I finally got around to watching last summer’s “blockbuster” (a term which is used entirely too loosely in the modern movie industry) film Prometheus last night, and saying I was underwhelmed by it would be a compliment. Apart from crapping all over H.R. Giger’s iconic Alien design, a heroine whose character was so intensely annoying I found myself hoping the self-service surgery machine she subjected herself to for abdominal squid removal would have stapled her mouth shut, and an “I once skimmed a first-year philosophy course syllabus” level of sophistication to its thesis (Mankind meets his Creator, discovers He’s kind of a dick), the film for me was simply another entry in the “‘reimaginings’ that should never have been made” category, which to be fair, has been a problem afflicting the Alien “franchise” since the second installment. One reviewer in the US summed it up perfectly last year when he wrote, “In space, everyone can hear you try too hard.”
Be that as it may, the central question the film (clumsily) addresses is still an intriguing one: What is the source and nature of existence? What, or who, is responsible for the creation of Mankind?
We can be fairly certain we were not bioengineered thousands of years ago by large, grumpy, conveniently humanoid-looking aliens as the story in Prometheus suggests. Our understanding of basic science is well enough advanced to realize that our chances of even detecting – let alone actually establishing contact with – extraterrestrial life are ridiculously small, and even if we did find it, the chances that extraterrestrial life remotely resembles us or is even recognizably intelligent are infinitesimally small.
We are probably not so certain (if for no other reason then at least out of a civilized respect for others’ deep-seated beliefs) of the non-existence of something which could fit a broad definition of “Creator,” and it is this uncertainty that leads us to constantly seek the answer to the ultimate question – why does existence, well, exist? If that sounds like the question is being framed in religious terms, there’s a good reason for that, even though I am not, in the strictest sense of the word, any sort of theist. The search for the answer to that question, whether one approaches it from a philosophical or a scientific perspective, is a search for divinity; we just have different ways of defining it – and no real understanding of what it is we’re trying to define, because it exists at a level where the boundaries between philosophy and science disappear.
The best way we can define “divinity” now is as “the point at which nothingness becomes something,” because we assume – and our minds really don’t give us much of a choice but to assume – that there has to be an actor at that point, a convergence of forces on a quantum level, the will of a supreme entity, or something else we are not yet able to comprehend. In order to even begin to approach a conceptualization of the “actor,” we have to understand what existence is at its most basic level. For that part of the problem, science has provided some intriguing possible answers in the past few years. But be warned: they are…kind of unnerving.
Try to wrap your head around this idea, for which there is actually a number of very compelling arguments: What we perceive as existence, in other words, our Universe and everything in it may be nothing more than a complex simulation inside a computer…which is in turn inside a larger simulation, and so on like a cosmic-scale set of Matryoshka dolls.
To understand how this (possible) reality might be the answer, we have to first consider the idea that the Universe might be an enormous quantum computer. In his 2010 book Decoding Reality, physicist Vlatko Vedral suggests that at the smallest level, the universe is nothing but bits of information; the 0 and 1 of bits that we understand could be represented by the different directions of spin of an elementary particle, or the vibration/non-vibration states of a quantum string. A quantum computer is actually feasible, even at our human scale; Seth Lloyd, who is a Professor of Quantum-Mechanical Engineering at MIT, has actually designed one that is technically possible to build. The basic difference between a ‘regular’ bit and a quantum bit, or qubit, is that while a regular bit must be either a “0” or a “1” in any instant, a quantum bit can be both simultaneously.
Or more than both, perhaps an infinite number more; the basic premise of string theory is that different frequencies of vibrations in quantum “strings” determine the compositions of different kinds of matter – and all those vibrations are, essentially, are bits of information. The idea of the universe as a computer is actually much older than string theory or the work of people like Seth Lloyd; John Archibald Wheeler, a contemporary of both Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr, is probably the originator of the concept, writing (as quoted in James Gleick’s book, The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood), “What we call reality arises in the last analysis from the posing of yes-no questions.” He adds, “All things physical are information-theoretic in origin, and this is a participatory universe.”
Here’s where things really start to get mind-bending: In a paper published in the Philosophical Quarterly in 2003, philosopher Nick Bostrom of Oxford University argues that, given the empirical certainty that a “post-human” civilization will have enormous computing power at its disposal, it is virtually certain we are living in an advanced computer simulation, provided that neither of the following propositions is true: That civilizations do not reach a “post-human” level, or that those that do are not inclined for some reason to create simulations of their ancestors. That still leaves a lot of room for the idea that we are all Sims to be debunked, of course, except for one thing: That business about creating simulations of the universe that are indistinguishable from reality? We’ve already done that.
Using supercomputers, physicists studying quantum chromodynamics have been able to create simulations of it; quantum chromodynamics is the study of the strong nuclear force, the still not-understood force that binds together the smallest particles like quarks into larger ones like protons and electrons. So in essence, simulating quantum chromodynamics is simulating the very universe. It can be done only momentarily, and only on an impossibly small scale – a few femtometers across (a femtometer is 0.0000000000000001 meter) – but within those parameters, the simulated universe looks and behaves in a way that is indistinguishable from the “real” universe. Given enough computer power, the physicists could simulate a larger universe, even something as large as a human cell, and at any scale, the simulation would not be fundamentally different from the real thing.
In order to create this simulation, the physicists must first create a three-dimensional lattice that advances stepwise in time, and it is on this lattice that the energies being studied are projected (try to remember this is all taking place inside a computer). The size of the lattice imposes a lower limit on the energies the simulated particles can have, because nothing smaller than the lattice can exist. Therefore, if we are living inside a massive computer simulation, this lower limit should be detectable, which would, at least indirectly, allow us to detect the lattice. And we may already know what the limit is: It is called the Greisen–Zatsepin–Kuzmin or GZK cut off, and is the limit at which we can no longer detect high-energy particles because of their interaction with the cosmic microwave background radiation. If scientists can measure variations of observability of particles at this limit, to put it as simply as possible, that may very well reveal the lattice, because the particles would be traveling along it, and not be equally observable from our perspective depending on their direction and orientation. And if experiments being done at the Large Hadron Collider confirm the relationship of elementary particles according to the 248-dimensional E8 polytope of A.G. Lisi’s “Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything”, we might be able to not simply detect the existence of the lattice, but discover its shape.
And if the Universe is a computer, what does that make us?
Hell yes, whoa. The Matrix may be real, kids. If it is, it would answer a number of huge dilemmas in contemporary physics, such as quantum entanglement – something which we know exists, even though all our knowledge says it shouldn’t, because it was actually physically demonstrated in 1997. And it would confirm one of the answers to that particular conundrum (that paired particles can apparently communicate at several million times the speed of light), Bell’s Inequality – which essentially states that in order for quantum entanglement to be true in a universe we believe to be governed by relativity, either we have no free will, or all reality is an illusion.
But of course, none of this may turn out to be true; for all we really know, we all may be passengers on the back of the Mother Turtle. And if we someday discover that we all are, in fact, just figments of someone else’s imagination, that leaves the question: Who or what?
Scientists and people of faith, rejoice. It seems there are still plenty of mysteries to go around.