Is the Universe a Simulation? 2016 Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate

2016 Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate with Host Neil deGrasse Tyson: Is the Universe a Simulation?

2016 Asimov Panelists:

David Chalmers
Professor of philosophy, New York University

Zohreh Davoudi
Theoretical physicist, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

James Gates
Theoretical physicist, University of Maryland

Lisa Randall
Theoretical physicist, Harvard University

Max Tegmark
Cosmologist, Massachusetts Institute of Technology


Both Lisa Randall and James Gates have to wear sunglasses on stage because of the bright lights required for web casting, which just tickles me pink!

Takeaway, the universe is almost certainly informational and probably computational, but it might not even be an interesting question to suppose that it is simulated in the shadow of the massive implications of informational computability as it relates to the horizon of intelligent, maths and physics processing human mind.

This was a good one.

See you next year!

Best quote of the evening:

Don’t even get me started on Pluto.

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Just read a short story about some tech geeks using the most powerful computer system in the world to simulate a universe from the ground up in the hopes of developing strong AI. As the simulation grows beyond the complexity of the computer’s ability to maintain it they realize they’ve created a simulation of an entire sapient civilization. The lead tech realizes the gravity of what he’s done just moments before the inevitable system crash and sends a short message to his doomed creations: “I’m sorry.”

That’s when he hears “I’m sorry… I’m sorry… I’m sorry…” in diminishing volume as the world around him disintegrates into nothingness and he realizes the whole thing is recursive.


Something like that was in the Cyberiad by Stanislaw Lem. Except it was a computer designed to be the universe’s greatest poet, so it had to simulate the whole universe as a prerequisite.


That sounds P.K.Dickian!

There’s a short story… Electricant I think, wherein the android main character messes with the punch card/wheel consciousness-input array in his chest to modify the reality of the universe… and then end it by jamming the cogs… or something? I might be mixing up another one of his shorts but the rub is that the universe begins to evaporate for all of the other characters as well. Hehe

Curious: what would it mean for the universe to be informational?

Is it that it could be understood as a series of states during a process, instead of as phenomena interacting under consistent physical laws?

And if so… what’s the difference, besides how we talk about it?

Personally, I think the universe is fictional. We’re all writing it.

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A quick google should get you started but here are some articles to read to whet your appetite.

Also, watch the Debate video above.

I should probably also point you to one of my favourite physicists, Sean Caroll, talking about the emergence of spacetime from quantum information:

It’s slightly tangential to the philosophical discussion but if you really want to go deep, Sean is the right place to start.

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I had actually read that Wiki already… Thanks for the link to Caroll’s article though; that’s an interesting explanation. I still don’t really see the difference! :confused: This is why I’m not a physicist, I guess.

I guess what the idea boils down to, at least in the case of informationality, is that spacetime is entrained to the informational structures embedded within a substrate which is not itself composed of spacetime. Rather spacetime emerges from a condensed physics which is not bound by what we, as conscious processes embedded within what appears to be multidimensional ‘reality’ perceive.

For instance, there is an idea that our reality is like a hologram projected from beyond the horizon of observable space and that we are like self interacting information-processing structures that behave as if we are 3 (or 4) D based on the entrainment of the physics we are bound by but that really what is happening ‘in reality’ is completely describable through reference to only 2 spacial dimensions. Taking that idea to the end, you can propose that all dimensionality emerges from the ultimate substrate of reality, information.

Disclaimer: I’m coming at this from an applied physics background which I haven’t actually practised in nearly two decades, so am tending to be quite poetic in my descriptions.

The black hole argument is what finally shoehorned it into my head, let me see if I can find Sean’s lecture on that.

(this might take a while…)

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Here we go.

The link between the black hole argument and holographic principle starts here:

But you should really watch the whole lecture, it’s great.

Thanks for that excellent (and patient) explanation! So the central point is that an informational universe is just the expression of something outside itself, the substrate…

And my question would translate to: Who cares about the substrate, when all we can observe are the phenomena that arise from it?

And the answer would be that (hopefully) describing the substrate will be a simpler way to explain the fundamental laws than describing each law independently from the others?

(I’ll have to watch the lectures later; thanks again!)

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Consumer flight simulators went from crude black & white line drawings to photo-realistic in just 25 years. Once we can simulate a mind, we can put it into a photorealistic setting. Eventually we’ll get to the point where it believes it’s in the real world.

It’s safe to say that eventually

The simulated universe need not be every galaxy or even this entire planet. In many current simulations only what the user needs to see is simulated, and even then only what the user sees up close is simulated at all.

The simulation you’re in right now may only include the room you’re in, having started the moment you entered it. You’d never know that all your memories from before entering the room were randomly generated on the spot.

Normally the simulation would be used for market testing, but in this case, with this thread and this message presented to you, the sysadmin is just being a dick.


Well, first, you should take everything I say with a heap of salt, secondly, I guess the informational part would be the actual substrate, or the prime-universe or whatever, and thirdly, the universe we think of as being reality isn’t really outside or inside or whatever, it would just appear to us that the ‘hologram’ is being projected from beyond the boundary of what we think of as reality; essentially they are the same thing viewed from different perspectives, perspectives informed by the self consistent, physiscs-entrained, information processing structures of our consciousnesses.

More complete maybe? I guess if it is more elegant it’s more simple… Although by the way the physicists describe the enterprise the solutions don’t seem to just jump out at them. Maybe we’re not smart enough to really grasp what’s going on in that domain, but when they say stuff like, gravity as evidenced by dark-energy is like the operating system of the universe, it seems like the conceptual boundaries are really being pushed. I also saw something on Sean’s blog concerning warping of spacetime as a contender for the source of dark energy but it’s a little above my pay grade. :smile:

Enjoy the vids! And, I guess, the reality shattering content.

Last Thursdayism (alternately Last Tuesdayism or Last Wednesdayism) is the idea that the universe was created last Thursday, but with the physical appearance of being billions of years old. Under Last Thursdayism, books, fossils, light already on the way from distant stars, and literally everything (including your memories of the time before last Thursday) were all formed at the time of creation (last Thursday) in a state such that they appear much older.


Also, see the main debate lecture on how the propositions of informationality, computability and simulation are independent. Especially the simulation part, it needn’t be a consequence of informational computability.


Yes, definitely, “elegant” is more what I meant than “simple.” It would fold several laws neatly into one.

As for whether the universe is a simulation, that seems pretty near unverifiable, no? Just like Last Thursdayism. Is that what you meant by “It might not even be an interesting question”?

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Hehe, simulation is for sure an interesting theory but it pales in comparison to computability IMO.
Simulated environments with the fidelity of our universe would be amazing but if you could mine the potential of computability you could do some very interesting stuff with violation of locality in our universe like teleportation and time travel etc. simulation or not.

Maybe even move around within the bulk of the multiverse.

Paging Konrad Zuse!

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I have the vague notion that The Long Earth series of novels by Pratchett and Baxter involve humans internalising the structure of a universal simple program that allows them to (sub)consciously process the algorithm required to move between alternate realities within the bulk.

But I’m only one book in and kinda just guessing how the process works.

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