Dec 172012

Thinking about digital recreation of reality has an inevitable association with the “whoa, dude, are we in a video game?” line of reasoning. This is good in some ways because it puts the issue into a context that’s easier to ponder for most of us. It even turns out that at least one NASA scientist likes to compare reality to Grand Theft Auto (more on that in a minute).  Despite the fundamental inability to prove or disprove the hypothesis, there is something compelling about speculating just how close a computer simulation can ever get to fully depicting the reality that we perceive.

Call of Duty - Black Ops - RealTime Screenshots, by shyb, on Flickr

Call of Duty – Black Ops – RealTime Screenshots, by shyb, on Flickr

It’s clear that video games are getting increasingly life-like all the time. Video teasers for games like Black Ops—Call of Duty are, for example, getting hard to distinguish from live-action movie trailers. We’ve come a long way from crudely pixelated Doom fantasies  from the 1990s. Is it possible to image a video game that’s authentically real from a human perspective?

It may come down to whether the universe is digital or analog, which is the subject of debate and speculation among physicists. Is reality made up of discrete, if tiny, chunks or is it one big continuum that resists ultimate subdivision?

The rough outlines of quantum theory posit that action at atomic scale happens in discrete—digital, if you will—amounts. The theory had a direct impact on development of the transistor and microchip, and is closely associated with development of modern electronics. And even though certain features of quantum mechanics are undeniably weird—with cats half alive and half-dead at the same time—it seems plausible that a powerful-enough digital computer should be capable of faithfully converting a digital reality into an alternative digital reality.

That NASA scientist mentioned above, for example, says:

The natural world behaves exactly the same way as the environment of Grand Theft Auto IV…. You see exactly what you need to see of Liberty City when you need to see it, abbreviating the entire game universe into the console. The universe behaves in the exact same way. In quantum mechanics, particles do not have a definite state unless they’re being observed. Many theorists have spent a lot of time trying to figure out how you explain this. One explanation is that we’re living within a simulation, seeing what we need to see when we need to see it.

digital/analog wisdom, by doctor paradox, on Flickr

digital/analog wisdom, by doctor paradox, on Flickr

But if the universe is analog, the best we can hope for is for a sampling of the real thing. Computers might create lossy MP3 versions of reality, and with enough processing power we might even get products that go beyond human ability to tell the difference. Even in such a situation we’re still dealing with a discrete representation of the real thing, which would elevate the debate between digital and analog media aficionados to the ultimate level.

There’s a spiritual dimension involved here, too. Independent of any particular belief system, I agree with John Horgan, author of Rational Mysticism, when he says that “our minds have untapped depths that conventional science cannot comprehend.” If those depths are analog, is there ever any hope of fully replicating them? The notion of a sampled soul adds a whole new meta-layer to spiritually.

The Foundation Questions Institute sponsored an essay contest in 2011 that asked “is reality digital or analog?” As noted in Scientific American, the organizers expected entrants to come down on the side of digital, which is what I myself would guess, if forced to.  But—surprise—“many of the best essays held, however, that the world is analog.” The reasoning in the essays is erudite, but certain points jump out with clarity. David Tong wrote about the fundamental inability of scientists to simulate the Standard Model of physics on a computer, perhaps because reality is made up not of particles but of “ripples of continuous fields, moulded
into apparently discrete lumps of energy by the framework of quantum mechanics.” Numbers are, according to Tong, merely emergent from a fundamentally analog universe. His final sentence works to drive the point home: “We are not living inside a computer simulation.”

The winning essay, however, came down on the side of a digital reality. Why? Because Isaac Newton says so. Jarmo Makela, “a specialist in general relativity with an avid interest in the history of science,” purports to report on an interview he conducts with Newton in 1700. The great man confidently declares that reality (or, at least the odd alternative slice of reality hosting the conversation) is most definitely digital because he has calculated it as such, based in part of an analysis of black hole entropy and speculation about “a still unknown law of nature.” Newton presents Makela with the written details, but they prove to be sadly evasive.

In short, if we don’t know the fundamental basis of reality, it’s pretty hard to imagine faithfully recreating it in all it’s cryptic glory. It’s probably better to think about video games and other simulations as tools that do a good enough job of engaging awareness and aiding our learning and entertainment within an inescapable, enduring meatspace reality.