This continues the discussion of the nature of reality from my previous post about how the observer effect is frequently misinterpreted.
Physicists hewing to an overly-enthusiastic Copenhagen interpretation misinterpret what is meant by observation when they don’t realize we have no idea what “conscious observer” could possibly mean. Where in the brain is consciousness? When might something be “consciously observed?” Is a human soul required for consciousness (The Flicker Men by Ted Kosmatka is an entertaining exploration of that question)?
Some philosophers misinterpret the observer effect because they don’t realize that “observation” simply means a quantum event is converted to a macro-event by interaction with the rest of the universe.
I’ve read articles where people extrapolate their misunderstanding of the observer effect to deny the basic objective reality of the universe. There are two common ways in which this is done: 1) by speculating that the universe is a simulation (the Matrix model); or 2) by suggesting that nothing is real except their own experience (the Descartes model).
Objective reality, the fact that stable matter actually exists and interacts with other matter in a consistent way, should be considered one of the true wonders of the universe (some people already do). Now that we’ve invented sophisticated computers and gaming systems, it’s not so hard to imagine how we could all just be programs running on an even more advanced CPU. The idea is attractive because it is almost possible to understand, to relate to things in our own world.
But its attraction is deceptive. Let’s imagine it was true, that we live inside a sophisticated simulation and we have no way to prove that we are simulated, except perhaps by “breaking out” of our coded environment. Until we break out, everything about our reality seems perfectly real to us. Now we break out to a “higher level.” We wake up in a different reality, knowing that we were inside a simulation, but now we’re not. Now, we’re outside in “reality.”
Or are we?
By definition, until we “break out,” we have no way to prove that our reality is simulated. Therefore, we have to consider the possibility that we have simply broken out into a “higher level” simulation. We should immediately attempt to break out into yet a higher level. Once/if we do, we should immediately start trying to break out to a higher level.
Where does it end? Does it end? Is it simply simulations all the way up? How would you ever know that you’d reached “reality” at the top level?
This highlights the logical endless regression inherent in the view that we live in a simulation. It doesn’t disprove it, but it suggests that it’s unlikely. One reality makes sense, infinite realities make sense, two (or some other small number) doesn’t make sense.
Some people extend the idea of living inside a simulation so far, that they claim the only thing they can know exists is their own mind. As René Descartes said, when trying to demonstrate his own existence, “Cogito ergo sum.” (I think, therefore I am.) Descartes may have found this satisfying, but I find it surprising anyone would be comforted by it today.
First, one’s mental experience is limited to themselves. If you were to make the claim, “I think, therefore I am” and hope that would convince me of your existence, I have no experience of your thinking to substantiate your claim. Second, with all we know about how fallible the human experience of reality actually is, how memories of experiences can be “hacked.” Dreams, schizophrenia, and hallucinatory drug experiences add to the idea that the human experience of reality is very plastic, indeed.
In the Deplosion series, I introduce Cybrids, electromechanical beings that combine autonomous robotics, artifical intelligence, and download of human mental structures. Although they are distinctly non-human, the Cybrids lead very rich, human lives in their various virtual worlds (inworlds). The Cybrid mental structure is built on concepta and persona components just like the human mind.
The concepta is the set of conceptual structures representing knowledge and beliefs while the persona is composed of experiential memories, personal preferences, and emotional/behavioral tendencies (those things that define a person separate from what they know or believe they know).
In The Reality Incursion, we meet Timothy, a Partial person who has served for millenia as a footman in a special entertainment inworld. He’s a Partial because he has only a simple concepta and persona, only what’s needed to act as a servant in the Victorian era inworld. Through a series of strange events, he becomes fully instantiated, a Full. At the same time, he is transported to a very rich simulation of twenty-first century Earth, called Alternus.
There he is taken in by Darya, an ancient Cybrid who designed Alternus to aid in her rebellion against Alum, the Living God. In the following excerpt, Darya tries to convince Timothy that their world actually is a simulation and that a greater objectively-real universe lies outside.
Darya picked up the cup she’d been ignoring for the past few minutes, and took a sip of the now cool tea. “This part is a little complicated.”
“More complicated than all this?” The man looked out at the city around them.
“Much more complicated, I’m afraid.” Darya looked into Timothy’s eyes with compassion, and a little regret. “This world isn’t exactly…real…and neither am I. At least not in the way you think.”
“I’m confused, Miss.” Timothy rapped twice, softly, on the table top. “It certainly seems real to me.”
“Yes, well, I made it that way. Do you see?”
It was Timothy’s turn to laugh. “Come, now, Miss. I realize that you are an important person in this city. But you are hardly the Creator and Lord now, are you?”
Darya’s face stayed serious. “Actually, for this world, I am.”
Timothy couldn’t hide his confusion. His mouth formed a silent, breathless, “Oh,” and he left it at that, for fear of what else might tumble out.
“You see, Timothy,” Darya explained, “the real universe, what we call the outworld, is a very different place from here. In that universe, my body looks much like the DonTon Securitors, only a little bigger. My people are called Cybrids. Outside, we appear to be mechanical beings. Inside, our minds, our thoughts, our feelings, are completely human.”
“Outside where?” Timothy managed.
“Outside of this simulation. You see, this world is basically a computer program running on sophisticated hardware, a program that I wrote. Think of it like a dream, or a game. Perhaps you’ve played a board game in DonTon?”
“In my spare time, I like to play chess sometimes.”
“Okay, that’s good. Now, imagine a chess game so sophisticated that you ‘become’ the King. That you dream yourself to be one of the pieces on the board.”
Timothy screwed up his face and tried to imagine the scenario Darya had painted. “That would be very strange, indeed,” he said.
“That’s what all of this is. An enormous and complicated board game, where all the pieces think they’re people who live inside the game.”
A light came on in Timothy’s eyes. “Ah, I see. It is all a game. We are not real, none of us. And nothing else is, either? It only looks that way to us?”
“That’s right,” answered Darya.
Timothy’s face grew concerned. He held up his index finger to make a point. “Except, if I were to pop out of this world, then, how would I know whether I was still dreaming, living out some other game? And likewise, yet another and another, in layer after layer of games? What if we never really wake up?”
Darya was amazed the man had jumped to that conclusion so quickly. “That idea, that nothing is ever real, has been discussed among philosophers many times. How do we know it’s not just simulations all the way up?”
“For that matter, how do I even know you are real? I can tell I am real, but how do I know that I am not dreaming you, and all of this, right now?” The man was clearly agitated with the idea.
“That notion is called Solipsism,” Darya replied, “the idea that only I exist, and everything else is some kind of dream of my making. It doesn’t make much sense if you think about it.”
“There are many ways to refute Solipsism, but the most direct way is to appeal to reality, objective reality. This is often the best way to clarify many philosophical issues. In its early days, philosophers seemed to think that because they could say a thing, it had explanatory power. Now, we know that comparing a thought with objective reality is really the best way to arbitrate the truth.”
“My head is already hurting,” Timothy objected, only partially in jest.
“I will make this as clear and painless as possible,” promised Darya. “Let’s examine the two claims that make up Solipsism.
“First, my self is the only reality. There is no objective reality outside of my self.
“Second, like in dreams, there may be different levels that my self creates. I may dream in my dreams, but none of these levels are objectively real. They don’t exist outside of my self. Does that make sense? Does it sound right?”
“Well, I have not heard of this Solipsism so I cannot speak to that, but what you said does seem to cover the issues I have.”
“Great. Let’s start with the first point. How can I prove to you that I exist independently of your self?”
“I don’t see how you could. Maybe I’m just dreaming you and this entire conversation.”
“I will agree. Within the confines of philosophy, there’s no way to reason yourself out of this. So, let’s appeal to objective reality. In this case, I know what you are. You are a cognitive program, with a conceptual network and set of memories, preferences, capabilities, and inclinations running on hardware I designed. I understand everything about what makes you Timothy.”
“And here I thought I was a bit of a mystery to you,” Timothy joked.
“Only because I choose not to intrude on your privacy,” Darya replied, completely serious. Timothy’s smile faded.
“There is an objective reality here in the Alternus inworld sim, one that I control. I can cause a change in that reality that you neither anticipate nor understand, one that you would not and could not choose for yourself. This will demonstrate to you that I am an independent agent inside this reality and, therefore, I also exist. Now, let’s see…Okay, there.”
Timothy grabbed the sides of his chair in shock. In the blink of an eye, the world had gone from mid-afternoon to night. The terrace was dark except for the lights by the sliding glass doors, and the city sparkled with streetlights and neon signs. “Are you really God? Did you make the sun move in the sky?” His voice trembled with fear and confusion.
Darya remained casual and relaxed. Her tone felt reassuring, if not her explanation. “No, not at all. I simply stopped your processing for a few inworld hours. While I waited for the sun to set, you were on pause. For that period of time, I existed inworld. You…weren’t here.”
“You see, I understand the mechanics of your thinking, and I can alter it while it’s running on my hardware. The mechanics of who and what you are is part of the objective reality I was talking about.
“It makes no difference what your opinion, belief, or understanding of this reality is. The objective external reality that this world is all a simulation is real, despite anything that you or anyone here may think to the contrary.
“I know there is no way you would have chosen to simply not be conscious for that period of time. Even if you did choose it, you don’t know how to adjust the system to make it so. I do, and so I did. Therefore, I exist. There is something in the universe besides just you. Solipsism is disproved by an objective reality greater than and outside your self.”
Timothy tried to follow her reasoning. Despite experiencing things he already had a hard time believing could happen, the simple action of being turned ‘off’ and back ‘on’ shook him to his core. “Alright,” he allowed, “say that I accept the first proposition. You exist. How can you prove that both of us are not living a dream inside a dream?”
“That is a little easier,” smiled Darya. “This inworld, Alternus, is a simulation, a dream. I have an objective existence outside of it in the real universe. Just like I understand the mechanism of my thinking and consciousness here, I understand it outside. All that I’ve done is redirect the source of my perceptions and the result of my actions, and I’ve shifted my processing software.
“The early philosophers didn’t understand the mechanism of cognition and consciousness. They couldn’t see it as something that emerged from hardware plus processes or algorithms. They had to make up all sorts of crazy things, like ethereal souls, energy, and magic to explain their conscious experience.
“We don’t have to do that anymore as we understand the mechanics of consciousness. We know, no matter how many levels ‘up’ you go, somewhere there is a real processing substrate that is running the processes you think of, and experience as, consciousness.
“Now, in our case, I happen to know there is only one level ‘above’ this present one, an objective reality with my quantum processors running my conscious experience. At least, once I move my concepta and persona out of the inworld hardware.”