May 2015

George Smoot: You Are A Simulation and Physics Can Prove It


Much of the preceding foray into the counterculture and its reflections on the evolution of mind, human biocomputers, and the neurological revolution easily glides into one of the more hotly contested debates in contemporary physics, that of “simulation theory.” It is certainly the case, as Foucault’s archaeological examination of epistemological formations have shown, that any self-proclaimed “objective” science operates within the enclosures of imagination at a given time and space within civilizational history provides. Descartes’ dualistic separation of the mind and body went hand in hand with the collective social unconscious of an emergent capitalism, which, as both Silvia Federici and Georges Canguilhem have argued, needed to separate souls from the flesh in order to employ a disposable workforce and recalibrate space-time to the demands of production, resulting in a “bare life” of human automatons. Concordantly, that today’s physics is charting out territories of inquiry for examining the emergence of consciousness, that it is informed by the language of virtual reality to articulate theories of simulation and holography—all of this demonstrates the ways in which “science” is always, to use a term proposed by science historian John Tresch, a cosmogrammatical apparatus. That is, science captures the world-making forces within which it finds itself located, whilst simultaneously recodifying these worldings into an order that aspires to “objectively” describe a world, a kind of cosmological thermometer that displays the sensibilities of an age. This lighthearted presentation by astrophysicist and Nobel Prize recipient George Smoot gives a layman’s overview of simulation theory and the “holographic universe” as it has been put forth in quantum physics. Though Smoot jokes throughout the talk that perhaps the majority of humans are simulations, “philosophical zombies” that only pretend to feel pain and pleasure, with only a few of us actually being “real,” this backhanded humor results in a sinister undertone of dire interpretative possibilities. From the commodification of the “imagination,” the materialization of mind (as in the more recent proposition of “perceptronium” as an elementary particle), and the eventual trademarking and privatization of consciousness itself as a good or a service, simulation theory is not only a trendy conversation piece from popular physics, its speculative interest lies in the avenues it opens up for developments in informatics and communication commerce. Indeed, Smoot draws our attention to one Google expert who stated that by 2045, humans will be uploading entire minds to computers, and that naturally, if one has scanned someone’s mind, a logical step would be to create an environment for the scan to live in, thus necessitating a whole market for artificial reality design and post-human transformations via technological disembodiment. Seen from a biopolitical point of view, if one pushes the argumentation of simulation theory so far as to deny the “reality” of other humans, suggesting they are mere avatars whose affective expressions are simply the result of complex programming, then how far are we from eradicating any ethical difference between the boundaries separating life and death, between taking life and giving life? If early capitalism ensnared the body beyond its “natural” tendencies towards an exhaustion of physical labor, will advanced capitalism annihilate the body altogether, in favor of a hyper-simulated consciousness, freed from the spatiotemporal limitations of the organism?

George Smoot received his Ph.D. in Physics from M.I.T. in 1970 and was a post-doctoral researcher at M.I.T. before moving to the University of California, Berkeley in 1971. Honors include: NASA Medal for Exceptional Science Achievement, Kilby Award, Lawrence Award, Nobel Prize in Physics 2006.

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