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Leading article: About those resolutions ...: Science and reality
[January 01, 2013]

Leading article: About those resolutions ...: Science and reality

(Guardian (UK) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) This is the time of year for willpower; for vows to eat less, exercise more and generally take control of our lives. But what if our notion not only of self-determination, but of reality itself were mistaken What if the universe were a computer simulation devised by a highly advanced civilisation far in the future, and humans a virtual reality experiment conducted by imaginative descendants This enjoyable idea - already the basis of some compelling sci-fi - has been addressed by University of Washington scientists in a new paper. But the challenge was formally proposed by Nick Bostrom in 2003. The Oxford professor argued that at least one of three propositions had to be true: all civilisations become extinct before becoming technologically mature; or, technologically mature civilisations will have no interest in running an ancestor simulation; or, we are living in a computer simulation. If the last were true, then even powerful computer programs would leave an imprint, an observable signature. Or so say the Washington physicists (just whisper phrases such as "lattice quantum chromodynamics" to yourself and move hastily on). And if so, supercomputers yet to be developed could identify it. But forget the solution: just savour the third proposition. If true, it explains so many aberrations in an otherwise rational world.

Those preposterous politicians, those insufferable talk-show hosts, those talentless celebrities and messianic self-deceivers may all be post-human provocations deliberately placed to test our learning skills and measure our capacity for judgment. The enduring illusion that we are all in the grip of forces that we cannot control would at last make sense: we would be trapped in a cosmic equivalent of Grand Theft Auto. Global warming, as the deniers persist in arguing, would indeed be a figment of somebody else's imagination, dreamed up to test our responses. And even if it were real, we would still be tested, just as we must have once been tested by the Black Death, the slave trade and two world wars.

But what would be the purpose of a simulation program so advanced that it could model not just the laws of physics, the dimensions of space-time and the biochemistry of consciousness Would it be to see if the creatures in the game would sufficiently advance to a level at which they began to propose their own simulations, in which they modelled potential calamities, then avoided them, and then began to test simulations of their own evolution If all this were true, then billions of simulated humans would have been created, tried and finally judged by some unseen omnipotence, before being permitted, at the end of the game, a promise of ultimate resurrection. Hang on a moment, though. Doesn't that sound familiar Haven't we been here before (c) 2013 Guardian Newspapers Limited.

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