Thursday, August 16, 2007

It's All a Game

Ordinarily I avoid posting what is already being widely publicized, but how could I not write about the interview with an Oxford professor whose opinion is that we may very well be a computer simulation – that we are, in effect, creations within a computer game?


I wanted to say, ‘I told you so!’, but I didn’t realize until I had almost finished this post that Dr. NICK BOSTROM, Department of Philosophy, Oxford University, had published his article, ‘ARE YOU LIVING IN A COMPUTER SIMULATION?’ in Philosophical Quarterly in 2003. The current publicity which grabbed my attention comes from a New York Times article about Dr. Bostrom that appeared just two days ago. I am too lazy to rewrite my post from the viewpoint of Dr. Bostrom’s article, but after publishing this I’m going to read his paper carefully.

Unaware of Dr. Bostrom’s ideas, I have written at least twice in FLIGHTS OF PEGASUS on closely related themes:

‘Creation as Play’
(Jan. 2, 2007).
[A reader comment reminded me of] ‘a favorite notion that I want to mention right away.

‘It is the theory that the universe was created by the Divine, the Source, in the spirit of play, in the spirit of a game.

‘When I first read that idea from the ancient Hindu tradition (I wish I knew where), it immediately rang true and has stayed with me ever since.

‘I just did a little research online, with few results. “Lila” is said to mean “Cosmic Play” (play in the sense of an activity for fun rather than a stage play), an attitude that regards the universe as arising from the joyous play and creative adventures of the Divine. Lila explains the universe as a cosmic playground for the gods. A Wikipedia article says that Lila literally means "play," but that in religious texts refers to "purposeless play" - life as a spontaneous game. . . . What a welcome contrast to the idea that the universe was created as an educational or judicial system.’

Then, in “Reality? Happy Hunting!” (Feb. 17, 2007), I wrote,

‘I’ve written in this blog that we might compare our state to a person who becomes so immersed in a virtual reality computer game that she forgets there is anything else. Her 3-D perceptions of the game, and herself as the seeing participant in the game, become reality to her. Without memory of sitting down and hooking up the game apparatus, without memory of herself as a person who is playing a game, she has no means of finding her game reality secondary to a “higher reality”. If someone in the game asks her about “other realities” she might say scornfully, pleased with her down-to-earth common sense, “This is obviously reality, and it’s all there is.” She’s going to be quite surprised when the game ends and the goggles come off.

What if we’re in a similar situation?’

Here are some excerpts from the NYT article on Dr. Bostrom’s ideas:

‘It is almost a mathematical certainty that we are living in someone else’s computer simulation.’ Unlike the situation in the movie, The Matrix, ‘you wouldn’t even have a body made of flesh. Your brain would exist only as a network of computer circuits.’

‘Future humans, by means of what we today would call supercomputers, would create ‘virtual worlds inhabited by virtual people with fully developed virtual nervous systems. If civilization survived long enough to reach that stage, and if the posthumans were to run lots of simulations for research purposes or entertainment, then the number of virtual ancestors they created would be vastly greater than the number of real ancestors.
‘There would be no way for any of these ancestors to know for sure whether they were virtual or real, because the sights and feelings they’d experience would be indistinguishable. ‘

The author of the NYT article, John Tierney, says, ‘ it’s highly likely that civilization could endure to produce those supercomputers. And if owners of the computers were anything like the millions of people immersed in virtual worlds like Second Life, SimCity and World of Warcraft, they’d be running simulations just to get a chance to control history. . .’

This one comment in Mr. Tierney’s article particularly tickled me: ‘Or maybe, as suggested by Robin Hanson, an economist at George Mason University, you should try to be as interesting as possible, on the theory that the designer is more likely to keep you around for the next simulation.’

All of these ideas raise a multitude of interesting questions – perhaps foremost, ‘How do computer sims become conscious?” My personal intuition is that consciousness cannot be created, not by the brain or anything else, and therefore is inherent in everything. Dr. Bostrom states, ‘Suppose that these simulated people are conscious (as they would be if the simulations were sufficiently fine-grained and if a certain quite widely accepted position in the philosophy of mind is correct)’, but does not identify the philosophy of mind he is talking about. Can anyone tell me?


  1. I cannot imagine that anyone who comes up with theories like this has done much computer programming, whether of games or other software.

    They would understand the difference between a human and a computer program then.

    What goes into computers is nothing more than a bit of human intellect, the logic part which is the least interesting, the least human, the least important and the most dispensible part of a living creature.

    I've spent 42 years programming computers, on and off. They don't get more intelligent. They just get more complex. They have no intelligence whatsoever. On a good day they do what they are designed to do, nothing more.

  2. Vincent, it's good to read the views of someone who has worked with computers as you have. I don't really have anything to say in response, as I continue to ponder Dr. Bostrom's and your ideas. I'm now re-reading his own paper.

    Thank you!