Why We are Definitely Living in a Simulation (and why it doesn’t really matter, and also matters quite a lot).
There seems to be quite a bit of media interest in the possibility that we may be living in a computer simulation at the moment.
This is nothing new. It’s been a staple of the philosophical world for a long time. But what if they’re right? What if none of this is real? Well over the course of the next few hundred words, I hope to convince you that it is indeed the case, and look at why it doesn’t matter a great deal, but also matters quite a bit. Here goes.
We’ll start with the five most obvious senses: sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell, and look at how they combine to create the ‘real’ world.
SIGHT: This is generated by light falling on the rods and cones contained within your eyes. These patterns of colour, light and shade are then encoded into electrical impulses which travel along your optic nerve to the occipital lobe, where the resulting image is processed into a useful three dimensional environment.
HEARING: In a similar fashion to light falling on the rods and cones of your eyes, your auditory environment is created by sound waves falling across your eardrums. Again, these signals are encoded into electrical impulses, and delivered to the auditory cortex, which has a variety of processing areas, more about which can be found here. Again, the signal is processed into a meaningful environment.
EVERYTHING ELSE: You’re beginning to get the picture here, right? We can skip the next three, and just entertain the notion that the senses are exposed to various stimuli, all of which are converted to electronic signals which are transmitted to the relevant processing area of your brain for that stimulus. I suppose I could have opened with that, but it didn’t seem fair without any preparation. You may not have even had coffee yet.
So various inputs of sensation are processed by different areas of out brains. And then – and this is the remarkable bit – or rather, one of the remarkable bits – the data from all the different areas creates a model – a full working environment for us to navigate through the world with. So the senses as we know them aren’t real. We don’t see, feel, hear, touch or taste anything. We exist in a simulated environment generated from converted inputs. We don’t feel the rain, we feel the sensation of the rain in the form of a coded signal that we decipher as the sensation of rain. We don’t see light – you can’t see these words, anymore than if you were wearing a VR headset, you would be seeing a different world. It’s all an illusion, a cockpit for you to sit in while your body goes about its business as an organism. This raises other questions of course. Such as, if this is an illusion, who exactly is watching it? Who, exactly, am I?
Well that’s another matter for another post. But as promised, I will demonstrate why it doesn’t really matter, and then why it matters quite a bit.
Why it Doesn’t Really Matter
It doesn’t matter that you’re living in an illusion as long as it’s one which is functioning on a steady basis, and can get you from A to B without incurring or causing serious injury or distress.
Why it Matters Quite a Bit
It matters a quite bit because this can be a rough old universe, and how you handle your interactions with any of the billions of other illusions wandering around the planet, can make a huge difference between your sense generating the conditions for a pleasant/unpleasant universe. Try to keep in mind that many of them will be functioning under a different illusion: that of thinking this is all real.
Now and again it’s constructive to remind yourself that this is a high quality simulation, and if you object to the content, this can be rectified by altering the input.
Consciousness Explained, by Daniel C Dennet.
From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds, by Daniel C Dennet.
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