July 12th, 2020

A finite universe

"Everything is not everything. There's more."
-- Dr. Gordon Kindlmann as Dr. Tom Schoesser in Computer Chess

Someone left a good comment on my last post noting that conflict and competition are inherent to our universe: not something specific to humanity or even to planet Earth, but actually to the entire universe we find ourselves in, this plane of reality, for the simple reason that both space and resources are limited. We cannot end conflict, because conflict is built into every living thing. We cannot put an end to the need to kill and create waste, because that is the nature of this universe.

This idea reframes our imprisonment not as one of politics, economics, science, or psychology, but as one of existence. It does not matter what political systems we could devise, how far we could travel, how much money we could make, or how deeply we could explore the depths of the human psyche; we would still be fundamentally trapped in the same lives we have now, by the very nature of our existing at all. This is not a new idea, of course: Sartre's No Exit portrays the horror of being trapped in an existence, and I'm sure that other people have had similar ideas over thousands of years of human history, but our modern understanding of astronomy portrays humanity's existential imprisonment somewhat differently.

For most of human history, the Earth has seemed like a prison because it is a sphere (so no matter how far you go, you can never prevent yourself from going in circles) and because we cannot easily escape it. But in the 20th century, we found a means to escape it: We can build spacecraft that carry human beings away from Earth. Yet we discovered, in the same century, that there is nowhere else to go: Even if we sent people to other planets, there isn't anything better there waiting for us. As I observed not long ago, even if we could somehow travel to a distant galaxy far beyond what our telescopes can see and find intelligent life there, it's likely that their lives would be much like ours: Just a constant struggle to find enough biological energy to remain alive.

And what about those lucky few who manage to have a life where they do not constantly struggle for survival? What do they do with the life they have? There is nothing for them to do but entertain themselves. At one point in human history, it seemed like there was some bright and hopeful future for people to work toward, but today we see more clearly than ever that all of these utopian dreams are meaningless, not because the ideas themselves weren't good, but because of the nature of our universe. It's partly human nature, but also partly the nature of the universe itself. Human nature is limited, but so is our universe.

One of the things which characterized the 20th century was the so-called Flynn effect, the gradual increase in the IQ of the average population which continued through especially the second half of the 20th century. Every decade, the average IQ of people in developed countries climbed a few points. This was an interesting and important trend, but arguably even more important is the trend observed since about the year 2000 which shows that the Flynn effect has been reversed: Over the past 20 years, people have been getting progressively stupider with each year. Theories about why this is happening (or whether this is even happening at all) are varied, but it seems to be generally agreed that the shift is due to environmental changes: People are living in an environment that makes them stupider than they were in the 20th century. People are more surrounded by distractions and by media which does not promote critical thinking.

Even if this were not the case, however, would it really change anything? Human beings have already reached the limit of their development. In every field of human endeavor, there is now far more information than any human being could learn in one lifetime. We've developed more information about science and technology than even the most brilliant geniuses can understand: No one actually understands everything about a multi-gigabyte operating system or the experiments now being performed in fields like quantum physics. We've reached our limits in terms of artistic expression and creativity: Every story which people tell is simply a reworking of countless stories that humanity has been telling for thousands of years. There are no new stories to tell. It's not that there is nothing more to learn, discover, or understand, but that there is nothing more that we, as human beings, can learn, discover, or understand. We, as living organisms, are very small, stupid, and weak. Some people are much smarter than others, but no one can come even close to grasping the vastness of all that there is to know in the universe. And yet even that universe is very small and limited compared to what could be.

There has been much popular speculation in fictional media about our perceptions of reality being fake, about human existence actually being something akin to a computer simulation, but I think this is only part of the picture. Even if our lives are real and everything which we perceive is real, there is probably more than just this one universe. The reason why we can't break out of our existence is not because we can't fly far enough, but because we don't have any mechanism to cross over into a different existence. In a computer, there can be many programs running at once. Each program has its own memory space, but these do not cross over: Memory space which belongs to one program cannot be accessed by any other program. Within one program, you can do as much as you want; if it's a simulation program like a flight simulation and you want to fly farther and access a new area, the computer will give you more memory to store the extra data of that new area, and you can keep on going forever, and the computer will just keep giving you more memory to work with (unless the physical memory runs out), but you'll never be able to break out of that one program you're in.

This analogy brings me back to the notion (which I wrote about earlier this year) of God as a programmer, and the universe as an experimental program, which is certainly not my own original idea (it was notably played with by Neal Stephenson at the end of In the Beginning... Was the Command Line). The idea may sound a little flippant, and I acknowledge that the analogy is not perfect, but the way that physical space and information are handled in our universe is remarkably similar to how they are handled in a computer program. If Heaven exists, it's in a different plane. Historically, people have thought of the journey to Heaven as one of distance: If you could only travel far enough, if you could only add enough digits to the number of miles you can travel, perhaps you could get there. But I don't think that it's a matter of distance; it's a whole other existence. We could never get there with the fastest rocket ship, because our universe doesn't intersect with others; at least, not in a way that we can perceive or control.

Talking or even thinking about existence in this way is dangerous, because it tends to lead to a sense of unreality, derealization, depersonalization, and insanity. People tend to get a lot of wrong ideas when they think about these things, leading them down paths of delusion which go nowhere. And even if they get the ideas right, often they can't deal with those ideas.

"There will be no order, only chaos... As soon as you discard scientific rigor, you're no longer a mathematician. You're a numerologist."

"I think that with this theory of yours, you're making a few wrong connections, and I'm worried that if you're fixating on this, the balance of wrong connections to right connections could shift, and at that point, we've lost our sanity."

Why did Max Cohen burn Sol's epiphany at the end of Pi? There are two possible reasons: Either it was all-powerful, or completely powerless. Either it really was what people thought it was, what people had been looking for, something that could give them unlimited power, in which case it wasn't something which could have been entrusted to humanity, or it was meaningless gibberish, a red herring that had no power or importance, in which case it could be thrown away, as there is already enough junk and meaningless distraction in the world. Either way, whatever people dream of reaching will never fulfill humanity.

Some of you will ask "Why?", but let's be honest with ourselves: Does it really matter why? Do you really want to know why? Would it change anything if you knew? If you don't understand why, it's only because you are not willing to take the time and effort to understand why, and anybody who's not willing to do so is someone who can't be entrusted with the answer. Anyone else already understands well enough that they know how pointless it is to ask why, or to answer that question.