Physicists in Germany think they might have a way to find out if our reality is just a computer simulation. At least I think that’s what this article in MIT’s Technology Review says. It’s a bit hard to penetrate.
In my view, the odds are in favor of our perceived reality being a computer simulation. Allow me to make my lawyerly argument in defense of that view. Sure, I’ve blogged on this topic before, but not so convincingly.
When I was a kid, I dreamed of one day growing up to be a world-famous cartoonist. When your actual life conforms to your childhood fantasy, it makes you question the basic nature of reality. Did I really beat million-to-one odds, or is something else going on?
One explanation for my experience is that I’m extraordinarily lucky. For this discussion I’m defining luck to include my genetic composition, upbringing, and environment, since I didn’t have much control over any of that. Let’s say the odds of getting to this point of my career by luck alone is somewhere in the range of one-in-a-million.
A second explanation for my perceived life is that I’m insane and I have delusions that I’m a cartoonist. An estimated 1.1% of the population is schizophrenic. Rounding off, let’s say the odds that my life is a hallucination are a hundred to one against. And yet, so far, that’s the best explanation.
A third explanation is that I live in a simulation that was designed to satisfy my ambitions. That seems plausible to me on several levels. Let’s begin by assuming scientists are correct when they say there are probably lots of planets in the universe with life. Add the power of evolution plus several billion years of percolation and you have a universe peppered with intelligent beings.
If you wait long enough, almost any species will die off from one sort of natural disaster or another. Maybe a sun explodes, a rogue meteor hits, or a new virus springs up. So if it’s true that the universe created lots of life on various worlds, it’s probably true that many advanced species have already died off. Some of them probably saw it coming in time to project their personalities, hopes, and dreams into computer simulations that would run forever, as sort of an artificial afterlife.
I think it is likely that for every “real” and intelligent being in the universe there might be hundreds or even billions of expired civilizations that figured out how to port their essence to computer simulations before checking out.
Summarizing the three explanations for how my actual life could so closely conform to my childhood fantasies:
Luck: million-to-one against
Insanity: hundred-to-one against
Simulation: million-to-one in favor
It’s really no contest. In my specific case it would be irrational to believe I am anything but a simulation.
One feature of our so-called reality that makes me scratch my head is the consistency of the rules of physics. One might expect a “natural” universe – one that came from an explosion – to be nothing but randomness on every dimension, including the rules of physics themselves. Any sort of consistency to our perceived reality feels like a “tell” from the simulation creators.
If you were the designer of this simulation you would need to strike a delicate balance. You want the characters to have your curiosity and intelligence but you also need to prevent them from realizing their true nature within the simulation. That means creating boundaries that don’t look like boundaries. For example, you might program the simulation to have an infinite size (as if that even makes sense), but limit the maximum speed of things to the speed of light, making it impossible for the simulated people to examine the edges of their universe.
As a designer, you’d also need to make the quantum world totally freaky and endlessly puzzling. What are the tiniest particles in the universe made of? Answer: waves. What is a wave? Answer: Something that makes sense only in the realm of math. When you look for the boundaries of reality you always bump into a wall that defies common sense so aggressively that it looks intentional.
Another hint that we are simulations modeled after our programmers is that we are suspicious about the possibility. If the creators modeled us after themselves, they created simulations that could imagine someday creating their own simulations. That means we might be – wait for it – the simulations of other simulations.
Keep in mind that the perceived passage of time for people in a simulation does not have to map to any “real” time in the universe. So perhaps I am experiencing my trillionth simulated life. Perhaps each of us gets to experience every life and every time period of our alleged reality. The entire simulation would only take a few seconds in the outside world if the processor is fast enough.
If even one civilization in the real universe created a simulation that could create its own simulations, the odds of any particular “sentient” creature being real are perhaps worse than a trillion to one. That assumes the alien processors are fast and our perceived time doesn’t need to match any real time in the actual universe.
Ladies and gentleman of the jury, I rest my case. And I predict you have been programmed to disagree with my conclusion.