The Simulation II: Escape

The cover to Wildstorm's A Nightmare on Elm St...

Musk and others have advanced the idea that we exist within a simulation, thus adding a new chapter to the classic problem of the external world. When philosophers engage this problem, the usual goal is show how one can know that one’s experience correspond to an external reality. Musk takes a somewhat more practical approach: he and others are allegedly funding efforts to escape this simulation. In addition to the practical challenges of breaking out of a simulation, there are also some rather interesting philosophical concerns about whether such an escape is even possible.

In regards to the escape, there are three main areas of interest. These are the nature of the simulation itself, the nature of the world outside the simulation and the nature of the inhabitants of the simulation. These three factors determine whether or not escape from the simulation is a possibility.

Interestingly enough, determining the nature of the inhabitants involves addressing another classic philosophical problem, that of personal identity. Solving this problem involves determining what it is to be a person (the personal part of personal identity), what it is to be distinct from all other entities and what it is to be the same person across time (the identity part of personal identity). Philosophers have engaged this problem for centuries and, obviously enough, have not solved it. That said, it is easy enough to offer some speculation within the context of Musk’s simulation.

Musk and others seem to envision a virtual reality simulation as opposed to physical simulation. A physical simulation is designed to replicate a part of the real world using real entities, presumably to gather data. One science fiction example of a physical simulation is Frederik Pohl’s short story “The Tunnel under the World.” In this story the inhabitants of a recreated town are forced to relive June 15th over and over again in order to test various advertising techniques.

If we are in a physical simulation, then escape would be along the lines of escaping from a physical prison—it would be a matter of breaking through the boundary between our simulation and the outer physical world. This could be a matter of overcoming distance (travelling far enough to leave the simulation—perhaps Mars is outside the simulation) or literally breaking through a wall. If the outside world is habitable, then survival beyond the simulation would be possible—it would be just like surviving outside any other prison.

Such a simulation would differ from the usual problem of the external world—we would be in the real world; we would just be ignorant of the fact that we are in a constructed simulation. Roughly put, we would be real lab rats in a real cage, we would just not know we are in a cage. But, Musk and others seem to hold that we are (sticking with the rat analogy) rats in a simulated cage. We may even be simulated rats.

While the exact nature of this simulation is unspecified, it is supposed to be a form of virtual reality rather than a physical simulation. The question then, is whether or not we are real rats in a simulated cage or simulated rats in a simulated cage.

Being real rats in this context would be like the situation in the Matrix: we have material bodies in the real world but are jacked into a virtual reality. In this case, escape would be a matter of being unplugged from the Matrix. Presumably those in charge of the system would take better precautions than those used in the Matrix, so escape could prove rather difficult. Unless, of course, they are sporting about it and are willing to give us a chance.

Assuming we could survive in the real world beyond the simulation (that it is not, for example, on a world whose atmosphere would kill us), then existence beyond the simulation as the same person would be possible. To use an analogy, it would be like ending a video game and walking outside—you would still be you; only now you would be looking at real, physical things. Whatever personal identity might be, you would presumably still be the same metaphysical person outside the simulation as inside. We might, however, be simulated rats in a simulated cage and this would make matter even more problematic.

If it is assumed that the simulation is a sort of virtual reality and we are virtual inhabitants, then the key concern would be the nature of our virtual existence. In terms of a meaningful escape, the question would be this: is a simulated person such that they could escape, retain their personal identity and persist outside of the simulation?

It could be that our individuality is an illusion—the simulation could be rather like Spinoza envisioned the world. As Spinoza saw it, everything is God and each person is but a mode of God. To use a crude analogy, think of a bed sheet with creases. We are the creases and the sheet is God. There is actually no distinct us that can escape the sheet. Likewise, there is no us that can escape the simulation.

It could also be the case that we exist as individuals within the simulation, perhaps as programmed objects.  In this case, it might be possible for an individual to escape the simulation. This might involve getting outside of the simulation and into other systems as a sort of rogue program, sort of like in the movie Wreck-It Ralph. While the person would still not be in the physical world (if there is such a thing), they would at least have escaped the prison of the simulation.  The practical challenge would be pulling off this escape.

It might even be possible to acquire a physical body that would host the code that composes the person—this is, of course, part of the plot of the movie Virtuosity. This would require that the person make the transition from the simulation to the real world. If, for example, I were to pull off having my code copied into a physical shell that thought it was me, I would still be trapped in the simulation. I would no more be free than if I was in prison and had a twin walking around free. As far as pulling of such an escape, Virtuosity does show a way—assuming that a virtual person was able to interact with someone outside the simulation.

As a closing point, the problem of the external world would seem to haunt all efforts to escape. To be specific, even if a person seemed to have managed to determine that this is a simulation and then seemed to have broken free, the question would still arise as to whether or not they were really free. It is after all, a standard plot twist in science fiction that the escape from the virtual reality turns out to be virtual reality as well. This is nicely mocked in the “M. Night Shaym-Aliens!” episode of Rick and Morty. It also occurs in horror movies, such as Nightmare on Elm Street, —a character trapped in a nightmare believes they have finally awoken in the real world, only they have not. In the case of a simulation, the escape might merely be a simulated escape and until the problem of the external world is solved, there is no way to know if one is free or still a prisoner.


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  1. The Simulation II: Escape | D!SRUPT | Question Everything - pingback on October 26, 2016 at 8:34 am
  2. The distinction between the concepts is very important:
    Simulation, Meiosis and Semiosis..

  3. What are these foreign language messages that attach to the walls of the philosophy blog?

  4. “Musk takes a somewhat more practical approach: he and others are allegedly funding efforts to escape this simulation. “
    Are they not a crazy group of people? Have they overindulged in science fiction? Do they wish to draw public attention to themselves? What exactly does this simulation embrace? Does it extend to the whole universe? Was it in operation before life appeared on the Earth? If it is a simulation then what is reality? for some unknown reason I think these people find the idea of being trapped in a simulation somehow or the other appealing and by deft and clever argument have persuaded themselves that this is likely to be the case. Maybe they are just unhappy with their lot and just want Out. What other evidence is there, other than such arguments, to suggest this world of ours is a simulation?
    That said many important philosophical issues are nevertheless again brought to light. We do not have immediate contact with reality. Nature has constructed us to survive, the basic drives being Feeding, Fleeing, Fighting, and Reproduction. Most living creatures especially humans have also been equipped with the instinct of |Curiosity which to a large extent accounts for the progress made in the endeavour to understand ourselves and the place in which we find ourselves. However the picture we have of Reality in our minds does not match realty in itself which according to A N Whithead is as follows “bodies are perceived as with qualities which in reality do not belong to them, qualities which in fact are purely the offspring of the mind. Thus nature gets credit which should in truth be reserved for our¬selves: the rose for its scent: the nightingale for his song: and the sun for his radiance. The poets are entirely mistaken. They should address their lyrics to themselves, and should turn them into odes of self-congratulation on the excellency of the human mind. Nature is a dull affair, soundless, scentless, colourless; merely the hurrying of material, endlessly, meaninglessly”. (Science and the Modern World p.54)”
    I suppose out of all this, the world to us, is something in the nature of a simulation but I do not think it is of the same kind as Musk and his associates describe. Briefly the human understanding of the world has largely been obtained, by what we call Scientific method. This broadly speaking means that we observe what we call Reality and note that certain events are followed by other events. When we are satisfied that event B is always followed event A we nominate A as a cause and B as an effect. This is the process of induction and it is the backbone of our scientific knowledge; so far it has managed to get us to the Moon and to Mars. It is evident that the process of induction does not allow us to look at the whole of reality in one instant we only have bits of it which we put together and assume that the future will resemble the past which science has shown us is likely but not always reliable. The inductive process does interrupt what is in fact a continuous process. Nature does not stop and start, it is continuous as one can confirm by following the changes in weather. The point I’m trying to make here is that human beings are limited so far as understanding nature is concerned. What our senses tell us is the case, does not exist in nature, and when we come to examine reality we have to interrupt what is in fact a continuous process and make our judgements on what seems to be the case rather than what undeniably is the case Out of all this we seem to be a highly successful race, if only we could stop killing each other, and tampering with the climate to such an extent that it may not be able to support life. Are we living in a simulation I would say that that I do not think so and if we are so what? and as to escaping from it what nonsense. I have seen this concept described as unfalsifiable which really means there is no known way testing its truth. additionally so far as I can see the arguments for it seem conjectural and unscientific. All that said, I shall still continue to watch that space.

  5. Yes Dennis I have wondered about the Foreign Language messages. They make me realize how bad my French is. I would not dream of writing in English, to a German blog, which apparently was solely devoted to the German Language.

  6. Dennis Sceviour

    Here is the google translation of the wall poster above. It does not help me:

    Before thunder sounded nufactured shock at the foot going to be the earth shook violently, billowing smoke. And between the brouhaha, Zerg attacking cavalry head insect save the bay, three hundred troopers marching fast towards tobacco and dust swept columns nufactured nufactured near cavalry durante leaned back on the Zerg, the cavalry weapon durante nufactured before rushing south east as the general forest

  7. Hi Dennis weird isn’t it. I had not thought to try a Google translation.

  8. Dennis, Don, website managers are used to seeing completely irrelevant sentences, or harmless messages like “Great post, very insightful” posted, when the poster’s handle can be linked to a site that is being spamvertised or promoted for search engine optimisation.

  9. The “foreign language” comments are just nonsense spam posts.

  10. Dennis Sceviour

    My post has disappeared. The interface says it is still there. Has Clyde escaped from the simulation?

  11. There is one way of determining if this virtual reality is simulated by our minds or an outside force. If Solipsism posits that life, death and anything in between is made manifest as a part of my mind (either conscious or subconscious), then there should be no accidental death. If by no measure of my intent, do I experience death (murder, rogue bus, poison mushroom, etc.), how does that NOT invalidate the entire theory?

    If a reality exists outside of my Paneron, in a collective or interactive virtual or physical simulation with multiple people participating, that would infer an outside perspective. According to particle physics and quantum mechanics, photons (and other particles and molecules) behave in both a wave function and as separate particles simultaneously. Their state and behavior is DIRECTLY tied to observation. In other words, consciousness (or even subconscious) determines what we see – as opposed to a world existing outside of our observation.

    If consciousness is the ’cause’ and reality the ‘effect’, as has been proven paradoxically and famously in quantum mechanics, that would then render a simulated reality theory nullified for IMO it suggests a physical or virtual simulation could not exist if it were fully dependent on our conscious observation. One could then deduce that a plane or shared medium is being acted upon by our independent conscious observation. In essence, we create our reality with our minds observation and interpretation or that is how are minds best interpret that data.

  12. In conclusion, Solipsism is not compatible with quantum mechanics. If what we consider to be the building blocks of the simulation (either virtual, physical or mental simulation) is determined by our observation then how can any of the 3 theories be correct? If it were a mental simulation (Solipsism) then all is not “observed” selectively but in totality as it is a projection of the conscious or subconscious mind and particles would not be able to discern between varying levels of observation. Basically, the mind cannot simulate without ‘observing’ simultaneously. A virtual or physical reality theory would not be compatible with QM either. Both a virtual and physical reality simulations infer a construction independent from our conscious presence, for our conscious presence. They would be created for consciousness and would therefore be independent of consciousness. QM would suggest the opposite indeed, that our conscious observation is the source code that constructs the reality around us and therefore no simulation could be dependent on conscious observation. Therefore, all simulation theory is illogical and contradictory to our most revealing science to date.

  13. Well of course the means to escape exists, as any 60s acid head or top level meditator can tell you.
    And that is precisely the goal of e.g. Buddhist religious practices.

    However there is a price to be paid.

    The observed reality,and the individual who observes it, are two aspects of the same process. To leave the world of self-created perceptions is in a very real sense to cease to exist as a conscious observer at all.

    If you like, the only way you can be sure you are not in a simulation, is to turn the computer off completely.

    And then there is no picture at all…

    The problem is not one of escaping the simulation, it is of understanding that there’s more than one – like channels on the TV – and selecting the one you want to watch, knowing its not the One True Channel, just another way of being…

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