The simulation hypothesis strikes again with limits of character freedom
By MARTIN REZNY
I apologize in advance, but I feel compelled to attempt to further complicate consciousness. In a very weird way.
I’ll go ahead and admit it — I’m not the biggest fan of Occam’s Razor. If we always start from the assumption that only the most boring explanation must be the case, then as far as we’re going to know, we’ll be living in a pretty boring world. The problem is that it’s only an assumption, not a proof, and not just that — if you decide beforehand that you’re not going to find something, you’re very likely not to find it, whether it exists or not and whatever research methodology you’re using.
It’s also extremely easy to reduce or outright ignore complex problems and counter-intuitive solutions. Again, it has nothing to do with what’s true or not, it only affects our intellectual comfort levels. Some people are more comfortable believing things without proof, which is unscientific and not a great strategy to discover new things, while others are more comfortable with everything being immediately plausible and objectively quantifiable, which is quite scientific (in the science-as-a-current-majority-consensus sense), but also not a great strategy to discover new things, at least not radically new.
One of the questions that Robert asks is if some concept of consciousness is anything more than just the bare-bones observational interpretation, how would one prove it? As he also mentioned the psychoanalytical concept of the collective unconscious, what came to my mind was that if one starts to look at the world from the simulation hypothesis perspective, one can get to a quite physical idea of what something like Jungian archetypes would be. Well, as much as one can consider software “physical”.
Not what Robert wanted anyone to talk about, I’m sure, but hey, it does make the concept much less mysterious and complicated. Not that the concept of archetypes was extremely complicated to begin with — a set of shared ideas, experiences, or personality features and types that somehow all people have access to without having to communicate directly between each other about them. The simulation hypothesis may shed light on that “somehow” — how/why can anything qualitative be hard-wired into human consciousness on a species-wide level, and why shared human nature or thought “types” of any kind may be necessary.
The good news is, understanding ourselves as software doesn’t exclude behaviors, social pressures, or cognitive errors, it just connects the internal with the external without the need for direct conventional causal links between them, so we can all has our cakes and eat them too. As a framework, simulation allows for direct causal interactions between various kinds of events or phenomena, but it also allows for variable degrees of compartmentalization and nesting — a reality with horizontal walls and vertical levels between different domains of “physics”.
In the interest of clarity, let’s call the standard causality “direct” and the not so direct causality “skipping”. In either case, it’s still causality (things happening as a result of other things afterwards), the skipping one would simply leave our space and time and move through additional dimensions of space and especially time. Well, maybe not simply, but you get the point. It can’t be that hard though, because we’re already doing it in our existing simulations.
When Math Becomes More Real Than Physics
To not leave out the necessary basics of computer science, every software application has to have steps. You can think of them as moments in which things can be calculated or change, the number of which cannot be higher than the number of minimum-length moments in the real time of the reality within which you’re running that application. As far as we know, the shortest anything can be out here is the Planck time, which, if I understand it correctly, is a period so short that nothing that we know of can happen in any shorter amount of time, or at least not anything that we would be able to observe.
That could mean that our reality’s number of “steps” or frames per second is that of Planck time units per second (presumably with “pixels” of space of Planck length cubed), but it could also be any higher finite number, in principle. For example, if I set the number of steps in my simulation to 120 per second, I can still choose to have only 60 things happen each second and only run calculations in between. At any rate, the precise answer doesn’t matter all that much for my purposes right now, though it would make sense to make the smallest units practically inobservable to avoid breaking the illusion of reality being continuous (analog), when in reality, the “reality” would be discrete (digital).
This just shows that there could be additional steps in between moments as we can see them even within our spacetime, only more abstractly mathematical than strictly speaking physical. Like an algorithm adjusting probabilities of events in between moments “globally” (computer speak for “everywhere for all things”). But that’s more interesting for the topic of my previous article about the possibility of meaningful coincidence. What’s important for sharing imaginative and personality archetypes between people without any direct communications between them, whether by learning or DNA, is that there could be a purely abstract mathematical domain where such information comes from that each of us have a direct connection to — a kind of memory.
This has a whole lot of implications that may be uncomfortable to some people, but deserve to be explored nonetheless. For instance, this could mean that there can be no unification of physics — maybe the physics of particles really has no interaction with the qualitative or personal dimensions of the universe, without it meaning that there’s only particle physics. Just like in a game you can have your standalone physics engine and your standalone character creation engine or your storytelling element. Different-purposes-warranting different logics and therefore different mathematics or physics working with different assets are quite possible in a simulation.
This compartmentalization or nested levelling of separate engines and layered algorithms would work through something like whatever it is that allows quantum entanglement, with its apparently instantaneous and distance-ignoring nature. This mechanism would be how the abstract mathematics of the universe would cause their effects — by seemingly immediate coordination of global variables and exchange of information through a non-localized/omnipresent instant access memory.
On the ultimate level, there would be something that ties everything together in terms of causality, but it would be very abstractly mathematical in terms of how it gets things done on one hand, and psychologically motivated on the other. Not by human or even human-like psyche, perhaps, but by some kind of intelligence that has to make some sort of logical sense of it. As I said before, it would only require some extra dimensions.
This is all of course going against Occam’s Razor, as this is a textbook example of “multiplying entities beyond necessity”. But isn’t that what theoretical physicists do all the time? The multiverse interpretation of quantum physics alone adds infinite number of additional universes, simulation hypothesis is much more economical than that. It, too, is just a kind of theoretical physics. No miracles required, logic and math still apply. Anyway, ask Neil DeGrasse Tyson how well did Occam’s Razor serve astrophysics with its discoveries of huge numbers of solar systems, galaxies, and now potentially habitable planets — against expectations every time.
The Outer Limits of Math (and Meaning)
So, to sum up, in a simulated universe, as in the kinds of simulations that we’re already making, you could have things being coordinated in between moments, everyone could have immediate and eternal access to the same information seemingly out of nowhere, and the only ultimate limitations are those of math (colored by some underlying psychological motivation), not of (any) simulated physics.
Assuming you’re still with me, collective unconscious should start looking easy by now. To make work, that is — everyone would be rendered on the basis of the same math, including their thoughts and personality, and the math would be the same or changing equally for the whole universe. The real questions are why it should exist at all and how exactly it would be limited or coordinated.
Simulation by itself can simulate anything that can be represented with math, assuming enough memory and processing power are available. First, one has to try to narrow down simulations to a few basic types, and guess which one this would most likely be. As this universe has plenty of characters with a wide range of conscious experiences (probably), aesthetic flare, and a dynamic and dramatic history, some kind of story, game, show, or experiment appear to be most likely. This should also include anything cultural like education, Bostrom’s ancestral simulations, prison, etc.
In the interest of completeness, I should add that simulations can also do work, be quite random and pointless, or malfunction, which would probably show in the extremes of efficient utilitarian logic, or lack of any ordered structure and especially actors or meaning. Since I’m not doing this for religious reasons, I’m completely fine also with this being, somehow, an emergent simulation — spontaneously self-created thing that by chance is just like a simulation that someone would have thought of for completely logical reasons and implemented it more or less flawlessly. Not that it would change much.
The competing explanation is that all of what consciousness is is determined by material particle physics, and it amounts only to evolutionary observational optimization (and the rest of behavioral evolutionary sociology or psychology), as Robert sees it. Firstly, all that could also be simulated, though a sufficiently entertaining simulation would likely not be just that. The problem with just that is very easy to explain from a computer game perspective — look at No Man’s Sky, or really any massive sandbox game. While it is possible to come up with one’s own stories and have fun in a randomly or physically generated fully deterministic universe, the repetition and directionlessness of it all become very boring sooner than later.
The other extreme, a fully hand-crafted game-world like Skyrim, is problematic for very different reasons. It’s entertaining alright, but because of its highly inorganic, artificial design, it’s immediately implausible. The message is on the nose and the hand-holding breaks the immersion, though that gets even worse in corridor-based games like most first person shooters.
The holy grail, immersion and entertainment-wise, would be something exactly like our reality — a very physically-driven and open sandbox universe with many hints of meaning, but subtle enough so that it’s always going to be questionable whether things are happening by some higher design or only by random chance.
And that’s where things like collective unconscious come in. In most open-world roleplaying or world/space-sim games, you have a great variety of characters to play as, a custom character or race creation engine even, but not full freedom. In order for the game to make sense in terms of gameplay and story, there are limits on who you can be and what you can do. In a truly random game/world, there would be that full freedom — freedom to do game or story-breaking actions, straight up meaningless stuff, or to play as an NPC or object of no consequence. Things allowed theoretically by the “physics” of the game, but forbidden for non-physical reasons in a story or gameplay driven games, at least to a quantifiable extent.
Even assuming that consciousness, choice, and personality are fully determined bottom-up by particle physics and only roughly adjusted by evolution, that leads to a certain large number of truly unique people, unique choices, and unique situations one can find themselves in. As long as any of them are allowed by chance, if any of the theoretically allowed types of people do not actually manifest, overall or at any particular times or in any particular types of situations, it’s a sign that there’s a higher-level gameplay or story restriction in place. The same goes with choices that can be made or events that can be happening, but are not, by and to particular people in particular situations at particular times.
If chance is all there is, then anything goes, given enough attempts. Not only things that in their entirety give just enough structure and meaning to the world for the players to make the whole thing go on without a major hickup.
In a carefully coordinated world centered around narrative or experience, collective unconscious would represent that higher-order restriction, apart from being a mathematical template or repository for every conceivable thought anyone has ever had or could ever have. It would be an algorithm the task of which is, in part, to make sure that every individual actor is kept within certain desirable parameters so that everyone’s experience through interacting with one another makes the intended kind of sense. At the right times, in the right order, for every player, by any physical means and especially inside of the wiggle room allowed by “chance”.
A kind of providence, or “luck”. Justice even, if you add in an element of balancing, which a game likely would, tempered by variable difficulty.
If you think something like that is unnecessary, try making a complex game-world live and die by random chance alone, especially when there’s intelligent players in it. Meaningful, consistent, or stable are not the words one would use to describe something like that. In fact, it could be a sort of way to approximate what kind of simulation this world must be by looking at the math behind the kind of games that feel the most like the real thing. The kind of games that make one forget they’re games.
Before someone brings up the “then why do bad things happen to good people” argument, let me just nip that one in the bud by saying that it’s meaningless to focus on isolated examples. A game-like simulation is supposed to make sense or be balanced on the whole, and many actually use “perfect imbalance” as a driving mechanism that keeps creating dynamic conflict. An age-old concept of tragedy also deserves to be mentioned, as an unjust failure of a great person is one of the more interesting events for any kind of audience, including ourselves. At any rate, “meaning” comes in many flavors, some of which may not be pleasant, but are no less profound.
The Big Question of Why Not Something Else
In my coincidence article, I have touched on the idea that maybe it could be possible, at least on a person-by-person basis in a kind of a case study, to prove that the expected randomness of events is being messed with. In the case of character archetypes in a game, it would have to do with one’s identity and place in the world — as long as you interact with others, you can never be anyone you want to be because you affect the “game” experience of others, or the audience’s experience of the story, or maybe you’d have a chance to mess up your own game.
In a world where collective unconscious and “providence” algorithms operate, you have a role to play, and rules under which the role has to be played. Of course, it doesn’t have to be a strictly absolute fate. In fact, a game would make more sense with plenty of options for anyone to choose from, but not absolutely any choice at all times in every situation that’s theoretically physically possible — now that would be some lean, mean math machine. What would be defined are the outer limits of our potential, the general trajectories of our lives (/story), and something like physics of our interaction with others.
Now let’s look at how to test for this sort of thing. Again, the key variable would be meaning. This kind of algorithm may be mathematical and physical in nature, but it would be decidedly qualitative. It wouldn’t care about meaningless details of your life. What doesn’t matter to you, or anyone you know, or anyone at all at the given place or time, is not of any concern for an experience-optimizing algorithm. That could be anything. But the stuff that matters, especially the exceptionally meaningful events, cannot be anything else, or not extremely different, than they turn out to be.
Maybe they could go down in a bunch of ways, but a strictly limited bunch. Maybe they have to happen in a certain order, too, or a few select ways of it. One can argue that events only have meaning to us and other people because we make them have meaning, but what decides who people are and what kind of meaning they will make of things? In this case, the meaning is just passed along by people to events from a universal source that determined the limits of their personalities. The scientific question to ask is:
Why not something else?
Why did I ascribe the meaning that I did to the events that I ascribed it to, and why everything else happened around those events (and me) the way it did, and not in some other way? To begin to be able to answer this question, you have to get a handle on the context — what were all the other options allowed by unrestricted chance? What would those have meant to you in contrast to the one thing that ended up happening?
It sounds hopelessly general when put like this, but it really isn’t once you apply it to limited individual contexts of things happening in your life. Take one area, think about what things matter the most within it to you, and try to think of anything that keeps happening with those meaningful aspects of your life no matter what you do. Can you truly do anything or be anyone regarding those meaningful things, or are there invisible walls that you keep hitting? Are there things that keep happening over and over again even if you change your thinking, behavior, status, job, address, community, etc.?
It could be a blessing or a curse or anything in between, but none of that should be the case in a random universe. In a random physical universe, you can still be limited by your biology or a legitimate conspiracy or inertia of people around you, but as for events, the only viable mechanism is good or bad luck. The thing about those is, they are inconstant and temporary. As every player of poker would tell you, randomness is something you can count on to be balanced in the long run. If you feel unlucky, just draw more cards and play more hands. There couldn’t be anything depending on luck that’s prohibited from happening, or guaranteed to happen, no striking asymmetry of lucky versus unlucky outcomes.
Players would tell you to make your own luck, by which they would mean you need to switch into a very specific kind of strategy — be maximally opportunistic, try (and fail) often and quickly, and have unwaivering initiative. As an experiment, try to apply this strategy to every area of yourself or your life that you want changed. In a truly random universe, it should only be a matter of time until this strategy works. If it doesn’t over a significant amount of tries, the thing you’re trying to achieve is nigh-impossible. So, if you try it on something that in theory should be something that anyone can do, something rather probable, and then it constantly doesn’t work, it’s significant.
The other weird noticeable occurrence could be observed in terms of coordination. Remember, the collective unconscious/providence algorithms should try to nudge you to experience particular things at particular times. If you in any way anticipate what that should be (especially after you’ve noticed and understood a “curse” or a ”blessing” lingering on you), you can decide to do everything in your power to avoid that experience. If you fight back hard enough and isolate yourself from all situations and encounters where it would happen organically, the only remaining options universe has is to force the issue in improbable ways.
An example might help. I have personally arrived at a conclusion at one point that I was supposed to feel good about myself for something that I have done as a result of very forced, very unlikely circumstances. Instead, I chose to keep being miserable as I saw the whole thing as a very contrived and obvious “lesson”. I intentionally avoided any contact with the kind of people who might logically have the tendency to try to tell me that I should feel better. I told none of them of what happened, no mutual friends, and made no public indication that anything at all has happened.
The result? Random people of that kind have started reaching out to me, predictably, after long time of no contact whatsoever, for rare, random reasons, trying to have that kind of conversation with me just out of nowhere, unrelated to what has happened, of which they had known nothing. They kept on doing that until I relented several months later and finally had that conversation.
At that point, the person I had that conversation with was someone from abroad, whom I didn’t know and who didn’t know me, that I got to talk to after I found a hidden message from them from years ago on Facebook, who responded immediately to my belated message after all those years, and all of that because they read my first article on Medium that I have prophetically wrote about the personal curse of mine that was all about that thing that had recently happened to me (long after I wrote that article). Try to wrap your brain around the improbability of that. I relented just to avoid getting a meteorite hit me in the head with that message written on it accidentally by erosion.
And that’s not an isolated incident. Related to a different issue on which I have made up a resolute opinion, rejecting a trend that’s obviously being forced upon me by circumstance (one of those “a time has come for this now” deals), all of the people around me, even out of their previously established character, act like a choir about it. They almost end each others’ sentences as they all have the same (really bad) advice and (really insulting) sentiment for me, springing to share it, whether they even know what’s happening in my life or not, especially after I keep not asking for it and making it clear that I have no interest in discussing it or changing my mind.
A few have gotten slightly more nuanced about it since, but still, the message is clear. And the impossibility of changing that key circumstance, despite it being quite changeable in theory, is backing that up. It’s been holding strong for over a year, despite me applying that player’s approach against it. The moments that come to my mind now about it are from Truman Show — his attempts to leave the town, or everyone talking in ads-speak at him, or the “Give me a sign!” moments from Bruce Almighty (hm, strange that it’s always Carrey’s movies). Anyway, this exact curse may only apply to me, and yes, maybe it’s all “just a coincidence”, though then I can’t wait for the “luck” to start working like itself again (and people around me to stop acting like they’re possessed).
Which brings me finally to the last manifestation of such meddlesome algorithm that I can think of. It’s something I should have mentioned in the coincidence article — a coincidence of excessive normalcy. Usually, a coincidence is something that people think of as a rare improbable event, but it could be equally improbable when nothing rare is happening for a long time, especially in the light of the theory of large numbers. If you’re interested in that, read about the improbability principle.
From this point of view, when for example 23 people are in a room together, it’s more likely than not that two of them have the same birthday. It would still be more improbable if all of them had the same birthday, or when I went once from a bank clerk with the same birthday as me to an exchange office clerk with the same birthday as me to get money for a colleague with the same birthday as me, but it would also be more improbable if none of them had the same birthday.
Similarly, it may be rare for a single person to get hit by lightning a dozen times in their life even though they never intentionally went outside during a storm, but it would also be improbable that someone who have spent their whole life running around in storms with a lightning rod attached to their head never got hit once. Either rarity or normalcy can be pushed to such an extreme that it should take more rolls of the dice than there ever were or will be people for something to happen (or not happen) even once.
This excessive normalcy is perhaps more likely to be the case when your life is defined or delineated by the collective unconscious or providence. It’s because those are about establishing some stable framework, giving your life meaning and keeping your interactions from going in disruptively random directions. You can try to ask yourself, what’s your “normal” as compared to the “normal” of other people? There of course may be people very different from you in terms of their abilities, knowledge, or origin, but those are not the people you should compare to. Try to compare to people who are very similar to you in terms of their objective attributes and faculties (health, wealth, intelligence, temperament, age, gender, ethnicity, that sort of thing) to see if they differ in terms of “luck” when they try to do the same things as you.
Is everything just as easy or hard to accomplish for them as it is for you, consistently? Were some things just handed down to them by happenstance and not to you, or vice versa? Focus especially on recurring tragic “random” events, or persistent luck and ease in some areas of life. However hard one tries, however much one knows, the most meaningful aspects of life in particular seem to be mostly under the control of sheer circumstance — health, love, friendship, death. Even career and success, despite everyone liking to think that they accomplished it all by themselves. Not everyone gets the same opportunities or finds themselves to be equally “lucky” at all endeavors at all times. The question still remains:
Why not something else?
If you’re one of the people who really don’t like a universe where one is limited by archetypes or providence, then go ahead and prove it wrong by making your own luck. But if you find any meaningful areas of your life, in theory governed by chance, where you cannot change who you are or what you can do no matter what you try, you might have just hit upon a real limit of your character, game, or story. Well, I think that’s enough crazy for now.
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