On Philosophy

August 2, 2007

The Functional Properties Of Simulated Worlds

Filed under: Metaphysics — Peter @ 12:00 am

Under normal circumstances there is no reason to object to the idea that simulated objects can have the same properties as real objects, and thus that simulated worlds can embody all the same functional properties as the real world. For example, let us suppose that a real calculator has the functional property of using algorithm A for addition. It has this functional property as the result of its parts having the right causal connections to each other. A simulated version of this calculator would also implement algorithm A for addition. Although its “parts” would really be data in the software doing the simulation they would still have the same pattern of causal relationships to each other, and hence would have all the same functional properties.

Thus the real world and a copy of it running in software have the same functional properties. Let us suppose that the simulation software running such a world works internally by transforming a block of data that represents the contents of the world from one configuration into another over and over again, thus making the simulation “run”. Consider then another piece of software. This one also transforms a similar block of data over and over again, but it does so randomly (truly randomly, not pseudo-randomly). Now, by an extremely unlikely coincidence, let us suppose that the states of these blocks of data, the one that represents the simulated world and the one being transformed randomly, are identical (for the entire time that the simulation is run). The question then arises, does the data brought about randomly have the same functional properties as the data representing the simulated world? Or, more to the point, is there anything it is to be like to exist as part of that data?

The intuitive response is to say that no, it doesn’t have the same functional properties, because the right causal connections aren’t present. In the simulated world the software that is transforming the data follows certain rules, and those rules create the necessary causal relations. In the case of the software altering the data randomly the software does not create those relations, there is no sense in which the state of the data at one time contributed to the state of the data at future times, and so they were completely unrelated.

This answer, regardless of whether it is right or wrong, is not acceptable. It makes causation between different data states dependant on some external force, namely whether the software really is pushing the data around following the appropriate rules or not. But we can’t make that the standard for whether causal relationships hold because then we would have no way to know whether causal relationships hold in this universe. It doesn’t make sense to talk about something “outside” of our universe making events turn out one way instead of another. No, when it comes to our universe we accept that causation is a description of the patterns we find in events, not some additional force that pushes events one way or another. This is the only reasonable position we can take towards causation without running into certain epistemological dilemmas. Thus, by extension, it would seem that whether or not the right causal relationships obtain between various states of the data is dependant only on the existence of patterns in the state of the data over time. And since the data went through the same sequence of states in both cases then we can describe both of them using the same causal description, and hence the same functional properties must hold in both.

Which is not to say that the original assessment was completely off base. What we have here is perhaps two different perspectives on the data. Obviously the software has certain causal dispositions, and the simulation software and the random software differ in their causal dispositions, despite the fact that on rare occasions they may behave identically. This is because the parts that determine their operation participate in more general patterns, and from those we infer that the software does not necessarily behave in the same way. So our intuition that the data associated with the simulation program had the right causal connections and that the one associated with the random program didn’t was really an intuition about the software, one piece of software does have the right causal relationships while the other doesn’t. However, we can also look at the data by itself. The data by itself also has certain regular patterns, which might be described as causal relationships. And these relationships of course depend only on what the data is, not how it was generated.

Now from our external point of view we have a very different attitude about the progression of these two programs. In the case of the simulation we are quite sure that the regularities expressed so far in the data will continue to hold. Our surety is based on our surety that the causal relationships embodied in the program creating those regularities will hold. In contrast, while observing the progress of the random program we will be quite surprised that patterns exist, and we will expect those patterns to be broken eventually. But from “inside” such a simulation things are the same. There is no information about the process manipulating the data, and so an inhabitant of such a simulation will be in exactly the same situation we are, specifically we have no evidence that the causal regularities we have so far observed will in fact continue. Which is one more reason to believe that whether the program generating the data is likely or unlikely to continue creating the same patterns that have so far been observed makes no difference to the functional properties of the data (not the software), since we are in the same position as an observer inside the data, of not being able to know how likely the same patterns are to continue, and since we can’t know obviously it doesn’t make a difference to the current functional properties of the universe (since if it did make a difference then we could know, via that difference, how likely it is the patterns we have observed so far will continue to hold).


  1. Intriguing, but aren’t you just collapsing functionalism into behaviorism?

    The fact that we can’t see causality is a real epistemic limitation, but I don’t think it’s appropriate to say causation doesn’t exist.

    I’m also not sure how to square this with the Chinese room stuff. I forget your stance on the particulars there, but surely you’ll agree that a chatbot like Eliza is not “conscious” the same way that a crappy psychologist is, even if they produce the same output…

    Comment by Carl — August 2, 2007 @ 12:19 am

  2. see: https://onphilosophy.wordpress.com/2007/05/18/functional-facts-are-fundamental/
    behavorial facts are a kind of functional fact, but not the only functional fact. But what is it that I have said here that has anythign to do with behaviorism. Nothing in the above touches upon whether it is the internal state and its operation or the external connections alone of the brain which is important for consciousness.

    Since you insist that causation exists as a seperate entity the burdon of proof is on you. Prove that causation exists as more that a description of regularities. I think you will find that you can’t (no one has been able to so far). Thus we conclude that causation doesn’t exist except as a description of regularities. This is also the only reasonable way to avoid the problem of induction. See also: https://onphilosophy.wordpress.com/2007/05/21/natural-law/

    Comment by Peter — August 2, 2007 @ 12:29 am

  3. Yes, I remember your piece on natural law. I disagreed with it then too, but I still don’t have a satisfactory rebuttal worked out. All I can say for now, is that your system seems to imply that the persistence of regularities is complete coincidence. Surely there must be something outside the system that accounts for these regularities and “forces” them to persist? Speaking ontologically, not epistemically, can it really be that there is no compulsion in the universe?

    Also, I understand that this piece isn’t about the theory of mind, but I do think that what you’re saying here is relevant to the theory of mind. Hidden variables and internal states do make the difference between a real computation and a coincidence that just happens to give the right answer. I have been toying with a definition of computation in its most general sense. My current version is that it is, “the utilization of the fact that a certain observable system (typically a physical system) is law governed to make reliable inferences about another law governed system (typically mathematics).” If we think of the brain as a computer and the mind as its computation, then we must also believe to the extent that the brain is working, there is a reliability to its internal transformations (though perhaps not a total determinism). If, however, all that matters is external behavior in deciding whether or not something is a computer, not the reliability of the mechanism, then likewise, the presence or absence of consciousness is not dependent on the existence of proper causal correlations, etc., which makes chatbot conscious…

    Comment by Carl — August 2, 2007 @ 1:30 am

  4. Functionalism is a mere chimera. I’ve debated that inside out over several weeks with a friend who favours functionalism. He’s never been able to show me where the function is – or rather it can be everywhere and nowhere depending on what the writer is trying to demonstrate. Rather convenient but hardly a rational approach to reality description.

    Also, I am not sure you are right to say:

    “No, when it comes to our universe we accept that causation is a description of the patterns we find in events, not some additional force that pushes events one way or another.”

    I think causation is indeed force (gravity, elctromagnetic etc) which in turn reduces down to particle exchanges or similar. I think the old Humean problem with causation relates back to when we saw one billiard ball hit another – yes one moved but we never saw the cause. But now we know at the sub-atomic level various particle exchanges are taking place in accordance with the laws of physics. It is the exchange which constitutes the causation – and we do “see” the exchange. The exchanges create motion and other causal phenomena. The situation before was “x hits y and y – for some reason (the cause we cannot see) – moves”. But now the situation is more like “x approaches y, moves within force field of y causing particle z to transfer from x to Y in accordance with law k which means that y then moves in accordance with law p. ” The laws themselves are still a puzzle but it is clear that the particle transfers are the causal agents. The issue then is not how pieces on the chess board can move, but why the rules of chess are such and such rather than such and such.

    Regarding simulations, this seems a rather arid approach to me. The world – even the world of a calculator – is not the world of software. I’ve just been reading about neutrinos, how they superimpose on each – I’m not sure how one would simulate that and other phenomena within software.
    I think it’s just wild speculation to start talking about how we would feel about being caught up in some simulation. in the final analysis there is no way we could simulate consciousness through software.

    Comment by field — August 2, 2007 @ 11:01 am

  5. Well Carl, I think your search for compulsion within the universe is a misguided effort. Intuitively of course we all want to find causes, things that make things as they are. But causation is a phenomena within the universe, a relationship between its parts. So it is simply misguided (a pseudo problem if you will) to try to find such a force acting on the universe as a whole, from ouside it, so to speak.

    “Hidden variables and internal states do make the difference between a real computation and a coincidence that just happens to give the right answer.” indeed they do, and nothing I have said denys that. Note “It has this functional property as the result of its parts having the right causal connections to each other.” that would be its internal parts, its internal operation, in which hidden variables and such do make a difference.

    Comment by Peter — August 2, 2007 @ 11:28 am

  6. Physical laws would appear to be a “force” acting on the universe as whole – whether from “outside” is a moot but probably meaningless question. They certainly seem to be obeyed consistently across the cosmos.

    Comment by field — August 2, 2007 @ 4:03 pm

  7. Yeah, um, you really are misunderstanding the central issues.

    Comment by Peter — August 2, 2007 @ 4:19 pm

  8. I think I understand THE central issues, just not your central issues.

    You seem to be saying

    1. You could have a structured simulation of a real situation and a random simulation.

    2. The structured and random simulations could coincide in a state of some kind (seems pretty unlikely to me, unless we are talking about very simple simulations).

    3. You then seem to talk as though there is a conscious being inside the structured and random simulations and you speculate about how they would think and feel about what’s going on.

    My view is they wouldn’t have long to think about it. If the random simulation has different (simulated) causal antecedents it will diverge from the structured simulation in an instant. This is unless we are talking about very simple patterns, but then conscious beings don’t experience very simple patterns – they experience incredibly complex patterns.

    With something like weather modelling, you coudl have something like what you suggest. if you simulated real weather using known weather systems you can get a good simulation. But using random systems you could end up with the same state – exactly the same temperatures in all the weather stations on the globe. If you had enough random programmes going you would be almost bound to come up with the same figures. But because they had different causal antecedents, the resemblance would be fleeting.

    If this is a thought experiment, it doesn’t look to me like it’s going to be very fruitful.

    Comment by field — August 2, 2007 @ 5:59 pm

  9. The thought experiment is to consider what would be the case supposing that such software existed that could simulate an entire world and that they did coincide. The fact that it is unlikely is besides the point. If you can’t understand why we consider such situations in order to exercise and test our philosophical positions then there is no point in trying to contribute. The same goes if you don’t understand the ideas that I am exercising here.

    Comment by Peter — August 2, 2007 @ 6:11 pm

  10. It’s not at all beside the point – it is the point.

    I think thought experiments can be valid – the Chinese room for instance. But there is nothing in that which is inherently impossible.

    I feel this is setting up a situation which is bound to lead to misconceptions.

    Comment by field — August 3, 2007 @ 1:28 am

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