The Mirror Cosmos: Simulation and Idealism
Sanford L. Drob, Ph.D.An interesting implication of the idea that we may be living in a simulation is that it results in the paradoxical view that idealism, as opposed to materialism, is a correct philosophical view, or, perhaps more accurately, it suggests a dialectic that leads from the assumptions of materialism to idealism.
One of the assumptions of a certain form of philosophical materialism is that consciousness and its associated mental states are a function of material events and processes. On one prevailing interpretation of philosophical materialism and naturalism, mental states and consciousness are a function of the information that is processed in a biological system, the brain, a system that in principle could be duplicated within a sufficiently powerful digital computer. As such, on this view it would be possible to construct a conscious, thinking mind in a purely digital medium. This possibility is the foundation for the view that our own world may in fact be a digital simulation such as the one depicted in the movie "The Matrix." The materialist/functionalist philosopher holds that it is theoretically possible, and eventually feasible, to construct a complex matrix with multiple conscious entities that is epistemologically identical with a material world. We might even be living in such a world without knowing it, perhaps an “ancestor simulation,” created by "our" technologically superior "descendants." While the information that is accessible to us suggests that we are living in a natural, physical and biological cosmos, rather then a digital information based one, there would be no way of differentiating between the two, as the physicalist/naturalistic viewpoint would be programmed into our digital matrix. The argument goes that if it is indeed possible to create such simulations, unless we believe that our descendants will be incapable of, or choose not to do so, then there is a likelihood, with a probability greater (perhaps much greater) than “0” that we are currently living in one of these digital constructions. On the assumption that there may be numerous such constructions, numerous such constructed worlds, it has even been suggested that the majority of "living worlds" are simulated, digitally constructed ones rather than natural biological ones, and that the majority of conscious entities in the universe are digital simulations.
It is even possible, and perhaps likely that simulations could be constructed within simulations. For example, on the assumption that we ourselves are a simulation, we may soon reach a point in our own development where we are capable of channeling information in such a manner as to create a simulation ourselves. There may thus be n orders of such simulations: simulations within simulations within simulations, etc., perhaps, according to Professor Bostrum limited only by the potential for computing power within the original natural universe, which given the possibility of creating quantum computer systems of enormous dimensions, would be quite vast indeed.
The interesting thing about these “simulations within simulations,” is that they become so remote from their purported materialist foundations as to mimic the character of spiritual worlds within worlds that are spoken of in certain mystical and theosophical traditions. Indeed, it would be virtually impossible for anyone within any of these worlds within worlds to test or verify the hypothesis that there is a materialist ground to their being. While philosophers in such a simulated world might speculate that there is such a materialist ground, in the same way that philosophers in our supposedly material world speculate that there is a spiritual or ideational ground to our own world, there would be no way of proving the question one way or another. The simulated world (which, according to Bostrum, may be our own world) becomes the mirror image of the one that we think we are living in. Instead of living in a material world and speculating about a spiritual/ideational foundation for it, we will be living in an ideational world and speculating about a material foundation for it. If one were to assume or conclude that we are indeed living in a simulation then the idea of a materialist foundation for it may drop out altogether, as, from an epistemological point of view, all we have is information. This is another way of saying that one way of looking at our own world is that it is based upon sense data and phenomenological experience. Thus, one interesting implication of the simulation argument, however, is that the opposite assumption, that we are living in a material universe, in which mind is simply the function of material events and processes, ultimately leads to the view that we may indeed be living in a “simulated” world in which matter has no genuine immediate place, and is simply a speculative or even “empty” hypothesis brought in to explain a purely ideational reality.