Witbreuksweg dormitory

Meaningful coincidences

Is it possible to prove that this universe is a virtual reality created by post-humans? The properties of this universe can’t be used to this aim. But there may be another way. If we live inside a virtual reality there might be a script. And if there is a script then this universe probably is a virtual reality. Presumably someone must be running the show in that case. Such a script might generate meaningful coincidences we can recognise. And indeed, peculiar coincidences happen, for instance similar extremely rare events happening on the same day.

On 15 July 2011 two television towers in the Netherlands caught fire. One collapsed in a spectacular way. There never had been a fire in a television tower in the Netherlands before while those television towers had been there for more than fifty years. And the number of television towers was small, making such an incident even more improbable. This caused some speculation as to a common cause. This is unlikely as these towers are two individual masts in different areas.1

The following happened to me. In 1992 I was making a bike trip in Groningen where I lived back then. While I was on my way a car door suddenly opened just in front of me. I could barely avoid a collision. Some ten minutes later, while I was still on the same trip, it happened again with another car on another road. Remarkably, it never happened before or after this trip that a car door just opened in front of me, even though I made bike trips nearly every day.

Incidents like these might be mere random events. The law of large numbers states that bizarre accidents happen all the time by chance. There is no way of calculating the odds of an event like two television towers catching fire in one country in one day because these events are extremely rare. The probability of each of these events happening is extremely low, but the number of possible rare accidents is extremely high.

But how low and how high? That matters a lot. If there are a million of these events, and the odds of one of them happening on a certain day is one in a million, we shouldn’t be surprised to see such events happening. On average an event like that should happen every day. But if the odds are one in a trillion, and these events happen quite often, we may be on to something, because on average it should happen once in a million days.

We attribute meaning in many different ways and we are not inclined to think of randomness in the case of unusual events. The number of possible meaningful coincidences is close to infinite so it should not suprise us that meaningful coincidences happen. On the other hand, bizarre meaningful coincidences are more likely to happen to someone but are less likely to happen to you or me. A curious coincidence like two television towers catching fire on the same day is less remarkable than this happening twice. And a complex scheme of meaningful coincidences has more significance than a simple incident like two car doors opening in front of you on the same day.

There were plenty of unusual incidents in my life. It seems there is something more. For instance, once I entered a do-it-yourself store. There was a couch near the entrance. The price tag was € 389. This caught my attention because as a student I lived in dormitory 389 on the campus of the University of Twente. Price tags often end with a nine so the incident wasn’t impressive. Then I realised that it would be far more curious to find a price tag of € 401 as I also had lived on domitory 401 and price tags rarely end with a 1.

A few seconds later I ran into a pile of bags of potting soil. These bags had 40l conspicuously printed on them, noting that they contained forty litres of potting soil. That was close enough to 401 to be intriguing. Even more so because dormitory 401 is the place from which I had been evicted by a certain lady. And peculiar coincidences referring to her had been happening over the years. There weren’t any other bags to be seen. Potting soil comes in bags of 10, 20, 25, 40 and 50 litres, and bags of 40 litres come with markings like 40L and 40 litres.

Two years later I came back to the same store. Bags of potting soil with the 40l marking were situated outside near the entrance. This reminded me of the previous incident. There was no couch near the entrance nor did I see a price tag of € 389 there. These things I noticed while I proceeded to fetch the one item I was planning to buy. The price of this item turned out to be € 3.89.

This scheme is more intricate than two television towers catching fire or two car doors opening in front of you on the same day, most notably because there was a repeating pattern while these incidents also appear to be part of a larger scheme, in this case of a sequence of peculiar coincidences referring to a certain lady. The first coincidence was already remarkable. The second one was truly inconceivable if you come to think of it, or perhaps not, if you are a sceptic.

Featured image: Number 381 dormitory. University Of Twente (2013). [copyright info]

1. Onderzoek: Hoe konden twee zendmasten vandaag in brand vliegen? Algemeen Dagblad (15-07-2011). [link]

Dazu wheel of reincarnation

Death: the final frontier

Quite a few people have experienced near death. In most cases they saw a bright light at the end of a tunnel. Often they had a feeling of absolute peace. Others travelled outside their own body while hearing doctors discussing what to do. To some people this is proof of an afterlife but most scientists are not convinced. These experiences could be hallucinations of a dying brain lacking oxygen. Drugs can produce similar effects. Some psychologists contend that people who believe in an afterlife try to cope with their fear of dying.

People who experienced their consciousness making a trip outside their body were fully aware of it. Their memories were vivid. Is this a hallucination of a dying brain? Those who have survived such an experience beg to differ. Scientists often claim that there isn’t any evidence for the idea of a consciousness independent of a body while the evidence to the contrary is abundant. That is why pills can cure a depression or a psychosis.

A psychiatrist named Ian Stevenson proved them all wrong. Stevenson searched for evidence of reincarnation, and he did so thoroughly. What he discovered should have raised some red flags in the scientific community, but it didn’t, possibly because his findings never helped to cure diseases, while the idea of the consciousness residing in the brain proved to be much more useful in this respect. Stevenson’s research started off in 1960 when he learned of a child in Sri Lanka who remembered a previous life. He questioned the child, its parents and the people the child named as parents from its previous life. Stevenson worked through thousands of similar cases.

It is possible to plant memories in someone’s brain so that he or she will see no difference between real memories and fake ones. But many of those memories of previous lives were spontaneous. Stevenson hired a sceptic to join him on his investigations to verify the way he conducted his research. Soon the sceptic became a believer. There were cases of people speaking languages they never learned and children having birthmarks corresponding with wounds inflicted upon their alleged previous reincarnations. In many of these cases it was very unlikely that anyone close to these children knew anything about the deceased person the child claimed to have been in its previous life.

The YouTube film below shows five incredible reincarnation stories:

Stevenson’s research generated a lot of criticism but his critics failed to prove him wrong. They could only question his integrity or make outlandish suggestions, so that the most obvious explanation of the facts, the existence of reincarnation, remained unchallenged. But if we reincarnate then why do so few people remember a previous life? The answer might be a bit discomforting. If this universe is a virtual reality created by an advanced civilisation, reincarnation may be rare. You may not have a soul that can return. Memories might be stored in a computer and put into another consciousness.

Featured image: Relief from the Dazu Rock Carvings in China outlining the Buddhist cycle of reincarnation. User Calton (2004). Wikimedia Commons.

Tunnel of the Large Hadron Collider

Properties of this universe

Either this universe emerged for some unknown reason or it was created by an advanced civilisation. If this universe emerged without an intelligent force creating it, but also if it always existed, it can be called real. The other option is that this universe is a virtual reality. Some pundits believe that they can prove that this universe is a virtual reality by demonstrating that underlying properties are digital, meaning that the lowest level of reality is just numbers that can be represented in a computer memory.

How might that work? For instance, a television screen consists of more than a million tiny dots. Every dot has a number. Every dot has a colour. The colour is selected out of a list of colours. Every colour has a unique number too. So every dot has a number and every colour has a number. For example, dot 759,214 might have colour 124,117. From a distance you may see a person, but the lowest level of the television screen is just numbers. You can apply this idea to represent a universe.

The problem with this reasoning is that being digital is a property, not a cause of existence. Perhaps real universes are digital too. The argument of using properties to prove that this universe is a virtual reality comes in different forms. For example, some pundits claim that in quantum physics reality is a sequence of states with nothing existing or happening between the states. This may signify that reality is generated by a computer. That may be so, but it can also be true for a real universe.

Other pundits claim that it is unlikely that this universe emerged by chance. For instance, there is an argument stating that this universe is designed for life because the laws of physics and the values of physical constants seem just right for life to exist. Even if that were true, there may be an unlimited number of universes with different physical laws and constants, and this universe may just be one of them that accidentally is just right. In any case, nobody would make this claim if the universe didn’t support life.

Then there is the Fermi Paradox. It seems likely that there are extraterrestrial civilisations in our universe but there is no evidence for the existence of these aliens. “Where is everybody?” Mr. Fermi asked. Perhaps civilisations tend to die out before they become advanced. Or maybe we just overestimate the probability of advanced civilisations contacting us. It could also be that Earth and humankind truly are at the centre of the universe, which might indicate that we are living inside a simulation.

It appears that small particles normally don’t exist and only come into being when someone observes them. If this universe is a virtual reality, it would be a waste of memory and processing power to represent them all the time. In a real universe these small particles might, or even should, exist independent of someone observing them. The observer effect might indeed be evidence of this universe being a virtual reality.

Featured image: Tunnel of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) of the European Organization for Nuclear Research. Julian Herzog (2008). Wikemedia Commons.

Cover of a BBC book on D-Day

History as a script

The assassination of Franz Ferdinand

On 28 June 1914 the Serb nationalist Gavrilo Princip shot and killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand in his car. His act triggered World War I. World War I ended with the Armistice of 11 November 1918. 11 November is a peculiar date because it can be written as 11-11. The assassination was beset by some strange coincidences. Franz Ferdinand had premonitions of an early death and the assassination succeeded after a series of mishaps.1 The most peculiar coincidence proved to be the licence plate number of the car in which Franz Ferdinand was killed. It was A III 118, which can be seen as a reference to the Armistice of 11-11-18 that ended World War I. So is history a script? Is everything planned?

The car in which Archduke Franz Ferdinand was killed
Gräf and Stift Double Phaeton ridden by the Archduke Franz Ferdinand at the time of his assassination


The date of D-Day 6 June 1944 (6-6-44) is peculiar like 11 November because of the double digits. The Allies had chosen 5 June 1944 for their invasion because there was a full moon. They postponed it one day because of an expected improvement in the weather. There is no agreement on the commencing date of World War II while the Battle of Stalingrad took more than two months, so D-Day probably was the most important single date of World War II. D-Day means Decision Day. D is the fourth letter of the alphabet so Decision Day (DD) can signify 44, a number that refers to the year D-Day happened.

It just happens to be that Normandy invaded England in the year 1066 as D-Day was on the 6th of June, hence 6/6. In the ensuing Battle of Hastings on 14 October 1066, King Harold II of England was killed while trying to repel the invasion. This happened a few days after he had killed King Harold III of Norway, who also had invaded England. It is remarkable that two Kings named Harold were killed within such a short time. English forces invaded Normandy on 6-6-1944. On 14 October 1944 the German General Rommel committed suicide. This is remarkable as King Harold II of England was killed on the same date as Rommel had overseen the construction of the German defences intended to repel the allied invasion.

According to Roman de Rou, which is a verse chronicle made around 1170 by Wace covering the history of the Dukes of Normandy, Roger the Great de Montgomery commanded parts of the invading forces in 1066. Other sources do not confirm this account.2 During the 1944 invasion Bernard Montgomery commanded portions of the invading forces. Now follows a very peculiar twist.

On 11 March 2010, the principal founder Hans van Mierlo of the Dutch political party D66 died. The name stands for Democrats 66 as it was founded on 14 October 1966 by 44 people. The name of the party can be seen as a reference to D-Day. D-Day was on 6-6-44 so D66 may refer to D-Day 6-6. Hans van Mierlo died 44 years after founding D66, which was 66 years after D-Day. Hans van Mierlo had just married a few months earlier on 11 November 2009 (11-11).

You may have noticed the recurring numbers 66 and 44 as well as the date of 14 October turning up three times. And 11-11 was there too. It was the day Hans van Mierlo married. 11-11 could be a sign of thought control and it is the date of the Armistice ending World War I. To add insult to injury, 911 was the year Normandy was founded. This number is closely related to another major historic event. On 9 November 1989 (9/11 in European notation), the Berlin Wall fell. Perhaps, you were thinking of another event related to 9/11. That makes it even more remarkable.

The fall of the Berlin Wall

The fall of the Berlin Wall was the hallmark event of the collapse of the Soviet Empire. The wall fell on 9 November 1989. This is remarkable because the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 (9/11 American notation) were the hallmark event of the war on terror that ended the period of relative peace after the fall of the Soviet Empire. On 11 September 1989, thousands of East Germans started to cross the Austrian-Hungarian border to emigrate to West Germany. This was the direct cause of the fall of the Berlin Wall. This date also being 11 September is quite remarkable.

The historian James P. O’Donnell unwittingly predicted the year the Berlin Wall would fall. In the German edition of Reader’s Digest he wrote ten years before it happened: “Not long ago I dreamed of Berlin. The year was 1989. The Wall was coming down. All along its hideous 165 kilometres East West Berliners were pouring out to dismantle it. … Canny merchants were weaving through the happy crowd selling souvenir bricks.”4

Perhaps this is not as curious as it may seem at first glance. He made his prediction in 1979. If you were thinking in 1979 about the Berlin Wall falling, and making a guess when that might happen, 1989 is a year you might have picked. It is not unusual to think of the end of the next decade at the end of a decade. There is an ABBA song from 1979 named Happy New Year that does the same. But then again, O’Donnell was thinking about it in 1979 so that he was more likely to pick 1989, and that is a bit odd.

It’s the end of a decade
In another ten years time
Who can say what we’ll find
What lies waiting down the line
In the end of eighty-nine
– ABBA, Happy New Year

There is however a peculiar twist to this prediction. O’Donnell became Newsweek Magazine’s German bureau chief in 1945. He came to Berlin on 4 July 1945 to investigate Hitler’s death and gather information about his wife Eva Braun.5 Braun died at the age of 33 and Hitler died at the age of 56, while 33 +56 = 89. Hitler was born in 1889. And the erection of the Berlin Wall was a consequence of Hitler’s defeat. And it fell in 1989.

And what about the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001? The peculiar coincidences surrounding this event are so numerous that they justify a separate story.

Featured image: Cover of the BBC book “D-Day: The Dramatic Story of the World’s Greatest Invasion” written by Dan Parry in 2004 [copyright info]

1. Curses! Archduke Franz Ferdinand and His Astounding Death Car. Mike Dash (2013). Smithsonian. [link]
2. Roger de Montgomerie, 1st Earl of Shrewsbury. Wikipedia. [link]
3. Hans van Mierlo. Wikipedia. [link]
4. Reader’s Digest, Geman Edition, January 1979
5. James P. O’Donnell. Wikipedia. [link]

The simulation argument

Is this world real?

Already in ancient times philosophers found out that there is no way of telling that the world around us is real or that other people have a mind of their own. Perhaps I am the only being that is real while the rest of the world exists only in my imagination. This could all be a dream. On the other hand, some major religions claim that gods created this universe, and that we are like these gods. For instance, in the first chapter of the Bible God says “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness.”

For a long time it was impossible to clarify why this world might not be real or how the gods might have created it. More recently it is possible to come up with an explanation. This universe could be a virtual reality created by an advanced civilisation. We could be a characters in a virtual reality controlled by a computer programme. That may give you an uneasy feeling for we are inclined to think that what our senses register, is real. For instance, we may think we see a pipe when there is only an image of a pipe. The caption of the picture reads “this is not a pipe.”

Do we live inside a computer simulation?

In 1977 a science fiction writer named Philip K. Dick was the first to claim that our reality is made up by a computer. He guessed it after experiencing a psychosis. The philosopher Nick Bostrom formalised the idea twenty-five years later in the simulation argument. He argues that we might be living inside a virtual reality. There could be many different human civilisations. The humans in those civilisations may enhance themselves with bio-technology and information technology, live very long and have capabilities ordinary humans don’t have. For those reasons these beings aren’t humans any more and henceforth are called post-humans.

Bostrom now asserts that the post-humans may run virtual realities of human civilisations. An obvious reason for doing this is entertainment. And so we could be living in a virtual reality ourselves. The difference between a real human civilisation and a virtual reality is that a real human civilisation emerged and developed itself while a virtual reality is created. Given sufficiently advanced technology, it seems possible to represent a universe in a meaningful way, including simulated human consciousnesses. Current developments in information technology suggest that our civilisation may be able to create virtual reality universes in the future.

Bostrom thinks that one of the following three options must be true: (1) nearly all human civilisations end before they can build virtual realities resembling human civilisations, (2) when human civilisations or post-human civilisations can build virtual realities of human civilisations, they will not do so or only make a small number of them or (3) we are almost certainly living inside a virtual reality as there will be a large number of virtual universes for every real universe. The hidden assumption behind the simulation argument is that this technology is feasible and can be made cheap.1

How likely is it?

It is not possible to calculate the probability of us living in a virtual reality. There are a lot of uncertainties in the simulation argument. For example, our civilisation could be the only human civilisation and we could go extinct. Or perhaps post-humans develop ethical objections against building virtual realities of humans. And even though humans like to write stories and use virtual realities for research or entertainment, they may alter themselves so that post-humans do not have these desires. Still, there is a good chance that live in a virtual reality ourselves.

That is because we humans see ourselves as special and unique. Religions make use of this trick too. The Bible says that we are made in the image of God and that humans are ordained to rule all other living creatures. So if we have the means to perpetuate our delusions, we will not give up on them. On the contrary, as soon as it is possible to make our imagination become reality, we will not hesitate to do so. Hence, when humans transform themselves to become post-humans, they will probably cling to their believed precious human essence, and let their imagination run free.

The idea of this universe being a virtual reality is popularised in the 1999 film The Matrix. The film speculates about us having an existence outside this world. That doesn’t need to be, and we may just be virtual reality characters inside a computer simulation. So why did Neo’s passport expire on 11 September 2001, the date of the terrorist attacks? Perhaps it is just a coincidence. Or perhaps this universe is just a form of entertainment. But for whom?

Neo’s passport expiring on 11 September 2001

Featured image: The Treachery of Images. René Magritte (1928). [copyright info]

1. Are You Living In a Computer Simulation? Nick Bostrom (2003). Philosophical Quarterly (2003) Vol. 53, No. 211, pp. 243-255. [link]