Is reality a simulation? Some preliminary thoughts

The world has become captivated by the idea that we may be living in some sort of ‘matrix’, ever since the fact that Elon Musk believed this to be the case became a popular meme. Are we really living in a computer simulation? And more to the point, what would the implications of this be for us?

First, a couple of reasons why an increasing number of scientists believe such a thing. One reason is that they have looked at the way reality is built up, the building blocks of everything. They believe that there is a parallel to draw between the nature of the basic construct of the world in terms of building blocks, but also in computer hardware. Binary on/off functions, pixels and atoms; the closer you look at things, the more it all seems so alike. In greater number, and in greater combination, you get greater variability in life, and also in greater number you get greater variability in computer hardware. The way and degree of variability are qualitatively similar.

Another reason is the limits of variability in the world. Everything operates within strict confines of nature, just as things operate within the encoded rules of a computer program. There is no way a character within a video game can ever do anything beyond the pre-designated rules of that game, and in the same way, we are governed by the limits of our nature, and the nature of the world. As with computer programs, those operations and limits seem to follow patterns. It is also worth noting that when scientists have created computer simulations, the patterns that govern ‘life’ inside of the simulations more and more closely follow the patterns of life in the real world, the details getting closer and closer in quality, and the difference in the ‘binary’ information of computer simulations and real life seem so strikingly similar in quality and pattern that it seems ‘too good to be true’ that we are not in a computer program.

One more reason that people believe this is simply in the fact that humans have the propensity to create real-life facsimile simulations. Look at video games- in 30 years, we moved from Pong to Skyrim and Call of Duty. We have virtual reality headsets and flight simulators. Kids play games like The Sims, where they ‘play God’ with the life of a pretend family in a pretend house, one could say that this is the computer-generated version of ‘doll house’ playtime. The level of interaction is greater, as is the quality of it, and the closer it gets to real life experience. It seems unlikely that it will be long before it gets to a point where ‘real life and ‘computer life’ are readily discernible. For a short video explaining Musk’s simulation theory, CLICK HERE (3 mins) , and for a longer one, CLICK HERE (16 mins).

My interest from here on will not be in taking either side of the debate, simply in showing how it is interesting. The first question I want to ask is “what difference would it actually make to us if we were a simulation, or were in a simulation?”. Some people believe that if this world is not effectively ‘real’, then the things we do in this life don’t actually matter. If this chair I am sitting on, or this body I am living in, are not real, how do I relate to them? I would argue that it is a mistake to see these issues as a problem. In real life, we may have contact with the outside world, but we are never completely sure of our physical ontology. We are sure of a relation between ourselves and the object we focus on, yes, but what sureness we really have is in fact the experience of a relation between the perceiver and the object. This is not to deny that the object exists, but it does not exist TO US, what exists is the experience of the object existing, as and when we perceive it. It is an essential fact of matter that the idea of the object in our heads and the object in the world, even when in perceptual correspondence, are not one and the same. Nor are they connected entirely. When we are remembering the object, we can never be sure it is really there, common sense simply allows us to conclude that it does. The only constant is the experience we have in our head of the outside world. What I wish to draw from this is that in both cases, the ‘real world’ and the ‘computer simulation world’, all we can really ever own are the experiences of the world, not the world. If quality and kind of experience are phenomenologically the same, or effectively the same, then it will never make a difference to us. In either cases, all we have is our experiences, and we will never get beyond those experience.

Another item I find interesting is the comparative values between a ‘simulated world’ worldview and a ‘religious world’ worldview. Think of the Genesis creation myth in the Christian bible, in six days God created the earth and everything in it, everything is named, meanings and natures are bestowed to these things. This world exists for us as we live it, under the conditions we know about it. However, one day this world will come to an end. The apocalypse myth in Revelations. The earth destroyed, souls weighed, some souls going up, some souls going down. No longer longer is this current existence of value. Instead, It is of a temporal value. If this existence is only true at present, but extant for the purpose of our transience, it is effectively superficial. In both the cases of the Christian ontology and the ‘simulation’ ontology, the world is superficial, it is created for us to have experiences and to ‘act’ within the confines of a demarcated metaphysic, fully within the knowledge that all that mattered was the experience.

There is the question of afterlife. It may be objected that this world was real because it led on to another life, and this and the next world are real and connected like two days connected by sleep. But that does not take away the fact that the first one was created solely for the second one, it was a ‘primer’ to condition the outcomes of the second one, and that the second one, once extant, becomes the only real reality. One might also add that if you can have a ‘simulation’ Christian creation-myth based world, why can’t you have a ‘simulation’ heaven or hell? As Descartes said in book four of The Meditations, our will and imagination may not be limitless, but they stretch so far that they are beyond anything we could ever effectively need, and our will and imagination are therefore effectively limitless. If this is true, and it is hard to deny, then heaven or hell would not be problematic being simulations since we would not be capacious of perceiving the limits of the afterlife any more than the current life. If an afterlife exists, this reality could only ever be a simulation. What about the fact that this would is of tangible substance? That hardly seems to matter. One can take a functionalist view of the world. Suppose one would say that a brain is a mind because it generates consciousness, if you created a brain which was also a mind in that it generated consciousness, but you did it out of silicone, you would still agree that either (a) it was a brain, or (b) it was no different from a brain. In the same way, the simulated world and the Christian world are effectively the same.

One further point about the construct of reality can be found in the philosopher Spinoza. Spinoza believed that God was in everything, that everything was God. However, it wasn’t God entirely. Instead, he believed that objects within life were ‘modes’ of the greater reality, ultimate God. Effectively there is one true reality, which is then divided into modes of reality, which are ways that that ultimate divine nature can be brought to the phenomenologically ontological level to become perceptual states of the transcendent nature of life. It is similar in ways to the Jewish belief of the Ein Sof, the pre manifested state of God, becoming manifest in the world as extended ‘fragments’ of God’s self. The ‘modes’ of reality, everything around us, is something manifest from Ein Sof. This idea makes perfect sense in ‘simulation’ theory, the raw data is Ein Sof, each object of ‘simulation world’ becomes a ‘mode’ of God.

Let’s talk for a moment about philosophical ‘zombies’, (zombies being a posited idea in the field of the philosophy of mind in which we imagine people who are the same as us but without consciousness). I have conscious experience of the world, sure, but I can never be certain that other people also do. Suppose I can hypothetically create robots which look the same as humans, act the same as humans, and are in no way perceptibly different from other humans. Would it then matter that they didn’t have (we would assume they didn’t have) consciousness? We could never know. For all I know, I may be the only person alive who has consciousness, and everybody else functions, but without consciousness. Their bodies, like mine, take in experiences, process those experiences computationally, then output behaviour. My mind, and only my mind, has experiences of the world. It sounds unlikely, and almost definitely isn’t true, but we can never know so for sure. However, here’s one interesting point- if the world was a simulation, and was created to be the same as life as we envision it necessarily is, then if my consciousness still emerged, it would seem clear that consciousness was necessary. However, it would be worth considering the flipside of this, that some would object on the grounds that if this world was a simulation, it could be a simulation, in my head (in my sole consciousness), a simulation to me, and for, me. However, if that was the case, we would not be living within a simulation, but a simulation would be projected in us, and therefore wouldn’t be what we are discussing.

Robert Nozick had an interesting thought experiment in which he considered a machine which you could choose to step into. If you did so, you would live out the rest of your life in this machine experiencing life as you would most greatly desire your life to be. The big question is, would you step into the machine? Surprisingly, most people actually answer ‘no’ to this question. (To watch a short video on this experiment, CLICK HERE). This experience machine has an interesting implication to the metaphysics of the ‘real’ and simulated worlds. In the ‘real’ world, to step into the machine would be to step outside of life, into a synthetic replica of life, whilst the real world carried on without you. However, if you were in a simulation, you would not be stepping outside of life, your experience of life, or your projected reality, would simply change in some way. Would you be more likely to step into the machine if you were only living in a simulation? It would, for all intents and purposes, simply be like taking a powerful, but supposedly unharmful, drug. In taking a drug, whether it is MDMA, LSD or cannabis, we are still within the world, but our experience of the world changes. We could be rendered unable to participate with this world whilst under the influence of this drug, however. Therefore, we could ask whether taking a drug would be analogous to stepping into Nozick’s machine from the ‘real’ world or the ‘simulated’ world. Is the deciding factor a matter of duration of experience? Is it a matter of the fears perceived in the precarious nature of a machine? However, the machine is an arbitrary concept, we could use any other idea to fulfill its role.

One more possibility regarding our perception of the simulated world is that our experience of it can conform to Freud’s concept of The Uncanny (CLICK HERE). The reason that we distrust the ‘simulation’ world is because it relates to our world so closely, except that there is something palpably, but unknowably different about our world, namely that it is NOT our world. Even if it in fact is our world, as people like Elon Musk believe, it is never exactly our world whilst we project the idea that it is a different world. Freud’s Uncanny explains why people find phenomena like ghost stories and china dolls frightening- they are the same as our world, except in some (usually) imperceptibly different way. This creates an unease in us. The object becomes, ‘unhomely’. If this ‘simulated’ world is not our real world, it could be an Uncanny idea to us. If it is our real world, then life as we know it is Uncanny to us. We could be projecting our real world as an idea separate from us, so that we are living a projected reality, and removing the ‘real’ reality as the Uncanny, fanciful life. The idea that life is a simulation, unless confronted, could lead some to a sort of ontological dysphoria, in which we separate ourselves from what we refuse to believe. In this case, what really is (IF Musk is right). What we can consider, however, is that whether it is true or not, it leads us to some very interesting philosophical questions about our own life. 

8 thoughts on “Is reality a simulation? Some preliminary thoughts

    1. Thank you! I enjoyed your post very much, it’s given me some read food for thought! One thing I wonder about is the nature of the ‘simulation’. In the case that everyone is in it, they are on the same metaphysical plane, and therefore have the same values. Happiness and suffering would have to be ‘real’ and shared, publicly projected. However, if the ‘simulation’ was individual, as you posit, we would each have metaphysically universal value in our own experiences. My experience of the world is real to me, but the bad and good things in the world are only real to me in terms of my phenomenal understanding of them, not intrinsically to the things and ‘people’ causing them. This doesn’t need to be a fault in the system at all, but it would interestingly entail that metaphysics were individuated to each person in their ‘simulation’. That is fascinating. 😊 it’s nice to see likeminded people with likeminded ideas!

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    1. I’m not sure I’ll ever completely make my mind up. I don’t believe in Plato’s form theory completely. I’m not sure one could call the nature behind a thing an imperfect form of something else. But here’s where I am with it at present-
      We can have an idea of something, let’s say apples. We see a red apple and have an idea of what the true nature of apples is. Then we see a green apple, then a red and green apple, then a larger, then a smaller apple. I don’t believe that this gets us closer to what the ‘true nature’ of the apple could be. There is something they all share in, apple-ness, sure, but I don’t think this is a higher nature, just a taxonomy. Perfection and higher understanding are intrinsic to each individual instance of ‘apple’, and each has its own individual values. What’s great about it isn’t what it could become, or how we could conceive it, but what it is.
      As far as it goes with ideas and language in the world, I tend to agree with the modern French school. I think each instance of meaning is meaning anew, unable to exist, in part, without the identity of a) the user of the words/ideas, and b) the reader of the words. I don’t believe we ever have a higher order of these things to reach because they change meaning and fit each individual use best. What, in fact, would be the point in a perfect meaning? We’d never be able to use it because context would condition it away from ‘perfection’ (as Plato would of thought of it). I’m much more inclined to side with Aristotle. I think ideas are created, as they are used, we climatize to them and they become much more broadly understood for what they are in how they are used, however, that meaning changes and evolves. I don’t believe that we have a nature to meet with a meaning. What do you believe? 😊

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  1. ” Critique of Pure Reason (A383): Cf. Kant ‘—– if I were to take away the thinking subject, the whole corporeal world would have to disappear, as this is nothing but the appearance in the sensibility of our subject and one mode of its representations.”

    Do you agree or disagree and why?

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  2. Intriguing ideas. We dealt with the simulation theme a few years back. As to reality, or is this world really (truly) real, consider the concept of Maya from Indian philosophy. Ultimately, this world is an illusion in the sense that it is not eternal, is transitory and merely physical. This world is not on the spiritual plane of existence.

    When we suffer here in this world, it feels real enough.

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