The World as Simulation & Game Modeling
Students of the history of philosophy often note that the view of the world held at a particular place and time resemble the tools in common use at that point in history. When the clock was new, our view of the universe resembled a great piece of clockwork, ticking over perfectly for all eternity. Like the old saying about the man with the hammer hunting for nails, the tools we have often influence the way we look at the world. One notion that’s arisen lately, possibly for similar reasons, is the idea that the universe around us is a program running in some cosmic computer.
The ancestors of this idea are truly ancient and often found in mystical traditions like gnosticism or the more esoteric branches of Taoism, but it’s been picked up by a whole new breed thanks, in no small part, by the movie The Matrix. There are actually two major strains of the ‘we all live in a computer’ theory of existence. The first, and easiest to conceptualize, is the situation found in The Matrix: our sensory experiences are the result of a complicated sham, a malevolent attempt to confound us for whatever reason.
The Matrix takes its cues from the gnostic-inspired writings of Phillip K. Dick and other science fiction writers who questioned the underpinnings of reality in all its particulars. Other philosophers, most notably Rene Descartes, framed the same notion in a slightly different format. Rene Descartes was worried about the validity of his senses and proposed a radically skeptical view of the world where everything you see, hear, feel or touch is the product of a demon intent on misleading you about the world around you. To put it in gnostic terms, the world we think we see is an illusion and through the accumulation of true knowledge (in the ancient Greek: gnosis) it is possible to pierce the illusion and escape to the real world. If the world is a virtual hallucination, then through self-discipline and reason, it is possible to see past the veil into what’s real.
This view of the ‘world as simulation’ forms the basis of nearly all traditions of esoteric knowledge, from Egyptian mystery cults to the 19th century occult revival and modern notions of the illusory nature of reality. Each generation has had its preferred metaphor for the illusion, and thanks to the importance of computers in the modern world, we’ve found ourselves using the idea of virtual reality to frame the idea.
The other view of the ‘world as simulation’ comes from computer science and information theory rather than ancient mysticism. While it shares many similarities with the gnostic view of the world as an illusion, it has some fundamental differences. Rather than viewing ourselves as beings subjected to illusions, either from demons or computer programs, and trapped inside a virtual reality, it posits that the world itself is an act of computation.
This view of the universe and our position in it is devoid of an escape hatch. There is no ‘outside’ of the simulation to escape to because the universe is actually a computer program and so are we. We’re not trapped like flies in amber, but active members of a universe that operates like a computer program. This theory actually has some very strong support from science and philosophy. For example, it provides and answer to why the universe seems to make sense in the first place.
The universe seems to have rules which govern its behavior, but there’s no good reason why it has such rules. The more we discover about the world, the more it resembles a computer program. Our best science suggests that, at a fundamental level, the world is digital. There are lower bounds to how small things get, suggesting that at its root, the universe around us is information. If the universe is a computer program rather than a virtual illusion, we can see why it makes sense and how to exploit it to better understand the world around us.
In this view, there is no distinction between physical and non-physical, simply information. Atoms and their smaller components are, at some level, like bits in a computer. But unlike The Matrix where there’s a computer in the world where the simulation is running, this view of simulation suggests that the world is a computer and the program its running is us. There’s no deceiver trying to cloud our view of the world, no fallen demiurge intent on hiding reality from us. Everything is information.
Virtual Games has become more and more popular, and now you can play virtual games on your mobile, using applications from Android you can even step into a virtual casino, and play slots and get the feelling like you were there yourself.