Research suggests that human brain has more switches than the entire internet. Each of the 125 trillion synapses that connect our 200 billion brain cells appears to have perhaps 1000 molecular scale switches. (ref 1)
Some areas of our brain take the input from our nerve cells and begin to process them. They pass through other processing areas that start to interpret the signals; this sequence of signals from an eye might show us that an object is moving for instance. Other areas deal with hearing or touch or smell. Most of these areas carry out their functions without imposing on our consciousness. At the top level, our brain presents a model of our environment to our conscious self. The conclusion of this would seem to be that we are living within a computer simulation: generated by our brains based on input from the senses around our bodies interacting with our environment. The question is, are we interacting with the computer simulation or are we the simulation itself?
Back in 2001 the Nick Bostrom speculated that scientific knowledge and computer power would at some time in the future increase sufficiently to build a simulation of the human brain in a computer (ref 2). That computer would also be able to build a sufficiently complete model of the universe that an individual simulated human brain would not be able to distinguish it from the real thing. The model would include not only one simulated person, but many, so that each ‘person’ had the true ‘experience’ of interacting with other ‘people’.
He reasoned that since the people who created this simulation would be likely to run a number of simulations (like our kids run lots of ‘Sims’ scenarios) “Then it could be the case that the vast majority of minds like ours do not belong to the original race but rather to people simulated by the advanced descendants of an original race.”
There are inherent assumptions that Bostom builds on: that our consciousness and ‘me-ness’ are simply emerging characteristics of the complex computer circuitry within our brain, and that science and technology will continue to advance until we understand and can model the brain operation. The reasoned conclusion is that if these assumptions are correct then you and I are simulated beings in a computer simulation.
If that is the case, then we might conclude that it is of little consequence to switch off a particular simulation, in the same way that we are quite happy to switch off our computer.
But what if an alternative view is correct, that ‘we’ are not the simulation itself? What if there is something about us that is more than an emergent property of a highly complex computer? What if there is a ‘me’ that transcends the ‘matter’ that makes up the computer in my head? What happens then if the computer is switched off? Do I cease to exist, or do I simply cease to interact with this particular computer?
The answer to that question lies beyond science and technology. We will have to look elsewhere for guidance.
2) Are you living in a computer simulation? Philosophical Quarterly (2003) Vol. 53, No 211, pp.243-255. (First Version: 2001)) Nick Bostrom
For more on this topic and others see The Big Picture- an honest examination of God, Science and Purpose