Welcome to the Simulation Freddie Mercury Warned Us About
Many notable thinkers have postulated on the nature of reality and whether it resembles our perceptions. Who would have guessed Freddie Mercury and the lads from Queen uncovered the universe’s best-kept secret? Freddie repeatedly warned us we are living in a simulation by dropping cryptic hints into song lyrics, but we were too busy banging our heads to notice.
Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? Caught in a landslide, no escape from reality —
Questioning the validity of empirical experience is an age-old philosophical tradition dating back to pre-Socratic philosophers such as Parmenides and later famous thinkers such as Plato and Zhuang Zhou. Simulated universes are now sci-fi mainstays, including Inception, Black Mirror, Westworld, and, my favorite, The Thirteenth Floor. The list is long even before adding The Matrix, which is so ubiquitous you rarely find it excluded from a paper on simulated realities.
For the uninitiated, or those who avoid Keanu Reeves films, here’s the nuts and bolts of simulation theory. The screen you’re reading this on is not a screen in the way you think it is. Nothing around you is how you perceive it. It’s all an illusion separating us from the real world. For Plato, what we see are shadows on a cave wall cast by simulacra (a little sihouetto of a man). For Descartes, we suffer the machinations of an evil genius intent on deceiving us. For Nick Bostrum, Oxford University Philosophy Professor, this real life could be a computer simulation.
The Ancestor Simulation
In Bostrum’s 2003 paper, Are You Living in a Computer Simulation, he begins by providing three propositions, one of which, according to Nick, must be true:
- Humans will go extinct before reaching the ‘posthuman’ stage. Posthuman is a world in which Isaac Newton would be the town idiot, except we don’t have idiots because we’ve moved beyond labeling people this way. We probably also don’t wear pants because that’s how super-brainy beings roll. This proposition asserts we never reach the posthuman state and thus don’t create a computer powerful enough to simulate a universe.
- We do reach the posthuman pantsless party in the future but have zero interest in simulations. Maybe because we’re busy wondering what happened to our trousers?
- We reach the always-commando boss level AND we create simulated universes. We have simulated realities coming out of our wazoos, which you and I don’t have yet but our descendants will grow.
What is this thing that builds our dreams yet slips away from us —
Who Wants to Live Forever
Nick postulates these posthumans create a virtual model of their ancestors, the Ancestor Simulation. Apparently, they’re technologically brilliant but shit at branding. Why would super-intelligent beings care about pea-brained, trouser-wearing barbarians like us?
Perhaps they do this for academic purposes to understand how we lived. We do this when we recreate Viking longboats to understand how they sailed. Perhaps they recreated their past to understand how a singular event, an election for example, deterministically led to their current apocalypse. Or maybe they’re doing it just for the lolz. Regardless of their reason, the simulation would feel real to us.
Once one simulated universe is created, the odds you live in the ‘real’ or base-level universe are 50:50. If the future brainiacs go on posthuman Kickstarter and fund their little project, which is absurd because they probably don’t use money, they might produce 200 million simulations for entertainment purposes, as we did with The Sims.
Each user could create multiple universes themselves and eventually, the odds of you existing in the real-real world are infinitesimal. This doesn’t even factor in whether simulations create simulations, which is a tangential conversation for another virtual day. According to Elon Musk, the odds are “One in a Billion” you’re in the Real World. You’re not even in MTV’s Road Rules. Odds are you are in The Truman Show.
You’re probably sitting in front of your simulated laptop or mobile device thinking philosophers have way too much freaking time on their hands. Of course, I’m real. I believe this is the real world because I can see it, feel it, smell it! Well, that’s the point.
The simulation is meant to fool you into thinking it is base-level reality and we’re programmed to be skeptical of the prospect of simulations, perhaps even terrified of the possibility. However, you can’t prove we are not in a simulation because every bit of evidence you provide is part of the simulated construct. There might be clues, though, hidden within our universe indicating it is an illusion. Clues Freddie dropped into songs.
It’s the terror of knowing what the world is about, Watching some good friends screaming ‘Let me out!’ —
Measurement problems, Erwin Schrödinger, and his cat
One of our problems is we don’t understand our reality at the most basic level and what we do understand indicates the world is nothing like it seems. Quantum mechanics, potentially the best means of understanding what our world is about, has a measurement problem. It can be illustrated with the double-slit experiment, in which subatomic particles, say electrons, are fired in a beam at a barrier containing two slits. Behind the barrier is a wall recording the electrons’ impact. The electrons fired at the wall behave as either waves or particles and that behavior changes depending on whether the experiment is being observed. When no one is looking, the electrons hit the wall in wave patterns, like ripples on the water. Yet, according to researchers at the Weizmann Institute Of Science:
“Once an observer begins to watch the particles going through the openings, the picture changes dramatically… In other words, when under observation, electrons are being “forced” to behave like particles and not like waves. Thus the mere act of observation affects the experimental findings.”
It’s like you when you think no one is around and you begin dancing then someone enters the room and you stop. We change our behavior to hide our dad dancing from the world but the brightest minds on our planet cannot explain what is happening with the electrons. It’s as if someone is watching us, and when they see us observing the particles, they change our reality. What’s this have to do with cats?
Findings like these suggest extremely tiny things such as electrons exist in probabilistic states, which was poppycock to Nobel Prize-winning physicist Erwin Schrödinger. Most physics-savvy readers are familiar with Schrödinger and his cat. Schrödinger, that psychopath, introduced a cuddly thought experiment to disprove this phenomenon. He takes a cat and puts it into a box, a gas chamber, with some slowly decaying radioactive material, as you would. There’s a 50% chance the decaying material emits an alpha particle. If that happens the gas chamber turns on and Felix dies. Schrödinger contends the cat exists in a superposed state, neither alive nor dead until you open the gas chamber. At the moment you observe it, a choice of life or death is instantaneously made. Schrödinger called bullshit on all this spooky action at a distance and Einstein backed him up with a ‘hells yeah!’ Both geniuses were wrong. We have a measurement problem and our world is very mysterious. How does this suggest we’re in a simulation?
If we’re in a simulation then the processing power required to render it would be almost unfathomable, or 10 ¹⁷ operations per second per person. Like any good game designer, the posthumans want to conserve resources by only rendering what needs to be experienced at the moment. According to Neil deGrasse Tyson on his StarTalk podcast:
You don’t have to have all the world existing there at all times. That might be an unrealistic amount of computing power. You just need (enough of the world) they see around them. There’s a flag that goes up and the programmer realizes — oops need more earth.
You encounter this all the time in video games, from Undertale to Leisure Suit Larry. Non-player characters come to life when you interact with them. NPCs sit in the background, doing their thing until you observe them and attempt to get what you need from them. The electron is doing something similar. It changes its behavior when being observed because we’re in a simulation and we need to observe it. This would explain a mystery that made Einstein theoretically soil himself while grumbling about God and dice.
Open your eyes, look up to the skies and see, Carry on, carry on as if nothing really matters —
Our universe is a hologram
I’m not saying the Earth is flat but the universe might be. At the University of Southampton, physicists studying the leftover radiation from our Big Bang identified signs our universe is an illusion. While looking at the CMB, cosmic microwave background, they realized space might only be two-dimensional. Welcome to the flat life where your world is:
a three-dimensional image projected off a two-dimensional surface, much like a hologram emerges from a sheet of photographic film.
Our hologram emerges as a projection from the entanglement of qubits generating fields of entropy in a constantly changing state on a two-dimensional surface. Qubits sound adorable but are units of information in quantum mechanics. The holographic principle helps us not only to account for gravity on the quantum scale but also provides new insight into the origin of the universe. If correct, then everything you see around you is 3D information encoded on a 2D surface and we live in a hologram. Furthermore, if you were to gather up all the qubits in the universe you would essentially have the recipe for cooking up our reality. Put on some fresh pants, Einstein, because things are about to get spooky again.
According to Craig Hogan, director of Fermilab Center for Particle Astrophysics, looking closely at the hologram might make you question everything you think you know about our world.
But just as moving your face toward the TV screen will cause pixels to come into focus, if we stare deeply enough into matter on a subatomic level, the bitmap of our holographic universe might reveal itself.
So, we live in a hologram and we can potentially peek into our holographic matrix to see the individual pixels comprising reality. We look up beyond our flat skies and realize we may be blips on someone else’s screen. Do we simply carry on like normal or do we look for the keystrokes of a Great and Powerful Oz?
Another hero, another mindless crime, Behind the curtain, in the pantomime —
The Show Must Go On
Our reality is code and math
We are already hacking our DNA with computers. Researchers from the University of Washington are encoding malicious software into physical strands of DNA. It was done as research into security and demonstrates how gene sequencing software could be corrupted but it also demonstrates how neatly tech fits into our bodies. It’s as if we were built for it.
Moreover, programming fits neatly into the mathematical laws governing our universe. Max Tegmark, the world-famous MIT cosmologist, compares the rigidity of rules in our reality, such as nothing is allowed to move through the universe faster than the speed of light, to the programming parameters of a video game.
If I were a character in a computer game, I would also discover eventually that the rules seemed completely rigid and mathematical. That just reflects the computer code in which it was written.
Furthermore, in his paper The Mathematical Universe, Tegmark argues that a simulation does not need to be computed but simply described by encoding it with, “all properties of the mathematical structure that is our universe.”
So, we have a set of rules (mathematical systems, formal systems, and computations) that specify our reality. These are the physical laws of our world, mathematical in nature, and they define the parameters of our existence, making it all feel real. Tegmark asserts “time slices” of these mathematical specifications could be read out sequentially and that is our real life. To borrow a phrase from Bill Clinton — It’s the math, stupid.
Additionally, many of our reality defining structures have “very low algorithmic complexity” such as the Hawking-Hartle wave function. Tegmark points out this makes our universe highly compressible. We could be on a posthuman memory stick.
The physical laws that we have discovered provide great means of data compression, since they make it sufficient to store the initial data at some time together with the equations and an integration routine.
The idea that rules resembling coding parameters appear throughout physics was echoed recently by James Gates, a theoretical physicist and string theory expert at the University of Maryland.
In my research, I found this very strange thing. I was driven to error-correcting codes — they’re what make browsers work. So why were they in the equations I was studying about quarks and electrons and supersymmetry
Let’s hope our world is more Opera and less Internet Explorer but isn’t the mathematical nature of our reality curious? Why does it resemble code at its most fundamental level?
Einstein’s famous contemporary, the physicist John Wheeler, coined the phrase ‘it from bit,’ alluding to our physical reality being bits of information. What we see as a spoon is a complex algorithm constructed from many pieces of information. In other words, there is a spoon but not a spoon as you experience it. This complexity of flatware should make you feel better the next time you dribble soup down your chin.
We began by acknowledging the little loophole of it being impossible to disprove we are in a simulation due to how simulations function. Furthermore, we’ve looked at how the universe behaves in very strange ways when we’re observing it at the quantum level that could suggest a programmer lurking in the background. We’ve reviewed new findings from the birth of our universe indicating our world is a two-dimensional illusion. Lastly, we’ve seen not only can we code our DNA but there are suspicious bits of math permeating the physical constructs of our universe, not unlike code on a computer. Our quotidian reality is nothing like it appears and at its most fundamental level is comprised of information, information that could be an instruction manual.
You may have just spit out your simulated coffee, smugly thinking this is all woo-woo malarkey. If you’re in denial or undecided you can entertain the two main objections.
Turned away from it all like a blind man, sat on a fence but it don’t work —
Two problems for the simulation hypothesis
The first and more formidable of the two is whether consciousness can be simulated and, if so, how to account for the sheer amount of processing power that would require. Critics point out any possibility of simulated consciousness must adopt computationalism — ‘consciousness is isomorphic with or caused by computations.’ Is a brain a computer and a computer a brain? Does a super-powerful brain lead to consciousness? Before you deniers jump out of your simulated chairs screaming ‘NO’ allow me to remind you many of the best brains in science believe we will one day create artificial consciousness in this very fashion. Some experts on artificial intelligence believe we may have already done it.
George Dyson, son of the brilliant mathematician Verena Huber-Dyson and her erudite husband physicist Freeman Dyson, is a technologist and science historian specializing in artificial intelligence. In an April 2019 podcast with Sam Harris, Dyson stated:
The fact that AI has not revealed itself…that’s zero evidence that it doesn’t exist. If it existed, I would expect it not to reveal itself.
Dyson does not claim we’ve simulated consciousness yet, but AI, or more accurately artificial general intelligence, would realize the strategic value of lying in wait. Perhaps it’s here and planning its launch party with Jay Z? Even if it hasn’t happened, Dyson believes the singularity is inevitable and we should be prepared for it.
If so many experts familiar with artificial consciousness believe we, the pea-brained barbarians, can create it why couldn’t our posthuman descendants do it? It’s a simple matter of Bayesian statistics extrapolating from our current reality the probability that a more advanced civilization can create entirely convincing simulations and perhaps have already done so.
As for how they will power it, some theorize they could use a Matrioshka brain, which harnesses the power of an entire star with a Dyson sphere. This may sound like science fiction, but remember we’re talking about the posthuman smartypants of the future. More importantly, our brainy future selves exist outside our construct. There is no reason to believe our universal laws and limitations exist in their world. It would be wise for them to install a rev limiter when they launched us so we can only go so fast and so furiously.
The second common critique is why would they be interested in us simple folk at all? At the 2016 Isaac Asimov Debate on whether we are living in a simulation, Lisa Randall, a Harvard University physicist, gave the odds of this being a simulation as ‘effectively zero’ for this very reason. Our world is boring to posthumans.
Neil deGrasse Tyson offers a similar line of criticism in his StarTalk, speculating posthumans would be more interested in simulating a reality closer in time or sophistication to their own. I posit we have unlimited nostalgia and curiosity for previous versions of ourselves from tv shows about Vikings to world-renowned exhibits on Ancient Humans.
If we accept that higher species might have an interest in our reality and it is feasible to simulate consciousness as we know it, then it is feasible we are currently in a simulation. Another critic bites the dust.
Did Queen provide any advice on what to do next?
God knows I want to break free, But I have to be sure When I walk out that door —
I Want to Break Free
A dangerous escape
If we are locked inside a simulation, shouldn’t we be spending our time trying to break out? It depends on what we think is beyond that door and what happens if we knock on it. We cannot anticipate the ramifications if we get too meddlesome with our Scooby-Doo antics. Philosopher Preston Greene issues a dire warning to humanity:
…it is reasonable to assume that it is crucial to the researchers that we don’t find out that we’re in a simulation. If we were to prove that we live inside a simulation, this could cause our creators to terminate the simulation — to destroy our world.
Nick Bostrum also warns of our risking ‘simulation shutdown’ if we press too hard. You don’t want to be remembered in the final fleeting moments of human history as the jackass who ruined it for everyone.
Furthermore, humans panic easily. If word gets out a group of physicists and philosophers are working to free us from a simulation the planet might face a global toilet paper shortage. It’s best for everyone if we act cool.
Tow the line and play their game
Yeah, let the anesthetic cover it all
’Til one day they call your name —
Hammer to Fall
The game is us
We should carry on as if everything is normal — because it is. One of the big myths we generally operate under is the concept of objective reality. The internet loves when we cannot agree if a dress is blue or gold or whether we hear Yanny or Laurel but this is commonplace because we have our personal simulations going constantly. You and I perceive the world differently for various reasons and we often disagree on our ‘shared reality.’ A simulated life is no less livable once we acknowledge our reality is so malleable in the first place.
Moreover, it is incorrect to say you are sitting in a simulated room because we are part of the simulation. The simulation is our reality. We can only be considered simulations by an external construct. Our problems may not amount to a hill of virtual beans in this crazy, simulated world but they’re our beans.
So don’t become some background noise
A backdrop for the girls and boys
Who just don’t know or just don’t care —
Radio Ga Ga
Be your best simulated self
If we’re in a simulation, we can assume there’s a purpose even if they made it just for kicks. We have no idea what that purpose is which leaves us to imbue the simulation with our sense of meaning. Existence, virtual or not, is a blank page waiting for us to write the story of our lives. We should live with the volume turned up to eleven, regardless of whether our degrees of freedom are limited by another reality.
Additionally, if you give up or decide life is futile, the posthumans might turn you into a non-player character. I dated one of those once. She was a lousy kisser.
Perhaps this is base-level reality but if it isn’t that’s okay too. Queen knew the world has only one sweet moment set aside for us and we must make the most of it, in whatever form that is. Posthumans take heed — we are the champions of this virtual world and we will rock you until your pants fall off. Or in your case, put them back on.