Is Free Will Possible in a Simulated Universe?
The Simulation Hypothesis and Free Will
How many times have I vowed to never write about the simulation hypothesis again only to break that pledge? This is the how many-ith time by my count but I just can’t help it. Recently I read a post by resident crazy man (in a good way) and Mormon philosopher/physicist/mad scientist/irrational mechanic, Giulio Prisco that got me thinking about the topic again.
I have also started writing about the topic again recently publishing some semi fictional accounts of what a simulationist religion might look like (linked below).
Throughout his rantings he touches on the simulation hypothesis several times, suggesting that someday we will actually meet and possibly become the “Engineers” that control the base level ‘actual’ reality responsible for creating our experienced simulated reality. Once we do this we will have immense powers and will become like Gods ourselves able to bring back the dead even through feats of “space-time engineering.”
From what I can gather it appears he endorses the standard SH1 (simulation hypothesis 1) worldview in which both the universe and ourselves are 100% simulated. I admit to not having read much more than a few of his pieces that mention the topic so I may be oversimplifying, but no where have I seen any mention of SH2 or SH3 possibilities or partial simulations of any variety. In any event I intend to tackle this topic mostly from the perspective of an SH1 vision of the universe and our place in it. I fully realize that the question of free will in our own universe (assuming the standard model, we live in actual reality and are not simulated) has not been settled satisfactorily despite thousands of years of effort by some of the smartest people ever to have lived. However, for purposes of this discussion I am going to accept the question as answered in the affirmative and argue from the position that we do indeed have free will in our current (non simulated) reality. What I intend to discuss here is why I do not believe free will would be possible if SH1 were true. There is one major exception to this that I discuss. In order to really understand where I am coming from you need to have some background in the terminology I use when discussing the simulation hypothesis and its variants. The post below sums it up.
The Simulation Hypothesis and Possible Variantsmedium.com
Giulio and others, including myself from time to time, have remarked on the similarity between a simulated universe and standard religious theories of the universe and our place in it. At a deep level both conceptions of the universe argue that some creator(s) either set in motion or totally defined the universe at t=0. For SH1 proponents these creator(s) are ultra-intelligent aliens, or human beings from the far deep future, or the mythical “engineers.” For the religious the creator(s) is God. I am not certain I accept that the two are identical in as many ways as many SH1 proponents suggest but I do not intend to wade into that morass here. Instead I will simply say that yes it is indeed probable that the case I make against the possibility of free will in a simulated universe will hold for a universe created by God (the God of the religious on Earth or any other planet with intelligent life and religions that believe in a creator God being) . Sorry about that religious people but as an agnostic/atheist myself I’m not too worried about it. In fact I take some comfort in the fact that it appears as if only in a naturally occurring universe without a (creator) God could true free will really be possible.
First the major exception. In an SH1 universe in which the simulators act only as “first movers” true free could be possible. This is a similar or identical position that more secular creationists often take when arguing for a religious origin for the universe. In this view God (secular creationists) or simulators (simulationists) only “light the spark” that sets in motion the events that birth the universe. God or simulators only “set the stage”, essentially the initial conditions and then allow events to unfold following presumably natural/non God or simulator defined laws. There also needs to be some element of randomness built into the system to prevent meddling with future events. The fact that these “natural laws” do not exist prior to the creation of the universe is a big problem for this first mover view but I don’t intend to talk about that at length and will only mention that it seems hard to imagine a God or simulator taking such a huge risk and creating a universe with no advance idea what shape it will take in terms of the natural laws that will “evolve” within it. If they do have some foreknowledge than in my view true free will would not be possible though again that is a complicated argument that I will ignore. For the simulators one could imagine their greatest “minds” writing the “code” that when executed initiates a program that evolves in (at least partially or perhaps totally) random ways to create the universe and eventually ourselves within it. The massive risk this would be to their own existence and the stability of the multiverse itself (assuming a multiverse version of reality) is still a major problem in my view but assuming they could and did do that, then free will would presumably be the outcome. Since the simulators would have no foreknowledge of what the universe what look like, or what ourselves in it would be like, they would have no way of predetermining what will happen. Of course that does not mean they could not intervene at a later time of their choosing but if they did intervene in any way than free will is lost and our one exception collapses.
Why does any intervention in any way collapse free will entirely? This is the crux of my argument against freewill in any SH1 version of reality other than of the type described above. I view this as a very simple question with a straightforward and easy answer though many certainly do not and have written volumes arguing that it does not. Their reasoning is usually in defense of miracles or other interventions of God in man’s life. If any intervention collapses free will than miracles do, and thus in most major religions we do not have free will. I believe if any choice/act/decision we make can be “over-ruled” by the actions of a more powerful being or beings we do not have free will because the natural course of events has been altered and we had/have no choice in the matter. We have lost choice and thus we have lost free will. A “positive” miracle like raising of the dead might seem a great thing and it certainly is for the revived dead man, but what about for the men that chose to kill him? They lost their choice. Their choice was revoked and thus they lost free will. If one or any lose free will, all do. A simulated universe in which the simulators intervene in any way is the exact same. If they change the code to make something occur that would not have occurred in the natural or simulated but unmodified course of events free will is lost for all. Even if it only happens one time, to one person, or even to one animal, or plant, or rock, or atom. Any intervention results in the total loss of free will for all things for all time. Since I find it very hard to believe that simulators would create a universe and then never intervene in any way in its evolution I find an SH1 universe extremely unlikely to have free will.
The situation is complicated and different for SH variants, in particular the partial variants. In these scenarios I think free will more likely as the inherent variability/randomness built into the “unsimulated” portions of reality make intervention very risky and it is also not clear what impact intervention in the simulated portion would/could have on the real portion of the universe. As long as simulated portion intervention did not over-ride the natural course of events in the unsimulated portion free will could always still prevail. Of course would be the point of intervening if not to change outcomes, and why make a partially simulated universe if not to intervene. In the end we end up back at the same situation as in an SH1 universe with free will being unlikely but probably more likely then in SHI. I will stop there but I have only scratched the surface I think. Anybody have thoughts on where to go from here?