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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Wild speculations

If you have more than a passing acquaintance with popular-level writing on science-related themes, you likely will have encountered some or all of the following ideas. What they have in common is that they are highly speculative extrapolations or flights of the imagination that often are presented as compelling interpretations or solidly established facts.

1. The Singularity. In the mid-21st century, exponentially advancing technology will produce a swift and all-encompassing transformation marked by superhuman intelligence and a transcendence of mortality.

2. The Multiverse. Our universe is just one tiny part of an ensemble of universes, containing innumerable other versions of our world and ourselves, such that somewhere John McCain is president, for example.

3. The Simulation. The reality we experience is a simulation run on a powerful computer by aliens or distant descendants of humanity.

4. The Fine-Tuning. The constants and laws of physics were set by a higher intelligence at precisely the right levels to enable life to exist.

These ideas tend to chafe against each other. The Multiverse and the Fine-Tuning are vastly different interpretations of the same underlying physics. The Singularity might lead to the Simulation, but if we already live in the Simulation, how confidently can we predict the Singularity or, for that matter, analyze "physics," given that any real physics would actually be in the simulators' world, about which we know nothing.

In fact, all of these scenarios charge into areas where present knowledge is sketchy at best. We have little indication of what other universes might be like, what forms life might take even in our own universe (let alone other universes), how consciousness arises in a material reality (or might arise in a simulated one), and what meta-laws might govern any multiverse or other reality beyond the universe we observe. Given all these uncertainties and perplexities, speculations such as those listed above, thought-provoking though they can be, are basically just a strange sort of entertainment.

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