Metaphysics of Virtual Reality (#1430)

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Also see other excerpts from my discussions with the Society for Scientific Exploration.

If a computer creates a virtual reality within which artificially intelligent beings contemplate their situation, how would such a world seem to them? What metaphysical concepts would they arive at? What would it be like to be an AI being in a virtual world?

I propose this hypothetical situation as an adjunct to direct metaphysical discussion regarding our reality. It provides a neatly defined context for analysis that has some interesting parallels with our own context.

Suppose that there is a computer (a CPU and memory) that provides a computational space. Within this space there are information constructs such as data types, lists, etc as well as information processes such as threads, conditional loops, etc.

These are all woven together into a simulator program. This is an information process that manages all of the existential and causal data that structures exactly what exists and happens in the virtual world. It also manages all of the moment by moment information logistics that underlies all interactions between systems. This is the role of SMN.

As the simulator functions the virtual existential context is computed one moment at a time and as the moments blur together the virtual world comes into existence.

Within this context every system is defined by existential information and every process is defined by causal information. As the computational process animates the context each perceptual process draws upon the existential state of the universe and a perceptual experience is generated for each system according to its context. Each system then interprets and responds to this according to its programmed nature.

Within this dynamic system theoretic context the systems interact and combine into higher level systems. These systems become more complex and refined through repeated adjustments to each other. Thus there eventually evolve complex systems that can be called organisms.

Some of these organisms develop complex internal feedback loops, or higher cognitive functions so that they experience the experience of experiencing. They also make associations between these experiences and others using an abstract system of symbols. Thus they come to know that they know that they know.

So far I have overlooked the role of free will, which the computational metaphor cannot encompass, but if one likens primal consciousness or pure awareness to the computational stream of the computer, then this analogy describes the manner in which it is structured and woven together to create a distributed context in which individuals may experience the same underlying context from countless unique perspectives. This perceptual dynamics drives the network of systems and causes it to evolve.

In this computational context the AI beings would lack true free will but in every other respect they would perceive, experience and interact within a context of systems in relation that impose upon their senses and create the impression of their existing a world out there. Hence the situation parallels our own in many respects.

These sentient beings would arise as a population and they would evolve in a symbiotic relationship with an ecosystem of memes. This is their culture which would contain a broad spectrum of ideas about all kinds of experiences and inferences from experience.

With this culture they would have conceptual frameworks within which to begin to analyse and discuss the nature of their reality. They would seriously question "What am I?" and "What is this place?".

Given this context of AI beings in a virtual reality running on a computer, a number of questions arise.

What could they experience of their reality? Mainly the objects of the senses which combine to create the illusion of the virtual world. But if they turned within through meditation they could also experience an inner space of pure awareness as well.

What would an empirical perspective lead to? A belief in an objectively existing "world out there" that exists independently of the observer. There would be concepts such as 'matter' and the idea that everything is "made of" matter, including themselves. Their own experience of consciousness would be surmised to be some unexplained result of the functioning of their material bodies.

What would a deeply subjective perspective lead to? A belief that consciousness is fundamental and that the "world out there" is just a construct of the objects of the senses. They would propose that there was a deeper level of reality that was not "made of" matter and which underlies the coming into being of all such things as 'matter'. In this deeper reality all the individual consciousnesses are unified, the universe is seen to be a field of consciousness and with consciousness they could participate in that field.

What would they conclude about their reality? What would logic demand? That depends upon ones perspective. Whether ones experiences were of the senses or of consciousness itself. The empiricists would conclude that the world was an objective construct made of matter and the transcendentalists would conclude that the world was an illusion of the senses that arises from a deeper world of spiritual dynamics.

There is no way of proving any of these perspectives, they both rely solely upon the voracity of outer or inner experience. The beings have no direct means of discerning the underlying computational context. They could discover it through meditation and inner unification with it or they could scientifically take the objective world mythology to its logical extreme by searching for the fundamental unit of existence, that magic stuff that just exists in space and behaves, but without any underlying or inner dynamics. This exploration would eventually breakdown and give rise to a theory of abstract non-local information processes such as quantum physics.

Ultimately they can only infer it and given that all knowledge is a tapestry of experiences and associations which are modified and built into new conceptual frameworks, they would have no direct means of comprehending the underlying dynamics. They would describe the unfamiliar computational space in terms of spiritual beings and other worlds or subtle dimensions, or perhaps wavefunctions and quanta, and so on.

That is unless they also happened to develop their own computing technology. Then that would provide a set of experiences and a language of associated concepts with which they could comprehend and analyse their deeper situation.

They could eventually build a computer that was running a virtual reality simulation inhabited by AI beings that are contemplating their situation. Then they would have a model of their situation - an actual implementation rather than just descriptions in terms of cultural discourses. Then they could really begin to explore the deeper foundations of their reality...

There is a lot more detail to this little thought experiment but that is the general outline of it. I find it a useful scenario to meditate on. As I contemplate it deeper and deeper, from all kinds of angles, I find it very thought provoking. What do others think?