No, we are most certainly not living in a simulation out of The Matrix

The anthropic principle cannot be solved by proposing the existence of simulated or alternative universes.  Indeed, it needs no solution at all, but that hasn’t prevented scientists from wandering far afield in search of an answer without a real question.  At least this time they claim there’s an experiment that could prove it…

Once upon a time, the purpose of science was to explain the real world, a tradition dating back to the natural philosophers of Ancient Greece.  Aristotle, for example, proposed a scheme of primordial elements mixed with the heavenly aether to explain how matter was made from earth, water, air, and fire.  He proposed primitive laws of motion, wrongly distinguishing between the unnatural motion of throwing a stone with the natural motion of a falling object.  He believed all events could be explained through four primary causes.  The material, that from which something is made.  The formal, the arrangement of something.  The efficient, the “primary force” from which a change proceeds.  The final, the reason why a thing exists or is done.  Over a thousand years later, Galileo Galilei introduced the concept of experimentation, that is testing ideas like Aristotle and others had proposed against the real world.  For example, the natural philosophy of the 17th century assumed that objects fall at different speeds based on their mass.  The heavier an object, the faster it would fall.  Galileo conducted a series of experiments proving that all things fall at the same speed and modern science was born, leading directly to Sir Isaac Newton, James Clerk Maxwell, and Albert Einstein.  Each made huge contributions to our understanding of how the world actually works, how objects and light interact with one another, both on Earth and throughout the universe, all the way down to what occurs inside an atom.  The results of their experiments, even the most radical and spooky revelations of quantum theory, were all observable.  Using the proper equipment, scientists and even lay people could see what was happening with their own eyes, verifying the results of the experiments themselves.  Sometimes these results were confusing and befuddling, not easy to accept.  Einstein never fully embraced the implications of quantum uncertainty, saying famously that “God does not play dice.”  The results didn’t lie, however, and experiment after experiment repeatedly showed that the subatomic world functioned differently than the classical.  There could be no long term argument with reality itself.

Sadly, science over the course of the past four decades has taken a different, much more disturbing, and less fruitful route.  Rather than explain the world as it is, they seek to explain why it is, pushing science into the realm of metaphysics and philosophy.  At issue is a seductive concept known as the anthropic principle, that the universe we inhabit is exquisitely designed to support life, and any change in the laws of physics or any physical constant would make it impossible for life to evolve.  The goal is to explain why this would be the case.  On the surface, it seems like a classic chicken or egg conundrum.  Out of all the possible configurations of the universe, why would ours seem perfectly suited to life as we know it?  Much like the chicken and the egg, however, appearances can be deceiving.  Neither the chicken nor the egg came first.  The question itself is flawed when you consider that evolution is a continuum.  The chicken did not spring into existence from some different bird.  There is a direct line of increasingly chicken-like creatures, stretching back to the last common ancestor shared with its closest cousin.  Each of these ancestral chickens gave birth to a bird close enough to itself that we would observe no difference in real time unless we peered at subtle changes in the genes.  Over generations, however, the end of the line is markedly different from the beginning.  Similarly, the anthropic principle frames the question the wrong way from the start, creating a purported problem when there is none to be found.  The right way to look at life’s relationship to the universe is more subtle:  Given that we are alive in this universe and have the ability to observe it, why would we expect anything other than such perfect fine tuning?  The universe came first.  Life came later.  Therefore, life would necessarily be suited quite perfectly to the workings of the universe itself.  It could be no other way or there would not be life.

This hasn’t prevented untold wasted energy, time, and money spent looking for an answer to a problem that doesn’t exist.  Generally speaking, the scientific establishment has put forward two different potential solutions to explain the anthropic principle.  The first is the multiverse, that is that there are in fact an infinity of universes, or at least a large enough quantity as to be inconceivable, each with their own laws of physics.  We inhabit the one that is tuned for life.  The rest are presumably barren.  We are to ignore the fact that the existence of these other universes is entirely theoretical.  By definition, we cannot detect them or travel there.  We are simply to assume that they exist to solve a problem that doesn’t really exist.  The second approach is similar, yet wildly different.  The idea that our universe is in fact a simulation, like some super sophisticated computer game.  The designer of the simulation is said to have fine tuned physical laws and concepts to support simulated life.  The branch of science underpinning this idea is known as “information physics,” based on the belief that reality can ultimately be reduced to information, the same way all you see and touch on your computer screen is merely strings of ones and zeroes.  The concept dates back to the late 1980s, when the famed physicist John Archibald Wheeler, known for popularizing the phrase “black hole” and his work on nuclear fission, described the universe as “it from bit.”  The proponents of the theory include even billionaire Elon Musk, who once noted that it was highly probable we were living in a simulation.  Some see evidence for this in the Standard Model of Particle Physics, where unlike the smooth, infinitely divisible surfaces of General Relativity, the building blocks of matter are believed to be fundamental units that cannot be further subdivided.  In their view, this demonstrates that reality is “pixelated.”  The same as a computer screen might show you a small image composed of thousands or millions of little dots, reality arises from a near uncountable number of small, unbreakable units.  Others see evidence in the speed of light as a universal maximum, believing the limit on velocity could represent a limit on the processing power of the underlying simulation.

Intriguing enough for science fiction or the next Matrix movie (not that we need another one), but neither is remotely compelling as actual science to explain the world as we know it.  The pixelation effect might not be real given that the math of Einsteinian relativity does not share the same feature.  There is no reason to believe a future unified math across the relativistic and quantum domains would necessarily follow the approach of the standard model.  It could just as easily be relativistic, and not require indivisible structures.  If that were the case, pixelation would disappear entirely.  The speed limit set by the speed of light itself might be more interesting, but again it is difficult to see why this would be due to a limit of the processing power available.  The velocity of light does define an edge to the universe, beyond which we cannot see because light has not had long enough to travel from its origin to Earth, meaning it serves to keep the universe within a defined scope and therefore calculable by some super computer.  At the same time, most scientists believe the universe is rapidly expanding according to the tenets of the Big Bang (a conclusion which may be doubtful), so the scope is rapidly growing nonetheless.  If the goal was to limit the amount of processing required to display the universe as a simulation, why would more and more of it keep expanding before our eyes, creating more and more information for the program to keep track of?  Otherwise, it is not easy to see how the maximum speed of light limits anything processor wise, or why a universal speed limit would function in that way.  The equations governing a body in motion do not become more complicated because that body is moving faster or slower.  Indeed, there is no difference between a body in motion and at rest, save for the relative velocities between them.  How a limit translates into saving processing power is therefore unclear.

At the same time, proponents of the simulation theory have recently suggested ways to potentially prove it, something the proponents of the multiverse rarely do.  Melvin M. Vopson, writing for The Conversation, believes an answer may be found in a new principle of mass, energy, and information equivalence which holds that information itself is both physical and has finite, quantifiable mass, essentially expanding Einstein’s famous “e equals mc squared” into the realm of information theory.  Incredibly, at least some scientists believe this principle can be proven using a simple computer hard disk.  The idea is simple:  The mass of the disk should increase by a tiny amount when it is full of information.  The more data you write to it, movies, songs, photos, or whatever, the more it will weigh.  To give you an idea how small, for a one terabyte device, around the size of the hard drive in an ordinary desktop computer these days, the estimate is expressed in ten to the negative twenty five, that is twenty five zeroes removed from the decimal point.  Unfortunately, there are no known measuring devices capable of accurately capturing such a small difference in mass.  The margin of error of our most advanced techniques is something of the order of nine decimal places removed.  Given the challenges, Mr. Vopson has proposed an alternative approach based on the idea that information is the fifth form of matter in addition to solid, liquid, gas, and plasma.  He claims to have calculated the information content of elementary particles, and believes an experiment that erases this information content using a matter and antimatter collision should yield specific frequencies based on his theories.  Mr. Vopson believes the experiment is easy to conduct with modern technology and has launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise the necessary funds.  As he put it, “The nature of our reality is one of the greatest mysteries out there. The more we take the simulation hypothesis seriously, the greater the chances we may one day prove or disprove it.”

While I wish him luck in his experiment, it is an open question why we should take the simulation hypothesis seriously in the first place.  The problem is simple:  The universe as a simulation does not solve any of the problems it is purported to.  Indeed, it only makes them far worse.   Even if we were to prove beyond any reasonable doubt that our universe is a sophisticated computer program, exquisitely designed to support life as we know it, we are only moving the problem posed by the anthropic principle up another level, increasing the complexity rather than reducing it.  How did life evolve in the original universe, the one where presumably some super intelligence created the simulation in the first place?  Claiming our universe was designed in another does not tell us anything meaningful about the originating universe.  The same challenges and questions apply, even more so because now we have two universes to consider, each with their own physical laws, whether specifically designed or not.  The result is an even more complicated and less explicable construction of space and time.  The same problem plagues ideas about the multiverse.  Proposing the existence of other universes to solve problems in our own does not actually solve them, it only makes them worse.  Putting this another way, the reality that we perceive and the universe we find ourselves in is challenging enough to explain on its own.  There are more than enough questions we cannot answer and things we cannot readily understand.  Any explanation that proposes another universe or sets of universes can only expand the number of questions, making any explanation logically far more complicated.  The problems proponents of these theories are trying to solve are only made worse.  The challenges of explaining reality do not become simpler when you add a potentially infinite number of additional realities.  Further, there is no logical way to avoid this trap.  Trying to explain the existence of a two-dimensional square by invoking a three-dimensional cube increases the number of dimensions to consider, making matters more complicated, not less.  Using a hyper dimensional cube to explain the three dimensional one produces the same effect.  The looping can go on forever.  Once another level is proposed, there is no reason to assume there isn’t a level beyond it.  If our universe is a simulation, then why not a simulation within a simulation within a simulation?  This does not in and of itself mean that multidimensional cubes do not exist, but it strongly suggests we should be careful invoking additional complexity without the evidence to support it.  We should instead focus on the universe as it is, not as we might wish it to be or as we might imagine it in a science fiction story.

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