Finding Meaning in a 'Simulated Universe’

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When I was an undergrad, a preeminent scholar of Kabbalah and mysticism came to spend a semester at my school. Intrigued, I enrolled in her course: a basic introduction to Kabbalah. We read Scholem, discussed Madonna and red bracelets, and I remember more than anything else feeling a great sense of disappointment from the course. I expected epiphany, I hoped for life-changing wisdom. I wanted this course to bring me closer to comfort with my existence, to help my life make more sense. I wanted to know what was so special about this stuff that the most famous people in the world were into. Alas, no great mysteries were unlocked, the universe did not make more sense, and I certainly did not feel any cooler.

I was reminded of this last week, when I read the New York Times article “Is the Universe a Simulation?” by Edward Frenkel. In his op-ed, Frenkel introduces a theory that the universe as we know it is merely a computer simulation, and, as such, we humans are in a position to discover the mathematical basis of that simulation.

As the physicists Silas R. Beane, Zohreh Davoudi and Martin J. Savage argue in their paper “Constraints on the Universe as a Numerical Simulation,” “…assuming that the universe is finite and therefore the resources of potential simulators are finite … in principle there always remains the possibility for the simulated to discover the simulators.”

For Frenkel, the questions that follow this line of thinking are huge: ”Are we prepared to take the ’red pill,’ as Neo did in ’The Matrix,’ to see the truth behind the illusion — to see ’how deep the rabbit hole goes’?”

“Perhaps not yet,” was his conclusion.

I first tried to take the “red pill,” to search for Frenkel’s “mathematical basis of that simulation,” in the college course on Kabbalah. That course marked the first time I had made a tiny opening in my heart and mind, a little crack in the veneer I had erected around myself to shelter me from the deep questions of life, to begin searching for profound meaning: the secrets that underlie existence.

I believe that on some level, we all have an inherent need to find meaning and understand the most basic question: why am I here? People approach this question from different directions, and come to vastly different conclusions. Yet, underlying them all is a sense of purpose, this desire to understand the seemingly unknowable. Philosophers, theologians and generation after generation of Jewish thinkers have all grappled with this fundamental question. And despite our scientific, evidence-based society, these questions still engage.

So when I read about the possibility that existence as we know it is simply a program on a computer somewhere else, I was scared. If this theory is correct, it would make all of this that we know ultimately phony, not real, not ours. It would suck all of the meaning out of life.

But then I took a deep breath. And I realized that these were simply the same questions humans have been asking since the beginning. These are the fundamental questions of religion, of Judaism. Once these scientists discover what they are searching for – that our existence is “created”- then they will find themselves in the world inhabited for so long by philosophers and theologians. For if our reality is a construct of some entity with the power to “create” it then what we think is ours is not actually ours and what we think we know we actually do not know.

To answer the question of the root cause of our existence is everything, but it is also the “red pill.” It provides no more answers to the meaning of our lives than we had before; knowing it is nothing.

Searching for meaning has the power to, in and of itself, give meaning. I think that understanding explains why, since that course back in college, one idea has stuck with me more than any other. G-d, my teacher explained, is both everything and nothing.

Rabbi Jonah Geffen lives and works in New York City. Follow him on Twitter @JonahGeffen.

A fractal.Credit: Dreamstime.
A cabbage. Credit: Dreamstime

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