I am a human being: Do not fold, spindle or mutilate.

— Anonymous

[H]uman kind
Cannot bear very much reality.
Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.

— T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets: “Burnt Norton” (1935)

I. Is Our Universe, With Us and Everything Else, a Simulation?

In April, the Hayden Planetarium held the 17th annual Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate. The chosen topic was: “Is the Universe a Simulation?” Several distinguished academics participated: David Chalmers (a philosopher at New York University and the director of the Center for Mind, Brain and Consciousness), Lisa Randall (a theoretical physicist at Harvard University), Max Tegmark (an astrophysicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology), S. James Gates Jr. (a theoretical physicist at the University of Maryland), Zohreh Davoudi (a theoretical physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology), and Neil deGrasse Tyson (an astrophysicist and the director of the Hayden Planetarium, who served as moderator).

The two-hour back-and-forth ranged over several scientific and philosophical points.[1] As to the first, are there ways that physics could prove or disprove that our universe is being simulated? One possibility that Davoudi discussed is an analysis of cosmic rays to see if their behavior as so far observed regarding their energies and distribution in space appear to be constrained in the same way that current computer simulations of the universe must “cut corners” due to finite computing power, which could be a limitation for future simulators, too. Chalmers mused that if our universe is a simulation, it might still be designed to produce false evidence of strict conformity to physics. Randall and Tegmark discussed how our current understanding of physics is in any event far from complete; so much about the nature of matter, energy and space remains to be figured out. But even if we did know all that, Chalmers argued, we might only be able to show that our universe is computational in nature, not that our reality is then simulated in the sense of having been intentionally created. Gates noted that the universe not only appears to be rigidly governed by mathematics, it also includes what amount to “error-correcting codes” or feedback mechanisms, though that is not itself telltale of a simulated existence since a natural biology, for example, would be expected to evolve some such techniques in order to sustain life (and such is the case for Earth’s biology). In sum, there might not be any conclusive proof to be had now or for some time to come, if ever, on whether our reality is simulated. Unless, that is, our simulators deign to tell us.

The philosophical points covered logic, reality, theology, and the nature of intelligence and science. Both Tegmark and Randall criticized the views of philosopher Nick Bostrom regarding the probabilities of our being in a simulation, which Bostrom derived from the premise that advanced civilizations would have the computing power to create many simulations, including simulations within simulations, such that simulated minds would then far outnumber real minds. Tegmark thought this premise flawed, since it assumes that the originating universe (which would not be ours if we are simulated) is ruled by a physics that allows for such great computing power, which assumption is just a leap of faith. Randall said that Bostrom’s view that simulators would create our specific reality was “audacious and ridiculous.” She added, “Why simulate us? I mean, there’s so many things to be simulating. . . . I don’t know why this higher species would want to bother with us.”

Chalmers noted that we can never be sure we are not in a simulation, but that if we are we can still claim to be real because “all the information . . . the math . . . the structure is there in the simulation,” and that is “not so bad” an existence. Gates felt that if people could know they were in a simulation, it would be hard to ignore the implication of a “deity.” Chalmers replied that given our experience with computer games and the like, we might not regard our simulator to be any deity as such: “It’s just some teenage hacker in the next universe up whose mom’s calling him in to dinner.” Tyson agreed that the simulators could be programmers just like those who write the code for our computer programs and games. But he added, “There’s no reason to presume they’re all powerful other than just they fully control everything we do, say and think.” Davoudi took the view along the lines of a true simulation in which the initial values of variables are built into the program, but then the simulation runs its course as the simulator merely observes.

Randall pointed out that physics cannot prove a given theory, just disprove others that contradict it, which always leaves open the possibility for new discoveries and a new theory, and so on. Chalmers observed that consciousness remains a complete mystery in that there is no theory at all about how it emerges from physical dynamics. Tegmark then proposed that if consciousness failed to be explicable in terms of mathematics and so was not computational, then that would prove we are not in a simulation. Randall asked how could we ever show that something cannot be described mathematically? Gates brought up Gödel’s Theorem, which holds that we humans cannot prove a given mathematical theorem is consistent or complete based on its own terms, which suggests our brains are inadequate to ever fully comprehend our reality, simulated or not. Tyson asked, “Why should we be the measure of what an intellect is, and then judge what is hard or what is easy . . . [M]aybe that’s just trivial for anybody who’s programming the universe.” Later, Randall added, “I actually love the idea that we’re a simulation where they . . . saved in efficiency by making us not quite smart enough to figure all this stuff out.”

Tyson recounted an analogy that studying the universe is like studying the game of chess where one does not know the rules or strategies and tries to figure them out by just observing the game being played. Chalmers agreed: “[T]his is the game of reverse engineering the universe, and we call it science. A little bit for philosophy, too. . . [B]ut it’s actually a miracle we can understand anything about the world we’re in from this perspective.” Gates related his experience in discussing science with the public: “[A] lot of people think it’s all about them. . . . They have to understand things that’s somehow related to them. . . . And I think that one of the things that science actually teaches us is that it’s not all about us. . . . [W]e live in this place of mystery, and we need to accept a humbleness about our efforts to go out and explain that chess game that you described.”

Tyson concluded the debate by having each of them state the likelihood that we live in a simulation. Davoudi said she had no answers; Tegmark said 17%; Gates 1%; Randall 0%; and Chalmers 42% (being a riff on Douglas Adams’ The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). However, Tyson concluded that it “may be very high,” noting how we humans are so much more intelligent compared to other animals, like chimpanzees, who still share so much of our DNA, indicating that it is possible that other beings can evolve that are so much more intelligent than us. He concluded: “And if that’s the case, it is easy for me to imagine that everything in our lives is just the creation of some other entity for their entertainment.”

Clearly this debate dealt with several interesting issues and elicited varying takes. Nevertheless, when it came to the ramifications of our universe being a simulation, the discussion fell short. Apart from some brief considerations of theology, it did not venture beyond the scientific in its logical and philosophic overview. While understandable given the constraint of time and the principal interests of the participants, certain other issues of great importance were left for another day.

II. Oh, to Be Alive and Simulated!

The proposition that our universe might be simulated carries implications that should be of grave concern to any greatly advanced civilization in deciding whether to create such computer simulations, as well as to any less advanced civilization – such as ours – in caring to believe that it is likely being simulated. I have in mind – of course! – the concerns of ethics. I want to take up these concerns, in part because the recent debate did not do so but mostly because in the last several years there have, surprisingly, been so few discussions of them in other public forums about the proposition.[2]

First of all, this general lapse is an ethical concern. It is happening, so it appears, because so many people find the idea of being simulated fascinating or compelling. A recent public example came from Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX and co-founder of Tesla Motors, who in early June was asked at a technology conference for his opinion on the matter. He stated that the chances we are not simulated are only “one in billions”.[3] Long odds indeed for – what I guess we should start calling – old-fashioned reality. But the upshot is that too many of us are not wanting to think critically about the proposition before wanting to entertain it.

As to why so many people find it appealing in the first instance, one possibility is that simulated realities are a staple of science fiction. Another more serious one is that like people throughout history some of us may be hoping for a deus ex machina to save us from ourselves. All the same, much of the relevant science fiction is built around the moral pitfalls of any such technology, while the “deus ex machina” in this case would also be the cause of a number of our social and political woes.

But there is another, I think likely though comparatively banal, explanation – one that ranks as a technical misunderstanding.

What has inspired many to consider that our reality is simulated is the thinking of the Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom (whom Randall and Tegmark referred to in the debate). Bostrom first formalized his arguments in the article “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?”, published in 2003.[4] It constitutes an analysis of the probabilities our universe is a simulation. And in touching on many related implications, including the ethical, it presents a well-rounded thesis that has earned popular and academic attention.

But most unfortunately, in subsequent commentaries and especially in popular forums and essays, Bostrom’s analyses and conclusions have sometimes been misstated or otherwise not clearly explained. The most serious instances, which I think have a lot to answer for, are claims such as it is “likely” or “more likely than not” that we all live in a simulation.[5] But such claims are just not true. Bostrom has never said it is likely or even probable (as in a greater than 50 percent chance). He has said only that it is possible, and that his “gut feeling” is that the chance is only 20 percent, which is just a guess. He has also said that he himself does not believe our reality is simulated.[6]

To grasp Bostrom’s Simulation Argument is to appreciate its logical structure. He formulated what others have termed a “trilemma,” whereby the proposition we are living in a simulation is but the third of a total of three related propositions, only one of which can be true. His first proposition is that human civilization is unlikely to survive long enough to get to the point where it can develop the technology necessary to create such sophisticated simulations. The second proposition is that if human civilization does reach such an advanced state of know-how, it will be “extremely unlikely” to run many such simulations. And the third is that we are “almost certainly” in a simulation. The logical relation among these propositions is dynamic: for any one that is presumed true, the other two must then be false. Bostrom holds that while we can posit reasons why any one of the propositions could turn out true, we have no way to know which is most likely or will in fact turn out true (with the others false).

All of which means that anyone who claims to know for a fact is playing the fool (though in all likelihood not knowing that).

III. A Multiverse of Ethics

Now I am not suggesting we should stop musing over the Simulation Argument. That would be disturbingly non-human of us. Bostrom’s “trilemma” is certainly inviting of further thought. Indeed, as a general matter, the more thought we devote to our future the greater our awareness and sensitivity to the present problems and challenges we face in surviving as a species well into the future. And in this way we will at least be looking, as much as we can, to falsify Bostrom’s first proposition.

But those considerations aside, what I do want to argue for in this essay is that we should draw our attentions, more than we have done so far, to the second proposition of the Simulation Argument. For it is here that the ethical implications of creating and using simulations enter the picture, and much more substantively than the hanging question, which is anyone’s guess, whether we will ever get to the point of developing the key technology. And Bostrom would agree. In an interview with John Tierney of The New York Times in 2007[7], he stated:

To do a simulation of something like the Holocaust – with conscious people suffering in the simulation – would appear to be as atrocious as committing the original Holocaust. What about creating an ancestor simulation, including the entirety of human history? This would include the Holocaust and many other horrible events. Again, it is hard to see how this could be anything other than deeply immoral. Even if we think it is better, all things considered, that human history happened than that the human species never emerged, yet it would seem that the simulators ought to have taken better care of their creations and created a nicer world. Maybe we have a blinkered perspective, but let us hope that if our descendants ever build simulations, they will understand their moral responsibility and be kind to their critters.

The ethical issues that should be of concern to us on this topic arise out of the particular simulation Bostrom posited in the Simulation Argument – that our own reality in the here and now is being simulated (which also means that we have no other separate existence[8]). The ethical concerns to be taken up, then, are rooted in the perspective that we are “the simulated.” Still, a thorough analysis further requires trying to take account of the other perspectives at work here – those of “the simulators.” A true simulation, after all, requires both sets of “actors,” and so any ethical analysis should assess the situation of the simulated as well as the purposes of the simulators.

So what is “the situation” of our (presumed) simulated reality? It is what it always has been: what we can observe and know it to be. We are intelligent and sentient beings; we are self-motivated and self-aware. As such, we have created and settled in a variety of cultures and societies that reflect the variety of our conceptions of what is “right and proper.” Our past and our present are marked – as our future probably will be too – with events ranging between exceptional intellectual achievement and exceptional physical violence. Our existence, based on our own accountings, is both ennobled and disgraced. We are human beings.

Given all that, one question immediately arises: to what extent are we responsible for ourselves? To be sure, that basic question is not new. Its theological roots are old. Yet its philosophical parameters are constantly refreshed in our law and often revised by our sciences as our knowledge of biology and psychology improves.

Nonetheless, if for example Tyson is right that the simulators “fully control everything we do, say and think,” then they are also dictating my writing this essay and every discussion and analysis of this topic and everything else in our “lives” besides. So how are we then responsible for ourselves? We could not be, for “we” would not then be sentient in any way that should matter to us in the crucial sense of being self-motivated as opposed to being mere avatars of others’ self-motivations. And as a practical matter the same holds true in varying degrees if we are self-motivated only to varying degrees.

So this scenario becomes the first ethical concern: that we should be allowed to be morally responsible for ourselves – to be our own beings as it were (which means being our own self-contained programs of sentience). Surely we should want that, and in full, because what else is the essence of being alive (organically or digitally)? As well, such is clearly what our simulators have allowed us to think we are and have thus “represented” to us that we are. And having “struck that bargain” with us, they should live up to it (to the extent they have not as yet) and grant us the personal freedom of mind and body that we have always felt and thought we had. That we are then fully self-motivated should be one more aspect of “the situation” of our simulated existence. Otherwise, I would invoke the famous plea of Patrick Henry: “I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!” Yes, I like to think we would all affirm that (even at the risk of being left with a curious sense of urgency).

But in being fully self-motivated, does not each of us then have a right to consent to allow his or her “sense of self” to be manipulated in the future? (Such would arise out of “negotiations” with the simulators, temporarily making themselves known as to what they wish to do with us. Ultimately, though, whatever each of us decided, our memories of the “session” would necessarily be deleted.[9])

I see that question as not much different, in essence, from being asked to sacrifice my life as I know it and conduct it (so far), and so a kind of suicide – an issue of moral peril. I believe that to consent would then be a betrayal of my sense of self and, therefore, should not do it. Then again, I am fairly content with my self as it is, and so if I were not, I admit I would find the prospect of its “recasting” appealing. Still, I hope I would refuse on the grounds that I should not treat my existence, as is, to be of no more significance than, say, the current state of my wardrobe. Then again, what if I am offered a “trial run” that will allow me to be “fully informed” in order to choose which is better? (I seem to hear a voice in my head: “Is that not true liberty?”)

All that said, the fact remains that the simulators are responsible for the general environment in which we find ourselves and also for at least the base fact of our existence inasmuch as we are the result of the physical and mental evolutions allowed and dictated by that environment. And it appears that we have been and are being shaped by and in turn have adapted and are still adapting to this environment. Here then is the aspect of “the situation” that others who have cared to analyze the ethics of simulations have most often underscored: we have experienced, do experience, and will likely experience many instances and degrees of suffering, minor to significant to terrible to unconscionable. But in what ways and to what extent are the simulators morally answerable for that suffering?

I think the answer strongly derives from “the purposes” of the simulators as they relate to us.

The first possibility is that the simulators had no intention to create us at all: we are a surprise result. And it is also possible that even then they have no real interest in us. Still, they have caused our existence, if unwittingly. Should they not take responsibility for our welfare and at least see to it that our lives are not “too” awful?

In the context of all the suffering we have endured in our history, it is easy for us to say they should. But surely their sense of responsibility would be guided by their own history. And unless that bordered on the paradisaic, they might well choose to leave well enough alone, including allowing their simulation to continue to its “natural” endpoint.

But what if compared to their history, ours is an abomination – what they see as a malignant, abnormal evolution that can only generate ever greater cycles of self-inflicted suffering. On that score, the moral thing to do might be to put us out of our misery. (And in that regard we should not take much comfort in the fact we are still here; it might be that we simply have not been discovered yet since our simulated time has to be running so very much faster than theirs.)

The next possibility is a variation of the above, where the simulators do become interested but only want to observe us, for reasons from entertainment to academic study. That would mean that even our worst sufferings so far – such as the regress of civilization during the so-called Dark Ages and the despicable slaughter of millions of Jews during the Holocaust – are treated as mere spectacle. That seems a heartless attitude. Yet how far removed is it from our own reactions to natural disasters and mass-killings where many of us sit before our televisions or smartphones and watch re-runs of the carnage? To be sure, some of us react by making donations, volunteering to give aid, or joining a social movement to demand justice or to help prevent such events in the future. But many of us do nothing of the sort. We watch, emote, reflect on our own good fortunes, and return to our normal routines. That for all our sakes we would hope our simulators had a more proactive morality than ours seems perversely hypocritical.

But what if the simulators intentionally created us for entertainment? And what if the simulation’s programming dictated that the ultimately evolved life, being us, are not be able to achieve intelligence beyond a certain point, which thereby guarantees that we remain prone to political upheaval and violence, if still technological advance? In the extreme, the simulators could then turn us into the ideal “video game” in which we the “A.I.” are  sophisticated enough (at long last!) to provide an endless variety of challenge. In all such cases, we are essentially a slave race, existing for the sole purpose of serving the selfish needs of a “master race” that otherwise cares not a whit for us. Patrick Henry will do us no good here. There is only one demand to make: “End program . . . please!!!”

Bostrom reasons that if we are being simulated, it could be a re-enactment of the past, or as he terms it an ancestor-simulation. That conception requires the simulators to be “our” (likely not very near) descendants. Bostrom supposes that these “posthumans” –  meaning that they have developed the necessary technology – would do these simulations for purposes of entertainment or academic research or scientific study.

However, as noted earlier, he has voiced reservations about any such simulations being either a complete or a limited recounting of human history that includes our worst sufferings. That implies he further envisions such simulations as being carefully chosen “segments” of human history. But for most of us that would translate into “segmented” lives of varying abbreviation. While we would certainly be unaware of our instantaneous beginnings and ends, that still translates into depriving us of the full lives we could have had otherwise.

The ethical ramifications relate to the existential value or meaning of our lives. In this case, though our lives would clearly have value or meaning for the simulators, what would be the value or meaning for us? For a good many if not most of us it would have to be wanting since the full reality of our lives would be either undeveloped or unfulfilled, or both, in relation to the original lives on which the simulation is based. Discrimination! Indeed, worse than that because our digital lives, our digital humanity, is devalued. We are treated no better than the intentionally short-lived proliferation of bacteria in a Petri dish! In fact, worse again, because the bacteria – as far as we know – are not sentient (or at least not to the extent we are).

However, in his original article, Bostrom proposes something of a workaround in this regard. Both a fuller and less-suffering life would be possible for many of us where not all of us are sentient, specifically those destined to suffer greatly in the given history being recreated. These people, termed “shadow-people,” would essentially be zombies.

But here we come to what I think is a real rub of the Simulation Argument. Why, oh why, must any of the simulations we have been considering result in our being made sentient? Why is that necessary? I do not readily see that it is. And my real point here is that if the fact of our sentience is removed from “the situation” – rendering us into truly mindless yet still intelligently programmed graphical representations of human beings – the ethical concerns I have been noting largely disappear. But having raised this point, I will leave it be, as my objective is not to critique the Simulation Argument, only explore its ethical implications.[10] All the same, there is a final case to examine in this new light.

IV. The Best, Worst, and Indifferent of Both Worlds

If as a general matter sentience is superfluous for our simulation, we are yet faced with the fact – what we have taken as a given in this essay – that we are in a simulation and we are sentient. So what we must now consider is whether our simulation as sentient beings could ever be ethical. More specifically, are there circumstances or purposes that could justify that from our own point of view?

In this case I think we the simulated would have to believe that our being sentient is essential – that it is the whole point of the matter. Which means – contra-Gates’s view about our study of science – that our simulated universe does indeed have to be all about us. As to the need, we can speculate, and there could be more than a few possibilities. But one in particular comes to mind.

I refer again to the Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate. A couple of the participants recalled how much they enjoyed reading and were inspired by Asimov’s science fiction; but none named any of his books. Yet there is one, in fact a series, that ranks among his best known and provides us with a credible scenario for our being in a simulation. It is the Foundation series.

In that saga, the human race is facing a dire situation. The Galactic Empire is on the verge of collapse, which will result in tens of thousands of years of political upheaval and bloodshed. But along comes Hari Seldon, who develops the science of psychohistory that allows for the carefully (if surreptitiously) directed influence of humanity towards a new social order that can be sooner realized. Seldon turns sociology into a hard science.

But how did he do that? In Asimov’s book, Prelude to Foundation, Seldon’s idea is to create a simulation of an entire planetary culture from which he can extrapolate and so uncover the essential mathematics. Most interestingly, he at first wants to simulate the long lost history of Earth, but in failing to discover that history then chooses the diverse cultures currently living on the Galactic Empire’s capital world Trantor.

So what if some comparable extreme need of our descendants drove them to create a simulation of their ancestors – us – in order to develop a computational sociology to help save the lives of billions upon billions of their fellow human beings? To that end, yes, we would have to be sentient. And given that, we should certainly expect first to be asked to consent to being so studied. Still, I suppose we cannot rule out the possibility, given their need, that they would do what they needed to do regardless, leaving us unawares.

But I hope they would be more considerate because they would have good reason to be. Our shock at learning we were simulated would, I think, soon give way to the noble goal we were being asked to help them achieve. How marvelous that our descendants would “come to us” to save the future.[11] How could any of us say no to what promised to be the best – as in most meaningful – life we could hope to live, even if our fate and the worst of that life for us were never to be able to recall its extraordinary significance, and to know only the variously happy to anxious to sad lives we would end up leading “in reality”?

But let us now come back to reality. We have no way of knowing if we are living in a simulation. However, given the ethical concerns arising out of the several “what-ifs” we have considered, I hope the prospect, in general, comes across as unappealing. And even more so if we also judge the desirability of any simulation of human life from the point of view of us as the simulators. Would I, would you, want to create a full-blown simulation of the human race as it has been and now is? That calls for an egotism itself unappealing.

Barring an existential threat to humanity, we should care to be neither simulators nor simulatees in these ways. The reality of being human is confounding enough without such “nuances.” And that reality is always bound to the present: the past and the future forever remain to be seen and can only be wondered at. By all means let us wonder, but let us also accept our reality as our reality, and not “wander off” into futile reveries.[12]


[1] A transcript of the Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate (April 8, 2016), which is the source of the statements I quote, is at http://www.amnh.org/explore/news-blogs/podcasts/2016-isaac-asimov-memorial-debate-is-the-universe-a-simulation.

[2] John Tierney made the effort in a couple of his TierneyLab blogs, eliciting only a smattering of ethical concerns or objections – “Even if Life Is a Computer Simulation”, The New York Times (August 13, 2007), at http://tierneylab.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/08/13/even-if-life-is-but-a-computer-simulation/, and “How to Simulate the Universe”, The New York Times (August 15, 2007), at http://tierneylab.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/08/15/how-to-create-that-simulated-world/ – both being follow-ups to his then recent column “Our Lives, Controlled From Some Guy’s Couch”, The New York Times (August 14, 2007), at http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/14/science/14tier.html.

[3] See Klein, “Elon Musk believes we are probably characters in some advanced civilization’s video game”, Vox Technology (June 2, 2016), at http://www.vox.com/2016/6/2/11837608/elon-musk-simulation-argument.

[4] Bostrom, “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?”, Philosophical Quarterly (2003) Vol. 53, No. 211, pp. 243-255, at http://www.simulation-argument.com/simulation.html. (Bostrom’s original and later articles on this topic, along with related articles by others are available online at http://www.simulation-argument.com/.)

[5] A few telling examples: Francis, “Is this life real”, Aeon (January 21, 2014), at https://aeon.co/essays/is-reality-a-computer-simulation-does-it-matter (“While Bostrom is interested primarily in showing that we’re more likely than not to dwell in a simulation …”); Frenkel, “Is the Universe a Simulation?”, The New York Times (February 14, 2014), at http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/16/opinion/sunday/is-the-universe-a-simulation.html (“But the Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom has argued that we are more likely to be in such a simulation than not.”); “Is the Universe a Simulation?”, Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate (April 8, 2016), at note 1 (Max Tegmark: “And then [Bostrom] went on to say it seems overwhelmingly likely, if you don’t wipe out here on earth, that in the future the vast majority of all computations and all minds will be inside of such a computer.”); and Rothman, “What Are the Odds We Are Living in a Computer Simulation/”, The New Yorker (June 9, 2016), at http://www.newyorker.com/books/joshua-rothman/what-are-the-odds-we-are-living-in-a-computer-simulation (“[Bostrom’s] argument ends by proposing that we are, in fact, digital beings living in a vast computer simulation created by our far-future descendants.”). These particular statements may well be only “loose talk” on the part of those who do fully appreciate and understand Bostrom’s arguments, but as the audience in each case was the general public who could not have known better, these statements could only have been misunderstood as asserting that Bostrom believes our reality is a computer simulation. And that false impression has been and remains a problem and concern for Bostrom to try to correct through his own writings. See, e.g., Bostrom, “Do We Live in a Computer Simulation?”, New Scientist Vol. 192, No. 2579 (November 19, 2006) pp. 38-39, at http://www.simulation-argument.com/computer.pdf (“It should be emphasised that the simulation argument does not show that you are living in a simulation.”); and Bostrom, “The Simulation Argument FAQ” (2011), Question #10, at http://www.simulation-argument.com/faq.html (“Moreover, we need to keep in mind that the simulation argument [the possibility we are in a simulation] does not imply the simulation-hypothesis [that we are in a simulation].”)

[6] See Bostrom, “The Simulation Argument FAQ”, Question #2, at note 5.

[7] See TierneyLab blog,: “Even if Life Is a Computer Simulation”, at note 2.

[8] In this case, our simulation captures our entire existence, meaning that each of us does not have any other separate or independent essence “outside” of the simulation. In other words, we are not, for example, like Neo in The Matrix, whose physical body is literally plugged into a separate, virtual reality. In Bostrom’s Simulation Argument our sole reality is that we are simulated human beings (and that fact remains true even in the extreme case of our being simulated within another simulation within another simulation, and so on).

[9] This scenario is raised by Peter Jenkins, an attorney (naturally), in his interesting article “Historical Simulations – Motivational, Legal and Ethical Issues”, Journal of Futures Studies (August 2006), at http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=929327, in which he analogizes the ethical concerns at issue to the protocols currently required for human medical research. A concern for me is whether that paradigm fits comfortably with the massive scale of social invasiveness and likely wide-ranging degrees of individual suffering that some of the simulation research being envisioned, such as historical recreations, would entail. Consistent with the rest of my essay, I would require the simulators to pass a pretty high bar of “extreme need” in order to be allowed to do such (sentient) simulations, which would also require a very-well-informed consent of the simulated.

[10] Given the lack of any reigning theory about the nature of consciousness, speculations abound and include the possibility that consciousness may simply be an unavoidable property of information that is sufficiently “integrated” in some computational system. In regard to simulated beings, then, it may be possible that they will have some degree of consciousness merely because the simulation is, as Bostrom puts it in his original article, “sufficiently fine-grained”. I am not sure if that possibility offers any rebuttal to my point about whether the simulation needs to produce sentient beings, though my point then becomes a question about why the simulation needs to be so “fine-grained” to begin with.

[11] As to why they might specifically choose us and our time, it may simply be a matter of practicality. The future, as far as we know and hope, will see an ever larger human population on Earth, and perhaps beyond the Earth, and so the entirety of human culture in the late 20th to early 21st centuries is more “readily” and usefully simulated. Also, this period marks the first time in our history that so much personal information about all of us is being collected or recorded and more or less permanently stored, and so that facilitates “reproducing” us. Finally, there is no question that this time period is rife with political and social unrest arising out of a great variety and degree of cultural perspective and economic need. It is, in short, a rich sociological stew. (Finally, and besides, dear Isaac would certainly have approved.)

[12] Inspired by Bostrom, the economist and futurist Robin Hanson has considered how we should deal with the possibility we are in a simulation. (See Hanson, “How to Live in a Simulation”, Journal of Technology and Evolution 7 (1) (2001), at http://www.transhumanist.com/volume7/simulation.html.) From trying to arrange to be around and ingratiate ourselves with the influential and popular persons in our communities (who might be of special interest to the simulators), to caring less about the future and more about the here and now (since the simulation may terminate at any time), to discouraging others from believing we live in a simulation (as that might undermine the simulation’s purpose and bring about its termination), to trying to prevent an important or noteworthy event from ending sooner rather than later (as that might be the planned climax of the simulation), we can hope in all these and other ways to maximize the duration and quality of our simulated lives. Hanson has been clear, however, that he does not believe we are in a simulation, and that he and others like such topics because they “stretch our thinking, not because we take them seriously”. (See Horgan, “When Simulations Replace Reality: A Q&A with Robin Hanson, Big Ideas Guy”, Scientific American (June 21, 2016), at http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/cross-check/when-simulations-replace-reality-a-q-a-with-robin-hanson-big-ideas-guy/.) For myself, I can only see Hanson’s “advice” as tongue-in-cheek, since for anyone to adopt such thinking and behavior would be, if perhaps amusing at first, finally absurd, and in fact an erosion of one’s quality of life.

About The Author

Bruce K. Adler

Bruce K. Adler is a retired lawyer whose legal practice involved products liability, commercial law, civil liberties, and constitutional law. He remains active in community affairs and local planning. His academic interests include the philosophy of law, social and political philosophy, and the history and philosophy of science. He is fascinated by the “problems” of consciousness and free will. And he feels inspired to do some serious writing on at least law and its related topics.