Back in 2003, philosopher Nick Bostrom wrote a now-famous essay making the case that we might all be living in a computer simulation.
He explored three different scenarios: 1) All human-like civilizations in the universe go extinct before they develop the technological capability to create simulated realities; 2) if any of them do achieve the required level of maturity, none will actually run simulations; or 3) significantly advanced civilizations would have the ability to run many simulations, meaning there are far more simulated worlds than non-simulated ones.
We don’t know which is true, but Bostrom concludes that the most likely is door #3 — that reality and everything that we experience is nothing more than a Matrix-style artificial construct.
Now if you’re willing to accept the idea that our existence is really no different than being NPCs in a giant cosmic video game, wouldn’t there be a moral imperative to try to break out of our virtual prison? Or at the very least alert our programmer overlords that we’re on to them?
These questions aren’t as far-fetched as it might seem. There are two tech billionaires actively working with scientists trying to break us out.
This got me thinking.
How exactly does one go about breaking out of a simulation while a part of it?
Somehow we would have to remove our existence from our current reality and then insert ourselves into either another or the reality that is running the simulations. That’s a tall order.
For starters, it might just be easier to search for signs that appear to confirm the simulation hypothesis. Look for glitches in the matrix — paradoxes in our reality that seem like programming shortcuts. Measuring things like collapsing wave functions while observed or space-time being discrete instead of continuous.
But that’s just confirming our dilemma…not breaking us out. Perhaps instead our best path might be sending some type of unmistakable signal to our programmer masters. Let them know that we’re on to them from within the video game itself.
That is where randomness and randonauting fit in. Let me explain.
Determinism vs Free Will
If true randomness really exists, it might be the key to breaking out of the simulation. And by randomness, I mean in the context of determinism vs. free will and the physical laws of the universe.
There are two camps: Some believe that since the entire universe is bound by physical laws, it’s completely deterministic. There’s only an illusion of free will.
This means any choice that you make is really just the sum of all your experiences, the state of the physical universe, and the chemical composition of your brain at that exact moment.
If the universe were to reboot, and everything was to be replayed in exactly the same order, you would make the exact same decisions at the exact same point in time with the exact same outcomes. Deterministic.
Alternatively in the other camp, if there’s room for true randomness, for example with quantum randomness, then we cannot say that the universe is completely deterministic. If true randomness exists, the outcome of some physical processes can never be predicted. In the ‘universe reboot’ scenario the outcome may not be the same the second time around.
Where this gets hairy is with the simulation argument.
In a simulation, quantum randomness might just be a product of an incredibly complex algorithm created by our clever programmer overlords. What we might think was truly random could instead be the result of a pseudorandom process.
That’s how operating systems create random numbers. A seed number is run through a complex function that results in the appearance of a random number. It’s random enough for most purposes, but if the same seed were to be run against the same function in the future you would see the same result. Deterministic.
For the sake of this argument, I’m going to go with the premise that quantum randomness is truly random, and if we’re in a simulation there’s at least some room for free will as a result.
Here’s where randonauting comes into the picture.
Randonauting is a recent fad where a quantum random number generator is used to determine coordinates for a nearby location which you then go and visit in real-life.
It’s an activity that has been popularized with the Randonautica app which encourages its users to have a specific intention in mind before traveling to the location. The idea is that you can manifest surprising coincidences or synchronicities as a result.
This premise of mind-matter interaction is part of the popular appeal along with the fact that it’s a perfect activity for Covid era social distancing.
Randonauting made me think about how few times we actually go to a truly random destination. Is free will just an illusion?
I believe we have the option to exercise free will, but in reality, our choices are mostly deterministic. For the most part, given the same life experiences, we’re going to make the same decisions.
For example, say you’re making a trip to the store because you’re out of bread. There might be two different routes to the store that are equally convenient. Which one do you choose? Perhaps you always take the same route because you like the scenery better, but this time just out of boredom you decide to take the other one.
This decision might seem like free will, but it can be argued that because of the sum of all your life experiences and the chemical processes in your brain at that particular moment, it could have been predicted that you would have taken that alternative route. Not really free will at all.
However, say the route you take to the store is based on a truly random process. A quantum random coin flip that makes the choice for you whether to go left or right this particular morning. This would be an example of going completely off the script.
No one, including yourself, could have predicted which route you would have taken, and since this is the non-deterministic path, there could be cascading implications. Say the route chosen resulted in being involved in a fatal car accident.
This is precisely why I believe randonauting is the key to breaking out of the simulation. Every randonauting journey is the result of a truly random decision. By taking part in this activity, you’ve made the conscious choice of going off the script. The destination is not deterministic and the result can quite possibly alter your life trajectory.
Now, what happens if enough people start to participate in randonauting? Wouldn’t we begin to skew our entire simulation away from any predicted outcome?
What if our simulation overlords are monitoring our simulated reality? I would argue that active monitoring is not that far-fetched. Why go through all of the time and effort to build a simulation in the first place if you weren’t interested in observing the outcome?
If our simulation is decidedly out of whack from the random results of randonauting at scale, perhaps there’s a warning indicator on a master galactic dashboard somewhere turning red. Sending an unmistakable signal that something’s amiss.
If we could alert our overlords that we’re on to them, would we really want to?
At this point, we’ve successfully signaled to our puppet masters that we want to communicate, but since they hold all the cards it would be entirely up to them to fabricate the actual mechanism. Perhaps an avatar would mysteriously appear like an apparition or a religious icon would float down from the heavens to provide us with unimaginable insights and wisdom.
Of course, that assumes that our overlords are benign. I think it’s just as likely that our meddling might prompt a quick reboot. That’s fair. They went through all the time and effort to design a perfectly good simulated reality and there we go mucking it up. Who’s to say there isn’t a giant red power button somewhere waiting to be pressed and just like that 7.8 billion simulated realities would be erased.
How could they see anything but the shadows if they were never allowed to move their heads?-Plato, The Allegory of the Cave
Ultimately, we need to be careful what we wish for. Simulated or not, there’s comfort in believing that all we know is real. If we do manage to find a way to break out of the box, we might not like what we see.