The Digital Physics Argument – Blog

“In Him we live and move and have our being.” -Acts 17:28

In my last blog I argued for God’s existence from philosophy of mind. If the mind is immaterial and substance dualism is incoherent then idealism must follow. But surely such a conclusion about the nature of reality should have strange consequences for the physics of the world. As it turns out not only do these strange consequences exist, but they have been hiding in plain sight all along.
Modern physics is notorious for its weirdness. On the one hand Einstein’s theories of relativity tell us that time can slow down or even stop, and that space can bend. On the other, is the quirky world of quantum mechanics, where particles can be in two places at once, things don’t exist before you look, and seemingly disparate objects can influence each other instantly even if they are light years apart.
As strange as all of this is, stranger yet is what happens when you try to merge these two theories. Theories of quantum gravity have suggested that space is a flat out illusion and that what we call physical reality is actually a construct of information. Which raises the question, is what we call the physical universe a virtual reality? Computer scientist Brian Whitworth raised this question and noticed a number of uncanny parallels between modern physics and properties of everyday computer games.(1) Like last time I have included plenty of videos for ease of reference.


The “weirdnesses” of modern physics bear an uncanny resemblance to information processing effects in video games.

Here are only a few examples:

  • Pixelated Space-Time: Everything within a virtual reality is broken down into pixels. Even space and time have mimimum sizes. Classically we would expect there to be no smallest size. One could simply go smaller and smaller. However as it turns out the physical universe has smallest sizes and durations called the Planck length and Planck time respectively. Sizes smaller than 1.616×10^-35 meters and times smaller than 5.391×10^-44 seconds can not exist.
  • A Maximum Speed Limit: Our classical intuitions tell us that one can just keep going faster without limit. Afterall what is there to stop it? However with the advent of Einstein’s theory of special relativity in 1905 it was discovered that this is not the case. According to relativity, nothing can go faster than the speed of light.
    Curiously this exactly parallels the behavior of virtual realities. Virtual realities, be they computer simulations or dream environments, are the product of information processing, and information processes at a certain speed. As a result, a computer game will have a maximum velocity determined by its refresh rate, exactly as seen in the real world.
  • Objects Only Render Upon Observation: Naively we expect objects to exist when we are not looking. However on close investigation of the quantum world, we discover that this intuition is wrong. Tests on the Leggett inequality conducted in 2007 confirm quantum non-realism, meaning that subatomic particles do not actually exist before they are measured! And though quantum weirdness blurs out at larger scales, it never actually goes away. Unlike what we would expect if the world were real, what we call matter only “renders” when we look.httpv://
    Quantum mechanics has stark anti-materialist philosophic implications, many of which have been experimentally confirmed.
  • A Cosmic Beginning: This one is something of a giveaway. The fact that the physical universe came into being demonstrates that it is not actually fundamental as we would expect if it were real. Rather it had to come into being from something more fundamental, something non-physical. This is perfectly normal for a VR though. Any computer game needs a computer to start up and can not have existed forever.httpv://
    Does the Big Bang contradict physicalism directly?
  • Non-Locality: In an objective reality, matter influences matter by interactions within space. However in a virtual reality, interactions can occur outside of the space of the VR in such a way that links events in two separate regions of space.  As it turns out, just such a phenomenon exists in the real world. Quantum entanglement links two seemingly separate particles across vast distances such that a change to one instantly determines the state of the other.httpv://
    Does quantum entanglement show space to be illusory?
  • Particles That Are Identical In All Respects: In a virtual reality every object created by the same program is identical in all respects. Curiously the same is true for subatomic particles. Classes of fundamental particles have very precise properties that are alike in all respects.
  • Time Slowing Near Massive “Programs:” Anyone who has opened too many windows on their desktop can readily recognize this one. If you open too many programs or too large a program it will eat up the processing power of a computer, and the computer will begin to lag or freeze up. Interestingly enough this has a parallel in modern physics. According to general relativity the more you concentrate mass or energy into a region of space the more time slows down.
    This is not merely a coincidence either. In 1995, Ted Jacobson of the University of Maryland, demonstrated that general relativity can be derived from the holographic principle and the second law of thermodynamics. I won’t bore you with an explanation here, but a short video is provided below. However the basic concept showed a direct link to the concept of information processing. According to the theorem, the more information is packed into a region of space, the more space will distort and time will slow down in that region.httpv://
    Ted Jacobson’s theorem established that gravity is actually an information processing effect.
  • Has “Empty Space” Which Isn’t Actually Empty: In a materialistic universe empty space is, well, empty. When the ancient Greek materialist Democritus spoke of “atoms and the void,” he conceived of the void to be empty nothingness. However modern physics tells us this is not the case. The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle requires the existence of a zero-point field, or ZPF, everywhere, even in a perfect vacuum.
    If one thinks of a virtual reality however this makes sense. In a VR, “empty space” is not actually “empty space,” but rather a simulation of “empty space.” The “emptiness” of space would then be generated by information processing. Instead of being truly empty, it would display information processing effects, and could temporarily spawn objects, much like the virtual particles in the ZPF.
  • Creates Back-Histories: In computer games what you don’t observe isn’t there, but when you look the computer renders objects in place as though they had been there all along. And if these objects were programmed to be moving beforehand, the computer would generate an artificial back history for the object. Curiously enough just such an effect is seen in quantum physics. In quantum eraser experiments the past history of an unobserved particle can be determined in the present, seemingly altering what happened in the past by how the experimenter chooses to observe the particle.httpv://
    The delayed choice quantum eraser
  • Has Space That Emerges From Non-Space: Perhaps the most astonishing discovery of modern physics is that the fabric of space-time is emergent from something beneath it. In the quest to find the elusive quantum theory of gravity, the attempt to merge quantum mechanics and general relativity, researchers have discovered that space-time is not actually fundamental, but emerges from information! This is of course no different than the “space” in a computer game emerging from the information in the hard drive.httpv://
    2011 World Science Festival panel “Rebooting the Cosmos”

As strange as all of this sounds, these are only some of the parallels Whitworth points out. Most telling though is the fact that space-time is emergent. Everything we refer to as physical reality is matter or energy located in space and time. Thus if space-time is emergent, physicalism is flatly contradicted. What we refer to as physical reality is not actually real, but is rather an illusion generated by information -in other words a virtual reality!


My original video on the digital physics argument.

But if the universe is a simulation who or what is running it? Integrated Information Theory, a popular theory of consciousness developed by cognitive scientist Giulio Tononi may help answer this question. Explaining consciousness is one of the most intractable problems in science, and even among hardened materialists no one can seem to agree.
Tononi’s idea was to tackle the problem from another angle. No one can agree on what produces consciousness, but everyone regardless of metaphysical views can agree what it is like to be conscious. Given that consciousness is subjectivity, what consciousness is like is what consciousness is. He simply observed that everything we refer to as consciousness is information -thoughts, perceptions, emotions and so on. A conscious state is then simply a system of integrated information.
But given that modern physics is telling us that the universe is generated by information integrated together to produce physical reality, this tells us something interesting about the universe. The universe is a conscious state! And of course conscious states necessarily exist inside of minds. Thus if we take the physics to it’s logical conclusion, it leads to a theistic view of existence. The universe is a conscious state inside the mind of God!


A friend’s video on the digital physics argument.


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