The nature of reality

Posted by – February 6, 2008

Some time ago, when spending a lot of time talking about things like these appeared to be a reasonable thing to do, a friend of mine said that

It’s important to distinguish between different meanings of the word “exist”. I realised recently that in the sentence “the world exists” I use the word the same way I would use it in “all the possible chess games exist.”

At first I didn’t quite understand what that meant, so I instinctively thought it didn’t mean much of anything. Here’s how I later made sense of it:

1) “All the possible chess games” are in this case obviously considered to have existed before they were played (some games haven’t even been played yet). They kind of emerge out of the possibility of them being played, or the space for them is created by the rules of chess.

2) But of course the rules themselves are just arbitrary information, and as such they too existed before they were actually spoken or written down. This is also true of, say, mathematical proofs: a proof is correct even before someone discovers it and checks it for correctness.

3) So there is really no difference between information existing and not existing, some of it is just modelled in our biological brains and some of it isn’t. For example, our biological brains carry a model of what we consider to be the reality around us.

4) A clarifying example: a computer simulation is just a deterministic process starting with some arbitrary state of information and ending with another arbitrary state of information. So the simulated thing was really “being simulated” just as much without the computer, because the states of information are just states of information. So we could extend the science fiction concept of our reality just being a simulation to there being no simulation and that the mere fact of everything being “describable” inevitably causes the world to “exist”.

5) According to this line of thought, it’s impossible to distinguish between the world “really existing” and the world being “merely describable”. What does that mean? Well, that’s what they call an epistemological question, but I think it means that the two things are actually the same thing.

If it’s impossible to know which of two situations is true, the situations are identical.

I think this is a reasonable and practical way to think about reality.

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