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Monday, November 27, 2016

Does the theory of relativity prove that the world is a simulation?

On unfalsifiable tautologies in popular science.

A rguments that the world is a simulation have been common in sci-fi for decades. Examples include Permutation City (1994) by Greg Egan, Simulacron-3 (1964) by Daniel Galouye, and Konrad Zuse's Calculating Space (1969). It was a common theme in Star Trek, Stargate SG-1 and of course many movies. Practically every college kid since dorms were invented has had a discussion of this topic.

The argument has even been published in a philosophical journal by a guy named Nick Bostrom, whose argument was that one of these three must be true:

  1. All advanced civilizations destroy themselves before creating simulations.
  2. Most posthuman civilizations aren't interested in running ancestor simulations (that is, the probability is close to zero).
  3. The probability that we are in a simulation is close to one.

We can see that this is an unfalsifiable tautology by restating it this way: “Either we can't, we won't want to, or we will want to.” That's because #2 covers the probabilities between 0 and 0.5 and #3 covers the probabilities between 0.5 and 1.0. We can write this as (A ∨ ¬A).

Earth and clouds
Fake but accurate

Well, it seems that the press loves unfalsifiable tautologies, so this eternal unanswerable question has become, amazingly enough, a hot topic. We're seeing articles about it in places like the Daily Mail, Scientific American, and the UK Daily Express. The idea that the world is fake goes back well before Bostrom, beyond Descartes and Shakespeare (”the world's a stage”), probably to prehistoric times when the first caveman got eaten by a saber-toothed tiger and said “Oh man, this ain't happenin'!“ (This is known as the Cogito no way a world this messed up could be real, man sum argument).

But there is something in Bostrom's argument that doesn't come through in the above analysis or in the popular tabloid depictions of it, and that is the utter pessimism of its view of human nature. This posthuman world is the dark side of Kurtzweil's sunny singularity where everyone lives forever in a computer, happily reliving their past lives. By definition, a posthuman simulated world is one in which (a) our descendants care so little about real life that they're content to live in a fantasy world; (b) the conditions in our future world are so ghastly and nightmarish that 21st century Earth—a time of civilizational conflict and destruction—seems like a pleasant escape; or (c) there are no future humans; our species is extinct, or maybe it never existed at all, and we are really machines slumming, as it were, trying to learn what life must have been like for our hypothetical human ancestors.

If so, it would explain why current speculations about whether the world is real seem so frivolous: posthumans escaping their gulag-like world by locking themselves in an inescapable dream would need some way to deal with the nagging realization that their world is a lie.

If it is a lie, it's a convincing one. The main factors that characterize any reality are cause and effect and physical laws like conservation of matter. So in a fake universe, we would look for impossible things—contradictions in cause and effect or changes of the past—to happen. We've all experienced some of these.

A few months ago I dropped a blueberry on the floor. Knowing the effect blueberries can have on a carpet, I spent half an hour searching for it. But I never found it. It had simply ceased to exist—a clear violation of conservation of matter, or so it seemed.

Then there was the time my hot-melt glue gun disappeared. Again I searched all over for it, finally gave up, and ordered a replacement. A month later I went to put the new one away, and lo and behold, the old glue gun was back, under the shelf.

No one can convince me that it was just a coincidence that the old one turned up the same day as the new one.

Another dead giveaway might be when the world is so messed up that people can become famous for proposing tautologies.

But it's unlikely that we'd find contradictions that easily. A better way might be to imagine what limitations you'd put into a world if you created it. For example, you might make sure there's a maximum speed that it's possible to travel. As your simulated beings approach this speed, weird things would happen: time dilations, increases in mass, and cool optical effects like stars turning into white streaks (the latter is, of course, a movie invention; special relativity predicts shape distortions instead).

You'd need this speed limit because it would be inconvenient to have those little bastards zipping from one end of your universe to the other. They'd figure out pretty quick what was going on.

Other phenomena like the famous two-slit experiment, where a single photon goes through two different slits at the same time and creates an interference pattern with itself, might also be dead giveaways. I mean, come on.

Sure, there are plausible scientific explanations for these phenomena. But someday we might find an unanswerable contradiction in the universe that would prove it's not real. So, what's really going on? Maybe we are prisoners living a fake world as part of our punishment. But given my experience with that god damn blueberry, as I referred to it several times while searching for it, I suspect that whoever is running the universe would realize the secret's out and change the universe so we forget. We might have discovered the true nature of the world hundreds of times. We could all be helpless puppets, with no free will, tricked by an evil jailer god who pulls our limbs off for amusement.

Humans who have experienced trauma often experience feelings like that. Psychologists call this depersonalization-derealization disorder, which is a type of dissociative disorder. They experience a diminished sense of agency and feel detached from their thoughts, or they may feel as if they, the world, or both is not real. Is it possible that not just individuals, but whole societies can become collectively so cut off from reality that they have a shared dissociative disorder?

The fundamental assumption in science is that the world actually exists. So I suspect this fantasy about living in a simulation is not so much a clever insight as a way of rejecting the gray mathematical world of science and inventing a secular creator myth. It reflects a craving for an enchanted theological world, and indeed the arguments for us being but brains in vats are much like the arguments for the existence of God.

I suspect if there is a God he'll notice our planet and say something like, “Oh no, this one's got some kind of mold growing on it!” So if one day it starts raining Windex, and you look up and see a giant microfiber cloth coming toward you, you'll know Nick Bostrom, the Daily Mail, and Scientific American were right.

Revised nov 29 2016; last edited dec 01 2016, 5:14 am

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