Thursday 28 April 2016

Are we living inside a computer simulation?

Neo dodging bullets, one of the most iconic scenes from 'The Matrix'
(image courtesy :

When the Matrix hit the theaters in 1999, it was unlike anything anyone had ever seen before. The action sequence including Neo and Trinity facing the security forces, where chunks of concrete are flying everywhere with each bullet fired, and the one with Neo dodging bullets from an 'agent' at the rooftop, are just a few of the many unforgettable scenes in the movie. But what made the movie truly one of a kind in mainstream cinema, is the fact that it made the masses question the very nature of our existence.

For those who haven't watched the movie, the simplest and the briefest explanation I can provide you with is that the world as we know it, is actually not real, but a computer simulation (The Matrix). This basically means that all the things that we see and touch and smell everyday, are not physical objects; it is only our mind which is made to believe that they are real... and we are just living inside a complex computer simulation created by a superior being (robots in this case).

Yes it is all science fiction, and seems like an impossible idea to grasp. After all, how can we just say that the bed we sleep in, the water we drink, a rock which we hold in our hands, and all the people in this world, do not exist, and are all part of our imagination? It just doesn't make sense, as accepting this idea means rejecting all the reality we have ever 'known'.

"What is real? How do you define real? If you are talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then real is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain" - Morpheus ('The Matrix')

Materialism vs Idealism - The debate over whether the world is an objective world composed of matter, independent of our mind, or whether it is all happening inside our heads, has been going on for millennia. Both the philosophies have their own shortcomings, but idealism being a less believable concept, has drawn a lot of flak since the beginning. But recent progress in science have given us more and more reasons to believe that it might be a possibility... and even if it is a slim possibility, we cannot rule it out. Here are five 'scientific' reasons why we might be living a life inside a computer simulation.


Food for thought?
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While the big bang theory is one of the most widely accepted theories, it does not actually explain the sequence of events just before the big bang, or what created the big bang. It all seems to have started from 'nothing' (or a singularity). While the creation of the universe from nothing is an incomplete explanation, it starts to make sense if we apply it to the 'computer simulation' theory. In a virtual construct such as a video game, there is always an information influx from a '0' state. Imagine you are one of the characters in a video game. When the gamer reboots the game, from the perspective of the character (you in this case), the entire sequence starts from nothing. Of course, if the simulation theory is to be true, the virtual construct is probably much much more advanced than any simulation we can create as of today. But with the advancement of computation power, we humans might make a similar constructs in the future and if the virtual characters have consciousness, they will have no idea that they are simulations too.


Bits of 0's and 1's, or computer codes, have been found
embedded in nature 

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Mathematics is regarded as the language of the universe. With the help of equations, we have been quite successful in giving birth to new theories, and then experimentally proving them. As we have uncovered more and more about the true nature of the universe, we have stumbled upon clear traces of computer codes embedded deeply in the equations that describe super symmetry, or in other words, they are embedded deeply into the equations that we attempt to describe the nature of the cosmos. The equations not only 'resemble' computer codes, they are clear strings of bits of 0's and 1's. We might argue and attribute it to 'chance', but that must be one hell of a coincidence, if that is the case.


Uhh.. not this entanglement
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Quantum mechanics is basically the physics of the subatomic particles. The realm of quantum mechanics is a weird one. The particles behave in ways unlike anything we see or experience in real life. The laws of classical physics and special relativity break down and things don't make much sense anymore.
According to Einstein's theory of relativity (and our common sense), for two objects to interact, they must be in close proximity. But in the quantum world, two particles can be 'entangled', and they would behave as one system, even if they are separated in space by an infinite distance. Say, if two electrons are entangled and they are taken to the two opposite ends of the universe, changing the spin on one of the electrons would 'instantaneously' change the spin of the other electron at the other end of the universe. This is called nonlocality.

Entangled electrons at two different corners of the universe
 will still have opposite spins
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So what does it have to do with the simulation theory? Well, the concept of nonlocality is confusing and physicists even today are clueless as to how this phenomenon occurs. Albert Einstein, like a lot of other physicists of his time, reacted to this theory with skepticism, called it 'spooky action at a distance' and spent about 28 years of his life disproving it, but he was unsuccessful. But if we apply the simulation theory, things again start making sense.
A computer simulation appears to be a three dimensional construct, but is actually made up of pixels projected on a two dimensional screen. If we are inside a simulation, objects might be separated by huge distances and entanglement will seem like a magic trick to us. But actually, all the points of the screen are equidistant with respect to the processor, hence making space-time just an illusion to a grand virtual construct.


"Have you ever had a dream Neo, that you were so sure it was real? What if you were unable to wake from that dream? How would you know the difference between the dream world, and the real world?" - Morpheus ('The Matrix')

In everyday life, the human brain takes in information from the sensory organs, processes it, and this helps us perceive objects and events as they are. But in case the brain receives incomplete information, it tries to stitch together the information in such a way, that it makes the most sense to us. Most of the optical illusions are based on this principle, and they basically trick our brain into perceiving something very different from 'reality'. Observe the next two images carefully. Can you figure out the illusions?

This image is not a gif.
Yet we perceive rotating circles in it

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Once you see it, it is very difficult to un-see
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Similarly, sometimes a dream seems so real to us that we feel that all the material objects in the dream were actual objects we touched and smelled and tasted. If we never woke up from the dream, we will never be able to realise that we are in a dream; we will rather perceive that as reality. The point is, our brain is not very equipped at distinguishing reality from an illusion. So if we actually are in a simulation, or inside a dream, for us that will be reality as we will ever know, and thinking otherwise would be simply preposterous.


We know that everything around us is composed of matter. But all the matter in this universe does not exist till we actually look at it, or observe it. Sounds crazy right? What  if I tell you that science has proof, and that all of us have read about it in school? Remember the double slit experiment, in which electrons are fired at a screen through two slits, and patterns (called 'interference' patterns) would form on the screen at the areas where the electrons would strike the screen with most frequency? The results have left scientists scratching their heads for decades now, and still we are no closer to solving its mystery.

Diagram showing how the interference pattern is formed by emitting photons
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Electrons were theorised as particles, but in the double slit experiment, the electrons behaved like waves; they passed the two slits and left an interference pattern on the screen, much like patterns waves of water would leave. Even when the electrons were fired one at a time, the same results followed, which indicated somehow that a single electron passed through both the slits at the same time. Now here is the messed up part. When an interferometer (an observation device) was added to 'peek' into the slits so as to see which electron passed through which slit, the electrons suddenly started behaving like a particle, and not a wave! Scientists decided to try out another way. They would decide at the very end whether to 'observe' the phenomenon or not. The results were mind boggling. Till the moment the electrons were not observed, they behaved like waves. As soon as they were observed, they started behaving like particles, as if they somehow knew that they were being watched. This is call the 'Observer effect'.

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This experiment shows how little we know about the nature of the universe. The change in behaviour of a fundamental 'particle' like the electron due to our observation, poses a tsunami of questions about reality. Recent experiments have shown that this phenomenon is not just exclusive to the quantum world and bigger objects also behave in a similar way. So is a tree next to the road and the water running down a stream there because we decide to 'observe' it? How much of reality is affected by our consciousness, or our consciousness all the reality there is?


The simulation theory is of course just a theory, but I must admit that it is a disturbing yet fascinating thought. I know that the idea of being 'players inside a simulation' is ridiculous to most. But I personally will not dismiss an idea just because it sounds unreal. I would rather question it, try and understand it, and keep an open mind about the infinite possibilities of the nature of the universe, and life itself. Every great idea is first met with skepticism and criticism, until it revolutionises the world. The universe is a strange place, and literally anything is possible... for REAL!

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