On The Universe as Simulation

Please pardon if I come across as lacking sleep on this one – I am. I evene started writing the essay on the name of the file when I created the new document.  Anyway, The Matrix.

The Matrix is an incredible, thought provoking movie. Not only did it break boundaries of narrative and transmediation, it also offered an interesting philosophical perspective on how we see the world: what if we’re all just a simulation?

Turns out that a scientist from NASA thinks that this is true, and he’s trying to find evidence to prove his claim (http://www.vice.com/read/whoa-dude-are-we-inside-a-computer-right-now-0000329-v19n9).

His belief is that there will be a technological singularity that will allow us to simulate entire worlds through generations in only a few hours.  However, he claims that this technological singularity has already happened, and that a scientist / programmer in the future is simulating what he would call “ancient history”. As evidence, NASA scientist Rich Terrile explains that (and this is a very reductive explanation) when we see some of the smallest microscopic organisms, they are pixelated, just like computer games. He also shows as evidence the laws of quantum mechanics and the laws of mathematics as they function in the real world, which, according to him work just like they do in video games. In short, Terrile is saying that because reality behaves like a video game, then it must be a simulation / video game, or as a colorful article stated, we are all NPCs in a Playstation 7 (http://www.playstationlifestyle.net/2012/09/12/nasa-scientist-thinks-were-all-npcs-in-the-playstation-7/).

The Simulated Reality theory has some merit as far as philosophy and theory is concerned. It is true that with increased technology we will be able to simulate the birth and evolution of universes, and with research into AI it would not be hard to create self-reproductive AI beings that are self-aware and live within a simulation. Heck, I would argue that, visual fidelity aside, we already are able to create simulations of the universe  and virtual spaces large enough to be considered digital realities. In fact, this concept has already been explored in video games (my favorite being Star Ocean: Till the End of Time). Heck, the fact that the Big Bang model can only take us as far back as 10^-43 when there were only nuclear forces, electromagnetism, and gravity condensed into a microscopic particle of incredible density can even be considered as “evidence of a creator of the universe” [1], as no scientist (as far as I’m aware) really knows how those forces “got there”.

However, the way that Terrile phrases his claim and his proposed evidence is simply ridiculous. Let’s consider Terrile’s premises, starting with the most problematic one:

He states that ” The universe is also pixelated—in time, space, volume, and energy. There exists a fundamental unit that you cannot break down into anything smaller, which means the universe is made of a finite number of these units.” Terrile equates these “units”, quarks and other hadrons (or if you adhere to ‘string theory’ then a bunch of strings), which might be finite but might also not be (he makes the assumption that they are) to a video game pixel. Here’s the problem:  complexity and interaction. Quarks interact with bosons and leptons to make protons and neutrons, which make atoms, which get together to make… everything. A pixel is a pixel. Mario is made up of about 144 pixels (12*12) that don’t interact with each other to create more complex units of pixelation. The same is true of (insert favorite video game character here). You zoom in (sometimes you don’t even need to zoom) and voila, a pixel. Versus reality…. zoom in… cells… zoom in further… DNA… further…particles… until eventually we get to the quark. This might lead to making the case that because of how complex of a matter these units interact in reality they might actually be self aware, and thus we are not a simulation, but I won’t. Don’t really care for that. The point is this: a quark <> a pixel.

Also, last I checked, quantum mechanics didn’t provide for pixelation and it presupposed an infinite universe.

Now let’s move on to the most ridiculous statement he made:  ” The other interesting thing is that the natural world behaves exactly the same way as the environment of Grand Theft Auto IV.”

Think about this for a second… Yes, a NASA scientist said that because the games we make resemble how real life is, then real life is likely a video game. Terrile has obviously never heard the saying “authors write about what they know” – the same is true of game designers. Game designers know (perhaps not at an academic level, but intrinsically) that whenever you let go of something it falls down. It’s called gravity. Game designers know that for an individual to move or jump, they must use their muscles (force leads to movement). This is why whenever a game’s core play component (or a movie’s concept) revolves around breaking these laws it is hailed as innovative. Just look at all the rave that Katmari games caused a while back. They were fun, but nowhere near the artistic level of Flower, nowhere near as compelling as Tetris, and nowhere near as fun as (insert Mario title here). But YOU GET TO ROLL UP STUFF OMG WHO THOUGHT OF THAT! The same happens with movies. At the risk of getting flamed, the concept of Inception was good, but the execution was poor, which lead to a sub-par movie but OMG ITS A DREAM AND YOU CAN BEND SPACE. People write about what they know.  With all their knowledge rooted on real life, can it be any surprise that OUR GAMES REFLECT REALITY and not the other way around?

If we were to accept that because reality is like the media we produce then reality is that media, I would suggest that we are all living in a really long and elaborate choose your own adventure paperback.

Anyway, on to his next point:

“In the game, you can explore Liberty City seamlessly in phenomenal detail. I made a calculation of how big that city is, and it turns out it’s a million times larger than my PlayStation 3. You see exactly what you need to see of Liberty City when you need to see it, abbreviating the entire game universe into the console. The universe behaves in the exact same way. In quantum mechanics, particles do not have a definite state unless they’re being observed. Many theorists have spent a lot of time trying to figure out how you explain this. One explanation is that we’re living within a simulation, seeing what we need to see when we need to see it.”

Do you see the computer in front of you? Look away for three seconds then look back at it. Done?  Do you know what happened to your computer in those three seconds? Because “. In quantum mechanics, particles do not have a definite state unless they’re being observed”, it means that during those three seconds when you were not observing it, the particles that make up your computer became a variable mass of particles that when you looked back could have become something else, but because “mathematics”, “probability”, and “quantum theory” those particles just so happened to re-take the shape of your computer. Keep in mind, this idea is brought to you by the same group of people who claim that if you trap a cat into a box with a poison container that will open at a random moment, the cat is both alive and dead at the same time because no one is observing it. This doesn’t mean that quantum theory is just a bunch of quacks. Quantum theorists proposed ideas regarding particle behavior that are interesting. However, when quantum theory becomes detached from the theoretical world and from the world of particles, its ideas become detached from reality.

So on to the final idea stated by Terrile:

” we’re at the threshold of being able to create a universe—a simulation—and that we in turn could be living inside a simulation, which could be in turn yet another simulation. And our simulated beings could also create simulations. What I find intriguing is, if there is a creator, and there will be a creator in the future and it will be us, this also means if there’s a creator for our world, here, it’s also us. This means we are both God and servants of God, and that we made it all. What I find inspiring is that, even if we are in a simulation or many orders of magnitude down in levels of simulation, somewhere along the line something escaped the primordial ooze to become us and to result in simulations that made us. ”

In short – and this is what other pieces covering this guy’s statements open with – a scientist in our future created a simulation of us. Here’s the problem: this statement doesn’t take into account true AI evolution. If we are to buy into the whole AI and Singularity principles, then the idea that we in our future created ourselves is automatically discarded. You see, if AI is to truly evolve in any meaningful way, it will do so in a variety of ways. Meaning that the AI-driven outcome of each simulation will be distinctly different from one simulation to the next. The AI will come up with different logarithms to restructure itself, which will lead to a different reality than that of its creator.  In short, whoever created our world as a simulation (assuming that this is true), then that individual (I question that an unseen creator is necessarily male, as Terrile presuposes) who created our simulated universe lives outside of the simulation, not inside of it [1].

What really pains me about Terrile’s comments is that the idea of the universe being a simulation is not an entirely crazy. Based on what we KNOW of the universe and where everything came from, we MIGHT be a simulation (just as we might be something else). However, this doesn’t mean that the universe is a “we’re all connected to computers that feed robots Matrix-like” simulation (I highly doubt this), and it certainly doesn’t mean that Terrile’s arguments for the theory are correct (most of them were off-base).

Also, when Terrile says that “perhaps that’s a boundary condition for us, and explains why there are no aliens” – there is a higher probability of there being aliens than of the universe being a simulation.

Just sayin.


About Quijano

Johansen Quijano is a professor of English in The University of Texas at Arlington, where he is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in English. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in the Teaching of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), a Master’s Degree in Curriculum and Development focusing on TESOL, and a Master’s Degree in English Literature. He has published and presented on a variety of topics including video game studies, popular culture studies, education, teaching methodology, language acquisition, romantic poetry, and victorian literature. His research interests include the above-mentioned topics, narrative, interactivity, simulation, new media in general, and 18th century literature. He also enjoys creative writing (fiction, historical fiction, and poetry), and reading all kinds of epic literary works - from the Epic Poem of Gilgamesh to Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series.

Posted on September 13, 2012, in Video Game Commentary and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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