Monday, November 18, 2013

the problem with the simulation hypothesis

Are we living inside a simulation? This was a question posed and tentatively answered by UK philosopher Nick Bostrom, who famously contended that it would be reasonable to suppose that we are, in fact, merely sentient programs navigating a simulated universe (see here).

But does this mean there's no such thing as a real reality? Not at all. However many universes you posit, there must always be some larger, unifying context in which those universes are nestled, like eggs in an all-containing egg carton. Whether you envision multiple universes as sitting side-by-side, or as nestled within each other like the layers of an onion, the fact remains that there can only be one overarching reality that contains everything. As thought-experiments go, this one's a bit of a no-brainer.

So even if we're sentient simulations, living out our vain little lives, this doesn't change the fact that there's only one reality. If we do turn out to be simulations, I don't see how that would affect my life, either. Would my life suddenly become devoid of purpose? Would such a realization cause me to contemplate suicide? No. Not at all. I'd continue to bumble through my everyday existence, secure in the knowledge that, even if I'm a simulation, I'm a simulation that exists.

And how is that state of affairs all that different from any number of ancient philosophical and religious insights? Plato's analogy of the cave, for example, claims that the human condition is a benighted one: we traffic in shadows without understanding that there's a deeper, more significant, more real reality—the reality bathed in light. Hinduism's other-worldly focus sometimes reads this phenomenal world as maya, or illusion (NB: it would be a grave misconstrual of Hinduism to say that maya simply means illusion). Buddhism also posits that the basic human condition is one of avidya, or blindness to/ignorance of the actual nature of reality. What is the simulation hypothesis, then, but another way of saying that our existence is a frail, shadowy thing compared to the reality inhabited by the cosmic programmers?

(And who is to say that those programmers aren't themselves programs inside an even greater reality? And where does that progression end?)



Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I think we're living in dissimulation.

Jeffery Hodges

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Malcolm Pollack said...

For me, it's all about stimulation.