The Peer-to-Peer Hypothesis and a new theory of free will

29artsbeat-video-blog480by Marcus Arvan

[This essay is part of a special “free will week” at Scientia Salon. The Editor promises not to touch the topic again for a long while after this particular orgy, of course assuming he has any choice in the matter…]

Nick Bostrom [1] is well-known for arguing on probabilistic grounds that we are likely living in a simulation. Somewhat similarly, David Chalmers [2] has argued that we should consider the “simulation hypothesis” not as a skeptical hypothesis that threatens our having knowledge of the external world, but as a metaphysical hypothesis regarding what our world is actually made of. Finally, the simulation hypothesis is gaining some traction in physics [3].

In “A New Theory of Free Will” [4] and “A Unified Explanation of Quantum Phenomena?” [5] I argue that a new version of the simulation hypothesis — the Peer-to-Peer (P2P) Simulation Hypothesis — is not only implied by several serious hypotheses in philosophy and physics, but promises to provide a unified explanation of a bunch of baffling physical and metaphysical features of our world.

I begin “A New Theory of Free Will” by arguing that we presently have some philosophical and scientific evidence in favor of each of the following hypotheses:

  1. Eternalism about physical objects and properties: past, present, and future physical objects and properties exist “timelessly.”
  2. Mind-body dualism: the mind is at least partly comprised by non-physical properties or substance(s).
  3. Subjectivity about the passage of time: time’s passage occurs within consciousness alone.
  4. Only one timeline (ours) is actualized, or consciously experienced by observers.
  5. The holographic principle: the physical universe is simply a series of ordered two-dimensional information (i.e. 1’s and 0’s) “written” on the cosmological horizon.
  6. The multiverse hypothesis: the observable physical universe is merely a small part of vast multiverse of alternative possibilities.

Although many of these hypotheses are extremely controversial, I believe that the model they jointly imply — the P2P hypothesis — promises to explain things about our reality that need explaining, and for which we currently have no good explanation. Allow me to elaborate.

fig. 1
fig. 1


In computer science, there are two types of online simulations: (a) dedicated server simulations (fig.1), in which one computer on the network (the “server”) serves as the definitive representation of objects and properties in the simulation, and (b) peer-to-peer networked simulations (fig. 2), in which no single computer on the network serves as the definitive representation of objects and properties in the simulation, but in which, instead, “the” simulation is simply represented in parallel on the various interacting computers on the network.

fig. 2
fig. 2


Notice what a P2P simulation is. A P2P simulation just is:

  • An array of two-dimensional information (e.g., each computer’s game program or DVD)
  • Comprising a vast array of “possible pasts, presents, and futures” for the simulation
  • Being read in real time
  • By a multitude of external measuring devices (i.e., each computer on the network)
  • All interacting in parallel, such that
  • The joint measurements of all the computers on the network result in the appearance of single observed, intersubjective reality

These six features of a P2P simulation are functionally identical to hypotheses (1)-(6). Thus, if hypotheses (1)-(6) are true, our reality is functionally identical to a peer-to-peer simulation. Let us now examine what this new metaphysical model might explain.

Explaining the Physically Unexplained?

Our world has a number of baffling physical features. They include:

  1. Quantum superposition
  2. Quantum indeterminacy
  3. The quantum measurement problem
  4. Wave-particle duality
  5. Quantum wave-function “collapse”
  6. Quantum entanglement
  7. The Planck length
  8. The relativity of time to observers (no single, objective “universal clock”)

It’s worth noting, to begin, that physicists commonly recognize that we/they have “no idea” why our world has features (1)-(8). Contemporary quantum theory — and extant interpretations of quantum mechanics — explain how quantum mechanics works (i.e., what follows from quantum-mechanical equations), but not why our world has these baffling features in the first place.

Interestingly, all eight physical features listed above emerge naturally from the structure of a peer-to-peer network simulation. Here’s how:

  • A peer-to-peer simulation just is a superposition of different parallel representations of the simulated environment on different computers on the network (viz. each computer has its own ever-so-slightly different representation of where things in the simulation are, such that the union of the different representations of “reality” is a giant superposition of alternate states)
  • “The” location of any object or property in a P2P simulation is therefore also indeterminategiven that each computer on the network has its own representation of where “the” object or property is, and there is no dedicated server on the network to represent where the object or property “really” is (any object or property “really” is represented at many different positions on the network, thanks to slightly different representations on many computers all operating in parallel)
  • Any measurement taken by any single measurement device in a P2P network also thereby affects the network as a whole (since what one computer measures will affect what other computers on the network are likely to measure at any given instant), giving rise to a massive measurement problem (one can only measure an object that is on the network by disturbing the entire network, thereby altering where other computers on the network will represent the particle as being)
  • Because different machines on the network represent the same object in slightly different positions at any given instant (with some number n of machines representing a given object at position P, some other number n* of machines representing a given object at position P*, etc.) a dynamical description of where a given object/property probably is in the environment will have features of a wave (viz. an amplitude equivalent to the number of computers representing the object at a given instant, and wavelength equivalent to dynamical change of how many computers represent the object at a given point at the next instant)
  • By a similar token, any particular measurement on any particular computer will result in the observation of the object as located at a specific point (thus instantiating a wave-particle duality), such that
  • Any particular measurement on any particular computer will result in the appearance of a “collapse” of wave-like dynamics of the simulation into a single, determinate measurement (thus modeling wave-function collapse)
  • It is also a natural result of a peer-to-peer network that single objects can “split in two,” becoming entangled (in a peer-to-peer network multiple computers can, in a manner of speaking, get slightly out of phase, with one or more computers on the network coding for the particle passing through a boundary, while one or more other computers on the network coding for the particle to bounce backwards — in which case, if the coding is right, all of the computers on the network will treat the “two” resulting objects as simply later continuants of what was previously a single object).
  • All time measurements in a P2P simulation are relative to observers. Each measurement device on a P2P simulation (i.e., game console) has its own internal clock, and there is no universal clock or standard of time that all machines share
  • Because the quantized data comprising the physical information of a P2P simulation will have to be separated/non-continuous much as there are “spaces” between bits of data on a CD/DVD/Blu-Ray disc (fig. 3), there must be within any such simulation something akin to the Planck length (fig. 4), an absolute minimum length below which measurements of space-time cannot be taken in principle (a feature of our world for which, at present, “there is no proven physical significance”).
fig. 3
fig. 3


In short, the P2P Simulation Hypothesis promises to provide a unified explanation for many baffling physical features of our reality for which we currently have no such explanation.

Further, there are a couple of tantalizing new lines of evidence regarding the P2P Hypothesis.

First, 2013 National Medal of Science award-winning physicist James Gates has found the existence of binary-error-correcting block codes embedded in the equations of string theory [6]: error-correcting codes just like those computer programmers actually use to prevent inconsistencies in online simulations [7].

fig. 4
fig. 4


Second, the kind of quantum feedback mechanism I predicted on p. 41 of “A New Theory of Free Will” — a mechanism for primitive, libertarian free will to interfere with and alter the normal quantum wave-function (which was also predicted far earlier by the ORCH-OR theory of consciousness) — appears to have been observed (more on this below) [8,9].

Explaining the Philosophically Unexplained?

Our reality also has a number of philosophically baffling features. Among them are:

  1. The mind-body problem
  2. The problem of personal identity
  3. The problem of time’s passage
  4. The problem of free will

The P2P model provides what I take to be a unified explanation of these problems as well, while also providing possible new specific resolutions to them:

1. Explaining the mind-body problem: it’s a curious fact that it seems to many of us that no matter how complete a physical explanation might be, such an explanation could never possibly account for phenomenal consciousness (i.e., what red, green, blue, and yellow look like).

The P2P hypothesis promises, I believe, to explain this problem. Observers trapped in a P2P simulation would be convinced — just as many of us are — that there is something about their subjective point-of-view that cannot be captured in the physics of their world. And they would be right. The hardware upon which the simulation is running — the processing apparatus (viz. DVD laser apparatus/processor) — would comprise their subjective point-of-view, and be inaccessible to them within the simulation. More generally, the P2P model holds that a reality like ours is comprised by two fundamentally different types of things: (a) “hardware” (i.e., consciousness/measurement apparatus), and (b) “software” (i.e., physical information) interacting.

2. Explaining the problem of personal identity: many of us are tempted to say that we — our identity — consist in something over and above any biological or psychological facts about us. On the one hand, the “animalist” theory of personal identity doesn’t seem quite right. We can seemingly imagine our consciousness (i.e., ourselves) jumping from one body to another (viz. Locke’s prince and cobbler example [10] or the “Freaky Friday” movie). On the other hand, psychological continuity (i.e., “sameness of psychology”) seems problematic because we can imagine perfect psychological duplicates of us who are not us (the “light” of our consciousness would remain with us).

The P2P Simulation Hypothesis promises to explain how this is the case. On the P2P Hypothesis, there really is something to us above and beyond the physical or psychological that accounts for our uneasiness: our identities are comprised by phenomena (i.e., hardware/consciousness) in a higher reference-frame inaccessible to us within the simulation except by direct acquaintance with our own first-personal existence.

3. Explaining problems with time: There are broadly two theories of time, the “A-theory” which says that time passes (viz. a “moving spotlight”), and the “B-theory” which says that time is nothing more than an ordered series of events (viz. time just is some events ordered before/after others). Both theories seem to face problems. A-theories seem hopelessly mysterious. B-theories seem to face problems making sense of change (i.e., if an ordered series of events is all that time is, how does time pass?).

The P2P Hypothesis provides a new answer: one that synthesizes both positions via a kind of mechanism/model that we already understand. When I go to play back a CD, the CD is a series of ordered information, and that information is experienced in real-time moving forward only insofar as a distinct observation-mechanism (the CD-player’s processor) reads the information. This suggests that in order to make sense of time (i.e., it’s being ordered and moving), we need a dualist theory — and the P2P Hypothesis gives us a concrete example of how such a dualist theory works.

4. Explaining (and solving?) the problem of free will: Einstein taught us that the way things appear from one reference-frame may appear the opposite from another reference-frame. Here’s a simple example. If you were moving at a uniform speed within an enclosed elevator falling at an extremely fast velocity (say, 100,000 kilometers/hr), you would have no idea you are moving. You would think the elevator was still because the elevator is not accelerating relative to you. A person outside the elevator, however, would see you moving at an immense speed relative to them.

Now consider the problem of free will. From our perspective within our world, all of our actions appear to be determined by the laws of physics. This, obviously, is the issue that gives rise to classical problems of free will (viz. how can we be free if all of our actions are determined by physical law?).

P2P simulations and other online videogames, however, show how (a) the appearance of determinism or causal closure within a simulation can actually be an illusion of sorts generated by (b) causal interaction in a higher-reference frame not determined by any law of physics within the simulation. Allow me to explain.

Anyone who has played an online simulation knows that once one finishes playing a game, one can rewind the game back to the beginning, press the “play” button, and watch the game that just completed inexorably play out just as it did the first time. Accordingly, although the events that played out inside the simulation were the result of inputs from us from the outside, to any observer trapped within the simulation it would have to appear to them that everything in their world is determined by physical law. From their perspective, their laws of physics would appear to be “inexorable.” They would think, for instance, that if their world were rewound back to its beginning, it would have to deterministically evolve just as it did (with each of their actions being determined by its initial state and physical laws!).

Notice what’s going on here. Although their world is not deterministic vis-a-vis our reference-frame outside of the simulation (our inputs as game-players cause their game to play out the way it does), it appears deterministic (indeed, fatalistic!) vis-a-vis their reference frame within the game.

To make a long story short, the model shows how libertarian free will in a higher-reference frame (i.e., free will not determined by any physical law within a simulation) can generate the appearance of determinism in a lower reference-frame. Libertarian free will, in other words, is compatible with determinism — provided we distinguish between reference-frames.

Now, of course, there is one final rub. The simulations that we have created exist within our physical reality — a reality that appears itself to be determined according to physical law. As such, why not think that determinism is true vis-a-vis every reference frame?

This is where things get complicated, but in brief, the reasons I don’t think this — the reasons I think we probably have true libertarian free will (the ability to self-cause according to pure thought in a manner determined by no physical or psychophysical law) — is that I think that (a) mind-body dualism is probably true, (b) there are no reasons to think that the actions of non-physical minds are determined by physical or psychophysical laws, and (c) there are reasons to think that non-physical minds are causa sui.

I realize that this will sound like preposterous “magic” to many readers, but as I will argue in future essays (and we can talk about this in the comments section here), I think that physicalism (i.e., the traditional naturalistic worldview) invokes a lot of similar “magic” already in a manner that mostly escapes notice. Since I think there’s a whole lot of “magic” in our world no matter what, and since I think the P2P Hypothesis and Libertarian Compatibilism promises to dramatically reduce how much of it there is (viz. quantum features), I think there are grounds for believing we may have libertarian free will.

In short, while Libertarian Compatibilism/the P2P Hypothesis may be crazy, quantum physics and relativity have already shown us that our world is crazy — and we might just need libertarian free will to explain some of that craziness. Maybe… it all depends on whether its predictions come out true.

Predictions: The Proof is in the Pudding

This brings us to a final issue, which is that Libertarian Compatibilism and the P2P Hypothesis make unique predictions — predictions that, if verified, would give us more reasons to believe the craziness.

Although I think further investigation may reveal the P2P Simulation Hypothesis and Libertarian Compatibilism to more than this, at a minimum the theories make the following unique set of predictions:

  • Our universe is a simulation — for which there might be some tell-tale signs [11]
  • Our universe is a hologram — for which there might also be some tell-tale signs [12]
  • We have libertarian free will — for which there might also be some tell-tale signs (i.e., subtle violations of the normal quantum wave-function within brains [8]).

A final note on this last point. As I explain in “A New Theory of Free Will,” if such violations of the normal quantum-wave function are observed in brains, those violations may well appear to have fully physical explanations within our reference-frame, since, no matter which physical “path” through the multiverse our consciousness chooses, there will always be some physical explanation within that path to explain how the quantum violation arose (i.e., even if there are quantum violations, they may appear to us, in our reference frame, to preserve a kind of causal determinism).


Marcus Arvan is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Tampa. He specializes in ethics, political philosophy, human rights, and free will. His doctorate dissertation, A Nonideal Theory of Justice, constructed a comprehensive theory of how to respond to political and economic injustices. Marcus is in the process of writing his first book, Reconstructing the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, in which he will explain in simple and easy-to-understand terms why morality is objective, and why people should behave morally even when immoral behavior appears to them to be in their self-interest.

[1] Bostrom, N. (2003). Are we living in a computer simulation? The Philosophical Quarterly53(211), 243-255.

[2] Chalmers, D. (2003). The Matrix as metaphysicsScience Fiction and Philosophy From Time Travel to Superintelligence, 36.

[3] Is the Universe a Simulation?, The New York Times, 14 February 2014.

[4] Arvan, Marcus (2013). “A New Theory of Free Will”, The Philosophical Forum, 44(1): 1-49.

[5] Arvan, Marcus (2014). “A Unified Explanation of Quantum Phenomena? The Case for the Peer-to-Peer Simulation Hypothesis as an Interdisciplinary Research Program.” The Philosophical Forum, 45(4): 433-446.

[6] Symbols of power, On Being, 6 June 2013.

[7] Gates, James (2010). “Symbols of Power: Adinkras and the Nature of Reality,” Physics World.

[8] Discovery of quantum vibrations in ‘microtubules’ inside brain neurons supports controversial theory of consciousness, Science Daily, 16 January 2014.

[9] Penrose, R., & Hameroff, S. (2011). Consciousness in the universe: Neuroscience, quantum space-time geometry and Orch OR theory. Journal of Cosmology14, 1-17.

[10] The Immateriality of the Soul and Personal Identity, SEP entry.

[11] The Measurement That Would Reveal The Universe As A Computer Simulation, MIT Technology Review, 10 October 2012. See also: Beane, S. R., Davoudi, Z., & Savage, M. J. (2012). Constraints on the Universe as a Numerical Simulation. arXiv preprint arXiv:1210.1847.

[12] Simulations back up theory that Universe is a hologram, Nature, 10 December 2013.

84 thoughts on “The Peer-to-Peer Hypothesis and a new theory of free will

  1. Artir – “The theory hinges on Heisenberg’s Uncertainty principle. Basically: physics allows for energy conservation to be broken for a very short time. ” What followed was a good account of some varieties of speculation around Q.M. hat potted account of some Q.M. and it is good that you leave open the possibility they could be wrong, even though they make testable predictions. I dont actually rate them highly as theories. No doubt they make predictions, but much not the non-parsimonious God of ancient & modern times provides a predictive explanation for things. Not quite as extreme, mind, you but just as creative “around” factual events – as measured!

    So lets start with the limitations of measurement – true metaphysics. The level that is not measureable but explains measurement itself – the speculation you have when all else has been eliminated and you are down to dead basics – like a void! Removing the void – empty continuous space and empty continuous time, you remove the means to observe gravitational mechanism, for example. Simply saying curved spacetime draws mass by indentation is a descriptive device for how the force appears to operate, nothing more. In general that is not an issue for Q.M because it allows weird behaviour in “something like a void” or “something sufficient to allow particle interactions, whilst allowing strange things to happen too”. To my main point – The famous U.P. is used as an excuse for gaps in knowledge and limitations to both measurement and interpretation. Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg, Schrodinger, they debated endlessly what the meaning of the U.P. might be. They did not realize that motion & direction are BY DEFINITION, two locations and two times, for motion between them, and direction likewise.

    They were literally smashing their heads against concrete definitions as if they could be broken – only their heads got broken – into notions that nature is amazingly “uncertain”, and “who knows what happens in the unobserved gap!” – cats are alive or dead! What absolute nonsense around the concrete fact of DEFINITIONS. How do you freeze frame motion & direction at one position and instant? Would that not be a violation of the definitions of motion & direction, which move BETWEEN positions & instants, and angle a direction BETWEEN them? Incredible. Check here for more Its a bit like a God of the gaps for physics based on the inevitability of LIMITS to MEASUREMENT. For example, a field is a loop with front & back ends (look at Circular Polarization animations for clues, that’s easy) and between ends “in the gap” there is an adjustment of momentum, and consequently the measured motion is adjusted with it, for fields to be at lights speed. Look to something a little less magical perhaps, but continue that weird line of enquiry too, by all means.


  2. Disagreeable Me,

    As far as the credibility of certain singularitarians is concerned, for starters I would take issue with the breezy assumptions underlying terms like post-human, galaxy-spanning civilisation and ancestor simulations.

    But there is a more obvious point to be made: When you say that “a simulation could simply fill in detail as required to fool any conscious observer, letting everything else be vastly simplified” we have moved far away from “the whole universe is a holographic simulation, and maybe there is something in the cosmic background radiation that would make that idea look plausible” and all the way into a brain-in-a-vat scenario. And the obvious problem with the latter idea is that every observation is compatible with it. As the saying goes, what is postulated without evidence can be rejected without evidence.

    Daniel Tippens,

    Unfortunately, the substance dualist could just deny that the immaterial soul can live on after death (deny premise 1). They could just say that the brain functioning properly is a necessary condition for the soul to exist. So, when the brain dies, the soul dies, even though the soul is something non-physical.

    When the existence of something is claimed but the observation expected under the assumption of its existence is indistinguishable from the observation expected under the assumption of its non-existence I am justified in rejecting the claim. In science we call that the principle of parsimony; it applies to souls as much as to dispersal events in biogeography or character shifts along a phylogenetic tree. To quote something I recently read somewhere around there, “I won’t say anything more on this because, to be honest, this is pretty standard stuff and I don’t think it needs to be rehashed again.”


  3. Hi Robin, fair enough. I agree that these discussions generally start muddied since there are just a few words to cover such varied beliefs.

    The “at least sometimes” part of your description of how we experience our will, suggested (to my mind) a lot less control than LFW normally ascribes. It is true that not all LFWs reject unconscious/involuntary actions, but it seems to be the general idea that we are more in control than not. And of course anybody who believes we can always make a different choice if “the clock were wound back” is suggesting we always make voluntary, intentional choices (or at least have that capability).

    Determinism can allow for choice, if a deterministic system (like a brain) creates an array of choices (by modeling anticipated actions/outcomes) from which to select. Again this seems to mirror your statement regarding our experience of will, intentionally choosing between alternatives. There is no mandate from determinism that a system capable of creating alternatives cannot emerge.

    I realize that some hard determinists will claim it does not allow for choice. That in the end a person will select only one seems to be taken as evidence of an impossibilty of choice, rather than the definition of a choice.

    As it happens the definition of CFW I provided would be inclusive of LFW accounts, because their definitions are not based on the same criteria. In an LFW world all actors would have CFW.

    I’m curious as to your take on replacing “free will” with “volition.”


  4. EJ,
    I understand your desire to be generous

    I’m all for a gentler, kinder forum that encourages the exploration of ideas. Thanks to Massimo’s tireless efforts the undertow of mean spirited criticism has become a thing of the past and this has allowed discussion to blossom.

    Marcus is not indulging in ‘creative speculation.’

    I read it as such and on re-reading I still do. He may disagree 🙂

    but I do think theories of simulation-existence and holographic universes need rigorous criticism, and if they don’t survive it, then they just don’t.

    Criticism, yes. But survive rigorous criticism? That depends on what you mean by ‘survive it’. Perhaps you are applying inappropriate standards. That might be appropriate for well determined problems that are gaps within the cognitive or empirical landscapes (as defined by Massimo). Rigorous analysis requiring a binary survive/fail judgement is less satisfactory for underdetermined problems and far less satisfactory for problems that lie at or beyond beyond the boundaries of the cognitive or empirical landscapes. New ideas would die prematurely before their viability could be determined.

    Finally I want to note that I see Marcus’ contribution as a breath of fresh air in a world of stale ideas. It is only a sketch, the germ of an idea that needs much work to give it substance. We should celebrate the birth of fresh ideas and not bend our minds to aborting them in their first trimester.

    How has Daniel Tippens corrected me?

    See his next reply. He writes lucidly and you should have no difficulty understanding.


  5. Hi Alexander,

    > I would take issue with the breezy assumptions underlying terms like post-human, galaxy-spanning civilisation and ancestor simulations.

    Neither Bostrom nor I make such assumptions. For both of us, these are possibilities only — they are not obviously ruled out. If you say these things will never happen, that’s perfectly reasonable and it means your position falls somewhere between the first and second logical possibilities identified by Bostrom.

    > we have moved far away from “the whole universe is a holographic simulation, and maybe there is something in the cosmic background radiation that would make that idea look plausible”…

    This bears no resemblance at all to Bostrom’s argument, which is strictly probabilistic. It has nothing to do with finding evidence for a simulation and never did.

    > and all the way into a brain-in-a-vat scenario.

    Yes. It’s much more like this scenario, albeit without physical brains.

    But it is not the skeptical argument. It is a probabilistic argument. The point is that either we will live long enough to simulate lots of brains (in which case simulated brains will outnumber physical brains) or we won’t. If the former is true, then it is very likely we are simulated.

    > As the saying goes, what is postulated without evidence can be rejected without evidence.

    So, we can reject without evidence the postulate that the universe is physical, eh? Perhaps not. To apply this kind of reasoning you need to use argument to figure out which is the most reasonable default position: that the universe is physical or that it is not. Bostrom’s is an argument not to assert the latter but to give us reason to doubt the former. As such it is a valuable contribution to philosophy, whether or not it resonates with you.


  6. With all this debate of dualism between mind and brain, body and soul, may I raise a quite evident dualism that doesn’t seem to be mentioned and it would be that between consciousness and thought.
    Clearly consciousness proceeds from one thought to the next, as these thoughts come into being/view and recede. As analogy, consciousness is like the light in a film projector, while thoughts are the frames of film sliding past it.
    Basically consciousness manifests thought, while thought defines consciousness. While the general assumption seems to be the form of thought generates consciousness, this seems similar to the view of time as the block of events, with the state of the present as subjective illusion. It would be like saying the frames of film give rise to the projector light.
    While I’ve raised this point in various forms before, without drawing comment, it would seem a significant issue to deal with, if the progress of understanding is to occur. What is the present state and is it an effect of the dimension of time, or the basis for it?
    And similarly, what is consciousness and is it an effect of the process of thought, or the basis for it?
    I think it’s as least a viable issue as to whether we are a simulation of some higher/broader level of being.


  7. Ejwinner,

    “When you used the analogy once, I cringed but let it go, the second time leads me to point out the mistake.”

    I think you misunderstood what the point of the analogy was. I think for some reason you thought I was trying to use the anology to make some sort of metaphysical claim about snow. I wasn’t. I was pointing out an epistemic problem. Mere correlation alone does not allow to to infer identity or reduction. Of course snow is reducible to physical phenomena, but the point is that from mere correlation alone you can’t infer reduction or identity.

    Since this was just to make an epistemic point, I could just switch some thing around with the analogy if that would make you feel better. I could say that natural (non man-made snow) is wiped out whenever the winter season is wiped out, but that correlation alone doesn’t show reduction of natural snow to the winter season or identity of snow to the winter season.

    If you really insist we could just use a different analogy some have used to make the point: if you destroy the microphysical properties that make up a piece of money, you destroy the value of that money. However, the value of that money is not reducible to, or identical to, the microphysical properties of the money.

    If even this doesn’t satisfy you i’m sure you can think of ways to illustrate that a mere supervenience relationship alone (when A changes B must change) does not necessarily imply reduction or identity (unless you really think that a supervenience relationship of this kind necessitates identity/reduction?)

    Once again, this is just an epistemic point, not a metaphysical one- a point to show that Alexander’s inference from correlation of this kind to identity or reduction is not valid.


    Your argument has shifted from- Correlation therefore no material soul- to something else – parsimony implies rejection of soul.

    My point that correlation alone does not imply rejection of the soul still stands, so does the point about property dualism, these were all I wanted to show you.

    I am fine with the parsimony argument but you weren’t using this argument before. You have just shifted from making argument A (correlation therefore no soul) to argument B (parsimony rationally forces us to give up the idea of a soul). I am not a substance dualist so I don’t need you to tell me why substance dualism is wrong, I just needed you to defend your argument that correlation (of a supervenience kind) between the mind and the brain implies identity or reduction of the mind to the brain (which is what the physicalist wants to claim), which you seemed to be ardently holding to (I would copy and paste your actual statements but people can go back and see for themselves if they want to).

    At best (and this is a charitable stretch) you had parsimony as an implicit premise, but if thats the case, please spell it out next time. It helps the readers to see arguments fully spelled out (I am certainly willing to admit it would help me if you spelled out your arguments in their entirety if you weren’t doing this before).


  8. labnut,
    Nick Bostrom, a major simulation hypothesis proponent, has been pushing a political agenda (see for instance, His main projects are that we should devote our technologies to hastening post-human evolution (that is, mastering the simulation with supercomputers, if I understand correctly) and trans-galactic interplanetary colonization (because otherwise, the human race is doomed, apparently).

    Although he doesn’t discuss what resources we would need to draw upon to achieve any of this, let me ask, how many billions of dollars are you willing to take away from charity and from social welfare programs in order to give Bostrom support in this venture?

    Fortunately, most politicians will not be terribly impressed with such arguments. But they may be interested in whether such research can develop improved technological means of surveillance, increased social control, or more destructive weaponry. At any rate, Bostrom has managed to convinced someone somewhere that his speculations are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, as he directs two research projects, one at Oxford University, and the other the independent Future of Humanity Institute.

    Creative speculation can be done in an armchair, and beyond the funding of employment (which would likely not be awarded for the speculation alone), there is little more at stake when academics engage in such speculation. But the game changes when large grants and donations, and possible government funding, become involved.

    Finally, I think Marcus would disagree that he is engaging in the kind of speculation you assert of his article; but even if not, there can be no doubt that Bostrom is not, he’s fully committed to the simulation hypothesis and the political program he believes it necessitates. So whether Marcus is engaging in speculation or not, the position he is arguing for is an established position (no longer speculative but maintained), with real-world entanglements and implications, and must be given rigorous critical treatment, before allocating further resources for its development.


  9. brodix writes about the “.. dualism .. between consciousness and thought. .. Basically consciousness manifests thought, while thought defines consciousness” and suggests that a better understanding of the nature of consciousness would help to clarify the nature of our simulations. Of course.

    The ‘latest’ on human consciousness seems to be that it represents a ‘quantum leap’ beyond that of our fellow primates due to our ability to think in complete sentences. We have acquired an exceptional ability to simulate events from memory, project into the future, run an internal narrative and share with others – hence our infinite cultural existence. Part of the experience is that it occurs from the perspective of an independent observer, sort of like a dream. Hence the illusion of dualism, however the vast bulk of information processing occurs behind the scene in a single unit with multiple subroutines, the brain.

    Chimpanzees, dogs and cats are conscious, as most would admit who are closely familiar with their behaviors. They probably experience the world in a similar manner to us, the difference is that they do not think about it in sentences, there is no internal talk going on. In fact, it is widely suspected that probably all animals have what is called phenomenal awareness, as above.

    Are we “a simulation of some higher/broader level of being..”? The simplest answer is that we are the real thing with an infinite ability to simulate using our unique facility of conscious thought. However, some words of extreme caution: accuracy, precision and truth are not the cardinal interests of human conscious thought. For an excellent review on consciousness and simulation see Baumeister and Masicampo, 2010.


  10. We have recently discussed many very important issues {emergent/reductionism, free-will, body/mind, mind/soul, etc.}. The result is the chicken/duck conversation. You sing your yaya; he says his gaga.

    When I face an equation, I will not try to solve it right the way. I will first try to find out whether it has any solution; then what kind of solution it will be. Now, it is a good time to find out whether there are solutions for all the issues which we discussed. I will start with the BOUNDARY issue, brought up by labnut.

    One, are there boundaries in Nature itself?

    Two, are there some roadblocks (not boundary) in Nature becoming the forever impenetrable with human capability?

    First, is there anything in Nature wrapped up totally without any gate for the outsider to enter? If yes, there is a place in Nature inaccessible from other part of Nature. The black-hole firewall issue could be the example. Today, the consensus is that the black-hole is not totally black but kind of gray. That is, the answer for this question is NO.

    The firewall issue is so technical; I will not discuss its details, but with a simpler issue: the known vs the unknown.

    When our knowledge grows in volume (as a ball), the unknown is pushed outward, as the SURFACE. Then, this unknown/knowledge ratio is the surface/volume {= r^2/r^3 = 1/r}. When r becomes large, the unknown could be quickly overpowered (but not to zero). Good equation, but not good enough to show that Nature is totally knowable in a finite time (the lifetime of this universe). Yet, this calculation is based on ‘holograph’ which is based on complementary. And, I have discussed many times at this Webzine that the complementary is the wrong description of Nature. If the Nature is mutually immanence, the 1/r will quickly go to zero with a finite r. This calculation is a bit more complicated, and thus I will not show it now, might be later.

    Second, if we can prove a theorem, such as:

    Theorem X: A Self (conscious or not) is not able to reference (conscious of) itself.

    If theorem X is true, we have an unreachable domain. The BIV (brain-in-a-vat) argument ALMOST proved this theorem: the BIV (A) has no way of knowing that it is not a BIV.

    Yet, can BIV (B) know that BIV (A) is a BIV? If not, why not? Of course, if we can prove that any BIV (B)-like BIV cannot be reality, then the theorem will be still true (see, ). In fact, as long as there is a reference point (does not to be another BIV) outside of BIV (A) itself, many experiments can be constructed to inform the BIV (A) about its status.

    Without such a theorem or a theorem with similar mission (describing a total DARK place), any claim that {consciousness, soul/body issue, etc.} are unknowable is just opinion.


  11. EJ,
    please don’t tar me with the Bostrom brush 🙂 As it happens, I share your sentiments.
    We do need to think carefully about the future and some treasure should be spent for that purpose. But lets use that to find ways to avoid sleep walking into more economic, political and military disasters.

    Of course the best way of doing this is to model and simulate the operation of our cultures, something we should be spending billions on, if it can avoid further disastrous missteps.

    Oh wait, this has been done before. Right now someone else is studying our simulation as a case study in bad outcomes that should be avoided! I wonder how much longer they will run this simulation? That might be the ‘Great Filter’ that Bostrom talks about, as they shut down all the failed simulations.


  12. Disagreeable Me,

    We appear to have a slightly different take on the situation. To my understanding, and as ejwinner pointed out, the singularitarians and post-humanists seem genuinely convinced of certain unrealistic propositions and push for the relevant changes to research funding and collect surprisingly high donations from those they managed to bamboozle. And if somebody does that I would like them to do a bit more homework than if they are just floating a few ideas for a beer.

    This bears no resemblance at all to Bostrom’s argument

    Ah, but this appeared to be the argument referenced in the post we are discussing.

    It is a probabilistic argument…

    That is great, but the sceptical argument is what I am making; I doubt that the probabilistic argument works. This is just like the idea that we can calculate when humans will die out from assuming that, statistically, we must be in the middle of all humans that will ever have been born. The problem should be too obvious to need mentioning: you could make the same argument at any time and thus arrive at every possible result (if somebody had made it 20,000 years ago, they would have concluded that humanity should have gone extinct by now). Similarly here; the argument “works” all the time, but one of the people it works for is the simulator.

    Another point: why should anybody simulate lots of brains? Seems extremely pointless, i.e. breezy assumptions again.

    > So, we can reject without evidence the postulate that the universe is physical, eh?

    No, of course not. Even if the universe turned out to be just a layer on top of a deeper reality “physical” would still have to mean the same thing it does now to differentiate the things we talk about from other areas like “biological” or “mathematical”. But the idea that the universe is anything but matter is pretty odd anyway; I think ejwinner’s comment about the hypothetical Renaissance metaphysician applies here too, only in this case it would be somebody who has just noticed that our ideas have some kind of mysterious existence.

    Daniel Tippens,

    Unfortunately I do not understand what correlation has to do with anything. Which two quantitative measurements did I present as correlated with each other? But even if I should have shifted my argument, which I don’t think I have, I would still be puzzled. This would not be the first time that somebody complains about me pointing out that something is wrong for two unrelated reasons. The last time it was that the free will defence is incompatible with heaven and that libertarian free will is nonsense anyway, and for some reason the other person seemed to feel that I was allowed only one argument per discussion.

    Where does such a feeling come from? Have I not been shown some secret rulebook?


  13. Hi Alexander, perhaps just pointing out the dialectic between us would help? Here:

    Alexander: “No, mind-body dualism is wrong, as is amply demonstrated by the fact that physical and chemical trauma alone can change personalities and destroy memories; if we subtract everything that is known to be physical, nothing is left of the mind”

    -Here, your argument is that whenever the brain changes the mind must change (this is a type of *correlation* known as supervenience), or whenever the brain is destroyed the mind is destroyed, therefore dualism is wrong (i.e the mind is not something non-physical, it is either reducible or identical to the brain). So I responded:

    Daniel Tippens: “That mental events change whenever physical events change (parts of the brain get damaged or destroyed, so do mental states/events) only shows a correlation [supervenience] between physical brain events and mental events. It does not show, by itself, an identity between, or reduction of, the mind and the brain. Just as wiping out the winter season would wipe out all [natural non man-made] snow, that doesn’t show that snow is reducible to or identical to the winter season, so too wiping out the brain and wiping out all mental events doesn’t show that the mind is reducible to or identical to the brain; all it shows, at best, is that the mind depends upon the brain for its existence (like how snow depends upon the winter season for its existence.”

    -Besides pointing out to you that substance dualism (the view you were arguing against) is not the only relevant mind/body dualist view that Marcus is discussing, I then proceeded to give you examples (value and money, snow and the winter season, etc) of how supervenience ( the type of correlation I have been talking about) does not allow anybody to infer that two things are reducible or identical–Note that I am NOT arguing here for substance dualism, I am arguing here that your *inferential move* from the fact of mental supervenience to the conclusion that dualism is wrong and physicalism (reduction or identity of mind to brain) is not valid since there are cases where supervenience between two things does not imply reduction or identity between those things. Then you said:

    Alexander: “if I destroy my computer’s CPUs, it will not work any more. If I destroy its hard drive, my data will be lost. Yes, that is entirely equivalent to a human being shot in the head or undergoing traumatic amnesia: once the physical is removed, nothing is left. Therefore dualism is wrong; there is no immaterial component that could potentially carry our traits or memories on after death.”

    -Here you have repeated your argument again without actually engaging my counter argument. Specifically, I had already argued that supervenience of the mind on the brain (when the brain changes the mind must change) does not show that the mind is reducible or identical to the brain, so I repeated it-

    Daniel: “As I mentioned before, a correlation [supervenience] alone between the brain and the mind (the brain changes state, therefore the mind must change its state), doesn’t show that the mind is identical to, or reducible to, the brain (which is what physicalism wants to say). Just as wiping out the winter season would wipe out all [natural non man-made] snow, that doesn’t show that snow is reducible to or identical to the winter season, so too wiping out the brain and wiping out all mental events doesn’t show that the mind is reducible to or identical to the brain; all it shows, at best, is that the mind depends upon the brain for its existence (like how snow depends upon the winter season for its existence)

    -once again I gave a further example of value and money (see my last comment for this) to show this point, you then said:

    Alexander: “When the existence of something is claimed but the observation expected under the assumption of its existence is indistinguishable from the observation expected under the assumption of its non-existence I am justified in rejecting the claim. In science we call that the principle of parsimony.”

    -Here you have completely avoided my arguments once again. Here you are simply arguing that the principle of parsimony is a good reason to reject substance dualism. The problem is that I never said otherwise and was never arguing for substance dualism (which is painfully evident from this dialogue that I have quoted).
    I was arguing that your *initial* argument – that the supervenience (correlation) of the mind on the brain implies that dualism is wrong, i.e that the mind really is either reducible or identical to the brain – was an invalid argument since there are examples where supervenience does not necessitate reduction or identity. And this went completely unaddressed and remains so.

    EJwinner atleast did give a reply to my analogy (which I think was at least helpful in clearing things up but I think didn’t pose any serious threat to my argument), but I saw no reply from you.

    Does this help? I think I am out of comments, hopefully we can have a more productive dialogue in the future. The reason I spent so much time on this is because I frequently see people assuming they can easily dismiss any form of dualism from simply pointing out that the mind supervenes on the brain, and I wanted to make it clear that this move alone does not settle the issue.


  14. Liam,
    I would file much of that in the category of thought; The expression of the element of consciousness is that phenomenal awareness running through its various levels. What raises us above those other creatures is the level of complexity, the folds in our brains and the feedback loops in our minds, creating ever more layers of interaction. It is not as though animals are incapable of symbolic associations. To Pavlov’s dogs, the whistle was a symbol for food. Not to mention that much of our knowledge is the product of social and cultural feedbacks that took thousands of years to develop, but which is still a short time in evolutionary terms. Which is not to dismiss what we do, but if we want to really peel away the layers, it’s hard to dismiss the element of consciousness as the raw foundation on which all this complex reasoning is based and try to argue it is simply a consequence of that complex thought, as seems to be the assumption with the premise of artificial intelligence becoming conscious.
    tienzengong, lab nut,
    Consider that black holes, singularities and much else about our social motivations, conceptual assumptions, etc. are very linear. If something is going in one direction, especially with a great deal of force, then it must be taken as an absolute and projected to infinity. In reality, these actions are invariably part of larger cycles and the more confined, constrained and forceful they become, the more they will eventually generate blowback and feedback. Black holes are cosmic vortices and like all vortices, they radiate out enormous amounts of energy in their creation and the effect is to shoot out some amount of that collected force in a particular direction, not delve into some other dimension. As the largest vortices in the cosmos, galaxies radiate out enormous amounts of light and other forms of radiation, then shoot jets of cosmic rays/particles out their poles, at speeds close to the speed of light. What falls in, is ejected back out, one way or another.
    Similarly we have lots of political, religious, economic and social movements, all trying to accumulate lots of energy, currently usually in the form of monetary value, since it is the most fungible, but when that bubble pops, of sheer political dynamics. These movements are quite effective in propelling their leaders out across the social cosmos, much like galaxies shoot jets. Yet in the long run, they generate blowback and the resulting feedback loops break down this dynamic, as new ones form. So if ever you sense momentum building and you want to further understand it, getting sucked up into its dynamics might give you some inside perspective, but it will not lead you to other universes. Really putting it in context requires stepping back and seeing the forces balanced against it and how they all play out. Thermodynamics, not linear projections.


  15. Marcus Arvan – “In short, while Libertarian Compatibilism/the P2P Hypothesis may be crazy, quantum physics and relativity have already shown us that our world is crazy — and we might just need libertarian free will to explain some of that craziness. Maybe… it all depends on whether its predictions come out true.

    Marko Vojinovic (@vvmarko) – “I would suggest that you try to gain some more in-depth understanding of QM and related areas if you want to develop your P2P-ideas seriously. Or at the very least consult an expert in those fields, to help you get a clearer picture of what exactly physicists mean by the measurement problem, entanglement, holography, time, superposition, etc.”

    tienzengong – “All physics models are simulations of the real world. Yet, what is this “peer-to-peer simulation”? Simulating WHAT? GR (general relativity)? QFT (quantum field theory)? The final physics theory? ”

    Continuing from my response to Arvix above (disregard the first paragraph, I am a hopeless editor), Marcus Arvan would appear to accommodate the gaps by employing them. I don’t think this is unexpected at all, and it might be warranted. as I explained above, The U.P. is not a “debate” about a gap – it is the inevitability that anything “absolute” in passage in a void, with momentum in passage, which is the definition of momentum (motion & direction BETWEEN spatial positions &temporal instants – a passage) is UNOBSERVABLE, by definition. The observations occur at points (awfully described as collapses of a wave-function in physics) either side, to measure momentum between positions as a putative wave-function – always putative, never observed, by definition of motion & direction and the fact of measurement either side. No dead cats, just reality. A layman doesn’t need advanced physics to correct advanced physics.

    What happens in the gap? Not as much as Marcus Avram might allow, I will wager. For photons, it means front and back ends of a loop reconcile in the “collapse”, which is the absorption of an angled loop distributing momentum at poles and across surfaces of particles to literally change directions of momentum distribution between ends by backward rotation (see Circular Polarization illustrations). The Q.M. world is a tiny version of the classical, no more or less, but more intricate than you imagine. There is no “curved spacetime” responsible from drawing mass (another awful gaff) – just far more intricate mechanisms in a void than you currently know. I think physics squarely takes responsibility for Marcus Avram’s interesting speculations.


  16. Hi Marko,

    While my personal opinion is also leaning towards Libertarian interpretation of free will, this kind of argumentation for LFW is completely counterproductive, since it paints a picture that LFW proponents don’t know science well enough, and don’t have better arguments for their position.

    This is why I am.disinclined to spend much time with it, even though it is sometimes fun to explore such conjectures.

    But I can already hear someone say “libertarians try to rescue their position with extravagant simulation hypotheses”

    As far as I know there is no science (other than conjecture) which rules out a common sense libertarian position, we have no need of this theory as it relates to free will.


  17. John Smith: “What happens in the gap? … The Q.M. world is a tiny version of the classical, … but more intricate than you imagine.”

    Thanks for your comment, but not knowing what you mean.

    My resolution of the New Year was taking a weekend break from writing. I thought that this article was the one for fulfilling that resolution, … Yet, it is all worthy for making a clear demarcation on what is knowable.

    Is this universe totally knowable? The answer is a definitely big YES. With this answer, zillions of arguments and –isms will be shot down. The first one to be shot down will be the anti-realism, whatever and however it is defined. Of course, I owe more details for this big YES answer.

    First, if this universe is the BIV (A), is there a BIV (B)? If there is a BIV (B), can they two communicate? These questions can give a big NO answer. Fortunately, a (any) BIV will be conscious of itself if it has an EXTERNAL reference point (not necessary as another BIV).

    With the dark energy discovery, we do know that this universe has two disjointed parts, the Event Horizon (EH) and the Yonder. If the EH is the BIV, the Yonder is the external reference point. Then, EH must be self-conscious (knowable).

    From this universe-consciousness, I have showed that both GR (general relativity) and QFT (quantum field theory) cannot be complete (correct) as both of them are FILED theories, while field cannot encompass an external reference point (the Yonder), see .

    Of course, a single argument is always questionable.

    One, the black-hole-firewall issue is a “knowable” issue in essence. But, its key point is that GR is not correct, must be modified. This GR leakage is similar to the Gödel’s incompleteness theorem; something is always outside of a formal system. Yet, paradoxically, it is this outsider making the entire system knowable and having self-consciousness.

    Two, the spooky action (the entanglement) is also a leakage of QFT.

    Now, we have reached the same conclusion that Nature is more than fields from many different directions.

    Yet, the point here is not about the GR or the QFT. This “knowable” issue give very tight control for the correct theory. For example:

    The Standard Model is totally known; that is, it already encompass a BIV and its external reference point. Can SUSY be that reference? If SUSY is, it will be the BIV (B) which is totally knowable from the BIV (A), the Standard Model. But, No. SUSY is not a physics consequence of SM but is added ad hoc-ly. With this “knowable” framework, we can comfortably rule out the SUSY theoretically.

    This ‘knowable framework’ can be applied in all disciplines.
    One, no issue in Nature is not-knowable.

    Two, if an issue is not knowable with the known X, Y, Z, it is either totally wrong or related to something not yet known.


  18. tienzengong “What happens in the gap? … The Q.M. world is a tiny version of the classical, … but more intricate than you imagine.” – “Thanks for your comment, but not knowing what you mean.”

    tienzengong “I have showed that both GR (general relativity) and QFT (quantum field theory) cannot be complete (correct) as both of them are FIELD theories, while field cannot encompass an external reference point (the Yonder)” / But, its key point is that GR is not correct, must be modified. This GR leakage is similar to the Gödel’s incompleteness theorem; something is always outside of a formal system. / This ‘knowable framework’ can be applied in all disciplines.”

    What knowable framework? – You have given nothing clearly knowable there, just controversies! If you don’t have time to read or write, that’s up to you. You have not accounted for “the Fields” of electromagnetism (the photon) and gravitation (the graviton). Both of them would be literally delineated (outlined) as mechanisms in a void. You need a void to delineate any object, and in my view both those Fields are LOOP objects, but, as I say above, too intricate in their mechanisms to be currently understood. There is an explanation for both loops as forces for ATTRACTION by exchange here

    You realize that physics has no mechanisms for attraction? None at all! Physics just has “curved spacetime” for gravitation and a magical “wave-function” that keep electrons in orbitals by electromagnetism. That is quite amazing, and it requires ENGINEERING by principles that apply in the macro-classical world. The only difference is scale! Materials are also a factor at that level, but the principles of mechanics – shearing, loops with angles, loop flexibilities for momentum distribution between loop ends upon emission and absorption – all required, all classical engineering, but all very very micro.

    Not hard to understand. I have explained the problem with the U.P. very very simply, using definitions you cannot deny – motion & direction as momentum. It is plain English – what are the definitions of motion & direction? They are defined “in passage”, not at each point of observation either side of passage – open your thinking! Its simple – believe it! Measurement is always at the points of collapse either side of a passage in a void, and therefore DEFINED as RELATIVE momentum BETWEEN particles with ABSOLUTE momentum in a void. QED for your metaphysics.


  19. As for the feasibility (as opposed to likelihood) of conscious universe simulations – have you ever had a dream?

    OK, so we know that the processing power to do a first person universe simulation containing one conscious being for a finite amount of time can be fitted into an area of about 15x15x20 cm and would consume a minimal amount of energy. Since that structure came about due to a fairly haphazard process from found materials, It seems implausible that we could not do better and we could certainly achieve economies of scale.

    Then we just need to consider the data size for all the information that has been observed by humans that may be re-observed by other humans. Observations of individual particles such as electrons would not need to be part of this data set since as soon as we have finished observing them it is vanishingly unlikely that we would ever observe the same particle again.

    So it seems pretty reasonable that, if Naturalism is true, then simulations of the Universe from the point of view of the human race should be achievable given an increase in knowledge and computer power.

    I doubt that the probabilistic argument works. This is just like the idea that we can calculate when humans will die out from assuming that, statistically, we must be in the middle of all humans that will ever have been born.

    No, it is not even remotely like that argument.

    There appears to be a tendency around here, rather than try to refute an argument directly, to mention instead some silly argument and arbitrarily claim that the two arguments are equivalent. this has happened at least three times in this one thread.

    Another point: why should anybody simulate lots of brains? Seems extremely pointless, i.e. breezy assumptions again.

    Here is Bostrom’s argument:

    Bostrom argues that at least one of the following statements is very likely to be true:
    1. The fraction of human-level civilizations that reach a posthuman stage is very close to zero;
    2. The fraction of posthuman civilizations that are interested in running ancestor-simulations is very close to zero;
    3. The fraction of all people with our kind of experiences that are living in a simulation is very close to one.

    The statement “At least one of A,B,C is likely to be true” does not include the assumption that B is true. We might not survive much longer, science may stall, our descendants may not be interested in performing such simulations for things like research, interest, preservation of cultures etc, even though they could, in which case 2. is true and the statement that at least one of them is likely to be true still stands.

    But the idea that the universe is anything but matter is pretty odd anyway

    Matter being…? And does the fact that something strikes you as odd count as evidence?


  20. Robin,
    on re-reading your comments I am with you where your interpretation of free will is concerned.
    A simple situation has been confused by arguments from ignorance, arguments from obfuscation and arguments from ideology.

    Reduced to bare bones, the following holds.

    1. We(mostly) experience free will.
    2. This is contradicted by our knowledge of causal determinism.

    There are several possible responses to this:

    1. Argument from ignorance. We can’t imagine how free will operates (1) in a world of causal determinism (2) therefore (1) is false(an illusion) and we do not possess free will.

    2. Argument from obfuscation. (1) is true and (2) is true. We can’t abandon our experience of free will, we can’t imagine how free will works and we can’t admit exceptions to the principle of causal determinism. We reconcile the contradictions with an elaborate explanation, that no-one seems to understand, called compatibilism. I call this obfuscation, Kant calls it ‘that wretched subterfuge’ and ‘word jugglery’. Clever man. Aravis introduced an interesting variant of the argument from obfuscation, calling it a ‘social construction’.

    3. Argument from ideology. A modern God hypothesis makes one and only one falsifiable prediction. That there will be conscious beings possessing free will[1]. And here we are, conscious, seemingly possessing free will. Many arguments against free will are really nothing more than camouflaged attempts at falsifying the God hypothesis and so they are making an argument from ideology. This is not normally stated up front but it is recognisable by the facts that the advocates are, (1) vocal atheists, (2) claim consciousness is an illusion, and/or (3) claim free will is an illusion. My reply to them is always the same: from the nature of their reasoning they evidently lack free will. I will grant them that, that they are automatons. But don’t speak for me, I consciously exercise free will.

    4. Argument from science. Libet and others claim to have shown that our choices are predetermined by our neurology. Alfred Mele has disposed of these arguments. In any case this argument ignores the multilayered nature of our brain which enables it to make many kinds of decisions, some un-free, some partially free and others free.

    Essentially though, arguments against free will are nothing more than arguments from ignorance. We don’t have an explanation, therefore there is no explanation and therefore free will is false. Look deeper and you see a sotto voce argument from ideology. By analogy, it is like arguing that we cannot explain the origin of life and therefore there cannot be life. Yes, ludicrous, and so too is the argument against free will. Just as life is evident, so too is free will.

    Happily science advances and science will one day explain the phenomenon of free will (and the origin of life). Until then we must endure more debates that fly in the face of the obvious.

    [1] I am at the end of my fifth comment. Supporting this assertion would require another long comment. Another time.


  21. DM,
    On re-reading the Bostrom essay I linked, I admit I read it too fast, nonetheless, an essay that concludes its opening section “Even with the most conservative estimate, assuming a biological implementation of all persons, the potential for one hundred trillion potential human beings is lost for every second of postponement of colonization of our supercluster” and finally argues “This should lead her to emphasize speed of technological development, since the rapid arrival advanced technology would surely be needed to help current people stay alive until the fruits of colonization could be harvested,” frankly has a political agenda much as I pointed out, and cannot do otherwise. That the simulation hypothesis does not depend upon any one advocates political agenda, I do not deny. Still the discussion concerning the allocation of resources (and the critical analysis this necessitates) remains valid.

    Robin Herbert,
    “Bostrom argues that at least one of the following statements is very likely to be true:
    1. The fraction of human-level civilizations that reach a posthuman stage is very close to zero;
    2. The fraction of posthuman civilizations that are interested in running ancestor-simulations is very close to zero;
    3. The fraction of all people with our kind of experiences that are living in a simulation is very close to one. ”

    I deny that there is any ‘posthuman stage’ needing to be reached; Consequently I deny the relevance of proposition 2. Further, since my own understanding of the nature of truth is Pragmatic and Instrumentalist, I deny that a disjunctive argument necessitates that at least one of the propositions must be true.

    Probability arguments are convincing when they are addressed concerning knowledge that we do have. Concerning fictions or abstract speculations concerning the future, they are functionally worthless.

    Posthuman stage? Posthuman civilizations running ancestor-simulations? I’m sorry, give me the empirical evidence – no, not the computer simulation, I mean the *stuff*. Matter being stuff. You know, what we bump into, the machines we build, the – well, here is a longer discussion on the (ahem) matter –


  22. tienzengong – “This GR leakage is similar to the Gödel’s incompleteness theorem; something is always outside of a formal system.”
    Godel was summed up by Marko Vojinovic in an earlier thread – “One can rephrase these conclusions as follows: given that we have epistemological access to only a finite set of phenomena in Nature, there is no way we can construct a “theory of everything.” At best, we can construct a “theory of everything so far,” which is fundamentally incomplete in the sense that there will always exist strongly-emergent phenomena in Nature that have not been accounted for by the theory, and therefore are not reducible to our fundamental theory.”
    The incompleteness theorem is formulated on limited premises, so it contains its own doom within it. You may have read my reply to Meghan Griffith specifically (one comment in the last thread) – it concerns that value of RETROSPECT. Obviously the future is literally “unknown” (no actual knowledge, by definition) – it is only a “hypothesis” based upon some but not all known facts from the past. We have a partially “known” past and an “unknown” “hypothetical” future. Is that weird? No, that’s life when you are dealing with time and the confirmation of theories.
    Of course, a theory can be applied to both the past and the future, in a nice continuation of its authority, and it should link past & future smoothly as “a theory”. It is always “a theory” for a hypothetical future outcome based on some past knowledge. How do we overcome limited known past facts to base it upon, and the limits to actually knowing the future? RETROSPECT. Prediction is a hopeless crystal ball exercise to begin with. The first step is always to explain the LOGIC of PAST PATTERNS. Then refine that logic sufficiently to explain the core FUNDAMENTALS of all past patterns, by logical axioms referencing past events. The math is just a DESCRIPTION of mechanical events and their logical patterns, and just a tool for confirmation, unless you want to use the knowledge for supposed “prediction” to build another dumb machine to screw up the planet.
    The logic to the known “facts”, using retrospect need have no math at all. IF nature is self-consistent rather than anarchistic then nailing the correct level of intact logic is the key – and terms! Math can be a mere descriptive device for what is blatantly obvious if the logic is well explained, given that we are talking about the pattern of evolution of know – self-consistent, events. If nature is not self-consistent and instead shifts its shape like an anarchist, we have no hope at all. Thankfully there is a correct level of logic that adequately, entirely, explains the mechanical logical of nature leading to where we are today. 500 words and 5 posts limit any further coverage to another day, but you can see the logic to nature if you look with fresh eyes, here Godel is as badly formulated as the U.P.


  23. …I don’t know.

    The premise of the article is that free will from the outside may look as determinism from within the simulation, but this is such a vague generalization that I see it not so different from hand waving magic.

    In fact, it’s pretty easy in a computer simulation to figure out whether some character is controlled by the computer (deterministic) or by an actual player (free will). Results are not deterministic, obviously. Actions within the game follow the rules of physics, the same as our world, but this doesn’t explain the actions and choice. The example isn’t really explanatory.

    Also, mind-body dualism is more easily explained away, than justified. The simple fact that the software isn’t aware of the hardware explains why the software observes itself as if made by magic. There’s not a dualism, just an occluded perspective that creates the illusion of dualism.

    But I also think that the premise of second order frames of references is the way to decode and understand the problem of free will. Free will can coexist in a deterministic world as long the world is sealed. It’s a kind of paradox: the sealed world makes it completely deterministic (otherwise interference would prevent determinism), but since the world is sealed, then from within you can’t obtain awareness of the deterministic nature itself, so you are forced to do with limited information. Or: the impossibility to achieve awareness of an higher level creates the possibility of free will. Or, more precisely, a limited perspective that makes free will as real as it can be.

    It’s still a completely deterministic world, but only to some hypothetical being that exists “outside” the system. Since we can’t go there, ever, out free will is as real as the definition of “real” can be.


  24. SciSal: NO QUOTES, does it work?

    Marcus OP:
    Action, if coerced against someone’s *un-coerced* preference, will still be instituted by that brain deciding on its ‘best option’. I.e Not free will of some degree, but selection of the best of alternatives as *perceived* by that brain at that time, in those circumstances, within the limits set by its ability and its available data.
    Whether choosing to be burnt at the stake for the sake of a principle or a child agreeing to eat broccoli for some promised reward, despite the expected future suffering to follow, they are both actually doing what they *want* to do (=caused to do -i.e. the best alternative as perceived by *that* brain, at *that* time, in *those* circumstances, within the limits set by *its* ability and *its* available data.).
    Of course I know that the child could leave it on the plate knowing he can actually get away with it, or the martyr could recant, -from fear or perhaps deciding he might better further his principle by remaining alive. BUT any such alternative scenario cannot happen at that time without some difference in that specific brain’s physical characteristics, its “remembered” experiences and/or some prevailing circumstance.

    Marvin (Jan 31 2.35pm)
    Morality is a secular issue: I did not intend to suggest otherwise.
    If you mean good “behaviour” then I fully agree but this still leaves us with the same question, “What IS that behaviour?” -still not one that lends itself to much permissible scientific investigation/analysis, though Sam Harris did have a valiant try.

    Robin (Jan 31 3.52pm)
    Determinism does always occurs and doesn’t allow otherwise. Precisely!

    labnut (Jan 31 5.01pm)
    I totally agree with you that we are wrong to think there are *always* going to be real explanations to everything. The human race has ever-growing knowledge about the “external”. We also conceive such things as unicorns and dragons by using the rules of language allied to mental associations. We speak of and use Nothing and Infinity as a mathematical devices/concepts, but neither can be measured, nor be apparent, in nature however rational their “existence” seems.
    I don’t profess to understand QM but, who knows, there may just be “rational” answers to current perplexities. Once upon a time (and not so long ago either) planetary motions were “irrational”: philosophy, then, could only guess and the puzzles remained obdurate until fresh reliable and corroborative evidence was found using newly-invented telescopes.

    Socratic (Jan 31 9.05)
    I merely wished to suggest that there might be a link between the near-identical bodies (and their very likely near-identical brains) of near-identical twins that might have a discernible limiting “determining” effect on their behavioural “choices” too. I did look briefly for any readily available evidence of this but couldn’t find any. But it might something that is testable and observable.


  25. I feel like Kant having finished reading Hume.
    This article is very much like that “peak in Darien”.


  26. I have only one minor comment about the term “holographic universe” bandied about in the original essay and in several comments. As I understood it, this refers to the possible form of the relationship between thermodynamics, GR and QM (roughly, since location is discretized to the Planck length, the degrees of freedom in a volume of space is suggested to be proportional to the surface area of that volume). I don’t see how it supports a simulation hypothesis.


  27. Mogguy, “Good behaviour” would be that which causes no unnecessary harm and/or causes an objective benefit. The Measles vaccine would be an example of something that is “objectively good”. Compare that to simply sticking someone with a needle, which would be an unnecessary harm and therefore “objectively bad”.


  28. Hi labnut,

    1. We(mostly) experience free will.

    Or, rather, we experience a desire to do things, and call that experience “free will”. We do not, though, have direct knowledge about what our low-level brain machinery is doing. Thus, as a starting point, we don’t know the origin of our “will”. That’s then to be deduced from evidence.

    2. This is contradicted by our knowledge of causal determinism.

    No, causal determinism does not in any way contradict our experience. We cannot leap from “we are not consciously aware of” the decision-making apparatus to “therefore it is not deterministically caused” any more than we can leap from “we are not consciously aware of what our liver is doing” to “therefore it is a non-deterministic device”.

    Thus, there is no problem here that needs any solution.

    We can’t abandon our experience of free will, we can’t imagine how free will works …

    Yes, we can imagine how free will works! It is trivially easy to do so! Imagine a chess-playing computer. Consider that, after the extensive computation of the best move has been completed, that move is then passed to a memory register. Now consider a sub-routine that has the task of executing that move, and which has access only to that memory module, but not (since it doesn’t need it) to any further information about how the decision was made leading up to it being passed to that module. That “sub routine” is effectively how our consciousness is. Is it trivially easy to envisage how this works.

    Do you really think that the “consciousness” would be at all functional if it was continually overwhelmed by information on the doings of 10^14 synapses? The only way it can work is on a “need to know” basis.

    We reconcile the contradictions with an elaborate explanation, that no-one seems to understand, called compatibilism.

    No, plenty of people do understand compatibilism, and it is a very easy and straightforward concept. The “decision”, the “will”, is the product of a deterministic neural-network decision-making device, that makes decisions in the same way that chess-playing computers and aircraft autopilots make decisions, based on their programming and their environmental inputs.

    There is nothing obfuscatory about this, it is easy and straightforward. It is in line with all the evidence and there is no actual evidence against it. The ONLY reason for not accepting it is the emotional one of “I consider that beneath my dignity and don’t like the idea that I’m a deterministic robot”. Well, tough, that is not actually an argument.

    The “freedom” in “free will” is all about degree of external constraint. “Did you sign this confession of your own free will or were you tortured?”. If you want a direct counter-part of that in a chess-playing computer it is deciding to execute a move from among nine legal moves, because the computer evaluates it as best (= “free” will), versus the computer executing that same move because it is the only one that avoids check, and thus is the only legal one (= “forced” will).

    If you think that that’s an utterly trite comparison, then yes it is! — because the computer and the laws of chess are vastly simpler than humans and human social interactions. Therefore any counterpart in a much simpler situation will seem trite. But, really, humans are just vastly more complicated versions of this. Stripping down complex situations to a simpler counterpart is exactly how we should go about understanding complex phenomena.

    “But there must be something more to it than that!” people intuit. Well, no, there is no reason why there need be more to it than that! Get back to us compatibilists when you have an actual argument beyond mere dislike.


  29. Daniel Tippens 1Feb 22.58
    Your long argument for a dualism between a non-substantial mind and a substantial brain sounds rather like an excellent argument for the actual existence of God to me.
    The supervenience/correlation of Winter Weather with snow is a man-made brainial concept. Winter Weather doesn’t “exist” except as electro-chemical events in a brain: it is a blanket expression used to describe a whole lot of natural things that we see in cold temperatures and cyclonic conditions. (On second thoughts do either “exist”, *philosophically*, to us if we don’t “know” about them)

    Marvin 2Feb 13.41
    Thanks for your reply, but you have chosen an easy one! What about more contentious moral dilemmas, e.g. unmarried parenthood; same-sex marriage; huge salaries; medically-assisted conception, abortion, contraception or suicide; global terrorism; etc. Are these so demonstrably good or bad? And how do you tell? Yet I agree entirely with you that there is an objective Human Morality. Isn’t this the fundamental kernel enigma at the heart of this philosophical “orgy”?


  30. Coel –

    I read your regular defence of current physics with its “curved spacetime” drawing mass for orbits, and its mysterious “wave-functions” maintaining orbitals. No mechanisms! I also read generally about mutiverse speculation, “something from nothing” and many other strange ideas – indefensible except as superficial “gap-fillers”.

    How do you stand on the Uncertainty Principle? I explained it clearly above. What is the definition of momentum? I say its motion & direction, the usual definition. What is the definition of motion? Can you freeze frame a position at an instant and measure motion? I say no, and I say the U.P. is a complete joke from a lack of conformity to definitions. What is the definition of direction? Can you freeze frame a direction any more than you can freeze frame motion? I say, obviously, by definiton, again, NO.

    I won’t go into Godel and its silly limits, merely say it is as constipated as the U.P. Obviously, the appropriate level of anayysis – Daniel Tippens favorite saying it seems – is not every math equation to confirm and predict every little bit of whatever – it is by aggragation to smooth the local INEVITABLE uncertainties into LOGICAL patterns by retrospect. If you get the level right, Daniel Tippens and others, you get a concerete intact, complete delimitation of existence based on clear mechanisms. Godel is just another dead end, arrogant blockage to the task of discovery.

    Daniel Tippens –

    While we are on the subject of levels of anaysis, I caught up with your reply in a previous thread about the correct level of analysis for biology as random mutation and Selection. That’s hardly a level at all – unproven randomness (pure guesswork) plus “stuff needs to suit the circumstances that entirely support if through life” – hardly earth-shattering, just a break from the church. The corretc level of anaysis is not so superficial – it is pre existing chemcical with which to build anatomies IN THE FIRST PLACE – then see if they survive. I have given you the corrent level, as known laws of electromagnetic bonding under direction of DNA using regularly layered and propertied chemicals – easy to track. If you don’t get your levels right, you are just another blockage to progress..


  31. I see there’s lot of confusion even on the nature of Free Will.

    “Free Will” is easily defined and understood with information theory.

    Just think of a sealed system that behaves mechanically. It means the system is deterministic, all outcomes are determined by previous states. It means that all information in the system can’t be changed. It only follows its rules from the initial state to its end.

    Now, Free Will, works as a hole in the system. If the system is closed (no information going in and out) then it is deterministic. But if instead there are holes that take information from the outside and bring it inside the system as new, previously unavailable information, then Free Will becomes true. So, usually, Free Will is antithetic to determinism, a contradiction, because they both function on the premise of close/open system.

    Bottom line: Free Will means the introduction of “new” information in a system that was considered completely closed. Or, an exchange of information from a physical world and a metaphysical one. Or extra-reality.

    Leave the “feel” of Free Will or choice out of the discussion, because that’s a completely different field.

    Free Will is just new information. It can be objectively considered without weird abstractions and vagueness.


  32. Hi Coel,

    It appears that you are fashioning Labnut’s position into something of a straw man, perhaps unconsciously. He can no longer respond, but there are some issues with what you say.

    I suspect the idea of ‘free will’ arises from 2 sources. !. The subjective experience of our thoughts suggest to ourselves that we can think anything we want. We can simulate* scenarios that are not of this world, and we can pursue such thoughts as far as we want, for as long as we want. The impulse for such a reverie could be anything, internal or external, but one is under no obligation to actuate the fantasy or not. Either way, this represents ‘free will’, prima facie. You say that the will is “.. the product of a deterministic neural-network decision-making device..” and you talk about the trillions of synapses as if that is just so much chopped liver. But that is just part of the story; these synapses are subject to stimulation or inhibition by hormones and neuropeptides. The possibilities, therefore, are approaching infinity, and Kurzweil’s singularity may be receding.

    2. The other source of the idea of free will is our cultural experiences, essentially our interactions with our fellows. Simply looking around, what do we see? What I see is that everyone is different, unpredictable and surprising. I must admit, I have never been able to divine what others will think or do – some mentalists claim they can. Each individual is genetically different, with a different configuration of sense organs, brain and soma, subjected to unique life histories. One could therefore imagine that it is an act of freedom and will to assert oneself, to choose, everyday, from amongst the trillions of options presented internally and externally. One aspect of free will also includes the option of not exercising it. That the majority chooses this latter option does not prove that it is not real.

    *Simulating is the essence of human thinking, partly for the purpose of coming up with novel options. So what you are saying is not “in line with all the evidence”. The findings of Libet, Gazzaniga, Bargh, Nisbett, Wegner et al have been devastating to old notions of an independent executive authority of consciousness, but much new evidence also points to the crucial role of cognitive thought in our lives and culture. See Baumeister and Masicampo, 2010. Comparing our brains to IBM’s Watson is giving way too much credence to a simple algorithm. We do not have perfect reason, or insight , or recall, but we do seem to be exercising our own will, albeit very imperfectly.

    Independent thinking presumably is of the essence, and it is a good thing.


  33. If we make the rather mundane and uncontroversial assumption that- “Q: What is cognition for? A: Coping with one’s interactive relationship to the environment.”- you can easily see how ‘fantastical’ all this talk about what the universe supposedly is. Precisely how does one go about interacting with the environment/universe as a whole? How does any of this leverage my agency in the world. More often than not, the capacity for ‘representation’ is used not so much as an aid to (environmentally coupled) task management, but as the very means of social interaction- otherwise known as social coordination masquerading as reality tracking. I don’t see anything else happening here.


  34. Hi Liam Ubert,

    I don’t disagree with anything much in your reply to me, but I also don’t see why any of it rebuts what I said.

    The brain seems to be a largely deterministic decision-making device (there may be some quantum indeterminacy, but that’s irrelevant from the point of view of compatibilist free will). The ‘consciousness’ is one part or ‘module’ of the decision-making process, and has access to information about *some* other aspects of the decision making, but certainly not all of it (awareness of the doings of 10^14 synapses would overload it, you can only do a job by focusing on what is needed and important).

    Thus we are aware that we are making decisions but not fully aware of the full process by which we arrive at them. Thus, if our brains were entirely deterministic (and CFM the right account) then what we feel we experience is exactly what we’d expect that we’d feel we experience.

    Despite labnut’s protestations, there is not a single good argument against compatibilist. The lack of acceptance is purely an emotional reaction to it, and, to some extent, a lack of vision.

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