Simulation

Hypothesis

Motivated, or triggered, by I don’t even remember what, I re-listened to this episode of The Infinite Monkey Cage, titled Are We Living in a Simulation?.

Unless you have been living under a rock in the past years, you probably have come across the hypothesis of Nick Bostrom that we might be living in a simulation, not the real world. The basic idea is that there’s a probability that, given certain assumptions, we’re living in a simulated world set up by an ancient civilisation that has achieved some superhuman intelligence, including the computational know-how and technology to run such a simulation. The simulation would be so powerful that each of our bodies, including our brains, as well as all other beings could be simulated to the extent as we’re are experiencing the world as we do right now.

It’s an interesting philosophical question, with lots of possible lines of thought to follow. For example, if we actually were living in a simulation, could there be an afterlife – in another simulation? As discussed in the podcast, the whole idea can veer close to a religion (replacement) for technologists, with creation myth and everything.

From a practical point of view, I find the whole concept unconvincing, even starting right from the assumptions. One of the assumptions is that some civilisations don’t get extinct before they reach the required maturity to set up and run such simulation. Look how far we have got as regards the technological advancement required to run such a simulation – maybe a first dot on a line in a corresponding progress bar –, and how close we are to wiping ourselves out.

But there was a real gem of a takeaway in that discussion.

Science

Together with Bostrom, the panel included Anil Seth, one of my favourite scientist in the field of cognitive and consciousness research. First, he reminded the audience that simulation of brains would entail creating consciousness, which is the only thing we humans can be really sure exists, given our daily experience. And that creating consciousness by machines, that is, by pure information processing, is not a given at all. It may or may not be the foundation of consciousness, we simply don’t know. He’s pretty sceptical in this regard. The basic function of the brain is to keep us alive, by upholding the allostasis in our bodies in order to hold all the physiological parameters within their viable ranges. From this basic function, all higher-level cognition evolved. Hence, Seth does not rule out that life per se might be a basic prerequisite for consciousness. For what it’s worth, I agree.

Second, Seth then pointed out that each of us actually does life in a simulation – the perception of reality continuously created by our brains. There’s no difference between a dream and “reality”, from the point of view of inner experience. Dreams are very real, in this sense. The only difference is that when being awake in the “real” world, our dream – the continuous simulation – gets continually corrected via our perception via eyes, ears, smell, and touch, to better match the physical world, or via our actions, to make the physical world match our simulation.1 That’s why we can, for example, literally see things that are not there in reality, or we miss things that are, if this continuous correction is temporarily faulty, or overwhelmed, or manipulated by our state of mind.

I find this way more interesting, not least from a practical point of view, as it’s our daily life. Nothing would change for our daily experience if we lived in a simulation à la Bostrom, but being aware of the simulation in our heads is of direct consequence for so many situations. If you simplistically think what you perceive is the reality, you’re in for trouble.

Meditation

The way I see and practice it, meditation2 is a method to explore and recognise the true nature of our minds. This insight provides the basis for a better life, from interactions and communication with other people to coping with my thoughts and emotions.

I often meditate with eyes open, to underline the recognition that where my head should be, there’s actually the world. I don’t have a head. Try it right now, it’s quite an illuminating discovery.

Which leads to the further insight that there’s no difference between my perception of the outside and the inside. There is no boundary between the world and myself. Everything simply appears in my consciousness as a unity, my thoughts, the tickling in my finger, or the screen right now in front of me as I write this. That is, meditation is no special state of mind, it’s what happens all the time, in meditation I just focus to be aware of this, and deepen the mindset for my life in general. I take a step back, and become acutely aware of the above in order to observe it. But I can do that at every point in my daily life as well. Which is the point.

Also, I am not the author of what happens in my mind, I am an observer, which is even true for my thoughts. No-one of us knows what thought will appear next. We can recognise, and make sense of the thought, and possibly follow up – or not –, but the primary appearance is out of our control. Our mind “just happens”, awake or asleep.

Now re-consider Seth’s observation that each of us lives in their simulation, an experience space spanned by our mind, and I am sure you see the direct connection to meditation. All that we experience is happening in our consciousness, the inner simulation. We have no other means for experience than through that simulation. Or with other words, the reality we experience is made of consciousness, so to speak. Our mind creates – or is – a stage for all of our experience, and thus our lives.3 The experience of, say, the ocean you see in your dreams is exactly the same as when you see the ocean in reality. We only have our inner simulation.

Again, try it, and become aware that all you see is purely made of your consciousness. You cannot experience anything outside consciousness, even yourself, or your self.4 It’s an interesting experiment. You might start to think about the world differently. Where you expect your head is, there is the world, and it’s your consciousness that creates the experience.5

I find this approach very helpful, not least when interacting with other people. What they do and say, happens on my mind stage, because I have no way of knowing otherwise. I can then decide6 how the play goes. If I get angry, for example, it’s because I let it happen, as both actor and director for my stage. I can also decide otherwise. I cannot direct the external and internal events that will occur, but I can decide what to do with them. The more I have realised that thoughts and emotions are just that – waves on the water that is my consciousness – and they do not define me, the easier this is.


  1. This might even be the way we direct our actions: we envision a goal state of the world, and our actions are determined and initiated to (try to) make the real world match our goals. ↩︎

  2. I have abandoned Vipassana, Goenka-style. ↩︎

  3. I know that consciousness does not work like this, with the brain processing signals, and then at some single point conscious experience just “pops up” as a scene on stage. I use the stage as metaphor here. ↩︎

  4. So if my self is an appearance in my own awareness, who pays attention then, who is that observer, or where is it? You see where that leads, in particular in combination with the continuous flow of thoughts and emotions outside our control, and the impermanence of our experiences. ↩︎

  5. Of course the world outside your consciousness exists. Your consciousness does not create reality, I am not talking about this esoteric nonsense, but about your perception, your experience. All meaning is created in consciousness, though. Everyone who seeks meaning outside their mind will be lost. The universe does not hold any meaning. ↩︎

  6. I am simplifying here, as these “decisions” should flow autonomously out of our state of mind, not be conscious decisions in the common sense. Even though also the latter can be helpful in daily life if, or when, my mind does not yet, or right in the moment, autonomously produce the helpful state. It’s better to consciously decide not to react angrily after I feel a wave of anger flowing through my body than unconsciously go with that wave. ↩︎