Posts

2014-08-17: Feynman's missing method for third-orders?

2014-07-31: CIA spies even on congress

2014-07-16: Rehm on vaccines

2014-06-21: Kurtosis, 4th order diffusion, and wave speed

2014-06-20: Random dispersal speeds invasions

2014-05-06: Preservation of information asymetry in Academia

2014-04-16: Dual numbers are really just calculus infinitessimals

2014-04-14: More on fairer markets

2014-03-18: It's a mad mad mad mad prisoner's dilemma

2014-03-05: Integration techniques: Fourier--Laplace Commutation

2014-02-25: Fiber-bundles for root-polishing in two dimensions

2014-02-17: Is life a simulation or a dream?

2014-01-30: PSU should be infosocialist

2014-01-12: The dark house of math

2014-01-11: Inconsistencies hinder pylab adoption

2013-12-24: Cuvier and the birth of extinction

2013-12-17: Risk Resonance

2013-12-15: The cult of the Levy flight

2013-12-09: 2013 Flu Shots at PSU

2013-12-02: Amazon sucker-punches 60 minutes

2013-11-26: Zombies are REAL, Dr. Tyson!

2013-11-22: Crying wolf over synthetic biology?

2013-11-21: Tilting Drake's Equation

2013-11-18: Why $1^\infty != 1$

2013-11-15: Adobe leaks of PSU data + NSA success accounting

2013-11-14: 60 Minutes misreport on Benghazi

2013-11-11: Making fairer trading markets

2013-11-10: L'Hopital's Rule for Multidimensional Systems

2013-11-09: Using infinitessimals in vector calculus

2013-11-08: Functional Calculus

2013-11-03: Elementary mathematical theory of the health poverty trap

2013-11-02: Proof of the area of a circle using elementary methods

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.