Author Archives: Eann Patterson

Are we in a simulation?

Decorative photograph of trains at terminusThe concept of digital twins is gaining acceptance and our ability to generate them is advancing [see ‘Digital twins that thrive in the real-world’ on June 9th, 2021].  It is conceivable that we will be able to simulate many real-world systems in the not-too-distant future.  Perhaps not in my life-time but possibly in this century we will be able to connect these simulations together to create a computer-generated world.  This raises the possibility that other forms of life might have already reached this stage of technology development and that we are living in one of their simulations.  We cannot know for certain that we are not in a simulation but equally we cannot know for certain that we are in a simulation.  If some other life form had reached the stage of being able to simulate the universe then there is a possibility that they would do it for entertainment, so we might exist inside the equivalent of a teenager’s smart phone, or for scientific exploration in which case we might be inside one of thousands of simulations being performed simultaneously in a lab computer to gather statistical evidence on the development of universes.  It seems probable that there would be many more simulations performed for scientific research than for entertainment, so if we are in a simulation then it is more likely that the creator of the simulation is a scientist who is uninterested in this particular one in which we exist.  Of course, an alternative scenario is that humans become extinct before reaching the stage of being able to simulate the world or the universe.  If extinction occurs as a result of our inability to manage the technological advances, which would allow us to simulate the world, then it seems less likely that other life forms would have avoided this fate and so the probability that we are in a simulation should be reduced.  You could also question whether other life forms would have the same motivations or desires to create computer simulations of evolutionary history.  There are lots of reasons for doubting that we are in a computer simulation but it does not seem possible to be certain about it.

David J Chalmers explains the probability that we are in a simulation much more elegantly and comprehensively than me in his book Reality+; virtual worlds and the problems of philosophy, published by Penguin in 2022.

The rest of the planet has been waiting patiently for us to figure it out

Research in British Columbia has found evidence of nitrogen from fish in tree rings.  The salmon that swim in the local rivers provide food for predators, such as bears and eagles, who leave the remains of the salmon lying around on the floor of the forest where it decomposes allowing the trees to absorb the nitrogen embedded in the bones of the salmon.  In some cases, up to three-quarters of a tree’s nitrogen is from salmon.  This implies that interfering in the life cycle of the salmon, for instance by commercial fishing, will impact on its predators, the forest and everything that is dependent on or interacts with the trees.  The complex nature of these interconnections have been apparent to the aboriginal peoples of the world for a very long time [see ‘Blinded by reductionism‘ on August 24th, 2022].  To quote Suzanne Simard, ‘Mistreatment of one species is mistreatment of all.  The rest of the planet has been waiting patiently for us to figure that out’.

Source: Suzanne Simard, Finding the Mother Tree, Penguin, 2021.

Image: photograph of an original painting bought by the author in Beijing

In touch with another spirit

I have written before about the process of writing, both in general and in this blog in particular. While I do not claim to write literature; nevertheless I felt some empathy with a couple of statements in Michel Houllebecq‘s novel ‘Submission‘. The first was ‘…only literature can put you in touch with another human spirit, as a whole, with all its weaknesses and grandeurs, its limitations, its pettinesses, its obsessions, its beliefs; with whatever it finds moving, exciting or repugnant.’ And the second was ‘Even in our deepest most lasting friendships, we never speak as openly as when we face a blank page and address a reader we do not know.’ I know a few people who read this blog but they are a tiny minority of the readers so essentially I am addressing a reader I do not know when I write a post. However, my posts sometimes lead to a conversation that is more open than would have happened without the post. Inevitably, these conversations occur with the small number of readers with whom I am in direct contact. However, I suspect that I reveal my limitations and obsessions to all of my readers, I hope I avoid my pettinesses while enthusing you with what I find moving or exciting, such as Michel Houellebecq’s novel this week or Olga Tokarczuk’s last week.

Source: Michel Houellebecq, Submission, Vintage, 2016.

Image: Barbara Hepworth sculpture in the garden of Hepworth Museum, St Ives

Forest-sized brains

A couple of years ago I wrote in the abstract about ‘Slow thoughts from a planet sized brain‘ [on March 25th, 2020].  I read on vacation in Suzanne Simard‘s book, ‘Finding the Mother Tree‘ that glutamate, which is the most abundant neurotransmitter in the human brain, is also transmitted through mycorrhizal networks connecting trees in forests. Mycorrhizal fungi live in the soil around the roots of plants in a symbiotic relationship with the plants transmitting water to, and receiving sugar from, the plant roots.  Fir trees have been shown to transmit information about threats, e.g., budworm infestations, to one another and to other species of tree.  The speed of this information transmission is fast enough that production of enzymes to protect the trees increases within a day of the appearance of the threat.  We have assumed that folklore tales about enchanted forests are products of our imagination; but perhaps they are based on a long-lost appreciation that forests possess a level of consciousness.  Consciousness seems to require different parts of a system to communicate with one another and form networks [see ‘Digital hive mind‘ on November 30th, 2016], which Simard and others have demonstrated occurs in forests with the mycorrhizal networks being equivalent to the neural network in our brains.  The scale of a forest’s network is such that communication will be slower than in our brain but that is not necessarily an inhibitor of consciousness.  So, perhaps forest-sized brains would be intermediate between human-sized and planet-sized.