Sim City

Those of us who aren’t religious usually take the view that the Universe is completely indifferent to our existence. It acts neither to our benefit or detriment, except by pure random chance.

Sometimes  though, I wonder if the Universe isn’t actively hostile. It’s the old “butter side down” theory. I live in a rural area with narrow, winding roads, and although there’s very little traffic, when you try to overtake a tractor or a cyclist, it seems that there’s always another car coming at that moment. Why not fifteen seconds earlier or later?

The usual explanation for experiences like that is that we don’t remember or even notice the non-coincidences because they’re non-events for us. But I’m sure I’d notice if the one car I’m likely to meet in the ten minutes between home and the main road always passes at a convenient spot.

The Matrix screenI’m tempted to adopt the theory of Yale philosopher Nick Bostrum. He’s suggested, quite seriously, that our Universe might be a simulation. The Matrix. He argues it like this: if our computing technology continues to improve, then we’ll be able to run full-universe simulations one day. But why stop at one? Bigger and bigger computers could run many simulations at once. There need be no limit.

Consider the situation then. There is just one “real” Universe, which Bostrum calls the “original history”, and a huge number of simulations. What are the odds of ours being the real one? Less likely than winning the lottery. Unlike the story in The Matrix though, there need be no real minds in the simulation: we would all be simulations too.

It would explain a lot. Our Universe isn’t designed all that well, with arbitrary and awkward elements in the way it works. The speed of light having the same value in all reference frames, for example. That’s obviously a bug. And the Planck constant sets a minimum resolution to reality, a physical consequence of calculating the simulation with a fixed number of decimal places. And every time scientists investigate something that has never been studied before — smaller scales, or higher energies or whatever — the results are complicated and unexpected. Whoever is running our simulation has had to drop everything and hastily make something up.

Bostrum suggests that even if you believe his theory, you’d be crazy to live your life differently because of it. But another academic, Robin Hanson doesn’t agree. He suggests that if you’re living in a simulation, then you should do everthing you can to keep the simulation owner interested.  (I imagine him as some futuristic kid with an intergalactic Wii.) After all, we don’t want him to get bored and switch us off.

All those unfortunate coincidences are just the Kid having some fun by poking the inhabitants of the simulation to see what happens. It would probably be a good idea to react to them by being especially melodramatic about it. Got to keep the entertainment factor up.


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