Aliens / as if / Civilization / Philosophy / Tsish


File:PIA20513 - Basking in Light.jpg

Some of you might not have seen the occasional contributions of my extraterrestrial friend Tsish on this blog yet. You can find Tsish’s previous adventures here. Here is what Tsish has recently written to me:

Observing your planet is a stressful business, so from time to time, I am having some holidays. This time, I actually took a sabbatical in order to write my new book on recent trends in terrestrial asifomatics[1]. I decided to spend this time on an orbit around Saturn, so I could watch the space probe you people have been sending there plunging into the gas giant’s atmosphere.

So I had left my normal near-earth orbit and moved my spaceship away to a polar orbit around Saturn. There I wanted to quietly sit down and start writing my new book, about the asifological aspects of some recent political developments on Earth. However, the fantastic view of Saturn, its rings and moons, repeatedly distracted my attention. I got into some kind of writer’s block, so I decided to play a little bit with my asifomat, to get some entertainment.

Oh, I should have left the knob of the asifomat’s channel selector in its zero-position! But I could not resist. I turned it, so its little arrow was pointing on a point of the scale where I had never put it before. It was, actually, not so far away from the point that had earned me a visit by one of the arch angels. I stopped turning the knob and let it click into place. The asifomat’s green magic eye started glowing (I just like that old-radio look and feel I have given to my asifomat) and the little box started producing a strange buzzing sound.

Looking out of the window, I noticed that the blocks of ice forming Saturn’s rings had been replaced with little metal boxes with blinking lights on them. A look through my telescope showed that all of Saturn’s moons where covered with technical structures. Some new moons, obviously artificial ones, had been added as well. The clouds in Saturn’s atmosphere did no longer move on their normal bands, but followed an intriguing pattern of geometrical figures.

A melodic sound indicated that somebody was calling me on the tele-presenter. It was my old teacher, professor Prtsh. “Oh, no!” I thought. “Yes” I said. Professor Prtsh appeared as a green hologram hovering above the tele-presenter. “Ah, Tsish, … but wait, what is this. It looks like here I am just a green hologram. What kind of nonsense is that?” “Oh, professor Prtsh, I am so sorry, I just saw something like that on a sci-fi-film from planet earth; you know, the planet I am watching. I don’t know if you know what a sci-fi-film is. These films are so wonderfully trashy. I am very fond of them. I just reprogrammed the telepresence engine a little bit.”

“I know what a sci-fi-film is. It is a kind of entertainment quite typical of civilizations just before their trifurcation point. You know what the trifurcation point is, Tsish?” “Err, I think I have forgotten, professor Prtsh.”

“Oh, it was a mistake to let you pass the exams, really” Don’t you remember the Trident Theorem?”

I felt like I was back at the exam. I was desperately searching in my memory, and suddenly, I remembered: “The trident theorem states that civilizations have just three possible ways of development. A civilization consists of two components: an intelligent species and the artifacts, or technosphere, produced by them. Civilizations are inherently unstable. Initially the civilization is growing and its technology, i.e. the technosphere, is getting more complex. Then, one of three things is happening: 1) the civilization collapses and the intelligent species goes extinct. 2) the civilization collapses and the intelligent species survives. Normally, at this point, the resources of the planet have been exhausted, so a second technical civilization is not going to form and a low-tech culture is developing. 3) The intelligent species becomes extinct but the technosphere survives as an automatical, self-reproducing system.”

“Well memorized”, the professor said, “nearly verbatim from the textbook of Prof. Snrx. Do you remember the fourth possibility?”

“The civilization might remain at the trifurcation point by turning itself into a sustainable steady-state civilization. In this state, it stops growing. However, this is a meta-stable state that might still decay into one of the trifurcation states.”

“Well done. Exam passed! My remote sensors were showing that you had gone into a type 3 civilization, i.e. a technosphere without inhabitants. Is this one real or have you just been playing with you asifomat?”

“Err, I just turned the channel selector of my asifomat to a new value…”.

“That is what I suspected. Tsish, you have to understand that the asifomat was given to you to do serious research with it, not as a toy! You recently wrote to me that you were starting to write a book. And now I am finding you playing around. A sabbatical is not a holiday. We are paying you to write a book.”

I blushed. (Actually, I did not blush since my anatomy and physiology is different from yours, but that is the word the translator is producing here). I was happy that I had reprogrammed the tele-presenter to the green hologram state. My own telepresence in his office would then also only be a green hologram, so he would not see…

“Well,” the professor said, “asifomatic or not, let’s have a look at that automatic civilization. What is it doing?”

“It seems to have formed that second gas giant of this planetary system into a technological structure.”

“I see,” the professor said, “it looks like they have reached the super civilization stage. It looks like they have turned this planet into a supercomputer. Do you remember why civilizations in the super civilization stage are doing that, according to the theory of Prof. Bstrim?”

I was not really prepared for this question. But I knew Prtsh. He was always turning every conversation either into an examination or into a lecture. I had to trigger his lecture mode somehow. Now I remembered: “Physics has a limited complexity. Therefore super civilizations after some time complete the physical sciences. They exhaust that line of research. But the humanities are endlessly complex, so the whole computational power of the civilization is then turned into research in the humanities, i.e. the theory of intelligent species and their cultures. Since the original intelligent species has become extinct, such civilizations start large scale simulations.” Phew!, learning things by hart sometimes is a good thing. I was astonished I could recall this stuff after such a long time. Nobody believes in this old theory again and I had never thought about it again after preparing for that exam.

“Excellent, I might reconsider my thought of revoking your degree. Now, tell me, why do they need a gas giant to set up such a simulation?”

Now, this one was not so hard again. That is the famous theorem of Frnx. It states that a physical system accurately simulating another physical system must be larger in terms of energy or space than the simulated system. So if the spatial and temporal resolution of a simulation is increased, the computing machinery and the storage system at some point, the Frnx-limit, becomes larger than the simulated system. Simulating a single molecule of hydrogen completely, for example, takes a roomful of equipment, simulating a human being accurately enough for it to have a consciousness takes a computer the size of a city and simulating a planet like earth takes a planet like Saturn. I explained this to the professor.

“Correct! Now tell me, why does this super civilization here use this gas giant planet and transforms it into a simulator? Would it not be cheaper just to terraform a smaller planet and actually populate it with intelligent beings? They would just have to remove their technosphere from the original planet and return it to a more pristine state. They can relocated themselves to one of the other planets and terraform the original Earth.”

“Well, indeed, that is illogical. I guess it is because this civilization is not real, it is just a projection of my asifomat. It is an as-if-structure, a thought experiment. Just like that arch angel that visited me before.”

“Now you are beginning to show sense, Tsish. Although I don’t know what an arch angel is. So tell me, is it not a waste of time to look at Bstrim-type civilizations? The Frnx-theorem states, let me recapitulate:”

“Finally”, I thought, “the professor is going into lecture mode”. The professor started:

  1. A physical system with a limited size and energy content can only hold a limited amount of information (your Earthlings now that under the name of “Beckenstein-limit”, not so?).
  2. The natural laws describing the system’s development and the mathematical knowledge needed to calculate them are not contributing to the information content of a physical system, they are not information.
  3. But they are part of the information contained in the simulator.
  4. Any information requires physical resources to be stored.
  5. Any calculation requires physical resources, but the physical processes in a physical system are not processes of calculation.
  6. As a result, simulators require more resources than the simulated systems contain if the resolution of the system exceeds a certain limit, the system’s Frnx-limit.
  7. In order to simulate intelligent beings with a consciousness, your simulation must be beyond the Frnx-limit, because the intelligent beings will start to do science and look into minute details of their environment and physics and the simulation, therefore, needs to be very detailed.
  8. So it is cheaper to set up a real planet instead of simulating one. Terraforming beats simulation.”

The professor is like he is. He likes to lecture. The seminal paper of Frnx was, of course, known to me. Frnx had shown that terraforming a planet was cheaper, by several orders of magnitude, than simulating it, so Bstrim’s simulation theory was discarded.

“Now, Tsish, set your asifomat’s channel selector back to zero, please, to show me that you are a serious scientist and scholar. I actually had come to discuss your new book with you. The abstract you sent was quite interesting. You where describing interesting asifological phenomena. There was one thing called “Brxt”, not so? I did not understand the details. And what is this strange thing, what was the name? “Trmp”, or something like that? Seems to be an interiesting phenomenon, something like an as-if-structure-generator, as far as I have understood what you have written. Go to work. I expect your first chapter by the next period. I will come back soon, and please, switch off this green hologram nonsense, would you? I want a proper tele-presence!”

With a sizzling noise, the green hologram disappeared. “I am going to change it to a blue hologram”, I thought, “with buzzing static noise disturbances”. I switched the asifomat’s channel selector back to zero. The chunks in Saturn’s rings became blocks of ice again. The geometrical patterns in Saturn’s clouds disappeared, except for the hexagonal standing wave structure in its polar region I was just flying above, but that is a natural feature.

(The picture, showing the hexagonal pattern at the north pole of Saturn, is from


[1] The topic of asifomatics is the creation of as-if-constructions. If you are inside an as-if-construction, some things that actually do not exist when you are outside of it suddenly do exist, from your point of view. Viewed from the outside, these things only exist “as if”, but for an insider, they are quite real. The most interesting type are as-if-constructions that, when viewed from the inside, pretend not to be as-if at all (what is called “ideologies”). Entering them is like entering a trap. It is hard to get out again. Asifology is the science of as-if-constructions. You can build a device known as an as-if-o-scope. Using it, you can spot and analyze as-if-constructions. It is typical for cultures like that of planet Earth to have some very sophisticated asifomatics, but a rather underdeveloped asifology and asifoscope-technology. As a result, there are lots of complex and interesting as-if-structures, especially in the realm of what you people call politics.

5 thoughts on “Exam

  1. I am going to write some more comments on Nick Bostrom’s simulation theory (see on one of my other blogs, this is just a little by product. Actually, I think such simulations would run into several problems (e.g. from computational complexity theory and computability theory) besides the problem with the “Frnx-Limit” and the “Trifurcation problem” (i.e. the problem that it is much more likely for civilization to collapse). Bostrom’s argumentation rests on the assumptions that such simulations are possible, but there is reason to believe that he is wrong.

  2. As usual, a very interesting article.
    Still, I can’t get over the rat/squirrel & waking up in the middle of the night thinking about you & it.
    BTW… unless you did it on purpose, you have a broken link. I should be able to click on nannus when you comment, & get here. Not! Had to go into your Gravatar.

  3. Pingback: Are we living inside a computer simulation? – 2 | Philosophical Excavations

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