Friday, June 6, 2008

Don’t Eat Virtual Toast in Bed- You’ll Get Simulacrums in the Sheets!

I woke up this morning thinking about this essay over at Overcoming Bias...

So, the question of the day is this: How would you feel if you discovered you were living in a make-believe world, ala a StarTrek holodeck-type simulation? Everything around you...the sky, the rocks and trees, the birds, the bees, as well as your loved ones, all mere projections; either on an empty stage, or in the theatre of your mind (the brains-in-vats scenario). No interior lives other than your own; just computer simulations programmed to adjust to your responses, making you feel like you’re interacting with agents much like yourself. Would you feel deceived? Annoyed? Devastated?

I played the game myself this morning, trying to imagine the world as a series of Matrix-like zeros and ones as I drove my daughter to school. Somewhat upsetting at first, as her conversation with her friend in the back seat turned to static in my ears. It also got me to thinking about how much emotional black ink we pack into our assumptions, since in a virtual world, nothing will have changed from an experiential POV. The only difference is my belief that the person I’m talking to is something like me inside. Why is that important to me? I watch movies and television programs, experiencing the whole range of whatever feelings are appropriate to the plot and characterizations. Of course, with movies there’s the whole context of ‘real’ life which is supposedly being simulated on the screen; but in my virtual world, I’d imagine that a lifetime of emotional history up to the point of my ‘disillusionment’ would probably fill the bill. So, what’s my worry?

There’s a lot of psychic unpacking to be done when considering thought problems like this one. Many layers of belief, unexamined presumptions and the like. But at the end of all the self examination, would you consider yourself harmed by the discovery that the world wasn’t like you thought it was? The author of the OB essay says he would be. I thought the same thing, for about the first five minutes of my experiment. But then I got to thinking about it from an antinatalist perspective, and I grokked a wonderful truth. I realized that my virtual world was absolutely free of suffering! (except for my own, of course). But the idea that I was the only creature in existence actually suffering momentarily filled me with a great sense of relief, and of joy, and I realized (not for the first time) how much my sense of personal misery is tied into the knowledge that all the world groans under the weight of its own existential pain. ‘Twas a wonderful, if shortlived, respite. Made for an interesting morning.

If you play this game, and find yourself in the same position as me at the end,’re still concerned about the possible sufferings of the folks who placed you into this virtual world, just replace ‘holodeck virtual world’ with ‘solipsistic projection’ and you’ll do just fine. I promise (but, then again, WHO am I?).

UPDATE: A followup question:

Would you grant human consciousness with its inherent characteristics (the capacity for self reflection, happiness, suffering...whatever) to one of your simulacrums, then send it out into a virtual world of joy and perils (remember, in this case the safety protocols are turned OFF, including the defenses against experiencing all the extremities which exist in the 'real' world)? Or would you decide to just leave things as they stand? This seems like a pretty true analogy of what's going on when someone decides to birth a child, which is why I bring it up here.


TGGP said...

I don't discount Nick Bostrum's argument that it is quite likely I am already living in such a world. It wouldn't make a difference to me. I discussed that a bit here.

TGGP said...

I would also note that I would have no problem entering Nozick's experience machine.

your host said...

Hiya, TGGP! Hey, did you give me the right link? I couldn't find the reference.

TGGP said...

Yeah, it's just a small portion among the whole big mess. Search for "Strange New World". You might want to play the game yourself.