The World as the Text of the Thoughts of a Programmer

robot4.jpgAdam Kolber has posted on a New York Times article by John Tierney that “discusses the possibility that our world was created as a hobby or as an experiment by members of some more technologically advanced civilization.” The piece is based on “a discussion with the-always-insightful Nick Bostrom, Director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University:”

Dr. Bostrom assumes that technological advances could produce a computer with more processing power than all the brains in the world, and that advanced humans, or “posthumans,” could run “ancestor simulations” of their evolutionary history by creating virtual worlds inhabited by virtual people with fully developed virtual nervous systems.

Tierney estimates “that the odds are better than 20 percent, maybe better than even” that we are living in a simulation, but consoles us that “just because your neural circuits are made of silicon (or whatever posthumans would use in their computers) instead of carbon doesn’t mean your feelings are any less real.”

Query: What exact meaning of “real” is being invoked here–authentic? genuine? important? I think the “real” agenda of people like Bostrom is to get us to understand ourselves as a pattern of thoughts and reactions to the world–a kind of behaviorism that I critique in this post.

The speculation about a “prime designer” reminds me of the intelligent design movement’s effort to fuse science and religion. Tierney’s piece reveals to me a lot more about the human need for the sacred than it gives me a sense of whether we’re all just butterflies dreaming that we’re persons. (The estimated 20% chance is a nice example of quantificationism–wouldn’t our estimate of the chance of being a simulation itself be a a part of the simulation, and thus impossible to verify?).

Finally, the attempt to stir up doubts about one’s autonomy is yet another fusillade in the rhetorical effort to break down barriers between man and machine, with all the familiar ideological agendas that effort implies (such as uncritical acceptance of all manner of “enhancement” technologies).

In short: conversations like the one Tierney is trying to start are essentially unresolvable, and it’s difficult even to begin to see how they enhance our understanding of the world. But they certainly do have an effect on how we understand ourselves, and those alterations in self-understanding can be quite helpful to certain groups and harmful to others. When we consider the motivations for such shifts in understanding the self, I find more insight in the Dresden Dolls’ song Coin Operated Boy than in Bostrom’s philosophy.

Photo Credit: Flickr.

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