Nick Bostrom Elon Musk Nick Bostrom Elon Musk

OMG can anyone write an article on the simulation hypothesis without focusing on Nick Bostrom and Elon Musk? It’s like writing an article about climate change and only mentioning Al Gore.

Dear journalists who are trying to be edgy and write about cool fringe theories, please pay attention. The idea that we might be living in an illusory world is not novel. Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi wrote about it with his butterfly dream in 369 BC. Plato discussed his cave allegory in 380 BC. The other aspect of simulation theory, the idea that the world is discrete or digital, is equally ancient. Plato and Democritous considered atoms, and therefore the fundamental constructs of reality, to be discrete.

I’m not taking anything away from Nick Bostrom, who is a very intelligent modern philosopher. His 2001 Simulation Argument is certainly thought provoking and deserves its place in the annals of digital philosophy. But it was predated by “The Matrix”. Which was predated by Philip K. Dick’s pronouncement in 1977 that we might be living in a computer-programmed reality. Which was predated by Konrad Zuse’s 1969 work on discrete reality, “Calculating Space.”

And as interesting as Bostrom’s Simulation Argument is, it was a 12-page paper on a single idea. Since then, he has not really evolved his thinking on digital philosophy, preferring instead to concentrate on existential risk and the future of humanity.

Nor am I taking anything away from Elon Musk, a brilliant entrepreneur who latched onto Bostrom’s idea for a few minutes, generated a couple sound bites, and then it was back to solar panels and hyperloops.

But Bostrom, Musk, and the tired old posthuman-generated simulation hypothesis is all that the rank and file of journalists seem to know to write about. It is really sad, considering that Tom Campbell wrote an 800-page treatise on the computational nature of reality. I have written two books on the subject. Both of our material is largely consistent and has evolved the thinking far beyond the idea that we live in a posthuman-generated simulation. In fact, I provide a great deal of evidence that the Bostrom-esque possibility is actually not very likely. And Brian Whitworth has a 10-year legacy of provocative scientific papers on evidence for a programmed reality that are far beyond the speculations of Musk and Bostrom.

The world need to know about these things and Campbell, Whitworth, and I can’t force people to read our books, blogs, and papers. So journalists, with all due respect, please up your simulation game.

Which came first, the digital chicken, or the digital philosophy egg?

Many scientists, mathematicians, futurists, and philosophers are embracing the idea that our reality is digital these days. In fact, it would be perfectly understandable to wonder if digital philosophy itself is tainted due to the tendency of humans to view ideas through the lens of their times. We live in a digital age, surrounded by computers, the Internet, and smart phones, and so might we not be guilty of imagining that the world behaves just as a multi-player video game does? We probably wouldn’t have had such ideas 50 years ago, when, at a macroscopic level at least, everything with which we interacted appeared analog and continuous. Which came first, the digital chicken, or the digital philosophy egg?

Actually, the concepts of binary and digital are not at all new. The I Ching is an ancient Chinese text that dates to 1150 BCE. In it are 64 combinations of 8 trigrams (aka the Bagua), each of which clearly contain the first three bits of a binary code. 547px-Bagua-name-earlier.svg

Many other cultures, including the Mangareva in Polynesia (1450), and Indian (5th to 2nd century BCE), have used binary encodings for communication for thousands of years. Over 12,000 years ago, African tribes developed a binary divination system called Odu Ifa.

German mathematician and philosopher Gottfried Leibniz is generally credited as developing the modern binary number system in 1679, based on zeros and ones. Naturally, all of these other cultures are ignored so that we can maintain the illusion that all great philosophical and mathematical thought originated in Europe. Regardless of Eurocentric biases, it is clear that binary encoding is not a new concept. But what about applying it to the fundamental construct of reality?

It turns out that while modern digital physics or digital philosophy references are replete with sources that only date to the mid-20th century, the ancient Greeks (namely Plato) believed that reality was discrete. Atoms were considered to be discrete and fundamental components of reality.

A quick clarification of the terms “discrete”, “digital”, “binary”, “analog”, and “continuous” is probably in order:

Discrete – Having distinct points of measurement in the time domain

Digital – Having properties that can be encoded into bits

Binary – Encoding that is done with only two digits, zeros and ones

Analog – Having continuously variable properties

Continuous – The time domain is continuous

So, for example, if we encode the value of some property (e.g. length or voltage) digitally using 3 values (0, 1, 2), that would be digital, but not binary (rather, ternery). If we say that between any two points in time, there is an infinitely divisible time element, but for each point, the value of the measurement being performed on some property is represented by bits, then we would have a continuous yet digital system. Conversely, if time can be broken into chunks such that at a fine enough temporal granularity there is no concept of time between two adjacent points in time, but at each of these time points, the value of the measurement being performed is continuously variable, then we would have a discrete yet analog system.

In the realm of consciousness-driven digital philosophy, it is my contention that the evidence strongly supports reality being discrete and digital; that is, time moves on in “chunks” and at each discrete point in time, every property of everything can be perfectly represented digitally. There are no infinities.

I believe that this is a logical and fundamental conclusion, regardless of the fact that we live in a digital age. There are many reasons for this, but for the purposes of this particular blog post, I shall only concentrate on a couple. Let’s break down the possibilities of our reality, in terms of origin and behavior:

  1. Type 1 – Our reality was created by some conscious entity and has been following the original rules established by that entity. Of course, we could spend a lifetime defining “conscious” or “entity” but let’s try to keep it simple. This scenario could include traditional religious origin theories (e.g. God created the heavens and the earth). It could also include the common simulation scenarios, a la Nick Bostrom’s “Simulation Argument.”
  1. Type 2 – Our reality was originally created by some conscious entity and has been evolving according to some sort of fundamental evolutionary law ever since.
  1. Type 3 – Our reality was not created by some conscious entity, and its existence sprang out of nothing and has been following primordial rules of physics ever since. To explain the fact that our universe is incredibly finely-tuned for matter and life, materialist cosmologists dreamt up the idea that we must exist in an infinite set of parallel universes, and via the anthropic principle, the one we live only appears finely-tuned because it has to in order for us to be in it. Occam would be turning over in his grave.
  1. Type 4 – Our reality was not created by some particular conscious entity, but rather has been evolving according to some sort of fundamental evolutionary law from the very beginning.

I would argue that in the first two cases, reality would have to be digital. For, if a conscious entity is going to create a world for us to live in and experience, that conscious entity is clearly highly evolved compared to us. And, being so evolved, it would certainly make use of the most efficient means to create a reality. A continuous reality is not only inefficient, it is theoretically impossible to create because it involves infinities in the temporal domain as well as any spatial domain or property.

pixelated200I would also argue that in the fourth case, reality would have to be digital for similar reasons. Even without a conscious entity as a creator, the fundamental evolutionary law would certainly favor a perfectly functional reality that doesn’t require infinite resources.

Only in the third case above, would there be any possibility of a continuous analog reality. Even then, it is not required. As MIT cosmologist and mathematician Max Tegmark succinctly put it, “We’ve never measured anything in physics to more than about sixteen significant digits, and no experiment has been carried out whose outcome depends on the hypothesis that a true continuum exists, or hinges on nature computing something uncomputable.” Hence there is no reason to assume, a priori, that the world is continuous. In fact, the evidence points to the contrary:

  • Infinite resolution would imply that matter implodes into black holes at sub-Planck scales and we don’t observe that.
  • Infinite resolution implies that relativity and quantum mechanics can’t coexist, at least with the best physics that we have today. Our favorite contenders for rationalizing relativity and quantum mechanics are string theory and loop quantum gravity. And they only work with minimal length (aka discrete) scales.
  • We actually observe discrete behavior in quantum mechanics. For example, a particle’s spin value is always quantized; there are no intermediate states. This is anomalous in continuous space-time.

For many other reasons, as are probably clear from the evidence compiled on this site, I tend to favor reality Type 4. No other type of reality structure and origin can be shown to be anywhere near as consistent with all of the evidence (philosophical, cosmological, mathematical, metaphysical, and experimental). And it has nothing to do with MMORPGs or the smart phone in my pocket.

The Digital Reality Bandwagon

I tend to think that reality is just data.  That the fundamental building blocks of matter and space will ultimately be shown to be bits, nothing more.  Those who have read my book, follow this blog, or my Twitter feed, realize that this has been a cornerstone of my writing since 2006.

Not that I was the first to think of any of this.  Near as I can tell, Phillip K. Dick may deserve that credit, having said “We are living in a computer programmed reality” in 1977, although I am sure that someone can find some Shakespearean reference to digital physics (“O proud software, that simulates in wanton swirl”).

Still, a mere six years ago, it was a lonely space to be in.  The few digital reality luminaries at that time included:

But since then…

– MIT Engineering Professor Seth Lloyd published “Programming the Universe” in 2006, asserting that the universe is a massive quantum computer running a cosmic program.

– Nuclear physicist Thomas Campbell published his excellent unifying theory “My Big TOE” in 2007.

– Brian Whitworth, PhD. authored a paper containing evidence that our reality is programmed: “The emergence of the physical world from information processing”, Quantum Biosystems 2010, 2 (1) 221-249  http://arxiv.org/abs/0801.0337

– University of Maryland physicist, Jim Gates, discovered error-correction codes in the laws of physics. See “Symbols of Power”, Physics World, Vol. 23, No 6, June 2010.

– Fermilab astrophysicist, Craig Hogan, speculated that space is quantized.  This was based on results from GEO600 measurements in 2010.  See: http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2010/10/holometer-universe-resolution/.  A holometer experiment is being constructed to test: http://holometer.fnal.gov/

– Rich Terrile, director of the Center for Evolutionary Computation and Automated Design at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, hypothesized that we are living in a simulated reality. http://www.vice.com/read/whoa-dude-are-we-inside-a-computer-right-now-0000329-v19n9

– Physicists Leonard Susskind ad Gerard t’Hooft, developed the holographic black hole physics theory (our universe is digitally encoded on the surface of a black hole).

Even mainstream media outlets are dipping a toe into the water to see what kinds of reactions they get, such as this recent article in New Scientist Magazine: http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21528840.800-reality-is-everything-made-of-numbers.html

So, today, I feel like I am in really great company and it is fun to watch all of the futurists, philosophers, and scientists jump on the new digital reality bandwagon.  The plus side will include the infusion of new ideas and the resulting synthesis of theory, as well as pushing the boundaries of experimental validation.  The down side will be all of the so-called experts jockeying for position.  In any case, it promises to be a wild ride, one that should last the twenty or so years it will take to create the first full-immersion reality simulation.  Can’t wait.