I remember fondly the endless afternoons of cafe-debate from when I was young: How can we know we’re not just brains in jars? Is the universe an illusion? This was before the days of carrying the internet around in your pocket – we “worked” at fumbling through the answers back then, as had those who lived before us. The mysteries of existence may just be getting a bit more mysterious – or at least, have an additional dimension added to the debate. The universe we exist in may be a simulation. This argument has compelling arguments and some surprising proponents.
Nick Bostrom, a philosopher at Oxford, puts forward that it’s highly likely we’re all simulations and can take us to that conclusion through a handful of logical steps: First, that we acknowledge that consciousness is fundamentally information processing. (There’s nothing “magical” about the wet stuff in our heads). Second, that humans in the future will run simulations of the past. The next logical step is that there will be more exponentially more simulated universes than real universes, thus probability would strongly indicates we aren’t the primary universe.
An added dimension to the probability is that the universe is 13.7 billion years old, our species has a more 200,000 year pedigree, and computers (for the most part) exist within living memory. As a species, we’re only now capable of envisioning self-learning machines that could realistically generate a simulation of near infinite detail. We’re not there yet, but many suggest that it’ll be within our reach by 2045. That’s an incredibly small window of time to exist in, given the overall spectrum. The exponentially better odds are that we are simulations created by our future selves.
George Smoot, at TEDx Salford put forward the simulation argument, breaking it down as follows: The simulation argument posits that there are 3 possible states that can be considered true: First, humankind will never be able to achieve the technological sophistication capable of creating advanced artificial intelligence that can generate sophisticated simulations or that such simulations are impossible to construct. Second, comparable civilizations in the universe won’t opt to create the depth of simulation required. (Before you discount the concept of non-human civilizations, think of it – there are 10 to the power of 20 possible “sites” for life in the observable universe – what are the chances that Earth is the most advanced and computationally powerful life form in existence?) And third, any entities with our general set of experiences are almost certainly living in a simulation. Again, we come down to probability, and it’s looking increasingly ugly for us having primacy in a physical universe.
The scientist John Wheeler claimed in the 1980s that atoms are made up of bits of information. “Every particle, every field of force, even the space-time continuum itself derives its function, its meaning, its very existence entirely from binary choices. Bits. What we call reality arises in the last analysis from the posing of yes/no questions.” In a universe run on bits, everything is a simulation. The digital physicist movement (started by Edward Fredkin in the 90s) put forward that reality is based on information, arguing that it has primacy over the conventional fundamentals of matter and energy. This – through steps/stages – lead to the conclusion that we’re simulated by the “other” (that which we can’t know).
Thomas Campell, a NASA Physicist, suggests that’s where the digital physics movement leaves off. He asserts that we’re an individuated unit of consciousness playing a total immersion virtual reality game wherein our avatars make choices and appear to have physical bodies and live in physical space. We have a mission to evolve the quality of that consciousness. We’re here to experience, interact, and make choices. Mr. Campell further asserts that consciousness is the digital information system. It exists on the physical reality – on the computer – that we are processes of.
Perhaps the most striking is professor James Gates, a theoretical physicist at Maryland and one of the leaders of supersymmetry, who (when speaking in the 2011 Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate) shocked the panel and audience with an assertion. He spoke of seeing deliberate computer code patterned on a convention invented in the 1940s by Claude Shannon in the basic equations of supersymmetry. He likened it to error correcting code that’s systemic in the transmission of data and in common use in today’s browsers. Block linear self-dual error correcting codes in deliberate ones and zeros, to be exact. For the curious, he wrote a non technical article on the subject matter for Physics World, entitled “Symbols of Power”. The article showed the relationship of Hamming code (an error correction algorithm named after the mathematician Richard Hamming) and folded adinkras (that’d be reduced from decorated tesseracts) which retain supersymmetry properties to yield binary codes. The incredibly spooky outcome is that these codes may be ubiquitous in the very nature of the universe and could even embed in the essence of reality. This provides an enormous amount of ammunition to those who believe we could be living in a virtual reality generating computer network.
Simulation arguments (on the whole) exist in an almost theological state and have a similar credibility to any other Big TOE (Theory of Everything). Regardless of whether you believe in a God, that an unknowable (read: mystical) event triggered the Big Bang, or that we’re just ones and zeros, it all nets out to about the same place. The question if we are all simulations or exist in a physical reality – divinely created or as a product of natural/unknown forces – is almost immaterial. In all cases, we should likely try to be the best individuals we can be, recognize that there are systemic connections that exists between one another and indeed, to the greater universe. There’s a special kind of richness and beauty implicit in that that may give us some comfort while pulling on the strings of reality.