We Would Advise You to Hold on Tight While Reading This, but There Might Be Nothing to Hold Onto

Three new scientific approaches suggest the world as we know it doesn’t exist, and we are actually living in a computer simulation

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Gid'on Lev
Gid'on Lev
Gid'on Lev
Gid'on Lev

Science is a consistent tradition of discoveries, each of which shows, in its own way, that reality is radically different from the way we perceive it. Physics is the most sophisticated conspiracy theory. At one time, for example, we thought the Earth was flat, because that’s what it looks like. We were similarly convinced by appearance that our planet is at the center of the cosmos and that the stars orbit around it. Or that highly complex organs such as wings and eyes did not develop randomly.

The great insights of science repeatedly contradict our common sense. Moreover, the more we know, the more acute the nonsensicalness becomes. According to modern science, solid matter is actually empty, a particle can leap from one point to another without passing through what’s in between, there are influences that come from the future to the present, and so on and so forth.

Three new propositions – deriving from the study of cognition, from theoretical physics and from the philosophy of science – stretch to the limit our perceptual horizon. One maintains that reality is necessarily different from the way we perceive it; the second, that the laws of nature themselves are only an invention; and according to the third, reality, the laws of nature and we, too, do not even exist. It’s advisable to hold on tight while reading – except that there seems to be nothing to hold onto.

Consciousness as interface

In a series of scientific articles that have resonated widely, beginning in 2015, cognition researcher Donald Hoffman from the University of California, Irvine (in association with the mathematician Chetan Prakash) proposed a model called “the interface theory of perception.” According to the theory, nothing in reality remotely resembles our perception of it, because our perception is not reality-oriented.

Donald HoffmanCredit: Themindoftheuniverse

The accepted hypothesis is that an organism with a poor perception of reality has less prospect of transmitting its genes onward; accordingly, every perceptual system across the ages has developed so that what it apprehends will largely match what actually exists. The real is also the useful, the biologists thought. But it turns out that that’s almost never the case. Hoffman and Prakash ran hundreds of thousands of computer simulations to examine paths of evolutionary development in imaginary worlds. They found that reality-oriented strategies of perception are extremely rare, and even if they arise by chance, they are usually quickly snuffed out.

Every time an item of information is processed by the perceptual system, it entails an investment of time and energy by the organism. Simple and rapid perceptual systems that are directly survival- and reproduction-oriented thus have an advantage over those that transmit “real” information – about reality exactly as it is – because much of the “real” information is not relevant for these purposes. Natural selection unequivocally prefers perceptual strategies that are fitness-oriented and not those that are oriented toward objective attributes of the environment.

Hoffman illustrates this by means of the computer’s user interface, for which he named his theory. If we had to observe what actually happens within the computer with every tap on the keyboard or movement of the mouse, our work would be appallingly ineffective. Many hours would be needed to type even a single letter, whole days to append a Like. Hence the creation of the user interface, which uses symbols. A desktop icon, for example, streamlines work greatly. If you don’t think so, try to find a file in the guts of your computer without it. The icon, then, is extremely useful, but – and this is the critical point – it is not “real.” The icon represents the file, but what we perceive as its attributes – its place, its form, its colors – in no way reflect the file’s true properties, since files lack both color and form, nor do they need a well-defined location.

In fact, one of the major requirements of the interface, which programmers and graphic artists strive to achieve, is that it hide the truth from us, the users. We don’t want to know anything about the tangle of events in the electrical circuits and magnetic fields, whose result is the appearance of two check marks (as when we send a Whatsapp message). Our only interest is those two marks, preferably in blue. The purpose of the interface is to allow the user to work with the device as effectively as possible, while remaining as ignorant as possible about the device’s structure or the laws of its operation.

Similarly, Hoffman maintains, our perceptual system developed not in order to apprehend reality but, on the contrary: to hide it from us to the greatest extent possible. Space and time, which seem to us a necessary part of the nature of reality, are only the “desktop” of our perceptual interface, and all the objects we perceive, including the nerve cells through which sensation and thought occur, are merely icons on it.

Evolution of physics

Plato already likened us to dwellers in a cave who see only the shadows of reality, and Immanuel Kant argued that the world in itself (the “noumenon,” as he called it) will forever be beyond our attainment and that we have access only to the world of appearances (“phenomenon”), through the human categories of perception – notably, space and time. Science is now able to offer an explanation of why this is so: Our perceptual system, which evolved through natural selection, is intended to enhance our survivability and not necessarily to refer to reality. Evolution simply has no motivation for us to know “what’s there.”

Still, there must be something “there,” outside the cave, even if we only see its shadows; the noumenon has its own laws, even if we will never know what they are. Isn’t this so? Perhaps not. In an article in New Scientist, the science writer Philip Ball reported on a new theory, according to which the laws of physics themselves could be a product of the activity of our consciousness.

That theory was developed in 2017 by Markus Mueller, from the Institute for Quantum Optics and Quantum Information, affiliated with the Austria Academy of Sciences, in Vienna. Taking as his point of departure that there are no laws of nature, he tried to examine what the world would look like to abstract, simulated entities observing it. If a particular entity had experience A, what are the prospects that this entity would subsequently have experiences B, or C and so on? Mueller used algorithmic information theory, a branch of mathematics that deals with questions of this sort.

Markus Mueller.

Mueller ran mathematical models of entities’ experiences over time, in which he represented the experience of each of them at any given moment in the form of abstract information – zeroes and ones. The theory makes it possible, on the basis of all the items of information that were experienced in the past, to propose a prediction about the next experience.

Over time, Mueller discovered, the absolutely random information sequences of the different entities coalesce into one model, as though being guided by an algorithm. As a result, the entities will probably come to the conclusion that a reality exists characterized by permanent laws that link each experience to the subsequent one. In other words, the randomality spontaneously engenders an external world that seems to be operating on the basis of permanent laws about which the different observers agree.

To his surprise, Mueller discovered that the model that was created in the simulations he ran included traits that characterize quantum mechanics (similar to, for example, particles that display qualities of waves). That is, from the most minimal presuppositions, without laws, and only on the basis of entities’ experiences, the picture of an entire world emerged, similar to ours.

Universe as thought

The conclusion to be drawn from this is absolutely radical. Reality as it is perceived simply does not exist as such. Its laws emerge from its observers’ experiences; space and time are only an interface; protons and electrons are no more than “icons”; and objects, when unobserved, possess no “physical” qualities. However far-fetched this may sound, it is consistent with conventional interpretations of quantum mechanics. As the distinguished physicist John Archibald Wheeler wrote in his 1994 book “At Home in the Universe,” “Nothing is more astonishing about quantum mechanics than its allowing one to consider seriously... that the universe would be nothing without observership.” Albert Einstein was also aware of this possibility. “It is basic for physics that one assumes a real world existing independently from any act of perception. But this we do not know,” he admitted in a 1955 letter to a skeptical friend.

If the laws of nature, and space, time and the objects in space and time possess no independent existence – that is, an existence that is independent of our perception – what does exist? The answer, according to Donald Hoffman, is consciousness. What there “is” is not quarks and not quasars, but consciousnesses, which are the basis for the existence of all these things – that is, for our universe, including the laws of its behavior. According to this approach, known as “conscious realism,” the only real thing in the world is conscious entities. Particles, which comprise the perceived world of matter, are not a product of vibrating strings (as string theory hypothesizes), but of vibrations created by interactions between consciousnesses.

This proposition, now receiving research support in the wake of developments in computer technology, was put forward by prominent physicists long ago. Nobel laureate Max Planck, for example, said in 1931, “I regard consciousness as fundamental and matter as derivative from consciousness. We cannot get behind consciousness. Everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing, postulates consciousness.”

Nevertheless, Hoffman’s model is evolutionary. If there are only consciousnesses, what limits their survivability? For what do they compete? For information, he suggests. That’s the limited resource that underlies the struggle in the natural world. This proposition is supported to a certain degree by another study, revolutionary in itself, conducted by a team of scientists from the University of Tokyo, which showed for the first time that information is convertible to energy.

That is, the artichoke in front of me exists only as long as I am aware of it, and when I “eat” it, I absorb energy in the form of information. We can all be thought of as being something like Pac-Mans that accumulate experiences and impressions; some add “life points” to us (“nourishing” information), others subtract life points (“harmful” information). The qualities we attribute to ourselves – appearance, hair color, height, along with IQ, gender, sexual or culinary preferences, everything – reflect who we are exactly in the way that the orange fox with the magnificent tail on my desktop reflects my browser – that is, not in the least.

We are no more than avatars of something that is behind everything, about which we have no idea, even though it is us.

Universe as simulation

It’s here that the interface theory of perception intersects with the most radical idea of all: the simulation hypothesis. The argument, propounded by the Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom, is very simple. Until 40 years ago, computer games did not exist. Today there are platforms of virtual reality in which millions of players from around the world participate and run characters that respond to their choices. It’s estimated that at the current rate of technological progress, we will before long arrive at a “post-human” situation in which we will be able to run simulations so advanced that the computer-game “beings” in them will be endowed with artificial intelligence that will create the feeling that they possess consciousness and free will to control their fate. Accordingly, the “simulation hypothesis” postulates that one of the following propositions must be true:

Nick Bostrom.

1. The human species will become extinct before reaching the “post-human” stage.

2. It’s improbable that post-human civilizations will run simulations.

3. We are almost certainly living in a computer simulation.

Which is to say, if civilizations do not necessarily become extinct before reaching a developmental stage in which they have the ability to program simulations inhabited by beings that feel they possess consciousness, and if at that stage, too, it interests them to run simulations (as it interests us now), it is highly probable that we are living in a computer simulation – as it stands to reason that the number of beings “living” in simulations inestimably exceeds the number of beings in the civilization that programmed them. Furthermore, we may very well be living in a simulation of a simulation, for if we survive, we will likely develop simulations of a kind that will be, if we are living in a simulation, simulations of a simulation. It follows that there could be multiple levels of existence. There is the origin civilization, where few live, and below it more and more levels of simulations.

This notion is not the exclusive preserve of philosophers. Bank of America, the second largest bank in the United States and the world’s 13th largest corporation, discerning information of potentially important business potential in connection with investments in virtual reality artificial intelligence, sent its clients a document stating that the odds that we are living in a computer simulation range between 20 percent and 50 percent. Bostrom, for his part, estimated the probability of this to be one in three. Those are cautious estimates. The super-entrepreneur Elon Musk, for example, thinks that the probability that we are not living in a simulation is “one in billions.”

Bank of America. Sent clients a document stating that the odds that we are living in a computer simulation range between 20 percent and 50 percent.Credit: Brian Snyder/Reuters

Even the modest probability of one in three or five that we are living in a matrix carries vast implications. According to the senior NASA scientist Richard Terrile, the simulation hypothesis is on a par with the Copernican Revolution, which revised humanity’s entire conception of the universe. Other scientists, such as the astrophysicist George Smoot, a Nobel laureate, support the idea and are looking for ways to prove it empirically. They have a number of hefty arguments.

First, the simulation hypothesis offers an explanation for a basic phenomenon in quantum mechanics that has puzzled physicists for decades – namely, that quantum particles acquire a defined quality only when they are measured. Until that instant, it appears, they possess a range of qualities simultaneously, some of them contradictory. This is a very peculiar phenomenon, but if our universe is merely a simulation, it becomes probable and even logical. It makes sense to program a simulation that confers precise definitions on each particle only in the very rare cases in which there is a consciousness that seeks such definitions, and in all other places provides a very rough estimate. A supercomputer running such simulation would require almost infinite power in order to calculate all the parameters of each quantum particle in the universe.

On top of this, the whole world that is perceived by us – all the sights and sounds, the feelings and tastes, the thoughts and emotions – all are created by means of incessant activity by neurons, which only have the ability to turn on or turn off, to send a signal or not: zero or one. Does that sound familiar? “Every item of the physical world has at bottom an immaterial source and explanation,” John Wheeler wrote. “That which we call reality arises in the last analysis from the posing of yes-no questions and the registering of equipment-evoked responses; in short, that all things physical are information-theoretic in origin.”

Another theory that is supported by various physicists and dovetails with the simulation hypothesis is that parallel to the universe we live in, numberless more universes exist (the multiverse hypothesis). If there is a super-civilization that is running the simulation we live in, we can surmise that it is concurrently running additional simulations, which for us are inaccessible “parallel universes.”

A painting depicting the Jewish Exodus out of Egypt. Does the story actually refer to bursting out of the “matrix?”Credit: Moshe Rosenthalis

Dissolving the world

According to the ancient, mystical Hebrew book “Sefer Yetzirah” (Book of Creation), the whole universe was created with letters. Or, in contemporary terms: by means of a code. Across the generations, intellectuals have always urged that we remove the veil of illusion from our eyes. Is it possible that Plato’s notion of emerging from the cave, the Buddhist concept of liberation from samsara (the cycle of birth and death) or the Jewish Exodus out of Egypt actually refer to bursting out of the “matrix”? And if so, what does that “bursting out” mean?

“There is nothing besides a spiritual world,” the great mystic Franz Kafka realized, without needing evolutionary, algorithmic and mathematical models, or logical hairsplitting. He continued, “what we call the world of the senses is the Evil in the spiritual world, and what we call evil is only a necessity of a moment in our eternal evolution.” This world, of the senses – namely, the material world – can be dissolved by means of the strongest possible light, Kafka asserted, in “The Blue Octavo Notebooks.” It’s only to weak eyes that the world becomes solid, while for “weaker eyes still, it grows fists” (translation by Ernst Kaiser & Eithne Wilkins).

If what there is, is a network of consciousnesses, or a simulation of a universe that contains intelligent beings, then clearly our perception of reality is very flawed. Our eyes are weak. But if we project light on the world, the light of an awakened consciousness, it might be possible to dissolve the illusion. The afflictions of this world, which are plentiful, whether of body, because of injury, old age or illness, or of heart and mind, because of hurt, rejection or separation – these afflictions are merely fists punching those with weak eyes, those who do not truly grasp the nature of reality. If we are able to strengthen our eyes, to observe everything with tranquil present awareness that recognizes what is, what is not, the fists will open into inviting palms, extended to peace.

We need to remember, thus wrote Kafka in his “Octavo Notebooks”: “No one creates more here than his spiritual basis of life; the fact that it seems as though he were working for his food, clothing and so on, is beside the point, for together with each visible morsel he receives also an invisible one, with each visible garment also an invisible garment, and so on. That is every human being’s justification.”

Dr. Gid’on Lev, a clinical psychologist and a philosopher, teaches at Tel Aviv University and Bar-Ilan University. He is the author of “Llove” (Matar, 2015; Hebrew) and “Truth Love Faith: A Psychoanalytic and Historic Look at the Meaning of Life” (Carmel, 2018; Hebrew).

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