Simulation theory is one broad way to conceive of the nature of reality. It claims that reality, as we know it, is actually an artificial simulation, possibly a computer simulation. One argument for simulation theory proposed by philosopher Nick Bostrom in 2003 goes like this:
“Many works of science fiction as well as some forecasts by serious technologists and futurologists predict that enormous amounts of computing power will be available in the future. Let us suppose for a moment that these predictions are correct. One thing that later generations might do with their super-powerful computers is run detailed simulations of their forebears or of people like their forebears. Because their computers would be so powerful, they could run a great many such simulations. Suppose that these simulated people are conscious (as they would be if the simulations were sufficiently fine-grained and if a certain quite widely accepted position in the philosophy of mind is correct). Then it could be the case that the vast majority of minds like ours do not belong to the original race but rather to people simulated by the advanced descendants of an original race. It is then possible to argue that, if this were the case, we would be rational to think that we are likely among the simulated minds rather than among the original biological ones. Therefore, if we don’t think that we are currently living in a computer simulation, we are not entitled to believe that we will have descendants who will run lots of such simulations of their forebears.”
In making this argument, Bostrom is arguing that it is very unlikely that we are part of the ‘base reality’ that will initially create the simulations that humanity will undoubtedly one day be capable of creating. It is a really compelling argument for the likelihood that we are living in a simulation. However, it doesn’t yield any answers about the nature of the base reality. I really like Bostrom’s hypothesis because it makes the notion that our reality might be a simulation more digestible. I see this as an important way of thinking because it seems likely that even the base reality is some kind of simulation. It may not be a computer simulation but rather one constructed by means far more complicated than humanity is capable of wrapping our heads around. Whatever force was responsible for the creation of our reality (call it God or the Big Bang or anything really) must have used some higher capabilities that we lack to bring it into existence.
This now leaves us with the question of our role within the simulation. I find looking at it like one would look at a computer simulation to be very helpful. Doing so brings up a fascinating question: “What purpose would a computer simulation of our reality serve?”
While the answer to this question clearly lies outside of humanity’s mental capacity, I believe there are two categories of answers:
1) To see what will happen
e.g. to observe how a multitude of creatures respond to finite resources
2) To accomplish a specific end
e.g. to power a battery that belongs to Rick Sanchez
e.g. (What a number of religions believe) to test my soul’s ability to stay virtuous in a broken world full of sin
In other words, ARE WE THE TEST OR ARE WE BEING TESTED? Assuming that reality is some kind of simulation, which of these two categories of answers we believe in essentially determines whether or not we believe in free will. If we were a test, we would ultimately lack full agency given that our purpose is simply to act out a scenario with our predetermined dispositions. Because I believe that we do have free will, my answer falls into the category of “being tested.” In other words, our lives have some kind of purpose and the actions that we choose ultimately matter. However, this belief rests upon a number of non-provable assumptions.