If you were a software simulation, how would you know?

If you think your sensation of consciousness proves you are real, that's magical thinking. Consciousness is little more than imagining what happens next and comparing your experience to your expectations. Add some memory and some sensors for the environment and you have the entire package. Software can do that. And if programmed to report all of that as a "feeling" it could.

If we are software, it seems likely that we have a lot in common with our creators. It seems more likely that humans would create simulations of other humans as opposed to random creatures. It's the same reason our movies and entertainment are generally about people or creatures who act like people. People who think like us are likely to love themselves as much as we love ourselves.

So let's assume our creators think the way we do, in some general way. That's a starting point.

Let's also assume the programmers have limited resources. They can't program every possible development in our reality, so instead they use shortcuts and tricks. If we see evidence of those shortcuts and tricks in our alleged reality, it raises some questions.

For starters, some humans might be fully programmed and others would be background extras. The extras would be easy to identify because they never have anything interesting to say. You know those people. Check.

Our programmers might also create our history on the fly, and then only for compatibility with whatever is happening at the moment. Your sidewalk doesn't have a history of a crack until someone sees it. And your cat is neither alive nor dead until you see evidence for one or the other. If you want to be more controversial, it would mean finding a fossil creates a past with a dinosaur and not the other way around.

Next, you'd expect a lot of code reuse. And that means the world would be full of repeating patterns. For example, why does it seem that whenever something unique and bizarre happens to me in the afternoon it is also the plot of the only sitcom I watch that very evening? That happens to me about once a week. If I spill Gatorade on the cat, it's the plot of Modern Family that very night.

Yes, yes, yes. I know. Coincidences are just coincidences. It's nothing but statistics acting out. But here's the fun part: We don't understand why statistics work. We know things revert to the mean, for example, but why? The rules of physics seem like programmed rules as opposed to simple logical truths.

Our hypothetical programmers would need to build knowledge barriers beyond which our search for truth cannot extend. For example, we can't travel faster than the speed of light and therefore we can't see the edges of our universe. And when we drill into the quantum world we quickly reach absurdity instead of understanding. It has the smell of something a clever engineer programmed just to keep us from learning our true nature. And can light really be a particle and a wave at the same time? What about quantum entanglement?

Realistically, does it make sense to you that all matter and energy are comprised of different and smaller things no matter how far you peer into the world of the super-small? If a particle is made of X, what is X made of? Can that chain of inquiry go on to infinity? It's absurd. Just the way a clever programmer would build it. If we saw an actual physical brick wall around our solar system we'd know we were programmed. But if every time we extend our knowledge we find new riddles, we live in a prison of limited knowledge without feeling it.

What other clues might we find of our programmed existence?

  For ideas that are less crazy than this blog post, see my book: How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big.

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Feb 6, 2014
seems like a false dichotomy to me...

print "hello, world!n";

is every bit as "real" as my DNA. I don't see the relevance of whether the later is the result of an "intelligent design" or just a fortunate statistical outlier?

personally when I feel the need for an existential crisis I like to ponder the lyrics of "Baby You're a Rich Man Too" (particularly, "now that you know who you are what do you want to be?")
+5 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 6, 2014
Forget simulations. Explain what is "real". Explain an infinity. How can anything be an infinity? Small? Can you go smaller? If so, why? If not, why? What is the fabric of spacetime made of? Does the question itself even make sense? Is space infinite? No? Then what is "outside" of space? Space is infinite? How can that be? How can anything go on forever and ever?

Simulations are easy. By definition they are a subset of real. We need to explain real.
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 6, 2014
Miracles are not programming bugs, they are features.


I can't prove we are not programmed creatures.

The difference is that Scott is not trying to force the teaching of Simulationism in schools, and denying the best tool we do have available to us.

He is not trying to feather his nest or control others pushing that belief.

He is not taking my money and putting his graven images in the public square.

He is not trying to manipulate me, in order to get me to believe, so he will feel comforted. Well, he is probably doing that.


>But realistically, does it really matter?
>we shoudn't care about such things.
>Since this all is a dead end, why bother?
>And why are we bothering with this topic?
>It doesn't change a thing about how I live.
>The medium and purpose doesn't matter.

"I felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced. I fear something terrible has happened."

I'll be in my bunk, sobbing silently.
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 6, 2014
Me thinks you watched The Matrix one too many times.

But realistically, does it really matter? Inside this so called life (or reality), all you can do is act and behave according to the evidence that's presented to you. As my friend the physicist said: "If our universe is just a simulation and our conciousness just a bit of very clever software, there is no way we can prove he or they (the software engineers) exist. The only way we can "discover" we're a simulation is for our creator(s) to contact us and tell us that..."

Of course, if we can find the real glitches (a la in the Matrix), then that would be a different story...
Feb 6, 2014
[ We don't understand why statistics work. We know things revert to the mean, for example, but why? ]

I expect better from you than this kind of intro-to-philosophy question. Statistics work because they work. Asking "why" they work is like asking why two is more than one. It is because we say it is.

There's a story about a German mathematician in the 19th century who wanted to prove that the axioms of Euclidean geometry were "true", but got stuck because axioms are the assumptions you make to prove that OTHER things are true. Then he got a bright idea: if the axioms were really "true" then reversing one of them and building proofs on top of it would inevitably lead to a contradiction somewhere down the line. So he did just that, building an entire new set of geometric theory based on changing Euclid's Fifth Axiom, the parallel postulate.

The problem was that he never hit a contradiction. He invented an entirely new geometry that was as internally consistent as Euclidean geometry, inadvertently sparking a philosophical crisis: if we can just invent geometries on a whim, then which one is really true?

Of course, this is a fundamental misunderstanding of what an axiom is. It isn't a FACT, it is a DEFINITION, i.e. it is because we say it is. Geometry is a way of describing the world around us; asking which is the "true" one is like asking which temperature scale is true, Celsius or Fahrenheit? The same goes for statistics. Regression to the mean works because we set up the system of definitions that we call "statistics" in a particular way.

Personally, I think the the whole "how do we know we exist" question falls into a similar bucket. We know we exist because we know we exist; to ask the question is to answer it. Seeking further "proof" is a solipsistic infinite loop, because no matter what proofs you devise, you can never be sure there isn't a one-layer-further-back level of reality. Your depiction of our "programmers" begs the question, if those programmers created us, who created them? And who created the programmers of the programmers? And who... and so on.

Some people terminate that loop by postulating an ultimate source for everything, and calling that source God. (Looking at you here, Kingdinosaur.) But to me, this is actually a definitive proof of the NON-existence of God, because there's no justification for terminating the loop at some arbitrary point and giving that point a name. Why there? Why not one more level back?
+5 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 6, 2014
It doesn't matter!
As proven by Kurt Goedel in his "Unvollstaendigkeitssatz" it's impossible for us to prove that we are Software. It's also impossible for us to prove that we are not.
So .... we shoudn't care about such things.

(Don't know if the link will work)
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 6, 2014

The only clue I can find of our programmed existence is that I am commenting on this post despite knowing that I don't understand a word of what you are saying.


+10 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 6, 2014
The overlord engineers are probably working hard right now.
- Man, that dilbert guy is on to us. What should we do?
- Let's try to get at him through the comments-section in his blog. Make post that says "we're bored with this - move on, monkey brain. He'll fold.
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 6, 2014
Hmmm... I think I see how to have a career in internet journalism. You just need to misunderstand the article as some of the commenters here have done, and turn it into something controversial, not abstract.

Making this about religion is something a few people here are doing, and that's got to be good for page views, so, what about:

"Scott Adams has found God, and he's a software engineer"
"God the coder? - Scott Adams thinks so"
"Scott Adams thinks we are software in God's computer?!"

Now, have the Huffington Post started paying contributors yet?

Feb 6, 2014
No, I've never met a genuinely uninteresting person. But whether or not someone is interesting is at least as much dependent on my attitude as on the person themselves.

I don't think we are software because of the "Halting problem" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Halting_problem) which, as I understand it, states that a program cannot be written to determine if code contains an infinite loop, whereas humans can recognise it - therefore we cannot be a program.

Having said that, I do believe in a Programmer of sorts... but I call Him Creator (He also did the hardware).
Feb 6, 2014
How do you prove that something does not exist?

You test.

Can't think of a test?

Then it's unscientific to have an opinion.

It could be that we are simulations or that supernatural or highly advanced technological beings guide or existence.
But there is no way to test it.

As a lesser intelligence, trying to poke holes and find reason within superior beings reasoning is pretty pointless, and also hubris.

I don't have an opinion on how or why we exist, going any further than accepting that it's very probable that at any exact moment we exist in some fashion is illogical.

Since this all is a dead end, why bother?
Feb 5, 2014
Short of a bug or an obvious clue you wouldn't.

And we weren't programmed per se. We were designed by God. However the easiest way to explain how he works is to make programming analogies. He made humans after his image because that more interesting than an animal. Maybe he didn't even expand space into a big expanding universe until our knowledge of it was ready for that. Maybe God invented programming so the skeptical and empirical among us could better understand him. Maybe how He made the universe is being paralleled by modern programming techniques on purpose.

Scott, you are a behaviorist, so just maybe you were programed into trying understand him in a way that you'd more easily accept than the traditional one.

This is something I've been thinking about on my own. So I get where you are coming from. As someone who believes in the Holy Trinity and in creationism, and as someone who has taken a few programming courses, I get it. I just see it through the lens of my own faith.

So what's to say there isn't a "server" called heaven we get transferred to when where done here? Maybe in your terms, life is just the boot up process.
Feb 5, 2014
If what we call "life" is an elaborate simulation, it begs the question, what problem are our programmers trying to solve? If it's a simulation with a purpose (and not a game), shouldn't we as a society be focused on an issue that our programmers deem important? Other than making money, there doesn't seem to be a prevailing concept in our world. Maybe, we're a stock market prediction program!

The other theory I've always liked, is that God is lonely and willing to wait a few billion years for his universe to create him a peer/equal/mate.
+9 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 5, 2014
Scott: Homerhoff's succinct comment captures the thought I've been having about your frequent posts questioning whether you actually exist or not. Your explanation for our existence as we experience it (e.g. "Creation") seems crazier to me than the biblical version of Creation ridiculed by most bien pensant secularists. You are publicly a non-believer, but observing you seek a creation story that fits comfortably with your knowledge and interests makes me wonder if anyone is truly capable of not being religious. I'm guessing that religious behavior, which Scott is exhibiting, has served mankind in its evolutionary process, therefore we are hard wired to behave and seek to explain, understand and please our creator. BTW - If we are a software program, our Programmer/Creator was very, very patient in developing it over the past 50,000 years.
Feb 5, 2014
This right here is some world class intellectual !$%*!$%*!$%*!
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 5, 2014
Why does it matter? Same with your free will obsession. What difference does it make? Whether it's just electrochemical reactions, or programming, or something else entirely, I still "believe" that I make "choices" about my life. It doesn't change a thing about how I live.
+18 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 5, 2014
So.... speaking objectively (if that's possible here), isn't belief that we're software simulations just as crazy as belief in a god? At what age, according to your Skeptical Journey, will you stop believing that you're a software program?
Feb 5, 2014

[I think all the quantum stuff is evidence of the software simulation. I think we're looking at the program code. Instead of seeing 1s and 0s, we're seeing weird vibrating quantum strings -- because our simulated minds can't comprehend the code.]

I think all the quantum stuff is evidence of our limitations working with really small stuff.

If you flip a coin the result is random in spite of the fact that a coin is large enough for physics to theoretically predict the outcome. What makes it random is the fact that you cant flip that coin the same way twice, cant account for the effect any air currents may have, etc. I beleive were hitting a similar limit with subatomic phenomena, so it SEEMS random to us.
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 5, 2014
There are a lot of philosophical theories related to this. I will not list any, because I do not even pretend to understand them. I like the basic theory in CONTACT, by Carl Sagan, that our Universe is a made thing and all in it is based in purposefully structured mathematics. In that sense we and all things can be reduced to living equations or various applications within an operating system.

But I have always secretly enjoyed the idea that we are Somebody’s hobby, restricted as a poem in organic matter, made difficult and challenging as a ship in a bottle. Or The Big Bang as a throw of the dice.
Feb 5, 2014
I'm pretty sure I'm a NPC (non-playing character).
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