Sim­u­lated uni­verses

Fortean Times - - Letters -

As ever, David Hambling of­fers us food for thought. This time ask­ing if we might all be liv­ing in a sim­u­lated world, such as the one por­trayed in The Ma­trix.

[Ft353:14]. We can start with Wittgen­stein’s ex­am­ple: the real and the false ap­ple. He sug­gests that if there is no way of telling which is the real and the false ap­ple, then the con­cept of real and false has no mean­ing, there be­ing no way of de­ter­min­ing which con­cept ap­plies. How­ever, Hambling goes fur­ther by quot­ing Marvin Min­sky’s sug­ges­tion that we might be alert for “er­rors and flaws in a sim­u­la­tion” that do not fol­low the “laws of physics”. But if we are liv­ing in a sim­u­la­tion that frames our ex­pe­ri­ence and the­o­ries, then there wouldn’t be any er­rors and flaws, for these would be the laws that we un­der­stood as de­ter­min­ing our world. Min­sky’s ob­ser­va­tion as­sumes that we are ab­so­lutely cer­tain of these ‘laws’, even though they have changed some­what over the years. So whose laws hold true – New­ton’s, Ein­stein’s, Bohr’s, or those of a young physi­cist who, as I write may be com­plet­ing a world­shak­ing PhD?

In the Ma­trix ex­am­ple, the real world is one in which hu­mans are fed il­lu­sions via ma­chines, which of course can be seen as a metaphor for all sorts of be­lief sys­tems, sci­ence in­cluded. Thus these il­lu­sions emerge from the real world, in which the pro­duc­tion of a sim­u­la­tion for ul­te­rior mo­tives is an as­pect. There was no ‘other’ world; there was only the world of the Ma­trix. Some might step out­side the sim­u­la­tions but still be in the real world, of which the sim­u­la­tion was a part.

We are sim­i­larly stuck with the prob­lem Hambling poses, for there is no ob­jec­tive place from which to ob­serve what is real or sim­u­lated for the def­i­ni­tions that we might use to de­mar­cate these con­cepts are rooted in the lan­guage that we are born with and which frame all our per­cep­tions. In­deed noth­ing makes this clearer than the fre­quent claim that sci­ence is ‘ob­jec­tive’, as such claims al­ways re­turn to def­i­ni­tions of ‘ob­jec­tiv­ity’ that are them­selves not ob­jec­tive but are part and par­cel of a pre-ex­ist­ing world­view. Some­how this re­minds me of Wittgen­stein’s com­ment about the man who buys a se­cond copy of the same news­pa­per to check if the first one is ac­cu­rate. I am re­fer­ring here to the real Wittgen­stein, not his sim­u­la­tion. Mike Hard­ing Lon­don I read ‘Pris­on­ers of the Ma­trix’ with in­ter­est as it is a sub­ject I have con­sid­ered hap­pily. One point raised made me think that there is a flaw in one of the gen­eral pred­i­cates of the ar­gu­ment for fake uni­verses. The idea that we live in a fake uni­verse is im­plied by math­e­mat­ics, which of course must come from this same fake uni­verse. What then if the real uni­verse was mod­elled on dif­fer­ent laws? What of our fake uni­verse then? We can­not make as­sump­tions based on ev­i­dence that by def­i­ni­tion is fake. It is a cir­cu­lar ar­gu­ment. If the uni­verse we are in is fake then the math­e­mat­ics is ar­guably fake too. Maybe the ‘real’ uni­verse is five-di­men­sional or even partly based on struc­tures that our ‘fake uni­verse’ does not en­ter­tain? No model can re­flect these dif­fi­cul­ties. Si­mon van Someren Lon­don I found the sta­tis­ti­cal ar­gu­ment that we are most likely liv­ing in a com­puter sim­u­la­tion in­ter­est­ing, but I don’t think this the­ory is car­ried far enough. Con­sider the evil sci­en­tist whose com­puter we’re in­hab­it­ing (Evil 1). His uni­verse is sub­ject to the same sta­tis­ti­cal ar­gu­ment as ours, so he’s al­most cer­tain to be in a com­puter be­long­ing to Evil 2. In turn, Evil 2 is in Evil 3’s com­puter who is in Evil 4’s com­puter and so on. This in­fi­nite chain of nested sim­u­la­tions be­comes slowly less likely as it ex­tends into the bil­lions.

One way to avoid this prob­lem is to pick an ar­bi­trary evil sci­en­tist (say Evil N) whose uni­verse is a sim­u­la­tion in the com­puter of a pre­vi­ously un­sus­pected Evil Zero. The key is that Evil Zero is liv­ing (to use the term loosely) in our sim­u­lated uni­verse! This makes the in­fi­nite sim­u­la­tion chain neatly into a fi­nite cir­cle and also has the added ben­e­fit of re­mov­ing the need for that pesky orig­i­nal uni­verse which was al­ways very un­likely (bil­lions to one) any­way. Of course it’s pos­si­ble this sim­u­la­tion ring is it­self in a com­puter that is be­ing sim­u­lated in an­other com­puter, and so on. This could lead to a very tan­gled mul­ti­verse. Sadly, given the num­ber of com­put­ers in­volved, it’s un­avoid­able that at least one of them is go­ing to crash any time now… but would we no­tice? Rahn Kol­lan­der Min­neapo­lis, Min­nesota

Eric was des­tined never to learn his daz­zling gui­tar solo had opened up a win­dow to an­other di­men­sion.

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