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Is Reality, as We Know It, a Simulation?

And why this question is unanswerable

Duncan Riach, Ph.D.
Feb 7 · 5 min read

It seems to be fashionable right now to ponder whether we are living in a simulation. Tech moguls have been reported to do it in hot tubs. I’m doing it at 6 am in an Airbnb in Marin County, California. Before we begin, I think it’s really important to distinguish between two possible major hypotheses: (A) what seems to be happening is a simulation but “we” are not, and (B) everything that seems to be happening is simulated, including “us”. Let’s break these down a little, one by one.

Hypothesis A: This is Virtual Reality (VR)

In this hypothesis, somewhere there is an “real”, non-simulated organism that possibly contains something brain-like, a sort of “natural” processor that instantiates the sense of selfhood, a mechanism that receives input and produces output and also possibly witnesses that process and has a sense that it exists as a conglomeration of phenomena apart from everything else that seems to be happening.

In this hypothesis, either that brain actually exists inside what we think of as our head, or it exists in some other place and is wired up to an input/output interface, enabling it to experience a simulated reality. If the reality we experience is simulated, then what that root brain is interacting with could be an arbitrary number of simulation levels down. For example, in the first layer of simulation, the brain could be wired up to experience a second layer of simulation. This process could continue ad infinitum and we could be experiencing reality, probably very inefficiently, at whatever the lowest current layer is.

In this model, there is a consciousness peering through from a root reality into whatever simulation level this is. As an aside, I have to reveal that I’m personally not a big proponent of the idea of consciousness in the first place. I think it’s a myth created by a sufficiently complex pattern recognition machine, an illusive shadow imagined to be somehow behind or beyond the simplicity of what seems to be happening.

Proponents of this hypothesis posit, based on how we see technology advancing in our potentially synthetic world (or worlds), that technology will always advance to the point where sentient beings will become immersed inside a simulated sub-reality. Then, those beings living in a simulated world will themselves develop technology sufficiently sophisticated to allow them to become immersed in a synthetic world (or worlds) of their own creation. The argument is that, assuming that any one of these civilizations does not destroy itself before becoming totally immersed in a sub-reality, then we could be any number of simulated layers deep. Speaking statistically, if we’re sampling from all possibilities, and assuming that all our assumptions are correct, then it’s infinitely more likely that what we’re experiencing is simulation than not.

Hypothesis B: We Are Artificial Consciousnesses (AC)

This is another possibility that I’ve not heard others talk about much. I also suspect that when people talk about “us” being simulated, they usually really mean that our bodies are simulated in whatever simulation level we’re in (as in hypothesis A).

What I’m talking about here is that we are artificial consciousnesses. This means that there is no self peering through from a higher-level, root reality. The sense of self is arising spontaneously in this current level. The thoughts and feelings that are appearing are interpreted by sophisticated pattern matching as being for and about someone. When action happens, this artificial consciousness assumes this it is initiating it.

In this model, there isn’t really anyone. There is just a computer simulation running that includes an experience of something being separate from what seems to be happening.

Hypothesis C: The VR/AC Hybrid

Now, of course, it’s possible that there is a hybrid of the two first hypotheses. There might be trillions of nested virtual worlds that root consciousnesses are peering into, and then at some point someone creates an artificial consciousness in a synthetic sub-world and the possibilities branch at that level. Some sub-worlds could contain no artificial consciousnesses and some could only instantiate consciousnesses peering in from a higher level.

But why would they have to be just one or the other? Root consciousnesses could be peering into a sub-layer that also contains its own artificially created root consciousnesses. Using the statistical argument I expressed earlier, a possibly infinite number of layers would contain an arbitrary mixture of freshly created artificial, or “fake,” consciousnesses mixed with an arbitrary number of “real,” or at least passed-down, consciousnesses. We are infinitely more likely to be experiencing a sub-layer, and to be an artificial consciousness, than to be experiencing the root layer and to be a natural consciousness (whatever that might be).

In fact, there is no reason to assume that this would even start occurring at lower levels. It could could happen at any level. Even in the root level there could be artificial consciousnesses and those could be peering down through to the level that we’re experiencing now.

Why We Can Never Really Know

All of this wonderful mental masturbation might feel good, and possibly serves some kind of emotionally-motivated intended positive outcome such as signaling intelligence, avoiding uncomfortable feelings, or as a mating ritual. However, it contains one massive flaw.

All of the prior argumentation leads to the conclusion that we are almost certainly experiencing a simulated world, whether or not “we” are in any sense “real” or not. However, this whole argument is then based on a set of axioms that are, by definition, wholly synthetic.

There is no way to know if the world that we experience has any relationship to the layer above it. In fact, even if differences were only due to slight coding errors, over trillions of layers those errors would amplify into astronomical differences. It’s also possible that virtual realities, and artificial consciousnesses, are designed to appear, behave, and perceive completely unlike in the layer above. For example, on at least one level I bet that everything is about sex. Wait.

It’s hard to imagine what I’m referring to, and we’re actually limited by the constraints of this reality. So there’s no real thinking outside of this. However, we can try to push on the edges. For example, what if math and statistics are not real at all? What if they are fabricated at some level? What if they are simply metaphors or approximations for some other form of reasoning? The statistical argument, paradoxically, makes this infinitely likely.

Conclusion

There seems to be a paradox that prevents us from knowing whether or not the world we experience is virtual. This paradox also prevents us from knowing whether or not our sense of self is artificial. Nevertheless, it’s been fun mentally masturbating with you.

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