New hypothesis argues the universe simulates itself into existence

A physics paper proposes neither you nor the world around you are real.

Tetrahedrons in the sky above New York City

Tetrahedrons representing the quasicrystalline spin network (QSN), the fundamental substructure of spacetime, according to emergence theory.

Credit: Quantum Gravity Institute
  • A new hypothesis says the universe self-simulates itself in a "strange loop".
  • A paper from the Quantum Gravity Research institute proposes there is an underlying panconsciousness.
  • The work looks to unify insight from quantum mechanics with a non-materialistic perspective.

How real are you? What if everything you are, everything you know, all the people in your life as well as all the events were not physically there but just a very elaborate simulation? Philosopher Nick Bostrom famously considered this in his seminal paper "Are you living in a computer simulation?," where he proposed that all of our existence may be just a product of very sophisticated computer simulations ran by advanced beings whose real nature we may never be able to know. Now a new theory has come along that takes it a step further – what if there are no advanced beings either and everything in "reality" is a self-simulation that generates itself from pure thought?

The physical universe is a "strange loop" says the new paper titled "The Self-Simulation Hypothesis Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics" from the team at the Quantum Gravity Research, a Los Angeles-based theoretical physics institute founded by the scientist and entrepreneur Klee Irwin. They take Bostrom's simulation hypothesis, which maintains that all of reality is an extremely detailed computer program, and ask, rather than relying on advanced lifeforms to create the amazing technology necessary to compose everything within our world, isn't it more efficient to propose that the universe itself is a "mental self-simulation"? They tie this idea to quantum mechanics, seeing the universe as one of many possible quantum gravity models.

One important aspect that differentiates this view relates to the fact that Bostrom's original hypothesis is materialistic, seeing the universe as inherently physical. To Bostrom, we could simply be part of an ancestor simulation, engineered by posthumans. Even the process of evolution itself could just be a mechanism by which the future beings are testing countless processes, purposefully moving humans through levels of biological and technological growth. In this way they also generate the supposed information or history of our world. Ultimately, we wouldn't know the difference.

But where does the physical reality that would generate the simulations comes from, wonder the researchers? Their hypothesis takes a non-materialistic approach, saying that everything is information expressed as thought. As such, the universe "self-actualizes" itself into existence, relying on underlying algorithms and a rule they call "the principle of efficient language."

Under this proposal, the entire simulation of everything in existence is just one "grand thought." How would the simulation itself be originated? It was always there, say the researchers, explaining the concept of "timeless emergentism." According to this idea, time isn't there at all. Instead, the all-encompassing thought that is our reality offers a nested semblance of a hierarchical order, full of "sub-thoughts" that reach all the way down the rabbit hole towards the base mathematics and fundamental particles. This is also where the rule of efficient language comes in, suggesting that humans themselves are such "emergent sub-thoughts" and they experience and find meaning in the world through other sub-thoughts (called "code-steps or actions") in the most economical fashion.

In correspondence with Big Think, physicist David Chester elaborated: "While many scientists presume materialism to be true, we believe that quantum mechanics may provide hints that our reality is a mental construct. Recent advances in quantum gravity, such as seeing spacetime emergent via a hologram, also is a hint that spacetime is not fundamental. This is also compatible with ancient Hermetic and Indian philosophy. In a sense, the mental construct of reality creates spacetime to efficiently understand itself by creating a network of subconscious entities that can interact and explore the totality of possibilities."

The scientists link their hypothesis to panpsychism, which sees everything as thought or consciousness. The authors think that their "panpsychic self-simulation model" can even explain the origin of an overarching panconsciousness at the foundational level of the simulations, which "self-actualizes itself in a strange loop via self-simulation." This panconsciousness also has free will and its various nested levels essentially have the ability to select what code to actualize, while making syntax choices. The goal of this consciousness? To generate meaning or information.

If all of this is hard to grasp, the authors offer another interesting idea that may link your everyday experience to these philosophical considerations. Think of your dreams as your own personal self-simulations, postulates the team. While they are rather primitive (by super-intelligent future AI standards), dreams tend to provide better resolution than current computer modeling and are a great example of the evolution of the human mind. As the scientists write, "What is most remarkable is the ultra-high-fidelity resolution of these mind-based simulations and the accuracy of the physics therein." They point especially to lucid dreams, where the dreamer is aware of being in a dream, as instances of very accurate simulations created by your mind that may be impossible to distinguish from any other reality. To that end, now that you're sitting here reading this article, how do you really know you're not in a dream? The experience seems very high in resolution but so do some dreams. It's not too much of a reach to imagine that an extremely powerful computer that we may be able to make in not-too-distant future could duplicate this level of detail.

The team also proposes that in the coming years we will be able to create designer consciousnesses for ourselves as advancements in gene editing could allow us to make our own mind-simulations much more powerful. We may also see minds emerging that do not require matter at all.

While some of these ideas are certainly controversial in the mainstream science circles, Klee and his team respond that "We must critically think about consciousness and certain aspects of philosophy that are uncomfortable subjects to some scientists."

Want to know more? You can read the full paper online in the journal Entropy.

More on the hypothesis and the backstory of the Quantum Gravity Research institute —

U.S. Navy controls inventions that claim to change "fabric of reality"

Inventions with revolutionary potential made by a mysterious aerospace engineer for the U.S. Navy come to light.

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  • U.S. Navy holds patents for enigmatic inventions by aerospace engineer Dr. Salvatore Pais.
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Hack your brain for better problem solving

Tips from neuroscience and psychology can make you an expert thinker.

Credit: Olav Ahrens Røtne via Unsplash
Mind & Brain

This article was originally published on Big Think Edge.

Problem-solving skills are in demand. Every job posting lists them under must-have qualifications, and every job candidate claims to possess them, par excellence. Young entrepreneurs make solutions to social and global problems the heart of their mission statements, while parents and teachers push for curricula that encourage critical-thinking methods beyond solving for x.

It's ironic then that we continue to cultivate habits that stunt our ability to solve problems. Take, for example, the modern expectation to be "always on." We push ourselves to always be working, always be producing, always be parenting, always be promoting, always be socializing, always be in the know, always be available, always be doing. It's too much, and when things are always on all the time, we deplete the mental resources we need to truly engage with challenges.

If we're serious about solving problems, at work and in our personal lives, then we need to become more adept at tuning out so we can hone in.

Solve problems with others (occasionally)

A side effect of being always on is that we are rarely alone. We're connected through the ceaseless chirps of friends texting, social media buzzing, and colleagues pinging us for advice everywhere we go. In some ways, this is a boon. Modern technologies mediate near endless opportunities for collective learning and social problem-solving. Yet, such cooperation has its limits according to a 2018 study out of Harvard Business School.

In the study, participants were divided into three group types and asked to solve traveling salesman problems. The first group type had to work on the problems individually. The second group type exchanged notes after every round of problem-solving while the third collaborated after every three rounds.

The researchers found that lone problem-solvers invented a diverse range of potential solutions. However, their solutions varied wildly in quality, with some being true light bulb moments and others burnt-out duds. Conversely, the always-on group took advantage of their collective learning to tackle more complex problems more effectively. But social influence often led these groups to prematurely converge around a single idea and abandon potentially brilliant outliers.

It was the intermittent collaborators who landed on the Goldilocks strategy. By interacting less frequently, individual group members had more time to nurture their ideas so the best could shine. But when they gathered together, the group managed to improve the overall quality of their solutions thanks to collective learning.

In presenting their work, the study's authors question the value of always-on culture—especially our submissiveness to intrusions. "As we replace those sorts of intermittent cycles with always-on technologies, we might be diminishing our capacity to solve problems well," Ethan Bernstein, an associate professor at Harvard Business School and one of the study's authors, said in a press release.

These findings suggest we should schedule time to ruminate with our inner geniuses and consult the wisdom of the crowd. Rather than dividing our day between productivity output and group problem-solving sessions, we must also create space to focus on problems in isolation. This strategy provides the best of both worlds. It allows us to formulate our ideas before social pressure can push us to abandon them. But it doesn't preclude the group knowledge required to refine those ideas.

And the more distractions you can block out or turn off, the more working memory you'll have to direct at the problem.

A problem-solving booster

The next step is to dedicate time to not dealing with problems. Counterintuitive as it may seem, setting a troublesome task aside and letting your subconscious take a crack at it improves your conscious efforts later.

How should we fill these down hours? That's up to you, but research has shown time and again that healthier habits produce hardier minds. This is especially true regarding executive functions—a catchall term that includes a person's ability to self-control, meet goals, think flexibly, and, yes, solve problems.

"Exercisers outperform couch potatoes in tests that measure long-term memory, reasoning, attention, problem-solving, even so-called fluid-intelligence tasks. These tasks test the ability to reason quickly and think abstractly, improvising off previously learned material to solve a new problem. Essentially, exercise improves a whole host of abilities prized in the classroom and at work," writes John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist at the University of Washington.

One such study, published in the Frontiers in Neuroscience, analyzed data collected from more than 4,000 British adults. After controlling for variables, it found a bidirectional relationship between exercise and higher levels of executive function over time. Another study, this one published in the Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, compared fitness data from 128 adults with brain scans taken as they were dual-tasking. Its findings showed regular exercisers sported more active executive regions.

Research also demonstrates a link between problem-solving, healthy diets, and proper sleep habits. Taken altogether, these lifestyle choices also help people manage their stress—which is known to impair problem-solving and creativity.

Of course, it can be difficult to untangle the complex relationship between cause and effect. Do people with healthy life habits naturally enjoy strong executive functions? Or do those habits bolster their mental fitness throughout their lives?

That's not an easy question to answer, but the Frontiers in Neuroscience study researchers hypothesize that it's a positive feedback loop. They posit that good sleep, nutritious food, and regular exercise fortify our executive functions. In turn, more potent executive decisions invigorate healthier life choices. And those healthy life choices—you see where this is going.

And while life choices are ultimately up to individuals, organizations have a supportive role to play. They can foster cultures that protect off-hours for relaxing, incentivize healthier habits with PTO, and prompt workers to take time for exercise beyond the usual keyboard calisthenics.

Nor would such initiatives be entirely selfless. They come with the added benefit of boosting a workforce's collective problem-solving capabilities.

Live and learn and learn some more

Another advantage of tuning out is the advantage to pursue life-long learning opportunities. People who engage in creative or problem-solving activities in their downtime—think playing music, puzzles, and even board games—show improved executive functions and mental acuity as they age. In other words, by learning to enjoy the act of problem-solving, you may enhance your ability to do so.

Similarly, lifelong learners are often interdisciplinary thinkers. By diving into various subjects, they can come to understand the nuances of different skills and bodies of knowledge to see when ideas from one field may provide a solution to a problem in another. That doesn't mean lifelong learners must become experts in every discipline. On the contrary, they are far more likely to understand where the limits of their knowledge lie. But those self-perceived horizons can also provide insight into where collaboration is necessary and when to follow someone else's lead.

In this way, lifelong learning can be key to problem-solving in both business and our personal lives. It pushes us toward self-improvement, gives us an understanding of how things work, hints at what's possible, and, above all, gives us permission to tune out and focus on what matters.

Cultivate lifelong learning at your organization with lessons 'For Business' from Big Think Edge. At Edge, more than 350 experts, academics, and entrepreneurs come together to teach essential skills in career development and lifelong learning. Heighten your problem-solving aptitude with lessons such as:

  • Make Room for Innovation: Key Characteristics of Innovative Companies, with Lisa Bodell, Founder and CEO, FutureThink, and Author, Why Simple Wins
  • Use Design Thinking: An Alternative Approach to Tackling the World's Greatest Problems, with Tim Brown, CEO and President, IDEO
  • The Power of Onlyness: Give Your People Permission to Co-Create the Future, with Nilofer Merchant, Marketing Expert and Author, The Power of Onlyness
  • How to Build a Talent-First Organization: Put People Before Numbers, with Ram Charan, Business Consultant
  • The Science of Successful Things: Case Studies in Product Hits and Flops, with Derek Thompson, Senior Editor, The Atlantic, and Author, Hit Makers

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How AI learned to paint like Rembrandt

The Rijksmuseum employed an AI to repaint lost parts of Rembrandt's "The Night Watch." Here's how they did it.

Credit: Rijksmuseum
Culture & Religion
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