Asking Whether We Are Living in a Computer Simulation is the Wrong Question
21 Jan 2019

The computer simulation model of reality is being peddled by many of those in Silicon Valley, not so much as a scientific curiosity, but as a justification for AI technologies.

IT IS BECOMING INCREASINGLY POPULAR to claim that we are living in some type of computer simulation, similar to that depicted in the Matrix films. But while this claim is certainly intriguing, it is actually less profound than it first appears.

What does it actually mean for us to be living in a computer simulation? It means that nothing is as it seems — the world of "things" is being simulated. But then, nothing is as it seems anyway: we know that "things" do not really exist as matter is made up of empty space.

So what is the difference between a non-existent atom and a simulated atom? Both are best described by information models, and both have a reality beyond their abstract natures merely inferred.

This takes us back to the limitations of the reality-mapping process whereby we make models of reality. But what we can never do is know directly what reality actually is… we only make models of it because that is the nature of consciousness.

The simulated universe theory is making a direct statement on what reality actually is, and in so doing it is not respecting fundamental ontological limits. In other words, it can only be fantasy.

The simple fact is that we can make all sorts of statements about the fundamental nature of reality, and none of these statements have much meaning. All we can really do is talk in terms of maps of reality, and from that perspective, the computer simulation map offers little or no advantage over the standard scientific map of reality, unless it predicts an aspect of reality that is missing from the conventional models — such as pixelation. In that case, it has potential to become a more accurate map, not a reinterpretation of what reality actually is.

When we reify reality itself we have left the rational realm and entered the irrational realm. Indeed, believing that one knows the fundamental nature of reality is entirely equivalent to believing in God. That is not to say that such beliefs about reality's fundamental nature cannot be useful to those holding them, or that they are not "subjectively truthful" (whatever that means). But they are untestable and therefore do not warrant the objectivity generally ascribed to testable systems.

The computer simulation model of reality, however, is testable. We can test it to see how accurate a model it is and whether it brings new information to the table. (Scientific models offer no novelty in the form of untested predictions are not considered to be particularly useful to science, although they can be subjectively appealing.)

As we have seen, one possible novelty that the model introduces is the pixelation of reality, and that in itself could lead to a scientific revolution in the same way that the "pixelation" of energy led to the quantum revolution. This remains to be seen.

But apart from pixelation, the computer simulation model of reality shares many characteristics with the God model of reality. Both ascribe a higher intelligence or consciousness that controls every aspect of reality. But the problem with these models is predictability.

Intelligence or consciousness (I will equate them to making things simpler) is fundamentally unpredictable because it is self-aware. This self-awareness is the spanner in the works that makes it very difficult to mechanistically model intelligence or consciousness, and it is this self-awareness that allows intelligence or consciousness to exhibit novelty.

So when a model includes intelligence or consciousness, it can no longer be mechanistic and observations can only be modelled statistically because of the novelty. (Quantum models are a prime example of this.) Too much novelty and we descend into chaos; too little novelty and the intelligence/consciousness becomes superfluous and is eliminated by Occam's razor.

The latter is the way that science has so far dealt with novelty in its models of reality. It is objectively cleaner to dismiss novelty (or outliers) than it is accept that consciousness might be embedded at some level in all models of reality. Quantum theory could not be cleansed of novelty, and so it was reluctantly accepted (even a scientist of the calibre of Einstein found it difficult to accept, and spent much of his remaining life trying to find an underlying mechanism to dismiss the novelty). No doubt, science will resist the novelty of the computer simulation model just as it did with the quantum model. But unlike the quantum model, the computer simulation model has a long way to go before it proves itself to be a useful model and therefore one whose implications have to be taken seriously.

In the meantime, most of those pushing the computer simulation model are doing so for political reasons: if reality is already a product of computer simulation then there is no reason for us to be cautious about pushing ahead with artificial intelligence because we are all a part of it anyway. So you will find the computer simulation model pushed mostly by those invested in some way in AI technologies.