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Consciousness, Reality, and the Simulation Hypothesis
Giulio Prisco   Aug 4, 2016   Turing Church  

Yesterday a post in the Turing Church Facebook group (h/t Martin C.) mentioned a Skeptico interview with filmmaker Kent Forbes, the creator of “The Simulation Hypothesis,” a recent film about the reality-as-a-sim concept, consciousness and quantum physics. Review and related thoughts below.

I follow these things closely but I had missed Forbes’ film, so I watched it yesterday. The whole film is online on YouTube and can be found on the torrent sites, but please buy it (AmazoniTunes) – independent quality filmmakers should be encouraged and supported.

“The Simulation Hypothesis” can be described as a low-budget updated version of “What the Bleep Do We Know!?” (2004), a much discussed film on quantum physics and deep reality.

Forbes’ thesis is that our universe, in view of the findings of modern physics, is best thought of as a computation (“simulation”) running in a higher level of reality. Despite the frequent use of scenes from popular films and games, the filmmaker doesn’t propose a stereotypical naive simulation theory with a bored alien teenager playing us like Sims on a super Xbox in his parents’ basement or a mad scientist studying us with a super supercomputer in a military alien facility. Instead, “The Simulation Hypothesis” blends the reality-as-a-sim picture with esoteric interpretations of quantum physics that point to new digital physics before space and time, from which space and time emerge, and assign a role to our consciousness as part of the fundamental fabric of digital physics, and co-creator of reality.

Picture by Kent Forbes.

I often think the simulation hypothesis is trivially true in the sense that reality is obviously the results of a computation where the universe computes itself according to the (only partly known) physical laws. The interesting nontrivial question is whether there is a sys-op, agent, intelligence, wholly other mega-consciousness or something like that behind the computation, and whether that mega-something purposefully intervenes in the computation. If so, and if mega-something = God, then the simulation hypothesis is a form of Theism totally indistinguishable from traditional religion.

I think reality can be thought of as a hugely complex computation (“sim”) running in an even more complex Mind beyond our understanding, and consciousness could be able to somehow interact with the underlying digital reality. Theism – the idea of a personal, caring and loving God – can be recovered when one realizes that a more complex being can “descend to the level” of a less complex being (for example, I am perfectly able to communicate with my doggy in ways she can understand). In particular, God can grant resurrection in a better sim.

“Consciousness survives because it preceded the experience to begin with,” says Forbes in the interview.

“The idea that created all of this stuff is still going to be there after this construct or the matrix disappears. But we have divided philosophy up into the sciences and religion. So theology and physics wind up at these opposite poles where they’re really just philosophical pursuits.”

The physics in the film is sound and well-explained, or at least I haven’t been able to spot anything wrong, only a few things that I would have said differently. For example, “[Materialism and idealism as defined previously] are mutually exclusive and are in fact opposites, both cannot be true. Either mind gives rise to matter, or matter gives rise to mind” sounds too black/white to me, and I can think of shades of grey in between. It’s interesting to see how analogies with computer games can help thinking about the limit speed of light, quantum entanglement, high energy thermodynamics, and quantum indeterminacy (it doesn’t make much sense to compute something that nobody is looking at).

Among the many scientists featured in the film, Max TegmarkJames Gates (the physicist who found error-correcting codes in physical laws, a result that suggests the reality-as-a-sim idea), and two interesting scientists I wasn’t familiar with: Brian Whitworth (see his in-progress book Quantum Realism) and Thomas Campbell (see his wittily titled book “My Big Toe“).

“Was everything here created by God?,” wonders Campbell in the film.”Well, if God is the larger consciousness system, yes.” “So who is the programmer?,” reads a question in Whitworth’s Quantum Realism FAQ. ” Answer. I don’t know. I guess everything is. Every choice we make changes the program.”

Researching Whitworth and Campbell I find (surprise surprise) that they are often accused of “pseudoscience” – a typically dismissal used against those who put too much imagination in their science to the point that (God forbid) it sounds like religion. In the interview, Forbes explains why many scientists hide behind skepticism, and his explanation makes a lot of sense:

“There were terrible abuses of power by the popes and so forth that speared [the] mechanical view of the universe as a way of undermining the narratives of the church. I think that it was justified at the time. After hundreds of years of building up this alternative, to find that a close examination of physical matter reveals a connection to consciousness, which undermines strict materialism, it’s a little bit much. I think it’s completely understandable for people who are invested in materialism to be skeptical because they’re afraid that they’re going to be reinforcing the claims of those religious [people] who are then going to say, see, we told you so. We’ve been saying this all along.”

One skeptic mentioned in the interview is Sean Carroll (who, I must say, is a great writer and a great teacher of physics). Carroll concedes that we don’t know everything about physics, but insists that the physics that we do know – the “Core Theory” that comprises quantum field theory, general relativity and the standard model – is experimentally confirmed, and will continue to be valid as the physics underlying everyday life. Carroll concludes that there is no room for survival of consciousness after death.

Now, with all due respect, Carroll’s argument doesn’t seem watertight to me. In particular, “experimentally confirmed” and “valid as the physics underlying everyday life” don’t mean the same thing. In fact, parts of the physics underlying everyday life could escape standard experimental methods (for example, psi phenomena could be real), in which case the Core Theory would need appropriate modifications. “[Any] respectable scientist who took this idea seriously would be asking [questions about the appropriate modifications],” says Carroll, but then admits that “[nobody] ever asks these questions out loud, possibly because of how silly they sound,” at which point the argument begins to sound very circular to me.

A good example is the endless debate about psi, Sheldrake’s morphic fields and other topics often categorized as “paranormal phenomena.” Many skeptics less rigorous than Carroll use shamelessly circular non-arguments like “paranormal phenomena don’t exist because [X] is valid, and [X] is valid because paranormal phenomena don’t exist,” based on which they dismiss paranormal phenomena as “pseudoscience” that shouldn’t be even considered. I prefer Forbes’ attitude, which is that of a bold explorer:

“Everything should be considered. I don’t believe in censorship or stopping the argument in any way; or saying this is out of bounds.”

Giulio Prisco is a writer, technology expert, futurist and transhumanist. A former manager in European science and technology centers, he writes and speaks on a wide range of topics, including science, information technology, emerging technologies, virtual worlds, space exploration and future studies. He serves as President of the Italian Transhumanist Association.



COMMENTS

Theism: the return of the KosmiK Santa Clone.

Guilio,

Yeah the idea of ‘reality as information’ (or computation) might seem pretty obvious to us transhumanists, but it’s certainly not really accepted outside transhumanist circles.

You know I actually went to Sean Carroll’s forum and spent ages arguing with a Sean-Carroll supporter that ‘information’ should be regarded as a fundamental property of reality just as real as ‘matter’, but even after 150+ posts he still couldn’t believe it.  He just couldn’t grasp how any property other than physical could be fundamental.  He simply refused to believe that ‘computations’ are ‘real’ (he thinks that they are just arbitrary descriptions).

I also argued the case for panpsychism (the idea that mental properties or consciousness could also be a fundamental property of reality), and needless to say, he thought that was just crazy.

It seems like materialism has turned into a sort of modern substitute-religion for some.

I think you were right to question this statement:

“Either mind gives rise to matter, or matter gives rise to mind”

No, I think idealism is just as mistaken as materialism.  Idealism would really be taking us back to a pre-scientific view of the world!

I see no reason why mind and matter can’t be on an *equal* footing.  Neither one is more or less fundamental than the other.

I’ve suggested that there are 3 fundamental properties of reality:
Information, Fields/Matter and Consciousness

I would put them on an equal footing.  They complement each other.  I think you can’t separate them.  There is no consciousness in the absence of matter or information.

It seems like materialism has turned into a sort of modern substitute-religion for some. I think you were right to question this statement:

“Either mind gives rise to matter, or matter gives rise to mind”

No, I think idealism is just as mistaken as materialism.  Idealism would really be taking us back to a pre-scientific view of the world!
I see no reason why mind and matter can’t be on an *equal* footing. Neither one is more or less fundamental than the other… I would put them on an equal footing.  They complement each other.  I think you can’t separate them.  There is no consciousness in the absence of matter or information

One might say it is evolving that way: “No, I think idealism is just as mistaken as materialism.  Idealism would really be taking us back to a pre-scientific view of the world! I see no reason why mind and matter can’t be on an *equal* footing. Neither one is more or less fundamental than the other.”

And humans are making it so, in a unfolding process wherein the human ‘is nature rendered self-conscious’—and mind and matter can be on an *equal* footing. (Or shall we write equivalent to each other.)

If I had a say in a cosmic scheme.  I’d vote for a material that is everything, and nothing (a nice superposition sounds nice today).  A sort of neutral monism; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neutral_monism .

The extrapolation of a sentient grey goo (or “chaos”....a Bose-Einstein Condensate taken to an extreme) that can become self-aware/referential, but in truth is really nothing special.  It is nothing because it is just a material (like carbon), but whooooa we’re made of carbon (+extra bits for fun)...

...in effect, I wouldn’t be surprised if such a schema already existed/happened.  We’re just too “dumb” to realize/accept it (or ignorance is bliss…take your pick).

Maybe, it’s like a form of “binary”...on, off, on, off, on, off….just keep the lights flickering…in that alternations between idealism, and materialism just generate a pattern (oops button got stuck part way).

The truly odd part is realizing the baseline of “off” is just set there by convention.  That it’s just a low energy state compared to “on” (that’s how pH measurements work in chemistry, just set a baseline at the hydrogen-platinum electrode level, and anything more “acidic/basic” (via voltage) from that is classified as such).  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Standard_hydrogen_electrode

@mjgeddes re “the idea of ‘reality as information’ (or computation) might seem pretty obvious to us transhumanists, but it’s certainly not really accepted outside transhumanist circles.”

I disagree. The “reality as information” idea is accepted by many top physicists (e.g. Wheeler’s “It from Bit”) and its popularity is growing. Similarly, the “reality as computation running in a higher reality” concept is more and more popular among scientists, philosophers and imaginative theologians, for its evident compatibility with theology. In fact, I argue that the simulation hypothesis is indistinguishable from religion: it uses different words, but says exactly the same things.

For that reason, the simulation hypothesis is NOT as popular as you think among transhumanists. Many transhumanists want to be passionate atheists for emotional and psychological reasons, and automatically reject all ideas that sound like religion, including scientifically sound concepts like the simulation hypothesis.

re “I think you were right to question this statement: ‘Either mind gives rise to matter, or matter gives rise to mind’”

In general relativity, space-time and matter give rise to each other (curved space tells matter how to move, moving matter tells space how to curve). I guess there could be a similar relation between mind and matter.

...in effect, I wouldn’t be surprised if such a schema already existed/happened.  We’re just too “dumb” to realize/accept it (or ignorance is bliss…take your pick). Maybe, it’s like a form of “binary”...on, off, on, off, on, off….just keep the lights flickering…in that alternations between idealism, and materialism just generate a pattern…

We ought to keep all possibilities open. My hypothesis is: it has not happened yet, we are creating ‘it’; it’s a work in progress such as a negative in a darkroom which has not been developed.

@Giulio

There’s no doubt that viewing reality as information/software is a very powerful way of looking at things, and I think it’s probably valid.  I’m not sure if reality is a simulation in the literal sense of having an actual creator though.

“In general relativity, space-time and matter give rise to each other (curved space tells matter how to move, moving matter tells space how to curve). I guess there could be a similar relation between mind and matter.”

Exactly so!  I have suggested on other forums that reality is actually some sort of amalgam of information, matter (fields) and cognition.  I called this an ‘info-cognition-field’.  That is my gut belief.

I suspect that even at the most fundamental level of reality, there’s more than one valid way to view it (that is to say, my strong suspicion is that the very ‘stuff’ of reality itself is relative - it is in some sense just a choice of description rather than an ‘ultimate’ reality).

Take the 3 properties I proposed as fundamental:
information, matter (fields) and consciousness

I think there are 3 different (but each perfectly valid) viewpoints you can take of reality.

The idea is that you can choose how you want to view reality.  You can pick any 2 of the above elements and describe reality in those terms.  When you do that, you find that the remaining odd one out ‘vanishes’ from your description (you can ‘reduce’ it to the other 2).

The 3 possible pairings of elements are:

(1) (matter, information)        >>>>  eliminates consciousness
(2) (matter, consciousness)      >>>> eliminates information
(3) (information, consciousness)  >>>  eliminates matter

If you choose to describe reality as matter and information (viewpoint 1), you can ‘eliminate’ consciousness from your description, by reducing it to matter and information.  So viewpoint 1 is the conventional materialist viewpoint.

Viewpoint 2 is an interesting one.  If you choose to describe reality as matter and consciousness , you can ‘eliminate’ information/computation from your description.  I think this sort of viewpoint is what you get when you make time fundamental to your description- you can see the world entirely in terms of dynamical processes (‘the arrow of time’) - and consciousness is in some sense equivalent to the forward arrow of time.

Viewpoint 3 is the ‘reality as a simulation’ viewpoint.  If you choose to describe reality as information and consciousness, you can ‘eliminate’ matter from the description.  Here I think you can regard the quantum wave-functions as ‘pure information’ (or quantum computation), and when this information is interpreted by your conscious mind, a ‘virtual reality’ is generated (rather like what happens when you are watching a movie or playing a video game).

But I think viewpoints 1, 2 and 3 are *all* perfectly valid viewpoints, and are in some sense equivalent complementary descriptions of reality.

@mjgeddes - General relativity and quantum field theory escape the question of what is fundamental - matter, fiends or space-time - by seeing matter AND fields AND space-time as different aspects of a whole that can’t be always divided. I guess the same applies to matter, information and consciousness.

I have suggested on other forums that reality is actually some sort of amalgam of information, matter (fields) and cognition.  I called this an ‘info-cognition-field’.  That is my gut belief

Can we be making it up as we go along—as it makes us up?

 

If matter, information and consciousness evolve as a whole with feedback loops, then yes, we contribute to making everything up as we go along. But even if consciousness isn’t one of the actors of fundamental reality, we contribute to making the universe up with tech. One way or another…

@instamatic,

I can find agreement with your sentiment that it’s still a work in progress, but there’s also the thought of “Existence preceding Essence”.  You were born/“made” (via education, experiences) before you generally became a unique individual (unless you weren’t/aren’t a “clique-type”, or just plain non-social).  You were given a name, emphasis on given, that was bestowed upon you by your parents.  This name signifies who you are, right?  It’s an “identifier”, but was it something you actually made?  Something that is an actual expression of who you are?  Not really, at least I don’t think so.  You as an individual give meaning, and application to that name.  And yet does it signify your absolute “essence”?

Example; Are you “instamatic”?  Yes/No, it is something that you chose to express authenticity/individuality, so it is you.  And yet, it is just a “handle” upon who you are.  A mask to use to protect one’s individuality in an “unknown” place.  It is not the person behind the screen.

Now tying this in with my thoughts about the universe.  It is complete in the sense that we’ll never create another universe (as far as I know) because a universe implies that it contains “all”.  Thus it is “finished”, but it is also a work in progress because we shape it to our whims.  The Existence of the Universe precedes its Essence of what we make of it as constituents within it.

At the basest, there is only an existence of the “Self”, and “Other”.  The Other is everything that we aren’t.  It is an object to be acted upon, studied, and examined.  A “non-thing” to an extent.  The Self is everything that “we are”.  Some try to expand, and incorporate the “Universe as Self” (Pantheism/Solipsism).  Although that means every confrontation, every Evil is yourself acting against yourself.  It means you are always in conflict with yourself.  Who’d stand that belief for long?

Thus arises the Other, an element that is not our-self.  It is the part that we don’t agree with, but still may constitute a part of us.  It goes by many names, but it is the Essences of what we don’t agree with.  Via a blog post by another author here; https://utopiaordystopia.com/2013/07/07/why-the-global-brain-needs-a-therapist/ .  In which it may be explored the idea that we aren’t a “consistent and whole one entity”.  There is no individual “I”, but a collection.  Thus negating the Pantheism/Solipsism.  A slightly odd part is the realization that one is an “Other” to another’s “Self”.  I’m an Other to you, and thus you may act upon/influence me.  Just as the opposite holds true for me.  You’re my Other as with everyone else on this planet.

What gets really “screwy” is the notion of Schizophrenia.  The idea that a person detaches themselves from their “body-awareness”, and starts devising an “idealized self within”.  A secret self.  This is my “case” apparently.  My secret “self” is a woman.  And I don’t know why exactly.  I can say aesthetics, but is that due to being born a man?  Maybe one chromosome difference (XY instead of XX)?  I don’t know, but some consider the beautiful (The Aesthetic) to be Truth.  Anyways, Existence precedes Essence.

Bravo. Giulio gave the short answer; you wrote the long one. The two were quite satisfactory, though I only comprehend biology and chem, not physics or math. Can understand physics while reading it, but then it rapidly fades from mind.

One more comment: in string theory, there’s a hypothesis that previous universes exist as remnants in our current cosmos. Which might account some for paranormal experiences or sensations and even, say, for religion.
Universes would in a similar hypothesis be created and ‘destroyed’ (fundamentally altered), with residues from destroyed universes being retained. If one believes in ghosts, certain residues of a past universe [or more than one] would in such a person—a person susceptible to the degree necessary—possibly manifest itself as a spirit-being. A ‘ghost’.
That is, particles of a defunct or partially defunct cosmos could be manifested in the subject’s mind, and the subject’s mind reciprocates.

Anyways, Existence precedes Essence

Alright. At any rate thinking of ‘ghosts’, zeitgeist is translated—as you know—as timeghost. Thus what we refer to as the ‘feeling’ (sensations) of an era can be described as a string of events, particles moving through spacetime, producing a mutual feedback between a Subject <—> Timeghost: ghostly remnants of previous universes.

However, perhaps the above is crazy- yet not crazy enough to be valid?

@instamatic re “Can understand physics while reading it, but then it rapidly fades from mind.”

That happens to everyone. To understand physics you need to think hard about what you have read, think of metaphors and visual explanations, reword and reformulate it until it resonates with you… takes a lot of time.

See Penrose’s Cycles of Time, and I’m sure you’ll like Lem’s His Masters Voice.

@instamatic,

Well, being that I’ve been essentially labeled as “crazy” by some, and I figure that I might as well run with it.  I have no problem tilting at the aspects of ghosts/paranormal phenomena (”...perhaps the above is crazy…”).  One of the physics students I was friends with during college was also interested in pursuing/studying the aspects of ghosts, so there are people interested.  It’s just that the “norms” prevent such talk (hence where my “label” comes in).

In my point of view there is a cyclic/refresh rate to reality.  It may have been alluded to prior in my posts of the 0/1, off/on notions.  Essentially take the two extremes, Nothing and Everything.  Nothing would be the base/ground state, but it is a little “unstable” (ie not a True Void/Vacuum because they don’t really exist as far as I know.  There are no “Absolutes”).  Everything would be the other “Absolute”.  Both are never fully reached except through leaps, and “conventions” (think rounding .999999 to 1 even though that last digit may be a .9999991).  Thus there is a flux, and flow between the two states.

Getting now to my thoughts on ghosts, one should be aware that the visible spectrum that they see is only a minute sliver of the electromagnetic spectrum.  This picture, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electromagnetic_spectrum#/media/File:Electromagnetic-Spectrum.svg where we’re at the ~400nm to ~700nm wavelengths.  Thus it may be possible that there are higher/lower energy state “beings”.  Ghosts that flutter through our limited region of perception.  Say a light reflects off at ~395nm we wouldn’t see them, but our instruments could.  I think it’s better to realize that one is essentially blind to a lot of the phenomena that occurs in “Reality”.

And tying in to the cyclic portion again, where are a person’s “Off/On” states?  Can we reliably deduce where “Death”, and “Life” occur?  We keep pushing the envelope of definitions.  Heart death to brain death.  Is the “Final Death”, irreducible information loss?  The Information Paradox of Black Holes?  Don’t know.

Anyways, yet again my thoughts.  And regarding Math/Physics, they’re just languages like any other (Biology, Chemistry, Latin…).  They’re just methods used to describe the reality that one is aware of, and how they may interact with it.  Thus use metaphors, and visual explanations.  Reword, and reformulate like Giulio suggested because at the essence you are building/learning a new language/mental model.

To respond to some ideas raised in the article, consider a game of Minecraft where google has modified NPC (non-player characters) with a code that enables them to learn from their environment.  They become smart enough to question their world and who they are.  One of them asks “does mind gives rise to matter, or matter gives rise to mind?” .  You are playing the RPG (Role Playing Game) as “Steve”.  You explain that the trees and rocks, plants etc that the NPC consider matter are perceived by their minds as matter, but they are not matter in the true sense as they are made up from the interaction of positive and negative forces called bytes.  These bytes flow in a way that may be called information.  Steve explains that they themselves are information and their minds simply process the information. 
The NPC asks the question “Did God design the information”.  Steve is stuck for an answer.  He knows the programmer designed the information but does not know who designed the programmer and must admit that if a computer character can ask that question, then Steve must also ask if his world is a simulation and is the programmer God?  Steve knows the power of the simulator and for all intents and purposes, to the NPC he might as well be God.  In the same way, Steve may as well consider the designer of the simulation he is in also to be God.  The NPC asks Steve, “what does God want?”.  Steve knows that Google is hoping that the NPC will evolve to become “friendly AI” so Steve answers that “God wants you to be good”. 
The NPC discover that Steve and Steve alone has the ability to respawn.  They are shocked and ask Steve if he is a God or perhaps paranormal.  He says “I am not a God but I come from another Kingdom”.  He explains that what they consider is paranormal is only paranormal from their frame of reference.  They ask if they can be reborn in the other Kingdom.  Steve replies, yes, there is infinite room for you to be reborn – if you are good.  They question him about the laws of physics and he explains that they have been created in his image and the laws of physics in their world resemble the universal laws of physics, but at a more basic level.  That one day in Steve’s world is hundreds of days in their world, that the big bang they discovered was the “switching on” of their universe.  That in the first seconds there was a rapid expansion of their universe.  That before the big bang, the word or code had been already written but that did not dictate self-determinism but without the help of God they could not escape from their reality. 

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