Red Pill, Blue Pill: Is the Universe Just a Giant Computer Simulation?

Are we just a bunch of simulacrums living in a massively computer-generated universe? If so, would there be a way to check?

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Reuters

I’ve started making my way (skeptically) through Ray Kurzweil’s How to Create a Mind, and at the recommendation of a friend, I’ve also started keeping tabs on KurzweilAI, a Kurzweil-blessed site devoted to futurism coverage — everything from the latest 3D printer tech and anti-cancer drugs to brain-based pacemakers and “exploding killer plasmonic nanobubbles.”

This morning, I noticed a story that sort of coincides with one I wrote a couple weeks ago about our brains, the Internet and the universe. Does the possibility that the universe is structured like an extremely complex network — that our brains and the things we create with them, like the Internet, may resemble the universe’s underlying structure — also imply that we exist in an incomprehensibly sophisticated computer-like simulation?

“You take the blue pill, the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe,” says Laurence Fishburne’s character Morpheus in that eminently quoted scene from The Matrix. “You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.”

University of Oxford physics professor Nick Bostrom wasn’t the first person to suggest reality could be computer-fied — the idea’s been around since I was a kid, at least, reaching a kind of pop-cultural critical mass in the Matrix films — but he may have been the first to take a stab at a “red pill” explanation, laying out his theory in an actual paper published in 2003. Call it another version of the strong anthropic principle, except the universe’s catalyst would in this instance be an advanced civilization running an unfathomably sophisticated massively multiplayer, um, cosmos game.

In his paper, Bostrom argued that at least one of the following things must be true:

(1) the human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a “posthuman” stage; (2) any posthuman civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history (or variations thereof); (3) we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation.

That third point is almost surely true, argues, Bostrom, if the first and second points prove false. So if we actually survive to a “posthuman” stage (the so-called “singularity,” or point at which it’s assumed machine intelligence will transcend human), and assuming that we can’t help ourselves — that designing and running what Bostrom calls an “ancestor simulation” is ineluctable — then, according to Bostrom, we’re almost certainly living in a computer simulation created by an advanced civilization. (Don’t faint or anything, though I guess fainting would be simulated, too.)

How do you test for something like that? Can you? Bostrom argues that we’ll know his third claim is true if we’re ever able to create an ancestor simulation ourselves (in other words, not for a really long time). But a group of University of Washington researchers has suggested there may be a way to start testing soon if we want to verify Bostrom’s supposition.

Start with the assumption that we’ll actually be able to simulate the universe, or small portions of it, perfectly someday — a pretty big assumption, since we’re still trying to reconcile disparate physical and cosmological theories like quantum mechanics and general relativity, to say nothing of Stephen Hawking’s and Leonard Mlodinow’s idea in The Grand Design that “ours is just one of many universes that appeared spontaneously out of nothing, each with different laws of nature.” (In fact most days, we’re lucky if we’re getting the weather right.)

But according to University of Washington physics professor Martin Savage, we could test our universe for computational artifice by looking for the sort of “signatures” you’d find in current-day simulations. Supercomputers currently use a technique called lattice quantum chromodynamics (LQC) to model aspects of physical reality, say molecules, or quarks and gluons. If our universe were crafted from a lattice-driven simulation, we ought to be able to find evidence of the underlying, interlacing imprint.

According to the UW summary, supercomputers using LQC chop space-time into a four-dimensional grid, which allows researchers to inspect something called the “strong force” — one of the four building-block forces (along with electromagnetism, the weak force and gravity) that hold subatomic particles together.

“If you make the simulations big enough, something like our universe should emerge,” says Savage.

At that point, you could start poking around, looking for a “signature,” say something like a limitation in the energy produced by cosmic rays. According to a paper posted by the researchers titled “Constraints on the Universe as a Numerical Simulation,” in which the participants state they “have taken seriously the possibility that our universe is a numerical simulation,” they note that the simulation might reveal itself if it turned out that cosmic rays behaved in unexpected ways at the boundaries of the lattice.

“This is the first testable signature of such an idea,” adds Savage.

So when can we run the test? The paper doesn’t say. It only notes that several elements necessary to simulate our universe “have not yet been established.” Bummer. But assuming the universe is finite, the team argues that since the resources of potential simulators would have to be finite, “a volume containing a simulation will be finite and a lattice spacing must be non-zero.”

In other words, given all of that, “there always remains the possibility for the simulated to discover the simulators.”

32 comments
BarryOnEnergy
BarryOnEnergy

Part 1 of 3

No doubt most have already heard about Martin Savage’s, a physicist at the University of Washington, paper exploring the possibility that all we know and see is just a sophisticated computer simulation.

As scientists, we develop a nomenclature for that which we envision and for that which we can measure and prove; quarks being one As humans, we give names for that which we cannot envision and for that which today’s technology cannot measure and prove; G-d being one. Sometimes the line of demarcation between the two get blurred and becomes one of the same; Higgs boson the G-d particle being one.

So what is the relevancy of all this gibberish to the thesis of a simulated a universe? For starters is the semantics behind what is known, to that what is hoped to be. Human existence and science for that matter exist to explain - where we came from, why we are here and where are we going. Lacking proof, other than what is ascertained from the basic senses of sight, touch, hearing, smell and taste; mankind extends his/her knowledge through the invention of tools.

A Huxleyan world predicts people come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think. Has not the computer become our oppressor?

BarryOnEnergy
BarryOnEnergy

Part 2 of 3

In this respect, a logical extension of this behavior is to postulate all that we seem to know and see is nothing more than the bits and bytes birthed from a manufactured structure of metals, plastics and gases driving electrons or light in a rather specific way. The unpredictability of which can be called intelligence!

The irony of this view is narrow and dismisses of what is known. Nothing seems simpler than a system built up by only two – ones and zeros. But ones and zeros only exist for which we make them, whether counting a stream of “Ons” and “Offs” from some tangible material that in the end turns on or off a light on the screen or commands a device to strike a character on something that can be filed away - Guttenberg had it right!

So a binary system exists only by the machine. The machine with its bits and bytes defines only which that can be seen. It falls flat on its face with the remaining 96% of the stuff that the cosmos is made of – dark matter and energy.

BarryOnEnergy
BarryOnEnergy

Part 3 of 3

However unfortunate for simplicity is pure, a somewhat more complex but comprehensive theory system ultimately explains all. Its proof stands up to scrutiny and needs no machines to be read or seen; that is if the standard model is real. Ones and zero do not build these up. The reverse is true; these make up the ones and zeros seen on screen and paper.  No surprise, this structure is framed by 12 fundamental and force carrier particles; quarks, leptons, and photons, etc.

In closing, though most likely misnamed, Higgs boson is what is called the particle of G-d? Hard to think of ones and zeros the pedestal of G-d.

Barry Stevens

WilliamBodge
WilliamBodge

Some Thoughts:1)Is there anything smaller than a system? If not than point particles do not exist by themselves and super string theory is getting closer to the truth.2)Is the simplest system a binary system? If so than point particles are one half of a system.3)Is motion continuous or discontinuous? If it is discontinuous, does that point to a binary system where point particles are one half of the system. If motion is discontinuous, what happens when particles disappear and than reappear? Could this explain the difficulty in combining GR and QM? GR could only apply to one half of the system. Namely Space-time. QM might point to the probablistic relationship between two halves of a binary system.4)Is there a parallel universe that space-time grew out of?5)Can information travel faster than light. Bell's Theorem explained using a binary system with discontinuous motion. Two entangled particles sent in opposite directions and the spin of one particle is changed and the spin of the other particle changes instantly. Picture our space-time dimension as being connected to a parallel pure space dimension of infinite possibility. Particles are continually clicking on and off in motion. When the spin of one of the particles in the example is changed, it clicks off and the information is transferred instantly in the parallel dimension. The other entangled particle clicks back on in space-time and the spin has changed transferring information faster than the speed of light.6)Are there quantum probability gates between the two parallel dimensions or universes.This is where the Uncertainty Principle comes in. The probability gates would be governed by the Uncertainty Principle. So you have infinite possibility in one dimension tempered by the Uncertainty Principle in Space Time.7)Is everything information? Combine discontinuous motion with the two parallel universes and everything in space-time could be described as information. This model could also be used to explain why the expansion of the space-time is accelerating as information builds on itself. Look at the growth of the internet. This means the Uncertainty Principle has a much greater influence over the general structure of every aspect of our space-time universe.Just some thoughts.

BurnsBob
BurnsBob

OK, here's my slant, if we somehow are in a 'matrix', we are here by choice. Our future selves are void of physical form having evolved into true conscious energy, the perfect being with eternal existence with one exception, we are bored and that little bit of human spirit in us longs for the flesh. In order for the 'matrix' to function our avatar conscious are prohibited from 'knowing this' as it totally screw up the simulated chaotic randomness we call life.

This would make the scenario more plausible/possible to me because instead of one huge simulation there are actually quad-zillion(s) of simulations happening side-by-side with simple rules/conditions that allow them to co-exist.

Things like deja-vu, hind-sight, preminitions and other weird non-human explainable feats also become more plausible.Oh, and I just realized that any avatar that figures this out is instantly zapped out of the game and erased from the collective memory of all other avatars, I'm done trying to explain this, please don't show this to anybody :)

daniel_guibord
daniel_guibord

Whatever theories that can be formulated, there is one thing about which we will very likely never find an explanation, regardless of advances in our scientific knowledge and other fields: The existence of anything (e.g., matter, the electromagnetic field, anything you care to imagine, God included); for even if an assumption is made that a God created this or that, the existence of that God too defies any logic, because anything that exist necessarily had a beginning, God included, for you cannot have nothing and all the sudden something come out of that nothing on its own, God included; it is quite simply impossible, yet, we (the universe, matter, us human beings, etc.) do exist.

Even if we make the assumption that something escapes us, which something if we’d know about it would enable us to explain the existence of matter or whatever else you might want to consider, the existence of something implies a beginning of that something, God included. Even if we try to explain the non emptiness of space as the universe having begun as a result of an anomaly, as Albert Einstein stated, that too does not add up; for the existence of that anomaly necessarily took its origin from something. Here again, we are back to square one. Yet, we exist. So my conclusion is that matter always existed, but I’m unable to understand how that could be at the moment. In other words, for those of you who state that a God always existed, my statement that matter always existed is as valid as yours.

When Albert Einstein stated “God does not play dice with the universe”, he was wrong about that too; the entire universe is nothing but a game of dice. There are kids who get cancer a four years of age, people who suffer all their life because they had the misfortune of being born with a genetic defect as a result of the game of dice that genetic evolution is, to name only a few. Nature is of breathtaking and infinite beauty, but nothing justifies the pain and suffering that has taken place, that currently takes place, and which will continue to take place in our world. 

MatthewBrenneman
MatthewBrenneman

It's BS: a lot of "ifs","almost surely", etc. None of the "papers' citedare peer-reviewed. Strikes me as somewhat irresponsible, someone sayingsomething is "almost surely" true when the ONLY basis for thisstatement is his opinion.

michaeldonelly
michaeldonelly

Hmm, I posted a comment once but it seems not to have appeared. Once more. From the article, and the foundation upon which the hypothesis rests:

But assuming the universe is finite, the team argues that since the resources of potential simulators would have to be finite, “a volume containing a simulation will be finite and a lattice spacing must be non-zero.”

Fortunately one doesn't need a super computer and a team of boffins to prove this hypothesis. All one needs is a little knowledge of Zeno's paradox of Achilles and the Tortoise. This paradox can easily be resolved if there is a smallest distance in the universe, or a pixel. Voila - conundrum solved. We do, in fact live inside a giant simulation.

I will gratefully receive all the research funds that were earmarked for the project ;-) so I can spend them on something much more important: wine, women and song.

BobR
BobR

How Stupid and idiotic. 

BobR
BobR

With children being violently shot and killed in our schools and a dysfunctional human world that is too morally and spiritually sick to take meaningful action on climate change, this study is perhaps the stupidest and biggest waste of time and money of all time. A computer simulation? And who designed it? .....humans of the future? LMAO. Humans are not going to realize a future. Humans are so stupid, unconscious, and fear based that they can't control guns or keep their schools and children safe. Humans are too stupid and too wounded to take concerted action to save their own race and their own children from climate change disaster. Yet, some scientist no doubt working on a government grant or other free funds is speculating that we and our lives and our world are a programmed simulation? This is nothing but fantasy and stupidity. 

hseeley2
hseeley2

In a landmark book that came into existence in the mid 70's the author says our existence is nothing more than a dream of a divine being, and that there is a purpose for the dream and that is to escape his reality where he fears death. He does this by becoming lost in the dream thinking the dream life is his reality. In other words, he has become insane and the only path to awakening is to become aware of his insanity, accept that he is insane, and follow the guidance of the book to the awakening and the dissolving of the dream. The book is "A Course in Miracles." 

ricksideas
ricksideas

I think we are live not memorex.. The way I come to this is by looking  at what it would and will take in the future for this to happen. One there has to be a recording of things that are happening  down to the smallest degree. Second it would take extreme technology to do this. As I see the internet is the start of the recording and since I can remember before the internet then  I believe this is the first time by.  I do not believe our technology is up to par yet either but it will be. I believe the TV is the start to the playback system. The more there is a timeline (Facebook) the more we will be able to predict where most people are then it will be likely be a recording and not live. But what do I know. 

moguhoki
moguhoki

I suggest people read Nick Bostroms paper here http://www.simulation-argument.com/simulation.html

Also, thought I'd throw out there that Physicist James Gates found what could be evidence that we are in fact a simulation & found computer code (zeros & ones, along with self correcting computer code) in the math we have found that explains how the gluons, neutron, & atoms work. I would check out his work "Uncovering the codes for Reality" here http://www.onbeing.org/program/uncovering-codes-reality/1457 or check out his scientific paper here http://arxiv.org/abs/0806.0051 .

Great Article!!

daniel_guibord
daniel_guibord

In recent times, I’ve given some thoughts about our universe, akin to those of Matt Peckham.

One thing is certain, for life to exist as we know it, at least three fields are necessary; those that we know as gravity, electric and magnetic (some other fields may also be required). What gave matter those properties?

There are probably other fields that we have not yet been able to detect and measure, because we have very little indication of their existence, e.g., perhaps a field through which such things as telepathy occur.

If some intelligent entity created our universe, it may have created it to give a purpose to its own existence, e.g., by adding life to it, for a lifeless universe would be a pretty boring and senseless thing, would it not?

On the other hand, is life a natural evolutionary consequence of our universe? Most likely.

LawrenceCarroll
LawrenceCarroll

Lots of flaws in this idea if you ask me. Number one, if its written in the code that we can't "discover the simulation" then there will be firewalls or some equivalent that will block us or fool us into thinking something else. Number two, the simulation could  very easily be designed so that our "senses" and "technology" could never reach the depth needed to uncover the truth. The one that really worries me though, is that what if when we discover the simulation, then that's "Game Over", and the system shuts down or reboots...uh oh! LOL

luisinpa
luisinpa

What an incredible waste of time and money. I'm all for exploration of space and understanding how it works, but this is asinine. 

roostercogbern
roostercogbern

I find this very interesting. I've been following this story for several weeks now and each time I read it, the concept becomes more fascinating. One thought I have is that if researches will inspect certain constants or limits to energy in the universe in order to prove or disprove this theory, perhaps one of those experiments should include the speed of light. Worst case, they might learn something about it that they weren't even looking for.

Just an idea.

JosephDillard
JosephDillard

Another anthopomorphic projection of our contemporary cultural conceit. How long has humanity been doing this?

j.rodrigo.mora
j.rodrigo.mora

Mind-blowing...what would happen if we end up discovering that we live in (or even more unsettling, 'we are') a simulation.

michaeldonelly
michaeldonelly

@BurnsBob 

Even more bizarre, perhaps in fact God got bored with eternity and projected himself into this universe, our bodies so he could forget the tedium. When the Bible says we all have God inside us, maybe it's actually a clue God left for himself to solve is own riddle ;-)

hseeley2
hseeley2

@daniel_guibord  Anything that exists in our observable universe has a beginning and an ending. Thus, our universe is finite, for it too has an ending. Now step forward into the eternal and the infinite where there is no end, which logically says there is no beginning, thus neither time nor distance exists and what is has always been. We cannot grasp infinity while existing in an finite universe for everything we do is based on time and distance. But try for a moment to step out of time and distance and what is left? Infinity and eternity; and there you will find what must be the definition of God, the Eternal and Infinite Being.

daniel_guibord
daniel_guibord

@BobR If, and I insist on the word “IF”, anyone was actually paid with government funds to research this, then I agree with you; stupidity at its best, in light of the life threatening problems that exists in our world, such as global warming, overpopulation and their consequences.

avfgrgh
avfgrgh

@BobR And what do you do with your time that is preventing future atrocities to occur? Complaining on the internet about scientists doing things you deem as time-wasting? Please enlighten us on what we should be doing

BobR
BobR

@luisinpa I agree. This is perhaps the stupidest and biggest waste of time and money ever. Humans cant even figure out the nature of Gravity yet humans of the future somehow devised a computer simulation to keep life going? How stupid and childish. 

BobR
BobR

@JosephDillard  I agree. Humans should concentrate on becoming conscious of our unconscious, which is the root cause of all of humanity's problems. The scientists wasting time and effort and money on this worthless endeavor should instead learn how they are projecting their own fear based unconscious onto to the world. 

daniel_guibord
daniel_guibord

@hseeley2

“Anything that exists in our observable universe has a beginning and an ending.”

This is an assumption.

“Thus our universe is finite, for it too has an ending”

This is also an assumption.

“We cannot grasp infinity while existing in a finite universe for everything we do is based on time and distance”

Why would space have a limit? I can very well grasp space as having no limit.

Why would time have a limit? I can very well grasp time as having no limit.

In fact, space, with nothing in it (e.g., no matter, no electromagnetic field or any other type of field, etc.), is exactly what we can call “nothingness”, and that nothingness can extend to infinity. I can grasp this easily.

“But try for a moment to step out of time and distance and what is left? Infinity and eternity; and there you will find what must be the definition of God, the Eternal and Infinite Being.”

This is your definition. The existence of a God is also an assumption; if not, prove it.

BobR
BobR

@avfgrgh @BobR  I am a scientist and the Sr. Engineer in my company. We work on developing practical alternative energy solutions. I have been a scientist/engineer for over 25 years. I have worked on NASA projects and defense projects with PRACTICAL applications that add value to human life. 

Investigating whether or not we live in a simulated matrix environment is something a 7 year old kid would do or a scientist with too much time on their hands. Why? This Universe works according to the law of causality. Time does not work in reverse and neither does the second law of thermodynamics. Those 2 facts alone kill any possibility that humans from the future developed a computer simulation called "life". I would suggest that people engaging in or wasting money on this research get a life and spend their time on something practical and realistic...like solving the energy crises or reversing climate change. 

JosephDillard
JosephDillard

@BobR @JosephDillard 

I find the study of "bubbles," beginning with Charles MacKay's 1841 "Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds," and on up to and including the 2008 meltdown and our ongoing non-response to global warming as much more real and important "matrix-like" issues that we need to focus on if we don't want to collapse our global commons the way other civilizations have theirs, as definitively described by Jared Diamond in "Collapse." 

michaeldonelly
michaeldonelly

@Andybhat @BobR @avfgrgh 

I kind of agree here. The single most enormous waste of time and money is in fact the church, not some tiny research project. 

Which of our industries are actually truly useful? Fashion? - nope. Banking? - not any more. Medicine? - Perhaps 10% of its productivity. The Internet? - Let's exclude porn, gaming, and all the time wasters and maybe 10% of internet activity is useful. How about mining or energy? - It creates short term satisfaction at the expense of the environment.

I could go on but I am sure you get my point. probably 96% of human activity is pointless or worse. If we could direct that 96% of activity into something truly useful, perhaps we would have put men on all the planets by now. But what would the fun be in that, eh? 

Andybhat
Andybhat

@BobR @avfgrgh  You Sir need an imagination. There is nothing wrong with working on Science that may not be immediately practical. Some questions are worth investigating even if they are next to impossible to answer. That is what makes us Human. Why dont you protest War. If anything Wars are the least practical money and effort wasters. Your expertise is in engineering not Quantum physics.