Monday, December 23, 2019

A Simulated Universe: Missing the Obvious

My children refer to many of my jokes as "dad jokes," a term that applies to the silly, kind of dumb humor common to us "older" dads. I do admit that my sense of humor was formed when I was a teenager in the 1970's and tends toward the kind of silly, ridiculous, sometimes witty gags typical of Monty Python, or maybe Peter Sellers in The Pink Panther movies. It may be embarrassing to admit that there are far too many Monty Python skits or Pink Panther dialogues that I can recite from memory and that will cause me to laugh out loud just thinking about them. Simply mention "the cheese shop" or "the staff interrogation" and I may launch into a poor British or French accent as I recite some of the "hilarious" dialogue. Given that you can tell a lot about a person from their particular sense of humor, there may be some of you who have now completely lost all respect for me as a scientist or as a human being. (That last line was meant as a joke and reflects my "dad joke" capabilities.)

Now most of the previous paragraph has nothing to do with this blog post. But in order to introduce the topic of this post I was trying to think of a situation where somebody completely misses the most obvious thing right in front of them, while focusing on other less favorable options. My mind wandered to a scene in the movie "The Return of the Pink Panther" where inspector Jacque Clouseau is reprimanding a "blind" beggar with an accordion and a "minkey" for a minor offense, while he is completely oblivious to a major bank robbery going on just behind him. Of course, I then had to watch the video clip of this movie scene on YouTube, which led me down a rabbit hole to a series of many other Pink Panther and Monty Python videos, (similar to the virtual reality rabbit hole I referred to in my last blog post, which does actually bring us to the subject of this entry.)

Here I follow up on my previous discussion about the hypothesis that we may live in a virtual reality universe rather than a physical universe. Such a scenario was proposed by the philosopher Nick Bostrom in his 2003 paper "Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?" More recently a video by "Inspiring Philosophy" based on a 2007 paper by the informational computer scientist Brian Whitworth titled "The Physical World as a Virtual Reality" presents the same idea. Previously, I focused on some of the scientific ideas presented in that paper and showed that Whitworth doesn't seem to fully understand the science and that he selectively applies just those scientific principles that he thinks supports his hypothesis. But the biggest flaw in Whitworth's argument is that he doesn't even consider the possibility that there is a transcendent God who created the universe. Because he is oblivious to this obvious possibility, he completely misses the best option regarding the true nature of our universe.

Whitworth suggests two hypotheses about our reality:
  1. The objective reality (OR) hypothesis: That our physical reality is an objective reality that exists in and of itself, and being self-contained needs nothing outside of itself to explain it. 
  2. The virtual reality (VR) hypothesis: That our physical reality is a virtual reality that depends upon information processing to exist, which processing must occur outside of itself.
Any perceptive reader would immediately see that his definition of the objective reality hypothesis excludes any possibility of a creator, for his objective really is "self-contained [and] needs nothing outside of itself to explain it." Of course there is clearly a third possibility not even considered by Whitworth which I will insert and call "The God reality":
  1. The God reality (GR) hypothesis: That our physical reality is an objective reality that requires a transcendent intelligent cause to fully explain it.
By not including this possibility he completely misses the conclusion that best explains all of the data. Like inspector Clouseau, he is so focused on his lesser options, that he completely misses the much more important and obvious solution.

For instance the abstract to the paper says, "If the universe were a virtual reality, its creation at the big bang would no longer be paradoxical, as every virtual system must be booted up." This statement shocked me for there is no paradox at all in the big bang origin of the universe if there is a transcendent creator. The fact that our universe had a beginning actually demands some transcendent cause. In essence, Whitworth's VR hypothesis also requires a transcendent booting up of the program, so it should be obvious to him, and to any reader, that the external cause could be God. But with an external cause, the universe doesn't have to be a VR universe, since any objective reality universe could have an external theistic transcendent cause and there is absolutely no "paradox" to it having a beginning. It is shocking, naive, and erroneous to make the beginning of the universe a paradox. It is only a paradox if the God reality hypothesis is not an option.

Whitworth restates his two hypotheses in the following manner. The OR hypothesis says, "There is nothing outside the universe" while the VR hypothesis says, "There is nothing in our universe that exists of or by itself." But the GR hypothesis would also agree with the last statement. It drives me crazy that Whitworth limits the last statement to the VR hypothesis, while it better fits the GR hypothesis, the solution that should be obviously right in front of him, but he doesn't even acknowledge as an option.

He goes on to propose three ways to approach VR theory:
  1. Calculable Universe Hypothesis: That our physical reality can be simulated by information processing that is calculable (halting). 
  2. Calculating Universe Hypothesis: That our physical reality uses information processing in its operation to some degree. 
  3. Calculated Universe Hypothesis: That our physical reality is created by information processing based outside the physical world we register.
Once again, his bias in not considering the God hypothesis taints all of his reasoning. Instead, one could follow his same thought process, but state the third view as "our physical reality is created by a being based outside the physical world we register." Why does it have to be a VR world if there is something outside it? It doesn't unless one's bias has already excluded that as a possibility, a priori.

Whitworth claims that a virtual world that behaves like ours should have no data input once it starts running. That is, there should be no external intervention that would look to us like a miracle. His statement is, "This VR simulation must run itself without miracles, i.e. without ongoing data input." Consequently, the miracle of the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, with its abundant historical evidence, unambiguously disproves his VR hypothesis.

Toward the end of the article Whitworth asks a question that he thinks obliterates the objective reality hypothesis, "The big bang contradicts any theory that assumes the universe is objectively real and complete in itself. How can an objective reality, existing in and of itself, be created out of nothing?" Of course, the answer to this question gives abundant evidence for God, but not for a VR reality. A transcendent being is the best answer to the origin of an objective reality universe, for the universe does not exist in and of itself. It exists because it was created.

It is really quite sad and unfortunate that Whitworth's entire article is based on the faulty premise that the universe is a self existent objective reality or a virtual reality. With only those two options, there is no scenario that adequately fits the actual data. Whitworth has to carefully select which data to highlight in addition to misunderstanding basic tenants of quantum mechanics in order to support his case. In reality, the data naturally and without bias is better explained with the hypothesis that we live in an objective reality created by a transcendent being.

In the original video that prompted a reader of mine to ask me about the VR hypothesis, the maker of the video uses Whitworth's reasoning to actually give evidence for God. His point is that a VR reality requires information from a mind and, because there can't be an infinite regress of causes, that mind must be the mind of God. Though I disagree with the VR hypothesis, the data does clearly show that our universe is full of information, which most naturally comes from an external mind. The being who possesses that mind has the capability of creating an objective reality universe with all the characteristics of our universe including its beginning. Such a hypothesis, the GR hypothesis, best fits the data. If Whitworth wasn't so focused on his two lesser hypotheses, he might be able to see the more compelling and inclusive hypothesis right before his eyes.


  1. Very well said. The VR Hypothesis just raises more questions than it answers - who/what designed the VR? If this "designer" is an unconscious principle or law - how can ihr consciousness arise from the non-consciousness of the designer? Eitherway, VR just as OR needs a transcendent cause, so I totally agree that the GR hypothesis just fits the data much better.

  2. Discussions about the origin of the universe are fascinating, but I prefer to wait until more data is available before reaching a conclusion on this issue. Once there is a consensus among scientists, I will accept that consensus.

  3. I agree 100% I used to hold to VR until looking at its critiques including this and your original blog. Thanks!