Could we be merely characters in a galactic video game?

Vygintas asked:

Please email me the answer since I actually want to know this.

If a video game character was conscious, how would he know that he is played by someone outside of the video game system?

If the character was as smart as human, he would deny that somebody is controlling him and the environment both at the same time, but that wouldn’t matter since the creator would know what’s true and what is not.

The question I want to ask how do I and the world know what to do, if we are free will and everything works on it’s own like in a video game? For example GTA5.

And if the character realized he was in a system, could he hack the system from the inside of the system?

Or is his consciousness and experience and intelligence and knowledge limited just to that system he lives in and there is no way he can get out, just to wonder why is he in the system at first?

I never was a god believer, but these kind of questions made me think otherwise. I’m not atheist, nor religious I’m just curious.

The second question arises from asking these is:

Why don’t people realize that they are ant like creatures and everyone pretends to be self sufficient individual, when it’s not that way? By saying ant like I mean living in the human system, within the god system.

And if this is true, then it means that there is no human without purpose to humanity, every one is made with a predetermined goal.

If I had free will, I could do whatever, but I can’t because it feels wrong.

I’m working on these answers and I have some, but I want something out of my head to help me out, so it would be fun and great if you could help me out :)

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

This is a great question. I can’t do justice to all of the ideas you canvass but I will try to sketch a general strategy for a philosophical response, as opposed to empty speculation.

Who am I? That’s a good question. How do I know that I am me, myself, rather than some other being who (temporarily or permanently) is deluded or tricked into thinking that they are me? There are hints of Eastern philosophy here (the idea that the ultimate being or godhead forgets what ‘it’ is and pretends to be you, me and all the other people — a favourite theme of Alan Watts).

Let’s try to stay sane and keep our bearings.

First point: it is possible for a human being to be a different person from the one they think they are. For example, in the phenomenon known as amnesia. A related phenomenon is multiple personality disorder. Let’s say I wake up one morning realizing that I am not GK, the moderator for Ask a Philosopher but rather… someone else. Invent any story you like. There is some back story about how this other person, call him KG, went through some kind of trauma or brainwashing process to make him think that he is GK.

In the movie, ‘The Nines’ 2007 (spoiler alert!) a race of super-intelligent beings like to play their equivalent of video games, creating whole worlds and civilizations — like the place we know as ‘Earth’. The main character is a super-intelligent alien but doesn’t realize it. He has temporarily allowed himself to forget. He thinks he’s human. He holds the fate of all human beings in his hands (or head). But these other people, how ‘real’ are they? There are different possibilities, depending on exactly how you conceive of the ‘strings’ that control them.

A game is only interesting if you don’t fully know in advance how things will turn out. But who says the game has to be interesting? If I am moving these people around like puppets, then they become, in effect, the ‘limbs’ of my extended body. They are parts of me. Could they still ‘have their own consciousness’? That’s your idea. Well, if I am controlling them completely, then their consciousness must also be part of my consciousness — I must be able to track what they are thinking and feeling at every moment. Their eyes are my eyes, and so on.

So that’s one possibility we want to discount. The creator must exist at some logical distance from its creations, otherwise this is just a story about amnesia or multiple personality disorder.

In Unit 2 of the Pathways Metaphysics Program, I consider the possibility (similar in some respects to the plot of Sophie’s World) that I am a character in a novel in the process of being written who only thinks he is ‘real’. Leaving aside the problem of free will, there is a difficulty in principle about how we can concieve of this ‘reality’ as a target for true or false judgements. Here’s an extract:

If the novel and its author are merely figments of a bad continuing hallucination I am suffering from then, provided that I have not fallen into complete psychotic withdrawal, I am still capable of making judgements about the real world I inhabit. Then my reports of my hallucinations would have exactly the same status as the novelist’s account of her thoughts. The contents of my hallucinations, just like the contents of the novelist’s thoughts, are objective, datable events in the real world.

However, if things really are as we have described, then serious difficulties arise. Say, according to the novel I was drinking beer in the pub with Ian and Dave on [the night I first heard the novelist’s voice in my head]. Later, tossing and turning in my bed, I seem to remember that Sonya was there too. Is that a false belief? The problem is finding a way in which my belief could be corrigible. Suppose the woman’s voice tells me that Sonya wasn’t there: ‘You split up the day before, don’t you remember?’ — I refuse to believe a word of it. She was there, wearing a tartan skirt and the green mohair sweater I bought for her last Christmas. ‘She couldn’t have been wearing that, because she gave it to Oxfam after it shrunk in the wash.’ — Then it was another green mohair sweater. ‘Look, she was at her sister’s twenty-first birthday party. What’s more, you were supposed to go with her!’ — Sonya doesn’t have a sister, she never had a sister. — And so on.

The writer of the novel I am in is trying to tell me ‘what happened’ but what exactly is the basis for the authority of the female voice that I can hear in my head, commenting on all my actions? How can ‘she’ be right and I be wrong? The moral of this is that if you play fast and loose with ‘worlds’ and ‘realities’ in this way, there is a danger of losing the very thing that makes a world a world: the difference between appearance and reality. I call this (with a nudge to Freud) the ‘reality principle’ of metaphysics.

If determinism is true, then in some sense, our naive conception of what our ‘freedom’ consists in is compromised. Arguably, this isn’t fatal for human free will. More serious would by your idea that someone else, an actual individual, a super-intelligent alien or whatever, is making the decisions that I think I am making (at every moment, presumably, if this is going to work). Then they are me. I’ve just forgotten who I really am.

Alternatively, if we start from the inside and consider the existence of an individual allegedly ‘living inside’ a computer program or novel in the process of being written, we have not yet formed a coherent conception of a subject who makes judgements, true or false, or a world which those judgements are about.


How different might the laws of nature have been?

Darius asked:

How different might the laws of nature have been (in some other logically possible but nomologically impossible world)? Are there any limits?

Answer by Massimo Pigliucci

The question of laws of nature, their ontological status, and their significance for our understanding of the world, is very much an open one. Moreover, it is a question at the fascinating interface among metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of science and, of course, natural science itself (particularly fundamental physics, but also chemistry and biology).

To begin with, let us get straight the difference between nomological and logical possibilities. Nomological means ‘relating to or denoting certain principles, such as laws of nature, that are neither logically necessary nor theoretically explicable, but are simply taken as true,’ the word originating from the Greek nomos (law). That standard dictionary definition gets at the heart of the matter by affirming that nomological principles are neither logically necessary nor ‘theoretically explicable.’ Take, for instance, the law of conservation of energy, which states that the total energy of a closed system cannot change over time (i.e., energy can only be transformed, but not created or destroyed). This is not logically necessary in the sense that its violation would not entail any logical contradiction (unlike, say, the idea that I can simultaneously be and not be me — which violates the principle of non contradiction in classical logic). At the same time, we don’t really know why the law of conservation actually applies to the universe as we understand it, i.e., we do not have a theoretical account of it. It is more like a brute empirical fact about nature, or as a theoretical axiom from which other things can be derived.

In a sense, then, logical possibility is about what is possible in principle, while nomological possibility concerns what is actually physically possible, given the laws of the universe as they stand. The first set is, at first glance, much larger than the second one.

But, of course, things are not quite that simple, as physicists have long played with a few ideas that entail the tantalizing prospect of bringing the range of nomological possibilities closer to that of logical ones.

There are at the least three such proposals on the table. One is the so-called many-worlds (or Everett, named after American physicist Hugh Everett III, who first proposed it) ‘interpretation’ of quantum mechanics. This is the idea that the universal wave function is objectively real (and doesn’t ‘collapse,’ contra to other interpretations of quantum mechanics), so that every time that events could take more than one course (say, I may or may not decide to finish writing this essay) the universe literally splits into two, in one version of which course of action A (I finish writing) takes place, while in the other course of action B (I don’t finish) occurs. There’s even a fun app (aptly called ‘Universe Splitter’) which allows you to make random decisions and track the ensuing branching of universes you keep creating while using the app. My understanding, however (and I stand to be corrected by a physicist, if the case may be) is that Everettian quantum mechanics doesn’t fool around with the laws of the universe itself, so that the number of nomological possibilities — while vastly augmented by the splitting procedure — would still be far less than the number of logical possibilities, because each course of action (each split universe) would still be subject to the laws of nature as we understand them.

This limitation, however, does not hold for another bold idea currently entertained by cosmologists: the multiverse. This is the conjecture — as yet with no empirical basis, but compatible with what fundamental physics tells us about the world — that our universe is just one of infinitely many, constantly being created and destroyed in a much larger milieu, i.e., the multiverse. According to some physicists, such as Lee Smolin of the Perimeter Institute in Canada, different universes may be characterized by different sets of laws of physics, which means that a much larger number of logical possibilities would become nomologically implemented as well, just not all in the same ‘universe.’

Thirdly, we have theoretical physicist Max Tegmark’s idea of the ‘mathematical universe,’ the contention that the fundamental structure of the universe is (as opposed to simply being described by) mathematics. The building blocks of reality are, according to Tegmark, mathematical structures, not objects or particles. A corollary of this idea is that all possible (i.e., all logically consistent) mathematical structure do exist, in one way (or one universe) or the other, so that logical and nomological sets would coincide.

It is hard to know what to make of this notion (in what sense am I, or my laptop ‘made of’ mathematical structures?), but it is certainly a venerably old one, going back to Pythagoras (in the philosophy of mathematics, Tegmark’s proposal is aptly referred to as Pythagoreanism about mathematical objects).

One more thing to consider within the context of this discussion. So far, I have assumed that the nomological set is defined by fundamental laws, i.e., by laws that apply always and everywhere (at the least in a given universe). But some philosophers of science — chiefly Nancy Cartwright and Ian Hacking — maintain that there are no such things are universal laws, that all so-called laws of nature are phenomenological, i.e., they are arrived at by approximately applying to real phenomena a set of highly abstract, and quite literally false, idealizations. Consider, for instance, Galileo’s law of inertia, which eventually led to Newton’s first law of motion. Galileo arrived at the formulation of the law by carrying out thought experiments involving idealized frictionless planes, objects that simply do not exist in the real world. His results, however, hold approximately true for real planes and surfaces, and have therefore been generalized from phenomenological (describing a range of phenomena) to fundamental (applying always and everywhere). Cartwright and Hacking, however, invoke basic empiricist principles to deny that leap, suggesting that as far as we know all laws of physics are only approximately and locally valid. If that is the case, then there are no such things as nomological possibilities, strictly speaking.


Answer by Craig Skinner

I’d say no limits at all.

First, I think all logically possible combinations of variants of laws could have occurred provided we accept that possible universes thereby include those that last less than a second, those where nothing ever happens, those with different dimensions, say 2 or 32, and so forth, most of these universes being lifeless of course.

Secondly, why should logic always apply in a universe? We must include the myriad illogical ones too.

I don’t want to get bogged down in what exactly a law of nature is and how it can be differentiated from an accidental exceptionless regularity. Let us just assume, as does your question, that our world is ordered by laws: some causal (such as what happens when two chemical substances combine); some conservational (energy, charge, momentum, parity); some deterministic, others probabilistic (radioactivity for instance). And let’s include the constants of nature such as the strength of each of the four forces, the quantum of charge, fine structure constant, and speed of light.

Could the suite of laws and constants in our world have been different?

Leibniz certainly thought so. He felt God could have decreed whatever laws he wanted, but in fact chose the suite that gave the best possible world, one that included creatures with free will who could relate (or not, as they chose) to a loving God.

And of course scientists of this era mostly felt they were indeed discovering God’s laws.

Later scientists and philosophers, taking a naturalistic viewpoint, asked whether the laws might have been different. A hundred years ago, many, perhaps most, would have said no, there is only one logically consistent set of laws – we cant yet see this, but when we fully understand all the laws, we will see that no variation is logically possible.

These days, fewer think this. However it has become clear that slight variation from the actual constants and laws would produce worlds where intelligent life is impossible. If gravity were a tiny bit stronger, the universe would have collapsed moments after it started; with gravity a bit weaker no stars or planets would have formed. if the strong nuclear force were weaker, no stable elements could form; if stronger, no carbon or oxygen. And there are many other examples. This is known as the fine-tuning problem – how come the laws are just right for we humans to exist?

No problem for religious people, God made the laws that way. No problem for those accepting of a brute fact, that’s just the way the world is, and if it weren’t, we wouldn’t be here (simple anthropic principle).

An alternative favoured by some is that all possible combinations of laws/constants occur in different universes (a multiverse), so that, by chance, a few universes will have the fine tuned laws, and, of course, we live in such a universe.

Kant considered that the laws of nature were part of the forms of our perception and categories of our understanding without which we could have no coherent experience at all i.e. any experienced world necessarily exhibits space, time, causality and other regularities. Exhibits them, that is, in our experience (the world of appearances), we can know nothing of the world as it is in itself according to Kant.

Kant also felt that mathematical truths, although a priori, were not analytic (true by reason of the meaning of the terms) but synthetic. He was thereby obliged to admit that, say, 5+7 might not have been 12. Yet this seems a necessary truth. He solved it nicely by saying that 5+7=12 was necessarily true in any experienced world, such as ours, and could be false only in worlds where there was no experience, so could not be false in any world we found ourselves in. Such worlds would be so disordered and chaotic that ordered entities capable of experience would be out of the question. I rather agree: worlds where logic doesn’t hold might exist, but these worlds couldn’t contain the likes of us.

In short, I think all possible variations of our laws of nature could have been. And for all we know, all are instantiated in some universe or other within a vast, maybe infinite, multiverse.

Finally, if you feel there must be a reason for everything (Principle of Sufficient Reason), and are in a speculative mood, you can ask what metarule decides the choice of laws.

Leibniz favoured Goodness. I’ve rather assumed Fullness (all possibilities occur) or perhaps No Rule (a random selection of all possibilities). It cant be Simplicity because the simplest option would be absolutely nothing rather than anything at all, and that’s not the case.

Then one can ask what higher-level metametarule decides whether Fullness, Goodness or No Rule occurs at the metalevel. Simplicity at the metametalevel would favour No Rule. No Rule would favour Randomness. Fullness would favour all rules. Goodness would favour itself, or maybe this is impossible (violates the Foundation Principle, like a cause causing itself, or God creating himself).

More can be said on this issue of levels and Selectors but I will leave it at that.


Invalid arguments with logically true conclusions

Emily asked:

Can a deductively invalid argument have a conclusion that is logically true?

Answer by Craig Skinner

Yes. A logical truth is a tautology, and so, being true full stop, needs no support from argument. Hence it can be the conclusion of any premises at all, or none, and therefore of an invalid argument, of a valid but unsound argument, of a valid and sound argument, or of a silly argument.

An illustration:

1. Invalid argument.

P1 All prime numbers are less than 20
P2 19 is less than 20
C 19 is a prime number

Here the C is logically true, but doesn’t follow from the Ps — it doesn’t follow from P1 that all numbers less than 20 are prime.

2. Valid but unsound argument.

P1 All numbers less than 20 are prime
P2 19 is less than 20
C 19 is a prime number

Now C does follow from the Ps. Argument therefore valid. But unsound because P1 is false

3. Valid, sound argument.

P1 A number divisible only by itself and 1 is a prime number
P2 19 is divisible only by itself and 1
C 19 is a prime number

4. Silly argument.

P1 Grass is blue
P2 Poodles are cats
C 19 is a prime number

Barely an argument, Ps completely irrelevant to C, but so what, C still true

That a logical truth follows from anything is one of the two ‘paradoxes of implication’ in classical logic. The other is that anything follows from a contradiction.

To tidy up the first, some logicians say that the Ps must be relevant to the C (relevantist logic) although it is hard to spell this out rigorously.

To tidy up the second, some logicians accept that there are some true contradictions (paraconsistency) but that this needn’t entail the ‘explosion’ whereby anything and everything follows (dialetheic logic).

These other logics are interesting, but for everyday living and for philosophical argument, classical logic is just fine.

Craig Skinner

Answer by Helier Robinson

In modern symbolic, no. In normal reasoning, yes. In symbolic logic validity is determined by truth-tables: a conditional (If p then q) is invalid only if q, the consequent, is false; if p, the antecedent, is false or if p and q are both true then the conditional is valid. But normal reasoning does not agree with this, so the truth-functional conditional is called material implication, to distinguish it from genuine implication. For example, ‘If roses are red then violets are blue’ is invalid in the sense that the colour of violets has nothing to do with the colour of roses. The definition of validity, other than in material implication, is that the truth of the antecedent necessitates the truth of the conclusion.

The peculiarity of material implication means that a false antecedent validly implies anything you please; or, to emphasise the absurdity of this, it means that from a contradiction you can deduce anything you please.

For example, ‘If circles are square then I am the king of France’ is valid. This flaw carries over into quantificational logic, in which anything said of something that does not exist is true. For example, if no mermaids exist then that validly means that all mermaids are butterflies, and also that no mermaids are butterflies. Most logicians believe that this peculiarity of logic is a genuine feature of logic which was hidden until George Boole invented truth-functional logic and revealed it; and it is something that must be simply avoided when using this logic. Others, myself included, think that this is a fatal flaw in the truth functional approach to logic: validity is not dependent simply on the truth of falsity of the antecedent and consequent, but on a relation of necessity between them. This necessity is grasped by the mind but not present between the words or symbols.


Guidance for someone interested in metaphysics

Gennady asked:

How to start studying philosophy? My interest seems to be more in Metaphysics. It would be nice to have a guideline or program to follow. Is college a way to go?

Thank you.

Answer by Helier Robinson

Not many university philosophy departments teach metaphysics these days: analytic philosophy, which repudiates metaphysics, is all the rage. You might try a Jesuit college. Or read about it on your own: start with Russell’s ‘A History of Western Philosophy’ and follow it with Copleston’s ‘A History of Philosophy’. Or, as a last resort, try my ‘Renascent Rationalism’, available from Good luck!


Answer by Peter Jones

How wonderful. Someone who is interested in metaphysics.

I would say no, college is not the way to go. If it is a typical western-style course you will emerge just as confused as your teachers and quite possibly even more so.

My suggestion would be that you devise your own programme and then pursue it while using something like the Pathways Programme to hone your thinking and writing skills, gain an introduction to the literature and get access to good advice and encouragement. Pick a topic or problem that fascinates you then pursue it to the bitter end. On the way you will have to deal with the whole range of metaphysical problems, but you will have a focus for your investigation, and solving one metaphysical problem is solving them all.

If you go to college you will have to do a great deal of work that will not necessarily help you understand anything but has to be done for sake of the exams and shoring up the prevailing paradigm. A modular distance-learning course such as the one Pathways offers is flexible, cheap and convenient and tuition is geared towards you specifically. No student binge-drinking parties, unfortunately, but you’ll cover the ground in a quarter of the time. I say this as an appreciative ex-student and not as a member of staff. If I can be of any further help feel free to track me down.


Geoffrey Klempner

As the author of the Pathways Metaphysics Programme I would like to put in a word for the analytic tradition in which I was trained, at London and Oxford Universities.

It is true that what analytic philosophers generally conceive as ‘metaphysics’ is something more modest than great philosophers in the Western or Eastern traditions have regarded as metaphysics. Some regard modesty as a virtue. I regard it as is a reason to be dissatisfied with analytic philosophy but not a reason to shun that tradition. A university degree, together perhaps with some more adventurous reading of your own, would be the best of both worlds.


Looking at an argument for the unreality of time

Maha asked:

Time is composed of moments. Moments have no duration. Therefore time has no duration. This rather surprising fact is further supported by the following considerations. Time is illusory because time seems real but isn’t real. Furthermore down through the ages the best and brightest people have always thought time was illusory. What’s the fallacy? I am confusing if its composition or not? but even if its composition, I can’t explain why, because of the second part of the argument! looking forward to receiving from you!

Answer by Peter Jones

You seem to thought this through correctly. Im unable to make out what you mean by composition so cannot comment on that point, but the paradoxically of our naive or folk view of time is clearly not in agreement with our reason.

As you say, the present can have no duration, so it is not just our naive view of time but also our view of change and motion that are threatened by logical analysis. Zeno and Parmenides saw this long ago.

A solution for the logical absurdity of our ideas of time, change and motion once we have reified them you might like to examine the literature of mysticism. In particular you might like to look at Middle Way Buddhism. This would be not just because the philosopher-sage Nagarjuna, who explained the philosophical foundation of the Buddhas teachings in his Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, logically refutes the true existence of time, change and motion, but also because he puts an alternative view in its place.


Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

I’m guessing that the question here isn’t whether or not time is real or has real duration but where are the fallacies in what you have stated as the argument for this conclusion. Actually, you give three arguments. Let’s look at these one by one:

‘Time is composed of moments. Moments have no duration. Therefore time has no duration.’

As stated, the argument contains a logical fallacy. A wall is composed of bricks but it is also composed of mortar (cement). If you drew a conclusion about the wall based on the assumption that it consists solely of bricks then your conclusion would be wrong. Is time made of something else, besides moments? I don’t know. We are not philosophizing about time but just evaluating logical validity.

Let’s add the word ‘solely’ and see if the argument fares any better. ‘Time is composed solely of moments. Moments have no duration. Therefore time has no duration.’ Well, now the problem is whether in fact we were right to make an analogy between bricks and moments. Dry stone walls are composed solely of stones and nothing else. But stones have a physical size. How could something that was composed solely out of bits that had no physical size have a physical size? Maybe if you allow empty space between the bits. But then (however you conceive of ’empty space’) aren’t you saying that the object is composed of bits with no physical size plus empty space?

Could that apply to time? Could time be composed of timeless moments plus ’empty spaces’ between the moments? Again, I don’t know.

Then consider this. Do moments exist? Is it correct to infer from the fact that you can divide and subdivide a period of time to infinity, that the time in question is composed of those of those infinitely subdivided parts? That’s a question that Zeno and Aristotle puzzled over. So far as the logical validity of the argument is concerned, you can say that the term ‘composed’ is not sufficiently well defined, so we are unable to evaluate the truth of the first premiss, as stated.

There are two more arguments we need to look at but these are easy.

‘Time is illusory because time seems real but isn’t real.’ — This isn’t an argument for the unreality of time because it simply assumes this as its premiss. If time is not real and if we believe that it is real then we are under an illusion. But who’s to say whether time is real or not?

‘Down through the ages the best and brightest people have always thought time was illusory.’ — I believe that in logic text books this is called an ‘argument from authority’. A fallacy.


Could there be a Turing Test for aesthetic experience?

Kai asked:

a. Would a Turing test that tested aesthetic experience be possible? Why or why not?

b. Would this kind of Turing test be a more accurate way to assess human intelligence (or human consciousness) or less accurate or as accurate as the standard Turing test? Why or why not?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

Your question might have been relevant if it was based on a sound (i.e. verifiable) scientific theory of intelligence, consciousness and aesthetic experience. Regrettably all we really possess is a little well-founded philosophical speculation, which would dismiss these assumptions with a tired handwave and reference to ‘category error’.

As for any scientific merit of the Test, you must surely be aware that it measures (if that’s the word!) the degree of gullibility of easily fooled people, who are deceived day in, day out by fakes and imposters for as long as history remembers. That’s asking a lot! In science, you’ll remember, subjective impressions are not allowed, because they are not quantifiable. So that’s pretty much the end of this story, I would say.

Apart from this, nothing more is required than a minimum awareness of the mechanics of computer programming. Forget the hype, but take a cold hard look at it. The you’ll see that every such algorithm is human intelligence flowcharting procedures that can be implemented by a machine. A century ago the acme of this was the steamship. Today’s computer belongs into the same category, except that electricity replaced steam and the functional aspects became miniaturised and more diverse. But one as the other implements its procedural routines on the basis of clear-cut and well-understood causal principles.

So here as there, it is pretty absurd to ask for a machine to ‘acquire’ autonomous consciousness, intelligence and aesthetic sensibility, simply through the agglomeration of ever more bits and pieces and branches on the flowchart!

Accordingly the Turing Test, as it relies on human gullibility for its results, has no truly scientific merit. Philosophically it has none at all: being deceived is hardly a philosophical subject. Even speculatively it works only on the proviso that you first reduce all human specificity to quantifiable features, i.e. regarding life processes in an exclusively molecular context. But this is hardly the proper way of differentiating a rock from a rodent, as you’ll surely agree. There is an ineradicable internal conflict between the cause-and effect mechanisms that apply to non-living objects and the spontaneity of living creatures. Which spells out that you have the choice between thinking of yourself as a human creature or as a biological computer. But the computer does not have that choice.