Tag Archives: Physics

In Reality Just A Dream? (You Will Need A Cup Of Coffee For This One!)

You can’t leave the park if you stay on the rides boy. Stop being a tourist and take a look behind the curtain.”

The idea that everything we know ‘is a lie’ and we have been dreaming all of this time pervades culture en masse; From Plato to the Wachowskis, the possibility that we are all collectively experiencing a simulated reality is a juicy subject for discussion. But there is something to this idea. If we are in a simulation, how would we know? How might we begin to prove this? Defining a hyperobject (or a hyper-hyperobject), such as reality itself, is difficult. We come up like the fish searching for water. It is everything to the fish,  so where do we even begin with being?

A Philosophical Dream

The human mind is not equipped to answer the big questions very well. In fact, our very logic is based on very restrictive parameters.  Our understanding of distances, time and flying things is limited to what we see day to day. This is why we are easily tricked by the massive or very small, our brains aren’t evolved to make sense of the information. Or indeed, there has been no demand to do so that restricts our survival as a species. And answering whether our Universe is in fact ‘real’ isn’t a question that would have vexed our ancestors, so its little wonder we have trouble with it. Today’s big questions confuse yesterdays brain.

Questioning the nature of reality is one of those big questions. Take optic illusions and hallucinations for example, or the auditory hysteresis as best demonstrated by ‘Laurel’ or ‘Yanny‘. We have a limited number of sensory cues which we can attach to our environment. When we try to cut corners, our brains attempt to fill the gap and make mistakes. Our brain will attempt to make sense of ambiguity by pushing previous experience on to it. VSauce has a great video explaining how and why this can happen, so take a look. So knowing this, where do we know where objective reality stops, and our own shortcuts begin? What is truly real outside of our own interpretation?

simulation reality descartes science physics philosophy dream

Rene Descartes – Philosopher and Pioneer 

This idea a, that reality is not ‘real’ is not so foreign to us as it may seem. The first consideration of this with which most people are familiar is perhaps the cogito ergo sum of René Descartes: ‘I think, therefore I am‘. This simple statement was the basic building block Descartes used to establish his metaphysical philosophy. He reasoned that, as we know the senses can be misleading, everything which he perceives may be the illusion of a clever and malign demon. If this is the case, he would have difficulty in establishing which percepts were real and which were not, as each one might be designed to fool him. Although this touches on the idea of a ‘false reality’, it appears to appeal to some higher power ‘tricking us.’

Although a powerful idea, it doesn’t answer the question objectively but actually throws another layer of faith on the issue.

Descartes’ response to this unusual problem was to throw the whole thing out; he only knew that he was thinking. Thus, Descartes knew that he existed but about the rest, he could not sure. This was a logical move, as he realized that objective realities would be consistent regardless of who perceived them, only the inferred reality (a very personal one,) would be his alone. Obviously, we can all infer the same when seeing an apple (and tend to, its red, hard, tasty,) so there is something consistent. But even then, the ‘essence’ of the object considered may be inferred differently by everyone, and you would never know quite how (i.e is my red your red?)

This was termed methodic doubt or Cartesian scepticism. The take-home message is that seeing is not believing. The extension of this, Solipsism, is the belief that you are the only aware rational agent (agent meaning one capable of observing and influencing.) From a simulation perspective, it means that you are the only ‘real’ person. Of course, our video games are populated by Non-Player Characters (Cortana in Halo, Navi in Zelda.) If we are in a simulation, it is more likely that you are not ‘real’. Why would a simulation be built for us alone?

Of course, this is a basis for a line of thought, not an encouragement to live your life in this way. People still look both ways before crossing the street. An NPC is not benevolent and doesn’t exist to help you by nature (i.e any character who attacks you in a game.) Solipsism, as understood by Karl Popper, is not a falsifiable hypothesis. Traditional scientific method seeks to disprove ideas via a null hypothesis (the chance that the association between X and Y is due to chance). Solipsism cannot meaningfully be disproved in this way (the death of the main agent ends the argument, one way or the other). This doesn’t mean that it isn’t true, but that solipsism is in the hands of philosophy over science.

Which is an uncomfortable position to be in. If you can’t objectively prove it, or at least reliably disprove it, nothing can be concluded. Popper himself is aware of this and forms the basis of his work.

We can approach this problem from the other direction; that is to say, by considering the ethics of simulation after the fact. As software becomes more advanced and hardware becomes more capable, our simulations or the possibility of any simulation becomes more sophisticated. The simulated minds we might develop could be more complex and we have every reason to suppose that we might pursue this. The map might start to look more and more like the territory.

science popper simulation descartes dream

Karl Popper – Father of Falsificationism and proponent of reasoning

These sim people (sims?) would have behavior like ours, they might even have thoughts like ours. At some point, they might become indistinguishable from us and there are ethical considerations to running this. We do not consider the ethics of running a sim, thus any advanced civilization is unlikely to do this either. The economist Robin Hanson recommended that anyone living in a simulation better be as entertaining as they can, otherwise they might get switched off. An uncomfortable thought. So if we are simply lines of code, it makes sense for that code to be useful. Although we can see that ‘bad humans’ (Hitler as a prime example,) seemed to operate for years before ‘termination.’

Clearly, either this isn’t true, or Hitler’s suicide was a programmed termination carried out as volitional. We couldn’t be certain either way. Popper once again becomes very relevant, as we have no way of proving any hypothesis of even this one act.

These sim people would be ‘p-zombies’ or philosophical zombies. A p-zombie is not a horror movie villain. They look like people (or sims) and we cannot tell them apart, even from their reactions. If you tickle them, they laugh and if you pinch them, they would cry. However, they do not feel that indescribable sensation (‘qualia’). At some point, surely this becomes indistinguishable also? A simulant human such as found in Blade Runner was virtually human, and Robin William’s Bicentennial Man was actually declared human as ‘he’ became ethically synonymous with his organic peers.

bicentennial man williams science dream plato descartes

Robin William’s Bicentennial Man achieved human status through consciousness.

So we have established a reasonable proposal that these simulations are possible (although not provable only within philosophy.) We have now a frame of understanding with which to appreciate this issue. Next, we must turn theory into practice. How do we find the proof?

 

A ‘Physical’ Dream

The best way to analyse the problem of our potential simulation is to look at how we would do it. We need to examine how we build simulations and models. What limits do we put on them and how does that map onto what we have observed in the universe? After all, we have built simulations to model economic or anthropological behavior and VR goggles encourage us to leap into cyberworlds, is it that unrealistic that these might become more sophisticated and take on lives of their own? And what would reassure us that we weren’t indeed sentient ‘code’? Are we virtual reality convinced of physicality because of that same programming?

This prospect is not that unrealistic according to Hans Moravec, an Austrian futurist. Eventually, a civilization of some sort or another will become highly technologically advanced. This civilisation will be able to mass produce self-contained virtual simulations. They might do this for entertainment purposes or to model certain situations, as we do. These widespread simulated realities may become so numerous that any thinking entity has a greater chance of being inside one than out. Simply put, if the code can perceive and experience, how would it know if it was real or code? And if most of the ‘entities’ in a given universe are code, statistically you are more likely to be one of them.

Nobel Prize-winning physicist, George Smoot, encourages us to examine the basic physical constants which govern the universe. In his opinion, the fact that our environment is quantized (‘fuzzy on a small scale’, think of it as pixellation) so that physics works differently on a large scale compared to a small one may be a way of saving space an computational power. This discrete-ness is our binary. Basically, the way the Universe works, the rules it plays by, aren’t there by chance. They are created by a programmer, and that the base levels of ‘reality’ such as quantum physics, are an example of this.

dream plato science simulation

In physics our universe is quantised. 10 points to Gryffindor if you get the joke

Its just data, and since the small doesn’t reliably approximate to the big (i.e no one has developed a Unified Theory of quantum vs classical physics, it might be because a programmer has made a subroutine to relate the two to save data.) He also points to entangled states as another ‘simulation memory’-saving device. Other people take the computer science element a little further and examine Planck lengths, absolute zero and the speed of light. These unbending limitations could also better enable such a simulation to run smoothly.

So what we know about writing code, the concessions we make for ‘functionality’ may be present in the Universe itself. This is disconcerting because it speaks of ‘design.’ And we can see it. Its like Halo’s Master Chief realizing that the loading screens are actually real.

Tying The Physical To The Philosophical – A Dream Becomes Real

Back to philosophy again with the anthropic principle; the idea that the universe is meant for conscious minds to inhabit and observe it. There are two variants to this idea: the weak and the strong. The weak anthropic principle posits that we are only able to observe our universe because of the presets producing its formation. If the big bang never happened, or the earth was too far away from the sun, our civilization would never have arisen. Thus it is easy to say ‘of course the universe was made for us’, if it wasn’t, we wouldn’t be here to make that observation. A million other universes with different laws of physics or other presets might exist, but we’d never know because we are unable to observe them.

The strong variant of this argument goes similarly. It states that the scale of time and place in the universe is such that life must arise within it somewhere. Given how many billions of years and how large it is, there is a strong probability that intelligent life will come about and begin asking questions. However, this is a circular argument, suggesting that the proof in the pudding is that since we can question, the universe exists for it to be so questioned. Once again we are visited by the idea of a simulation.

IYou can consider further what the anthropic principles might mean for our position in the grand scheme of things. At this point we might speculate that if simulations are powerful and advanced enough, we could have sims running simulations and circles within circles. I don’t want to linger on who or what would do this; that takes the frame of this discussion from the strange into solipsism and mental illness. But if we are to entertain the philosophical argument for simulation, and note that physics may give it strength, we are met with an uncomfortable ‘reality’.

Or at least, we may be programmed to.

What’s Next?

  • Even if you are in a simulation, it doesn’t matter because the universe is out to get you.
  • Follow Ben on Twitter so you never miss an article from drbenjanaway.com
  • Give this a share if you found it interesting.
  • Let me know what you think in the comments below or on social media.
  • Donate. For just the price of a coffee you can help us Change The World.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of Dr George Aitch and Dr Janaway alone and may not represent those of their affiliates.  Article written by Dr Aitch and embellished and edited by Dr Janaway (But the vast majority goes to Dr Aitch!!) Images courtesy of flickr.

Sources

  1. Hyperobjects by Timothy Morton (2013) University of Minnesota Press
  2. The Meditations on First Philosophy by René Descartes (1641)
  3. Mind Children by Hans Moravec (1995) Harvard University Press
  4. You are a Simulation & Physics Can Prove It: George Smoot at TEDxSalford (watch here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Chfoo9NBEow)
  5. https://www.simulation-argument.com
  6. Image of Rene Descartes
  7. Image of Karl Popper
  8. Image of Robin Williams
  9. Image of Halloween costume (Walter White.)
Advertisements

Should A Chair Fear Your Bottom? Well Actually, Science Says No.

Whilst sitting across from an empty seat, you can quickly begin to wonder who may sit opposite you. With a global population of around 7.6 billion people, it could be just anyone. The chances are that you may not know them or the story of their lives. But more than likely, they have a bum. And for a chair, their entire life is about waiting for the next one. But should a chair worry about being sat on? Physics tell us no.

Half And Half Again

You may be familiar with the old conundrum of infinite reduction. It goes something like this;

If you were to drop an object to the floor, it would cover half the total distance of the fall. Then half again, and again. If this continues, it will never reach the ground. So how is it that it can?

On paper, this makes total sense. But drop that paper, and it quickly becomes nonsense. Mathematics has a term for these rules that logically sound, but cannot be tested properly in our Universe, or don’t play out like they should in our day to day lives. These are called Axioms, and are designed to help us develop new tools to understand and change our world.

So for the chair, the foreign bum should never land, but it does. So perhaps the chair cannot find solace in Axioms. But actually, the bum will never truly touch it at all. That’s where physics comes in.

Bums and Bonds

Our universe is held together by four cardinal forces. There is gravity, the weak and strong nuclear forces and electromagnetism. Combined, they can be used to explain (to a high level of accuracy,) most of what we observe in our day to day lives, as well as in the distant past and far future. Their limits are found at the quantum level, but even now theoretical physicists are breaking those boundaries.

So what does this have to do with a Bum? Well a bum, mine, yours and Kim Kardashian’s, is made up of skin, fat, muscle and beneath that bone. These tissues are made of molecules, and those molecules, atoms. Those atoms are made of subatomic particles, such as quarks. No matter what, matter is what you are made of. And this matter must play by the rules.

At the atomic level, the strong nuclear force binds atoms together, gluing protons (which will repel each other,) together using substantial energy, (it is the breaking of these bonds that gives us nuclear fission, as opposed to their formation also utilising the weak force that fuels the stars.) The protons opposite number, the electron, also fiercely repels others. And its at this level that your bum atoms interact with those of the chair.

Very Small Distances

At this tiny level, the interactions between electrons are rather predictable. An electron is a curious thing, showing both the behaviour of a particle (like sand,) and a wave (like sound.) This is called wave/particle duality and plays a large role in how things interact. Even photons, the irreducible energy packets of light, share in these rules.

From a particle perspective, the electrons of two opposing atoms (and thus their larger molecules) cannot touch. They can get close, half by half, but never quite meet up. From a wave perspective, their ‘wave packets’ (i.e, the amplitudes of the signal in space-time) can overlap, but never fall in sequence. This means that the elections, and with them your bottom and a chair, can never quite touch.

So actually the old mathematical axiom runs true, but the explanation can be found in our universe as well as in the equation.

So Should Chairs Fear Bums?

From a perspective of touch, not really. But when it comes to smells, regardless of the physics, we still smell them. The interaction of a particle (of lets say, perfume,) and the cells in your nose still interact. You need a particle of something in your nose to smell it (and even then, it is your brain that creates the smell!) So although physics means that the chair can never  truly feel the bum rushing down upon it, it can smell it.

As can you.

What’s Next?

  • Follow Ben on Twitter so you never miss an article
  • Donate. These articles take time, so a few bob for a coffee would be appreciated.
  • Learn more about physics at physics.org
  • Let me know what you want to learn about.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of Dr Janaway alone and may not represent those of his affiliates. Remember, fear is natural, but how you choose to deal with it is a choice.  Image courtesy of Jes

 

 

 

 

Are You Eating? Good! But Did You Know You Are Violating Cosmic Law?

First there was the Big Bang. Then, a few years later, there is the Big Mac. The future of our Universe is much like that of a Big Mac; to eventually decompose to nothingness. But you, at least for a while, can prevent that using the very energy a Big Mac delivers. How? Well within physics, the study of how matter works, you are actually opposing the Universe every time you take a bite.

Entropy and the End of the Universe

8438830107_bae97f9f4f_m

A Broken Cup will never rebuild itself…

Imagine dropping a cup of tea (or coffee, whiskey, whatever you want.) First that cup will shatter, and its contents spread out to fill as much space as it can. This may just seem natural to you, but its actually a process. One of the laws of nature is that nature is lazy, and will often follow the path of least resistance. This is why water flows from high to low, and wind travels from high pressure to low pressure.

What happens is very simple. If a substance can drop to a lower energy state, it will. So to rebuild your tea cup you must use energy, kinetic energy from your hands, electrical energy in your brain and chemical energy in the glue. To refill it you must use electricity to boil water and kinetic energy to stir the tea and add sugar and milk. By re-dropping the broken cup you will never rebuild it.

8645017104_4bf288f02e_m

The Universe will eventually break down to almost nothing.

The universe has a tendency to disorder called Entropy. And that means over time all substances (be they huge planets or tiny atoms,) will eventually decompose into their constituent parts. This, theoretically, is one of the possible ends of the Universe. It is called ‘Heat Death‘, and will leave all we know as a dark, cold place. And it will happen to all of us (if we survive that long!)

How we Fight Entropy

Accepting that all structures will break down, how do we, a complex biological structure, prevent our own demise? Well, first we must understand something, pretty much everything in us is dead. We are formed of countless atoms, arranged in complex ways to perform different functions. Our looks, behaviours, lifespans and quirks are all based on evolution, which as acted on molecules for time immemorial.

The life bit is something quite special, and we still don’t know quite what it means. But all those dead bits need energy to become alive.

Biological structures need energy to work. Even as you read this you are using energy. Your heart is beating, your brain ‘thinking’ and your cells performing trillions of tiny operations to keep you alive. Its all wonderful, but needs energy to work. Without it, everything would fail, and break apart. When we die we follow the ultimate path of the Universe, to decompose and become molecules and eventually atoms ourselves.

550444378_e94cf0be97_m

Kittens, like us, use energy to stay together.

Remember the Lion King, its a little like that, but without the Gazelles (for most of us!) By consuming energy we prevent our death, and in the terms of physics, entropy. We hold ourselves together at a molecular and biological level. By simply eating we defy the universe, and with it, keep ourselves alive.

So next time you have a cup of tea, remember that!

What Next?

  • Follow Ben on Twitter so you never miss an article
  • Tell me what you think in the comments or on Twitter
  • Read up on Entropy and the other possible ends of the Universe

The opinions above represent those of Dr Janaway alone and not necessarily those of his affiliates. I have relied heavily on the great work of Kurzgesagt, so give them a visit! If you have any ideas for articles, or would like to write with me, let me know on Twitter or drop me an email.

Images: 

Joanna Bourne

John Smith

Fuzzy Gerdes

Nvalnlo