Halloween cat from Poland. User Silar.

Ghost stories

Ghosts are a controversial topic. People believing in ghosts are sometimes seen as nutty or delusional. But there may be more to ghosts than science can explain. A Fox News reporter, who allegedly has been attacked by ghosts and daemons in a haunted house, had to admit that the ghostlike phenomena at least felt real. He claimed to have been scratched by an unknown entity. There are countless similar encounters.

It appears that the laws of physics don’t always apply. That could be explained if this universe is a virtual reality created by an advanced civilisation. In that case the evidence for ghosts can exist. In a similar vein reincarnation stories indicate that memories can be transferred to another person. So perhaps we are just as real as ghosts.

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

Satire on False Perspective. William Hogarth (1754).

Again, those properties

Coincidences like the licence plate number of Franz Ferdinand’s death car being a reference to the end date of World War I suggest that history is a script. Evidence of reincarnation indicates that memories can be stored outside the body. The universe may not be what is appears to be. The scientific approach is to ignore these phenomena as they can’t be reproduced in a laboratory. That doesn’t make these things go away. This universe might be a virtual reality created by an advanced civilisation. But perhaps there are other explanations for these phenomena. Most let go of time or the law of cause and effect.

Our usual way of perceiving events is that something happens on a certain place at a certain time. A place is seen as a constant as time passes. Events in the past have caused events in the present and events in the present cause events in the future. For example, the invasion of the Allies happened in Normandy on 6 June 1944. Normandy is still there but 6 June 1944 is history. The liberation of Western Europe from German occupation is seen as a consequence of D-Day. If D-Day hadn’t happened, history would have taken a different turn. We have time and cause and effect. That makes sense to us.

Some people have claimed that all points in time are connected in some other way than the past making the present possible and the present making the future possible. A psychiatrist named Karl Jung came up with the idea of a collective consciousness that connects all events via meaning. This could, for instance, explain the evidence of reincarnation. Perhaps a collective consciousness can put the memories of a deceased person into someone else or make you have a premonition that comes true.

Others think of time as a dimension so that you travel to a time like you can travel to a place, even though nobody ever succeeded in doing that as far as we know. These ideas counter our notion of time as well as cause and effect but so does the theory of relativity. And the theory of relativity proved to be useful so we consider it to be true.

A reference to the end date of World War I could end up on the licence plate of Franz Ferdinand’s death car because of some connection we do not yet know of. No plausible explanation is given as to what that connection that might be, but perhaps there is some property of the universe that is still unexplained. And maybe both are true. All points in time could be connected in some other way while the concept of causality also applies. Physicists have to work with queer phenomena that are hard to explain. For example, light behaves like particles but also like waves, but waves can’t be particles.

Alternatively, a time traveller could have gone back in time and put the number on the licence plate even though the theory of relativity doesn’t allow for that. Time travel to the future is possible but going back in time creates all kinds of logical problems. For instance, such an action would alter future events. Chaos theory suggests that even the slightest disturbance of the past can cause dramatic changes in the future so that the end date of World War I might change or the war wouldn’t even start.

So maybe we should let our imagination run free. Anything is possible if we can think of it and can corroborate it with experiments. That is the way science makes progress. A piece of fruit could be an apple as long as you look at it but turn into a banana as soon as you look the other way. And you can never be sure that an apple doesn’t become a banana when nobody watches. Scientists believe things like that if experiments confirm these beliefs. For instance, some particles turn into waves when you don’t observe them. And believing this can bring us energy or other things we desire.

An obvious explanation for the unexplained phenomena and peculiar coincidences like the licence plate number on Franz Ferdinand’s car is that this universe is a virtual reality created by an advanced civilisation. You don’t have to assume anything about the properties of our universe. You only have to believe that the technology to create virtual reality universes can be made cheap and that humans will use this technology once it becomes available. That makes more sense to the human mind than apples turning into bananas. But then again, it is dangerous to assume the obvious. Perhaps apples turn into bananas when you don’t look and one plus one doesn’t equal two as long as you don’t solve the equation and this universe may be real as long as you believe it.

Featured image: Satire on False Perspective. William Hogarth (1754). Public Domain.

Tunnel of the Large Hadron Collider

Properties of this universe

Either this universe always existed, emerged without an intelligent cause or it was created by an advanced civilisation. If an intelligent civilisation created us, it most likely is humanoid. This is explained in the simulation argument. Sadly, it is not possible to do an experiment that will show which option is true. Some people nevertheless believe 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 universes that are not created are digital too. The argument of using properties to prove that this universe is a virtual reality comes in different forms. For example, some people 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. Only, there is no way of knowing whether or not this applies to universes that aren’t generated by a computer.

Other people 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.

It seems likely that there are extraterrestrial civilisations in our universe but there is no evidence for the existence of these aliens. This is the Fermi Paradox. “Where is everybody?” the physicist Fermi once asked. Perhaps humankind is the only advanced civilisation in the universe, which might indicate that we are living inside a simulation as there might be no point in simulating others. But that is not the only possible explanation. Perhaps civilisations tend to die out before they become advanced. Or maybe we just overestimate the probability of advanced civilisations contacting us.

Quantum entanglement means that particles interact directly with each other regardless of the distance between them. If one particle is at one end of the universe, while the other is at the other end, they can still interact directly as if there is no distance between them. This mocks our idea of distance. It can also raise questions about the age of the universe as these estimates are based on the size of our universe.

The observer effect is often seen as evidence of this universe being a virtual reality. The argument is that several types of 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. If this universe isn’t a virtual reality, these particles might, or even should, always exist even when no-one is watching. This might be a misconception about these particles. They do not really disappear when they are not observed. They become waves instead. And there is no way of knowing whether the observer effect only exists in virtual reality universes.

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

Dead Sea Scroll - part of Isaiah Scroll

A few possible scenarios

The future may not look outrageously inspiring. It may be even a bit scary to think about what might happen. To name a few possibilities, terrorists could spread deadly diseases, governments and corporations may soon know more about us than we do ourselves (they may already), machines may become smarter than people (they may be already), and climate change could make large parts of the planet uninhabitable. In the meantime futurologists have been busy figuring out what the future might look like. If things don’t go wrong then a few scenarios seem feasible.

First, machines and algorithms may take over our tasks so that humans will become obsolete as workers. That already happened in many fields but until now new jobs have been created that replaced the old ones, mostly in the service sector and the bureaucracy. Soon much of human decision-making may be replaced by algorithms. An algorithm is a rule or a set of rules like “if this happens then do that.” A very simple example is “if the temperature falls below a certain threshold then turn on the heating.” This particular algorithm relieves us from the tedious task of turning the heating on and off. More complex algorithms executed by computers may soon make better decisions than humans in many situations.

In a decade or so we may not be driving our own cars any more. We may just tell them where to go. Cars may plot a route, drive us there, and keep us safe. It may be forbidden to drive a car yourself as human drivers cause more accidents than computers. A few decades ago, when Knight Rider was a popular television series, this seemed a distant possibility, but today the technology is already there. Algorithms can make many decisions. We may still decide what we want, for example where we want to go to, or what kind of book we like to read, but algorithms may decide the specifics. You may accept this because the algorithms are better at doing these jobs than you are.

Second, humans may enhance themselves using bio-technology, cyborg engineering and information technology, and evolve into beings that differ from humans existing today. These beings may still be like us in many ways. That is because we think of ourselves as special so we may  not be willing to alter our ‘precious’ essence. The ‘improved’ humans can be called post-humans because they have been created from humans. They may live very long, and because algorithms may do most of the decision-making for them, they may have a lot of time on their hands. Boredom may be their biggest challenge. This brings us to the third option. These post-humans may create virtual realities with simulations of humans to entertain themselves. They may live in tubes like brains in vats because living inside their virtual reality has become their existence.

The future could be a combination of the three options. Machines and algorithms will take over our jobs so that we will become obsolete as workers. We will be enhanced with new technologies and live very long. And we will create virtual realities with simulations of humans to entertain ourselves. If that is going to happen, and the technology to create these virtual reality universes becomes cheap, there will be billions of virtual universes for every real universe. If that is true then we almost certainly live in a virtual reality ourselves.1 And may be a lot cheaper in terms of computer resources if the actors in the virtual reality don’t think for themselves and just follow a predetermined script.

If there are billions of virtual universes for every real one then what are the odds of our universe being real? The answer is one in a few billion. We can’t know at what point in time we live, before or after the invention of virtual reality universes, but we have to assume that it is after. That can be explained as follows. Assume that every year has an equal probability of this technology being invented and that we are going to create this technology in the next 100 years or 1,000 years. It will not happen later than that because by then we have done it. But what are the odds of it happening in the next 100 or 1,000 years compared to the billions of years that already have passed?

The owner or owners of a virtual reality may be indifferent towards the fate of simulated humans inside, just like we are indifferent to characters in a computer game. That is not surprising. Animals are more real than simulated humans, but most people don’t care much about animals either, except for their pets perhaps. Many people are indifferent to the fate of their fellow humans when they don’t share their beliefs or ethnicity. The owner or the owners of this universe may play roles in this virtual reality using avatars, just like we can use avatars in computer games. And perhaps, if being an avatar becomes the daily reality of the owner or the owners, we can hope that she, he or they care for us.

The verdict may already be out. The licence plate number of Franz Ferdinand’s car suggests that this universe is a virtual reality created by an advanced civilisation. This gives new meaning to the first chapter of the Bible where God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness.” And so the old texts drawn up by Jewish priests in the fifth century BC may strike back with a vengeance. The religions of the God of Abraham may not have come out on top by accident. But the Jews made up their deity Yahweh. And then this deity created us? How to make sense of that?

Featured image: Dead Sea Scroll – part of Isaiah Scroll (Isa 57:17 – 59:9). Public Domain.

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