This academic turned filmmaker believes science’s growing openness to the simulation hypothesis may overturn materialism.

photo by: Kent Forbes

Today on Skeptiko we’re joined by Kent Forbes, whose movie, The Simulation Hypothesis, explores the possibility that reality is a simulation in which we are unaware avatars. It may sound like a strange idea, but it’s gaining attention among serious physicists. I have to wonder if they’ve fully considered what this hypothesis means for materialism, but fortunately for us, today’s guest has:

Kent Forbes: It doesn’t happen overnight. The fact that someone like Neil deGrasse Tyson could come out and publicly endorse an idea, with the implications that the simulation hypothesis has, I think is noteworthy. Then [you have] other people immediately stepping forward [like] Elon Musk. You can talk about whether or not he has the qualifications to make such an endorsement but the point is that the idea is catching on. People who are recognized thinkers are saying, you know what, the explanatory power of this model is too great. It solves a lot of problems that are unsolvable under the strict materialist paradigm, and I’m going to overcome my emotional bias and I’m going to go with this. We’re going to take a chance. This is what bold scientists do. They look at something with a lot of explanatory power and they say, you know what, somebody has to step over this line. I’m going to do that.


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Kent Forbes: As outside of the box as Einstein was, it took him right until the end but he did shift his thinking, and very clearly says so in his correspondence with peers at the end of his life: we need a new theory that can speak to the problem [that] matter is not the base constituent of reality. But we don’t have a way of talking about this. So that’s what the information theory and simulation hypothesis [are]. [They’re] Einstein’s dream in a way, because it fills that gap perfectly and I wish he were alive to see how that’s come around. I believe he would be satisfied with it.

Alex Tsakiris: You do a nice job in The Simulation Hypothesis of laying out in very clear terms what is at stake in terms of choosing one set of findings versus another set of findings. And you make it clear that’s it’s unreasonable to choose this set of findings that consistently over and over again are not producing results that scientists would normally consider affirming their position. On the other hand, piling up again experiment after experiment, top scientists, top journals that affirm the counter-hypothesis seems to carrying the day in every way we look at it, from every angle.

Kent Forbes: Absolutely. There’s also the idea of progress behind all of this. Ever since the enlightenment period the materialist paradigm has been incrementally built up as a way of understanding the experience that we’re having. They had a lot of success with it that was designed to undermine the divine right to rule of monarchs. There were terrible abuses of power by the popes and so forth that speared this mechanical view of the universe as a way of undermining the narratives of the church. I think that it was justified at the time. After hundreds of years of building up this alternative, to find that a close examination of physical matter reveals a connection to consciousness, which undermines strict materialism, it’s a little bit much. I think it’s completely understandable for people who are invested in materialism to be skeptical because they’re afraid that they’re going to be reinforcing the claims of those religious [people] who are then going to say, see, we told you so. We’ve been saying this all along.

[easy-tweet tweet=”it’s completely understandable for people invested in materialism to be skeptical of the simulation hypothesis.”]

Alex Tsakiris: The film, The Simulation Hypothesis, is fantastic. As I said, rich in science but also very accessible and breaks some things down that people have probably heard about a dozen times before: the double-slit experiment; the observer effect; and quantum entanglement. You do a fabulous job of explaining that and then more importantly, as you were just talking about, explain how that completely contradicts, undermines and falsifies materialism, naturalism, [and] physicalism. All of this simplistic “you are a biological robot in a meaningless universe” stuff (the way that I like to put it). But, and you knew there was a ‘but’ coming, are you stretching the metaphor too far? I always get a little bit nervous when we say things like, therefore we’ve falsified this. It has some aspects of the simulation model from a philosophical standpoint. Therefore, we live in a pixilated world that works like a computer simulation. I wonder sometimes if we’re stretching the metaphor? If one, we’re making a leap that’s unnecessary and two, maybe completely unfounded–particularly, if we jump over and look at it from a spiritual standpoint and what the extended reality folks are telling us. That is, the [ones] who are scientifically more or less looking at what’s happening in these extended consciousness realms; the spiritually transformative experiences and all the rest. Can you try and fit those two together? Are you stretching the metaphor too far? Do we have to consider extended consciousness and spirituality as a reality in this formula?

Kent Forbes: Starting with the last point, yes, everything should be considered. I don’t believe in censorship or stopping the argument in any way; or saying this is out of bounds. People consider everything.

Alex Tsakiris: But that is the legitimate fear of science. Because at some point it does reduce to Carl Sagan [and] how many angels fit on the head of a pin? Because now we’re saying we have to take seriously the idea that other spirit entities work and influence our world. We can kind of control that in our PSI experiments and our parapsychology experiments. We can pretend we’re doing real work on healing and prayer and all the rest. But what we’re really saying is everything’s up for grabs. We don’t have a clue how any of that stuff works.

Kent Forbes: During my time at Berkley I became aware of this philosophy of relativism, which I saw as extremely pernicious. Relativism being the idea that there is no essential difference between right and wrong. Obviously there is a difference between ideas that are worth considering and can be backed-up with what we like to consider objective evidence. Or a consensus on at least as far as a shared experience of repeatable, demonstrable, empirical, process will provide. Something that is completely nonsense and is not backed by anything and there can never be a consensus because it’s all up to the individual to decide how they feel about it. But at the same time there is always going to be the problem of limits of knowledge.


Alex Tsakiris: I just had this conversation with Dr. Sean Carroll. Maybe you’ve run across him. He’s a Caltech, Harvard trained physicist and has the number one best selling book in science right now. He’s a staunch materialist and not backing off one bit. His recent book is The Big Picture. He says, there’s nothing. [Life] ends. Death is natural. Everything is natural. Hard line materialist. We had this discussion that was along the lines of your movie. I said, Niels Bohr and Schrodinger, and many of the leading people, saw this issue of consciousness collapsing the wave function as central to the philosophical underpinnings of quantum physics. He said, no, you’ve got it completely wrong. They didn’t think that at all. So I went back and showed him after the show this wasn’t true. I don’t know how you get a PhD from Harvard in physics and not know these things but he didn’t know these things. The real point is what Schrodinger says, and Bohr almost says the same thing but Schrodinger says it directly, consciousness must survive death. So from a physics standpoint, it comes with the package. Consciousness surviving bodily death comes with the package doesn’t it?

Kent Forbes: Absolutely. And part of the problem is the divvying up of philosophy into the sciences and psychology, and…

Alex Tsakiris: …religion

Kent Forbes: It’s all philosophy and the thing is Plato understood that ideas about what constitutes an object, a self, and a reflection, that must precede the experience. So obviously it follows the experience as well. So yes, consciousness survives because it preceded the experience to begin with. This is not new. This is not a new idea. Someone like Schrodinger and Niels Bohr just understood that the idea of archetypes or platonic forms must be right. There is a mental construct about limits that create objects for us to have an experience with. That does not pass with my individual death or the death of my brain, or the death of every living thing. The idea that created all of this stuff is still going to be there after this construct or the matrix disappears. But we have divided philosophy up into the sciences and religion. So theology and physics wind up at these opposite poles where they’re really just philosophical pursuits.

Alex Tsakiris: But are you stretching the metaphor too far when you say we live in a pixilated world? And it works like a computer simulation. A lot is made of this idea consciousness is like a computer. I think the history of science shows us that whatever our latest technology is, and that’s what we latch onto and say we’re just like the river before we had any technology; or we’re just like the machine; and now we’re just like a computer simulation. Are we stretching the metaphor too far?

Kent Forbes: It depends on the individual who’s receiving that narrative. How are they receiving it and what kind of emotional response are they having? Is it possible the metaphor’s being stretched too far? Sure. Of course it is. But, when you’re designing a narrative to illicit an emotional response, you back yourself into this corner where you have to provide some kind of logical conclusion. Otherwise it’s just empty, meaningless drivel. So you have to wind up somewhere and that’s [where] the imagery and the metaphor that works for people who are having this experience in the information age that we live in now. So you’re providing an example that’s already within their experience they can relate the narrative to and say, oh, I see. Yes, I could be an avatar in a game; or I could be a character in another being’s dream. See what I’m saying?

Alex Tsakiris: I do. From your lips to Ray Kurzweil’s ears, that’s what I say. I guess that goes with where you’re going with your PhD and broadly looking at how we respond to new information integrated in, because I think you’ve captured it beautifully: it works for us and it matters less the extent to which it conforms to something we’re going to call “real” or anything like that. It propels us forward, is what I hear you saying, in a way that’s relatable for a lot of us.

Kent Forbes: And what’s really real is the emotional experience that you have. If you feel satisfied at the end of receiving the narrative, that’s what’s real. You’re scared in a scary dream and your fear is real. The thing that’s chasing you is part of your dream. But the emotion you’re experiencing is the only reality that can ever be traced back to anything that matters.

Alex Tsakiris: One last question: this is my personal issue right now and I want you to put on your theologian’s hat on the one hand. At the same time, put on your scientific hat because you keep saying you’re an artist, and that’s awesome. I want everyone to relate to you as an artist because you do great work. But you’re a scientist as well. You have a scientist’s sensibility that I think is really refreshing and will connect with a lot of people. You can roll your sleeves up and understand the science, and communicate it in a way that’s really terrific. So, here’s my question: what’s love got to do with it? That’s my point. Here’s why: if you talk to the near-death experience researchers, they say the narrative (to use Kent’s term) that everyone wants to talk about is did I see my dead relatives? How far was I outside of my body? What verifiable information was found outside of my body? And the near-death experience [people] will tell you that all day long, and allow you to put it into your survey, run your numbers, and come up with all of these great statistics. Then they’ll say, but you didn’t ask me what was the most important thing about my experience? I’ll tell you what it was: it was love. It was love in a way that I can’t even explain to you other than to say, take the most loving thing you’ve ever had in your life and multiply it times a thousand. Then you say, okay, let’s leave that near-death experience person and let’s walk over to this person who’s had a spiritually transformative experience; a Kundalini experience that happened spontaneously. They were just driving down the road and it happened. They come back and start saying the same things. It’s about love. They come back to devotional people and religious people [who] say that’s what it’s about love. Forget about all of the baby Jesus myth and all the rest of that. What I care about is the experience that I have of love. We have written that out of the narrative at every turn. Not only has science written it out, but even our newest, cutting-edge science; our futuristic science that you’re talking about; the near-death experience science; we all want to write love out of it. I just wonder if we’re making a mistake when we do that. Do you have any thoughts on what love has to do with it?

Kent Forbes: In order to have the experience of the individual, we have to place a separation between ourselves and wholeness–just to relate to other individuals, and to navigate a world of objects. We have to limit ourselves so severely, right? So if I were in Berkley in theology class this is the way I would say it (and almost everyone would agree, at least in Berkley): it’s unnatural to be limited in this way. We’ve limited ourselves so severely. From a spiritual standpoint, this is incredibly limited to a highly unusual degree. Love is the desire to be whole again. That starts with another individual who you want closeness with. Behind that is the ultimate organizing factor. Call it God; call it whatever but it’s really your entire whole self not divided into 7 billion individuals. So we all want to relate and we all want to get closer but guess what? We have to be separate in order to have individual experience. One of the limiting factors of having this experience is that distance and separation. Absence of love creates a desire and a want for love. So we desire closeness because we’ve created this distance. Individuals are always going to want closeness because as individuals we’ve separated ourselves. That seems like the major tension in the human experience.



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