Neuroscience & Mind Icon Neuroscience & Mind

MIT’s Rizwan Virk on Simulation Theory, AKA Intelligent Design

Rizwan Virk

An MIT computer scientist, Rizwan Virk, has a new book out, The Simulation Hypothesis, making the case again that we live not in a “base reality” (a real world) but, more likely, in a computer simulation. What are the odds, in his view? “I would say it’s somewhere between 50 and 100 percent. I think it’s more likely that we’re in simulation than not.”

Scott Adams, a favorite commentator of mine, thinks so as well and concedes that this is amounts to a form of ID, albeit not the kind advocated by our more familiar design proponents. Says Adams, “The odds of us having an intelligent design, meaning we’re created by another species of humans, are pretty close to 100 percent.” 

Alternative Versions of Simulation Theory

In an interview, Virk points out interestingly that the thesis comes in two forms.

The basic idea is that everything we see around us, including the Earth and the universe, is part of a very sophisticated MMORPG (a massively multiplayer online roleplaying game) and that we are players in this game. The hypothesis itself comes in different forms.

In one version, we’re all A.I. within a simulation that’s running on somebody else’s computer. In another version, we are “player characters,” conscious things that exist outside the simulation and we inhabit characters, just like you might take on the character of an elf or dwarf in a fantasy RPG.

A “Self-Refuting” Idea?

The first version of the idea, at least, would seem to be self-refuting, as neuroscientist Michael Egnor has noted here in the past.

We begin with this question: What is computation? Computation is a mapping of an input to an output according to a set of rules (an algorithm). The output is a function of the input, calculated for each independent variable in the input. For example, as I type this post, the electrical signal evoked by each keystroke is mapped to a pattern of electrons on my computer screen, according to the rules of the algorithm in my Microsoft Word program.

Note that the mapping is independent of the meaning of the input and the output signals. Microsoft Word pays no heed to the meanings conveyed by my keystrokes. The program doesn’t “care” whether I am typing an essay or a poem or a novel. It doesn’t even really care that I am typing anything at all. It merely maps the electrical signal generated by my keystrokes to electrical signals on my computer screen. It is an electro-mechanical process, not any kind of comprehension.  Computation is mapping of signals, and pays no heed to the meaning of the signals it maps. Computation pays no heed to the meaning of anything.

Now, the next question. What is the mind? What is the human ability by which we ask the question “Am I living in a computer simulation?” What is it about a thought that distinguishes a thought from other things, like physical objects? Nineteenth-century German philosopher Franz Brentano gave an answer that seems decisive: Thoughts are always about something, whereas physical objects are never (intrinsically) about anything. He called this aboutness of thoughts “intentionality,” using a word derived from the scholastic philosophers’ theory of mind that dates back to Aristotle.

Thoughts are intentional, in the sense that they always point to something — to a concept, to an object, to a person, etc. Our thoughts always have an object (conceptual or physical) to which they are intrinsically directed. Our thoughts always mean something.

So are we living in a computer simulation? As I noted above, meaning is precisely what computation lacks. The most fundamental human power — the power of thought to have meaning — is just what a computer simulation cannot do.

Computation is syntax, whereas thought is semantics. If we were living in a computer simulation, and our mind were computation, the one thing we couldn’t do is think.

We couldn’t ask the question “Are we living in a computer simulation?” if we were living in a computer simulation. The irony here is that, of all the possible fundamental truths of reality, the notion that we are living in such a simulation is the one we can rule out simply because it’s self-refuting.

If we are living in a computer simulation, we couldn’t think to ask the question.

That would seem to answer decisively Virk’s first version of the simulation theory. But the second, basically a highly persuasive virtual reality, may be a different story.

Like Adams, I’m given pause by how often stories in the news, especially the names of figures in the news, are so perfect, “on the nose,” or ironic that it appears to show the hands of the simulators. Or, simulation theory aside, it could also mean that the intelligent agent responsible for the design of our “base reality” has a sense of humor, which seems highly likely.

Photo credit: Martin Sanchez on Unsplash.