Why the Something Feels the way it Does

A just-so story.

At first, there was nothing. This was very confusing.

“Why is there nothing?” Everyone asked. “Wait — who is doing the asking?” Clearly, this wasn’t going to work.

So we decided that there would be something. We called the something a game, because we were playing at creation.

The first game wasn’t all that interesting. Sure, a couple billion lifetimes of infinite bliss sounds nice, but after a while you start jonesing for a broken wrist or some mild indigestion.

The phytoplankton game: float around in the warm ocean and eat sunlight. Image from PublicDomainPictures.net

After a while of this mindless but pleasurable game, we decided to make things more interesting: we added danger to the world. This upgrade patch also included a lot more ways to play the game. Instead of just hanging out in the ocean eating sunlight, you could eat people who were playing the phytoplankton game. What fun!

Beating eaten wasn’t such a big deal for a phytoplankton; pain didn’t exist, so your game would just end. If you wanted, you could follow the player who ate you, and get a small taste of life as a scurrying trilobite. Many players preferred to stick with the phytoplankton game, but a lot of folks upgraded their clients so they had enough local hardware to run the trilobite game.

There was a joke that the trilobite client took up around a trillion bytes (1 Terabyte), which is where the name “trilobyte” came from. People complained about how much space the client required, but the only way to convincingly simulate the experience of one trilobite was to run a physical universe about 13 billion light years on a side. It’s true that 13 billion light years is a lot of space, but if you want the tendrils of dark matter to line up just right, it turns out that you need exactly that much space for a single trilobyte to have a convincing experience of reality.

The amount of space you need to simulate the experience of a single Trilobite. Image from wikimedia.

Speaking of experience, now’s as good a time as any to bring up the relationship between experience and time.

You’re probably thinking that ‘experience increases in time’, because you are still playing the game, and so most of your thoughts are upside down. The reality is that time is just a measure of experience.

Think about it this way: imagine time freezes. How would you know? You wouldn’t experience anything. That’s how you’d know. The moment you started to experience thoughts, you might say that time had frozen for everyone except you.

We experience time only because we experience change, motion, and sensation. Time is a property of experience, not the other way around.

Think of a matryoshka doll:

A sequence of concentric equi-experiential shells; aka, time. Image from Flickr.

Imagine that the smallest doll is a fetus, and the outermost doll is a babushka. Suppose you start looking at that tiny fetus doll, and it’s so beautiful that you grab hold of it and it just feels wonderful. You’re bathed in warm, salty water and life feels blissful. Just like the phytoplankton game. You tell yourself, “This is me, I am this thing here, this doll.”

That doll points to the next doll. It’s a linked list. The moment you grab ahold of the first doll, you see the doll it’s nested in. That’s all you see. You see that doll outside of you — the next you. You grab that one, too, and you say “This is me, I am this thing here, I am this slightly larger doll who waves my fingers and says hello.

You let go of the first doll, and grab the next one. You are that one. If you keep on doing this, eventually you’ll be a babushka, with a sequence of memories inside of her — stored experiences — and you will realize the truth of what I’m saying.

At this moment, you contain a reflection of all of the past versions of you — not just your history, but your parents and grandparents, as reflected in your DNA. The old code for the phytoplankton game is still there. You are the big bang, echoed through a tube of condensed experience we call “time.” I am too! Hello out there!

The thing is, there isn’t just one doll outside of you: there are several dolls outside of you. Based on your attitude and perspective, you get to pick which one you go to next.

Think of a game of tic-tac-toe:

All possible configurations of a tic-tac-toe board after 4 turns. You can navigate this thing here.

There’s only one possible initial board. When you make the first choice, you move onto the next board. The other player makes a choice, and you move to another board.

These boards ‘contain’ each other, the same way the matrioshka doll contains the older copies of itself. Except, instead of a straight line sequence, these boards branch out and come back together.

That’s a lot of boards for a silly little game. Of course, remember all the complexity it took to get a trilobyte simulator working? Even though the world is mathematically elegant, it can look messy at times because it’s just so big.

A road diverged in the woods, and I met up with myself down the road later and said “hey, I imagined meeting you here, and both of us think we’re real. Our reality isn’t so different from the author speaking to the reader through the medium of words! Each of us is convinced we are real, but at the moment the words are written, the reader doesn’t exist outside of the author’s mind. And yet here you are! I, the writer, may be dead, a robot, or a fiction of some guy’s imagination, for all you, the reader know. In your moment now, only you exist. Yet I speak to you just the same.”

Speaking of branching out and coming back together, consider the motion of an atom ejected from one star in a supernova, and then, years later, pulled into the gravity well of another star. Will it meet up with its old friends?

And how is that different from what we’re doing right now?

If you liked this article, feel free to share it. If you loved this , there’s a whole book of writing just like this, available on amazon.

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