Simulation argument II: the revenge of information

Simulations may be realistic in many ways while not being realistic in some aspects. If that is somehow noticeable then we may be able to find out that we do live inside a simulation. Instead of speculating about us living in a simulation by guessing the probability of the existence of post-humans and their abilities, resources, and possible motivations, it might be more illuminating to look at the available information about our own universe. Perhaps there is a more conclusive argument to be made. It may go like this:

  1. If this universe is real, we cannot be sure that it is, because a simulation can be realistic too, but at least the laws of reality cannot be breached.
  2. A simulation can have fake properties, so because of (1) we cannot establish that the properties of this universe are the properties of a real universe.
  3. If however the established laws of reality are breached, this is unrealistic, and we have evidence of this universe being a virtual reality.

It follows from (1) and (2) that the properties of this universe reflected in the laws of reality cannot be used to determine whether this universe is real or a simulation. And it doesn’t matter whether the laws of reality are real or not. If they are real, and breached, this universe is a simulation. If they are fake, this universe is a simulation anyway. Science can be used to establish the laws of reality or the properties of this universe, but science cannot determine whether these laws themselves are real or fake.

According to science this universe started off fourteen billion years ago with a big bang. Ten billion years later life on this planet began to develop out of chemical processes. It took another four billion years for life on Earth to evolve into what it is today. According to science, there is no evidence of an intelligent creator, the laws of physics always apply, and we are biological organisms made out of carbon and water.

The following properties of our universe are certified by science and can be called established laws of our reality, reflecting what we believe to be realistic:

  • The laws of physics apply, for instance Newton’s first law of motion, which states that a change in the speed or direction of the movement of a body requires a force.
  • The universe started with a big bang. Life emerged from chemical processes and is shaped by evolution. There is no evidence for a creator.
  • We are biological organisms and our consciousnesses reside in our bodies and there is no such thing as spirit or soul.

Evidence to the contrary might indicate that we do live inside a simulation. Meaningful coincidences suggest there is an intelligent force directing events. The paranormal flouts the laws of physics from time to time. Evidence for reincarnation suggests that we are not biological organisms. Only, meaningful coincidences can happen by chance. There may be laws of reality we do not know of. And there is plenty of evidence of the consciousness residing in the body while only a few people remember a previous life. A convincing case for us living in a simulation requires a clarification as to why it is the best explanation for our existence. This may be done by demonstrating the following:

  • The motivations of post-humans may determine whether we are able to establish that we do live inside a simulation and what its purpose is.
  • Science cannot establish that his universe is a simulation as we do not know the properties of a real universe.
  • Alternative explanations for the weirdness of this universe seem less plausible as they run into logical inconsistencies.
  • Evidence suggestive of reincarnation suffices to conclude that our consciousnesses do not reside in our bodies.
  • Evidence suggestive of ghosts, premonition, and alien abductions suffices to conclude that the laws of physics do not always apply.
  • The distribution of meaningful coincidences is unlikely to be result of accident, indicating an intelligence coordinating events in this universe.

Establishing that the distribution of meaningful coincidences is an unlikely result of mere accident is perhaps the hardest part. Meaningful coincidences can happen by accident. It is not possible to determine the probability of them happening. There may however be arguments that can be made to establish that mere accident is not so likely. To make the argument more convincing we might consider the following:

  • Some types of meaningful coincidences are less likely to happen than others. The more elaborate the scheme, the less likely it is the result of mere chance.
  • If meaningful coincidences happen in relation to the most important historic events, then an intelligence coordinating events appears more likely.
  • If meaningful coincides are not distributed randomly across people and time-frames, it might suggest interference or even destiny.

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.

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 had proven it. But then we went on a school trip and visited Twickel Castle. The custodian told us there was a ghost upsetting things. It was not an evil entity so we shouldn’t fear it when entering the castle, he said. The custodian seemed a down-to-earth person to me. The following account about Twickel Castle is on the Internet:

Recently I heard a strange story from the temperate steward of Twickel Castle in Delden. An English restorer who had come to restore some antique cupboards was given permission by her to stay overnight in an attic room of the castle. After he had been there for a few days, she saw that he had put his mattress on the floor.

She asked him why he slept on the floor and not in the bedstead? He answered her unmoved that he had been pushed out of bed for three consecutive nights. To prevent it from happening again, he had decided to sleep on the floor from then on. He had not been bothered since then. The steward asked him if he didn’t find that creepy? His answer was calm and clear: “No, I’m from England.”1

There are plenty of ghost stories. Let’s mention one more. In the summer of 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. DeAnna Simpson, the woman who came forward to tell the story, spoke of several ghosts and other entities that were severely haunting her home. She and her husband had lived in the house for seven years.

She had collected photographs of ghosts caught on film, as well as pictures of guests who have been scratched or otherwise attacked in their home. Simpson had also invited priests, paranormal researchers, and even the TV show ‘The Dead Files’, who then apparently uncovered evidence of grisly deaths that occurred in the house.2 When the Fox43 crew entered the house, their photographer was scratched out of the blue, apparently by an invisible source. He had to admit that this ghostlike phenomenon felt real.

There are countless stories about haunted castles and houses. And there are television series about ghosts, for instance Ghost Adventures. The show is bloated with suggestion, suggesting that it is fake. “It hardly ever happens like that,” an investigator of the paranormal claims.3 But he didn’t deny that ghosts exist. So what to make of this?

The goings-on in Twickel Castle in Delden and the haunted house in Hanover are undoubtedly peculiar. But do they prove the existence of ghosts? Perhaps proof will remain elusive. If we live in a simulation that exists for entertainment, the simulation may play into our imaginations and fears. The phenomena may be as real as we are, but they may elude the measurements of scientists. Indeed, there may not be more to it than that.

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

1. Betoverd door: haunted houses. [link]
2. A haunted Hannover home. [link]
3. Why those TV ghost-hunting shows are transparently fake. Scott Craven (2019). The Republic. [link]

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 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 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.

A more interesting argument is the Fermi Paradox. It seems likely that there are extraterrestrial civilisations in our universe but there is no evidence for them. “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.