I'm increasingly intrigued by the idea that the paradoxes of quantum physics can largely be resolved by analogizing the universe to a virtual reality simulation. As wacky as this idea sounds (and it certainly struck me as nutty when I first heard it), the more I think about it, the more it seems to make sense.
In the past I've tried to explain how the VR idea could resolve the long-debated paradox of wave-particle duality. My efforts along these lines were decidedly poor. But today, rereading an entry from the Web site The Bottom Layer, I realized that the author, Ross Rhodes, had presented this idea as clearly and concisely as possible.
Wave-particle duality involves the fact that a subatomic entity like an electron, when observed, behaves like a particle, but when unobserved, behaves like a wave. As Rhodes points out, it doesn't behave like a physical wave, but more like a set of mathematical potentialities which can be loosely described as a probability wave. Observation, it is said, "collapses the wave-function" down to a single point - a particle. Once observation ceases, the particle expands back into a smear of potentialities distributed along a probability curve.
This is all very odd if we think of reality as consisting of physical objects moving through space. But if we think of reality as being, in essence, information and information processing, then the paradox disappears and things operate in a very logical way.
Here's how Ross Rhodes explains the situation in his online paper "A Cybernetic Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics." When I read it today, I said, "Bingo!", which is not quite as respectable a response as "Eureka!", but I'll take it.
As John Gribbin puts it, "nature seems to 'make the calculation' and then present us with an observed event." [In Search of Schrodinger's Cat, 111.] Both the "how" and the "why" of this process can be addressed through the metaphor of a computer which is programmed to project images to create an experience for the user, who is a conscious being.
The "how" is described structurally by a computer which runs a program. The program provides an algorithm for determining the position (in this example) of every part of the image, which is to say, every pixel that will be projected to the user. The mechanism for transforming the programming into the projection is the user interface. This can be analogized to the computer monitor, and the mouse or joystick or other device for viewing one part of the image or another. When the user chooses to view one part of the image, those pixels must be calculated and displayed; all other parts of the image remain stored in the computer as programming. Thus, the pixels being viewed must follow the logic of the projection, which is that they should move like particles across the screen. The programming representing the parts of the image not being displayed need not follow this logic, and may remain as formulas. Calculating and displaying any particular pixel is entirely a function of conveying information to the user, and it necessarily involves a "change" from the inchoate mathematical relationships represented by the formula to the specific pixel generated according to those relationships. The user can never "see" the programming, but by analysis can deduce its mathematical operation by careful observation of the manner in which the pixels are displayed. The algorithm does not collapse into a pixel; rather, the algorithm tells the monitor where and how to produce the pixel for display to the user according to which part of the image the user is viewing.
The "why" is problematical in the cosmic sense, but is easily stated within the limits of our computer metaphor. The programming produces images for the user because the entire set up was designed to do just that: to present images to a user (viewer) as needed by the user. The ultimate "why" depends on the motivation of the designer. In our experience, the maker of a video game seeks to engage the attention of the user to the end that the user will spend money for the product and generate profits for the designer. This seems an unlikely motivation for designing the universe simulation in which we work and play.
The key points, I think, are as follows:
- Particles are analogous to pixels, and, like pixels, they are rendered only when under observation (i.e., on the screen, or in the field of awareness).
- Unobserved entities are left in the form of "inchoate mathematical relationships" to conserve processing power. They "remain stored in the computer as programming," i.e., formulas.
- The so-called collapse of the wave is not a collapse at all; "rather, the algorithm tells the monitor where and how to produce the pixel for display to the user according to which part of the image the user is viewing."
Other quantum paradoxes that seem to be resolved by the VR approach include nonlocality (a change in the calculation of the value of particle X will instantly change the calculated value of particle Y, no matter how far apart they are in physical space); quantum leaps and quantum tunneling (the pixels, or particles, never actually move, but only assume different positions as the calculations change; these changes in position occur each time the "screen" is refreshed); and the quantum Zeno effect (continuous observation seems to cause the screen to stop refreshing, thus freezing the pixels and preventing any change, i.e., any decay).
The implication of this hypothesis is that the physical universe is, at heart, information, and that all physical things are expressions of this information as it is processed by a sort of Cosmic CPU.
A related analogy involves the three-dimensional image of a hologram, which is projected out of a two-dimensional pattern of wave-interference. The wave-interference pattern is essentially encoded information, and the beam of coherent light that passes through the holographic plate is the processor that constructs the image out of this information.