There’s a cool article at Vice at the moment titled “Whoa, Dude, Are We Inside a Computer Right Now?“, which discusses the idea that we are living inside a computer simulation. This isn’t something new to us here at the Grail – we’ve covered Nick Bostrom’s thoughts on the topic previously (e.g. “The Matrix in the Mainstream“). The Vice piece though talks to Rich Terrile, a planetary scientist with NASA, who is also exploring the concept that our universe – and the conscious beings within it – is one great simulation (possibly within another simulation, and so on…turtles all the way down!).
One of the points Terrile makes is something I’ve pondered myself previously. When playing a game, in order to make most efficient use of processing power and memory, the computer will only ‘construct’ the part of the world that you need to see/interact with at any one time, rather than the entire ‘world’ that you are playing in. This brought to mind the concept and controversy in quantum physics of an observer-created world (eg. does the Moon exist if we’re not looking at it?). Terrile has considered the same thing:
The other interesting thing is that the natural world behaves exactly the same way as the environment of Grand Theft Auto IV. In the game, you can explore Liberty City seamlessly in phenomenal detail. I made a calculation of how big that city is, and it turns out it’s a million times larger than my PlayStation 3. You see exactly what you need to see of Liberty City when you need to see it, abbreviating the entire game universe into the console. The universe behaves in the exact same way. In quantum mechanics, particles do not have a definite state unless they’re being observed. Many theorists have spent a lot of time trying to figure out how you explain this. One explanation is that we’re living within a simulation, seeing what we need to see when we need to see it.
Regardless of whether the theory is correct, I find it an interesting – almost necessary – thought experiment, for trying to understand how the cosmos may differ from what we think is obvious. In the case of the observation above, suddenly the idea “we’re not the centre of the universe” becomes completely wrong again – indeed, ‘the universe’ only exists at any one time in limited space around our centre of being. Could we explain this new way of looking at the universe to someone from the 19th century, without the examples of computer games and quantum physics to draw on? If not, by extension, what different perspectives and insights into the nature of existence will the people of the 31st century have, as compared to us?
And Terrile himself seems to suffer from our vulnerability to being trapped within the dominant paradigm, even while contemplating the simulation argument:
Unless you believe there’s something magical about consciousness — and I don’t, I believe it’s the product of a very sophisticated architecture within the human brain — then you have to assume that at some point it can be simulated by a computer, or in other words, replicated.
That’s right, the man who is proposing that our consciousness may be resulting from an algorithm courtesy of an external creator, or being ‘inserted’ into a simulation from some other place, doesn’t believe there is something “magical” about consciousness. And yet these sorts of ideas have been discussed for many a year in regards to psi and life-after-death arguments (for example, see Michael Grosso’s thoughts on ‘transmission theory‘).