Why the word “simulation” is a misnomer

Reading all the recent brouhaha over the “are we living in a simulation” argument, I’m compelled to write this post.

I seriously wish the people who talk authoritatively about “simulation”, or “simulating life”, have actually tried it themselves. You know, modelled the behaviors, the interactions, the environment, and actually written some code.

Realise this: We cannot yet even accurately simulate a teaspoon of water!

Why? We are talking about 10^24 molecules of H20, thats why! *Even* if every molecule’s state could be accurately  saved in one byte of memory, it would require 1 million peta-bytes. Even if we somehow managed that, the processing power necessary to move to the next state would be enormous. It would take minutes to perform the same movements of all the molecules that reality does in an instant.

Of course, this is assuming that one byte per molecule would be enough. I think, when we actually do reach that capability in a few years/decades, we’ll find that its not enough. We’ll find that the simulation still doesn’t behave accurately like water, when,  for example, the temperature is dropped. “It doesn’t freeze into ice at a simulated temperature of 32F.” Then we’ll find that to achieve that it is necessary to model the states of the individual electrons in each molecule, their orbits and spins etc. And of course, the problem will once again become as difficult as it is today.

And may I remind you, the proponents of the WALIAS theory argue that all our population, all the species, the oceans, the planet, the *entire* universe is a simulation being run by some post-human species.  Now, if one teaspoon of water is so much trouble, why do we expect to be able to “simulate” even one single human brain, which, uhm.., is arguably more complicated?

Does this sound like pessimism? It will to some. I don’t think that way at all. Rather, I think the wrong kind of people have jumped onto the wrong type of bandwagon and are pushing a wrong kind of science.

If we are all indeed living in a simulation, then the only way for any of us to accurately re-simulate anything existing within our world, is to do it using the constructs used by those who are simulating us. We, the simulated, cannot use new constructs created by us to simulate anything in our world. We can only use new constructs created by us to simulate new things, using new rules in a new simulated world.

Therefore, in regular discussion, a simulation should *always* be interpreted as “a crude approximation”. We, or anybody else, *cannot* look at something built according to the rules and constructs of one world-system,  and create an *exact* copy using the rules and constructs of another world-system. It is a physical impossibility.

But, what if through persistent advancement we are able to correctly figure out our exact building blocks, our constructs, the lowest level rules of our world. My own personal view is that we cannot, or for that matter, no entity within a world-system can ever ever realize its own lowest level building blocks, because doing so would violate the laws of its existence. This is where I’ll run afoul of lots of folks, but that is a different matter.

Now, even if we do allow that concession, suppose we do figure it out, and we use it create a copy of some less advanced species known to us, lets say chimps. Suppose we do succeed, and we have a living breathing chimp in front of us. Then that chimp is *NOT* a simulation, it is the real thing! We will have as much control over its behavior as we do over a real chimp. And whats more, it will be *existing* in our own world, our own universe, not within in a walled-garden simulation. Therefore, if the post-humans have followed this scenario, then we exist in the same world as them, and therefore, we are not a simulation.

And, for all of us trying to “simulate life” sometime or the other, I’d like to make this comment: The simulated “life form”, if implemented correctly, no matter how similar its behavior to some real-world life-form, is its own species. It is pointless to compare it with the existing real world thing. Because that is in effect, similar to comparing apples and screen pixels. Yes one day we will succeed in creating artificial life forms, yes they will have “consciousness”. But, the moment they learn to communicate with us in a meaningful way, the word “simulation” will become taboo pretty soon.


5 Comments on “Why the word “simulation” is a misnomer

  1. Very well written. I am not familiar with WALIAS theory – sounds like that fun and entertaining science fiction movie The Matrix

    I think we ought to figure out as much as we can about this Universe, instead of going off on tangents like WALIAS theory. I am a bit confused (several bits?) why someone other than a science fiction writer would consider such a theory. Are they claiming that there is another, more “real” universe that is being simulated? Nevermind, I will search and read up on it when I have nothing better to do.

    The closest I idea (other than fiction) that I ever came across with this idea was the interesting book by Seth Lloyd “Programming the Universe”, but I did not get the impression that Lloyd felt we are living inside a simulation. He was stating that the Universe behaves as if it were a giant quantum computer, proposes a way of falsifying the theory, and explains at a high level how one might go about making a quantum computer.

  2. WALIAS: i.e We Are Living In A Simulation. Just an acronym I coined while writing the original post. Maybe a better one would be WE-ALIAS (double entendre intended).
    I understand your confusion at the undue attention being paid to this topic. But the thing is, I think this story does deserve a closer look. Not because of the outlandishness of the proposal, rather because, like many other things in our world, this is something even highly rational folks can get hooked on. The arguments can be very persuasive, the logic seemingly irrefutable. This subject can definitely not be classified as science fiction yet, and possibly it never will be, since it tickles the very core of all existence. In my mind, it has all the makings of breeding a cult following, almost a new category of belief system.
    The nasty thing about it is that it somehow manages to intersect across all current polarising belief systems like atheism, creationism, evolution, agnosticism, religion etc. Atheist folks will like it because it inherently dismisses a god as our creator, but they will dislike it because it replaces the “simulator” with the role of god. The intelligent design folks will like it because thats what the theory says, that we are all the product of the simulator’s intelligent design, but they will want to dismiss it because again, the role of god is being assumed by the simulator(who of course cannot be god). Many regular, straightforward folks who go to church every Sunday will certainly demonstrate significant indignation, that the very concept is demeaning to our existence. Each single existing group, will get divided based upon those who believe in this theory, and those who don’t. You pick any current orthogonal societal divisions, and this theory can be used to create a new orthogonal division of similar class.

    As such, I don’t expect this debate to die down soon. It will keep simmering beneath the surface, rearing its ugly head at times. But here’s the kicker. As education, science, technology and awareness have been increasing, things like superstition, bigotry etc have been decreasing. But with this new thing now, as technology awareness is increasing, more and more rational people are getting attracted, and even converted, by this concept!

  3. Hmm I think I can pretty much disprove the WALIAS with the Doomsday hypothesis (or more precisely the indiference principle). It deprives WALIAS of its logical suport. Since Bostrom talks a lot about DDH and uses the indiference principle in his argument he would probably have to surrender the point.

    Quickly – ‘simulation’ humans get counted as potential humans (which is what you are getting at above) so there is no ability to massivly increase computing simulation power in the presence of the indifference principle – the same one he wants to use to argue we are in a simulation.

  4. “WALIAS: i.e We Are Living In A Simulation” -a simulation of what?

    Is this what you are talking about?


    Maybe John Lennon was talking about this when he sang “Look into a glass onion, see how the other half lives…” Obviously, a “glass onion” refers to an infinitively recursive silicon-based (glass-based) simulation computer. And “the other half” refers to the simulators “living” one layer up 😉

    The Bene Gesserits could have a field day with this new cult.

    I see your points… I am concerned with another cult. “The Secret”, “The Power of Intention”, …Confusion over quantum theory, electo-magnitism, and the over obsession with “happiness” (Happiness Zombies).

    Not sure what to do about it though. I guess I will try to think positive thoughts, and it will all go away.

    If I do not have free will, then I could not help but comment on this post, so please forgive me. I am just part of the great simulation – perhaps a bug in the code.

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