Book Update: Rocks and Simulations

It’s been a few months since my last email update to readers of Noise of Creation. I’ve been poking away at the next several chapters, and had some very interesting conversations with a few readers. Chords (and nerves) are being struck on all sides.

Since starting the book, I’ve been saving links to articles and podcasts I come across which have clear connections to the ideas I’m using, and I’ll share a couple of them here.

Simulations

In the chapters on Contrariety (0013) and Copy (0020), reference is made to the “simulation argument” formalised by Nick Bostrom. The idea of a person living in a deliberately simulated reality is an ancient one. What Nick Bostrom did was to explain exactly how it might be probable (at least in a statistical sense) that our own universe is actually a simulation.

I first read about this idea a year ago in an interview with Nick published in the Atlantic. Not being a scientist, I tend to value this idea mainly for its imaginative potential more than anything, but it appears that at least a few others are exploring it in a serious, scientific way as well: a team of physicists at the University of Washington believe that we can, in fact, test whether the universe we live in is actually a simulation — and they’ve proposed experiments that would allow us to do so.

People’s reactions to this possibility seem to range from amusement to (more commonly) dismissive annoyance. It’s safe to say most of us don’t know how to handle thinking about it.

It’s true that, at first glance, everything would seem kind of pointless if it only existed as some kind of artificial test run inside a colossal computer. To me, however, it raises all kinds of interesting questions. For example, if it’s true, wouldn’t this confirm that the universe exists for a purpose, and that our existence is not meaningless? What would it mean to make contact with our simulator(s)?

The significance of the meaning attached to our universe would also vary wildly depending on the nature of the simulation. We could be the magnum opus of a particular “author” in a world where world-simulations are the province of great artists; we could be the equivalent of a programming (or writing) exercise by a novice; we might be the sole, gargantuan product of a civilisation which has long since died out, running on aging machinery — or a single iteration of a computational experiment that involves thousands or millions of test runs.

I remain quite skeptical that experiments can prove the question one way or the other, but I’m glad to know that some capable people are taking the question seriously.

The Cloudy Stuff of Stones

In the chapters on Substantiality and Insubstantiality (0002 and 0003) I attempt to explore the idea that Matter may not be as “hefty” as we tend to think it is — neither more nor less real than Thought.

I was interested, then, to hear the Radiolab podcast released a couple of weeks ago, titled Solid as a Rock:

“Robert and Jim go toe-to-toe for a friendly dust-up over whether, at its very base, the universe is made up of solid bits and pieces of stuff…or a cloudy foundation that, more than anything else we can put our fingers on, resembles thoughts and ideas”

This “friendly dust-up” isn’t logically rigourous or factually conclusive, but it’s an interesting (and more thorough) exploration of the idea that I attempted to introduce in my book. Be sure and read the comments as well — a lot of people are seriously annoyed by this idea (some not without good reason, I imagine).

This idea of the material universe being ultimately composed of information, rather than of microscopic billiard-balls, fits nicely with the simulation argument, but remains independent of it. It implies that everything visible is in some sense an illusion — which, far from being an outlandish idea, is one of the few things science and religion currently seem to agree on.