Witbreuksweg dormitory

Meaningful coincidences

Is it possible to prove that this universe is a virtual reality created by an advanced civilisation? The properties of this universe can’t be used for that because we don’t know what a real universe looks like. There may be another way. If coincidences have meaning to us and if they happen numbers that are improbable, this may be because an intelligent force is directing events. Perhaps there is even a script. If there is a script then this universe may be created by an advanced civilisation. A script can generate meaningful and peculiar coincidences. 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 there are only a few television towers, making such an incident even more improbable. There was some speculation about these incidents having 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. Bizarre accidents happen all the time by chance because so many things happen at the same time. Some of them are bizarre but it doesn’t require an intelligent force to make that happen. 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 surprise us that meaningful coincidences happen. On the other hand, bizarre and meaningful coincidences are more likely to happen to someone but are less likely to happen to me. Several meaningful coincidences happening in one person’s life has more significance than a simple incident like two car doors opening in front of me on the same day.

There were plenty unusual incidents in my life. 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-second-floor 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 dormitory 401-right-side 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. 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, so the marking 40l is peculiar.

And more was to come. 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 was contemplating while I proceeded to fetch the 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 who lived on dormitory 401-right-side. 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]

Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau

Meeting Chief Inspector Jacques Clouseau

In the autumn of 1989 my life had gone off the rails after I had been evicted from the student’s dormitory because I couldn’t get along with a particular lady. Henceforth I committed myself to leading an insignificant life and to disturb no-one with my presence, something even a complete failure like me might be capable of doing.

But perhaps I can’t even do that.

I moved back to my parents’ home to gather some courage to try out another dormitory. Back then there wasn’t much to laugh, except for a few episodes of Chief Inspector Jacques Clouseau that were aired on German television. My parents lived in Nijverdal, near the German border so I could see them.

Despite his bumbling and clumsy appearance, Chief Inspector Jacques Clouseau was always able to solve the mystery, something no-one else was capable of. Guided by a few hunches and some vague clues that only made sense in his mind, he always ignored the most obvious explanation of the facts.

So how can a clown like him be correct all the time while all the competent fail? The answer is that Jacques Clouseau is a fictional character in a story. The plot is always the same: Jacques Clouseau is right in the end.

The licence plate number of the car in which Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated may refer to 11 November 1918, the end date of World War I. This war comprised of billions of actions of millions of individuals. To make the war end on exactly this date might suggest that the world we live in is fiction.

So I could be right.

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 allegedly said: “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 that became possible due to advances in technology. This universe could be a virtual reality created by an advanced civilisation. We could all 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?

The idea that we could be simulated beings inside a computer first came up in 1964 in the book Simulacron-3. In 1977 a science fiction writer named Philip K. Dick (funny name) was the first to really claim that our reality is made up by a computer. He did this after experiencing a psychosis. The philosopher Nick Bostrom formalised the idea twenty-five years later in the simulation argument. He argued 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, henceforth they are called post-humans.

Bostrom now asserts that these 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 (non-virtual) universe and a virtual reality is that a real universe is not created by intent, while a virtual civilisation is. 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 not-too-distant 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 human essence, and let their imagination run free. And their imagination may become their new life as Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert noted:

For those of you who only watched the ‘old’ Star Trek, the holodeck can create simulated worlds that look and feel just like the real thing. The characters on Star Trek use the holodeck for recreation during breaks from work. This is somewhat unrealistic. If I had a holodeck, I’d close the door and never come out until I died of exhaustion. It would be hard to convince me I should be anywhere but in the holodeck, getting my oil massage from Cindy Crawford and her simulated twin sister. Holodecks would be very addicting. If there weren’t enough holodecks to go around, I’d get the names of all the people who had reservations ahead of me and beam them into concrete walls. I’d feel tense about it, but that’s exactly why I’d need a massage. I’m afraid the holodeck will be society’s last invention.2

Processing and memory constraints

Even though the advanced civilisation will may have enormous processing and memory capacity, there may be processing and memory constraints for individual simulations as they may run billions of simulations. There may be ways to overcome these limitations like rendering only observed reality and running a predetermined script. Free will may simply be too expensive.

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. 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 a form of entertainment.

matrix_passport
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]
2. The Dilbert Future. Scott Adams (1997). Harper Business.