The P2P Simulation Hypothesis, with Professor Marcus Arvan

“But what then am I? A thing that thinks. What is that? A thing that doubts, understands, affirms, denies, wills, refuses, and that also imagines and senses.”
― René Descartes

Simulation theory isn’t exactly anything new. 

Whether we want to look back to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, René Descartes’ Evil Demon, or Zhuangzi’s Butterfly, we’ve been eternally fascinated by the prospect that our reality may very well be some sort of illusion.

This idea is so deeply-steeped in our curiosity that we can’t help but idealize new thought experiments and new conceptualizations to stimulate our imagination — The Matrix, Westworld, Assassin’s Creed, Black Mirror — some of the most popular works in pop culture reflect our inherent interest in this subject.

And so recently, as the likes of Nick Bostrom and Elon Musk have thrown their two cents into the discussion, and as we find ourselves exponentially accelerating towards the limitless peak of our digital revolution, we ourselves have once again become insatiably fascinated by the idea that our reality may very well be a simulation of sorts; now more than ever because we’re actually creating such self-sustaining and self-propagating simulations over a wide-spectrum of applications. 

With the advent of quantum computing and unprecedented technological capabilities, we’re on the precipice of creating virtual realities that cannot be distinguished from true reality and, naturally, this circles us back to the question of whether or not we already exist as mere coding, as avatars or as something entirely different from what we actually are. 

Quantum physics has itself provided us with tantalizing evidence to suggest that, at the least, we know much less than we think we do about how the fabric of our reality is stitched together. Most confounding may be that of the observer effect —  the finding that everything exists in a state of possibility (or a superposition state) until it is observed and measured — at which point all possibilities, but one, seem to collapse. 

This quirky quality (among many others) of our subatomic world has led to an explosion of secular and non-secular movements, of new age life-philosophies and scientific validations like none idealized before. It has changed the way that we view consciousness and the way that we seek to understand the very shape and [wave] function of our own universe; it has changed the way that we understand time and the way non-matter interacts with matter; it has also bolstered and vivified newer versions of the simulation theory. 

“The best we can do is to observe shadows of the real world because we cannot perceive it directly”
― Rizwan Virk

Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Tampa, Marcus Arvan, has come up an insightful contextualization of this topic, framing everything under, what he calls, the Peer-to-Peer Hypothesis. 

I had the chance to ask him about his take, which I had originally stumbled on in a paper he had written in 2013 regarding consciousness and free will (also referenced below).

Professor Arvan’s spin on the simulation theory proves eerily compatible with a number of philosophical problems that are, generally, very difficult to reconcile in this discussion: the mind-body problem, the flow of time, as well as problems of free will and of self-identity. 

In other words, his theory is one of the most versatile in this conversation, providing more than mere speculation in the way that it is framed atop a frenzied network of existing scientific and philosophical hypotheses, and in the way that it makes predictions about our world that may eventually be confirmed or refuted. 

Q. Your theory maintains anchored in the idea that time flows subjectively and that the physical universe is a timelessly existing array of information which our consciousness is able to perceive as it chooses to perceive. 

In other words, that each person’s consciousness can read the physical information of reality, akin to the laser of a CD player reading the information on the compact disc and playing it back to the observer (to borrow your analogy). 

In your observations and experiences, how does the quantum world of collapsing wave functions and the observer effect work to support this hypothesis?

A. Quantum mechanics is an incredibly well-confirmed theory of fundamental physics. Indeed, every bizarre prediction it makes has so far been observed to be correct. 

Yet quantum mechanics paints a very strange picture of reality. 

Among other things, it entails that every particle in the universe is simultaneously in many places at once (quantum superposition), but that whenever we observe a particle, we will always find it in some particular place in space-time (wave-function collapse). 

As I note in my 2013 article, ‘A New Theory of Free Will’, Einstein thought this to be so absurd that he once scoffed, “Do you really think the moon isn’t there if you aren’t looking at it?” Perhaps the weirdest thing here is that according to the dominant interpretation of the equations of quantum mechanics — the Copenhagen interpretation — the superposition every particle is in never actually goes away or ‘collapses’. Rather, every particle is always in a superposition (many places at once), but observation makes the particle appear to ‘collapse’ to a single particular state.

My theory provides an elegant explanation of these phenomena. In a peer-to-peer networked computer simulation, each computer on the network is running its own unique simulation. So, for example, if we are playing a peer-to-peer networked internet game on 2,000 game consoles, there are in a sense ‘2,000 simulations’ running, each with its own ‘reality’. 

But at the same time, insofar as all of the computers on the network are interacting with each other — updating what they are simulating based on the data the other computers on the network give them — there is also in a sense just one simulation: the entire network.

This is how the Peer-to-Peer (P2P) Hypothesis explains quantum superposition and wave-function collapse. Insofar as each simulation on the network has its own unique representation of where objects in the simulated environment are, unless there is absolutely perfect error-correction in real time (a computational impossibility), different computers on the network will have slightly different representations of where things in the environment are. 

Thus, at the level of the network as a whole, it is right to say that everything in the environment is always in a superposition: each particle in a 2,000-computer network will be represented in the network as being at something like 2,000 different places simultaneously. 

Yet, whenever any particular individual playing their game looks at the simulated world (on their computer), they will always observe things in one particular place or another: since their computer is one of the 2,000 computers running the simulation. 

So, in a P2P network, objects really are in a sense always in multiple places at once, but will always be observed by any observer to be at one particular place or other — exactly as the equations of quantum mechanics entail.

Q. When we zoom out from the individual experience and look at the shared perception of reality, your theory maintains that the joint choices of all conscious observers work to collapse possible paths that can be taken (through the multiverse) into a single actualized reality, which all conscious observers experience in tandem. 

How do MMORPG’s, as they form an integral part of your theory, substantiate this idea and how do they exist as an example we can read into?

A. The simplest way to understand this is through the example that popped into my imagination when this P2P Hypothesis first dawned on me. 

In graduate school while finishing my PhD, I spent a lot of time (way too much time, in fact!) playing Halo 2 online. 

Although Halo 2 doesn’t use a P2P network architecture (each game is played on a dedicated server), some strange things would happen while playing the game sometimes when your game console failed to network with the server properly: specifically, you would appear to be doing something on your console while something very different appeared to happening on someone else’s. 

Here is one case I remember distinctly: me and [a] friend stood shooting at each other. On my console, I appeared to be shooting directly at his head. However, on his console, my character was oriented in a slightly different direction, shooting at a wall in front of but to the right of his head. And now comes the fun part: because my console was coding me shooting him and his console was coding me shooting a wall, the server told his console that my gunshots were tunneling through the wall and hitting him in the head, making it appear on his console as though my shots were literally going through the wall. Which is what quantum tunneling is, more or less!

My theory, the P2P Hypothesis, simply holds that this phenomenon occurs not through a single computer server that each of us ‘accesses’, but again, in terms multiple simulations running simultaneously and interacting through a network. 

To translate this into our reality, my conscious awareness is, as it were, processing the digital data of one ‘reality-simulation’, giving me experiences of tables, chairs, people, and so on — like a character in an ordinary videogame. 

Your consciousness is then running another version of the simulation, and so on, for every conscious observer in the universe. Insofar as all of our simulations are networked together, we observe what appears to be a single, intersubjective world we all experience together: ‘the Universe.’

Where does the multiverse come in? Well, consider again a simple videogame DVD, say for Playstation 4. What is coded on the game DVD? Here’s the answer: every possible move you can make in the game, plus computational rules (or ‘laws of nature’) for what will happen if you do X, Y, Z, and so on. 

So, for example, we can play Madden 2020 over and over again, playing out the game differently each time. What the Madden 2020 game DVD contains, then, is a vast ‘multiverse’ of possible outcomes — every possible outcome players can experience in the game. My P2P Simulation Hypothesis holds that exactly the same thing is true of our ‘Universe.’ The ‘game DVD’ that our conscious awarenesses are accessing contains every possible set of configurations given the ‘rules of the game’ (the ‘laws of nature’): a multiverse of possibilities. 

Yet, the actual ‘Universe’ we experience depends on our choices, just like an individual game of Madden. MMORPGs just do this on a much larger level, with large numbers of gamers playing each other simultaneously (as opposed to just two gamers playing each other on Madden).

Professor Arvan’s theory is particularly exciting in that it doesn’t go against the grains of commonly held understandings in quantum theory; moreover, it compliments the various cornerstones of our collective knowledge in this field.

It bridges the gap between subjectivity and objectivity in a way that supports both ends of the spectrum — of the one console and the one network of consoles; of the one inter-subjective world that we all experience separately and together. 

His theory offers a wholly-relatable and digestible method of comprehension — a practical example of something so theoretically difficult for newcomers to this discussion to grasp. 

It’s a testament to our perceptual evolution — of the fact that we’re one step closer towards understanding something so fantastically incomprehensible. But how far are we, really, towards encountering an answer?

We’ve come a long way from silhouettes on cave walls, evil demons or butterfly dreams — we’ve evolved to the point of existing, symbiotically, with actual simulations. Ironically, this may mean that we’re rounding another corner of curiosity to only encounter more mystery, more questions, and exponentially more hypotheses. 

For now, we’re doing what we should be doing — what Professor Arvan among many others are doing: exploring and hypothesizing, idealizing and sharing information.

Naturally, I had to ask one last question:

How likely do you, personally, think it is that we exist in a simulation?

I think it is extremely likely. This is because (1) we should believe the best explanations of what we observe in the world around us, and (2) I don’t know of a better explanation of quantum phenomena than that they are produced by peer-to-peer networking. Let me briefly explain both parts of this answer... [To be continued - stay tuned]

Read more of Professor Marcus Arvan's work by clicking on the links below or visiting his website

Image by Андрей Баклан