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Is the universe a hologram?

We’re now exploring a whole new kind of creation myth.
bob_berman_2009
The perennial desire to find an answer to the question, “What’s going on here?” is taking increasingly bizarre turns. One such turn is the recent buzz that the cosmos is possibly an artificial construction.

The concept has become so widespread that it even appeared in a movie review in The New York Times May 10, in which science columnist Dennis Overbye wrote, “The news from some physicists like the late Stephen Hawking is that the universe might be a hologram, an illusion like the three-dimensional images on a bank card. Some cosmologists have argued that it is not inconsistent — at least mathematically — to imagine that the entire universe as we know it could just be a computer simulation, as in The Matrix.”

This is certainly an appropriate creation myth for our time! Could it be true?

It’s not inconceivable that some aliens could be so far ahead of us that they could design such a computer code. And with artificial intelligence rapidly advancing even in our own lifetimes, the classical question about whether computers could gain sentience, a sense of themselves, would be answered if we ourselves were indeed such computer entities, programmed to think and have memories. Certainly, the visible world all around us could be replicated by computers — we’ve all experienced 3D movies that fully capture a sense of depth and yet actually occur on a flat, two-dimensional screen. Given another century or millennium of programming progress, why couldn’t nature be synthetically replicated?

BobBerman

Multiverse theories posit that our universe is one of many, in which countless possible scenarios have played out.

Pixbay
OK, those of you who are quick thinkers, I can anticipate your objection. Namely, if our human lives and experiences can be explained as computer code, this still doesn’t explain the origin of the alien life forms that created this artificial digital realm. That remains an enormous loose end.

But I have deeper problems with the idea. I can’t express them any better than did physicist Moshe Rozali of the University of British Columbia in response to a March 2017 blog post by Scott Aaronson discussing the simulation hypothesis. Rozali wrote in a comment: “My main problem with the simulation story is not (only) that it is intellectually lazy or that it is masquerading as some deep foundational issue. As far as metaphysical speculation goes it is remarkably unromantic. I mean, your best attempt at a creation myth involves someone sitting in front of a computer running code? What else do those omnipotent gods do, eat pizza? Do their taxes?”

There’s another flaw, too. I think we should automatically be chary of explanations that align with our current technology, because it smells like anthropomorphism. We saw this a few decades ago when some popular books claimed to explain Peru’s Nazca Lines as runways built by ancient aliens to land their spacecraft. This should have aroused skepticism simply because runways, while common nowadays, are a very transient item in Earth’s history. Imagining any of our current tech needs or gadgets like cellphones or toasters as alien devices suggests we’re “projecting.” It would be like explorers in the 1890s finding a circle on a cave wall and believing it’s a drawing of an ancient alien in a hot-air balloon. Alien gadgets resembling whatever is humankind’s current leading-edge stuff should automatically be tossed into the “most unlikely” bin.

Thus these popular hologram and computer-simulation creation myths seem worse than unimaginative. They definitely make my mental alarm lights flash, even if my brain is only a simulation. 

Have we got any better cosmic models for you?

A growing favorite is the multiverse. But you should know there are several competing multiverses. The first was the quantum theory explanation proposed in 1957 by Hugh Everett. Called the Relative State and later renamed the Many Worlds Interpretation, the idea was that every time anything happens, the alternative outcome also occurs in some parallel universe.

You were too shy to ask out the prom queen. But since it could have happened, it did happen, and somewhere out there you and she are married and living in a parallel Peoria. For real. Many physicists accept that a new universe pops into existence each time you make a left instead of a right turn.

Why would anyone believe this? Well, it would explain the wave-particle duality of light, which we see in double-slit experiments. In such experiments, photons must “choose” whether to act as a particle or a wave, based on whether you’re watching them go through the slit or not. It’s a strange concept. But if the dual nature we observe is actually due to the “leakage” of photons from parallel universes into ours, interfering with the results by acting differently than the photons that belong here, no strange explanation is needed.

Cosmology has its own separate set of multiverses, but these may be physically separated from us, beyond our own observable universe. They’re proposed to make the oddly life-friendly physical constants of our cosmos seem more plausible, since there should presumably be countless other universes that are lifeless.

Need even more universes? String theory has its own set.

And since each version allows an unlimited number of universes, we’re endowed with multiple infinities. Lucky us.

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