The Simulation Hypothesis — and Virtualizing the Constructal Pattern in Silico

This entry is Part 4 of the Mind series.
Also see 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 or emulate that pattern – either as a neural net, or on a much greater scale as a procedurally-generated universe — In Silico — then we could also replicate consciousness (‘living systems’) In Silico.

To be clear, this is a theory, not a zeitgeist. This article makes no major claims or assumptions, aside from (1) Physical systems can be virtualized In Silico (digitally), and that (2) The virtualization of living systems (or “Holistic systems”) represents a legitimate and new method of scientific inquiry. Basically, we shouldn’t be afraid of simulating living systems. On the contrary, this is a promising new branch of science that is capable of virtually endless potential.

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. In fact, thinking of it as such can explain some otherwise unsolved problems in physics. This mindset doesn’t necessarily claim that the universe is a simulation, but rather it proves an inverse: that the universe can be simulated – that it is “computable” – capable of virtualization as well as being virtualized. In other words, we have no way of knowing whether our universe is a simulation, but that doesn’t matter, really — what matters is that we can make digital simulations – and in an age of information, that’s everything.

In short, Simulation Theory works well as an explanatory framework and thought experiment, but it isn’t quite past the philosophical stage. However, as I will go on to explain perhaps later, it does help explain the social fabric of reality, especially in terms of actor-network theory. But those memes are old and already thoroughly captured by Hollywood so I’ll save that for another time.

Whole Universe Emulation

The universe, like any other quasi-physical environment, can be digitally simulated. In fact, it already has been.

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 uniquely curious patterns persist across all scales).

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

Life in a Digital Universe?

Our own existence proves the universe is conducive to life.[3] Therefore, if we wanted to replicate the early conditions of our own universe within a highly realistic digital simulation, we could watch the same natural processes that led up to our own evolution recur. If, in our hypothetical simulation, 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 until the emergence of life In Silico.

We can refer to this hypothetical digital simulation as a virtual (or a holographic) dimension, because in it, spacetime is reducible to software — information. (Part 2; information seems to be the origin of… everything).

Properties of Emergence

“But where does consciousness or life within the Simulation come from?” Well, where did our consciousness come from? Answer: Lots of hydrogen, time, and spontaneous particle interactions (back to the Anthropic Principle). If that doesn’t make sense, let me 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.”

My point is that 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 should also be able to simulate the conditions necessary for life to arise. “Virtual” or “real” makes no difference in this case; what matters are Constants.

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, all of this would require an incredible computing investment, and as I theorize in later parts to this series, it would also need to be a unique cross between a quantum and a physical computer.

“If a friend told you that we were all living in a giant hologram, you’d probably tell him to lay off the kush. But incredibly, physicists across the world are thinking the same thing: That what we perceive to be a three-dimensional universe might just be the image of a two-dimensional one, projected across a massive cosmic horizon.” – Motherboard

It’s difficult to avoid lame clichés and Matrix references while discussing Simulation Theory, but the following 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. partially 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 – at least, nothing should prevent it.

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’ll be using 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… Which 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 any running VMs. This would normally represent an absolutely crippling dilemma. But the problem could be averted completely if each Simulation consumed zero energy, and this is why entropy is interesting, especially with regard to physical and quantum computing. These ‘Simulations’ would need to be designed in such a way that their overall entropy would remain consistent over time. Reversible computing, an isentropic process, is probably the solution.[5]

Matter’s Underlying Basis

Quantum superposition describes how matter remains in an indefinite state until conscious observation. In other words, matter really isn’t defined until you consciously observe it.[7]

Though this may seem odd, consider it from a “designer’s” perspective: If some piece of matter within the Simulation isn’t being observed, then does the universe really need to “render” it? This goes back to the biocentric and circular question of, “Can You Hear the Clapping of One Hand?”

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. If this is accurate, then the double-slit experiment revealed something really interesting about how our universe optimizes itself to its inhabitants. Otherwise, the universe is just weird. Maybe both.

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. It’s also somewhat of an assurance to be living in an information-based universe, at least to me.

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. These predictions really push the limit of computing and what may be possible in the future. But if Moore’s Law and the Law of Accelerating Returns continue, I see it as a real possibility – perhaps even somewhat of a species responsibility.

“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 – computing just isn’t there yet.

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

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. Unified Field Theory
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 is a basic assumption known as the anthropic principle. It seems pretty obvious, though some people contest its logic
  4. See Simulated Reality.
  5. Viewing our universe in terms of a gigantic reversible computer may also 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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