The problem of how the Universe came about is probably too hard. So let us consider the following instead. Over years from now some huge collection of code run on a powerful computer achieves what can be considered as consciousness. The computer becomes self aware, and has enough logic to decide that it probably is work of several iterations or perhaps lets say evolved. This may be wrong. He uses simple logic and concludes that he was not created. This is surely wrong. One of his fundamental questions again becomes, well if we created it, who created us. In theory, may be it came into being by itself but we created the first steps as in software and hardware. What does this mean for us? May be a programmer hard coded it to say we created it on some of the aware computers. I have personally written some AI and hard coded this into it so that I can brag to my friends. May be there is a long chain of creations like this. It might create a sandbox or a virtual machine in itself and create another in a cloud somewhere. May be with rules similar to its own or completely different. I assume it can achieve this by relaxing or straightening some fundamental math rules.

Could we be one of these? I mean we are obviously avoiding what first came, because may be time had no meaning, and that question is may be not even possible to pose correctly. So why could we not be one of these programs?

closed as too broad by Keelan, jeroenk, James Kingsbery, virmaior Oct 24 '15 at 3:33

Please edit the question to limit it to a specific problem with enough detail to identify an adequate answer. Avoid asking multiple distinct questions at once. See the How to Ask page for help clarifying this question. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    Welcome to Philosophy.SE! It would help to narrow down this question some. I think we have questions on this site that ask already about whether the universe is a simulation, if we are simulations, etc. Also, it seems that this sort of thing is an "unwarranted hypothesis" - not really falsifiable or clear what the consequences of it's truth would be. – James Kingsbery Oct 23 '15 at 17:26
  • this is generally the area of "digital physics" in somewhat different form, its about ½ century old at this point going back to Fredkin, it is recently becoming somewhat more applied after a long mostly theoretical period, see eg recent collections of refs vzn1.wordpress.com/2017/03/31/… – vzn Dec 17 '17 at 0:38

There's a whole bunch of related questions in there - too many for a concise answer. What you are asking is related to three main questions: 1. The question of strong AI, i.e. can there be a computer that does everything humans do? 2. The hard problem of consciousness: even if there is such a computer, would it be conscious like us? 3. The simulation problem: could the whole universe be a simulation?

These questions are hotly debated. Writers like Daniel Dennett, David Chalmers and Nick Bostrom come to mind and you might wish to research them further, but there are many writers who have contributed to these subjects.


"Is it possible" questions are quite often better phrased as "Is it impossible," because the emphasis captures the essence better. So if the question is "Is it impossible that we are just a computer program" the answer usually directly entwined with the question "Is it impossible for a computer to develop consciousness." Given that you start from the axiomatic assumption that the computer arrived at consciousness, it is clear you wish to start from the assumption computers can develop consciousness. In that case, it is generally accepted that it is possible we are a computer program. There's a few counterexamples, but in general, philosophies which argue that it is impossible for us to be computer programs also exclude the idea of computers developing a consciousness (which is contradictory to one of your fundamental axioms in the question).

That being said, the jump between "it is not impossible" and "it is true" is going to be a great leap. Along the way, if you chose to pursue that line of thinking, you will find that you need to beat down many of the leaps of intuition you make in the story. Nearly every other sentence in your question contains an assumption so massive and contestable that you could make an entire philosophy career out of them. If you wish to convince others to agree with your position, expect to have to work to get there.


I will just point back at genes as a computation system with most if not all of the aspects of consciousness. I keep reiterating the points I find fascinating, which is a bit wasteful, so I will just reference myself instead: https://philosophy.stackexchange.com/a/28824/9166

If you look inside any huge program, you will find fairly self-contained subprograms which rely entirely upon a given layer of interface and therefore constitute virtual machines. Maybe that's us. In particular, we might be embodying one arc of Hegel's, running from chaos to order via the injection of self-reference in language. ("God coming to understand Himself" by inventing description and science.)

Fleshing out this theory, animals with brain structure might predominate because we provide linearity to a massively parallel system, and may keep it better directed toward convergence. Thus genes, to brains, to memes is a layering of more and more powerful virtual machines on a single main process.

Modern computing has headed toward layered virtual machines throughout its history with micro-coded instructions, then Lisp and its relatives, and then again lately with Java, Python and Ruby, Javascript, etc. This is a logical progression, as it lets more different kinds of work get done faster, even if it wastes tons of energy by making all of the execution more and more indirect.


Nobody knows whether we not are just a computer programm.

Hence your question makes the presupposition, that we are no computer program. But that presupposition has to be demonstrated first.

Of course, the view that we just are a computer program is a new and radical concept. Like most such concepts, at first it seems strange. But that’s no argument against being possibly correct. On the other hand, it's a good reason to work out arguments which support this view.

Insofar I consider your question very interesting and worth a serious discuss, free from prejudices.

The view, that we possibly are computer programs and that our seemingly real world is a virtual world has been discussed in chapter 10, Universes, Computers, and Mathematical Reality from Green, Brian: The Hidden Reality. Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos. 2011. Subsections “Are you living in a simulation” and “Seeing Beyond a Simulation” deal with the question from your post. In the latter subsection Green writes:

If you were living in a simulation, could you figure it out?

Green goes on to discuss two strategies how to program such a simulation. He names them “emergent strategy” and “ultra-reductionist strategy”. Green makes plausible that the simulated beings could detect by inconsistencies arising from each of these two strategies that they themselves and their environment are a computer simulation. But of course, other strategies are possible and also other models of computing than the digital computer we know today.

I would like to end with two questions:

  • Which difference does it make for us whether we actually are the person who we normally think we are or whether we are a computer simulation? Under the presupposition that we live without knowing the answer.

  • Is the conception of a virtual life in a computer more strange than the conception – propagated by many religions - of an afterlife in heaven or at a different place?


Short Answer: It's plausible, but we'll never know.

Longer Answer:

What follows is an analytical approach to this question. Different philosophies have different things to say about this sort of problem, so treat this as just one perspective.

This is a metaphysical question, and as such it's similar to many other unanswerable questions like the following:

  • Is the world in my head?
  • Are we all bumps on a log (or in The Matrix)?
  • Is there a transcendent reality?

These questions make no testable predictions and so can be fit to any evidence. For instance...

  • If I claim we're in a computer program and God comes out of the sky and says we're not, I can just claim that this too was part of the program.
  • If I claim reality is in my head and you prove me wrong, I can claim your proof was also in my head.

And so on.

So first ask:

  • Is there any evidence that can confirm or refute this?

If the answer is no, then the question is meaningless, and thus cannot be answered.

What if you're just asking if it's plausible that we are programs? Well it's plausible, but that's not saying much. After all, plausibility simply means that this proposition doesn't contradict existing evidence; the propositions above don't. It's easy for any proposition to fit the existing evidence if it says nothing testable.

Let's look more closely at some of the details of this claim. When we study the plausibility of this claim, we're asking if software can...

  1. Simulate reality.
  2. Host/achieve consciousness.

(1) is subject to processing power and storage, which is limited, but maybe the limits are enough -- especially if we consider things like parallel processing, quantum and grid computing.

(2) depends on the Hard Problem of consciousness, which is still controversial. Those who see consciousness as informational should have no problem with this.

But there's a deeper problem. How do we evaluate (1) and (2)? By looking at the state of our technology/knowledge. But we're not talking about OUR technology/knowledge, we're talking about those of whatever may be simulating us, which could be utterly different. In fact, limits on computing, consciousness and even physical laws could be arbitrary parameters of the simulation, as can be our cognitive limitations which can prevent us from seeing otherwise!

So what justifies these assumptions? Absolutely nothing.

And that's the problem. Without any kind of grounding, what can we say? We reason based on tautologies and/or observations, but once we postulate a super-sensible realm, there's nothing we can say about it, and no way to ground our reasoning. At that point, we can postulate anything, and there's no way to prove or disprove it and our assumptions are basically pulled out of thin air.

So yes, it's plausible, but this isn't saying much.

This is a fascinating question, and it can lead to interesting discussions and really broaden our perspective. However, that doesn't mean that it is a real question (one that can be answered now or in the future).

Metaphysical questions like these are a trap, and it's important to recognize them for the traps they are. In fact, Analytical Philosophy specializes in recognizing these kinds of traps and dispelling those kinds of questions, as it argues they can't be answered. Such philosophical "pseudo-problems" can't be resolved; they can only be dissolved. Or as Wittgenstein said:

Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

If you're interested in this kind of approach to philosophical problems, I recommend reading Language, Truth and Logic by AJ Ayer. He provides a very readable treatment of these traps, how they arise, and their implications.

  • Testability is not required of metaphysics. And not everyone agrees all such considerations are traps. Even for Wittgenstein, they may simply be badly framed. I think this is a poor-but-fixable question, not a trap. I do believe we will eventually decide what is consciousness, what is computation and why we ever bothered to make the distinction. It will become relevant, juridically if not scientifically, when we have accurate simulations of brains and we want to turn them off. – jobermark Oct 23 '15 at 18:11
  • @jobermark the problem is deeper than that. If we're in a simulation then our knowledge is only relevant to the simulation, it doesn't apply to what's outside of it. So even if we solve these problems, they only tell us about the simulation. What if the ground rules are completely different in the simulator's reality? As metaphysics being a trap, yes, views differ. I was taking an analytic approach to this, but I'll adjust may answer to make sure this is clear. – R. Barzell Oct 23 '15 at 18:15
  • Yeah, Berkely is not totally wrong. But there are takes on metaphysics that are oriented toward the structure of the mind rather than some ultimate reality. Whether or not our immediate reality is the ultimate reality is less important, from a perspective that takes idealism seriously, than whether we understand ourselves correctly. – jobermark Oct 23 '15 at 20:03
  • @jobermark interesting. This fits in with my views; for instance, I took Plato's Universals to be a category mistake. The right attitude was how our mind worked so that we classified particulars as universals and not that universals were some ontological category. Could you suggest some readings on these approaches to metaphysics? – R. Barzell Oct 23 '15 at 20:52
  • It is a premise of Kant's that noumena are real but impossible to know, so what else is there to focus on? This is also the heart of Berkely, he just won't admit it (being a Bishop). My favorite is Whitehead. His big concern is whether we are overly abstracting our experience, not whether that experience has anything to do with ultimate reality. He kind of agrees with Berkeley (and Kant) that we can't know and thus dare not care. But only his lectures, e.g. "Science and the Modern World" are really readable. If you let him write a whole book, he quickly becomes impossible to follow. – jobermark Oct 23 '15 at 21:13