My father is really the source of my existentially curious side. Anyone who knows him is aware that he loves coming up with new theories about life, religion, history, and existence, and sometimes he’s got some amazing ideas. Sometimes I think he can be wrong.
For instance, when I was younger, my father once suggested that life is actually a computer simulation. He’s actually not the only person to think along these lines, and so the idea itself isn’t so far-fetched. However, the example he used to illustrate this idea couldn’t have been right. We had recently purchased an 8-bit Nintendo game system, and dad suggested that we might actually be like Mario, trying to achieve objectives in this life but it is not “real,” just a simulation. I knew there was something odd about this suggestion, though I was just a kid at the time and couldn’t put words to it exactly. However, my dad’s “Mario Hypothesis” actually can be used to illustrate problems with the idea that human minds are just mechanistic computers.
However, it might be better to start with an extremely simple illustration and work our way up from there. In high school chemistry class we used litmus paper to determine whether a substance was an acid or a base. When the substance is applied to the litmus paper, the paper turns either red or blue, indicating that the substance is either an acid or a base, respectively. However, no chemist would say that the litmus “knows” and “decides” whether a substance is an acid or a base. In fact, the litmus doesn’t know or decide anything. It just undergoes certain chemical processes in the presence of an acid and others when it is in the presence of a base, giving it a reddish or bluish hue. In fact, it wouldn’t make sense, on this model, to even say that the “purpose” of litmus is to indicate the pH of a substance. Litmus just is what it is, and does what it does. These properties just happen to have practical use for humans. Humans discovered these properties and decided to employ litmus for the purposes of determining pH.
Let’s move way up the ladder of complexity to a device like a calculator. When we punch in 2 + 2 = on the calculator, it displays the number 4. Since we’re humans and we have a strong strain of animism in us, many people would personify the calculator and say that the calculator “knows” that 2 + 2 = 4. Is that really true, though? The calculator really isn’t much different from the litmus paper. It simply reacts to inputs in a certain way based on its chemical and mechanical properties. It makes no sense to say that the calculator “knows” the math, just like it makes no sense to say the litmus paper “knows” that vinegar is an acid. It simply displays the number 4 because we have arranged the matter of a calculator in a way that is useful to us: namely, because we know that the processes inherent in calculators can help us do math.
The calculator’s display of 2 + 2 = 4 only makes sense to us because we have assigned meanings to those digits. If humans suddenly decided that 2 no longer signifies a number, but instead signifies water, and 4 now symbolizes mountains, the equation suddenly makes absolutely no coherent sense. Water plus water equals mountains? If a person made that statement, would we say that this person knows math? In other words, just like the color of the litmus paper, the digits on the screen of a calculator only have meaning inasmuch as humans give them meaning.
So now let’s move up to Mario. Applying this same reasoning, “Mario” doesn’t actually exist anywhere: not in the game cartridge, not in the processor of the Nintendo system, not in the wires, not on the screen. Mario isn’t in the game cartridge because it’s just a circuit board with properties that are programmed to give certain outputs when we give it certain inputs. Mario isn’t in the wires because the wires are just copper wire with electrons flowing through them. We can search all through the system with a microscope to find Mario but we just won’t find him. What we see as Mario is actually a collection of brightly colored pixels on a television screen with nothing binding them all together. Individual pixels are simply programmed to display whatever color they receive from electronic signals (I’m not an engineer, but you get my point).
The game system is just like the litmus paper and the calculator. Mario doesn’t have any intrinsic properties that bind together all the different pixels and signals that make up what we know as Mario. He only “becomes” Mario when humans see a certain pattern on the screen. Humans then decide that the red, brown, and flesh-colored pixels in a certain arrangement are meaningful and important in the context of the game, and the game is simply the result of humans deciding they want to reach certain objectives using the game system. Presumably, humans could suddenly decide that those pixels are no longer important, and they are more concerned with an arbitrary spot in the blue sky. Similarly, humans might decide that the objective of the game is no longer to find the real princess, but to make Mario fall off the first cliff he comes to over and over again for as many hours as we can stand it. The game would just chug along like it was programmed to in either case. Mario and the game are just human constructs that we apply to certain arrangements of matter – in this case, a game system and a television.
This is what I previously referred to as the problem of “intentionality.” Humans perceive certain pixels on a screen and decide to give meaning to them by calling them “Mario.” It means that we are selecting a certain pattern out of seemingly infinite chains of causation (the pixels on the screen rather than the electricity in the game system, the power plants that cause the electricity, the fossil fuels that run the power plants, the organic material that led to the fossil fuels, etc. etc. etc. all the way up to the Big Bang) and giving them meaning above and beyond their material existence. Intentionality is a big problem for materialism because if our minds were just made of matter that has no meaning, then we don’t have any tools to build meaning to begin with. It would just be bootstrapping out of nothing.
It is for these reasons that some (including myself) have concluded that no matter how lifelike our computers and robots get, any meaning or existence they have can only be in relation to humans who give them meaning. Similarly, our minds cannot work simply like material computers. What a computer does can seem similar to what our minds do (by appearing to do calculations, by having “memory,” by “learning,” etc.) but it is only by virtue of humans applying meaning to them. On this view, “meaning” really is something above and beyond material properties.
So I’m sorry dad, but we can’t be like Mario, because Mario only exists in our minds. The Mario Hypothesis must be false. For more information about the paradoxes of intentionality and computation, read this clever thought experiment by John Searle.