The idea that the world is an illusion has long been a thesis of faiths such as Hinduism and Buddhism – and more recently, movies including The Matrix and Inception. Now, some researchers think they can prove it scientifically.

computer scientist

If reality is other than what we take for granted, what are the implications?  Peter Howell

Twenty years ago it was the plot of The Matrix, but experiments set to begin in the near future, pandemic permitting, in California hope to show that the world is, indeed, an illusion.

The idea that we are living in a simulation is viewed simply as science fiction by most mainstream scientists but it has some surprising and high-profile supporters, including Tesla and SpaceX entrepreneur Elon Musk, who has said the odds are “a billion to one” against us living in base reality, and analysts at Bank of America, who estimated its likelihood at between 20 and 50 per cent in a 2016 report.

The most influential argument for the possibility of a simulation was made in a  2003 paper written by Oxford University’s Nick Bostrom, who postulates that in the future the vast amounts of computing power will make it possible to run simulations of life in the past, which is what we think of as reality.

As video games and virtual reality get harder to distinguish from reality it’s becoming easier to imagine a point where it’s impossible to tell the difference. And who’s to say that hasn’t already happened?

Former NASA consultant Tom Campbell is convinced that we inhabit a virtual reality and he’s the driving force behind six, maybe seven, experiments, funded by $350,000 raised via Kickstarter, which will take place in a small laboratory at a southern Californian university campus, nestled against foothills thick with Sargent cypress.

Campbell’s not the only researcher in this quixotic field. Donald Hoffman, a professor of cognitive sciences at UCal, Irvine, argues he can show, using evolutionary game theory mathematics, that everything we see is, effectively, an icon on a desktop. Just as a computer’s circuits and software and voltages bear no resemblance to its user interface, so is reality different to the icons – to the newspaper or tablet on which you’re reading this story, for example – with which we interact. “We’ve mistaken our visualisation tool for the reality that was being compressed by the visualisation tool,” he says.

In a New Scientist cover story written by Hoffman and published in August 2019, “Reality: the Greatest Illusion of All”, he writes: “We may all be gripped by a collective delusion about the nature of the material world.”

If reality is other than what we take for granted, then what are the implications? Does it mean that weekend brunch no longer matters?

Tom Campbell is aware how his views are regarded by the mainstream (“like a poison”). Modern science is based on scientific materialism – the axiom that a world exists independent of ourselves and can be measured, and awareness and consciousness are part of that physical reality. Matter first, mind second.

To head down the rabbit hole, we treat the page or tablet this story is being read on as real, the brunch accompanying this issue of the AFR Weekend as real – the sun, the sky, the stars, people, everything in the universe as real.

Campbell believes the opposite, that consciousness not matter comes first, and he says he can prove it – scientifically. He has a rolling voice, like an heroic US senator in a 1970s’ TV movie taking a stand against the CIA. “I’m a scientist, so I don’t make facts easily,” he insists. “I test and test them again, and they have to make sense and be repeatable.”

Some people are dissatisfied with the incompleteness of nature and look for very exotic ‘theories’ to reconcile outstanding issues. I prefer to focus on the process of science.

— Michael Biercuk, quantum physics professor

His contrary impression of reality began after he began meditating when he was a graduate student in the early 1970s. He was intrigued by a poster which promised the practice would help him get by on less sleep. By chance, he discovered he could debug software while meditating by generating a mental “printout” and scrolling through the code in his mind’s eye. Errors would show up in red.

“Before that, my view of reality was like most physicists,” he says. “If you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist or if it does exist it’s irrelevant.”

One of the experiment’s aims to predict the direction a particle thrown off by decaying radioactive material will travel, something he says is “impossible” in a materialist world. Another beefs up the classic “double slit” experiment, in which a stream of particles is fired towards two slits in a barrier. When those that pass through the slits are recorded on the far side, something curious happens: if the particles are observed, they remain as discrete particles, but if they are not observed, they behave as waves. He’s added stages which should show that observation influences a result which should be random – also impossible in a materialist world.

Campbell says the role of the observer is generally dismissed as “weird science”. But Michael Biercuk, a professor of quantum physics at the University of Sydney, says he’s comfortable with the uncertainty, calling the simulation hypothesis more metaphysical than scientific. He adds, “Some people are dissatisfied with the incompleteness of nature and look for very exotic ‘theories’ to reconcile outstanding issues. I prefer to focus on the process of science through which we build our collective understanding.”

Arguments about the nature of reality date back at least to Plato, who argued in 380BC’s Republic that as far as our senses are concerned, we are like prisoners in a cave, seeing just shadows of what is real, but out of sight, on a wall in front of us.

In Bostrom’s ground-breaking paper, Are You Living in a Computer Simulation? he argued that if a civilisation can create a simulated reality, then many, many such virtual realities will be created, making it odds-on that this universe is one of them, rather than the original.

In 2019’s The Simulation Hypothesis, US computer scientist Rizwan Virk suggests that just as in a video game, our surroundings are only generated when we observe them to save processing power – just like the particles’ puzzling behaviour in the double-slit experiment. To expand on the Zen koan about a tree falling in a forest with no one there to look at it, not only does it not make a sound, there is no tree.

Virk, who runs the Bayview Labs and Play Labs start-up accelerator at Massachusetts Institute of Techology (MIT), has lectured on the topic in Silicon Valley; one talk at Google was watched by 400 staff. “People are very open to this idea that everything is computation and information,” he says.

One of the striking aspects of Virk’s book is how often the operation of video games – and by extension, a simulated digital reality – mirrors religious beliefs in the likes of karma and reincarnation. “Science is catching up with religion, and one based less in the supernatural,” he says.

But like Tom Campbell, Donald Hoffman believes there are serious problems with the video game simulation hypothesis. He cites what Australian philosopher David Chalmers dubbed “the hard problem” in 1995, which is the inability to explain why consciousness exists – and how it can be generated within a machine.

I think we’re wired to accept our experiences of space and snakes and spiders and cliffs and food at face value.

— Donald Hoffman, a professor of cognitive sciences at UCal, Irvine

Hoffman is a compact man with the air of a military investigator, who looks intrigued by what he’s discovering (which he confesses makes him sound like a “kook and a weirdo”). “Physicists since Ernest Rutherford have said we don’t see reality – what looks like a solid piece of metal is mostly empty space,” he says. “I’m saying something different, that space and time themselves are just a user interface … reality, whatever it is, is not fundamental particles, it’s not neutrons, electrons or protons. That’s all interface stuff. Reality is even deeper than that.”

So where is his work, which is being rigorously critiqued by colleagues, leading? “It’s a mathematically precise story. The idea is that reality is a vast social network of interacting conscious agents which can be mathematically defined.”

Hoffman says evolution has provided us with an interface to that social network, but the fitness pay-offs which govern evolution destroy information about the world. “I think we’re wired to accept our experiences of space and snakes and spiders and cliffs and food at face value. The point was not to show us the truth, the point was to keep us alive.”

So when I look at the food on my brunch plate, what’s really there? He thinks for a minute. “The right answer is, ‘I don’t know’.”

Ernest Rutherford

In The Matrix trilogy, Keanu Reeves discovered his reality was a lie – and subsequently, how deep the rabbit hole went. 

There is, naturally, a thriving online community which discusses the simulation hypothesis and its implications. Peter Nichols, a former Arthur Andersen consultant, is an Australian moderator of a Facebook group of over 3300 members. On it, members discuss the meaning of life within a computer simulation. One hypothesises that a blissful future has created this world to remind themselves what not to do. Another muses that if this is a program, are we real, do our actions matter – and is there free will?

Nichols suggests a scenario: instead of being 50, I’m 150 and living in a retirement home in a fairly dystopian world now run by an AI. A salesman says that by plugging into the iPhone 30 I can go back to 2019, live the dream and – crucially – not remember that I’m 150 and that an AI is running the world. Would I, Nichols asks, do anything different in my life if I knew this was a simulation?

Once you understand consciousness as the computer, the reason we’re here is to grow up, to get rid of our fear.

— Tom Campbell, physicist

I think for a few seconds and tell him honestly that no, I wouldn’t.

“That’s your answer – 99 per cent of people say exactly the same. In a simulation they’re paying for, they’re happy to continue with it.”

Tom Campbell has a less sci-fi view of the simulation, and one he thinks will change society for the better. It will come as no surprise to followers of many, if not all, religions. “Once you understand consciousness as the computer, in a little bit of deductive logic, the reason we’re here is to grow up, to get rid of our fear, to be caring, compassionate and considerate. That’s our purpose here, to make those choices.”

And if Campbell’s experiments turn out as he expects, we can breathe a sigh of relief: this isn’t an alien version of The Sims, being trashed by a bored, anarchic teenager. Though given what’s happening at the moment …

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