Philosophy, computers and geeky brain teasers

You ought to be careful when combining absolutes with words like true, false and not. The mixture is trickier than you might think.

Here’s a brain teaser to illustrate my point.

“There is no absolute truth”

You might have heard this statement before, and you might even hold it to be true at face value. I personally think it is very carelessly phrased: if we hold it to be true, then we must draw the logical conclusion to which it leads us: the statement that there is no absolute truth cannot be an absolute truth either. Postulating that absolute truth does not exist implies the possibility of its existence.

An answer to this paradox might be found in the first principle of René Descartes, a 17th century French philosopher:

Cogito, ergo sum

I think, therefore I am

It implies that there is at least one absolute truth out there, that of one’s existence, since doubting your own existence implies the existence of a medium where the thought of doubt is occurring, which is yourself. It gets geekier dear reader, keep reading.

If we go further down the road, we might lead ourselves out of philosophy land and into computer science territory: TRUE, FALSE, and logical operators like AND, OR and NOT are in fact the cornerstone of modern technology in the broad sense: phones, cars, SpaceX rockets, particle accelerators and anything in between rely on some kind of computing capacity, which is built on top of FALSE and TRUE values and logic operators, through a specific algebra, the Boolean algebra, into microprocessors. Wait wait wait wait! Don’t rush through the door. I know I just said algebra, but I also mentioned Boolean which is the fun part.

Photo by Markus Spiske

Boolean algebra is a binary or base 2 algebra. This means that you can only use two figures, 0 and 1, to represent all numbers from 0 to infinity. The numbers 0 and 1 are still written as 0 and 1 in binary but 2 can only be represented as 10, 3 thus becomes 11 and 4 is written as…100. Any decimal number becomes a sequence of zeros and ones in binary mode, and all that computers do is storing these zeros and ones in their memory registers as representations of the TRUE and FALSE values of the Boolean algebra, and perform operations on them: AND which is equivalent to a multiplication, OR, which is equivalent to a sum and NOT, which is equivalent to an opposite, among other operators.

For example, NOT(1) is always 0 and never 1, or in other words, NOT (TRUE) always yields FALSE, never TRUE.

Which could be a way of saying that the statement “There is no absolute truth” is always false, never true, at least as far as computers are concerned. Wouldn’t you agree?

To Wassim

Let the board sound


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Lebanese, French, writing mostly in Frenglish and hoping to make a difference.

7 thoughts on “Philosophy, computers and geeky brain teasers”

  1. Alice, the journey had barely begun, let’s dig deeper in the rabbit hole.

    1- [100 meters in] Actually, you only need the NAND (i.e. NOT AND) logic operator to implement any computer circuit or program. NAND is the opposite of AND: given the same inputs, it outputs the opposite result than AND.

    2- [150 meters deep] You know what boolean algebra implies? You can build circuits (e.g. physical microprocessors) but also software out of only NAND gates. In other words, any computer software can be implemented as hardware, and pretty much vice versa.
    « What???!!! » you say? Hardware can become software? Yes I say! Have you heard of Virtual Machines, entire computers in software? Or IaC: Infrastructure as Code? The MPEG streams of your DVDs that used to be decoded by a specific microprocessor in your DVD player can also be decoded by software in your computer.
    In reality , it’s always a mix of hardware and software that it the most efficient: the speed of hardware and the flexibility of software.

    3- [The big jump] If everything can be expressed as software, even computers themselves, then can we build entire worlds out of software? Well, that’s the logical conclusion. And we already do it: we simulate many things in computers as software, the weather, the economy, the ocean currents, planets and star systems, car crashes, airplane aerodynamics, etc. Even our money is almost completely virtual now, just a bunch of electron running around in computer networks (that are themselves increasingly composed of more software then hardware).
    Add to this AI, machine learning and virtual reality technologies, and the conclusion will be that we can simulate entire worlds that will feel completely real to their inhabitants. They are all software, but hey, we know now that software and hardware are interchangeable 🙂

    4-[Deep, deep, deeper still] Let’s push it to the end. We create a world simulation so good that its inhabitants don’t know it’s a simulation. Actually it doesn’t need to be that good, its inhabitants will still think it’s real because that’s all they now: it’s good enough for them.
    If we can do it, then they can do it too: eventually, with enough NAND gates, they can build a simulation in their own simulation. Maybe not a very good one (define good), but still good enough for its own inhabitants. And that new simulation can do the same: simulations inside simulations. Ad infinitum.
    So if we can create a simulation and this simulation can create a simulation etc. , are we being simulated? Is the Planck length the maximum resolution possible in the computer our world is running on? Is the speed of light what it is simply because of processing constraints? Maybe the world above us is so much richer and complex than ours, which is just a pale copy of it? Or maybe it’s completely alien? Can we hack our world? Is there a cheat code or a God Mode we can unlock if we explode enough candy maybe? (And did Elon Musk unlock it?)

    Let’s put it this way: if every simulated world can simulate another world, and there is at least one simulated world, then there is a high probability that there is an infinite number of simulated worlds. The probability that any one world is the « real » world becomes effectively 0. And this applies to our world because we can (and do) simulate other worlds.
    So is our world simulated? Very possibly: we simulate, hence we are probably simulated.

    5- [It goes much deeper] What if all worlds are actually simulated? Just an infinite series with no « real » world? Maybe our definition of « real » is skewed: real could be whatever runs on a processor. If a non simulated world does not exist, then all simulated worlds are real, for lack of a « real » real.
    Now what if, deep down this line of nested simulations, the final simulation ends up simulating exactly the very first simulation of the chain? Given a big enough number of simulations, this possibility becomes very probable. As the number of simulations approaches infinity, this scenario becomes almost certain.
    And here we are, a circle of simulations each simulating the next one and the last simulating the very first. But then in this case there is no more first or last, right? Any simulation can be the first or the last or anything in between: they are « in a circle ».

    6- [ We’ve come full circle] Let’s draw conclusions.
    It is extremely probable that all worlds are simulations. Then « real » is always a simulation.
    It is also extremely probable that at least 1 simulation is simulating exactly another simulation that is not directly « above » it. Hence there is no 1st or last simulation, they are all « first », their ranks are arbitrary and indistinguishable.

    So despite being simulated, out world is real. As real as it gets. Or maybe despite being real, our world is simulated. As simulated as it gets. Real, simulated, it’s all the same in the end 🙂

    All of this to say: be nice when you’re gaming on a computer, you never now how your actions may propagate back to bite you 🙂 Karma baby!

    PS: Simulacron 3 is a good read on this topic.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. This makes us so sad for Mallory & co. It means they actually have no chance whatsoever of getting back to their original world.

        Well, unless they find the cheat code to immortality and jump worlds infinitely.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. This makes us so sad for Mallory & co. It means they don’t have any chance of getting back to their original world.

    Well, unless they find the cheat code for immortality and jump worlds indefinitely.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I never thought anyone would quote it, even though it does not apply to our specific case but rather to quantum physics. Good memories though. Thanks.


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