How to Prove Reality is Glitching
And therefore that we’re living in a simulated universe
By MARTIN REZNY
The idea of this universe being “only” some kind of a computer simulation seems to be gaining ground in the popular consciousness recently. With what’s been going on lately, it’s hardly surprising. Even mainstream newspapers have noticed and started to think about the sheer improbability (and ridiculousness) of things like the historic Oscars faux pas. My current favorite is the Cracked show on Youtube that recaps Trump’s misadventures as they unfold as if it all was a TV show, especially their comments on how various people in his administration have very on-the-nose names.
I think the key word to focus on here is contrivance, a sign of bad writing, which should have no place in a story, let alone a reality. Simply put, what characteristics would an event, string of events, person, or any fact about the universe need to have in order to stop feeling natural or belieavable?
As contrivance is to a significant extent a matter of perception, a subjective, qualitative term, there’s definitely a lot of discussion to be had. However, there are also some quite objective criteria that we can bring to bear. First, let’s consider what statistics have to tell us. It’s important to understand that in individual instances, anything that isn’t prohibited by the laws of physics can happen. That being said, unusually improbable events should not be happening all the time. That’s what it means for something to be improbable — it doesn’t happen often.
Statistics, as they’re usually conducted, are based on something called frequentist inference, and all that means is that what you’re measuring is incidence — how often has something happened out of a certain number of tries. This of course has problems, not just for our purposes, but for all the statistics of this kind. How many tries are enough? How long must a series of improbable events go on before we can justifiably assume that something suspicious is going on? These questions cannot be answered in the same entirely objective manner in which statistics themselves can be measured.
As for the length of the series, contrivances can be isolated events. They logically only become serial in nature if the writer is not particularly good, or if they stop caring about avoiding contrivances. Here, the statistics alone are not extremely helpful, except in a situation when things that have been happening rarely in the past permanently shift their likelihood, or when the current series is comprised largely of events that have never happened before.
In this context, I actually quite like the idea, presented in the above mentioned The New Yorker ‘s article, of a sudden change of the controller of the simulation, or of the circumstances surrounding the universe-simulating project. I would just add a game design-inspired bit of perspective — games tend to have turns, stages, or phases, which goes against the mainstream expectation that laws of the universe are forever fixed, but it is testable. And even if the underlying physics are fixed, maybe the social or mental phenomena are not, making them so hard to scientifically pin down.
But let’s return to our statistical attempts at proving that we’re living in a simulation. If, before, historical events seemed on the whole sensible and suddenly that’s no longer the case, it may be not so much a glitch in the Matrix but the whole writing staff being fired or a troll’s turn at playing the game. In such a case, a new consistency should reveal itself in comparison to the old status quo, which is something that statistics can be used to measure.
Or it can still be an entirely random and meaningless black swan-ish turn of events that couldn’t have been predicted on the basis of expecting the normal to continue being normal, as my favorite statistician, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, would describe it. For this reason, we must be very careful not to engage in a conspiracy-theory-like cherry picking of data. However we define what’s supposedly normal and what’s unlikely must be based on a sufficiently complete data set. But to be fair, that’s significantly hampered by the fact that we have only one existence, one life, one world, and one history to examine.
Again, there can be debate on what exactly completeness of data means, but on the surface level, it’s rather intuitive — something crazy is bound to happen sometimes somewhere, so let’s not ignore all the times at which normal things have happened and continue to be happening. A black swan event still shouldn’t be something that has not been happening for a very long time at all and then suddenly becomes common for no discernible reason. Meaning that we’re not talking about a game-changing (in this case literally) technology, legal precedent, or cultural paradigm shift that actually alters the status quo in logical, causal ways. A contrivance would be a shift in probability alone, as if happenstance had intention or personality.
However, it is in our nature to fool ourselves with the so called “magical thinking”, seeing agency not just in living beings, but in all things, so we again need to be cautious. On the other hand, I find it unreasonable to decide outright that happenstance cannot be messing with us in some kind of intentional manner. Because to do science means to test and verify before jumping to conclusions and to try to falsify what we believe, we must allow ourselves to set some criteria for what kind of occurrence would be fair to accept as contrived, even in an isolated case.
Which is the point where one would have to go beyond big-picture statistics. Someone smart enough to create a simulation such as ours is probably reasonable enough to figure out that we may use statistical analysis to figure out patterns with too much objective certainty, and in the interest of immersion, make sure not to repeat contrived events very often. For now, let’s ignore recent events that seem to prove the opposite is the case, at least sometimes.
For such a smart architect of the world, it wouldn’t be a problem in terms of immersion at all that individuals may figure out that the world is messing with them, but it would be a problem if it was easy for many of us to agree on it in the same way that we agree on the basic facts in any of our sciences. In such a case we could organize as a united people to mess with those who mess with us, especially if we were able to “read the script” and figure out what those who simulate us are after, thus breaking the game and presumably waiting for the inevitable reset.
So how can an individual figure out that happenstance is messing with them personally, according to an intelligent plan? We have to be able to answer this question first before we can extrapolate whatever method it takes to find that out to the society, humanity, or existence at large. Historically, this is the domain of religion and concepts like fate, so rational debate that allows for this possibility seems to be doomed from the start.
Sometimes, I think that the efforts of many people, particularly self-proclaimed scientific skeptics, to prevent such a debate from happening feel particularly contrived given the fanatical frenzy and crazed irrationality involved, but of course, that would be hard to prove. Similarly, there are some popular concepts that allow to hand-wave away the possibility that we are being messed with while sort of acknowledging it at the same time, like Murphy’s laws — a notion that anything that can happen, will happen, with implied meaninglessness. Well, meaning is precisely the key culprit here.
In the standard scientific/atheistic view, we are the ones who create meaning. Meaningless things happen to us, and making up a story that makes it make some sort of sense is a coping mechanism. That’s a very nice and reasonable thought, but how do you prove it? Or to be more exact, how can you falsify it? How can you discern whether an event has meaning on its own, or whether the meaning was given to it only by the human mind? We certainly can project false meaning on events, but that doesn’t prove events can’t also have their own, inherent, natural meaning, whether we understand it or not.
One can argue that meaning requires an audience, but then the answer is simple — the meaning that’s objective, or maybe a better word would be “universal”, is the meaning of the events to the creator of the simulation. Even if the simulation was made with us in mind or for us specifically, there should be a discernible external perspective on what it all means, if there is someone out there who created it or is running or playing it. It’s entirely possible that this whole thing is an exercise in making up meaning where there’s none, but to me, that’s just a reason to get more clever about testing it.
Which brings me back to the case of an individual trying to find out if, “god”, “fate”, or “chance” (or script, or algorithm) is messing with them in any particular way. Unlike the whole of society, one person’s life is potentially in many ways a controllable experiment. Not in the sense of some kind of Truman Show-like scenario, which is possible, but not what I have in mind right now. Well, not in the sense that some humans lock up another human in a permanent illusion. What I have in my mind is that you can run your life as an experiment with the hypothesis in mind that this world is an illusion inside of which some higher intelligence has put you.
What would qualify as proof in such a situation? I guess it would be getting to a point when you become able to foresee some narratively contrived twist in the “random” plot of your life that’s supposed to affect you and you do everything in your power to minimize any chances of it happening in any direct, logical, or probable way, but it will happen anyway in a very improbable way. In a paradoxically predictable and reliable burst of extreme coincidence and improbability.
Such proof would be made stronger if you could also predict with any accuracy and reliability when such events will happen, if you could identify or even predict such occurrences repeatedly, and if they all shared a consistent, straightforward, and quite obvious explanation in terms of narrative meaning (that you ideally dislike) as if your life was some literal reality show, no crazy logical stretches required. Similarly, it could instead be about examination of one’s identity or role in society (or life in general), rather than particular events (focusing on character or setting rather than plot).
Why? If you’re a made-up character and if the society is made-up as well (and not by yourself/itself, in a way that can’t be changed by you/it), you can try to push against the limits of your identity and role wherever they appear to be defined by narrative contrivance in conflict with the scientific/atheistic “anything is possible that’s not prohibited by the laws of physics” interpretation of reality — randomness should have no preference or bias.
What I’m trying to say, I guess, is that randomness too is a type of pattern, a pattern that many players of games can rely on, and when you push a game to its extremes, you can see if the pattern behind it conforms to true randomness, or if there’s too much inherent orderliness hiding somewhere in the code. When one’s looking for patterns that are there, they can be relied on staying there and stubbornly refusing to go away, at least for extended periods of time. But first, of course, you need to be looking.
For some possibly contrived reason again, it seems that it’s only irrational people who seem to be looking for these kinds of patterns (doing it wrong), while the rational people tend to dismiss any indication of meaning behind the universe out of hand — without rigorous experimentation to definitively prove/falsify any skeptical intuitions. For instance, has it ever happened to you that you bumped into someone you know while just randomly walking through a big city? Weird, right? What a small world.
One of the basic skeptical intuitions that a rational friend might share with you regarding such an experience would be that however improbable that felt, you’re bound to run into someone you know at some point somewhere. Which is completely fair to say, but there are situations when such meeting would be particularly improbable. What should follow is the specification of the circumstances.
How often are you walking around that city? The higher the frequency, the more rolls of the dice, the more likely the meeting. How many people do you know in that city in total? The more there are, the higher the chances that you meet someone. Let’s say you’ve been there just once that whole year, due to a unique medical emergency, and you met someone special to you from far away who was there for the first and only time ever, after you “randomly” decided to go to a particular place in that city where you had no particular reason to go and virtually never went there even when you previously have visited that city.
Because exactly that did happen to me. I met a friend from another country after I went to a park in a city near me to relax after an appointment with a cardiologist. Normally, I have a very strong and healthy heart, except for that one time, except it still was a false alarm. The appointment could have happened at any other day or time, theoretically. I have literally been to that city only that one time that year. You can of course say that it was just a coincidence, but at what point can one say that something is so contrived that there’s no reason it should have happened at all? It was allowed by physics, but what would you call a development like that if you’ve seen it in a movie?
And now imagine that this level of “coincidence” was happening to you regularly and predictably in particular areas of life, which is what you should be able to achieve (assuming this world is made up) if you notice some patterns and then try to avoid the predicted outcomes (controlling for all variables that would cause or enable them directly). How many times does one have to get acquainted with the same crazy kind of person in the same crazy-random, but strangely specific way, before it can be accepted as contrived? How many times does one have to fail at a thing that should work, but just doesn’t, because it apparently isn’t supposed to, probability be damned?
Yes, I do speak from experience, and I could go way more specific, but what may or may not have happened to me is not a proof of anything on the interpersonal level, beyond me and my life. This kind of experiment is something that can only prove something to you if you run it for yourself, and the expectation is that every person may find a different pattern. When it would start becoming an actual proof is if there were significant generalities between multiple people, and/or if essentially everyone could find major predictable improbabilities or normality glitches, whatever they may mean in particular, in their individual lives.
So, where would it go if you wanted to move it to the level of entire societies? Well, honestly, that I need to think about some more. In the meantime, I suggest we observe what’s now happening carefully, but without jumping to any conclusions, and try to do what we can to return the world to normal. If we can’t, no matter what we do, then it’ll get interesting.