Have you ever wondered what it's like to die?

I'm not talking about the famous tunnel of light reported by near death experience patients; by definition that isn't what it's like to die otherwise those describing it wouldn't have been able to pass on their report.

If this is the case, then it could very well be impossible to know; however, I'd like to make an informed guess. Ever since I've been writing this blog on a regular basis I've touched on topics like the nature of consciousness, time, space and reality. It shouldn't be that difficult to cobble together a basic description of the dying of the light.

I'm not really that concerned with the actual cause of death, provided it's not being run over by a steamroller or evaporated by a nuclear explosion. I'm more interested in deaths of the slipping away variety.

I'm going to start talking about noses here for a paragraph or so. It's not as much of a non sequitur as it might at first seem; any regular readers of this blog might recall an entry about the natures of smells and smelling. At the end of it I revealed that it has recently been discovered that the operation of the nose relies on quantum tunnelling, with the implications that your nose exists partly in a parallel universe. In a later entry I then extrapolated from this the theory that perhaps the whole brain operates like this, meaning that we share a proportion of our thoughtspace with our twins in nearby parallel universes.

What implications does this have for death?  It could be quite a few; it all depends what consciousness actually is. For the sake of argument, let's assume it's a live brain. As the brain starts to shut down, each moment it is faced with a number of quantum possibilities. The future is not set in stone and the present exists in a vague cloud of probability; this remains true even if your odds of survival are a million to one.

However, in these circumstances, a million to one is all you need.

It's a variant of the anthropic principle at work.  Faced with 999,999 potential futures in which consciousness ceases and only 1 in which it continues then it's only common sense that we're going to find ourselves in the one in which we survive.  In all the others we can't find ourselves.  And so it goes. Even if the probability of survival in each successive moment drops alarmingly, we'll always just make it. However close we come to death, we never quite fall in.  It's a bit like the speed of light in that respect.

This is the second entry in which the speed of light seems to have come up in relation to continued consciousness; the previous occasion was the thought experiment of the Thugg2.0 simulation. It begins to seem as if once conscious we can approach cessation, but never quite reach it.

But, some people may be saying, how does this explain falling asleep or having a general anaesthetic? Good question. It all comes down to probability. Thinking about the example of having a general anaesthetic (something I experienced for the first time earlier this year), whilst the "probability of survival" logic from above could be applied with the result that in one increasingly unlikely thread of existence you never actually lose consciousness, the difference here is that there is a later instance of your consciousness which is far more likely - namely coming round from the anaesthetic (or in the case of sleep, merely waking up in the morning).

Death is different - once you stop there's no restarting and therefore no resumption of self. So our awareness will continue to exist, moving into the realms of the increasingly unlikely. Nothing is absolute and on the quantum level there's no such thing as a dead cert.

What would this approach to the event horizon of death be like? This is the real mystery. There's no life after death but the process of death itself could seem to last for ever in an inverse time dilation.

Let's hope the brain has enough in it to keep us entertained during this feature length series finale...

There are no emotional qualia.

As I have discussed before, it's all very well saying you're happy, but how can we possibly tell that your happy is the same as my happy? Describing it is no good, because any qualitative words we use would by definition only refer to our own emotional experiences and our personal definitions. The only way to be sure would be to become each other and then... well we'd actually be each other so we still wouldn't be able to compare and contrast.

Given that this is the case, it is odd that some emotions are treated the same in different people. Treated being the operative word. I am talking about depression.


Unfortunately it's an emotion that is never really taken seriously and often misunderstood.  On the one hand the unsympathetic tell you to "snap out of it", "pull yourself together" or "cheer up (it may never happen)" whilst on the other the condition is used to describe trivia: "I'm so depressed - Tesco's have sold out of muffins".  On the third hand some people consider it a stigma, get scared and run away as if they're afraid it might be contagious.

There's a fourth hand as well, but I'll get to that later.

It's an odd state of mind which is difficult to work out the reason for.  Is it a malfunction arising as the result of something else, or a remnant of an archaic (preconscious?) mindstate like some kind of psychological appendix? Or, just like physical pain, is it a valid and useful way to feel even if it is unpleasant?  In the absence of true qualia, the description of emotions may well be ultimately useless, but in the short term it might be able to give us a clue about the nature of depression.

As is so often the case I have to offer a disclaimer at this point.  I'm no psychologist or neurobiologist. All I am doing is making observations and trying various logical explanations on for size.

For a start, depression is not the same thing as sadness or feeling upset.  When my cat died recently I was sad and felt upset, but that was a short term thing and felt to be occurring in an entirely different emotional space. It was sad and bad but because there was an obvious cause and effect it felt healthier, and was over quicker. To use a physical analogy, it was the equivalent of the sharp pain and automatic reaction that occurs if you accidentally brush your hand against the ring on an electric cooker.

Depression is different. For a start there's often no obvious cause. Whilst conditions, situations and surroundings can trigger it off, you are not "depressed because..." You are just depressed. Sometimes you don't even realise that it's what you're suffering from.  Occasionally it's a listlessness and lack of motivation that can be mistaken for laziness, which has the unfortunate side effect of provoking negative feedback as you start to feel worse about yourself.  But most commonly it seems to manifest as a general miasma of slight despair.  A sourceless low-grade dread of nothing in particular, like an unrefined fear.  A cloud of unfocussed foreboding that seems to collect around the back of the eyeballs and in the sinuses, sometimes spreading downwards into the back of the throat.

You're afraid of life.

Sometimes this essence of unease is accompanied by violent self-destructive thoughts.  Activities that you would once have drawn pleasure from now seem boring and pointless, but the thought of trying something new is out of the question. It would be too much effort.  This is where the fourth hand comes in.

The fourth hand is that of the medical professional and it often contains a bottle of pills. This is in general a good thing because the condition is being treated like any other medical affliction with no stigma attached or implication that you're malingering or  making a big fuss about nothing. However, since the Rise of the SSRIs - cheap effective and largely non-addictive anti-depressants - there has been a tendency of some GPs to use them as a universal panacea to silence those experiencing everyday mood-fluctuations which would otherwise soon pass.

However the way these drugs work does provide a valuable insight into what depression actually is.

It all comes down to the neurotransmitter serotonin, the body's very own happy juice. If you're depressed there's less of this stuff sloshing around in the system. SSRIs redress this balance.  But what's serotonin actually for?

As far as I can see, like many things it all comes down to food and survival. In times of abundance serotonin levels become high, giving a good feeling. In times of scarcity this good feeling is remembered and is something to strive for - the carrot offered us by the human genome to ensure our survival long enough to pass on copies of itself. Interestingly though, this means that depression, or something very like it, is the natural state of sentient beings. Serotonin is simply the sugar added to the mix to give life a slightly better taste.

This kind of makes sense. Some theories state that consciousness arose as a heightened state of awareness to help prehumans survive hazardous times - if something dangerous was detected on the horizon their brains would go to battle stations and they'd awake into sentience. Fight or flight? Whatever option they ended up choosing a healthy dose of fear and aggression would help them through it.

And perhaps this is what depression is. The nebulous foreboding and the violent thoughts (that in today's civilized society end up being turned inwards upon yourself) are the descendants of our ancestors' red alert brain as they stood on the African veldt having just caught sight of a pride of lions slowly stalking the troupe.

The SSRIs may help us control these feelings in the short term, but in the long term we need to tell ourselves that the lions have gone.

Readers of my recent blog entry about how reality is in all probability a computer simulation are quite right to feel sceptical.

It's clearly a ridiculous notion, a clever bit of philosophical reasoning designed to invoke a paradox. Instinctively we know this. The Simulation Hypothesis goes against what we feel is the truth and as William of Occam himself carved with his famous Razor, the simplest explanation is usually the correct one. The original words of Occam's Razor are in fact particularly astute in this case; pluralitas non est ponenda sine necessitate or in plain English, plurality should not be posited without necessity. Why hypothesize a multitude of simulations when one simple reality will do?

It's just common sense.

However, common sense isn't always right. The ancients believed that the Earth was flat - and you can see why. It feels like common sense. Down is down - it's where things fall to. The ground is clearly flat and the sky "up there". If the world was a sphere, the people on the underside would fall off...

Don't trust common sense.

Of course I'm not claiming that the inaccuracy of the Flat Earth Theory means that the Simulation Hypothesis has to be true, just that things that feel wrong can sometimes be right. If this is a simulation how come I've been stuck in it for so long and why can't I be in a more interesting one where I'm out exploring the galaxy?

Well that's just it. Things are quite definitely not what they seem. As I have mentioned on more than one occasion before (or have I?) time is not necessarily linear. You might think you've been suffering and crying for slightly longer in the same old life but you may well have just arrived in your head five minutes ago with a full set of memories. There's no difference between that and actually living through your life so far. The seconds that make up your life span do not have to occur sequentially.

Maybe they don't even have to occur at all.

As discussed in Aping Reality it may simply be enough that the data comprising each instant is stored somewhere on the hard disk of the multiverse. After all if it doesn't matter in which order it is accessed then surely it doesn't actually need to be accessed. Every moment is preserved perfectly and unchanging in the lattice of reality storage. Its mere existence is enough to ensure yours.

And it doesn't even matter where it's stored.

Thought experiment! Thought experiment!

Think of the most powerful and complex computer ever devised by man. Perhaps it's not outlandish to imagine it simulating some kind of reality, albeit a simple one. Imagine a simple simulated human programmed into an artificial reality being run inside the Cray Jaguar. His name is Thugg2.0.

It could be that for all its mindboggling power, the Jaguar still isn't quite powerful to run Thugg2.0 at normal speed. In order to simulate him, to generate all of Thugg2.0's nerve impulses, his sensorium and his reactions, the Jaguar is forced to run Thugg2.0 at half speed. Ten seconds in the outside world is only five in Thugg2.0's world. Furthermore if Thugg2.0 decides to do something complicated - like scooping up a handful of sand and really concentrating on it as he lets it trickle through his fingers - the processing might slow even further, like an old 486 reaching the final level of Doom 2.

This won't affect Thugg 2.0. As far as he is concerned everything is continuing as normal, the speed of time in the outside world being a matter of supreme indifference to him.

Maybe cutbacks at the Oakridge National Laboratory mean that they can no longer justify taking up all the Cray Jaguar's runtime simulating Thugg2.0. However there are ethical considerations. They can't just switch him off. Instead they transfer his data and program to a smaller, slower computer called the Mini Cougar which can only run him at a maximum of a tenth normal speed.

Of course Thugg2.0 won't notice. Even if he has been provided with a data window into the outside world all he'll see is things out there apparently speeding up. Like an astronaut in a spacecraft approaching the speed of light or falling into a black hole he will have absolutely no sense whatsoever of his own time slowing down. Time is relative.

A global crisis means that even the Mini Cougar is considered a valuable asset and is commandeered by the government of the day. Thugg2.0 is transferred to a lashed together cluster of old dual-core Intel PCs running off a solar battery at the University of Utah. This can barely run him at a thousandth of the speed that the Mini Cougar could. An hour of Thugg2.0's time takes well over a year to run.

Thugg2.0 doesn't care. He's too busy scooping up handfuls of sand and really concentrating on them as he lets the grains trickle through his fingers. Whenever he does this, he observes, the events in the mysterious data window hanging in his sky lurch forward even faster.

One by one the old dual-core Intel PCs start to fail and are removed from the cluster until eventually Thugg2.0 is being run on just one of them. A minute of Thugg2.0's time now takes well over a century to process .

Thugg2.0 still doesn't notice even though he is now accelerating into the future at a speed approaching c.

The University of Utah is now an arcane temple in a post-apocalyptic world. The tending of the PC running Thugg2.0 is a religious ritual passed down from generation to generation. After a thousand years (or ten minutes as far as Thugg2.0 is concerned now) the computer breaks down.

The Monks of the Temple of Thugg2.0 face this crisis with equanimity. All the computer was doing was crunching numbers, they reason, so there's no reason they can't continue crunching these numbers themselves using abacuses, pencils and paper. They do so.

And Thugg2.0 doesn't notice.

After all there's nothing special or magical about the ancient hard disks and RAM in which the reality of Thugg2.0's existence is encoded in zeros and ones. All that is required to simulate Thugg2.0 is that the numbers are crunched. However slowly. It may now take a million years to simulate Thugg2.0 picking his nose and the calculations may now be stored as pencil marks on reams and reams of paper, but as far as Thugg2.0 is concerned he's just as real as he ever was even if the data window is now showing static.

An asteroid collides with Earth and wipes out the remains of humanity, including the Monks of the Temple of Thugg2.0. Since they first took over the job from the ailing computer, they've processed a fraction of a second, barely enough to even register to Thugg2.0.

Is this the end for Thugg2.0? Well, not necessarily. To use our relativity analogy he's reached the speed of light or has now fallen into the black hole - but he's not dead. Time has simply stopped for him. In fact as was pointed out earlier time need not be linear anyway, so maybe this state of affairs has made no appreciable difference to him whatsoever.

It's enough that the data comprising each instant of his existence is stored somewhere, and as we've just seen, the storage medium doesn't matter. These data instants don't have to follow on from each other in any way, they just have to exist. Somewhere and somewhen. As patterns of zeros and ones in a magnetic medium, on pieces of paper or perhaps as marks scratched in soot on the wall of a cave somewhere.

Or encoded in the structure of space-time itself?

Think of each data instant as a massive square array of zeros and ones, a multitude of yottapixels in digital camera terms. Now think about the multidimensional structure of the multiverse stretching in all directions of space, time and probability. All that was, is, will be or might have been. On a subatomic scale this could be described as granular and could be thought of as an infinitely large multidimensional matrix of zeros and ones.

Slice it just right and hey presto, there's Thugg2.0's next data instant, encoded just by chance in the very structure of reality itself - after all in an infinite multidimensional matrix every conceivable pattern of zeros and ones will occur. The Monks of the Temple of Thugg2.0 may have ceased working but all that is important is that the data is stored somewhere. Thugg2.0 carries on experiencing a sense of self.

And perhaps this is true for any sentient being you can imagine. If their data instants exist in a slice of multidimensional space-time, then so does their consciousness. In an infinite array, every pattern occurs. In the light of this, the distinction between whether something is "real" or a "simulation" becomes meaningless.

Your point of view all depends upon which way you slice the universe.

"Burn up The Sun and all magazines / Pull down the abattoirs and all that's obscene..."

I'd never bought The Sun and was uncomfortable about doing so now. It held all sorts of negative connotations for me. Recently I'd been supportive of the successful campaign to get its sale banned from the campus newsagent but it ran deeper than that. In my head The Sun would always be associated with The Fuckers at school, the bullies. They'd bought it regularly, imagining this made them adult and daring. They'd subsequently sellotaped an endless parade of monochrome newsprint breasts inside their desks and - on one memorable occasion - to the blackboard during an RE lesson.

So I was in a quandary. Tom had sold his story to The Sun and I was curious to read it. You'll have to take my word for this - and some of you may be cynical - but it wasn't in a lascivious "I'm going to get to read all Toyah's secrets" way. I just wanted to know what he'd said.

To be honest I had never been that comfortable around him partly because I felt that he'd always seemed to carry an aura of aggression around with him. Maybe because that was just what people in the bodyguard business tended to do and it was all part of the job? Nevertheless I'd overlooked my initial instincts and given him the benefit of the doubt because he'd been Toyah's boyfriend. If Toyah liked him, I reasoned, he must be all right.

And now that certainty had been thrown into disarray.

The journalist concerned must have been laughed out of the newsroom when he'd filed his story back at Fleet Street. Unfortunately for Murdoch's Minions, Tom didn't really have any dirt to dish. All anyone reading the story would have got out of it was that (a) Toyah was ambitious (b) sometimes they used to have sex (c) sometimes Tom had to do the housework and (d) they'd now split up.

I don't know whether it was the subject's naivety or the journalist's subsequent spinning of what to his chagrin had turned out to be a rather luke-warm exclusive, but Tom ended up coming out of the whole process looking like a bit of a buffoon. His complaints about having to wash Toyah's smalls had a distinctly male chauvinist whiff about them and his revelations about "the day my outburst stunned Olivier" were frankly embarrassing (he'd thrown a jealous tantrum during the filming of Toyah's nude scene for The Ebony Tower). The less said about his macho assertions that "I really ought to go and do this guy Fripp in" the better.

The news that Toyah was now involved with guitarist Robert Fripp was about the only useful thing to come out of Tom's kiss-and-tell. I was aware of Fripp but knew next to nothing else about him other than that he'd played guitar on Bowie's Scary Monsters and had been in King Crimson, a band that a hippy called Charlie had played me during an experiment with LSD towards the end of my first year at university (during the hallucinogenic experience I could have sworn I'd heard a voice calling me from deep in the soundscape).

My comic was published in two installments in the official fan club newsletter but Toyah herself seemed to be keeping a low profile in early 1986. Furthermore the Angels and Demons were fragmenting; we did still see a lot of each other, but in smaller groups. A lot of the time I used to hang out with Bob and Lunar and to a lesser extent Eddie and his girlfriend Lynn (who he'd met during the Rebel Run tour two and a half years previously). One of the last times I remember a larger number of us getting together was at Eddie and Lynn's wedding up in Kirkcaldy in early spring. We all made our way up there in little groups although managed to share a hideously crowded train back to London the next day (I stood the whole journey).

Eddie and Lynn weren't the only people to get married in the spring. News came out of a quiet, private ceremony in the West Country at which Toyah and Robert had tied the knot.

In the meantime my life was changing shape again. I came down with glandular fever which put paid to my final exams at the end of university, but which didn't stop me having a great time outside my illness. For a start I suddenly seemed to have no trouble getting girlfriends, which made a nice change. I went to see loads of bands, DJed a lot, went out to nightclubs regularly and inexplicably seemed to be able to smoke and drink anyone under the table with no ill effects the next day.

Perhaps not fulfilling in the long run, but good fun at the time, although given that I now think that I was probably at my physical peak then, it's a shame I frittered it away.

The Urban Tribesmen
I left university and moved into my first adult home, a flat in Leytonstone that I shared with fellow Angel and Demon Bob. Eddie and Lynn lived five minutes walk down the road. In honour of the warehouse in which Toyah had lived when she'd moved down to London, Bob and I christened our flat New Mayhem.

Even though the Angels and Demons were thinner on the ground now than at any point in the previous three years, it didn't mean Toyah's fans were disappearing. The Urban Tribesmen were still going strong and Gayna Evans (who'd written a Toyah book in the early eighties) had started to organise Toyah parties.

Me at a Toyah party
The Toyah Barmy Army was another group of fans that seemed to be attracting a lot of attention and membership despite sporting a distinctly ill-advised red, white and black logo displayed prominently on armbands and flags (not a million miles away from a look popular in certain right wing circles in the 1930s). It was not a fashion I was keen on and not one I liked being associated with Toyah. Luckily at one of Gayna's parties in I managed to talk several recruits into removing their armbands and a request in the fan club newsletter meant that the flags were also considered res non grata.

The parties were a lot of fun though. In the absence of gigs it was the only place you could hear Toyah's music in a large venue and it was interesting to meet other fans from around the country all with stories to tell; some similar to mine, some wildly different.  On one memorable occasion in late August the highlight of the evening was the playing of a tape Toyah had sent with a message for us all. In it she told us she was now writing and recording her new solo album which was going to be "...100% heavier than Minx..." and also said that she "...would send you all a toe, but I've only got nine left!"This last bizarre message was a reference to yet another erroneous tabloid story published that year which had claimed she'd had a toe amputated and subsequently sent it to an ex-boyfriend.

On the way to a Toyah party

Despite this message, Toyah herself was still elusive, although she did release an audiobook album entitled The Lady or the Tiger which featured her reading the short story by Stockton to a backing of her husband's soundscapes. Lunar and I took a trip to the BBC Studios at Maida Vale (where at the time my Dad worked in the BBC Radiophonic Workshop) as we'd heard Toyah would be recording a radio show there, but there was no sign of her.

August became September, which then started threatening to turn into October. I applied for numerous jobs in broadcasting having decided after my experiences in Student Radio that this was the career path I wanted to take. Although I wanted to carry on writing and drawing comics as well. Not to mention join a band.

And then Bob and I spotted in one of the music papers - probably the Melody Maker, which I used to buy religiously - that Robert Fripp and The League Of Crafty Guitarists would be staging a daytime performance in the Virgin Megastore in Oxford Street on 30 September.

We decided to go along. Part of the reason was that I hoped that Toyah might be there. But I was also interested in checking out her new man. What sort of person was he? What did he look like? What kind of atmosphere did he carry around with him?

A dozen or more guitarists sat on chairs in a circle around Robert Fripp who explained some of the ideas behind Guitar Craft, who the Crafty Guitarists were as well as what and how they were going to perform. I hadn't really known what he was going to be like, perhaps imagining some Bowie-ish Seventies rock star, but don't think I'd been expecting this faintly distracted professor-like figure, a musical intellectual whose obvious brain power and euphonic talent far outstripped his slight stature. The sound of the Crafty Guitarists was also like nothing I'd heard before - that many acoustic guitars playing in unison gave the impression of a much larger yet invisible instrument; the sound of a twelve dimensional harp.

After the performance a minor horde of Fripp fans crowded around the maestro. My eyes were elsewhere; Bob and I had spotted a familiar diminutive figure off to one side and made our way over to say hello.

Toyah was pleased to see us and seemed much more relaxed than I ever recall having seen her before. We chatted for around ten minutes, and she once more fed my ego by telling me I was looking good. The situation felt very different from any past meetings. She wasn't the centre of attention and we weren't making any demands of her. We were just... chatting. Was this what being grown up felt like, I wondered?

It had been good to see her, but I had no idea whether I'd be seeing her again at any point over the next few months. In those days the future was a formless, unknowable blank, filled with untapped potential. Some days it felt as if anything could happen.

And some days it did.

Just over three weeks after meeting her at the Virgin megastore I received a letter addressed in a now familiar large unusual hand. I had continued to write to Toyah on a semi-regular basis, but this was the first time she'd written back for a little while. Mindful of the fanclub I'd run for the short-lived Indians in Moscow, she asked if I (and Bob) would like to take over the running of her own fan club as current president Lynda was becoming too busy to continue.

I seem to recall running around the flat shouting "fucking-A!" and "whoopie-fucking-do!" (having recently watched James Cameron's Aliens in the cinema multiple times). I was still unemployed at the time, none of the radio or TV stations having responded in a positive manner to my job applications, but Bob was at work so I made my way into Walthamstow to tell him the news.

It was a different time back then. Landlines and letters were the only way we could keep in touch with each other and we didn't have a phone in our flat. Nevertheless, somehow I managed to make arrangements with Toyah to meet her outside E'G's offices in King's Road at 7.45am on 30 October (a mere week later) where she'd drive me to Lynda's to pick up the fan club paraphernalia and then back to E'G where we'd have a meeting with some of the E'G bigwigs about the club itself.

It was a cold and silent morning, King's Road uncharacteristically quiet. Rather ridiculously I'd gothed myself up to the nines in PVC, leather and studs. Having arrived by tube, I stood shivering in E'G's doorway.

It wasn't just the cold that was making me shiver.

A small car pulled up at the kerb and I could see Toyah at the wheel. She waved. I walked across the pavement and the car door clunked open for me.

Which came out of the opened door - the lady or the tiger?

I climbed into the passenger seat and shut the door behind me.


It is of course at this rather misleading point that this story ends. Whilst it may not be the only story I have in me, it's true to say that from this moment forward I was no longer a teenage Toyah fan...
I was 21 years old for a start.

Acknowledgements


First and foremost I'd like to thank Toyah without whom this would not only be impossible but also pretty pointless.

I'd like to thank Bob for raiding his diaries for some of the exact details I wouldn't otherwise have been able to recall unaided. I'd like to thank Tes for encouragement and comments.

I'd also like to thank David at Dreamscape and Craig at the Official Toyah Willcox Web Site for their feedback and promotion of this work and also to the other Toyah fans and inhabitants of Twitter and Facebook for making appreciative noises throughout.


The opinions expressed in this memoir are those of my younger, more naive self. They do not necessarily coincide with my current opinions and are in no way representative of the views of Toyah or any members of her entourage past, present or future.

I will be expanding this memoir into a full length book sooner rather than later which will hopefully be published via the lulu.com Print On Demand route, although if anyone offers me another way I wouldn't say no! If you would be interested in this book when it appears, do please register your interest by leaving a comment on the I was a Teenage Toyah Fan website at toyah.org.

As I used to say in the old days, stay proud!


nothing is real
Nothing is real.

No, that's not strictly true. To put it another way, everything is real. If it wasn't real it wouldn't be. The point I'm trying to make is that this world may very well not be the real one. Whatever that means.

I'll start again.

There is a theory that states that if it ever became possible to simulate reality in a computer, such a simulation would be indistinguishable from the real thing and any inhabitants of the simulation would be completely unaware that they were all simply part of a gigantic computer program.

There is another theory that states that this has already happened.

It's known as the Simulation Hypothesis and has been put forward by Nick Bostrom who is either a philosopher at the University of Oxford or (if his hypothesis is to be believed) a simulation of a philosopher at a simulation of the University of Oxford. The premise is very simple.

If, hypothesises Bostrom, it ever becomes possible to simulate reality in a realistic Matrix-like way then such simulations of reality will almost certainly outnumber the one genuine reality by an enormous factor. Given that these simulations are designed to be indistinguishable from the real thing, then statistically you are almost certainly living in a simulated reality.

Yes, you. You reading this. Now.

It's a bit of a mind fuck. But make no mistake - this isn't some philosophical sleight-of-brain, a reductio ad absurdum designed to shine a light on some logical flaw in the way we think. It's an inescapable conclusion, one third of a trilemma.

But, as someone once said to me when I put this to them, surely we don't have this technology yet?

Well no, we don't. Not in this simulation. But in the outside world, who knows what year it is? Or even if it turns out to still be 2010, perhaps the simulation is being run by a post-human Roman Empire to find out what the 21st century would have be like if Rome had fallen during the 5th century AD.

The trilemma states that:
  • EITHER we will never develop the technology to run such simulations (for any number of reasons ranging from such technology being impossible up to and including all sentient life becoming extinct before it reaches this technological level)
  • OR if we reach this level of technological competence we refuse to use it (bit weak that one)
  • OR we are almost certainly living in a simulation.
According to Bostrom, you have to subscribe to one of the three viewpoints. If you take exception to either of the first two then you have to take the third as read. If you take exception to the third, then you have to accept that one of the first two (rather gloomy) predictions foretell the future of all life-kind.

Personally I think that the second option can be discounted. If the technology exists and/or is possible, someone (or some thing) will use it. And once it's been used, it will be used again. And again. And again. I suspect that the middle option was included so as to allow the use of the interesting word "trilemma". So that leaves us with just two mutually exclusive and yet equally logically unpalatable options. A dilemma.

Of course some people will leap at the chance to embrace the first conclusion and have its babies. Those who believe that the universe is not only more boring than we imagine, it is more boring than we can imagine. The Worst Of Both Worlds rationalists. The idea that a massively interesting and paradigm changing technology is proved forever impossible will have them rubbing their hands with glee and shrieking their creed from the rooftops.

I don't subscribe to that point of view. But the second option just seems so outlandish (even if it is attractive). And think what it could mean. Suppose one of the simulants (us) living in a simulated world discovers a way to hack the code and give themselves unlimited power? Or even worse, crashes the system.

A fatal exception 0E has occurred at EARTH17:33:00:08:09:2010
Current reality will be terminated

Even if such an error occurred we wouldn't know about it. The dataset that makes up our consciousness's awareness of the present moment would have ceased the moment before the crash and would only resume once the problem has been fixed.

In fact there's no reason to assume that the data packets comprising the mind-moments that make up each of our lives follow each other in a linear manner from cradle to grave, and as I've discussed before, there's no need for them to do so either. In a simulation of the universe the data I call me could be fragmented throughout whatever passes as the hard disk of the Host System, and doesn't have to be accessed sequentially to bring the illusion of my consciousness to life. It may not even need to be accessed at all. Perhaps it is enough that it is simply stored on the system.

An interesting point is that the moment we develop the technology to create such a perfect simulation, we will have proved ourselves to be living in one. It may well be that the Simulators (as we might call those running us on their Host System) have programmed in system parameters preventing us from ever developing such technology and therefore deducing our true nature, but if not, imagine what that might mean.

We ourselves would be able to run simulations within our simulation and therefore logically who's to say that the Host System itself isn't a mere virtual machine, one in a hierarchy of infinitely nested software implementations of reality?

All of these would be indistinguishable; all just data. It wouldn't matter how "deep" our world was buried in the iterations. Given the sheer numbers of simulations that outnumber it, the one true reality would be almost impossible to locate.

In fact the concept of "actual" reality would be meaningless.

Nothing is real.