Monday, May 1, 2017

Simulation Writ Really, Really Large

     “We of Es Toch tell a little myth, which says that in the beginning the Creator told a great lie. For there was nothing at all, but the Creator spoke, saying, It exists. And behold, in order that the lie of God might be God’s truth, the universe at once began to exist.”

     [Ursula LeGuin, City of Illusions]

     “Could Yarl the Omnipotent create a stone so heavy he could not lift it?”
     “Why not?”
     “He would not.”
     “That is no answer.”
     “Yes it is. Think about it. Would you?

     [Roger Zelazny, Isle of the Dead]

     Scott Adams, whose thoughts and jottings have begun to range very far afield, provides evidence that we might be characters in a huge simulation:

     There should be a difference in how a real species and a simulated species views its own history. The real species would have a real history with full details. The simulations would have something closer to history on demand. And by that, I mean the history only comes into existence when current circumstances require that history. If we are software simulations, the simulator presumably has resource constraints. That means the simulation would not create every part of the universe just in case it is needed; it would create what it needed on demand. For example, a simulated universe would not contain details about undiscovered planets. Those details would be rendered by the simulation at the time of discovery.

     To put this in simpler terms, if we are real, the past influences what we do in the present. But if we are simulations, what we do in the present could be creating the past.

     For example, here’s an article describing how quantum physicists have determined that the present creates the past as needed. Freaky, right?

     If we are simulations, we should expect to see two additional qualities in the universe as partial confirmation:

  1. We should expect that we can’t travel past the boundaries of the simulation.
  2. We wouldn’t be able to observe the basic building blocks of our reality.

     Sure enough, we meet both criteria.

     Hmph! There are days I wonder whether I’m the only person alive who isn’t certifiably insane. But then, if I were uniquely and irremediably insane, I could easily reach the same conclusion.

     Of course we’re characters in a simulation! Haven’t you been paying attention all this time?

     Longtime Gentle Readers of Liberty’s Torch will be aware that real-time simulation was my occupational forte. At one time I was one of the foremost experts on it. (Play “Glory Days” if you must, but keep the volume low.) The art of real-time simulation rests on a pair of precepts:

  • The simulation must respond to stimuli in the same way as the thing being simulated;
  • The response must be generated within the same time frame as the thing being simulated.

     Indeed, all really useful simulations must be real-time simulations or the closest possible approach to it. The point, of course, is that an ideal simulation should be impossible to distinguish from the real thing. Otherwise, what good would it be?

     Now let’s talk about what we habitually call reality. Reality, colloquially speaking, is the aggregate of all real things and their behaviors. This is a critical stipulation: while the “whole” is important, the “parts” are even more so. After all, we deal with the parts, not the whole of reality.

     But that leaves us needing yet another definition of sorts. A colloquial definition of real might be “that which is unaffected by our desires, opinions, and convictions.” Real things are tough. Their properties resist our willfulness. They exhibit endurance: i.e., observable persistence over time.

     But we don’t deal solely with real things. We also grapple with imaginary things: images, which exist in our minds and nowhere else. Among the most important of those imaginary things is the concept we call causality.

     Think about causality in the abstract for a moment. Imagine, if you will, that you’re a simulation engineer confronted with a device to be simulated, who has suddenly and for the very first time asked yourself what’s the point of this? The rules of real-time simulation require that you instantiate the behaviors and response times of the device in an artifact to be governed by software. You must act as if the device must behave in a certain way. But:

  • What if the specification contains an error? It’s happened before.
  • What if it were to break down spontaneously? Devices do that, don’t they?
  • What if the design of the device itself is faulty, such that it will misbehave now and then?
  • What if it were to be interfered with from outside? (Sledgehammer or power spike, you choose.)
  • Finally, what if some degree of randomness was deliberately designed into the device, defying causality?

     All of those things happen to real devices. No engineer, however gifted, could simulate all of them; the range of possibilities is unbounded.

     A useful simulation is always a partial simulation. Bounds are clamped upon it a priori, for neither can the simulation engineer nor his customer deal with anything else.

     The bounds clamped upon us who live under the veil of time are called the laws of nature. We don’t know them in their entirety, nor is any of our knowledge infinitely precise. We don’t even know if they vary over time or place; the universe is larger than any test bed we could build. That’s part of why Richard Feynman proclaimed that science – the quest for reliable knowledge about the laws of nature – demands that we reject all claims of infallibility from “experts.”

     The more deeply physicists probe the smallest of things – quantum physics – the more complex and variable our temporal reality seems. They keep hoping they’ve “reached the bottom,” only to find that another layer of laws and entities lies beneath their deductions. Some have thrown up their hands over the seemingly infinite depth of reality. Others soldier gamely on, determined to find “the bottom” of the stack of entities and laws that determine reality.

     As their investigations have advanced, a new idea has taken hold in a few remarkably open minds: there might not be a bottom. A small number of theorists working at “the other end” of reality have begun to entertain the possibility that there might not be a “top,” either.

     If I haven’t driven you to drink quite yet, Gentle Reader, feel free to congratulate yourself on your intellectual perseverance. There is a point to this, though it might not be entirely evident from the foregoing material.

     We are made so that our knowledge of reality can never be complete. Our advances, no matter the direction, never hit a terminus. Neither can we be perfectly certain about what we think we know.

     The laws of nature, if it makes sense to speak of “laws” that might have an infinite number of exceptions, keep us from traveling beyond the bounds of our mental universes. They confine us without allowing us to be certain that we’re being confined, or by what mechanisms, or to what purpose. We remake our postulates and conceptions with the greatest of difficulty: typically, one great, world-shaking mind at a time. And with each restructuring of our conception of “reality,” the next one becomes exponentially harder to achieve.

     “Reality” can only be a simulation, albeit of a sort no mortal could possibly construct. It would require a transtemporal consciousness of infinite least, infinite by the metrics we time-bound persons would use. Nothing else would be capable of coping with the demands.

     If we stipulate this for the sake of further investigation, we immediately arrive at two things: an answer, and a question.

     The answer seems bleak at first: We cannot know all there is to know. The Simulation Engineer has deliberately bounded us to make that impossible.

     The question is one that has persisted throughout the history of Man, and will persist until Man is no more:


     Have a nice day.


sykes.1 said...

Lubos Motl has an essay on just this issue, and he concludes that a digital simulation would only have discrete points in space and time and that it would exhibit diffraction effects. There aren't any, so there is no simulation.

Francis W. Porretto said...

Ah, but who said the simulation must be digital? Not to mention that a sufficiently dense digital simulation might not betray any such features. The limits on our precision-of-observation could be concealing them.

Joseph said...

When Trump was inaugurated, I looked up at the sky to see if the end credits were rolling.