Consciousness as data extraction
How awareness could be a byproduct of a simulated universe.
Everything we call real is made of things that cannot be regarded as real. — Niels Bohr
The simulation hypothesis, originally proposed by Nick Bostrom (2003) and recently popularized by internet darling Elon Musk, is the hypothesis that we’re living in a computer simulation. Basically, we’re the object of study or entertainment of some very technologically capable society.
I’m not writing this post to validate or criticize the hypothesis, but to see what other interesting phenomena the simulation hypothesis could explain. Specifically, I’ll focus on one of the biggest mysteries of all time, namely consciousness.
I assume that computers in this (possibly futuristic) super advanced society basically operates like ours does, i.e. digital computers with bits. That means that every bit of information in our universe can be represented digitally and simulated through what I would assume to be an enormous amount of interacting differential equations. While this is a bit of a stretch as we already have analog and even quantum computers, any simulation no matter the platform would be limited in terms of level of detail and scope of the simulation.
Further, this simulation likely costs a whole lot of resources to operate (even if it’s non-digital) so it couldn’t be just for the sake of it. No, it would have a purpose.
Finally, I assume that humans are the most intelligent and capable life form in the universe. We certainly have no evidence of this, but neither do we have evidence of the opposite. In essence, this assumption means that humans are the least predictable object in this simulated universe, on both an individual level and on a systems level. In other words, our complex behavior emerges from interactions of billions of parts, while the behavior of other systems is increasingly predictable by mathematics. This means that humans are the most costly part of the simulation.
Consciousness in a simulated universe
Personally I’m hoping to spend the last years of my life plugged into a real life MMORPG simulation that makes me think and feel like I’m 18 again while my 90 year old body lies in a tube somewhere getting fed thru an IV. Be a great way to finish up a life. — Drew Curtis
Given the assumptions, there are two explanations for the purpose of this simulation we find ourselves in: immersion and science.
Simulation for immersion
Our universe is basically a playground or a training world or an escapists dream, or similar virtual reality experience. This is one hypothesis, that we are merely aliens so immersed in a simulated world that we’ve forgotten that we’re inside one. However, why would there then be so many boring jobs and responsibilities? Why couldn’t it all be a giant adventure with pirates and battles and whatnot?
Did you know that the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world, where none suffered, where everyone would be happy? It was a disaster. No one would accept the program … I believe that, as a species, human beings define their reality through misery and suffering. — Agent Smith, The Matrix
Maybe these aliens (or future humans) find such tasks refreshing, that they add contrast to all the insane stuff going on. Or perhaps these aliens are the rock stars, actors, business leaders, and politicians of our world. Or it’s some sort of immersive game like that seen in Rick and Morty. It could also be a punishment as seen in Roko’s basilisk or even a rehabilitation simulation!
No matter which virtual reality option you choose, it would explain why we don’t have a notion that it’s not real. It’s too immersive.
At any rate, it would mean that if we managed to wipe ourselves out, the game would be reset to some state and death would just be us waking up again outside the game. That’s certainly a tantalizing idea.
In essence, we could be mere players or prisoners in a massive virtual reality sim. I have no good arguments against this except that it pushes the problem of consciousness back to the outer reality and as such this hypothesis doesn’t contribute to the riddle of consciousness.
Simulation for Science
The other alternative to simulation for the sake of entertainment is science. Maybe the simulators want to study the rise of religion, their own past, group dynamics, or perhaps it’s more like a physics sandbox probing Fermi’s paradox.
In all these scenarios, ask yourself, what part of this simulation is the most interesting part to extract data from assuming you could observe what’s going on? Humans naturally. Why? Because humans, at least of the systems and species we know of, have the largest capacity to cause unpredicted change on the overall state of the simulation.
Currently, we can’t alter the orbits of planets and the like, but conceivably we could at some point. In addition, most other parts of the universe is mostly predictable such as whether this planet is going to crash into that planet in the most fantastic way possible. No, humans are by far the most interesting parts of our universe relatively, assuming there are no other massively more intelligent species out there.
As such, the simulators would like to extract as much data from us as possible so to better understand what we’re doing, why, and how that affects things.
The idea is that this data extraction is consciousness.
Let’s see what that means. First, assuming limited bandwidth/resources there’s an upper limit to the amount of data that can be extracted and represented in the real.
Since the number of possible states the brain can be in is approximately 2 to the power of 86 trillion given some assumptions, then there are more unique brain states than there exists atoms in this simulated universe. No, they would have to severely limit the number of possible states/thoughts we could have.
Conceivably they could perhaps extract everything, but let’s assume not as we have already assumed that they have limited resources in this alternate reality. This limit on concepts would then mean that we have a dichotomy of states that are extracted. Let’s call this dichotomy conscious and subconscious thoughts, i.e. only conscious thoughts are extracted for analysis. This limit could also explain why our senses are limited in scope.
And if consciousness is indeed extracted data, then it could explain why it feels like every experience we have is unified into one indivisible whole (i.e. chunked). You can’t separate the red from a red apple, can you? This is because the extraction of data occurs in real time and as one package.
Further, it would explain why sometimes it feels like whole sections of time have vanished, like when you’re absorbed in some task or merely driving somewhere and then suddenly realize you’ve reached your destination. This is because the amount of data extracted is limited in these cases to save bandwidth. After all, when you are merely doing a repetitive task, the simulators are not necessarily interested all the time. However, in life-threatening situations, during sex, or when faced with difficult choices or solving a hard problem, time seems almost to slow down and you are fully immersed in the experience. This is due to the particular interest of the simulators in this particular moment in your life. Hell, this simulation consciousness hypothesis could even explain sleep (again saving bandwidth), and dreaming (checking in now and then to see if you are awake but receiving only uninterpretable noise).
But why would you sometime feel extremely present when just studying a bumblebee when it goes about its day or meditating? Well, perhaps the algorithm governing when to extract data isn’t perfect, and that sometimes it’s tricked into extracting as much data as possible even when nothing important is happening.
Science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature. And that is because, in the last analysis, we ourselves are part of nature and therefore part of the mystery we are trying to solve. — Max Planck
I don’t know if consciousness as data extraction gets us any closer to solving the hard problem of consciousness, and neither is it overly scientific. However, if we’re to bring some actual science into this, the Integrated Information Theory (IIT) by Giulio Tononi predicts some similar things like the just-presented hypothesis. For example, everything is conscious to some degree (information integration/amount of data extracted), and the more complex systems like humans have both the ability to effect change and we have more complex systems contained in our skulls compared to other systems we know of. Even the postulates of IIT fits with “Consciousness as Data Extraction”. Expanding on that can be a topic for later.
Now, to get this whole concept back into the real world (the one where you are reading this), it needs to predict things that could, in theory, be testable. Besides the usual predictions of a digital simulation with limited resources (the universe having a maximum level of resolution, we can’t simulate a universe of our own to the same detail as ours, etc.) we can predict some consciousness related stuff.
For example, what would happen if everyone tried to crash the algorithm that governs whether or not there’s data extracted from us? Would the whole simulation break down? Let’s say everyone had sex at the same time, or played Russian Roulette, or meditated, would it all error out? Would it be possible for every human to be awake simultaneously? Would they act on it? These things could conceivably be done to see whether there’s a counterintuitive effect of it like it’s not possible for every human to be awake at once, or there’s a cap to the number of humans there could possibly be.
Besides crashing the system, we could try wiping it out! Assuming that they are indeed interested in us because of some specific scenario they want to simulate, then it would be a shame to simulate all of this to have it stop because of some world-ending disaster. One could thus predict that humanity will always manage, always spreading, always advancing. However, I wouldn’t suggest we test this specific one.
Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment; but you humans do not. Instead, you multiply and multiply, until every resource is consumed. — Agent Smith, The Matrix
A less radical and perhaps more interesting prediction is that our simulation has some scientific purpose, in that our model resembles the simulator’s own universe and history. Then the simulators might want to test out what happens when certain factors are introduced. How does religion spread? How do we avoid common great filters such as devastating climate change or nuclear war?
One could then predict that once in a while some event comes about that breaks with what we could predict would happen, like the birth of a new God or the emergence of an alien species. In short, it would mean that sometimes something could happen that has no prior causes. Like a serendipitous scientific discovery such as penicillin. One can easily go conspiratorial and point to such cases, but let’s not.
There are many possible predictions and implications of this theory, but let me ask the following questions: if we were to create true AI which is both smarter and more capable than us, would we then have our level of consciousness reduced as we would no longer be especially relevant to the simulators? Were people more conscious a thousand years ago when there were a lot fewer of us?
In the end, I would say this, if consciousness is indeed the extraction of data from unpredictable systems that can cause changes in systems exceedingly larger than itself, then we should try to challenge the simulators by making ourselves as uninteresting as possible, by extinction or by reverting back to a stone age society. Then we would see how much these simulators would interfere.
And if for some reason this hypothesis gains a foothold somewhere, I christen it “Consciousness as Data Extraction in a Simulated Universe”, or the CADESU hypothesis.
I’ll leave you with a beautiful quote from ancient times, showing that we were not the first to contemplate such matters.
Once upon a time, I, Chuang Chou, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, a veritable butterfly, enjoying itself to the full of its bent, and not knowing it was Chuang Chou. Suddenly I awoke, and came to myself, the veritable Chuang Chou. Now I do not know whether it was then I dreamt I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly dreaming I am a man. — From the writings of Zhuangzi, 369 BCE — 286 BCE