Human language did not evolve to enable clear discussion of the subtle nature of physical or experiential reality, let alone of the new realities that advanced technology seems likely to give rise to. Seemingly basic terms like “existence” are OK for everyday discourse about ordinary life, but when one considers them in the context of potential phenomena like mind uploading and simulated universes, they begin to seem unacceptably fuzzy. This article describes part of the author’s quest to craft a clear conceptual vocabulary for discussing the nature of reality, now and after the next decades and centuries of technological advancement. While futurist in thrust, it also hits on some age-old philosophical issues.
Let us begin with a piece of philosophy that should be well known to most transhumanists. Ten years ago Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom put forward his “Simulation Argument”, involving a tripartite disjunction of which each of the premises seems prima facie to be reasonable. The main thrust of his argument is to convince you that at least one of the following premises must be true:
(1) The human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a posthuman stage.
(2) Any posthuman civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history (or variations thereof).
(3) We are almost certainly living in a computer simulation.
While the focus on futuristic implications is new, the underlying machinery of this argument is ancient and has been thoroughly examined in the West from the times of Parmenides and Plato, and in the East by the ancient scholars and original authors of the Vedas. Plato’s parable of the cave is in essence no different from the simulation argument.
These are all articulations of the mind-body problem. What exists in the mind, what exists outside of the mind? In the West, this tradition survived intact through the Dark Ages and reemerged fully formed in French philosopher René Descartes’ program of radical doubt. Even if you knew you were simulated and everything was just a phantasm arising in your brain or a simulated central processing unit, you could still be absolutely sure of your own existence.
The perspective I advocate here is that these matters can be made clearer by carefully articulating existence and being as two separate concepts. Natural languages like English tend not to draw such a distinction clearly; but I argue that if we wish to understand our reality as technology modifies it in the next century, such a distinction will be quite valuable. For example, I contend that if one draws this distinction carefully, the possibility of assuming you are being simulated becomes at once silly and useless.
We must, I suggest, draw a distinction between the property of being and the property of existing. The great Austrian thinker Ludwig Wittgenstein was on the right course when he said in the beginning of his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus that the world is everything that is the case. But things can be the case whether they exist or not, and this is what we must be clear about.
An Excursion into Ontology
In order to clarify this business of existence and being, it will first be necessary to take a brief excursion into the realm of ontology. I hope you enjoy the ride!
The center of the difficulty regarding existence and being lies in how we conceive the world. Were there not a controversy about the ontological status of the external world, this distinction would hardly be interesting at all. Were it unequivocally the case that we could logically separate object and subject, then the difference between existing actually in the outside world and existing only as imagination in the subjective realm would be obvious and an uninteresting problem of philosophy.
However, this is manifestly not the case. Descartes attempted to separate mind from matter, and if this ontology held philosophical water the difference between being and existing would be plain as day. Something would exist if it was composed of matter and had a corresponding representation in the mind, and would merely ‘be’ if it only had subsistence in the mind as an imagined entity.
Unfortunately for those who relish simplicity, Descartes’ difference is vulnerable to an insurmountable argument – the interaction problem. If mind and matter are two different substances, fundamentally composed of different kinds of things, they would be unable to influence one another lest they be the same substance, for if something can interact with something else it must be of the same kind. If matter can affect it, then it must be matter as well. I am not willing, like Descartes’ fellow Frenchman Nicolas Malebranche, to invoke God as the correct reply to the interaction problem as this approach has the least possible explanatory power. Once God is admitted into ontology, logic is no longer necessary.
Since we reject the dual substance hypothesis and by extension, any hypothesis including more than two substances, we are left with either a one-substance ontology or a zero-substance ontology. Since I am unable to even attempt to make sense of a zero-substance ontology but will not assert that such a sense-making is impossible, the remainder of this paper will assume a monistic, or single-substance ontology as a viable means of exploring the distinction between being and existing.
Immanuel Kant, Arthur Schopenhauer, and the Hindu and Jain traditions draw distinctions between realms of experience. There is one substance, matter, and consciousness somehow subsists within it. Baruch Spinoza called this the ‘two-worlds’ concept and using his terminology, it would be called attributes of God, which he identified with the single substance, though here I will refer to it simply as ‘matter’.
Spinoza’s two worlds are Mental and Physical and for him, infinite other attributes exist as well. The Hindus called these two worlds the Brahman and the Atman, Brahman being the universal, eternal substance while the Atman is the individual principle, the self that is conceived of as separate from the rest of Brahman.
Kant, followed by Schopenhauer, delineated the two realms as the ‘noumenal’ and the ‘phenomenal.’ The Noumenon is the world of ‘things-in-themselves,’ and the Phenomenon is the world we experience mentally through perception and sensation. The relationship between these worlds is one of, as Scottish philosopher David Hume would say, inference.
There is some physical interaction between the matter that composes our bodies, and the matter that composes the rest of the Brahman, or Noumenon, and the interaction brings this information – that is, the existence of difference over local space and time – to our physical brain which then does its best to infer the location, properties, motion and trajectory of the various objects that interact with our sensory organs.
There is no absolute standard of measure between the Noumenon and our perceptions of it. Ultimately the only way to evaluate the degree of correspondence between the two worlds is Darwinian survivability. It’s ostensibly the case that those organisms with the more information-rich perceptions of the necessarily ambiguous external stimuli will better be able to make decisions about how to move their bodies through the Noumenon, with a resultant hereditary advantage.
So – wending back toward our primary point — what does all this have to with being and existing? It is necessary to establish the ontology we will be assuming when making the distinction. We have to be very clear when we are defining our terms, banishing as much ambiguity as possible. Wittgenstein was very clear in his belief that most of philosophy has been ‘bewitched’ by language, because words are signs that can be interpreted in multiple ways by different people in different contexts. It is thus difficult to rid ourselves of this Anekantavada of language (a Jain concept holding that no single version of truth can prevail since truth can be perceived in so many different ways) – but if we are clear about our ontology, it becomes much easier to draw the distinctions one wants.
Distinguishing Existence from Being
So what do I mean by existence versus being?
‘Being’ as I articulate it, is the more restricting term — referring to a noumenal object that subsists only within the brain of one or more subjects (this is not our final definition but must be preliminarily established). Something said to have being exists as imagination, that is, the actual physical brain-states in the various subjects that represent this object. For example, suppose we are thinking of a gumball with a diameter of exactly seven light years. Whether or not this object exists in the technical sense to be introduced later is unknown given an infinite universe, though we will assume that it does not in fact have existence. So what actually exists when we speak of this gumball? There are certain physical objects in the brain that are identical with this concept, and it is these objects that exist.
Moving from ‘being’ to ‘existing’ is much more difficult than it seems at first. At this point it is tempting to simply assert that if something ‘exists’ and has ‘being,’ than it must exist independently from brain-states. But since we have established that the only way we know about the Brahman, or the thing-in-itself is through inference, it is only through these brain-states that we know about anything, so trying to claim that something exists if it exists as a brain-state and also as a noumenal object is incoherent because it is only through brain-states that we are aware of noumenal objects to begin with.
We have assumed an external world and we have assumed we can infer things about it based on the physical interaction between it and our sensory organs. So how can we now draw a distinction between ‘being’ and ‘existence’?
The beginnings of an answer come from Jain philosophy. The idea of Anekantavada (literally “no-one-perspective-ism”), that there are multiple view-points into the world which is infinite, hence infinite views can be legitimate at any point. Each is no more valid than the next and only through combining them can we approach closer to the truth. We can use this to establish that the ‘being’ of fictional or imaginary objects can be moved from brain to brain through the Noumenon by means of noumenal manipulation – that is, speaking and writing or converting stored information within one brain into the proper transmission protocol to move it into another brain.
We can use language (written, spoken or signed), facial expression, body posture, gestures, etc., as the means of transmission from human to human, and basic information can even be transmitted from human to some animals, especially dogs. So if someone comes up with an idea like our galactic gumball, they can communicate this to other subjects, who will then have established within their own brains physical objects that are within their unique neural configuration identical with that idea.
We must, at this point, be somewhat agnostic as to the exact nature of this identity, though it seems certain that it is [at least as some precisely constructed network neurons with very particular configurations of receptors and ion channels distributed over the surface and inner membranes of these neurons along with exact amounts of ions, proteins, enzymes and other metabolic biochemicals and the exact time-dependent electric potential across those membranes]. The bracketed sentence will be assumed when we speak of neural objects identical with some noumenal object.
Parenthetically, this leads to an interesting sub-conjecture: that if we identify noumenal objects with this kind of neural object, the amounts involved will be enormous owing to the assumed infinite or at least obviously preposterously large number of possible noumenal objects that even a brain with as many possible neural objects as is conjectured to exist in a human brain (100 billion neurons times the 7000 average synapses on each, ignoring the variability in the analogue strength of each synaptic connection, taking into account the number of possible arrangements of these synapses as a path through the brain, this would be 7.0 x 10^14!) can conceive of. Though one should hardly expect one brain to represent the whole of the universe, it is conceivable that enough brains could; we currently have over six billion.
So we now cut right to what our definition of existing must be. An object can be said to ‘exist’ and not merely ‘be’ if it is such that it is capable of causing a particular brain object (i.e. “neurological pattern”) to occur in the absence of any communication between subjects.
I believe this is a good conceptual definition of existence — but I must admit that it is far from a real-world metric that can be used to cut the existing from the being. It is eminently possible that people have erroneous perceptions, hallucinations, confabulations, etc. Someone can be walking alone in a field and see a mountain of gold; it exists for him since it caused a particular brain object to occur inside him which was not communicated to him by someone else. Now if he goes home and tells his wife that he saw a golden mountain, the idea for a golden mountain will not subsist in his wife, for whom it has being but so far not existence.
Existence is a property that must be inferred. Once again, it is the same as the external world as a whole. The only real way we have to deal with this is the scientific method – peer review and reproducibility are the foundations of science. Being and existence then are two aspects of the same thing, and we are left where we began, with Spinoza’s two worlds. It is up to us to reconcile them through experimental Anekantavada.
Existence, Being and the Simulation Argument
In this perspective, whether we are being simulated, living chained in a cave observing only shadows or being constantly tricked by an evil genius or even a deity, none of that matters. Those are all elaborate metaphors for the unknown realm beyond the mind, the realm we approach as an asymptote, apparently. Whether we reach this limit of absolute reality is not something we can assume at this point, but if we continue working hard and being honest with the data we collect, I am confident that one day our approach will bring us close enough to that infinite line to reach out and touch it.
In other words, Bostrom’s Simulation Argument is mostly irrelevant – it doesn’t address the core issue. If our universe was created by some alien programmer as part of a third-grade class project, that means something – if there is some way for us to observe or interact with that programmer, and learn new things about our universe or his. But if there’s no way to observe the putative “meta level” in which the creation of our universe as a simulation was performed, then the hypothesis of the universe as a simulation has no real significance. It doesn’t matter if we call the particles and fields in terms of which science models our world “simulation” or “physical reality.” What matters is whether the observations we make as individuals – from which we infer the validity of scientific models – are existent in an intersubjective sense or not (rather than merely being, in our subjective reality). Science is a way of validating the presence of existence rather than mere being – an imperfect and uncertain way, perhaps, but the best way we have. Whether our world is a “simulation” or not is a chimerical question, the point is whether it is intersubjectively existent.