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.

Dead Sea Scroll - part of Isaiah Scroll

A few possible scenarios

For most people life has improved in recent decades. Perhaps the future will be even better. New technologies bring new possibilities. But there are reasons to be concerned. 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 thinking about what the future might look like. If things don’t go wrong then a few scenarios seem likely.

Soon machines and algorithms may take over most of our tasks and 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 done 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 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.

Some people fear that computers or robots will one day take over the world and either control or destroy us. That is not likely to happen as it would require a desire from computers and robots to do this. Computers and robots don’t have a will of their own. They act the way they have been programmed. Something may go wrong or humans may intentionally make them so, but it is unlikely that computers and robots will do this out of their own. Having a will requires having desires and emotions that have biological origin. Animals and humans have desires and emotions but computers and robots do not.

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 this technology may be made cheap by eliminating free will so that everything happens according to a script. That would greatly reduce the required computing power to run the simulation.

So 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 will 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? So it is more likely than not that we ourselves live in such a virtual reality universe created by an advanced humanoid civilisation.

The owner or owners of a virtual reality universe may be indifferent towards the fate of the simulated humans inside it, that’s us, 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. And many people are indifferent to the fate of their fellow humans except their family, neighbours or friends. 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.

So do we live inside a virtual reality created by an advanced civilisation? And is there a script? The licence plate number of Franz Ferdinand’s death car is a clue. The evidence is substantial. It corroborates 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 strike back with a vengeance. But why did the religions of the God of Abraham come out on top? The God of Abraham was one of the many gods humans imagined. Is it possible 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]