Simulation hypothesis

Already in ancient times philosophers imagined 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 one who is real while the rest of the world is my imagination. This could all be a dream. Some major religions claim that gods created this universe and that we are like them. In the Bible it is written that God said: “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness.”

For long it was impossible to clarify why this world might not be real or how the gods might have created it. Recent advances in information technology have changed that. This universe could be a virtual reality. We are inclined to think that what our senses register is real, so we tend to ignore evidence to the contrary. For instance, you may think you see a pipe when watching an image of a pipe.The caption of the famous painting named The Treachery of Images of René Magritte makes you notice: this is not a pipe.

In 1977 science fiction writer Philip K. Dick was the first to claim that we do exist in a computer-generated reality. This is the simulation hypothesis. He came to this insight after experiencing a psychosis. If he is right then his name suggests that our creators do like to joke around. Professor Nick Bostrom explored the probability the simulation hypothesis being true in the simulation argument.

According to Bostrom there could be many different human civilisations. The humans in those civilisations may at some point enhance themselves with bio-technology and information technology, live very long and acquire capabilities ordinary humans don’t have. For that reason these beings aren’t humans anymore and called post-humans. These post-humans might be brains-in-vats or have uploaded their consciousness into a computer and have no physical body. These post-humans may run simulations of their human ancestor civilisations. In that case we may be living in one of those simulations ourselves. Bostrom argues that at least one of the following must be true:

  1. Nearly all real human civilisations end before enter the post-human stage.
  2. In any post-human civilisation only an extremely small number of individuals are interested in running simulations of a human ancestor civilisations.
  3. We almost are certainly living inside a computer simulation.1

It comes with the following assumptions that appear realistic to many experts in the relevant fields, but are not provenbecause we have not managed to do it yet:

  • The available computing power in post-human civilisations is sufficient to run a very large number of simulations of human ancestor civilisations.
  • The human consciousness needs not to reside in a biological organism, but can be implemented in a computer, perhaps in a limited form that appears realistic.1

Bostrom then concludes that if you believe that our civilisation will one day become post-human and will run a large number of human ancestor civilisations then you must believe we are currently living inside such a simulation.1 It might be explained like this. We do not know at what point in time we are, before or after the invention of virtual reality universes. If every year has an equal probability of this technology being invented, and we are going to invent it in the next 10, 100 or 1,000 years, then it will not happen later than that, because by then we will have done it. But what are the odds of it happening in the next 10, 100 or 1,000 years compared to the billions of years that already have passed?

There are many uncertainties. The available computing power of post-human civilisations might not be sufficient. It is possible that nearly all civilisations die out before becoming able to build simulations of human civilisations. Maybe post-humans will differ from us to the point that they will not be interested in running these simulations. Bostrom doesn’t try to guess the likelihood of the options. He thinks that we have no information as to whether this universe is real or not. But that may not be true.

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.

Declassified Pentagon UFO footage

The ufo mysteries

In April 2020, the Pentagon declassified three videos showing pilots running into unidentified flying objects (UFOs). These videos vindicated people who believe that extraterrestrials visit us. Former Senator Harry Reid tweeted that the videos only scratch the surface of research and materials available. Now think of crop circles. Not all of them may have been the work of pranksters trying to poke fun of the UFO crowd. Only, the Pentagon claims that it does not have evidence of UFOs being extraterrestrial.

A few months later, Netflix resuscitated the once-popular documentary series Unsolved Mysteries. Most of its episodes are not so mysterious, and many so-called mysteries cannot be dubbed unsolved. But one particular creepy story is keeping people awake at night. It is about the Berkshire UFO sightings that took place on 1 September 1969.

Four unrelated families are said to have been picked up by a UFO and moved by a ray of light on that fateful day. Apart from a few personal accounts, there hardly is any recorded evidence that this happened. Not even a local newspaper reported about it. The documentary compensates for the omission. Indeed, this is a mystery worthy of being labelled unsolved.

What might strike you about the stories of the people involved is that they appear credible. Thomas Reed, who was nine at the time, claimed that he and his family missed more than two hours of their lives while driving in their car. Reed said that his family saw an amber glow on both sides of the road. Then everything got calm. After that, they found themselves back inside the car, but his mother and grandmother had changed places.1

Reed also noted that he saw the then 14-year-old Melanie Kirchdorfer aboard the UFO. She confirms his story. Tommy Warner, who was a child back then, also claimed he was abducted that evening. His babysitter Debbie confirms his account, saying that she saw him vanish into a bright ray of light. The people involved were not eager to tell their stories as that could make a laughing stock out of them. This Unsolved Mysteries episode has left many viewers feeling anxious.2 There are other alien abduction accounts, but few are as convincing as this one.

There is no evidence that aliens are visiting us. Unidentified flying objects can be anything. They are part of an array of mysteries, including evidence suggestive of reincarnation, ghosts, meaningful coincidences, and premonitions. This universe could be a simulation created by an advanced civilisation. That makes more sense because that may allow us to explain the other mysteries too. And this civilisation most likely is post-human, not alien.

Featured image: Declassified Pentagon UFO footage

1. 1969 Berkshire UFO Event Gains Recognition. Jim Levulis (2015). WAMC. [link]
2. Berkshire UFO sightings: Unsolved Mysteries episode is spooking viewers – but what happened next? Jacob Stol (2020). The Guardian. [link]

The law of large numbers

Coincidence or not?

On 11 November 2017 (11-11) I went to Groningen with my wife and son by car. While driving I noticed the date and time on the clock. The date was 11-11 and the time was 10:35. “Wouldn’t it be nice to look at the clock at exactly 11:11 today because it is 11-11,” I was thinking. Then within a second I noticed the distance recorder standing at 111.1. It had been 111.1 kilometres since the car was last filled up. That is curious. Peculiar coincidences can happen by chance. With seven billion people living on this planet, and so many things happening all the time, remarkable incidents happen.

That is easy to see. Imagine you have five dice. Imagine that a remarkable incident is like throwing five sixes. Such a remarkable incident seems very unlikely. If you throw the five dice only once, the remarkable incident probably won’t happen. On average it only happens once every 7,776 times. But if you throw the dice a million times, it almost certainly happens more than once. You should not be surprised to see it happen 120 to 140 times.

Welcome to the law of large numbers. If we intend to make the case that this universe is a virtual reality running a script, and use meaningful coincidences as evidence, this is a big hurdle. A list of strange coincidences isn’t evidence of a script, even if they are very strange. That is because strange incidents like throwing five sixes happen by chance.

A way around it may be to see if the most important historic events are tainted by peculiar coincidences. That may be more telling for two reasons. First, there are only a few major historic events, so the law of large numbers may not apply. Second, if major historic events are tainted with peculiar coincidences, it would more plausibly suggest that someone is ‘writing’ history because these events are significant. Even then the argument remains problematic. You may need to answer questions like what are the most important historic events and what are peculiar coincidences?

Probability

And we run into another problem. Humans are good at attributing a cause but bad at guessing the likelihood of an event. The psychologist Daniel Kahneman came up with an example. It is about a study of the incidence of kidney cancer in the 3,141 counties of the United States. The research revealed a remarkable pattern. The incidence of kidney cancer was the lowest in mostly rural, sparsely populated counties in traditionally Republican states in the Midwest, the South, and the West.1 So what do you make of that?

You probably came up with a few reasons why kidney cancer is less likely to occur in these counties, such as a healthy rural lifestyle or low pollution levels. But you probably didn’t think of randomness. Consider then the counties in which the incidence of kidney cancer is the highest. These counties were also mostly rural, sparsely populated, and located in traditionally Republican states in the Midwest, the South, and the West.1

The apparent contradiction can be explained by the fact that those counties all had small populations. And with smaller populations greater deviations from the average can be expected. Our intuition easily makes connections of causality but our reason doesn’t come into action to check whether or not it could just be randomness. We like to think that some cause makes unusual things happen while these could just be random events.

One might call this the law of small numbers. So if we consider the most important events in history, and use this as a sample to prove a cause like someone ‘writing’ history, we are running into this issue. Perhaps it is not possible to prove that there is a script. It might still be possible to make the case more convincing.

Endless possibilities

In the summer of 1913 the ball fell on a black number twenty-six times in a row at the roulette wheel at the Casino de Monte-Carlo. Some people lost a fortune by betting that the ball would fall on a red number the next time. They didn’t realise that the chance of the ball falling on a red number never changed. The ball doesn’t remember where it fell the previous times. If we represent black with a B and red with an R, and assume for simplicity’s sake that there is no zero, it is possible to represent falling twenty-six times in a black number like this:

B B B B B B B B B B B B B B B B B B B B B B B B B B

The probability of the next twenty-six numbers being black is one in 67,108,864. That’s a long shot. What might surprise you is that the following combination of black and red numbers is exactly as likely to occur:

R B B R B R R B R B B R R B R R B R B B R R B B R B

You wouldn’t be thrilled if that happened unless you became a millionaire by betting on this particular sequence of twenty-six. And even then you didn’t think of the 67,108,863 sequences that didn’t materialise. We tend to consider only the things that did happen, but we rarely think of all the things that could have happened but didn’t. That might explain why events like the ball falling on a black number twenty-six times in a row impress us. And I am even more impressed because twenty-six just happens to be my lucky number.

Try to imagine all what could have happened but didn’t happen. Imagine the probability of you sitting here and now reading this page on a tablet or a mobile phone, but as a prediction from 3,600 years ago. Imagine Joseph telling the Pharaoh: “I see (your name comes here) reading a pile of papyrus pages, not real papyrus pages, but images of papyrus pages appearing on something that looks like a clay tablet. It is named The Plan For The Future. But don’t be afraid, dear Pharaoh, for it will happen 3,600 years from now. But if we don’t set up this grain storage, there will be no Natural Money based on this storage, and this money is required for that particular plan, so we must do it. And by the way, Egypt will starve when we don’t.”

The odds for this prediction to come true weren’t one in 67,108,864, and also not one in 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 either. Even if you add considerably more zeroes to that number, the odds still remain far smaller. The probability is so close to zero that nobody can tell. Nevertheless you are sitting here reading this text. So how could this happen? The answer to this mystery is that so many things could have happened but didn’t happen, but something had to happen, and that’s what happened. It would have been impossible for Joseph to make this prediction unless the future is predetermined.

The licence plate on Franz Ferdinand’s car

So what to make of the reference to the end date of World War I on the licence plate number on Franz Ferdinand’s car? There are not many events in history as important as the start and end of World War I so the law of large numbers may not apply. It could still be a freak accident. A chance event helped the perpetrator. Franz Ferdinand’s chauffeur took the wrong turn after three conspirators had already failed. This gave the assassin the opportunity to strike. He was hindered by the crowd surrounding him so he couldn’t aim well. Nevertheless he managed to kill both the archduke and his wife with just two shots. This sequence of events is already remarkable.

The licence plate number makes it even more inconceivable. It might be possible to guess the end date of World War I by chance if you know that it starts and when. If you assume that the war wouldn’t take longer than twenty years, a random guess of the end date would be right one in 7,305 times, presuming that you know it will start not more than twenty years before 1918. But something doesn’t add up here. The assassination succeeded after a series of mishaps, so if it was a prediction that accidentally turned out right, it would also imply a prediction of the assassination succeeding, Franz Ferdinand being killed in this particular car, and this act being the trigger for World War I.

That’s really, really, hard to do. And so Mike Dash in the Smithsonian noted: “This coincidence is so incredible that I initially suspected that it might be a hoax.”2 And because it isn’t a hoax, investigative minds could have probed other options. The only escape is believing that this really, really, is a coincidence. Conspiracy theorists didn’t take notice either, even though this incident fits into their schemes perfectly.

There is a story about a Freemason named Alfred Pike, who allegedly disclosed a secretive plan of the Freemasons to bring about the New World Order. He predicted both world wars with uncanny precision already in 1871. Alas, nobody ever heard of this plan before 1959. It is hoax. In the Netherlands they call it a monkey sandwich story. The licence plate number could have added some credibility to it. But then again, the truth is overrated. It matters more what people believe.

Seeing meaning when there isn’t any

“Everything is just random,” pundits are eager to explain, “but because your mind is wired to see meaning, you see meaning. AIII 118 is just a random sequence of characters, but you attach meaning to it.” There is a problem with this. This text might be a random sequence of characters too, and yet you think it isn’t. Are you delusional because you read words and see that these words have meaning in the sequence in which they are written? Others might argue: “The language of Austria is German. Armistice in German is Waffenstillstand, so why doesn’t it read WIII 118, or even better, W1111 1918?”

If someone gives you a message, you don’t quibble about such details. If I say ‘hello’ to you, you are not going to discuss with me why I didn’t say ‘hi’ instead. That is, unless you are a philosopher with a lot of time on your hands. Great Britain, the United States and France, which were all major participants in the war, all use the word armistice. It might be better to ask yourself how many sequences of characters with a length of six to eight are possible, and how many of them could refer to date of the armistice ending the war? That’s only a small portion for sure.

The law of small numbers

Everything is random and weird coincidences happen by chance. This is the law of large numbers. Pundits use the birthday problem to demonstrate that weird coincidences happen more often than we think. If you happen to share a birthday with another person in a small group, it might strike you as odd, but the chance of someone sharing a birthday with another person is already 50% in a group of 23. What they don’t tell you, is that the chance of you being one of those persons is a lot smaller. Weird coincidences are likely to happen, but less likely to happen to you. So if they happen to you all the time, that would be hard to explain as mere randomness. Wellcome to my life!

And the law of large numbers may not apply to the licence plate number on Franz Ferdinand’s car. It applies to large numbers. How many historic events are out there that equal the importance of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the Armistice of 11 November 1918 or D-Day? The answer probably is not many. It is less likely that meaningful coincidences happen to such major historic events. To make it even harder to believe, the licence plate number coincidence may not only imply a prediction of the end date of the war, but also the success of the assassination attempt, and this event being the trigger for the war, at least if it isn’t chance.

Only a few historic events equal the importance of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and the end of World War I. Perhaps this is just randomness like the incidence of kidney cancer varying wildly in small population samples. There are only a few historic events of similar importance. D-Day is one of those events, and the scheme surrounding D-Day is even more puzzling. This is a bit like four people out of a population of six suffering from kidney cancer and this population being the royal family of the country. Perhaps it is just randomness, but an experienced physician would consider other options.

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was predicted. The coincidences surrounding the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 are truly dumbfounding. So if you are God, and you want your minions to notice, then what are your options? Framing the question like this makes the answer appear obvious. Indeed, there are countless other options, but asking why this particular path is chosen is as meaningless as asking why I said ‘hello’ instead of ‘hi’. If you took a certain course of action to a certain aim, there are countless others you didn’t take. So if God wants us to take notice, then we live in interesting times.

1. Thinking, Fast and Slow. Daniel Kahneman (2011). Penguin Books.
2. Curses! Archduke Franz Ferdinand and His Astounding Death Car. Mike Dash (2013). Smithsonian. [link]

Halloween cat from Poland. User Silar.

Ghost stories

The first thing I learned about ghosts was that they are fake. There is an almighty God, but ghosts are fairy tales. Science has proven it. Then we went on a school trip and visited the Singraven Estate in Denekamp. The custodian told us there was a ghost inside the castle upsetting things. He added that it is not an evil entity, so we should not fear it when entering. He seemed dead-serious and did not appear to be an attention-seeker. Only, it is better not to put too much faith in spook stories about venues that depend on tourist income.

There are plenty of ghost stories to go around. Let’s mention just one more. In 2014 a couple named the Simpsons asked the regional news channel Fox43 in the United States to visit their haunted house in Hanover, York County. The wife, DeAnna Simpson, spoke of several entities that were severely haunting their home. She and her husband had lived there for seven years. She caught ghosts on film while guests had been scratched or even attacked in their home. She had invited priests, paranormal researchers, and the crew of the TV show ‘The Dead Files’, who then ‘uncovered evidence’ of ‘grisly deaths’ that occurred in the house.1 When the Fox43 staff came in, their photographer was scratched, apparently by something invisible.

Television series such as Ghost Adventures are suggestive, giving the impression that they are at least partially fake. “It hardly ever happens like that,” an investigator of the paranormal claims.2 So what to make of this? The goings-on in Twickel Castle and the house in Hanover are undoubtedly peculiar. And perhaps they aren’t fake, and maybe the laws of physics do not always apply. Are they evidence of ghosts? Not necessarily. If we live in a simulation built for entertainment, the simulation can play into our imaginations and fears. Indeed, there may not be more to it than that.

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Death: the final frontier

What happens when we die? We don’t know. There is some evidence suggesting an existence after death.

Read More

Featured image: Halloween cat from Poland. User Silar (2012). Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

1. A haunted Hannover home. Civilwarghosts.com. [link]
2. Why those TV ghost-hunting shows are transparently fake. Scott Craven (2019). The Republic. [link]

NASA mission control celebrating successful return of Apollo 13

History’s oddities

Thomas Jefferson and John Adams

US Presidents Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were both involved in drafting the US Declaration of Independence that was signed on 4 July 1776. Henceforth, the forth of July became Independence Day in the United States. Jefferson was Adam’s Vice-President until he himself became President in 1800. They were the last surviving members of the American revolutionaries. They had been bitter enemies but were also friends for many years. Both died on 4 July 1826, fifty years after the Declaration of Independence.1

Napoleon Bonaparte and Adolf Hitler

Napoleon Bonaparte and Adolf Hitler were the only two persons that ever conquered nearly all of Europe. There is a series of parallels between them. Napoleon and Hitler both came to power by a coup ending an unstable republic. They both turned Europe into a battlefield. They both ventured into Africa and both were repelled in Egypt. They both waged a war on two fronts because they both attacked Russia while England had not been defeated.

Napoleon was born on Corsica, an independent island that became part of France. Napoleon became the leader of France. Hitler was born in Austria, an independent country that became part of Germany. Hitler became the leader of Germany. Napoleon came to power after a coup to overthrow the government on 9 November 1799. Hitler was involved in a failed coup to overthrow the Weimar Republic on 9 November 1923.

The Titanic

The Titanic was the tallest ship in the world. It had compartments that could be sealed remotely. For that reason it was deemed unsinkable. Nevertheless the Titanic sank on its maiden voyage. In 1898 Morgan Robertson wrote the novel Futility. It described the maiden voyage of a transatlantic luxury liner named the Titan. Although it was touted as being unsinkable, it struck an iceberg and sank with much loss of life. In the book the month of the wreck was April like in the real event.2

The similarities between the Titanic and the Titan are striking:

  • similar names of the ships
  • both were described as the largest craft afloat and the greatest of the works of men
  • the sizes were similar: the Titan was 45,000 tons and the Titanic was 46,000 tons
  • both were deemed ‘unsinkable’
  • both had a triple screw (propeller)
  • both had a shortage of lifeboats
  • both struck an iceberg: the Titan, moving at 25 knots, struck an iceberg on the starboard side on a night in April, in the North Atlantic, 400 nautical miles from Newfoundland while the Titanic, moving at 22½ knots, struck an iceberg on the starboard side on the night of 14 April 1912 in the North Atlantic, 400 nautical miles from Newfoundland.
  • both sank and most of the passengers and crew died.2

In April 1935, the cargo vessel Titanian sailed in the North Atlantic. A sailor claimed that he had an uneasy feeling because of the similarity of the ship’s name with Titanic. That caused him to sound a warning. He claimed to have done this before ice was seen and that the vessel stopped just in front of an iceberg. Reports showed that the Titanian was slightly damaged on the voyage.3

One hundred years later a luxurious Italian cruise ship, the Costa Concordia sank after hitting a rock. The accident was on Friday 13 January 2012. The ship had thirteen decks. Some passengers claimed that the Titanic theme ‘My Heart Will Go On’ was playing in a restaurant when the ship hit the rock.4 On 27 February 2012, another cruise ship of the same parent company, the Costa Allegra, ran into trouble near the Seychelles.5

The John F. Kennedy assassination

“We’re heading into nut country today,” President John F. Kennedy said to his wife on the morning of 22 November 1963. She had just seen an advertisement of the John Birch Society in the Dallas Morning News suggesting that he was a communist. The advert was bordered in the black of a funeral announcement. “But, Jackie, if somebody wants to shoot me from a window with a rifle, nobody can stop it, so why worry about it?”6

A few hours later he was killed by someone shooting him from a window with a rifle. The date of the assassination, 22 November (22/11), consists of two multiples of eleven. There are some parallels between John F. Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln:

  • Lincoln was elected to Congress in 1846. Kennedy was elected to Congress in 1946.
  • Lincoln was elected President in 1860. Kennedy was elected President in 1960.
  • Both Presidents were concerned with Civil Rights.
  • When Lincoln became president in 1861, one of the persons that worried about his safety was John Kennedy, Superintendent of Police in New York. When Kennedy became president in 1961, one of the persons that worried about his safety was Evelyn Lincoln, his personal secretary.
  • Both presidents were shot in the back of the head in the presence of their wife.
  • Lincoln was shot in the Ford Theatre while Kennedy was shot in a Ford Lincoln.
  • They were both shot on a Friday.
  • Both assassins were killed and not brought to trial.
  • Lincoln’s successor was Andrew Johnson, born in 1808, while Kennedy’s successor was Lyndon Johnson, born in 1908.7

It has been suggested that these similarities are a coincidence and that there are similar similarities between other US Presidents.7 Perhaps there is more to it. Some coincidences are more peculiar than others. That both were shot on a Friday is less remarkable than that Lincoln was shot in the Ford Theatre while Kennedy was shot in a Ford Lincoln.

These coincidences may be part of other schemes of peculiar coincidences too. Kennedy’s brother Senator Robert F. Kennedy was shot a few years later. He died in 1968 on June 6 (6/6), just after Martin Luther King was murdered on April 4 (4/4). That is a bit odd because of the coincidences surrounding D-Day (6/6/44). For that reason the series of tragedies related to the Kennedy family that is called the Kennedy Curse may not be mere accident or bad luck.

The Lincoln connection

The son of President Lincoln, Robert Todd Lincoln, had his share of coincidences too. A few months before John Wilkes Booth murdered his father, he was rescued by Edwin Booth, the brother of John Wilkes. The Booth family and the Lincoln family were not neighbours, which makes the incident remarkable. Robert Lincoln was in the vicinity when his father was shot. He was also present at the assassination of President Garfield in 1881 as well as the assassination of President McKinley in 1901.8

From William Henry Harrison through John Kennedy, every President elected in a year ending in zero died in office. The presidencies of Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley, Warren Harding and Franklin Roosevelt all ended prematurely. The pattern has been called The Zero Year Curse. It ended with Ronald Reagan who survived an assassination attempt. First Lady Nancy Reagan reportedly had hired psychics and astrologers to protect her husband from the curse.9

Apollo 13

The number 13 is often considered to be an unlucky number. The voyage of Apollo 13 was haunted by accidents. The launch was on 11 April 1970 at 13:13 CST from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The departure time combined with the number of the spacecraft appears to be an attempt to challenge fate. The lunar landing was aborted after an oxygen tank exploded on 13 April. The crew made it back alive.10

Featured image: NASA mission control celebrating successful return of Apollo 13. NASA. Public Domain.

1. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams die. History.com (2009). [link]
2. Futility, or the Wreck of the Titan. Wikipedia. [link]
3. Titanian – Echo of Titanic. Encyclopedia Titanica (2004) [link]
4. Costa Concordia disaster. Wikipedia. [link]
5. MS Costa Allegra. Wikipedia. [link]
6. Three surprising details from the JFK assassination – and why they matter. James L. Swanson (2013). The Globe and Mail. [link]
7. Lincoln–Kennedy coincidences urban legend. Wikipedia. [link]
8. Robert Todd Lincoln. Wikipedia. [link]
9. Curse of Tippecanoe. Wikipedia. [link]
10. Apollo 13. Wikipedia. [link]