The idea that we we cannot prove that anything, including ourselves, actually exists as we think it does is as old as our race's ability to think. Indeed, I would argue that such questions arise from being able to think at all, part of our species' existential angst. In more recent times this type of question has been asked in ways more fitting to our times, ways more technological, in an era when the computing power necessary to simulate a life seems to be over the next horizon. Indeed, I am shortly going to argue that simulating the lives of people is something that we have been doing increasingly since the rise of the Internet in the early 1990s. Let's take a walk along my "continuum of simulation".
We start, at one end, with social media. Here people can create accounts and interact with friends but also complete strangers. Many people create these accounts without using their real names or giving out too many personal details. They are, it is often said, anonymous. In fact what they are doing is playing characters. Both here on Google and on Twitter I have accounts but do not use my real name. There I play a version of myself. But it's not the person you would meet in the flesh. The online version of me is both more confident and more harsh and this is likely because the scenario is not "real life" - where there are real life consequences for speech and action - but a mitigated form of the same. Sometimes real life impinges upon these characters using social media accounts, as when you insult someone you shouldn't and they take you to court. But, within certain parameters, everyone is basically happy to let you create who you want to be online and they play along.
Now we move along the continuum. There are other websites, porn sites perhaps or messaging sites, where some people take this creation of a character a bit further. They actually pretend to be people they are not. This is a real world form of role play and the thrill, in my case at least, is in convincing the person on the other end that you are who you say you are. (For the purposes of this blog the ethics of this is irrelevant.) This means that for the duration of the contact you are actually pretending to be someone you are not. Perhaps this is not even someone of the same gender as you. You can, I am sure, start to work out some of the possibilities for yourself. This is a step up from the social media persona that was sort of a version of you. We have moved to you playing at being someone else but whilst still being you.
And we move along the continuum again. Now we are playing role playing games (the computer kind), be it World of Warcraft, The Sims or Second Life, a website where people can go expressly to create themselves anew and interact with other people who are doing the same thing. The point at this stage of the continuum is that you are not you at all anymore in the fantasy worlds created. And we are slightly further along the continuum because, although everyone knows this is pretend, everyone acts and reacts in accordance with the rules of the virtual setting. One step down my continuum those pretending to be others could be found out at any time and then the reality dissolves. Here that isn't going to happen. Everyone accepts the situation they are in.
And along we move again. The next stage is that as is shown in the 1998 film, The Truman Show. This film, starring Jim Carrey, was about a guy whose whole life was being filmed and shown on TV. He thought he was living in the "real world" but, actually, he was living inside a bubble and being put on display for entertainment purposes. In the narrative of the film he starts to experience strange things and wonders what is going on. Reality finally hits him when he gets on a boat and literally bumps into the edges of the reality that has been created for him and where he has lived his whole life. The point at this stage is that he thought what was real was one thing but it wasn't. It was something else.
On we go to the next stage which is the world created in the film The Matrix. This film is very well known. The scenario here is that the whole human race is enslaved to machines who use their bio-energy as a fuel source. In order to keep them alive they are in essence fed a false life by direct neural connection. To those inside The Matrix everything seems completely real and they are completely shielded from what lies outside this experience. Only the fact that others have "woken up" and are able to disconnect others from this program stops every human being alive from being part of the great machine network. So good is this illusion, if illusion it be, that Cypher, one of the characters who has been freed from The Matrix, would rather be put back inside the virtual reality than face what is outside of it. This raises an interesting question in that life outside The Matrix is bleak and puts you into immediate conflict with the machines. Inside The Matrix you will live, to all intents and purposes, a normal life and your death will come when your usefulness has been served. But from your subjective perspective everything will be fine.
We have two more stages left as we head to the far side of my continuum. The next is one step up from The Matrix for, so far, we have been real physical people put into differing circumstances. But now we leave our mortal physicality behind. Imagine that you are no longer a physical being and that consciousness does not need carbon based life forms to exist (if, indeed, it does anyway). Imagine that consciousness, mind, can be a computer simulation, essentially a program, that runs on a super computer, the superest computer you can imagine. For the purposes of this stage of my continuum you also need to imagine that this computer simulates our whole universe and that NONE of it physically exists except as mathematical processes inside this computer. So you, your world, your friends, your experience, your thoughts and everything else are just someone else's simulation. There are no "laws of nature" for there is no nature to find. There is no "waking up" because you don't exist physically. You, your world and everything is governed by lines of code and you are, perhaps, part of the simulation of some more advanced version of ourselves or of some being we cannot yet imagine.
And so we reach the far side. The final stage in my continuum does away even with the computer and the program. Now I want you to imagine that all there is is just a great consciousness, a mind. That mind is reality and we, our world and our universe are the thoughts of this great mind. Again, in this scenario we are not physical things. Nothing we do or experience is physical either. We exist only as thoughts in this unimaginably great mind. There is nothing physical in existence either inside or outside of this mind. This is the opposite thesis to most of the prevailing thought in human science which regards all phenomena as physical. The scientifically-minded philosopher, Daniel Dennett, for example, thinks that consciousness (which seems incorporeal) does not exist at all but is merely an illusion. Here I am completely turning this around and saying it's the physical that doesn't exist and the consciousness, a thing we all experience, which does. For all we know this mind imagines numerous other universes and people and things too. But, for our purposes here, it is enough to know that we are just thoughts in this mind. Perhaps this mind likes to think things to learn about itself and we are the means it uses to do so? Who knows?
So that is my continuum. We go from being characters on social media to being the thoughts in some great mind. We go from being us in our physical universe with its scientists looking for the hardwired laws that make it work, to being thoughts in an incorporeal existence. Now one problem we get as we come nearer to the end of my continuum is that people think they would instinctively know if the world and the life they experienced was not real. And they thus dismiss it without really filling out why. I imagine this is because they don't really know why. But let's ask why. Perhaps they think of The Truman Show where there are hidden cameras to be found or The Matrix where there are glitches that point to something else?
The thing is, these are just films and those things are just plot points. Much more pertinent to the point here is the millions of people in The Matrix who never wake up and who Morpheus doesn't care about finding because he doesn't think they are The One. They have their reality and are presumably more than happy with it. They don't know of anything else outside it. The reality they have wasn't designed to let them know there was more. How do we know that our reality isn't a similar thing? How could we find out? How could you yourself prove that there was nothing more to find? Is it impossible that we are someone's or something's "Life On Earth 2.0" program running on their future computer or even that we are a character being played by someone else? Do The Sims know that they aren't real? Or do The Sims only know and do as they are required to do by the program that brings them into existence?
It does not seem too outlandish to imagine a future computer simulation that could completely fool simulated human beings into thinking that they were independent life forms in a genuine universe. After all, it is easy to show that actual human beings are easy to fool. Even at the early stages of my continuum you can very easily fool people that things are not as they seem. There are several people right now, for example, that I'm sure are completely convinced that the person they talk to online is a 25 year old busty German girl called Sabine. But this isn't correct. They are talking to me who is neither busty nor German nor a girl. So if people can be so easily convinced of things that are so obviously not true then how much easier might it be to convince them from birth that everything they experience is real and a certain way when the circumstances are quite different? If you had lived 40 years in just one world with one form of life I expect that everyone would be certainly convinced of its reality. Such would be very normal indeed. It would be expected to be regarded as sane in that world. You are regarded as sane right now because you think the world we share now is real. But is it? Surely if it were a simulation thinking this was real would be exactly what we were programmed and expected to think? We get no further forward in discerning its reality simply by being completely sure that it is. In fact, that's just a function of our being in it. Here something that the 20th century's greatest philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, said strikes home:
The difficulty is to realise the groundlessness of our believing
For if you can concede that a simulation might be possible then, logically, you have to concede that it might be possible now and that you are (in) a simulation. After all, you must admit you do not know all of life's circumstances. Everyone concedes that our knowledge is both fallible and limited. So it is a logical possibility that we are ourselves living in a simulation and this thought cannot be escaped. Indeed, there are genuine philosophers and scientists who study this issue as part of their daily professional lives. And what of the concept of the great mind that thinks everything that "is"? Well, we cannot logically discount that possibility either. Descartes said that he thought and therefore he was. But maybe he was the thought of something greater than he could imagine. And so was his thought too!
So there is no way to escape the possibility of these things. They could be true. We just don't know. And so it behooves us to ask what, if anything, follows from this. It seems to me that many things follow from this but none of them are really of any great consequence and, as a philosophical pragmatist, I have been taught that truths that don't make that much difference to anything aren't really worth much time or effort. But, nevertheless, let's think it through a little more.
If we are a simulation of a person, if all our world is simulation, then so what? Pain still hurts if its the physical consequences of a physical cause or the result of a line of code telling us to feel something when certain things happen. Injustice is still injustice in the context of the system in which it takes place. Life, death, disease, happiness, everything we experience, still has the same functions and meanings in terms of ourselves and our social and cultural networks. Of course, you may say that there is something beyond that we don't know and this is true. But what, if anything, could we do about it? In both the computer simulation and the pure consciousness scenario there is practically nothing to be gained by becoming aware that you are a simulation - save that the great mind or whoever might be running the simulation finds something worthwhile in that fact. But there is nothing to suggest this changes the context or circumstances of your life in any way at all. And, crucially, you can never become physical because you weren't physical to begin with. So what do I say to this? I say, don't worry about it. Even if it's true, it's of little consequence. Whether you are a physical being in a physical universe or the thought of a mind you are in both cases not in control of anything really and, in each case, only in the terms of the system you are a part of. Whatever your universe is, you are at it's mercy.
PS There is a postscript to my thought on this subject. As I was thinking about it I took, for a moment, the position of the being running the computer simulation or of the great mind. I asked myself what their relationship was to their simulation and to those of us in it, convinced of our reality. I came to thinking of it in terms of what is called "The Problem of Evil". This is a philosophical/theological question related to the existence of god. Briefly, it goes like this: if there is a god who made and runs everything that is then why is it that he allows terrible suffering and death? Why are children abused by pedophiles and others tortured or raped? Why do people die of painful diseases and starvation? Why do others suffer terribly with mental illness for decades without relief? In short, if there is a god why does he allow bad things to happen?
And then the answer hit me. Its because god is like you or I playing Grand Theft Auto. If we drive down the street and blow away some street prostitutes with machine guns we feel no sorrow or moral consequence for that. It's just a game. It's not real. So why wouldn't god or the computer simulation player or the great mind feel the same way about us? And who could blame them if they did?
Thank you very much for reading.