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The Pithy Prismatist



An article in the Scientific American magazine with the title “Contagious Dishonesty” caught our always inquiring eye.  In it, the authors, Dan Ariely, Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University and Ximena Garcia-Rada, a doctoral candidate at Harvard Business School, found that “Bribery is like a contagious disease:  it spreads quickly among individuals often by mere exposure, and as time passes it becomes harder and harder to control…thinking that others believe paying a bribe is acceptable will make people feel more comfortable when accepting a bribe request…our studies suggest that mere exposure to corruption is corrupting.  Unless preventive measures are taken, dishonesty can spread stealthily and uninvited from person to person like a disease.” The authors concluded their article by stating that “once a culture of cheating and lying becomes entrenched, it can be difficult to dislodge.”  By using words like virus and contagious disease the authors frame this more like a public health than a law enforcement issue.  However, they conclude without suggesting a possible treatment much less a cure or vaccine for this epidemic of the unethical. No doubt further research is needed. 




Physicists, on the other hand, have decided no further research is needed – at least when it comes to understanding quantum mechanics.  Physicist Sean Carroll writes in the New York Times on September 7ththat “Scientists can use quantum mechanics with perfect confidence.  But it’s a black box.  We can set up physical predictions about what will happen next that are verified to spectacular accuracy.  What we don’t do is claim to understandquantum mechanics.  Physicists don’t understand their own theory any better than a typical smartphone user understands what’s going on inside the device.” We thought an even better analogy might be with auto mechanics. It used to be in the old auto-Newtonian world you could pop the hood and look at the engine and see the moving parts or, at least, the parts that were supposed to be moving.  You could check the radiator to see if there was water, look at the battery and see if it was corroded, look at the fan belt and see if it was still intact, the fuel pump was pumping, the distributor caps weren’t cracked and the spark plugs were firing, etc..  But in the new quantum auto-mechanics world you don’t know what you’re looking at when you lift the hood. In fact, fewer and fewer people ever look under the hood. What’s the point since it’s just a black box. Even the highly trained mechanics plug their computer into the car’s computers in order to find out how things are working, or not (understanding them is like listening to a physicist explain Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity). With the electric vehicles there isn’t even an engine or it’s so small you can’t find it and the battery is somewhere under the trunk instead of the hood. In fact, you can plug your smartphone into the car’s computer and the two black boxes talk to each other.  The black box computers not only operate the car and monitor what’s working and what isn’t but software “patches” that fix any problems that are discovered are automatically downloaded to your car’s computer from the “cloud”, the computer server farm in the sky… or the middle of nowhere. 




Cars can even drive themselves using computers with artificial intelligence and that brings us back to physicists and quantum mechanics.  As Carroll explains quantum mechanics “seems to require separate rules for how quantum objects behave when we’re looking at them, and how they behave when they are not being observed.  When we’re not looking, they exist in “superpositions” of different possibilities, such as being at any one of various locations in space.  But when we look, they suddenly snap into just a single location and that’s where we see them.” That seems like a perfect description of how we drive our black box vehicles.  We start off with a destination, some specific location, that is entered into the car or our smartphone’s GPS navigation system.  We follow the instructions of the “voice” automatically turning the wheel, accelerating and braking (when there are fully autonomous vehicle we can dispense with these auto-anachronisms altogether), listening to music or a podcast or talking (hands free, of course) on our cellphone, or just daydreaming, hardly conscious as to where we are or the route that the computer has plotted, mindlessly following the mesmerizing voice until we’re told we have arrived.  It is only then that we become conscious and observe where we are. Until then our destination, which had existed only in the realm of possibilities “snaps into just a single location.” Einstein famously described as “spooky action at a distance” the concept in Quantum Mechanics that allows for objects to be “entangled” so that the action of one will affect another even though there is no physical interaction. Taking a ride in an autonomous, self-driving car could be described as spooky driving over a distance. 




But why even take a ride in a car over any distance? With artificial intelligence, black box, computers we could step into a simulator and not even engage in physical transportation. The simulator could fool us into thinking we were in a real car going somewhere in the real world. But why not go all the way – we wouldn’t need a simulator if we are simulations. You know The Sims,  the game in which players create simulate versions of friends, foes, families? The writer never played but observed two of his nieces playing the Sims when they were young girls. Why play with dolls when you can simulate people?  Then there are the simulated warriors, car thieves, superheroes that populate games that seem to have particular appeal for young boys. Why play cowboys and Indians when you can  simulate car thieves and warriors? Recently I read an opinion piece in the New York Times (disclaimer: It was the print version not the online one) with the title: Are We Living in a Computer Simulation?. It was written by Preston Greene, an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, and explores the idea that we, our world and, in fact, our entire universe, might be a computer simulation.  He suggests that “Our world would be just one simulation of many, perhaps part of a research project created to study the history of civilization.” He quotes physicist and Nobel Laureate, George Smoot as saying “If you an anthropologist/historian and want to understand the rise and fall of civilizations, then you will need to make very many simulations involving millions to billions of people”.  If you don’t believe a Nobel Laureate than what about technology entrepreneur Elon Musk, who thinks that the odds that we are not simulated are “one in billions.”? Is it a coincidence that Musk is the entrepreneur behind the TESLA automobile that is all electric and self-driving? 




But who are these master simulators and what do they want?  For anyone who reads or watches science fiction it won’t come as a surprise to learn that Greene believes the masterminds behind this simulated world we live in are from some highly advanced civilization who are carrying out this “experiment” in order to benefit “real people” who live in a “real world”. If this is true then for the experiment to be relevant the simulated people and world would need to be similar to the “real one”.  In other words we simulated beings would be like the real one’s only our actions are contained within a cyberworld.  Greene goes on to describe an effort to underway that would test whether we are living in a simulated world. He then issues a warning. “If our universe has been created by an advanced civilization for research purposes, then it is reasonable to assume that it is crucial to the researchers that we don’t find out that that we’re in a simulation.  If we were to prove that we live inside a simulation, this could , cause our creators to terminate the simulation - destroy our world.”  This prophesy sounds familiar to us.  Wait, doesn’t the Bible in the  Book of Genesis recount how God creates the universe and then creatures to populate it? Two of the creatures he makes in “his own image” and places them in a Garden of Eden. Is this simulation created by the scientists from an advanced civilization  Genesis version 2.0?   In version 1.0  Adam and Eve are banished from the Garden of Eden after eating from the forbidden tree of knowledge in an attempt to be like God, their creator. Will we simulated cyber creatures cause our creator to end the simulated universe if we learn that we aren't real? After all, wouldn’t such knowledge not only invalidate the experiment we but we could threaten to corrupt other simulations just like a viral worm in the simulated apple? Will we end not with a bang or a whimper but just a click on delete? 

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