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A HEADLINE in The New York Times, February 16, 2014, read “Is the Universe a Simulation?” (See http://goo.gl/E9FZgw.) This provocative question aroused my interest all the more because it was posed by Edward Frenkel, a professor of mathematics at the University of California, Berkeley.
The starting point of Frenkel’s NYT article touched on a mathematical truth already mentioned here. In discussing Euclid’s Elements, http://wp.me/p2ETap-Fg, I wrote that mathematicians don’t speak of “inventing” or “concocting” something. Rather, they “discover” it, implying that the mathematical truth existed all along, only waiting to be found.
Professor Frenkel asks, “What kinds of things are mathematical entities and theorems, that they are knowable in this way?” Were they merely the product of human imagination, isn’t it unlikely that we’d “all end up agreeing with exactly the same math?”
What’s more, if mathematics is merely our attempt at modeling the real world, how is it that we’ve discovered esoteric concepts like infinite-dimensional space?
Frenkel quotes the logician Kurt Gödel who argued that mathematical concepts “form an objective reality of their own, which we cannot create or change, but only perceive and describe.”
Inquiring about this hidden reality, Frenkel brings up the fanciful possibility that we are all living in a computer simulation devised by some highly advanced programmer of the future.
“When we discover a mathematical truth,” Frenkel says, “we are simply discovering aspects of the code that the programmer used.”
This reminds me of The Matrix, a 1999 sci-fi flick.
In this sci-fi flick, a computer hacker learns that he’s living part of a computer simulation, the Matrix, organized by Artificial Intelligence machines inhabiting the real world made desolate by mankind’s warfare.
Heady—and scary—stuff, this.
Yet Frenkel cites Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom (http://goo.gl/dSPs) who argues that we are more likely to be living in such a simulated world than the real one.
How would we know?
Recall the quandary encountered by Jim Carrey’s character in The Truman Show.
Slowly, Truman Burbank comes to realize that his reality is nothing more than a TV program, his clues being occasional anomalies—frayed ends in the fabric of his life.
Similarly, Frenkel notes that we might be tipped off by anomalies in our own perceived understanding of reality. He cites a technical paper, “Constraints on the Universe as a Numerical Simulation,” by physicists Silas R. Beane, Zohreh Davoudi and Martin J. Savage.
See http://goo.gl/G39RZ for an abstract of their work and access to the entire paper, parts of which read like The Matrix without the AI Baddies.
The researchers conclude by writing, “… and therefore in principle there always remains the possibility for the simulated to discover the simulators.” ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2014