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Life's Just a Game

Entry 1800, on 2016-07-06 at 11:30:49 (Rating 1, Comments)

Is life a game? Is the whole universe just one big game or simulation? It's an interesting question and one which might not be quite as frivolous as many people think. Before I explain why, I should revise a few of the common musings on the subject often found on the internet.

First there's this one: Yes, life is a game. And according to the laws of thermodynamics, there are four inviolable rules: Zeroth: You must play the game. First: You can't win. Second: You can't break even. Third: You can't quit the game.

The first and second in particular do reflect the real rules of thermodynamics quite well. Very crudely put, the first says that energy cannot be created nor destroyed, it can only change forms, and the second law says the entropy (simply put, the amount of disorder) in a system will increase.

Then there's this idea from the arts: "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages." - William Shakespeare

But what about more serious, scientific and philosophical thoughts on the subject?

Recently, I read that Elon Musk thinks that we are probably characters in some advanced civilisation's video game. In other words, he thinks life is a game. This isn't a new idea, despite some of the news outlets making it seem like Musk is onto some new, brilliant form of ontological understanding of our most basic existence. In fact, the idea goes back at least 60 years in fiction and was discussed in a serious way by philosopher Nick Bostrom in a 2003 paper called "Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?"

Yes, I realise that a simulation is not necessarily a game and vice versa, but many games do involve simulating of the real world (combat simulators, flight simulators, etc) and the distinction isn't important to the main point here. Maybe Musk thought that saying we are part of a computer game just sounded a bit cooler!

So what is the simulation hypothesis all about? Well, first I will present it in my own way which seems to lead to the conclusion that the simulation exists...

The universe is a big place, perhaps the biggest (according to author, Kurt Vonnegut) so we would expect that there must be many more places in the universe, apart from the Earth, where life, and intelligent life, has arisen.

We might also expect that in many places that intelligent life has advanced to a point far beyond where we are now. After all, the universe is 13.8 billion years old and humans (in the current form) have only been around 0.001% of that time. Surely other species on other planets became intelligent and capable of advanced technology far before we did.

We would also expect that computer technology would be an important part of any technological culture's abilities. Since computers have only been around for 70 years and have already advanced to a remarkable level, we would expect that more advanced civilisations would have computer technology billions of times more capable than ours.

We have already reached the point where some simulations are almost indistinguishable from reality so those far more advanced systems might actually be literally indistinguishable from, or at least so close to reality that it would be almost impossible to tell the difference.

These advanced races with computer systems capable of creating artificial realities would probably want to model universes which would be virtually indistinguishable from real universes.

There might be many of these artificial realities and perhaps only one real reality.

So why should we think that our reality is the real one when it is far more likely to be one of the artificial ones?

In other words, it is just common logic to accept that we really do live inside a simulation, or, to put it another way, life is just a game!

Bostrom presented the idea in a different way which lead to three possible conclusions, one of which (and the one which some people think is the most likely) was the same as mine, above...

Given all the points I have already made, he thought that one of these three conclusions must be true...

1. Either "the fraction of human-level civilizations that reach a posthuman stage (that is, one capable of running high-fidelity ancestor simulations) is very close to zero". In other words, there are almost no advanced civilisations capable of running these simulations.

2. Or, "the fraction of posthuman civilizations that are interested in running ancestor-simulations is very close to zero". In other words, the advanced civilisations exist, but they don't want to run the simulations for some reason.

3. Or, "the fraction of all people with our kind of experiences that are living in a simulation is very close to one". In other words, we live in a simulation.

Here are a few interesting points Bostrom makes about his idea...

1. He isn't claiming we live in a simulation. He just presents that as one possibility. He has said he thinks the likelihood is about 20% (but then adds "perhaps" and maybe"). He also notes that people who hear the argument usually think that one of the three conclusions is obviously true, but that there is no consensus on which one!

2. He also notes that people who claim to have experienced odd (supernatural, for example) phenomena should not claim these as evidence of glitches or bugs in the simulation. We would expect this sort of thing occasionally, even if our universe is real, simply because of mis-reporting and misunderstandings.

3. Maybe the most important point Bostrom makes is regarding whether the idea can be tested or not. One way would be if the aliens running the simulation wanted to show us that it existed. A phenomenon impossible in the natural world might occur (but see 2 above) making it clear our universe isn't natural. Or we could reach a stage of technology where we ourselves could create a simulation of this sort. There's no reason why one simulation couldn't run a second one.

And if we reached an insurmountable problem which prevented us reaching a more advanced state (total destruction in a nuclear war for example) or we realised that there are fundamental limits on simulations which can never be overcome, then this would be evidence against the simulation option being true.

4. Bostrom doesn't see any direct connection between the hypothesis and religion but there is an undeniable indirect connection, especially in relation to intelligent design. He quotes one atheist as saying this is the best evidence for God yet!

And finally, these are my additional thoughts on the subject...

1. I put this in a similar category to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (although its scope is even greater, of course). But like SETI we are working with very little initial data. Of course, Bostrom is a philosopher, not a scientist, so we shouldn't necessarily expect the same level of rigour as we would from science.

2. There are several major (and a few minor) assumptions we must make in order for the idea to even pass the first stage of appraisal. First, there must be life elsewhere in the universe; second, life must reach a level of intelligence where advanced technology is possible; third, computer technology must be capable of creating a simulation of sufficient accuracy that it is virtually identical to reality (whatever that is); and finally the "sims" must gain consciousness (whatever that is).

3. Most simulations have a degree of "granularity" where, if you look with sufficient precision, you will see a limit to their accuracy. You will reach a "pixel" size which cannot be divided any further. Well, I must mention the Planck length and Planck time here. These can be interpreted as the basic units of space and time in our universe, just like we would expect in a simulation!

The Planck length is 1.61 x 10^-35 meters, which means the resolution of our universe is about 4 billion trillion trillion dots per inch. Sure sounds like a simulation - and a very good one - to me.

So yes, it looks like life really is just a big computer game. Can we have a reboot?


Comment 2 (4515) by OJB on 2016-07-07 at 11:50:33: (view earlier comments)

I'm not sure. There are so many unknowns that I really don't think it can be treated as a scientific question and maybe never will be. But as an interesting philosophical question or a wild speculation I think it is very interesting. Most people have trouble seeing any flaws in the basic argument.


Comment 3 (4516) by Richard on 2016-07-09 at 20:41:07:

Fun article, I will respect your blog and not change topic by focussing in on point 4 - though I do like it's logic. :-) Rather will stick to your fascinating topic i.e. real vs model 'things'. There were a couple of thoughts / queries that came to mind...

Can you really talk about sim universes, indistinguishable from 'real ones', when you were suggesting they were created by more advanced intelligences WITHIN the same universe? Clearly if we (in our simulation) can't detect the sim creators then what you are really saying by definition is that there is a 'super' reality existing in some 'universe' completely outside our simulated one. Obviously our universe cannot itself be a simulation that is created by an intelligent agent that exists in the same simulation.

So perhaps EARTH could be a simulation by a super intelligent extraterrestrial agent in our universe, but not our entire universe itself? Thoughts?

Having said that though - my real query though is: in what sense are any 'simulations' we create not 'real'. We say they are 'sims' simply to clarify that they are 'intelligently designed creations' that are 'like' (simulating) something we already experience as 'natural'. But the simulation is in fact no less 'real' because we created it. It is just a very real 'something else', is it not?

Finally, that all simulations have a granularity, and we also detect our universe has a granularity does not logically 'force' the universe to be a sim. If we are 'real' then any sims we create must have some granularity - that's the only conclusion logic enforces.



Comment 4 (4517) by OJB on 2016-07-10 at 12:15:49:

Sure, the Earth could be a simulation and the rest of the universe could be real, or maybe the universe doesn't exists at all and is part of an illusion created in the simulation. When we get back to first principles, a la Rene Descartes, maybe it is just me which is simulated me and the rest is an illusion! I can't see any sure way to avoid the inevitable final conclusion of solipsism.

The real universe is one which comes about as an inevitable consequence of the fundamental laws of physics. The simulations are deliberate creations of conscious entities. Of course, if you believe in a god which is a conscious entity which created the "real" universe then it might be argued they all have equal status.

I agree that the granularity doesn't prove the universe is a simulation. I just thought it was na interesting point that I hadn't seen discussed in this context before.


Comment 5 (4518) by richard on 2016-07-10 at 21:26:08:

Cheers for that. It was indeed a very interesting point about granularity - I agree. :) As promised, I don't intend to get into any 'God talk', since this is not what readers of blog items that aren't in the Religion category are wanting. I am just still curious in your definition of real vs sim wrt universes.

You state that the 'real' universe is one which comes about as an inevitable consequence of the fundamental laws of physics. And sims are 'deliberate creations of conscious entities'?

Under that reasoning, IF the universe is in fact 'real' (and I mean by your definition) then all the deliberate creations we as 'real' conscious entities have made in this real universe (like our computer) are in fact not 'real' but sims - & that seems pretty difficult to justify to me.

Put more clearly - is your definition not suspiciously arbitrarily crafted to suggest that IF the universe itself did actually turn out to be the 'deliberate creation of a conscious entity' then somehow it's not 'real', but more of a sim? And that to me is just as difficult to swallow as suggesting our computers are sims, (again under your definition of a universe that was just another cosmic domino)? Your seem to indicate that only by a belief in (any) 'conscious entity that created the entire universe' might you start to argue that they have equal status. My query was how are the sims we (or anyone else) creates - not still 'real' (just different) entities in either chosen paradigm?


Comment 6 (4519) by OJB on 2016-07-10 at 22:09:49:

A simulation is something which is created to imitate an existing object using a mechanism entirely different form the original. Or here is a more specific definition from the Oxford dictionary: "the production of a computer model of something, especially for the purpose of study". So the original universe couldn't be a simulation since there was nothing else for it to simulate.

If a conscious entity created the universe then I wouldn't class it as a simulation because it couldn't be the model of anything else since no other universe existed.

Note that a sufficiently advanced simulation could be as good as the original. In fact a perfect simulation would be identical to the original. So the words "real" and "simulation" don't necessary convey any relative value.


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