Is life a simulation or a dream?

And what if we are the dreams of tired gods, who can find no peace?

-- anonymous

An commentary article today in the New York times is again raising the idea that we live in some kind of giant compute simulation. It's sort-of a clever but old idea, recreated frequently in highschool philosophy conversations and reflected in movies like The Thirteenth Floor and The Matrix from 1999, Inception, and the terminal credits of Men in black. Wikipedia has a more through documentation. It's a shallow philosophical idea with roots older than Descarte's consideration of the difference between reality and a dream. It doesn't really get us very far, in my opinion because it is imposing on us an infinite recursion of worlds without any real insight into the nature of those worlds.

But it keeps getting attention these days because some selfish people keep connecting it to the idea that the mathematics of simulations is somehow revealing some deep truth about the universe. There was an interview with Max Tegmark arguing that the ability of mathematics to explain the universe implies that somehow the universe IS an equation. NOVA's The elegant universe played on this idea. And you can trace things right back past Keats' Ode to a grecian urn with the illusion that beauty and truth are inseparable things.

These types of arguments are non-sense, and abusing the general public. The universe is NOT easy to understand, and mathematics DOES NOT do a good job of explaining everything. The number of problems we can formulate and solve with mathematics is miniscule compared the the questions we would like to answer. Great scientists like Newton and Kepler spent large parts of their lives trying to reconcile the universe to their own personal ideas of beauty, and failing. The standard model of particle physics is an ugly unsatisfying model, but the best we've got. What's going on is a selection bias -- we tend to focus on those things we know how to talk about -- those things that can be encapsulated in our languages of which math is the most universal. And when we ignore these other complicated things, it becomes easy to begin to confound theories with realities.

See also, this short essay.