Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Simulations of the Universe and of the Self

There has of late been excitement about the notion that our universe might be a simulation, and most lately in this article in the Guardian, by Olivia Solon.

Solon chooses for her springboard Elon Musk's recent assertion that “There’s a billion to one chance we’re living in base reality." This in turn, as Solon notes, is inspired by Nick Bostrom's 2003 essay "Are You Living in a Computer Civilisation?" Bostrom talks of "posthuman civilisation", a stage of development where humans have the capability of simulating the human mind. Through a beautifully wild piece of mathematics he argues that "at least one of the following propositions is true:

 (1) the human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a “posthuman” stage;
 (2) any posthuman civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history (or variations thereof);
 (3) we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation."

Elon Musk, it would appear, has ditched the first two possibilities in favour of the third.

Solon says the idea goes back to Descartes, but it actually goes a back a lot further. Two and a half millenia back, to when The Buddha told us that all of reality as we experience it is a construct.

Descartes questioned if were possible to provide empirical evidence that his own reality was not a dream, and found that he could not. To this extent we can see parallels with the simulation theories. However, in the famed cogito ergo sum - "I think therefore I am" - Descartes is quite at odds with the simulation theory, and with Buddhism. He places the I am, the tangible self, outside of the construct of his dream and firmly into Musk's "base reality". Bostrom's simulation theory is more in harmony with the Buddhist concept of annata, or the Doctrine of No-Soul. The illusion of the self as considered by the Buddhist philosophy is nothing more or less than the stimuli which is processed by the senses; as the stimuli ceases, so too the mirage it creates, the mirage of the individual.

That Musk chooses to forgo the first two of Bostrom's possibilities in favour of the third is, I would argue, a sign of the great optimism of a man who believed he could make spaceships and subsequently did so. It would seem that many pointers exist to the pessimistic first possibility; that we will not survive to the posthuman stage. These pointers are for another discussion, but include such exciting and cheery topics as the exhaustion of resources, climate change and thermonuclear wars.

Even if we were to survive to the posthuman stage, and the exponential explosion in simulations within simulations that Bostrom predicts does occur, the existence of each and every layer would be predicated on the survival of the technology in the base layer. Should a cataclysmic event occur at that base level all worlds would come tumbling down.

That Bostrom makes the assumption that a posthuman civilisation would choose to simulate themselves plays to one of the elemental constants of all human society - narcissism.

Also and finally, I am not sure what difference it makes, in any case.


  1. "the existence of each and every layer would be predicated on the survival of the technology in the base layer. "

    At least we know we aren't running in 'the cloud'. Maybe there is 'the instellar dust' version?

    Anyway, since simulations can only really be a full simulation based on granularity representing the smallest part of a 'reality', then it must mean the quantum is actually a hilarious recursive contruct to stop people trying to observe any deeper and thus having knowledge beyond the fourth wall. Or maybe they did.

    Douglas Adams said it best: "There is a theory which states that if ever anybody discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened."

    Anyhow. EM and Descartes in the same article is a but much, but I did enjoy it.

    Also I quite like the Make Noise René, which is a recent addition so enjoyed the 'coincidence' of this article, too. Obviously the developers of our current reality enjoy baiting us.

    Which goes to show that developers are all the same.

    Where was I?

    Oh yes. Nice article. Just going off to google 'self simulation' to see if you hit the results...

    1. That is a very fine and relevant Douglas Adams quote. I wish I had remembered that myself.