Turtles All the Way Down?

Thoughts on the consequences of living inside a computer simulation

Much has been bandied about of late concerning the nature of our universe.  To be more accurate, the universe we inhabit.  Well, actually, to be even more accurate, the universe we think we may inhabit. (And to be utterly pedantic:  the universe that a computer thinks about while manipulating ‘us’ into thinking that we thought what it thought.)

The realm of all things discernible to the human species is now thought to be either one of many such universes (many worlds);  evidence – both speculative and theoretical – is moving the cosmologists and theoretical physicists among us more and more in that direction as time goes by.  (Does time go by?)

And then there’s that vexing and annoying theory about our universe actually being a simulated universe, created by our descendants (or perhaps by the civilization that created Farmer’s Riverworld.  Vexing because it is uncomfortable to think of yourself as being nothing more than a few lines of code residing on a CRAY MK 10,000,000,000.  That level of existence seems somehow more tenuous, shakier, riskier, than the one I enjoyed prior to learning of this theory.  Yes, we could all die tomorrow – life doesn’t come with guarantees – but the idea that my existence might simply -END- because someone, somewhere shuts down a program or turns off a machine – especially if they say something like “well, that didn’t work” while doing so, is rather insulting.

It would mean that my life and everything in it is, at worst, nothing more than a minor collection of data that by itself is statistically unimportant.  At best, I’m a throw-away amusement.  Unsettling and, as I said, vexing, because this is the kind of idea that drives philosophers into caves and funny farms.  Both of which – simulated or otherwise – are not too far away from where I find myself living right now.

The “The Universe Is Just A Simulation” theory is fraught with all kinds of questions and for me, of late, chief among them is this one:  why did the creators of the simulation include a simulation of the belief in a god?

Lets back up just a bit.  A simulation is a mathematical model of some real-world phenomena.  We “simulate” life inside our heads every second of every day as a necessary function of operating in the real world.  Driving down the hiway and approaching your exit?  Inside your head, you’re modeling the action of yourself and the other vehicles on the road, projecting trends (where is that car in the left lane going?  will it block the exit?) and then using that data to influence your real world actions.

The use of simulation has spread into all areas of study as well as entertainment.  The more realistic a simulation is, the more data it incorporates, the more complex the interactions and, presumably, the better the results you get out of running the simulation.  Weather prediction/modelling is the perfect example;  an enormous number of factors are plugged into those and yet the results are a handful of probabilities rather than an exact description of what the weather will be like.  If ALL of the factors that influence the weather could be incorporated into the simulation (and if the algorithms that drive the simulation are true representations of the physical properties and their interactions), then the model would match, to a very fine degree, the weather we actually experience.

At this point you may scoff a bit, questioning the likelihood that we are in fact living in a simulation.  However, the math suggests that we are.  (Rather, the math we run inside the simulation suggests that we are.)

This may strike you as very unlikely. But the Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom has argued that we are more likely to be in such a simulation than not. If such simulations are possible in theory, he reasons, then eventually humans will create them — presumably many of them. If this is so, in time there will be many more simulated worlds than nonsimulated ones. Statistically speaking, therefore, we are more likely to be living in a simulated world than the real one. NY Times

Simulations are often run to generate all (or most) of the probabilities surrounding a particular question and, where processing power is available, the same simulation program is run multiple times with randomized starting conditions (controlled of course) to generate a range of results that can be evaluated.

When we simulate, we sacrifice some level of detail for time.  A perfect prediction of where the hurricane will make landfall does us no good a week after the hurricane makes landfall;  better to have a range of possibilities that are less than 100% well before hand.  Want to speculate on what would have happened at Gettysburg if Picket hadn’t made his charge?  You can model the entire battle in a few hours.  Reality took days.  But you won’t be looking down at the level of an individual cavalryman.

What you want to achieve is verisimilitude; a level of accuracy and plausibility that balances the goals of the simulation, the time it takes to run, the amount of data used and that provides an outcome that produces a usable, meaningful result.

Of course the first question is – why are our descendants (or a host of other possible entities – robot overlords, alien civilizations…) running simulations of now?

That question leads immediately to:  why now?  why these conditions?  what result are they looking for? what “level of detail” have they left out?

More meta:  how many times have they run this simulation?  what have they tweaked between runs?  who gets to decide what changes get made?


Why are they running a massive simulation of an entire solar system (surrounded by a simulated galaxy and universe)

Why, if they don’t want us to know that we are in a simulation have they allowed us to ask those questions?  (Our knowledge of being a simulation will influence the outcome of the simulation – which is why it’s probably unlikely that they want us to know we’re in a simulation…unless the simulation is looking at the effects of a species becoming aware that they are in a simulation…see – recursive turtles, all the way to infinity,)

When did the simulation start?  This is a bothersome one.  I’m not asking at what time in the future did they start using these simulations.  I’m asking what time was it when the simulation actually started.  Did the simulation start during some primordial phase of the Earth (suggesting the simulation is in place to test evolutionary principals);  did it start with humans already evolved?  did it start “yesterday”?  See, the problem with history inside a simulated universe is, like the young earthers suggest, we’re only a day “old” and everything we think of as “history” (evidence and all) are pre-set conditions within the sensorium of the simulation.  Sure Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo – fact.  Except it never happened.  It’s just backgrounding.

Which begs another question:  is our personal sense of continuity real or memorex?  It’s hard to imagine someone(s) in a lab somewhere creating 7+ billion backstories (for that is what our memories would be) until you remember that our descendants have vast amounts of computer processing power at their disposal.  Imagine – your entire life’s history is a mere construct created by a computer diddling a handful of variables….

You know how we’re always hearing that “until Columbus, people believed the world was flat” or “heavier than air craft will never fly” or “it’s impossible to get to the moon“?, or even “a nuclear explosion will ignite the atmosphere and fry the planet“?  Well, maybe our world was flat at one time.  If we’re only living in a simulation, those kinds of things (as well as the oft-reported scientific advance that is discovered by multiple efforts at different places around the globe) may very well be instances in which the simulation was tweaked while it was running.  “Hey, lets see what happens if we change this equation just a teeny bit and…”

The takeaway from that is:  we really can’t rely on any of the universal laws, because they can be changed (and retroactively incorporated into our “history”:  archaeology and paleontology may be the simulation’s version of retconning…) willy nilly.  Get this:  there very well may be “things we were not meant to know”.  Like the Fermi Paradox for example.  All of our best equations suggest that our galaxy ought to be teeming with technological civilizations, that our solar system ought to have been visited by now, that we ought to have found some signal, evidence, something.  Alien civilizations may just be one of those things that were left out of the simulation.

And then we get to this:  why have they built belief, faith, religion and gods into the equation?

Follow me on this.  If you are of the conceit that as humans, humanity and human civilizations evolve, we become less and less dependent upon fairy tales and things that do not exist (as the decline in religious affiliation world-wide would seem to indicate) –

However, according to trending data, religiosity has fallen by 9 points globally since 2005 and the number of people who identify as atheist rose from 4 percent to 7 percent. Note that only 40 countries were polled in both 2005 and 2012, so there are two different sets of data available. Huffingtonpost

– which includes the whole panoply of supernatural beings and capabilities such as ghosts, fairies, boogeymen, clairvoyance, channeling, telekinesis, UFOs and not just gods, as a species we will come to rely more and more on logic, reason and factual information. As science continues to encroach on “knowledge” previously reserved for faith-based/alternative logics, we’ll see a continuing decline, eventually leading to the foregone conclusion that god(s) is a fairy tale, reserved for young emergent species.  It follows that our future selves will have eschewed religion in favor of reality (their ability to create such a complex simulation as us reinforces this).  In other words, religious belief will have been eliminated almost entirely, will be viewed as quaint and wrong-headed where it persists.

Why then do we have religious belief inside the simulation?  There are really only two reasonable explanations:  one – the simulation is designed to examine the effect of religious belief on human civilization (which in itself suggests that such needs to be examined, in turn suggesting that our future selves have not yet got a handle on it – which contradicts the trend mentioned earlier) and two, religious belief in future has not diminished;  including it in our simulated world is part and parcel of creating an accurate simulation.  Neither of these possibilities however leads to a future that is often depicted in science fiction – the religiously free/technocratic/Vulcan future.

(The third possibility is that the simulators are just screwing with us – kind of like the folks producing the TV show The Walking Dead do to their characters every week – pulling the rug out just when things began to look stable.  This of course raises questions about the mental stability of the simulators – at least our view of them.  Perhaps there is a compelling need for them to do what they are doing.  If so, it’s not apparent to us, their “victims”.  But it does kind of put a whole new cast on the story of Job now, doesn’t it? Foreshadowing anyone?)

That faith – or a propensity for religious belief – has been built in would seem to be supported by the discovery of the “God Spot” in the brain, an area that increases its activity when a person is having a mystical experience.  The singluar “God Spot” theory has been discredited by further studies – but those studies show that numerous areas of the brain “light up” during mystical experiences. If “mystical experiences” were not to be a part of the simulation, the ability to respond to them would not have been built into us.

One region of the brain or multiple regions hardly makes a difference.  Many of us are predisposed to receiving information in a way that manifests as “spiritual”, and it affects our behavior.  It’s hard not to believe that this was intentional.  (Of course it could be something that evolved as an unanticipated feature of the simulation.  In that case, the fact that it has been tolerated and allowed to continue to evolve would seem to indicate that it is being treated as a feature rather than as a bug. Perhaps there is another Earth simulation running right next to ours (parallel universes) where this feature has been eliminated and another where it is universal.  At the end of the run, they’ll do a compare and contrast of the results.  But that won’t matter to us.

It’s rather interesting that many of our great questions are not really illuminated by moving the goal post from reality to simulated reality.  Since god was built into the simulation – why not mandate a belief in god?  Why not a single god?  Why not make it possible to verify miraculous happenings in a scientific manner?

There are scientists and researchers trying to develop ways to verify this theory.  I’m wondering if allowing them to continue to do so is advisable.  Surely our confirmation of this theory would inevitably be followed by attempts to contact those running the simulation – and by attempts to manipulate the simulation from within.  (Know anyone who is really lucky?  Consistently falling into piles of dung and coming up smelling of roses?  Maybe they know something we don’t – like how to access the operating system.)  I imagine that our “operators” monitor spurious glitches for intention just as we watch and wait for Google to become self-aware, and I imagine that they have their hand on a big old cut-off switch.  Revealing to them that we know of their existence could very well end ours.

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