Digital Physics vs. The Simulation Argument [updated]

Recently, there has been widespread confusion about digital physics relating it to the simulation argument.

Digital physics, the hypothesis that the universe is a kind of digital computer is most likely true. Simulation argument is not. It is a very naïve metaphysical argument based on ancient fallacies of solipsism and creationism.

Some physicists, apparently, seem to think that if they can prove digital physics, this would mean that we are living in a simulation. I believe that the philosophical illiteracy of those physicists may be betraying them. Not quite understanding what the digital physics hypothesis is, they have succumbed to a trivial error. And although they have the technical means to investigate the granularity of the universe, they do not have the means to understand a simple conceptual hypothesis.

It is somewhat alarming about the cultural degeneration our society is going through when physicists are talking about “simulators”, i.e., alien programmer deities outside our realm. This interview vividly demonstrates their philosophical ineptitude.

The more interesting thing is that the press immediately made this a popular news item, and now every half informed person in the world is talking about this. Therefore, I thought a theoretically informed explanation from the high floating auto-erotic circle might be in order.

Digital Physics can be true without needing any simulators whatsoever. If it is true, it is probably going to turn out to be a low-level computer architecture that has a Planck-scale structure. It is hypothesized to be a Reversible Universal Cellular Automaton (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reversible_cellular_automaton), although I have considered Graph Automata as more fitting as it could correspond to a space-time lattice. Cosmology in digital physics can be likened to an evolutionary programming system, in which programs evolve due to mutations. The mutations can be deterministic or non-deterministic. However, in the end, the universe is merely an evolving program on a digital computer, if digital physics is true. Particles, stars, galaxies, they would have all evolved as surviving programs in an immense computer system.

This evolutionary interpretation is obviously much more scientific than positing some “simulators”. I shall not further investigate why Bostrom’s simulation argument is wrong-headed, which I’ll save for another essay, perhaps. For now, suffice it to state that I do not consider it scientific because it is based on many metaphysical assumptions, like any other variant of intelligent design, i.e., creationism.

However, the concern of Dr. Silas Beane about simulators “faking” real physics using discretization is naïve at best to say. It depends on this childish notion that “real physics must be continuous”. He believes that if we were not living in a simulation, our physics would be continuous, and there would be no granularity to the universe. This is a muddled view of physics, to say the least. It not only fails to take into account the founding idea of digital physics, as envisioned by the great Konrad Zuse and one of our favorite MIT scientists Ed Frenkin, but it also fails to adhere to the vision of Hooft (see the wikipedia article on his holographic principle and Wheeler (see this book excerpt about his “It from bit” slogan). When we talk about the holographic principle, we do not mean to say that the hologram, or The Great Universe Computer rests in a computer laboratory in some Really Continuous Exotic Universe. On the contrary, Digital Physics claims that such an exotic continuous universe does not exist at all! There is no lab, the digital physicists proclaim: the universe is the computer.

That is to say, the memory cells of the computer correspond to physical states. Its operations / transition rules, the description of its computer architecture correspond to physical laws. And the programs in its memory are physical objects / processes / events. There is no simulation. Programs are things. Computations are events. We are programs. And that is all that there is to the universe.

This cold, hard, scientific world-view is unfortunately very difficult to appreciate for the philosophy community usually compromised by dualists and vitalists. It surely requires letting go of much fantasy that contaminates our common sense; it is not as exciting as a world in which you can expect to find an infinite expanse of space on your fingertip, or where you can carve up a sphere and obtain two identical spheres of the same size. Indeed, the fantasies about Continuum and all sorts of Exotic Universe imaginations depend on our misdirected mathematical ventures. For at least one minor difficulty with continuum: the mathematical continuum permits discontinuous functions. Physically, if discontinuous functions existed, they would be fun to watch. Some physical process, like fire, would start, and then it would transform into something else, say, like a bird, instantaneously, just like magic. That is of course merely an example. However, interestingly, if simulators existed, they would be able to use a Continuum without any discontinuous functions, which is possible with the set of Computable Reals, or set R_c (see the wikipedia article on computable numbers). That would be a perfect continuum with no imperfections detectable by the simulated. (Extra credits to readers who can spot the related computable mathematics theorem.) That is to say, Dr. Beane is making this ridiculous commentary on his otherwise valuable, perhaps revolutionary work, only because he fails to apprehend the philosophical and mathematical underpinning of digital physics. However, I am confident that he can be debugged.

This post originally appeared here: http://www.examachine.net/blog/digital-physics-vs-simulation-argument/

26 Responses

  1. x says:

    One of these days, I’ll be able to go a full day without coming across a potentially interesting article that ends up making more effort to attack people than to provide information.

    One day.

  2. I agree that there are differences between digital physics and simulation theories.

    It is well established that our quantum world is discrete and therefore possibly digital. Seth Lloyd and Stephen Hawking seem to think the universe is or has the ability to act like a quantum computer or Turing machine. Lloyd has said the universe is a quantum computer, and in context I assumed he meant our world acts as if it is a virtual quantum simulation. I am not sure how in practice we can distinguish between the two ideas since all we see is experiences.

    To me the important thing is not whether we live in a virtual world but to what extent do the worlds we experience involve multiple minds or agents. I understand Thomas Nagal was looking into this question.

    In our dreams at night we assume we are the only real person and all others we meet in our dreams are imaginary and have no mind of their own. In a world where only I existed it is possible for the world to be tweaked to suit my desires. If you alone inhabit a dream you can have all your dreams come true.

    In a world where more than one agent exists we can encounter clash of wills. Presumably in our world gods that answer prayers have difficulties when golfers pray for sunshine on the same day farmers pray for rain.

    This conflict is perhaps why some mystics say to get happiness you have to go with the flow.

    If we have a universe with few limitations except the clash of wills we would (I suspect) likely wind up with a world that seems quite restricted. My point is even if the world is a simulation, if it is inhabited (as it seems) by many agents it would seem very real.

    It is possible for terrorist to strap a bomb on themselves and imagine a world where a bevy of virgins are waiting to serve his every whim, but I can not imagine many real women who would see such servitude as their ideal world.

  3. Tim Gross says:

    in a digital universe- the categorical distinctions made between an “artificially controlled simulation” and “naturally evolved environment” – are themselves artificial – and wholly arbitrary- the Principle of Computational Equivalence shows that all information systems possess the equivalent of “intelligence” [ pattern recognition of low entropy structures] and “conscious awareness” [ selection and sorting of low entropy structures] – artificiality is simply the set of strategies that humanity has discovered and used- so “artificial simulation” as opposed to ” natural world” is incorrect and anthropocentric- it’s more correct to say anthropic simulation as opposed to alien simulation- thus- Simulism is the more correct explanation of ALL forms of “digital physics”-

    ” We can say that there’s a necessary condition for life: that the system exhibits sophisticated computation.

    But beyond that, there really doesn’t seem to be any kind of abstract definition one can give. The practical definition for us is based on history—and based on the actual historical properties of life on Earth.

    Well, what about intelligence? It’s pretty much the same story.

    It’s clear it’s difficult to identify, because we even have trouble very close at home. Understanding when babies exhibit what level of intelligent behavior, or whether something like a whale song is really showing intelligence. And actually I just don’t think there’s an abstract definition of intelligence either. The only thing that characterizes intelligence is a necessary condition: that a system is capable of sophisticated computation…

    …in the end I think one’s just going to realize that there’s no abstract notion of intelligence, extraterrestrial or otherwise. And the thing we’re really talking about when we talk about “intelligence” is human-like intelligence. As for life, intelligence is not something absolute and abstractly definable. It’s something in a sense historical—defined by its connection to a thread of history.” Stephen Wolfram

  4. Skull says:

    Yikes. What a disappointing “article”. I’ve got to agree with other responders – the condescension is unnecessary, and all you really pointed out was your misunderstanding (and contempt) of the Simulation Argument. And while “digital physics”, or granularity, may not be proof of the Simulation, neither is it proof that the Simulation doesn’t exist. Nothing you wrote refutes the Simulation Argument. And to my knowledge (granted, limited) the Simulation Argument isn’t, nor has it ever been, presented as a scientific theory.

    • Eray Ozkural says:

      Right, we must always applaud creationism, especially when a philosophers and scientists engage in it. That’s what you think. And I disagree with that. I have tolerated such ignorance long enough. I think it’s time to come out of the shadow and strike down the beast.

      • Steve says:

        Ahmen! (pun intended)

      • stevepidge says:

        What happens in your mind when we…

        1. Create “artificial” intelligence
        2. Create simulations inhabited by AI and natural intelligence that is indistinguishable from reality?
        3. The god of the gaps is merely humans closing in on their own godhood. Thus proving the existence of gods.
        4. Can we become gods? can we create universes and life? If the answer is maybe or yes then you must accept the possibility that we were created ourselves.

    • Eray Ozkural says:

      It doesn’t matter if SA has been presented as a scientific theory. It’s not a theory. It’s some absurd and silly metaphysical argument that has no relation to science.

      However, unfortunately, it has been used as a philosophical justification in the following scientific article. Note the FIRST line of the abstract. I have no objection to the otherwise scientific content of this work, in fact, I strongly support any inquiry into digital physics. But I’m against stupid, unscientific, religious, creationist, etc. interpretations.

      http://arxiv.org/abs/1210.1847

      Constraints on the Universe as a Numerical Simulation

      Silas R. Beane, Zohreh Davoudi, Martin J. Savage

      Abstract:
      Observable consequences of the hypothesis that the observed universe is a numerical simulation performed on a cubic space-time lattice or grid are explored. The simulation scenario is first motivated by extrapolating current trends in computational resource requirements for lattice QCD into the future. Using the historical development of lattice gauge theory technology as a guide, we assume that our universe is an early numerical simulation with unimproved Wilson fermion discretization and investigate potentially-observable consequences. Among the observables that are considered are the muon g-2 and the current differences between determinations of alpha, but the most stringent bound on the inverse lattice spacing of the universe, b^(-1) >~ 10^(11) GeV, is derived from the high-energy cut off of the cosmic ray spectrum. The numerical simulation scenario could reveal itself in the distributions of the highest energy cosmic rays exhibiting a degree of rotational symmetry breaking that reflects the structure of the underlying lattice.

  5. I’m with Jerry`s first comment. Particularly the “we don`t know” part. What surprises me most is that the SA is not nearly as popular as it should be given the simple logic behind it. As if the program has a sub routine to block it – just as this article attempts to do.

  6. jetardy says:

    You are correct to say the simulator conjecture is less scientific since it abandons the fundamental premise of science that all observable events can be explained by existing relations or chaotic processes.

    However, when this premise is ultimately incorrect then science is a multigenerational proof ad absurdum of the existence of God. We can expect, as the process reaches its limits, to see the premise of science, taken as an axiom, spawning hypothetical and increasingly bizarre constructions. But don’t worry, there are trillions of other MEs, in countless parallel universes writing something else.

  7. It’s remarkable how dogmatic some atheists become when confronted with ideas that challenge their fundamentalisms.

  8. LME says:

    “However, in the end, the universe is merely an evolving computer on a digital computer, if digital physics is true. ” Not sure what you mean by that and perhaps words inverted/left out?
    I prefer the formulation: the universe is a recursive program running on a digital computer. The computer itself, being made of the universe, is thus clearly the Uroboros.

  9. Jerry Mitchell says:

    “This evolutionary interpretation is obviously much more scientific than positing some “simulators”. I shall not further investigate why Bostrom’s simulation argument is wrong-headed, which I’ll save for another essay, perhaps.”

    For an article titled “Digital Physics vs. The Simulation Argument” it seems you have skipped over the question your title asks entirely based on your quote above. Why is it “obviously” more scientific than the alternative?

    Also, using condescending words in reference to those ideas or people you disagree with (like “obviously”, “childish”, “naïve”, etc..) make this article much more emotional than a reasoned statement. I think you would be much better served leaving those out.

    That said, I do agree with your central premise that simply because the universe might be computational in nature, it doesn’t imply an entity that designed it – but the argument you put forth doesn’t prove the alternative either.

    At this stage, all we can say is we don’t know – which I am personally fine with. Proof of either position will need to come with some pretty convincing evidence.

    • Eray Ozkural says:

      Not condescending really, but positing alien programmer gods does not make theology any less childish, or any more scientific. It might make it look more philosophical, though.

      If I delved into details of simulation argument it would be too long before I got out of it for the purposes of this essay. But I do promise to re-visit simulation arguments in their own regard without reference to the work of Dr. Beane.

      Here, I tried to explain why evidence for digital physics should not be considered evidence for simulation argument. Showing granularity of universe in particular would support digital physics, but it would not support the simulation argument, unless you already believe in it! Which, I must note, is not a very scientific attitude. I didn’t even have to explain this in any detail. Once you understand that evolutionary view is much more compatible with digital physics, it all falls into place.

      Zuse didn’t base this idea on alien gods. So where did that even come from, the digital editions of the bible?

      The deconstruction of the simulation argument, must wait for another H+ essay!

      • shagggz says:

        Your article was indeed dripping with condescension. And there is nothing childish or theological about the simulation argument. The “gods” being discussed are not metaphysically superlative, and even arch-atheist Dawkins has rightly admitted that their existence is perfectly compatible with a godless (in the traditional monotheistic sense) universe.

        I share Jerry Mitchell’s disappointment in having been misled by your article’s title. I expect your forthcoming article which expands on your allegation that the simulation argument is flawed to have similar unsubstantiated conceptual conflations and misunderstandings as your allegations of childishness and theology.

        • Alan says:

          I agree. The author is correct that the digital universe concept has no necessary connection to the simulation argument, but the simulation argument is still quite strong. The idea that someone inside a simulation could reliably “test” for it is absurd – the simulation does not need to create a foolproof universe, but only needs to show the researcher what the simulator wants the researcher to see. Controlling sensory input to one or more persons is MUCH easier than simulating every atom in the universe.

          I’m frankly stunned that the author has not considered this, seeing that this is how virtual reality works right now.

          • Eray Ozkural says:

            Alright, thanks for agreeing with some part. As I said, Dr. Beane is wrong because he doesn’t know that in a space made of computable reals, all functions are perfectly continuous, hence a Continuum can be perfectly created within the simulation. So there is no way to test for granularity in such a simulation code. All of this is of course the same as talking about the number of angels dancing on a pin, etc. etc. :) It’s just medieval scholastic “philosophy” all over again.

        • Eray Ozkural says:

          Dawkins isn’t as knowledgeable about philosophy of science as I am, then. Sim. arg. is most certainly superstitious drivel indistinguishable from any other form of intelligent design. I would like to correct him, time permitting.

          • shagggz says:

            Those are some pretty strong words there. Concomitantly, the more of them you spew, the less inclined I am to believe them.

            Nothing about what he’s said betrays an ignorance of the philosophy of science; he has merely stated that he’s open to a possibility that may be outside the scope of current empiricism, though this hardly puts it on the same level as the traditional theology you equate it with. Furthermore, the simulation argument has nothing to do with intelligent design, which posits the unmistakable artifacts of an intelligent designer. Ancillary speculations as to the quantized nature of reality demonstrating simulation are just that: ancillary to the core logic of the simulation argument. As you correctly point out, any such quantization does not imply simulation. This is another lazy conflation you make, that puts into severe doubt that your upcoming article will have the gravitas you’re making out.

      • Jason Feather says:

        Surely to claim that ‘it’s wrong’ is as much of a cop out as believing its right. It sounds like your starting point is, I don’t like this because…when it should be…This looks interesting I wonder if it stands up to scrutiny?

        Science shouldn’t believe or disbelieve, science is supposed to be dispassionate, impartial, cool headed but I see that it rarely is, we are human after all. Sometimes theories come along that turn science on its head, a shift in paradigm that many resist but which eventually begins to inform all of science. I’m in no way saying this is one I’m just making an analogy in that what many in the scientific establishment thought were outlandish ideas have now been accepted. If a theory is put forward we should try and test it dispassionately. Science has limits as does logic so we shouldn’t be afraid to speak of things which we can only speculate about.

        It’s an interesting idea and no more bizarre than Everett’s many worlds. If our maps of reality become inseparable from reality itself are they not the same? I abhor the many worlds interpretation, is that falsifiable? Or should we return to the Copenhagen interpretation and the role of the observer ;-)

        PS Im obviously not a physicist be gentle ;-)

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