Tenth in an ongoing series about the places where science and religion meet. The previous episode is here.
At this point in our journey, let us take a moment to return to Descartes’s infamous concept of mind-body duality. The body, in his view, is one type of thing: physical matter. It is subject to the laws of physics, it gets old and degrades, it is built up of discrete pieces, it works much like a machine. The mind or soul, so he claims (echoing his distant predecessor, Plato), is another type of thing, an ideal substance. It is not subject to the laws of physics, it does not get old or degrade, it is not made up of divisible parts, and it operates by pure force of will. The utility of this concept is that it matches our lived experience that mental experience, and consciousness, and emotions, and so forth, are very different from physical things, like the body, or like a machine.
If the universe is not purely physical, if it can be demonstrated there is some entirely nonphysical essence—call it mind, consciousness, or soul—pervading it, then that might be the best possible defense against the probability of existing within a computer. In a truly dualistic universe, it might never be possible to create true artificial intelligence at all, no matter how powerful computers become. Robots may remain clever, dead-eyed machines, never to become any more alive or intelligent than a Roomba vacuum cleaner or a Teddy Ruxpin doll. Simulations, no matter how sophisticated, may remain soulless accumulations of data with a sprinkling of pixel dust, forever incapable of hosting, creating or emulating human intelligence. But is this a necessity? There is no single, widely accepted explanation of how the body and soul might be connected. Is it possible that soul, or mind, even assuming it does exist, could be attached to a machine? Or live inside a computer?
The answer may depend on what conception of the nonphysical we are adhering to. The traditional concept of the soul is a spiritual entity, placed in the body by God, and returning to God after the body’s death. And in that case, a soul could never inhere in something created by human beings.
Or could it? An old Jewish legend tells of a golem, a creature made of clay, and supernaturally brought to life by writing a sacred word on its forehead. If we assume that God places each soul individually in a person’s body at the moment of birth (or alternately, the moment of conception) then presumably God could place a soul anywhere, and at any time. So if we take a traditional religious perspective, then that precludes the possibility of a simulation only in the case that we assume that a living simulation is something God would not allow (or at least, not enliven).
Perhaps, however, when we talk of the inherently nonphysical as a barrier to simulating human beings, what we are thinking about is not a supernatural soul, but rather free will, the ability of people to choose their own actions. Free will is a controversial topic, but there is at least one naturalistic theory that purports to explain it. It rests on a phenomenon called quantum indeterminacy. Quantum indeterminacy is the basic unpredictability of quantum particles. Will the electron go through one slot or the other? Will the cesium atom decay or not? In the aggregate, we know the statistical probabilities, but each individual particle’s “choices” are unknowable in advance. Another way of saying this is that the sub-microscopic objects of the quantum world seem to possess what very much looks like free will.
How can this be? As we mentioned before, all we really know about quarks is that they follow certain basic rules, that their behaviors are, as far as we can tell, random, within the confines of those rules, and that, in the aggregate, those random behaviors seem to be statistically deterministic. All matter is made from quarks, but what are quarks made from? Could they be objects composed of pure will? Which, as odd as it may sound, is really just an inverse way of asking whether what we call “will” is really quantum indeterminacy.
Even were that so, however, would it entail any sort of relationship to human free will? The two actors, humans and quarks, operate at such vastly different scales of existence. Does anything unite them, other than that they seem to uniquely share this quality of freedom in what, to all appearances, is an otherwise deterministic universe?
The quantum mechanic world seems deeply bizarre to us, it violates all rules of common sense and defies all intuition. But that is only natural, given on how different a scale it operates. In general, we are wholly shielded from the effects of the quantum world, because oddities like superimposition, wave-particle duality, and quantum willfulness are swallowed up by statistical determinism in the aggregate, and otherwise operating on too small a scale to be perceptible at a macroscopic level.
It is demonstrably possible, however, for quantum events to have an impact at a macroscopic level, if only through the intervention of scientific instruments. The very existence of devices that can measure the trajectory of a single particle demonstrates that something that happens at the subatomic level can have an impact on a thing that is macroscopic: namely the measuring instrument itself, and, by extension, the person observing the measurements.
This is the root of physicist Erwin Schrödinger’s infamous felinicidal thought experiment, in which a cat is killed if a scientific instrument observes the decay of a single particle. Since the particle (according to the “Copenhagen Interpretation” of quantum mechanics) is said to be in a state of ontological limbo where it is both whole and decayed before it is observed, Schrödinger claimed the cat must likewise be both dead and alive before it is observed (in the case that the Copenhagen Interpretation is correct). Be that as it may, if the experiment was ever to be conducted, it would be another example of a quantum-level event having a macroscopic effect.
It is possible, given that we still understand so little of the brain, that it has evolved in such a way that it does bridge the gap between the subatomic world and the macroscopic world. Perhaps the free will of the quark is transmitted up through the intermediary of the brain and into the otherwise deterministic macroscopic world. But if this is true, does it preclude the possibility of a truly living simulation? Are the human beings inside the computer doomed to be dead, deterministic automata, lacking the quantum free will of the real ones?
It certainly would make a simulation more difficult, but unfortunately, if our goal is to decisively debunk the simulation theory, it falls well short of the mark; we can conceive of ways around this obstacle. For example, the simulators could take a page from Schrödinger’s book, and hook up a device that measures quantum effects in order to feed that data into their machine. Or, if that proves too complex and unworkable, perhaps the problem could be solved by using a quantum computer, a device that operates not on Boolean certainties, but rather via quantum fuzzy logic. Such devices are still, as of this writing, in their infancy, but they do already exist.
Free will might not be a barrier to simulationism, then, but perhaps when we consider the “nonphysical,” we mean neither the soul nor the free will, but rather the mind. This is true to Descartes, who conceived of the mind as perfect and eternal, and therefore neither generated by the physical body nor reducible to it. That point of view, however, is increasingly hard to defend. For example, the ideal mind is not supposed to degrade and decay, yet dementia is a very real phenomenon. Furthermore, as we have gained knowledge about the brain and the body, we have found more and more ways in which our mind and consciousness seem to be directly dependent on the physical structure of our brains; as well as on the complex mechanics and interactions of the chemicals we call hormones.
Stimulate one part of the brain and we remember a memory; another part and we forget one. Flood our body with hormones and we feel happy (or sad). We even potentially feel different emotions and mental states based on the actions and secretions of millions of microbes in our guts, creatures that are not even truly part of what we typically think of as our selves. It seems more and more clear that our minds are somehow intimately tied to the human physical machinery. For some, this is decisive evidence that there is nothing purely mental, that the mental is just an effect of the physical.
There are those, however, who still defend belief in the mind as something irreducible to the physical. One conceptual analogy defending body-mind dualism proposes that the body is like a radio receiver, and the mind is like the radio broadcast. The radio is a physical machine that produces beautiful music. If you twist the dial, the music changes. Twist the volume knob and the music gets louder or softer. If the radio gets old and falls apart, the music becomes distorted and eventually ceases entirely. An obvious conclusion, based solely on observation, is that the radio makes the music. If you had never encountered a radio before, and you stumbled across one in working condition, you would quite understandably assume it was a music-making machine. If you were of a technical frame of mind, you might disassemble it, and find out quite readily how the sound itself is produced. When it came time to reverse-engineer the music-making, however, you might well be stumped –unless you thought “outside the box.” In actual fact, as we know, all the radio does is pick up the broadcast and translate it into sound. The specific content of the broadcast, the part that makes it all worthwhile, is entirely independent of the radio and the radio’s structure. The final experience of the end-listener is a product of the two put together, not of either one by itself.
In the same way, perhaps our bodies and brains are just receivers of mind, as broadcast out from some unknown source. The physical characteristics of our brains have a profound effect out how our minds manifest, just as the physical characteristics of the radio have a strong impact on the character of the sound. Tweaking the dials and knobs of the radio is like stimulating the brain or body directly, and the breakdown of the radio is like the death of the body. But the song itself does not die.
Unfortunately, this analogy, as beautiful and poetic as it may be, holds too many unknowns to serve as an effective hedge against simulationism. What makes a human brain an appropriate receiver for the broadcast of mind? If it is a purely structural matter, then perhaps a simulated version of the same structure could be equally as effective a receiver. If that was the case, it would actually strengthen Bostrom’s notion of treating humans in the computer and humans outside the computer as two versions of the same thing, since what makes us most human would actually have a common source. We are also on shaky ground when we speak of the broadcasting of mind. How could something like that be accomplished? We have no theoretical framework that currently would explain this.
We could, perhaps, make an assumption that “broadcasting mind” is just an exotic way of speaking about the familiar act of paying attention. It is common, when we pay attention to something, that we feel as though we are projecting our minds out into that object. Could this experience of projection equate to an actual “broadcast” of mind?
In the Tom Hanks film Cast Away (2000), Hanks plays a Fed-Ex employee who becomes stranded on a deserted island. One of the things that helps him maintain his sanity during his years of isolation is striking up a friendship with an inanimate object, a volleyball that has washed up on the shore. Clearly, Hanks is the only one with a mind in this scenario, but he is effectively projecting a portion of that mind onto the volleyball, creating a virtual companion with the impact of a separate mentality (something also practiced by children who invent imaginary friends).
Or, for another example, this one drawn from reality, consider the strange case of Edgar Bergen, a popular ventriloquist of the twentieth century. The star of Bergen’s act was his puppet, Charlie McCarthy. Although McCarthy was, to all intents and purposes, just a carved stick of wood, Bergen always maintained he had his own personality Bergen always maintained he had his own personality, and came up with the majority of his own material. Bergen even admitted that, like Hanks and his volleyball, he and McCarthy would have long, deep conversations, even when no one else was around. The duo was also an improbable hit on radio, where no one could even see the signature ventriloquist trick of making the puppet seem to talk by itself. The common sense assumption, that Bergen could perform a radio act just as well by himself seems to have been wrong. In order to access the wit, the charm, and the sense of humor of McCarthy, he had to be able to project himself into the puppet.
When you see a movie, you project yourself into the action, living out the characters’ lives vicariously, and believing yourself, momentarily, to be the person on the screen, supplying their inner thoughts and internal mental lives from the resource of your own. The same happens when you read a book. In a book, the thoughts and the feelings of the characters may be there in black and white on the page, but they are enlivened when you take them on as your own. Or again, when you play a role-playing game, you live it, for the moment, as the character you play, experiencing the rolls of the dice as physical occurrences in an imaginary world. If this is what it means to broadcast a mind, then we experience it all the time.
And yet, and unfortunately, if our goal is to debunk the simulation theory, here we have done the exact opposite, and strengthened it. If the mind is a broadcast, carried by attention, then producing a convincing simulation becomes simple, requiring only an entity to experience it that possesses strong suspension of disbelief, and a susceptibility to becoming fully immersed in the experience.
In fact, we may arguably have already done it. Let us reconsider once again a modern video game. The video game character has a body, made of pixels, subject to whatever laws of physics the programmer has programmed into the game. In a complex game, statistics representing everything from charisma to mood may be generated and tracked by the game’s internal programming. Many of the characteristics of the character are thus generated within the game. This represents the many aspects of the characters’ lives that are a part of their physical reality and characteristics. But the mind of the character, its experiences, its emotions, are broadcast mentally, via the conduit of attention, from the player.
At this point we have seen that as absurd as Bostrom’s conclusion that we are likely to exist within a simulation may seem, it is not easy to escape. If the world is wholly and solely physical, then simulations must be possible. If human consciousness is fundamentally physical, which is to say, that the “soul” resides only in the complex arrangement of our neurons, and the electrical patterns that play among them, then nothing but surmountable technical challenges stand between us and creating an artificial consciousness.
Yet in the case that the world is made of both the physical and the mental, simulations are, if anything, even easier to achieve. Only via a traditional religious perspective, and the additional assumption that God disapproves of simulations, can we decisively rule simulationism out. In every other scenario, simulations are possible, and as long as technology continues to inexorably advance, they will inevitably become more and more likely.
If the problem of creating consciousness can be solved, then we could create a consciousness inside a simulation. And if we could create a consciousness inside a simulation then we could essentially create a creature like ourselves inside a simulation. And if we could do so, then some other creature like ourselves could have created us. This conclusion is inescapable. If we can create something like ourselves, then something like ourselves could have created us.
Were you stranded as a child on a deserted island, like Brooke Shields or Christopher Atkins in the movie The Blue Lagoon (1980), you might not know where you had come from. But if you and another castaway had children together one day, you could fairly say that you had discovered solid evidence you had come from other people like yourself. In the same way, if we can one day build another mind, or another reality, then we immediately have grounds to believe that our own minds and realities might well be built by creatures like ourselves.
Lorenz, Hendrik, “Ancient Theories of Soul,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, June 21, 2009.
Edwards, Mark J., “Origen,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
Blau, Ludwig et al. “Golem,” Jewish Encyclopedia, edited by Isidore Singer, et al. Funk & Wagnalls, New York, 1906.
Musser, George, “The Quantum Physics of Free Will”, Scientific American, February 6, 2012.
Carpenter, R.H.S. and Andrew J. Anderson, “The Death of Schrödinger’s Cat and of Consciousness-based Quantum Wave-Function Collapse,” Annales de la Fondation Louis de Broglie, Volume 31, no 1, 2006.
Yong, Ed, I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life, Ecco, New York, 2016.
Eagleman, David, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, Pantheon Books, New York, 2011.
Gopnik, Adam, “Bumping Into Mr. Ravioli,” The New Yorker, September 30, 2002.
Taylor, Marjorie, Imaginary Companions and the Children Who Create Them, Oxford University Press, New York, 1999.
Chris Sunami writes the blog The Pop Culture Philosopher, and is the author of several books, including the social justice–oriented Christian devotional Hero For Christ. He is married to artist April Sunami, and lives in Columbus, Ohio.