“This world is not my home,” says the old gospel song,* “I’m just a-passin’ through.” So is that right? Is this world real, or is it just a prelude to something else, something more real than what we call reality? Let’s explore that concept.
The Simulation Hypothesis.
Suppose we make a computer dedicated to one task: creating a video game. In order to create the best possible game, we program into the computer the capability to adjust its own programing. The computer uses feedback from players of the game to improve the game program, and also experiments with different subroutines in its own program. It learns to produce a game that is increasingly popular.
After a while, the computer-generated characters become so realistic that the human participants can’t tell which of the characters they encounter are other humans and which are subroutines. But the computer doesn’t stop with that level of success. It is programmed to keep trying new variations, keeping the ones that work and tossing the rest. Eventually, the characters show signs of self-awareness. They are so complex that they begin to adjust their own programing. They seem to be making decisions independent of the overall program. They begin to ask questions about their own existence.
Does that mean they are conscious? If they are, might they guess that they may be part of a computer program? Could they possibly imagine the kind of world that is able to contain the computer which contains their world? Could they, in other words, do what we are doing now, imagine a computer that could contain a world like ours?
Now ask yourself this: Is there any way for them to leave the computer? Their bodies are not physical, only phantoms assembled by designated collections of electrons. The subroutines that generate them could be transfered to another machine, or duplicated, but there is no way to manifest them outside of a computer. They could be transferred to a different program, one that operates according to different rules. That might feel to them to be an alternate reality, but they would still be physically located within a computer.
Are we conscious, and if so, how do we know? We are complicated organisms with intricate minds, but we aren’t qualitatively different from those characters in the computer game. Our “programming” was set by evolution or possibly some kind of transcendent being. Either way, we are the product of that programming, and there would seem to be no way to draw ourselves out of our environment to enter another dimension. Even if we found a way to transport to a different plain of existence, that would just be a separate part of the overall program within which we are firmly fixed.
But wait, you say. In our hypothetical program there is a programmer (or several), and they could, in theory, move our subroutines into androids constructed to be able to interact with the programmers in their world. Right? Put that aside for the moment. I’ll come back to it.
The Next World.
Religious folk would have you believe that there is a way out of reality, a way into a realer reality, and only they know the way. Christians and Muslims tell us that this world is only a warm-up for eternity, which is a far better place than here, and that they know which kind of belief and behavior we need to exhibit to be transported to the better place after our bodies cease to function. There is also a worse place for those who believe or behave incorrectly. They know this because their respective gods told them so, in writing. Interestingly, each group knows that they are right and the other group is wrong, that their group is the one with the key to enter the better place after death. And within each religion are sects that know that the other sects are mistaken, and cause their members to end up in the worse place.
It has me thinking that they might all be wrong. Certainly most of them have to be wrong. It also seems a little suspicious that this better place, Paradise or whatever, cannot be detected by anyone who is still alive. It’s awfully convenient to promise an infinite reward that you can’t verify the existence of until it’s too late to report back to anyone else. Yes, I know, it’s written in the book authored by your god, but I have my doubts. Especially since all those religious people don’t agree with each other on most of the details in the holy books.
So let’s return to the hypothetical computer situation, and consider that our “gods” may not be supernatural. Those god-like programmers could provide us, the characters in their vast game, with any kind of “afterlife” they wish, including transplanting our subroutines into robots. That would give us a view of the life of the programmers and of the outside of the computer in which resides our universe. Sounds a little unsettling. Would the programmers choose to keep our programs running? They could turn us off at any time, or change us in any way they wished, and we wouldn’t know anything about this unless they chose to tell us.
Of course all this is hypothetical. It is just a made up situation. We have no indication that any of it is reflective of the real world; it’s just something that is entertaining to speculate about. The thing is, the same applies to everything proposed by the Christians and Muslims, and pretty much every religion.
*This World Is Not My Home, covered by various artists. Woodie Guthrie does an interesting version.
Featured image credit: Forbes. Robot College Student from Data Science Central.