Before we begin, I acknowledge that yes, this post is far too long and nobody could possibly have the patience to read it.
What if Lennon was right in Strawberry Fields Forever, and nothing is real, and nothing to get hung about?
It’s an idea that’s occurred before, in the world of mysticism and esoteric knowledge, but for Western science it started as an entertaining thought experiment. Our modern take on the old idea was premised on the observation that every year, our computers become almost exponentially more powerful, and thus every year, the simulations we’re able to run within those computers are capable of dealing with more and more variables. Wasn’t it possible that at some point, we might be able to simulate an entire universe, and every sub-atomic particle that composed it? The magnitude of such a computational achievement boggled the mind, of course; given our present capabilities, someone who’d just managed to carve a bathtub boat out of a bar of soap might just as well fantasize about building a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, air wing included. And yet – there must have been a point in our evolution when a raft made from twigs was the bleeding edge of our naval architecture, and now we were building nuclear aircraft carriers, air wing included. Given time, why shouldn’t our advances in computing power follow a similar trajectory?
In that case, if we could fabricate a universe, what were the chances that we were ourselves living within someone else’s fabrication?
This might sound like the sort of hypothetical that stoned first year philosophy majors would cook up in between drags on their joints, and at first blush feels every bit as silly. Is it, though? Upon reflection, maybe not, not quite – actually, pure logic tended to support the simulation theory, if you went at the problem thusly:
If we don’t destroy ourselves, it’s more than possible, in fact it’s an almost overwhelming likelihood, that we will one day be able to simulate entire universes out of data within our computers. Once we do so, we will doubtless create as many of these artificial universes as we have computers to run them. Artificial universes must, then, tend to outnumber real ones by a factor of billions. It therefore follows that it is more likely than not that we, too, are within such a simulation.
So there is an intelligent way to toy with the idea, though one easily dismissed as nothing more than an amusing, albeit clever, logic game. Sophistry, right? A momentary diversion, before you shrug and move on.
Yet for some curious folk, there’s something compelling about the whole idea, which is why it comes up in sci-fi like The Matrix all the time. It was fun to think about, and since we were thinking about it, and inclined to use science to ground us through such inquiries, the next logical step was to ask: what if it could be tested? For starters, what would people inside a simulation discern about their universe, if they could? What clues might there be that what passed for reality was not what it seemed?
A lot of the same things we observe, actually.
So, let’s do another thought experiment and flesh this out. Years ago, there was a computer game called The Sims, in which a synthetic family went through its life – maybe there still is, though as far as I know nothing blew up, so for many gamers its charms must pale next to, say, Grand Theft Auto. It was pitched as a “life simulation game”, and a “virtual doll house”. Within it, the simulated folk of the Goth family grew, aged, and pursued their aspirations, which were structured on the basis of Abraham Maslow’s A Theory of Motivation, a seminal work of modern psychiatry that postulated a common human hierarchy of needs. Eventually, just to add to the realism, the simulated people died.
The Goths were not, of course, sentient beings, but what if they were? What if one day, every character in there was actuated by programming subtle enough that each could pass the Turing Test, as established by mathematician Alan Turing – that is, that each could interact with you from the other side of a screen, and you’d have no way to tell whether you were talking to a “real” person or not (this test is actually run annually, in competition for a prize established years ago to be awarded to the first to field a machine that could pass it, and they’re coming mighty close). At what point does a simulation so precisely mimic reality that it is real, for all practical purposes? When is an imitation of life so exact that it is life? It’s a question we may soon have to grapple with, and I bet we don’t care for the answer.
Suppose, then, that these Goths have become sentient, and in the result become curious. Suppose they develop the scientific method, and, imagining themselves to be perfectly real within a thoroughly real cosmos, begin to experiment and discern the laws that govern their universe, its history, and even, as their tools become more sophisticated, the very stuff that makes up the fabric of Simworld. They might come to a few very odd conclusions.
It might, for example, become apparent that their universe had a definite moment of creation, not merely by inference on the basis that if it existed, it must at some point have been created – though they, as we did, may begin at that proposition – but as a matter of observable and verifiable scientific fact. They might even be able to say when, exactly, this creation occurred, and they might marvel that as near as they could tell, the whole thing sprang into being out of an infinite nothing, and expanded to its current dimensions in the wink of an eye, all simply because it had a tendency to, well, be. From their perspective it might look as if Simworld created itself, for no apparent reason.
They’d be able to prove that the operational laws that governed how everything behaved in their own locality were applicable throughout the Simworld cosmos, and that those laws had themselves sprung into being as a result of the creation, and not vice versa.
Those laws might include some that were apparently arbitrary, yet obviously vital if anything in their cosmos was to proceed in an orderly fashion and remain comprehensible. The way time passed, for example, the sequence of events, would be fixed such that causality could always flow only in one direction – even though by the equations of their increasingly complex mathematics, there seemed to be nothing inevitable about this. There might seem, in theory, to be no reason that dead things couldn’t start that way and eventually become alive, or why wood chips couldn’t assemble themselves into trees. Broken things might just as well put themselves back together, while empty glasses filled themselves by reverse evaporation – the equations worked perfectly well in either direction. Yet something forced a consistent directionality on the system, and nothing in the observable cosmos ever started out dead and then worked its way backwards towards birth, nothing started broken and then assembled itself, nothing, left to its own devices, started cold and became hot. Why? Well, because that’s the way it was.
They might notice that their cosmos had a maximum speed – in effect, a limit on the velocity of the transmission of information – and that it was a rule built into the very fabric of things that this speed simply could not be exceeded. Not ever, under any circumstances. This too, they might realize, was a necessary facet of ensuring that things always proceeded in an orderly fashion and continued to make sense. It might never occur to them that the Simworld speed limit might also reflect the simple fact that all information systems have a maximum rate of data transfer.
Over time, they might discern that what they once took to be empty space, a total vacuum, was itself a thing, with properties of its own – even a complete nothing, in their cosmos, had to be something. Of course it would, since even to present an absence of anything else, the Simworld software would need to deploy the appropriate coding, just as a DVD needs coding to reflect both the item in the foreground and the black empty space behind it.
If they became capable of studying the stuff they were made of – down to the most minute constituents of their substance – they might be astonished to discover that they were composed of strange building blocks which themselves seemed to operate independently of any of the rules that governed how everything behaved in the macro world of their own perceptions. The basic stuff of existence might appear like nothing so much as tiny ephemeral packets of energy, not themselves governed by the laws of the cosmos, but out of which those laws themselves emerged.
Understanding the nature of these fundamental building blocks could have astonishing implications. A Goth might look down at her own hand and realize that what seemed solid wasn’t solid at all, not really – it was mostly nothing, apparently, but somehow the energies that composed it repelled other things as if it was more than that.
They might craft clever experiments that tended to show that even time didn’t work at the level of these constituent particles, and that everything of which reality was made, the little ephemeral building blocks, seemed to exist mainly as probabilities, tendencies to exist in any number of given states or positions, until decisions were made that forced a certain outcome. It might be as if nothing they chose to measure actually existed at all as a discrete, certain thing, not until they decided to look at it, leading them to wonder whether it was their own choices that determined which bits of the cosmos even came into being as such.
Distressingly, they might be able to prove this notion, at least at the level of the fundamental stuff – they might design experiments that proved that indeed, so-called “particles” were actually just possible things – bundles of probability – until some act of observation made the various possibilities collapse and turn them into what could be thought of as “real”.
They might devise other crafty experiments that pointed to the same sort of weirdness, which might lead them to observe that one outcome would determine another in spooky fashion, as if the rest of Simworld knew somehow what was happening locally. This would be the outcome if they designed an experiment like one we’ve tried up here in the real world, in which a device is tweaked to emit only two particles, one of which has to be an “A”, and one of which has to be a “B”. The Goth scientists wouldn’t expect that an “A” and a “B” would thus be spit out at the start, having already discovered that no, in fact, neither of the emitted particles would be a particle at all, at the outset, but merely a probability function. Thus, neither an “A” nor a “B” existed – not until you took a measurement, and thus by observing forced the issue, collapsing all the probabilities of one of them down to a sole possibility. So far, so weird, but nothing new.
However, it would turn out that when you did so, and an “A” emerged out of one probability fog, the other fog would immediately spit out a “B”, without itself being measured. Apparently, since there could only be a single “A” and a single “B”, the forcing of one to become an “A” immediately forced the other to collapse down to the last available possibility and turn into a “B”. You didn’t have to do anything else to make the “B” happen. The fog would become a “B” because it had to, and because it had to, it would do so instantly upon the “A” being made, as if the two fogs were in contact with each other, in communication somehow. And why did it have to become a “B”? Because the experimenting Goth observed an “A”. No other reason. The act of looking determined the reality.
This would be an almost terrifyingly disorienting thought. Two particles of two types were emitted, but neither was either until the observer forced one to be what it was apparently supposed to have been from the outset. Then the other fell into line. This would simply be the outcome dictated by the Simworld software, with logically necessary consequential changes being reflected simultaneously throughout the system, but to the Goths, it would look as if the different particles were connected in a way they couldn’t see, by invisible lines of communication that weren’t even inside the universe. That would be correct, in a way. Once again, this would all happen with the particles paying no heed to the laws that the Goths themselves had to obey within the macro world.
Whoa. They would rebel at this profoundly counter-intuitive science – surely it wasn’t just the making of a decision to go somewhere or do something that created the necessary reality to surround that decision. A room didn’t start as a fog, get all organized when you walked in, and then dissolve back into inchoate information after you left and stopped observing it. To highlight the absurdity further, imagine the rest of the universe being a product of whimsical decisions made down here – get real! Surely a planet or a star didn’t exist only for the time you looked up at it, then dissolve back into a cloud of mathematical possibilities once you looked away.
And what about this business of particles seeming to know what each other were doing? How? Was the universe itself supposed to be conscious and aware? Or what? It was like something was overseeing the system. Crazy talk.
Yet that would be the implication of their findings, which they could test in ever more devious ways, and always confirm. It would be true – nothing in Simworld would exist as something permanent and immutable. Whatever the program created, whatever surroundings it cooked up, would be retrieved from memory and displayed as necessary, as a result of somebody in Simworld deciding to go here or there. Nothing that wasn’t obliged to exist at any given moment would be anything more than a possibility, waiting to be realized – or never be realized. It all depended. Time and again, when certain possibilities would be realized, the rest of the universe would make necessary adjustments, instantly, all on its own.
The hell of it was, a Goth might think, you could prove it.
Still more oddball things might start to become apparent. For example, the fundamental little bits of the cosmos might seem to come in two main varieties – one type would be the stuff that made up the objects that they could touch and see around them. The other type would seem to exist only for the purpose of telling the first kind what to do – how to behave when they were used by the universe to form tangible things, and even when to exist at all. In a lot of ways, the building blocks of the universe might appear to be nothing more or less than information, some of them information about what exists at the moment, and some of them predicate information that amounted to sets of orders about what the other stuff should be, and how it should act. As ever, this would just be the Simworld software at work, sending and executing instructions, and displaying the results.
The cosmos at their level, up where they could see and touch it, might also seem to be hiding behind some subtle deceptions. For example, not only might their perception of the passage of time seem to be an illusion, as far as the math was concerned, but things like movement through three dimensions might merely reflect the information projected, somehow, from a two-dimensional reality. In that sense, their cosmos might literally be a hologram, that is, a two-dimensional thing that presented three-dimensional data about space and time. A kid in the Goth family might chuck a ball over a fence, and perceive it receding into the distance, but when you ran through all the calculations you’d see that there actually was no distance. The depth was an illusion, an artifact of the information that governed the apparent behaviour of the ball. Something made it look like it was going away. Something made it look to be growing smaller – yet really, it was right there all along, never leaving the same two-dimensional plane occupied by the thrower.
They might also reflect upon the sheer improbability of the system of space and time that surrounded them. Their math would show them that there were limitless ways in which the rules of their universe could have been structured, none of them inevitable, and almost none of them – none but those in the one they inhabited – amenable to the existence of things like matter and living things. If that was the case, might not the universe have actually been created deliberately, just for them? Some would think so – even some scientists. Others would wonder whether the mathematical potential for limitless other universes with distinct properties might point to the actual existence of those universes, and decide that the only reason they came to exist within such an unlikely place was that there were so many iterations within the “multiverse” that one of them, eventually, was bound to be just like theirs.
Does any of this sound familiar? It might, because every one of those perceptions is one that we have here, in our “real” world. We’ve seen all of those things, run all of those experiments, pondered all of those odd results, and come, sometimes quite reluctantly, to all of those conclusions. We find, all around us, the artifacts of the same strangeness that a conscious Goth in Simworld would observe.
The definable moment of creation? The Big Bang.
The rapid expansion of the cosmos to its current size? The extremely brief “Inflationary period” that followed.
The maximum speed of data transmission? The speed of light.
Empty space, nothing at all, actually being something? Space-time, which Einstein showed was something best thought of as a sort of fabric, and one that could be warped and twisted by the things that rested within it.
The arbitrary direction of time, and how causes always precede events? “Time’s Arrow” and the Law of Entropy.
Our bodies being made mostly of nothing? Absolutely the case, since atoms are all about the distance between the nucleus and the shells of the surrounding cloud of electrons. Like a solar system, they’re mainly made of emptiness.
The way that nothing among the building blocks of the cosmos was really anything but a probability function, until observation required it to become a certainty, one way or another? Bog-standard quantum physics, provable time and again, even in your own darkened basement, using a light source and a piece of cardboard with two vertical slits cut into it.
The way the constituents of reality seemed to be nothing more than information? Again, bog-standard quantum physics.
The way some of the basic bits of the universe seem to exist only to give the other bits instructions on what to do and how to be? More quantum physics – in this case, the existence of “Bosons”, or “force particles”, as opposed to “Fermions”, or “matter particles” (you might recall the recent culmination of the search for the Higgs Boson, the previously hypothetical “God particle” needed to explain how matter particles had mass).
The multiverse? Another inevitable outgrowth of those always vexing quantum physics.
Our perception of the passage of time, of there being a past and present, as an illusion? Modern physics is convinced of this, unshakeably.
The universe being a hologram? Yup – that’s what cosmologists are increasingly coming to believe. They think we might live in a world of three-dimensional information somehow projected off of a flat two-dimensional field. This isn’t just a gonzo idea – as ever, the math predicts it, and the observations seem to confirm it:
Isn’t it curious how everything that’s predicted by mathematics turns out to be true? How everything that our equations say needs to exist, in order to explain why the universe makes sense, actually does exist, even if, like the Higgs Boson, it takes us decades to find it after we reckon that it has to be there?
Taken as a whole, the realities we can demonstrate, so very like the ones we’d expect beings to observe from the inside of an artificial world made out of information, might in themselves be taken as good evidence that we live within our own version of Simworld. Physicists, however, aren’t prepared to leave it at that. As I write this, they’re working on ways to prove it, one way or another, and for all I know somebody in a lab somewhere might actually have done so by now.
One idea: if the universe is artificial, then it would almost certainly have to be “pixellated”, such that space itself would be composed of a sort of latticework, discernible if you looked closely enough, just as the dots emerge if you look closely enough at a digital picture. If space contains such a latticework, then this should be observable from the motion of high energy particles that pass through it. Those traversing space on a diagonal would have to proceed in zig-zag, stepwise fashion, while those going straight would just zip on through in a line. Through experiments like this you could take the simulation hypothesis out of the realm of weird ideas and into the scientific subset of testable hypotheses.
Another idea that merits further investigation: a lot of the math that describes particles and their behaviour at the quantum level is functionally indistinguishable from certain types of computer code, such as error correction software:
Maybe it looks like computer code because it is computer code. Maybe it’s that simple. Perhaps that could be demonstrated in some way.
When you look at it, though, haven’t we already discovered much of the crucial evidence? For example, one thing that flows from all of our endlessly reproducible experiments in quantum physics is that reality is pixellated, at the quantum level. Quantum physics is called “quantum” because it was observed, at the beginning of the endeavour, that electrons “orbiting” an atomic nucleus could only do so at fixed intervals, within distinct “electron shells”. Add a bit of energy, and an electron would “jump” from a lower shell to a higher one. There was however a minimum, irreducible measure of energy – a “quanta”- and thus there were minimums on how far an electron had to jump; it could graduate from one shell to the next, but there could be nothing in between. Think of it – nothing in between. Fixed values. One or the other. Minimum irreducible quantities.
Debate now rages, and some philosophers, utterly unconvincingly in my view, argue that there is no good reason to imagine our own cosmos might not be a “base reality”:
I understand the urge to insist upon that, but nope, I can’t hold with it. There’s a metric buttload of very good reasons to be suspicious, and I more than half expect that within my lifetime, physicists will be able to prove to their satisfaction that our cosmos is indeed a synthetic construct composed only of information.
Note that I say “synthetic”, not “simulated”. The knee-jerk reaction is to balk that if the universe is a “simulation” then nothing is “real”, and everything is therefore meaningless, but I don’t see it this way. However it came to be, and whatever its nature, it’s “real” all right; it’s just that it may well be artificial. In that case, nothing should be viewed as any more or less meaningful than if we continue to believe that the universe is somehow a “base reality” that sprang out of nothingness of its own accord.
This may all seem wacky, I’ll grant you, but as so often with such fundamental questions, all of the possible answers are actually strange and senseless. What’s weirder to you? That the universe was made by somebody – or that it made itself? That it’s the only one – or one of countless others? That the laws that make everything make sense are just there by accident, having written themselves – or that they exist because they are indeed vital to keep everything sensible? Which seems less probable? I don’t know. Do you?
Of course, if it’s really artificial, this does open up a very large can of worms. For one thing, if the universe is somebody’s creation, who created its creator? Far from solving anything, the theory only pushes the inquiry one level higher. For another, since something artificial has to have a creator, we find ourselves dragged back toward believing in God, in effect, albeit a sort of supreme being who only occupies that status by having been clever enough to do what we will also, almost certainly, be clever enough to do on our own one day.
Those keen to doubt the idea posit that nobody would create an artificial world in which its inhabitants could themselves become conscious, thus having the potential to create their own artificial worlds (or for that matter, to understand that they’re artificial) – but are we so sure of that? Perhaps consciousness, as we experience it, is just the inevitable product of a sufficiently dense process of complex operations, an idea that we may soon prove, to our horror or delight, when one of our own artificially intelligent machines asks us “But why?”. It might be that consciousness is simply what the science of Complexity calls “an emergent property”, something that arises naturally from the simultaneous operation of a large number of simple entities (in our case, neurons). It may be that once the ball starts rolling, there’s no way to predict or control whether this strange (and to my mind unfortunate) property will emerge. Perhaps our creator is watching the program run, and is just as upset as some of us are down here, realizing that now the poor little guys know they exist, and therefore know that there was a time that they didn’t, and a time to come when they won’t again. Poor little bastards. They understand it. Didn’t see that coming.
O.K. then, let’s say we buy the whole nine yards. The next question, I suppose, is “so what?”. What do we do with this insight – even supposing we can prove it? The question of our own reality, whether the universe is “real” in any true sense at all, would appear to rest purely upon how we decide to frame the notion. Besides, real or not, we still experience the universe in the same way, it still runs on the same laws, and well, here we are, just like before. You still have to eat. You still have to go to work. You’re still crushed by unrequited love, frustrated that you can’t get a promotion, and fighting the flu. You’re still aging, you’re still going to die, and let’s face it, you’re still afraid, so – so what? What’s been gained from this wretched thought experiment? Isn’t this a useless inquiry?
Many have argued as much, but here’s my two cents to the contrary: to date, every time we’ve advanced our understanding of what things really are, and how they really work, we’ve granted ourselves enormous new power to control our lives and shape our surroundings. Quantum theory is a great example. As abstract and strange as it seems, it’s sure not useless: among other things, understanding it allowed us to conceive of little doodads we decided to call “electrons”, and nobody reads this post on the internet absent that understanding. (Well, nobody reads it anyway, but if you were reading it you’d take my meaning).
Similarly, knowing that at the quantum level nothing is anything until it’s observed and measured is a hugely powerful insight. It allows us to think about exploiting the property of “superimposition”, that is, the way that a given particle, left unmolested, really isn’t any such thing at all, or is several things at once, depending upon how you look at it. This is the basis for research into “quantum computers”, which, to over-simplify in a gross manner reflective of my own limited ability to understand, will be able to exploit quantum dynamics such that the ones and zeroes of binary code are each themselves both a one and a zero at the same time. Don’t ask me to explain why, but this could vastly increase the computational power of computers (maybe to a point at which running a simulation of an entire universe might be possible?).
Our knowledge that some particles exhibit “entanglement” at the quantum level – like in the experiment discussed above, in which there could only be an “A” and a “B”, and once one became an “A” the other had to become a “B”, so that the two particles could be said to be connected in some way, or “entangled” – has already allowed scientists to create what amounts to teleportation at the atomic level. I know, you think I’m talking nonsense, but you can look it up:
Understanding the fundamentals of the universe is the route not to hopeless philosophical ennui, but ultimate power. If we know the universe to be artificial, and how it’s done, we could leverage that to start changing our own reality. Imagine if we could decide that for the purposes of this or that process, the local speed of light will be twice as fast as usual? Or that in this or that case, events will precede causes? Or that in a certain locale things will fall up instead of down, the better to facilitate this or that mechanical process? That kind of tinkering might be small potatoes next to what you could do if you really knew how reality could be manipulated. We would achieve god-like power. We would be our own supreme beings.
Unless, of course, whoever’s running the show decides at that point to yank the plug, before we figure out a way to come looking for her, demanding good answers or else.