For the last couple years, people have joked that the reason things have been terrible is that we’ve been living in “the bad timeline.” But what if they’re not wrong; what if we are living in a parallel universe to the one we were in before, and that somewhere, out there, is a version of Earth where there is no pandemic, Trump was never president, and David Bowie is still alive and well and wondering if Prince and Lemmy are free for lunch. The idea of multiverses and timelines is something writer, MIT Computer Scientist, and video game designer Rizwan Virk explores in his new book, The Simulated Multiverse: An MIT Computer Scientist Explores Parallel Universes, The Simulation Hypothesis, Quantum Computing, And The Mandela Effect (paperback, Kindle). In the following email interview, Virk discusses what prompted him to write this book, what approach he took to it, and which fictional multiverses are closest to the ones scientists theorize may exist.
The subtitle sums up it rather nicely, but just to be sure, what is The Simulated Multiverse: An MIT Computer Scientist Explores Parallel Universes, The Simulation Hypothesis, Quantum Computing, And The Mandela Effect about?
The Simulated Multiverse is about the idea that the best explanation for a multiverse is a simulated, or video game universe that can run different versions of timelines. This could not only explain many of the weird elements about time in quantum physics, but also show how we could be simulated on a quantum computing system.
What prompted you to write this book?
I decided to write this book partly because of a conversation I had with a colleague at Google who read my previous book, The Simulation Hypothesis, and suggested that the theory that book was about was a good way to explain The Mandela Effect, where some subset of people remember a different timeline. Although I had dismissed this effect as a case of “faulty memory,” I went back into the writings and speeches of Philip K. Dick and found some unexpected links. I realized Dick was talking about the idea that we live in a computer programmed reality where “variables can be changed” and the same scenario can be run multiple times. In short, this led me to rethink the implications of living in a simulation.
You explored similar territory in your previous book, The Simulation Hypothesis. What’s different about The Simulated Multiverse and why would someone want to read it if they’ve already read The Simulation Hypothesis? Or is it more that they’re companions?
The books are like companions. The first book went deep into the idea that we live in a video game like reality — that space around us is not what it seems. The second book goes into the idea that we live in multiple, simulated realities, and that time is not what it seems. While both cover quantum physics, the first focuses on how video games are rendered, the second focuses on how multiple worlds are branched off in quantum mechanics, and also details about how games are built and run on servers, as well as quantum computing. So the second book goes deeper into the multiverse idea.
Non-fiction books can strike different tones. Some are scholarly, some are dense with facts, and still others take a more narrative, and even light-hearted tone. What tone did you take with The Simulated Multiverse and why did you feel this was the best tone to take?
The book is in the middle between light hearted (there are many science fiction references, in addition to The Matrix, ranging from Star Trek to The Arrowverse to the Marvel Multiverse to the many works of Philip K. Dick) and serious (with detailed descriptions of how time works in quantum mechanics and how video games store and process information). I felt that in this book I wanted to go deeper, but also keep it fun so there are many sci fi asides.
In the time between when you wrote The Simulation Hypothesis and The Simulated Multiverse, did you read any non-fiction books that you think had an influence on how you wrote Multiverse?
Well, I re-reread the speeches of Philip K. Dick and many of his works, including The Man In The High Castle, Time Out Of Joint, “The Adjustment Team,” as well as nonfiction books about time and space, like The Fabric Of Reality by Oxford’s David Deutsch about quantum computing and parallel universes, and the Hidden Reality by Brian Greene and Our Mathematical Universe by Max Tegmark, which are both about physics ideas of multiverses.
As you alluded to earlier, multiverses are very popular in fiction these days. Marvel went into it during Loki and What…if?; DC has already done so in their recent TV shows; and it’s a running theme in Rick & Morty. How close are fictional depictions of multiverse theory to the ones proposed by theoretical physicists?
The Arrowverse and the Marvel Multiverse are more like what physicists are telling us about multiverses. Probably the best example visually is in Loki where they see the actual tree branching off with variants. One version that’s not supported by physics is the idea of a single parallel universe, like Fringe and Counterpart — in those scenarios there would have to be a large number of parallel realities to match the quantum multiverse. Of course, we don’t know how to travel between these multiverses artificially, though this book is implying that we might naturally do so as part of the structure of a simulated multiverse.
How influential have these fictional depictions been on the scientific theorizing? Because for years we’ve heard stories about NASA scientists saying they wanted to become astronomers and astronauts because of Star Trek, and since that episode of Star Trek with Evil Spock was the first time a lot of us heard of the multiverse…
It works both ways. I think science fiction inspires scientists, but also technological breakthroughs and scientific theories inspire science fiction writers. So for example, H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine was the first work of fiction that had time travel resulting from a machine; it’s no coincidence that it was written in the midst of the industrial revolution. Star Trek influenced many scientists today; Arthur C. Clarke’s fictional are well known for their effect on space travel, satellites, etc. Similarly, Vernor Vinge is the man most credited with defining the term “the singularity,” which is now most commonly attributed to A.I. Neal Stephenson’s fiction came up with the metaverse, and generations of computer scientists and video gamers have been trying to figure out how to build it.
As for the real world — so to speak — there are people who really think we are living in an alternate timeline, that time fractured recently and we got stuck in a bad timeline. How much of that stuff do you explore in The Simulated Multiverse?
I explore the idea that there might be multiple timelines — not just good ones and bad ones — and that creating and trying out these timelines may be a part of how simulation running on a quantum computing system might work. The Mandela Effect is all about people remembering different timelines and our current timeline not being the one they thought they were on, which reminded me of Philip K. Dick’s idea of alternate presents. In his view, The Man In The High Castle was an actual timeline where Germany and Japan won the war. The timeline was abandoned, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t exist.
Do you also explore the idea — which, again, some people believe — that we are just living in a Matrix-like simulation, and thus they’re not responsible for their actions?
While I don’t explore it in this book, it is a topic that comes up. I do talk about the meaning of living in a simulation. Part of it depends on if we are in an NPC simulation (which is how people might justify not being responsible for their own actions) or an RPG simulation (which means we are players with avatars). I would argue that most world religions have said that we are living in a kind of simulation, and that there are external entities watching us, and that we have to be accountable for our actions “in-world” because they are all being recorded and will be replayed at the end of the gameplay session. I also talk about the idea of achievements and quests — for those who don’t want to take on a quest or achievement in this life, they will have to do it again, which doesn’t seem like much fun.
Finally, if someone enjoyed The Simulated Multiverse, but they wanted to next read a sci-fi novel, one that has a multiverse, which would you recommend they check out?
There are many good depictions of multiverses mentioned in the book. One recent one is Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter, about the quantum multiverse. An older short story that is referenced by many physicists is [Jorge Luis Borges’] “The Garden Of Forking Paths” [available in his Collected Fictions]. There are of course alternate timeline books like The Man In The High Castle by Philip K. Dick. There is also the original simulation book, [Daniel F. Galouye’s] Simulcron-3 from 1964, which the movie The Thirteenth Floor was based on, as well as the German TV series, World On A Wire.