Simulation Theory

This entry is Part 4 of the Mind series. Key points from Part 3: Spacetime can be understood as an uneven mixture of “m-space” (information) and “n-space” (baryonic matter). This dualism explains why information sometimes appears to be immune to physical laws completely. This happens because not all information is physically encoded. In fact, as described in Part 2, the majority of our universe consists of information (only 4% consists of “real” matter).
I would also recommend glancing over Nature, the Ultimate Technology, which discusses how the emergent properties of consciousness can be traced to a specific network architecture that I refer to as the Constructal Pattern (a.k.a. neuronal branching or the mycelial archetype). This article suggests that if we can virtualize that pattern – either as a neural net, or on a much greater scale – then we can simulate consciousness In Silico.

Theory or Hypothesis?

This idea is often referred to as the Simulation Hypothesis. Calling it a theory is technically incorrect, but it can at the very least provide us with a working model to understand physics, and offer valid explanations for some otherwise unexplained phenomena. The main idea I seek to convey here is that the universe can be modeled and understood as a procedurally-generated environment. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the universe is a simulation, but rather it proves the inverse: that the universe is simulate-able (i.e. that it is computable; capable of virtualization and being virtualized). In other words, we have no way of knowing whether our universe is a simulation or not (untestable hypothesis), but we may be able to test whether we can simulate a new universe In Silico, which would seem to prove or disprove the initial argument. In short, Simulation Theory works well as an explanatory framework, but as of 2014, it isn’t much more than that.

Whole Universe Emulation

The universe, like any other quasi-physical environment, can be simulated on a computer. In fact, it already has.

This is The Bolshoi Simulation[1] – the world’s largest and most accurate computer model of the universe. Although it differs in purpose, it is essentially the successor to the Millennium Simulation. These simulations are not perfect models of our universe specifically. What they do is replicate the universe’s early conditions, so different results are produced each time (although curious patterns persist).

These simulations also lack detail — computers today are simply not capable of rendering such a large environment with complete resolution, but according to Moore’s Law (discussed in greater detail here), we will soon have computers capable of simulating an entire universe down to the subatomic level.[2]

Life in a Digital Universe?

Our own existence proves that the universe is conducive to life.[3] Therefore, if we were to simulate the early conditions of our universe within a highly realistic digital simulation, the same natural processes that led up to our own evolution would recur. If we accurately reproduced universal parameters such as the mass and charge of the electron, the strength of gravity, et cetera, it would only be a matter of time before the emergence of life In Silico.

We can refer to this digital simulation as a virtual (or holographic) dimension, because in it, spacetime is reducible to computer software — information.


“But where does consciousness within the Simulation come from?” Well, where did our consciousness come from? Answer: Lots of hydrogen, time, and spontaneous particle interactions. To quote Carl Sagan:

“The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.”

Consciousness is an emergent property of matter. Having emerged from interstellar debris ourselves, we are living proof of this. Therefore, if we can simulate stars, then with enough time we can also simulate the conditions necessary for life to arise. “Virtual” or “real” makes no difference in this case.

In order to replicate consciousness In Silico, we wouldn’t have to ‘write’ or ‘program’ it from scratch; hypothetically, all we would need to do is introduce the building blocks of life into a digitally simulated universe, and with the right environment variables (natural constants), sit back and let natural processes do the rest (wait for the Constructal Pattern to arise). Of course, this would require an incredibly overpowered computer. And as I theorize in later parts to this series, it would also need to be a unique combination of a quantum and a physical computer.

It’s difficult to avoid lame clichés and Matrix references while discussing Simulation Theory, but this clip does an adequate job of delivering the idea without unnecessary fluff. In this excerpt, Professor Jürgen Schmidt discusses how all the complexity we observe in the universe may be reducible to a basic fractal-spawning algorithm, i.e., the Constructal Pattern.

The main message here is that all the complexity we observe in the universe may be the long-term result of a much simpler computation, such as the Mandelbrot set. This is interesting because it helps explain the universe as somewhat of a self-writing story; an ongoing permutation of a finite-sized algorithm that is capable of infinite complexity; a sort of living formula that produces unique (i.e. non-random) but also unpredictable (i.e. non-computable) patterns that change, intelligently, with time. (Of course, this isn’t to say that all fractal patterns are “alive”. But emergent behavior can arise from simple mathematics – nothing prevents it. It may simply be a matter of tracing emergent phenomena back to a specific set of equations.)

A Simulation within a Simulation (Recursive Simulation)

Inhabitants of the Simulation would theoretically invent computers of their own by a certain point, which they could use to conduct additional Simulations. This chain could potentially go on ad infinitum, constructing a sort of digital multiverse.[4] This is somewhat mind-boggling, but similar logic may explain why we’re here in the first place.

Computing Architecture and Limitations

Running a simulation of the entire universe would require tremendous amounts of energy and a very fast computer. Computers as they exist today will obviously not suffice. When the time comes, we will need to rely on quantum computers, which are better suited for simulating complex physical systems. These are currently under development. Still, only so many simulations could be initiated before the uppermost (“parent”) simulation would deplete its hardware resources (run out of memory), thus bringing an abrupt halt to all child simulations. This would be a serious problem, to say the least.

Virtualization software offers a good metaphor: If the host OS runs out of memory, so do all of its virtualized OSes. This would represent an absolutely crippling dilemma if you happened to be in the business of simulating universes. But this problem could be avoided if each Simulation consumed zero energy. If this were the case, then an infinite number of simulations could exist as a cascade. For this to work, Simulations would need to be designed in such a way that the system’s overall entropy remains constant over time. Reversible computing, an isentropic process, may be the solution.[5]

Matter’s Underlying Basis

Quantum superposition describes how matter remains in an indefinite state until conscious observation. In other words, matter is not defined until you observe it.[7]

Though this may seem odd, consider it from a ‘design’ perspective: If a piece of matter within the Simulation isn’t being observed, then does the universe really need to “render” it? Matter may only assume definite form upon observation in order to save computing power (a form of natural optimization), just like how video games only render content that is actually seen by the player.

Simulation Theory in Theology

Many religions claim that what we perceive is merely an illusion. In Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhism, Maya describes the belief that we do not experience the environment directly, but rather some projection of it. According to Maya, there is no real distinction between physical phenomena and the realm of consciousness.[8] This may be a moot point, but if everything’s information, then these claims may be, at least in part, valid.

Virtual Dimension, Virtual Time

With a fast enough computer, time dilation within the simulation would be a factor – i.e., time would pass faster within the simulation than time outside the simulation (despite feeling like “real time” to its inhabitants). So if you were to create one of these hypothetical Simulations, you would not only create virtual space but also virtual time. With a quantum computer, say, the size of a planet, an entire universe could be simulated in a matter of seconds. But for those living within the simulation, those seconds would be stretched into months, years, decades, lifetimes… and beyond? With extreme time dilation, there would be no limit; time would essentially become a renewable resource.

“Well, damn,” and Other Closing Notes

If you want to learn more about Simulation Theory, check out this Indiegogo project I recently discovered. These guys present the idea in a rather comedic fashion, but after all, Simulation Theory is a pretty funny concept to begin with. People always tend sound a little crazy when they talk about Simulation Theory, and this is an unavoidable and perfectly natural side effect of making extraordinary claims without extraordinary evidence. Although the idea is growing in popularity and acceptance, Simulation Theory is still at this point improvable – we need much faster supercomputers.

In summary, Simulation Theory and the Holographic Principle describe a universe based on information, not matter; software, not just hardware. Although it may make no difference in everyday life, it does represent a new way of modeling and understanding the universe. It may also open the door to a new kind of artificial intelligence research.

Next entry: Artificial Intelligence

Table of Contents

  1. Six Blind Men and an Elephant – “All religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree.”
  2. The Physics of Consciousness – Consciousness explained in terms of electromagnetism and information.
  3. The Holographic Universe – The behavior of photons may indicate that we live in a holographic universe.
  4. Simulation Theory – How to emulate consciousness on a computer by allowing it to evolve from scratch.
  5. Artificial Intelligence – How to create self-aware, free-willing artificial intelligence.
  6. Awareness and Free Will – How free will can arise from binary decision-making (i.e. pure logic).
  7. Universal Duality – The interaction between structure and randomness is fundamental to the universe.
Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Main website: http://hipacc.ucsc.edu/Bolshoi/
  2. Also see the Exponential Growth of Computing and the Law of Accelerating Returns.
  3. This basic assumption is known as the anthropic principle. It seems pretty obvious, but people seem to like arguing in circles about it. Let’s avoid all of that and keep things simple.
  4. See Simulated Reality.
  5. Viewing our universe in terms of a gigantic reversible computer may help explain supersymmetry in physics – and it may offer hints of there being an underlying entropic balance like “karma” or a “universal duality“.
  6. The fact that information is indestructible implies that creation is a one-way process – when information is created, it exists (in some form or another) forever.
  7. See the double-slit experiment.
  8. This essentially restates my claim from Part 3 that information, not matter, is fundamental to the universe.

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