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Timothy asks:

“Are we in a simulation?”

Though it is not strictly a logical approach to ask a philosophical question by reflecting on a feeling I do feel it helps to add meaning and perspective for the question. I wanted to ask what are the chances that we are living in a simulation. One reason I ask this is because of the infinitely unlikely possibility when looked at scientifically that I would ever be alive and yet less to be a human and in the era I could write this. Either this is like winning the lottery 1 million times in a row or something else is at work that I am alive, as a human (my opinion the best thing to be), in this era with all this technology. Thoughts?

Answer by Craig Skinner

Wonder at your existence, worry that you might be a simulant. Two philosophically interesting thoughts in one question. Also, it’s just fine if a question arises from a feeling.

Yes, your (or my, or my cat’s, or the squirrel in my garden’s) existence was hugely improbable. Had a different sperm out of the millions competing to penetrate the ovum been successful, had your father been away on business on the day you were conceived, you wouldnt exist. Also the huge fluke that your parents chose to mate with each other rather than with one of the many alternatives. And it’s mind boggling to think that not a single one of your millions of forebears over 3 billion years failed to reproduce. If just one of your myriad fishy ancestors had been eaten by a bigger fish when young, no you. And yes it is like a lottery. Just as somebody has to win however tiny the odds of success, so, given that you exist, you must be somebody, and somebody has to be you.

As to whether you (and I) are simulants, the answer is it’s a distinct possibility but it’s difficult to assign a probability. We assume there is a real world with intelligent beings in it. And your question is whether you could be a simulated being in a simulated world created by these real beings  who run the simulation on their supercomputers.

Clearly such technology is beyond current human capabilities. But given the pace of developments in computing and AI,  it may be  that future superintelligences, either augmented humans, or maybe more likely nonhuman following the singularity of the development of  smarter-than-us AIs which rapidly engineer ever-smarter successors  to reach unimaginable levels of intelligence.

And so the probability you seek depends on:

  1. Whether superintelligences will arise.
  2. Whether they would be interested in simulating earlier eras of human life (say as a game or for historical research), rather than ignoring or eliminating humans.
  3. Whether such simulations would be frequent (like our computer games played in most households).
  4. Whether simulated humans would be genuinely conscious (like you and me).

If the answers to these four questions are all yes, and they might be, then right now it’s far more likely that we exist in a future simulation than that we live in the real world in the 21st century.

So, in case we do, let’s tell the Simulater that we’re on to it:

Hey there BIGBRAIN, we know you’re there. And in case you had doubts, yes we are aware, we love, laugh, cry and care about our little lives down here. And dont get too smug up there in your real world, for you and your world could themselves just be simulations by yet higher orders of intelligence in the proper real world. Or maybe it’s simulations, rather than turtles, all the way.

Philip asked:

Is it possible that our innate sense of self, our egocentric outlook on the world, could be wrong? After all, our brains are never REALLY connected; so we cannot know for sure that our consciousness is REALLY separated by anything else than space and time. What I mean is; Is it possible that there could be only a single universal consciousness of which we are all a part? Could this REALLY be how it is? Or are there any philosophical arguments against this view? I haven’t been myself since I first had this thought and I’m dying for an answer. On the one hand it feels exhilarating, on the other hand it kinda kills one’s self image. What do you people think?

Timothy asked:

“Are we in a simulation?”

Though it is not strictly a logical approach to ask a philosophical question by reflecting on a feeling, I do feel it helps to add meaning and perspective for the question. I wanted to ask what the chances are we are living in a simulation? One reason I ask this is because of the infinitely unlikely possibility when looked at scientifically that I would ever be alive and less yet to be a human and in the era I could write this. Either this is like winning the lottery 1 Million times in a row or something else is at work that I am alive, as a human (my opinion the best thing to be), in this era with all this technology. Thoughts?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

It may not be obvious that these two questions are connected, but I immediately thought of the philosopher Arnold Zuboff. I first met Arnold back around 1974-5, when he gave a paper at Birkbeck College Philosophy Society. As President for that year, it was my duty to entertain invited guests at a local restaurant. Over dinner, he hit me with this question: How unlikely is it that I ever came into existence?

The question seems to smash science into a pile of rubble. There is something science cannot explain, why I am in the world. However, that’s not Zuboff’s view at all. A few months ago, I came across Arnold’s YouTube video, Finding Myself — And Undoing the Fear of Death as Annihilation. (The video is over two hours long so you might want to make some sandwiches.)

In his presentation, Zuboff argues from science — or, rather, from a materialist view of the brain and its relation to consciousness — to the remarkable conclusion that there is only ONE subject, who is you, me, and every other conscious being in the universe.

As Philip says, ‘a single universal consciousness of which we are all part’. This is actually a view put forward, more or less tentatively, by Thomas Nagel in The View From Nowhere. It’s really just a way of looking at the ‘I’ question. The statement ‘I am TN’ when uttered by TN, or the statement ‘I am GK’ when uttered by GK, are both true and non-tautological, because the ‘I’ in each case refers to a singular entity Nagel calls the ‘Objective Self’.

The million-dollar question is what exactly this means. If it’s just a way of looking at the self and consciousness, then nothing is implied about the actual world that we don’t already know. Human beings are separate individuals, just as before. In other words, we’re just talking about a way of assimilating the consequences of materialism, getting comfortable with the idea. However, as an argument against the fear of death — which is what Arnold wants this to be — I don’t feel the least bit comforted by the thought that human life will go on after my material body perishes. I just don’t see the thing that Arnold ‘sees’.

On the other hand, if all this is just a simulation, if the entities of physics are not the ultimate reality but merely, say, patterns on an alien mega-computer chip or hard drive, then that puts a whole different complexion on things. I could be the one singular consciousness playing the ‘video game’ of human life, pretending to be, first, one particular person, then another particular person, then another. In the words of Alan Watts (whom I’ve quoted far too many times) ‘We are all It’. The singular entity, according to Hindu philosophy as articulated in the Upanishads, plays the game of forgetting who It is, and pretending to be you, me and everyone else.

I get it. We’ve all experienced what it’s like to remember something you had forgotten. Imagine if all these lost memories came flooding back at once. You would know that you were not who you thought you were, an ‘ego in a bag of skin’ (Watts The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are) but rather everyone. But I don’t believe that either. What problem would it solve? And wouldn’t the inevitable consequence be that I was, after all, alone in the universe? Just pretending to be a person in relation to other persons? How sad would that be!

For now, I prefer to think that, yes, it is a remarkable fact that I exist, but this isn’t necessarily the same ‘remarkable fact’ as the fact that GK exists. I don’t know what are the conditions for the existence or non-existence of the thing I am now calling ‘I’. Maybe, if GK hadn’t existed, I would be someone else, or maybe not. That’s all one can say until we have more to go on.

Philo asked:

Does the following successfully establish a presumption of strong global atheism?

“Define strong global atheism as the view that there is no god. There is a presumption of strong global atheism because theists propose the addition of a supernatural entity (a god) to what is already known to exist (the natural world). That is, theists make an extraordinary claim, and extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. In the absence of such evidence, strong global atheism is warranted.”

Answer by Gershon Velvel

As a would-be atheist, I am the first to admit that there is a lot of stuff I don’t know. To paraphrase a remark I heard somewhere, ‘there are unknown unknowns’. It’s bad enough not knowing stuff, worse when you’re not even able to form a conception of the kind of thing that might be missing from your inventory of knowledge.

Not knowing what I don’t know in relation to the God question, I feel somewhat queasy about any argument based on evidence or the lack of it. By saying that ‘evidence is required’, you are issuing a challenge, a challenge you believe cannot be met. But you are leaving the larger claim completely unchallenged: the claim that the God-hypothesis makes some sort of sense. If it didn’t make sense, how do you even know what you are talking about?

First of all, we need to explore a relative side issue. Does the claim that some ‘supernatural entity’ exists require ‘extraordinary evidence’?

It depends. The supernatural entity in question might be rather small and localized: a poltergeist, for example. Admittedly, if someone makes the claim that they have a poltergeist in their home, you are going to want to sift the evidence very carefully indeed. But if you are in the living room, with all your fancy electronic equipment, and objects start flying across the room for no reason at all, there comes a point where you have to say that the evidence of something matching the description of ‘poltergeist’ is overwhelming.

Is this likely to happen? I don’t believe so. David Hume in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion makes the point that even with seemingly ‘overwhelming evidence’ you have to consider the balance of probability: the chance that science is fundamentally flawed, and the natural world is not all there is, versus the chance that someone has played a very clever trick or that you’re having a hallucination, or whatever. But then again, if poltergeists became a regular occurrence, that argument would start looking rather thin.

Back to God. There is a case for saying that the flaw in the evidential argument gives the theist all they need. If you allow that the notion of God as a supernatural entity makes sense, then you have to allow that there is some possible world (I mean logically possible not ‘nomologically possible’) in which God exists. God isn’t just some very powerful supernatural being. (That would be the Devil.) God is a necessary being. So far as anyone existing in that logically possible world — call it the God-world — is concerned, God exists in ‘all possible worlds’. By a simple application of modal logic, if God exists as a necessary being in some possible world, then God exists in all possible worlds. Ergo, God exists.

I’ve just offered a version of St Anselm’s ontological argument updated with contemporary possible world semantics. As it stands it sounds pretty convincing, doesn’t it? Intuitively, it just seems a mistake to concede that much to the theist. Then again, maybe you could resist the argument by tweaking your modal logic so that ‘all possible worlds’ means something different in different possible worlds (look up ‘possible worlds’ and ‘accessibility relations’) but that looks like desperation to me.

Milly asked:

Examine the view that our understanding of the universe is enhanced by our ability to distinguish appearance and reality.

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, right? Raj, who joined the class at the beginning of term looks a bit of a dimwit. He sits at the back of the class, never asks questions and his conversation consists mostly of monosyllables. Wrong! Turns out that Raj has an IQ of 187 (and you can continue the story from there).

It’s a truism that knowledge and understanding are advanced by questioning our preliminary judgements or the way things first appear to us. Looks can be deceptive. On the other hand, your initial judgement can be absolutely on target. That happens too. Human beings have a remarkable ability to suss things out swiftly, a valuable survival trait gifted to us by evolution. With people, especially. You can be right in your initial impression then subsequently get taken in by a web of lies because you didn’t trust your ‘intuition’.

The ability to distinguish appearance and reality is not confined to human beings. Mimicry as a method of self-defence is a widespread feature of the animal and insect worlds, which has led to an evolutionary arms race between the resourcefulness of the mimics and the ability of predators to see through the mimicry.

To the best of my knowledge, however, non-human animals do not have any ‘understanding of the universe’, so let’s put that aside.

Histories of Western philosophy identify the Presocratic philosophers, Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes as the first thinkers to question whether the world really is as it appears. Anaximenes held the remarkable view that every object in the universe is more or less compressed air. Despite appearances, you and I are compressed air. The chair you are sitting on is nothing but compressed air, and so on.

The Presocratics were the first thinkers to propose theories to explain the world and how it came to be the way it is. Up to that time, cosmogony, or accounts of how the universe came into being, was basically make-believe.

Here’s an example: once upon a time there was a male and a female god, who had sex and as a result the female god hatched a giant egg which cracked open revealing a fully formed world. — Dumb, right? However, as the Presocratic philosopher Xenophanes noted, the best theories of the time were ultimately not much more than guesswork. Human beings can never know what is really real, he thought. We entertain one another with more or less rational ‘accounts’ of the cosmos.

Fast forward 2500 years and we now have ways of testing at least some of these accounts. Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity predicted the bending of light by large gravitational fields, a prediction that was first confirmed in 1919. On the other hand, M-theory or ‘string theory’ as it’s known is still waiting a practical test and may never be capable of being verified or falsified.

So what?

So far so good — for science, anyway. Most theories are testable, and the ones that aren’t still provide a useful occupation for theoretical physicists who don’t like to bother with finicky experiments and are happy with just a whiteboard and coloured markers. (They are much cheaper to run than the ones who insist on having time on the Large Hadron Collider, so universities love them.)

In metaphysics, on the other hand, the appearance-reality distinction has proved catastrophic. Over the centuries, philosophers have proposed ever more elaborate ‘theories of everything’ or accounts of ‘ultimate reality’ — from Berkeley to Leibniz to Kant to Schopenhauer, Fichte and Hegel — none of which commands any credence except as an historical curiosity. As a result, metaphysics has become what exactly Kant feared, writing in 1781 in his Preface to the First Edition of Critique of Pure Reason:

“Time was when metaphysics was entitled the Queen of all the sciences; and if the will be taken for the deed, the pre-eminent importance of her accepted tasks gives her every right to this title of honour. Now, however, the changed fashion of the time brings her only scorn; a matron outcast and forsaken, she mourns like Hecuba: Modo maxima rerum, tot generis natisque potens — nunc trahor exul, inops.” [‘Greatest of all things by birth and power, now I am exiled and destitute.’]

Kant is as much to blame as any Western philosopher, with his hopelessly obscure theory of ‘Phenomena and Noumena’, which Hegel rejected only to replace it with an even more fantastical theory, according to which — despite all appearance to the contrary — ‘the Real is Rational and the Rational is the Real.’

Today, the term ‘metaphysics’ in English-speaking philosophy is largely used as a label for anything but the serious attempt to give an account of ultimate reality.

However, I happen to believe that it is possible to give an account of ultimate reality without invoking the appearance-reality distinction. If you want to know how, well that’s something I’m currently working on but you can start by looking at my blog Metaphysical Journal.

Kenny asked:

Could a non-believer in a god sin? 

Colin asked:

How would a philosopher evaluate Aleister Crowley: ‘Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law’? 

Answer by Gershon Velvel

What is a ‘sin’? I read in Wikipedia:

“In a religious context, sin is the act of transgression against divine law. Sin can also be viewed as any thought or action that endangers the ideal relationship between an individual and God; or as any diversion from the perceived ideal order for human living. ‘To sin’ has been defined from a Greek concordance as ‘to miss the mark’.”

What is wrong with that statement? — You might think that the last sentence doesn’t seem to fit here at all.

Aristotle in his Ethics gives the example of an archer aiming a bow to illustrate ethical judgement. Making correct judgements is something that requires care and the appropriate training. In archery, you have to allow for the distance of the target, the direction and strength of the wind and so on. In a competition, where you have the final shot and need to score at least a ‘9’ and your arrow only hits the ‘6’ ring, you’ve lost, and maybe your team lost too.

And so it is, the Greeks thought, with ethical judgements. When you need to take care, and you ‘miss the mark’, that’s something you might regret, possibly for a long time. The assumption here is that one is aiming for the mark. We want to do good, do the right thing.

It might be something seemingly trivial. The doughnuts in the supermarket you thought were jam doughnuts turned out to have a vanilla filling. No big deal, but suppose that this was a cancer patient’s dying request. Regardless of how your friend takes the disappointment, you castigate yourself for not taking sufficient care to look at the label first. The shelf said ‘doughnuts’, and you assumed ‘jam doughnuts’. And now it’s too late to make amends. Your lack of care is the thing that rankles. You feel guilt.

Not a ‘sin’? What would Jesus say? Callousness, not taking care, is the ultimate sin in a religion based on the precept of ‘love’. Let’s suppose that just as you were approaching the doughnut shelf, you remembered that you had to make an appointment to get your piano tuned. That stray ‘selfish’ thought at a time when your friend’s need should have been uppermost in your mind was all the distraction you needed. — It’s not difficult to see why a thinker like Nietzsche would discern a cruel streak underlying the religion of loving kindness.

Then what about real criminals? The story, as a Greek would tell it, is that through a series of ‘missed shots’, you deviate further and further away from a correct view of the target. For example, you come to believe that a successful robbery is something to be proud of, rather than ashamed. This is the staple of gangster movies: loyalty, obedience, punishment and reward are concepts that every gang member implicitly understands. As the saying goes, ‘there’s honour amongst thieves.’

With God in the picture, it seems we are playing a different game entirely. Whatever we conceive as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, the word of God is the final arbiter. Ethical laws are God’s laws. The religious concept of ‘sin’, in essence, recognizes the fundental difference between which actions you or I call ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, and those which are so in reality. No room for quibbling.

God doesn’t need to give a reason for His commands. If the command is, ‘Never mix cotton and wool in the same garment,’ as the priests of ancient Israel told, then regardless of the whys or wherefores, by ignoring God’s law you have defied God. You have deliberately stuck your finger in God’s eye. No punishment is too severe for one who defies God.

‘Missing the mark’ in an archery competition or some other sport, is something to regret. You mentally go through the motions, trying to work out where you went wrong. We all make judgements we regret. The feeling of guilt implies something more, over and above regret: the sense of accountability. It needn’t be accountability to another person or persons. As a would-be follower of Aleister Crowley, you might feel guilt about failing to take an opportunity to enjoy carnal delights because of the vestiges of a ‘conscience’ instilled by your strict religious upbringing. You have sinned against your ‘true nature’.

As a non-believer and nihilist, this makes sense to me, although, to borrow from Oscar Wilde, sin is ‘not one of my words’. Things are ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ for me simply by virtue of the things I care about. When I aim to do better, and do worse, then given an appropriate context that is something to be feel bad about, guilty, even. But ‘sin’? Pass.

Jack asked:

I’m curious about the nature of “harm.” As I understand it, it is often required measurable damage of some sort to the other party. But does that mean then, as long as the party is ignorant of the act then no harm is done?

For example, X act is both illegal and immoral (in most cultures). If X act was done to an aware being, it would cause some form of harm (such as psychological, mental, social). To be clear, the harm done would require knowledge of act X. But if that same being were completely unaware of X act occurring to them, it would seem they would never notice the existence of X act and without awareness of X act, there could be no harm.

So then can it be said that X act isn’t an act of harm? That because it may not result in harm (if the other party is not aware of act X) in all instances, the most that could be said about it is that despite it being illegal and immoral 100% of the time, it isn’t an act of harm itself, it can only result in harm under certain conditions. Is this accurate?

The confusion lies in the idea of “harm” being an affront to another, regardless of consequences or measurable harm. If the other party is devalued in some way, regardless if they acknowledge it or feel effects from it, by devaluing a human being it can still be said to be harming them.

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

The question of harm and its definition typically arises in relation to J.S. Mill’s Liberty Principle

“The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” (On Liberty, 1859)

But what exactly constitutes ‘harm’?

Before we go any further, we need to clear up an ambiguity where you say, ‘as long as the party is ignorant of the act then no harm is done’.

Let’s say that by subterfuge I get hold of your Ethics exam script before it reaches the examiner and make changes that result in your achieving a lower score than you would have otherwise. A few pages go missing. The word ‘not’ is added in a few places, and removed in others. When the results come in, and you see that you have failed the exam, you have no idea at all that any harm was done to you. You blame yourself for your bad performance.

That would be a case of harm even though you were unaware that you had been harmed. What you are very much aware of, is the result of my malicious action: your disappointing exam result. That’s harm by any reasonable definition.

But what about a case where you don’t experience any negative effects of my action? Let’s say as I brush past you in the street, I stick a piece of paper on your coat with the words, ‘I am a dork.’ You carry on your way, blissfully unaware that people are sniggering behind your back. By the time you reach home, the piece of paper has fallen off. (Someone you know might see what I did and tell you, but for the sake of the example we’re assuming that doesn’t happen.)

As in the previous example, here is a flagrant case of harm, even though this time you experience no negative effect whatsoever.

More interesting and controversial, are cases where a person feels ‘affront’, feels that they have been ‘harmed,’ but despite feeling that way no harm has in fact been done to them. An example that has been cited is someone who feels affronted by the sight of a gay couple kissing in public. You have no right to feel that way, so no real ‘harm’ has been done, we would say.

The problem with this is that a different judgement would be made in New York or in Tehran. What would Mill’s view be? The whole point of the Liberty Principle is to cut through ethical disputes that depend on this or that person’s feelings or ‘intuition’ about what is right or wrong. Feelings of ‘harm’ that result solely from your holding ethical or religious beliefs that are different from someone else’s ethical or religious beliefs are not examples of real harm.

Mill wanted to see vigorous debate between different ethical and religious, or indeed anti-religious, views. Provided the debate is polite, he believed, and not conducted in an atmosphere of animosity, no ‘harm’ is done to any side.

Then what if I make a ‘V’ sign to your face, clearly intending to insult you? Maybe you feel deeply hurt and affronted. ‘You shouldn’t be so sensitive,’ I might say in my defence. The difference here concerns accepted conventions. The ‘V’ sign is widely read as an insult, and it was indeed my intention to insult you that resulted in your feeling insulted, i.e. harmed.

Bad language, or rude gestures, where they are meant to be hurtful to another person, are cases of ‘harm’. Whether the actions actually cause upset or psychological discomfort in a particular case is in fact irrelevant. What is important is the intention. By making a ‘V’ sign to you, intending this as an insult, I have caused you ‘harm’ — something concerning which, in Mill’s words ‘power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community’ — even if you just laugh it off. You ought to take exception to what I have done, because it was not acceptable behaviour, by Mill’s Principle.

On the other hand, hurting someone’s feelings, by making a statement that you had every right to make, is not an example of ‘harm’. Nor is punishment a case of ‘harm’, when justified and administered in the appropriate context. All this goes to show that the question of ‘harm’ is a question about rights.

Mill’s starting point is that I have the right to do any action if the only person harmed is myself. Others may be hurt by my actions, but they are only ‘harmed’ when a certain line has been crossed. Defining that line has proved to be quite difficult in practice.

You will find more on this topic in my answer Problems with J.S. Mill’s harm principle.


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