Elon Musk is certain we live in a simulation. Neil de Grasse Tyson thinks it’s also pretty likely. Cutting to its heart, the argument boils down to statistics:
- The universe is vast. So vast it rounds up to infinity vast.
- You’re laughably overconfident to think there aren’t plenty of species more advanced than our own.
- Those alien species would have access to computers powerful enough to run huge numbers of simulations which are as detailed as our actual existence. And they would have an interest in doing so.
- The number of simulations running in parallel would dwarf the population of its organic creators. Just think of how each of us humans has a many-to-one relationship with software. Code, like any language, is free once it exists. We can all have every app. My having an app doesn’t preclude you from having it.
- The ratio of code to humans is incalculable, just as the ratio of simulated beings would be to the number of original beings.
- The chance you are one of the originals is effectively zero.
To wonder if this theory is true feels like it elevates the entire notion of truth to a stage it can’t compete on. As they say, it’s just “turtles all the way down”. Don’t bother.
But now that your mind is limber let’s back up to the first premise: the universe is vast.
Earth is part of a familiar solar system. That’s that model you made for 4th-grade science fair with toothpicks and styrofoam. And Pluto. That solar system is one of millions in the Milky Way galaxy.
As Nasa diagrams the situation to kids:
The Milky Way, as depicted by the Chinese throwing star in that diagram, is one of the billions of galaxies comprising the Laniakea supercluster:
Adding to this orgy of nested giant numbers, we can observe millions of superclusters.
The infiniteness of universe’s size translates to the infiniteness of possibilities. Suddenly the simulation idea doesn’t feel so absurd even if its veracity doesn’t matter.
Where did all of this even come from?
Scientists contend the Big Bang initialized the universe nearly 14 billion years ago. Stephen Hawking, the late scientist buried in Westminster Abbey between Darwin and Newton, walks us through it:
- You need 3 ingredients to make a universe: matter, energy, and space
- As Einstein showed humanity, E = MC^2. So matter and energy are 2 sides of the same coin.
- We need to explain where just 2 ingredients came from. Space and energy.
Hawking warns us that common sense is going to be a poor guide since we don’t commonly encounter the creation of something out of nothing. So he draws an analogy:
Imagine a man wants to build a hill on a flat piece of land. The hill will represent the universe. To make this hill he digs a hole in the ground and uses that soil to dig his hill. But of course he’s not just making a hill — he’s also making a hole, in effect a negative version of the hill. The stuff that was in the hole has now become the hill, so it all perfectly balances out. The stuff that was in the hole has now become the hill, so it all perfectly balances out. This is the principle behind what happened at the beginning of the universe. When the Big Bang produced a massive amount of positive energy, it simultaneously produced the same amount of negative energy. In this way, the positive and the negative add up to zero, always. It’s another law of nature.
Space is a battery whose metaphorical negative charge balances the universe’s positive charge — the mass and energy all around us.
Hawking reminds us that math, not intuition, is the relevant guide but if you want to pretend you are Christopher Nolan, researching relativity theory and black holes for a sequel to Interstellar, check out the rest of the amazing Maria Popova’s article here.
For the rest of us knuckle-draggers, we can recognize how negative energy works in our lives.
- Jared Dillian posed the following proposition: Work, family, fitness, fun, sleep. Choose 3.
- Negative energy reminds us to be honest about how we use our time.
Movement teases us with the illusion of progress. Movement offers shelter from failure. When you’re in motion, you feel like you’re doing something. We convince ourselves that as long as we’re in motion, we can’t fail.
If you keep going into overtime you can never lose. Or win.
- Negative energy honors others’ tradeoffs.
Scott Young observes how our own overemphasis on achievement is a bias which can be difficult to overcome when we deal with others who may appear more simple. The amazing elders in my life come to mind. Providing for and raising their children while enjoying simple pleasures is the extent of their ambitions. If we believe these goals to be somehow incomplete, we are probably miscalculating. Be wary of discounting seemingly quaint objectives. Young shows just how self-reinforcing achievement bias can be:
“If you don’t value achievement, and don’t get really good at writing, you probably won’t be very articulate arguing in favor of non-achievement as a virtue. I think this bias probably means we should consider non-achievers words more carefully, especially since those voices are rarer. It also means we ought to talk to more everyday people and not merely look up to the most famous and successful for all worldly wisdom.”