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3 superb arguments for why we live in a matrix – and 3 arguments that refute them
Is this the real life or is it just fantasy? And does it really even matter?
- The simulation argument was first put forth in a paper published in 2003 by philosopher Nick Bostrom.
- Bostrom assigns less than a 50 percent probability that we're living in a simulated universe.
- Some physicists believe that we can test this scientifically.
Are we living in a simulation? This idea has been explored on a number of levels. While there has been a fair share of sophomoric musings and half-baked proposals surrounding the hypothesis — usually in hazy podcast studios and college dorm rooms — there are actually a number of respectable contemporary philosophers and physicists who are seriously considering the idea and its implications.
The argument as we know it today first popped up in a paper by Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom. Who argued both for and against the proposition of a simulated universe and then explored a number of consequences that flow from that proposal. His main points appear at the start of the argument, in which Bostrom states at least one of the following are true:
- The human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a "post-human" stage.
- Any post-human civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history (or variations thereof).
- We are almost certainly living in a computer simulation.
Bostrom calls this the Trilemma. We'll be revisiting these points as we explore the arguments supporting that we live in a matrix-esque simulation and arguments that refute the idea.
Nick Bostrom’s trilemma
Bostrom is undecided on the true validity of the simulation theory, but he is one of the major proponents of the argument for it. Here are some of his arguments for the idea that we might be living in a simulation. He believes that there is a significant chance that there will one day be post-human entities with the possibility to create an ancestor simulation, unless we're already in that simulation.
Bostrom accepts the simulation argument, but rejects the simulation hypothesis. Meaning that he thinks that one of the three possibilities is true, but he's not entirely convinced we are in the simulation. He states:
"Personally, I assign less than 50 percent probability to the simulation hypothesis — rather something like in 20 percent-region, perhaps, maybe. However, this estimate is a subjective personal opinion and is not part of the simulation argument. My reason is that I believe that we lack strong evidence for or against any of the three disjuncts (1) – (3), so it makes sense to assign each of them a significant probability."
He goes on to say that although some accept the simulation argument, their reasons for doing so differ in a number of ways. Bostrom is quick to point out that this is not a variant of Descartes famous demon hallucination brain-in-vat thought experiment
" ... the simulation argument is fundamentally different from these traditional philosophical arguments… The purpose of the simulation argument is different: not to set up a skeptical problem as a challenge to epistemological theories and common sense, but rather to argue that we have interesting empirical reasons to believe that a certain disjunctive claim about the world is true."
His simulation argument depends on hypothetical future technological capabilities and their use in the creation of a perfectly simulated universe and world, which would include our minds and experiences of what we consider reality.
Have we discovered the rules of the simulation?
In a far ranging and elucidating discussion a few years back at the Isaac Asimov memorial debate, Max Tegmark, cosmologist from MIT put forth a few arguments on the nature of the simulation in comparison to a video game.
If I were a character in a computer game, I would also discover eventually that the rules seemed completely rigid and mathematical. That just reflects the computer code in which it was written.
His point was that it seems like the fundamental laws of physics will eventually grant us the capability to create increasingly more powerful computers, far beyond our current capacity. These things could be the size of solar systems, perhaps even galaxies. With that much theoretical computing power, we could easily simulate minds if in fact that's not already our fate.
Now under the supposition that we're already in a super complex system emanating from some galaxy-sized computers, some detractors have said that we should be able then to spot "glitches in the Matrix."
Bostrom was quick to point out that any glitch we considered real could just be frailties of our mind. That would include things such as hallucinations, illusions, and other types of psychiatric problems. If any kind of glitch occurred, which is expected in a computing system, Bostrom feels that the hypothetical simulators would be able to account for that by:
"... having the ability to prevent these simulated creatures from noticing anomalies in the simulation. This could be done by avoiding anomalies altogether, or preventing them from having noticeable macroscopic ramification, or by retrospectively editing the brain states of observers who had happened to witness something suspicious. If the simulators don't want us to know that we are simulated, they could easily prevent us from finding out."
He goes on to consider how this isn't that far-fetched as our organic brains already do such a thing. While in the midst of a fantastical dream, we are usually left unaware of the fact we're dreaming and this simple function is carried out by our technologically-unaided brain.
Testing the simulation hypothesis experimentally
Zohreh Davoudi, a physicist at the University of Maryland, believes that we can test if we're in a simulation.
"If there is an underlying simulation of the universe that has the problem of finite computational resources, just as we do, then the laws of physics have to be put on a finite set of points in a finite volume… Then we go back and see what kind of signatures we find that tell us we started from non-continuous spacetime."
The evidence that would prove we are living in a simulation could come from a unusual distribution of cosmic rays hitting Earth and suggesting that spacetime is not continuous, but instead made up of discrete points. Although the problem of proving you're in simulation still has the implication that any proof found might also be simulated.
In a continued discussion of the subject at the Asimov's conference, Davoudi brings up an old theological point with an up-to-date and modern premise.
"... What's called the simulation is you just input the laws of physics, and nature and universe emerges. You don't actually try to make it look like it's something going on. You don't try to — the same as with computer games. You don't interfere with what you've created. You just input something that is very fundamental and just let it go, just as our universe."
Other commentators remarked on this ideas similarity to deism. This means that "god" or deus was the first cause to set the creation of universe in motion, but doesn't interfere in it afterwards..
From the simplicity of these laws of physics then emerges complex processes which seem to have continued to grow and evolve as the universe ages.
Arguments against the simulation theory
Theoretical Physicist, Sabine Hossenfelder, from Goethe University Frankfurt is in the camp that believes that the simulation hypothesis is just plain malarky. She argued in a blog post that a good deal of physicists don't take this problem seriously. Hossenfelder also has problems with the nature of the argument and the way the theory is presented. She says:
"Proclaiming that 'the programmer did it' doesn't only not explain anything — it teleports us back to the age of mythology. The simulation hypothesis annoys me because it intrudes on the terrain of physicists. It's a bold claim about the laws of nature that however doesn't pay any attention to what we know about the laws of nature."
Hossenfelder believes that there is a trivial way in which to say that the simulation argument is correct:
"You could just interpret the presently accepted theories to mean that our universe computes the laws of nature. Then it's tautologically true that we live in a computer simulation. It's also a meaningless statement."
Leaving the realm of linguistic logic and entering into the mathematics and fundamentals of physics, Hossenfelder goes on to explain that a universe cannot be built with classical bits and still have quantum effects. You also need to take into account special relativity, which no one who has been testing any kind of experimental hypothesis has been able to remedy.
Indeed, there are good reasons to believe it's not possible. The idea that our universe is discretized clashes with observations because it runs into conflict with special relativity. The effects of violating the symmetries of special relativity aren't necessarily small and have been looked for — and nothing's been found.
No ability to distinguish a simulated universe
Lisa Randall, a theoretical physicist at Harvard University, is somewhat baffled as to why this is a topic up for serious debate. Her logic is operating under the premise that this idea cannot ever be tested scientifically and is just mere linguistic floundering for scientists.
"I actually am very interested in why so many people think it's an interesting question," she has said about the topic.
Her prediction is that the chances of this argument turning out to be right are effectively zero. There is zero evidence that can be conceived of that we're living in a simulation and runs in parallel to the old idea that "a god did it." Now the only difference is that a computational system has taken the place of the clockmaker, Jehovah, or the world being the breath of Brahmin and so on in this similar strain of religious examples.
To really distinguish a simulation, you really do have to see just our whole notion of the laws of physics breaking down, or some of the fundamental underlying properties... Not because of interaction of the environment, but just the computer just couldn't keep track of stuff… I mean, to simulate the universe, you need the computational power of the universe.
Inherent contradiction in the argument
Cosmologist Sean M. Carroll believes that there is a blaring contradiction endemic to the argument. He first lays out the gist of the argument in a supposed logical system. Here is how he views the simulation hypothesis:
- We can easily imagine creating many simulated civilizations.
- Things that are that easy to imagine are likely to happen, at least somewhere in the universe.
- Therefore, there are probably many civilizations being simulated within the lifetime of our universe. Enough that there are many more simulated people than people like us.
- Likewise, it is easy to imagine that our universe is just one of a large number of universes being simulated by a higher civilization.
- Given a meta-universe with many observers (perhaps of some specified type), we should assume we are typical within the set of all such observers.
- A typical observer is likely to be in one of the simulations (at some level), rather than a member of the top-level civilization.
- Therefore, we probably live in a simulation.
With the above logic in mind, Carroll goes on to explain that if we accept all of that then we most likely live in the lowest level of the simulation, in which we wouldn't be able to perform any of our own simulations even if we wanted to and somehow had the capability to do so.
Hopefully the conundrum is clear. The argument started with the premise that it wasn't that hard to imagine simulating a civilization — but the conclusion is that we shouldn't be able to do that at all. This is a contradiction, therefore one of the premises must be false.
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Some evidence attributes a certain neurological phenomenon to a near death experience.
Time of death is considered when a person has gone into cardiac arrest. This is the cessation of the electrical impulse that drive the heartbeat. As a result, the heart locks up. The moment the heart stops is considered time of death. But does death overtake our mind immediately afterward or does it slowly creep in?
Some scientists have studied near death experiences (NDEs) to try to gain insights into how death overcomes the brain. What they've found is remarkable, a surge of electricity enters the brain moments before brain death. One 2013 study out of the University of Michigan, which examined electrical signals inside the heads of rats, found they entered a hyper-alert state just before death.
Scientists are beginning to think an NDE is caused by reduced blood flow, coupled with abnormal electrical behavior inside the brain. So the stereotypical tunnel of white light might derive from a surge in neural activity. Dr. Sam Parnia is the director of critical care and resuscitation research, at NYU Langone School of Medicine, in New York City. He and colleagues are investigating exactly how the brain dies.
Our cerebral cortex is likely active 2–20 seconds after cardiac arrest. Credit: Getty Images.
In previous work, he's conducted animal studies looking at the moments before and after death. He's also investigated near death experiences. “Many times, those who have had such experiences talk about floating around the room and being aware of the medical team working on their body," Dr. Parnia told Live Science. “They'll describe watching doctors and nurses working and they'll describe having awareness of full conversations, of visual things that were going on, that would otherwise not be known to them."
Medical staff confirm this, he said. So how could those who were technically dead be cognizant of what's happening around them? Even after our breathing and heartbeat stops, we're conscious for about 2–20 seconds, Dr. Parnia says. That's how long the cerebral cortex is thought to last without oxygen. This is the thinking and decision-making part of the brain. It's also responsible for deciphering the information gathered from our senses.
According to Parnia during this period, "You lose all your brain stem reflexes — your gag reflex, your pupil reflex, all that is gone." Brain waves from the cerebral cortex soon become undetectable. Even so, it can take hours for our thinking organ to fully shut down.
Usually, when the heart stops beating, someone performs CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation). This will provide about 15% of the oxygen needed to perform normal brain function. "If you manage to restart the heart, which is what CPR attempts to do, you'll gradually start to get the brain functioning again," Parnia said. “The longer you're doing CPR, those brain cell death pathways are still happening — they're just happening at a slightly slower rate."
CPR may help retain some brain function for longer. Credit: Getty Images.
Dr. Parnia's latest, ongoing study looks at large numbers of Europeans and Americans who have experienced cardiac arrest and survived. "In the same way that a group of researchers might be studying the qualitative nature of the human experience of 'love,'" he said, "we're trying to understand the exact features that people experience when they go through death, because we understand that this is going to reflect the universal experience we're all going to have when we die."
One of the objectives is to observe how the brain acts and reacts during cardiac arrest, through the process of death, and during revival. How much oxygen exactly does it take to reboot the brain? How is the brain affected after revival? Learning where the lines are drawn might improve resuscitation techniques, which could save countless lives per year.
"At the same time, we also study the human mind and consciousness in the context of death," Parnia said, “to understand whether consciousness becomes annihilated or whether it continues after you've died for some period of time — and how that relates to what's happening inside the brain in real time."
For more on the scientific perspective on a near death experience, click here:
That's as fast as a bullet train in Japan.
The way an elephant manipulates its trunk to eat and drink could lead to better robots, researchers say.
Elephants dilate their nostrils to create more space in their trunks, allowing them to store up to 5.5 liters (1.45 gallons) of water, according to their new study.
They can also suck up three liters (0.79 gallons) per second—a speed 30 times faster than a human sneeze (150 meters per second/330 mph), the researchers found.
The researchers wanted to better understand the physics of how elephants use their trunks to move and manipulate air, water, food, and other objects. They also wanted to learn if the mechanics could inspire the creation of more efficient robots that use air motion to hold and move things.
Photo by David Clode on Unsplash
While octopuses use jets of water to propel themselves and archer fish shoot water above the surface to catch insects, elephants are the only animals able to use suction both on land and underwater.
"An elephant eats about 400 pounds of food a day, but very little is known about how they use their trunks to pick up lightweight food and water for 18 hours, every day," says lead author Andrew Schulz, a mechanical engineering PhD student at the Georgia Institute of Technology. "It turns out their trunks act like suitcases, capable of expanding when necessary."
Sucking up tortilla chips without breaking them
Schulz and his colleagues worked with veterinarians at Zoo Atlanta, studying elephants as they ate various foods. For large rutabaga cubes, for example, the animal grabbed and collected them. It sucked up smaller cubes and made a loud vacuuming sound, like the sound of a person slurping noodles, before transferring the vegetables to its mouth.
To learn more about suction, the researchers gave elephants a tortilla chip and measured the applied force. Sometimes the animal pressed down on the chip and breathed in, suspending the chip on the tip of its trunk without breaking it, similar to a person inhaling a piece of paper onto their mouth. Other times the elephant applied suction from a distance, drawing the chip to the edge of its trunk.
Elephants inhale at speeds comparable to Japan's 300 mph bullet trains.
"An elephant uses its trunk like a Swiss Army knife," says David Hu, Schulz's advisor and a professor in Georgia Tech's School of Mechanical Engineering. "It can detect scents and grab things. Other times it blows objects away like a leaf blower or sniffs them in like a vacuum."
By watching elephants inhale liquid from an aquarium, the team was able to time the durations and measure volume. In just 1.5 seconds, the trunk sucked up 3.7 liters (just shy of 1 gallon), the equivalent of 20 toilets flushing simultaneously.
Soft robots and elephant conservation
The researchers used an ultrasonic probe to take trunk wall measurements and see how the trunk's inner muscles work. By contracting those muscles, the animal dilates its nostrils up to 30%. This decreases the thickness of the walls and expands nasal volume by 64%.
"At first it didn't make sense: an elephant's nasal passage is relatively small and it was inhaling more water than it should," Schulz says. "It wasn't until we saw the ultrasonographic images and watched the nostrils expand that we realized how they did it. Air makes the walls open, and the animal can store far more water than we originally estimated."
Based on the pressures applied, Schulz and the team suggest that elephants inhale at speeds comparable to Japan's 300-mph bullet trains.
"By investigating the mechanics and physics behind trunk muscle movements, we can apply the physical mechanisms—combinations of suction and grasping—to find new ways to build robots," Schulz says.
"In the meantime, the African elephant is now listed as endangered because of poaching and loss of habitat. Its trunk makes it a unique species to study. By learning more about them, we can learn how to better conserve elephants in the wild."
The paper appears in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface. The US Army Research Laboratory and the US Army Research Oﬃce 294 Mechanical Sciences Division, Complex Dynamics and Systems Program, funded the work. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the view of the sponsoring agency.
Source: Georgia Tech
Original Study DOI: 10.1098/rsif.2021.0215
The experience of life flashing before one's eyes has been reported for well over a century, but where's the science behind it?
At the age of 16, when Tony Kofi was an apprentice builder living in Nottingham, he fell from the third story of a building. Time seemed to slow down massively, and he saw a complex series of images flash before his eyes.
As he described it, “In my mind's eye I saw many, many things: children that I hadn't even had yet, friends that I had never seen but are now my friends. The thing that really stuck in my mind was playing an instrument". Then Tony landed on his head and lost consciousness.
When he came to at the hospital, he felt like a different person and didn't want to return to his previous life. Over the following weeks, the images kept flashing back into his mind. He felt that he was “being shown something" and that the images represented his future.
Later, Tony saw a picture of a saxophone and recognized it as the instrument he'd seen himself playing. He used his compensation money from the accident to buy one. Now, Tony Kofi is one of the UK's most successful jazz musicians, having won the BBC Jazz awards twice, in 2005 and 2008.
Though Tony's belief that he saw into his future is uncommon, it's by no means uncommon for people to report witnessing multiple scenes from their past during split-second emergency situations. After all, this is where the phrase “my life flashed before my eyes" comes from.
But what explains this phenomenon? Psychologists have proposed a number of explanations, but I'd argue the key to understanding Tony's experience lies in a different interpretation of time itself.
When life flashes before our eyes
The experience of life flashing before one's eyes has been reported for well over a century. In 1892, a Swiss geologist named Albert Heim fell from a precipice while mountain climbing. In his account of the fall, he wrote is was “as if on a distant stage, my whole past life [was] playing itself out in numerous scenes".
More recently, in July 2005, a young woman called Gill Hicks was sitting near one of the bombs that exploded on the London Underground. In the minutes after the accident, she hovered on the brink of death where, as she describes it: “my life was flashing before my eyes, flickering through every scene, every happy and sad moment, everything I have ever done, said, experienced".
In some cases, people don't see a review of their whole lives, but a series of past experiences and events that have special significance to them.
Explaining life reviews
Perhaps surprisingly, given how common it is, the “life review experience" has been studied very little. A handful of theories have been put forward, but they're understandably tentative and rather vague.
For example, a group of Israeli researchers suggested in 2017 that our life events may exist as a continuum in our minds, and may come to the forefront in extreme conditions of psychological and physiological stress.
Another theory is that, when we're close to death, our memories suddenly “unload" themselves, like the contents of a skip being dumped. This could be related to “cortical disinhibition" – a breaking down of the normal regulatory processes of the brain – in highly stressful or dangerous situations, causing a “cascade" of mental impressions.
But the life review is usually reported as a serene and ordered experience, completely unlike the kind of chaotic cascade of experiences associated with cortical disinhibition. And none of these theories explain how it's possible for such a vast amount of information – in many cases, all the events of a person's life – to manifest themselves in a period of a few seconds, and often far less.
Thinking in 'spatial' time
An alternative explanation is to think of time in a “spatial" sense. Our commonsense view of time is as an arrow that moves from the past through the present towards the future, in which we only have direct access to the present. But modern physics has cast doubt on this simple linear view of time.
Indeed, since Einstein's theory of relativity, some physicists have adopted a “spatial" view of time. They argue we live in a static “block universe" in which time is spread out in a kind of panorama where the past, the present and the future co-exist simultaneously.
The modern physicist Carlo Rovelli – author of the best-selling The Order of Time – also holds the view that linear time doesn't exist as a universal fact. This idea reflects the view of the philosopher Immanuel Kant, who argued that time is not an objectively real phenomenon, but a construct of the human mind.
This could explain why some people are able to review the events of their whole lives in an instant. A good deal of previous research – including my own – has suggested that our normal perception of time is simply a product of our normal state of consciousness.
In many altered states of consciousness, time slows down so dramatically that seconds seem to stretch out into minutes. This is a common feature of emergency situations, as well as states of deep meditation, experiences on psychedelic drugs and when athletes are “in the zone".
The limits of understanding
But what about Tony Kofi's apparent visions of his future? Did he really glimpse scenes from his future life? Did he see himself playing the saxophone because somehow his future as a musician was already established?
There are obviously some mundane interpretations of Tony's experience. Perhaps, for instance, he became a saxophone player simply because he saw himself playing it in his vision. But I don't think it's impossible that Tony did glimpse future events.
If time really does exist in a spatial sense – and if it's true that time is a construct of the human mind – then perhaps in some way future events may already be present, just as past events are still present.
Admittedly, this is very difficult to make sense of. But why should everything make sense to us? As I have suggested in a recent book, there must be some aspects of reality that are beyond our comprehension. After all, we're just animals, with a limited awareness of reality. And perhaps more than any other phenomenon, this is especially true of time.