Fourth in a series about the intersection between religion and technology. The previous essay is here.
Although it may not be immediately obvious, a consequential, load-bearing part of Bostrom’s argument that we are likely to exist within a simulation, is the question of motivation. Solving the why of whether we might be simulated is at least as important as the how. It potentially increases to a substantial extent our total explanatory expenditure if we want to justify belief in both an unreal universe and a real one. We are now required to explain both how our existence might be founded in the existence of a more fundamental level of reality, and why our reality would be generated by that one. The stronger the “why,” the less excess epistemological expense.
This is presumably why Bostrom assumes our simulators to be our own descendants, rather than exercising his imagination toward more fanciful scenarios. Not only do we think it likely that our descendants will exist one day, we can also easily attribute to them motivations similar to the ones that motivate us now to create our own, more crude and less convincing simulations. For instance, we now play video games, featuring simulated virtual realities, for entertainment. Our descendants might well do the same.
It has not been a part of many recent larger philosophical conversations, but the possible unrealness of the universe was once a major topic within philosophy. It used to be, however, that when people wanted to question reality, they turned not to computers, but to dreams. The pivotal philosopher and mathematician René Descartes’s most famous work of philosophy, Meditations on First Philosophy, begins with the author’s attempt to doubt all things dubitable. In this task, he is greatly assisted by the phenomena of dreams, which seem so real in the moment we are experiencing them, but which reveal themselves as momentary phantasms at the moment of awakening. If I do not know I am dreaming when I am dreaming, so runs the argument, how do I know I am awake when I am awake?
As it turns out, many of the odd bugaboos at the far outskirts of philosophy have their probable origins—or at least their easy analogs—in the world of dreams. For example, consider solipsism, the idea that only one real person actually exists in the universe, that everything else is an illusion created by unknown agency, and for unknown reasons, solely for the benefit of that one person (I must assume, as I write this, that the one real person is me, but you the reader, given that you exist, must picture that one real person as you).
Actual belief in solipsism is generally considered signs of a mental illness, and the prima facie refutation of it is simple: It is so much more complex and convoluted to make up an explanation of why there should seem to be a real external world, complete with other people acting independently, than it is to just accept that there is one. But how has such a notion entered our minds in the first place? Where did such a far-fetched scenario originate?
There is a milder version of the solipsistic fantasy in the 1998 movie The Truman Show, where the hero is, if not exactly the one real person in a world of figments, the one genuine person in a world in which everyone else is an actor (the motivation in this case being the entertainment of a larger, unseen, and external audience). But we all encounter a stronger version of solipsistic experience nightly, when we sleep and dream. Each night we inhabit a universe that seems to us, convincingly at the time, to have a wealth of external people and places in it. But all of those people and places are created inside our brains solely for the benefit of the dreamer. They may be copied from, or inspired by, real and external things and persons, but they do not possess their own independent existence.
In the modern world, we can place an additional, familiar experience of a solipsistic reality next to that of the dream: the single-player video game. In a typical game, you control the movements and actions of a player character around a simulated world, which is often filled with a wide variety of non-player characters (NPCs). Some of these NPCs may be friendly and helpful, others are enemies who must be defeated to advance in the game, but all of them are mere simulations, animated solely by the computer—except the player character. The player character is the only one who has actual free will of any sort, the only one with any type of real consciousness (borrowed, of course, from the actual player).
To put a fine point on it, this is not as much a solipsistic experience for the player, who is aware of the wider reality of the world outside the game, as it is for the player character, who, despite all appearances, is unique within his or her own simulated reality. And just as the assault upon our own sense of reality in the case of the dream comes less from the suspicion that we might be dreaming now (there are convincing ways to demonstrate we are not) and more from the suspicion that our own accepted reality might be something analogous to a dream (i.e., the dream of some entity from some deeper reality), so too, in the case of the video game player, existential doubt is raised not because we cannot distinguish between playing the game and real life, but rather because what we accept as reality might actually be the super-advanced video game of some futuristic civilization. To borrow from our earlier example, what this proposes is not that I am Mr. A’s great-grandson, living in a future time, and playing the ancestor-simulation game, but that I am Mr. A-Prime, the player character within that game, to all appearances surrounded by persons like me, but in actuality alone in the cyberverse.
What about the objection that simulating your own universe is inherently impossible, because it would it would take all the resources of your universe to recreate itself? Here, the pioneering work of contemporary video games shows us the way forward: It is not necessary to simulate the entire universe, just the portion experienced by the player. A few locations can reliably imply a whole world without actually producing it.
For example, chances are, you have never personally been to outer space, so all of it could merely be a projected light show, for all you know. How many cities in how many countries have you visited? And how many locations in those cities have you explored in detail? By considering our world as a video game, rather than as a simulation, we can substantially reduce the technological power needed to make it a possibility.
The reason is that a video game is not (except in certain limited aspects) an actual simulation of reality. Instead, it is an emulation, a much simpler thing to achieve. Where a simulation seeks to duplicate the original, down to whatever fine level of detail is chosen, an emulation merely resembles the original, and only to the extent necessary to create the desired effect. One could conceptualize it as the difference between a “method” actor and a character actor. A method actor seeks to “become” the character she plays, she draws on her own experiences and memories, and experiences the character’s emotions as if they were her own. The character actor, on the other hand, may more typically draw on a stock set of techniques to make the audience believe in the reality of the character and the character’s emotions, without necessarily feeling them himself. Instead of remembering his dog’s death as a way to make himself cry, he might conceal an onion in his hand as a way to stimulate tears.
This might not be a completely accurate rendition of acting techniques, but it does offer a vivid way to conceptualize the difference between simulation and emulation. The simulation is the method actor, it actually “thinks” it is the real thing, and duplicates it down to the most fundamental details. The emulation is the character actor; it gives you just enough to maintain the illusion. Accordingly, the entire world is contained in a simulation, but an emulation contains only as much of the world as it needs.
The concept that we might be living in some kind of super-advanced video game might seem fantastically far-fetched, but is it? We do not yet have the technology to emulate virtual reality to the level of sensual detail demanded by reality-as-we-know-it, but based on current trends, we might get there sooner than one might expect. As recently as thirty years in the past, video games were flat, two-dimensional affairs, with blocky, pixelated graphics that were cartoonish at best, and that made robotic beeps and boops in place of realistic sounds. In just that short span of time, we have advanced to a point where popular games such as Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty take place in photorealistic three-dimensional rendering, with utterly believable sound, and relative freedom to explore a wide variety of locations. True, if you could dig under the surface of the ground, there would be no dirt below, and if you could travel out into space, there would be no other planets out there, and if you could drive between the cities you fight in, there would be no small towns along the way, but those are omissions you would never notice in an average game. Everything you're likely to see or interact with looks real. Given how quickly this current level of realism in computer games has developed, and how far it has traveled in just forty years or so, it's easy to imagine an utterly realistic, immersive video game environment, including smell, taste, and sensation, only twenty or thirty years in the future, rather than hundreds or thousands.
Two things make this video game scenario more achievable than a pure simulation. First, as mentioned above, it need not simulate an entire universe, nor even an entire planet. It just needs to emulate whatever you're experiencing at that given moment, a much smaller amount of invented data by several orders of magnitude. In other words, if our universe is a solipsistic, one-person video game, then it could be a whole lot smaller than it appears to be. Second, and more crucially, it does not need to achieve the simulation of consciousness, because the consciousness of the game character is borrowed from the player. You, the player, are the one who sees and (in our hypothetical future game) feels, and thinks and reacts and makes decisions.
This allows the creators of the game to defer the “hard problem of consciousness.” The hard problem was named thus by Australian philosopher of mind David Chalmers, who introduced the concept in a memorable talk delivered at the University of Arizona in 1994. The idea is that we still are unable to understand, assuming a purely physicalist world, why it is that we experience the world the way we do. Our brains are taking in what we now know to be a pure data stream. There is no such thing as direct apprehension of the outer world; instead, our sensory organs transmit information to us about the world around us in the form of electrical impulses. And yet, we experience them as sights, sounds, colors, and smells. Why does green look green? Why does warmth feel warm? Why is sensory experience so vivid? What is going on inside our brains that generates consciousness, mind, experience, and will? This is the hard problem, and whether or not a computer can “solve” it is still an article of faith.
A video game, however, does not invent or create a human being, a human being’s soul, or a human being’s mind and consciousness. It just allows a preexisting human being to have a new and different experience. So all it really requires is the incremental technological advance of more convincing sensory immersion; not the big, and perhaps impossible breakthrough of producing a wholly constructed consciousness.
The chief animating force of the character—its will, we might say—is the player. The player decides if the character goes right or left, jumps off a platform or climbs a rope. It may be that the player’s will may fail in some cases to be efficacious—you choose to jump to a distant platform, but you misjudge the timing, and the character falls—but this does not mean the player is not generally in control. Similarly, the only consciousness possessed by the character is borrowed from you, the player.
Depending on your own personal susceptibility, and upon the immersive qualities of the game, it's possible that at points you may feel as if you actually are your character, living inside the game, and interacting with her world. Players have been known to physically flinch as objects come toward their characters. They identify with the character so strongly it as if their own consciousnesses have been transmitted into the game. When the character dies, however, the link to the player is severed.
Thus, if our world is a video game, it explains mind-body duality. My body is a part of our apparent reality, part of the internal programming of the game. Even complex things such as my mental state at any given moment might be part of the programming. But my free will and spark of consciousness are actually borrowed from the player.
Interestingly enough, video games can sometimes give us the illusion of free will and independent agency even within a framework of severely limited choices. Pac Man, the godfather of video game characters, exists solely within an inescapable labyrinth, where, in most locations, the player’s input is limited to choosing between one of two directions to move. Even among more modern games, while there are some, like Grand Theft Auto, that offer what is called an “open-ended universe” with a wide and under-determined palette of choices, there are others that unfold like a long movie with specific narrative stops and lengthy cut scenes, transitioning the player from one set of “fated” choices to another.
The philosophical importance of this relates to a theory called epiphenomenalism. In sum, this tongue-twister of a word is yet another attempt to reconcile what is apparently a purely physical universe with deterministic laws with our lived experience as conscious beings with free will and agency. Are our bodies just machines in motion, built of organic materials, but as purely bound by physical law as any robot? And if so, why do we feel as though we have souls? Epiphenomenalism, in its purest form, is the extreme, reductionist embrace of physicalist determinism. Everything, it claims, is matter in motion, solely. Consciousness is an epiphenomenon, a largely meaningless side effect of the complex circuitry of our minds. Free will is an illusion.
There is a theory that dreams are never experienced, but only remembered. We fall asleep, electricity crackling around in our brains triggers a host of random imagery, and when we wake up, our subconscious takes those raw materials, adds them to our current preoccupations, and adds a narrative storyline to hold it all together. This, in a nutshell, is epiphenomenalism, the random vagaries of the universe as reinterpreted by the human brain's indomitable need to impose narrative order. In the epiphenomenal world, we act first and make the decision second—or rather, we convince ourselves that we made a decision to act as an after-the-fact explanation.
As with solipsism, there is something prima facie ridiculous about this claim. Why would we have minds complex enough to generate the experience of consciousness if consciousness is doing no real work in the world? Why does it feel like I have free will if I lack it? Can any explanation of a complex, apparently willful activity, like writing a book or a poem, possibly be explained in simpler terms without recourse to internal mental states and agency than with them?
The intuitive answer is “no.” But consider an experience even more constrained and passive than the limited agency of a video game: watching a movie. The movie's ending has been determined long in advance of the audience member seeing it. The screenplay was written, the actors cast, the film shot and edited. All that has taken place months, perhaps even years, ago. Nothing is changing the plot now. And yet, as a viewer, it is hard to shake the persistent illusion that you are actually watching living events unfold.
There is an old chestnut told about a rural yokel watching his first film back during the dawn of the cinema. One scene of the movie titillatingly included a bevy of beauties changing clothes for a dip in the river. Right as they were about to undress, a long train passed between them and the camera. By the time the frame cleared, they were already frolicking in the water.
Our hero dutifully ponied up his nickles in order to watch the film again and again and again. Finally, the person screening the film had to ask: “Haven't you seen this film enough times yet, old timer?”
“Yes,” came the answer, “but one of these days, that train is bound to come late.”
We may pretend to a bit more sophistication than this, but we still find our hearts pounding at the exciting parts of our favorite movies, no matter how many times we've seen them. Will that astronaut make it home? Will the bomb be defused in time? Will the star-crossed lovers meet or miss each other? It doesn't matter if we know the answer; in the moment, we find ourselves convinced it could go either way.
Movies can also become integrated into our own lives, so that we experience them as part of the fabric of our personal histories—and not even just the personal history of watching them. For a personal example, I have a vivid memory of having once spent hours traveling down a one-lane country road, following a slow-moving chicken truck. I can remember the acrid unending stink of the chickens, and the frustration of being unable to pass, mile after mile, hour after hour. In reality, however, it never happened to me. It was a scene in a movie, and my mind wove the memory together from that scene as fleshed out by real memories I did have, of smelling a passing chicken truck and of traveling down a one-lane road behind a slow-moving vehicle.
Reading a good book is the ultimate in epiphenomenalism. Everything in the book is there because the writer put it there, and it is all fixed and fated before the reader first opens the cover. And yet for a reader of sufficient imagination, it can be as though one were inside the book, living as the characters live, experiencing as they experience, and perceiving their fixed and fated choices as freely willed actions.
So, at least in this sense, we have all experienced epiphenomenalism. But it is important to note that this only works as it does for two reasons: First, because the story itself is carefully and skillfully plotted and written, and second, because the consciousness of the reader is borrowed by the character.
1 Descartes, René, translated by Donald A. Cress, Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy, Fourth Edition, Hackett Publishing, Indianapolis 1999.
2 Thornton, Stephen P., “Solipsism and the Problem of Other Minds” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2017.
3 Khlentzos, Drew, "Challenges to Metaphysical Realism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
4 Osnes, Beth, Acting: An International Encyclopedia, ABC-CLIO, Santa Barbara, 2001.
5 Burkeman, Oliver, “Why can’t the world’s greatest minds solve the mystery of consciousness?” The Guardian, January 21, 2015.
6 Hefner D., Klimmt C., Vorderer P. “Identification with the Player Character as Determinant of Video Game Enjoyment.” In: Ma L., Rauterberg M., Nakatsu R. (eds) Entertainment Computing – ICEC 2007. Lecture Notes in Computer Science, vol 4740. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg, 2007.
7 Isbister, Katherine, How Games Move Us: Emotion by Design, MIT Press, Cambridge, 2016.
8 The fated choices and limited agency of video games is made an explicit philosophical topic in the 2009 MolleIndustria game, “Every Day the Same Dream.”
9 Robinson, William, "Epiphenomenalism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
10 Hobson, J. Allan, Dreaming: An Introduction to the Science of Sleep, Oxford University Press, New York, 2002.