Thursday, January 13, 2011

Our Simulated Universe

An Initial Advisory: I need to say this from the get-go, that there is no connection whatever, in this essay, postulating a simulation scenario that includes us, between a supernatural all-knowing, all-powerful creator God and what I see as a flawed flesh-and-blood creator person (or extraterrestrial) actually responsible. This 'Supreme Simulator' is no God (with a capital G), any more than the creator of a video game is a God (with a capital G). This has absolutely nothing to do with a supernaturally based religion; everything to do with the natural order and evolution of technological things. This is science (or technology); not superstition or mythology.

Unlike God, for those who believe in a loving God, the Supreme Simulator may not give a royal stuff about you and your fate any more than the creator of a video game cares whether the characters in that creation live happy ever after or not - probably not. I mean, if you simulated billions and billions of humans; generations and generations of them, and assuming you're not all knowing and all powerful, could you keep track of them all?

Now one is perfectly entitled to reject the truism of this simulation hypothesis. I'm not sure I really believe it myself. But of course what we believe or disbelieve is ultimately irrelevant - it's all a function of what is, or is not. While the simulation scenario is straight forward enough, being able to prove, or disprove it, is the real intellectual challenge. That's the issue I'm attempting to think through. And sadly, while I'd like to claim this as my own, the idea isn't original with me - far higher intellects than I have pondered this and there's a massive degree of literature in academic journals and web sites on the possibility.

Terrestrial Examples of Current or Near Future Simulations:

*The Practical: Simulation scenarios prove useful in dealing with everyday traffic management issues and of course the military use them for war-game purposes. Engineers use them to figure out things like will this aircraft fly if we build it this way? Can we build a bridge this way using these materials of such and such a length? It's far cheaper to simulate first - build afterward - secure in the knowledge that what you build will work. Available on the market are all manner of brands of automobile navigation simulations in virtual map form that can guide you from point A to point B without muss or fuss.

*Training: Airline pilots, air traffic controllers, astronauts, medical doctors can practice on simulators first to gain proficiency. Simulations could prove useful in driver training, before actually going out on the road.

*Scientific: Many scientists use simulations to examine 'what if'. Program these set of initial conditions; add these relationships; run for a period of time and see what happens.

*Education: One can explore the planets of the solar system; the realms of interstellar and intergalactic space; the depths of our terrestrial oceans, and other realms too where it isn't really practical or realistic to send someone in person. Data acquired by robotic probes can be translated into simulations that we all can enjoy.

*Entertainment: Video games! Quite apart from that, it's now possible to create entire feature films (note: not cartoon or animation) where all characters and all environments are 100% simulated. No filming on location; no actors need apply for the parts. There's also the tourist trade without all that messing about with airlines and hotels and taxis and suitcases and bad weather. There's all manner of virtual tourist guide packages where you can 'visit' cities and all their tourist attractions (traps).

*Role Playing: It's difficult to insert yourself into a video game, but eventually the technology might be available to do just that. The best futuristic example is the holodeck that features in the latter Star Trek incarnations.

There's one important facet of your life that's already virtual or simulated - at least in theory if not in actual practice. That is, your personal finances. I mean, we've heard of the so-called paperless office (which never really did come to pass - yet). Now we have the virtual wallet and simulated purse. I mean, your payslip or pension is deposited electronically into your account at your financial institution. You can arrange to have your standard bills paid automatically from that account; or you can go online and pay your bills yourself - electronically. You can shop online or at brick-and-mortar stores without the need to carry cash - just use your credit or debit card. You can pay your credit card bill online, or at your financial institution without any cash actually changing hands. You can even use your credit card now to get a soft drink at the vending machine!

At regular intervals your financial institution will send you a piece of paper, or you can see it online, telling you what your accounts are worth. In short, it's now possible to go through your entire financial day-to-day existence, within the entirety of your financial world, without actually having to see or handle actual cash. Money is all virtual money; financial transactions are all simulations of what used to be cash transactions.

So we see that there is nothing unusual with the simulation idea. As an aside, one should note that as little as 100 years ago, such imaginations as would postulate such activities as simulations would have either been writers of fiction or individuals consigned pretty much to the 'nice young men in their clean white coats; coming to take me away, ha-ha, he-he, to the funny farm' set! Given the exponential grown in computing crunch power, what might 100 years from now be like with respect to simulations of reality? Writers of fiction are still pretty safe in speculating; others might still be expecting visits from those 'nice young men in their clean white coats'! All too often however, futurology guesstimates ended up erring too much on the side of caution. What's sort-of expected 100 years hence often proves to be reality in a far shorter time frame. That holodeck might be closer than we think! Now, what kind of simulation might be possible of an extraterrestrial civilization a thousand, ten thousand, one hundred thousand years in technological advance of ours? A simulation of our Universe (or at least Planet Earth) to them might be as sophisticated as Pac-Man is to us.

The Supreme Simulator: Given the above examples of purpose behind simulations, what's the purpose behind a Supreme Simulator simulating us? Let's assume we're not somebody's toy - created for amusement, rather let's says our Supreme Simulator is a scientist and we're part of their 'what if' experiment. What might be simulated and in what detail?

*The Universe and all it contains to an equal degree of detail.

*The Milky Way Galaxy and all it contains to an equal degree of detail, and all that is beyond that to a far lesser extent of detail.

*Our Solar System and all it contains to an equal degree of detail, and all that is beyond that to a far lesser extent of detail.

*Planet Earth and all it contains to an equal degree of detail, and all that is beyond that to a far lesser extent of detail.

*Your immediate environment and all it contains to an equal degree of detail, and all that is beyond that to a far lesser extent of detail.

*Your mind and all it contains to an equal degree of detail, and all that is beyond that to a far lesser extent of detail except any such time as you interact with something outside of your mind's sphere.

The more detail the simulation has to include, the greater the complexity, the more crunch power is needed to run it. It stands to reason to minimise unnecessary detail, while having the flexibility to add in layers of detail as required. Some examples:

Prior to the invention of the telescope, all you needed to simulate Mars was a moving red dot in the sky. Post telescope, but pre space probes, a bit more detail in the image department was required. Once the Mariner flybys and orbiting probes and landing craft like Viking, Sojourner, Spirit, Opportunity and Phoenix, and a host of others to boot did their thing, a great more detail was required to be simulated, but of course only in those areas where the probes travelled and associated cameras pointed to.

You know there are billions of other simulated people on the simulated Planet Earth and millions of miles of simulated real estate (and tourist traps) and zillions of other simulated animated and unanimated life forms/objects inhabiting that real estate. However, you don't have anything but the vaguest comprehension of the nitty-gritty - the fine print you know not - the details are broad-brush in the extreme. Yet if the simulated you actually goes and visits some of those square miles of real estate and interacts with the natives - animal, mineral or vegetable - then the Supreme Simulator must be able to ramp up the details, and then the fine print leaps into your focus.

Maybe however the Supreme Simulator has for the simulation an unlimited capacity and everything in existence is at the maximum level of detail required, and just because you are ignorant of the landscape detail of Mars or haven't seen every brick in the Great Wall of China doesn't mean that that landscape, and those bricks, exist (in the absence of your presence) in any less detail than the landscape of your backyard and the bricks that make up your home.

In any event, assuming the Supreme Simulator isn't omnipotent and all-knowing and all-powerful then mistakes will be made. Software will need tweaking to minimise if not eliminate inconsistencies, paradoxes, contradictions, and all those nasty square pegs in round holes.

OOPS: Tweaking, Miracles, Upgrades and Patches: So say you feel like playing God and creating a universe, not a real one of course but a simulated one, on your supercomputer (which presumably has greater capacity than your wetware brain which could also create one). So, you (the Supreme Simulator) start writing the initial 'in the beginning' set(s) of software with a view to creating a Big Bang and dictating the parameters that will control the subsequent evolution of your cosmos. Of course, not being a real God, it's hard to think of everything and initially Part 'A' may not mesh totally well with Part 'B', and by the time you get to Part 'Z', everything's an absolute mess. So, you start rewriting and revising and patching things up by tweaking the software here and there so that you end up, down the track, with a cosmos that's a unified and consistent whole.

Oops #1 - Part 'A' created matter; Part 'B' you dictated and created an equal amount of antimatter, making Parts 'C' through 'Z' pretty irrelevant because your cosmos is now pretty boring - just a universe of pure energy! So, tweak #1 is to create Part 'B' but under the surface set the value to an extremely low number. You now have a matter dominated universe.

Oops #2 - In Part 'C' you create gravity along with your matter so as to keep your universe orderly and behaving in a nice clockwork way. Oops, your universe now quickly contracts and undergoes a Big Crunch - end of evolution; end of simulation. Tweak #2: create some antigravity in the form of Dark Energy to prevent that Big Crunch while allowing gravity to maintain the desired clockwork predictability.

Oops #3 - Having taken care of the macro (you've evolved your matter via gravity into planets and stars and galaxies and associated debris) in Part 'D', you now polish off the software, all the bits and pieces needed to control the micro - Part 'E'. Oops, you find that turns out not to be compatible with your macro software. Well, that apparently has no actual bearing on the other parts of your cosmic creation and since you're ultra busy dealing with 1001 other problems and issues, you don't bother to tweak this. You ignore this - no one will be any the wiser! (Oops, you didn't plan on the eventual evolution of cosmologists and quantum physicists!!)

OOPS: Why Are Miracles A Tweak? A miracle is something unexplained and unexplainable. It's a direct violation of the known laws of science. To my mind, a miracle is something that corrects a mistake; a mistake that never should have happened in the first place if the Supreme Simulator had been on the ball. For example, say you have to have a limb amputated, only at a later date it grows back! That's a miracle that corrects what presumably the Supreme Simulator hadn't counted on or programmed or desired. So, count up the number of alleged miraculous events that have been recorded over the eras of human history - that's a lot of alleged tweaks!

Why Don't I Know This? If you and everything around you (out to the farthest boundaries of the Universe) are just a simulation (created either inside the wetware mind or as software in a machine - the Supreme Simulator's supercomputer) you wouldn't know. You'd be programmed not to know or otherwise plain ignorant in the same way that the character in your dream in unaware it's a mental creation - an artefact of your mind. Ditto the characters in a video game - they don't know they are an artificial creation; an artificial life form. Since you are a simulated entity, you are not in control since you are pre-programmed and have to just go with the predetermined flow - the Supreme Simulator's puppet. You can no more control your activity than a calculator can help but calculate that the cube root of 27 is 3. Ditto the entity in your dreams does what your mind commands it to do, even if you aren't aware at the time that your mind is a puppeteer. Your dream character(s) has/have no free will in other words.

Never-the-less there may be ways to come to terms with the correctness or otherwise of the basic scenario that you are simulated and a Supreme Simulator is in control. The hint comes from the above - the need for The Boss to tweak their simulation creation to eliminate discrepancies or paradoxes, which is the same as saying there's evidence that the Supreme Simulator has failed to tweak. The fact that tweaks are necessary in our natural environment is suggestive that we are indeed in a simulation; otherwise parts of the Universe (assuming it's really real) make no real sense. Either Mother Nature screwed up, or the Supreme Simulator did.

Example: Crop circles exist. No explanation for their existence makes total sense. They are obviously made by intelligence, but Mother Nature isn't the guilty party in this case (although Mother Nature is responsible for some geometrical shapes like the spirals in some sea shells, flowers, snowflakes, etc.). No known natural force can account for crop circles. Human intelligence is the most likely explanation, but problems abound like the making of complex patterns in the dark of the night and why haven't those responsible been caught and dealt with? I could list other problems like why England and not Australia? Surely Australia has its share of pranksters. Is an extraterrestrial intelligence responsible perhaps? But what's their possible motive? I'm damned if anything rational comes to the fore. So, I think a tweak is in order here for this puzzlement has gone on far too long

As a general rule of thumb, just about anything science says is near impossible, yet for which there's some degree of credible eyewitness testimony to the contrary, might be a candidate as a quirk courteous of our Supreme Simulator! Collectively, these topics fall under a general umbrella called 'anomalies' and whole books can be read that are full of case histories. For example, your attention is directed to the many volumes compiled by William R. Corliss of anomalies culled from the scientific literature in his Sourcebook Project series. Then there are those wonderful collections of anomaly tomes penned by Charles Fort.

So why are these anomolies allowed to continue? Why hasn't the Supreme Simulator tweaked these? My best guess is that probably its because having set the simulation program in motion, and since none of the quirks are serious enough to cause the program simulation to crash, it's easier just to allow everything to run its course and not 'end program' for the sake of relatively major, but not Universe-threatening, repairs. Minor fixes, like those 'miracle' tweaks can be fixed on the run without interrupting the simulation, just like some upgrades to your computer software can take place while you work, while others don't take effect unless you shut down and boot up again. If you can soldier on and not shut down your operation and live without the upgrade(s), that's okay.

So does that mean our Supreme Simulator, The Boss, is at least 13.7 billion years old since the program running our (presumably) simulated Universe is 13.7 billion years old because it's been 13.7 billion years since the Big Bang? Not really, since there doesn't have to be any relationship between time as experienced by the Supreme Simulator and our perception of time, just like you can watch a two hour movie, but as far as the characters in the movie are concerned, perhaps two days, two weeks, two months, two years or two decades have elapsed. So, perhaps one second passing to The Boss is the equivalent of a decade going by the boards to us.

And just like watching a movie, you can speed the film up, or slow it down - even freeze frame it if you're so inclined. Now if our Supreme Simulator decided to speed up, slow down, even freeze frame (stop) the action, we wouldn't notice because all of our surroundings would be speeded up, or slowed down, or stopped by the exact same amount (which has some obvious parallels with general relativity).

What's the Best Piece of Evidence? If the Universe and all it contains; its physics (relationships, principles, laws, etc.), were created by either Mother Nature (i.e. - naturally) or via an all-knowing, all-powerful, creator God (i.e. - supernaturally), then presumably everything physics would mesh/interlock and be comprehensible, understandable, with no paradoxes, contradictions, anomalies, etc. Translated, one Universe, one set of hardware; contains just one set of unified physics, one set of software. Now your computer hardware runs on not one, but many sets of software - various functions; various sets of software. So, is the Universe like the way the Universe should be, or is it more akin to your computer programs? Unfortunately, the Universe is like your computer. The Universe's physics contains two programs; two sets of software. They don't mesh/interlock; they can not be unified; they are not compatible. Its relativity (macro) software; its quantum mechanics (micro) software and never the twain shall meet. The two are like your basic square peg in a round hole. That's a flawed creation - it's an 'Oops #3' (see above) - the work of a flawed creator, like of the flesh-and-blood kind. The sort that churns out video game programs - like a Supreme Simulator.

Apart from the above observed anomalies, our simulated Universe theory is also potentially testable. While I can think of no way to prove I'm not a simulated being, one can find evidence that we do live in a simulated universe, and by implication that we too are simulated beings. No computer software is perfect. Computer software - from our experience - is always being upgraded / updated. If the same applies elsewhere, we could perhaps notice it if we're a product of that software. So, if there are any software upgrades, they might be detectable as anomalous phenomena in some context or another. Like say one of the physical constants were tweaked and altered ever so slightly (and there is some evidence for that - the fine structure constant for example has apparently changed over astronomical time periods). If physical constants aren't - constant that is - but variable, then we got troubles with a capital T.

One of the, no, in fact THE most fundamental bedrock of all cosmology is that the physics of the universe are the same everywhere. If that's not the case, and apparently it's not seeing as how there's evidence that the fine structure constant doesn't have the same value in all parts of the cosmos, then cosmologists are forced to go back to square one. Nothing in terms of what the universe is and what governs it can now be taken anymore as gospel.

Can you really imagine either a supernatural God or a natural Mother Nature creating a cosmos where the physics therein aren't uniform? If your answer is 'no', then you are nearly forced into accepting a third alternative - the universe as we know it is a simulation by a hardly all powerful flesh and blood (supreme simulator). Since the value of the fine structure constant is critical in terms of the Universe being bio-friendly, if it's not constant, then parts of the Universe are bio-unfriendly. So our Supreme Simulator is apparently happy to create a software detailed pocket of bio-friendly universe within a far larger software un-friendly cosmos. That makes sense to create a small pocket of the simulation to be bio-friendly and just have the rest of the bio-unfriendly Universe simulated by way less sophisticated software as a sort of background wallpaper to the bio-friendly part.

The Multitudes of You: If we exist via a simulation, there of course could exist in turn more than one copy of that simulation; lots, and lots, and lots of copies. If so, there's more than one copy of you. It's a kind of parallel universe scenario. The saving grace is that you don't ever get to meet yourself!

What Are the Odds I'm A Simulated Entity? I think it's fair to say that based on the level of sophistication of my simulation scenario, you and I aren't part of a dream, or someone else's overactive imagination, nor a terrestrial computer software package. So, no terrestrial Supreme Simulator has created us. The possible exception to that observation is the assumption that the simulation that creates us is the product of the terrestrial 20th or 21st Century. Of course it's possible that our simulator is in the terrestrial 30th or 31st Century. The simulation's time period doesn't have to reflect the same time period as that of the simulator. That aside however, and assuming a non-terrestrial origin, that leaves the rest of the Universe and an extraterrestrial(s) Supreme Simulator(s).

The apparent bottom line, using Planet Earth's supposed reality as a guide, is that any one real world and real inhabitants can create, wetware and software combined, more, vastly more, nearly infinitely more, simulated worlds and inhabitants with varying degrees of complexity and duration. How many dreams (or active mentally imagined scenarios) have humanity collectively racked up? How many video games have been, are now, and will be on the market? Certainly it's way more than just one. So, one real world and just one real entity can ultimately create hundreds (maybe thousands plus) of simulated worlds and hundreds (maybe thousands plus) of simulated entities. If that logic applies to Planet Earth's supposed reality and her actual simulation (wetware and software) packages, then what of those extraterrestrial abodes and advanced civilizations? If there are hundreds, thousands, maybe millions of extraterrestrial technological advanced civilizations out there and each create hundreds, thousands, maybe millions of simulated worlds and beings, well, what odds we're one of the rare real worlds relative to the massive number of simulated ones?

Objection! We exist in a 3-D environment. Surely simulations, even dreams, are 2-D. Therefore, we're not in a simulation! Unfortunately for that argument, 2-D technology is now old hat. Well, there's now a plethora of 3-D films; 3-D TV is the latest thing. Can the 3-D Internet be far behind? Surely 3-D video games, etc. will soon be available too. Of course the Star Trek holodeck was 3-D, but that's way future technology, but who knows how quickly those advances in future technology will come. I'm sure holodeck technology, or some reasonable variation of it, will be part and parcel of our future entertainment as well as being useful in training and other role playing scenarios.

Apart from that, I'm sure the characters in computer or video games; the entities in your dreams, would, if they could, tell you that they do indeed navigate through a 3-D environment - as viewed through their senses. But wait a minute, that's something that equally applies to us. You navigate in a 3-D world, yet the actual images, or your perception of 3-D reality of that apparent 3-D environment, lies totally inside your mind and in the biochemistry of your brain. Inside your brain, that projection of reality is actually 2-D; interpretation by you however is 3-D, in much the same way perhaps as that hologram image on your credit card is 2-D, but appears 3-D. So, does that really make you any different from the video game or dream counterparts? They say they exist in 3-D; you say they are 2-D. You say you exist in 3-D, but...?

What If I Knew This? What if I knew that I and everything around me was but a simulation and I had no free will? Well, there's not a hell of a lot I or you can do about it! At best, all we can wish for is that the Supreme Simulator's wetware or software that's responsible doesn't contain any nasty surprises, or that the dreaming Supreme Simulator doesn't have an alarm clock set to go off or the temptation to press the delete button.

Free Will: If you wrote (programmed) yourself into a video game; even if you star in your own dream as a whole separate character, you're dancing to the beat of your drummer software or your drumming mind. The 'You' in your own creation, in your own dream, has no free will! If you're dancing to somebody else's tune either through their wetware dreams or software programming, you don't have any free will. Sorry 'bout that!

Ultimate Origins: Even if the simulation of our Universe / world / us is an accurate scenario, that doesn't explain the origin of the simulator(s) or of their world and universe - which may, or may not, mirror this (our) simulated one. Ultimate origins get even harder if the Supreme Simulator(s) are in turn simulations from an even more remote reality. One could well argue that if we're a simulation within a simulation within a simulation, etc., and we in turn are simulating, then the ultimate first cause is the one with the, presumably, free will - the first Supreme (flesh and blood) Simulator starts things off and all else that follows is just programming originating from him / her / it. Knowledge of such ultimate origins might be forever beyond our reach.

Wetware Versus Software: For all their sophistication - to date anyway - no one has any real difficulty in recognising virtual reality software in the form of a training exercise, a video game, or even a cinema feature 'filmed' without real actors and real background. However, the evolution in realism in such media is improving by leaps and bounds. Still, the computer software behind such simulated generations isn't yet in the same ballpark, or even the same league compared to wetware. Your dreams, nightmares, hallucinations, imaginings, etc. are very realistic indeed.

What If We Are Not Simulated? Well then its business as usual, though it still leaves scientists with a lot of hard work to do to explain the normal everyday life, the Universe and everything, with all its myriad of weird stuffs!

The Return of the Gods: Once upon a time there were many gods (Thor, Odin, Zeus, Apollo, Ares, etc.) and polytheism ruled the roost and the affairs of mortals. Unfortunately they were overthrown and monotheism became flavour of the month. That's a pity as the old gods had way more appeal - they were flawed and thus way more interesting because they were way more 'human'. Well, the gods have returned in their new form of Supreme Simulators; the writers of software and creators of video games, their associated characters and environments.

You too could be a Supreme Simulator and create your own video game. Why not? Others have done it. Not into writing software and creating brave new worlds and new life forms? Well, despite that you too can be (and have been) a Supreme Simulator - sleep, perchance to dream, and for a brief while at least create your own virtual realities.

I rest my case!

Science librarian; retired.


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