I argued in my 2015 paper “Why it matters that you realize you’re in a Computer Simulation” that if our universe is indeed a computer simulation, then that particular discovery should be commonplace among the intelligent lifeforms throughout the universe. The simple calculus of it all being (a) if intelligence is in part equivalent to detecting the environment (b) the environment is a computer simulation (c) eventually nearly all intelligent lifeforms should discover that their environment is a computer simulation. I called this the Savvy Inevitability. In simple terms, if we’re really in a Matrix, we’re supposed to eventually figure that out.
Silicon Valley, tech culture, and most nerds the world over are familiar with the real world version of the question are we living in a Matrix? The paper that’s likely most frequently cited is Nick Bostrom’s Are you living in a Computer Simulation? Whether or not everyone agrees about certain simulation ideas, everyone does seem to have an opinion about them.
Recently, the Internet heated up over Elon Musk’s comments at a Vox event on hot tub musings of the simulation hypothesis. Even Bank of America published an analysis of the simulation hypothesis, and, according to Tad Friend in an October 10, 2016 article published in New Yorker, “two tech billionaires have gone so far as to secretly engage scientists to work on breaking us out of the simulation.”
It is this notion of “escape,” of breaking out of our simulation, that has inspired me to write this article.
Where are we really?
Like everything truly intelligent, the simulation hypothesis demands we have a deep appreciation of paradox—an appreciation that is frequently lacking in simulism dialogs. That paradox is simply this: if this universe is a simulation, that means, quite paradoxically, it is here, but it is also not here. We are here and we are also not here. As Einstein reportedly pressed upon other physicists when they struggled with the information rendering-like nature of wave-particle duality, along with other spooky quantum observations, “Do you really believe the moon isn’t there when you’re not looking?” The authentic simulist answer must patently be, “There is no moon.” This is the inevitable and disturbing thread that simulation theory researchers and philosophers largely fail or refuse to grok, but its logic is sound and obvious.
When you play an MMORPG are any of those objects “real” or “there”? No—They are information. Is that level or map in the MMORPG real? Can your avatars escape it? No, because neither the levels nor the avatars are really there. Mario is not really in the Mushroom Kingdom. It’s all just numbers in a computer. It is digital information. The game universe only seems to be there—but it isn’t, and we aren’t.
Now back to us—why does our physics ruleset permit entanglement, or retrocausality, or wave-particle duality, or quantum erasure, or teleportation, or tunneling? Because all that, along with spacetime, mass, gravity, light, and spin simply isn’t really real in a physical or deterministic sense. It’s not really there in the way we normally assume. They are all just effects in the virtual reality, and experiments have shown that the effects are rendered as needed. Brian Whitworth said it well in his paper Simulating Space and Time:
VR theory is only on the table because objective reality theory doesn’t explain modern physics. In an objective reality time does not dilate, space doesn’t bend, objects don’t teleport and universes don’t pop into existence from nowhere. We would not doubt the world’s objective reality if only it behaved so physically, but it does not. Adjectives like “strange”, “spooky” and “weird” apply, and common sense concepts like object, location, existence, time and space simply don’t work. The world of modern physics doesn’t behave at all as an objective reality should.
So the “escape” begins first and foremost with appreciating the paradox of it all—that means thinking about it, being with it, seeing it:
The Universe is here and it is not here
You are here and you are not here
You aren’t even really in a room
There is no moon
It’s just information
It’s just data
You cannot really be “in” a video game, because being in a video game really means you are a trick of information that only appears to look like a whole you and a whole universe—but it isn’t really. So how can you escape something you are not really in? How do you escape something you only appear to be in? This is the central issue.
It is appropriate to say that this paradox marks one of the most essential ideas in all simulation, virtual reality, and digital mechanical scenarios. This is where we have to begin any discussion of the simulation hypothesis, or its sister models, or the idea of “escape.” We have to appreciate the paradox involved wholly before going anywhere at all. We are here and we are also not here. It is a waste of time and resources to move forward without having this paradox at the forefront of our attention.
Furthermore, it is a waste to assume that some physical machine (one that’s in our simulation) is going to be developed that can rip a hole in spacetime (in the video game), and that will somehow lead us to the “true” universe.
Technology will not help you
Although, I admit ignorance regarding what approach these rumored billionaire-encouraged researchers are taking, I will throw in my two cents anyway and claim that making a machine won’t work. At this point there are still too many assumptions in play to rely on technology to provide the key:
1) A machine in a video game can somehow get avatars out of their video game universe.
To me, hard high tech leading to an escape is an unlikely avenue. You are more likely to break out of a maximum-security prison with a dry-erase marker than you are to develop some kind of hardware within a simulated universe that can somehow get you out of it. The reason why is because relying on a machine is still thinking from within the logic of the physics of the video game itself (its spacetime, gravity, geometry, spin, etc.) You very well might be able to perform experiments to detect whether or not the universe is one kind of simulation or another, but that’s a far cry from technology breaking us out of our universe.
2) More video game won’t automatically generate to keep you inside your video game universe; or, your machine will mysteriously keep breaking down.
Even if you did make such a machine, I anticipate the System behind our simulated universe would simply generate a new, higher wall for you to climb. Or your machine will mysteriously and consistently malfunction and fail (“gremlins”).
3) That such a machine won’t lead you to some other video game reality and not “base reality.”
If you did make such a machine, how could you tell the difference between whether or not it was giving you access to “base reality” and not just some other simulated universe? How do you know that the hole you tear in spacetime isn’t leading you to some other video game world or another? As Morpheus asks, “How would you know the difference between the dream world and the real world?”
So, if the hardware angle is out (which it really should be) is all hope lost? No. The fact of the matter is this kind of thinking is looking in the exact opposite direction. We should be looking more at consciousness and consciousness states than we should the domain of spacetime, geometry, matter, and technology. If the universe is a computer simulation then we should look at the player, not the level. This turn of focus from physical reality to the viewer of reality is exactly the same realization that the founders of Quantum Mechanics wrestled with helplessly in the early 20th Century. Indeed, the “Observer” and “Measurement” debates continue to this day.
It’s all in your head—and you have no head
Consciousness science and research is largely a nascent field. This is due in part to the many assumptions that surround consciousness and the brain as well as there being a general failure of agreement in defining consciousness. The grand poopah assumptions are consciousness is a byproduct of the brain; consciousness will eventually fall in line with material reductionism (consciousness is matter); extraordinary or unusual states of consciousness are negligible brain wetware misfiring; any and all psi effects (telepathy, precognitive dreams, out-of-body experiences, etc.) are all lies, misadventures, quirks, or flukes; first came matter, then came mind.
However, if the simulation hypothesis, or any number of simulism positions are true, then it follows that the brain is virtual information in a video game—just like everything else. The brain that we all assume to be carrying around in our bodies is just our avatar’s body’s virtual “brain.” It’s not really real. What about brain damage or damage to the body? Well there are rules to the video game—If you loose a chunk of brain, your data-stream is modified to reflect that. If you lose an arm, your data-stream is modified to reflect that too.
Again, in the simulation models, our whole experience of the universe is a virtual reality—so nothing at all is going on as it seems. There is no moon—it is only “there” when a player requests the data (“looks”). Down on the farm though, it seems like an “observer” “collapses” the “wave.” Rather than reality being solid, deterministic, and “out there” it is instead a statistical probability distribution—potential information. This potential information is only ever “rendered” (“collapsed”) when a consciousness (“observer”) makes a measurement. Game effects only pop up when the player requires them.
So none of it is really real—although it may be safer to say that it is also, paradoxically, real enough.
Now the simulism camp I find most interesting (and there are several) was developed by NASA physicist and consciousness researcher Thomas Campbell. He feels that the “out-of-body experience” as well as the mystical, religious, extraordinary, and paranormal phenomena that human beings have seemingly stumbled into since the beginning of recorded history is in fact a kind of “breaking out” of our video game ruleset. We simply interpret it as being episodes like “She had an out-of-body experience” due to our bone-marrow assumptions that spacetime and the body are fundamental, when in fact the universe is the result of a computer simulation and everything is information.
Campbell also breaks from Nick Bostrom’s now classic thought experiment of our universe being the result of an ancestor simulation created by future posthumans. Rather, Campbell answers Edward Fredkin who argued in Finite Nature and A New Cosmogony (a decade before Bostrom) that basically since a simulated universe can’t compute itself, it must be computed in Other. Fredkin states:
As to where the Ultimate Computer is, we can give an equally precise answer; it is not in the universe -- it is in an other place. If space and time and matter and energy are all a consequence of the informational process running on the Ultimate Computer then everything in our universe is represented by that informational process. The place where the computer is, the one that runs that process, we choose to call ‘Other’.
In Campbell’s model, Fredkin’s Other is Consciousness itself. Campbell’s definition of consciousness is an unusually straightforward one. Consciousness, to Campbell, is any system that contains the following features:
1. Information input (experience)
2. Information recall (memory)
3. Information processing (sense-making; pattern recognition, etc.)
4. Self-modifying feedback loop (learning)
Any system possessing these features, in Campbell’s model, can rightly be called conscious.
Campbell’s Consciousness is both the consciousness we find manifest in lifeforms and also the very computer behind our universe—Fredkin’s Other. It is this outline of consciousness that, when pressed upon by what Campbell calls the “Fundamental Process” of evolution, any number of interactions, lifeforms, universes, realities, or rulesets could naturally emerge. Anything from cellular automata, to a multiverse, to nature’s “inordinate fondness of beetles” could subsequently appear. All realities, lifeforms, and interactions are possible under Campbell’s two assumptions: Consciousness exists (as defined), and Evolution exists.
From this model, there is no need for a master programmer or an ancestor simulation. Instead, those overlords are chucked outright for a single, arguably dim at first, conscious computer that is always forced to either evolve or die. In the illusory worlds of virtual reality, consciousness itself is entirely real and actually holds center stage.
To Campbell, Consciousness is fundamental. We, our individual consciousnesses, are partitioned parts of The Big Conscious Computer that crunches out this and every other universe and lifeform. So, where we really are is in Fredkin’s Other; Fredkin’s Other is Campbell’s Consciousness. Our avatar—our body—appears to be “in” a simulated universe, a video game. While our actual awareness experiences this universe as physical spacetime, both the universe and ourselves are actually an information data-stream processing and occurring in Other.
If Fredkin’s Other is Campbell’s Consciousness, then almost everything about life, consciousness, the universe itself, and the simulation hypothesis falls entirely into place. This would explain why quantum mechanical observations by and large for almost a century seem to be sensitive to, what physicists have called, “observers”, or “measurement.” It is because consciousness is the fundamental—indeed the essential—medium through which the simulation must be rendered. Without a consciousness (a player) there is no video game to render and really no need to.
Again, there is no need to simulate or process anything at all without what John Archibald Wheeler rightly called “observer-participants”—players. No player, no game.
So, in an interesting twist, the computer behind our simulated universe is our own consciousness; “base reality” is Consciousness itself. This is why the future of simulism is in fact consciousness research and exploration.
Getting in to get out
Human consciousness is particularly sensitive to psychedelic experiences. Psychedelic science is a famously taboo arena, largely because of government intervention as well as the sometimes utterly alien and titanic experiences they produce. Yet, in terms of our topic of “breaking out of the Matrix” it would be folly to overlook them due to something as antiscientific as stigma.
Anecdotally (and sadly, due to psychedelics’ banishment to basement chemistry in the mid 20th Century, the majority of psychedelic research remains anecdotal, as well as historical)—powerful compounds like DMT, ibogaine, and even psilocybin and LSD at high doses are known to produce effects and environments that impart on the users a feeling of being exposed to geometric, mathematic, fractal, and other phenomena reminiscent of a cosmically complex computation. On countless occasions I have been pressed by individuals to elaborate on my ideas about virtual reality and the simulation hypothesis only to later find out that their own psychedelic experiences left them feeling like they had seen into the holy guts and heart of reality, and that it resembled some kind of hyper-intelligent computer system to them.
Peter Sjöstedt-H, a PhD candidate at the University of Exeter, has presented a “history of the notable western philosophers who took psychedelic chemicals and how this may have influenced their thought—how psychedelics influenced philosophy.” Sjöstedt-H’s psychedelic list includes some of the heavy weights of the standard Western cannon: Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Bergson, Sartre, Foucault, and more. He writes:
Psychedelic experience has then influenced different philosophers in different ways. Its multifaceted, anomalous, alien, awe-inspiring, and at times terrifying nature is not easily analysed. In fact, it often transgresses the phenomenological criteria by which analysis can take place. But then such novel phenomena can be taken as an augmentation of the phenomenological toolkit rather than as a mere mysterious anomaly to treat with philosophic disregard.
When people say, “Escape the Matrix,” what they really mean is perceiving and even operating beyond the ruleset of our simulation. Maybe shamans, mystics, meditators, philosophers, and the psychonauts of today have been doing this forever. William Blake put it aptly, “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is …” Furthermore, Professor David Nutt said, “If you want to understand consciousness, you’ve got to study psychedelics.”
A monument to our computational overlords
It has been my own thinking that if we’re in a computer simulation, and assuming that simulation is being monitored, then it might be a very interesting turn of events indeed if we decided to build a monument commemorating our realization of this. This monument would act as a signal to our monitors. “We suspect you are there. We suspect you can see this. We suspect we are in a simulation.” This monument could look like the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey, except it would be black and white, representing binary systems. Or, a large statue of Lawrence Fishburne as Morpheus would probably get the point across. What would happen? I don’t know—maybe nothing. I don’t think a laser beam will shoot out from space and land at its feet to spell out the words “Hi there! A Winner is You!” But, I do imagine something strange and far out enough in the margins might indeed occur, although it will likely still be tenuous enough for the dogmatists to reject. Crop circles perhaps—(Needless to say, simulation frameworks in general explain all psi and paranormal phenomena quite elegantly. It should go without saying that if you believe your video game world is really real and something utterly peculiar happens to go down, you might very well be inclined to interpret it as paranormal or supernatural, when in reality it is just the game getting weird on you.)
Nevertheless, I imagine a monument to be a far more effective pursuit than some kind of other hardware or technology springing us loose. I this universe is a computer simulation and some “they” are monitoring it from the “outside,” they will likely be intelligent enough to get our drift with such a monument. In fact, maybe something like a monument is just what they’re waiting for. After all, we’ve only been addressing each other in the simulism dialog—never the rumored, assumed “them” monitoring it.
Ever play The Sims? If you have then you know that none of your Sims can do anything in secret. We, the player, have total oversight. Here we are discussing breaking out of our video game universe. Do you think “They”—if there truly is a “They”—don’t already know that we’re thinking and talking about planning a bust?
What to do?
Why is it all here? Why are we in a simulated virtual reality video game universe anyway? According to Campbell it is to evolve consciousness. Since The Big Conscious Computer is under pressure to evolve or die it has further evolved universe simulations and partitioned itself into seemingly discreet conscious lifeforms, all with the universal goal of staving off high entropy via interacting, learning, growing, propagating, adapting, and so on. To Campbell, our universe is not necessarily the result of posthumans per se, but from an AI that grew universes to interact in so that it could better survive the fundamental process of evolve or die. Here, both life and virtual reality universes end up springing from the same source. Since static states are unstable, the credo seems to have become go big or go home.
All you need to get the ball rolling is consciousness (as defined) and an evolutionary impulse of change or die.
But even if Campbell is incorrect, as we consider all the possible paths of inquiry that the various simulism models afford, is it not obvious that the nature and foundation of consciousness, its role in the simulation, as well as the issues of “where” is the cpu behind the universe—and subsequently our location “in” it—must eventually all take center stage? Where is Mario if he isn’t really in the Mushroom Kingdom?
Fredkin, said it clearly enough, “If we assume that Finite Nature is true, we discover that surprising progress can be made in looking beyond our own world.”
So what is a solid way to begin looking beyond our world? How do you break out of a universe that you only appear to be in? All you Neos out there, if you want to break out of the Matrix, look into the wildly queer and otherwise forbidden domain of consciousness research, psi, the paranormal, out-of-body experience, dreams, meditation, and psychedelics. Indeed, these are the otherworldly themselves—so start with them. This might not be the answer you wanted (some of you being residents of Big Machine Country) but I’ll bet you bits to bandwidth that consciousness is the key missing from the simulation hypothesis—and consciousness states, the door. Maybe all that assumed irrationality coming out of shamanism, magic, mysticism, and the Grateful Dead might end up in fact being how to competently exploit Other’s operating system.
Do you really ever escape this simulated universe? Campbell argues that you can vividly experience information from other realities, but that all of them are simulated. Furthermore, he argues that getting out of all simulated universes is like trying to get out of consciousness—and can you really get out of consciousness? All in all, to Campbell’s thinking, we don’t really want to get out of the Matrix. What we want to do is get into Consciousness.
Maybe all we really need to do is close our eyes and pay very careful attention.
Happy trails, Redpills.
Collage by David Metcalfe