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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Friday, March 11, 2016

Your Stumbling Path as a Universe Creator

Let us imagine that you are a divine omnipotent being and you have just decided to create a universe to keep yourself company. This may seem like an impious or impertinent line of thought, but it is actually one that may shed some light on an important philosophical issue. So at the risk of committing blasphemy or some other spiritual sin, let us pursue this thought experiment.

Given this thought assignment, your first thought might be that you would need to create some universe that starts out in a simple state, and then progresses to a more and more orderly state, one in which life can gradually develop. So you start things off by creating a gigantic disorganized burst of matter and energy. But before long you find that things are not turning out right. The newly created matter and energy is not progressing in the right way. Things are not getting more orderly.

So you cancel this attempt at creating a universe, causing your creation to vanish. You resolve to plan things out more carefully. First you figure out some laws that will cause newly created matter and energy to progress into ever-more-orderly forms. This may take quite a bit of time. Then you figure out that there are physical constants that must be set up just right. After settings up such things correctly, you then create a new universe, one that will follow these laws.

You wait a long time, and at first things seem to be going okay. Your newly created universe is very slowly becoming more orderly. But eventually it dawns on you: this is going to take almost forever before things get interesting. So you ask yourself: what can I do to speed things up?

Eventually you realize: you don't have to create a universe in which order very gradually evolves over eons. You can create a universe that starts out as a highly orderly universe.

So again, you cancel the universe you created, causing it to vanish. Everything is now blackness and void once again. You wonder: how can I “cut to the chase” by creating a universe that starts out in a highly orderly state? Eventually you realize: you can just create a planet full of life, and even a planet that has intelligent creatures on it.

There is no reason, you realize, why a newly created planet has to have a “fresh born planet” look to it. You can create a planet in any state you can imagine. You can instantly create a planet that looks a thousand years old, a million years old, or five billion years old. The older-looking planets simply require more details for you to fill in. But that's no problem, since it is easy for your vast superhuman mind to quickly churn out as many background details as you need.

So you create such a planet, and a whole universe of stars and planets surrounding that planet. You observe your handiwork with satisfaction, focusing on the first planet created. On that planet you have created a race of intelligent beings. They have minds big enough to form a civilization and create cities. This is going to get interesting real soon, you think to yourself.

But things don't progress as quickly as you would like. For what happens is that these newly created beings have blank minds. Since you have just brought them into existence, and forgot to give them any memories, they start out completely empty-minded. They don't even know how to build a fire.

Again, you think to yourself sadly: this is going to take too long before things get interesting. But then suddenly you have a brilliant idea: why not create people whose minds are already filled with memories? There is, you realize, absolutely no rule that a freshly created person has to have a blank mind. You can create a person who starts out with any set of memories you can imagine.

You suddenly realize: you can instantly create a planet that is in any state of civilization you can imagine. The trick is to create people who start out living with all kinds of memories in their minds. Such memories, you realize, do not actually have to correspond to previous experiences the person lived.

You realize that if you want to create a planet starting out in a state just like Earth was in on January 1, 1950, or any other date, you can do so. You can just create people whose minds are already filled up with memories. Such people can be right in the middle of some task. For example, you can begin the planet's history with lots of people in their cars, driving down some road, and convinced that they have already lived 30 years, even though they were just created an instant ago. In the same first instant of the planet's history, there can be all kinds of other people whose lives just suddenly start, with their heads filled with memories.

So now you get rid of the previous universe you created, causing it to vanish. Once again everything is darkness and void. You decide on a plan to create a universe that will instantly begin in a highly ordered state. From the very first instant there will be all kinds of planets with all kinds of civilized and active beings, in various different states of existence. On the first day of this universe’s existence, none of these people will suspect that today was the first day they ever lived, and that the memories of their previous days were just memories that they started out with on the first day of the universe’s creation. 

So poof, you create such a universe. This is great, you think. No need to wait around. There are countless planets for you to observe, most of which are in highly ordered states, with cities packed with people, and cars and trains riding about, and all kinds of fascinating activity. Now you are happy. You finally got things right.

This has been an interesting thought experiment, but it has been more than just an idle exercise. There is a very interesting point behind this thought experiment. The point is: we do not know how old our universe is. The entire universe could have been created (by a deity or an extraterrestrial simulator of universes) x number of years ago, where x is any number between 1 year and 13 billion years. The fact that you may have memories of having lived for, say, 50 years does not prove you have actually lived for 50 years. The entire visible universe could have been created 20 years ago, and on the first day of your life, you may have started out with decades of memories in your mind, memories that were just planted in your mind (and the mind of countless others) on the first day of our universe's existence.

We cannot be certain that all of the people we read about in the history books actually lived. Real human history (that which humans have actually experienced) may not stretch back longer than 50 years or 500 years or some other shocking number. The fact that we have been given various hints or clues suggesting that our universe or actual human experience is a certain number of years old does not prove that the universe or actual human experience is not some tiny fraction of such a number – a hundredth or a thousandth. 

Of course, it is far more likely than not that you have lived as long as you think you have. But the idea that the universe was created fairly recently is an interesting possibility. 

Imagine a father gives a child named Susan a story to read. The story tells the tale of a man named John who was born 22 years ago. The father asks Susan to determine the age of John. Then there might be a conversation like this:

Father: So tell me, Susan, how old is John?
Susan (after re-reading the story): John is exactly 22.
Father: Are you sure of that?
Susan: Yes, I'm quite certain of that. It clearly says he was born 22 years ago.
Father: Well, you're wrong. The correct answer is: John is only two hours old. Because that's when I wrote this story involving John.

We may be making the same kind of mistake as Susan. We live in a universe that seems to have within it a kind of “background story” that it is something like 13 billion years old. But that whole universe, including this “background story,” may have been created much more recently.