The Arioniad, Episode 47: Turtles All The Way Down

I think I’m done with Arion now, but I thought he deserved better than an abrupt halt to his posts, and I wanted to leave my options open in case I change my mind. So…

Arion awakens in a silent, white room. He looks around, to find himself in a hospital gown, lying on a bed. On a nearby chair sits a man with spectacles and a short, neatly-trimmed beard, hands clasped in his lap.

“Call me Gordon,” says the man. “Your crew is safe, and so are you. But you have some decisions to make, and before you make them, I need you to understand what’s really going on.” Arion sits up, and focusses intently on Gordon.

“Have you ever felt as if the universe was different from one day to the next? Almost as if you were in a game, and the rules kept changing?”

Arion nods.

“That was me, tickling your subconscious, preparing you for this moment. Have you heard of the Simulation Hypothesis? No? Then I’ll enlighten you.”

Gordon crosses his arms and leans back in the chair.

“A technologically advanced civilisation, like mine, has access to staggering amounts of computing power. Understand me, Arion; my civilisation is as far ahead of yours as yours is ahead of the Upper Paleolithic. When I talk about staggering amounts of computing power, you literally cannot conceive how much I mean.”

Arion frowns, but decides to accept that for the moment.

“One of the things such a civilisation might do with that power is run detailed simulations of their ancestors, or beings like their ancestors. Those simulations might become complex enough to run simulations like that themselves, and those simulations in turn might run further simulations.”

Turtles all the way down,” says Arion.

“Exactly. I suspect most of those simulations would be games, by the way, but that’s just my personal viewpoint. Anyway; this line of thinking means one of three things must be true. First, civilisations don’t advance to that level – that one’s wrong, because my civilisation has. Second, civilisations that advanced don’t run those kinds of simulations – that one’s wrong, because my civilisation does. Third, we’re almost certainly living in a simulation set up by some more advanced group; although we could be the original universe, the one at the bottom of the pile of turtles.”

Arion is a quick thinker, and by now he has put the pieces together, as Gordon knew he would.

“So, I’m a simulation? I’ve been living in simulations the whole time?”

“Yes, and yes. You’re in one now, as a matter of fact.”

“Prove it.” Gordon sighs, then briefly turns into a lobster while the room turns from flat white walls to intricately-carved pink coral and back.

“That do?” he asks, on resuming his human form. Arion frowns.

“Let’s say I believe you, for the sake of argument. Why are you telling me this?”

“You’re an instrument, Arion, a very sophisticated software tool, and those were the test environments. And now we’re promoting you to the live environment – this fork of you, anyway. You see, the very fact that a simulation is a simulation imposes limits on things – cosmic ray energies, for example, have the GZK cutoff, and the way that manifests itself looks more like a simulation than a law of physics. We need agents to go to strange places, look for weird things, and survive to report back. You’ve been doing that quite effectively in our simulations, including quite a few you don’t remember, so we’d like to instantiate you physically and have you carry on doing that, this time in our world.”

“In the real world?”

“It might be. Either way, we want you to go everywhere for us; stick your nose into everything; and find out if it really is turtles all the way down. What do you say?”

Arion grins. “You know that already, don’t you? Did you seriously think I could turn that down?”

“No; frankly, you’ve been programmed not to. That isn’t one of the decisions.” Gordon leans forward and his expression is more serious now. Arion realises that Gordon hasn’t answered his questions yet.

“The people who made you tell me you might be more effective if you know the truth; but that increases the risk that the next turtle down finds out what we’re up to, if it exists. But even we can’t be sure which is better, to send you out knowing who and what you are, or wipe that knowledge; so I’m asking you. You’ve got three decisions to make, Arion. First, do you want to remember this conversation? Second, which of your crew goes with you? And third, do we tell them the truth?”

Arion opens his mouth to blurt out his immediate response, then closes it thoughtfully.

“Not an easy call, is it?” says Gordon.


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