Friday, October 19, 2012

Did the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Get It Right?

The late, great DNA
More than 30 years ago, Douglas Adams wrote his famous Hitchhiker's Guide novels around the idea that the Earth was a giant, purpose built computer simulation intended to answer a question (actually, to question an answer) of staggering difficulty.  Of course, this was all in good fun, but the idea is actually very interesting.

Maybe Adams just didn’t think big enough.  There has been much discussion in the last few years about whether our entire universe is in fact a computer simulation (by hyper intelligent, pan-dimensional mice, if you like).  This was first seriously proposed in a 2003 paper by Nick Bostrom,  We don’t know how to build or program such a computer ourselves, but we can imagine that it could be built, and if our universe is a simulation, there is no way to know what actual constraints might exist.  



The simulation hypothesis neatly solves one problem in natural philosophy - that our universe at least appears to be fine tuned for interesting physics and chemistry.  

But let’s clarify one thing.  What we NOT talking about here is living IN a computer simulation.  It’s not that you are the only conscious being -  a sort of brain in a vat -  and all the rest of us are clever simulations (or other brains in the vat).  Instead, the proposal is that we ARE an astonishingly large and detailed simulation.  You, me, everyone else, and the entire universe.  A very, very large and complex simulation, yes, but finite, and at least theoretically plausible.  Also, for all practical purposes, you and I would still be natural phenomena.  

We probably don’t have the conceptual and cognitive apparatus to understand why such a simulation would be run - what question the simulators are trying to answer.  Ours may be just one of a large ensemble of simulations intended to answer some sort of statistical question, or it could be the only one.  The simulation might even have already served its purpose - perhaps it was just designed to compute a Frank Zappa guitar solo or Salma Hayek, or one of my future, really good blog entries.
What it's all about?  Or Cosmik Debris?

Someday we may be able to figure out if this is true, and even obtain some understanding of how the simulation is coded.  This leads to many interesting speculations:
  • Can the simulation be hacked from within? From without?  Are there security holes?
  • Is there a hierarchy of simulations?  Could we simulate another universe as complex as ours within our simulation?  Are our simulators also simulated?  Could this be a tangled hierarchy?
  • Is there a back door?  Are “miracles” allowed?
  • Can the simulators enter the simulation?  Would they stop by for a visit, or even live here?
  • Can we get a list of known bugs?
  • Can we get in on the IPO?

If it did turn out to be true, would this make any difference to us humans and how and why we live our lives?  Maybe not, or at least not for most of us.  After all, the idea that the entire universe is the dream of a god (e.g. Vishnu) has been around for millennia.   Most of us might just shrug it off as only of theoretical importance, and this might well be an altogether rational stance.  

The best thing about the Simulation Hypothesis is that it gets us thinking about what the case is if if it is not true, and how we would know.  It then serves as an exciting mental lens for asking better questions - and that’s what I am all about.

Postscript: Thanks to npr.org for the link.  

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The Dream of an Open Channel by Paul Carr is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.