What If You Don’t Really Exist, Or I Don’t?
It is well known in science that the universe is infinite. Simply put, the cosmos is finite. Yet it is expanding. Dark energy is driving this growth and accelerating it. Astronomers accept that creation is flat and an even macrocosm expands forever, it is infinite. Douglas Adams once said if there is an infinite number of worlds in the universe, they can’t all be inhabited. Any finite number divided by infinity is as near to nothing, so the average population of all the planets in the universe can be said to be zero. Any people that you meet along the way are merely products of your imagination.
But seriously, do you exist and what is existence?
The Observer Anomaly
We use various tools to experience our lives, like our eyes, ears, and skin. For example, you could find a pretty gem on the beach and view it just fine with your eyes. Plus you could observe it even better with a microscope and we’d all agree that it’s real. Let’s take a closer look at the mineral, at the atoms themselves. The atoms are still real, but what happens when you go smaller? Physicists have long studied atoms by smashing particles like neutrons and protons into them, and the list of particles they have collided in awe inspiring. When these particles impact, they burst apart into a shower of particles. These particles are subsequently captured in bubble chambers, calorimeters, and various instruments for measurement. You couldn’t ever visually experience these collisions, but you could experience the readout of the results. But then is this readout an observable or are you only observing the instrument?
It has been suggested that this absurdity could be resolved if you could somehow hook these instruments directly into the observer’s motor nerves. But while this might work in theory, the time scales of particle collisions are simply beyond our recognition.
But are we then only a product of our observations?
The Psychology of Solipsism
Strictly speaking, our own experiences are the only things that we can ever be sure are real. In the philosophy of Solipsism, this view is pushed to the extreme where the world is constructed for you. Not only that, your experiences and your mind is the only thing that really exists in the cosmos.
While it could be true, real life is more complex. We live in a world where people have unique perspectives on the world. Life is about discovering that other people have divergent beliefs then you.
Let’s say for example that you get a call from the IRS saying that you are in serious trouble! You owe the government major taxes. Any failure to pay immediately will end in your imprisonment.
To start with, great, you owe more taxes. Second, the IRS never calls you. They provide you personalized visits. This is a scam. Still to recognize this reality you have to acknowledge that certain people want to scam you. In psychology this is Mentalization.
Still in the end, Mentalization could be a red herring to this argument. I’ve played games where the other characters are all running their own hustles.
The Boltzmann Brain solution
Solipsism isn’t completely unreasonable in modern science. Ludwig Boltzman proposed the idea of the Boltzmann Brain in the late 19th century. He presented the thought experiment as a solution to time reversibility in physics. You see, in the macro realm of physics all interactions should be deterministic. In theory a ball could fall down and then back up again, yet they don’t. Balls don’t do that on account of the inevitable creep of time, thermodynamics, and entropy. Still they could in theory.
Ludwig wanted to demonstrate that they could in theory, across microscopic scales and vast amounts of time. In theory you could toss a box of Scrabble across the room and an identifiable English word falls out, but words aren’t computers. You need a system capable of storing the information and running the computations, consciousness. Let’s say for a moment that there are 10²⁶ atoms in the average human brain. Still we are not interested in replicating a biological brain in a vacuum, since it couldn’t survive in a vacuum for reasons that should be clear. Let’s assume that there is a probability that 10²⁶ atoms could form a computational network capable of thought. Each atom forms a microstate or a three dimensional vector in position space. Let’s assume that each atom can occupy only one of 10⁹ discrete positions per dimension inside a cubic space, about the size of a human brain. Therefore the number of potential microstates is (10⁹ positions)(10³ dimensions)(¹⁰^²⁶) atoms or 10^(10²⁷.07918124604762). Consequently the probability of an arrangement of atoms forming a brain is 10^(-10²⁷.07918124604762). So near to zero as to be irrelevant, but it is still possible.
In philosophy there is the presumption that given a variety of explanations, the simplest is generally correct. I’m not saying that Occam is always right, it’s not.
So, either we are intelligent apes that evolved over billions of years to sentience on a rock orbiting a star.
Or you are a cloud of atoms that has momentarily achieved awareness in the cold vacuum of space.