Friday, January 22nd, 2021

Why it Matters That You Realize you’re in a Computer Simulation

Published on November 23, 2015 by   ·   No Comments



What if our universe is something like a computer simulation, or a virtual reality, or a video game?  The proposition that the universe is actually a computer simulation was furthered in a big way during the 1970s, when John Conway famously proved that if you take a binary system, and subject that system to only a few rules (in the case of Conway’s experiment, four); then that system creates something rather peculiar.

What Conway’s rules produced were emergent complexities so sophisticated that they seemed to resemble the behaviors of life itself. He named his demonstration The Game of Life, and it helped lay the foundation for the Simulation Argument, its counterpart the Simulation Hypothesis, and Digital Mechanics.  These fields have gone on to create a massive multi-decade long discourse in science, philosophy, and popular culture around the idea that it actually makes logical, mathematical sense that our universe is indeed a computer simulation.  To crib a summary from Morpheus, “The Matrix is everywhere”. But amongst the murmurs on various forums and reddit threads pertaining to the subject, it isn’t uncommon to find a word or two devoted to caution: We, the complex intelligent lifeforms who are supposedly “inside” this simulated universe, would do well to play dumb that we are at all conscious of our circumstance.

The colloquial warning says we must not betray the knowledge that we have become aware of being mere bits in the bit kingdom. To have a tipping point population of players who realize that they are actually in something like a video game would have dire and catastrophic results. Deletion, reformatting, or some kind of biblical flushing of our entire universe (or maybe just our species), would unfold. Leave the Matrix alone! In fact, please pretend it isn’t even there.

The basic idea is that the intelligent lifeforms that have evolved inside a simulation are somehow made non-viable, or undesirable as samples, once they become aware of the simulation that they live in. Their own awareness of their plight (their environment) somehow excludes them from being valuable experimental samples. Samples that are aware of the truth of their simulated environment can, or will, compromise themselves, the simulation, or both.

So to avoid this possibly cataclysmic fate, some put forward a kind of survival strategy of “We better not know”, and if we do know, “We better play dumb”.  It’s a position that comes with several interesting problems. The first of which should be obvious enough; having just read the last few paragraphs, you are now irrevocably in the know regarding the theory, whether you actually believe the universe to be a simulation or not. Reading this very article is potentially putting reality itself, or maybe just the continuation of our species, at extreme risk. That is supposedly how flimsy the cosmos is to the grandest secret of its truest nature—The universe can be unraveled with the simple transmission and comprehension of just a few sentences describing its features. Only a handful of axioms that explain the environment are apparently enough to destroy us all. Something about this theory feels unlikely, because it means that if you have a deep enough textbook on the nature of reality, the very act of reading it is enough to unmake reality.  That sounds a lot like a literary device out of an H.P. Lovecraft short story; imagine an obscure occult science text so dangerous that to utter its very table of contents is enough to return the whole cosmos to total chaos.

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