Determinism from the Perspective of the Simulation Argument

It’s been almost two years since I last wrote about Free Will vs Determinism. The argument is the standard one, that since everything in the universe is governed by physical laws, it is completely deterministic. However, because it is not possible to to simulate the entire universe, it is at the same time unpredictable, so we should act as if there is free will.

However, one obstacle stood in the way of that argument: Quantum randomness.

With true randomness, we cannot say that the universe is deterministic. But with the basis that everything is governed by natural laws, it makes equally no sense to assert the existence of free will. Because, if all the same random events occurred the same way, another “run” of the universe would have the exact same result.

Even when you are thinking in your head at this very moment that you have free will, what is really most likely happening is that chemical processes in your brain have led your conscience to make that decision. If the entire universe “restarted” with the exact same sequence of random events, you would make the exact same decision again.

The Simulation Argument.

This is where the argument gets interesting. There is a very scary paper written by philosopher Nick Bostrom called, “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?” It is scary because the implication, given a couple of premises, is that we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation. Not only that, but the argument posits that our simulators are themselves extremely likely to be in a simulation, and those simulators are likely too to be in a simulation, etc.

With the near certainty that we are in a simulation, determinism can only become stronger. You have probably heard of things called random number generators. A lot of these work by taking a seed number, and then running it through a specialized function over and over again, resulting in what is known as pseudorandom. These generating sequences that seem random but are completely deterministic, if you know where it started, i.e., the seed number and the algorithm.

This means that, providing our simulation ancestors, the beings who simulated our universe, are using similar ideas of random number generation, all the “random” quantum events we measure in our universe could actually be a completely determined sequence, perhaps by an algorithm so complex that it would be physically impossible to calculate from within this universe.

Of course, this is provided two premises:

  1. We are in a simulation.
  2. Our simulation could use pseudorandom number generation.

Premise 1 is actually very likely, from sheer numbers in the argument. It is Step 2 that is undecidable and for us to choose. If we accept it, this would imply our entire universe, including quantum events, is completely determined. And if we reject it, it would not rule out the possibility of total determinism either.


Given some invented definitions, here are the levels for free will vs determinism in the simulation framework:

  1. Total Free Will: Consciousness is special, i.e. not bound by physical laws. Free will comes from a higher source. (Question: What if this higher source is bound by physical laws in its universe?)
  2. Weak (Random) Free Will: Consciousness is not special, i.e. it is bound by physical laws. However, there are events in the universe that exhibit true randomness, so it is not fully deterministic.
  3. Weak (Random) Determinism: True randomness exists. However, given a specific set of outcomes of random events, the universe runs the same way.
  4. Total Determinism: True randomness does not exist, only pseudorandom exists. Thus, our universe will always run the same way under the same starting conditions.

One thought on “Determinism from the Perspective of the Simulation Argument”

  1. It is wrong deduce from Bostrom’s thesis that we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation. A) his premis supposes that humanity will survive and keep advancing long enough to reach his so-called post human stage B) we must assume that once the post human stage has been reached we will want to create these ancesteral simulations (this sounds like Tippler’s interpretaion of the resurrection of souls) C) it has to be assumed that we are not the original humanity but a simulation, but we could be the original… I think there are more chances that we are not living in a computer stimulation than that we are.
    Of your conclusions: 1) i find it hard to not imagine consciousness as being bound by physical laws, but, neither do I see what being bound by physical laws has to do with free will – isn’t free will really, what we can do within the physical and social, cultural world we are trapped in.
    The answer you are looking for is essentially paradoxical: we are either living in a computer or God made simulation or we aren’t, or the universe is merely deterministic because it can only followv one course… But, and here’s the paradox, we cannot possibly be certain of any of these premises unless we can abandon the universe and observe from outside of the paradigm, objectifying the complete paradigm. The uncertainty generated here we could call Absolute Uncertainty and the only honest way to deal with real uncertainty is with scepticism. We cannot know. Then, either enjoy the uncertainty by creating fictional fantasies, or ignore the impossible questions and concern yourself with the imagined certainty that we conceive our reality to be.
    Nietzsche, for example, was someone who couldn’t leave this fundamental uncertainty alone: he conceived the Eternal Return and lost his mind.


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