Tuesday, September 27, 2011

How real are you?

Are we real? Of course we are. How much real are we, say when compared to characters of a story, movie, or a video game? You might think that's an odd question - reality is reality, fiction is fiction! It may be so, but let's pause and think for a moment.

What differentiates reality and fiction? We can imagine a huge moon overlooking shores of an urban city surrounded by water - but that won't be real. Or will it? For an event to be real, you need real humans (supposing it involves humans) who have a mind governed by psychology - who think, feel reason like we do. We need real environment, made of billions of atoms so that the repercussion of every action is calculated with the greatest scrutiny. Merely outlining the large scale effects of an event (as is done in a fiction) is not enough to make it real. In short we should have an Universe where all the laws of physics are followed just as in ours, and we should be in it.

Before we go further into it, I would like to propose a thought experiment. Let's take a living human brain, and let's scan the configuration of the brain as precisely as possible. Fear not - since due to recent advances in modern physiology, this can be done without harming the person at all. Let's say we scan every neuron and the state of it - in the sense which other neurons is it connected to, and where is it currently sending any electric impulse. Then in principle, one can sit down and using pen and paper simulate the brain - by writing down its current state and slowly evolving it following the right biological course of the neurons. Using more sophisticated science, infact one may be able to code questions posed to the brain in terms of sound waves - interpreted into electric signals by the relevant portion of the brain. And once the computation has taken its course, following the same biological simulation one may carry out the necessary recoding and end up with the exact vibration of the larynx, from which sound waves can be deduced - pretty much the same sound waves which a real mouth will speak if a real brain is asked a real question. (You can find a variant of this experiment here in Wikipedia.)

However note that the person who is carrying out these computations, does not need to at all 'understand' the question that was posed in form of sound waves. The scanned brain may even belong to Stephen Hawking - and the question a deep one in astrophysics - and the person who is simulating this may not even understand English - but at the end of calculations he will still come out with exactly the same answer that a real Stephen Hawking would have given. Just as in real world, the consciousness and understanding that a brain possesses may be an emergent phenomenon, so can it be for a person meticulously simulating it on pen and paper.

So if the brain of a living person is scanned, and then tediously simulated by following mathematical equation on pen and paper, will give rise to exact same answers that the real brain will give (provided no mistakes are made). This is just like you can predict where Jupiter will be on this day next year - even though you of course cannot see it in the next year in our reality at this moment.

Do you think then the simulated brain is 'real'? Let's see. Let's suppose we note down the configuration of a real brain for simulation, and then destroy the real brain. (Well that's a rather inhuman thing to do, but it is only a thought experiment.)

Will the thought, feeling, knowledge, experience be preserved as the brain is simulated? Yes.

Will the brain answer to any question asked exactly the same way the 'real' person would have answered? Yes.

In general will the brain react in exactly the same way in which the real brain will react, when posed with the same (simulated) conditions? Yes.

So by all accounts the simulated brain's actions will match with the real brain - it will even have a (simulated) consciousness corresponding to the real brain.

The only fact which makes it not real, is that you are not there - you cannot directly see or talk to it or interact with it. What if your brain scan is also taken and is simulated alongside the other brain? Your simulated brain will have no doubt that the other brain is real. For them, since there is no way to detect the real you, your world will be as fictitious - just a 'what if we are being simulated' hypothesis.

Is there any way for the simulated brains to figure out that their world is merely simulated - and is not 'real'? The answer seems no (unless we choose to give them hints - eg. suddenly make a paper appear which has answers to their key scientific questions - which let's say we do not want to). They will see, feel, smell, touch their simulated world just as we do. They will have their own (simulated) thoughts, feelings, experiences, memories. They will experience (simulated) happiness, fear, joy, anger, peace just as we do. For them their (simulated) world is as real as we feel ours is.

It is a slightly disturbing conclusion that there is no way for them to detect they are being simulated, since it means that we could be living in a world which is entirely being simulated, and we would have no way to know about it. But it gets worse.
That's all my schedule permits me to write in the real (or simulated?) world where I live - we will continue the exploration next week. Update: Continued here.

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