals, which flip end-over-end instead of locomoting in any recognizable way. In another interview, O’Reilly explains, "It's a practical [effect], and something I actually didn't expect to get so much attention, just because it's something that needed to be done. To do it any other way, the game’s budget would have been doubled."

According to Bostrom’s calculations, it would take between 10^33 and 10^36 logical operations per second for the most powerful computer we can currently conceive of to produce a realistic simulation of human history. Bostrom notes that Eric Drexler, known as the "founding father of nanotechnology," has already theorized a planet-sized computer using known nanotechnological designs, which would be able to approximately compute 10^42 operations per second, and concludes that "the computing power available to a posthuman civilization is sufficient to run a huge number of ancestor-simulations even if it allocates only a minute fraction of its resources to that purpose." Which is also to say, despite budgetary constraints, our version of Everything (which we may be living in now) most likely doesn’t skimp on animation.


The denizens of a subreddit called Outside practice a technique known in literature as "defamiliarization," by posting about a game called Outside, described as "a free-to-play MMORPG developed by Deity Games and the most popular game, with 7 billion+ active players."

What they are referring to is the world as we know it, which again, may or may not actually be a giant computer game.

There are a lot of rules about how best to frame and phrase these exercises in gamifying life, including "There are no NPCs. Aside from animals, everybody is a ‘player’," and "The devs are lazy and rarely do much. The game is mostly balanced as it is according to them, therefore they don’t do much aside from ‘natural’ world events."

The players borrow terminology like character traits from popular role-playing games, like charisma, intelligence, and dexterity (CHA, INT, DEX), refer to their geographical locations as different servers, and discuss things like career choices in terms of guild halls, unlocking tech trees and new maps for space exploration, and refer to actual games as mini games.

Philosophical questions about the existence of a god are framed by asking "Is Outside a one-man developer team?" and "Does anyone else think the mythology surrounding this game is a little confusing?"

Rule #1 of Outside is that it’s a lot more fun to explain something as a "feature," than a "bug," and because most of the game’s content is player-generated, most fan theories about the developer(s) of the game are considered valid.

Think too long or too hard about whether or not you live in a massive video game and you may have the kind of existential crisis Tomas experienced in MONTAG Issue 1's "Are you really alive? Does it even matter?"... or just buckle down and get good at it.

If we are living in a simulation, acknowledging that everything is a game might be the best way to handle it: especially when we know very few players get restarts or bonus lives. We can focus on leveling up our characters and completing quests and side quests that seem worthwhile, until we skill up enough to create our own simulations. Or keep playing long enough to respawn as a butterfly.