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.
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.”