Given that 2016 was such a terrible year filled with hate, injustice, war, ignorance, and just about every other human failing we could all probably use a period of rest and decompression in an effort to regroup and reclaim our basic humanity. The trouble with that idea though is that we have a massive, speeding train heading straight for us with impact scheduled for the morning of January 20th. So, with that in mind I figure why not just go ahead and introduce another nugget of mental angst to screw with peoples minds in these trying times.
Without going into a long and drawn out preamble, mainly because I'm tired and unable to think of one, I'll propose a simple question. What would you think of the possibility that our entire universe is one super sophisticated computer simulation? Yeah, for you pop culture and Sci-fi movie fanatics like me I'm sort of talking about a Matrix-like existence, but for my purposes lets not pussy foot around with one foot in the base reality—or real world. Let's go full Tron and say our universe, galaxy, planet, houses, cars, and every thing we see or know is nothing but a complicated software program. Totally freaky I admit, one that has actually caused a bizarre but momentary sense of claustrophobia when I first read some serious information on the subject.
While philosophers like Plato have been playing with the idea for literally thousands of years scientists started taking the concept at least semi-serious when available computing power began expanding exponentially. You have to understand that while a simulation containing a fake universe with at least one planet containing seven billion sentient software entities going about their lives is mind blowing, scientists use computer replications to predict the weather, business trends, cellular interactions, and many other elements of the world. Those who are discussing the idea that our universe and existence is a simulation are just taking things to the next level.
It is Swedish philosopher, Nick Bostrom who is following in the tradition of Plato by suggesting three propositions concerning simulated universes.
- The fraction of human-like civilizations that do not commit species suicide and go extinct is close to zero.
- The fraction of posthuman civilizations that might want to create a super sophisticated simulations of their primitive ancestors is close to zero.
- The fraction of people with our kind of experiences that are living in a simulation is close to one.
The basic premise of Bostrom's idea is that a posthuman technological civilization would have enormous computing power. Even if only one such civilization was interested in figuring out how their barbaric ancestors avoiding extinction they could literally run millions if not billions of simulations to figure out how we survived long enough to reach their hyper-advanced level. So, if we accept that idea there could be an untold number of simulations being run making the odds that you, me, and the other seven billion humans on this planet existing at the base reality infinitesimally small. Now don't worry, while Bostrom is a respected philosopher and scientist on many other far out subjects not everyone is buying his supposition about the state of our existence.
Critics of Bostroms's anthropic reasoning have pointed out that “simulated” humans couldn't be conscious as compared to humans living in the base reality. They contend conscious or sentient behavior is far too complicated to simulate and when you throw in seven billion other humans the task would simply be impossible. This is really a good point, but this is assuming everyone human on this planet is actually sentient. It has been pointed out numerous times a great majority of humanity simply likes to go with the cultural flow they are born and never change. The prime example being the religion people are born along with such things as nationalism, political affiliation, and even basic cultural assumptions. The point being that after a certain point free will doesn't seem to extend beyond the choice of whether or not people will choose Italian or Chinese food for dinner on a given night.
The first reason assumed for the development of these hypothetical simulations would be as a sort virtual recreation of the human past that would allow far future historians and anthropologists insights on the lives of ancient peoples. I admit, the prospect of viewing the development of Bronze Age Minoan civilization would be utterly fascinating for me. There is simply so much missing from the historical record from that period to compare it to the mythical Atlantis wouldn't too far off the mark.
But one question that has never been answered for me by those promoting this idea is how could you program supposedly sentient simulated beings to retrace the same historical path. It is readily stated by evolutionary biologists that if your could rewind time to previous ages there is no guarantee that life would evolve like it did the first time. We're talking about intelligent dinosaurs, if you exclude that nasty asteroid impact, or maybe a world dominated by a different subspecies of human like the Neanderthals or Denisovans. Then again, maybe enough historical records survive in the forms of video, still pictures and written word for a posthuman civilization to accurately reconstruct eras along the lines of Star Trek's holodecks.
I think the most likely use of historical simulations of the past would be for comparative analysis. Essentially seeing how screwed up, or better, events would have played out if for instance Rome never fell, or Napoleon was totally victorious in his quest to conquer all of Europe. The possible permutations of simulated history are nearly endless. The question then returns back to whether or not simulated humans are sentient. If such a simulated Earth could be engineered forcing the people that live on that planet to endure experimental totalitarian regimes and war-like empires would be highly unethical to say the least.
There is also the question as to what simulated people would call the creators of their reality. Needless to say they would have the power of life and death not just over one person but of entire civilizations. Just pondering the scope of those god-like abilities makes me uneasy. Lets reverse the question and say, that somehow a simulated human discovered the true nature of his or her existence. That they are just a small segment of software on a vast computer whose ultimate purpose might beyond their limited comprehension. This hovers far too close to religion, which is something I really do not want to touch. I would be remiss not to mention that given our own advancements in computer hardware and software, we could be close to having the ability to create such simulated universes ourselves. Yes, that could mean a possible line of simulated universes nested within other simulated universes.
Needless to say, there is no proof that we are in fact living in a simulated universe. It has been pointed out though that our universe does seem to be based on hard mathematical laws. This could just be an example of the multiverse theory that contends a near infinite number of universes exist and we just happen to be the one whose physical laws allow for intelligent creatures to evolve and eventually measure the basis of reality. As to oppose to living in a universe where different physical laws were established that prevented the formation of stars, heavily elements, and eventually life.
Fermi's Paradox has also been mentioned as a consideration in the real or simulated universe discussions. Given that planets have now been proven to be normal occurrences around other stars and that the conditions that led to life on our world almost certainly existed on at least a few of them intelligent life should be fairly common given the size of our galaxy. Even limited to traveling ten percent the speed of light, it would take a moderately adventurous alien species two millions years to colonize or explore the galaxy. Wait you say, biological creatures like us are not made for long duration space travel, that the distance between stars is so great interstellar travel is simply impossible. That is quite likely, so eliminate the biological component and just send unmanned probes controlled by artificial intelligence that voyage to another star, use local resources to build more of its kind before sending them out on their own voyages. At the very minimum, the galaxy should be filled with mechanical Jim Kirks boldly going where none have gone before. Where Enrico Fermi comes into play is that he asked the question over lunch to his colleagues who were talking about the subject of Little Green Men just where in the hell was everyone? It has been pointed out by those suggesting we live in a simulated universe that our Divine Programmers did not include aliens in our software package. Which sucks for people like me, but at least that we don't have to worry about Klingons or the damn Borg from showing up in orbit one morning.
You might ask where do I stand on the question of whether we live in a simulated universe? Well, contrary to my wife's concerns, I haven't lost all my marbles and say that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. I tend to feel that way about many subjects that have little or no scientific evidence to back them up ranging from Bigfoot to God. It's not that I reject outright their possible existence, its just that for me personally the jury is still out. On the other hand, I'm pretty sure Bigfoot is a myth given the number of gun nut goofballs that are running around the forests of North America. By now someone should have shot one of the hairy bastards and brought in in for all the television news cameras and his fifteen minutes of fame.
The true nature of human existence will probably forever elude our species while we are limited to our current form. It's taken the invention of things telescopes and microscopes as well as particle accelerators and massive computers to get us to our present level. Maybe it will take us creating our own simulated universes filled with sentient but software-based humans to grasp our place in the greater scheme of things. If that comes to pass, I just hope we have enough ethical concerns to prevent them from electing a narcissistic twit to the most powerful office on that particular Earth. As long as I am waxing philosophically, if the Divine Programmers wanted to be seriously cool, they could email me the winning numbers to next week's Powerball Lottery.