Is Life Just a Simulation?
“What lies at the heart of every living thing is not a fire, not warm breath, not a ‘spark of life.’ It is information, words, instructions… If you want to understand life, don’t think about vibrant throbbing gels and oozes, think about information technology.” — Richard Dawkins. The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design.
There are two main schools of thought out there when it comes to our understanding of human nature and our capacity for free will. Bizarrely, the opposing views are often espoused by the same individual talking out both ends of his mouth! Here, I intend to add my name to that list.
The question, if I may oversimplify, is this: Do we, humans, make decisions based purely and mechanically on pre-programmed inputs or do we have the ability and the freedom to make our own choices?
Philosophers and theologians have grappled with this question for millennia, verily twisting themselves into pretzels, trying to justify the existence of free will, believing that life as we know it would be too bleak without that power, that humans would be lowered to the level of animals.
Yet, the same thinkers also believe God knows everything we do and everything that will ever happen. A religious person would argue that God has already written our destiny and knows what we’re going to do; everything is predestined.
Scientists are relative newcomers to this debate. A scientist might say we are just bags of chemicals interacting with each other and the environment, that our actions are the result of our genes and purely physical external stimuli; there is no “soul”, no “I”, other than a collection of algorithms pre-programmed into our brain through thousands of generations of evolution. Another vote in favor of determinism but from an entirely different angle.
So, which is it? Are we free to make our own decisions or just automata executing algorithms?
“Seconds after fertilization, a quickening begins in the embryo. Proteins reach into the nucleus of the cell and start flicking genetic switches on and off. A dormant spaceship comes to life. Genes are activated and repressed, and these genes, in turn, encode yet other proteins that activate and repress other genes. A single cell divides to form two, then four, and eight cells. An entire layer of cells forms, then hollows out into the outer skin of a ball. Genes that coordinate metabolism, motility, cell fate, and identity fire ‘on.’ The boiler room warms up. The lights flicker on in the corridors. The intercom crackles alive.” — Siddhartha Mukherjee. The Gene: An Intimate History.
I’m an atheist and, I’d like to think, a scientist. As such, I don’t believe in the concept of God and all its related mythologies, let alone believing that a supernatural being programmed everything in the universe, right down to which finger I like to use to pick my nose.
My thinking here is straight forward. I have five senses and everything I ever perceive in life is done through those five senses. Of course, I understand that there’s other “data” in the universe that I can’t perceive through those senses: the bat’s sense of echolocation is a great example as is the bee’s ability to see ultraviolet light.
But the fact that I can’t sense everything is no reason to give up even trying to deduce the reasons why things happen the way they do and to believe in a God that watches over us and pre-programs our every step. That’s a giant leap in imagination that I’m not ready to make without some proof, especially given its scope and ramifications.
If I may paraphrase Christopher Hitchens: As an atheist, I’m not saying God doesn’t exist. I’m just saying I haven’t seen a single piece of evidence to prove his existence. I’m perfectly willing to change my mind; just show me the data.
The burden of proof is on believers to show the data, supposedly at their disposal, to prove the existence of such an entity. I’m listening but I haven’t heard anything logical yet. I’m looking but I haven’ seen anything either. And, yes, I am limiting myself again to what I can ascertain with those five senses, not on some fictional belief or dogma.
“To you, I’m an atheist; to God, I’m the Loyal Opposition.” — Woody Allen. Stardust Memories.
And if I don’t believe in God, I also can’t believe he programmed us to do anything. So does that mean I believe in free will? Not so fast.
Much recent research has shown massive evidence for the scientific point of view that free will is just an illusion. Everything we do, every decision we make, it turns out, can be boiled down to chemical reactions and electrical impulses. Scientists have shown, definitively, that the seconds or minutes spent contemplating our choices are simply an attempt by our brains to rationalize a decision that our primitive brains have already made almost instantaneously.
You decide whether you want pasta or pizza for dinner, whether you’ll wear red or blue today, whether you love Sarah or Jackie, whether you support or despise Trump, almost instantly. You make snap judgements, based entirely on chemical reactions and electrical impulses. Then you spend all your time convincing yourself of the reasons why you made the right choice.
The next few seconds or minutes, hours or days, as the case may be, are really just mental masturbation, time spent confirming the validity of our decisions and our seemingly amazing prescience. This post hoc rationalization is what we often think of as free will. I chose pasta! I love Jackie! I’m free to choose.
The concept is just an illusion, a lie our brains tell us to make us feel better. It’s a story we tell ourselves to make our selves feel better. We have no choice but to behave the way we do, to make the decisions we make. But we prefer to think otherwise.
“There is no traced-out path to lead man to his salvation; he must constantly invent his own path. But, to invent it, he is free, responsible, without excuse, and every hope lies within him.” — Jean-Paul Sartre. The Last Chance: Roads of Freedom, Volume 4.
The concept of free will makes more sense at the group or societal level than it does at the individual level. Every situation we find ourselves in is unique and has never been experienced before. Even the other people experiencing that moment with me have entirely different backgrounds which, by necessity, means they will have a very different experience of the same moment.
If we think of this instant in time and space as the culmination of everything that has happened to the participants in the moments leading up to it (the scientific view: A caused B which then caused C, all the way back to the Big Bang), then each moment is unique not just in itself but also in its interpretation by each of the participants. There is no single “now” but, instead, there is “now as experienced by Jack” and “now as experienced by Jane” and everyone else.
The choice I make at any given moment is driven by everything that has come before it, every experience I have lived through, and every gene I’ve inherited. But the moment itself is unique and has never happened to anyone else before — in history.
My actions may be automatic and deterministic but the combination of all our actions together is not. You don’t know what I’m going to do next and I don’t know what you’re going to do either. That, in itself, introduces probability into the mix, making our combined future together non-deterministic.
I may just be executing the next inevitable step in a program but that program has never been executed before nor will it ever be executed in exactly the same manner again. That means the combination of our actions is unique and non-deterministic. That, to me, is free will.
Some people have suggested that life is just a simulation, a proverbial Sims game writ large, Elon Musk being one of the most famous. These types of explanations are interesting but don’t really get to the heart of the matter and have recently been refuted by scientific studies of the quantum nature of the universe. It only looks like a simulation because that’s the metaphor we’re familiar with as children of a certain age.
Just because we can imagine living in The Matrix doesn’t mean we actually are. To say that life is a simulation is no more meaningful than saying it was created by an invisible yet omnipotent omniscient being. It avoids answering the real question by assuming the existence of a creator, in this case the programmers, conveniently placed outside our universe. It’s not an “explanation” for anything. Even if we assume it to be correct, the next obvious question is: Okay, but who created them?
Even if the universe is indeed “digital” at its core (zero and one, on and off, black and white, yin and yang), that just means you need two initial states to create anything useful. It does not mean a bunch of sysadmins are sitting in a basement somewhere, eating Doritos and chugging Mountain Dew while debugging the rings of Saturn.
Now, here comes the pretzel: The more satisfying explanation, the one I choose to believe, is that we are truly creating every moment on the fly — one moment at a time. We are, in that sense, the creators of our own destiny. We are writing this story together. We are truly making it up as we go along. This particular moment has never happened in the past. And there are at least seven billion versions of “this particular moment”, seven billion “stories” being written, not to mention the billions of moments being created by all the animals and plants around us.
Each of us may just be playing out pre-programmed actions at each step, but the combination is unique and new. And the more people, the more relationships, the more ideas, the more variables, the richer and the more unique each moment.
Isn’t that enough?