The Simulation Hypothesis

Consciousness, Reality, and The Simulation Hypothesis

Yesterday a post in the Turing Church Facebook group (h/t Martin C.) mentioned a Skeptico interview with filmmaker Kent Forbes, the creator of “The Simulation Hypothesis,” a recent film about the reality-as-a-sim concept, consciousness and quantum physics. Review and related thoughts below.

I follow these things closely but I had missed Forbes’ film, so I watched it yesterday. The whole film is online on YouTube and can be found on the torrent sites, but please buy it (Amazon, iTunes) – independent quality filmmakers should be encouraged and supported.

The Simulation Hypothesis” can be described as a low-budget updated version of “What the Bleep Do We Know!?” (2004), a much discussed film on quantum physics and deep reality.

Forbes’ thesis is that our universe, in view of the findings of modern physics, is best thought of as a computation (“simulation”) running in a higher level of reality. Despite the frequent use of scenes from popular films and games, the filmmaker doesn’t propose a stereotypical naive simulation theory with a bored alien teenager playing us like Sims on a super Xbox in his parents’ basement or a mad scientist studying us with a super supercomputer in a military alien facility. Instead, “The Simulation Hypothesis” blends the reality-as-a-sim picture with esoteric interpretations of quantum physics that point to new digital physics before space and time, from which space and time emerge, and assign a role to our consciousness as part of the fundamental fabric of digital physics, and co-creator of reality.

I often think the simulation hypothesis is trivially true in the sense that reality is obviously the results of a computation where the universe computes itself according to the (only partly known) physical laws. The interesting nontrivial question is whether there is a sys-op, agent, intelligence, wholly other mega-consciousness or something like that behind the computation, and whether that mega-something purposefully intervenes in the computation. If so, and if mega-something = God, then the simulation hypothesis is a form of Theism totally indistinguishable from traditional religion.

I think reality can be thought of as a hugely complex computation (“sim”) running in an even more complex Mind beyond our understanding, and consciousness could be able to somehow interact with the underlying digital reality. Theism – the idea of a personal, caring and loving God – can be recovered when one realizes that a more complex being can “descend to the level” of a less complex being (for example, I am perfectly able to communicate with my doggy in ways she can understand). In particular, God can grant resurrection in a better sim.

“Consciousness survives because it preceded the experience to begin with,” says Forbes in the interview.

“The idea that created all of this stuff is still going to be there after this construct or the matrix disappears. But we have divided philosophy up into the sciences and religion. So theology and physics wind up at these opposite poles where they’re really just philosophical pursuits.”

The physics in the film is sound and well-explained, or at least I haven’t been able to spot anything wrong, only a few things that I would have said differently. For example, “[Materialism and idealism as defined previously] are mutually exclusive and are in fact opposites, both cannot be true. Either mind gives rise to matter, or matter gives rise to mind” sounds too black/white to me, and I can think of shades of grey in between. It’s interesting to see how analogies with computer games can help thinking about the limit speed of light, quantum entanglement, high energy thermodynamics, and quantum indeterminacy (it doesn’t make much sense to compute something that nobody is looking at).

Among the many scientists featured in the film, Max Tegmark, James Gates (the physicist who found error-correcting codes in physical laws, a result that suggests the reality-as-a-sim idea), and two interesting scientists I wasn’t familiar with: Brian Whitworth (see his in-progress book Quantum Realism) and Thomas Campbell (see his wittily titled book “My Big Toe“).

“Was everything here created by God?,” wonders Campbell in the film.”Well, if God is the larger consciousness system, yes.” “So who is the programmer?,” reads a question in Whitworth’s Quantum Realism FAQ. ” Answer. I don’t know. I guess everything is. Every choice we make changes the program.”

Researching Whitworth and Campbell I find (surprise surprise) that they are often accused of “pseudoscience” – a typically dismissal used against those who put too much imagination in their science to the point that (God forbid) it sounds like religion. In the interview, Forbes explains why many scientists hide behind skepticism, and his explanation makes a lot of sense:

“There were terrible abuses of power by the popes and so forth that speared [the] mechanical view of the universe as a way of undermining the narratives of the church. I think that it was justified at the time. After hundreds of years of building up this alternative, to find that a close examination of physical matter reveals a connection to consciousness, which undermines strict materialism, it’s a little bit much. I think it’s completely understandable for people who are invested in materialism to be skeptical because they’re afraid that they’re going to be reinforcing the claims of those religious [people] who are then going to say, see, we told you so. We’ve been saying this all along.”

One skeptic mentioned in the interview is Sean Carroll (who, I must say, is a great writer and a great teacher of physics). Carroll concedes that we don’t know everything about physics, but insists that the physics that we do know – the “Core Theory” that comprises quantum field theory, general relativity and the standard model – is experimentally confirmed, and will continue to be valid as the physics underlying everyday life. Carroll concludes that there is no room for survival of consciousness after death.

Now, with all due respect, Carroll’s argument doesn’t seem watertight to me. In particular, “experimentally confirmed” and “valid as the physics underlying everyday life” don’t mean the same thing. In fact, parts of the physics underlying everyday life could escape standard experimental methods (for example, psi phenomena could be real), in which case the Core Theory would need appropriate modifications. “[Any] respectable scientist who took this idea seriously would be asking [questions about the appropriate modifications],” says Carroll, but then admits that “[nobody] ever asks these questions out loud, possibly because of how silly they sound,” at which point the argument begins to sound very circular to me.

A good example is the endless debate about psi, Sheldrake’s morphic fields and other topics often categorized as “paranormal phenomena.” Many skeptics less rigorous than Carroll use shamelessly circular non-arguments like “paranormal phenomena don’t exist because [X] is valid, and [X] is valid because paranormal phenomena don’t exist,” based on which they dismiss paranormal phenomena as “pseudoscience” that shouldn’t be even considered. I prefer Forbes’ attitude, which is that of a bold explorer:

“Everything should be considered. I don’t believe in censorship or stopping the argument in any way; or saying this is out of bounds.”

The Simulation Hypothesis
Picture by Kent Forbes.

  • David Román

    I get the impression that Elon Musk recently became the world’s foremost defender of the “simulator hypothesis”. Significant, considering that he may be the most intelligent man alive

    • Giulio Prisco

      Hi David, yes, Musk is a very high-profile promoter of the Simulation Hypothesis and this video has been all over the headlines.

      What do you think?

      PS I’ll post your story in the next couple of days.

      • spud100

        ““Consciousness survives because it preceded the experience to begin with,” says Forbes in the interview.”

        Maybe, but this is no great thing for us mortals, because the consciousness that preceded the experience doesn’t appear to be us. Maybe some mindless, UR observer, which doesn’t become anything after we are dust.


        “I think reality can be thought of as a hugely complex computation (“sim”) running in an even more complex Mind beyond our understanding, and consciousness could be able to somehow interact with the underlying digital reality. Theism – the idea of a personal, caring and loving God – can be recovered when one realizes that a more complex being can “descend to the level” of a less complex being (for example, I am perfectly able to communicate with my doggy in ways she can understand). In particular, God can grant resurrection in a better sim.”

        This was also one of Eric Steinhart’s essays, as well. It was again, part of Gardner’s hope or pov. He pondered that if string theory was true, and there’s nothing behind string theory, but numbers, then he could be re-thought of again. John Leslie also held to this idea via what he called, “ethical requiredness.”

        So, where does this leave us? Well, our understanding of physics changes radically, depending on new discoveries, but the real science of our day is computer science, which depends on physics, but unlike Carroll’s gazing into the night sky (a cosmologist is a physicist who does astronomy), has a goal! Computer science wants to make better and better computing, yes, based on physics, but making itself adaptive to better computing. This is where we should focus on for “relief,” and not merely, what physics does.

        Carroll on this (forget parapsychology) seeks to find reasons to impede all this, and so does Larry Krauss. They are happy atheists (which is ok) but they are content with annihilation as well-unless it effects their research, and grants. No good scavenging for copper in a palladium mine. However the universe began, or will end, whether it has 3 dimensions, 5, or 11, whether the Big Bang was a great inflation, is of no good use for anyone but these guys. However, the application of computer science, however low we are right now, seems, most promising-whatever the shape of space.


        • Giulio Prisco

          Hi Mitch – Krauss and Carroll are top physicists, and very good writers. I enjoyed all Carroll’s books a lot. At the same time they (and many others) seem driven by a psychological need to keep far from anything that smells like religion, as explained by Forbes’ passage quoted in the text.

          Computer scientists and especially computational physicists are used to think of computer simulations of physical systems. Digital physics – the idea of a discrete “base reality” more fundamental than space, time, matter and fields – a hugely complex cellular automaton or graph from which our reality of space, time, matter and fields can be derived (Zuse, Fredkin, Wolfram, Abraham/Roy etc.) – is gaining more and more adherents.

          If you accept digital physics, the idea of reality-as-a-sim is trivially true because the base reality is something that looks very, very much like a computer program. The interesting nontrivial question: is a conscious entity “running the simulation” (whatever that means)? I guess we shouldn’t think of a super Xbox beyond space and time, but rather of the base cellular graph itself as a conscious entity with purpose. Then, as Berkeley said, we are thoughts in the mind of God.

          • David Román

            On that point, I find this paragraph in a New Yorker article ( very striking:
            “The simulation argument is appealing, in part, because it gives atheists a way to talk about spirituality. The idea that we’re living in only a part of reality, with the whole permanently beyond our reach, can be a source of awe. About our simulators, one can ask the same questions one asks about God: Why did the creators of our world decide to include evil and suffering? (Can they change that setting in the preferences?) Where did the original, non-simulated world come from? In that sense, the simulation argument is a thoughtful and expansive materialist fable that is almost, but not quite, religious. There is, of course, no sanctity or holiness in the simulation argument. The people outside the simulation aren’t gods—they’re us.”
            I couldn’t disagree more: the people outside the simulation would be Gods, to us. The writer seems to be assuming that God must be a fountain of perfection, but perfection is a negative quality: an absence of imperfection. As the Greeks, and even the ancient Hebrews understood, it’s foolish to expect perfection from any God, and that expectation is indeed the mark of an Atheist: either Caesar or Nothing.
            I still wouldn’t agree with Musk idea that we almost certainly live in a simulation, though.

          • Giulio Prisco

            @David re “As the Greeks, and even the ancient Hebrews understood, it’s foolish to expect perfection from any God,”

            Exactly. I think even God puts his pants on one leg at a time.

            This may sound disrespectful, but my God has a sense of humor. He understands.

  • magnus

    Took holiday. No internet, nothing. So, Im on my way back.

    The computation hypothesis, der rechnende Raum, von Konrad Zuse, makes us help to think about hacking the universe.
    At least this idea might help us asking new questions. Are there finitely many levels of software or not? Could we get acces to the hardware more directly? Is there some kind of natural unprotected mode, a programming mode where you truely can mess things up but also do more (not in the sense of The Turing Church hypothesis)?
    Are there some useful analogies to selfmodifying code? And so on.
    The question is how strong analogies we might find and how they in the long run could help us to shape the universe in desired desired directions.

    Then we have the everyday life, how to convert if away from all the madness.
    How could a “normal” person convert itself to IS, for example. We have seen enough from this and friends in Nice and me and family in Germany were asking it more explicitly during the holiday.


    • Giulio Prisco

      Yes, Magnus, our pristine philosophical speculations on ultimate reality and our cosmic visions of the far future are so engaging and feel so good, but we shouldn’t forget the messy and bloody everyday reality down here.

      Normal persons can do vary bad things if life pushes them hard enough, and entire populations can fall into madness. There are good explanations of why and how that happens, but unfortunately no realistic practical ways to solve the problem soon.

  • Bryce Haymond

    After watching the film, these were some thoughts I had. No one has direct perception of the world. All of our experience is mediated by our mind, and many perceptions which we feel are objective and external are actually constructed by and exist only within our mind, such as color, sound, heat/cold, taste/flavor, odor/aroma, etc. These seem to have correlated causal elements outside us, but the experiences themselves are wholly constructed within our conscious perception. We don’t perceive reality directly, but only this construction of a subjective reality within our minds. Our mind is the actor that continually runs a simulation of our subjective reality. In this sense, the simulation hypothesis seems to be true. What we see around us in every moment is an illusion, a simulation, constructed by our mind. It is not what is actually out there. It is how our mind makes sense of what is out there.

    • Giulio Prisco

      Hi Bryce. What we perceive is, as you say, how our mind makes sense of what is out there – the idea goes back to Kant’s unknowable Ding an Sich (“The Thing Itself” behind our perception) and previous thinkers in both West and East.

      Mach and other 19th century positivists had it very clear that science isn’t about the thing itself, but rather about building useful models to correlate perceptions and observations, and predict future observations from past observations. I think this attitude is healthy, but of course we can’t refrain from speculating about the thing itself.

      We also can’t refrain from seeking models of reality compatible with the hope of resurrection. Here the simulation hypothesis meets a fundamental psychological need in a way that is perfectly compatible with the scientific method and worldview. The simulation hypothesis is equivalent to religion and can be translated into traditional religious language, bridging the gap between science and religion.

      The simulation hypothesis can’t be scientifically refuted (even Dawkins acknowledges that, and doesn’t rule out the possibility). However, I think we need something stronger than that – scientific results beyond simple metaphors and analogies, which strongly suggest the reality-as-a-sim model. For example, the work of Gates mentioned in the film is very interesting.

  • L. Kurt Engelhart

    Reality is a social construction. A symbolic universe can be constructed by any individual but it is the effect of social influences that brings that universe to its full potential. A mutually acceptable construction is possible only because of the common foundation upon which the structure is based: DNA. DNA provides virtually identical symbolic objects for each subject and provides shared archetypes giving these objects fundamental meanings. From there, the shared ability to manipulate symbols and use them for tools within a cooperative setting generates the reality, or realities, we all experience. As adults, we all forget we were not born with the reality we inhabit intact. We eventually reify that reality and use it as if it was absolute. Our success at the reification project, that takes much of our lives, is recognized socially as our competence.

    The ultimate question is what is consciousness, where reality is the whole contents of consciousness. The only consciousness you can be sure of is your own, all others are speculative, part of reality. We speculate on all aspects of reality in order that we may act. We act to survive, to live and produce. That is our sole purpose, and then we die. We can observe this cycle in all parts of our universe, so we can speculate that this is also the purpose of the “outside” universe. Entropy and libido. All else is just for fun.