Have we ever lived in a simulation?

Metaverse, NFT, and artificial intelligence are the hottest topics in the tech world — at least for now. In addition to competing for investors’ attention, they ask some philosophical questions: What’s real? What is the reality?

These are old questions in philosophy, but now taking on a flavor of technological innovation. What is the difference between a chair in our physical world and a chair in the metaverse? One might argue that one is made of atoms while the other is made of bits. The material is different.

But what distinguishes NFT artwork from its digital version? In this case, the relative importance is the same: bits.

And what distinguishes our experience in the physical world from an immersive digital environment like the metaverse? Aren’t we already living in a simulation?

I came back to this topic because I recently read a new book by David Chalmers, one of the greatest philosophers of mind. In “Reality+,” he tours the ideals of philosophy and uses virtual reality and metaverse technology to offer new perspectives on long-established questions. It is impossible to start reading and not wonder what emerging technologies can cause.

In this text I intend to present some key ideals, but before that I will introduce the topic by telling a small anecdote from the Millennium.

Taoist master Chuang-tzu, after walking a lot during a sunny day, lay under a tree and fell into a deep sleep. He dreamed that he was a butterfly, wandering in the fields he had just passed.

When he woke up he said to himself:

“I am facing the most complex philosophical problem of my life. Who am I? Am I a man who dreams that he is a butterfly? Or am I a butterfly who dreams that he is a man?”

Chuang-Tzu could not be sure that the life he was living was real. How could he prove that he was a human being who dreamed of a butterfly and not the other way around?

With the exponential growth of digital technologies, old questions can be replaced by new ones. The dream now gives way to the possibility of being in a simulated universe.

A few days ago I asked a room full of undergraduates how they could prove to me that they weren’t in a simulator. The class remained silent for a few seconds. Then some students began to put forward arguments that I had no difficulty in refuting.

I’ve been working with the “simulation hypothesis”, which suggests that we live in a simulation and that we have no way of knowing that.

If I asked you to prove to me that you’re not in a simulator, you might think you have a lot of evidence for that. I tend to think no. Some authors, such as Chalmers himself, believe that this would be impossible.

Do you know why? Because any clue you provide – whether it’s a tree, a virus, or even a chaotic system – can be the result of the simulation itself. Very well produced simulation. Not to mention the fact that since we were born in this simulation, we wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between a digital tree and a physical tree – not even if there was a physical copy.

Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom gained notoriety by proposing a famous essay on the subject. He made a statistical argument for simulation, since humanity has evolved so much that the technologies at its disposal can create many simulated universes.

The idea is something like this: people can create a multiverse with many conscious artificial intelligences inside it. Given that the number of simulated universes will be huge, and therefore, the number of simulated people will be greater, we are more likely to be among the simulators than the programmers.

In other words, the probability that we are inside a simulation becomes quite reasonable.

But does all of this make a difference in who we are?

I do not think so. My experience in this world – imitated or not – is real. I feel conscious and feel the world. For Chalmers, the fact that we are in a simulation does not mean that reality does not exist, it will only be made of information. A different kind of reality, but still real.

The same is true for metaverses.

The simulation hypothesis is an irrefutable philosophical position. It is not a scientific hypothesis that we can test and try to refute. Still, it’s coherent—and even to many, terrifying.

I like to think about the simulation hypothesis because it encourages us to think about the nature of reality and how we will deal with the digital universes that we will soon create. What is morally right and wrong in metaverses? How should we act?

If we understand metaphysics as true – a little different – then the answers may be different than when we judge it as a second-order truth.

In any case, philosophical, ethical, and governance challenges will be central to the simulated universes we will create this time around.

* Diogo Cortez Cognitive scientist, futurist and content creator. Professor at PUC-SP. PhD in Intelligence Technologies and Digital Design from PUC-SP, with a PhD fellowship from the University of Paris I – Sorbonne. Neuroscientist. He did a postdoctoral training in Virtual Reality at the University of Salamanca – Spain. He was a Visiting Professor in the Cognitive Science Laboratory at Queen Mary University of London (UK). He works in research at the intersection of design, artificial intelligence, and cognitive science.

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