Is the universe a giant cosmic computer? Are we living in a computer simulation? Can consciousness be simulated? If reality is an illusion, how do we wake up to what is real? This is an open-minded exploration of some of these issues.
QUANTUM PHYSICIST KEN WHARTON, in New Scientist magazine (9 Feb 2013), questions the assumption that physicists have made since the time of Newton: that the universe works like a massive computer. Given the state of the world in one instant, and the laws that determine the behaviour of that world, we just have to crunch the equations (either through solving them or using computer simulation) to predict the future in the next instant. There will be a growing deviation of the mathematical model from reality due to non-linear effects which makes prediction impractical, but philosophically this is how scientists regard the future — as basically the solution to complex equations. Science is all about prediction. And this is why finding the theory of everything is the holy grail for physicists: in theory it will allow us to map the whole future of the universe.
The question is this: is the universe actually doing what scientists are doing to create the future? Is the universe crunching equations like a computer?
Of course the computer that the universe is working out its future on is itself. Differential equations model how forces influence things, for example, because of the nature of those forces. Nature is not an expert at calculus; it does not need to be: all nature needs to do is be what it is, and by being what it is its future states will turn out as if they had been calculated using calculus. But of course, no calculations were actually involved. The system stumbles to the correct answer by its very nature. The mathematics highlights salient features of the system, but there are other aspects of the system that are not mathematically modelled either because they are too complex or they are not rational, consciousness being the primary example.
Wharton describes another way of evaluating the future — not by calculation but by considering non-dynamic principles — the 'Lagrangian approach'. Instead of seeing how forces directly move things around, the Lagrangian approach focuses on more abstract aspects of the system such as energy conservation, and use this to determine intermediary states between two moments of the system on a timeline. In this way, the system's dynamics is not directly calculated — forces are ignored in favour of energy. As forces are directional and energy is not, this greatly simplifies the modelling of physical systems: the Lagrangian modelling is independent of coordinate systems.
An example of the Lagrangian approach given my Wharton is Fermat's principle of least time which states that a light ray travelling between two points takes the quickest route. Two points are needed to define a route, but once those two points are defined, the path of the light can be calculated. Now this is not a calculation of the future, but a calculation of how light travels between two points separated in time and space. Given this understanding, we can then make predictions on how light will travel in the future, always taking the quickest path. The Lagrangian approach takes a higher, more abstract perspective — one that is more intuitive. And it is more intuitive for a reason: it is actually the way that most non-scientists view reality.
Scientists tend to see the world as a computer because much of science is about prediction and number crunching. Such a perspective is more logical and keeps the door firmly shut to teleological perspectives — where actions and processes are are seen as a means to a specific end. Science hates teleology as end causes open the possibility of things like destiny, God, intelligent design etc. So it is primarily this avoidance of teleological perspectives that keeps the computer paradigm of reality sovereign in the scientific world, and which makes Lagrangian approaches more a case of 'useful mathematics' than a perspective on the actual nature of reality.
However, teleology comes back in with quantum mechanics, because the final cause of measurement collapses the wave function. In this case, a Lagrangian approach might actually make more sense as it fits the quantum world — the paradoxes of quantum mechanics are only paradoxes if we view them from a Newtonian computational perspective. Open the door to teleology and suddenly you have a New Age movement using quantum mechanics as justification of mind-over-matter perspectives. No wonder the scientific community is unwilling to let go of the computer paradigm of reality: it is all that keeps the lid on a veritable Pandora's box of 'impossible' possibilities. (Wharton has proposed a Lagrangian type formulation of quantum theory — arxiv.org/abs/1301.7012.)
Non-scientists are quite happy with teleological perspectives and so most have not adopted the universe-as-a-computer paradigm. Indeed, most ordinary people formulate reality from a Lagrangian perspective because it is more intuitive and natural to do so. Human minds do not number crunch the future, but use general inductive and heuristic rules of thumb on specific aspects of systems that are then used to reformulate the past, giving our lives a bedrock of logical consistency and continuity. (In the same way, the brain processes the image we see with our eyes to make blind spots invisible and to turn the image the right way around.) These rules of thumb are then projected into the future as expectations, but not in a computational manner.
Despite the fact that we generally use non-computer models of reality, most of us will intellectually pay lipservice to the computer paradigm because: it seems more rational and therefore intelligent; we live in a computer age and so the computer perspective is a well worn groove; and we are bombarded with popular science documentaries in the media that promote the universe-is-a-computer paradigm. So even though the average person uses Lagrangian perspectives, the mind will label those perspectives as computational because that is the prevailing scientific dogma. Society has become addicted to seeing the world like a giant computer; indeed, some philosophers and scientists actually think that we are living in a massive computer simulation.
The simulation idea was put forward by Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom, who realized that if computer processing power keeps growing, then at some point future generations will be able to simulate reality. Bostrom wondered if the reality that we are experiencing could actually be such a simulation, and whether it would be possible to tell. Considering the likelihood that many simulations would be run by those distant descendants, Bostrom concludes that it is probable that we are living in a simulation.
John Barrow, a british cosmologist working at the University of Cambridge, believes that we would know whether we were in a computer simulation because simulations require computational shortcuts, tricks and adjustments to make them feasible: reality would be pixelated or grid-like in order to make computer processing possible; the physical constants and laws would need to be gradually adjusted in time and perhaps space in order to keep the fine balance of forces needed to maintain a system from which complex lifeforms can develop; and every now and then there might be tell-tale sudden glitches — events which appear not to follow the laws of physics as we know them.
Do such clues to simulation exist? Sudden glitches would be difficult to determine because science, as it is carried out today, systematically dismisses and eliminates glitches in the belief that they are just noise in the system: every research scientist knows that experimental results are not the smooth curves that appear in the textbooks. Therefore, becoming aware of whether we are living in a simulation would require a whole re-framing of science which would encourage scientists not to dismiss the noise in the system, but to make a detailed examination of it. As Barrow eloquently states: "...the flaws of Nature are as important as the laws of Nature … "
Gradual changes in the physical constants is certainly an idea that has been around for a while — as far back as the 1930s — and it is one that the latest research examining the light from quasars indicates may well be a reality. Of course, just because the physical constants change over time (and over space) does necessarily mean that we are living in a simulation. However, if the physical constants were shown to be constant within experimental accuracy, in both time and space, then that would make it less likely that we are living in a simulation.
And as for the pixelated or grid-like nature of reality: scientific confirmation of this is believed to require careful examination of cosmic ray interactions which, if reality is grid-like, the resulting explosion will favour certain axes. As cosmic ray interactions are uncommon, it will take time to confirm or deny the pixelated nature of reality.
Silas Beane, a theoretical physicist at the University of Bonn recently wrote in a recent interview in Focus magazine: "If we knew we were in a simulation it'd become interesting to communicate with the simulators." (Perhaps we already have — labelling our simulators as gods?) The question is: would a simulator want to start talking to his or her cyber creations? How would we all behave if we knew we were just simulations in a computer program? The situation would be similar to that depicted by the film The Matrix, where we would be living in a dream world, except we would personally have no existence in the 'real' reality, so there would be no waking up from the dream. Switch a simulation off and it just ceases to exist in one instant. Unless the simulation is able to influence some aspect of the real reality.
How could a simulation have any roots in reality? Only if information processing systems were able to access non-local aspects of reality, such as the zero-point energy field. Zero-point energy is the intrinsic energy of space caused by quantum fluctuations which are believed to originate from higher dimensions. Quantum systems tend to be non-local systems because they involve dimensional-interactions. An analogy is the hologram: each part contains the image of the whole, so the image is non-local in the actual hologram, and this process is the result of a dimensional shift of information from 2-dimensional space to 3-dimensional space. With the zero-point field, however, information is being stored in higher dimensions outside normal space-time.
So if information processing systems such as computer simulators can entangle with the higher dimensional zero-point field, then such a system can continue to exist when the simulator is switched off. And if such a quantum entanglement does does take place even with simulated systems, this would imply that the medium of entanglement is information rather than forces or energy.
Outside of simulated realities, having the mind entangle with non-local quantum fields is an established (albeit alternative) model of consciousness. With these systems, energy and forces could be involved in the entanglement process, but it is more likely to be information as well. Already, there is a truly scientific model of consciousness that sees it as a non-local phenomena — check out the Penrose-Hameroff Orch OR model. This model does not contravene any known scientific laws, but gives a mechanism for the survival of death: when we die, the deteriorating nervous system uncouples from the zero-point field — which holds what is essential to us as a person in its safe keeping.
Working scientists may use quantum theory as a means of reality-modeling where the Newtonian perspective breaks down, but this does not extend to how they see the world philosophically. Most quantum physicists are stuck philosophically in the Newtonian paradigm; the philosophy of quantum theory is seen as a fascinating oddity, something that has no bearing or relevance to everyday living. And yet, the irony of that is that the very awareness or consciousness of these scientists — of all sentient beings — is likely to be a quantum process because the alternative is for consciousness to merely be an illusion or an epiphenomena of local complex information processing. And as illusions cannot affect matter, this would reject the results of research at Princeton which conclusively shows that the mind can interact with matter (see http://noosphere.princeton.edu/). Minds bleed into matter because mind and matter are both information systems that can entangle quantum mechanically, and bearing in mind that only things that are fundamentally identical can quantum entangle, this means that the two are aspects of the same information system.
So mind is matter, and matter is mind; both are manifestations of the high-dimensional zero-point field. And as computer simulations and neural networks that entangle with the zero-point field are themselves manifestations of the zero-point field, in a sense the illusion of separate consciousness and things is merely a thought emanating from a unified zero-point field. We are a quantum collective, playing the game of individuality. Separation is a mass dream or hypnosis. But how can the illusion of separation manifest from a unified system like the zero-point field? This is where we come back to the paradox of quantum system: entanglement is not annihilation; separation dances on a foundation of unity.
The ramifications of this type of quantum entanglement mean that consciousness or awareness probably can be simulated. But not quite as most scientists think because, in the case of a computer simulation that develops self-awareness, what is actually going on is that the computer simulation has created a non-linear processing system that is able to entangle with the zero-point field. In this way, the awareness intrinsic to the zero-point field is co-opted by the simulation so that it becomes self-aware. In the same way, our brains are also non-linear processing systems that can entangle with the zero-point field, bringing to the locality of our bodies the non-local awareness of the higher dimensional quantum field.
So consciousness is not an illusion. What is an illusion is the assumption that consciousness is local to neural nets or complex information processing systems. The illusion is that our minds are stuck in our heads, when in fact consciousness is non-local — everywhere and nowhere. We fall for this illusion because we are stuck in Newtonian thinking where that consciousness is projected into a space-time fantasy. Most of us cannot even begin to understand what non-local awareness is all about. And as concepts are usually themselves space-time simulations, we cannot directly understand non-local awareness using concepts. The best we can do is use labels or pointers like 'non-dual awareness', 'non-local awareness' or the 'zero-point field'. But if we really want to understand non-local consciousness, we have to experience it directly. We cannot think ourselves there because thought is space-time conditioned.
At the beginning of this essay, we questioned the idea that the universe works like a giant computer using the laws of physics to fast forward from the present to some point in the future. This is the prevailing scientific paradigm. Now we might begin to see that the reason nature appears mathematical is because mind and matter are part of the same entangled system, so logical perception of reality is going to naturally uncover logical patterns. And as mathematics is the language of logic, those patterns can be modeled mathematically. In other words, the universe always speaks to us in our own language as we are energetically entwined. Mathematics, therefore, is not the universal language of creation that scientists assume it to be: it is merely the perspective of scientific investigation reflected back to researchers. Speak a different language and the universe will comply accordingly.
So the the question whether we are living in a computer simulation is actually not as profound as we might believe because both 'reality' and simulations are equivalent illusions. Both are distortions of a high-dimensional reality of quantum unity. This may sound like New Age BS, but it is a view that has more scientific backing than the idea that consciousness is an illusory byproduct of neural networks. That idea is just insane and is increasingly looking like a religious belief system rather than a scientific one.
When theoretical physicist, Silas Beane, wonders what it would be like communicating with the simulators, all he actually has to do is to explore his own consciousness. That is the key to experiencing both the reality behind the illusion of space-time, and the reality behind the illusion of simulation. We do not need to be theoretical physicists working at CERN to find the answers to the ultimate questions of existence; they are right in the centre of our minds, in the primary awareness that underlies all experience. This is the great mystery that so many are driven to find, usually looking everywhere but right here and right now. We have been mesmerized by the fantasy of ourselves within the illusion of space-time existence, and that illusion has served only to spin more stories to explain the story of that existence. But there comes a time when many of us give up stories because we realize that the truth, however terrible, is preferable to being psychologically comfortable. Mom's apple pie may be inviting, but eventually the story starts to taste a little sickly.
Realizing the illusory nature of space-time brings us to acknowledge that awareness is the prime reality from which all the illusions of space-time systems, including our own identity, spontaneously springs. And it also means that we can use this realization, if we want to, to alter those illusions. Just because basic awareness, which accepts everything as it is, and reality manifestation, which alters it, are contradictory from a Newtonian perspective, does not mean that they cannot coexist from a quantum perspective, just as the contradictory particle and wave nature of light can also coexist, despite also being contradictory from a Newtonian perspective. The acceptance of reality and the creative manipulation of reality both have validity in the quantum wholeness of the zero-point field.
However, the challenge of trying to modify the illusion is that it is all too easy to end up reinforcing the illusion because we are programmed to believe we have to 'do' something in space-time. Such 'doing', even in the imagination, only perpetuates the space-time story, one that is underpinned by psychological polarity. For example, if we are unwell and so try to focus on being well, the subconscious is aware of the context of this focus on wellness — which is that we are unwell in the first place — and so every time we visualize wellness we are also unconsciously reinforcing the fact that we are unwell. And as subconscious tends to be more tenacious in its focus than the conscious mind, it is usually more than enough to minimize mind-over-matter effects.
This is actually confirmed by experiments with random number generators which report a tiny but statistically significant effect of consciousness on matter. Therefore, it is always essential to first focus on letting go of the story of who and what we are, and what we deserve. For until we we really understand the contrived nature of our waking space-time oriented consciousness, we will continue to ask the type of questions that only bury us deeper into the illusion. In fact, the whole system is gamed for the illusion, because so much of society has a vested interest in maintaining the illusion.
So asking why universe is the way it is is not actually a particularly deep question, for it will only lead us into explanations that support our illusory space-time perspectives. Instead, it is far more insightful to ask who or what we are, and see where that seemingly innocuous question takes us. That question is so profound that it is easy to ask it insincerely, which will only lead the questioner back into stories: "Well I am Jane Smith, a journalist living on 44 Carnaby Street, married to John Smith." But when asked sincerely, looking past the labels that only serve to cover our ignorance, we find ourselves stepping back from the movie and start to become aware of our basic nature, a nature that is outside space-time, a nature that is founded on basic awareness. For it is in the simple awareness of awareness that we can directly experience the zero-point field, allowing us to let go of the movie characters we mistake ourselves to be and to touch what is actually real.