Simulation Theory Gets Serious

From my recent Salvo article “Digital Idolatry: Computers Are Idols in a Strange New Religion“:

When the English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), wrote his 1651 political treatise, Leviathan, he had become convinced that human emotion is explicable by the same forces that govern the rotations of the planets, namely motion. In chapter 6 of the book, Hobbes declared that phenomena like our appetites, aversion, delight, and trouble are “but the appearance.” By this he meant that these things are not truly real. What is “really within us” is “only motion.” In fact, there is, in his own words, “nothing but motion.”

Such a theory may strike us as bizarre, although in the mid 17th century it was not. According to the scientific theories then dominant, everything in the world is explicable in terms of matter in motion. The new physics implicated a type of religion of motion. When Newton published his Principia Mathematica Philosophiae Naturalis over 30 years after Leviathan, the enthusiasm to apply physics to every area of life intensified to a pitch of feverish excitement that has lingered, in some quarters, even down to the present (though of course contemporary physics is no longer motion-centric).

While Hobbes was mistaken, it was an understandable mistake. As the scientists and philosophers of his day teased out the implications of Kepler’s laws of planetary motion, there was a giddy expectation that physics might provide a comprehensive and unified understanding of everything, even human experience. According to the atomic theory of the day, all change, relations, and conditions act like billiard balls bouncing off each other according to the same fixed laws of motion that govern the rotation of the planets.

I bring up Hobbes because the parallels with our own time are striking. Today there is a sense of giddiness about the computer. Hobbes posited that only motion is real and everything else mere appearance; today many thinkers posit that only the computer is truly real, and everything else is mere appearance.

The computer-centric worldview takes various forms. It can be seen in the metaphysics of figures like Ray Kurzweil, Nick Bostrom, and David Chalmers, who treat the difference between human and artificial intelligence as quantitative rather than qualitative. It can be seen in the anthropology of the Oxford philosopher Luciano Floridi, who has spilled much ink arguing that humans are merely informational organisms. And it can be seen in the way digitization has become the new alchemy, believed to possess transformational potential rivaling the aspirations of any ancient magician or alchemist. It is this last aspect that lends the project of digitization a quasi-religious aspect.

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This computer-centric worldview also surfaces in the wildly popular simulation hypothesis, a theory positing that our minds and the entire world might actually be a computer simulation. Within simulation theory, consciousness functions rather like motion did for Hobbes. We are really conscious, but that’s all we are; the material world is an illusion because we are all living in the Matrix.

There now exists an entire discourse of scholarly papers exploring simulation theory and its philosophical implications, published in such prestigious outlets as the Journal of Consciousness Studies, the Philosophical Quarterly, and the Journal of Evolution and Technology. For many, the simulation hypothesis is no longer merely an hypothesis: in 2018, Elon Musk told Joe Rogan he thinks that given any technological improvement at all, it is “most likely we’re in a simulation,” and later added that there is only a one in a billion chance we’re not living in a simulation. In an article for The New Yorker Tad Friend explained that billionaires are even paying people to help them get out of the simulation: “Many people in Silicon Valley have become obsessed with the simulation hypothesis, the argument that what we experience as reality is in fact fabricated in a computer; two tech billionaires have gone so far as to secretly engage scientists to work on breaking us out of the simulation.”

Read entire article at my Salvo column

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