One 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!
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.
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?
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.]
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
Philosophical 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!
As 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.