Documenting the Coming Singularity

Friday, March 16, 2007

The Simulated Simulacrum

What if we are living within a simulation? This is not a new idea; after all, The Matrix and its sequels were based on a similar concept. What's new (to me) is the discovery that some serious people, philosophers, scientists, et cetera, have considered this possibility in a serious way.

Philosopher Nick Bostrum of the University of Oxford, holder of a Ph.D from the London School of Economics, has investigated the possibility that our entire reality is, in reality, a simulation that is running on a very powerful computer.

The Observer Effect

If you know much about science, you've probably heard about one of our reality's most interesting properties, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. German physicist Werner Heisenberg discovered that in the quantum (i.e. very very small) world, observers cannot obtain perfect information about every aspect of a system. As Heisenberg said, "The more precisely the position is determined, the less precisely momentum is known in this instant, and vice versa." This is not an artifact of the imprecision of our measuring instruments, but an inherent property of our reality. In fact, subatomic particles, when constrained in order to attempt to discover both their position and momentum at a particular point in time, become agitated and seek to avoid giving up this information.

A further property of matter on a quantum scale is that particles will exist in many incompatible states until they are observed, at which point their "probability waves" break down and their states "resolve" into one particular state. Did the photon go through the glass or reflect off of it? The photon actually does both, until measured by a conscious observer, at which time it will do one or the other. Very strange. But what does all this have to do with the idea that we are living in a simulation?

In order to use computational resources efficiently, computer games will not process and render scenes that the players are not observing. These scenes are not given computational resources until the players actually enter them. In other words, if no one's looking, why compute it? Could this be what's happening with our reality. If a tree falls in the forest and there's no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?

How Could We Ever Know?

If we were in a simulation being run by an advanced intelligence, how might we discover that our reality is not real?

We already know that we can be fooled by a simulated reality. When we dream, don't we in most cases believe the simulation to be real? (There are some clues that we can sometimes find to break the spell, so to speak. My favorites: Whenever the words on a page seem to change every time I try to read them. When I can't seem to dial the correct number on my cell phone. Then I know I'm dreaming.) So we can be fooled. But what clues might there be if we are in a simulation?

Buggy software might be a clue. Could bugs in the program be responsible for everyday odd occurrences? In The Matrix, the phenomenon of Déjà vu is attributed to software glitches. Hidden messages, or "Easter Eggs" placed in the simulation by the designer would be a sort of clue. There are many people who spend a considerable amount of time searching for hidden messages in mathematics and in sacred books, for example.

However, one supposes that the simulation would protect itself from discovery by erasing someone who knew too much. In that case we would be none the wiser.

Bottom Line

Ultimately, if we are in a simulation, and if it is so effective that we cannot ever discover it, then there is nothing we can do about it. In essence, even if this is a simulation, it remains the only reality we have ever known, so why not carry on as usual?

But if you do run into a clue, try to let the rest of us know before they erase you, OK? That would be great. Or maybe not. I wouldn't want them to erase me. On second thought, please keep it to yourself. Thanks.


Daniel said...

Interesting, I've thought about that... But thinking about it too much is only going to kill you, so I'm glad you put the advice to just go on as you always did in the last paragraph :)

But... Maybe the application wants us to think exactly that way, so that nobody will ever discover the secret of

Spaceman Spiff said...

So to explain quantum mechanics scientists are willing to postulate that video-game designers are behind the universe, and they're willing to postulate infinitely many other universes, but *God* is too complex to be likely? Quite suspicious...

Barry Mahfood said...


It's not that they need to explain quantum mechanics using this theory. It was just something I put together in my head. It's not something Kurzweil takes very seriously. But I'll keep looking for bugs in the simulation anyway.

Spaceman Spiff said...

Ahh I see... just remember... the Matrix has you...