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Is dying in a simulation -- any simulation at all -- ever physically sufficient to die at that instant outside it?

I mean a simulation like in the film the Matrix, or in a dream, one that kills your real body at the same instant that you seem to die.


This is meant to be a thought experiment on whether -- when we imagine ourselves removed, absent or nothing -- inside something that is consciously or sensuously extant, the real world, we don't fully imagine ourselves as nothing whatsoever. We must end up living past our death, inside those extant perceptions, and so still ourselves -- and alive and capable of experiencing that real world, in the sense that it is like something to be me, or you, or a bat.

Does the answer tell us anything about the conceivability of death? I don't think we can say it's not analogous because when we die in our life we don't exist, as that seems question begging (the thought experiment was constructed to find out if we exist after death).


I've done some research into the inconceivability of our deaths, which I now summarize. On a philosophy blog by Tom Clarke I read that many people do not seem able to conceive of their death. I think he includes Goethe and Shakespeare on his list -- which he says is esteemed, but mistaken, company. I have also read Derrida's Aporias, which seems like an argument against my death -- which is what death is all about for Heidegger (who I've studied). I've also read the relevant sections of Bergon's Creative Evolution, which at face value seems to say the same. Husser's student Fick claimed Husserl believed the "transcendental ego" was immortal, and that he, Husserl, took great comfort in that. But I could not unpack the phenomenological argument, which I read appears in (if I remember correctly) Husserl's Experience and Judgement. I've read parts of Brassier's Nihil Unbound, which seems to close on the claim we can't imagine our own death (but who cares?). I've also read Levinas, who claims in God Death and Time, that we have to say "perhaps" we won't die. And I also tracked down an obscure passage in Heidegger that says that he was unsure whether there was anything for us after our death, and some scholarship by Iian Thomson that claims that Heidegger's demise is strictly impossible for humans. It is unusual to claim that no-one dies, without a religious framework, so I have also read a lot of Buddhist philosophy, though it's unclear whether so called final nirvana is a going out that is equivalent to an atheists death. Early Western scholarship claimed that Buddhism sought what amounted to suicide, and, though that itself is less popular now, most scholars would claim that -- because nothing is left of the aggregates when a Buddha dies -- nothing is left of the Buddha: but I'm unconvinced.

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The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Imagination p 432. I have studied analytic philosophy to undergraduate, and am familiar -- I hope -- with its method of argumentation.


My intuition is that we cannot conceive of our death if we can escape it, in the same way that, if we can escape death in a simulation, then there's no way for the simulation to kill both the real and virtual me at the same instant.

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Blanchot, The Instant of my Death. Nevertheless, I seem to often encounter honest dislike of questions like this, almost as if they were beneath consideration; perhaps people don't feel safe with an afterlife and no God.

  1. Personally, I think we must certain of when both events occur to conceive of two events occurring at the same time by physical necessity.

  2. Can we be certain that the anticipated time of death in a simulation will occur at the same time as our real death?

  3. If not, simulated death does not physically suffice for annihilation: does that mean, via the above analogy, demise -- an irreversible death -- is impossible?

Or have I misunderstood the nature of analogical reasonoing?

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  • It is a little unclear what exactly you’re looking for someone here to explain to you. Please unpack the concern a little if you can to specify what a great answer looks like to you. Any context you can share would help too, especially about what you might be reading or studying that’s made this an important/interesting problem to you
    – Joseph Weissman
    Feb 23 '20 at 20:05
  • could you point to anything in particular in the question you did not understand @JosephWeissman or was unclear? do you really want me to explain the context, and what sort of context would you like?
    – user44289
    Feb 24 '20 at 17:16
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    any contextual details would help here, period -- what you're reading or studying that has made this an interesting or important problem in your study of philosophy; what specifically about what you're reading/studying that made this problem in particular interesting/important. without philosophical context it's really difficult to provide clear, contextualized explanations that are suitable for a Q&A site -- i.e., what is the most 'narrow', specific version of this question you can state; such that there is 'exactly' one right answer? pointing to texts usually helps immediately, so...
    – Joseph Weissman
    Feb 24 '20 at 20:13
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    Lgtm!! 👍🏽 much better specified, the architecture is there, nice job!
    – Joseph Weissman
    Feb 24 '20 at 21:39
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    Given your views about the cabal that is after you, I'll not vote to close despite what I feel is a lack of clarity... oh hell... I'll respond to your post.
    – J D
    Feb 26 '20 at 17:14
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Is dying in a simulation -- any simulation at all -- ever physically sufficient to die at that instant outside it?

It depends on the definition of simulation. In the Matrix, a narrative, simulation is defined as such that the physical processes of generating the simulation and the life of the biological organism are intertwined and that death in the simulation causes death in the physical body. There is no contradiction in having a hypothetical simulation function this way, but technologically, it has not been achieved, so it is an open empirical question. What you are getting at in philosophy is an ontological question, which probes the nature of reality. A simulation by general definition is "the act or process of pretending; feigning.". So, most philosophers consider there is some illusion or reality of a mind-body duality. This seems to be an extension of evolution's product of creating a conscious mind that is prone to adopt a naive realism without reflection. Enter philosophy to create chaos, confusion, and then new order. (Yes, it's Hegelian imagery.)

Does the answer tell us anything about the conceivability of death?

Well, if you are asking about death, then yes, the question and answers that come from i speak to the conceivability of death. Of course, in philosophy, you just get more questions. What does it mean to conceive? What is death? What does it mean to conceive death (is the whole more than the sum of the parts)? I did look at your link to a philosopher's thoughts on death, and the thinking seems like run-of-the-mill naturalism and empiricism in the analytical tradition. I think what you are after is it possible to conceive of death, not as a linguistic entity with logical implications, but as an experience which is a bit kōan-like since thinking is an activity of the living in a naturalistic world-view.

Personally, I think we must certain of when both events occur to conceive of two events occurring at the same time by physical necessity.
Can we be certain that the anticipated time of death in a simulation will occur at the same time as our real death?
If not, simulated death does not physically suffice for annihilation: does that mean, via the above analogy, demise -- an irreversible death -- is impossible?
Or have I misunderstood the nature of analogical reasonoing [sic]?

Well, if you want to take the narrative of the movie the Matrix as a metaphysical set of presumptions about the link between simulation and biological life, that's philosophically acceptable, but highly opinion-based and frowned on around these parts. My usual disclaimer to save grief applies here:

Please be aware that questions are subject to editing and closure, and that reflects the site's policies on acceptable questions and NOT a personal attack. What to avoid in questions. Questions, including those that are closed, can be edited to bring them within guidelines. Keeping questions on-topic. Additional clarification at the meta site.

If one were to speculate, one could say that it largely depends on the genetic and computational technology at play. Could reincarnation be possible? It seems like if cloning technology could allow the replication of distinct beings, and that the experiences could be rerun so that all clones are "reset" along with the Matrix or a portion of it, one could achieve a fairly deterministic system. Would quantum fluctuations play a role? It's just not known in the current state of our actual world. Would death be simultaneous? Well, are you talking about the death of the body or the death of the brain? It's fully possible in our current technology using the lobotomy, for instance, to incapacitate or perhaps even eliminate consciousness.

Good luck!

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If you assume you are living in a simulation then you assume part of your existence does not belong to that simulation. The user in that simulation must have certain features that make them capable of interaction with the simulation which were not created by the simulation in the first place.

eg.1 "The world is a 3d computer game and your body is just your avatar" then you assume that your personality, memories, ego, perception, skills etc. do not die when you die.

eg.2 "The world is a 3d computer game and has made you forget who you really are and that will revealed to you when you wake up (or die)." You assume that knowledge is transient and perception is limited but consciousness does not belong to the simulation nor your individuality.

In The Matrix Series the nature of consciousness is not addressed. They are just human bodies producing electricity out of heat for the machines. Only sensory perception is rigged not thoughts, memories, self-observation, introspection, skills, personalty and psychology, preferences, existential doubts, etc. Those are meant to be in the non-simulated human brain.

Whether you assume that somebody that is not iterating with the simulation is dead or not could be a matter of perspective. eg. "They could be playing other simulations but you are just are not aware of that".

You could apply this thought-experiment to Buddhism but in this religion/philosophy all physical and most mental faculties are lost after death except your illusory notion of individuality and karmic actions which go on and on with you reincarnation after reincarnation in the wheel of samsara.

The ultimate goal in Buddhism is to realize who we really are which is consciousness that is metaphysical and has no individuality, no space and no time therefore death and birth are just illusions of the individual mind. Ignorance of that creates all those cravings/suffering/karmas/ego etc. check out Pratītyasamutpāda. Also attachment to anything impermanent (body, ego, fame, fortune, etc) and craving/desire (for knowledge, prestige, material things, pleasures, etc.) creates suffering which divert you from your real path for enlightenment (knowing who you really are).

Your thought-experiment is similar to the questions "Does the universe dies when you die?" or "What is the point of the universe creating me experiencing existence if I'm going to cease to exist?" According to the eastern philosophies I have studied those questions are produced by a lack of understanding of the true nature of the self and also created by the impermanent and illusory mind and ego which reflect ignorance and suffering.

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People have certainly believed themselves to have died, then woken up to find that they haven't (zombies being an obvious example). People have also died of shock-induced effects such as a heart attack following severe psychological trauma (it is particularly common among small birds and mammals who escape a predator). A few will likely have suffered both - believing themselves to have died, the shock induced by the belief genuinely killed them - though of course confirmation of such a double-event is not really possible.

But, although we know that all conscious experience is illusion, I do not think that is what you intend by a "simulation". Your question presupposes that "you" are a mind whose conscious activity can be purposefully deluded by some outside agency, and that this agency exists in the same physical reality as your body.

Returning a moment longer to physical evidence, sensory prosthetics including touch, hearing and sight are already wired into patients' nervous systems, providing exactly the kind of artificial stimulation necessary to realise an immersive simulation. The brain experiences these much like any other natural sense, indeed it displays an astonishing plasticity in its ability to adapt to imperfect prostheses. So psychologically, I see no distinction between the natural belief that one has died and an injected mental simulation of death. The simulator experience does not in this respect differ fundamentally from the natural illusions of the mind (It obviously differs in other philosophically significant ways. Others may point out a relevant difference I have missed, and the key point here is that such a difference must be physically or medically identifiable in the brain activity - philosophical theorising is not sufficient).

So I would suggest that in principle, yes, a simulation could induce physical death by simulating it. But it would be very rare - most people would survive the experience, as they do in the real world. So I am not sure that one can regard the simulated death as "sufficient"; there have to be other personal factors such as a vivid imagination, a fearful character, a weak heart or whatever.

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The analogy of simulations is useful to answer your question. WITHIN a simulation, entities that depend on that simulation's created environment, can die. We see that repeatedly in many simulations. Alternatively, if the entity is the creator of a simulation, then death for that entity, within that simulation, does not then lead to a coherent logical outcome. A first person simulation, in which the protagonist dies, simply ends. What ends is the simulation. The end of the protagonist is - a relatively trivial supplement to the end of the simulation and its entire world.

Your question appears to presuppose a phenomenological/idealist view -- that first person experience is what there is in our universe, and the matter that appears to stimulate these experiences -- is a secondary byproduct of some meta-creative unconscious process in the minds of a first person experiencer.

If you accept a self-centric narrative -- that everything in the universe is in some respect a creation of your own mind -- then yes, the concern over one's death, or of any other concern such as the death of others, is not easily supported. this appears to be the direction your thoughts are trending. If fear of death is a source of concern for you, then yes you could adopt this worldview, and very likely reduce that fear dramatically -- but at significant psycholog8ical cost in terms of all other interests and values as well.

However, self-idealism is not the only way that idealist thought has developed. Most idealist thinking identifies a God, or Mind-at-Large, that is the actual first person agent whose mind creates the illusion of a physical universe. This puts us -- you, me and all our other readers, as actors within that "simulation", not the generators of the "simulation" of life. The death of God would be necessary for the simulation to end - the death of one of the actors in the simulation -- will not end it. Your death is entirely conceivable in such an idealist universe. Any difficulty you have in contemplating it -- would be a flaw of imagination, not a logic issue.

It is not just theistic versions of idealism that support one's death as a possibility. Most contemporary Pagan thought I have encountered is idealist, but with weak deities, that are created by the minds of humans. The worldview is that a universe (and godlings) is created collaboratively by the interaction of multiple parallel minds and imaginations at work. This concept is not only held by theistic thinkers, but much of the secular New Age assumes a collaborative world-creation process. Such a process would have the "simulation" continue past one's death, and therefore would not include any logic obstacles to the reality of one's death.

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