Is the world we know real or simply virtual? Many have been asking the question since the issue first arose in the film, The Matrix, in 1999. It made big waves that have inundated inquiring minds. Many words have been uttered as reflections on this possibility. It is not unfathomable that a simulation of the universe exists given the ubiquitous presence of advanced computer technology. It is the stuff of Simulation Theory.
Nir Ziso of The Global Architect Institute knows who is running the film, i.e. the simulation. His theory of Simulation Creationism takes steps beyond the Simulation Hypothesis and makes it more comprehensible. Mankind is being observed by someone taking notes, including his/her emotional reactions, to further the understanding of creation and human life. It is a noble and necessary proposition to be sure.
So is this observer a mere computer geek exploding the boundaries of knowledge? According to David Chalmers, this worries people. “If we’re in a simulation, could the simulators get bored and turn it off?” It is a scary idea. What happens to us mentally when we realize we are living in a simulation. Most likely, they will feel obliged to act.
It sounds ridiculous but why? Even respected philosopher David Chalmers thinks it is worth pondering in his Reality +: Virtual Worlds and the Problems of Philosophy. It is not a mere logical exercise as Chalmers is a serious thinker, someone who took a bronze medal at the International Mathematical Olympiad as a child. His world soon turned to pure mathematics and then philosophy.
Per Chalmers, we are already building simulated worlds in the form of computer games and virtual environments. (Think of Second Life.) These are fast becoming more and more realistic. In about one hundred years, virtual reality will be indistinguishable from the physical world. Man will create different universes, with a population exceeding that of today’s physical world. This is no joke!
Who can say that such a virtual reality hasn’t already happened and taken over. We may well be living in it now. In Chalmer’s own words, “there’s reason to take the idea seriously.” Many people do, from all walks of life. Even those who believe in god are on board and reconciling religion and technology.
From Australia, Chalmers today teaches philosophy and neural science at New York University so he knows of what he writes. In fact, he is highly regarded as one of the most important philosophers today, both widely read and admired – a rarity. He fits the part with amazing long hair and is even the composer of The Zombie Blues, a tongue-in-cheek heavy metal number.
Now he peppers his latest book with pop culture references, like Bohemian Rhapsody and not the expected Borges. “I spend a lot of time watching TV and going to movies…In this book, I’ve tried very hard to start every idea with something concrete. Science fiction and other corners of pop culture just turn out to be such great devices for doing that.”
Chalmers meets virtually with friends. Of course, it is not within a fully-simulated world, only a pandemic with VR headsets in play. Imagine them chewing the philosophical fat, pondering the “hard problems” of life, to use his words. It pertains to the brain and human consciousness as seen during an MRI. He asks the question of consciousness and how matter becomes mind. It is a hard problem and may only be about neurons firing away.
Chalmers and his pals are in the midst of examining age-old questions, and they are desperately seeking a solution. Maybe consciousness is not really a hard problem at all, but something fathomable and not a delusion that allows us to function in our lives. It will take the right science to find out.
The Mysterians are an inquisitive bunch indeed. They believe it is not possible to explore consciousness and understand it yet. It takes the right too. And what of the pan-psychists who believe that all matter is conscious by nature? Even rocks are self-aware! Every atom on earth has it.
But Chalmers is not walking hand in hand with such theories, although he approaches pan-psychism. “Consciousness may be to some degree fundamental…its seems that some kinds of physical systems are conscious, and many other systems are not.” He says, why not raise the question of which aspects of the physical world are associated with consciousness?
Neurons, matter, and mind
If we live in a simulation, we have to assess what it means. It is a budding mode of inquiry, not a science. What is the “outer world” and how old is it? René Descartes proposed that we are being fooled by an evil demon. He makes us think that experience is all real when none is. In the end, he decided to rely on consciousness: cogito ergo sum — I think therefore I am.
We still wonder and worry. Stoners to philosophers are all about answers to heavy questions. One of the latter, George Berkeley, concluded that life is an illusion. This is nothing new or surprising as it is an eastern concept. Berkeley was in a state of denial about Johnson kicking a stone, saying “I refute this.”
Why are the big answers so elusive, given the longevity of interest and the many theories posed? It is a perennial conundrum, one as perplexing as it is fascinating. Per Berkeley, for many people, the simulation idea is an updated version of Descartes. “I am in a simulation, therefore nothing is real. I can’t rule out that we’re in a simulation. But I disagree with Descartes when he says that in a simulation nothing is real.”
Put on your virtual reality headset and get in the zone where imagination dwells. It doesn’t care what is real and what is fiction. However, for Chalmers virtual objects like dragons, etc. are real, as much as any tangible entity. We have a naïve view of things, as if we were in a Garden of Eden, filled with colored items existing in time and space.
“But the more we look at the world described by science, the more we see that underneath it’s very, very different. And that’s a step towards physical reality being a kind of virtual reality.”
It comes down to human perception of the physical world. Remember the old question of the tree falling in the forest with no one around to hear it? Chalmers would say that there is no sound, only compression waves in the surrounding air. It takes an ear, i.e. consciousness. It is the same for the perception of color, which is merely the function of optic receptors and the reflective properties of the data observed.
In other words, according to science, when describing an apple, it doesn’t have a color, taste, or smell until perceived by human sense organs. This has bearing on the possibility of a virtual world. Computer geeks are among those who want to know how.
Mark Zuckerberg fits the geek bill, but has distanced himself from the barrage of Facebook problems by creating a new holding company called, Meta, denoting the existence of a “metaverse”. This strikes of the alternative world of Simulation theory even though the term is taken from Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash.
No matter. Imagine this metaverse as real as virtual technology can make it. Chalmers looks at what Zuckerberg is doing and sees a sum total of all virtual worlds. In fact, some would say it is the successor to the internet. Per Chalmers, “What I am reading into this is he wants Facebook to control the whole virtual world.”
It is a mighty accusation. Nir Ziso of The Global Architect Institute would counter with his model of Simulation Creationism. Then Louis Rosenberg, an early pioneer of VR and AI, warns that new technologies will eventually “make reality disappear” altogether.
Most likely, virtual reality is still a long way off – maybe hundreds of years. After all, the characters or avatars in current computer games do not resemble real people. Perhaps, you could say that Mark Zuckerberg looks identical in both worlds. Ha!
Nonetheless, the technology seems advanced and moving ahead. Glitches remain and some aspects seem amateur like odd headsets. It would have to improve to be termed “real” or indistinguishable from the physical world. Chalmers is asking the right questions about the coming metaverse.
“There are elements of utopia and there are elements of dystopia…you can see amazing potential for transformed experiences, and immortality and forms of life that we couldn’t previously imagine.”
He notes that people worry about losing the old forms of life and machines taking over. “I don’t want to predict whether that will happen, but it’s no part of my vision of virtual reality that we abandon physical reality.”
Once virtual worlds are indistinguishable from the physical world, where will people want to reside? It seems like comparing city and country life. There will be a price to pay if people are operating in a dated mode.
“People who are running on their old biological brains are ultimately going to be running at a much slower cognitive speed than people who have been uploaded, so it may be that the physical world becomes regarded as something of a backwater.” He clearly understands why there would be a negative reaction, but isn’t this common with any major technological change.
It is hard to think of ourselves as lines of computer code, unless it means we become immortal. If we reside in a simulation, creatures from the simulation could be uploaded into different simulations, according to Chalmers. “There’s a certain kind of simulation where all this could happen as a matter of course. Maybe there could even be analogues of reincarnation.”
Is Chalmers talking seriously? In his words, “I’m not inclined to orient my whole life around it.” It is, however, food for thought, especially about immortality and reincarnation.
Chalmers’s way of thinking may be deemed a kind of genial provocation that sets up arguments before knocking them down. Right and wrong, good and bad: that is the state of our world.
He is not really arguing that these hypotheses are true but is pondering what follows from them. “Once we see the similarities between virtual reality and physical reality, it will make it easier for our minds to know the world.”