There is an unusually fun discussion on Slashdot about a not very good paper that suggests that physicists should explore the question of whether the universe is a simulation by a sufficiently advanced civilization. The argument is an old one: the basic premise is that if a civilization ever advances far enough that they are able to simulate a universe as complicated as ours, they’ll probably simulate it zillions of times, which implies there are more simulations than universes, which implies we’re likely in a simulation. The argument from probability seems silly to me: starting with a premise that we have no way to analyze probabilistically (“ever advances far enough …”) and ending with a probabilistic argument is an awkward path, but …
The basic question is interesting from a philosophy of science perspective. If we are in a simulation, can we ever know? If so, can we affect the simulation? There are good reasons to believe we could not learn if we’re in a simulation, because all of our a posteriori knowledge would be of the simulated universe. How could we design an experiment that would measure something the is by definition outside of the things we can measure? The paper cited on Slashdot suggests that we might seek information theoretic limitations of our current universe. I’m not sure a discovery one way or the other would convince anyone: if there are limitations on the information processing ability of our universe, that might just be the physics of our universe, rather than evidence of an underlying computer a lot like our current computers. If there are no such limits (that we can find), they might just be very hard to find — or the universe might be running on a very different type of computer, with different limits than those we are used to.
In any case, we’re probably best off continuing to work away at figuring out what the rules of our universe are. If it is a simulation, it’s a pretty good one, and we probably can’t prevent the cosmic Ctrl-Alt-Del anyway.
Of course, we might be able to induce a Ctrl-Alt-Del if we want to. Perhaps there’s a bug in the simulation software that we could exploit to cause the blue screen of death on a grand scale. (Some people have suggested that nuclear weapons are such a bug, on a planetary scale.)
I’m reminded of an old story about an early disk drive. The drive was large, nearly as tall as a person, and much wider. The story is that the disk read/write assembly was massive enough that if the software “seeked” from side to side of the drive rhythmically, the drive could be made to tip slightly from side to side, and eventually to “walk” across the floor. Perhaps a goal of physics should be to see if we can tip a cosmic disk drive over, to see what would happen.
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