Souls and Virtual Reality

poster for The Matrix
poster for The Matrix (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You go to sleep and wake… as an elf in a tree-city much like Tolkien’s Caras Galadhon. Pretty cool, eh? You likely would experience angst over left-behind loved-ones. But how else might you react?

What fantasy reader hasn’t given this at least some thought? Myself, since as long as I can remember, I’ve spun daydreams, sometimes weeks long, of just such adventures. But what would I really think if suddenly transported to another world, maybe even in a different body? Sadly, I would be forced to alter my assessment of the chances that I’m living in a virtual world.

There has been a lot of discussion lately about whether all of us are presently living in a Matrix-like world. Some even go so far as to say it is likely that this is the case, probably because if there were virtual worlds, there would be a lot of them, therefore you’d more likely be in a virtual one than a real one. I’d like to see the analysis for those who posit this because while I think it is entirely possible, I don’t think it is all that likely.

My assessment would change, though, if fundamental elements of my current reality suddenly changed. And nothing is more fundamental than my body and the world I perceive. This is because while I think you can construct ways for people to move from one world to another or body swap (or both), and it’s an accepted fictional trope, in reality making such a move seems nearly impossible. How does one change universes? There may in fact be multiple universes but in no cosmology proposed by scientists is it very easy to travel between them. Under some theories, the other universes would not even have our laws of physics.

But even supposing you could make the leap, how do you pick out the cosmically insignificant speck of habitable space (not just a planet but the surface of that planet) and arrive at an appropriate velocity (an extension of my discussion under Teleportation and Momentum Matching.) I suppose you could posit universes that fork off our own and remain connected in some way but, even so, it still seems unlikely you could simply pop from one to the other without some sort of high-tech cocoon to protect you in transit.

Then, once arrived in the new universe, there’s all the issues of communicating there: do you already know the language? How is that shoved into your brain? And do the denizens appear human: our basic body plan may be likely, perhaps, but it isn’t likely that the other folks would be so human-like that we would find it desirable to be one of them. And what about atmospheric and microbiological compatibility? Not an issue if you get a new body but a big deal if your current one pops over to the new world. And a really big deal if the portal is bi-directional. I would be a lot less concerned about dragons ravaging our Earth and a lot more concerned about alien diseases doing the same.

On the body-swapping, how exactly do you move a consciousness from one body to another? It seems possible you could move memories, especially imperfect ones to a new body, but the actual consciousness? If you believe in souls you could imagine the soul moving along but there is no scientific evidence or justification for souls that I’ve ever come across. I suppose if the cranial cavity is the same in both skulls, you could move the brain and re-connect everything. That seems do-able. But a consciousness swap such as we’ve seen in Star Trek episodes? Cool to write, hard to imagine how that really works.

None of this is strictly speaking impossible but it seems extraordinarily unlikely to me. If I ever found myself in such a situation, I’d be forced to conclude that I am more likely a virtual entity and I was simply moved from one simulation to another. As discussed earlier, any virtual simulation is likely to have well-defined abstraction layers for speech, body perception/interface and so on. Re-targeting these to a new language, body, world, even physics system, is a small extension for any entities capable of executing a virtual world simulation that can fool us. Therefore, there is no practical barrier to moving a simulated consciousness to a new simulation. Now, that simulated entity might be very sad at the loss of his old friends and family or freaked out to the point of insanity if it suddenly found itself in a Cthulhu-esque squid body. But you can certainly imagine the transfer taking place without any messy issues of wormholes and hostile microbes.

In the end, I might not object to such a transfer, especially if it occurred at the end of a (simulated) life. But it would certainly raise fundamental questions about the meaning of life, my family and friends, and so on. These are not the sort of realizations those who run the VR show may want their VR entities aware of, as it would affect the simulation. But maybe they move people without full or any memories intact. Perhaps those who remember past-lives are simply remembering incompletely purged past-memories. If a simulated world is not complete, that is, if not all the entities are fully realized, than the fact that past-life recallers seem to remember a disproportionate number of historically “cool” lives (me, I was King Henry V in a past life), might actually make sense because in that case, any given VR entity was pulled from a limited pool of past people, which could, if the VR executor so chooses, be disproportionately higher stature folks.

One reason those who run a VR show may not want their entities aware of this is it raises the basic question of why? Is my entire life and all the pain and suffering simply for the entertainment of others? One plausible and morally acceptable reason might be for self-entertainment: we’re all astronauts on a million year journey to another galaxy and the simulations are a way to pass the time. But even then, during the simulation, you might not want to know you are in one. There are many other possibilities for the ‘why’ behind a virtual world.

For instance, imagine a future where synthetic entities have replaced organic ones. Some might argue the fate of humanity is to go extinct, the only question is whether we leave behind self-aware synthetic progeny. In such a world, the synthetics might wish to keep alive, for historical purposes or as a hedge against unknown threats, a simulation of their fore-bearers. Or perhaps, in order to “seed” synthetic consciousness with a good range of capabilities, they actually grow their consciousness in a simulation of organic civilizations. Maybe the childhood of a self-aware android is a life or two in a simulation of 21st century Earth. If I were creating synthetic entities, I might do exactly that. It’s not be a bad way to train a virtual entity’s neural network (or however it is technologically realized).

Back to the topic of souls mentioned in the title, if a soul is the “something” that makes a self-aware being unique, extracting that from an organic brain seems rather close to impossible to me. But extracting that from a simulated VR entity seems quite possible. Put another away, it may be that the only beings with souls are simulated beings. Therefore, the only way for life to develop to the point of having souls is for organic humans to create a virtual world with virtual entities, or create synthetic entities in real robot bodies whose consciousness could be moved from machine to machine. Or both: if you can have a synthetic entity running around a simulation, you could put the same being into a physical body to allow it to interact with the real world.

This leads to perhaps a disquieting thought: what if only synthetic entities are able to have a soul and an afterlife? Or what if we are all androids-in-training in the year 120,000 CE?

5 thoughts on “Souls and Virtual Reality

  1. Very thought-provoking, and proof yet again that most SF and fantasy is only that. My counter would be that, in fact, there is no evidence at all we are living in a virtual reality (or any other sort of controlled world).

    Those who controlled such a world would not include things like stars (implying any place outside control) or massive storms which kill thousands (thus depleting the reserve of hapless pawns). A controlled world would be perfectly orderly and regular, without deviation from the plan.

    The real world is fairly random within its physics and similar parameters. We have massive storms, bridges collapsing, terrorism, epidemics. Even the most sophisticated evil computer intelligence would have difficulty calculating all of this at once. People who talk about an evil government make me laugh, because no group or elite could ever cope with the random events of the entire Earth.

    The fascination with travel to other worlds/dimensions, it seems to me, springs from our ancient ancestors, who had to move around all the time to find food and resources. Many of us, in our modern lives, hardly move around at all. Of course, international travel does allow people to move pretty freely, but it isn’t the same as constantly migrating the way our ancestors did.

    In other words, the grass is always greener on the other side of the dimensional vortex.

  2. Thanks for the thoughts- I agree there is no evidence we are in a VR World and therefore I don’t think we are. But I do think that body swaps or portals to other universe would constitute such evidence (though not proof). Should I ever experience that, I would have to conclude that I probably was in a VR world.

    I don’t buy the analysis that has been reported in the press where someone claims we are most likely in a VR world. I’d like to see the numbers behind that. I suspect it was pretty rudimentary: there may be only a small chance of a VR world, but if VR worlds exist there could be thousands or millions of them. Pick the right numbers and it could work out to better than even chance but it is all a game picking the numbers (like the Drake equation). I think what was probably overlooked is that a VR world need not, and probably does not have, billions of simulated entities.

    I’m not sure I buy your argument that a VR world would be perfectly ordered. Depending on the purpose of the VR world, it could have all the chaos, or more, of a real world. Or it might have somewhat less chaos but if it were too ordered, that, too, could constitute proof of being in a VR world. But to your point, would a VR world need all the different diseases and genetic disorders this one has? Seems like some of that might be pruned just to simplify the simulation 🙂

    One thing to keep in mind though- there are VR worlds in which all humans are simulated. In this case, any suffering the VR executor causes is morally evil. But there could be simulations where not all the entities are sentient and most of the chaos is for show (for the benefit of verisimilitude for the simulated beings). That only gets you so far, because what life is without some tragedy, meaning the executor is still responsible for some suffering.

    I do agree that some of the conspiracy theories are quite ludicrous. Sometimes you have the same people pointing out government incompetence in Katrina or the like also claiming there is a super secret, super-efficient multi-government conspiracy.

    That’s a very interesting point on travel and reminds me of my own experience in college: it always felt to me, at the time, like I was traveling between two disconnected worlds. One day I was going to classes, living among people my age, the next I was suddenly 400 miles away working a part time job. It was always a little discordant,.

  3. I haven’t read the recent news you’re relating to but this is a very interesting article however in some respects I think you’re coming at it from the wrong angle.

    You’re talking of virtual reality, simulations and synthetic entities as something alien and mechanical which they are, in their mainstream meaning, however think of it this way:

    What are we living in now? Technically we’re living in a simulated world right now.

    When you reach out and touch your keyboard the feeling you get is not actually the feeling of touching that object. It is in fact the way your brain has interpreted the electrical signals it’s has received from your hand.

    No different than if you were to jack in an external electronic signal straight to your brain; such as from a computer like in The Matrix.

    So a computer running a VR simulation that feeds back an electronic “touch” signal to your brain when you reach out and pick up and object is really no different than what your organic body is sending to your brain now.

    That is one of the reasons why The Matrix was such a mind blowing film, because it made people realise the link between a simulated VR world and the actual way we experience the world we live in isn’t too dissimilar. Also it was based upon one theorists ideas but I forget which one, possibly Saussure and Semiotics. It was a long time ago I studied it.

    Other people it’s worth reading are Marie-Laure Ryan. She’s a Narratologist but works particularly in the realms of Interactive Narrative and has written books like “Avatars of Story”, “Narrative as Virtual Reality”, “Possible-Worlds” etc. She was a good read while doing my dissertation.

    The topic of soul and spirit is where the theory of a VR world starts to break down for me for they are far more than a physical trigger or signal that can be seen/measured.

    Hope this helps with your pondering 🙂

    All the best,
    The Worldbuilding School

    1. Thanks for dropping by!
      I’m not sure the term “simulated reality” has any meaning if you apply it to organic entities but I do agree our brains abstract and present a representation of the world around us. I just touch on it here but in the other article go into more detail on how to interface organic brains (convincingly) into a simulation using higher abstraction layers (i.e., you wouldn’t necessarily “jack in” at the peripheral sensory nerves, may be you come in somewhere in the middle of the visual cortex. Do you see these words on the screen, with all their component curves and lines or does the simulation just forward the word-meanings?) Nothings says you couldn’t run your interface to your synthetic entities at a higher level of abstraction as well, which would greatly simplify the simulation.


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