Reality IS Virtual (probably)!

virtual realityOne of the things I mentioned in my recent Material Disbelief post was that, if you accept everything physics has discovered in the last 100 years or so — and if you believe in philosophical materialism — you are faced with the very strong possibility that all of reality is some sort of simulation or machine process.

Not only does all the evidence, as well as some basic logic, seem to point in that direction, but as a model of reality it provides easy answers to many of the conundrums of modern physics (e.g. Einstein’s “spooky action at a distance” and some basic questions regarding the Big Bang).

Today I want to lay out the details of the arguments for this.

Don’t worry, it won’t be terribly technical and I promise: No math!

Disney Quest

Tons of fun in the sun!

Let’s start with a basic logical argument. Virtual reality simulations are getting better all the time. More than ten years ago I was amazed (and delighted) by the level of virtual reality available to visitors of the Walt Disney World DisneyQuest arcade.

We designed and “rode” a virtual roller coaster of my own design. We set sail and did battle with pirates. And there was a Star Wars adventure where we had light sabers and could see each other in the simulation.

And that’s just stuff intended for the casual delight of tourists. Modern virtual reality is investigating things like providing an uncrowded pleasing vista for airplane riders. The “reality” of virtual reality gets better and better over time.

virtual reality 2

I grasp therefore I am.

So the first premise is: Do you think virtual reality could become so good that it was indistinguishable from physical reality? Is the Star Trek holodeck actually possible?

Let’s say we decide that, yes, virtual reality could be that good, especially if there was a direct connection to your senses. (One problem with the holodeck is that true motion has inertia which the body can feel. Running in place is very different from running over ground, especially if you try to turn.)

The next premise involves the simulation of living things. Think of something like SimCity, which is a game, or the simulated populations of individuals scientists use for serious study. The question is: could such simulations become so good that the individuals of those simulations believe themselves to be real? Could simulations be self-aware and sapient?

virtual reality

Turn around, bright eyes.

Many might get off the bus at this point (if they haven’t already gotten off at the virtual reality stop). But certainly anyone who believes in the Kurzweil Singularity must believe both these premises. Anyone who believes machine sapience is possible must believe these premises.

The final premise asks whether a society capable of creating lifelike virtual realities containing self-aware sapient entities would be likely to make many of these realities (as opposed to just one or none).

[A topic for another day is the question of how such a society might regard the creation of self-aware sapience. Might there be extreme rules or prohibitions or might they regard such entities as we do operating systems: easily replaced.]

virtual reality

That itch you sometimes feel at the back of your neck?

So, if one believes life-like virtual reality is possible, and that self-aware sapient entities are possible, and that simulated realities are likely to outnumber “real” reality… one is forced to consider that on logic and odds alone, it’s very likely we are a simulated reality.

To believe otherwise is to believe this reality is somehow special, and that is a real problem for materialists, because they need an account of why this reality is so special.

The next step is to ask whether the physical evidence supports or contradicts this strange idea that we are just a simulation. It turns out that it does support it very well and in ways that are rather compelling.

#1: Quantum mechanics. Although we know quantum mechanics is an incomplete theory (it doesn’t include gravity), the general consensus is that QM is basically correct. Reality really is quantized.

quantum mechanics

Tighten that quark a bit!

Not only does matter come in discrete chunks, but so does space and time! There is no aspect of reality that is smooth (hence the problem with gravity, which according to Einstein is smooth).

Now, not that intuition really counts for anything at this level, but doesn’t reality coming in chunks seem awfully suggestive of a process? Doesn’t the quanta of matter and space seem a lot like pixels on a computer display? Doesn’t the quanta of time seem a lot like time cycles of a simulation?

#2: Real versus Integer. I’ve written about the Yin-Yang difference between the smooth real numbers and the bumpy integers. Here math reflects the continuous versus quantized aspects of reality.

pi and i

pi and i

The quantum reality we live in suggests that real numbers truly are an invention with no direct relation to reality. This echoes Leopold Kronecker‘s famous line: “God made the integers, all else is the work of man.”

Xeno’s Paradoxes, for example, aren’t paradoxes at all if reality is discrete. The issue that pi — which is merely a physical ratio between a circle’s diameter and circumference — seems to suggest reality is smooth also vanishes because reality is quantized.

#3. DNA. What an odd thing that every cell in our body contains a miniscule “tape” of codes that describe how to build a you. And these codes, like the god-made integers, like quantized reality, are discrete. They can, in fact, be boiled down to computer bits: ones and zeros.


Code to make a U or I.

Which seems very suggestive of simulations. If I were designing “living” objects for my simulation, I might very well install a replication code in them to allow propagation.

If I were very clever I might design it such that it required two units to merge their codes into a new set of codes to create new units rather than clones of the original.

Which is exactly how sexual reproduction works.

#4. Spooky action at a distance. Einstein hated the consequences of quantum mechanics. The famous EPR paper (“E” for Einstein) attempts to suggest that QM is incomplete because of what happens with entangled particles.


No, no. I said entangled!

But Bell’s Theorem — and actual tests of it — have shown almost conclusively that, yes, reality really works this way. Something very strange is going on, and physicists just have to accept it without having any theory to explain it.

However, if reality is a simulation, all bets are off. There’s nothing whatsoever mysterious, or even odd, about a simulated reality acting that way. Entanglement is simply the way the simulation is programmed to work.

#5. The Big Bang. Without getting too deeply into it, there are some unresolved issues with the Big Bang. The key one is: WTF?

big bang

“Let there be Leptons!”

How did an entire universe spring into being? Why should there be something rather than nothing. Where did all this thisness come from?

If this is a simulation, then the question is practically moot. In fact, if this is a simulation, we have no way of knowing exactly when it was created. For all we can say, it was created yesterday, and all our memories are merely starting conditions of the simulation implanted in our minds.

Can you prove yesterday actually happened?

#6 The Anthropic Problem. Our presence in the world begs for an explanation. There are 18 or so constants in physics (masses of the particles, binding energies, etc.) that could have other values.

anthropic problem

It’s filled with stars!

Nothing requires them to have the values they do, and nothing in physics explains why they have the values they do. The really interesting part is that, when you consider the full range of possible values, the overwhelming percentage of them don’t produce livable universes.

For example, tweak the weak or strong force a bit, and stars don’t work. A universe without stars is a universe without life (let alone sapient life that can look at the universe and wonder).

An analogy: Imagine a lottery that sells only one ticket. The odds of winning are the same as we’d expect (damn small). If you bought this single ticket, and won, you’d be pretty amazed. But in a lottery that sells millions of tickets, the fact that one ticket is a winner is expected.

jackpotPhilosophical materialists struggle with the appearance that our universe is a single lottery winner.

The only way to make that not astonishing is to assume there is an infinite number of other tickets (universes). Multi-universe theories are all suggestions about other lottery tickets.

The Bottom Lion (that’s a typo I thought worth keeping because this is a bit of an ass-biter) is that, if you believe in materialism, you almost have to believe this reality is a simulation. In many regards, it’s the only sensible answer.

Here’s the kicker: Even if we were a civilization who made such reality simulations, we’d have to ask if we weren’t also simulations. Couldn’t those in a simulated reality create their own simulations? In fact, having made such simulations, their existence becomes established fact which makes the argument even stronger!

virtual reality 5As it always does when pondering the nature and origin of reality, we end up with the problem of turtles all the way down.

Even spiritual dualists (such as myself) are stuck with the conundrum of origins.

Now. Can you guess what movie I’m thinking of? Hint: The title has more than one word (so Hackers and Tangled are both good guesses, but wrong).

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

27 responses to “Reality IS Virtual (probably)!

  • Hariod Brawn

    Premise 1. “Do you think virtual reality could become so good that it was indistinguishable from physical reality?” In theory, one couldn’t respond in the negative; yet I can’t bring myself to believe that distinctions could ever be lost. As to something being ‘indistinguishable’, then this suggests two (or more) of the same. Here, we presuppose a (real) distinguishing subject which makes a comparison; and any such subject would be aware of their own (real) being-ness as against the virtual version of that being-ness that it was being compared to. So the question – as expressed – becomes redundant doesn’t it? If you’re talking about other people as being indistinguishable as virtual entities, then I can never be sure that my neighbour isn’t an alien or virtual simulation, but we probably don’t want to get into solipsism here. In any case, the obstacles presented in this hypothesis are surely too great: Simulating proprioception, egoical reflection, the unambiguous purity of sentience – this, I don’t believe, will ever be possible; it’s just a game coder’s wet dream.

    Premise 2. What does the “simulation of living things” actually mean? Are you talking about replication or rather the production of some merely ‘similar’ living thing? The first I have responded to in 1) above; the second seems nothing different to the natural birth of other ‘living things’. Where does the concept of ‘simulation’ enter into all this as a category distinct from what we know as natural procreation e.g. simply when beings can be born outside of the womb or egg? What precisely does ‘simulation’ connote?

    Premise 3. Whether a putative society capable of creating lifelike virtual realities containing self-aware sapient entities would become entrepreneurial and begin churning them out, then the answer is unequivocally ‘yes’! But I am wondering why you talk, almost allegorically, about a ‘society’ W.S. Would it not, under such fanciful circumstances, be appropriate just to refer to such a sophisticated collective as ‘God’?

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Exactly so (although, maybe less so on #3). Your thesis on premise #1 ends up, as you mention, being as much about premise #2, and you’re right that they rather do blend into each other.

      The first is intended (and perhaps I didn’t draw the lines clearly enough — I’m sensitive to word count, and lately I’ve realized I can take the strategy of resolving unclear points in the comments thanks to having some acute readers — some of whom have excellent taste in music and beer) to be about whether a sapient mind — any sapient mind of any origin — can distinguish some putative “real” reality from a deliberately simulated one.

      As you point out, the question is almost redundant and has been well-covered by philosophers for a long time (“brain in a jar” scenarios). The entire set of premises is designed such that the answer to all three, for many, has to be: “Well, duh!” The whole point is that, at least for materialists, there is something almost inescapable about the logic. 🙂

      Premise #2 addresses the origin of the sapience. In the “real” world you and I are biological beings and the product of a long line of evolution. We are, in a sense, created “accidentally” (not the right word, but it will serve). In a simulation, we could (in theory) not exist in any real physical sense, let alone biologically. The “real” world scenario features a long history leading to this moment. A simulation might have started moments ago with all our memories of the “past” programmed in as a starting condition.

      The second premise is really about whether machine or software sentience is possible. (Which is, I believe, where we both get off the bus?) There is a certain murkiness with regard to how long the putative simulation has been running. If it’s been running a long time, then the question of new entities created through the (simulated) process of “real birth” does raise some questions worth exploring.

      Finally, whether one regards an advanced civilization capable of creating a simulation containing us as ‘God’ seems, at least partly, a matter of definition and perspective. For many, ‘God’ is a supernatural “magical” being not constrained by physical reality. For others, ‘God’ might be simply “the Creator.” (The Spinozan God might be viewed as the simulation itself, I suppose.)

      • Hariod Brawn

        Thanks for the response W.S., which I have read with interest. A funny thing happened when I tried to navigate away and back to my place from my Gravatar at the top of the page. The URL showed I was back home and yet I was stuck in a simulation of Logos con carne. I refreshed twice and yet still I remained simulated as you, so to speak. Seems like God has a sense of humour and is watching over us after all. 😮

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Does the signpost up ahead say anything about entering The Twilight Zone?

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    Interesting post Wyrd.

    It seems like the only way we could know whether we’re in a simulation is by finding some defect in it, and the simulation runners would have to not care that we found it. (Otherwise they could just freeze, rewind, apply a software patch, and then hit play again.)

    On QM, I’m not sure that quantized reality really tells us much. The implication would be that the ultimate outer reality isn’t quantized, and that brings back the other issues like Xeno’s paradox.

    I’m in the minority on this one, but the Anthropic principle doesn’t really trouble / impress me. The universe is finely tuned to produce…the universe we have. If it was tuned differently, the universe would be very different, but that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be rich in different types of patterns, some of which might amount to alien forms of life. I’m skeptical of claimed calculations that show wasteland universes with different parameters. Physicist Steve Carroll has noted that we can’t even calculate our own universe, so grand statements about what the universe would be like with different fundamental constants should be taken with a pound of salt.

    I do think having sapient entities within a simulation will eventually be possible. And that means we can’t eliminate the possibility that we are in one. But even if we are in a simulation, it’s one that appears to provide painful consequences for not taking it seriously. If so, the simulation is our reality, and we have little choice but to play the game.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Good points all, especially about defects in the simulation. And, as you say, ultimately pragmatism wins the day! (But for those of us interested in the nature and origins of reality, it’s a interesting proposition.)

      One candidate for that could be the contradiction between Relativity and QM — implying different simulation programming for large-scale and small-scale physics. The fuzziness required by the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle may point limits in the simulation (it is rather odd we can’t know both position and momentum). The Holographic Principle (that the inside of a given volume can be encoded on its surface) could be an indicator of a memory-saving 2D simulation.

      Xeno’s (apparent, but not actual) Paradox is resolved by the calculus of limits. There’s a math joke about an infinite number of mathematicians walking into a bar… The first one says, “I’d like a pint!” The second one says, “I’d like a half-pint.” The third one wants a quarter-pint and so on each asking for half the amount of the previous drinker. The bar tender says, “You guys are nuts and serves two pints.”

      Regarding the 18 parameters, I’ll refer you to this (PDF) paper by Robert Cahn. It explores the consequences of different values for many of those parameters. You might also find this article interesting.

      The thing is, if stellar fusion doesn’t work, or if atoms aren’t stable and fly apart, it’s hard to imagine any sort of consequential patterns developing. (Do I take it you do not subscribe to multi-universe theories that remove any “specialness” from this universe and are okay with the idea that this universe might be, at least somewhat, special?)

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Regarding parameters, thanks for the links. I’ve read similar discussions, but I’m going to stick with my points above. The “it’s hard to imagine any sort of consequential patterns” point is, I think, a fairly common sentiment. I agree that it’s hard to imagine, but then the only reason it’s easier to imagine the patterns of this universe is because we can observe them.

        I’m on the skeptical side of agnostic toward most multiverse theories (the bubble variety seems the most plausible to me), but I’m also skeptical of any assertions of “specialness” for our universe. There is the portion of reality we can observe, and there is almost certainly reality beyond that. However, the further we speculate beyond our observations, the more skeptical I become that our speculations match that reality. I suspect if we do eventually find a way to observe a multiverse, we’ll be shocked by how naive our current theories are, just as we always have been before when our observations broadened.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        What’s really interesting to me at this juncture is the alignment and contrasts of our respective skepticism! Like you I’m skeptically agnostic regarding multi-verse theories. It’s possible I’m a bit more skeptical (I’m awfully close to being a non-believer on that one because I see multi-verse theories as contortions designed to deal with the anthropic problem). And we’re both SF fans and software designers, which is kinda cool. (Do you play any musical instruments? Do you love baseball? 🙂 )

        But our skepticism seems reversed when it comes to naturalness and fine-tuning analysis of this reality, and IIRC, you’re even skeptical about the isotropy of this reality. (Do I also recall you saying you edge into instrumentalism at times or in places?) I’m far less skeptical — even accepting — of all these things.

        We continue to be reversed on the topic of machine intelligence and mind transfer, but here I’m the skeptical one (verging again on non-believer). It’s just interesting to me the things we settle on as being probably real or probably not real.

        There almost seems a common thread here. See if this makes any sense to you. I would say you are a person who believes “anything is possible.” A graph of discovery over time possibly seems linear to you — that world-changing discoveries remain possible in many, if not all, areas. That new discoveries can rewrite “everything we think we know.” Do any of those descriptions feel like a comfortable fit? (Admittedly, I don’t know you hardly at all, so I may be way off the mark here.)

        Whereas I’m more inclined to think that graph is often asymptotic, that some areas become well-known and “tapped out” for new discoveries. I worked in the printing industry for a few years, and although we’re talking technology here (which is not quite the same), it is true that printing images on surfaces is largely a technology that is fully explored and in which there will likely never be anything ‘new under the sun.’ I also get a sense that I’m more accepting of possible limits to our knowledge (e.g. Turing, Gödel, Cantor, Heisenberg) as being real limits.

        Make any sense at all?

        As an aside (and reminder to myself for later), there is another conundrum that points to something very strange or could be a flaw in our simulation, but which definitely needs explaining. As you surely know, the arrow of time doesn’t exist in the underlying physics. We think our experience of the arrow of time is due to entropy and the statistics of thermodynamics. The conundrum is that this requires the Big Bang to have extraordinarily low entropy, and we so far cannot account for how that could be.

        p.s. I meant to ask you about the Sean Carroll reference and which inability to calculate he meant: the difficulties of perturbative theories within the SM (such as QCD) or the difficulties of “the landscape problem” outside it (such as string theory or quantum gravity)?

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Sorry, not much of a sports or music fan. (Yes, I’m weird.)

        I’m actually not that skeptical of isotropy, I think I just noted that it is an assumption, such as the one we used to make that the flow of time is consistent everywhere. I’m not a blanket instrumentalist, but I do think it’s a useful hat to put on from time to time when evaluating scientific theories.

        I perceive that I’m more optimistic than you are on humanity’s ability to eventually engineer things that happen in nature. Hence the difference between us on AI. Note that I am skeptical of singularities in 20 years or whatever.

        More generally, I’m skeptical of pronouncements about reality arrived at through logic and math that go way beyond observations. I do find that kind of speculation interesting, but my skeptical reflex kicks in when someone tries to pretend its more than speculation.

        On a discovery graph, I lean toward more of an s-curve conception. I can envision a time when scientific inquiry largely ceases because it’s become too expensive.

        On Carroll, here’s a comment I made a while back that quotes what he said and links to the document.

        Whew. Let me know if I didn’t cover anything you wanted an answer on.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        For a geek (a term that has a positive connotation for me), you’re not weird at all.

        There is a difference between our conception of the flow of time and our conception of isotropy. This is quite the right way to put it, but they’re almost an a priori and a posteriori difference. Hmmm… maybe a better way to put is to consider their effect on science as we know it. Our conception of time — that ship has already sailed and in doing so extended science. Discovering isotropy isn’t true would shatter science as we know it.

        You’ve made a good argument that it’s still an assumption, and I see your point, but it comes awfully damn close to being a foundation axiom. (At least in my eyes.)

        Your S-graph shows the asymptotic nature I had in mind. I don’t have in mind practical limits, such as expense, but real limits and the sense of a field being “tapped out” (you touch on this mentioning low-lying fruit). Not sure if we continue to be aligned on that point.

        (Incidentally, there’s still some life in the LHC, especially with the power upgrade, and amateur astronomers do sometimes spot new comets or even supernovas. That said, both are clearly nearing the top of the linear part of the curve. You may find vaguely amusing a poem I wrote about the LHC. Unlike many, you’d have the background to “get” it. Also, have you seen this website: Has the LHC destroyed the world yet? Note that this is not a static page, but a JS-based page that checks to see. 😀 )

        Carroll (who I do like and have read for years) is making a guess based on an ‘N’ of one. Life is amazingly vigorous on this Earth. I hope I live long enough to hear about what we find in the solar system. I increasingly lean towards the idea that sapient life may be extremely rare — very possibly having a probability of less than 1.0 per galaxy.

        And that’s just in this universe, which fine-tuned or not, does seem friendly for life. (At least stars work and atoms are stable, and so forth.)

        But as you say, so much of this is speculation, and when it gets to that, our hopes and wishes for what we want to be true has a tendency to color what we find likely and what we find unlikely.

        That’s actually one reason I discovered a love of baseball. Until 2010 I, also, wasn’t into sports. At all. But major job stress in 2010 had me looking for a relief valve, and I found watching baseball pleasantly mindless. Then I discovered it’s a beautiful game filled with subtlety and intelligence and nuanced strategy. And it’s a data miner’s paradise — the statistical analysis that goes on in baseball is incredible (and I love numbers and data and charts and graphs (oh my)).

        And discussing baseball is a great change from the knottier issues of physics and philosophy! 😄

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I agree that intelligent life is probably exceedingly rare, so that our nearest neighbors may be millions of light years away. I suspect we’ll find microscopic life all over the place (possibly on Mars or inside of Europa), but that complex life will be rare, and intelligent life profoundly rare. I wouldn’t mind being wrong on this one (unless being wrong involves something like Berserkers).

        On baseball, one thing I’ve discovered as I’ve gotten older is that just about every subject has hidden richness that’s often not apparent from a distance. It’s one of the reasons I’m very slow to dismiss entire fields of inquiry (economics, psychology, and philosophy seem to be the most targeted these days).

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Oh, my yes! One of my favorite things is to come across and read a magazine devoted to some industry or pursuit I know nothing about. It’s always fascinating to get a flavor of the landscape known to those who’ve made that thing their study. Depending on the nature of the material, some or a lot of it may go over my head, but it’s still fascinating. That aspect of things is a key reason my interests are so diverse (and why I find it hard to focus on any one thing)!

        Not all things are equal, obviously, and some phase spaces are larger than others. That’s part of what I’ve discovered in baseball. The phase space is much larger than other sports (it has a complexity that’s almost chess-like). As I’ve detailed in several blog posts, the nature of the game is unique in really interesting ways (George Carlin’s bit about baseball vs football isn’t just really funny — it’s right on the money). And there’s the whole history, magic and mystique of the sport. Plus the icing of sabermetrics. Batter Up! 😄

        Mars isn’t looking good so far — if life is there, it certainly isn’t everywhere, but we’ve — literally — only scratched the surface. Europa is tantalizing, isn’t it! And so far we haven’t been warned off it by a giant black monolith… 😮

        Oh, I just remembered! I have Europa Report in my watch queue! That might make a good double-feature with Riddick. 🙂

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Good point on Mars. Our best bet there is probably to find ancient microfossils, although it’s always remotely possible it might have isolated pockets of still living organisms left over from its wetter past.

        I enjoyed Europa Report. It’s the kind of movie I’m hoping we’ll see more of now that the cost of making sci-fi movies is going down. I found Riddick to be a disappointment, although still enjoyable enough in a popcorn entertainment way.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Or maybe a secret chamber of ancient Martian technology! Did you ever read

        Totally agree about Riddick. It’s definitely in the guilty pleasures pile. I like Vin Diesel (and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, for that matter). They both have a strong sense of self-awareness and humor and not taking themselves too seriously (unlike, say, Steven Seagal). That, for me, makes them enjoyable. There is also that the Riddick films are (at least initially) labors of love and a single vision by David Twohy — I think Pitch Black is a really quite good SF horror movie (and Riddick kind of tries to return to that pattern).

        Unfortunately, as happened with The Matrix, when the movie succeeds, sequels get a lot of money thrown at them, and when that happens, the studio often interferes trying to protect its investment. Often with disastrous results. Even directors with too much money sometimes lose their way a bit. They get caught up in all the things the money can do.

        Same thing happened with another, even more beloved, guilty pleasure of mine: the Resident Evil movies. (Beautiful women kicking zombie ass and using weapons and martial arts? What’s not to like?) Here again is the singular vision of a filmmaker, Paul W. S. Anderson, and the first film is a very, very good zombie horror movie.

        And then they go down hill and even start to become a little bit “by the numbers”. But even so, Milla Jovovich, Michelle Rodriguez, Sienna Guillory, Ali Larter, warriors all… totally irresistible! 🙂

        I’ve had a crush on Milla ever since The Fifth Element (which is a non-guilty favorite — outstanding SF film).

        Totally agree about SF films now that CGI is so excellent. What I’ll look for is the smaller films done without attempting to be blockbusters. Films such as: Dark City, Moon, or Sunshine, all of which I think are real gems!

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I actually enjoyed all of those movies (Riddick, Matrix sequels, Resident Evil sequels, etc), but I came to them with such low expectations that they didn’t have much room to disappoint. My only beef with Riddick was in their summary dismissal of the Chronicles story line. They could have done interesting things with it.

        I haven’t seen Dark City yet. I need to do that sometime soon. I couldn’t finish watching Sunshine when it first came out (it struck me as too pretentious at the time), but I’ve been meaning to revisit it and see if it comes off better to me now. Totally agree on Fifth Element and Milla Jovovich.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Absolutely! As you said earlier, they’re “popcorn” movies. They can’t be judged using a “great art” yardstick. And I really do think being a singular vision of one person (and, or even sometimes just, being a labor of love by people who wanted to make this movie — and you can tell) really makes a difference. It gives a movie what is often called “heart.”

        At first I thought you wrote Sunshine was “preposterous” — to which I would have known what you probably meant — but I don’t quite know what you mean by “pretentious.” The movies central idea — the sun “going dim” and that it can be “re-lit” with a spaceship-sized bomb — is utterly preposterous! But SF often requires a “gimme” (like FTL drive) on which to hang the story, so if you can manage to swallow that, hopefully the rest follows. Is that what you were getting at, or was there something else that bothered you?

        Speaking of Dark City (which is an odd film, but if you liked 12 Monkeys or Brazil, you’ll be fine), perhaps the oddest SF film (and even odder book) is Smilla’s Sense of Snow. The tone and locale (modern day Earth) isn’t like the other three, but it’s probably the strangest SF I can name.

        The tone and future of Dark City or 12 Monkeys reminds me of another oddball: Cube (and two sequels). It’s low-budget SF horror, but it has a lot of heart and some really interesting ideas and execution. They only ever actually built one room for shooting although the cube supposedly has over 17,000.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I found Sunshine pretentious because I perceived it as putting on airs of being a seriousTM movie. (Some of it may have been the marketing around it at the time.) As soon as they covered the basic premise (which is indeed preposterous), showed that the ship had gravity, and that they were going to use the trope of astronauts falling apart in deep space, I lost interest and paused the movie. I had intended to come back later and finish it, but never did, and it eventually got erased from the DVR. I fully realized that most sci-fi fans loved it.

        I did enjoy 12 Monkeys and Brazil, so good, I’m looking forward to Dark City. Thanks for the recommendation!

        I’ve never seen Cube, but I’m not a big fan of horror movies, except sometimes when there’s an actual story beside the horror.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Completely with ya on horror movies. I have no interest in the usual “slasher” flicks (although the parodies, such as Scream and Scary Movie, are kinda fun). For instance, I finally watched the first Saw movie to see what everyone was talking about (and why they made,… what… five or more of them?). After watching my only response was, “Okay. Now I know. [shrug]”

        Sci-Fi horror is more interesting to me, depending on the quality of the Sci-Fi. The Alien franchise is pretty good (the first being a classic, the second being damn good, third wasn’t good at all, but fourth was good again, and I quite liked Prometheus and look forward to its sequel). I really panned Event Horizon and Supernova the first time I saw them, but after bumping into them on cable (and being idle enough to sit and watch them for awhile) I found they grew on me. They have that sense of heart — someone really wanted to make those movies.

        Of course, it’s sooooo much a matter of taste! (Plus I view movies as a confirmed movie buff as well as someone who studied the art and craft of filmmaking (and had hopes of being the next George Lucas).)

        That said, I think you might find Cube interesting. It’s an intelligent movie with a definite (mysterious) story. Six ordinary people (in a slightly future reality) wake up inside the “Cube” — an enormous structure of interconnected cubical rooms. The structure is 26x26x26. Many of the rooms contain death traps (each different). Each room (15x15x15 feet) has a door to a neighbor cube centered on each of its six sides. There is (they hope) an exit. Periodically, the cube re-arranges the position of the cubes, so any safe trail you’ve managed to find… vanishes.

        It’s kind of a cult film, because people tend to either love it or hate it.

        Your points about Sunshine are all on target; there’s definitely a lot one needs to “forgive” in the movie. I know quite a few SF movie fans who don’t care for it. [And full disclosure: It came out when I was deeply into Chinese martial arts films (a genre I still love), and I had a big crush on Michelle Yeoh.] I award points for originality, and I’ve certainly never seen a movie about a mission to re-start the sun! 🙂

        Honestly, it’s probably not in the same class as Dark City or Moon, two films I rank very, very highly. If you’ve ever read any David Brin, his Sundiver involves a mission to explore the sun’s chromosphere using a space vessel that actually sounds like it would work. (Brin is another scientist/physicist turned SF author — I’m a huge fan.) Plus the book is a murder mystery!

  • Wyrd Smythe

    FWIW, here’s the TEDx talk that inspired this post:

  • authorbengarrido

    I think your idea here is very interesting. When I hear scientists say things like “the universe is made from math,” a couple things immediately spring to mind.

    First – that sounds like it could be a simulation.
    Second – that sounds like we’re measuring the ways our own minds perceive.
    Third – empiricism might very well be broken.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Welcome new guest, and thank you for joining in!

      Certainly being made of math invokes the question, “Where did the math come from?” and “A simulation!” is one very viable answer. Can you elaborate a bit on the second and third conclusions? For example, in the second, do you have a form of idealism or instrumentalism in mind? In the third, do you mean empiricism regarding any reality beyond the math? If empiricism is defined by the math — along with everything else we know — it would work okay within our reality.

  • authorbengarrido

    Thank you for the fascinating article. 🙂

    Math being the way we perceive … hmm. Empiricism is entirely dependent on the assumption that we can trust the information we get through our senses. The senses, in this way, are unavoidably the lens through which we perform our scientific experiments. As such, I see no reliable way for separating objective reality (if such a thing even exists) from the artifacts of our perception. In other words, “the universe is made from math” might actually mean “our perceptions are made from math.”

    As for empiricism, I recently wrote an article on what I think some of the limitations are. I can give a link if you don’t mind. The short version is that I think empiricism, by its very nature, cannot be true in the ultimate sense of the word.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Absolutely you can post a link.

      It sounds like you’re arguing on the side of solipsism, idealism, and instrumentalism, and you’re correct: The only fact you can be absolutely certain of is that you exist. The extreme view — that in fact only you exist — is solipsism.

      But to get beyond that you have to grant the possibility that others exist. If others exist, then what they report has to be taken seriously. When those reports comprise a coherent account of an external reality, at some point we’re forced into a (perhaps provisional) belief in that external reality.

      We may not be able to prove it exists, but to make any real use of our own existence, we’re forced to accept it as axiomatic. It’s pragmatism, if nothing else. 🙂

      The effectiveness of that view is reflected very strongly in the effectiveness of science (which assumes one can proceed empirically). Can I prove this isn’t all a game my mind plays? Nope. (Although the ability to learn new things raises interesting questions. If all of reality is in my mind, how can I be surprised or learn new things?)

      • authorbengarrido

        I agree science is pragmatically useful, but there are lots of things that are pragmatically useful that we don’t believe anymore.

        For example, we don’t have God-kings these days, but imagine trying to found Sumer or Egypt without them.

        Further, even assuming the external world and the existence of other people, it still doesn’t mean that the seeming mathematical nature of the world isn’t actually a shared property of human perception. We, in other words, very well might be mathematical beings operating in a universe that is, at least partially, non-mathematical.

        I hope you find this ^ interesting. 🙂

      • Wyrd Smythe

        The property of pragmatism alone doesn’t justify something; it’s a property that may support justifying something. That something is pragmatic doesn’t immediately justify it as useful (shooting people who get in my way might be a pragmatic approach, but hardly a useful one).

        Totally agree about the putative mathematical nature of reality. There’s no required intersection between solipsism and a mathematical reality. Such a reality may well have a universe of different beings defined within it. I’m not sure how we could be mathematical beings in a partially non-mathematical world — the general idea in such theories is that it’s all math.

        I knew a guy who did believe that reality was all math. It does answer certain conundrums. The Many Worlds Interpretation (MWI) of quantum physics is a theory that seeks to get around the quantum collapse weirdness by saying reality branches. The vexing issue there involves where those other realities come from. If it’s all math, there’s no vexation. Math equations can have multiple answers. No one finds it odd that the answer to “the square root of 4” is 2 and -2.

        I visited your page and left a comment. 🙂

      • authorbengarrido

        Thanks. 🙂

        Honestly, the biggest thing I take from all this epistemology is the expedient of being intellectually humble. With all that we don’t know, all that we can’t know, it seems pretty silly to run around proclaiming absolute truths.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Well, sure, skepticism is always appropriate. To a point. As evidence accumulates, at some point (and this is what epistemology is all about) we’re justified in believing the probable reality of things that are probably real. It’s not pragmatism — it’s epistemological analysis. Keep in mind that there are a priori truths that are absolute (capital T True) by definition and they can form a grounding for analyzing a posteriori truths.

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